"The Mindful Writer" by Dinty W. Moore

Dinty Moore compiles a list of advice for writers using quotes by other writers/speakers/inspirational gurus as a point of reference. Each chapter starts off with a quote and is followed by a short excerpt dictating to the writer how they could incorporate that quote’s advice into their writing.

Moore was asked how his following of Buddhist teachings influenced his writings and this sparked his interest for writing this small book. He says that it was not his meditation practices that shaped his writing, but his writing that helped him follow a life of meditation and mindfulness.

His advices tell us to be aware of our writing by listening to our thoughts and observing, but he also constantly reminds us to not hold on too tightly to our ideas of what our writing should look like. He says that the best writing is sometimes the one that happens when we let go and let the writing take a course of its own. These mindfully designed writing prompts are sure to make you more aware, not only of your thoughts but to life around you. Probably what he was getting at was when he said that the writing influenced his real life mindfulness and not the other way around.

The book starts and ends reminding us that anyone can write as long as they are passionate about the creative and revision process. To compliment that passion, one must work at it by being mindful of what they see, hear, and hence, translate to the open slate. This is the work of a mindful writer.

The Mindful Writer
Author: Dinty W. Moore
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Publication Date: April, 2012

Contributor: Shelly Lora. Passionate since birth, writing since adulthood.

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This book, published in 1966, is regarded as a modern American classic, but I had never read it. It kept coming up so often in discussions and articles related to books that I eventually got hold of a copy from the library. Classics can sometimes be a difficult read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I found it immediately accessible and readable. I have always appreciated books in which the story is so powerful that no literary gimmicks are needed to tell it, and this is very much true of Flowers for Algernon. The writing is so straightforward that it can easily be read even at the school level; however, the story itself is one that can be appreciated at any age. In fact, I think the older are you, the more meaningful it is.

The story itself is very unique, and I don’t recall reading another story remotely similar to this. It is almost science fiction but not quite. It is about a mentally disabled young man — in those days, the term “retarded” was still being used — on whom an experimental surgical procedure (on the brain) is done to try and “cure” his mental condition. The experiment was first done on a mouse named Algernon and the results were very promising. So, as the next step, the scientists who had come up with the procedure wanted to try it on a human, and Charlie was selected as the subject.

At first, all goes well, and Charlie becomes very smart, with an IQ in the genius range. In fact, he becomes much smarter than everybody around him, including the scientists who devised the procedure and performed the surgery on him. However, this does not last, and it is the erratic behavior of the mouse, Algernon, and his subsequent death, which provides a clue into the fate that awaits Charlie. He eventually loses the surgically induced mental boost that he had received and goes back to his original mental state.

The story is told through the progress reports that Charlie has been asked to maintain throughout the experiment, and we can see his initial reports written like a child and riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, slowly progressing to where they are normal — written by an adult with their full mental faculties — and finally back again to where they are simplistic and child-like. It is so sad to see Charlie regress, even though you know that not only is this a fictional story, but also, that it is fiction which is not rooted in reality. Even in the present time, over 50 years after the publication of this book, we do not have any kind of surgical procedure to cure “intellectual disabilities” in the people who have them.

However, what we do have now is a much better understanding of the relationship between the biology of a brain (nodes, lobes, cortex, etc.) and behavior and ability. And what I especially liked about this book, apart from it being a good read, is how starkly it makes the connection between the two. As human beings, we don’t like to admit this, but most, if not all, of our abilities and behavior comes from the wiring of our brains. It is this which determines whether we are geniuses or slow or somewhere in between, and this is something we are born with, and therefore have little control over. (The memoir, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, that I wrote about a couple of years ago is another book that highlights the connection between our brains and who/how we are.)

I think this understanding leads to an entirely different take on life, where you have much less “awe” of geniuses and much more empathy towards those who are at the “slow” end of the spectrum.

I am not sure if the author set out to write a meaningful story, one with an underlying philosophy. But even if he did not, I’m glad to find a book that highlights such an important issue. It’s not something I come across often in the realm of fiction.

Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes    
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 1966  

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

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

The author of The Secret History, Donna Tartt, is best known for her book, The Goldfinch, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which was recently made into a movie. Even though the movie was almost universally panned by critics, I loved it, which made me want to read more of Donna Tartt’s work. The Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, and like The Goldfinch, it is extremely long (592 pages) and amazingly detailed. In fact, given the length of her books (The Goldfinch was 784 pages), I was not surprised to find that she publishes a book only every 10 years or so — The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was her third book, following her second one, The Little Friend, which was published in 2002. 

The Secret History came to me so highly recommended that I didn’t bother with knowing what it was about — my copy of the book from the library was missing the blurb — and I plunged right into it, prepared to stop reading as soon as it got uninteresting. And for such a long book, this seemed more likely than not. But much to my surprise, I found it fascinating and while it did lose a bit of momentum towards the end, I was so invested in the story by this time that I had no trouble finishing it — I had to know what happens in the end.

The book is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the protagonist is a new student, Richard, who has transferred to it from a local college in California that he attended after high school. He is not close to his parents and they do not care much about him either, and with no siblings as well, there is no real family that he is close to. This makes it believable that he would be strongly attracted to a small group of students who keep to themselves and choose to be isolated from the other students. In fact, not only do they distance themselves socially, they are academically separated as well, as they study Greek exclusively under the tutelage of a brilliant, charismatic, and eccentric professor, who seems to have the kind of leverage with the college that is needed to create such a closed classroom.

Richard manages to break through and get inducted in the group, and at first all goes well — he loves the closeness and the camaraderie as well as getting deeper into Greek and the classics. But then, there is an accidental murder during one of the Greek rituals being performed by the group (it is called “Bacchanalia” — there is actually such a thing, as I found when I looked it up), and this murder is then followed by a deliberate murder of a student in the group who was blackmailing the others to keep quiet about it. As a reader, you know this is coming, since the book starts with a prologue about the murder — so it is not a “murder mystery” as such — but you don’t know the “how” and the “why,” which keeps you hooked. Then there is the whole aftermath of the second murder, how it plays out with the family of the dead student, and what effect it has on the group.

While the basic premise of The Secret History — that a professor can form an exclusive club of students within a college and dictate their academic requirements, that some students would actually want to be part of such a club that won’t really give them a usable degree, and that anyone would want to get so knee-deep into Greek that they don’t care about learning anything else — is downright unbelievable, it is to the author’s credit that she can take something so implausible and craft a story around it that seems so believable, so authentic. And the book was so vivid, so full of details about the lives of these students and about life in a college town, not to mention the extensive discourse on Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, that I was completely hooked.

And rather than being intimidated by the length of the book, it was so nice to have a good long book to sink my teeth into!

The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt   
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 1992 

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

“Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

I was entranced by this book. Not only was it such a gripping story, the quality of the writing was so lyrical that I actually read the book slowly to savor it, which is not something I normally do. Also, the story is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which, being from neighboring India, was something I knew a little about — but not a whole lot. Any reference to war in India usually brings to mind its long-standing conflict with Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, its conflict with China in the 1960s. Most Indians don’t pay much attention to this relatively small island nation, just south of India’s border, except when the conflict comes to our doors, as with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” this is the same militant organization that is on one side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with the other being the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of two women, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, growing up in different parts of the country. They never meet, but their lives intersect towards the end in an unexpectedly brutal way. The Sinhalese woman, Yasodhara, grows up in the capital city, Colombo, in the years before the conflict, and has what can best be described as an idyllic childhood, with a loving extended family. When the civil war escalates and the brutality of it comes too close to home, Yasodhara’s parents immigrate to the US and she lives there, shielded from the conflict, until she returns to Sri Lanka for a visit — urged by her sister who has returned before her — to heal from a broken marriage.

In parallel, we also follow the life of Saraswathi, who grows up in the north of the island in a Tamil enclave, and despite the best efforts of her parents to keep her away from the conflict, she ends up being recruited by the Tamil Tigers to join the war for “Eelam,” the independent Tamil state they want. Saraswathi had dreamt of being a teacher growing up, but then she was captured by Sinhalese soldiers and suffered such horrific sexual violence that the only two options she could see before her were suicide — like some of her other friends who had been subjected to the same violence — or joining the Tamil Tigers. She ends up choosing the latter, and the memory of the abuse she suffered makes her a particularly brutal soldier, one who has no problem with wielding a machete and slashing even women and children to death. Her ferocity, cold-bloodedness, and fearlessness make her rise quickly through the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and lead her to become what is perceived as the highest honor for a soldier in the movement — a suicide bomber.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is beautifully written, capturing the magical quality of the island, its tranquility, and its lushness in the years before the conflict, as well as the horrors of the civil war once it starts, the brutality, the riots, the senseless slaughter of people, the atrocities committed on both sides. Seeing the war through the personal lives of the two protagonists who are from the opposite sides of the ethnic conflict, and who get embroiled in it without wanting to, shows that there no winners in a war — everyone loses.

Despite the war being the central thread running through the book — and it is to the credit of the writing that I approached these parts with a sense of dread and foreboding — a good part of first half is devoted to describing Yasodhara’s extended family, starting with both sets of grandparents and going as far back as when the British departed the island in 1948.  This made Island of a Thousand Mirrors a truly multi-generational saga, with details about the lives of the different family members, their houses, their food, their day-to-day activities, family dynamics, family traditions, childhood friendships, first loves, and marriages. Not only was it fascinating to see how life and customs evolved in Sri Lanka — and in my case, to see the parallels with life in India — but also to see it captured in such beautiful, evocative prose. Here is an example, describing an interior courtyard in the childhood home of Visaka, Yasodhara’s mother:

The queen of this domain, an enormous trailing jasmine, impervious to pruning, spreads a fragrant carpet of white. When the sea breeze whispers, a  snowing flurry of flowers sweeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.

Another example, this one describing a dip in the ocean by Yasodhara’s father, Nishan, when he, as “the last British ships slip over the horizon,” is cavorting on beaches he does not yet know are pristine:

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

With prose that is so poetic through the book, reading it was sheer delight. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Author: Nayomi Munaweera              
Publisher and Date, US Edition: St. Martin’s Press, September 2014        
First published in Sri Lanka in 2012 by Perara Hussein Publishing House

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

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

What made me pick up this book from the many displayed in the ‘New’ section of my local library was the quote by Paula Hawkins on the cover, calling it a “twisting tale of love, loss, and dark family secrets.” I loved Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, which was also a huge bestseller, and an endorsement from her seemed very promising. If it was even one-tenth as good as The Girl on the Train, that would be good enough for me.

Having finished it, I can say that it was — just about. I was at least able to finish it without forcing myself to — it did manage to sustain my interest right up to the end, which is no mean feat, given the number of books I started recently that I was forced to abandon after a few chapters because they just didn’t grip me. As the title of the book suggests — Searching for Sylvie Lee — there is a mystery at the heart of it, which makes you want to go on reading until it is solved. Over and above that, however, I also found the book well written, with a cast of characters in a setting that was unusual, to say the least. The majority of the book is set in the Netherlands, and most of the main characters are Chinese, either immigrants or, in the case of the younger generation, either Chinese Americans or Chinese Dutch. Here in the US, we are surrounded by Chinese Americans, so there is not much novelty, but in the Netherlands, people of Chinese origin are still a rarity, and it was very interesting to read about their experiences.

The basic plot of the book is that a young Chinese American woman, Sylvie — Ivy-league educated, smart, and successful — goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother — and then just disappears. She was supposed to have travelled back to the US, but never shows up. Her family is panic-stricken, and her younger sister, Amy, travels to the Netherlands to try and find her. The reason their grandmother was there to begin with was that she had been living permanently with her well-to-do niece, Helena, helping her with raising her son, Lukas. In fact, Sylvie was sent to stay with them for most of her childhood, as her immigrant parents were struggling to make ends meet in the US. Thus, Sylvie and Lukas grew up together, and she had a strong maternal bond with her grandmother, which she was never able to cultivate with her own mother even after she was brought back to the US.

The story is alternately told from the points of view of Amy, her mother (who, in turns out, has a critical role to play in how the plot unfolds), and Sylvie herself. Also, it is told in staggered timelines, with Sylvie’s chapters set about a month before Amy’s, so we are seeing their experiences in parallel, but without really knowing what happens to Sylvie until closer to the end of the book. It was an interesting plot device, one that I haven’t come across very often, and it was effective in sustaining the momentum of the story while progressively inching towards the mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

While I did find the end a little anticlimactic — it started out seeming like a murder mystery but wasn’t really — I enjoyed the overall storyline, the writing, and especially the details about life in the Netherlands as well as the Chinese Dutch experience of it. Those were very authentic and seemed to come from the author’s own experience of being of Chinese descent and currently living in the Netherlands. Searching for Sylvie Lee is by no means a work of literature, but it was overall, a good read.

Searching for Sylvie Lee
Author: Jean Kwok                               
Publisher: William Morrow               
Publication Date: June 2019       

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

“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me Gone

This is the sort of book that quietly grips you. You don’t realize how invested you are in the narrative until you turn the page and gasp.

That’s because it’s sort of a quiet story. A story of a family, a husband and wife, their three kids, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member. Haslett’s ability to so thoroughly transform his writing to believably portray five different voices is impressive, displaying his comfort and agility with his craft. The thoughts of his characters are so rich with details and suggestions that you feel comfortably burrowed into their minds.

This is especially important for this book, which deals with mental illness at its center. John, the father in the story, is prone to serious depression, an illness that his oldest son, Michael, comes to inherit. Thus, the narrative is laced with a sense of dread, but also inevitability, as you witness the children growing up and the parents growing old. These dual themes push the story forward in a thoroughly engaging fashion. There is something so beautiful about reading about the way in which people can care for each other, want to solve each other’s problems. The love between these family members is complicated and nuanced, and a real pleasure to read about.

However, some of the power of this novel also comes from the fact that the characters do not have to just worry about their mental states of mind. Worry about money, partnership, setting—all of these problems seem to chase the characters as well, giving one a sense of the relentlessness of the world. One big problem does not mean others cease to burden. It was an artful glimpse into some of the many stresses of living with or loving someone with a mental illness.

Haslett uses a number of creative techniques to embrace his characters. Playing with form, instead of just telling a straight narrative, can be gimmicky in some novels, but here, it really works. Hasslet includes things like letters characters have written, medical forms being filled out, and these help to further deepen our understanding of the characters themselves. Furthermore, from Maine to Massachusetts to London, Hasslet is able to weave in the settings in a beautiful way, unpacking the ways in which the character’s surroundings are emblematic of their mental state.

Really, this book is stunning. The prose is both pretty and well observed, and the plot engaging. Most importantly to me, as someone who has lived through a family member’s illness, Hasslet was able to vocalize parts of the experience that I had not even conceived into words yet. It all felt very true. I can’t recommend it enough.

Imagine Me Gone
Author: Adam Haslett
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: May 2016

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“One More We Saw Stars” by Jayson Greene

How does someone cope with an unimaginable tragedy?

Once More We Saw Stars is a memoir by a young father who lost his two-year-old daughter, Greta, suddenly and unexpectedly in a freak accident. Greta was sitting on a bench with her grandmother in their familiar New York neighborhood, enjoying an outing with her, when a window sill on the eighth floor of the building behind them suddenly collapsed, and the rubble fell on the street below, hitting Greta and her grandmother. While her grandmother sustained some injuries, a brick smashed right into Greta’s head, injuring her severely. She was taken to the hospital right away where she was put on life support, but she never recovered.

The unexpected death of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, and while every person is unique and no two people deal with loss in exactly the same way, One More We Saw Stars isJayson’s account of the accident, its aftermath, and of how he and his wife, Stacy, attempted to cope. Actually, “coping” is the wrong word here—it was more of how they continued to live, given that they were still alive and had no choice but to carry on. Fortunately, their relationship was strong enough to withstand the devastating loss of their child, and although this memoir is written by Jayson, it is really the story of both their journeys through the abyss. They also had enormous love and support from their families and friends, which seems to have prevented them from completely succumbing to the despair they felt. While neither of them was religious in the conventional sense of the word and did not have the support of faith to comfort them, they did go through some therapy and grief support groups, and also tried yoga and meditation. Eventually, they decided to try to have another baby, and the book ends shortly after the birth of their baby boy. By this time, they have made peace with Greta’s loss, although they are always aware of her presence, her spirit.

This memoir will resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one, especially someone from their immediate family whom they see every day and almost take for granted. It is so raw and honest, and you can relate to the anger Jayson feels towards the world at large in the immediate aftermath of his daughter’s death—such as anger at other families for still being intact, and anger at older people for getting to live for so many years when his own daughter did not even live to be three. Of course, he knows that this is totally unreasonable, but he freely admits to having such thoughts. For anyone who has not gone through the loss he has, it would be impossible to relate to feeling this kind of anger and resentment towards complete strangers.

While tragedy of the kind that struck Jayson and Stacy is not unheard of, most people who go through something like this would not be able to write about it, let alone so beautifully and powerfully. Jayson Greene works in writing and publishing, so writing this memoir might have been somewhat therapeutic for him. I hope it helped, given that he has provided us with such a searingly honest account of what losing a loved one feels like.

One More We Saw Stars
Author: Jayson Greene
Publisher: Knopf          
Publication Date: May 2019                                             

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

“Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

I loved the TV adaptation of this book that came out as a miniseries a couple of months ago on Amazon Prime Video, and while I don’t always enjoy the books after I have seen their screen adaptations — the reverse is also true; in fact, I typically hate the screen adaptations of the books I love — I thought I would give this one a try. I had not read any books by either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett before — both of whom are such literary heavyweights — and the TV show was so funny and had such a creative plot that I was curious to read the book it had been adapted from.

First, the plot. As I said, it was extremely imaginative as well as clever, not to mention incredibly funny. Inspired by the Bible, it has all the biblical elements including God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, and Angels and Demons. The story begins, as in the Bible, with the creation of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden, where Adam is enticed by Eve to eat the forbidden apple, spawning the birth of evil. The two main protagonists of Good Omens are an angel and a demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, who are present at the start, and who, in the course of the centuries since the beginning have become friends, a fact that they take great pains to hide from their respective higher-ups — the angels led by God and the demons lead by Satan respectively.

It is now in the 1980s, and the end of the world is near, but that has to be set in motion by the Antichrist who has to be born and brought up on earth. The book is set in England, and the location for the Apocalypse is a small country town called Tadfield that is close to London. Crowley is charged with taking the demonic baby to a religious hospital in Tadfield where satanic nuns will switch a newborn with the Antichrist baby. But there is a mix-up, and the Antichrist baby, Adam, ends up growing up in a normal house and has a normal childhood. The Apocalypse is scheduled for when the child turns eleven.

Also, it turns out that all of this has been prophesied by a witch in the 17th century, called Agnes Nutter, and there is a whole subplot involving her descendent, Anathema Device, who has Agnes’ book of prophecies and arrives in Tadfield a few days before the prophesied end of the world to try and make sense of the prophecy. (Since the prophecies are written in the 17th century, they are written in a language and style that is hard to decipher.) She happens to meet and get romantically involved — just a few hours before the Apocalypse — with the descendent, Newton Pulsifer, of the witch-hunter who had burned Agnes at the stake in the 17th century.

While there are other subplots in the story — for example, the four horsemen who are supposed to usher in the Apocalypse are, in keeping with the times, “badass” bikers in leather jackets — what ultimately happens is that the Apocalypse is averted through the combined efforts of Aziraphale and Crowley, Anathema and Newton, and the eleven-year old Adam and his group of three close friends.

While this plot may sound somewhat ponderous, even for a fantasy novel, it is so funnily rendered — so witty and so clever — that it never seemed too over-the-top. The quality of the writing, the smarts, and the witticisms were not just true for the book as a whole, but for every page, every paragraph, in fact, almost every sentence of it.

And therein was the problem for me — there was no let-up. When I started the book, I was awed by its sheer brilliance, by how funny and how clever each page was. After a while, however, it became a little too much. With every sentence so finely crafted, every paragraph so full of imagery and sharply written humor, every page so amazingly creative that you have to pause and admire it, my enjoyment gradually turned to exhaustion. It’s almost as if the authors took every single bit of the book and strove to make it as funny and as brilliant as possible. While entirely admirable, this made the book overwrought and got in the way of the story for me.

I never thought a novel could be too clever for its own good, but unfortunately, that is how I felt about Good Omens.

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch
Authors: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett                     
Original Publisher and Date: Workman, 1990               
Reprint Publisher and Date: William Morrow, Nov 2006                                            

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

“How Not to Die Alone” by Richard Roper

This book had such an intriguing title that I could not help giving it a try when I heard about it. Also, it is a debut novel and it is always wonderful when you find a fresh voice that you like. Here, the debut novelist, Richard Roper, comes from a background in publishing, so it was hardly surprisingly for me to find that the book is well written and draws you in right away.

The title of the book comes from what the protagonist, Andrew, does for a living — he works in the city council department (of a city in the UK) that is tasked with finding the next of kin for those who die alone; and if they cannot be found, to see if the deceased had any money to pay for a funeral; and if that failed too, to give the deceased a barebones funeral. The work involves visiting the homes of such people who have died alone — often living in squalor, with their bodies not discovered until a neighbor or a mail worker smells something bad — and searching through all the mess for any clues about long-lost friends or relatives who could be notified or find any money that could be used to fund a funeral. Andrew tries to make this gruesome work as humane as possible, even attending the funerals of these people, although he is not required to.

Andrew has been doing this work alone until the department gets a new hire, a woman called Peggy, who joins him in the work. She is like-minded in how she goes about it, and together, they make a good team. By this time, you, of course, except this to turn into a love story, and that is exactly what happens. It also marks the point where this well-written, quirky novel degenerates into a very predictable story, with a plot so ludicrous that I almost felt cheated. Andrew has been pretending to his colleagues that he is married with a wife and two kids, and he has been able to keep up that charade for five years until Peggy comes along. She is married too with two kids — for real — but her husband is an alcoholic and the marriage is falling apart. Very conveniently, Andrew falls in love with Peggy and fesses up and tells the truth about his lie, and while Peggy does not divorce her husband and come together with Andrew by the end of the book, she likes Andrew too and we are given to understand that this is what is going to happen.

In another subplot, Andrew is into model trains and is part of an online forum of similar model train enthusiasts, who step up to help him out when he appeals for their support.

It also turns out that Andrew didn’t just conjure up his imaginary wife and kids out of thin air — he actually had a girlfriend he was madly in love with, who died in a freak accident.

By this point, the book had degenerated so much from its promising start that I couldn’t wait to finish it and move on to something else.

The book ends with Andrew and Peggy getting together to start a charity which could spend more time and resources to track down people who died alone and at the very least, arrange for volunteers to go to their funerals so they would at least have some people in attendance.

While I found the description of the work that Andrew does fascinating — I had not even thought of what happens to people who die alone without any friends or family — it was such a pity that the book degenerated into something so hackneyed and predictable after what seemed to me a very promising start.

How Not to Die Alone
Author: Richard Roper
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication Date: May 2019

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

“A History of Warfare” by John Keegan

This one’s undoubtedly a masterpiece. Written by a British military historian it traces the origin and progress of warfare from ancient to modern times, exploring the military cultures of the Pacific Islanders, the Japanese samurai, the Zulus of southern Africa, the Cossacks of Europe, the Turkish Mamelukes and a host of other militant groups in an effort to understand the motivations, models and methods of warfare.

War pre-dates the state by many millennia. “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” Our states, our institutions, even our laws have come to us through violence and conflict. Along with war, the institution of human slavery was created at the dawn of the human race. Yet it was abolished worldwide. Duelling, infanticide and human sacrifice are no longer in vogue.

Is war still fashionable or is it losing its sheen? In the 1960s the blunt refusal of the US conscripts and their families to imbibe warrior values caused the Vietnam War to be abandoned. Today cultural and material changes are impacting man’s proclivity for violence, and no one (apart from the political and military class) would venture to suggest that war is a justifiable activity. Can we now dream of a world without war?

“Half of human nature – the female half- is in any case highly ambivalent about war-making.” War is an entirely masculine activity. Does the differentiation of social roles between male and female have anything to do with the origin of warfare? The author discusses serotonin and testosterone levels, mention the XYY chromosome combination which is found in one in a thousand males, and wonders why science cannot explain why groups of men combine to fight other groups.

Many interesting examples are presented. For instance, the Aztecs of Mexico, obtained sacrificial victims by waging war. Human sacrifice being a religious necessity, the act of individual captive-taking was central to Aztec warfare. “…for a man to give a captive to a comrade who had not made a capture, as a favour to promote him in rank, carried the death penalty for both.”

Tool-making and home-making we owe to our remote ancestors such as Australopithecus, Homo Erectus and Neanderthals. Homo sapiens sapiens is roughly 40,000 years old. He did not invent hunting parties – he inherited the practice. His own innovations include farming, irrigation and animal husbandry. Towns and cities, and pottery making, metallurgy and religion are pretty ancient too. Jericho in Palestine had an 8 acre town by 7000 B.C. Catal Hyuk in Turkey, Crete and the Aegean coast of Greece all had massive human settlements by 6000 B.C. Interestingly, “None of the thirteen cities known to have existed at the beginning of the third millennium (B.C.), including Ur, Uruk and Kish, then had walls.”

Uruk appears to have acquired walls in the time of Gilgamesh (around 2700 B.C.) The Standard of Ur of the third millennium B.C. shows a four wheeled cart drawn by four onagers on a battlefield. Egypt was unified under a single ruler around 3200 B.C. and for nearly 14 centuries it seems to have spared the vagaries of warfare.

The chariot first appeared around 1700 B.C. and revolutionised war-making. Now horse-breeders gained the advantage. “After the end of the second millennium B.C. such predatory charioteers disrupted the course of civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley…”

Somewhere along the way the concept of chivalry emerged. Warfare developed a set of rules. With the coming of Islam the creed of war obtained an ideology. Jihad became a religious and moral obligation. The prophet Mohammed preached as well as practised war. He decreed that all Muslims were brothers and should not fight each other. But all ‘infidels’ must be fought ‘until they proclaim that there is no god but Allah’.

The institution of military slaves or Mamelukes was an early Muslim innovation. A slave could rise to be a military commander or even king. (India’s Slave Dynasty is a case in point, though the author does not mention it.)

The Chinese were the first to devise a philosophy of war. Confucius then put forth the idea that ‘the superior man should be able to attain his ends without violence.” But in the 20th century, Mao’s principal contribution to military theory was the idea of ‘protracted war.’ On Mao’s Long March from south to north China in 1934-35, only some 8000 of the 80000 or so who set out survived. About 1 million ‘landlords’ were killed in the year after the communists came to power in China in 1948.

Over the course of 4000 years of experimentation and repetition, war-making became a human habit. But there were strong advocates of peace too. Jesus Christ advocated pacifism. Before Christ, Buddhism and Jainism advocated non-violence.

Does war have a future? The book does not have all the answers, but it certainly provides food for thought.

Overall Assessment: MUST read!

A History of Warfare
Author: John Keegan
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: November 1994


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

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I read this book twice. It is a book that has made quite the splash—it was long-listed for the 2018 Booker Prize and is on every critical “ten best books” list that I have come across lately. It is the second book by the author, Sally Rooney, whose debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was also highly acclaimed. While I have not read that book, Normal People came my way recently, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. Unlike many books acclaimed by critics, Normal People was very easy to get into and I no trouble reading it all the way through to the end. However, I felt that I had missed something—the thing that everyone was raving about—which prompted me to go back and re-read it, more slowly this time. I am glad I did, as I was able to appreciate the book a lot better and picked up on all the subtle nuances that I had missed in the first reading.

Normal People is completely focused—to the exclusion of everything else—on the relationship between a boy and a girl. It is a love story of sorts, but not the traditional kind where the two people meet, fall in love, and eventually get together (the happy ending), or are doomed to be apart (the sad ending). Rather than looking at the external circumstances that bring the lovers together or apart, the novel looks mostly inward at their feelings, which are—to put it mildly—very complicated.

The boy is Connell, the son of a single mother who earns her living as a cleaner, and the girl is Marianne, who goes to the same high school as Connell. While they see each other in passing at school, they get a chance to become better acquainted when Connell’s mother starts working in Marianne’s house and he comes by to pick her up after she is done. Connell and Marianne are attracted to each other and become lovers, but they keep their relationship a secret because Marianne is somewhat of a pariah at school—she is aloof, almost supercilious, keeps to herself and has no friends—while Connell is one of the popular kids. The secrecy eventually takes a toll on the relationship, which ends with Marianne dropping out of school and Connell trying to date other girls.

They meet again in college—Marianne had encouraged Connell, when they were still together in school, to apply to the same college that she was going to apply to—and despite trying to be with other people, they, more often than not, end up with each other. However, it is not an easy relationship by any means, as each of them has their own internal demons which torment them. Connell is always aware of his working-class background and he has a deep-seated inferiority complex because of that, and this is not something that his relationship with Marianne can heal. At one point, his condition degenerates to the point where he can’t even care whether he is alive or dead, and he has to start seeing a counselor.

On her part, Marianne is masochistic and gravitates towards relationships in which she is submissive and is beaten, which likely comes from being brought up in an abusive family with an elder brother who bullied and hit her. Connell is not a violent person and can never imagine hitting Marianne or harming her in any way. Thus, every though they realize that they love each other and will likely never find anyone else who is such a good fit, it is not enough for them to be together. The novel ends with Connell’s acceptance to a prestigious writing program in the US, a whole continent away from Ireland (where the book is set), and while he is not keen to leave Marianne, they both know that he will most likely go, because, as Marianne puts it, “I’ll always be here.”

While there is no “plot” in the story as such, what I really appreciated about the book was how well it captured the messiness of life and of human nature. Human beings are complicated creatures, with complex feelings and emotions, and even “true love”—for those lucky to find it—is not really a panacea. We still have to wrestle with our own internal demons. There are no pat answers, no magic cure-all for mental anguish or existential angst. People have to, first and foremost, find some measure of peace and equanimity within themselves before they can find happiness in a relationship. Even if it is the most perfect one for them.

Bottom line, you can’t live life by love alone. And this is what, ultimately, Normal People is about.

Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: April 2019

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

“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: Harper
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.