book review

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)

Munnu

This is a review of the Graphic Novel, Munnu, by Malik Sajad. It’s a coming of age story of Sajad, alias Munnu, in Kashmir. Kashmiris are depicted as Hanguls, or Kashmiri Stags. The book is not for the light hearted, or the opinionated. It’s for the “third person” in the conflict. It’s for the “neutral opinion”, or the “moderator” in the debate on Kashmir. This review, though, has not made any effort to be politically correct. So feel free to sputter  deliriously with anger.

I’ve rated the book 5/5. But, maybe I should have thought twice before doing so. While Sajad makes you love the protagonist, he will probably garner more wrath than appreciation from the typical Indian TV News audience.

The story begins quite simply – it is introduced as the story of a very talented little boy who likes to draw. The story then expands to his navigation through the mess of adolescence and adulthood with a new job that makes him draw through reefs of pages to understand his life. I thought I knew Sajad’s backyard and understood his angst through each of his panels.

Sajad just wanted to draw, but then he had to deal with the bottomless depths of history of Kashmir even before he could grow into his adult pants. He donned the coat of a political thinker and cartoonist, but was indeed a child that only expressed his confusion through the newspaper. Soon, though, he comes to understand. Slowly and quickly, with each death and hopeless story that he encounters. And he draws about each of these learnings, over and over again till he thinks he has understood them. The part with the complicated history of Kashmir is exquisite, I’ve bookmarked it.

The character building of each of Sajad’s family members is complete. The peripheral characters are given due attention, too. For instance, when a “martyr” is portrayed, it’s subtle, and never forceful. Just mysterious enough to make you wonder which side is right, after all.

The art in the graphic novel is spell-binding. The detailing needs a thick lens to appreciate fully. The content needs wide arms to accept; I did, and it was warm.

Read the book for a look at how it feels from the point of view of a little child in a strife ridden Kashmir. Read the book to understand the nightmare that such a society thrusts on people – a society that allows no expression and no room for movement in its social or economic fabric. It’s harrowing and depressing. But at the same time, there are sparks of brightness in the form of innocence that pierces through the grimness that is curfews.Read the book. Look at it. Look at the Hangul’s eyes in the panels. They have lines of hope, anger, passion, confusion and a strange indifference about the chaos that surrounds them.

The Kashmir story is not black and white, but this black and white grey chronicle is quite something. It’s beautiful. 5/5.

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!

High School Writing 101

This is my review of Push, by Sapphire.

I want to emphasize that this book is a work of fiction. In some of my other reviews, I’ve noted that I don’t like rating memoirs, because it feels like assigning a numerical value to someone’s life and experience. I have no such qualms with this book. And now that this disclaimer is done, on with the review!

This is the story of Precious, a teenaged girl who is a victim of social injustice. She is an illiterate 16-year-old, but is determined to make something of herself. As the story progresses, she makes new friends from different walks of life, and builds a happier life for herself through sheer willpower, and with the support of her teacher.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and was very engaged throughout. The pacing is consistent, and the story and language are not too subtle to appreciate through narration. My problems with the book are mainly from a storytelling/ fiction writing perspective. There’s simply too much going on in this plot.

For instance, here are the Problems that Precious faces:

  1. Her father and mother both sexually abuse her.
  2. She is pregnant with her father’s child- the second child that  they’ve conceived
  3. Her first daughter by her father was born when Precious was twelve. With that combination of risk factors, her daughter is born with Down’s syndrome.
  4. Precious is functionally illiterate, since she does not have a good family support system, and her studies have been disrupted by pregnancy.
  5. She is kicked out of school for being pregnant (not clear why this should only be an issue with the second pregnancy)
  6. She is obese, as she tries to numb her emotions with food. Her mother is also morbidly obese and forces food on Precious often.
  7. She is a racial minority (African-American), which shapes her image of herself. She often claims that her life would be better as a white woman, and that men are more attracted to lighter skin tones.
  8. She and her family are poor, and her mother tries to manipulate their living situation to make sure that she receives benefits for both Precious and Mongo (her first daughter)

Any one of these problems would have been a challenge; all at once just seems unconvincing. Here are some more unrealistic plot points:

  1. Precious shows extraordinary enthusiasm and determination towards learning, and progresses from the alphabet to reading and writing poetry in the span of six months. However, she has been going to school her whole life (minus a couple of years of pregnancy) and never learned to read, despite being fond of some of her teachers in the public school system
  2. Said teachers in the public school system failed to notice that this 16-year-old could not read, and did not report to child services that a 12 year old (and later, 16 year old) was pregnant
  3. Noone asked Precious to see a doctor during her pregnancy, or took her to see a doctor, even though she was a minor whose previous child had a serious genetic abnormality
  4. Precious’ grandmother was willing to take in an infant with Down’s syndrome, but did not ask why her 12-year-old granddaughter had had a child, or try to look after her
  5. Precious’ homophobia was unrealistic given that she was exposed to a lot of diversity- the fact that she came round to the idea so quickly was also odd

I did enjoy this book. But if Sapphire had gone for a less over-the-top description of tragedy, I’d have appreciated it all the more. Precious could have done better. 3/5 from me.

 

The hungry brain

This is a review of The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph. D. (sic).

The 300 odd page book is written for an audience that urgently seeks answers to an important question: what makes us overeat even though we want to be healthy?

Apparently many things, some that we can control, but (to my simple mind) many factors that cannot be controlled. Among the controllable factors are the immediate environment in which we work/live – most environments nudge you to overeat; another factor is the amount of exercise you put in, which trains the lipostat in your brain to set itself up for a lower adiposity level (ie., by exercising, you’re training your body to prefer to contain lesser fat). But among uncontrollable factors are the genes we’re born with, being on medication to treat life threatening diseases, and in my view, the food processing industry that is askew with a profiteering axis that makes (almost all) our food sugary, fattening and very tasty, all at the same time. (cue: workers of the world!)

Some of the chapters repeated what most of us already know. For a non-medico many others were a novelty. But the nuance of the novelty is not explained, leading to yours truly to be quite disappointed.

The written word is unfortunately sprinkled with compelling and vexing illustrations that boggle the mind with its pointlessness and blunt lack of creativity. For instance, there’s one illustration with a picture of the brain, and arrows that go in four directions, with the labels, up, down, left and (can you believe it?) right. The illustrations with pictures of the brain are presumably included to make the book seem like an intellectual work, but they should really be removed, simply to not reduce the credibility of the text.


From the book, a condensed brain-obesity relationship primer:

  1. Modernity makes us fat: technology, market forces, incurably sugar hungry brains (your brain loves cookies and cake; mine goes plain bonkers).
  2. Our evolution from hunters and gatherers to supermarket shoppers hasn’t helped. Some thousand years ago, humans ran after gazelles, and dug for tubers that they then didn’t really cook. Today, all I have to do is order food on Swiggy/Zomato/UberEats (and a poorly paid gentleman (only men so far) comes to my door with my box of food, ready for my gluttonous experience).
  3. Some of us have genes that are easily expressed for obesity. Especially so when our environments are so toxic.
  4. The ‘lipostat’ is stubborn. The lipostat is this system that responds to the hormone leptin that’s secreted by fat tissue. The objective of the system is to maintain homeostasis, specifically, the amount of adiposity in our bodies. Now the lipostat doesn’t care about our goals, it merely does what it must. And that’s why losing weight and staying that way is harder than we thought. The lazy lipostat adjusts itself to make us gain all that weight back. The good news, though, is that exercise inherently tunes the lipostat to a lower set point (is that good news?).
  5. Leptin, insulin, the hypothalamus: the three together are rascals. And circadian rhythm. These guys basically are very sensitive to external and internal cues. So, management of our circadian rhythm and the amount of insulin and leptin we allow our bodies to generate with the kind of food we consume greatly affects the hypothalamus, which then has a direct bearing on how much we eat (at each sitting or between). But managing them is no easy feat. It involves controlling the uncontrollable. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, Bruce?
  6. Stress is bad. And knowing this is no help. Big nope.
  7. PS: special mention and thanks to all the mice that participated, surely involuntarily, in experiments that involved sawing their brains off, starving them, and sometimes feeding them pop tarts. Monkeys too. And people!

The book is a decent primer if one starts with a clean slate on obesity research. The easy penmanship is good for a quick read. But the easy content has sacrificed substance, in most cases. I, for one, would’ve liked knowing more about the lipostat, about how stress actually triggers harmful behaviour, etc. The footnotes were like french fries, really – all fluff and minimal satiety.

I’d be failing the book if I didn’t mention the mature writing style. Something that the writer deserves high praise for is that even though the book is on a topic that readers are seeking personal solutions to, the writing is only limited on the pontification scale. One might posit that it may have been tempting for a lesser writer to add a “tips that will change your life” postscript after every chapter. Thank you for not caving in, Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. (sic).

I’d rate the book a 3/5. Read it if you enjoy learning about how the brain works, but don’t stop here! The right question is, is your time best utilised by reading The Hungry Brain, to learn about the brain-obesity relationship? Maybe so, if you have high reading speed and don’t mind being spoken to like a toddler sometimes.

@NathanWPyle: you killin' me softly.

@NathanWPyle: you killin’ me softly.

The dutiful daughter

This is a review of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir, the French existential feminist who defined many ideas including femininity, and who discounted the very idea of “women” as a chain that binds the female folk to the men, in an unequal relationship.

I read this book by chance. It was a beautiful afternoon when a friend was talking to me, and admonished me for something I said, by saying “don’t be a woman!” I was surprised at the reprimand. That was my introduction to Simone de Beauvoir.

So what made Simone the Simone we know? (we try, at least) She was born into a bourgeois French family, and as every other French family they expected her to be just as feminine as will make her desirable for another man. But, lo, she had her own ambitions. She read voraciously. Her parents encouraged her as well, for good measure. But, over the years, as she blossomed (ew, that feminine word, but I’ll use it anyway, because I like how it sounds, irrespective of social conditioning in my own life) into adulthood, she aspired to be more than just a dutiful daughter.

Into adulthood, she read more (in the book, she discusses what she reads), discussed and fleshed out her principles and ideologies. In politically turbulent times, her questions about what’s right and what isn’t troubled and invigorated her to no end. She fell in love with men, whereas she was previously curious as to how that was ever possible, and then she fell out of love with them just as nonchalantly.

The best part of the book, to me, was when she met Sartre, and he took her under his wing, so to speak (he was older and seemingly better read, and was she impressed or what!). The rest, as they say, is history.

The auto-biography offers invaluable insights into the upbringing and the creation of the pillars of ideals of one of the most important feminist thinkers of this era. What caused Simone the kind of cognitive dissonance that sparks such genius? Why did she think differently if her parenting was as average as it could be in a bourgeoise family? What was the unique circumstance under which her adolescence sculpted her mind?

The first person narration of someone who has offered such seminal ideas to our society is one of the important reasons to indulge in the exercise of reading the book. Also, it’s written very well – perfectly chronological (no hanky-panky flashbacks), grammatical (kudos to the translation!), exact flow of thought (no jarring edges).

No amount of scholarly reading will give you the granular details of what created Simone as this book does. If you’re curious as I was, to know what ticked for this person, give the book a go; and what’s more, it’s a good read. I’d give Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter a 4/5.

My biggest grouse with the book is that it was hard to find a good copy. The copy I read was borrowed from a library, and it was falling apart. The next part was in a worse condition. Can’t we have more such great works in our libraries? Amazon was not too much help either. Who knows, given the emergence of a more conscious feminist conscience, may be Simone’s autobiographies will be revived enough for mass paperback publishers to take note and do the needful.

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

This is my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It was juuust simple enough to be appealing, juuust thrilling enough to keep my attention, and juuust deep enough to give me some food for thought at the end. I’m as picky as Goldilocks, and this book was just right.

Eleanor Oliphant is a late twenties ‘spinster’ who enjoys doing crossword puzzles, listening to radio programmes, and getting blackout drunk from Friday evening to Monday morning. She is perfectly functional, in a completely dysfunctional way.

At first glance, she merely exhibits eccentricities that would be well-suited to the stereotypically geeky girl in English language sitcoms. There’s a long painful description of Eleanor getting her first bikini wax to impress her “rockstar” crush- whom she has never met. It seems a bit off for a woman her age to be that silly about a man… but and things keep going downhill from there. Without spoiling much, the plot gets really dark really fast. By the end, you’ll be rooting for Eleanor to overcome her demons.

I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because I really DO want you to read this book! But at a deeper level, I think this book points out a major flaw in today’s society. It’s all too easy to maintain a facade of normalcy without anyone noticing that one is struggling with something serious. Relationships are superficial, and greetings are cursory. Eleanor lacks basic social skills, because she has never gotten to experience a healthy relationship of any kind.

On a lighter note, this is a quirky and amusing novel that somehow manages to be a gripping thriller as well. Please read, even though this review has definitely not done justice to the plot. 5/5

Shootout

This is my review of Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

This is a factual account of the 1999 mass shooting that took place at the Columbine High School in Colorado. Dave Cullen was one of the journalists that covered the story, starting nearly as soon as the authorities became aware of the situation. The perpetrators were two 12th grade students at the school, who pulled machine guns on their schoolmates and teachers in the enclosed space of the school building before committing suicide in a classroom. At that point, this shooting set the record for maximum number of fatalities in a mass shooting.

There have been many, many mass shootings since then, some of which have eclipsed the body count of the Columbine massacre. However, the particular incident has remained in the public consciousness more than others. I’m not sure why, maybe because the all-American teenagers from good families did not fit the popular perception of what a terrorist should look like? The perpetrators were Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, two best friends and partners-in-crime, literally.

Some interesting information in this book that may not be readily available from other sources:

  1. The massacre was originally intended to be a bombing, and the perpetrators estimated that 500 people would be injured/killed if things had gone as planned. Their bomb was defective (despite multiple trial runs) and when it failed, the boys took out their machine guns for Plan B.
  2. The narrative that ‘bullied kids fight back’ is not necessarily applicable here; the boys were very popular and did not have trouble finding dates.
  3. Cullen has spent some time going over psychological analyses of the boys, and he concludes that Eric was the true ‘villain’, with a diagnosis of psychopathy, while Dylan went along with the plan as he was severely depressed. This verdict was not completely convincing, but it is difficult to rationalize such irrational behaviour.

This book, of course, led me down the Wikipedia rabbithole of mass shootings in the past couple of decades. What I read was horrific and I was left with some strong opinions on gun regulation. (I am probably not qualified to have such strong opinions; a little knowledge is a dangerous thing)

This book was extremely informative, and clearly Dave Cullen is passionate about revealing the true story behind the incident. However, detailing the ‘story’ of multiple victims and their personal beliefs and their what their families are doing now felt unnecessary. 4/5 for being very informative and clear, but unnecessarily detailed. Related review: a fictional account of a school shooting from the point of view of the mother of the shooter

 

 

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

The Lives of Others

This is a review of The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

Neel Mukherjee has weaved a story of Bengal for three generations, around the lives of a family. In every line of the book, the various fissures and fractures in their relationships of the family members are brought out, and through it, the fractures within the society. The unspeakable words like “naxalite” are thrown in, along with mundane issues like family heirlooms. The normalcy and strangeness within, in this family, make the plot interesting, apart from also suggesting that there is a bigger game at play here.

It’s a story of a joint family that’s not as happily joint, or as rich as it portrays itself to be. The family’s history is traced through flashbacks throughout the book. It’s interesting to piece together the motives and aspirations of each of the members (and servants). The older son’s son is high on Marx, the younger son’s son is high on Math, the youngest son can’t seem to be anything but a creep who gropes at women in crowded places. Sometimes, it seemed, some of the characters, though they shared the same roof, had nothing to do with each other. Was this by design, or did the author get so into the minds of the characters that he didn’t pay too much attention to the fibre between them?

I’d have enjoyed it much more had the plot thickened, rather than tilted and changed color often; like a TV Serial. Though, the family dynamics is often placed in the framework of politics (naxalism, capitalism, and other -isms). But for the beautiful language and the style of writing, I would have passed up on finishing the book.

If you’re in search of Indian writers to reckon with, try not to miss Neel Mukherjee. But don’t sweat it.

3/5.