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: 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

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.

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.

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.