5/5

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.

a conditional recommendation

Okay, so I reviewed a recent Nobel laureate and one of the other authors in the running. It’s only fair that I review another.

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood. Some of her other books have been reviewed here before.

This book is reminiscent of The Bell Jar, in that it is a seemingly semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story of a young artist. But it is, in fact, not a memoir, which makes it remarkable.

Elaine Risley is a middle-aged artist who travels to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. The trip triggers memories of her younger years, and she starts to reminisce. The novel is set up as a series of flashbacks in parallel with the present day. Elaine thinks about how various incidents in her life shaped her, and analyzes her present self critically- her appearance, career and parenting. The stream of consciousness style, with frequent time shifts, is not as complicated as it could be and feels natural. Elaine is brutally honest to the point of being rough.

The plot isn’t particularly eventful, but it is relatable. Elaine struggles with bullying in school, because of her unusual childhood. She has love affairs, healthy and unhealthy. She admires her brother and finds the ways women mysterious. An overarching theme is her relationship with a “frenemy” of her youth, whose rise and fall is the mirror image of her own. Atwood is adept in depicting the interactions of the playground, and I found myself remembering the odd group dynamics of my school’s social circles.

What I look for in literary fiction these days is a deliberate injection of beauty/romance into everyday life and observations. Murakami does this a lot- who else can describe a young man making a sandwich in a more meaningful way?- and that’s part of why I keep turning back to his work. Cat’s Eye was brilliant in that respect. Some gems:

(On the adulting Impostor Syndrome) “Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.”

(On being supported by her spouse) “I could live without it, I have before. But I like it all the same.”

Another thing I liked was the unintentional feminism of the book. It’s feminist simply by virtue of being a book with a female protagonist that mentions her goals and opinions apart from romance and relationships. Ironically, Elaine’s art is labelled feminist despite not being deliberately so. The second quote illustrated what I mean: Elaine can, and does, get by as a single woman and single mother. But she is also happy as a stay-at-home mother to her daughter when in a relationship.

So, as promised:

I highly recommend this book, IF (and only if):

  1. You are female
  2. You are extremely pretentious
  3. You are okay with being a little bored
  4. You appreciate ‘good prose’ (see 2&3 above)

5/5 from me, since I check off all the points on the above list.

Read this read this

I don’t know who recommended this book but I definitely owe them a coffee.

This is my review of The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman.

Donald Norman is a cognitive scientist and usability engineer. Despite the unusual field of study, this book is one of the most informative and eye-opening works I have ever read. You’ll never look at any man-made device the same again, promise.

Have you ever tried using a new device- a new Samsung phone after a series of Nokias, iOS after Windows, hell, even a can opener- and chastised yourself for being technology illiterate? In reality, every mis-click that causes you to lose data  is a design flaw, and not the user’s fault. By definition, all gadgets are intended to make the user’s life simpler, not more complex.

The book is perhaps intended to be a textbook, but is light enough to be casual reading for a layperson. However, several basic concepts are defined fairly rigorously- I had to read a chapter or two twice. It was first published in the 1980s, so there are several charmingly outdated examples related to landline telephones. It hasn’t aged well, but the examples aren’t completely obsolete so they put the ideas across effectively enough.

5/5 from me. Read this if you are in the mood to learn something new, and aren’t intimidated by mild technology/engineering jargon.

Here are some takeaways from the book that really stuck with me:

  • Read The Fucking Manual is excellent advice, but an ideal design should be intuitive enough for someone to use it straight out of the box. A good metric to judge how intuitive controls are is to look at the mapping between the control and the function. Do you have 3 buttons for a dozen functions? Chances are, the average dad is going to have a hard time. Are the controls at least vaguely reminiscent of the functions they’re for? An example of this would be pushing a joystick forward or up to make your virtual vehicle move faster.

 

  • Norman Doors: This is a example of poor design. It refers to those annoying doors that say PUSH and PULL on them because it’s not immediately obvious what you are supposed to do without trial and error. A better alternative is illustrated in the header image for this post. Simple and effective.

 

  • Repeat after me: The Customer is King. Usability studies are essential to make sure that a) functions are intuitive and b) basic errors in judgement do not have catastrophic consequences. For instance, Norman noticed that this book was being shelved under psychology, which was slightly misleading. Switching it to design/engineering ensured that it was accessible to the right customers. Another example was the positioning of a ‘clear all’ key on a calculator in the spot usually occupied by the Return key. Experienced typists kept mashing this key at the end of a long equation, erasing all their work.

 

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.

Justice: What’s the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel, in his Harvard lecture series on Justice, and in the book that goes by the same name, discusses what the right thing to do is, with the help of Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and others. He does it with the responsibility of a lecturer who understands that his readers/students are not philosophy majors, sociologists or readers of Prince, or On Liberty. There is no name dropping that you wouldn’t follow, if you’ve read the book in sequence. And there’s a seamless flow to the lectures.

Be it questions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, tax, civil rights, human rights, Michael Sandel has you peeling these questions to get to their core, and then he makes you fold them back, so that you can analyse it with new perspectives. A common theme running through the lectures is the juxtaposition of pressing issues, compelling reasoning, and critical thinking. It enriches the once humdrum issues, or the once evocative issues; they become more nuanced.

Does something have to be fair to be right? Sandel gives you scenarios, and also gives you values by which to analyse them. Take, for instance, the question of refinancing banks for bad loans. Is it right to use tax payers’ money to undo the (apparent) wrongs of bankers who didn’t do their job (apparently)? There’s no single answer to this question, as there are multiple and complex factors associated with it. The concept of black and white greys.

By the end of the book (or the lectures, if you choose to watch instead of read), you will be overwhelmed by his concluding remarks (and also slightly worried that it’s getting over, after having unloaded heavy moral and ethical questions on your shoulders). It’s not a book that you can read just once, and it’s not a light read even though it might seem that way (it’s written in a simple and appealing style). You can finish it at one go, but that would be such a loss.

I thrive on books that alter my world view. They tend to subtly change yours truly, for the better, I hope. Word of caution: It’s the kind of change that alienates you, too.

Throughout the book, I realised, he had not said a word about what the right thing to do is. But, like me, even you’d know. What’s right to me, though, may not be right to you. That’s the beauty of the book, it’s open to interpretation. And it opens up your mind, to ideas that you may not have considered before. This, I admit, has left me feeling alienated from the usual discourses that are characterised by people being outraged, offended, vengeful and what not. Principles, morals, values, are words that are usually thrown lightly (or/and noisily), without due regard. Not any more, not after you read this book.

5/5

Everybody loves a good drought

Everybody loves a good drought – P. Sainath

Have you ever been stunned by luck, good or bad? I was moved by this wretched book that has gone and done it for me. I only wanted a book of essays to read in my free time, instead I picked this book up, which threw an egg blender in the way I looked at.. life.

P. Sainath is a journalist who has travelled through, and stayed in, the most backward districts in the country to recount to us what the poorest of the poor have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. In a display of some superb journalism, he narrates the most morbid of tales, from Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, of bad luck, of terribly screwed up interventions by the government, of horrible money lenders, of bonded labourers, of not a whiff of education, of beautiful lands being pillaged and beautiful people being cheated of their living and life, and in the same stories he leaves us with a feeling of hope, ad reminds us that there is still some humanism that prevails, which seeps through the administration and NGOs. On reading each of the essays, I thought, wow, this one ought to have kicked up a storm.

Sainath’s essays in Everybody loves a good drought were published in 1996, in Times of India. Back then, (usually) the articles had the effect that he intended them to have – government intervention. But, often, this intervention was so miscalculated and misjudged that one simply can’t believe how hapless the people must feel. But here’s the clincher: the oppressed, downtrodden, don’t feel sorry for themselves. Of course we knew that. This belief is firmly entrenched in me, after reading anecdotes in the essays, such as the one about Paharia women of Godda, Bihar, carrying 40-50kg firewood over their heads, and walking through two or three hillocks, covering 40 km, to reach the haat, the market place for firewood, all for 8 or 9 rupees. 40-50kg on their heads, for 40km of climbing up and down hillocks, for 8 or 9 rupees.

The biggest takeaway from the book, for me, was the same spirit that many of the people in the book displayed. That of “all is not lost”, of hope, of a deep-seated want to change their fortunes, to enable them to live decent lives.

Schools are converted into cowsheds, health care centres act as private clinics for quacks, landless labourers are converted to bonded labourers (bonded labour is banned in India, but still thrives, because of a lack of choice in employment), illicit liquor (arrack) is brewed using battery cells for a living, girls are sold to make ends meet, people are indiscriminately sent off (to their deaths) from their lands by the government, districts that are supposed to be under schemes for drought prevention are not while districts that have a decent amount of rainfall are, making a mockery of the system in place.

The book tells us that we need to proactively and affirmatively deal with the pain and suffering, illiteracy and loss, poverty and drought, and all those other ‘day-to-day’ things of the poor. Everybody loves a good drought also states the obvious – that a drought can be loved by the powerful or is hated by the affected, but is often ignored. Droughts are always covered as though the land has been tonsured – desertified, brown, with cracked ground. Fact is, there is the kind of drought that occurs even in the more green places with tall trees and green bushes, simply owing to the fact that they are grossly unprepared for seasons short of rainfall, year after year.

In 2015, some woodcutters who were robbing red sanders trees from Seshachalam forests were gunned down by the police. It doesn’t take too much extrapolation from what is known to say that those woodcutters, most of them tribals, were pushed into the whims of the timber-mafia, that they were, in all probability, tied to, with little choice. A little digging will tell you that they came from acute poverty and illiteracy. The demons were created by the system; one of them has been admonished, but all of them remain, and they will continue to haunt us until we address the reasons behind poverty, behind criminal action.

Sainath feels that focussing on events such as droughts, farmer suicides, crop failure, famine is a superficial and the lamest form of understanding a phenomena. Indeed, any event is a side-effect of the underlying factors which are duly ignored, because, well, maybe if we ignore it, it will go away? Bah. Who wants to listen to these stories that are so hard to digest anyway?

5/5