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.

Science, Storytelling and Scientific Storytelling

Humans are hard-wired to tell stories. We’re all literary artists in one way or another, using our individual linguistic capabilities to weave interesting stories about our lives – in an attempt to place more significance on who we are as people. Storytelling is perhaps the simplest and most engaging form of “imaginative activity”, holding the power to incite the deepest of human emotions.

Science on the other hand, is one of the most powerful tools that has the ability to change the way humans think and the decisions they take for themselves and their societies. Science holds the power to heal. Consequently, scientific knowledge is becoming increasingly important with each passing day and how scientists convey what they learn has the potential to have profound effects on humanity as a whole.

The scientific knowledge that we gather every day has to be able to inspire action, especially by our leaders and people who govern us. And this need to inspire action based on hard facts and figures obtained in research can only be ignited by the activity humans have participated in for generations: storytelling. According to Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling, by crafting a story that we are passionate to tell because it serves a real purpose, our stories will have a bigger impact on the world. And there are very few things in this world that are as passionate as scientists giddy from successful results they want to share. However, even in the presence of fervent passion for one’s research, proper scientific storytelling would only be effective when scientists want to convey complex information with not the motive to just throw out everything they know, but the desire to provoke thoughts and to inform the audience with an outward focus.

Scientific storytelling could transfer a lot of valuable information and telling a story out of scientific research isn’t all that remote and difficult as one would normally imagine. Every discovery and every research that was ever born had a story to tell. Humans are also constantly stitching narratives in their head – about how their favourite shirt didn’t fit, how the tomatoes at the supermarket were all rotten and how the glimmer in their lover’s eyes made their day – in fact so much, that almost 65% of all our conversations are personal anecdotes and gossip.

Research shows that although our brains are not constructed to retain facts and figures for a long time, they are incredibly good at perceiving, understanding and remembering stories. Our brains involve themselves when telling or listening to a story – more than one sensory region is activated during a storytelling activity. Storytelling stirs a significant number of emotions and plays with human psychology, thereby engaging more audience. Storytelling is also the only thing that works in order to affect a change in belief and behaviour in the masses. Together, Science and Storytelling are almost like a power couple. An amalgamation of narrative and research data could stimulate the audience not only emotionally, but also intellectually. Subsequently, such a stimulation would allow the story to stay with its listeners for days.

Storytelling has proven to be effective in marketing and large businesses, giving us no reason to believe that it would not work in science. In a 2014 paper, Roald Hoffman, Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters (emeritus) at Cornell University, wrote that because narrative is not reducible to mathematics, it is not given its due in [our] scientific world…but science does depend on compelling narratives and that science has stories to tell.

Perhaps the quantification of scientific ideas as well the idea that science needs to be ‘dumbed down’ for it to be communicated has vanquished the prose in science. But it is never too late to reinforce the importance of narratives that is found in science. Humans are already manufactured to tell stories and so, all that remains to be done is to spur a willingness to write and narrate a story from what scientists learn. Storytelling has a considerable scientific component; conversely, embracing scientific storytelling could only prove to be the most effective form of science communication.

Ushashi Basu

Featured Photograph (on homepage) by: Anusha Das

Read More:

https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2014/aug/28/science-storytelling-digital-marketing

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/03/09/the-science-of-storytelling/#565f09212d8a

https://lifehacker.com/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-5965703

Review: Turtles All The Way Down

I read this book much later than I was supposed to, especially since I call myself a fan of the Green Brothers. But better late than never right?!

John Green takes to the paper to voice the suffering of Aza Holmes, a sixteen year old doing homework, reading college pamphlets and hanging out with her best friend, but writhing in the pain of her crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. Oh, and through it all, she’s trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of local billionaire Russel Pickett.

But Aza is not the only one fighting this war with her all-consuming thoughts. In his most personal book yet, Green opens up about his struggles with anxiety and emphasises on the importance of having an open conversation about mental health with people around us. Through the voice inside Aza’s head, Green aims to give his readers a vivid idea of what it’s like inside the head of a person stuck and spiraling in their own thoughts, reminding us sometimes, it is just difficult. That’s all.

Turtles All The Way down is pain-laden and although it contains a fair share of Shakespearean teenagers talking about the universe, the insignificance of humanity and what it means to be human like all of Green’s previous novels, this is one book that would resonate the most with its readers, irrespective of age. Using simple yet eloquent language, John Green takes the book beyond its label of ‘young adult literature’, appealing to adults as well. Green’s ability to vocalise the millennial epidemic of poor mental health (which is not a joke by the way) is truly commendable and in my (not-so-important) opinion, what makes him so celebrated amongst his fans.

In spite of the slow start – which was perhaps necessary to build-up to the emotional ending – John Green delivers a heart wrenching tale that is sure to stay with readers for a long time.

To Science or Not To Science

In 1993, the Royal National Theatre in London opened Arcadia, a play by playwright Tom Stoppard, and highly praised by critics as one of the finest plays written by a contemporary playwright. Arcadia approaches a plethora of themes and subjects, notable ones being thermodynamics, computer algorithms and fractals – subjects primarily concerned with science and mathematics. The play also aims to explore the relationships between the past and the present, order and disorder and certainty and uncertainty, and in doing so, depicts how modes of interpretation change through time and amongst people. In 2006, Arcadia was declared by the Royal Institute of Great Britain as the greatest works of science fiction ever created.

It is acclaimed plays like Arcadia and A Disappearing Number – the latter a 2007 play written and directed by Simon McBurney that inquired into the beauty of mathematics and how it holds within its clutches, human destinies – that allow us to observe and talk about the nature of science communication through theatre and the transfer of ideas between these two fields.

Science and theatre are more entwined with one another than we can perceive. Their meeting ground may not be as extensive as the one in between science and poetry, but is nonetheless, present. Perhaps the most prominent of these similarities is the reliance of the both of them on the craft of interpretation. While science, as we’re all aware of, depends on the interpretation of data obtained from experiments, theatre plays often rely on interpretation of texts, books, movies and other plays. Scientific discoveries and theatre are open to interpretation by not only their creators, but also their, albeit vastly different, audiences. And it is within and through this interpretation that creativity flourishes. Scientists and playwrights alike, are allowed to explore the limits of their imagination with the ‘data’ they possess before they put the ingenious ideas down on paper. Furthermore, science, in all its forms of depiction – for example, posters and thesis defences – is theatrical in many ways. One cannot deny that while presenting his or her work of several arduous years, a scientist expresses passion and eloquence similar to that of a theatre actor.

But common ground aside, how much closer can we possibly bring science and theatre? Can we exploit theatrical devices and theatre to actually communicate science? In a 2010 critique in The Guardian, Alexis Soloski argued and concluded that science plus theatre equalled poor plays [1] and that often, these plays were a drag to watch, as a result of the dumbing down of scientific prose for easier understanding of the audience. It may be possible, that, in an attempt to make sure the audience can keep up with difficult scientific ideas, the beauty of scientific prose is lost and in turn, the essence of the play itself.

However, there exist not a few, but several great plays that blend science into themselves. Some eminent and renowned ones include George Bernard Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Bertolt Bertrandt’s The Life Of Galileo (1937) and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998). The present-day relevance of The Doctor’s Dilemma allows for it to be re-staged again and again. Moreover, foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation encourage leading playwrights to explore scientific themes and support theatres that commission, develop and promote plays with high quality scientific content[2]. The Arts Catalyst, based in Kings Cross London, is a non-profit contemporary arts organisation that commissions and produces transdisciplinary art and research[3] and, in the words of co-founder Nicola Triscott, aims to create more symbiotic relationships between the two fields[4]. The Nexus Theatre Company, established as recently as 2017, aspires to make new scientific ideas and information accessible to all[5].

From a broader perspective then, it seems as though there are and have been significant endeavours towards uniting science and theatre and increasing engagement of scientists in theatre. But before a more fluid relationship is established between science and theatre, several questions need to be addressed, the most important of them being “How much science/S.T.E.M. does a play have to contain before it becomes more about questioning the outreach and life-altering effects of science?” Reflecting on the scientific plays mentioned before, it is not difficult to observe a pattern – Life Of Galileo is not only about Galileo Galilei and his scientific discoveries, but also about the dogmatism of the Catholic Church prevalent in the 17th century and its blatant conflict with scientific theory; The Doctor’s Dilemma discusses the constraints of limited medical resources and the complex ethical questions doctors are faced with on a fairly regular basis; Copenhagen questions, through the meeting of Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941, the ideas of nuclear power and the motives behind constructing an atomic bomb. These plays contain as much scientific elements as they do the social and economic implications of scientific development.

The question of how much science one can possibly put into a 120-minute play also presents a larger question – Is the amalgamation of science with any form of art about communicating science through visually-appealing and user-friendly modes or is it inclined towards sparking a conversation regarding the effects of scientific advancements on humanity and its myriad cultures?

The answers to these questions cannot be procured objectively or immediately, and there isn’t one concrete answer. Perhaps the only way we will ever know if science will go on to become a recurring theme in theatre and other manifestations of art is through the one true procedure: experimentation.

Ushashi Basu

For more, visit:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2010/jul/26/science-plays-stoppard [1]

https://sloan.org/programs/public-understanding/theater [2] 

https://www.artscatalyst.org/ [3]

https://nicolatriscott.org/2012/04/16/theatre-and-science/ [4]

https://www.nexustheatrecompany.co.uk/ [5]