3.5/5

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…

This is my review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

For a long time, I believed that timelessness was a necessary characteristic of good literature. I’ve always though that “classics” are books that can stand the test of time. This means no pop culture references, no politics. IF you think about it, that would impose quite a few restrictions on a modern storyteller- what if we stop using fossil fuels in the next century? Will the EU last until the next millennium? JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien got it right- negate fashion trends by having everyone dress in robes or rags, set up your own currency to avoid inflation induced sticker shock… But what about non-fantasy genres?

Capturing the essence of the here and now is an art in itself (impressionism?). If a work of fiction evokes a place and time in the past, that sense of being somewhere else, or feeling nostalgic, is an achievement.

Anyway, my point is this: My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a book that proudly dates itself in the early 2000s. The protagonist is a woman in her early twenties who has recently experienced trauma- both her parents recently died. This puts her in the position of being very rich and very alone. Her coping mechanism is to sleep. Sleeping in closets at work. Sleeping pills on the weekend. She tells herself that a year of uninterrupted sleep will heal all her wounds. She quits her job, finds herself a quack therapist to provide an endless supply of maximum strength sleeping pills, and gets to work.

There’s not much more that I can say without spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of hare-brained scheme one would expect to see in a sitcom with a laugh track. One doesn’t really expect said scheme to be successful, but the audience is just along for the ride. The darkness of the subject matter is barely acknowledged. The fact that the unnamed protagonist is severely depressed is not addressed (because her form of self treatment does not involve self awareness, apparently), and red flags from her childhood are only mentioned in passing. It’s meant to be a black comedy, and hits the mark simply by having the most ridiculous plot delivered with none of the emotional over-expression that’s so common in literary fiction.

What really made this book for me was the ending. It ends as abruptly as it starts, and revelations are as understated as they are in real life. Sometimes it takes the most dramatic of world events to make a person realize the importance of staying awake.

3.5/5 from me. The book will leave you feeling as fuzzy headed and confused as a person waking up from a 16-hour nap, but it’s worth it.

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)

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!

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.

Dark reimaginings of children’s books- fun times!

This is my review of Alice by Christina Henry. It is a dark reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland universe, in which Alice and the Hatter (here, the Hatcher) are locked up for their visions. I really enjoy this kind of fiction, (okay, yes, fanfiction) and love Alice, so decided to give this one a shot.

The reason I enjoy new takes on old stories- movies, or fanfiction, or TV series- is that I don’t usually visualize scenes while reading books. So seeing new material is literally like adding a whole new dimension to an old experience. What’s not to like?

I’m not sure whether to categorize this as fanfiction – it is published as literature, but unashamedly takes characters and themes from the original Alice in Wonderland. It is unique enough to pass for a new story if the names were changed (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades), but keeping them the same triggers an ‘aha’ in your mind and makes you appreciate Henry’s cleverness a bit more.

Alice and the Hatcher are locked up in a prison for the mentally unstable. Alice is here because a sexual assault triggered her to violence, but the Hatcher’s shady past is not fully revealed at first. They’ve been cooped up in neighbouring cells for years now, and have begun a tentative romance (that reeks of Stockholm Syndrome). They break out, but must deal with new dangers. It’s been a while since they’ve been out in the world, and it turns out that Alice’s attack brought down a very dangerous gang leader, and he is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the Hatcher’s got his own plans for revenge…

Given that this book was basically written for me, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected. The story has too many dark themes than is necessary- rape, violence, sex trade, PTSD. Having just one of these themes explored completely would have been daring enough, and made enough content for a whole book. As it was, it was a fast paced stream of horrifying situations.

In Henry’s hurry to utilize all the characters from the source material, she has neglected to flesh out the ones she does have- this is very much an action driven story.

Despite a few hiccups, I’d give this one a solid 3.5/5 and will be reading the sequels, in the hope that the writing improves with experience.

“Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world?”

After the failed attempt at reading a Nobel laureate, I turned to the work of another author who was in the running- Haruki Murakami. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now, for his very readable, yet insightful, urban fiction.

Sputnik Sweetheart was published over a decade after Norwegian Wood, but has a very similar feel. I read the English translation by Peter Gabriel. It did not disappoint- classic Murakami through and through.

If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll recognize the tropes- Manic Pixie Dream Girl, average but well-meaning and hard-working male protagonist, some weird sex and supernatural occurrences. Luckily no cats here. What I liked about it was the simple, straightforward storyline, and a relatively believable supernatural event that could easily be ascribed to a variety of commonplace (and not-so-commonplace) causes. It’s open-ended without being a letdown.

K is a 25-year-old Japanese schoolteacher. He is infatuated with his best friend Sumire, who is an aspiring writer. Sumire behaves and dresses eccentrically, to channel the feel of Kerouac. One day, she falls in love with an older woman called Miu. She begins to work for Miu’s business and travel with her, taking on a more adult and responsible lifestyle. Out of the blue, Sumire goes missing in Greece and K receives a panicked summons from Miu. Mysteries are solved and more are revealed.

A quote I particularly liked:  “Don’t pointless things have a place, too, in this far-from-perfect world? Remove everything pointless from an imperfect life, and it’d lose even its imperfection.”

One complaint, though, was that the English translation seemed clunky at times. As a non-American native speaker, some blatant old-fashioned Americanisms really stood out and broke my immersion. I understand that many Japanese idioms may not translate well, but using a literal translation or replacing it with plain phrasing would be a better way to convey the true spirit of the book.

It’s odd, to me, how Murakami’s male heroes are always the romantic ‘victims’: either they wallow in unconditional love, or they are loners, or they cannot impress the object of their affection. In literature written by women, men are always heartless or absent and heroines are strung along and left heartbroken. A good reason to branch out and make sure I read work by authors from all walks of life.

3.5/5, from me. Don’t hesitate to read it if you like the Murakami style, the story is tame enough for me to recommend this book unconditionally.

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

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.

World War II, V2.0

I haven’t been reading much at all lately; blame Philip K Dick*. His book, The Man in the High Castle, has been on my nightstand for months. It is both fascinating and terribly difficult to read, which accounts for the procrastination…

I picked out this book because I really liked Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It brings an abstractness and emotion to sci-fi that one rarely sees in a genre filled with stereotypes and action. After that, I had less luck with A Scanner Darkly, which is a very evocative account of a man’s descent into drug addiction. The beauty of Dick’s work is that the strong plotlines are bolstered by an immersive writing style- A Scanner Darkly gets more and more choppy (and incoherent) as the protagonist, a cop, gets drawn in to the murky world that he was meant to be investigating. He does a good job with the garbled stream of consciousness of a drug addled mind (PKD had his own struggles with drug abuse)- so good that it is hard to follow.

Anyway, I went in with very high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, I still didn’t enjoy this book. A failing on my part, not PKD’s.

The Man in the High Castle is a speculative fiction book, set in an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won World War II. The Japanese now rule the west coast of the USA, and Jews are unwelcome. This genre of fiction is very exciting; I would have appreciated it more had I been more familiar with the historical details of the end of World War II (mostly in relation to the USA- this is clearly a large hole in my knowledge).

There are three parallel storylines that are loosely connected. One involves some good old fashioned espionage and murder. Another is about forgery of ‘traditional’ American manufactured items (that, perversely, have collector’s value in this world). The third revolves around a one night stand between strangers in a small town in Colorado that rapidly turns dark.

There are several relatively minor plot points that really stand out: all the characters use the I Ching to make decisions and divine the future; there are strongly racist feelings expressed by a white man towards the ‘superior’ Japanese- something that is prevalent in today’s world as well**. Even better, there’s a novel in the book that speaks about an alternate-alternate history in which the Axis powers were defeated. Meta enough to satisfy even the most discerning sci-fi fan.

This book is truly an immersive experience- nuances are conveyed via language and narrative pace. The scenes set in Japan-ruled San Francisco are told in choppy, metaphor-heavy language vaguely reminiscent of Japanese. In other chapters, panic is conveyed with short sentences and incomplete trains of thought.

3.5/5 from me, but PKD is still da man.

*He apparently died in 1982, and I doubt he would be heartbroken by this anyway.

**Though ‘this reverse racism’ may be obvious only among the melanin-blessed population.

Heroes in Habits

This is my review of Call the Midwife, a memoir by Jennifer Worth.

Not too long ago, when I was on my BBC bender, Netflix suggested a British television series named Call the Midwife. At first glance, I assumed it was a clever parody of other hospital dramas. After all, it’s about a group of nuns who deliver babies in the mid-twentieth century; and as we know, typical hospital series today basically involve a lot of sex in on-call rooms. But it’s a serious drama, and could not be more different from ER or Grey’s Anatomy. While I don’t particularly enjoy dramas without a tight plotline, some historical issues they brought up were interesting from a historical perspective. For instance, the thalidomide tragedy. So I looked up the memoir on which the series was based, hoping for some poignant anecdotes.

 

Jennifer Worth decided to take up midwifery, with all the idealism of youth. She joined a nursing group run by a Catholic organization and staffed mainly by nuns. They worked in London’s East End, a run-down, poverty-stricken area. From domestic abuse to poor hygiene to fatal ignorance, several events had the naive Jennifer questioning her decisions. But her ever-cheerful coworkers and the patient nuns inspired her to plough on through all-nighters and tragic losses.

I was a bit disappointed with this book. There were several anecdotes, as promised, but most of the challenges faced in the East End were sociological and not medical. It is, however, a stark reminder of how far we have come in terms of scientific progress and medical technology. At the time, anaesthetics were just being introduced; I cannot imagine how painful childbirth must have been back then.

Read this book if you’re looking for a historical memoir of a different kind. 3.5/5