“Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan” by Kate Brittlebank

The Life of Tipu Sultan

This 2016 book was probably written merely to cash in on the Tipu Sultan controversy. It’s full of conjecture and merely skims through some of the facts relating to Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, and his father Haider Ali. The author makes a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to put herself in the shoes of the father-son duo and imagine the social and political scenario in 18th century India.

On the plus side, the book is small and can be read in a maximum of two hours. On the minus side, the facts cannot be taken at face value and the writer’s imagination must be discounted. I’m amazed that she could gloss over the cruelty of these two men simply by contending that in those times every ruler was cruel. Similarly, she makes light of forced religious conversions describing them as ‘punishments’ for standing up to these invading upstarts. She even goes to the extent of placing a disproportionate share of the blame on the British for many of Tipu’s failures.

If you’ve already read other writers on the subject of Tipu Sultan, you needn’t read this one. You won’t miss anything. Unless you’re interested in knowing the number of women in Tipu’s harem, counting the number of his sons and daughters, learning the names of his grandparents and so on. However, if you can ignore the conclusions and implications and skilfully separate the wheat from the chaff, you will find interesting nuggets of information.

Referring to Haider Ali’s role in the siege of Tiruchirapally in 1751-52 Brittlebank writes, “…Mysore allied itself with British forces during the succession dispute for the Nawabship of the Carnatic, whose capital was Arcot in northern Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, Mysore switched sides to the French, as a result of British broken promises.” Now what does this reveal? Haider Ali allied first with the British and then with the French. That doesn’t seem like ‘Indian nationalist zeal’, does it?

If you read between the lines, you realize that Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan invaded all their neighbouring kingdoms. They dislodged the Wodeyars from Mysore, the Ikkeris from Bidanur (Bednur), and repeatedly attacked Malabar, Arcot, Mangalore, Madras and even Travancore without the slightest provocation. In these circumstances, it just doesn’t make sense to blame the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the British for ganging up against Tipu. Perhaps it was the cruelty of the father and son that made the Marathas and the Nizam realize that that their only hope was to ally with the British. This was certainly the case with the Malabar chieftains, but the book hardly mentions the Mysorean incursions into Malabar.

When the author does mention Malabar, the accounts are ridiculously off the mark. Take this example: “By February 1783, Tipu and his army had returned to Mysore (after Haider Ali died in December 1782 near Chittoor); the newly installed ruler had unfinished business to attend to in Malabar, where the East India Company’s Bombay army was continuing its aggression.” Unfinished business indeed! Similarly, Haider Ali’s attacks on his neighbours are justified on specious grounds. “Access to Malabar ports was important for trade, as was the control of Bednur.” And “the incursion into Kodagu was the result of his intervention in a succession dispute…” You see, all is fair in love and war! In this manner one can rationalize any kind of brutality and injustice.

The author refers to forced conversions thus: “This was not a religious policy but one of chastisement.” Really? I’m surprised the Sanghis missed this one. Another snide remark that really takes the cake: “One of the malcontents with whom they (the British) aligned themselves was the Raja of Travancore, Rama Varma…” And what had the poor Travancore ruler done to deserve this rude epithet? In the author’s own words, “Rama Varma had harboured resentments against Mysore since he had fallen out with Haider in the 1760s. The defensive lines he had constructed in 1764 ran from east to west to protect from invasion an exposed part of Travancore’s northern border.” So protecting his border from an invader was the one crime committed by Rama Varma. Did Travancore invade Mysore? No questions, please! This is a story – and stories are written to entertain.

The entire book seems like an attempt to whitewash the sins of Tipu Sultan. The publisher Juggernaut Books ought to have been more discerning. At least the proof readers could have corrected the errors. Ever heard of a Tadri port on the Malabar coast? North Kanara, my dear Juggernaut!

Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan
Author: Kate Brittlebank
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Year of Publication: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Shirley” by Charlotte Brontë

Shirley.jpg

I decided to pick up Shirley soon after finishing Villette, also by Charlotte Brontë. When I first started reading it, I was intrigued by two things: one, the initial conflict we are opened to, and two, that it was written in the third person.

The initial conflict reminded me of the issue dealt with in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. It had to do with industrialization and how this advancement was affecting some of the people of this town. The workers were indignant because they were losing their jobs to new machinery causing them to be in a state of poverty. This gave me the impression that it would be very similar to North and South, and since I loved North and South I wanted to continue.

I was also intrigued by Charlotte’s use of the third person. This would be the first novel I’d read by her written in this way. I was unsure that I’d like it, since one of the best things I love about Jane Eyre and Villette is the ability for us to be inside the mind of the main character and learn of their most intimate thoughts. But I thought I’d give it a try.

As I continued with this book, it quickly became something different than what I was expecting. The conflict between the workers and Robert Moore, the factory owner, was  present throughout the novel, because we got to see how it affected the people within this town and how this issue was dealt with. But it wasn’t at the forefront like I had thought it would be.

What did become at the forefront of this novel was one of the main characters, Caroline Helstone. Caroline is a young woman who lives with her uncle, Mr. Helstone. She lives a very lonely life but one of her greatest joys is to spend time with her cousin Robert Moore, whom she also is in love with. We get to know their relationship a little in the beginning — they both love to read and unlike her uncle, Mr. Helstone, Robert encourages her conversation and listens to her opinions. I think that him considering her opinions played a a very important in the resolution of the issue between the workers and Robert Moore’s stern position. Later on, upon disagreements between Mr. Helstone and Mr. Moore, her uncle decides that she can no longer visit her cousin. This sets the stage for her to fall into a more lonely place as she no longer has the company of one of the few people she enjoys.

During this interval of Caroline’s prohibition to visit her cousin, Robert Moore, she becomes acquainted with the recent property owner of Fieldhead, Shirley, a young woman who inherits her parents’ property, being the only child. This puts Shirley in a position of financial independence. Mr.Helstone, who becomes aware of Caroline’s depressed spirits, believes that Shirley’s company might do Caroline some good so they begin to spend more time together. I believe this is where the story began to take a little more shape as we follow their relationship from then on.

It was very lovely and enjoyable for me to learn about how their relationship develops as they do have certain similarities but stark differences in personalities. However, these differences in personalities enable them to complement one another very well. I also think that because the novel is centered around these two women, the issues that affected most women during this time do come up very strongly through each of these characters’ opinions. One issue that stood out to me was how Shirley, although financially independent, was still heckled by her uncle into marrying someone that he would approve of. But she manages to maintain her independence in choosing whom or if she would even marry at all.

A few other things that I enjoyed about this novel were the descriptions of this place in Yorkshire. I always really enjoy how Charlotte Brontë describes setting. I think it was important to describe the setting here and how blooming with flowers this place was, because it’s a story that takes place at the start of industrialization which means that it no longer looks the same. I also enjoyed how engaging the narrator was. Charlotte Brontë addresses her readers very much like in her other novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, and also offers commentary on different characters that I thought was funny.

Overall, I’m glad to have read another one of her novels. I don’t think I can choose which one is my favorite. They each have something that captivates me. For this one it was the  character Shirley, the friendship developed between Shirley and Caroline, and her writing. However, as the narrator warns the reader in the beginning, “If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken.” It is quite the placid read, but it was still enjoyable for me to follow these characters.

Shirley
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: June 2006  (first published in 1849)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood.jpg

I remember listening to a Commonwealth Club radio program a few years ago in which Salman Khan of Khan Academy was interviewing Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. (It was technically a “conversation,” but from what I remember, it was Salman Khan asking most of the questions.) By this time, Khan Academy was a universal name, but Elizabeth Holmes was a promising young entrepreneur in the mold of Steve Jobs. Her startup, Theranos, was poised to revolutionize the healthcare industry by making blood testing very quick and affordable. Anyone could go into a wellness center, get a small draw of their blood by simply pricking their finger, and get their results back within a few minutes.

It seemed almost too good to be true! But the confidence with which Holmes spoke, her sincerity, and her passion won everyone over. I remember being totally awed by what I heard. She described how she had waited for hours outside the office of a Stanford professor to beg him to be allowed to do research in his lab, and had eventually dropped out of Stanford to start Theranos. She could not believe at how inefficient blood testing was, how you had to draw so much blood for a test, and how it took days to get the results back. She wanted to make this process much faster, more efficient, and less painful, and seemed to have found a way to do so. Who were we to question this? After all, this is what innovators do—they are geniuses in their fields and come up with breakthrough solutions to problems. So many of our best innovations have come from revolutionary thinkers, and Holmes certainly seemed to be one of them. She had the conviction that Theranos was going to change the world.

Or so we thought. Not just we, but everyone. Theranos was heralded as the next success story in Silicon Valley where it was based. Millions of dollars of investment poured in from the leading VC (venture capital) firms in the valley—no one wanted to miss out on the potential of investing early in a startup that guaranteed to succeed in a big way. Not only was the idea so brilliant, but the company had a “dream team” of highly respected advisors, including the Stanford professor Holmes had worked with, as well as partnerships with companies like Walgreens and Safeway to establish “wellness centers” in their stores equipped with Theranos technology for customers to come in and quickly get blood tests done. It had also attracted the attention of leading drug companies like Pfizer who saw the technology as a way to potentially reduce their costs and bring drugs to market sooner.

As it turns out, it was indeed too good to be true. The technology did not really work, and thanks to a string of whistleblowers, many of whom had worked for the company, Theranos was exposed as a fraud and has been forced to close, with Holmes and her business partner facing several lawsuits. Most of the credit for uncovering the truth goes to John Carreyrou, an investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal who doggedly pursued the story after being contacted by a credible lead in late 2015 who raised doubts about it. He has documented this story in Bad Blood, chronicling the rise and fall of Theranos. Based on interviews with former employees and many others who had been associated with the company in various ways, Bad Blood is essential reading for anyone interested in how such a massive fraud could have been perpetrated and strikes a cautionary note for aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to make it big. While a technology startup can be a hit or a miss, and those who fail can just move on to other things, the stakes are much higher in a field such as healthcare where lives are at stake. It is to Carreyrou’s credit that he realized the enormous implications of the possibility that Theranos’s blood-testing technology did not work properly and continued to investigate it until the truth emerged. From that respect, he deserves all the awards and accolades he can get for almost single-handedly exposing a fraud that could have had life-threatening consequences if it was not uncovered.

At the same time, from a literary point of view, the book itself lacks merit. To start with, it is written like a book of fiction with a plot, characters, and events, rather than the non-fiction book it is. The trouble with this is that Carreyrou does not have the talent to write fiction — his writing is very trite and uninspiring, with a plodding narrative, unnecessary descriptions of people, and pedestrian language. It was very hard to read through it. Also, there were so many characters throughout the book, that I had to keep turning back the pages to see who they were and in what context they had first been mentioned. It seems that every person who was interviewed makes an appearance in the book. And of course, there are many more. Did I really need to know what this person or that person looks like, where they met for coffee, where they live, where the office party was, and so on? Was that really meaningful to how the Theranos saga unfolded? It seems to me that Carreyrou wanted to make this a full-length book rather than an article, so he had to put in a lot of detail to fill the pages, most of which is not even interesting.

Over and above that, the book seemed really one-sided. I appreciate that Holmes and her partner, an Indian man called Sunny Balwani, committed serious fraud by not disclosing the truth about the problems with the technology, but don’t they have a single good quality? Going by Bad Blood, it would seem not. Holmes is always scowling and Balwani is always supercilious. And of course, both are extremely paranoid and blatantly lie to investors and potential partners. Holmes at least has some charm that she can “deviously” turn on when she needs to, with her “piercing blue eyes” that can hold the intended target in thrall. Balwani does not even have that — he is not good-looking and is always “barking” orders. The same bias extends to the other characters as well. All those against Holmes are portrayed in a good light — they are smart, have integrity, and have doubts about the technology — while those who are on her side are portrayed in a negative light — they are unquestioning “yes men” who are always sucking up to her.

It is obvious that the book was based on interviews solely of people who hated Holmes and Balwani. It does not ask why they stayed in Theranos for so long. Like it or not, they were all complicit in the fraud. What about the long string of people who were fired when they disagreed with Holmes, some quite early on when the company was started (in 2003)? How come they didn’t tell anyone about this? Were they only saving their own skins? That doesn’t seem like an ethical thing to do.

Also, what about leading Silicon Valley figures like Tom Draper and Larry Ellison who were early investors in Theranos? Were all these exceedingly smart people also taken in, and having done so, how did they go along with the company for so long without, as the saying goes, “smelling a rat”?  What about Holmes’ professor from Stanford, a highly respected academic? And going back to that interview of Holmes with Salman Khan of Khan Academy that I had heard, was he also gullible as well? Given his focus on volunteer work rather than on the typical “money and fame” success factors that most entrepreneurs crave, would he not be able to tell if someone was sincere or just faking it?

Bad Blood does not shed light of any of these conundrums. While I have the greatest admiration for the author for his breakthrough reporting on the Theranos fraud, the inability to provide a nuanced portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes and explain how so many smart people got hoodwinked for so long made me question his version of events and the veracity of the interviews he has conducted. By branding Holmes as someone who was out just to make money and achieve glory by any means necessary, he has failed to acknowledge that human beings are fallible — someone can start out with a very sincere desire to improve on something and continue to pursue it even when it is not working in the hope that it will eventually work. The story of Theranos is appalling and serves as a crucial wake-up call, but by categorically painting Holmes as evil rather than someone who could have just been badly misguided, Bad Blood was way too one-sided to be at all insightful.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Author: John Carreyrou
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

The Outsider

Stephen King has written so many bestsellers, of which so many have been made into very successful movies, that he is practically a household name. Yet, I had not read any of his books before I picked up The Outsider. It was a revelation — he writes so well! I was sucked into Outsider right away and it was impossible to put the book down until I had finished it. Also, its considerable length — which may be off-putting in some other books — only served to enhance my enjoyment of this one, as it meant more of the book that I could sink my teeth into.

The Outsider starts with the heinous murder of an eleven year old boy, who has not just been sexually violated but also gruesomely mutilated. All eyewitness accounts, as well as fingerprints and DNA, point to a popular school teacher and baseball coach who has been the pillar of the local community, and he is arrested. But it turns out that he was actually in a different city many miles away with a group of his fellow school teachers attending a literature convention, and there is actual video footage of him attending a book reading at the time when the boy was killed. So how could he be in two places at once? This is the fundamental mystery in The Outsider, and it is explored though a varied cast of characters, police interviews, investigations, and unexpected twists and turns. The fast pace of the book is maintained throughout and it is like a thrill ride up to the very end.

Had I been a little more familiar with Stephen King’s other books, I would have seen the   supernatural angle coming. After all, he is not known as the “master of horror” for nothing. Like all his other books, The Outsider also eventually relies on an otherworldly phenomenon to explain the mystery. For me, this came as somewhat of a let-down, as it seems that you can seemingly get away with anything if you put a supernatural angle to it. Even something bizarre can be explained, and you end up feeling cheated with the explanation rather than satisfied.

But the supernatural is undoubtedly Stephen King’s mojo, and it does not detract from how well written and riveting The Outsider is. I read it over the course of a long flight with a layover of several hours, and it was a godsend, providing me with not just much-needed distraction from the discomfort of travel but also unadulterated enjoyment for the entire duration of the book, from the beginning right up to the end.

The Outsider
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Century Is Not Enough: Inside the Mind of a Cricketing Legend” by Sourav Ganguly

A Century is not Enough

If you “understand” Sourav Ganguly as a Captain, then you should read this book. If you loved the Indian Cricket Team of 2000s, then also you should read this book.

When I say understand his captaincy – it is that feeling that you get as a fan, about what he is going to do next on field and why he is doing that.

Even if you have no clue about either of those things, then also you can have a go at this book because it’s not just about Cricket. It gives you some insights about life and how to succeed in life, along with the the signature Ganguly advice – to never back down!

The book is a collection of memories narrated through the mind of one of the most successful captains of Indian Cricket Team. He seems to recall every single successful innings that he played (including the stats) and sheds light on some of the tactical decisions that were made during that period when India emerged from a polite average team with a lot of individual talents to one of the major aggressive units in the world. As avid Cricket fans know – Sourav planted the seeds, the fruits of which are still being enjoyed by the present Indian team.

It might seem like he’s doing a self promotion at some places but to be fair, it is a necessity. For instance, most of his critics doesn’t know the fact that he has the most number of “Man of the Match” awards to his name second only to Tendulkar (even though Kohli is quickly catching up). Things like these that the management did not notice during his infamous exit during the Greg Chappel era has been brought into light through this book.

The story of a “Comeback King”. A must read for Indian Cricket fans.

A Century Is Not Enough: Inside the Mind of a Cricketing Legend
Author: Sourav Ganguly
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Publication Date: February 2018

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering” by Scott Samuelson

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

Life is tough. There is no getting around that fact. Even if you are not personally experiencing a crisis or a tragedy at the moment, you only have to look around you to see how much misery is there in the world. And this is not a new phenomenon — it has been like this since the dawn of civilization. The kinds of crises that we face may differ from generation to generation, but suffering seems to be very much a part of the human condition. Not only are we vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis just like any other species on earth, we also have to contend with wars, epidemics, poverty, starvation, injustice, crime, illness, and of course, death — not just of our own, but more painfully, of those we love.

What, then, are we to do? How can we cope with suffering? How do human beings, as a whole, deal with what seems to be an inevitable fact of life? The book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, attempts to show us how. The author, Scott Samuelson, draws from his extensive knowledge and study of philosophy to highlight seven different approaches to suffering, ranging from the Book of Job in the Bible, to the teachings of Confucius, to philosophers such as Nietzsche, and surprisingly, even the Blues music genre that has slavery at its roots. While each of these has a distinct approach to suffering, they can, by and large, be divided into two main camps: fix-it, where you seek to eliminate it; and face-it, where you come to terms with it.

Interestingly however, these two camps are not as far apart as they may seem — we have to accept suffering as it is inevitable, but at the same time, we are hard-wired to oppose it. The drive to ameliorate suffering is responsible for all human advancements — witness the enormous strides we have made in medicine, agriculture, weather forecasting, technology, and so in, in every field of human endeavor. At the same time, we have to accept that just as you cannot have a right without a left, or an up without a down — the yin/yang principle — you cannot have joy without sorrow, happiness without sadness, and goodness without evil. In short, humans will continue doing what we can to “fix” suffering while reconciling to the fact that some of it is inevitable and we have no choice but to “face” it. In fact, suffering seems to be integral to human growth — most of our art, music, and literature has been created in response to it. This understanding is pivotal to our acceptance of suffering and learning to live with it gracefully.

While Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering seeks to provide insights into suffering for anyone seeking to understand it better, it is also unequivocally a philosophy book. This makes it essential reading for anyone who would like to delve into how different philosophers throughout the ages have thought about the question of suffering and its centrality to human existence. However, for those who are not particularly interested in philosophy as a subject to be studied, or in learning about different philosophers and their lives, this is not a book that they will likely read cover to cover. I found myself skimming though many sections of the book that seemed more like a history lesson on different philosophers, since I was more interested in learning about how people cope with suffering rather than what different philosophers have had to say about it. Few people now have the luxury of not having to work for a living, of having the time and the resources to ponder about life and its mysteries as they were able to do in the past. It’s one thing to arrive at an intellectual understanding of something, but another thing to actually feel it. This is why philosophy as a discipline has a limited appeal for me, and I didn’t appreciate Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering as someone who was into philosophy would have.

To me, the best parts of the book were when the author talked about his own personal experiences with suffering as well as the many discussions he had in the course of his volunteer work in a prison where he was teaching philosophy to prisoners. There is an entire thread in the book on the problem of evil — which is at the root of so much suffering — and the related issue of incarceration as a punishment for crime. I would have been interested in reading a lot more about that.

That said, I found Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering an invaluable read for its extended discussion of something that is a fundamental part of our existence and for its holistic look at suffering, not just as something to be accepted, but also as something it is in our nature to work to avoid. That goes a long way with learning to make peace with it.

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering
Author: Scott Samuelson
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal White

Lethal White is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike detective series written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I love this series, just as I had loved the Harry Potter series before it, and in preparation for the release of Lethal White — which I was able to read right away as I had pre-ordered it — I went back and re-read all the earlier books in the series, starting with Career of Evil, the third book, and then the first two, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm.

The series is set in contemporary London and has two main characters: Cormoran Strike, an army veteran in his late thirties who lost a leg in the war, has returned to civilian life, and is trying to establish himself as a private detective; and Robin Ellacott, who comes to him as a temporary secretary for a week but ends up staying on and becoming a key part of the detective firm. Each book is focused on one key case. However, it is not just about the cases and how they are solved — there are so many authors writing thrillers these days — but also about how the investigations are tied into the personalities of Strike and Robin, their personal lives, and their relationship with each other, which is not only that of mutual respect but also has strong undercurrents of romantic tension that continue to build up over the course of the books in the series.

Strike is not a conventional hero by any means — he is overweight, very hairy, has a bit of a belly, is constantly eating burgers and the standard British fish-and-chips, and is constantly smoking and drinking beer. Robin, on the other hand, is more conventionally pretty, in addition to having a lot of character, integrity, and a genuine passion for investigative work. This is something her fiancé and later her husband, Matthew, just doesn’t get. Meanwhile, Strike has his own relationship issues with a stunningly beautiful but very damaged woman, Charlotte, with whom he has had an on-again, off-again toxic relationship for over sixteen years. They are just breaking up — after their worst fight, which well may be the last straw for Strike — at the start of the first book, and this happens to coincide with Robin’s arrival in the agency as a temp, newly engaged and on cloud nine every time she looks at her engagement ring. J.K. Rowling brings her trademark brilliance and mastery to how the relationship between Strike and Robin slowly evolves from being forced to work together, to a grudging respect, to something that neither of them wants to analyze in case it affects how well they have started working together. Robin goes from being a secretary to assistant detective to junior partner in the firm, proving herself to be indispensable in solving the tricky cases in each book, which include the apparent suicide of a famous model in The Cuckoo’s Calling, the gruesome murder of a writer in The Silkworm, and tracking down a psychopathic killer who has a personal grudge against Strike in Career of Evil.

The case in Lethal White is in two seemingly separate but somehow connected events — a claim that a child had been strangled and buried a long time ago, and the blackmailing of a minister in the British parliament who dies of what seems to be suicide but is actually murder. Surprisingly, horses play a major part in this book — in fact, the name of the book, “lethal white,” come from a genetic disorder that afflicts some breeds of horses, causing their foals to die just a few days after being born. The case happens against the backdrop of the 2012 Olympics in London, and there are several political events that play a major role in the plot, including the government-mandated austerity measures imposed in the UK during this time, the lingering impacts of the economic depression of 2008, public demonstrations and street protests by activists, political scheming and intrigues, and even the abolishment of the death penalty, which happened in the UK in 1965 but which provides a pivotal plot point.  Strike and Robin are eventually able to solve the case, and this time, they have the help of one of the additional employees Strike has been able to take on in the firm thanks to his burgeoning fame bringing in more business.

Given how much I loved the earlier books in this series and how eagerly I was awaiting this next book, I have to say that Lethal White was a huge disappointment in terms of the actual case that had to be investigated. The plot was extremely convoluted and had so many threads and aspects to it that it seemed to be all over the place. The progress of the relationship between Strike and Robin was relatively better done, and from that respect, Lethal White was less of a thriller that you can’t bear to put down and more of a drama about two people and their relationship with each other. Compared to Career of Evil — my personal favorite of the series — which starts with Robin getting a package containing the severed leg of a woman and just gets more riveting as it progresses, there was nothing which even came close to that level of thrill, suspense, and danger in Lethal White.

Just as with the Harry Potter books which were eventually adapted into movies, the Cormoran Strike books have been adapted for TV — the show is already out on BBC —  and in my opinion, once this happens, it is extremely difficult for an author to maintain the quality of his or her writing. It happened with Harry Potter — Book 7 came out well after the release of the first movie adaptations and it was simply not as good as the earlier books. Lethal White seems to have suffered from the same fate — its writing seems to have been subconsciously influenced by its upcoming dramatization and suffers as a consequence, losing its intensity, its focus, and I would even say, its purity. There are too many characters, too many events, too many plot points, and even the final setting where the villain is nabbed seems more melodramatic than genuine. Of course, this is nobody’s fault — how could any author turn down the opportunity for a dramatic adaption of their work? And how can the imagery from this adaptation not blunt their creativity, their imagination, their inspiration?

But it is such a pity for readers like me who love their books so much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel
Author: Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: September 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Delirio” by Laura Restrepo

Delirio.jpg

I decided to read this book because I wanted to practice my Spanish, read something that reminded me of my family’s culture and the culture I grew up with (the author being Colombian), and I had already read a book that I really enjoyed by this author (Isle of Passion, a novel based on a true story of a group of people who were forgotten in the island of Clipperton).

This book was about a couple, Augustina and Aguilar, and the mystery of what happened to his wife while he went on a business trip for four days. When he returned, he found his wife in a mentally deteriorated state. She exhibited absurd behavior like setting up pots of clean water throughout the house so as to cleanse their home or behavior like rejecting her husband. For the next few days, he embarks on the journey of trying to discover what happened to his wife. This question is what intrigued me to continue reading.

The story is told in such a way that you get little hints and glimpses of what could have happened to Augustina, which in turn causes you to draw all the possible scenarios. These little hints are given to us through different perspectives of characters and different periods of time. These perspectives/time frames do not directly discuss what happened to Augustina during those 4 days that Aguilar, her husband, was gone but rather, tell the stories of different people that in some way are related to Augustina. These details are all important to understanding Augustina’s history and why she may be where she is today.

What I loved the most about this book were the different details mentioned of things that are particular to Colombian culture such as ajiaco, a typical dish from Bogotà (the city where this story takes place), empanadas, or fruit stands on the sides of the road, etc. There were also different references to literature or music as some of the other characters are into art, which was also a treat for me.

Some parts were a little harsh for me to read through since it discusses strong sexual content/violence/strong language. However, each of these parts were important to understanding different characters or situations. At times, I’d simply skip or skim through if I understood the general idea of what was being said. But I suppose the details do add the effect that the author intended it to have upon the reader and unfortunately, these are the realities for some people’s lives.

Overall, it was a book that, surprisingly, I breezed through since I was dying to know what happened to Augustina and how all these details would come together. Although, I read this book in Spanish, there is also an English translation available. (It is called Delirium.)

Delirio
Author: Laura Restrepo
Spanish Publisher and Publication Date: Alfaguara, 2004
English Translation Publisher and Date: Vintage International, March 2008

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson

The 100 year old Man.jpg

The title of this book points to what a laugh riot it will be and in that respect, it does not disappoint. Translated from Swedish to English, it tells the story of Allan Karlsson, a 100 year old man still in good health, who escapes from the nursing home, where he has been forced to live, on the morning of his 100th birthday — and from the party planned in his honor that day — and goes, literally, on the run. Along the way, he collects not just a suitcase full of cash but also a motley crew of a 70 year old petty thief, a highly educated hot-dog stand proprietor and his brother, a red-headed fiery-tempered woman with a dog and an elephant, the head of a gang of thugs, and a police chief. Eventually, the six of them — along with the dog and the elephant — manage to escape to Bali in Indonesia with the cash, where they live happily ever after.

Is this doesn’t sound hilarious enough, throw in the two accidental deaths of the thugs who had stolen the money in the first place, with one of them dying in the cold storage where he was locked up temporarily by Allan and his 70 year old cohort, and the second dying from being crushed by the redhead’s elephant when she (the elephant) inadvertently sat on him!

In addition to following Allan’s journey all the way from his solo escape from the nursing home to the collective escape of his group of six to Bali in the present — which is the year 2005 — the book also recounts the story of his life all the way from his birth in 1905 to how he eventually landed up in the nursing home. We get a good primer on world history in the course of this narration, because it turns out that Allan has participated in some of the key events of the 20th century — thanks to being an explosives expert — such as the Second World War in Europe, the development of the atom bomb in the US, the uprising in Iran, the Cold War between the US and USSR, the Korean War, and the political unrest in Indonesia. He has also not only met, but actually interacted with some of the most prominent historical figures of the last century including General Franco, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Stalin, Kim Jong II, Chairman Mao, and Charles de Gaulle.

Of course, most of this is downright unbelievable and therefore The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is not a book to be taken seriously, but it is very well written with intelligent, tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out loud humor that is not slapstick in the least. For some reason, we have plenty of comedy when it comes to TV and movies, but it is difficult to find books in this genre, so this book is a real find.

While you would not expect a book like this to have any life lessons, there is one sentence that captures the essence of Allan’s philosophy of life: “Things are what they are, and whatever will be, will be.” These were his mother’s words when he was a boy, and while it took some years for the message to seep his soul, once it was there, it was there forever and guided everything he did. I can’t imagine a more Zen-like summation of and approach to life!

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication Date: September 2012

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

The premise of this book is very intriguing – a young woman decides to go into hibernation for a year to get through a depressing and listless period of her life. She has plenty of money to bankroll this, thanks to her inheritance from her wealthy parents who died within six months of each other a few years ago. Rather than committing suicide, which would be a permanent end to life, she thinks of “checking out” for a year, hoping it will help with the general malaise she is feeling and rejuvenate her. This hibernation – a whole year of rest and relaxation — is accomplished with the help of a large number of drugs prescribed by a not-very-professional therapist the woman manages to find, who seems to have no issues prescribing increasingly stronger drugs for depression and insomnia that the woman tells her she is experiencing.

Not only is the plot of book so fascinating, it also draws you in right away. Narrated in first person, it is almost like reading a diary – it is brutally honest and describes the narrator’s thoughts and feelings in such vivid detail, we can almost feel like we are her. The first person account is so well maintained throughout the book that we never learn the narrator’s name. We do, however, learn a lot of other details about her – in addition to having a lot of money, she is smart with a degree in art history from Columbia, and she is outstandingly pretty without even trying, attracting a lot of attention from guys and envy from women. She lives in a fancy apartment in Manhattan, buys very expensive clothes, and occasionally dates. She has an on-again off-again relationship with a handsome and successful man working in Wall Street, and has one loyal friend who is always dropping in to check on her. After graduation, she lands a job in a prestigious art gallery reputed for discovering “eclectic” artists and hosting their cutting-edge, post-modernist work.

While all of these may seem to be more than enough for a very rewarding and satisfying life for most people, for our narrator, they are not. While there is no one particular event that triggers her wanting to “check out” and go into hibernation, it seems to be the culmination of years of not having many happy or joyful moments, and a childhood growing up with parents who really didn’t feel anything for each other. Sometimes, it is not just the presence of bad things that can lead to antipathy and depression; it can also very well be the absence of good things. And this seems to be what is afflicting our narrator.

While the first few chapters of the book continue to hold your interest as you learn more about the narrator, her background, her reasons for wanting to hibernate, and the process she follows – heavy doses of drugs which make her sleep most of the time, long periods of blackouts in which she does not know what she is doing or where she is going, a lot of TV watching, trips to the local coffee shop to pick up coffee and snacks, a lot of take-out for meals, monthly visits to the therapist and the pharmacy to refill prescriptions – it begins to get very repetitive after some time, and I found myself skipping a lot of the content towards the second half of the book. By this time, you also lose sympathy for the narrator as she shows herself to be quite a selfish, uncaring person, and is particularly mean to her one friend who continues to visit her. You simply stop caring about what happens to her.

The time period that the book is set in is an important part of the plot, although you don’t realize that in the beginning. The woman goes into hibernation in the summer of 2000, which means that when her “one year” ends, it is close to 9/11. Her friend was working in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, and she keep watching the recording of the event over and over as it seems like one of the women jumping off from one of the towers may have been her friend.

The book ends with this, and you can’t help but read it with a catch in your throat.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance

Willa Drake—the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Clock Dance—is a self-defeating, self-effacing wimp.

Tyler divided Willa’s story into two parts. The first part consists of three situations in which Willa made self-defeating, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, type choices.

When she is eleven years old, Willa rejects both her parents in a prolonged pre-teen pout. It’s easy to see why she rejects her mother: she’s a moody person who sometimes leaves her family to fend for themselves, and then returns pretending that nothing has happened. Willa’s anger at her mild-mannered, even-tempered father, is harder to fathom. She seems to deliberately take offense at something he says in an effort to comfort her while her mother is gone. The reader is left to wonder the real reason she gets angry and refuses his love. Is it because he is too passive to confront her mother? Because he goes along with the pretense that everything is fine? Or is it because he doesn’t take seriously Willa’s effort to fill the gap?

By the time she is 21, Willa is so far gone that when the passenger on one side of her in a jet airplane threatens her life with a gun, she doesn’t react in any way. She doesn’t scream; she doesn’t question the guy about what he wants; she doesn’t alert her boyfriend on the other side of her; she doesn’t alert the stewardess who comes by. Her will is paralyzed. When she later tells her boyfriend, he is incredulous and discounts her story.

She and her boyfriend, Derek Macintyre, are flying to visit her parents because Derek wants to marry her. Where Willa is weak, Derek is willful and assertive. Willa wants to wait until she has finished college, but he wants to marry in the summer coming up and move to California to start his career. His plans are more important to him than her plans, which he discounts. Toward the end of their week-end visit, he announces their engagement to her parents. Her mother says all the right things: she points out that he isn’t looking at Willa’s side of things and what Willa would have to give up for him. And she particularly notes that Derek had brushed off Willa’s story of being threatened on the airplane, because it shows how he disrespects her. Derek confronts her mother in a way that her father never could, and calmly tells her off. Instead of being strengthened by her mother’s support, Willa reacts against it, and against her own best interests, by giving into Derek.

After 20 years of predictable life with Derek—giving up college to raise two sons, being the sort of dependable mom she wishes her mother had been—Willa is suddenly left to her own devices when Derek is killed in an accident caused by his own road rage. She feels helpless and incompetent, which is the way he had always treated her. She begins to wonder about the purpose of life, or simply ‘why bother?’ She had always wanted to be so reliable that her sons could take her for granted, but now she finds that being taken for granted is not very satisfying. She still longs for someone to take care of her, and to boss her around.

The real story, Part II, starts when Willa is 61 years old, and it opens with a call to another life, an offer she can’t refuse. It takes the form of a phone call from someone who mistakenly assumes that Willa is the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl whose mother had been shot in the leg, in her neighborhood in Baltimore. She wants Willa to take care of the girl, Cheryl, while her mother, Denise, is in the hospital. Willa is now married to Peter, who is the same type as Derek, and is living the same arid retirement life in Arizona that she would have had with him. Uprooted from her world in California, Willa feels her life is meaningless and boring. When she hears of a child in need of a grandma, she can’t resist the temptation to play the role. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she spontaneously makes a major decision, without consulting Peter, and books her flight to Baltimore. Her bid for independence is somewhat muted by his decision to accompany her, condescendingly assuming she can’t handle the flight by herself.

Peter is fairly helpful, or at least non-interfering, but his attention is still on his own world, his business associates and golf buddies. Willa adapts to her role as grandmother, which includes adapting to a colorful cast of characters in the poor but respectable neighborhood where Cheryl and Denise live. She becomes so engrossed in her new life that she barely notices when Peter goes back to his world in Arizona. Meanwhile she is developing self-reliance—learning to drive a strange car around a strange town, learning to make decisions and choices on her own, learning to appreciate ‘everyday people,’ learning, for the first time, to enjoy the absence of a man to dominate her life. And the reader keeps thinking she ought to go back to her husband. Or should she?

My usual preference is for novels that are intellectually challenging, with a difficult vocabulary and complicated sentences, with big ideas and heavy drama. But sometimes I need a vacation from all that, and then I turn to Anne Tyler. Clock Dance is her 21st novel, and I have read about half of them. Her themes are positive and life-affirming, but her stories don’t reek of sentimentality and preachiness because her style is so spare and understated. It’s like Quaker wood furniture—functional but not fancy, well-crafted but plain. Tyler is generous with homely detail and engaging minor characters, but she is spare in her depiction of Willa’s inner life. By leaving a lot unsaid, she forces the reader to use their imagination.

For me, Anne Tyler is consistently good, but never great. But that’s okay. It’s like simple home cooking compared to gourmet meals—sometimes that’s just what I need.

Clock Dance
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life

This was a fun, breezy book, a welcome change from the intense, heavy, and serious plotlines of most of the current crop of critically acclaimed novels that I have been reading lately. However, it was not escapist fiction by any means, which can be fun to read at times, but is neither memorable not uplifting. My Ex-Life was both.

The book tells the story of a gay man, David, who travels from San Francisco to the East Coast to help out his ex-wife, Julie, who he was briefly married to in his early twenties, and her seventeen year old daughter from a subsequent marriage, Mandy, whose father, Henry, is pushing her to “get her act together” and get into a good college. David is a college counselor, and when Mandy finds out that he was Julie’s first husband, she reaches out to him. She is going through the turmoil and angst typical of kids of that age, and it is compounded by the fact that her parents are going through a divorce. While this is not an emotional blow for Julie — she fell out of love with Henry a long time ago — it is problematic in a different way — she will lose the house that she jointly owns with Henry unless she buys out his share. She is running it as an Airbnb, and while she is not making a whole lot of money from it, she loves it.

David, too, is in somewhat of a crisis — his younger boyfriend has left him for another man, and the house that he was renting is going to be sold, so he will have to find another place to live. Therefore, when Mandy reaches out to him, ostensibly for help with her college applications, he actually travels to the small town near Boston called Beauport where Julie lives, to visit them and help Mandy in person. He ends up staying at the Airbnb and helping Julie with it, doing a lot of repairs and de-cluttering. Despite the breakup of their marriage all those years ago, David and Julie remain very fond of each other, and their deep mutual affection is rekindled by David’s extended visit. Not only is he working with Julie on trying to get the money to buy out Henry’s share so she can retain the house, the trip to Beauport has also allowed him to get away from his own problems in San Francisco. And, of course, there’s the challenge of helping Mandy, who has some other issues in addition to typical teenage rebellion and aimlessness.

With such an unconventional plotline, My Ex-Life was hard to put down, and it was made even more enjoyable by the quality of the writing, especially the humor. There were so many parts that were funny, especially earlier on in the book — David’s chance meeting with his ex-boyfriend at a party, Julie’s struggles with her pot addiction, Mandy’s summer job at a knick-knacks store in Beauport from which she is fired for not having an enthusiastic “cheery” attitude that could encourages sales, and the increasingly scathing feedback from the Airbnb consultant that Julie has hired to figure out how to improve business as she (the consultant) is taken on a tour of the house. All of the humor is extremely witty, and I appreciated that it was intelligent rather than slapstick.

It was also both funny and insightful to learn about David’s work as a college counselor and read some of the college essays that the students he was counseling were writing for their applications. Apparently, about 90% of essays begin with the mention of a grandparent or cancer and these rarely get read by admission directors, since they have so many to plow throw. In contrast, there is this one with an opening that is impossible to not continue reading:

Growing up, my father encouraged my brother and me to piss in the kitchen sink when my mother wasn’t home.”

Just that one line made reading this book so worth it!

My Ex-Life
Author: Stephen McCauley
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us

This book had almost too much hype surrounding it, as it was the first book to be published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint at Hogarth Publishing, called SJP. (She is best known as the lead actress from TV’s Sex and the City.) Apparently, it was hand-picked by her and she described herself as being “taken hostage by Fatima Mirza’s heartrending and timely story.” I was naturally excited when I was able to get a copy of the book to read — I expected it to be mind-blowing.

At the outset, I must say that it was not. It tells the story of a traditional Muslim family living in the San Francisco Bay area — although it would be more accurate to say that it is more of a narration of their lives rather than a “story” as such. The parents are extremely religious and follow all the Islamic rules and rituals. They have three children, all of whom were born in the US. You would expect some kind of conflict between the parents and the kids, some kind of culture clash, which is so much a part of the immigrant experience. However, for the family in A Place for Us, the two older children — who are girls — grow up following the religion and being obedient daughters, not out of fear of their parents but because they simply do not question their faith. While they do go on to achieve professional success — one becomes a doctor and the other a teacher – their lives are firmly rooted in Islam. They both wear the hijab and end up marry Muslims. About the only rebellious thing the elder daughter does is marry a Muslim boy from a different sect!

There is some drama, however, that comes from the youngest child, Amar, who does rebel – he smokes, drinks alcohol, and eventually gets into drugs, all of which are forbidden by Islam. Naturally, he clashes with his traditional parents and ends up leaving home. And oh, he also falls for a girl, but she is also a Muslim. That is the extent of his non-conformity. Amar never returns home, apart from a brief visit for his sister’s wedding. The book ends with the father looking back on his parenting with some regret and wishing that he had been less angry and more loving with his children, so that his son was not driven away.

This, really, was the extent of the plot of the book. Apart from Amar rebelling and leaving the house, nothing really happens. There is no other issue, no calamity as such. It made me wonder why I was even reading about this family, with its relative lack of problems. If all they had to worry about was one child not being sold on the religious beliefs of the family, they seemed to be very lucky. Even the fact that they were Muslims in an increasingly Islamaphobic world did not emerge as an issue. There was only a brief reference to 9/11 and its aftermath — Amar got into a fight at school and the two older girls stopped wearing the hijab for some time following their parents’ advice — but that was about it. A passing reference is made to the 2016 election towards the end of the book, but I imagine that most of the book must have been written before the current hostile political climate.

Given the lack of a real plot, what may have given the book credibility and led to its selection by Sarah Jessica Parker as the first book for her new imprint was that it was very well written and provided a lot of details about the lives of the individual members of the family. I could see how this could be a novelty to Western audiences, allowing them a glimpse into a totally different way of life and culture — how a Muslim family lives in the US, how the kids are brought up, what are the customs and rituals they follow, and so on. However, as someone from India who now lives in the US, none of these details were new to me or even especially interesting. It was as if anyone could just capture the mundane details of their life — how they were brought up, the little things they did, their relationships with their parents and their siblings, etc. — and it would be worthy of publication in a novel. I imagine that many of the details in A Place for Us come directly from the author’s own life and experiences, given that it is her first novel and most first novels tend to be very autobiographical.

I would put this book in the same category as Exit West, another book that was highly acclaimed by critics, but which I did not much care for. While I appreciate the fact that these young authors are getting a chance and feel happy for them, I wish critics and publishers were a little more discerning and found books with some real merit to them.

A Place for Us
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
Publication Date: June 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird

Recalling her reaction to reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my friend said, “When I finished it, I just wished that everyone could be like Atticus Finch, or at least try.” Indeed. If only everyone could be decent and virtuous through and through. If only everyone would treat others with respect, regardless of their place in society. If only everyone could retain their faith in humanity in the face of prejudice and ignorance, in the face of threats against himself and his family. If only every parent could be gentle and understanding while setting firm limits. If only every man who was a dead-eye shot could avoid using a gun except when it is necessary to defend the community from a clear-cut danger.

Harper Lee intended for readers to long for decency. Not only that, but she spelled out exactly what she thought ‘decency’ and ‘right living’ means on a wide range of issues from large to small: what is justice, what is honor, what is duty; what is sympathy, what is courtesy, what is tact; what does it mean to love one’s neighbor; how does a reckless child learn to be a responsible adult? She demonstrated her code through both the actions and the words of her characters.

Far from being the utilitarian and sentimental potboiler that I expected, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of fiction. Harper Lee unfolds her stories in such a homely and leisurely manner that you don’t realize you’re taking in a systematic moral treatise at the same time.

The literary device that enabled the author to reveal the setting, the plot, and the characters slowly, in tiny easily digestible units, was using the viewpoint of Atticus’s daughter, a precocious little girl, in her eighth and ninth years, called Scout. Lee didn’t attempt to create a childish voice, but she depicted events in the way that Scout experienced them.

In order to deal with themes of racism and justice, the major plot has to do with the trial of a handicapped black laborer, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Tom, and he makes a very convincing case for Tom’s innocence, while knowing that the jury would never take the word of a Negro over that of a white man. When a mob threatens to lynch Tom, Atticus is prepared to defend him without using a weapon, sticking by his principles at the risk of his own life.

The subplot concerns a reclusive neighbor, known by the children as Boo. When he was a young man, Boo, whose real name is Arthur Radley, got in trouble with the law while hanging out with a gang of ruffians. His parents’ response was to keep him hidden at home. After 15 years of isolation, Arthur casually stabbed his father in the leg as he passed by. It is evident that he needs some kind of help, but his father refuses to let him go to an asylum, so he ends up back at home, even more isolated. When his parents finally die, his older brother Nathan moves in and continues Boo’s confinement.

Scout and her brother Jem, who is about 4 years older, and their summertime friend Dill, who is 8-10 years old, make the mysterious Boo into a dangerous monster. Sometimes they are afraid to pass his house; other times, they try to provoke him to show himself. Although they manage to rile his brother Nathan—who takes a pot shot at them when they enter the Radley place late at night in an effort to leave Boo a friendly note—Boo sees their gesture as friendly play, as it was intended. He responds by leaving tiny keepsakes in a hole in an oak tree, but mean Nathan cuts off that form of contact by filling the hole with cement.

The way these two plots are intertwined is a marvel to behold.

The man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is a shiftless, no-account white man, named Bob Ewell, who lives on welfare with a ragged bunch of motherless children next to the dump—quite literally ‘poor white trash,’ but still higher in the social pecking order than the lowly Negroes. His eldest daughter, Mayella, age 19—friendless and isolated, like Boo—becomes attracted to Tom Robinson when he passes her house each day on the way to and from his job working as a laborer on a nearby farm. Although his left arm is damaged and hangs useless, he is young and strong. His only fault is sympathizing with Mayella’s situation. He sees that she totally lacks support from her father and the younger children in the family, and he instinctively comes to her aid when she asks him to help with some task. When she takes advantage of the situation to kiss him and hold him in her arms, she seals his doom. Her father observes the embrace through a window and totally freaks out. He enters the house raging, and when Tom quickly departs, he proceeds to whack Mayella about the head and neck, not stopping until she is on the floor. Then he covers up his violence by accusing Tom of rape, and Mayella goes along with this in order to hide her shame.

The courtroom scenes where Atticus reveals the Ewells’ squalid life and the flimsiness of their accusations through patient and respectful questioning are great set pieces of sustained drama. The children look on from the balcony among the black community, who are stunned that any white man would put so much of himself into defending a black man. The raucous white people on the floor are temporarily subdued by doubt and suspense. After unexpectedly long deliberations, the all white male jury finds Tom guilty and sentences him to death. The injustice of the verdict hits the children and the reader like an anvil falling to the floor.

Though Bob Ewell gets his way in court, he is humiliated by the experience, and he vows to get Atticus if it takes the rest of his life. Instead of going directly for the attorney, he attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night. Scout is saved by the chicken wire in her ham costume and rolls comically out of danger, but Ewell succeeds in twisting Jem’s arm behind his back and is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow with a jack knife, when he is overpowered by Boo, who stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. It is unclear to the children who saved them: Jem passes out and Scout’s vision is impeded by her awkward costume. When Sheriff Tate arrives on the scene, he quickly figures out what has happened, but he chooses to cover up the truth—by saying Ewell fell on his own knife—because saving the children’s lives would make him a hero in the small town, and he figures Boo would hate being the center of attention—it would be a kind of punishment.

The issue of killing mockingbirds is mentioned early in the book, when Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas. He tells them never to point a gun indoors, and never to shoot a mockingbird, because killing a mockingbird is sinful. A friendly neighbor explains why: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” At the end, when Sheriff Tate decides to hide the truth about how Bob Ewell died, he explains: “To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.” Scout understands this. She says, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” There’s a time for justice, and a time for mercy.

All this drama and high seriousness is interwoven with comical scenes, such as the hilarious Halloween pageant featuring children dressed as the agricultural products of the region. Or the meeting of the ladies’ Christian group that earnestly discusses the plight of some happy heathens, while freely engaging in un-Christian prejudice against members of their own community. Or Scout’s first day in school, when her teacher is reduced to tears by her own ineptitude and one of the younger Ewell children, who sasses her and walks out of school. Or Jem’s attempt to use a fishing pole to get a message to Boo in the middle of the night, and losing his pants in the process.

As appealing as this story is—full of homely detail, childish innocence, and colorful anecdotes—it is tempting to take it literally, but it is not a documentary, it is a story, a constructed piece of fiction. In fact it is a parable—a story with a moral. The characters have been idealized and simplified to illustrate certain principles.

I read this book because I wondered why it kept appearing on so many lists of best books and favorites. It appeals to our longing for basic human decency with subtle and refined artistry.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Publication Date: July 1960

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.

“Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler

Everything Happens for a Reason

Anyone who has ever asked the fundamental question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” would not be able to pass on this book without being intrigued by its title. It seems to be unequivocally saying that the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” that we hear so often being bandied about, especially addressed to people who are going through a tragedy, is a lie, plain and simple. For anyone who is not religious — who does not believe in a “grand scheme” for life, who does not believe in an afterlife, who finds the concept of “God” to be something that humans have fabricated to makes themselves feel that someone is in charge – for such a person, a book like this simply affirms what they already know. But for those who do believe that “everything happens for a reason,” this book is a must-read, especially because it is written by someone who was steeped in religion and knows exactly what that line of thinking is like.

The author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved is Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, who was not only brought up as a Christian and still follows it, but has spent her professional life specializing in the study of something called the “prosperity gospel” in Christianity, which sees fortune – notably money, success, and good health – as a blessing from God and conversely, any misfortune as a sign of God’s disapproval. While it may seem amazing to other people that such a line of thinking even exists – despite all evidence to the contrary, with innumerable people, including babies and children, suffering everyday through no fault of their own – it does, with plenty of preachers teaching it and plenty of followers believing it. Despite being an academic, Bowler also experienced her own “prosperity gospel” or sorts when she was able to conceive and give birth to a baby after several setbacks, had a book published, and was cured of a crippling physical ailment that had temporarily made her unable to use her hands and arms. All of this, and with a loving husband to boot, she was flying high. How could she not see herself as blessed?

But then, it all suddenly came crashing down. She started having several abdominal pains, and it was diagnosed as stage 4 colon cancer. With a survival rate of only 10% and no “cure” as such, Bowler had just been handed a death sentence. While she didn’t know exactly how long she had to live, she knew that sooner rather than later, she would die, and her baby boy would have to grow up without her and her beloved husband would have to bring up their son on his own. This has made her look anew at not just the prosperity gospel, but at many of the common religious beliefs people hold and which several of them tried to comfort her with — not just “Everything happens for a reason,” but also things such as, “God needs an angel,” “You will be in heaven and can watch over your family,” and so on. She now sees these not just as harmless platitudes that can help to comfort some people when they are dying, but outright lies that can prevent people from accepting the inevitable in good grace.

So far, Bowler is still living with the cancer, with traditional treatments and some promising new immunotherapy ones that are continuing to keep her alive, a few months at a time. But she does not know when her time will run out. Hearing first-hand from someone who is looking at death right in the face is a searing experience, whether you are religious or not. The book is chock-full of insights that can only come once you are in that place of knowing your days are numbered. (Actually, everyone’s days are numbered, but it’s easy to forget this in the hum and bustle of our daily lives.) And even for those who are not faced with this calamity yet, she provides some sage advice on what NOT to say to people who are going through tough times as well as what to say or do to help. Reading the book is worth it just for this alone.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved
Author: Kate Bowler
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: February 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.