“A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky

What encouraged me to pick up this book was the fact that it was written by the same author who had written The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book I hadn’t read but whose movie adaptation I loved. Also, the premise of the book, as captured in the blurb on the jacket cover, seemed intriguing — it was about a man who wants to be a published author by any means necessary, and he will do anything to achieve this. In this day and age, a book about a man who sets so much store by the literary word is quite a rarity!

To be fair, the man in question is not strictly of the current generation, but of the preceding one. Our first encounter with Maurice Swift is in 1988, when he is a young man working as a waiter in a posh restaurant in Germany and meets a writer in his 60s. Already very good-looking — which he uses to great advantage through his youth — Maurice turns on his full charm and quickly ingratiates himself with the older man, drawing out a dark, closely held secret from him that he then uses as the plot of his first book. For Maurice has no real talent — he can write reasonably well, but cannot come up with any ideas on his own.

Maurice continues to build his literary career on the work of others — literally climbing on their “rungs” up the metaphorical ladder of fame. (This is where the name of the book comes from.) While people who are manipulative and conniving are not that uncommon, Maurice’s literary ambitions are so intense that he can literally kill to achieve them — and he does. While disclosing whom he kills and how, would be giving away too much of the book, it is all there, making the book not just a drama but also a thriller or sorts.

I really enjoyed this book. While it is not the kind to be heralded by literary critics, I found it extremely well written with no literary artifices. The story telling was simple and straightforward, yet compelling. It turns out that the author, John Boyne, also writes books for children in addition to writing for adults, which likely accounts for his straightforward writing style, making the plot the focus of the novel and avoiding any stylistic flourishes that often get in the way of the story.

That said, what was not so straightforward about the book was that the story is told not only from perspective of different characters but also from multiple points of view. It starts with the first person written from the point of view of Erich, the older writer who is the first “rung” of Maurice’s ladder to the sky; this is followed by a second person narration from Edith, Maurice’s wife for five years before she dies (she is also a writer); a third person narration of Maurice’s life in New York where he has founded a literary magazine following the success of his books; and finally, a first person narration by Maurice himself in his fifties, when it all comes crashing down on him. Along the way, there are some “interludes,” most notably one with the acclaimed author, Gore Vidal, who sees through Maurice right away. While this multiple point of view narration was a bit disorienting, it did not necessarily detract from the story. And I suppose as a writer, you are obliged to break some rules and do something different sometimes!

One thing that definitely detracted from the book was the blurb on the jacket cover, which gave away the plot of the book right away rather than letting it come forth naturally to the reader as it would have done some way into the book. The first person narration from Erich at the start of the book, where he meets Maurice for the first time, would have been a lot more compelling had we not known upfront that Maurice was just scamming him to get a leg up in the literary world. This spoiler, right upfront on the jacket cover, was a pity, as it somewhat diminished what would otherwise have been a very strong opening for the book.

The fact that I enjoyed the book so much despite this spoiler is a testament to how good it was.

A Ladder to the Sky
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“Ways to Hide in Winter” by Sarah St. Vincent

Ways to Hide in Winter

This debut novel was not on any major book list such as The New York Times Best Sellers, or featured in any of the book podcasts I listen to or any of the magazines I read. It has not won any prizes or awards as far as I know. Therefore, unlike most of the books I read, I had never heard of this one, and I only picked it up by chance when I was browsing though the New Books section in my local library. Not only was the blurb interesting, I was also intrigued by the author’s background — she is a human rights attorney and works on that full-time while writing on the side. Not only do I greatly admire those who can write books in addition to their day jobs, it is always interesting to see what sensibility they bring to their writing and how that relates to what they do professionally. Of course, this is no guarantee of the books they write being any good, but in the case of Ways to Hide in Winter, it was actually very well written. So much so that it was difficult to believe that this was a debut novel and that Sarah St. Vincent does not write full-time for a living.

The protagonist in the book is a young woman, Kathleen, who has retreated to a remote campground located in the mountains of Pennsylvania following a harrowing event in her life. She manages the store in the campground, and because there are very few locals around and hardly any visitors to that part of the country, she is by herself for most of the day, every day, which is precisely what she wants — to be left alone, to be forgotten, to be “hidden.” After a few years of living like this, a stranger shows up in the campground one day, and he too seems to be hiding from something, just like her. He is clearly a foreigner, and he tells her that he is from Uzbekistan and that his name is Daniil. There is a hostel in the campground managed by a friend of Kathleen who lets Daniil stay there for free in exchange for helping out with chores.  Because there is literally no one else around to interact with, Daniil tentatively seeks Kathleen out for some companionship. In the course of their interaction, Kathleen learns more and more about the mystery behind Daniil — she refers to him as “the stranger” for most of the book — and in the process, she is also forced to confront her own past and what has made her retreat so far away from civilization.

I found Ways to Hide in Winter very well written. We don’t get to know exactly what happened to Kathleen until the end of the book, but we do get some hints along the way, which maintained the suspense and made me want to go on reading. The mystery of “the stranger” was also compelling — who was he and why was he there? At the same time, this was not a “thriller” per se, so it was not the kind of book you simply have to finish as soon as possible to find out how it ends — I was able to enjoy it at leisure without needing to rush through it.

However, I do have to say that the end of the book, once I got to it, was somewhat anticlimactic. At the same, I have to acknowledge that it was simply an accurate portrayal of reality — life is, most of the time, not as dramatic as fiction would have us believe. Given its lack of melodrama, the absence of a plot twist, and somewhat of a “damp squib” of an ending, Ways to Hide in Winter is unlikely to win widespread critical acclaim or popular success. However, I found it extremely well written and I hope that the author continues to write more books without giving up her work as a human rights attorney. We need books that are grounded in the real world just as much as we need dramatic fiction and fantasy, and it’s great when these come from authors who actually work in the nitty gritties of the real world.

Ways to Hide in Winter
Author: Sarah St.Vincent
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

transcription

Transcription is the latest novel by Kate Atkinson, an acclaimed British novelist best known for her book, Life after Live, which was published in 2013. She is not as well-known in the US compared to the UK, and I had not read of her books until I heard her on the BBC’s “World Book Club” podcast that I recently started listening to. That piqued my interest, and when I saw a copy of Transcription in the “New Books” section of my local library, I picked it up right away. I have to admit to doing this with some trepidation, as I have, of late, found several critically acclaimed books hard to read and even harder to enjoy. Would this be one of those high-profile books I could not get beyond a few pages?

Thankfully, it was not. I wouldn’t say that it was immediately gripping, but it was eminently readable, and once I was about a quarter of the way into the book, I couldn’t put it down and read it all the way through. Transcription is the story of a woman, Juliet Armstrong, at two pivotal times of her life. The first is in 1940, towards the start of the Second World War, when Juliet is eighteen, has just completed secretarial school, and is unexpectedly recruited by the MI5 (the UK’s Security Service, similar to the FBI in the US) for a project aimed at hunting down Nazi sympathizers in Britain. Other European countries are starting to fall to the Germans and the war is closely approaching Britain. Juliet is at first required only to transcribe communications — hence the name Transcription for the book — that are being recorded between these sympathizers, but she is later drawn further and further into full-fledged espionage, and into some very frightening and dangerous events.

The second time we visit Juliet, it is ten years later, and she is working as a radio producer at the BBC. Her life at this time is, for the most part, routine and uneventful, until she runs into someone she was working with during her espionage days ten years earlier. This chance encounter triggers a chain of events, stirring memories that were dormant, and brings with it more figures from the past, along with fear and danger. Even after ten years, with the war long over, the espionage activities that Juliet had participated in are coming back to haunt her.

Thankfully, the book doesn’t keeping shifting back and forth between these two timelines after each and every chapter, but we do get some amount of alternation, so we don’t come to know exactly what horrific event Juliet was involved in towards the end of her espionage days in 1940 until much later in the book. This really is the main “mystery” of the book and it is revealed at the end, similar to most mystery books. And although Juliet ends up doing some espionage work during the war, Transcription is not really a conventional “spy thriller.” It is more of a dramatic novel focused on the character of Juliet, her life during the war, and the repercussions her work had even after the war was over. And while most novels do have some kind of romance in them, even if it very secondary, it was refreshing to read a book like Transcription that did not have any romance whatsoever. True, when Juliet is eighteen, she does wish at times that her attractive boss would make some romantic overtures towards her — she sees herself as being “ripe for the picking” — but this does not happen, and the novel is solidly focused on Juliet’s work life, both in 1940 as well as in 1950.

What I also appreciated about Transcription was its thoroughly unconventional plot. I did not have a clue as to where the story was headed and how it would end. Apparently, it was inspired by real life events — there are actual MI5 records of such transcripts of recordings from the war — and I was glad to learn about something I had no knowledge of.

While I would not put Transcription in the “must-read” category of books — the plot was not as gripping and somewhat convoluted, and there were so many characters that I had to keep turning back the pages to see who they were — it was an enjoyable read. Well-written and even funny at times — Juliet has a good sense of humor and we are privy to her inner thoughts as well as her smart wisecracks to others — I look forward reading more of Atkinson’s books and am happy to have discovered another author I like.

Transcription
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 2018

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

“Black Boy” by Richard Wright

Black Boy

Black Boy was an instant best-seller when it was published in 1945, and has remained one of the best-selling books by the pioneering African-American writer, Richard Wright, who lived from 1908 until 1960. It is classed as an autobiography but it reads more like a novel. Wright was already famous as a writer of stories and essays, and his first novel, Native Son, had been an immediate best seller when it was published in 1941.

Notably, the version of Black Boy that became the best-seller is not the book we read today. Wright composed the book in two parts. Part One, called “Southern Night,” covers his youth in the South, and Part Two, called “The Horror and the Glory” and only half as long, covers his young adulthood in Chicago. Wright’s major point is that life in the South did not prepare him for life in the North; he had to go through a second childhood to learn the ways of the city.

The two parts are very different. The first part strives for mythic status; Richard presents himself as a stand-in for every poor black boy in the South who wanted to be respected as an individual. The second part is increasingly specific to his own life and loses its mythic status, as Richard tries to understand and justify his actions in Chicago. Because of this, his publisher persuaded him to release the first part on its own in 1945. This is justifiable on the grounds that it is a coherent and complete work of art, but for Richard it meant that his story was brutally truncated. In the 1990s, Wright’s original work was published whole as he had intended, and that is the version people read nowadays.

The book’s full title is Black Boy (American Hunger), and in it, Wright depicts spiritual and emotional hunger as well as the constant physical hunger of his youth. One of his major points is that racial discrimination deprives African-Americans of opportunities for self-realization and self-respect. He asserts that racism limits the emotional and cultural development of black people, so they have no idea of their own worth. Fortunately there has been enough progress toward equality that Wright’s depiction of racism in the South in the first half of the 20th century seems dated now, but in its time, it was incendiary because it was shocking to see a secret aspect of American society depicted so vividly.

Racism is not the book’s only subject. The boy Richard was permanently scarred by a peculiarly nightmarish childhood that deprived him of any form of worth. He defined the problem as one of racial discrimination, but I think his warped family situation made him dwell on this issue.

As a child, Richard is almost completely deprived of love and support. His closest relationship is with his mother, who routinely slaps him for asking too many questions or bringing up forbidden subjects. After she suffers a series of paralyzing strokes, the best she can do is to nag him weakly to do his best in school. As she becomes more helpless, he loses his sense of connection with her. Richard’s father abandons the family when Richard is 6, leaving them in abject poverty. His mother’s family takes them in, but they treat Richard like a little heathen.

The most excruciating part of his situation concerns religion. Richard’s grandparents and an aunt who lives with them are ardent 7th-Day Adventists who insist on a host of forbidding rules and are determined that Richard join their sect. As a boy who had experienced little in life beyond hunger and disrespect, Richard can’t accept any religious belief. Long passages are devoted to the Adventists’ efforts to recruit him, and the thoughts he has about spiritual beliefs as a child. In fact, one of his earliest experiences of self-realization is his unwillingness to accept their beliefs, and his inability to pretend that he does in order to fit in. This condemns him to total rejection by his mother’s family. After his mother converts to Methodism, she too tries to save his soul, and resorts to emotional pressure to get him to be baptized, but he soon returns to bitter skepticism.

Richard’s family sees him as a wayward boy whose actions are always bad, and you can see their point. At the age of 4, he burns the house down. Soon after, he kills a kitten. At age 6, he becomes an alcoholic. He learns to talk dirty before he learns to read. He taunts the Jewish store owner with the same kind of prejudice he is subjected to. He is paralyzed by shyness in school. He unwittingly sells racist tracts. He refuses to be punished for things he didn’t do, and uses a knife or straight razors to protect himself from his abusive relatives. When he graduates from 8th grade, he insists on giving the Valedictorian speech that he wrote himself rather than the one the principal wrote for him. As he grows older, he wants to read novels and write stories, the work of the devil in his families’ view. He wants to work on Saturdays, a holy day for the Adventists. After he gets old enough to work full time, he finds he will never be able to save enough money to escape North, so he resorts to participating in a scam for extra money, and finally engages in theft to get a stake. Wright presents all these incidents in novelistic detail, including his thoughts and feelings at the time.

His extreme poverty forced Richard to seek work at a very young age, and this is when he begins to encounter racial prejudice. Wright catalogs every sort of racial indignity that a boy could experience in the heart of the South, and he analyzes just how these experiences affected his development. White people expect black people to be totally and smilingly subservient, like slaves. No matter how hard Richard tries to conform, he seems uppity to the whites, who frequently bully him into leaving his job.

Wright’s childhood was so deprived— emotionally, spiritually, and economically—that his pursuit of knowledge and self-realization seems miraculous, totally inexplicable. He becomes an ardent reader despite the disapproval of his family and the scarcity of reading materials. His formal education is patchy due to poverty, but he is passionate about seeking knowledge, and adventure as well, through reading. Where did he get that passion? Where did he get the massive intelligence to digest all that material? Wright shows very few positive influences on his life.

Not surprisingly, Wright’s adult life in Chicago is considerably more complicated than his childhood in the South. No longer can he encapsulate his experience into a string of deftly drawn episodes; various aspects of his life overlap and intersect, and learning takes place over longer arcs. On the plus side, there is less public racial discrimination; he can sit anywhere on public transportation, and he doesn’t have to defer to white folks. But racial prejudices remain at a deeper level. This is true for Richard as well, who notices that even when white people try to treat him respectfully, he still assumes they are the same as white people in the South. His personality is so hardened that it is hard for him to form relationships.

Career-wise, Wright does rather well, though he never acknowledges this. He starts out as an errand boy and dishwasher, but he soon passes the exam for postal clerk. Meanwhile he reads all the important novels of his day and tons of sociology and psychology. During the Depression he becomes an agent for insurance and burial societies, discouraging work that nevertheless gives him access to the lives of a wide variety of poor black people. When that job dries up, a relief organization assigns him to be an orderly in a medical research institute. Finally he gets a job with the South Side Boys’ Club that he finds deeply engrossing. Later he is assigned to do publicity for the Federal Negro Theater, which is a writing job, at least; when that fails, he is assigned to do publicity for a white experimental theatrical company.

What really muddies his narrative is his relationship with the Communist party. Richard finally meets some people with similar social and philosophical views, and through them he gets drawn into the John Reed Club, a group of artists and writers which was associated with the Communist party. At first the theory of Communism, and its version of history, enthrall Wright, but he realizes the idealistic Communist activists are deeply ignorant of the life of ordinary black people. He is suspicious of them, but he is drawn in when they offer to publish some of his stories. From this point, his memoir becomes a messy recital of political manipulation, group rivalries, and Communist tactics as he is unexpectedly propelled into a leadership position in Chicago’s Communist party and just as unexpectedly demoted and reviled, as the international party becomes more rigid. After two chapters of ups and downs in the party, his relationship is finally ended definitively, and he concludes the book in a state of deep disillusionment, though nevertheless determined to continue writing.

In addition to racism, Wright struggles with rampant anti-intellectualism. His ardent and wide-ranging self-education plays a painfully ambivalent role in his life. On the positive side, reading is his only escape from his frustrating life; on the other, it automatically makes him unusual and suspect, not only among his family, but also his friends. As an adult, he talks like a person with a college education. This is an advantage in building his career, but it makes him suspect among other Negro members of the Communist party, who are mostly unlettered new arrivals to the North, because it identifies him with their white oppressors.

The first time I read this book, I was disdainful of the long passages of explanation and analysis, considering them to be artless. But the second time, the composition sounded seamless, and I realized that the development of the author’s understanding of life is an important part of the story. Wright desperately wanted to understand himself and to make himself understood, and his voice rings with probing sincerity in every word. Many critics believe Wright helped change racial relationships in America.

Black Boy
Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Publication Date: March 2007 (first published in 1945)

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

“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 just getting started — 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 was 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, high-regarded investors and senior government officials, 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 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 learning about 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 Thernanos’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 been first 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 so 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 questions. 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 had 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.”