Month: November 2014

Metaphors & Murder

White Oleander- Janet Fitch

This isn’t the kind of book I usually like, or even read. But strangely enough, I found myself getting involved with the characters and appreciating the not so subtle subtleties of the prose and plot.

Astrid Magnussen lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Ingrid. Ingrid is beautiful and arrogant, and teaches Astrid to be strong and ruthless. Daughter looks on with joy as mother meets and falls in love with Barry Kolker, a rich admirer, and then with horror as she murders him in cold blood when he ‘moves on’ to a younger woman.

She is thrown into jail, leaving Astrid to navigate the California foster care system with only the guidance of her mother’s letters. Her experiences are almost comically horrible. At her first home, she sleeps with the father and is shot by the emotionally unstable mother when the affair is discovered. When Astrid is mauled by dogs on her 15th birthday, I began to wonder if the book was meant to be a dark comedy!

The story redeems itself with brilliant character development though. With the kind of mistreatment and general scumbag-ness that Astrid is exposed to at a young age, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d turned out to be a mad-axe-murderer later in life. But the only mark that’s left on her is a tendency to get attached to anyone who’s nice to her, which is sad but understandable. Most of the time, she’s optimistic and forgiving.

The evolving relationship between Astrid and Ingrid is also very interesting. In the beginning of the story, Astrid idolizes her mother. She doesn’t truly understand the extent of the crime that she has committed. Ingrid gives her daughter advice, and tries to guide her by giving her lists of books to read. Later though, Astrid recognizes that her mother is a narcissist and begins to disregard her opinions.

There’s a dramatic faceoff at the end- Ingrid wants Astrid to testify in her favor in a retrial that she’s wangled for herself, but Astrid isn’t helping until she gets some answers about her childhood. Funnily enough she’s guilty about being manipulative despite the fact that her mother has pulled off similar tricks many times before. Made me respect the character even more.

Throughout the novel there are references to white oleander and poison. Barry is murdered with an extract of oleander, and Ingrid is fair, beautiful and poisonous in a less literal way.

All in all, a subtle psychological novel with beautiful prose. Recommended. If you like it, you should probably try We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s scary and thought provoking. But that’s a review for another day.

4/5

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An awe-inspiring tale, Part one

India After Gandhi – Ramachandra Guha, Picador India

India After Gandhi

A 900 page book on India, it has made it to the road side pirated-book carts!

What a writer! This book has made me fall in love with the way Guha writes. India After Gandhi is a book on the post-Independence India. It narrates the story of India making her choices after she became Independent, in the face of communal riots, separatism, chaos, poverty, disease, industrial immaturity, and other factors that guaranteed her downfall, apparently. The story is one of India conquering her vices, and emerging as a Nation of reckoning.

Every chapter is written with care, keeping in mind the aware and mindful reader who is looking to gain knowledge and who wants to experience history as it is being narrated. Guha starts each chapter on a serious note, enriches your experience of reading with quotes and excerpts from other sources, mixes some humour (often, some ridiculous anecdotes), and ends with a fleeting glimpse of what the future holds, and how the events could affect the unfolding of the future.

This book was suggested by my history professor. “Read it because you can,” he said. Most of my classmates are busy people who don’t want to go through the trouble of having to read more than two or three books on history. I took my time before purchasing my copy, because I did not want to ‘waste’ my time reading a superficial account of something that I can read about from class notes and textbooks. I finally bought it because I had time on my hands between classes. Besides, “read it if you can” sounded a lot like a challenge. I don’t regret buying the book, not one bit.

This is a scholarly book that is mesmerising me. I’m pleasantly surprised myself. But not too much, since I’ve had a taste of Guha’s work before, when I was impressed with his craftiness with words (which move deftly between fact, opinion and critique), in an essay that he has written in Makers of Modern Asia. I seem to be inclined towards appreciating the way India After Gandhi is written more than the content itself. The content is the greatest epic on Democracy in the modern world, and Guha makes it breathe and gives it life.

Thus far, I’ve learnt of India’s confused state of being after Gandhi’s death. India laid down her communal animosity, embraced fraternity in her preamble and life, asserted secularism in the face of a notorious neighbour, Pakistan, became a republic and took a huge leap of faith with her first general elections (the very first, and the most challenging, to grant universal adult suffrage, with non-existent infrastructure and people to support the exercise). The book has also devoted space to the eccentric and visionary leaders of the country, their thoughts, convictions and how they shaped the future of the country.

Disclaimer: I’ve read only one fifth of the book, and I’m snobbishly happy that I still have a good chunk of the book left. I’ll rate the book when I’ve turned the last page, probably in a different post.

More YA.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan

This book revolves around two high school guys who share a name- Will Grayson – but have nothing else in common. The interesting thing about this book is that the authors (this is a collaboration) contributed alternate chapters, each writing from the point of view of one of the main characters. The not-so-interesting thing about this book is that it seems to lack a plotline.

Will Grayson is a typical John Green creation- smart, witty and slightly geeky. He claims that his rules for getting through life are 1) Don’t care too much, and 2) Shut up. He proceeds to break both rules repeatedly through the course of the book. will grayson (note the absence of capitalization) seems to have a bit more depth. He has a difficult home situation and struggles with depression. He’s also gay, and has doesn’t have many friends at school. They meet one day in an unlikely setting and this sets off a chain of events…

That are fairly predictable. There are four main characters in the book: A straight guy, a straight girl, and two gay guys. Do the math.

Despite its flaws, this book has some redeeming qualities: it handles the subjects of mental illness and teen homosexuality very well. It shows a society where people (or at least high schoolers) are quick to accept gay people without judgement. will’s depression is shown as an illness that is unfortunate but manageable with medication and support from his family. There’s also a ‘very large, very gay’ musical that provides a few laughs.

I would recommend this book only if you’re a big fan of John Green and/or the Young Adult genre. 2/5

The Library Movement, India, 19th century

Ever thought about how Indians, who had almost no access to education in the 19th century, managed to rise together, almost in sync, to fight for their freedom against the British rule?

The Library Movement and the power of the Press undoubtedly hastened the process of spreading awareness about the oppression and the very possibility of rebellion against being treated unfairly.

The Tribune, March 24, 1931

The Tribune, March 24, 1931

The Library Movement was led by common, educated village folk. India, during her struggle for independence, had a dynamic, extremely powerful and active press. The newspapers were printed and circulated as a public service, to educate and mobilize the Indians across her territory. The most read newspapers were written and published by Indian nationalist leaders. The newspaper was read and discussed thoroughly by people around the country.

Since the literacy level was abysmally low, the Library Movement became the need of the hour. It was a movement that created ‘libraries’ everywhere in the country.

A ‘library’ had three components:

  1. A newspaper
  2. A person who could read the paper out loud
  3. A bench/charpoy for the listeners to surround the reader

It was a reading club, really. Only, they didn’t read Dan Brown or Oscar Wilde, but they read what men who were inspired by Tolstoy and Thoreau wrote, and they did more than critique what they read – they learnt from it, and they used what they learnt to fight for their freedom.

Isn’t that the goal of reading, ultimately? -Freedom.

Dr House? Maybe Not.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness- Susannah Cahalan

Okay, I admit it: I only read this book because the doctor in it was described as ‘a real life Dr House’. I was disappointed, though. The book describes (in sometimes tedious detail) how the author, Susannah Cahalan, was afflicted by a rare and serious autoimmune disease that was wrongly diagnosed by several specialists before it was correctly identified and treated.

The book begins with Susannah describing her initial symptoms. Some seemingly harmless mood swings and nervousness were actually ominous early signs of her illness. While this in itself is enough to cause panic attacks in hypochondriacs, it gets worse…

One would expect the narration to be anecdotal, but it’s choppy and often disconnected. Not the fault of the author though- she has very few memories of incidents that occurred during her ‘month of madness’.  She has used her experience as a journalist to piece together information collected from her father’s journals, CCTV footage of her while in the hospital, and doctors’ reports.

Back to the story. Initially, Susannah’s illness is attributed to schizophrenia, which commonly manifests in women during their late teens or early twenties. Enter Almost House, Dr. Souhel Najjar, who suspects that her worsening physical symptoms are due to brain swelling. However, all tests are inconclusive. He asks her to draw a clock. All the numbers are clustered in the right side of the circular face, an indication that her right hemisphere is inflamed. AH deduces that this is due to a newly identified autoimmune ailment, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. A brain biopsy confirms his hunch, and after a few months of treatment Susannah is well enough to return to her job.

After Susannah’s case was written about in medical journals, many more patients were diagnosed with this relatively rare disease. It is clear that a significant number of sufferers may have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar, which will hopefully change due to the publicity that was generated by this book. Though this is undeniably a good thing, there are many other books that deal with similar subjects in more informative and entertaining ways. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, The Tell-Tale Brain, and Phantoms in the Brain (both by V S Ramachandran) all deal with strange neurological disorders and how they manifest themselves (inability to identify faces, phantom limbs, etc). Both Sacks and Ramachandran are neurologists, and manage to convey the latest ideas in their field without compromising on readability.

1.5/5

Why long distance running? A toast to insanity

running crazy

The absolutely crazy things that long distance running does to you-

You  lose yourself to the present, and forget the past.

The gold medals, the chubby glory, the time you crashed your mother’s car against a stationary truck, your bad/good relationship, the good friends, the friends who think you’re stupid to be running, the candy you didn’t eat the previous day, the impossible warm up you did before you started running (your head touched your knee, you stood on one leg and pretended to be an aeroplane, all the while concentrating on your core), the fact that if you weren’t running, the past-you would’ve laughed at the present-you for running such unbelievable distances.

Not running hurts.

You snipe at unsuspecting people who made you miss your run, you stare hard at the clouds that brought rain, you frown at your mocking shoes, you read blogs about running that don’t tell you anything new, you think about cross training like a dog thinks about his water bowl. You sass-mouth the universe for conspiring against you, you feel like a fat blob, you feel listless. You snap at people who ask you if you ran.

It makes you eat healthy.

You forgo candy because they give you stomach spasms when you run, you look at McDonald’s as your mortal enemy, you will not compromise on your carbohydrate to protein ratio. You cannot appreciate sweets, you refuse to eat deep fried food. You will stop eating beans and rice. You start appreciating milk more, your love for coffee will be reined in by limiting the number of cups to three, at most (oh, the horror). You start looking at food as if it’s the sole of your shoes, important but invisible, not to be over or under done. Food shall be renamed Fuel, and water rechristened as Hydration (“have you had enough fuel and hydration?”). You attribute your performance during a run to what you ate or did not eat. You see food the way your car sees gas, you attribute your gas to the wrong kind of fuel.

It makes you competitive.

You want to over take him, and her, and that silly kid too! You can’t stand it if some one runs past you, you want to scream booya to every person you overtake, but you don’t. You want to be known as The Overtaker. You feel like Bolt when you leap forward and away, overtaking runners. You can feel your leg muscles crying in joy when you stretch them as you overtake the half dead runner. You want to be at the finish line before your friend can even say finish line. You want to sprint down the last 400m to the finish line because you don’t mind dying after you’ve overtaken happy runners, after you’ve seen their aghast and supremely tired faces. You don’t mind losing a limb, but you want to finish strong. You grow evil, you want to do better than everyone (old, young, friends, enemies, no matter!). You become a do or die person. You run to prove yourself so you run harder than you thought you could. You become the borderline-crazy person that you should beware of.

It makes you positive.

You fall in love with the world, with people you don’t know, with yourself, with the tar of the road, with the sun and the breeze, with the uphills and downhills. You look at milestones as fallible, you believe you can run any distance, you feel you can do anything. You are filled with hope and are blinded by more than the lights of the vehicles coming on the opposite side. You look at a garbage dump and think its stench is a great persuasive force to get you to run faster, away from it. You love the dirt on your shoes, you adore the angry dog barking at you, you know the cat-callers are good people deep down and see them as potential runners themselves. You feel inspired and you feel motivated. You feel light when you’re in the air, you think you’re a bird and that you’re flying, so you fly when you run; and when you fly, you’re more positive than all the positive ions of the ionosphere put together.

Running gives more than it takes, and I believe that to my core. Pun intended.

If you think one would need more reasons to lace up and hit the roads, read http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running. I tripped on it when I’d started running 10k on a daily basis.

Collage 2014-10-22 16_37_10