Normal People

Normal People, by Sally Rooney, during abnormal times, is a-okay. For, honestly, we all need simple, easy to process stories in our lives at the moment. So here goes…

He and she met. They became best friends. They navigated adolescence and adulthood (the young, carefree kind), sometimes together and sometimes apart. But love that held them together as best friends glues them through the years, healthily and unhealthily. Overall, sounds familiar. But not so much, either.

The chapters are chronological, covering the most dramatic parts of the lives of the young adults. The fact that the novel is written without apostrophes drew me close enough to read every line (yeah, I’m guilty of skipping phrases and lines, often). And wasn’t each page crafted beautifully? If you read the book, you might agree. Or may be you’d find it disorienting, I don’t know.

There are the constant bells and music of YA novels, throughout, but it never gets too out of hand. The cheese and corn is served in just the right amount.

The characters are beautifully developed; though, I’m a little confused still, about some of the weird things that the two lovers do. They’re not very predictable. Also, how are people so clearly vile and bad? Or good and vulnerable? Where are the grey people?

Perhaps the grey is compensated for with the episodes of depression, self hate and outright stupidity. The two of them are inanely mature and immature at the same time, such that I’m positively irritated at their inconsistency in moods and actions, but then again, hey, the characters compensate for the lack of logic with emotion and drama, so it’s okay. I guess.

The drama is good. Makes you want to know more. I was glued. During these mind numbing times of COVID-19, Normal People is what I needed. 3.5/5.

(Picture courtesy: Getty)

Munnu

This is a review of the Graphic Novel, Munnu, by Malik Sajad. It’s a coming of age story of Sajad, alias Munnu, in Kashmir. Kashmiris are depicted as Hanguls, or Kashmiri Stags. The book is not for the light hearted, or the opinionated. It’s for the “third person” in the conflict. It’s for the “neutral opinion”, or the “moderator” in the debate on Kashmir. This review, though, has not made any effort to be politically correct. So feel free to sputter  deliriously with anger.

I’ve rated the book 5/5. But, maybe I should have thought twice before doing so. While Sajad makes you love the protagonist, he will probably garner more wrath than appreciation from the typical Indian TV News audience.

The story begins quite simply – it is introduced as the story of a very talented little boy who likes to draw. The story then expands to his navigation through the mess of adolescence and adulthood with a new job that makes him draw through reefs of pages to understand his life. I thought I knew Sajad’s backyard and understood his angst through each of his panels.

Sajad just wanted to draw, but then he had to deal with the bottomless depths of history of Kashmir even before he could grow into his adult pants. He donned the coat of a political thinker and cartoonist, but was indeed a child that only expressed his confusion through the newspaper. Soon, though, he comes to understand. Slowly and quickly, with each death and hopeless story that he encounters. And he draws about each of these learnings, over and over again till he thinks he has understood them. The part with the complicated history of Kashmir is exquisite, I’ve bookmarked it.

The character building of each of Sajad’s family members is complete. The peripheral characters are given due attention, too. For instance, when a “martyr” is portrayed, it’s subtle, and never forceful. Just mysterious enough to make you wonder which side is right, after all.

The art in the graphic novel is spell-binding. The detailing needs a thick lens to appreciate fully. The content needs wide arms to accept; I did, and it was warm.

Read the book for a look at how it feels from the point of view of a little child in a strife ridden Kashmir. Read the book to understand the nightmare that such a society thrusts on people – a society that allows no expression and no room for movement in its social or economic fabric. It’s harrowing and depressing. But at the same time, there are sparks of brightness in the form of innocence that pierces through the grimness that is curfews.Read the book. Look at it. Look at the Hangul’s eyes in the panels. They have lines of hope, anger, passion, confusion and a strange indifference about the chaos that surrounds them.

The Kashmir story is not black and white, but this black and white grey chronicle is quite something. It’s beautiful. 5/5.

Queen

“Will you be my Queen?” asked GMR.

“Yes,” she replied.

And, the rest, as they say, is history.

This is a review of the TV series, Queen, directed by Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan, which is based on the book, Queen, by Anita Sivakumaran. The book itself is loosely based on the life of the Ex-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. J. Jayalalitha.

The TV series has what it takes to ensure the viewer binge watches for hours on end. Though, at points, it seemed necessary to fast-forward the show to cut to the chase. The drama quotient is high. The cinematography is a healthy mix of old school and the modern. It’s old school in that it has the tried and poorly tested acting style of overacting. But it has the modernistic style of cinematography in that most frames are carefully choreographed, and, as an added bonus, the make up and lighting is subtle.

The storyline is largely based on the true story of the former CM. However, there are some obvious deviations in the interest of creative ingenuity, and for the sake of averting too much scrutiny by having a “fiction” card pinned to the sets. In the TV series, it is the story of Shakti.

Shakti is the State Topper in her 10th boards. After that, she’s forced to quit studies to slip into a career of acting, to support her family, after which she didn’t get the opportunity to return to her apparently true calling, which was academics. She hung on, especially after her crucial and much talked-about career with GMR (acronym comes to mind?), the megastar of Tamil Cinema of the 70s. She is shown as someone who excels at everything she touches. She is shown to be a person who is constantly yearning for the simple joys of friendship and family. Her turbulent relationship with her mother is much reason for her worries in life. Soon after the hold that her mother held on her were released, she was caged under the close watch and overwhelming “care” of the superstar that she pledged her life’s course to.

Love, betrayal, trust, disloyalty, are the underlying themes. Feminism is at the core of the narrative, which was highlighted by the excellent acting by the three leading ladies, Ramya Krishnan, Anikha, Anjana Jayaprakash, who play Shakti. The idea that a woman can be “controlled” by others, is displayed and dispelled within the same season. The panache and smoothness with which the character transitions from being a pawn to being the Queen, is stunning.

Though I’d rate the show high for satisfying a long standing need felt in the “decent Tamil TV show” niche, I’d still call it out for some of its shortcomings. The biggest one, as mentioned previously, is the overacting by the otherwise capable actors. Likewise, some storylines within the show went unstitched, like that of the friendship with Alamelu, which was all important in Episode 7, but fully forgotten by Episode 10 (and replaced by Suryakala (ahem)).

While the idea behind the episodes and the various sequences may have been to highlight the nuances of Shakti’s life, the highlighting was rather skewed, I thought, to allow the protagonist to play the victim card rather than to celebrate the achievements she made despite the odds. For example, we know too much about her schooling, and almost nothing about the political decisions she made, save for a couple teasers that the show offered. Not enough, Gautham Menon. The feeling that Shakti is an enigma is still abound, and that has to go if she should be likeable, and isn’t that the point of a (fictionalised) biopic? If not, then, well, haven’t we found ourselves a little piece of treasure in Tamil TV?

I’m looking forward to Season II, and hope to fast-forward less. Shorter and crisper scenes, and less sermoning by the protagonist, please. I don’t want the gyan, I want to know what happened, how, and why.

So far so good okay. 3/5.

PS: I hope the title makes more sense, in the context of our democratic polity, in the coming seasons.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars

How many books have you read of trans people? By trans people? Good ones?

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom stands out for its distinction of being one of its kind (which is unfortunate). But it also stands out for being lovely and brave.

The memoir is dark, but written with so much brightness that it made me forget how rough her life has been. The aliases she uses, and the fantastical descriptions of events and places are reminiscent of bedtime stories. In reality, it is like the Grimm’s Brothers’ stories – distressing and disorienting, but fashioned in palatable and affable ways.

The poetry in between is poignant. It’s about a pocket knife and the inevitability of having to have one. There’s also a poem about being femme. It reads like a song.

This one is one of those kind of books that affects one’s belief systems. Did you know how very normal it is to be exploited for surgery, for trans people? It was described so casually in this book, that I felt ashamed, illogically and idiotically.

My only grouse is the extent to which she goes to shroud all places’ names. So while the memoir is a real story, it’s also under velvety wraps, with names like “City of Gloom” and “City of Shadows and Lights”. Sigh.

A short read. A good read. One of those kinds that you wish was longer. 4/5.

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!

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.