4.5/5

Philosophizing Mortality

This is a review of two books that have changed the lives of the writers and readers in profound ways: Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, and When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi.

I have clubbed the two books together because they fall in the same genre of books; they both are incredibly insightful about life and its workings, in a way that perhaps only those who are literally facing mortality can perceive. The books are also vehicles of strength to the writers. For Morrie Schwartz, the Tuesdays he spent with Albom in writing Tuesdays With Morrie gave him the mental energy to go through ALS. Dr Paul Kalanithi, a successful neurosurgeon, wrote When Breathe Becomes Air so as to take the second road (of the Two roads (that) diverged in a wood..), to be the littérateur that he didn’t become; and in doing so, he fulfills a long held wish, even as he struggled through lung cancer.

Carpe Diem!

When Breathe Becomes Air speaks about how life can be defined and redefined by living courageously. Carpe Diem.

paul

When Paul Kalanithi (the handsome young man in the picture above) mailed a friend, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, he wrote, “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” This kind of charm is hard not to fall for. Rendering a sobering account of death at the doorstep, to be inviting and friendly (and, with due respect, a page turner as well), is something only as skillful a writer, and as clear headed a man, could have done. Yes, I’m a fan of this fine doctor.

For another sample of his writing skill, take the example of how he employed motifs like nature. He uses his childhood in the Arizonian desert to also symbolise a terrifying lull in his life. Terrifying, because it included pleasant company like tarantulas, and a lull, because his family had relocated from the din of Manhattan. This lull was also meant to stand in for the exciting phase of the quiet before the storm, and in this case, a welcome one including academic success.

Kalanithi’s deliberate dissection of what it means to be a doctor is written with a sharp scalpel. To him, being a doctor was less about the job, and more about his own calling. He was about to take up a great job at Stanford before he was diagnosed with cancer.

After he reads the scan that confirmed his lung cancer, everything that was, ceased to be. But in a mark of great courage and dedication, after a short sabbatical for treatment, he goes back to being a surgeon to finish his residency, and to doing what he knew he was best at. Envisioning the future continued to confuse and trouble Paul, though. Sure, he could take life on, one day at a time, but when he didn’t know how many days were left, what could he do?

When Breath Becomes Air isn’t meant to be a self help book, so don’t read it if that’s what you expect of it. It’s an intimate account of a doctor’s realisation of what it feels like to face death and to deal with the central issue related to his confrontation with mortality – life. The ‘unfairness’ of Paul’s cancer is not easy to fathom. And the credit for that goes to Paul’s ability to transform the narrative from being a sob story to being one that stokes at the readers’ emotions – not with the fact that he’s dying, but by drawing the readers into his life – by showing them what he loves, his passion, and then by rudely swatting away their wishes for him. However, at an unseemly moment or two, a tiny part of me wondered how it is that he is so perfect. His profession was looking enviable by all accounts, he was a loving husband, a rational and affectionate doctor. There are only virtues. Is death his ultimate and only flaw?

As opposed to Paul’s book (carpe diem!), Tuesdays With Morrie asks us to pause life. To introspect. And to live well.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Tuesdays With Morrie exhorts you to make the right choices, in life and relationships. Albom tries to narrate how his life was spiritually transformed in the time he spent with Morrie, and since.

tuesdays

The most lovely part about Morrie’s book is Morrie himself. He’s a wise professor of Sociology, who has an aura of having understood life, in and out. Often, it seemed like he was speaking to me with a twinkle in his eye. The book flits between the past and present, and is a quick read. It’s also written well overall, but lacks flow of thought to suit the ideas that Morrie is trying to convey. Albom tries to be a wallflower interlocutor, but sprinkles the book with his regrets and feelings and fleeting images of his dreams. That was actually underdone in my opinion. I’d have liked to have read more about how Morrie changed his students’ lives.

Albom turns the book, which was supposed to be insightful to the uninitiated, into a self help book with too much indigestible fibrous life advice (“Love always wins”?). For all his assertions of spiritual transformation, Albom is highly guarded about what that transformation entailed, leaving me, as a reader, skeptical. Also, I thought the editors could have done a better job with compartmentalising the book by reducing the eccentric random insertion of chapters, which consisted of italicized text and no context. Or was that part of the beauty of the book?

Similar, yet so different

As I read the books and wrote this review, a question has gnawed at my brain – is it right to judge or review books that confront and philosophize mortality? (I did it anyway)

In Tuesdays, there is a the somewhat maudlin insistence that Morrie’s experiences and learnings must be taken to be biblical. Lessons from those experiences are pontificated as life lessons for everyone. On the other hand, Paul was more accommodating, in the sense that he didn’t seek to change anyone’s lives. He simply wanted to be heard – for his own and his family’s sake – and in the bargain, he moved us. The biggest, and possibly most irreverent, criticism against Tuesdays is that it felt bland after reading Paul’s memoir. (So don’t read it in that order). After Paul, one would want a personal memoir. But in Tuesdays, you get general advice about life and relationships, in crisp sentences which are not guaranteed to affect you personally or create a long lasting impression.

In a world of people who readily offer advice on life choices, Morrie’s advice came off as sermonizing, and Paul seemed like a friend whose advice you would read between the lines.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the review, the books belong to the same genre. But I’d hazard the opinion that they are appealing to different age groups. Kalanithi’s book is likely to have more takers among young and middle aged readers. Tuesdays with Morrie is more a book for the wisest among us who can understand and appreciate the gravity of what is written.


Treat Tuesdays With Morrie like the interview of a beloved teacher who has a great idealistic mantra to share with you. 2/5 if you’re not a Chicken Soup reader. I hear that the recordings of Morrie’s Tuesday sessions are highly rated.

Read When Breathe Becomes Air if you want to enjoy a well written book by a man who courageously reinvents his life, keeping in mind the fact that he has very little of it left. 4.5/5

PS: As Paul Kalanithi’s fan, I went looking for stuff he’d written. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he for The Washington Post –

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

The Color Purple

This is a review of The Color Purple, for which Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983. It’s a novel that is best known for its narrative style, for its depiction of discrimination in its most normal, and thus cruel, form, and for its breathtaking message.

The narrative style takes the cake. It’s written in the form of letters, a possibility that I had never considered for an entire novel. Another pleasant suprise to me was the fact that one’s English needn’t be perfect to write a masterpiece (to an English speaking audience). The language used in the book is not a refined or grammatically correct English, but one that is more familiar, a more natural human language. This book is proof that it is far more appealing to write on behalf of the character, than to write perfectly.

The book begins with letters from Celie to God, to whom she writes because she has no one else to write to. From Celie’s letters we learn that she is a poor and uneducated girl, whose stepfather beats and rapes her when she’s 14. He impregnates her twice and abducts her children. Celie is then married away to “Mr. _____”, who dearly needs someone to take care of his children. At Mister’s place, Celie lives a life of a sub-human (which is not too different from the life she lived in her father’s house). Celie accepts this treatment, for a while, without complaint:

“He beat me like he beat the children. Cept he don’t never hardly beat them. He say, Celie, get the belt… It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree. That’s how come I know trees fear men.”

In the meantime, Nettie, Celie’s young sister, escapes her father’s house and comes to live with Celie. But when Mister makes sexual advances to her, Celie advices Nettie to seek help from a well dressed woman she saw in the marketplace. Celie only wants Nettie to escape the life that she has resigned herself to.

After Nettie escapes, Celie meets another remarkable woman. Mr. ____’s son, Harpo, marries a ‘wayward’ woman, an assertive woman, Sofia; and they live in a cottage by the house. Sofia is rebellious and audacious, and will not take being battered as normal. She even beats up Harpo when he beats her to assert his manhood.

You ever hit her? Mr. ____ ast.

Harpo look down at his hands. Naw suh, he say low, embarrass.

Well how you spect to make her ind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.

Celie’s life begins to change when Mr._____ brings home his sick mistress, Shug Avery. Shug is a glamorous jazz and blues performer. She is everything that Celie is fascinated by. She has a mind of her own, she seems to have Mister’s full attention, and she seems to be gloriously independent.

Shug and Celie become intimate friends. Celie tells Shug all about Nettie, her little sister. Shug is her protection against Mr. ____’s battering, and Celie is one of Shug’s best friends. It doesn’t take long for Shug and Celie to discover that Mr. ____ had been hiding the letters sent by Nettie, for over thirty years.

Nettie writes about her life with a missionary couple, who also incidentally adopted Celie’s biological children. The letters speak of their time in Africa, about how they struggle to keep themselves afloat, alive, with disbelief and hope, while they live with a tribal group. Nettie’s letters are written in a more literate hand, speaking of African history, and what not, while Celie’s are rough at the edges, but written in a warmer tone. Nettie speaks of a world alien to Celie, and shows her powerlessness as she watches oppression meted out against the natives in Africa. Celie understands, in a way, as she herself is oppressed by Mr. ____, for being a woman, a wife. However, Shug’s conviction that Celie’s life is not hopeless changes Celie’s life, starting with how Mr. ____ treats her.

Throughout most of the book, Celie’s emotions are leashed. She’s almost afraid to speak her feelings – about her father, Mr. ____, Shug. She could be described as stoic, but I think she was numbed by fear. But, by the end of the book, she’s a revelation, like a person who seems to have noticed the purple flowers. Just what happens to Celie, Shug, Nettie, Sofia (what happens to her is slightly amusing, but also awful), Harpo, Mr. ____, and the others (that I haven’t mentioned in the review), is left to you to find out! Do Celie and Nettie ever meet?

The book explores themes such as sexism, feminism, racism, among others. If any of this matters to you, you will connect with its strong, vulnerable, incredibly courageous characters. The awful circumstances that define Celie shows us how much courage it takes to break free of those binds. This book begins to help us understand what we might need, to find ourselves, to not merely exist, but to be alive; to look at the purple flowers. The Color Purple is a lesson in audacity and about the importance of equality of people, irrespective of gender, sexuality, race. My only quibble, if at all, is that there is hardly a good man in the book.

4.5/5

The book’s title comes from what Shug says, about what it means, or takes, to be alive. She says,

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back”.

Fan Fiction vs Canon

This is my review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. Well, the script at least, I haven’t had the good fortune of seeing the play live yet. Someday…

I’ll start off with a spoiler-free review first:

This is a next-gen story, focusing on Harry & Ginny’s youngest son, Albus Severus Potter. If you recall, the epilogue of Deathly Hallows saw young Albus was worrying that he’d be sorted into Slytherin. Well, he is! This, of course, is not a good thing to happen in the Potter-Weasley clan. Cue family drama and rebellious escapades.

What I found exceptionally interesting was the short length and lack of narrative. Instead of a ginormous 900-page tome, we get a one hour long script. Dumbledore can no longer ‘twinkle wisely’; for a writer like JKR, who relies on the generous use of adverbs (sometimes entirely too many!), this had to have been a huge limitation. The result is a deftly paced self-contained plot, with much more prosaic themes.

She can’t resist her usual comedy though, and we get some entertaining lines from Ron and Scorpius Malfoy. In all, this would make for a very interesting TV show. The relationship between Harry and Albus is realistic and (luckily) free of the overdone teenage angst that made The Order of the Phoenix such a drag.

Funnily enough, JKR has stuck to many plot points that are widely accepted amongst the fanfiction community- thus making them canon!

I’d give this a 4.5/5, because it is a bite-size chunk of nostalgia with a satisfying plot.

Now for some minor spoilers:

Once again, an important theme is that one’s choices are more important than anything else. Albus and Scorpius are Slytherins, and they’re undoubtedly the heroes of the story.

There is a generous amount of time travel in the story, enough to remind me of the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey approach of Doctor Who. Some of the jumps are not very convincingly explained, but, hey, it’s fantasy.

 

Another shoutout to fan fiction is the Scorpius+Rose pairing that is much beloved by the HPFF community.

An unsolicited TV recommendation

I just got done watching Master of None (available on Netflix, and uh, less legal sources on the Internet). And I had to write about it, even though we don’t usually do TV reviews here.

Friends was my first ‘adult’ sitcom. Rewatching it for the 128938th time, I came to the slightly depressing realization that I can (finally) kind of, sort of relate to the topics. Dating, cheap apartments, strangely formal parents- these are issues that a mid-twenties single working person would face, not a teenager living with her parents. But at the same time, the show presents a very suburban white American view of these issues- and an old fashioned one.

Master of None, however, captures the Peter Pan mindset very accurately. Today, Ross would be weird for being married by his mid-twenties; Rachel wouldn’t be alone in her cluelessness about jobs and laundry. MoN updates the single yuppie in the big city stereotype to fit today’s multicultural America. We’re single until our thirties, we’re passionate about our tacos, and don’t compromise on our careers or love lives.

Aziz Ansari, the protagonist, is the coolest guy ever, seriously. (No, he didn’t pay me to say that) He is the kind of guy I’d like to hang out with- laid back, spontaneous (except for food) and surprisingly politically correct for a comedian.

Watch watch watch. 4.5/5

Be Afraid…

This is my review of We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson.

I saw this book online (I spend more time reading about reading than actually reading, if that makes sense). It’s a short read, so I decided to give it a shot, and went in completely blind- I had no idea about the theme, genre, nothing. And I got lucky! This is a very very good story.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (aka Merricat) and her sister Constance live with their ailing Uncle Julian in a large old house. Which seems fairly normal, except for the fact that it isn’t. Merricat is very strange (understatement!) and Constance has not left the house in six years. Eventually, we hear the whole story- all the remaining members of their family were poisoned six years ago, with Constance the main suspect. She was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but their neighbours are still suspicious.

One fine day, their cousin Charles Blackwood stops by for a visit. He seems to be interested in the family fortune that’s lying around in a safe, and Merricat is upset that her perfect little world is being disrupted.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll stop there. But trust me, this story is super spooky, in a Gothic, insane way. You’ll spot the twist far before it arrives, but it’ll scare you nonetheless.

The book left some things open to interpretation. Witchcraft or harmless superstition? What were cousin Charles’ true intentions? I was curious enough to do a Google search. The beauty of literature is that noone can say anything for sure. But one interesting piece of information I found was that Shirley Jackson herself suffered from severe agoraphobia while she was writing this novel, which probably accounts for the general anti-social behaviours and themes in the book. Unfortunately, this was to be her last published work before her death.

4.5/5 from me, and I can’t wait to read her other books.

Bonus: Shirley Jackson has also written a controversial, famous short story called The Lottery that was first published in The New Yorker. It initially reminded me of the English readers we studied in school- short, simplistic, with vague commentary on society- and then BAM, it gets dark fast. The most inoffensively offensive short story I’ve ever read.

Retellings, a hundred years later

One of my all-time favourite books is Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. Yes, it’s sappy and girly. SorryNotSorry.

“It doesn’t seem possible that the term is nearly over,” said Anne. “Why, last fall it seemed so long to look forward to–a whole winter of studies and classes. And here we are, with the exams looming up next week. Girls, sometimes I feel as if those exams meant everything, but when I look at the big buds swelling on those chestnut trees and the misty blue air at the end of the streets they don’t seem half so important.”

Quotes like that ought to make me cringe, but for some reason they seem genuine coming from an early 20th century teenaged girl.

Plot summary: Anne Shirley is a red-headed eleven year old bouncing around the foster system in Canada. Through a clerical error, she is adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, middle aged siblings who wanted a young boy to help with the farm. They decide to keep her anyway, and Anne is introduced to life in small town Avonlea (all this happens in Prince Edward Island, Canada- no, I don’t know where that is either). The rest of the novel describes her numerous mess-ups and college life.

This review isn’t about a 100-year-old book. It’s about a new social media adaptation of this classic. How I stumbled upon it is a story in itself. In the 1930s, a missionary from Canada gifted a copy of this book to a translator friend in Japan, who translated it to Japanese sometime during WW2. Thus, Anne has a special place in Japanese culture. Which means there’s an anime based on this story (no surprises there). I found out about this recently, and in the process of looking it up on YouTube, found Green Gables Fables, the aforementioned social media adaptation.

It’s pretty good, so far. Each character has his/her own Twitter/Tumblr profile, and Anne is an avid vlogger. Each incident gets a video or two, so the story is progressing quickly. As of the time of writing this post, the series is in its second season. The adaptation is very clever; for instance, Anne’s argument with an outspoken “aunty” prompts a rant on social media that’s seen by the aunty. An extremely apologetic YouTube video follows.

A lot of this stuff won’t seem as funny if you haven’t read the books- but if you have, definitely check this series out. 4.5/5 from me.

One small step for SciFi, one giant leap for engineers

This is my review of The Martian by Andy Weir.

Let’s talk about the representation of different professions in pop culture.

Lawyers- Boston Legal, Suits, The Practice

Doctors- House, Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and those old hospital soaps (one of which had George Clooney)

Psychic detectives (and this isn’t even a profession)- Psych, The Mentalist, Dexter (sort of)

Billionaire industrialists- Batman, Iron Man

Advertising- Mad Men, wasn’t Chandler in F.R.I.E.N.D.S also in advertising?

Chefs- Masterchef, ’nuff said

Engineers- Uh, Dilbert?

We live in an age where astrophysics is a more sexy profession than engineering. Luckily, the huge popularity of The Martian could change that. Not that my engineering degree equipped me to repair NASA-designed high technology equipment on the surface of Mars….

This story is about Mark Watney, astronaut/botanist/mechanical engineer, who is left for dead on Mars by his crew. Turns out he wasn’t dead, and needs to use his wits and engineering superpowers to survive on an inhospitable planet until help arrives.

I’m one of those weirdos who loves sci-fi but not fantasy, and this book is just about perfect. Weir has clearly done his research- the book gives the right level of technical detail without becoming heavy or boring. Mark’s tone is humourous and witty and the plot moves at a consistently quick pace. The only complaint I had was that it reads like a movie plot; not an flowery adjective or wasted word to be found. Could be a plus too, if you like no-nonsense narrative.

This book is a solid 4.5/5. Read it if you’re a fan of the Hitchhiker’s series, or sci-fi/comedy in general.

Live another sol!