“Delirio” by Laura Restrepo

Delirio.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 100 year old Man.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Happens for a Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces” by Michael Chabon

Pops

Even though Michael Chabon is a well-known author – he has written several novels and has also won the Pulitzer Prize for one of them – I had not read any of his books. What prompted me to pick up his latest book, Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, was a recent interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air, in which he talked about the book. It sounded very interesting, and once I got a copy, I found that it was such a short book that I was able to read it in just a few days, which is usually impossible to do with nonfiction books unless they are so riveting that you just can’t put them down.

Pops is a collection of seven essays on fatherhood of which six have already been published in different magazines including GQ, Atlantic.com, and Details. It is not at all unusual for a famous author to repackage his or her articles, essays, or short stories into a book, which is what Chabon has done with Pops. However, what does make it atypical — and not in a good way — is how little new content it has. The book is essentially made by sandwiching the six already-published essays between an Introduction and a seventh essay at the end of the book. It seems almost too easy, especially when you think of the millions of wannabe writers slaving away for years to make their words see the light of day and are often disappointed when it never happens. Evidently, when you become a famous author, you can get away with simply collating some of your already published essays into a new book. But as they say, success builds on success. And who ever said that life was fair?

Getting back to the book itself, there were parts of Pops that I really liked – and these were the parts that Chabon also talked about in his Fresh Air interview, making me somewhat miffed that there wasn’t much else so gripping in the book that I had not already heard. As is obvious by its name, all the essays in the book are primarily about some of Chabon’s experiences as a father to his four children on a range of issues, including clothes, sports, behavior, and language. The final essay is about Chabon as a son himself, when he goes to visit his father who suddenly falls very ill. I would say that while none of these experiences were particularly insightful, it is Chabon’s skill as a writer that makes them interesting. In any case, parenting is something that most people who are parents themselves can usually relate to, and it is always interesting to hear about how other parents deal with different aspects of raising kids.

While I was overall somewhat disappointed by Pops — it seemed to cover too little ground to be a “full-fledged” book — there was one sentiment expressed in the book that was so profound that it simply blew my mind away and made the book a must-read. In the Introduction, Chabon describes how he was strongly advised against parenthood by a famous author when he was a young aspiring writer himself. He was told: “You can write great books. Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.” Chabon not only went on to have four children, but he also became a famous, award-winning author with fourteen books. Thus, while disregarding this (unsolicited) advice actually turned out to be a good thing for him, he obviously did not know it at that time and chose to have kids anyway. He explains why he made this choice in the last paragraph of the book’s Introduction:

“If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space, and it will take only 100 of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that. Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyway, if, 100 years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.”

To me, just reading this one paragraph made the book worthwhile – it’s the kind of wisdom that needs to be framed so that we can keep coming back to it. I may not care for Chabon’s novels, but his sentiments expressed in this one paragraph captures, for me, the crux of the human condition—death is evitable, our lives spans are but a blip in cosmic time, and is there any point striving for “eternal” fame when we won’t even be around to experience it?

Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces
Author: Michael Chabon
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: May 2018

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

“A Manual for Cleaning Women” by Lucia Berlin

A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories is simply superlative. The stories draw heavily on the author’s eventful life as an alcoholic, a teen single mother, a nurse in ER, and a cleaning lady. Reading the collection is a little like reading an autobiography with detailed insight into some portions of her life and an translucent curtain drawn over other portions. Each story is a beautiful little vignette, a little like a comic strip where character and movement and plot all come together with a few brushstrokes. Her writing is simple and spare, direct and searing, reminding me of Didion and Hemingway, packing a punch to the gut with little fanfare and no drama.

Lucia Berlin had an alcoholic mother, alcoholic uncle, abusive grandfather and a sister who died young, of cancer. She had four sons, the first born while she was a teenager, and she raised them on her own as she slid into alcoholism while working all manner of odd jobs. For some part of her childhood, she lived a life of wealth and privilege in Chile but was disowned by her family after her first pregnancy. These are facts I gleaned from the stories, but in a circuitous way because the stories meander to and fro over the years of her life. There are stories detailing incidents from years of her childhood interspersed with those talking about her nursing of her younger sister as she lies dying in Mexico, surrounded by children, ex-husbands and a lover.

Many of the stories are poignant – an alcoholic single mother gathering coins late at night to get a cup of alcohol, stumbling 45 mins one way to the liquor store that opens at dawn because her grown sons have hidden her car keys and wallet, then trudging back in time to get the laundry done so the younger boys have clean socks for school. Some are heart-wrenching – especially the memorable tale of a young Mexican immigrant with a husband in prison, a newborn son and absolutely no resources. Others are provocative, such as the tale of a mother finding a soulmate and lover in her son’s friend. There is plenty of humor, particularly of the darker sort.

This is not a book to miss. I was enthralled and uncharacteristically read it slowly so I could draw it out and savor each story, mull it over and digest it before I moved to the next. I have already bought a copy to give to a friend and will be passing my copy around to a few more friends.

A Manual for Cleaning Women
Author: Lucia Berlin
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: August 2015

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.