“The Captivity, Sufferings, and Escape, of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the Dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib” by James Scurry

jamesscurry

This memoir was first published in London in 1824, two years after the death of the author. Born in Devonshire, James Scurry had gone to sea at a very young age, probably accompanying his father. His Indian ordeal began at the age of 15 when he was captured by the French off the Coromandel Coast and handed over to Hyder Ali. After a decade in captivity he made a daring escape and managed to return to England where he built a chequered career, and died at the age of age of 57, leaving behind a widow and son.

Scurry begins his amateurish narrative by telling us he set sail from Plymouth Sound in the ship Hannibal and ended up near Ceylon where they ran into trouble with the French. He dived into the shark-infested waters and tried to swim to safety. “I had nothing about me but a silk handkerchief with two rupees, all my treasure, tied up in the corner.” He mentions Trincomalee, Batticaloa (which he called Bloody Bay), Tranquebar and finally Cuddalore where he was taken along with others after his capture. The year was 1781.

After two months of imprisonment in Hyder Ali’s fort of ‘Chillembroom’ where a famine was raging, the prisoners were marched off to Bangalore. “No butcher ever drove oxen with more cruelty than we were driven.”

Eventually, a group of 52 boys aged 12 to 17 were assembled and told they were now the ‘sons’ of Hyder Ali. They were marched off to Seringapatam, and their heads shaved. Months passed and Hyder Ali ‘Cawn’ died. “…towards the close of his life, when the ulcer was rapidly spreading, he, by advice, ordered several criminals at different times to be killed, in order to apply their livers to his sore.”

Scurry makes an intriguing observation that, “Hyat Saib was the rightful successor, but Tipoo proved the more powerful.” (Hyat (Ayaz Khan), was a Nambiar boy from Chirakkal who had been captured in 1766, converted and re-named before growing to be a prime favourite of Hyder Ali. Hyder is said to have publicly proclaimed that he wished Ayaz was his son and successor.) Did Hyder actually nominate Ayaz to succeed him? Or was Scurry referring to palace whispers?

Tipu’s accession aggravated the misery of the English captives, as they were incorporated into slave battalions. “Our ears were bored and a slave’s mark was put in each of them.”

Scurry describes the fate of Brahmin prisoners and English officers in Tipu’s custody. “…Colonel Bailey, who was in leg irons, with Captian Rumney, and Lieutenant Fraser and Sampson. The three latter had their throats cut at Mysore. Colonel Bailey appeared much emaciated; I rather think grief was the cause of destroying his constitution.”

Of the Malabar (Mangalore) Christians, Scurry records that 30,000 of them were driven to Seringapatam, “where all who were fit to carry arms were circumcised, and formed into four battalions.” Tipu wanted their daughters for his harem and when they refused, they were all imprisoned. “The chumbars, or sandal-makers were then sent for, and their noses, ears and upper lips were cut off; they were then mounted on asses, their faces towards the tail and led through Patam…”

“The principal street in Seringapatam, on each side, was ornamented with paintings, such as, elephants whirling Europeans in the air – tigers seizing whole battalions of English sepoys – five or six English officers supplicating for mercy…” Later when Tipu feared the English would get to Seringapatam, these paintings were removed.

Scurry asserts that Tipu was a coward and a tyrant, and probably mentally deranged. Tipu kept nine large tiger cages in front of his treasury. Three of his principal officers were thrown to the tigers and devoured in an instant. The tigers didn’t live long either. Tipu went hunting and brought in new ones. Scurry describes in detail the unique instruments of torture that Tipu used. “But his most common mode of punishment was that of drawing to death by the elephant’s feet.” This corroborates the accounts of other writers in Malayalam and English.

Scurry also describes Tipu’s ‘games’ that would have put the ancient Romans to shame. When Tipu concluded peace with the British in 1784, and the customary exchange of prisoners took place, Scurry and a 100 other boys were sorely disappointed. Had their government forsaken them? Scurry records that he went into depression for three months.

To cut a long story short, Scurry was circumcised, re-named Shamsher Khan (he spells it Shum Shu Cawn), and forced to marry a dark-skinned girl from Arcot, also a prisoner. “She was an affectionate creature by whom I had two children, one died and the other I left in the arms of its distracted mother.” Scurry eventually escaped into Mahratta territory and returned to England in 1793. His efforts to trace his wife and child proved futile. Recounting his final moments with them he wrote, “I was eager to give them a final embrace; but fearful of the consequences. Oh my God! What were my sensations then! And even now, after a lapse of more than thirty years!”

Scurry’s language and spellings are quaint. We hear of him speaking the “Moorish’ language, the Canary language and the Tellingey language. He also recounts ‘seeing the Bramin women ascend the funeral pyre with the dead bodies of their husbands, apparently with as much composure as we would sit down to our breakfast.” His words are straight from the heart of an unlettered man.

Overall Assessment: Certainly worth reading.

The captivity, sufferings, and escape of James Scurry, who was detained a prisoner during ten years, in the dominions of Hyder Ali and Tippoo Saib
Author: James Scurry
Publisher: Forgotten Books
Year of Publication: 2015 (Original 1824)

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

“Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road” by Scott C. Levi

caravans

This book is part of a series by different authors detailing the global commercial activities of Indian merchants down the ages. It presents an amazing account of the trading practices of Punjabi businessmen, whose initiative and enterprise will certainly surprise the reader. Moreover, there’s a detailed account of the slave trade and the horse trade, which were inextricably intertwined.

India had been cultivating cotton and producing textiles from antiquity. Textile fragments excavated at Mohenjo Daro indicate that dyes were used for colouring. The Greek historian Herodotus had referred to Indian cottons.

The Arthashastra the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti refer to institutionalized slavery in India. Mahmud Ghazni took away not only India’s treasures but also hundreds of thousands of slaves. The Slave dynasty (builders of the Qutub Minar) also kept up the slave trade. When Timur sacked Delhi in 1398 he returned to Samarkand with plenty of wealth and slaves. Alauddin Khalji (ruled 1296-1316) had 50,000 slave boys and another 70,000 slaves engaged in construction works. Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1351 to 1388) had 180,000 slaves. Th author notes that, “The Mughals regularly included skilled slaves as gifts along with ambassadorial exchanges.”

In 1646 Shah Jahan’s army occupied Balkh and marched to Samarkand under Aurangzeb. Defetaed by the long, cold winter the Indian forces had to retreat. A central asian chronicler recorded that the Central Asian ‘wolves’ captured the retreating Indian ‘slave-sheep’ and sold them in the markets of Samarkand, Tashkent and Turkestan. The voluminous supply of slaves caused prices to plummet from 225 tanga in 1589 to 84 tanga in 1646.

The Lodi dynasty of Afghan Pashtuns (later overthrown by Babur) came to India as horse traders. “The fact that the ancient Indian ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice, is described already in the Rig Veda indicates that Indians were involved in this exchange many centuries before Herodotus,” the author points out. Marco Polo noticed that the Malabar rulers imported 10,000 horses a year at a cost of 2.2 million dinars – and all but 100 would be dead by the end of the year. Niccolao Manucci wrote in the latter half of the 17th century that 100,000 horses were led from Bukhara to India every year and 12000 of them went directly to Aurangzeb’s stables.

Babur wrote in 1504, “From Hindustan, caravans of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand pack animals bring slaves, textiles, rock sugar, refined sugar, and spices.” 22 years later he would defeat Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat and found the Mughal dynasty.

Successive rulers in India and Central Asia carefully protected the caravan trade. When Akbar learnt that Afghan and Baloch tribes were preying upon the caravans, he sent his army to subdue them. Thousands of tribesmen were killed and thousands more enslaved and deported.

The arrival of the Europeans did not impact the caravan trade. The Portuguese brought much silver from the Americas in exchange for spices and textiles. The 17th century French traveller Francois Bernier observed, “Gold and silver, after circulating in every corner of the globe, comes at length to be swallowed up, lost in some measure in Hindostan.” The French monk Raphael du Mans described India as a place “where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss.” Earlier in the 1st century Pliny the Elder and the anonymous author of Periplus Maris Erithraei had bemoaned Rome’s massive trade deficit with India.

Mulasthana or Mulastanapura became Multan in the 8th century following the Muslim conquest. Alexander the Great took the city in 326 B.C.E. 13th century records identify Multanis as money-lenders and wholesale textile dealers for the first time. Indian merchants were considered indispensable to the local economy and the term ‘Multani’ referred to both Hindus and Muslims. As Multan began to suffer repeated invasions in the mid 17th century, Multani merchants relocated en masse to Shikarpur in Sind.

In the 17th century the French jeweller Tavernier commented that Indian money-changers or Shroffs surpassed the Jews in their shrewdness. The Punjabi Khatris prospered due to Mughal patronage but outlasted several dynasties in India and Central Asia. There were Marwari Jains in Astrakhan in the 17th century.

Nadir Shah’s reign was the most disruptive period in the history of the Indian merchant diaspora. In 1736 he slaughtered the Hindu communities across Iran. After his assassination in 1747 Indians began to return.

Indian presence in Russian territory diminished in the second half of the 19th century due to Russian expansionist policies and harsh restrictions imposed on Indian businesses. Ivan the Terrible had annexed the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the 16th century. The 1917 Revolution virtually ended Indian enterprise in Russia. With Partition in 1947, the Indians in Afghanistan had to move elsewhere, as the trade lines were cut off.

In 1914 Paramanand Deepchand Hinduja moved from his native Shikarpur in Sind to Bombay where he established firm. Five years later he moved his business to Iran. When he passed way in 1971 his successors maintained a close relationship with the Shah as well as the Indian government. The business shifted to Europe after the 1979 Islamic Revolution but continued to thrive. Today they employ 70,000 people in 35 countries and have assets worth an estimated $35 billion.

Years ago I was travelling in Uzbekistan with a few women. We were frequently accosted on the streets by local women asking to be photographed with us. They would first ask “Hindustan? Hindustan?” and when we nodded they would signal that they wanted a picture. This happened in not only in Tashkent but also in Bukhara and Samarkand. I suspected it was Bollywood mania, but after reading this book I can see other reasons too.

Overall Assessment: Very Interesting

Caravans: Punjabi Khatri Merchants on the Silk Road
Author: Scott C. Levi
Publisher: Portfolio (Penguin Books)
Year of Publication: 2016

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

“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Since I’m currently attempting to finish and enjoying a long Victorian novel, I was still craving the sensation of finishing a book. I set out to find a short book that I could finish and came across Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.

What intrigued me about this book was that it was based on a real event set in Colombia. I wanted to be able to read about little details of what life was like in this part of Colombia during a different time since it was written in 1981, although I’m not entirely sure what era this story itself was set in.

Thankfully, I did get plenty of that from this book. I got plenty of little details of what everyday life was like in this small town even though it was surrounded by this horrifying incident (the murder) that would take place and everyone’s foreknowledge of it.

At first I was a little confused as to why this would make a good story. But as I learned more about the events surrounding this crime, I became just as intrigued by the same questions posed by the narrator, “Why did this happen?” “Why didn’t anyone do anything to avoid it?” “Was the victim just as aware?” “Why didn’t he do anything to avoid it either?”

The narrator sets out to understand what happened surrounding this crime about 20+ years later. Why was it able to be executed in spite of everyone’s foreknowledge that Santiago Nasar would be killed at the hands of these two twin men in search of avenging their sister’s honor?

As we read, we go back and forth from past to present and back and forth through different perspectives. The twin brothers Vicario are very vocal about their intentions to everyone in town. They are so vocal about it that people don’t really believe it’s gong to happen. Everyone seems to take a very laid-back approach to their threats of killing Santiago Nasar and go about their lives. As you learn of others’ perspectives, you might even question whether they knew it would indeed happen, and their lack of interest in impeding this incident is because of a deep desire that he would be murdered.

I enjoyed this book because it was short and kept me engaged. Since it wasn’t very linear you kind of had to piece the story together as the author revealed different details through the day in the lives of the other people on the day Santiago Nasar was murdered. I also got little glimpses of life within this town — there was a big religious event taking place that day that kept everyone busy. There were different shop owners getting for their normal day, although they were aware that Santiago Nasar would be murdered. Since this story takes place by a city in the coast of Colombia there are little details of life by the shore, what food some of the people are preparing for the day, details of the kind of clothes they would wear. These were the little things I enjoyed reading, in spite the very heavy circumstance that this story is surrounded by.

One thing I wasn’t able to keep up with was the name of different minor characters and who they were, perhaps because it is a short book so the author does not spend too much time on each or because I simply wanted to get through the book. But I think that is something that can be easily fixed upon a reread, which I don’t mind doing. I was still able to follow along the story in spite of that.

Overall, this book gave me what I was looking for: a short story to finish and details of everyday life in a different culture in spite of the violent details surrounding this murder which I eventually came to be intrigued by as well. It was also my first time reading a book by Gabriel García Márquez. He was an author I wanted to become familiar with for a while since he is a very well known Colombian author, which is where my family is from. I read this book in Spanish but there’s also an English translation available.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Publisher: Vintage, Reprint Edition
Publication Date: October 2003  (originally published in 1981)

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

A Spark of Light” by Jodi Picoult

Spark of Light

For me, Jodi Picoult has, until now, been one writer whose books almost come with a guarantee of being a good read. I have read most, if not all, of her books so far. While her most recent novels, Leaving Time and Small Great Things, were not as good as her previous books, they were still very readable. I was looking forward to her new book, A Spark of Light, as a sure-shot good read rather than something I would have to read a little of to decide if I want to continue reading it or not.

I am so sorry to say that with this book, Jodi Picoult seems to have fallen off the bandwagon. The book started so badly that I was not even sure if I should continue or give up on it and find something else to read. Finally, I did decide to stick it out, based entirely on the strength of how much I had enjoyed her earlier books. I have to admit however, that at some point, I just speed-read through the rest of the book because it got too boring and I couldn’t wait to be done.

A Spark of Light is set in an abortion clinic in a town in Mississippi, a state with strict anti-abortion laws, and it tells the story of a single day, unfolding hour by hour, when a gunman bursts into the clinic and starts shooting. While a couple of people in the clinic, including the owner, are killed right away, the others are taken hostage, and the novel explores each of their individual lives and what has led them to be at the clinic on that day. They include a doctor who does the abortions, a nurse practitioner, a woman who has just had an abortion, another woman who is actually an anti-abortion activist and has come to the clinic pretending to need an abortion so she can spy on what’s going on inside, an older woman who has received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, and a fifteen year girl who was visiting the clinic with her aunt to just get a birth control prescription. The girl’s father is a local policeman who is outside and negotiating with the shooter to let the hostages go. We also get to learn more about the shooter and what motivated him to come to the clinic that day with a gun — it turns out that his seventeen year old daughter had just visited that clinic recently for an abortion, and he was a born-again Christian who was strongly pro-life.

While the plot is clearly an attempt to weave a story around the hot-button issues of abortion as well as mass shootings, A Spark of Light is completely devoid of Picoult’s usual taut and tense writing style that have made her previous books so difficult to put down. Here, the characters don’t seem real — they feel like caricatures — and it’s hard to get emotionally invested in them or even to care about their back stories. And there are so many of them, right from the start of the book, that it was extremely confusing. I had to keep going back to the beginning to keep their stories straight. Another aspect of the book that made it not just difficult but hard to enjoy was that it is told chronologically backwards, starting with the events at 5 pm that day, then 4 pm, and so on, until 9 am in the morning. So as you read the book, you already know what has happened.

As it is, it was hard to care about the characters, and with the knowledge of how the story unfolds, even the normal suspense that is there is any story was gone, making the book even more unreadable. While I can appreciate that authors, especially when they are well established, like to flout convention and break rules, it boggles my mind so to why a writer would deliberately choose to write backwards and still expect the book to be enjoyed by readers.

Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed by A Spark of Light. I had been looking forward to it so much.

A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: October 2018

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

“A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ways to Hide in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Black Boy” by Richard Wright

Black Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life of Tipu Sultan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shirley” by Charlotte Brontë

Shirley.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Blood.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

The Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Century is not Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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