Book Review

Nostalgia in a book

I’ve been laid up with a recurring infection that has put me behind on my reviews. Not to mention my reading, though that has been on the back burner for years now.

This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki is an award-winning graphic novel published as recently as 2015. Rose is twelve, and is spending the summer in her family’s cottage in Awago with her parents. She is reunited with her younger friend Windy for a couple of months of swimming and midday candy.

But twelve is that awkward age when one is old enough to notice adult things happening, but still too young to understand them. Rose’s mother is behaving strangely, and her parents are arguing. She notices an older boy, and toys with the idea of ‘like liking’ him. She watches an older girl struggle with a difficult decision.

All the events are very relatable, and the illustrations are lovely. It’s just the extreme awkwardness that put me off this book. I basically walked (hopped?) around with my foot in my mouth during my teens, and it’s still a struggle to not be a self-obsessed, pretentious a**hat. But Rose is really awful at saying the right thing, or being perceptive. She accidentally insults Windy (who’s the adopted child of lesbians) multiple times, slut-shames a girl with no guilt, and has no sympathy for an upset family member. It’s a bit cringeworthy.

All in all, this is a very realistic depiction of an uneventful summer through the eyes of a girl who has just begun to grow up. It’s a short read, and I would recommend it if you are a female who likes graphic novels. 2/5 from me.

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A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Remember the Netflix show A Young Doctor’s Notebook I mentioned last time? Daniel Radcliffe plays a newly-minted doctor who is chucked into Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, to run the hospital there. He faces syphilis, gangrene, and boredom and lives to tell the tale. It’s dark, dark humour, friends. Not for the faint of heart.

Well, when I realized that it was based on a real-life memoir (or stories-based-on-real-life, rather) , of course I had to read it. The show got over much too quickly for my liking and I wanted more stories about the horrible doctor Nika.

But- much to my dismay- the memoir was written in earnest by a sincere and competent doctor/author who lived and worked in Russia a hundred years ago. Imagine the guilt. A Country Doctor’s Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov is a short book but packs a punch.

A hundred years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov kept a journal about his experiences in a village hospital in Smolensk. In 1920, he published a compilation of short stories based on these years. Bulgakov comes across as an earnest young man, far from the show’s portrayal of him. The simplicity and humility of the narration (courtesy a Russian-English translator) reminded me of RK Narayan.

Unlike Malgudi Days, however, this book did not have me longing for a simpler time. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for the days of poor anaesthesia, disinfectants, and primitive amputations. Oh, and also the Russian Revolution. There is no romance, or comedy- only homesickness and desperation. It’s difficult to say any more about the stories for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that doctors back then had unimaginable struggles.

I’ll stick to my policy of not rating real-life stories, but be warned that this collection is not especially eventful or entertaining. Interestingly though, its original publication date of 1917 makes it one of the oldest books I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of ‘classics’).

Hey look, this sci-fi book passes the Bechdel test

This is my review of The Year of the Flood, the second book in the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood.

A decade (and a half, maybe) ago, an aunt of mine read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was the peak of the Harry Potter craze, and people were speculating wildly about the next book- whichever number it was- and queuing up outside bookstores at 6 a.m. to grab their copies. My aunt wanted to know what made this series like catnip for teenagers. Her verdict: It was overly detailed, and filled with Chekhov’s guns, thus providing endless fodder for analysis. The magic was also made less ‘ridiculous’ and, well, fantastic, because there were prosaic details too. For every mention of a Goblin-run bank, there was also a reasonable- sounding currency conversion.

I liked Oryx and Crake for basically the same reasons. It was science fiction with a human touch, a supervillain origin story with high school nerds- the combination was promising. Yes, there were genetically modified animals running around, but some of them were failed beta tests. I had to get more of this universe!

Similar to O&C, The Year of the Flood is also written from two points of view. This time, the protagonists are two women, Toby and Ren. They are both former members of a religious cult called God’s Gardeners, and by pure luck have survived the deadly epidemic that Crake unleashed. The book reveals their backstories, and what life is like for ordinary citizens amidst all the bioterrorism.

The most enjoyable parts of the book were the scenes in God’s Gardeners, a group that preaches vegetarianism and the need to stop harming God’s creatures. It was interesting to me how very reasonable the cult was- there was no brainwashing, and they provided security to non-believers, as long as they were productive and cooperative. Sometimes, support systems can be born from a shared questionable belief; too often, it’s the other way round.

The parts I liked the least were basically everything else; the story is tangential to the main plot of O&C, and barely reveals any new details. Ren dated Jimmy briefly whilst at college. She still carries a torch for him, but this has no bearing on any events. Essentially, this is like the Director’s Cut of the original plot- interesting scenes, but just for the true enthusiasts.

Margaret Atwood also wrote the modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale, about a modern Puritan society that strips women of fundamental rights. True to her role as a feminist icon, Atwood makes sure that Toby and Ren’s experiences are strongly coloured by their sexuality. They are motivated by love and wounded by gendered insults; many of their trials are related to sexual abuse. There is no overt feminism or man-bashing, something I was very glad of. These days, I find that political correctness is often brought to the attention of readers explicitly by self-satisfied authors (“Look look, this Sci-Fi book passes the Bechdel test!”)

I will definitely be reading Maddaddam (Book#3 in this trilogy), but perhaps with less enthusiasm. 2.5/5. Recommended only if you really enjoyed Oryx and Crake.

You’ve been warned

This is my review of the short story anthology Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

One notable thing about today’s children’s/YA authors is that they’re approachable, and celebrities in their own right. John Green has a vlog and is active on social media, JK Rowling expresses her political opinions freely on Twitter, and Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman is basically the hero that my emo, pretentious, teenaged self needed but did not deserve. He is unabashedly geeky and frequently drops nuggets of inspiration that probably keep tired young writers plugging along for an extra edit, or a few hundred more words.

The reason this stands out to me is that many classic children’s authors took a very different stance- they tried to teach us lessons or preach morality. Enid Blyton got a lot of criticism for her depiction of naughty black golliwogs, since the original toys were overtly racist. I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times, rather than deliberate spite towards people of colour. I’ve read conspiracy theories on homosexual undertones in Noddy and Big Ears’ relationship, but that’s unlikely. CS Lewis intended his Narnia books to be a religious allegory, with Aslan representing Jesus, but the metaphor flew over my preteen head. Herge’s Tintin in America has several pages that so offensive to Native Americans that the book was not published for several decades. It was re-released in the 2000s with a disclaimer, and I was shocked to see panels of ‘foolish’ brown natives worshipping Tintin as a god.

With all these precedents, I’m glad to see authors being more responsible about the influence they wield over young minds.

Trigger Warning refers to the warning (D’oh) on content that may be frightening or emotionally disturbing to people who have experienced trauma, or who are sensitive to gore or violence. Say, PTSD sufferers or rape victims. Gaiman points out that very often, literature is meant to take us out of our comfort zone. The experience is not always pleasant, but almost always educational.

Funnily enough, Gaiman himself does not venture far out of his writing comfort zone. He sticks to urban fantasy for the most part. I found that after a point, the stories sort of blended together until I felt like I was slogging through the same twists again and again- not an accurate impression, but one that I just couldn’t shake off.

There are some gems in there- The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury hit me right in the feels. For best effect, listen to the audio version. There’s an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes and his bee-keeping efforts (remember, after he retires he takes up bee keeping in the country!). There’s an interesting Doctor Who story as well. But most of the rest of them were Gaiman’s usual fairytales. The book starts off with a sort of meta-description of how he developed the ideas for each of the stories. This little peephole into his brain is sure to delight any wannabe writers. As a casual reader, however, I found that it disrupted my reading experience since I couldn’t map the anecdotes to the right story and had to keep flipping back and forth.

Or maybe I’ve just outgrown his writing (the horror!)

I would still recommend this if you’re a fan of urban fantasy, or you want some short stories to dip into from time to time. 3.5/5

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

In an old house in England…

This is my review of the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.

I was led to this play via a mention of the grouse population problem in another work of fiction. A Google search told me that this is a modern play that has mathematical references. Since I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi, I had to give it a shot.

The last play that I read was the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve read film scripts before too, out of sheer laziness. What I’ve realized is that scripts are, by necessity, a very crude medium for storytelling. Yes, spells can be cast non-verbally and very destructive spells do exist. But it is far more visually appealing to have duellers dodging blasts of colourful light. On film or stage, visual effects are necessary, even at the expense of a plot hole or two. For more obvious reasons, you also cannot have any trains of thought, or flashbacks, or any other crutches to help a dull audience member understand a character’s motivations.

I tried very hard to keep all these constraints in mind while reading Arcadia, because a lot of the subtler plot points are given away by casting and set design commentary, and a reader loses out on the experience of piecing the clues together on their own.

The first scene shows us a young man with then improbable name ‘Septimus Hodge’ tutoring the young Thomasina. It’s the early nineteenth century, and tutor and tutee(?) engage in some Oscar Wilde-worthy banter. It’s clear that Septimus and Thomasina are both extremely intelligent. The first few scenes are a delight, both for the wordplay and the way that anachronistic science and mathematics is discussed from a perspective that is very different from today.

In the present day, a scholar is studying the architectural style of the house; a scientist plays with data he finds in old hunting records; and a historian tries to uncover the story behind an eccentric genius who lived in the house nearly two centuries before.

These two storylines are interleaved with each other, with many visual parallels- the old house, lookalike characters. It’s set up as a mysterious collision with some revelations at the end. Unfortunately it’s not quite subtle enough on paper, and one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the set design.

I would recommend this play, but only if you really take the time to sit down and visualize how the story pans out- don’t just follow the (overly simplistic) storyline like I did!

4/5. I’m not great at visualizing narrative, but if you are you’ll probably enjoy this one!

 

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”

One Day

This is my review of One Day, by David Nicholls.

Nicholls is a well-known screenwriter, and wrote the screenplay for  Starter for 10 (and the novel on which it was based), which is a charming indie-ish comedy about quizzing. One Day has also been adapted for the big screen, but does not translate nearly as well.

One Day is a stereotypical romance novel, except it’s not. Nicholls seems to revel in de-romanticizing relationships and situations.

The story is almost simplistic. Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley are two university graduates who meet by chance on the day of their graduation. Despite a brief attempt at romance, they decide to remain friends. The book follows them and their relationship over nearly 20 years, from 1988 to 2006.

By necessity, the whole novel is made up of a series of vignettes from Dexter and Emma’s lives over the years, always on St Swithin’s Day (don’t worry, no-one knows what that is). It’s fairly obvious what the outcome is going to be- the DexAndEm EmAndDex best-friendship is clearly a cover- but the journey is long and winding and riddled with obstacles. Emma is stuck in a dead-end job despite her academic brilliance; Dexter’s career is threatened by his alcoholism; both have serious relationships.

What I liked was the brutal insight into romantic cliches. Like turning on a tubelight behind an Instagram-filtered selfie (poor analogy, but you know what I mean.) Picture this: a man and woman lie together in bed on the morning after their graduation party. In Nicholls’ version, the man has just realized that the woman is not as good-looking in the light of day. The woman is terribly nervous, and terribly pleased that she has caught the eye of this handsome, popular boy. Awkwardness ensues. Another interesting observation is that the poor, plain Emma must become well off and attractive before she finds love.

What I didn’t like was the overwhelming clichedness. We only see the characters’ personalities via dialogue, served in witty anecdotes. Each of which is repeated in two points of view. It gets tedious, but it’s still a very light, quick read.

3/5 from me. Read Love Story by Erich Segal if you want the original, classic version of this story.

Size doesn’t matter

This is my review of the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

I rated this story 5/5, so you might want to skip this review and go straight to the story.

Still here? Let’s see if I can persuade you.

This is a sci-fi romance revolving around physics and linguistics and philosophy. Sounds intimidating? To be honest, it is a fairly dense work and packs a lot of content into its brief 33 pages. But you can get away with just a superficial understanding of the science (it took me a while to get my head around it, I’m not sure I would put in the effort if I hadn’t liked the story).

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoilers. It’s mapped out so you have a sudden whoosh of understanding halfway through the book. It raises the interesting question- if time didn’t progress linearly, then there would be no causality, or ‘sequence’ of events. Does that mean that we would no longer have freedom? If our entire lives were prewritten, we’re just actors in a play.

An interesting thought. Back when classical physics was in its nascent stages, science was looked at as natural philosophy. A way of looking at the world that helped natural phenomena seem less random. We’ve come a long way since then, and no longer rely on conjectures to dictate scientific thought. But this story reminded me of how much the theoretical aspects of science- physics- mathematics- relies on intuition to formulate new ideas. Along these lines, doesn’t language count as a more constructive science, like engineering? I think that the non-linear temporal perception should be a prerequisite for  learning the alien language depicted in the story and not the other way round, but that’s just nit-picking.

I found out recently that the movie Arrival is based on this story. It would be interesting to see how the complex timeline of this story is translated into film.

Man’s search for Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. ~ Friedreich Neitzsche

This post is written in an attempt to review the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written by Dr. Viktor E. Frankl based on his experiences during the Holocaust. Frankl formulated a theory in psychiatry after he graduated from medical school, which states that value and meaning in one’s life is what keeps one going, so to speak. He devoted much of his life, before the Second World War broke out, to developing this theory. But it was during his time at the Concentration Camps in Auschwitz and Dachau that the theory’s validity was reinforced. After the war, his theory found wide acceptance; and he has even been compared with Freud for his contribution to Psychology.

Scholarship, bordering on devotion to one’s vocation even in the worst of circumstances, during the most horrific times in recent human memory, is laudable in itself. But it’s all the more so for someone like Frankl, who lost everything in the Holocaust. His wife and parents were gassed in the gas chambers of the concentration camps, and all of his life’s work was thrown away and destroyed.

Frankl’s memoir of his time in the concentration camps is, for the most part, a scientific observation of the inmates. While it is not a gauche field study, since he himself is an inmate, it is an attempt to test his theory. By doing so, additionally, he also stays true to a purpose in his life. In the very first page he dispels any misconstrued notion about this book – “This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences… It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” Still, he restrains himself from sharing too much from a personal perspective. He states, clearly, the purpose of writing this particular book: “it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” So, it was to be a venture to further the science of psychiatry.

Frankl discusses the mindset of an inmate in the period following his admission into the camp, the period when he is well entrenched in the camp routine (the most heart wrenching, I thought), and the period following his release and liberation. It’s a thin book with many anecdotes, of other inmates, structured around Frankl’s own experiences. Despite this human element, in numerous places he seems to struggle to detach himself from the present and the past in order to present a somewhat objective view of what was happening, in scientific terms.

Without doubt, this book can change one’s view of life. Frankl provides us brief insights into the life of inmates in concentration camps, who endured the vilest known horrors in recent memory. By doing so, he illustrates to us how the last of human freedoms, which is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, can never be taken away.

On the other hand, the book can also confound the reader with its sprinkling of psychiatry-related terms and concepts. Brevity is, unfortunately, not one of the better virtues of the book, as it concludes. The last few pages of the book attempt to provide an insight to how Frankl uses his theory to found a novel therapy called Logotherapy, wherein he guides people to find meaning and value in their lives. Too much Chicken Soup? That’s what I thought, too. The last few chapters almost undid the book for me. So, my advice, in case you read the book, is to stop when the war is finished and when he describes the behavior and mental framework of the incredulous inmate who is free.

If you’re into self-help books, you’ve probably read variations of Frankl’s ideas already. But this is an original work, and hence worth a read. If you’re not into mushy self-help, you could try the book anyway, for its no-nonsense exploration of human nature in times of terrible adversity. 3.5/5.