“The Women Who Ruled India” by Archana Garodia Gupta

This is a book I was actually waiting for. I was pretty sure there were many women rulers in India whose names are virtually unknown. I’ve been doing my own share of research but this book made me realize the depth of my ignorance.

Yes, I know the Begums of Bhopal had ruled for a 100 years albeit with the help of the British. Yes, I had heard of the Dhenkanal copper plates, but the 100 year rule of the Bhaumakara queens of Odisha was a revelation to me. The dynasty had lasted 200 years. Of the 18 rulers, 6 were female, and they had ruled long and well. Tribhuvana Mahadevi, the first of the queens had ascended the throne in 846 CE. And not a single queen had adopted a son to bolster her own legitimacy.

I had hitherto believed that Abbakka Rani of Ullal was a single heroic woman who had valiantly fought off the Portuguese for decades. Now I learn there were two Abbakka Ranis.

There are tales of well known women like Razia Sultan, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Chand Bibi who defended the two sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmednagar, Kittur Rani Chennamma, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, and Nur Jahan, who was the de facto Mughal as her husband Jahangir lapsed into an alcoholic stupor and left the reins of the empire in her hands.

The surprises came in the shape of the Attingal Ranis of Kerala, and Rani Karnavati of Garhwal who acquired the epithet ‘naak-katti rani’ after she cut off the noses of Emperor Shah Jahan’s forces whom she defeated and captured. Garhwal went on to defy Aurangzeb, and still managed to survive.

I had never heard of Didda, Queen of Kashmir, who ruled ably for half a century from 958 to 1003 CE. And the author tells us that Kashmir had many women rulers before and after Didda. Before Didda another queen, Sugandhadevi, had wielded power for 50 years, first as regent and later as independent ruler. When Didda’s husband died she cleverly avoided committing sati by staging a superb drama. In fact the book mentions several women who committed sati and several others who refused to do so. I found this part most interesting.

In the 13th century Rudrama Devi of Orugallu (now Warangal) was groomed by her father Ganapati Deva of the Kakatiya dynasty to take over the reins of the kingdom after him. She was made co-ruler in 1259 CE and later in 1262 CE she ruled independently, although she sat on the throne only after the death of the king in 1269. Only a few decades earlier in 1231 CE the Delhi Sultan Itutmish of the Slave dynasty had declared his daughter Razia Sultan as his heir, overriding the claims of his three sons. Razia refused to be called Sultana because the word meant ‘sultan’s wife’. She was the only woman to adorn the throne of Delhi and her reign was short-lived. Rudrama Devi, however, lived to be 80 years old and died around 1289 CE.

A chapter titled “The Heroines of Chittor” makes interesting reading. The author points out that “Karmavati, Jawahirbai and Mirabai were all women who flouted the norm in choosing not to commit sati and came into prominence only after being widowed.” Rani Karmavati did not choose to die when her husband Rana Sanga died in 1528 of wounds sustained in battle, having been defeated by Babur. Bhojraj, Rana Sanga’s heir apparent and husband of the poet-saint Mirabai had already fallen in battle the previous year.

Several years later, in March 1535, Chittor was besieged by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. When the walls were breached with Portuguese cannons, Rani Karmavati led 13000 Rajput women to commit jauhar, while the men fought to the last man. Earlier the queen mother Jawahirbai had led a cavalry charge to defend the breach and died a glorious death along with several other women dressed in male attire. Fortunately for Mirabai she had left Chittor for Merta in 1534, and thus she survived. She lived on until 1547 extolling the divinity of Lord Krishna.

Tarabai, the warrior wife of Prithviraj, often joined her husband on the battlefield. She was acclaimed for driving off a war elephant with her sword. The couple lived in Kumbhalgarh, where Prithviraj was poisoned by his brother in law. Tarabai chose to die on his funeral pyre. Looks like sati was fashionable, but the women did have a choice.

Down south in Madurai in 1682 CE, Rani Mangammal refused to commit sati when her husband Chokkanath Nayak died. Instead she ably guided her young son Virappa Naik, who died seven years later of small pox. When his pregnant wife tried to commit sati, Mangammal forcibly restrained her. The lady Muthuammal later gave birth to a son Vijaya Ranga and subsequently committed suicide. Mangammal continued to rule as regent until 1705, when she died in mysterious circumstances.

I didn’t read the book – I devoured it.

Overall Assessment: If you’re a history buff, you’ll simply love this book

The Women Who Ruled India
Author: Archana Garodia Gupta
Publisher: Hachette India
Publication Date: December 2017

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

“Us” by David Nicholls

I really liked this book. I borrowed it from a friend with no expectations, just a mild curiosity. I had heard of the movie “One Day” which was based on a book by the same author, but that was all I knew. I started the book, preparing to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grip me right away. (I do this for a lot of the books that I borrow, and since I do not buy them, I feel no compulsion to read them if I do not find them engaging.)

But I did! Us was engaging and funny and very well written, right from the first page consistently until the very end. At the same time, it was not dense or dark, and I came away from reading it with a pleasant sense of enjoyment, despite it not having a “fairy tale” ending as such.

Us is the story of a man’s last-ditch attempt to save his 25 year-old marriage. It is set in England. The man is Douglas Petersen, who has a very conventional personality and is perfectly “nice,” even if somewhat staid. He is the kind who has checked all the right boxes in his life — he has worked hard to become a biochemist, he has a stable job, he started off in academia but eventually moved to a better career with a bigger paycheck in a corporation, and is, by all accounts, a successful man with a respected career and a decent income. In contrast, his wife, Connie, has an artistic temperament and is very free-spirited, with a laissez faire to life. They are set up by his sister and it is a case of opposites attracting — Douglas falls madly in love with her, and Connie is drawn to his stable personality, his methodical approach to life, which is so different from her intense and often turbulent life as an artist. After three years of dating, she eventually agrees to marry him.

They are happy enough in the beginning, and the shared grief of the death of their first child, a daughter, shortly after she was born, keep them close. Their bond is maintained after their son, Albie, is born and while he is little. It is when he starts getting older that the relationship starts to get strained and the differences in their temperaments become more pronounced. Douglas also has a difficult relationship with Albie, which only deteriorates as Albie gets older, and it is almost at breaking point by the time Albie turns 17. It is also around this time that Connie figures that she is no longer happy in the marriage and tells Douglas that she would like to leave him.

The catch is that they had planned a grand vacation in Europe that summer to celebrate Albie’s graduation from school, and rather than cancel it, Douglas and Connie decide to go ahead with the trip. After all, they have been together for so long – what are a few weeks more? Douglas, on his part, hopes that the trip will make Connie rethink her decision to leave him, and it will also help him to get closer to his son. So they set off.

However, the trip is a disaster almost from the start. The differences between them — Douglas’s methodical, planned approach to everything in contrast to Connie’s more relaxed, artistic temperament — are accentuated. Albie, who is much more like Connie and just cannot abide what he sees as Douglas’s heavy-handedness, doesn’t even want to be on this trip. Things come to a head in Amsterdam and Albie leaves to go off on his own, with a girl he has met there.

Connie and Douglas dejectedly prepare to return to England – so much for their grand vacation – when Douglas decides on the spur of the moment – uncharacteristically for him – at the airport when the flight home is boarding that he is going to stay on in Europe and try and find Albie. The rest of the book narrates his various adventures and misadventures as he embarks upon this quest. He does eventually find Albie and they even have a reconciliation of sorts, but at the end of the day, it really does not save his marriage as Douglas had hoped it would. He and Connie stay on together for about a year after the Europe trip — it did make Connie reconsider and try to make their marriage work — but eventually, the realization of how fundamentally different they were could no longer be swept under the carpet, and she does go ahead with leaving him. The separation, however, is amicable and they are able to stay friends and co-parent Albie, who has also, by this time, settled into an agreeable father-son relationship with Douglas.

What I really liked about Us, in addition to how enjoyable, witty, and well-written it was, is how spot-on it was about people and relationships. The characters of Douglas and Connie were so authentic and their interactions extremely believable. In particular, the rocky relationship that Douglas has with his son was accurate to a tee — anyone who has a teenage kid can completely relate to their interaction. I also liked the fact that there was no dramatic fallout between Connie and Douglas. Their relationship starts to fray only gradually, which is closer to how it is in real life. Connie’s innate artistic temperament, which had become dormant after years of domestication and parenthood, eventually starts to reassert itself, and leads to her feeling less and less close to Douglas until she decides she owes it to herself to leave and try to find what makes her happy.

Despite Douglas’s wishful thinking, as well as ours as readers — we are rooting for him, the protagonist — there is no “happy ending” here where the marriage is saved. But at least, the story does not end on a discordant note as it was threatening to when it started.

Us
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Haper
Publication Date: October 2014

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

“The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop is a cute read, particularly for music buffs (which I am not). The protagonist (Frank) has had a bohemian childhood, raised by an unconventional and controlling mother with a passion for music on vinyl that she passed on to Frank. Frank owns a music store on a run-down street that sells only vinyl and lives in an apartment above his store. The street is populated with several other run-down stores run by picturesque (and down and out) characters, all of who form a tight knit community where they mind each other’s business. The scene is charmingly set and Frank’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and his “super-power” to find just the right music that speaks to each customer is eloquently described.

Into this setting walks our heroine – a mysterious foreigner who falls in love with Frank (and he with her). The story proceeds and sad things happen but there is some romance and lots of music. Gentrification comes to the run-down street and vinyl is supplanted by CDs and Frank suffers, but the book manages to end on a relatively positive note.

This is not a deep book or even an excellent book but it’s a cute read and the music playlist is lovely – I have been listening to it on Spotify and the range of genres is amazing.

The best thing about this book is that it got me to check out Joyce’s other writing and I found her previous work and read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by her, which I absolutely loved.

If you read this book first, you’ll be well served. If you read Harold Fry first and come to this book expecting something as powerful, you will be disappointed. 

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce

A friend brought me Rachel Joyce’s new book The Music Shop (also reviewed here) and I liked that so much that I looked up her previous work and found this title which is evidently her best known work.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of an awkward, socially inept, mostly overlooked and undervalued plodding sort of man with an unremarkable career and dreary retired life. Harold gets a letter from an ex-colleague saying that she is in hospice, dying of cancer and he is struck by the fact that this woman did something remarkable for him that he never acknowledged or gave thanks for and she simply dropped out of his life for decades. He decides to write back, a note of a sympathy in a sentence or two, but as he walks to the mailbox to mail his missive, he finds himself just walking further and further towards her hospice (which is hundreds of miles away). Without forethought or plan he finds himself taking weeks and months to walk to her side and meet her before she dies.

As the story unfolds we learn about Harold’s life – his unhappy marriage and his lack of success as a father, his friendship of Queenie (the dying colleague) – in small snippets, interspersed with the details of his journey, the people he meets and the life stories that are impacted by his journey. We come to know his wife and the love and promise of the early days of their marriage, decaying to endless anger and bitterness in the present moment. And we see Harold as anything but unremarkable in his quest.

This is a short book and a very quick read, written in a straightforward, direct manner with no frills and flourishes. The story is powerful, reading almost like a biblical parable. And the ending is sublime with two twists, one that I saw coming pretty early on and the other that knocked me over. There are a couple of patches in the middle where I was impatient with Harold’s entourage and some side stories, but other than that, each page was a gift.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Snap by Belinda Bauer is a murder mystery longlisted for the Booker in 2018, and I absolutely loved it. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries which are gripping, well paced and well plotted but mostly formulaic – it’s not easy to churn out book after book that makes for a pleasant afternoon read, quickly devoured and quickly forgotten but fun while it lasts. There are many authors that do a great job in the thriller category (Lee Child, Baldacci, Turow, etc.) and many that do a wonderful job in the murder mystery genre (Louise Penny is a great favorite and so is Ian Rankin).
However, writing in the same genre but in a class apart are others, like Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, Colin Dexter, Tana French.

Like these stellar writers and perhaps even surpassing them, Belinda Bauer has written a murder mystery that is wonderfully populated with characters and their broken lives just like a literary novel, but with the characteristic pace and plotting that makes a mystery novel a page-turner. I couldn’t decide if I should read slowly to savor the writing and the details or read fast to move on with the plot. I did a bit of both!

The protagonist is Jack, a teenage boy trying to hold his family together in the absence of both parents and dealing with the murder of his mother. His character, his thoughts and his trauma are very well depicted with a light and deft narration and Jack retains his teenage-ness without descending into melodrama or pathos. Jack’s siblings, his neighbour and the police men and women are brought to life beautifully, with each having a very distinct voice and personality. The story unfolds slowly and surely but the end doesn’t fully live up to the promise of the beginning. Even so, I highly recommend this book and will be buying a copy or two to give as gifts.

Snap
Author: Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Bantam Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer, a voracious reader of fiction.

“How to Behave in a Crowd” by Camille Bordas

How to Behave in a Crowd

After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a book that could sustain my interest, I finally managed to find and finish How to Behave in a Crowd. I typically pick up so many recommended books from the library that I don’t remember where I heard about this book — it’s not a best-selling or award-winning book that everyone knows about. But once I started reading it, there were two main aspects to it that captured my attention and sustained it until the end: one, it is set in France and written by a French author (Camille Bordas’ previous books are in French but this one is in English); and two, it is a first person narration by a eleven year old boy. Not only was it so interesting to be immersed in a culture I know very little about, there is also something very clean and direct about a narration from a child’s perspective — it is free from the convoluted thinking that adults tend to have.

The book itself is not so much a story as a slice of life — a slice of about two years in the life of Isidore Mazal, or Dory as he is called, the youngest of six children living in a small French town with his family. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about his parents, the same cannot be said about his siblings, all of whom are academically brilliant and exceptionally bright — they are always reading or busy with research and other intellectual pursuits, with little interest in socializing or being with other people. While Dory is different from them and is more “normal,” growing up in a house overrun with high-achieving siblings makes him a lot more mature compared to other kids of his age.

Shortly after the book opens, the father dies unexpectedly from a heart attack, and since he was away from home on work a lot, the family is, for the most part, able to carry on with their lives as before. Dory’s mother continues to get a widow’s pension, and there is no financial impact either, at least none that Dory can discern. His siblings continue on their high-achieving academic paths, with three of them eventually getting PhDs, and the eldest even moving to the US to get a second PhD. In France, PhD defenses are so long and such a memorable event that the entire family attends, that after the PhD defense of the third sibling, one of Dory’s brothers (who is into music rather than academics) quips: “Sometimes I wonder if [our] father didn’t die when he did just to avoid all the PhD defenses.”

While there is no dramatic fallout as such from the father’s death that happens early in the book, we see that in the course of the following two years, most of Dory’s siblings battle with disappointments and struggle to live up to the promising future everyone thought was in store for them. Dory himself had no great expectations to begin with, so there are no academic disappointments in store for him, but on the personal front, he has to deal with the death of one of his closest friends, Denise, who committed suicide. Even though she was severely depressed and had been talking about suicide for years, it still comes as a shock to him. But Dory copes without falling apart, just as he did after the death of his father, and the book ends with the subtle understanding that Dory, despite being the youngest, has become the source of comfort and support for his troubled older siblings.

In addition to the uniqueness of the setting (France) and the unconventional narration (by a pre-teen boy), what really amazed me about this book was the steady sprinkling of quips and insights throughout, to the extent that I actually had to highlight the pages on which they appeared with Post-it tabs. I already mentioned the one about the father dying to avoid sitting through his kids’ long and tedious PhD defenses, which I thought was really funny. Here is another one, which is what Dory thinks when Denise tells him matter-of-factly that he’s a conformist and goes on to add that all children are.

I took this as an insult but then I realized taking the work “conformist” as an insult was the most conformist reaction and so I let it slide.

And this is where Dory and Denise are discussing how they are advised to be strong after tragedies and have the courage to hold on to the small pleasures of the moment. This is what Denise has to say:

“Courage my ass. It doesn’t take courage to be in the moment. What really takes guts is to live each day as if you were going to hang around for the next ten years at least. Account for something. Live up to something. Now, that is hard. That requires a little more pondering and reflection, a little more strength.”

Another one, this time by Simone, one of Dory’s older sisters, when and Dory are discussing dictatorship and why good people never want to become dictators:

“All good people want is to be left alone and help those around them. The problem is good people lack ambition.”

And finally, this is what Dory’s mother tells him when he asks her about finding another husband or boyfriend some months after his father dies:

“It’s your memories with the person that become your love for the person, you know? And building memories takes time. A lot of time, actually. I don’t think I can do it again. I don’t believe I have enough time left to do it again.”

I found it amazing that a young author can have such profound insights and is able to capture them so effortlessly in her writing. How to Behave in a Crowd may not have won a lot of critical acclaim or commercial success, but I considered it a rare find for its dollops of wisdom sprinkled so unassumingly throughout the book.

How to Behave in a Crowd
Author: Camille Bordas
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Publication Date: August 2017

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

“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini

The early part of the book is set in Afghanistan, then moves briefly to Pakistan, and then to the US. The lead character spends his early years in Afghanistan with his Dad and then leaves the country during the Russian occupation and later returns during the peak of the Taliban rule. The story revolves around this eventful journey during which the lead character, Amir, transitions from boyhood to a grown-up, married man and finally a published author. Circumstances draw him back to Afghanistan, and the story then traces its way back for a US-Pak-Afghanistan-Pak-USA round trip during which he is exposed to life-threatening events and deep emotional trauma.

The book appears to be (at least partly) autobiographical. The lead character in the book is referred to in first person (“I”) throughout the book. In other words, the story is told in a narrative style. Some parts of the book refer to Fremont, and other parts of the SF Bay Area. It was nice to read references to places that I could relate to. Incidentally, the author is a physician based in the SF bay area. There are quite a few references to Hindi movies and Hindi music. The author has certainly been influenced to some extent by these movies. There are scenes that can be directly adapted into Hindi films — fight scenes, a sick person coughing blood yet refusing treatment, display of unusual courage despite fatal consequences, romance despite minimal interaction, etc.

I hear that this book is a big success. It also happens to be author’s first book. Given all the recent trouble in Afghanistan, the timing of this book could not have been better (it was published sometime in mid-2003). The book is certain to appeal to the western audience, in particular. There are plenty of references to contradictions of mullahs, Muslims who drink, atrocities of the Taliban, stoning to death etc. etc.

Overall, a superbly written novel, and a most engaging read. It’s only about 350 pages and not one of those long novels. I highly recommend the book, especially if you like fiction that involves family drama.

I’ll be curious to read the author’s next book. The deeply autobiographical nature of most maiden efforts often result in powerful, poignant storylines that often lead to huge successes which are hard to replicate. Also, subsequent books often tend to suffer from high expectations created after a successful first book. In any case, an excellent first novel.

The Kite Runner
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Riverhead
Publication Date: June 2003

This review was originally published at: https://pakorakorner.blog/2005/09/17/book-review-kite-runner/

“Home Fire” by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire

I found it to be a solid plot, beautifully drawn characters, and as timely for us in America as it is for the UK and Muslims everywhere — with global terrorism, religion and radicalism. It shows insight into the minds and hearts of a group of a sometimes alienated community, looking at the problems of terrorism from the perspective of the Muslim immigrant and, finally, the government programs that are inadequate to deal with home grown radicals.

You may find the ending a bit strange — but not if you are Indian — typical Bollywood! (the movie ‘Dil Se’ comes to mind!). I got to know that this book is based loosely on Sophocles’ Antigone.

This novel has some great insights — why people become religious extremists, the difficulties of being a hyphenated Britisher (or, for that matter, American), and the many complexities of trying to be Muslim in a modern society. The moral conundrum of what and how to condemn the actions of those that may have chosen this path is really interesting.

Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 2017

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Becoming

While the buzz about this book started well before it was published last November and all but guaranteed that it would be a bestseller, I did not feel particularly compelled to read it. I am not very interested in politics and had no special fascination for Michelle Obama to want to read her memoirs, any more than I cared to read books by or about any other first ladies, or any politicians for that matter, including Barack Obama. But then, a friend told me about the audio book of Becoming and how good it was, especially because it was narrated by Michelle Obama herself. It so happened that I had a long road trip coming up and decided to give the audio book a try.

I was blown away – it was so good! Not only was the quality of the writing impeccable and the narration flawless, it was such a detailed and honest account by Michelle Obama of her life that I felt like I had undertaken the journey with her and understood everything she had gone through. While I was not able to finish listening to the audio book on my road trip, I bought a physical copy of it after I returned and am amazed to find that even after finishing it, I can keep returning to re-read parts of it with as much interest and enjoyment –and admiration of the quality of the writing — as before.

In Becoming, Michelle Obama captures her life (until now) in three parts. In the first part called “Becoming Me,” she describes her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago with her family. Although they were working-class and far from wealthy, she had a happy childhood – her parents had a stable marriage and were loving but firm; she had a great relationship with her brother who was very popular and well-liked in the community; and she had a large extended community of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and was never lonely. While the neighborhood she lived it gradually became gentrified, going from a white majority to mostly black, about the only angst she experienced in her childhood was academic pressure – she was extremely driven and even the smallest slide in her own performance weighed heavily on her. She describes how the demoralizing assessment of her as “not being Princeton material” by her college counselor in high school motivated her to — as she puts it, “I’ll show her!” – actually get into Princeton, where she was one of the very few black students. She continued her Ivy League education with a graduate degree from Harvard Law school and eventually moved back to Chicago to work as a high-powered lawyer in one of the glitzy high-rise office buildings, which she had seen as belonging to a totally different world when she was growing up in the city. It was there that she met and fell in love with Barack Obama, who was an intern at her firm.

In the second part, “Becoming Us,” Michelle Obama describes her courtship with Barack, their marriage, the birth of their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and their early years as a family. She talks about the challenges she faced as a working mother, trying to balance her home life with her professional one, her growing disenchantment with the world of corporate law, her struggle to find work that was meaningful and uplifting, and her initial reluctance but gradual acceptance of her husband’s calling into politics born of his genuine desire to make a difference. What was most interesting to me to read about at this stage of her life was her growing realization that her enormous drive and motivation that had pushed her to get an Ivy League education and a high-paying, high-powered job in corporate law came more from her personality of “checking the right boxes” and of wanting to earn the admiration of people rather than from a true calling. This realization was all the more vivid for her as it contrasted so sharply with that of her husband, who got into politics not out of self-glory or to make himself feel good but out of a genuine desire to do good for the country. I could also relate to how a person like her, who was meticulously organized and obsessively tidy, could learn to co-exist with someone who was the other extreme — messy and disorganized — without affecting their close and loving relationship. As she puts it, “you find ways to adapt.”

The third part of the book, “Becoming More,” is devoted to the eight years Michelle Obama spent as first lady in the White House while her husband was the President of the United States. She talks about the challenges that come with the position, the close and unending scrutiny of her every move including the clothes she wore, the visits with foreign dignitaries, her various initiatives as first lady including the emphasis on eating right, the constant presence of the Secret Service which made going anywhere an enormous undertaking, and the attempt to shield her daughters from the public glare and allow them to lead as normal a life as possible. Given how well documented Obama’s years as President were as well as my own lack of interest in politics, I found this part the least compelling of the three in the book.  However, it is an essential part of her story, and I appreciated that she did not glorify it in the least, any more than make light of it. Over and above all, it served as an important reminder that even if something looks glamorous on the outside, there is as much pain, grief, and just plain, old-fashioned hard work as there is with anything else in life.

It’s a rare privilege to be privy to the thoughts and experiences of another person, and in the case of Becoming, they are not just “stream of consciousness” notes by Michelle Obama but a meticulously detailed narrative that is so well written that you can enjoy reading it for the quality of its writing alone, even if you are not interested in her life story. I didn’t think I was, but I got hooked once I started reading. There are no major dramatic moments or upheavals here, no childhood traumas that she had to contend with or obstacles that she had to overcome. Despite being black, she never talks about any kind of victimization or overt racism apart from what her husband had to encounter as the first black US President. Her story is just that of a regular person who was smart and hard-working and was driven to do well, and subsequently had the good fortune to meet, fall in love with, and marry a kind, generous man who went on to become the President of the United States.

Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

Celestial and Roy are a young African-American couple — he’s a savvy salesman and she is on her way to establishing herself as a successful artist, making life-like, hand-sewn baby dolls or “poupées.”

Celestial and Roy have many common marriage challenges — in-laws, plans to start a family, their careers. After about a year and a half of marriage, Roy is falsely accused of attacking a woman. Celestial knows he’s innocent because she was there with him the whole time. But he’s still wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Roy’s incarceration is the central axis around which the story revolves — a story of all the people who are affected by it. The story is told from three separate points of view: from that of Celestial, the wife; Roy, the husband; and Andre, Celestial’s childhood friend.

Jones uses the three voices to pace her story, to pull back from the relationship and demonstrate the ravages of distance and time. They’re each fighting their individual battles — Roy with the injustice of what has been done to him and all that he’s lost when he has tried so hard to do everything right; Celestial, who is dealing with a battle between responsibility and desire, finding it hard to hold on to a marriage that hadn’t yet had time to “take”; and Andre, who was also Roy’s friend in college as well as the witness at their wedding. It is a story about a black couple in America ripped apart by a flawed justice system.

This is a powerful story with many layers of emotion, and every detail and character are woven together to form a phenomenal story of love, loss and reconciliation.

An American Marriage
Author: Tayari Jones
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: February 2016

Contributor: Shamita Tripathy is a book enthusiast and works as a finance professional in the Bay area.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

I absolutely loved this book. Realistic, powerful, and engaging, I truly felt like I was living in the moment. This book opened my eyes to new areas of society, and while it was intense and thought-provoking, it was also pleasant and easy to read. This makes it suitable for readers looking for a time-passer, as well as for those willing to give serious matters in the American culture more thought.

The Hate U Give deals with some of the controversial topics regarding racism and stereotyping in America, oppression, and fear of speaking out. It was very touching, and I could feel myself connecting with the main character, Starr, as she navigated the troubles in her family and communities (both white and black) and struggled to find her voice to speak out against injustice.

The Hate U Give will resonate with many teenage readers, but is an important book for anyone who feels passionately about racism and other injustices.

The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 2017

Contributor: Ruksana Varma is a high schooler, and an avid reader of fantasy and nonfiction.

“The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez

So far, I have not had a great track record with regard to liking award-winning books, so when I came across a recommendation for The Friend as the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2018, I picked up a copy of it with some skepticism. But, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise — I actually liked this book! It was deep, as award-winning books invariably tend to be, but not at all dense. In fact, I found it an easy read, not just because of its relatively short length but also because of the writing style, which was simple and sparse, devoid of any literary flourishes. It takes a special skill to be able to pack an emotional punch using the simplest of language, and I was gratified to find that this was applauded by literary critics just as much as it was appreciated by me.

The Friend tells the story of a woman writer whose closest friend, a male writer, commits suicide and she ends up taking in his dog, who is equally devastated by his absence but cannot express it. Over the course of the next several months, both the woman and the dog end up finding comfort in each other. They are still grieving, but they grieve together rather than by themselves. The woman writer — the protagonist — lives alone and never married, and while she teaches writing, she never had any close friends apart from the man. He was actually her professor when she was studying to become a writer, and while they were not romantically attached — apart from the one time they slept together, at the suggestion of the man, as an experiment to see what it would like — they had become best friends and remained so for many years, right up to the time the man dies. Because the woman has no support structure, she would have unraveled from the grief, were it not for being forced to take in the dog. She does this only because she is begged to by the man’s wife, who tells her that she cannot look after the dog properly as it was in deep mourning.

The setting of The Friend is in Manhattan, and the protagonist lives in an apartment that does not allow dogs, which is another challenge that she has to contend with. The dog is an enormous Great Dane and is therefore impossible to hide, bringing with it the risk of eviction. The protagonist is advised by her acquaintances to give up the dog in order to be able to hold on to her impossible-to-find rent-controlled apartment, but she finds that she cannot. In the end, she applies for the dog to be considered as a support animal, and her application is accepted, allowing her to continue to stay in her apartment with the dog.

Apart from this, there is no conclusive “happy ending” for the book as such. It is simply a story of how a person and a dog bond with each other through their mutual grief for the person who is now missing from their lives. Just like the woman, the dog is at first so devastated by the absence of his owner that he can barely function. In time, however, both of them come to find some comfort by being with each other and settle down to an existence where they have accepted the pain and slowly learn to live with it.

While those who are dog-lovers would be able to completely relate to this story and vouch for the depth of love and feeling a dog can have for its owner, I found it very poignant and moving even though I am not a dog person. This is despite the fact that the book is not overtly emotional or sentimental. In fact, the grief is very understated, and with the protagonist being a writer, it captures her extensive ruminations on death, loss, suicide, and even writers and writing, all of which are extremely insightful. This is a book focused on thoughts and feelings rather than on things happening, because apart from the main cataclysmic event at the beginning, not much happens.

While the writing style is simple, it is also quite unusual. It is written in the first person — which is quite common — but the man who dies is addressed in the second person, as “you.” So the entire book reads like a letter addressed by the protagonist to the man who has died. None of the people, including the narrator, are named, except for the dog, whose named is Apollo. Even the man’s current wife and two ex-wives — he was quite a womanizer — are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, and Wife Three. (I couldn’t help being reminded of Dr Seuss’ Thing One and Things Two from The Cat in the Hat.) Also, it was not clear if the “friend” from the title of the book refers to the woman, the dog, or the man who has died. It could be any of them, or it could be all of them.

In contrast to most books that are about death, suicide, loss, or mourning, The Friend was far from being the expected tear-jerker. While it does immerse us completely inside the mind of someone trying to cope with the irreversible loss of someone they love, the emotional punch it packs is a lot more subtle. I found that it had a meditative quality to it that made it seem much more like philosophy than fiction, and I am happy rather than bemused by its National Book Award win. It was very well deserved.

The Friend
Author: Sigrid Nunez
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: February 2018

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

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

I really wanted to like this book. It was highly acclaimed with glowing reviews from both literary critics and readers, and was the finalist for the 2018 National Book Awards. It had come to me highly recommended by a published author whose writing I greatly admired. Also, the focus of the book was the devastating AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which killed thousands of people in the US as well as in many other countries. The quality of the writing was impeccable, which was almost a given, considering that the book was so well acclaimed. It had all the ingredients that go into making a great book, and I should have liked it.

Sadly, I did not care for it. I doggedly continue to read it until the end rather than abandoning it half-way, hoping that, at some point, I would start to care about the protagonists and the outcome of the story. But it failed to evoke any kind of response, leaving me deeply disappointed and questioning whether it was the book or if it was the loss of my own ability to be empathetic and moved by the tragedy of others.

While the plot of The Great Believers revolves around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it actually has two different timelines that alternate throughout the course of the book. The first timeline starts in 1985 and revolves around a group of gay men in Chicago, who are starting to fall victim to the disease one by one. The main protagonist is Yale, and the book opens with the funeral of his close friend, Nico, who has just died of AIDS. Yale is, at that point, in a steady relationship with another man, Charlie, and while some of the other friends in the group are starting to fall victim to the disease, Yale thinks he is safe as he is in a monogamous relationship and both he and Charlie recently tested negative for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). However, Charlie cheats on him and ends up contracting the virus. Yale is devastated, and at the same time, is terrified that he has been infected as well. He eventually gets himself tested, but it is negative, and Yale is so relieved that he ends up seducing a young intern at the art gallery where he works. In an ironic twist of fate, this intern, who Yale thought was not even aware that he might be gay, ends up being HIV positive himself and infecting Yale. Not everyone who is HIV positive gets AIDS, and Yale is able to hold out for a few more years until he eventually dies in 1992.

Throughout Yale’s ordeal, he has had the love and support of Fiona, the younger sister of the friend who had died of AIDS at the beginning of the book. Fiona is like a sister to Yale as well, and she is by his side until the very end, except on the day he dies—she has delivered her baby prematurely just the day before and while she desperately wanted to be with him when he was so close to dying, it just was not possible for her.

Fiona herself is the protagonist of the second timeline of the book, set in 2015, and she has come to Paris to track down her daughter, Claire — the one who was born the day before Yale died — who has been estranged from her parents for many years after joining a cult and refusing to come home. Fiona, who is by now divorced from Claire’s father but is still on friendly terms with him, comes to Paris to find Claire based on a video a friend had sent her showing someone who looked like Claire on a bridge in Paris, accompanied by a toddler. Fiona hires a private detective to track down Claire, and they are eventually able to find her. She is able to have a reconciliation of sorts with Claire, meet her granddaughter, and decides to move to Paris to be closer to them. She has always felt guilty about not being with Yale the day he died, which subconsciously may have impacted her relationship with her daughter. By the end of the book, with the decision to move to Paris, she feels that she is finally making amends.

Try as I might, I couldn’t really bring these plot lines together, and the alternating of the chapters between the 1985 and 2015 plotlines blunted the impact of both stories for me. Had I perhaps only been immersed in the story of Yale and the tragic unfolding of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it would have touched me more. Granted, I knew little about it prior to this book, and I would imagine the story would be a lot more poignant and searing to those who experienced it, either directly or through someone they loved.

However, I think that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of great fiction is that it is able to give us a visceral experience of a tragedy in human history that we don’t know much about, to make history come alive for us.  The Great Believers was not able to do this for me at all.

The title of this book, by the way, comes from a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is printed at the beginning, but which, I am sorry to say, I found quite meaningless.

All in all, I didn’t like this book, more so because I thought I should like it.

The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: June 2018

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

“The Woman in the Window” by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window

How and why I picked up this book to read is an interesting story. I had vaguely heard of The Woman in the Window as being similar to the two hugely successfully thrillers of the last few years — Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, published in 2012, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, published in 2015. Both had gone on to being made into movies. While I didn’t care for their movie adaptations, I absolutely loved both these books and had bought copies of them to add to my permanent collection. Yet I did not feel particularly compelled to read The Woman in the Window. With a name so much like The Girl on the Train and the story also being similar — a woman sees something from a window, similar to how the protagonist in The Girl on the Train saw something from a train — it seemed like a knockoff, something I was not particularly interested in. Also, the buzz surrounding it was nothing like it had been for Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. In my experience, thrillers have to be really, really good, otherwise you just end up feeling stupid after reading them, feeling like you have wasted your time.

Then, just a couple of days ago, I happened to come across an article in the Feb 11, 2019 issue  of The New Yorker magazine which was a detailed exposé of the author of The Woman in the Window. The author’s name, A.J. Finn is a pseudonym — he is actually a guy called Dan Mallory. The article in The New Yorker was 14 pages long  — I was surprised to see such an in-depth investigative report on one person! It described how Mallory had lied his way throughout his career, climbing up the corporate ladder in the publishing world on false pretenses; how he used his good looks and charm to full advantage to dazzle bosses, peers, and subsequently, readers on book tours. He faked illnesses and deaths in his family to write touching essays to get into college, to evoke sympathy in his colleagues, and justify his absences.  He pretended to have two Ph.D.s, including one from Oxford, which he did not have. (He was enrolled in Oxford — again by lying on his application — but never completed his Ph.D.) It was almost unbelievable that someone would go to such lengths to promote themselves and get a leg up in the literary world.

Coincidentally, I had to go to the library later that day to pick up a book and I happened to see a copy of The Woman in the Window sitting on the shelves, available to borrow. In the past, I had simply glossed over it, but now I checked it out. I was curious, first of all, to see if it was any good, and second, to find out if, knowing what I knew now about the author, whether that would affect what I thought about the book. I had a free evening and was able to read it right away.

What I found is that Dan Mallory is a very good writer. The pacing of the book is excellent –almost like a movie. (A movie is already in the works, and the script-writers should have no trouble adapting it.) The protagonist is a thirty-something woman who has gone though a very traumatic experience fairly recently which has made her extremely agoraphobic. She used to be a child psychologist, but now she never leaves her house and passes her time drinking, taking lots of medications, playing chess online, chatting with fellow agoraphobes in an online chat room, and following the goings-on in the lives of her neighbors in whose houses she can see (apparently, no one believes in closing their blinds or shutting the curtains in her neighborhood!) One day, she sees a murder in a neighboring house through her window and calls the police, even venturing out of her house to help, despite her agoraphobia. But it turns out that no one will believe her — they think she is crazy. And this is not just because she is almost always drunk and drugged, but also because of the lies she is always telling about her family. (These lies are related to the traumatic experience which made her agoraphobic to begin with.) But she knows what she saw, and in the end, it turns out that she was right. The book ends with a dramatic confrontation between her and the killer. (This, by the way, is on the roof of her house and in the pouring rain —  already movie-ready!)

In addition to being well written — whatever his failings, Dan Mallory (writing as A.J. Finn) is a good writer — I found The Woman in the Window riveting enough to read all the way through. And it was an easy read — I finished it in the course of a single evening. The pacing was great, with very short, fast-moving chapters — almost like staccatos in a piece of music — and the tension was maintained throughout.

However, while I was easily able to read the book all the way though, the final reveal about the murderer was quite a let-down. It was too easy and too glib — it just made you feel cheated. Simply put, the ending didn’t live up to the rest of the book, and when I finished it, it wasn’t with the sense of fulfillment at having read a good book but instead with a feeling of dissatisfaction at having wasted my time. It’s a pity that a writer who is obviously talented and can write well could not come up with a gripping ending to a promising story of crime and suspense. The Woman in the Window was stylistically excellent but ultimately lacking in substance.

And with regard to that exposé in The New Yorker, I think it is a credit to Mallory’s writing that I forgot all about it when I was reading The Woman in the Window. It shows that art and creativity can transcend all of our failings and foibles as human beings — you don’t have to be a perfect person to create a perfect piece of art.

The Woman in the Window
Author: A. J. Finn
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: January 2018

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

“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

Still Me

Still Me is the third and final book in the Me Before You trilogy, which started with the publication of Me Before You in 2012. That book was a huge hit and was subsequently made into a movie. At the time it was published, it was not intended to be a trilogy — it was only after the critical and commercial success of the book that Jojo Moyes, the author, wrote two more books that continued to tell the story of the main protagonist, Louisa. (In a recent interview I heard, Jojo Moyes disclosed that she was motivated to write more books by the large number of enquiries from fans who wanted to know how Louisa went on to live her life.)

I wish she hadn’t. It seems to me that sometimes when you create something so spectacular, you should just leave it alone rather than try to continue with it, hoping that the continuation will be just as brilliant and successful. It usually is not. A case in point — Harper Lee’s recent Go Set a Watchman which purports to continue her much-loved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, but has ended up almost destroying its legacy.

First, some background. I read Me Before You a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend and was blown away by how good it was. It tells the story of Louisa, a regular girl in a small town in England, who loses her job when the local café she was working in suddenly closes down; she then starts working as a companion to a young man, Will, who is confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident that leaves him a quadriplegic, a condition where all four of limbs are paralyzed and which is incurable. Unknown to Louisa, Will is planning to end his life in six months in a facility in Switzerland which provides medically assisted suicide. While Louisa and Will get off to a rocky start, they come to develop a very close friendship and she falls in love with him. But despite her best efforts to change his mind, and unlike a traditional happily-ever-after romantic ending, Will chooses to go through with his assisted suicide plan and dies. The book ends with Louisa reading Will’s last letter to her in a café in Paris that he had visited and loved. The book was beautifully written, the story was so poignant and sad, and at the same time, so fill of wisdom and profound insights on life and living. Will’s letter ends with this:

“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well.

Just live.”

I absolutely loved Me Before You.

I read the second book, After You, some months later. It lacked the punch of the first book — that was a really hard act to follow — but it was still a decent read. We find Louisa still mourning Will’s death, unable to pick up the pieces and not knowing how to live until a teenage girl, who turns out to be Will’s daughter from his younger philandering days (he didn’t know about her at all) shows up at her doorstep, with a lot of issues that need to be sorted out. While this plot line does seem quite contrived, along with Louisa meeting and falling in love with a new guy, Sam, there are some good things in this book like the descriptions of a support group that Louisa joins for those who have lost loved ones, as well as the descriptions of Louisa’s small closely-knit family in England, their individual eccentricities, and their family dynamics. The second book was nowhere close to the first book in terms of the plot or the quality of the writing, but it was still very readable.

I wish I could say the same for the third book, Still Me, which came out a year ago. The fact that it didn’t generate any kind of buzz should have warned me. The reason that it even appeared on my radar at all was because I recently heard Jojo Moyes on a BBC Books podcast that I listen to. She mostly talked about Me Before You and also read parts of it. It brought back the memories of how much I had loved it. I hadn’t read the concluding book in the series, Still Me, so I picked it up. I also got the first two books in the series and reread them so that I could go back to the beginning and remember how the story unfolds. I was delighted to find that I loved the first book, Me Before You, even more than I had done before. Being older and with a more mature perspective on life, I was able to appreciate its wisdom and insights a lot better. And it was just an incredibly sweet romantic story, even though it had such a sad ending.

I found the second book, After You, just as I had done before — not a great book but still enjoyable.

Still Me, unfortunately, was a real letdown. In this book, Louisa gets a job as a companion to the wife of an extremely wealthy man in Manhattan, and the book is centered around the dysfunctions of this family, the trivial details of their lives, and how eventually Louisa is betrayed by the wife and loses her job. Fortunately, her cranky neighbor comes to her rescue and she ends up reuniting the old woman with her long estranged family. And she and Sam, her boyfriend from the second book, temporarily end their relationship and she starts seeing a man in New York, who, get this — looks just like Will, the former love of her life — but she eventually breaks it up with him because he turns out to be a typical shallow New Yorker. And if all of this wasn’t unbelievably melodramatic enough, there is a whole Sleepless in Seattle type finale to the book in which Louisa has to go to the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan to be reunited with Sam who comes to New York for her!

All in all, it was so ludicrous that I wish that I could go back and “unread” Still Me. What a disappointing, run-of-the-mill, movie-potboiler ending to such a lovely story! It has almost spoiled Me Before You for me. While I can appreciate that authors, just like any of us, have their highs and lows, and cannot always write brilliantly (“You can’t live on a permanent high,” I was once told), I do wish that authors would realize this too. Not everything they write is going to be as inspired as something spectacular they may have written at some point. They should not mess with perfection. If any of their creations turns out to be a masterpiece, they should be thankful for the inspiration that led them to create it and move on to create something else. Leave the masterpiece alone for the rest of us to enjoy.

Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication Date: January 2018

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