Age of Ambition

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The lifting of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty is undoubtedly the greatest achievement of the last few decades. In merely a generation, China abandoned the disastrous ideology of Chairman Mao, became the factory of the planet and the world’s second largest economy. The Communist Party continues a complicated game of chess to balance the aspirations of its people while stifling any hints of dissent, disruption to social order or debate about democracy. What are the dreams, hopes, achievements and failures of the generation of Chinese who have only lived in this new age? How are Chinese citizens and their leaders coping with the tectonic changes their nation is going through? Evan Osnos tries to show these points of view of the people in his book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China.

The book is based off his 8-year stint in China as a staff reporter for The New Yorker. It is a collection of short essays roughly divided into the three aspects of fortune, truth and faith mentioned in the title. Each essay uses the life, dreams or travails of a leader, activist or a citizen that Evan met in China. In the fortune section, we see a new generation of Chinese who dream of riches and many who achieve it. The tales of people in press and law who are constantly censored and tormented by The Party for crossing lines are in the truth aisle. In the final section are the Chinese looking for meaning in this new way of life and many returning to the folds of religion.

Though Chinese no longer have to worry about poverty, health or education, there is increasing inequality. Corruption in business and politics are at astronomic levels. Though the party relentlessly censors all signs of trouble both online and in the press, hundreds of protests occur every day across the nation. China has moved ahead at rocket speed and the signs of wear are showing through in incidents like the baby milk poisoning, the Sichuan earthquake rescue or the disastrously handled coverup of a high-speed rail accident. We see these and other major incidents of the last few years in China through the eyes of the people in these essays.

If you regularly read about China in The Economist or The New York Times, you will be familiar with many of the faces and stories in this book. That might bias me a bit when I talk about this book. The first section I found to be the weakest, where Evan drops names a lot and mixes many characters across his essays. It gets better as the book progresses with focus on a single person or event in each essay. The writings on the high speed rail incident and on religion are very interesting. I especially loved the tidbits where Evan talks about his daily life and neighbors during his stay in China. Probably my biggest peeve with this good book is its verbiage. I have seen this with many Western folks who write about Asia or Africa, they try to describe every single dialog or experience they had. With some heavy editing, this book could have been a great insight into New China.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780374280741

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The Martian

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One sure aspect about The Martian is that it is gripping. Edge-of-the-seat gripping. I started reading it while waiting for the bus. I was hooked! Pages kept turning briskly on the way home in the bus, through dinner, all the way through the night until dawn. Took a few hours of sleep and then soldiered on until its happy and predictable ending.

Written by Andy Weir, a programmer by profession, this book got popular quickly and was made into a movie starring Matt Damon last year. Like pulp thrillers, it is very easy to read and the pace is fast. The year is 2035 and humans have walked on Mars thanks to a couple of Ares missions by NASA. Things go wrong during the Ares 3 mission and the crew aborts its stay on the red planet and escapes. Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind, but he is not. He makes his way safely back to their dome called Hab. There is ample food, air and power for him to stay inside the Hab for a year. Turns out he is a smart ass botanist and engineer and he figures out how to grow potatoes and make water and survive longer. However, the next Ares mission is 4 years away and Mars starts throwing a spanner into his plans mere days into his stay there.

Weir packs his pages full of ingenious solutions and techniques for his astronaut to survive. Every other page is littered with calculations resembling those statement problems we had in school with Mark computing his chances with this or that solution. All of this lends a strong aura of believability to the preposterous plot. It is quite mind boggling how much of basic math and science can be used when in crisis to fix problems. This book is essentially Apollo 13, but on a gigantic scale and with the mind of a brilliant engineer at work. It is hard not to root for this tiny human unflaggingly taking on the problems thrown by an entire planet at him. He has to literally make air, water and food to survive for years on a planet that offers none of them. How can you resist this yarn?

The biggest letdown of this engaging book however was its writing, which is sadly just mediocre. An American teen vibe pervades all the conversations. I can guess that Hollywood screenwriters had very little work converting this into a blockbuster script. Man has reached Mars and these adult astronauts talk about jocks and geeks and wedgies! You get the idea. Make no mistake, the science chops are very strong in this book, every ludicrous plan is meticulously backed by reasoning and the book is quite unputdownable. However, one does feel that a simple writing workshop for the author could have vaulted the book further into greatness.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780804139021