The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

This is a review of the book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, by Manu S. Pillai.

The book is a compilation of 60 diverse essays from Indian History. Almost all the essays have mostly quirky trivia as a common thread between them. They’re broadly arranged as “Before the Raj” and “Stories from the Raj” (maybe because the stories have little else in common?). The essays begin by reminding the reader of the conventional views held on the topic, Manu S. Pillai then goes on to alter that view, and finally ends with a shrewd comment or dry observation.

His observations, though, are outrightly critical of the school of thought subscribed by the right wing junta of India today. He does not make any apologetic disclaimer to that effect. For example, the afterword reads as an opinion piece in a newspaper, cautioning against a majoritarian dispensation. In addition to this risky enterprise, his essays on the women whose roles have been blatantly ignored by our textbooks stand out for quietly trying to supplement, and change, the story of India’s past. That said, the essays are not prejudiced as far as yours truly could tell, and have more than a hint of scholarship throughout.

My favorite essays were the ones on the mistakenly aggrandised historical figures. For example, there’s the story of Nangeli, who cut off her breasts in anger against the tax collectors, in a rebellion against caste and feudalism that suppressed those at the underbelly of society. But today she’s seen as a virtuous goddess who stood for “womanly honor”. Such heroes, Pillai clarifies, were ordinary people whose messages and ideas have been distorted to suit the narrative of the historians of the day.

That said, I thought the essays could have been better edited. For one, the writing style differs across the essays. Some are written colloquially, and some others as if for the District Gazette. It’s distracting when binge reading! Also, why were the essays sequenced the way they were? Chronology? Dramatic effect? Themes? I don’t know.

The illustrations in the book are excellent! No less. Every one of them is exquisite, and perfectly fits the essay. If I may say so, it was the better part of some essays! The featured image for this review is an illustration from the book (credits due to Priya Kuriyan).

While the book kind of wavers and stumbles here and there, by being a collection of unmoored stories, it has its positives, aplenty, ranging from the sheer research put into the essays and the effort it must have taken to compress the grand stories into such short and crisp essays.

Most significantly, the book excels by being a bold contrarian point of view on many historical figures and happenings. And, as the writer himself doesn’t miss an opportunity to say, that’s important in this age and space.

With that hope, I hope more such offbeat history books come forth. Mind you, not fictionalized poor stories or propaganda garbed as a history lessons. We need to discuss our history more, in order to not let any single narrative lead the way. And Manu S Pillai’s book is a step in that direction.

3.5/5, maybe more!

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High School Writing 101

This is my review of Push, by Sapphire.

I want to emphasize that this book is a work of fiction. In some of my other reviews, I’ve noted that I don’t like rating memoirs, because it feels like assigning a numerical value to someone’s life and experience. I have no such qualms with this book. And now that this disclaimer is done, on with the review!

This is the story of Precious, a teenaged girl who is a victim of social injustice. She is an illiterate 16-year-old, but is determined to make something of herself. As the story progresses, she makes new friends from different walks of life, and builds a happier life for herself through sheer willpower, and with the support of her teacher.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and was very engaged throughout. The pacing is consistent, and the story and language are not too subtle to appreciate through narration. My problems with the book are mainly from a storytelling/ fiction writing perspective. There’s simply too much going on in this plot.

For instance, here are the Problems that Precious faces:

  1. Her father and mother both sexually abuse her.
  2. She is pregnant with her father’s child- the second child that  they’ve conceived
  3. Her first daughter by her father was born when Precious was twelve. With that combination of risk factors, her daughter is born with Down’s syndrome.
  4. Precious is functionally illiterate, since she does not have a good family support system, and her studies have been disrupted by pregnancy.
  5. She is kicked out of school for being pregnant (not clear why this should only be an issue with the second pregnancy)
  6. She is obese, as she tries to numb her emotions with food. Her mother is also morbidly obese and forces food on Precious often.
  7. She is a racial minority (African-American), which shapes her image of herself. She often claims that her life would be better as a white woman, and that men are more attracted to lighter skin tones.
  8. She and her family are poor, and her mother tries to manipulate their living situation to make sure that she receives benefits for both Precious and Mongo (her first daughter)

Any one of these problems would have been a challenge; all at once just seems unconvincing. Here are some more unrealistic plot points:

  1. Precious shows extraordinary enthusiasm and determination towards learning, and progresses from the alphabet to reading and writing poetry in the span of six months. However, she has been going to school her whole life (minus a couple of years of pregnancy) and never learned to read, despite being fond of some of her teachers in the public school system
  2. Said teachers in the public school system failed to notice that this 16-year-old could not read, and did not report to child services that a 12 year old (and later, 16 year old) was pregnant
  3. Noone asked Precious to see a doctor during her pregnancy, or took her to see a doctor, even though she was a minor whose previous child had a serious genetic abnormality
  4. Precious’ grandmother was willing to take in an infant with Down’s syndrome, but did not ask why her 12-year-old granddaughter had had a child, or try to look after her
  5. Precious’ homophobia was unrealistic given that she was exposed to a lot of diversity- the fact that she came round to the idea so quickly was also odd

I did enjoy this book. But if Sapphire had gone for a less over-the-top description of tragedy, I’d have appreciated it all the more. Precious could have done better. 3/5 from me.

 

Take off those rose coloured glasses

This is my review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.

Isn’t the whole point of a book to change your worldview? I remember hearing, and reading, that books can expand your horizons, but it has been a long time since I’ve gotten that feeling from a book- until this one. I’m happy with this selection.

JD Vance is an Ivy league educated lawyer, but he didn’t come from a background of wealth and privilege. His upbringing represents an America that is often underrepresented by the news and the media. The global audience- and indeed, the rest of the USA- are often unaware of the struggles of the lower-class in the midwest.

This book does an excellent job of educating people while avoiding falling into the trap of buying sympathy. He is patriotic without being jingoistic. The analysis of how his Republican leanings were influenced by his childhood and family is almost academic, and helps to understand his perspective. As an ethnic minority, and a woman, and an immigrant, and an engineer on the west coast, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to the experiences of red-supporters in the midwest.

I appreciated this book because it showed me that I may be a minority, but I’m definitely not underrepresented- I have money and safety and am not disadvantaged. Just having the ‘right’ skin colour does not make life easier in this country. The USA has its own social evils to overcome, but democracy can help the country take steps towards equality and prosperity and good health for everyone.

5/5, recommended for anyone who is curious about the lives of others, and the lives of ‘others’.

Anti-romance

This is my review of Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. It is riddled with spoilers, mostly because it is a slice-of-life story, with no clear plot arc when it starts out. Even revealing that it is a tragedy and not a fairytale is a spoiler; so why not go all-out and tell you that one of the main characters dies in the end.

Oscar Wilde once wrote (I think it was in The Importance of Being Earnest, but am too lazy to look it up now): “The very essence of romance is uncertainty”. So what happens when there is no uncertainty? When you’re married, and have two children and a 9-5, and a cookie cutter home in the suburbs? That’s exactly what this story is about. And as Shakespeare has taught us, the story that is not a romance must be a tragedy.

Frank and April Wheeler are the aforementioned middle-class husband and wife. They have two friends, a neighbourhood couple who help babysit once in a while. Frank has developed an unfortunate habit of repeating his stories. Overall, they are far from the adventurous young couple they had been when they first met. April had been an aspiring actress, and Frank had been an intellectual, artistic young man.

In an attempt to reclaim her lost dreams, April and Frank become involved in a local organization’s play. Neither of them know it, but it’s the beginning of a downward spiral. The play is a disaster; the subsequent disappointment and anger make them realize that their marriage is failing. Until they stumble upon a brilliant plan- they would move to Paris! Now that their children were school-aged, April could go back to work. Secretarial work in Europe would pay enough to support them, so Frank could remain unemployed for a while and discover himself.

In the face of uncertainty, their romance is rekindled. Until April discovers that she is pregnant, throwing a spanner into the works and halting their excited preparations. With an infant, April could not go back to work, and their plan would have to be shelved for another 5 years. She doesn’t want the baby, but Frank, in a burst of instinctive masculinity, refuses to consider an abortion. They are at a deadlock, with a countdown timer until the last day for a safe at-home abortion.

I’ll end the summary there, with a cliffhanger to pique your interest. The plotline is aggressively humdrum, but depressing enough that suburbia is now my worst nightmare. It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in Frank and April’s lives. They both had to give up their dreams, but neither had very well-defined dreams to begin with.

There’s a very insightful scene in the book, in which they tell their landlady that they wanted to see their house as they would be relocating. They invite her over for coffee, and she is surprised to find them calm and happy, having a relaxed conversation while waiting for her to arrive. Is there an implicit understanding that young parents must be eternally flustered, messy and slightly impatient? Or does it take a certain amount of intrinsic happiness to be able to find joy in waiting for a realtor? There’s a lot of food for thought in this one. 4/5 from me.

The hungry brain

This is a review of The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph. D. (sic).

The 300 odd page book is written for an audience that urgently seeks answers to an important question: what makes us overeat even though we want to be healthy?

Apparently many things, some that we can control, but (to my simple mind) many factors that cannot be controlled. Among the controllable factors are the immediate environment in which we work/live – most environments nudge you to overeat; another factor is the amount of exercise you put in, which trains the lipostat in your brain to set itself up for a lower adiposity level (ie., by exercising, you’re training your body to prefer to contain lesser fat). But among uncontrollable factors are the genes we’re born with, being on medication to treat life threatening diseases, and in my view, the food processing industry that is askew with a profiteering axis that makes (almost all) our food sugary, fattening and very tasty, all at the same time. (cue: workers of the world!)

Some of the chapters repeated what most of us already know. For a non-medico many others were a novelty. But the nuance of the novelty is not explained, leading to yours truly to be quite disappointed.

The written word is unfortunately sprinkled with compelling and vexing illustrations that boggle the mind with its pointlessness and blunt lack of creativity. For instance, there’s one illustration with a picture of the brain, and arrows that go in four directions, with the labels, up, down, left and (can you believe it?) right. The illustrations with pictures of the brain are presumably included to make the book seem like an intellectual work, but they should really be removed, simply to not reduce the credibility of the text.


From the book, a condensed brain-obesity relationship primer:

  1. Modernity makes us fat: technology, market forces, incurably sugar hungry brains (your brain loves cookies and cake; mine goes plain bonkers).
  2. Our evolution from hunters and gatherers to supermarket shoppers hasn’t helped. Some thousand years ago, humans ran after gazelles, and dug for tubers that they then didn’t really cook. Today, all I have to do is order food on Swiggy/Zomato/UberEats (and a poorly paid gentleman (only men so far) comes to my door with my box of food, ready for my gluttonous experience).
  3. Some of us have genes that are easily expressed for obesity. Especially so when our environments are so toxic.
  4. The ‘lipostat’ is stubborn. The lipostat is this system that responds to the hormone leptin that’s secreted by fat tissue. The objective of the system is to maintain homeostasis, specifically, the amount of adiposity in our bodies. Now the lipostat doesn’t care about our goals, it merely does what it must. And that’s why losing weight and staying that way is harder than we thought. The lazy lipostat adjusts itself to make us gain all that weight back. The good news, though, is that exercise inherently tunes the lipostat to a lower set point (is that good news?).
  5. Leptin, insulin, the hypothalamus: the three together are rascals. And circadian rhythm. These guys basically are very sensitive to external and internal cues. So, management of our circadian rhythm and the amount of insulin and leptin we allow our bodies to generate with the kind of food we consume greatly affects the hypothalamus, which then has a direct bearing on how much we eat (at each sitting or between). But managing them is no easy feat. It involves controlling the uncontrollable. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, Bruce?
  6. Stress is bad. And knowing this is no help. Big nope.
  7. PS: special mention and thanks to all the mice that participated, surely involuntarily, in experiments that involved sawing their brains off, starving them, and sometimes feeding them pop tarts. Monkeys too. And people!

The book is a decent primer if one starts with a clean slate on obesity research. The easy penmanship is good for a quick read. But the easy content has sacrificed substance, in most cases. I, for one, would’ve liked knowing more about the lipostat, about how stress actually triggers harmful behaviour, etc. The footnotes were like french fries, really – all fluff and minimal satiety.

I’d be failing the book if I didn’t mention the mature writing style. Something that the writer deserves high praise for is that even though the book is on a topic that readers are seeking personal solutions to, the writing is only limited on the pontification scale. One might posit that it may have been tempting for a lesser writer to add a “tips that will change your life” postscript after every chapter. Thank you for not caving in, Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. (sic).

I’d rate the book a 3/5. Read it if you enjoy learning about how the brain works, but don’t stop here! The right question is, is your time best utilised by reading The Hungry Brain, to learn about the brain-obesity relationship? Maybe so, if you have high reading speed and don’t mind being spoken to like a toddler sometimes.

@NathanWPyle: you killin' me softly.

@NathanWPyle: you killin’ me softly.

The dutiful daughter

This is a review of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, the French existential feminist who defined many ideas including femininity, and who discounted the very idea of “women” as a chain that binds the female folk to the men, in an unequal relationship.

I read this book by chance. It was a beautiful afternoon when a friend was talking to me, and admonished me for something I said, by saying “don’t be a woman!” I was surprised at the reprimand. That was my introduction to Simone de Beauvoir.

So what made Simone the Simone we know? (we try, at least) She was born into a bourgeois French family, and as every other French family they expected her to be just as feminine as will make her desirable for another man. But, lo, she had her own ambitions. She read voraciously. Her parents encouraged her as well, for good measure. But, over the years, as she blossomed (ew, that feminine word, but I’ll use it anyway, because I like how it sounds, irrespective of social conditioning in my own life) into adulthood, she aspired to be more than just a dutiful daughter.

Into adulthood, she read more (in the book, she discusses what she reads), discussed and fleshed out her principles and ideologies. In politically turbulent times, her questions about what’s right and what isn’t troubled and invigorated her to no end. She fell in love with men, whereas she was previously curious as to how that was ever possible, and then she fell out of love with them just as nonchalantly.

The best part of the book, to me, was when she met Sartre, and he took her under his wing, so to speak (he was older and seemingly better read, and was she impressed or what!). The rest, as they say, is history.

The auto-biography offers invaluable insights into the upbringing and the creation of the pillars of ideals of one of the most important feminist thinkers of this era. What caused Simone the kind of cognitive dissonance that sparks such genius? Why did she think differently if her parenting was as average as it could be in a bourgeoise family? What was the unique circumstance under which her adolescence sculpted her mind?

The first person narration of someone who has offered such seminal ideas to our society is one of the important reasons to indulge in the exercise of reading the book. Also, it’s written very well – perfectly chronological (no hanky-panky flashbacks), grammatical (kudos to the translation!), exact flow of thought (no jarring edges).

No amount of scholarly reading will give you the granular details of what created Simone as this book does. If you’re curious as I was, to know what ticked for this person, give the book a go; and what’s more, it’s a good read. I’d give Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter a 4/5.

My biggest grouse with the book is that it was hard to find a good copy. The copy I read was borrowed from a library, and it was falling apart. The next part was in a worse condition. Can’t we have more such great works in our libraries? Amazon was not too much help either. Who knows, given the emergence of a more conscious feminist conscience, may be Simone’s autobiographies will be revived enough for mass paperback publishers to take note and do the needful.

what’s your favorite period movie?

This is my review of Carrie, by Stephen King. It was on the long, long list of books to be reviewed, and I recently watched the movie.

Carrie is a slim book, but it packs a punch. It is narrated via news clippings and letters, and tells the story of the destruction of a small town in Maine. By a young girl’s menstrual rage (hence the pun-ny title to this review).

Carrie White is a teenager who has lived her whole life in the shadow of her violently religious mother. One unfortunate day, she gets her first period during gym class, AKA the most inopportune time to Become a Woman. Her mother, unfortunately, skipped the SexEd lectures on account of her belief that all women are sinners. She was already an outcast amongst her classmates, and they pounced on the opportunity to mock her.

This could be a horror novel by itself (and was probably my worst nightmare back in high school), but Carrie’s humiliation had an unexpected side effect: it revealed her telekinetic powers. For several weeks after, she experiments with her power and develops her skills.

Then comes the night of the Senior Prom. A beautiful, unforgettable night. Carrie even has a date! But as she walks onstage as Homecoming Queen, someone pours a bucket of chicken blood over her, bringing up the gym class incident again. Carrie loses her cool and destroys half the town. The End.

Both the book and the movie are genuinely frightening. The book does not skimp on the graphic details, and the movie contains nudity and gore. This is not the teen drama that one would expect, given the subject matter. King has done a masterful job of converting an almost simplistic storyline into a memorable classic.

It also made me profoundly grateful for my friendly highschool classmates, who neither poured blood on each other, nor electrocuted each other with the force of their minds. 4/5 from me.

A textbook medical thriller

This is my review of Charlatans, by Robin Cook.

Back when I was thirteen or fourteen (it seems like it was an embarrassingly long time ago), I discovered Robin Cook in my local library. I had worked my way through all the children’s books that I had deemed readable, and was venturing into the adults’ section. Classics were a safe bet, Grisham was too dull, Brown was limited and Sheldon was just too… adult. Asimov was intimidating, but Cook was just right. Despite being science fiction, Robin Cook makes sure to explain things form first principles, in a way that even the barely teenaged me could understand. I devoured quite a few of his novels.

And then abruptly stopped. When I stumbled upon this book last month, I was surprised to find that it was relatively recent- published in late 2017. For some reason I’d assumed he’d stopped writing (just because I’d stopped reading his books?). Of course I had to pick it up.

And it was disappointing. The descriptions I just praised so highly? They’re often shoehorned into ‘everyday’ dialogue, making conversation unnatural and stilted. His heroes are often romanticized workaholics whose only character traits are ‘married to his job’ and ‘looks athletic despite working 120-hour weeks’. Even the redeeming quality of having a troubled past (girlfriend walked out on him, exacerbating workaholic tendencies) seems like it was added deliberately to cross Character Backstory/Development off a checklist.

Apart from these major complaints about the narrative style, the plot itself is reasonably well structured and fast paced. You’ll want to stick around until the end, partially because of a main character who is clearly more sinister than they seem at first glance. The last few pages have a twist that is shocking only because of the complete lack of foreshadowing- it’s certainly unexpected, but in a way that feels unfair!

Here are the specifics: Noah Rothauser has just started his last year of surgical residency at the Boston Memorial Hospital. As part of his new responsibilities, he must investigate three surgical deaths that occurred in a short span of time. The only link is the anaethesiologist on duty- Ava London. Noah is hesitant to place the blame on her at first, as she seems competent and confident (and she is hot). Later, though, he becomes suspicious that she is not who (and what) she claims to be… But is he already in too deep?

(cue dramatic music)

2/5 from me. Cook also manages to convey his distrust in social media, via more stilted textbook-y dialogue of course. Stay away unless, like me, you’re a fan of his work who is looking for a dose of nostalgia (pun intended)

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

This is my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It was juuust simple enough to be appealing, juuust thrilling enough to keep my attention, and juuust deep enough to give me some food for thought at the end. I’m as picky as Goldilocks, and this book was just right.

Eleanor Oliphant is a late twenties ‘spinster’ who enjoys doing crossword puzzles, listening to radio programmes, and getting blackout drunk from Friday evening to Monday morning. She is perfectly functional, in a completely dysfunctional way.

At first glance, she merely exhibits eccentricities that would be well-suited to the stereotypically geeky girl in English language sitcoms. There’s a long painful description of Eleanor getting her first bikini wax to impress her “rockstar” crush- whom she has never met. It seems a bit off for a woman her age to be that silly about a man… but and things keep going downhill from there. Without spoiling much, the plot gets really dark really fast. By the end, you’ll be rooting for Eleanor to overcome her demons.

I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because I really DO want you to read this book! But at a deeper level, I think this book points out a major flaw in today’s society. It’s all too easy to maintain a facade of normalcy without anyone noticing that one is struggling with something serious. Relationships are superficial, and greetings are cursory. Eleanor lacks basic social skills, because she has never gotten to experience a healthy relationship of any kind.

On a lighter note, this is a quirky and amusing novel that somehow manages to be a gripping thriller as well. Please read, even though this review has definitely not done justice to the plot. 5/5

Anti Climax

This is my review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. I listened to the audiobook version of this, because technology. And also because it was read by the author.

This book is, first and foremost, about sex (or the lack thereof). If this makes you uncomfortable, then this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s not graphic, but, well, sex is the overall theme. The title of this review is a poorly attempt at a pun. I’m a fan of McEwan’s because Atonement is a beautiful book that also made a beautiful movie.

It’s 1962, and the story is set in England. Edward and Florence are a young couple on their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. There’s a flashback about their respective upbringings. Not unexpectedly, they are both from very different backgrounds but are very much in love. But when it comes to consummating their marriage, Florence is hesitant, almost repulsed. It’s implied that sexual repression was common back then, and that she may have been abused as a child. Edward is impatient and humiliated by her rejection. Their encounter ends, uh, unsuccessfully.

In the heat of the moment, they decide to annul their marriage. The book then summarizes the rest of their lives, from Edward’s point of view. They are both very successful in their respective careers, and start their own families. A sixty year old Edward realizes that by not fighting for their love, and by being impatient with Florence, he made one of the most important decisions in his life.

This was a slow paced and uneventful novel. There’s good character development, but I was not rooting for them to stay together- maybe just not invested in their story. This book probably has some nostalgia value for people who grew up in the place and time described. In that respect, it’s an interesting social study of how society shapes your perception of sex (which is, of course, a fundamental instinct for humans)

Despite the disappointment (ha-ha) of On Chesil Beach, I’ll still be hunting down McEwan’s other work. 2.5/5, do not read unless you are bored.