Review: A Fine Balance

It has taken me a while to come around to writing this review. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance has left me at a complete loss of words to put my thoughts into. But it also wouldn’t be right to not say anything about this remarkable novel and its all too real portrayal of the human psyche and the ways in which it justifies its most atrocious tendencies – it is a masterpiece in every way imaginable.

A Fine Balance opens simply: uncle and nephew duo Ishvar and Omprakash Darji are headed to an unnamed but busy city for jobs; specifically, jobs from a Dina Dalal who is looking to hire skilled tailors. On the train, they meet Maneck Kohlah, who, unbeknownst to Ishvar and Om, is also on his way to Dina Dalal’s flat; his mother and Dina were old school friends and they have arranged for Maneck to rent a room in Dina’s flat so he doesn’t have to live in the rowdy student hostel. Over the course of the next year or so, the lives of these unlikely characters become inextricably and they change each other’s fate in the most gut-wrenching yet poetic way.

Set against the backdrop of the State of Emergency declared in India in 1975 under prime minister Indira Gandhi, A Fine Balance explores how the political environment of the country and the rampant violence and corruption during those 21 months affected the different socioeconomic classes of India at the time — depicted through Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om who come from strikingly different backgrounds and whose outlook of society varies by the injustices meted out to them. Mistry’s novel provides a very vivid glimpse of a highly controversial time in independent India’s history and as a passionate fan of historical fiction, reading this book has been as educational as it has been emotional.

A Fine Balance shines the brightest when, in describing the minutia of the lives of our four protagonists, it brings out the nuances of their characters and lays bare the methods in which humans go about strengthening their relationships with each other: with humour, food, trust and storytelling. Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and Om all have fascinatingly different stories to tell, of their past, of their trauma and of their standing in society and yet this is what brings them closer and closer together as the novel goes on. Mistry also focalises his narrative exceptionally well, outlining every character’s association with the society they inhabit and their understanding of its shortcomings with great subtlety.

Through these four characters, Mistry also explores the transience of life, gratitude for all it has to offer and regret for moments gone. The juxtaposition of their exhilaration and their despair that stems from deep-seated trauma gives further dimension to their characters, and makes their triumphs and losses feel almost personal. It is not an exaggeration when I say that the character development of this novel is one of the best I’ve come across; I know I will come back to Dina and her rag-tag gang and their unusual bond over and over again just to focus on the individual characters and their growth (or the lack of it) through 800 pages.

No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about misery and suffering — love and concern and caring and sharing came to nothing, nothing.

A FINE balance, rohinton Mistry

In a A Little Life-esque fashion, Mistry doesn’t shy away from elaborating on the grotesque details of the misogyny and casteism the characters face and the consequent impact of such unfathomable cruelty on their mental wellbeing. Admittedly, I found this to be rather emotionally exhausting and it took me several months to get through the middle sections of the novel — the book spent long stretches of time gathering dust on my nightstand before I could find the courage to continue reading. Don’t let this deter you from exploring Mistry’s heartbreaking Booker Prize shortlist though; its emotional depth is what grants it masterpiece status.

While I am not a fan of Mistry’s prose — verbose and difficult to pay attention to for long periods of time — The Independent lists A Fine Balance as one of the 12 best Indian novels that everyone needs to read, calling it ‘beautifully written’. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the way Mistry writes brings out the simplicity of his characters and the lives they lead better, or if his staccato style of writing takes impact away from the novel. In any case, Mistry has created a piece of work that will be a reflection of humans and our crooked society for many generations to come and for that he is a genius.

Life truly is a delicate balance of difficult emotions, experiences and relationships, and Mistry comes spectacularly close (and how!) to answering what it means to be human, wading through this journey, sometimes with purpose and sometimes without.

TW: This book mentions and describes abuse, depression, PTSD and suicide. Please read at your own discretion.

Review: The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance

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In 2017, a close friend coaxed me into watching an obscure period drama called Medici: Masters of Florence with her, citing its score and casting (of Richard Madden, to be precise) as reason enough. I begrudgingly agreed, purely out of my infatuation for period dramas, not knowing that it would spark an unhealthy and lengthy obsession with the Medici Family and their influence on epistemology and culture.

At the end of the final season (the last two are called Medici: The Magnificent, for those interested), I found myself seeking out books, essays, and frankly any written accounts of the Medici to fill in the gaps of information created by facts left out for the screen adaptation, because as much as I love a good dramatisation of a time long gone, I also like to bore people at parties with niche knowledge (who doesn’t?).

Having perused several short and poorly referenced books on the topic, I came across Paul Strathern’s The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, and after an in-depth study and 50 page markers, I can finally state with confidence that I’ve found just the right book to learn about this family — the most well-rounded and detailed narration of a convoluted timeline and myriad people.

Strathern begins his chronicles of the Medici with Ardingo de’ Medici, the first in the family to become gonfaloniere (high civic magistrates of medieval Italian city-states) in 1296 and ends with Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, who died in 1743, taking the Medici bloodline to the grave with her. In the 500 years in between, lived some of the greatest men who towered as godfathers of all they saw and liked and left a legacy whose impact we still see today, and some horrible men who brought incredible shame and tarnish upon the same legacy.

Apart from lending money, governing the Florentine Republic, and controlling trade across Italy, nearly every Medici generation also funded and inspired various facets of the Renaissance. While at the time they were famous (or infamous, depending on your interpretation of their reign), as a political and economic dynasty, today they are most famously known for their extensive patronage of the Renaissance and commission of works that formed the backbone of the movement.

The Medici had humble beginnings — known to be God-fearing men, they were extremely cautious in their financial dealings, for usury was a sin, and the likes of Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici insisted on keeping a low profile at all times. This caution slowly moved to the backburner, when at the height of their greatness, political agenda and a desperate need to hold power in Florence came to the forefront for Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo Il Magnifico. It was at this stage that their patronage of the arts and the sciences flourished, a way to cover up for their growing sin counter, thereby permanently linking themselves to some of the greatest artifacts of the time. By the time the great Medici reputation was run to the ground by less ambitious and honestly, horrific Medicis, usury was no longer the only sin they needed to be worried about.

Strathern peppers the long and twisted timeline with notable figures — the lives and works of artists (Brunelleschi, Donatello, Michelangelo), scientists (Da Vinci, Copernicus and Galileo), politicians (Machiavelli) and religious figures (Martin Luther), described in direct relation to the Medici speaks heavily to the longevity of Medici power and its far-reaching influence. This narrative strategy serves as a helpful point of orientation for those newly learning about the Medici.

A little-known fact that Strathern highlights in this sub-plot is the role the Medici played in shaping both Italian as well as French cuisine that we all enjoy; that their understanding of culinary theory — to bring out native flavours of meat and fish, instead of concealing them — changed what was initially a rather rudimentary of cooking and eating.

Strathern’s research for this book and the level of detail he chooses to indulge in ties the messy history together remarkably well; he focuses on the minutia of the lives of the Medici as well as those inextricably bound to the Medici family, bringing out in explicit detail, what it truly meant to be a Medici and also, to be inspired, encouraged and supported by such a family. His prose is simple but strong, which is what makes the difference between Medicis such as Cosimo Pater Patriae & Lorenzo Il Magnifico and Cosimo III & Gian Gastone all the more stark and revolting.

The aspect of the book that I am not a fan of is the lack of in-text citations and references; Strathern’s research is well-done but not evident. He explains in his author’s note in the end that he meant his book to be a popular one and not laden with heavy referencing, but I believe it would have served the book well to provide references. He does provide an extensive reading list in the end, however, and I for one, am quite excited to go through the list.

My brain does not naturally retain too many dates or too many events in chronological order but Strathern makes it easy to remember the overarching themes and then orient dates and times to those themes. The never-ending dates and wars don’t feel overwhelming at all — perhaps the biggest reason why I will recommend this book to those even remotely interested in the history of the Medici and the Renaissance.

Pair this book with Paulo Buonvino’s impeccably composed soundtrack for the Medici Netflix series and you’ll find yourself reveling in the highs and the lows, the grandeur and the austerity of life in Florence in the 15th century, alongside the Masters of the Renaissance. Meanwhile, my next Medici read will be The Bookseller of Florence by Ross King.

Review: Us Three

Us three forever…come what may. A naive promise of lifelong friendship made at the tender age of 8. To actually hold on to a promise made in the frenzy of a playground during lunch break, however, is an achievement for the books and Ruth Jones has chronicled its journey over four decades for all the right reasons.

Welsh girls Lana Lloyd, Judith Harris and Catrin Kelly don’t remember a time they weren’t best friends. They’ve spent every waking moment together, and they’ve faced the trials and tribulations of school and teenage together. They’ve shared clothes and books and homes. They’ve relied on each other like they were life jackets.

Until they travel to Greece in the summer before departing to college. Life changing revelations, drunken mistakes, and a web of lies replace their childhood oath of unconditional love, forgiveness, and honesty. And when they are forced to choose between each other and beautiful boys, the bond between them begins to fray. The girls find themselves on the precipice of difficult choices over and over again, and they begin to question if their friendship will stand the test of time and adulthood. Keeping a promise like that can be demanding, especially when life has very different plans for all of you.

For all the drama that unfolds over a span of 40 years, Us Three is an easy read, to the point that it feels like it was written for the sole purpose of vacation reading. Although it begins Wattpad fanfiction-esque style (i.e., along the lines of he had burnt hazel hair and green orbs that caught me off guard every time he peered into my soul) that sounds all too overused, it’s the string of adjectives and lightheartedness that you yearn for towards the end, when the girls’ lives become impossible to disentangle.

What’s most remarkable though, is that the overarching sadness of the second half of the book stems not from the twisted situations our protagonists find themselves in, but their day-to-day lives, which have become entrenched in deception and pain. There is a certain nostalgia that seeps through the pages: all you want is for the girls to find the happiness that once came naturally to them.

Every character has a unique voice, and because Jones gives them all an immaculate story arc, the sense of ending that begins to creep into the final pages feels complete.

Unfortunately for this otherwise incredible book, Us Three falls short on emotional power. It is rife with cliches and repetitive sequences; once you discover the pattern, there is nothing left for you to be surprised by. Even in its darkest moments, I found myself incapable of producing a visceral reaction. It’s the roller coaster analogy: this book climbs all the way up, but then rolls back down, robbing you of the adrenaline you’ve been so excitedly waiting for.

Perhaps it is this absence of a compelling and impactful narrative that makes Us Three easy to breeze through. Dramatic enough to keep you invested, but not so much that you are a sobbing mess by the beach. If maybe, the book were converted into a script for an online drama series, this endearing yet heart-wrenching tale would fare better.

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.

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.

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