Author: SD

Hello there! I review books at https://wetellatale.wordpress.com/.

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!

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.

The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.

Water Wars

This is a review of the book Water Wars: Privatisation, Pollution and Profit by Vandana Shiva.

Water Wars is a great book for people interested in management of water; the kind of people who binge read newspaper editorials on public policy. It isn’t a hugely educative read, though, since almost everyone (newspaper nut or otherwise) is aware of the water crisis looming ahead, and that solutions to it are way more complex than we’d care to admit.

Just as well, the book is a worthy read because it is spirited (you can almost hear Shiva crying her voice hoarse about the ills of privatisation of water). Also, literature on conserving and saving our environment is necessary, so any literature at all is welcome.

Shiva is an advocate for community led maintenance of water. Her arguments are premised on the idea that communities are democratic and non-discriminating between sections of society. But is that the reality of communities across the country? Caste, class and religion based conflict, related to water, at the village level, are not uncommon in India. It was Ambedkar that said that villages can be the cesspools of narrow-mindedness – are they, then, equipped to solve water crisis equitably? It’s a pity that this point was not critically examined by Shiva.

She also believes that community management can be a replacement to govt efforts. Very well. But every successful case study on community led water management quoted came with the support of the State. For example, Swadhyaya, Pani Panchayat. So reading her ideas about replacing the state in service provision is a little bit of a hypocritic pill to take.

Predictably, the book signs a huge no to privatisation of water services, be it extraction, distribution or recycling. The reasons being that it leads to pollution, inequitable distribution.

Speaking of pollution, a much needed chapter is devoted to the effect of Climate Change on the dialectic on water scarcity. The bad news (not so much news anymore) is that there is no good news at all. Shiva believes that the solution to climate change induced water and food scarcity, and disasters, lies in enforcing action through international instruments like the Paris Agreement (she mentions Kyoto, actually; the book was released many years ago). But there is no way to enforce these agreements, truly. Finally, in a last breathe effort, she says, we need climate justice. That means a paradigm change in lifestyles of people, and a goodbye to the American lifestyle of consumption. But that’s pretty much impossible.

At this point in the review, I think it’s appropriate to point to some of the great despondence that the writer probably experienced while writing the book. These are the not-very-compelling parts of the book: Many pages are spent in saying that private companies (ranging from Coca Cola to Monsanto) are trying to claim all water services, with the help of the IMF and the World Bank. They’re not do-gooders – they’re trojan horses, apparently. So beware! Also, Public Private Partnerships are very dangerous – it’s all about making public good unavailable and making a profit out of it with public money! These statements are not based on facts or figures, rather, they’re based on strong opinions. I did say the book was spirited.

The book ends with a chapter on how rivers are seen as sacred by most civilisations. It was an appeal to the spirituality of the reader, I think, to conserve our water resources. To me, it was interesting for the narration of all the mythological stories related to rivers and other water bodies.

Solutions?

Shiva’s main emphasis is on local solutions to water problems, and she squarely blames states, countries and international organisations, and especially private interests, for the water crisis.

In Water Wars, fierce arguments to save the planet’s water resources by not doing certain things (like privatisation and monetisation of water) are put forward.

But there are no sweeping solutions that are on offer. While the case studies are quoted as a blueprint to solve issues related to water pollution and scarcity, it is also a fact that these stories are not scalable. Abstract ideas of justice and equity are provided as the panacea for water management. Mostly, the author exhorts countries to look within at solutions offered by communities and at traditional methods as ways forward.

If only that worked all the time.

While compelling, the book does not fully quench the thirst for solutions to water problems and water wars.

3/5.

Finding Ultra

This is a review of the book, Finding Ultra, Revised and Updated Edition: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, by Rich Roll. Rich Roll describes himself on his website as a “Plantpowered Wellness Advocate, Bestselling Author, Ultra-Athlete”. Credibility, established.

The story is great, the narrative poor. Read the book to know how the guy transforms his life and competes in Ultraman Championships and Ironman Championships. And if you’re listening to the audiobook, listen to it at *2 speed.

I think every runner can relate to portions of the book, like the description of pain while training, the laziness that creeps in, poor training methodology (do you know what a Z2 zone of training is? Ha!), the gluttonous monster within us all (somewhat like the Blerch), etc.

Unlike other books in the genre of running (Eat and Run, The Perfect Mile, Born to Run), though, this book is not an essential book for people who enjoy the sport, or for people who are looking to improve by fixing some chink in their armour. For Roll, the suffering is all mental, the physical struggles are easily surpassed. Poof. Unlike most of us, Rich is able to run a 10 miler right off the bat, within months of feeling dizzy while climbing a flight of stairs; he is able to stick to a diet without any problems; he is also able to manage his personal life and professional life without too many gliches; and he has a support system that sounds like it’s pulled right off the “Ideal Boy”/”Ideal Family”charts. Good for him, but it made me feel alien.

Rich Roll’s story is peppered with way too many references to plant-based eating (which even Jurek mentions in his book, but not so obsessively). Plantpowered still sounds corny to me, despite the infinite number of times it’s mentioned int he book. Plantpowered, really! Also, this book is a little too preachy for my liking. From page 270 – when I thought the book was set on a tangent to describing more insane endurance sports – it became all self-help (a genre I dislike). There’s also a part where he lambasts the government (of USA) for its agricultural subsidy policy. If you were me, you’d stop right where he finishes five Ironman distances in less than seven days. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better after that.

Overall, the book is a quick and decent read for anyone who is into endurance sports; and especially so if one is looking for inspiration to turn one’s life around. Bottomline: If a severely alcoholic and obese person can become an Ultraman and more, you can roll out of bed and do that 5k this Sunday.

It’s a 3/5 from me. If you have checked his podcast out, please feel free drop a message about it!