a blank slate

a blank slate

Author: Priya

Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1

A third of the year is over. I haven’t read as much as I had planned, and I haven’t blogged at all! It’s hard to write individual reviews or a full recap at the end of the year either. So I have decided to do it in three parts. So here’s what I’ve been reading:
 
1. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
This is one of the craziest books I have ever read. Cosmicomics is a collection of anecdotes from a omnipresent narrator at different points in space and time. Each short story is built around a scientific or pseudo-scientific concept; a “what if” question. There is a story about a creature who, as his galaxy slowly turns, is eaten up with the frustration of being unable to leave a lasting impression on the endless nothingness around him that is sure to outlast him. Another story is about a couple living on an early planet where their blossoming romance is interrupted by the formation of the atmosphere, and therefore, the introduction of colour into their lives. The first tale, The Distance of the Moon, imagines life on earth if the moon were so close we could climb on to it! I could go on and on. Each story is bizarre, hilarious, beautiful.
 
2. The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
This one of the most beautiful books I have ever read and the most difficult to write about. I have never given much thought to capital punishment or the laws that surround it, but after this book, I found myself reading up on the death penalty in India and contemplating how many lives depend on a flawed system. So this is Hinton’s story. At the age of 29, a poor black man was convicted of murder and spent three decades on death row in Alabama, after being finally freed for wrongful conviction. This is his memoir. I don’t even know where to begin to describe this book. I don’t know what I could say to capture how it tore at me. The raw terror, the compassion, the fear he describes are feelings I was not prepared to understand or confront. To spend thirty years proving your innocence, to be set free as an old man into a world changed beyond recognition? Just the thought of this book still gives me goosebumps. This is the only time that I’ve read a memoir once and then immediately flipped back the pages and read it all over again, cover to cover. Indescribable! 
 
3. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This book is about something I hadn’t given enough thought to but should have: geriatrics. Gawande talks about how we see death as inevitable and yet, an enemy, and know only one way to approach it: through weapons of modern medicine. He sheds light on the dearth of facilities that ensure an old person’s comfort in his final days. He describes the inadequacy of nursing homes in looking after an old person’s emotional and mental health. He tells us the importance of geriatrics and the lack of funding. He gives a unique doctor’s perspective on how, in the final years of one’s life (as perhaps at any other time) it is quality that matters over quantity. This book makes one demand: we need to change the conversation about old age. 
 
4. Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
I never would have realised how greatly I needed to read a book on conservation by a sort of cynical comic science fiction writer… And now that I have read it, I don’t know what I would have done without it. Books on conservation have some things in common – they’re sad, disconcerting, hopeless even when they’re trying to be hopeful. I am still drawn to writings about wildlife in spite of the hopelessness they often fill me with. But this wasn’t any old book on wildlife. Adams was able to give a new flavour to an old disconcerting conversation. And I am much the wiser for it. I couldn’t put it into a coherent review if I wanted to, but this is a must read – an unexpected perspective at the very least.
 
5. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Yoshimoto has been on my list of to-reads for years and years. It seems to me as if this is the first time that a Japanese-translation has resonated with me. This is a young adult book, but not your typical one. Goodbye Tsugumi is the story of our narrator Maria and her cousin and unlikely friend – a young girl named Tsugumi, who is sassy, blunt and bold. Bubbling with anger at a world that hasn’t given her a fair chance, Tsugumi has spent most of her life bedridden with an unnamed ailment. It’s a story about transitional periods in life, coming to terms with our destiny in a manner of our own choosing; it’s about family and friendship and all the pastel-tinted sweet nothings we associate with growing up. For the reader, Yoshimoto has crafted a character who creates such conflicting impressions at every turn – both instant dislike and unwavering compassion; Tsugumi pushes us to question our prejudices. 
 
6. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin 
Like the previous book, I just randomly found this on Scribd and fell in love with the concept. The book is a collection of short stories which are strung together by one shared element: all the characters are related in some way or the other to K.K. Harouni, a wealthy landowner. Servants, businessmen, relatives and acquaintances, all tied to each other through this patriarchal figure. The stories are rich, character pieces, with complex world building, which traverse the social and economic hierarchies in contemporary Pakistan. Very engaging. 
 
I’ve built a habit of writing Goodreads reviews capturing my thoughts right after I finished the book, so this post should have been easy to compile. Here’s the trouble though. For most of these books, my review just says “no words,” or “no words until I chew on this a bit more.” So I had to spend quite a bit of time writing this post, but it also gave me a chance to revisit the books and rediscover why I loved them. (It’s weird that three of these books are non-fiction, this has never happened to me before.) I hope that the rest of the year is as fulfilling. Have you read any of these? What have you been reading? 

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor, the last of the greats, as it were. His reign lasted nearly fifty years, I was not aware of that somehow. What I have been made consistently aware of in popular local media, is that he’s a much-hated figure in Indian history; known more than anything else as an intolerant anti-Hindu tyrant who destroyed many temples. It’s been repeated so often that I never actually stopped to wonder if it were true. A great example of history being bent into a political weapon. 
Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke aims to distinguish fact from propaganda. The book begins with a chapter long disclaimer stating what the book is and isn’t. It then spends another chapter telling us how it wants us to use the information presented to view Aurangzeb impartially. I am no expert, but I feel that no compelling content should require so much contextualising. The author is so busy making her case, when she could have let the content speak for itself – then again, maybe the issue is that the content is unable to stand on its own.

“I wish you to recollect that the greatest conquerors are not always the greatest kings. The nations of the earth have often been subjugated by mere uncivilized barbarians, and the most extensive conquests have, in a few short years, crumbled to pieces. He is the truly great king who makes it the chief business of his life to govern his subjects with equity. —Aurangzeb, writing to the recently dethroned Shah Jahan.”

I liked more than a few things I learnt about Aurangzeb through this book. We all know that Aurangzeb earned much scorn, during and after his times, for overthrowing and trapping Shah Jahan at the Red Fort while he was still able. What I did not know was that Aurangzeb was plagued by guilt for these actions, especially in the latter part of his reign. The author quotes letters penned by the king to various trusted sources and his obsession with his “impending judgement” is revealing.
I had no information beyond Shah Jahan’s imprisonment about the war of succession between his sons. Aurangzeb was not the heir apparent. It’s interesting how he hounded, murdered and drove out his brothers in the pursuit of the crown. As the author puts it, given the choice, any of his brothers would have done the same. 
I am fascinated by the fact that the emperor asked to be buried in a simple tomb without the pomp and glory of the Mughal tradition. The detailing of his love for mangoes, dislike for courtly music and bias for his grandsons makes the king more than a caricature to sway historical narratives.  
The driving argument of the book is that we fail to see Aurangzeb as a product of his times. Colonial politics carved out the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and enmity that was close to absent to during the Mughal times. It is therefore unfair to judge Aurangzeb through that lens. Though more pious than his predecessor and his brother, he was not a Muslim king. His motivations for controlling religious practices of either Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh communities were political. He was a brilliant military and political tactician. Politics and religion are viewed as largely and purposefully separate in the modern world. This distinction did not exist in Aurangzeb’s time. The head of the state, the ruler of the empire was to take it upon himself to do God’s work. Therefore, his interest in religion was not interference as it would be in the modern mould. 
What the author has proved with a shadow of doubt is also that Aurangzeb was ruthless and power-hungry. His ambition often stood in the way of his sense of justice. Needless to say, it is this hunger for power that makes it so easy and compelling a narrative to cast this emperor as a soulless villain. Consider this example used by the author to show his lack of bias towards religion – paraphrased, a group of rebels caught by Aurangzeb’s army were to be punished differently, the punishment for the Hindus being more severe than that of the Muslims. Aurangzeb did not make such religious distinctions when doling out punishments. Instead, he ordered all their heads to be chopped off. It is difficult to contextualise any actions and eliminate our internal biases (products of our own time) when judging historical characters. 
The tragedy is that with a man as ruthless as Aurangzeb, there’s little incentive to see him as anything other than the devil himself. The author urges us to understand that this emperor was no more cruel than was expected in his times and she asks us to ease up on the ill judgement of his character. The book reiterates then that he was cruel and formidable. But, an honest treatment of history must make the distinction that this cruelty did not stem from a religious bias. This is an important point, and I’m glad it was presented so passionately by the author. I appreciate what the book hoped to achieve, I just wish there was more content. What we have is interesting, informative, but is it really enough to build empathy?

“Too great is the grief of this world, and I have only one heart bud – how can I pour all the desert’s sand into an hourglass?” – Aurangzeb 

Ten Favourite Books I Read in 2019

I saw someone post a list of their favourite books of the decade and while I would love to write a post quite as grand as that, it seems like an impossible task. I was 17 a decade ago and I honestly couldn’t look at the books I read at 18-19-20… now, through the same lens as I did then. So I’ll go with the Top Ten Tuesday standard, Ten Favourite Books of the year 2019 (how convenient that the last day of the year is a Tuesday.) I will be writing a detailed year in review post next week (yes, another new year’s attempt at blog revival as it were.) So today’s just a plain and simple list.

1.  Girl at War by Sara Novic: This is a book written by a Croatian writer about a young girl who loses her family in the Serbo-Croatian War. It exposed me to a part of the world I knew nothing about and with the glaring honesty of a ten-year-old narrator. Ana Juric, the main character, is rescued out of the war zone and adopted by an American family when she is ten. She grows up American, in denial and finally, mid-way into the book, unravels her past even as she comes to terms with it herself. A scene that still haunts me: this tiny little girl, convulsing in pain and vomiting as she has her first dinner with her new American family – she’s never known what it is to have a full stomach. She can’t bear it.

2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, it took me 27 years to pick this up and I’m not unashamed to admit it. Where do I even begin with this? I don’t know what I was waiting for. Reading The Lord of the Rings sometime in May and and binge-reading up on Tolkien for the rest of the year has sufficed to transform my entire outlook on fantasy fiction — one of my favourite genres at that. I don’t think there is a greater quest in fiction nor a greater character than Sam. But that deserves more than a mention on a list, doesn’t it?

3. What the F*: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen: It’s not often that a non-fiction makes it to my list of favourite anythings (aside: it’s fascinating how favourite is underlined in red for its UK spelling, but ‘anythings’ isn’t.) I’ve annoyed everyone I know and would care to listen to exasperation singing praises of this book, so all I’m going to do is copy the book description from Goodreads. “Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.” There’s no scope for being prudish while reading this one.

4. Columbine by Dave Cullen: Another non-fiction… what is happening to me. Now for the record, gun violence is as distant a reality to me as possible and that gives me the luxury of taking this book in a different vein than many other readers would. Takeaways for me, from this critical reporting of the Columbine massacre: compassion fatigue, misrepresentation of facts in the media, the celebration of a school spirit, urban myths and people juicing the tragedy for personal propaganda. The biggest trigger for me, as a school teacher, was just how much “in charge” a teacher is of her students’ safety. Foremost, I think we, as a thinking and feeling society, must read this book to see how a small twist of facts can colour an entire story; and how important it is to look for facts in the face of compelling emotion.

5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I rarely pick up series, and even when I do, I hardly ever like the first book. Seraphina is a glaring exception to this rule. The beautiful medieval/steampunk story redeems its genre of young adult fantasy. Seraphina is the story of a girl who is part dragon, and her attempts to fit into the class ascribed to her by a society which doesn’t understand or accept her full potential.

6. The Elephant Whisperer by Laurence Anthony: This was my first book of the year, and a memorable read. This is the true story of an Australian-African conservationist and his efforts to to rehabilitate a herd of wild elephant in the Thula Thula nature preserve in South Africa. Laurence Anthony loves elephants, that much is clear from the first chapter; but what becomes increasingly, and amazingly, evident over the course of the book is that these elephants love Laurence Anthony too. What we get is a strange tale of patience, hard work and the careful and precarious bonding between one man and one alpha female elephant, who work together to protect the lives of her precious pachyderm family. It’s unforgettable. You learn about the intricate nature of elephant societies, their unmistakable intelligence, South African jungle laws and most importantly, the power of family.

7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It’s becoming increasingly hard to pick favourites in a year that was so rewarding in terms of reading. Yet, I cannot forget this particular book that had the most compelling set of characters of all the books I read this year. It’s the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple and their struggle to settle down in New York city. It is also about the American family they work for, and how the financial crisis of 2008 shakes their perfectly built world to the core.

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Let’s be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love this book. It proudly proclaims to be a “YA” book and I have my biases about that. It also takes a line with so much power and cultural connotation as its title, I was certain it would be difficult to live up to the name. I was wrong. The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who at the very opening of the book, witnesses a police officer shoot down her best friend Khalil. As the whole nation is taken up in a speculation game, the only person who knows the truth is afraid of getting involved. This is a complicated story of race, identity, violence, friendship, and risking the facade of normalcy to protect and celebrate your roots.

8. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie: Oh, but this book is an epic, a story spanning nations and generations. The surprised outrage of America at the time of 9/11. A young Muslim couple in love facing the Partition of two nations in an old, old Delhi. The bombing of Nagasaki and the far-reaching injuries of this war on the minds and bodies of the people. It’s set in Pakistan, and Japan, and Afghanistan too, and sheds light on war from any and every perspective, every generation and language. The storyteller is intelligent, unbiased, and compassionate and demands the same of her reader.

9. Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly: So, this may seem misplaced in an increasingly more serious list, but I abso-freaking-lutely loved this book. This is the premise: it is the greatest bounty hunt in history. The targets are the finest warriors in the world-commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today. On this list is the name of the US Marine Shane Schofield, who is not only a target but also quite possibly the only man who can stop this bounty hunt, if he doesn’t get killed first. Reading Matthew Reilly’s book is like watching a well made action movie. What Reilly lacks in terms of language or depth of character, he makes up for in speed and a kind of detail that is almost screenwriter-ish but in a good way. I won’t be able to read these books one after the other, but it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for some entertainment.


10. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
: The hardest pick of all that brings the list to a close. The Hired Man is yet another book set in Croatia, and a psychological dissection of war, when it comes unannounced and alters reality as you know it. This book takes you in the mind of a man who has suffered mysterious evils at the hands of an unnamed war, and the lifelong repercussions it has on his psyche. It’s the story of a small town and its culture being silently rewritten by its scant inhabitants to account for the damages that were caused to them, about how the world has somehow moved on to the future while they’re still grappling with a new present. An American woman and her two kids move into a house in small town Croatia. The woman hires a local man to help out with the refurbishing of what she wants to turn into a holiday home, and this man, our narrator, tells us the history of the house. A haunting read. The author hammers into your mind and turns the screw just when you least expect it.

That’s it for now, which were your favourite reads of the year?

Sleeping Beauties by Owen King and Stephen King

Summary: In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, and the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain?

My thoughts: I’m so conflicted about this book. I was hooked, there is no denying that – seeing as I left all work aside for a week to finish reading this mountain of a book. It was thoroughly engaging. If you’ve watched IT Chapter 2, you must remember the very self aware running gag on McAvoy’s character, Bill, being called out for writing the worst endings. Many people criticise King for writing anticlimactic endings to his long stories. I don’t agree with most people, but somehow having watched the movie so recently, I’d braced myself for a disappointment at the end of this book. Which is perhaps why it didn’t hurt as much when the predicted disappointment hit. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

First, the goods, or the positives: The greatest triumph of SK’s writing for me has always been the uncannily real characters. He can effortlessly hop into the heads of hardened criminals, sociopaths, recovering alcoholics, bullies, angsty teenagers bursting at the seams, mothers, children, you name it. He can write the damnedest realistic characters and he has surely managed that in this book. Not only that, he makes you care for his characters, and choose sides between those you love. Throughout Sleeping Beauties, there are moments of triumph when the characters hit right home. Just right. 
The story is a mix of Under the Dome, The Stand, 11/22/63 and perhaps even Mr. Mercedes (specific references aside.) SK has proved before, more than once, that he can do small town mass hysteria and do it well. The authors have pulled it off here too, no surprises there. 
And I mean there’s the obvious, the more recent Stephen King charm you get: that brisk no-nonsense dialogue, casual meta references and nods to authors and movies and songs and his own characters, style – just a lot of cocky style. And all this makes it a thoroughly entertaining book, even at its worst moments. I don’t know how much of this is Owen King, but there’s too much Stephen King to miss. Things I was surprised by and like included the element of dark fantasy. I like the allusions and the tricks. I loved Evie and everything she stood for. And above all else, I love the fox’s perspective on the world; animal perspectives are always so difficult to write without sounding too human. 
Now to the negatives, the bads: Maybe the book came a little too late. I like the idea of a retelling of a fairy tale in this manner and on this scale, but it just seems strange to have this repeated overwrought discussion on the duality of gender, men and women, men against women, two genders and the very specific dual gender roles.. seems odd to centre the book entirely around this duality in today’s world. It was quite the elephant in the room. 
I think at the end of the day, it’s Clint Norcross, the main character (not sure if I should call him a protagonist) who disappointed me the most. When you create a character who has more shades of grey than of white, you better give me a good reason for that. I expected… more. Or I did not understand what I got.

And lastly, I think the scope of the book was too narrow and for no solid reason. In Under the Dome, there is still an explanation for the seemingly arbitrary choice of that particular small town for that particular story. What makes this town so special? Why is the rest of the world so oblivious to this random town in Appalachia where everything of import seems to be happening? Even Under the Dome had more of the external world playing its part. Here, you need to accept it without justification. Too big a story in too small a package. 
Final Thoughts: I’m glad I read it. My biggest takeaway is the character of Jeannette – that’s one woman I will not forget easily, one character I’ll keep coming back to. I would recommend it to you if you have the time for it. But there are far greater Stephen King novels to choose over this – when in doubt, when it comes to Stephen King, always go for the classics.

“Sometimes you get what you want, but mostly you get what you get.” 


This isn’t exactly a fairytale retelling (hint: kissing the sleeping beauties may not have the predicted reaction) to be part of the Retellings Challenge, but they’ve referenced Sleeping Beauty often enough for me to say it counts. 

World War Z by Max Brooks

To be honest, I did not imagine it would be this hard to keep my only New Year’s resolution for 2019 – to write a blog post a week. And yet, here I am, two months into the year and already failing. It’s just that I have been so incredibly busy that it’s been difficult to make time to open a book; let alone write about it! And even then, in spite of all the hair-pulling, fist-clenching, make-it-stop-screeching kind of busy that I’ve endured over these past few weeks, I’ve somehow, at the back of my mind, been chewing on this book. What follows is not my best review; rather a post-midnight spew of thought, but it’s better than nothing (so I tell myself.) 
World War Z by Max Brooks is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I’d read about it initially on the book blogging circles, many years ago, and eventually heard about the movie as well. And yet, nothing; I mean, nothing, could have prepared me for the ride that was this book. The most concise and precise review – what on earth. My reaction was as simple and as complex as that! It is easily one of the strangest, most accurate books I have ever read, and it blew me away.
The words “zombie apocalypse” bring to mind a very specific image, isn’t it? A story in the style of 28 Days Later – lone survivors, lost and hunted, and the rapid breakdown of society as we know it. Stories of apocalyptic outbreaks are almost always from a singular perspective – one man, family or group of strangers against the countless armies of the infected. This is what I expected from World War Z by Max Brooks, which has always been in the “zombie apocalypse” category. 
But World War Z is no 28 Days Later. It’s not a survivor’s drama-tragedy. It’s biting sociopolitical satire.The harsh realities and inner workings of different spheres of society, politics, geopolitics, economics, military are exposed. Written in the form of an “oral history,” that is, a series of interviews of people directly involved in a “Zombie War” that nearly eradicated all of humanity. From the very first Patient infected with the virus that reanimated the dead, to survivors across the world fleeing to the icy regions where zombies turn ineffective; soldiers from the countless armies fighting against the attacks; even the government bigwigs involved in making the plans of evacuation and counter-attack; reporters covering the mass outbreak of disease; media seizing the day to publicise anthems of hope; right up to big pharmaceutical companies manufacturing fake antidotes! 
Each interviewee has his own voice, and tone – cold, reflective, morose, shattered, clinical. The book ties all the perspectives together into a loose narrative over a few years. What we end up with is this haunting, realistic case study of what would happen if the human race were to systematically fuck itself up to a great big fall. Does it end on a sweet ray of hope? Hardly. There are places and stories which spark a light of hope in your hearts, but one that is easily squashed moments later. I mean, you can always draw inspired conclusions about this indelible nature of the human race, our ability to push through and emerge victorious in times of great strife. But we’d be fools to ignore who got us into that struggle in the first place. 
Many chapters are imprinted on my mind and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. But they’re best read, not described. To give you a taste… 

“They say great times make great men. I don’t buy it. I saw a lot of weakness, a lot of filth. People who should have risen to the challenge and either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Greed, fear, stupidity and hate. I saw it before the war, I see it today. I don’t know if great times make great men, but I know they can kill them.”
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“A lie? It’s okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. “We’re going to be okay.” That was our message… There’s a word for that kind of lie. Hope.”
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“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and “They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.”

You Haven’t Lived Until You’ve Read These Books

A few weeks ago, I finally read The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare after having successfully TBR-ed it for nearly ten years! This was after yet another student recommended it to me. Now teenagers often and easily talk in superlatives, yet this one clung to my mind like a fly in a web. She said: you haven’t lived until you’ve read this series. Coming from a 10 year old, this statement earns a massive eye roll, yet… it got me thinking. Which books, to me, deserve this tag?
This post needs multiple disclaimers. First: Such lists are incredibly personal and there are many books I like simply because of my context, the memories that go hand in hand with reading them, the discussions they have led me to. I’ve tried to remain objective, here, and base my choices on ideas espoused within the books. It’s been grueling, but these are big words to live up to. Each of these books has meant a lot to me, and I do hope that you discover a gem for yourself. Some day, I’ll write a Part 2. For now – 

1. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A part-sermon part-fantasy, this is my favourite book. I have never found it difficult to name one favourite book, because this has had a profound impact on the way I look at life, since the age of around twelve, when I read it. It’s the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with nothing for company but the vast waters of the Pacific ocean… and, a tiger. A survival’s tale which seems like an adventure but has terror brewing beneath the surface. It explores themes of spirituality, grief, dealing with crisis. It opens your mind to accepting abstract uncertainty, making you truly open-minded, and moreover, shows you that you have the power to write your own story, for better or for worse.


Favourite quote: “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”
2. Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin 
A mind-bending science fiction tale of a human emissary to a planet where gender is not fixed for any individual; rather can be chosen and changed at will. Mating only happens at a certain time and it is then that different genders are taken on. To them, humans are a perversion, retaining their genders forever. Our protagonist, the emissary, must reconcile with these differences on his mission to establish diplomatic relations with this planet. The book puts a new turn on the psychology of identity, and how we see us and others in the context of gender. Gives you a new perspective altogether on humans; perhaps controversial, but definitely one that demands introspection.

Favourite quote: “A man wants his virility regarded. A woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. [Here] one is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

3. Ransom by David Malouf 

Myths have power, but this retelling shows you that the true power of story lies in the detail. A fragment of an incident transformed into a novella, Ransom describes an incident in the Trojan war – the moment when King Priam begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body, and the war is momentarily put on hold for his funeral. Many life stories build up to this uncanny display of humanity.
The strange meeting, of the aged father and the murderer of his son, at the centre of an unending war, is a beautiful study of men turned to figureheads at the hands of politics and war, and a mortal ambition to achieve immortality.

Favourite quote: We are mortals, not gods. We die. Death is in our nature. Without that fee paid in advance, the world does not come to us. That is the hard bargain life makes with us — with all of us, every one — and the condition we share. And for that reason, if for no other, we should have pity for one another’s losses.
4. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 
A neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer writes about death and what it means to be alive. We watch the irony unfold as someone who sees death on a daily basis ponders his own mortality. Through this memoir, born before his diagnosis, Kalanithi attempts to find the meaning of life. He discusses the point where philosophy and science intersect, as a man who intimately knows and loves both. He talks about the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. In a lucid and intellectual manner, this remarkable book says all the things we are afraid to think, and does so with a cutting clinical brilliance that only a doctor could manage. 

Favourite quote: Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.
5. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was a German poet, who received a letter from 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was a poet himself. He’d sent Rilke one of his poems to critique. Rilke refused, giving the young poet his first lesson, that a good poet does not base his poetry one someone else’s appraisal. A short correspondence followed. Letters to a Young Poet is a collection of ten letters sent by Rilke to Kappus. It is about everything and nothing, life advice from an old soul. A book I think is just mandatory to be read at a young age, but of course, even later in life, as you begin to identify more with the writer than the intended audience. 

Favourite quote: Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.


Which books would you qualify this way?

On silence and cacophonies, the changing face of horror and watching A Quiet Place

A lot of people are talking about Bird Box being similar to A Quiet Place. Now I haven’t Bird Box, but this discussion was my excuse to return to the latter. I unearthed this post that I had written on  A Quiet Place. This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while now, let’s drag it to the light of day…
One of the problems of watching a horror movie with friends, for me, has been that whole approach people have these days; of sitting on the edge of your seats, waiting to be scared. It’s strange that a horror movie is judged by how many scenes make you jump – I’ve never heard of people watching a drama-tragedy and saying, “Well it was good, but it didn’t make me cry enough.” Even comedies are judged by more than the number of laughs they provide. Why then this narrow expectation of a genre that  deals with an intense primal emotion? There is more to fear than that. There has to be! 
Even so, most popular horror in television and cinema is awfully formulaic. Story, character and emotions are beside the point. What matters is how suddenly that chalky white face shows up on the screen or how the slimy hands grip the heroine from inside the mirror or the blood spatters and violence. The essence of the genre is lost in cheap tricks and manufactured thrills.
Horror can be more than ghosts. Think of Carrie. Late 70s, teenage girl, abused and bullied, gets supernatural powers and wreaks revenge…?  Many people would even reject labeling this as horror! But what do you find terrifying – a walking doll? Or how easily we inflict casual pain on fellow humans out of sheer spite? Who can forget that iconic scene from Carrie where the bucket of pig’s blood is upturned on a girl’s head; who could deny being scared by her disintegration? Carrie is torture, if you give in to the singular demand made by good movies and THINK about it. 
A Quiet Place is like that. It demands that you to think; and look beyond the regular and mundane expectations from a horror movie. It’s not a study in jump-scares but rather a slow, psychological torture. The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where alien monsters with hypersensitive hearing have wiped out the society. They attack at the slightest hint of a man-made sound and the only way to survive is to be totally and utterly silent. It is bang in the middle of this invasion that the movie begins. We meet a family, the only survivors in a deserted town; a couple and their three kids. They try to survive in this place while struggling to establish contact with the outside world. 
I’m a generally quiet person, but I can’t imagine having to live without sound, without the comfort of my own voice – I realised as I watched this movie that I may not even be able to think properly if I didn’t know what I sounded like. A new perspective on the word luxury, and privilege. One of the children in the surviving family in the movie is congenitally deaf and that gives her an excellent chance; the intrinsic formula of the world hasn’t changed for her. The family in turn has the advantage of being fluent in sign language and that is one reason they stay connected through the events.  
A Quiet Place is certain of its scope – it’s not an action movie or an alien invasion kind of sci-fi story. Where did the creatures come from, why is the Abbott family the only ones alive, what happened to the rest of the world – these are questions the movie will not attempt to answer. It has a narrower scope, in that it doesn’t deal with politics or the anthropology of an apocalypse; rather uses that plot device to delve into our psychology. The Quiet Place takes you out of your daily comforts and plants you into a world that has unfair demands and constant threats. It’s a movie about confronting the odds and facing fear.  It’s about love ties and loyalties being tested. It’s about the value of the smallest things we take for granted – simple things really, like a baby’s laugh or a favourite piece of music.
Watching A Quiet Place in the cinemas enhanced the haunting effect the movie had on me. I’d never realised before just how noisy cinema halls are. People whooping, laughing, commenting; the odd mobile phone ringing, and god forbid, popcorn. Have you ever noticed how loud popcorn is? Everyone in the audience was utterly silent as we watched A Quiet Place. The movie was stripped of all noise and suddenly, like the characters and creatures of this world, we were also hypersensitive to noise. And that was the biggest show-stopping surprise the movie had to offer! 
Not only did it capture real horror, but it juxtaposed itself against regular thrills by taking away the one thing that the horror genre loves to exploit: sound effects. Horror as we know it now is all about sound. We all know and hate the anxiety-inducing murmur in a suspenseful scene, building up to a bang when a monster appears to scare us. Pennywise the Clown is made tenfold scarier by that raspy voice; I have goosebumps just typing about it. A quick search reveals many web pages about audio tricks  used in horror to scare the daylights out of you. And yet, A Quiet Place had nothing. And somehow, that was freakier than any sound effect. 

Reading Challenges for 2019

I have not been reading as much as I would like to ever since I got a job and got burdened with the pressure of becoming a proper adult. Even so, I made progress this year and forced myself to read not only 48 books, but a wide range of books. However, what I did not manage was to write the reviews for most of these books on the blog. I do want to focus on writing in 2019, among other things. I am not sure how much of that writing would be on the blog.

Even so, I have realised that something like a reading challenge (the Goodreads one in case of 2018) motivate me to make time for my favourite hobby. With this in mind, I’ve decided to sign up for some interesting reading challenges.

1. The 2019 Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight! The idea is to write at least ten bookish discussion posts on this blog.

2. Books ‘n’ Tunes Challenge – a fun little idea where you read books which match with songs or song titles.

3. Dancing with Fantasy and Sci-Fi Challenge – This reading challenge consists of 3 sections. Fantasy, Sci-Fi and General for a total of 52 prompts which comes down to about 1 book a week. I’m not sure if I’ll attempt all three sections, perhaps only the first.

4. 2019 Retellings Challenge – I’m going for the ‘Silent Assassin’ category, which is to read 5 books. There’s a bingo of course, so it’ll be a fun way to introduce myself to books I wouldn’t have otherwise read.

Even so, feels nice and comforting to make reading goals; nearly as much as it would to scramble at the last minute to finish them! If I do participate in any more event type of things, I’ll add them to the list. Happy New Year!  

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Publishing a review that has been lounging in my drafts unnoticed:
“Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.” 
Had you met me three years ago, you would have found me at the height of my Trojan War obsession. That was the time I devoured The Iliad and many retellings and novelettes based on the myths. The Odyssey did not capture my attention quite as much as the other Homeric epic, but I did read it, for the great beauty of verse that only the Robert Fitzgerald translation can offer.
I lost much of that rapture for these stories sometime in the last three years, and it was invigorating to revisit them with The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Ever since I finished reading it last night, I have been thinking about it – enough to burst into pressing soliloquies (speaking to myself, much like writing, helps me think) in the confines of my four walls. It’s a cleverly written book, quite a Odysseus-like trickster in plot and wordsmithery.
The Penelopiad is the story of Odysseus and his wife Penelope through her eyes, instead of his. But get this – the story is set in present-day, when the Penelope has been dead for thousands of years and speaks to us from beyond the River Styx, from the netherworld of Hades. She has spent her time reassessing the events that took place before and following the now mythical Trojan War and she wants to get word out of what really happened: her defense. You see, Homer’s Odyssey ends with great bloodshed, and among the dead are twelve of Penelope’s maids, whose death Atwood feels was most unfair and offensive, and the one tragedy in the Odyssey that has gone ignored for too long.
The Odyssey begins after the Fall of Troy, when the Greeks have set sail for home. In the Odyssey, while Odysseus is on his way back to his land, Ithaca, his wife Penelope is coaxed by many suitors, young princes who wish to take advantage of the lonely woman and the treasures of the empire. Upon Odysseus’s return, the suitors have gone too far, and raided the palace for food and spoils and have raped the maids and even tried to force themselves upon Penelope. He enters the palace disguised as a beggar, unbeknownst to even Penelope, outwits the suitors and wins her hand in marriage. He then orders them all to be killed. And, Penelope’s maids, whom he believes to have been traitors in cahoots with the suitors, are hanged by Odysseus’s son Telemachus, a meer teen at the time of these events.
These maids of Penelope sing of their plight and fling accusations at the heroes of the book, the author and history for forgetting about them. It is a tricky book, and the running chorus of the maids, which forms a large part of the book, is only one of its tricks. The maids sing their chorus in myriad forms – a folk song, ballad, iambic verse and so on. They say: 
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched 
it was not fair 
with every goddess, queen, and bitch 
from there to here you scratched your itch 
we did much less 
than what you did 
you judged us bad
With the Penelopiad, Atwood tries to add to the Homeric epics what time and the bard failed: women characters with some semblance of agency. In the original Iliad, Penelope waits and even her smallest attempts at cleverness fail – she does not recognize Odysseus, her own husband whom she’s been awaiting, when he enters their palace. In this book, she does, but for reasons critical to Atwood’s twist ending, chooses not to reveal this information. In Atwood’s story, Penelope is not simply waiting, you see, but plotting her own way out of her dilemma. She’s sent out search parties for Odysseus and has instructed her maids to work for her. It is unbeknownst to her that the maids are brutally murdered by Odysseus – and even now, centuries later, Penelope sits in the netherworld and repents for his actions. The maids still haunt her. 
This is one of the many misconceptions explained by Penelope of history as we know it. The other major discrepancy in historical writing is the innocence of Helen. In an at once dry, bitter and biting tone, Atwood’s Penelope characterises Helen of Troy as a woman who uses her beauty to get away with anything. Helen is Penelope’s cousin and in appearance, her complete opposite, strikingly attractive. Penelope also considers her vain and seeking the attention that men give her, basking in the wars she causes. Her unfairly strong condemnation of Helen is possibly her way of acquiring narrative justice, but also seems to show this spirit of feminine rivalry that Helen may have caused in the wake of her decisions. The epics only talk of the effect on men of Helen’s beauty, we can only yet imagine the female perspective. Atwood has strong opinions on female relations. Even so, the flow of double-standards from Penelope’s tongue is unpalatable. It surprises me that a book that heavily addresses the vulnerability of women in the time of men and gods has no sympathy for Helen. 
Another problem with the book is that I somehow don’t buy it – while the epics do lack with women with any kind of active power, Penelope is one of the stronger prominent characters of Homer. I do not believe she needed an update. That said, The Penelopiad is somehow brilliantly written. The wry sarcastic sort of voice that I have somehow begun to associate with Atwood (though I’ve barely read two or three of her books) is interesting. It frequently elicited chuckles from me. And it definitely made me marvel at Atwood’s clever use of narrative techniques. Would like to see the play some day!
All in all, an interesting book, but not nearly my favourite in the Canongate Myths series. I somewhere that Atwood was originally working on a retelling of the Norse myths for the same series. Glad she did not take it up. This is provided in the series by A.S. Byatt’s retelling of the Norse apocalypse in the most brilliant and underrated book titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. A real treasure, that book is! My favourite myth retold though is not a Canongate book, but is Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, a retelling of Psyche and Cupid, from the point of view of Psyche’s sister – a haunting tale. What about you? Any retellings of myths or fairy tales that you would recommend?

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.
My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you’ll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.
In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together – so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people’s stories.

“But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily… Don’t you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”


I’ve not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson’s. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson’s writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It’s the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James’s national identity crisis. We look at James’s minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons’s lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don’t know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story – I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book… pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month!