Review: The Only Story

Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.

But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.

The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.

And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.

The Only Story, Julian Barnes © 2020

It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.

As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”

However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.

In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.

I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.

In Conversation: Haseeb Ahmed

The overlap between science and art is extremely large. In more ways than one, science and art are two sides of the same coin. Apart from glaring similarities in their principles, art is perhaps one of the most organic ways of communicating science (in my humble opinion). Through a series of interviews with my friends, colleagues and mentors, called “In Conversation”, I aim to explore this amalgamation of science and art and highlight all the times science and art converge in our daily lives without us actively realising it.

In the first installment of this series, I’ve interviewed Haseeb Ahmed, who, alongside being a dear friend and a self-declared film critic, is a bourgeoning physicist and a photographer. We talked about his major, his scientific interests and photography. He broke down the science behind some of his photographs and we discussed the prevalence of physics in photography and finally, the importance of photography to mankind.


What inspired you to study physics? Was there a specific moment that sparked an interest in you or was more like a slow process?

There was never really a eureka moment. I always liked science as a kid and enjoyed reading encyclopaedias. When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I received this electronic Lego set and I built some basic robots out of those; that was an interesting experience. I joined university as an electrical and computer engineering major but after my first year and after having taken some physics courses, I changed my major to physics and here we are. So, you could say it was a slow process.

Could you describe, in one sentence, the most exciting aspect of what you studied?

I think it’s very simple; everyone is curious to know how the universe and stuff around them works and that was also what was interesting for me.  

What about picking up photography as a hobby – how and when did that start?

I picked up photography when I was around 16. It was a free summer and I was looking for things to do or learn, and flipping through magazines and articles, great photographs caught my attention. I also came across the blog of a physicist turned photographer, Ming Thein and his consistency and style really inspired me. Over time, I got myself a small camera and started experimenting. I’ve always wanted to take part in something artistic and have some sort of creative output, and photography suited me best. I think I still have my first photograph somewhere around here.

As someone who has an eye for things/scenes/situations to photograph, could you recount a memory you have of something you looked at and immediately felt like you had to capture it?

A few years ago, my family and I went on this vacation among the mountains, and at some point, while we were driving there, I witnessed a scene where a strong sun beam was shining down on a river, which was flowing through a very steep valley. I remember asking my dad to stop the car so I could take a picture!

Has there ever been a moment, in your career, where physics and photography have intertwined, to create something meaningful?

That was when I was experimenting with astrophotography and took time lapses in the middle the night. It kind of gave me the opportunity to witness the motion of the universe…and I was also able to relate some things we had actually learned in class.

Why do you think photography is important to mankind?

Photography documents our lives. We’ve been recording our lives for the longest time and visual forms of this recording has always been important. I think anyone can take up photography and learn how to capture valuable moments. With a photograph, you can take a mundane subject and turn it into something worth remembering.


“Spectre”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2016

Tell me about this picture: the moment, the inspiration, all that.

The idea for the photograph started out when I was bored actually. It was pretty late into the night and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I set up my tripod to try something new.

Could you, as a physicist and a photographer, break down the science behind this picture? How did you capture the person at the computer in a blur, but the rest was all still?

Cameras basically operate by opening and closing a shutter and letting light fall onto a sensor(or film if you’re old school). If you’re trying to take a photograph of people in general everyday activities for example, you want to keep the shutter open for a few microseconds at most, since at those timescales, we seem to be frozen in place. Keep the shutter open for too long, and you get blurry photographs. Motion blur is usually seen as a nuisance but here by using a camera set up on a tripod and keeping the shutter open for a few seconds, I’m deliberately trying to add it to the photograph whilst keeping everything around me still.

Is there any artistic meaning behind this photo?

The motion amidst the static objects adds another element to the photo, a temporal moment. In a way, it conveys how fleeting any moment it.


“Through The Looking Glass”, Haseeb Ahmed, 2017

I have similar questions about this photo as well. Tell me about the moment you decided to capture whatever was happening around you and tell me about the science behind this picture.  

My mom was visiting me (in Bremen, Germany) and my host family and I were showing her around. And the thing about me is that when I go out, I often fall back from the group to take a few pictures or capture a moment that catches my eye. This is one of those pictures.

I like working with light, reflection and motion for my photographs and the many reflections   on these glass panes from the light falling on them made the scene other worldly, and added a feeling of ambiguity to it. There are all these figures you can’t make out on the right while on the left, you can see the ‘real world’. All of these elements put together made the moment worth taking a picture of.

Is there any artistic meaning behind picture as well?

It felt like there was a portal to another dimension and it looked like people were moving through that portal. You can’t see the people clearly; it’s as if they are in some sort of a transition and that was what seemed artistic to me.

Take a look at some more of Haseeb’s photography here.

Onwards and Upwards: 3 years and 1 journey later

Are you even a blogger-aspiring writer if you don’t write about your personal growth and experiences to share with a barely existing audience? I don’t know if I am, but this is something I am going to look back on, a few years down the line, and I’m putting this up on the internet, if you want to read it and draw even an ounce of motivation from it.

Graduation from an institution where one completes their undergraduate studies is not the greatest accomplishment in the world, nor is it worth endless appreciation and applause. It is an entirely different experience for everyone, in every generation of college students. But it is worth something — perhaps, a recognition for transitioning into adulthood and cultivating the ability to at least try to overcome the challenges life throws at us.

Three years ago, my choice to pursue an undergraduate degree in a place far from the comfort of home (but still incredibly comfortable), gave me the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and create an identity for myself — an identity that was still true to myself but past the trauma of my early adolescent years.

Campus Green, Jacobs University Bremen. Photo by: Haseeb Ahmed

In the beginning, things were more complex and volatile than I had ever imagined, and my deliberate, desperate attempts at changing my personality for the better were failing miserably. I was not going anywhere I wanted to be, I did not have a promising group of friends and my over-the-top university romantic comedy dream was nowhere close to being fulfilled. Top that up with advanced level organic chemistry no one prepared me for, a literal plethora of people and sentiments from countries I couldn’t even name, a constant homesickness and a sprained ankle that confined me to bed for three weeks. Quite naturally, within five months of being at university, I plunged into a kind of profound, confusing sadness; one that made me lock my doors and windows and hole myself up for hours on end.

But that, I can proudly say, is a thing of the past. With the understanding that only I could demolish the romanticised university experience I’d constructed for myself, I took a step back and realised that this here, was a group of people who knew nothing about my past and that they saw only what I showed them in the present. I could, in theory, be unabashedly myself and no one would know if I’d changed from the past or not. It took me a while to completely implement this: every time I made any sort of mistake, I felt the need to explain myself to someone, to show that I could do better, that I was better. I didn’t have to. We all err, and we all ask ourselves “why did I do that?”, but that’s an entirely personal conversation.

And that epiphany, I think, was really the turning point of my short university life. I did what I wanted, I liked, loved and disliked anyone I wanted, I pursued whatever and whoever I wanted — all of it, without hurting myself or the people around me. My unapologetic and somewhat fearless expression of myself brought me closer to the people I appreciated and needed, and took me away from those I didn’t. And today, I’m extremely happy with the people I am taking with me beyond the gates of the university.

During this process of learning about all that I was capable of and all that I wasn’t and throwing myself to things I loved, I fell in love with planning and organising, networking and applying. I fell in love with what my career could bring me if I prioritised, planned and executed. Some extremely ambitious friends and my professors propelled me further. This newfound appreciation and ambition put me on a path that is beautifully tailored for me, and even though traversing it is not going to be easy, I am truly and madly excited to do so.

Nearly everything about the intercultural and competitive environment that my university is set in, accumulated over time to make me the person I have become. And wherever I go next, I don’t think I’ll have to try so hard to ‘turn over a new leaf’ anymore.

And who thought we’d graduate amidst a pandemic? Photo By: Usharvi Basu

At this point, I don’t want to give out unsolicited advice; I am no motivational speaker and I haven’t conquered anything much in life. However, I do want to say this: university is a little crazy and lots of wonderful. It’s difficult, without question. But what’s on the other side, doesn’t matter for now, because it’s important — imperative, almost — to take, understand and cherish every day of the journey. And the worst of times will get better, if you work for it. You truly have to be the change you want to see in your life and also the world.

So, in conclusion, through many conventional and unconventional firsts, waves of confusion and sadness mixed with ecstasy and love, unspeakable (false) rumours, buckets full of all kinds of tears, high school like infatuations, grades that I’m proud of and not proud of, and, finally, odd amounts of spontaneity, I made it. It’s a bittersweet feeling: the past three years have given me space to fail, learn and grow and has kept me unscathed by the brutal world outside, but now, and rightly so, it’s time to move on.

Oh, and I found my rom-com dream, in case you were wondering.


P.S. This is what I wrote when I first moved to University: https://themisfitssite.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/the-unusual/ (cringe)

Review: Salvage The Bones

Salvage The Bones is a visceral, true to reality novel of a poor family of six in the eye of the storm – Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the United States of America in August 2005. The costliest tropical cyclone on record, the aftermath of the storm was nothing short of catastrophic. After having taking nearly 2000 lives and causing hundreds of billions of dollars in material damage, Katrina displaced almost one million people in the gulf coast region [1].

Salvage The Bones is also a story of love in the ugliest of places, filial affection amidst gut-wrenching poverty and strength where there is no strength to find.

Esch is 15. Esch and her brother, Randall are default parents to their youngest brother Junior, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have a mother. Esch adores her brother Skeetah, who in turn, only has eyes for his prized pit bull, China — so much so that he often sleeps in the dog shed. Esch is also pregnant and the father of the child won’t look Esch in the eye, won’t acknowledge Esch.

As the motherless family that lives among abandoned cars and chickens prepares for the disaster that’s about to hit them, there are other matters at hand that need to be dealt with first: an alcoholic father, a basketball match that could give Randall a much longed for scholarship, illegal pit bull matches, and a not so secret teenage pregnancy. But for the Baptiste children, it’s all going to be okay, because all that matters in the end is their unbreakable relationship with each other.

Jesmyn Ward writes like she’s not afraid, like she wants to rip open wounds. She uses extremely powerful prose and sets graphic scenes; so graphic that you will shudder in disgust and get carried away in the deluge of it. But this graphic setting is important, because it forms the backbone of Esch’s world. In Esch’s world, there’s parallels with China, because China is a mother and a fighter and that’s what Esch wants to be.

“She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.”

– Salvage the bones

Esch is an unlikely heroine, unlike the teenage girl stereotypes we are faced with. She’s the kind of heroine that strikes a chord in you, one that you’re going to root for even when the book is over, one that the world needs right about now.

From forceful depictions of reality, Ward dives into poetic metaphor, describing everything, from Oak trees and magnolias and the wood, to Esch’s undying love for the father of her child, Manny. “Seeing him broke the cocoon of my rib cage, and my heart unfurled to fly.”

But this book’s most striking feature is not Esch’s confusing yet love-filled world, but Skeetah’s undying passion for his beloved dog, China, feelings that are mutual. Here, the story is about the unconditional bond forged between a man and his dog. Ward is a magician in describing the relationship that Skeetah and China have.

Ward’s expression is so vivid and raw that you will feel the sultry heat of the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage stick to your skin and you will feel the ache of unrequited love in your heart. When the storm finally arrives, what Esch calls home — The Pit — is home no more, but war zone. Ward, who lived through Katrina herself, describes the storm with never seen before intensity; an intensity that almost hurts. When the sky is finally clear and the residents step out of the debris, you cannot help but imagine yourself standing in the rubble. And from Katrina too, Esch draws inspiration, for she is a female with unprecedented strength.

“Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

– Salvage the bones

Salvage The Bones is an urgent book, a book that, above everything, unties the box known as privilege. In times like these, Ward’s narrative stands out because she has a story to tell, and she wants the monstrosity to show. She demands strong emotions from the reader. Ward does not shy away from having an uncomfortable conversation whilst also drowning you in poetry, and in the process, she creates a masterpiece.

~Ushashi

[1] https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/hurricane-katrina

Review: Origin

Each time Dan Brown writes a new book, he speaks in detail of a new socio-religious conundrum or an unanswered question at the cusp of Science and Religion: the usual these things that make his books worth waiting for. What’s the question going to be? But then you hear “Robert Langdon” and your expectations lower a little bit.

It’s always exciting to learn what new race-against-time our favourite professor of ‘symbology’ is going to be involved in this time around, but the entire premise is a bit redundant – an overbearing amount of information on religious symbols, a guided tour of a historically relevant city and a gorgeous independent-not so-independent woman cast opposite Langdon (or Tom Hanks, as you like it). Origin, Brown’s latest addition to “The Adventurous adventures of Robert Langdon” is no different.

Origin, 2017

Langdon and his lady (here, Ambra Vidal, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and engaged to the fictional Prince of Spain) aside, Origin’s co-protagonist is Edmond Kirsch, a futurist and an all-knowing master of technology. His predictions of the future have always been accurate and he has created technology beyond a 2017-human being’s perception or imagination. Kirsch is also a devout atheist and doesn’t shy away from publicly deriding and denouncing religion; he ardently believes that one day, the religion of science will dawn upon us. So, when he tells the leaders of the world’s religions that he has discovered something that will shatter the foundations of their faith and shake humanity to the core, you’re on the edge. Edmond’s dramatic narration in the first half builds up nearly all the adrenaline in your body.

But between Edmond’s introduction in the prologue and his much anticipated announcement, there’s almost a 100 pages of a very detailed and meticulous tour through the Guggenheim Museum. For those entirely uninterested in modern and abstract art, I suggest you skip.

Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, 2017. Photo By: Ushashi Basu

So let’s say you’ve finally arrived at the point where Kirsch appears out of smoke and is literally *this* close to his “stunning” reveal. Enter religious zealot hired by a shady, anonymous organisation who shoots Kirsch in the head and runs. What follows is the most intriguing yet boring plot ever: a high-stakes chase through Spain’s coveted tourist spots, explained like you were on a Wikipedia page.

For nearly 7 pages in the middle of a hunt, Brown describes Basilica de La Sagrada Familia, its architecture, its history, its social influence, its contribution to…you get the point. And Sagrada Familia isn’t the only one victim to Brown’s exposition – there’s the Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Royal Palace in Madrid, bridges in Budapest, Winston Churchill, Antoni Gaudi and so on. Every time there’s something like that, you hit a lull in your reading momentum.

You get there though, to Kirsch’s discovery. And by the time you get there, there’s also almost 200 million people tuning into the revelation, thanks to Edmond’s posthumous fame and Ambra, the future queen of Spain.

The discovery is beautifully penned and unquestionably explained. Brown has done more than enough research and it’s visible. Here, there are no loopholes and all the pieces of the puzzle fit. The questions Brown addresses are questions we’ve all asked at some point: Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Edmond Kirsch, however, makes it sound like this is something entirely unprecedented and that our fundamentals as human beings will be doubted. After nearly 400 pages of stalling, exploring and feeling foolish every time Kirsch’s research was mentioned, you hear what Kirsch had to say, albeit through a pre-recorded presentation. But it isn’t as crazy as it’s made out to be. Anyone with the knowledge and memory of high-school biology and any technological skill whatsoever would’ve been able to tell. Once you sort of crack one code, it all seems rather obvious (this includes the identity of the anonymous caller). It is commendable though: Brown keeps you guessing even though you knew the answer all along.

In retrospect, if Brown had really written a discovery that would’ve shaken us, he’d have received much more media attention than he is used to.

Dan Brown exaggerates and uses hyperbole all too much. He pulls a lot of things out of proportion and gives us part-novel, part fact-sheets. Instead of using character development, he uses 2-pages of modifiers to establish his characters. But he also brings to light questions that are central to human existence and our civilisations and writes a book that’s well paced and factually accurate. And through the good and the bad and the predictability, Brown’s books are as entertaining as ever.

A Pandemic, Digitalisation and Us

So here we are — in the 4th month of the new decade, a year where we all thought we had 2020 vision. But things couldn’t have possibly gone anymore astray. We’re caught in the middle of something that is spreading by leaps and bounds and will undoubtedly change the course of our lives, society and the future.

The first wave of COVID-19 news came in January, after having been identified in December 2019. But in January, we were worrying about the Australian bush fires and discussing Brexit.

And before we knew it and at a speed we are all still trying to fathom, the virus was everywhere. Literally everywhere, resulting in this global health emergency. It was declared a pandemic by WHO on the 11th of March.

COVID-19 is the name that has been coined to refer to the respiratory illness caused by the novel Coronavirus, also known as the Sars-CoV-2. Indicative symptoms include shortness of breath and dry cough, accompanied by fever and fatigue. Whether the disease is air-borne is still under debate, but it has been confirmed to be spreading through close contact and respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs [1], and is most contagious when the person is symptomatic [2]. As much as we all are vulnerable to the virus, senescent people and people with underlying medical conditions are at the forefront. Not to forget all the healthcare workers, who are constantly in contact with those exhibiting symptoms.

As a result, the scientific community, universities and biological companies across the world have come together at an unprecedented speed to understand the virus and to develop a vaccine that could bring things back in control.

But then again, aren’t so many things about this entire situation unprecedented? It’s overwhelming and just the right amount of chaotic.

And here’s why: the mass digitalisation we’re all subject to. This is our battle not only with a virus (that you can kill with soap, when outside your body) but also digitalisation.

Because of the pandemic, we’re all more connected than ever. Our potential — as creatures who’ve developed this level of connectivity and as organisms who will stay connected with each other no matter what — is being realised at a behemoth scale. With every online class and midterm, with every online homeschooling lesson, with every grandma calling her grandchildren, with every star live-streaming their concert, the world is becoming a little more connected; each of these activities reinforces the fact that no one is too young or old to learn how to use technology. We’re all learning through innovation and creativity. It’s almost Utopian on certain levels. Alan Rusbridger, chair of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, has described this as an opportunity for people to imagine “a world recast through virtual networks.” [3]

We’re all trying our level best to keep up with one another and loved ones; the situation has given me the chance to reconnect with people I thought I’d never hear from again. And I’m sure we’ve all discovered that there’s nothing that we used do on a regular basis that we cannot do online (all those meetings that could have been emails…).


But to every bright and beautiful thing, there is a deep seated ugliness. And this time around, this ugliness is disguised as misinformation and panic. Thanks to the entire internet at our fingertips, immense amounts of time in our hands and uncertainty induced fear in our heads, misinformation is on a rampage.

As if daily updates from the WHO, our work institution and news outlets weren’t enough, there’s unsolicited chain messages on WhatsApp, conspiracy theories (fun to read, not to believe) and our friendly neighbourhood YouTuber ready to inform us of something new and share with us opinions, when all that matters right now are facts, correct scientific facts. In a time where we don’t know how each day is going to turn out, panic because someone couldn’t hold their breath for more than 10 seconds is the last thing we need [4].

Avoiding misinformation may seem difficult — how do you separate wheat from chaff? Almost everything on the internet seems reliable and there is always the looming trap of confirmation bias.

Trust the experts. Trust the experts writing for established sources – The New York Times, The Guardian, the World Health Organisation etc. Trust in science. If any piece of information seems even slightly off, cross-check it with these sources. And most importantly, treat the misinformation like the virus and don’t pass it on [5]. It’s really not that difficult to tell fake news apart — drinking truck loads of alcohol is NOT going to disinfect our systems.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best.

It is imperative that we use the means of communication at our disposal in the right ways – to work from home, catch up with friends over video calls, watch Netflix and stay optimally informed – not too much, not too little.

If we cannot fight digitalisation at its worst, we do not deserve it at its best. How we emerge from this pandemic could change how we communicate in the future, and this change is going to be for the better.

Use these mediums to spread positivity, if anything. Emphasize the need to stay at home, share with people how you’re keeping yourself entertained during isolation. Articulate through videos and messages that every single one of us has the power to save the world and that our social responsibility is greater than we can imagine. This is our chance to live our childhood dreams of becoming a superhero, crazy as that may sound. This is not just about protecting ourselves, but also our communities and everyone around us. Highlight the fact that collective decisions we make today will impact millions of people in the next year. [6]

All of this will pass and we will be reunited. None of our brunch mimosas or arcade dates are going anywhere. Everything will fall back into place but in due time. And the sooner we mutually agree on that, the better. And among the many things we will gain out of this, our understanding of human relationships will particularly stand out. We will love each other a little more, hate each other a little less. We will cancel fewer plans and we will worry less.

About a very distant image of the Earth, Carl Sagan said, “…it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” It couldn’t be more appropriate than it is today.

Pale Blue Dot, as taken from the Voyager Space 1 probe, 1990


References:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/how-long-coronavirus-last-surfaces.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_disease_2019

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/29/coronavirus-fears-rediscover-utopian-hopes-connected-world

[4] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters

[5] https://medium.com/@alicefleerackers/covid-19-misinformation-more-viral-than-any-virus-a3b4d3e07890

[6] https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/196496/coronavirus-pandemic-could-have-caused-40/

Review: A Man Called Ove

In 6th grade, my friend told me that “cute” wasn’t really an adjective, that anything could be cute without any meaning. But if someone asked me to describe A Man Called Ove in one word, I would, without question choose “cute”. It is nothing but heart-achingly cute.

Frederick Backman’s 2014 debutante was not an instant hit: nobody really wanted to read the story of a Swedish curmudgeon waiting on his death. The book only became popular by word-of-mouth; someone must have read it and told all his acquaintances, “You have to read this book! Ove is horrible but you’ll love him!”

A Man Called Ove, 2014

Ove (pronounced “Oove-eh”) is a despicable man doing despicable things in his neighbourhood — kicking cats, calling people names, barking orders and thinking everyone is complete idiot. Simply put, he hates everyone and everything. He’s never known anything beyond his principles and his routine. All of this grumpy and inflexible behaviour changes however, when a noisy family of four moves in next to him, and knocks on Ove’s door at every step of the way. Suddenly, Ove’s quiet

life turned upside down and he is doing things he’d always grumbled about. The matriarch-like figure in the house next door, Parvaneh, makes it her responsibility to thaw Ove’s heart the minute she meets him and the relationship that evolves is incredibly heartwarming.

Over 340 pages, Ove’s story beautifully unfolds, going back to a time when his life wasn’t as black and white as you’d initially make it out to be. There is longstanding sadness and frustration within him and beneath the many layers of anger, there is softness, warmth and a soft spoken man who was once in deep,deep love. How he got to his present state is a detail I will not indulge in. I must mention Ove’s relationship with his wife, because it will, undoubtedly restore your faith in the immense amount of love we’re all capable of, loyalty and strength, especially in times of adversity.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”

A MAN called Ove

Backman writes with a tone of softness that is contagious. There is simplicity in his prose, making the book an emotional yet light read. He knows just when and how to pull at your heart strings and when you make you laugh. The balance between sadness and happiness in the book is almost perfect.

Although the book doesn’t take the reader through much of a journey, the journey here is Ove’s; it is his coming-of-age story, albeit at 59. All sorts of endearing, A Man Called Ove creates a soft spot in your heart and a filial bond with Ove. It’s one of those books you cannot predict anything about after having read only a few pages but it is also those books you cannot give up on. Once you get a glimpse into the gears inside Ove’s mind, you’ll want to see the book to the end.

A Man Called Ove is a book about love and loss, frustration and triumph, confusion and clarity and breaking and fixing — all of which leaves you a bit fuzzy and sad on the inside. Pick this book up if you want to fly and cry through unconventional and conventional love in the most unlikely of people and places.

Review: On Writing – A Memoir of The Craft

“The scariest moment is always right before you start. After that, things can only get better”. Buried away in the final pages of the book, this piece of advice was what pushed me to finally come around and write a review on On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. Writing a review of a book that gives you tips on how to become a better writer, written by one of the greatest storytellers of our generation is a mammoth task. A bit unfair to Stephen King, in my opinion.

But I’m still going to undertake the above-mentioned task for one reason, and one reason only: to see if I learnt anything at all from Mr. King.

On Writing — “part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer” as described by The Guardian in their review of this ‘entertaining non-fiction’ — unravels Stephen King’s journey towards becoming the writer he is today.

Before indulging into the tools and techniques every writer must have, King recounts and narrates loose anecdotes of his childhood and adolescent years. Perhaps the most prominent of these anecdotes is how he was inspired to write Carrie (1974), King’s first published novel. He also gives readers a glimpse of his writing habits throughout his life — something he had to fit into this odd-job schedule for many years.

King speaks openly about all the rejection he had faced in his early years and how he dealt with it — by hanging them all by a hook on the wall near his writing table. It’s inspiring, to those dealing with rejection, but what’s more inspiring is how King landed his first publishing offer and how much he was paid for it (perhaps we all ought to give rejections their moment of glory). Of course, there was no looking back after that for King.

King’s tips on writing and on writing better — in the book sections Tools and On Writing — are almost invaluable and absolutely irreplaceable. If there’s anyone out there looking for any success as a writer, On Writing is your first, most important tool. Then comes everything Stephen King mentions. King’s advice is precise and honest and by leaps and bounds, better than any language and composition book ever written. And you’ve gotta give it to the man — he’s a best-selling author with a net worth of about $400 million.

But “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends”, says King. “In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy okay? Getting happy.” A King’s words, literally and figuratively.

King doesn’t philosophise or burden you with a hundred different things you’re doing wrong and could do better. Instead, he engages in an open, friendly conversation with you. His advice is structured — he lays it out like a jigsaw puzzle and carefully pieces it together, keeping his entire endeavour simple but extremely effective. From the importance of keeping all distractions away from your writing room to the waste of time that writing camps apparently are, King covers it all. While there are large amounts of things to take away from this book, the one that’s going to stay with me the longest would be “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

Stephen king

When On Writing was published, “Long live the King”, Entertainment Weekly hailed, which is ironic, since this book was nearly not going to happen. Which brings me to the my last point: how writing made King’s life “a brighter and more pleasant place”. After a rogue accident and a near brush with death that left his lungs collapsed, performing every day-to-day activity was unfathomably challenging for King. And so was writing. But it was his intrinsic urge for writing and the peace that writing gave him that brought him back, and with purpose. In other, slightly exaggerated words, writing saved his life.

All I can say is that every writer and aspiring writer out there must read this book, and over and over again. I know I will.

(Oh, and King mentions his wife — Tabitha King, a novelist herself — at every chance he gets. If there isn’t a chance, he makes it. Cutest)

Review: The Death of Expertise

“The Death Of Expertise” is an important book about an important topic – the death of expertise (no brownie points for guessing).

Tom Nichols, an academic specialist on international affairs and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, takes to the page to lament about, criticise, analyse and lay out solutions to this behemoth issue that has plagued every society. Although Nichols talks exclusively of the American population, the issue he addresses is not unfamiliar to anybody in a different country.

If I had to use one word to describe the book, I’d choose “terrifying”. The Death of Expertise is indeed scary; its discussion of the future of humanity and the future of knowledge makes this piece of non-fiction nothing short of a horror story (based on true events). With accurate and detailed statistics and reports from writers before him, Nichols elaborately describes how vulnerable and gullible we are before the Internet.

Starting with the rift between experts and laypeople that has slowly widened, Nichols elucidates on the flaws of the commercialisation and capitalisation of the education system (especially at the undergraduate level), the bane of all kinds of information being available one click away, our inability to separate wheat from chaff and the demise of journalism.

The Death Of Expertise grossly generalises society, but then again, just like the information, how can one tell apart experts who have spent years specialising on a subject from someone who spent the wee hours the morning on a search engine? The generalisation makes sense when you realise that we’re at a point in time where everyone knows a little bit about everything, right?

Knowing things is not the same as understanding them. Comprehension is not the same thing as analysis. Expertise is not a parlour game played with factoids.

tom nichols, the death of expertise, 2017

Tom Nichols also talks at length about confirmation bias – a tendency to search for, interpret and favour information that confirms one’s already held belief – and how it robs us of our ability to have constructive and insightful conversations with people, which also includes experts who generally know more about a subject than laymen do. We conveniently handpick what we want to read on the internet and the algorithm then shows us the same thing, over and over again. This vanquishes any possibility of encountering anything that refutes our opinions.

The book gets rather depressing eventually and somewhat redundant. It feels as though there is hardly any solution to the problem and that all of humanity is pretty much doomed. It circles back to the same thing in the end – our inability to efficiently deal with the media at our disposal.

While reading the book, it is easy to constantly tell yourself “I’m not like that” and “I know how to find the right thing on the internet” – which is why, it is important to read the book from an external perspective, detached from your ego. The Death of Expertise is not about comparing yourself with the rest of the population, but understanding the depth of the situation and addressing it without spewing hate or anger.

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction – this may have only been my second or third – and it was truly an eye-opening read. It left me baffled and nonchalant all at once whilst also enlightening me. Nichols’ tone of concern throughout the book is very contagious; you’re suddenly worried about everything you’ve ever known.

I’d recommend this book to anyone wishing to discern how we arrived at this distressing state of affairs, but if you’re one of those people who are already flustered about the influx of information and its misuse, then I wouldn’t encourage reading it.

To be honest, it does give you one other massive thing to worry about, like there isn’t a lot on our minds already.

Review: A Little Life

“Of all the books in the world, why did you choose to read this one?” screamed my friend at my face as I pulled the big book out of my bag while we waited for our appointment. I told him that it had been recommended to me by someone I trusted wholeheartedly with book recommendations. I was barely 20 pages in and extremely excited for what the book had in store for me and so, I scowled at my friend for crushing my hopes. Little did I know that I was in for a read of a lifetime – yes, read of a lifetime.

For the first fifty or so pages, A Little Life seems like any other book set in the heart of New York – big city, big dreams and four friends fresh out of college, maneuvering their way through this chaos. They work, they complain, they go to parties and they go to art galleries and they throw parties – a standard but well painted picture. But 50 pages out 720 tells you nothing. What unfolds through the rest of the book is perhaps, one of the (if not most) harrowing and painful literary journey.

Jean-Baptiste Marion (JB), Malcolm Irvine, Willem Ragnarsson and Jude St. Francis (I’ve added their full names for dramatic effect) are out of university and…lost. They hold on to each other while the tide plays with their ambitions. We know that JB is an aspiring artist and Malcolm a budding architect, that Willem wishes to become an actor one day and Jude is a lawyer and mathematician. However, the book, that took Yanagihara eighteen months to write, spans over a time period of thirty years and so, friendships and relationships and careers and houses are fleeting.

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

A Little life

As the book progresses, two of the characters achieve their dreams and some characters slowly step away from the limelight of the narrative and it becomes evident that everything – the past, the present and the future – revolves around one character and one character only: Jude St. Francis. The book becomes a biography of a fictional character, stitched together by his friends, his colleagues, his doctor and confidante, his adoptive parents and most importantly, his past. Nobody really knows Jude (for a significant part of the book, at least), who he is and where he comes from and why he is so incredibly reclusive – and yet, they exist for as long as he exists; they exist because he exists.

Through hyperbole and exaggeration that she has admitted to using, Hanya Yanagihara describes the battle that life is when one has to live with chronic trauma and depression. She explores human suffering in all its forms and its origins and whether it truly ever ends, but at the same time, takes on unconditional friendship and what it means to be a true friend in a time when deteriorating mental health and anxiety is rampant. The extent of the trauma and the countered friendship are both grossly overstated – to the point that both of them are equally painful. The author tends to drag her readers through a bed of nails to truly emphasize her point and very often, this feels rather unnecessary. There’s only so much devastation and ache one can take; I found myself vomiting after certain parts of the book.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, 2015

A Little Life forces on you emotions and thoughts so profound and so tormenting that you’re often frantically searching for consolation in any form – either in an acquaintance who has read the book or cute kitten videos. There’s also a dearth of emotional counterpoint in the book – there is no relief or moment of deliverance anywhere. At about the 430th page begins the segment “The Happy Years” and one would think those years are truly happy and things look brighter for every character. It does and there’s a weight that’s lifted off your shoulders, but this is only the calm before the storm; things only get inexplicably worse. The lack of redemption creates an intense feeling of frustration that could drive you mad. You’re searching for a glimmer of hope like a child at a treasure hunt which keeps you turning the pages until you realise its over and you made it through Yanagihara’s ultimate test of patience and tolerance.

Without question, the prose is exceptionally eloquent, shifting smoothly between the past and the present. It takes immense artistic capability to able to write the way Yanagihara has and she truly makes the most of her role as a puppeteer. She wields her power to the most of her capability, which in turn, gives the reader a guileless experience. It took me a whole month and two days to finish the book – the most it has ever taken me to finish a book – and I cannot say I am disappointed. The story is no Pandora’s box, but more of a very difficult maze that one is navigating while also profusely crying.

A Little Life took a little part of my life with it when it was over. It taught me a great number of things, especially about friendship. I have a tight group of friends and the three of us have been kindred spirits for a long time now, in spite of having been separated by cruel distances. It’s one of the most unconditional expressions of love I have known and this book taught me how much more I need to love them, how much more I need to trust them and how much kinder I need to be to them; that life won’t let me say goodbye when I would need to.

Crying with Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm is a very emotionally expensive task but there’s no other way out of this book other than completely immersing one’s self in the misery and magic of it all.

Remember how in The Fault in Our Stars Hazel Grace says that The Imperial Affliction (her favourite piece of fiction) was the kind of book “that fills you with this weird evangelical zeal and you become convinced that the shattered world would never be put back together until every living human has read the book”? A Little Life is one of those books.

No review, no movie and no verbose explanation could do justice to the emotion that this book is. It’s nearly impossible to capture the essence of the book in any way other than reading it. I just hope I’ve been able to inspire at least one person to read the book. Despite the excessive and awe-inspiring melodrama and the disgusting amounts of pain, everyone (except those going through any kind of physical or mental distress, in which case I very strongly recommend against it) needs to pick this masterpiece up. It’s entirely worth it.

Ushashi Basu