Book Review

Cool Grandma

There’s a fairly large review backlog on my Goodreads profile that needs to be tackled; but I thought I would skip the to-do list for a while and review some books as I finish them. Makes for more detailed, enthusiastic reviews.

This is a review of An Education: My Life Might Have Turned Out Differently if I Had Just Said No, a memoir by Lynn Barber. Not entirely sure where that extended title came from- the edition I read seemed to have a different name. Lynn Barber is an English journalist, most famous for her insightful and incisive interviews. She has had a career spanning three decades and has won several awards, and I had no idea who she was.

There’s a movie called An Education that was based off a chapter of this memoir. When Lynn was sixteen or seventeen, she was involved with a man in his early thirties. She was a bright, ambitious girl, and desperately wanted to go to Oxford. But “David” showed her a more glamourous lifestyle than her middle-class upbringing had allowed, and she found herself spending more and more time with him.

(here lie spoilers!)

When David eventually proposed marriage, Lynn’s parents were unexpectedly enthusiastic. Why go to Oxford when you could marry well, and live comfortably? They genuinely loved the charming David and thought he would make a steady and responsible husband. It was not as obvious to Lynn, but pressure from her parents and a disillusionment in her school administration pushed her to accept. Soon after, she found that David was a conman and was already married with two children. Fortunately, she was able to take her exams the next year and was accepted at Oxford.

(end of spoiler-y section)

This particular chapter and story was the main attraction of the book, to me. In the movie, it was interesting to see how fictionalLynn aspired to go to Oxford because it represented sophistication and class and intellectual freedom, and how the same ends could apparently be achieved more easily elsewhere. The real Lynn speaks of this incident almost fondly in her memoir, as though it was an eye-opening experience. But what comes next is much more interesting.

Lynn Barber went to Oxford and, in her own words, partied as hard as she could. Her first job was at Penthouse, a soft-porn magazine. She speaks frankly about the trials of working on a new magazine, and the end of censorship in the UK. Despite the obvious stigma associated with Penthouse, she describes how much she enjoyed working there and how much she learned. She next wrote a sex manual (!) entitled How to Improve Your Man in Bed. Her approach, she says, was inspired by being saddled with a terrible dance partner- girls have to guide their partners to lead correctly, without issuing orders or making them feel conscious. I’ve no doubt that it was wildly successful.

In later years, she worked as an expert interviewer and earned the nickname “Demon Barber”. At this point, the book briefly becomes a laundry list of ’70-’80s British personalities, but not for long. She devotes a few chapters to her relationship with her husband, their family life, and a very moving chapter about his illness and death. Throughout the memoir, Barber comes across as a likeable person, and very aware of her personal failings. She is, perhaps, a bit too sure of herself, but no doubt that comes with 65 years of life experience. Her surprisingly unbiased summary of her parents’ value system and rationale behind their beliefs was eye-opening; we have all been brought up with a set of values, many of which may seem ridiculous from time to time. How many of us can say that we’ve really thought them through?

I would recommend this as a timepass read to replace those long chats with your grandmother. 5/5

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A story about the desert

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing this since I got to, like, page 10. There is a lot going on in this book, and many different facets to explore. To make it even better, it was adapted into a critically acclaimed movie and I love adaptations!

Here’s my review of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.

The story starts with a French-Canadian nurse called Hana, who is living (almost) alone in an abandoned Italian villa. World War II is raging on, but Hana has decided to separate from her army division to care for a mysterious stranger who was severely burned after being shot down over enemy lines. Not much is known about him (apart from the fact that he is basically a human kabab) but based on his accent, he is dubbed the English Patient. Over time, two more housemates are added: Caravaggio, Hana’s old family friend from Canada, and Kip, an Indian sapper working for the British. As the story unfolds, details about the ‘backstories’ of each of the characters are revealed- each has their own motivations for joining the war. The story ends once The English Patient tells them his true identity, and in the background, the war ends.

I liked this story because it shows the impacts of war at an individual level. None of the characters are traditional soldiers, and they all join the war efforts for different reasons (all unrelated to ‘patriotism’ or bravery). I mean, why would a Canadian man with an Italian name volunteer himself as a spy? The end of the war is also quite anti-climactic. Since none of the characters were motivated by feels of nationalism, the results mean nothing to them- they must live their whole lives with the burden of what (or who?) they have lost. I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ve appended some more analysis down below with a spoiler warning.

About the book-to-movie adaptation:

The story was very much Hollywood-ized. The story that was previously about the losses and betrayals of war was morphed into a romance of Titanic proportions (pun intended)

However, the imagery of the book is painstakingly retained. Ondaatje describes Katharine’s hair as being like a lion’s mane when the Cliftons first arrive in the desert, and Almasy refers to himself as long-browed. Both are noticeable in the movie, and are good examples of how the director cut no corners in recreating the book. Hana is charming and beautiful and Caravaggio looks the part… the disappointment was Kip. They have stripped away his backstory and motivations and character development, and he’s reduced to a shirtless, long-haired love interest for Hana. I’ll admit that his story in particular would have been difficult to translate to screen- especially the intense sapper training, but it was still a loss.

The movie won a boatload of Oscars, possibly because the themes are prime award-fodder, but it is really a very good movie.

Unsurprisingly, the author himself is very much a citizen of the world- he’s a Sri Lankan-born Canadian, and his name suggests European heritage.

This book gets a 5/5 from me. You’ll enjoy it if you like melodramatic and pretentious stories that are well written.

–HERE BE SPOILERS–

I wanted to kind of summarize why each character joined the war, and what they lost in the process.

  • Hana: It’s not very clear at first, mostly because Hana is very clearly painted as an innocent, young girl (remember the hopscotch scene?). It’s only later that we learn, from Caravaggio, about her tragedy. Her father died in the war, and was probably severely burned. Hana’s love for the English Patient mirrored the affection and care she wished she could have shown to her father during the end of his life. She loses her father and her fiance to the war, and perhaps never fully recovers (implied by Kip’s “happy ending”- Hana does not get one of her own)
  • Kip: He comes for the adventure and stays out of loyalty to the Englishman and woman who teach him about bombs. Kip loses Hana, and his faith- he becomes very disillusioned with the Western world after the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing. He goes back to India and becomes a doctor, as per his parents’ wishes.
  • Caravaggio: He is trying to escape from something, perhaps ramifications from his dishonest lifestyle in Canada? Oddly, he finds his place as a spy through similarly dishonest means- he leverages his Italian sounding surname and his talent for thievery. He loses his thumbs, in a particularly poetic form of justice.
  • Count Almasy: He joins the war to, maybe, find Katharine again (though I don’t think he could reasonably have expected to find her alive). He finds her, and loses his own life.

Some Literary Theory

This is my review of Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino.

This is not a novel, but a series of lectures by Calvino that have been compiled into a book.

This review has been in my Drafts box for way too long, so it’s going to be a lot less detailed than it could be, sorry!

Each lecture describes in detail a characteristic of literary fiction that adds value to storytelling or technique. Lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity… and, tragically, Calvino died before he was able to deliver the final lecture. The lectures are peppered with specific examples and critique of works by various authors, which really helps understand the value of each characteristic.

As an armchair reader (heh) without any formal education in literature, I’m sure I missed a lot of the subtlety; it’s also not targeted at amateur authors, moreso towards the Nobel laureates among us.

4/5 for giving me a new way to appreciate the fiction I read.

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.

Glitz and Glamour in Singapore

Today’s review is of the book Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

As an urban desi, reading Chetan Bhagat is relateable. Terrible, and a waste of time, but relateable. If only because the mothers are as dramatic as my own and the grammar as vernacular as mine.

Having said that, it’s simultaneously several worlds away from me: supernatural occurrences, romance with professors’ daughters, abusive Army dads… They exist, somewhere, but aren’t representative of Indian society as a whole. I think this is probably how Singaporeans feel about Crazy Rich Asians.

Rachel Chu is a Chinese-American professor at NYU. Her boyfriend, Nick, invites her to Singapore to attend his friend’s wedding, and meet his family.

What Nick fails to mention is that his friend, Colin, is the most eligible bachelor in Singapore and is marrying a fashion icon; his (Nick’s) family is one of the richest in the country and he is the sole heir; and that his mother is controlling and disapproves of his relationship with a Chinese girl of humble origins. Shenangians ensue.

There are several subplots, and they serve to highlight certain aspects of this particular section of Singaporean society- an obsession with wealth and status, a need to maintain family appearances, and difficulties being accepted by the wealthy and influential families when you are not wealthy and influential yourself. There’s a lot of name dropping and money counting, but the family dynamics should be familiar to most- Aunties gonna Aunty, right?

This gets a 3/5 from me for being as substantial and healthy as a large piece of cotton candy.

Edgy Children’s Fantasy

Poor, neglected blog.

Well, here’s a good one to make up for months of emptiness.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? It’s a children’s storybook series in which four children in WWII-era Britain find their way into a magical kingdom with talking animals. And subsequently become rulers of the kingdom and have many adventures. I used to love those stories! It was only recently that I found out that the stories are thinly veiled Christian allegories -who would have expected that giant lion to be a representation of Jesus?- and it’s a little strange to be seeing the series in a new light.[*]

Anyhow, The Magicians features a magical land called Fillory that is reminiscent of Narnia (probably not a coincidence). The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an oddball young man from New York, who has grown up reading and loving the Fillory series. After high school, he gains admission to the poorly-named Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which he promptly joins because “it’s exclusive”.

Brakebills is the antithesis of Hogwarts. Students are overworked and put through multiple traumatic experiences for the sake of education. And they indulge in copious amounts of casual sex, bullying, and unhealthy competition. Despite this  (or perhaps because of this?) they are successful in learning the intricacies of magic.

Jaded and worldly-wise, Quentin and his fellow graduates move to NYC to pursue a life of irresponsible hedonism. When an ex-classmate reveals that Fillory is real, they decide to travel there. They don’t find what they expected though, and an epic battle ensues.

There are several plot points that seem to be poking fun at the original Narnia series, and these inside jokes made the book worth the read. For instance, the difference in the passage of time between the real world and Fillory means that the Kids wind up there in the dead of winter, but by the time they come back armed with warm clothing, it’s summer again. Unlike the knowledgeable talking animals of Narnia, the animals of Fillory don’t seem to have overcome their natural instincts- a talking bear seems more willing to discuss honey than the politics of the land.

Reviews of this book seemed largely critical of Quentin’s personality, and the negative cast this gives to the narrative. He’s immune to the joys of boarding school, because he gets caught up in academic competition. He fails to be awestruck by Fillory, the land of his childhood dreams, because he is consumed by jealousy and heartbreak after losing his girlfriend. I think, though, that this was part of the author’s mockery of children’s fantasy- they so often forget that the characters are teenagers, and more importantly, human. They have personalities and emotions beyond just being awestruck by magic and being heroic.

4/5 from me. Read this if you like dark, bleak stories and also children’s fantasy. This is probably a strange niche.

 

 

[*] Edit to add: Read an article that mentioned another interpretation of the Narnia-verse. You may remember that the series ends with the Pevensies (and Eustace and Jill and the kids from The Magician’s Nephew), sans Susan, dying in a railway accident and winding up in Narnia permanently. This apparently means that they got to go to Heaven when they died, but Susan did not, because she did not believe in Je-Aslan (AsJesus? As-us? Jes-Lan?) any more.

 

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!

weekend reads

I’ve often noticed that my reading tastes vary based on the intellectual demands of Real Life. Now that I have an adult job complete with crazy bosses and unreasonable expectations, my poor brain finds itself unable to cope with the demands of Literature. (In contrast, I read Sophie’s World– while taking notes- during the winter vacation of my first year in college)

It’s been particularly crazy of late (I notice I’ve been saying that for months. Hmm) and chick-lit is what I’ve turned to in these desperate times. SD already reviewed The Rosie Project, so I’ll review its sequel, The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion.

Unlike SD, I liked The Rosie Project enough that I picked up its sequel immediately after finishing it. And I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cartoon-y and crude, complete with stereotypes and random fistfights, but it’s entertaining enough.

At the end of The Rosie Project, clueless Don Tillman and the edgy Rosie got together. Now they’re married, and have relocated to NYC for no apparent reason. And guess what, Rosie is pregnant!

The serious themes of this series are overshadowed by silly comedy. Why does Rosie stop taking her birth control without informing her husband? Why does Don have panic attacks and descend into alcoholism when he finds out he’s going to be a father? Also, it is heavily implied that Don has Asperger’s, but this is played off for jokes.

But who cares, because this book is funny in a way that The Big Bang Theory will never be. Consider this quote (in my own words, because Google failed me): “Success! I had rebooted her relationship. Unfortunately, Rosie had rebooted in safe mode. She had some questions.”

4/5 for geeky jokes. I may need to examine why I related so much to Don.

Hi I’m back

This is my review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green.

Will I ever outgrow YA? It looks like I finally am. Teenaged protagonists are finally starting to sound whiny and self-obsessed, as opposed to misunderstood and mature.

This protagonist, Aza, has a legitimate reason for being self-obsessed, though. She has obsessive-compulsive disorder, an ailment that Green suffers from himself. He does an incredible job of painting a picture of this illness. Initially, Aza just seems quirky. Later, she seems anxious and neurotic. It’s only later that her OCD is revealed as the life-threatening disease it really is. Worried about germs and an infected cut? Ok. Drinking hand sanitizer to get rid of gut bacteria? Not so ok.

All this is the backdrop to a mystery of sorts (Or is the mystery the backdrop? Aza’s obsession tends to take over her life) and a realistic, kind-of-sort-of teen romance. I could definitely relate to random philosophical conversations (It’s turtles all the way down!) between almost-strangers when life gets too difficult to handle.

3.5/5 from me for a solid YA entertainer that provides some food for thought while still being very readable. It’s not particularly memorable, but worth a couple of hours.