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

The Creativity of Dreams and How to Manifest Them

The idea to write a piece on the interconnection between dreams and creativity came to me in a dream. I’ve dreamt entire plots of great thriller novels and even their sequels. But this is not just me, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Dreaming is a process that occurs voluntarily in the mind, mostly during specific times of sleep. It can be described as a collection of clips, images, feelings and memories – both good and bad. The intensity and the contents of dreams change throughout the sleep cycle, with the most significant of them occurring during REM – Rapid Eye Movement – phase of the sleep. Brain activity is highest during this phase (as measured by encephalograms), which could explain the vividness in dreaming. While dreaming, the brain connects events that have occurred throughout the day, thereby weaving narratives.

Creativity, on the other hand, is one of the human mind’s most inexplicable qualities. It has historically been extremely difficult to determine what creativity stems from. A friend, who studies psychology told me that creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology. Creativity is known to create new connections between different brain regions, but only recently have neuroscientists, through fMRI’s, PET Scans and other scanning technologies, been able to study creativity more closely.

Quite unsurprisingly, dreaming and creativity are closely intertwined with each other, so much so that it is almost impossible to study one without the other. Because the brain stitches stories about everything and everyone we encounter, it could lead to the birth of novel ideas, and developing on this idea could quite possibly help sharpen our creativity (even for those who are always whining about how they’re not creative…at all). Dreams have proven to be inspirational – affecting the whole world kind of inspirational – multiple times in the past; in 1818, Mary Shelley dreamt of a scientist who created life and went on to write Frankenstein, one of the most influential science-fiction works of all time. Italian composer and violinist Giuseppe Tartini composed his most famous work “Devil’s Trill Sonata” after the devil played the tune to him by his bedside in a dream. During dreaming and during creative processes, dopamine level increases in the “pleasure centres” of the brain, and this acts as a positive feedback loop to keep dreams and ideas constantly flowing.

“Creativity is a bit of a can of worms in psychology!”

Ignacio Muñoz, research assistant and undergraduate student of Psychology, Jacobs University Bremen.

It is not entirely difficult then, especially for those already creatively inclined, to manifest their creative dreams and project them into prose, poetry and other forms of art. The product can, quite easily be superior to those produced during wakefulness, simply because of the enhanced brain activity.

But is it possible to use this aspect of dreaming in fostering creativity without actually sleeping? Perhaps.

In his book “Writing: A Memoir of The Craft”, Stephen King writes that in both activities, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum of rational thinking.” It is absolutely feasible to train our brain and our mind to silence itself during any time of the day and push it into a where the brain activity does not manifest as physical activity. Daydreaming for example, is one situation where our mind wanders and gives rise to sudden bursts of creative ideas.

Another way to embody creative dreams is dream recall. As unbelievable as it might be (from experience), it is possible to completely recall all our dreams and then, note it down. A key factor that influences our ability to recall dreams is the speed at which we fall asleep and at which we wake up. The longer the state of our hypnagogia – a state of half wakefulness and half sleep – especially when we are waking up, the better our memory of the dream. And if the dream is ingrained in the brain as a memory, it could be used a ‘plot’ for another dream, and the cycle goes on. Relaxing into bed and gradually letting our body take control, hence, could have drastic effects on our creativity. The only people who have very minimal dream recall ability are usually clinically depressed, according to studies, but that is a different aspect of discussion altogether.

Either way, writing books or a plot for a movie based on a dream is not only achievable, but also encouraged. All of our crazy, erratic dreams could be our brain trying to tell us a story, a story that holds the potential to become a great work of art. At the least, it could push each and every one of us to create without any kind of inhibition. We need as much art as possible in the world – philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that good art is a vehicle of truth – and so, maybe it would be wise to harvest anything that allows more art to be created.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and finish the three part dystopian tale I’ve been dreaming of for years.


Ushashi Basu


For more, visit:

https://time.com/4737596/sleep-brain-creativity/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream

https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/14/stephen-king-on-writing-and-creative-sleep/

Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars, E.Lockhart, 2013

“Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair Family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure.”

So begins the story of Cadence Sinclair Eastman, the oldest grandchild of a family that is so filthy rich that don’t have to worry about anything at all; they own multiple estates across The United States and they spend their summers on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts (there’s a nice little map of the island inside!).

We Were Liars aims to explore the complicacies of broken families and the avarice of self-centred adults through the eyes of innocent teenagers and deals with multiple, interconnected relationships that are more complex than they appear, but given the nature of these relationships, the narrative could have been more compelling.

Initially, the book seems like any other simple, generic young adult novel about a teenager brooding about her blooming love life; there are indeed multiple moments where it does take that turn – Cadence falls in love with the idea of love, describing her love interest as “ambition and strong coffee” and is constantly complaining about her privilege. However, the story eventually takes a darker turn and the events that unfold towards the end are absolutely jaw-dropping shocking. Although the most of the book does not invoke too many emotions, the twist at the end is worth reading through the rest of it.

The prose is broken,

like this

sometimes,

which makes the book very laborious to read at times. Although it aims to give a glimpse of Cadence’s thought process and what it is like to be her – with her excruciating migraines and her extremely privileged family – it becomes rather difficult to sympathise with her. There are more dynamic characters that play a role in Cadence’s life, but there is very little that describes these characters and why they are the way they are.

There is a general sense of discomfort while reading this book – but it is hard to determine whether this stems from the broken sentences, the part of the plot that remains incomplete (forever) or the sense of what’s yet to come.

Personally, I think the book could have been more emotional and longer; I was ready to invest a lot more into it than I did. I wish I could write more about the book in this review, but there isn’t much to write about, unfortunately.

Overall, We Were Liars is a light read and very easy to fly through in spite of the dark ending. It’s worth a read if you’re a fan of simple plots and light-hearted young adult novels.

Life As A Synaesthete – A Colourful Chaos

Around 1 to 3% of the people in the world have Synaesthesia – a neurological condition that is characterised by the involuntary stimulation of multiple, unrelated sensory or cognitive pathways at the same time, leading to several interconnected sensory experiences. An example of Synaesthesia would be the association of colours with alphabets and numbers – someone who suffers from grapheme-colour Synaesthesia identifies each alphabet or number with a specific colour and cannot possibly imagine any set of alphabets that is not coloured.

First described in detail in 1880 by Sir Francis Galton, the phenomenon was more often than not ousted as ‘crazy’ and considered an anomaly in society. Fearing ostracism, synaesthetes, for generations, have rarely spoken of their condition; most of them keep it a secret their entire lives.

Synaesthetic experiences don’t just stop at associating letters with colours. Every logical combination of senses – sometimes even more than 2 – can lead to Synaesthesia and there are about 80 documented types of Synaesthesia. Chromesthesia, the most common form of synaethesia, allows the synaesthete to visualise colours in different shapes and forms as soon as they hear any note of music; the opposite also holds true.

Now imagine being able to see every hour, every day, every week and every month of the year before you, carefully laid out in the form of a staircase or a chessboard or a ladder kept at rest. Everything is colour-coded – vacations, weekends, exam days and birthdays – and no colour repeats itself. Your to-do list floats around in this endless space and fits like pieces of a puzzle in this intricate network. Each day that passes by takes you to the next block, like you’re a pawn in a game your brain is playing with time. This madness is known as Sequence-Space Synaesthesia and this is what my brain looks like.

I’m not crazy and I’m not alone, however. Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, everyone’s favourite Billie Eilish, music composer Hans Zimmer, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynmann, actress Marilyn Monroe and perpetually misunderstood creative legend Vincent van Gogh – all suffer(ed) from Synaesthesia. For centuries, Synaesthesia has been used extensively as a literary device to describe the intermingling of senses of the protagonist. Although references to Synaesthesia can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, it became extensively popular in the 19th century in the works of poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. It is also found in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and other works of the 20th and 21st century. In most of these works of literature, Synaesthesia appears as pathologies, romantic ideals or emotional completeness, as Patricia Lynn Duffy writes in the Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia.

As much as a synaesthete’s mind is mostly absolute chaos, it also serves as a sink of creativity, especially for grapheme-colour synaesthetes and chromesthetes. Such individuals are skilled at using their ability to indulge in and excel at complex creative activites such as music, art and theatre. With my Sequence-Space Synaesthesia, all I ever do is organise and schedule and schedule and organise; the word ‘deadline’, in all its representations in popular culture does not scare me and time holds no meaning for me – it’s a game I need to finish. The upside of having SSS is that I can remember birthdays and anniversaries with an almost freakish accuracy.

How one acquires Synaesthesia is still rather ambiguous – while some researchers believe that it runs in families, it is also believed that brain damage or trauma to the head can result in the development of Synaesthesia. Another theory suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – substitution of a single nucleotide at a specific position in the genome – results in decreased pruning or decreased inhibition and increased activation in the synaesthete brain. Cross-talk between different regions of the brain may also account for different forms of Synaesthesia.

One thing to remember about Synaesthesia though, is that it is not a disease and is not directly harmful. Most synaesthetic experiences are pleasant or neutral, but there are reports of these experiences leading to sensory overload. For example, although the Sequence-Space Synaesthesia doesn’t affect me in any kind of social setting, it makes me extremely prone to severe panic attacks about the things I still need to do (even if it is in a year). Something that has helped me keep these moments at bay is Bullet Journaling – systematically and warily noting down everything I have to do, including attending a party, gives me a peace of mind nothing else does.

Synaesthetes often assume that everyone sees the world the same way they do; it comes as a setback (and sometimes as an existential crisis) to know that this way of looking at commonplace things is not all that common. Talking about it may give synaesthetes a different perspective on this condition, but most just don’t mention it and it works. For all we know, it is as normal as breathing.

Ushashi Basu

For more, visit:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/what-it-s-like-to-live-with-synaesthesia-a7079241.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

http://uksynaesthesia.com/

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Lydia is dead, and her family doesn’t know about it yet – that’s not a spoiler, that’s just how the book starts. Her body is later found in the local lake and questions like “Why was she there?” or “Did someone lure her there?” arise. One would think then, that Everything I Never Told You, in its 292 pages, investigates all the plausible reasons that could have lead to Lydia’s unexpected death – like most literary thrillers – but that’s far from what the book is about; as a matter of a fact, there is not much (if any) investigation at all.

It’s 1977, in a small, deserted, almost eerie town in Ohio, and the first thing you’d notice would be the Lee Family – half Chinese, half American. They’re misfits and all they ever do is worry about the stares they receive from colleagues, neighbours and strangers. The children are a funny mixture of black hair and blue eyes, something that almost never happened in the time frame the book is set in. And quite naturally, this ostracism causes the family to just balance on a very tightly strung tight rope; every action, every word counts. Lydia’s death topples them all over.

In a haunting page-turner, Celeste Ng explores how deep seated racial prejudices are and how it seeps into familial relationships. The book asks questions and talks about issues in a way that plunges the reader into a feeling of frustration and sadness – so much so that there were moments I didn’t want to finish the book. Each character invokes very strong emotions, ranging from uncontrollable anger to heart-wrenching pity and in spite of fundamental flaws in the Lee’s and everyone associated with them, one cannot choose sides. It’s incredibly painful to read of all the things that go unsaid – you almost feel like a chained spectator, helplessly watching the family fray at its edges and the drama unfold. Through the entirety of the book, there’s a stagnant nagging feeling of grief and misery tugging at your heart – almost like having a lump in your throat but the tears never coming.

“People decide what you’re like before they even get to know you.”

Everything I never Told You, Celeste Ng, 2014

Celeste Ng writes like she never took her pen off the paper, so coherent and eloquent is the prose. Although her debut novel, Ng’s control over her writing is extraordinary and her puppetry of her characters is extremely powerful. She very easily plays with her reader’s emotions and demolishes the happy ending with a snap of her finger; such is the art of her writing. Moving back and forth before and after Lydia, she gives an insight into the Lee household – both emotionally and physically – with astonishing clarity. The book ends on a soft note but is left open to interpretation – something that plays a crucial role in the development of the novel.

Everything I Never Told You may not have been the best book I’ve ever read, but it is definitely one of the most important books I’ve read, for reasons I cannot indulge in for now. As much as I urge everyone to pick this book up, I’d advise you to read it only if you are able to deal with heavy, unsettling emotions.

In short, this book takes the reader on a long guilt trip – for all the times they’ve eyed someone for looking different. And we know all of us have.