Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review – Service Tax Law and Practice

Rohini Aggarawal’s latest offering once again stands apart from the run of the mill books on service tax available dime a dozen in the market. With the increasing scope of the service tax net, the seventh edition spills over three volumes each focusing on a particular aspect of the law, each preceded by a Budget Supplement.

Rohini Aggarawal has authored a number of books on taxation, corporate and banking laws. Rohini has behind her 18 years of professional experience including association with Pricewaterhouse Coopers and is presently a Principal Consultant at ARX Advisors.

Volume 1 addresses the basic concepts and procedures in service tax ranging from the books and records required to be maintained, registration, classification, export and import of services, valuation, availment of CENVAT Credit, assessments, advance ruling, Large Tax Payer Units etc. The Budget Supplement to the Volume therefore provides a comprehensive list of the amendments proposed/ consequent to the announcements made vide the Finance Bill. In addition, all notifications issued since the last edition of the book have also been reproduced for ease of reference.

The second volume provides an exhaustive commentary on each of the taxable services. The notes for each chapter are detailed and seek to go beyond merely reciting the law. She analyses legislative changes and judicial precedents and succinctly puts them together into a very well researched and considered package. Where Rohini scores over most authors is that she has a very lucid and coherent yet simplistic style of writing whereby she can communicate even the most complex of concepts easily to her readers including those who are new to the subject or at a nascent stage of their practice.

In her interminable style, each chapter is followed by a reference guide which diligently indexes all relevant Notifications/Circulars which are applicable to the section as well as highlight those which have been made redundant by the ensuing changes in law. The Budget Supplement for this Volume also meets the standards expected from her. Rohini has incorporated amendments made or proposed and important judicial precedents vis-a-vis each of the existing taxable services as well as documented the new services proposed to be introduced vide the Finance Bill.

As a practitioner herself, Rohini perhaps is well placed to understand that it is much easier to effectuate changes in the legal framework that is causing interpretational or implementation concerns than put to rest any litigation which may have been instigated by such a legal provision. The third volume therefore, serves as a fantastic reference guide as it is devoted exclusively to the legal matrix applicable to service tax with specific referencing to time frames within which the provisions were operational. It includes all notifications and circulars referred to in Volume Two. Indexes in Volume Two safely guide the readers to the relevant reference page in Volume Three.

The staple charts which serve as ready reckoners for operational aspects of service tax dealing with date of introduction of each of the taxable services, categorisation of taxable services for the purposes of import and export, obligations for payment of tax, rate change etc. have been retained.

Rohini’s usual style of operation is to publish her exposition once the Finance Act has received formal assent and the notifications bringing about the new taxable services have been notified. This year marks a change from the trend as the seventh edition is out in the market at about the same time as other authors have published their post budget editions. She has with this put to rest one of the greatest complaints of her reader base.

However, what cannot be denied is that in an effort to get the books out in the market, the quality of the presentation, printing style, binding has not been upto the mark.

As the Finance Bill is yet to be notified, one would look forward to the eighth edition as a more comprehensively put together treatise as well as better published from quality perspective.

(Mekhla is a lawyer in the Tax Team, specialising in Indirect Taxation, at Amarchand Mangaldas Suresh A. Shroff & Co.)

The Book of Mormon – review

Devotees of the Broadway musical have been gasping for a saviour. Risk-takers such as the Green Day-scored American Idiot can't survive (it closes at the end of April), and corporate fiascos such as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark threaten to turn the Great White Way into a global joke.

That's why The Book of Mormon, gleefully subversive and artfully crafted, is being hailed as the second coming; this new work by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez from the naughty-puppet hit Avenue Q) is a good old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle that happens to include wildly offensive jokes about Aids in Africa and the theological kitsch that is Mormonism.

If you're surprised to hear that Parker and Stone are responsible for re-energising Broadway's hopes, you haven't been following their career. The team have been honing their razzle-dazzle chops over two decades. Their first major effort, Cannibal! The Musical, was filmed in 1993, and, in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was aptly (if cheekily) praised as the year's best new musical. More recently, Team America: World Police paid snarky homage to Rent with the parody ballad "Everybody Has Aids". These showtune-humming pranksters were destined to mock the Church of Latter-Day Saints in song – an institution that, like the Broadway musical, is a singularly American invention.

Starting off in the Mormon mecca, Salt Lake City, Utah, the story follows a mismatched pair of proselytisers, Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad). The former is the clean-cut ideal of an LDS doorbell-pusher: white-bread, well-groomed and safely asexual. Cunningham, however, is a fat, dim-witted man-child who confuses Mormon mythology with The Lord of the Rings.

Despite Price's hope for missionary work in Orlando, Florida, the two are ordered to save souls in war-torn, poverty-stricken Uganda. Their evolving friendship lays the emotional foundation for the show, and gives even the cruellest jokes about racism and homophobic self-loathing a sweet, innocent finish. That human dimension reminds you that the comic genius of South Park (heading into its 15th season) relies on children blinded by naivety, but who see through society's lies.

Likewise, by smashing together cultural extremes – prim, uber-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans – the creators lampoon western illusions about that complex continent (the anthem "I Am Africa" is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage ("I have maggots in my scrotum" is a recurring lament by one villager). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his Aids (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help.

Religion, the creators firmly point out, is showbiz, and they systematically dismantle the absurdities of John Smith's 19th-century cod revelation through the intoxicating frivolity of musical conventions. Of the dozen or so classics referenced in the pastiche score, or by sight gag and laugh line, you can count The Sound of Music, Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Music Man and (naturally) The Lion King. Now The Book of Mormon – aggressively hilarious, blasphemous and almost indecently entertaining – has grabbed a spot in that canon. For those of us who love a well-made musical with satirical bite, the show is manna from heaven.

The Book of Mormon – review

Devotees of the Broadway musical have been gasping for a saviour. Risk-takers such as the Green Day-scored American Idiot can't survive (it closes at the end of April), and corporate fiascos such as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark threaten to turn the Great White Way into a global joke.

That's why The Book of Mormon, gleefully subversive and artfully crafted, is being hailed as the second coming; this new work by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and composer-lyricist Robert Lopez from the naughty-puppet hit Avenue Q) is a good old-fashioned song-and-dance spectacle that happens to include wildly offensive jokes about Aids in Africa and the theological kitsch that is Mormonism.

If you're surprised to hear that Parker and Stone are responsible for re-energising Broadway's hopes, you haven't been following their career. The team have been honing their razzle-dazzle chops over two decades. Their first major effort, Cannibal! The Musical, was filmed in 1993, and, in 1999, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was aptly (if cheekily) praised as the year's best new musical. More recently, Team America: World Police paid snarky homage to Rent with the parody ballad "Everybody Has Aids". These showtune-humming pranksters were destined to mock the Church of Latter-Day Saints in song – an institution that, like the Broadway musical, is a singularly American invention.

Starting off in the Mormon mecca, Salt Lake City, Utah, the story follows a mismatched pair of proselytisers, Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad). The former is the clean-cut ideal of an LDS doorbell-pusher: white-bread, well-groomed and safely asexual. Cunningham, however, is a fat, dim-witted man-child who confuses Mormon mythology with The Lord of the Rings.

Despite Price's hope for missionary work in Orlando, Florida, the two are ordered to save souls in war-torn, poverty-stricken Uganda. Their evolving friendship lays the emotional foundation for the show, and gives even the cruellest jokes about racism and homophobic self-loathing a sweet, innocent finish. That human dimension reminds you that the comic genius of South Park (heading into its 15th season) relies on children blinded by naivety, but who see through society's lies.

Likewise, by smashing together cultural extremes – prim, uber-Caucasoid Mormons and long-suffering, hope-starved Africans – the creators lampoon western illusions about that complex continent (the anthem "I Am Africa" is sung by distinctly pale cast members), while scoring laughs off the sort of horrors that should never be put on a Broadway stage ("I have maggots in my scrotum" is a recurring lament by one villager). We chortle disgustedly at an African man who thinks raping a baby will cure his Aids (a documented crime), but truly grotesque is the notion that a couple of Bible-toting white boys can be of any real help.

Religion, the creators firmly point out, is showbiz, and they systematically dismantle the absurdities of John Smith's 19th-century cod revelation through the intoxicating frivolity of musical conventions. Of the dozen or so classics referenced in the pastiche score, or by sight gag and laugh line, you can count The Sound of Music, Wicked, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Music Man and (naturally) The Lion King. Now The Book of Mormon – aggressively hilarious, blasphemous and almost indecently entertaining – has grabbed a spot in that canon. For those of us who love a well-made musical with satirical bite, the show is manna from heaven.

Doctorow offers his adept gift of insight

E.L. Doctorow would seem to be consumed with history. His best-known novel, "Ragtime," offers a pastiche of America at the turn of the 20th century, while "The March" (2005) re-imagines Sherman's march to the sea during the Civil War. But he has spent much of his career evoking outsiders who feel alienated from what is expected of them.

To wit: Daniel Lewin of 1971's "The Book Of Daniel," trying to make sense of his parents who, like the Rosenbergs, were executed as atomic spies; the narrator of his 1984 novella "Lives of the Poets," informing us that "dereliction is the state of mind given to middle-aged men alone, not to women"; Thomas Pemberton, the Episcopal priest whose spiritual crisis centers the 2000 novel "City of God." These men are adrift in the universe, unable to reconcile themselves to family, to mortality, to their own irresolvable desires.

In "All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories," many of the characters -- including Pemberton, who appears in the story "Heist" -- which was later adapted for "City of God" -- suffer from a similar emotional exhaustion, the sense of having been caught unexpectedly in the middle of their lives with no clear through-line between the present and the past. As for the future, it is something of a glaring blankness, less a promise than a burden to be endured.

"Some vast -- what to call it? -- indifference ... slowly creeps up on you with age ... becomes more insistent with age," a character explains in the lovely "Edgemont Drive," a story told entirely in dialogue, in which an elderly poet returns to the home in which he was raised to haunt (in the most literal sense imaginable) the family that lives there now. "It's a kind of wearing out, I suppose. As if life had become threadbare, with the light peeking through."

"Edgemont Drive" is one of six new stories in "All the Time in the World." Six others -- three apiece -- come from Doctorow's two previous collections, "Lives of the Poets" (the title comes from the novella) and 2003's "Sweet Land Stories." New, of course, may be a relative term, since "Heist" was published in 1997 and "Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate" first appeared in New American Review in 1968. Rather than make the material seem recycled, however, this gives us a sense of breadth, of movement, of the scope of Doctorow's career.

Here we have the point of any new and selected volume, but in this instance, it's complicated because Doctorow has never published much short work. His stories, then, exist as analogues to his longer fiction, set pieces more than symphonies.

Doctorow touches on this in a brief preface, noting that whereas "(a) novel may begin in your mind as an evocative image, a bit of conversation, a piece of music, an incident you've read about in someone's life, a piece of music ... (a) story, by contrast, usually comes to you as a situation, with the characters and setting irrevocably attached to it."

What he's suggesting is that novels require a certain fluidity, while stories remain more fixed. This may be why, to me, "Heist," which was adapted for "City of God," and "Liner Notes" are the two least satisfying efforts: the former because it lacks the heft, the nuance, of the novel that grew out of it, and the latter for the opposite reason, because, in telling the story of a Bob Dylanesque singer-songwriter, it has nothing to do with the novel, "Billy Bathgate," that, more than 20 years later, Doctorow would go on to write.

And yet this too is in the nature of a new and selected, to operate as a bit of a grab bag, and in so doing to let us read the work anew. That's the case with the six older stories, which trace, with grace and acuity, the tension between longing and obligation, between who we are and who we mean to be.

In "Walter John Harmon," a middle-aged lawyer remains faithful to a religious cult even after his wife runs off with the leader of the sect. "What further proof did we need of the truth of his prophecy than his total immersion in sin and disgrace?" he asks of this erstwhile prophet, who has promised to purify his followers by taking their transgressions as his own.

With "A Writer in the Family," Doctorow turns the question of transgression inward, describing a Bronx teenager of the 1950s who writes letters from his dead father to his grandmother, to protect (or deceive) the older woman from knowing of her son's death.

Here, Doctorow explores the delicate dance of narrative, what it offers and what it can never offer, its ability to corrupt or to console. "I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been," the young letter writer admits, "never to have understood while he was alive what my father's dream for his life had been." Such a sense of disconnection reverberates through nearly every story in the book.

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly expressed than in "Wakefield," the best of the new pieces.

Revolving around another middle-aged attorney who, after a fight with his wife, hides out for months in the attic above his garage, it is a parable of unintended consequences, of the way things can get away from us once we discover our "talent for dereliction."

"I had left not only my home; I had left the system," the narrator enthuses, as he lets his hair grow and, like a ghost, watches his family make a life that no longer has anything to do with him.

If this is the subtext of much of "All the Time in the World," here Doctorow makes it explicit and deeply moving, not because it is so odd but because it is so common, as if the scrim of civilization were just that: a veil, an illusion, a set of conventions that might dissipate at any moment, given the right kind of push.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book review: Dambuster by Robert Radcliffe

The British Dambusters Raid on key hydroelectric dams which powered the German industrial area of the Ruhr was an iconic event in the history of the Second World War.

Using the famous bouncing bombs developed by Barnes Wallis and under the leadership of legendary Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the RAF’s 617 Squadron launched a series of spectacular air attacks in 1943.

It was a proud moment in British history, with the crews displaying outstanding bravery, endurance and fighting spirit, and one that has been superbly recaptured in Robert Radcliffe’s meticulously researched novel, Dambuster.

Radcliffe, an experienced pilot, has made air conflict his speciality – Under an English Heaven and Across the Blood Red Skies also featured breathtaking battle sequences – and now he brings us another pivotal wartime drama.

Alongside real-life characters like the charismatic and volatile Gibson, Radcliffe includes a fictional crew whose emotions and experiences mirror the true toll of Operation Chastise. Eight aircraft were lost and 53 flyers were killed.

Buried within the action is a hidden narrator – Credo, a horribly injured pilot, who presents his own personal story in parallel to the bigger picture and gives us a fascinating insight into the work of the groundbreaking plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead.

The story opens in May 1943 in Lincolnshire where 20 Lancaster bombers stand poised to fly out on the daring and dangerous Dambuster mission.

Success could shorten the war, the crews are told, but will inevitably come at a cost. Many of them will not be coming back.

After two tours of duty and 59 missions, combat-seasoned pilot Peter Lightfoot and his loyal crew are already on borrowed time.

The seven men narrowly escaped death on a disastrous final operation over the Alps, a flight which ended when they were forced to ditch their wrecked Lancaster into the Atlantic.

Job done, they were finally relieved from operational flying but, haunted by a face from his past, Lightfoot cannot rest and, unknown to his crew, applies to join Gibson’s squadron and fly out to the Ruhr.

It’s a mission that many see as certain suicide.

Radcliffe is a gripping storyteller and Dambuster takes the reader high into the skies and into the cockpit of the Lancasters as they wing their way into the heart of enemy territory.

The tensions, the terror, the background romances and the sheer humanity of all those involved spring vividly to life in this riveting retelling of an awesome wartime operation that still has the power to thrill and amaze.

Book Review: The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs

Last year the Princeton University Press published a curious volume entitled The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, written and illustrated by Gregory Paul. Paul is a renowned dinosaur expert who has appeared in many publications and served as a consultant on the movie “Jurassic Park.”

The book is set up as an actual field guide, organized by taxonomy and listing the various species with scientific names, sizes and various pertinent information. (I should note that the book is much larger than something you’d want to be carrying with you while going out on a dinosaur safari; it’s more of a coffee table book.)

It’s illustrated with skeletal diagrams as well as the sort of colored-pencil sketches you’d expect to find in a bird-watcher’s notebook, except these are creatures that Paul didn’t draw from life while sitting in a blind somewhere. There are some more elaborate full-color renderings as well, but the sketches and diagrams comprise the majority of the visuals in the field guide. You can get a feel for Paul’s illustrations from the Daily Dinosaur blog posts that ran last fall.

There is also a hefty section in the front about dinosaur biology and behavior, examinations of dinosaur growth and energetics and other information you’d typically find in a book about dinosaurs (as well as some atypical info).

I was quite fond of dinosaurs as a kid but at some point my interest waned and I failed to keep up with it. By the time I was in high school biology, learning things that could have had bearing on my understanding of dinosaurs, I had forgotten a lot of the names of dinosaurs and couldn’t remember the various eras, let alone identify which types of dinosaurs lived in which time periods.

That said, the Field Guide is a wealth of information for the dino-lover, but it almost seems like too much to handle at once. It’s not really the sort of book you’d sit and flip through—once you get into the taxonomy section, the text becomes less interesting to the casual dinosaur fan and you find yourself wishing for more stories about dinosaurs rather than just lists of factoids to go along with the pictures.

There’s no doubt that Paul has done a tremendous job with the Field Guide and it’s quite impressive. If you’re serious about dinosaurs and want a meticulously researched guide, this is certainly the book for you. If, on the other hand, you’re more interested in just the pictures, this book might be a little too information-rich for you.

For more about The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs, visit the Princeton University Press web page.

Wired: An encyclopedia’s worth of dinosaur facts, presented as a field guide; excellent illustrations and plenty of information.

Tired: Maybe a little too much information for the casual dinosaur scholar; text-to-picture ratio might be a bit high for kids.

Still Alice Book Review

The brain is undoubtedly the most valuable part of the human body, a unique machine that hums with memories, emotions, and ideas. In Still Alice, Alice Howland, an esteemed professor at Harvard is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and faces the cold certainty that her quick, bright mind will disintegrate into a wispy shadow of what it once was. Although Still Alice is a work of fiction, author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University, creates a realistic and believable portrait of Alzheimer’s.

At age 50, Alice is a successful and respected cognitive psychology professor at Harvard. She thrives on the intellectual excitement of teaching, researching, and collaborating with her colleagues. The proud mother of three grown children, Alice and her husband John are comfortable with the routine of their lives. However, Alice’s sense of stability is disrupted when she cannot recall words in lectures, becomes lost in her own neighborhood, and must organize her life with Post-it Note reminders. Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and she and her family must deal with the disconcerting and heart-wrenching process of her mind slipping away from her.

Alice’s story is a meaningful one, and it is portrayed gracefully and poignantly. A recurring theme is Alice’s fight to live a worthwhile life and maintain a sense of purpose even as her world and her loved ones become increasingly unfamiliar. Themes such as this one are enhanced by Genova’s realistic, honest character development of Alice and each of her family members. Alice’s disease affects her three grown children in distinctly painful ways.

Her loving husband John becomes more distant while her errant daughter Lydia reaches out to her mother, and her children Tom and Anna grapple with their mother’s decline in the midst of their own busy lives. By exploring the evolution of these relationships, Genova creates very real characters who add unique perspective and depth to the novel.

Genova’s writing style occasionally can be repetitive and over informative when she is describing the science behind Alzheimer’s. These sections tend to be wordy and difficult to grasp for those who are not scientifically inclined. However, despite being a bit tedious, the neurological references lend credibility to the novel. It is clear that Genova has extensive knowledge of medical and personal aspects of Alzheimer’s.

As a teen reader, I was surprised by how moved I was by Still Alice. My parents and many of my peers’ parents are nearing 50 years old – Alice’s age when she first begins to notice the signs of Alzheimer’s. I cannot imagine a parent developing this disease and losing the ability to live and think independently. According to the Mayo Clinic, 5 to 10 percent of all Alzheimer’s patients develop symptoms before age 65.

At least 200,000 individuals suffer from the early-onset of this disease. For anyone my age, losing a parent to this cruel disease would be a life-altering experience. Alice’s story teaches lessons about being grateful for relationships that are often taken for granted. Given the number of people who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s, Still Alice is an entirely relevant read that is touching, intriguing, and thought-provoking.

A novel about Alzheimer’s could repel skeptical readers. However, Still Alice is not morose, dull, or melodramatic. It is an intelligently written novel that blends the cold truth of science with the tragically beautiful, intimate story of a woman and her family who must cope with this truth.