“The Ink Black Heart” by Robert Galbraith

This is the sixth book in the Cormoran Strike series by J.K. Rowling, who is writing these novels under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. I absolutely love the books in this series and getting a new one to read is such a treat for me. I pre-order them as soon as they are announced and spend the days leading up to the launch by re-reading the preceding book (or books) in the series in order to “get ready” for the new one, so I can pick up where the last one ended. For The Ink Black Heart, I re-read the last book, Troubled Blood and thoroughly enjoyed it. There is so much detail in the books that it almost feels new every time I read it.

The series is centered around a detective agency started by Cormoran Strike, an ex-military man who was forced to leave the army when he was injured in a blast and had to have his leg amputated. The other main character is Robin Ellacott, who starts in the first book of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, as a temp for the agency and has worked her way up to now being Strike’s business partner in the agency. (I provided a more detailed overview of the series, as well as on the relationship between Strike and Robin, in my write-up of the fourth book, Lethal White.)

While the agency is typically working on multiple cases, each book in the series focuses on one main case. The new book, The Ink Black Heart, takes place in 2016 and the crime it is centered on is very contemporary, involving YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, gaming, and online stalking and trolling. The case involves finding the identity of an online persona called Anomie who has murdered the main creator, Edie, of a popular YouTube cartoon called “The Ink Heart Place,” which has been optioned by Netflix to become a show. Anomie had created an online game inspired by the cartoon, but it was disparaged by Edie, making Anomie furious and causing him/her (Anomie’s identity remains unknown till the end of the book) to disparage and humiliate Edie at every opportunity, both in the game — which has attracted a huge fan following of its own — as well as on Twitter. This vendetta is sustained for all the three or so years between the launch of the game and the murder, not just by Anomie, by many additional characters in the game who also vilify Edie, including some from a right-wing hate group. There are nasty tweets galore, as well as pages upon pages of in-game conversations between the characters, many of them running in parallel as “private channels” (a common feature in online games). This makes for an even lengthier book than is usual for this series — The Ink Black Heart is 1012 pages compared to the 927 pages of its predecessor, Troubled Blood.

While having such a lengthy book translates to more reading pleasure for anyone who loves these books (and is therefore welcomed!), it is likely to be considered as needlessly long by others. I can’t see this book being appreciated unless you are a diehard fan like me, and even I skipped most of the in-game conversations between the players. I did, however, have to plod through many of the tweets as they seemed to be important to the plot point, even though they were horribly vile and offensive, as many abusive tweets tend to be. There were too many characters in the story making for too many potential suspects, and there were even more characters online in the game and on Twitter, with no way of knowing which online user was which character in real life.

All in all, I found it quite confusing, and I am happy that I have a copy of the book to re-read to make it clearer. I will also likely enjoy the book better on subsequent re-reads, as knowing the solution to the central mystery will allow me to focus on the sheer mastery of the writing, the incredible level of detail, and the characters of Strike and Robin that are fleshed out so vividly that I feel like I know them personally.

Talking of Strike and Robin, their relationship — which the whole series revolves around — hardly progresses in this book. Of course, it cannot be successfully resolved until the last book in the series — and the fact that it is left hanging at least assures fans like me that there are more books coming! — but it was, nevertheless, a little disappointing. Strike is hardly any kind of romantic figure — he is curmudgeonly, out of shape, smokes endlessly, and is always eating burgers and chips and drinking endless pints of beer or lager. (Towards the end of this book, he is forced to be hospitalized as his amputated stump is acting up, and he might start taking better care of his health in the next book.) Robin, on the other hand, who is more conventionally pretty, does not find Strike “remotely sexy,” as she confided to a friend.

Yet, a high level of character and integrity, along with a passion for detective work, is what draws them to each other and deepens their mutual respect and admiration. They care deeply for each other and have acknowledged (this was in the last book) that they are each other’s best friends. They have built up a great business partnership, which they understandably do not wish to jeopardize by crossing the boundary to a romantic relationship. So they continue to suppress the mutual attraction they feel for each other. I find this relationship — and how well it is built up over the course of the series — to be one of the best parts of the books.

I consider myself lucky that I get so much happiness from reading these books and that J.K. Rowling is still writing them.

The Ink Black Heart
Author: Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: August 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Tracy Flick Can’t Win” by Tom Perrotta

This is a follow-up to the book Election which was made into a very successful movie in which the character of Tracy Flick was immortalized by Reese Witherspoon. While I haven’t read that book, I have read some of Tom Perrotta’s other books (Little Children and The Leftovers) and found them well-written, very enjoyable, and easy to get into and read. (The latter is especially important for me as I grow older, as I don’t have the patience to plod through a book in the hope that it will soon get interesting – it has to grip me right away!)

Track Flick from Election – in that book, she was in high school competing in the election to be School President – is now in her 40s and an Assistant Principal in a high school where the Principal has announced his retirement, and Tracy, being as driven as ever, wants the job. Of course, her ambitions are much more modest now than when she was in high school. At that time, her ambition was to be the President of US – the first woman President – and it was something she seriously aspired to and was well on track for – studying at Georgetown (on a full scholarship), getting an internship in DC – until she had to move back home to care for her mother, who was very ill. She had to give up on those aspirations, but now, given how qualified she is – she has been the Assistant Principal for 20 years and has been doing a stellar job of it – is it too much to ask for that she succeed as the Principal?

But of course, these things are never easy, as the decision has to be made by a Search Committee, the position has to be advertised, and other candidates have to be interviewed. This is the plot of the book, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, with the backdrop being Tracy’s ambition to be the Principal. In addition to Tracy, there are several additional characters that are involved, including the other members of the Search Committee and some of the alumni of the school. One of the key people on the Committee is the head of the Parent Association, a wealthy ex-techie from Silicon Valley who has returned with his family to settle in the town he grew up in and has two kids who are in the high school. He wants to establish a Hall of Fame in the school to inspire the students, and in addition to a new principal, the search is also on for the inaugural inductees into this new Hall of Fame, which is where the alumni who are under consideration come in.

Thus, there are several characters in the book, and the story is told from the point of view of many of these people, often in first person. In addition to all the grown-ups and their partners and significant others, we also get into the minds of the two students who are on the Search Committee. All in all, the story includes a diverse cast of characters including a non-binary person (who is the love interest of one of the students), an Internet personality (who is the love interest of the other student), an ex-NBA player (who is the main star being inducted into the Hall of Fame), and many more. The chapters are short and fast-paced, dipping into the minds of each of these characters and then moving on to another characters. The book never drags or gets boring.

Overall, I found Tracy Flick Can’t Win a very enjoyable read and can well see Reese Witherspoon returning to play the character of Tracy Flick once again in the movie adaptation of the book. Just like its predecessor, I think it would be a huge hit.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win
Author: Tom Perrotta
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: June 2022

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

I picked up this book on my recent trip to London. I was specifically looking for current bestselling British authors that we don’t hear much about in the US, and I saw Sorrow and Bliss displayed prominently in several London bookstores. I typically do not buy books without reading them first (I get them from the library and buy only those books I really like), but I took a chance on this one. Not only was it heralded as the “Novel of the Year” by several leading British newspapers like the Guardian and the Sunday Times, it also had a blurb on the back cover by Ann Patchett, whose work I greatly admire. That was what “clinched the deal” for me.

I am so glad that I found this book – it was amazing. However, the brilliance is not evident right at the start, such as, for instance, in a runway hit like The Girl on the Train (by Paula Hawkins, another contemporary British author), which was a book that was immediately gripping. In fact, not only does Sorrow and Bliss not draw you in right away, the languid pace at which it starts is the same pace that is maintained throughout the book, and it is only when you get to the end that you can appreciate what a masterful creation it was that you have just had the privilege of consuming.

At its heart, Sorrow and Bliss is a story about mental illness. It is told in first person from the perspective of a woman, Martha, who suffers from a mental condition that impacts everything she does and all of her relationships, right from when she was a teenager. On the surface, she would seem to have everything that anyone could wish for to be happy – she is beautiful and talented, she has a loving extended family included a sister with whom she is very close and a father who cares deeply about her, and above all, she has a husband who has loved her since she was 17 and continues to be steadfast in his love and support for her despite her depression and frequent emotional breakdowns. But her mental illness – which it turns out, has been passed on her by her mother – makes it impossible for her to live a normal life, hold down a job, have friends, socialize, etc., and almost ends up destroying her relationships with the two people closest to her, her husband, Patrick, and her sister, Ingrid.

If you don’t suffer from a mental illness, it is almost impossible to “get” it, to understand how a person who has mental health issues feels and behaves. But Sorrow and Bliss was able to do this for me – I was able to get into Martha’s head and feel what she feels, experience her grief and helplessness as she inadvertently pushes away the people closest to her almost to the breaking point, and understand what she means when she says to a therapist that she would like to simply “not exist” rather than just kill herself  (which is the ultimate fear we have for those have a mental illness). In fact, the writing is so visceral in capturing what goes on in Martha’s head that I could hardly believe that this was a made-up story rather than a first-person account of someone who has lived with mental illness for an extended period of time. How else can you even conceive of someone who says they don’t know “how to live” in the world?

While I think that all of us are somewhere on the spectrum when it comes to mental health, it is rare to be able to get inside the skin of someone at the extreme end of the spectrum and feel their pain, their helplessness, their frustration, and their despair. Sorrow and Bliss is not an easy read, but I found it gut-wrenchingly emotional, poignant, hopeful, and in the end, deeply satisfying. I also think it has enhanced my understanding, not just of people with severe mental illness, but also of human behavior as a whole and the extent to which our lives are shaped by the chemistry of our brains.

Sorrow and Bliss
Author: Meg Mason
Publisher and Publication Date of this UK edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, April 2022
Original Publisher and Publication Date: HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn is best known for her best-selling novel, Gone Girl, which was subsequently made into a very successful movie with top-of-the-line stars including Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, and Neil Patrick Harris. I loved that book when it came out in 2012 and also enjoyed it thoroughly when I re-read it a few years ago. Which is why when I was unable to find something compelling to read for a few months, I turned to one of her earlier books, Dark Places, which was published in 2009. While I have already read that book — I bought it shortly after I was mesmerized by Gone Girl — it’s been a while and I had little to no recollection of the plot. So re-reading it would be almost like reading a new book by Gillian Flynn, with an assurance that I would enjoy it. Because what I do remember about Dark Places when I read it the first time is that I really liked it.

The plot in brief — The protagonist is a woman called Libby Day, who suffered a brutal tragedy when she was a kid. Her family grew up dirt poor in Kansas, and one night, her mother and her two older sisters were massacred. Her brother, Ben, who was 15 at that time, was arrested for the murders, partially based on Libby’s testimony — even though she was only 7 years old then and very suggestible – and partly because of the lack of any other suspects or any other evidence pointing to anyone else. He was convicted and is now in prison. Libby was quite close to Ben when she was a kid, but she severed ties with him when he was arrested and is no longer in touch. This changes once she gets commissioned by the members of a “Kill Club” looking into the murders, who are convinced that Ben is innocent. Libby needs the money and starts looking at the case again, chasing down all the people who were involved. This, eventually, leads to the truth coming out about what really happened that day.

The story is told in two alternating timelines, one set in the present day and told from Libby’s first-person point of view, and the other on the day of the murders, told from a third person point of view at different times that day, following both Ben as well as his mother, Patty. It gives you a sense of how that day unfolds, starting from the morning to late at night when the murders happened. The suspense is maintained throughout, and you get to know what really happened that day only at the end of the book.

Meanwhile, in the current timeline, you get to be inside Libby’s head and feel the sense of hopelessness and depression that she lives with every day. She has never really recovered from the trauma of what happened to her and her family, and it is only the money that she is offered for looking at the murders again — which she needs, as she has come to the end of the charitable contributions that poured in to help her as the only survivor of the massacres — that pulls her up and forces her to function. As she starts to dig deeper into the events of that day and start hunting down the different people involved, she begins to get more interested in finding out the truth for its own sake rather than just for the money she is being offered to look into it. She also reconnects with Ben and even makes another friend, of sorts, so that, in addition to the murder mystery being solved at the end, there is some kind of resolution to her life as well.

I think what elevates a book like this from a run-of-the-mill potboiler is the quality of the writing. I found it amazing and so authentic, all the way from capturing the details of life in poor farming communities in Kansas to the breakdown of Libby’s life after the murders and the permanent damage it has done to her psyche. You can get a sense of this from the starting lines of the book itself, which is from Libby’s first-person point of view in the present moment:

I have a meanness inside of me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives – second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends – stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas.

Such is the quality of the writing throughout the book – so compelling, so gripping, that you don’t want to miss a word.

What a gift! And how lucky we are to be able to enjoy the fruits of it.

Gillian Flynn deserves every bit of the success that has come to her so far.

Dark Places
Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: ‎ Crown Publishing Group (Random House)
Publication Date: May 2009 (1st edition)

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

I had really liked one of Amor Towles earlier books, The Rules of Civility, so, of course, I had to check out his latest book, The Lincoln Highway, which has just been published. At close to 600 pages, the length of it is somewhat daunting, but of course, if a book is good, the length of the book is hardly an issue. (In fact, if I love a book, I wish it would go on forever!). While The Lincoln Highway did not fall in the “I wish it would go on forever” category for me, I found it a good read once I was a few chapters into it.

The story takes place in 1954 during the course of exactly 10 days with the setting being the Lincoln Highway, one of the earliest transcontinental highway routes in the US that runs coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The story centers around four main characters, three of whom were inmates together at a “work farm” – a juvenile detention facility of sorts – for various transgressions such as theft, arson, and involuntary manslaughter. There is Emmett, who has just been released after serving his sentence; and Woolly and Duchess, who still have some months left to serve on the work farm but have escaped by hiding in the trunk of the car that was being used to bring Emmett back to his home in Nebraska. The fourth main character in the novel is Emmett’s precocious younger brother, Billy. The original plan was for Emmett and Billy to drive to San Francisco via the Lincoln Highway – which runs quite close to their town in Nebraska – but thanks to Woolly and Duchess, they are forced to go to New York, which is at the other end of the Lincoln Highway.

Each of the ten days over the course of which the story unfolds is filled with lots of action and adventure happening to each of these four main characters, and it is told from their individual points of view. Some of these events include an impromptu visit to an orphanage, hitching a ride in a freight car, being almost robbed by a pastor, being rescued by a black man named Ulysses, who — reminiscent of the legendary Greek God, Ulysses – throws said pastor out of the train, spending some time at a homeless encampment in New York, going to the 44th floor of the Empire State building to find a famous author and actually meeting him there, an eventful visit to the circus, a paint job on Emmett’s car to prevent it from being detected by the police, breaking open a safe, and many, many more.  

In addition to the four main characters, there are some other folks who make a sporadic appearance in the book, and one of these secondary characters is Sally, who is the daughter of Emmett’s neighbor and is almost like a mother figure to Billy. (His own mother left home when he was little more than a baby, and his father has just died.) Not only does she cook and clean and keep house for her father, she also does the same for Billy and Emmett as often as she can, and I found the chapters told from her point of view – capturing her thoughts — the most poignant in the book. In particular, the section quoted below was so profound, I wanted to write this review mostly so that I could capture it. It is about why she still continues to make strawberry preserves from scratch when one can just go to the store and buy a bottle of jam:

So yes, the making of strawberry preserves is time-consuming, old-fashioned, and unnecessary.

Then, why, you might ask, do I bother to do it?

I do it because it’s time-consuming.

… 

I do it because it’s old-fashioned.

… 

I do it because it’s unnecessary.

For what is kindness but the performance of an act that is both beneficial to another and unrequired? There is no kindness in paying a bill. There is no kindness in getting up at dawn to slop the pigs, or milk the cows, or gather the eggs from the henhouse. For that matter, there is no kindness in making dinner, or in cleaning the kitchen after your father heads upstairs without so much as a word of thanks.

There is no kindness in latching the doors and turning out the lights, or in picking up the clothes from the bathroom floor in order to put them in the hamper. There is no kindness in taking care of a household because your older sister had the good sense to get herself married and move to Pensacola.

Nope, I said to myself while climbing into bed and switching off the light, there is no kindness in any of that.

For kindness begins where necessity ends.

I had never thought of this connection between kindness and unnecessariness before, but it is so true.

To me, the book was worth the read for this insight alone.

The Lincoln Highway
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: ‎ Viking
Publication Date: October 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Early Morning Riser” by Katherine Heiny

I almost gave up on Early Morning Riser after reading the first few chapters. Not because I disliked the book – on the contrary, it was very well written and quite charming, with a likable cast of characters – but only because it seemed to be somewhat meandering, and I wasn’t sure where it was headed. But boy, am I glad I stuck with it, as it turned out to be one of the most heartwarming books I have read.

Set in a small town, Boyne City, in Michigan, the protagonist is a young woman, Jane, who has just moved into town to take up the position of a second-grade teacher at the local elementary school. She meets and falls for Duncan, a woodworker who is also somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades kind of guy and does a lot of handyman-type of work for many of the folks in the town. Duncan’s only employee is Jimmy, who is developmentally slow, and lives with his mother. To Duncan, Jimmy is almost like family, and he feels very protective towards him, as do most of the residents in this close-knit community. Most of the early chapters in the book are focused on Jane settling into Boyne City, her work in the school, the students in her class, her growing friendship with another teacher, her relationship with Duncan, her getting to know Duncan’s ex-wife with whom he is still friends, and overall, the many aspects of life in a small town.

It was all nice and sweet, and I was coasting along, when all of a sudden, the story took such a dramatic turn that I was almost shell-shocked. It happened on the evening before Jane’s wedding — not to Duncan, as they had both moved on to other partners – but to another man. Her mother had come down for the wedding, and Jane had always found her rather trying. Adding to Jane’s irritation that evening were the new shoes she was wearing for the rehearsal dinner – she had blisters all over her feet and could hardly walk. But she ended up having to walk home with her mother, with the added annoyance of being accompanied by Jimmy’s mother, who was rather talkative. When they reached her house, Jane couldn’t wait to temporarily get rid of both of them and take her shoes off. So she thrust her car keys to her mother and told her to go and drop Jimmy’s mother off. This impromptu errand she sends her mother on has devastating consequences – her mother, not being familiar with the place, gets into a car crash in which Jimmy’s mother is killed. (Jane’s mother, herself, survives the crash with a broken arm.)

While accidents, even fatal ones, happen often in books, movies, and sadly, even in real life, this accident in Early Morning Riser came as a real shock. Imagine the guilt that Jane feels! While she was not driving the car herself, she had asked her mother to do it, without thinking that her mother was new to the place and may have a problem with directions. Without a doubt, Jimmy’s mother’s death was her fault. Who would look after Jimmy now? Who would he live with? How would he manage alone?

This, then, is the main plot point of the story. It happens so suddenly that you don’t see it coming. Just as real life can change in an instant, so does life change for Jane in Early Morning Riser in the course of a single page. One thoughtless action can change the trajectory of our lives forever. Jane is now permanently responsible for Jimmy, and while she did let him live alone for a few months, that changed when he was swindled out of his house and savings by a conman. That’s when Duncan and Jane stepped in, got married, and brought Jimmy to live with them. They go on to have two daughters, and while it is not always easy for Jane to have Jimmy continue to live with them, she eventually realizes that he is an inseparable part of their family.

In addition to being such a heartrending and heartwarming story, Early Morning Riser was sprinkled with so many wise and wry insights and observations that I was left completely awestruck at the author’s talent. Here are two of my top ones.

This is when Jane and Duncan have become a couple again:

Oh, the joy of a shared life! The joy is not—as many people believe—building a future with someone, or opening your heart to another human being, or even the ability to gift each other money with limited tax consequences. The joy is in the dailiness. The joy is having someone who will stop you from hitting the snooze button on the alarm endlessly. The joy is the smell of someone else's cooking. The joy is knowing you can call someone and ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way over. The joy is having someone to watch Kitchen Nightmares with, because it is really no good when you watch it by yourself. The joy is hoping (however unrealistically) that someone else will unload the dishwasher. The joy is having someone listen to the weird cough your car has developed and reassure you that it doesn’t sound expensive. The joy is saying how much you want a glass of wine and having someone tell you, "Go ahead, you deserve it!"

This is after Jane and Duncan have married and are thinking about having a baby:

Jane had a theory that people spent too long deliberating small decisions and not enough time considering big, important ones. How many days—surely it added up to days—had she agonized over whether to cut bangs? How many hours had she spent debating the merits of wood versus laminate flooring? How many minutes of her life had she given to working out the number of calories in a salad? How many times had she visited the thrift store, looking for the perfect black cashmere sweater? (The answer: a lot. Cashmere isn’t often donated.) And yet, people get pregnant all the time just because one person was too lazy to get out of bed and hunt up a condom, people bought houses after a single viewing, people chose colleges based on whether the cafeteria served caffeinated beverages, people sent their mothers to drive other people’s mothers home without thinking about it at all.

And while there were so many parts of the story that were just plain heartrending, there were two that really stood out for me. The first was when Jane and Duncan visit Jane’s mother for Christmas. This is when Jimmy is living with them, and Jane is pregnant with her first child. Jane’s mother sends Duncan off to do some chores around the house, she asks Jane to go and decorate the Christmas tree in the family room, and she asks Jimmy if he would like to help her frost sugar cookies in the kitchen. While they are in the kitchen, she and Jimmy have a long chat about the baby that is coming, and she assuages Jimmy’s fear that he will drop the baby, advising him on how to hold it:

“Oh, you don’t need to worry.” Jane’s mother’s tone was certain, authoritative. “Anytime you want to hold the baby, Jane will set you up on the sofa with pillows propped all around you and put the baby in your arms. You won’t possibly be able to drop the baby because of all the pillows, you see. Lots of people hold babies that way. I’ll bet you’ll be a great help to Jane.”

The conversation continues with her giving Jimmy more reassurances and advice about how to help Jane with the baby, including telling him a secret about babies—“…if you hold them right next to your chest so they can feel your heart beating, they’ll sleep much longer than they do in a crib”—and that Jane would tell him—“Oh, Jimmy, I would be lost without you.”

“I sure would like that,” Jimmy sounded wistful. “Do you really think it will happen?”

“Without a doubt,” Jane’s mother said.

In the family room, Jane nodded in agreement. She would make certain of it.

I was so touched by this conversation. Jane’s mother had clearly contrived to get Jimmy alone in order to have this conversation with him. She might often be trying and annoying to Jane, but her essential humanity and goodness shine through with this.

And at the end of the book, at a family outing to a public beach they have all gone to, Jane’s younger daughter, Patrice, is finally able to do a cartwheel, which she has been trying to do for months now — like her older sister — but hadn’t quite succeeded.

Patrice turned another cartwheel, her round face flushed, her hair a glinting auburn tangle.

“Did you see, Mommy?” she yelled. “Did you see me?”

“Yes!” Jane answered. “I saw you!”

Patrice shaded her eyes. “Did you see, Jimmy?”

“I sure did!” Jimmy called from behind Jane, and Jane turned to look at him.

He was smiling proudly, his face as sweet and open as a sugar cookie. He was so happy for Patrice, so happy for all of them, so delighted by their accomplishments. Could anyone else, ever, be so devoted and selfless? Maybe Jane was wrong: maybe she had been wrong all these years. She’d spent so much time either feeling responsible for Jimmy or feeling sorry for him that she’s forgotten to love him.

I ended the book with a lump in my throat.

Early Morning Riser
Author: Katherine Heiny
Publisher: ‎ Knopf
Publication Date: April 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts

It’s been a while since I read a book I savored so much that I didn’t want it to end.

I get a lot of book recommendations from Bookmarks magazine, some of which are contributed by other readers, and while I don’t exactly recall which recommendation led me to checking out My Policeman from the library, it certainly hit the mark. Not only for the depth of the story, but also for how beautifully it was written.

Set in Brighton, a seaside town in England, the story alternates between two time periods, the 1950s and the 1990s. It tells the story of Marion, who is desperately in love with Tom, the brother of her best friend. It also tells the story of Patrick, a gay man who falls desperately in love with the same Tom that Marion loves. And Tom, it turns out, is also gay, and this is something he comes to realize because of his intense attraction to Patrick and the consummation of their relationship.

This love triangle is set in the 1950s, which was a time when homosexuality was considered both immoral as well as illegal, so most gay men (and women) were extremely careful not to publicize their sexual preferences. In the case of Patrick, while he couldn’t help writing about the object of his love in his journal, he referred to him as “my policeman,” which is what Tom did for a living. Tom, on his part, strove to maintain the veneer of respectability by marrying Marion, whom he was fond of, while still meeting Patrick in secret. And Marion was so much in love with Tom that she was thrilled to be marrying him, even though there were signs that Tom was not completely like the other men her friends were marrying. And she sticks with the marriage even after realizing that Tom is a homosexual and is having a relationship with Patrick.

Forty or so odd years later in the 1990s, Marion and Tom are still married, but Patrick has had a severe stroke and Marion, against Tom’s wishes, brings him home and nurses him, almost devotedly. Why she does this and why she has stuck with Tom despite knowing of his homosexuality is something we get to know only towards the end of the book.

Overall, it is a very sad story, very poignantly told. The blurb on the cover of the book called it “an exquisitely told, tragic tale of thwarted love,” and while I usually find such blurbs to be quite unbelievable and over-the-top, I found it accurate to the tee for My Policeman.  I can’t think of a better word than “exquisite” for this book and how it is written.

My Policeman
Author: Bethan Roberts
UK Publisher: Chatto Windus
UK Publication Date: August 2012
US Publisher: Penguin Books
US Publication Date: August 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Kingdom” by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø is a well-known and very popular writer of crime thrillers, and while his name was familiar to me, I had never read any of his books. On a recent visit to the library, I checked out several current bestsellers that were vaguely familiar to me, in the hope that I might at least like one of them sufficiently enough to read through. (This is something I have been doing a lot lately.) Of the five or so bestsellers I picked up this time around, The Kingdom by Jo Nesbø was the last one I attempted to read, after giving up on the others. At over 550 pages, the length of the book was daunting, but a thriller is usually easy to read, and I was prepared to give up on the book the moment it started to get uninteresting.

Surprisingly, that never happened with The Kingdom – it held my attention all the way through. While I would not call it “unputdownable” – which is understandable given that it is not a mystery thriller – it did get quite addictive towards the end, and I actually went back to re-read the last few chapters again to soak in the atmosphere. And really, “soaking up the atmosphere” is a very apt way of describing the book as it provides such a vivid feel of the location where it is set – which is a quiet mountain town in Norway. The Kingdom is the story of two brothers, Roy and Carl, and the series of tragedies and deaths that they are associated with, starting from when they were in their teens up to the present moment, where they are in their mid-thirties. Twenty or so odd years ago, their parents were killed when driving a car that went out of control on a sharp bend and plunged down a mountainside close to where they lived. They still live there (it is “the kingdom” of the book title), and during the course of the story, there are two more accidents of exactly the same kind, causing others related to the brothers to also get killed. Were these accidents, or suicides, or had the cars been tampered with? And if so, then why?

Caught up in the intrigue are also several people in the town where they live, including ex-girlfriends, the sheriff, the mayor, the editor of the local paper, the doctor, and others who have a fraught relationship with the brothers. Also central to the story is Carl’s wife, Shannon, who is the architect of the hotel project he has come back to his hometown (after many years in the US and Canada) to pitch to the townsfolk, and she is very Howard-Roark-like towards her creation. (Howard Roark is the eponymous hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, an architect who is so obsessed with the purity of his architectural designs that he would rather destroy projects that are not true to his vision than let them be built.) An additional complication arises when Roy falls in love with Shannon, throwing a wrench in the close relationship between the brothers.

While it might seem like a lot is happening in The Kingdom, I actually found that the novel did not seem rushed in the least; rather, it was able to get into events in great depth and describe them in minute detail. It is also beautifully written, with lush descriptions of the Norwegian countryside and of the depth and complexity of Roy’s feelings, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Above all, I was blown away by the fact that I was reading an English translation of the book from its Norwegian original. I did not realize this originally and had to go back and recheck the cover page to determine that it was indeed a translation.

Reading The Kingdom does not want to make me rush out to read all the booksJo Nesbø has written so far, but it’s good to know that if I am ever in the mood for a beautifully written crime thriller, I know where to look.

The Kingdom
Author: Jo Nesbø
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. It falls squarely in the Fantasy genre, which I have found is very difficult to pull off without seeming implausible, if not downright ludicrous. But in the case of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the book was so well written and so masterfully put together that I almost forgot that what I was reading was purely a figment of the author’s imagination and could not happen in real life.

And what an imagination! A young girl, Adeline (she prefers the name, Addie), makes a deal with the devil to get out of a life situation abhorrent to her in exchange for living without ever being remembered. And she never gets old and never dies. It might not seem to be such a bad deal – after all, she is not actually invisible and all her human faculties are intact, so she can still enjoy all the things we humans enjoy. However, while she can be seen by other people, they forget her the moment she is out of their sight, which means that she has to keep getting acquainted with them over and over again and can never build any kind of relationship with anyone. She can also never have a home or a job or anything permanent for that very reason – all of these require some recognition, some continuity, something to build on. While the ability to not be remembered allows her to get enough of the basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter to survive every day – she still has these human needs – she has to repeat this every single day. For eternity.

The deal that she has made with the devil – who was a god that she had been warned not to pray to after dark, but which she did out of desperation – gives her the choice to opt at any time by surrendering her soul to him. But she is stubborn and refuses to do that. So she soldiers on, becoming more adept at figuring out how to handle her “curse” in order to be able to continue to have, at least, a decent, livable life. And given that it was 1714 when she made the deal and that it is 2014 when we meet her in the present, she has had three hundred years of experience and practice in living like this, and she has perfected it to almost an art. Along the way, she has taught herself to read, learnt multiple languages, traveled all over Europe and the US, lived through the French Revolution (she was born in France) and the World Wars, and met in person many of the greatest writers and artists of the last three centuries. Of course, no one remember hers, and her curse does not even allow a painting or a photograph of her to be captured.

Then something changes – because, of course, if it wouldn’t, there would be no story. In the present, in 2014, she unexpectedly meets one person, after three hundred years, who can remember her! Like everyone else who comes into contact with her, he does not forget her the moment she is out of sight. She can’t believe it — who is the person and how is it that he is immune to her curse?

This, then, is the plot of the story, and it is told by going back and forth between the past and the present. The past here is not just the time in 1714 when Addie made the Faustian bargain with the devil, but it traces her life across all the pivotal times in the three hundred years since then, showing not just how she was living with the curse at that time but also providing a window into what life was like in that era. The writing is so good that it never seems too fantastical or unbelievable. And despite the seeming impossibility of it given Addie’s curse, there is a rather haunting love story in the book as well. The devil, it turns out, is not as evil as he seemed.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I read something that transported me to another world that I know is impossible but was still so believable.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Author: V. E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: October 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb

This was such a good book! It was published all the way back in 1992 and was highly acclaimed at that time — in addition to becoming a bestseller, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Given how well-known it was, it is surprising to me that I hadn’t read it until now. It is exactly the kind of novel I best appreciate — where the focus is on the story, told without any literary flourishes. And the story is so powerful that the storytelling does not get in the way of the story. This book may not have won any literary awards for the masterful use of language, but boy, does it pack a punch.

The book is narrated in first person by the protagonist, Dolores Price, and charts her life all the way from adolescence to when she is an older adult. She comes from a broken home, and in addition to that trauma, she is raped as an adolescent. She turns to eating (a lot) as a coping mechanism, and by the time she reaches high school, she is over 250 pounds. Bullying in high school is pernicious even for regular kids, and with her weight, it is aggravated to the point of being unbearable. The situation only gets worse in college, which her mother forces her to enroll in and attend. Dolores almost ends up committing suicide next to a whale that has washed up on shore in Cape Code to die. (She feels a strange kinship with whales, and not just because of her size.)

As it turns out, she is saved and sent to a mental health facility, where she spends several years getting psychiatric treatment that turns out to be actually effective. She even loses all the extra weight that had defined her for so long. But it’s not that she’s completely cured of all her neuroses. Her psyche is still badly damaged and even though she is able to live a somewhat normal life — she finds a job, rents an apartment, and even gets married (for a while) — the scars of her trauma are still there, and drive her to do things and make decisions that are questionable. She continues to struggle, and so do we with her, thanks to the power of the writing. She does eventually persevere and find some peace and happiness, but it is a long ride. And throughout it all, what really sustains her are the strong bonds she makes with a few people in her life, most poignantly her friendship with a gay teacher she had in high school who she reconnects with as an adult, and whom she nurses when he is ill with AIDS.

She’s Come Undone is so beautifully written that you can viscerally feel every painful moment, every slight, every feeling of despair, every kindness, and every small triumph that Dolores experiences as if it were your own. It is so detailed that you feel like you have gone on the long journey of her life with her, every step of the way. And is so authentic that it is hard to believe that this is a work of fiction and not a memoir. In that respect, it reminded me of A Little Life, another book that I love. I am almost afraid to read another book by Wally Lamb, so that it doesn’t spoil She’s Come Undone for me.

She’s Come Undone
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 1992

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Squeeze Me” by Carl Hiaasen

It’s been a while since I read a book that was just plain laugh-out-loud funny. Which is why once I started reading “Squeeze Me,” I was having such a fun time that there was no question of not reading it all the way through. Set in Florida and published in 2020, the book is a thinly veiled parody of the Trump administration, Trump himself, the First Lady, his strident anti-immigration rhetoric and the resulting anti-immigration policies of his administration, and his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Throw in a sudden infestation of a large number of pythons who are capable of eating human beings and a fearless wildlife wrangler called in to deal with them – who also has a strong sense of justice – and we have the makings of a hilarious plot, which is further enhanced by Hiaasen’s witty, satirical, writing style.

The plot in brief without giving too much away – a rich, old lady, one of a posse of rich old ladies who are ardent supporters of the President (they call themselves POTUSSIES) has gone missing at a high-society gala. At the same time, a humungous python with a huge lump in its stomach is found on the property. Angie is the wildlife wrangler summoned to deal with the python, and putting two and two together, she knows what has happened to the missing lady. But as luck would have it, an illegal immigrant, Diego, who has just landed in Florida by boat, ends up being implicated in the death of the lady and lands in prison, with the anti-immigration frenzy being whipped up by the President at its peak. Angie knows that Diego is innocent and wants him to be freed. How she manages to do this forms the main plot of the book.

But along the way, we meet a large number of characters, including a police detective, several Secret Service agents, the other POTUSSIES, the rich lady’s grown sons, the petty criminals sent to recover her body from the python, Angie’s stepson, Diego’s fellow inmates in the prison, the workers at the property where the python is found, and of course, the President and the First Lady. Hiaasen has cleverly skirted libel laws by referring to the President and the First Lady by their Secret Service “code names” rather than their actual names, but everything else – their entire personas – are clearly Trump and Melania. If anything, Hiaasen has made the President even more laughable than he is in real life, and there is a hilarious subplot involving his tanning room and the people who keep it up and running.

I hadn’t read any books by Carl Hiaasen before this, and it good to add another name to the list of authors whose books I like.

Squeeze Me
Author: Carl Hiaansen
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi

I started reading The Death of Vivek Oji with very few expectations. It had been widely acclaimed by critics and had been on several “Best Books of 2020” lists, and this had actually diminished my expectations of it — I hadn’t had much luck with many critically acclaimed fiction books lately. To my surprise, I was immediately caught up in the story, and now that I have finished reading it, I would have to rate it as one of the better books I have read recently.

I also have to admit being intrigued by the name of the book as the main reason for picking up the book to begin with. The name “Vivek” is a decidedly Indian name, whereas I knew that the book was set in Nigeria. Were they using Indian names there? That mystery was solved pretty quickly — it turns out that the protagonist, Vivek Oji, is half-Indian and half-Nigerian. His mother is from India, and this made the novel very relatable to me — there was so many references and colloquialisms I was familiar with. At the same time, I also enjoyed learning about Nigerian culture — the customs, the food, and the manner in which their English is punctuated with Nigerian words (just like in India).

Cultural assimilation aside, the story of the novel is very somber, which, given the name of the book, should come as no surprise. The book starts with Vivek’s death, and a death that is especially gruesome at that — he is left outside his house without any clothes on, in a pool of blood, with his head bashed in. This is how his mother finds him. There are so many questions — How did he die? Who killed him? Why did they take off his clothes? Who brought the body to the house? How did they know where he lived? In addition to his parents being devastated with grief and arranging for his burial, his mother wants to find the answers to these questions and pursues them obsessively, returning over and over to his friends to find out what they knew.

What actually happened to Vivek unfolds over the course of the book, so it is, in part, a mystery — you don’t exactly know what happened until the very end. However, the story is told in flashback and from the perspective of many characters, including Vivek’s mother, his cousin whom he was very close to, and some of his close friends. The writing is brilliant, sparse yet gut-punching. From that perspective, it is not a book one would read in order to be “entertained” as such. However, it provided me with a keener understanding of not just life in Nigeria, but also some broader social issues that are universal, across all countries and cultures.

The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“That Kind of Mother” by Rumaan Alam

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I had never heard of it or of its author until I recently heard him on a podcast, talking about his upcoming book. While That Kind of Mother is one of his earlier books, I found his interview intriguing enough to get a copy to read. I was prepared to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grab my interest, just like the many, many books I have similarly abandoned of late. (As I grow older, I no longer want to spend the time plowing through books I “should” read and am focusing on finding and reading books that I “want” to read.)

That Kind of Mother was definitely in the latter category. The story in short — when Caroline, a young woman, gives birth to her first-born, Jacob, she is overwhelmed, especially with breast-feeding and just can’t get the baby to latch on. A lactation consultant at the hospital, Priscilla, helps her out and she is so warm and nurturing that Caroline can’t let her go — she urges her to come and work for her as Jacob’s nanny, and Priscilla accepts. Caroline’s life as a young mother seems unimaginable without Priscilla, and when Priscilla gets pregnant and dies unexpectedly of complications during childbirth — she is over 40 — Caroline ends up adopting Priscilla’s baby, Andrew.  It was something she simply had to do — she had a deep connection with Priscilla, and she feels the same for Andrew. (The adoption is enabled by Priscilla’s grown-up daughter, who has just had a baby of her own and is overwhelmed by her newborn as well as the grief over her mother’s death.)

Caroline and her husband, Christopher, do not have any more children, and their family seems complete with their two sons, Jacob and Andrew. There is nothing remarkable about this, except for the fact that Andrew is black. (Priscilla was black, and while she never disclosed who the father of her baby was, he was presumably black as well.) While this fact does not mean anything to Caroline — she has adopted Andrew, he is her son, and she is the only mother he has ever known since he was born — it is hard for others to ignore, including her parents, siblings, colleagues at work, and once the boys grow older, their school teachers as well.

In addition to being beautifully written, what I really liked about That Kind of Mother is that it was so understated, completely devoid of any melodrama. With a story focused on a white woman adopting a black child, none of the awful things you would expect to happen actually happen. While Caroline does encounter some racist comments throughout, her family does manage, by and large, to live a normal life. Christopher is supportive of the adoption, and even though he did not feel the same sense of connection that Caroline felt, first with Priscilla and then with Andrew, he soon comes to love Andrew as a son. While Caroline and Christopher do eventually divorce after many years of marriage this has more to do with them growing apart than anything to do with Andrew. Also, their separation is far from acrimonious — they even go on family vacations together. Their biological child, Jacob, is very much the big brother to Andrew, and their dynamics are what they would be for siblings — they fight like normal brothers and also bond like normal brothers. Caroline goes though the usual trials and tribulations of mothering kids and eventually manages to get back to her career as a poet, even winning some awards along the way.

There is no climax to the story as such (which is probably why it is relatively unknown). You keep waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, for something bad to happen to the black son, or to the family for being white and having a black son. But at the time the book was set — from 1985 to 1999 — perhaps there was less overt racism of the kind there is now. I can’t imagine a book like this being set in the current times, where the chances of something terrible happening are much higher. Yet, the book ends, at the cusp of 1999, with Caroline’s belief that the new century will bring a better world, one in which her black son and her white son “will be judged equals.”

If only she knew!

That Kind of Mother
Author: Rumaan Alam
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Broken People” by Sam Lansky

The recently published book, Broken People, is, at its essence, a study in depression. It provides an inside look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed, which is manifested in extreme anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, and a sense of “unbelonging.”

The story in brief – the protagonist, also named Sam, while being outwardly successful and seemingly “normal,” is internally an emotional wreck who can barely keep it together, and despite badly wanting to be in a long-term committed relationship, he ends up alienating even those he loves. By chance, he happens to hear of a shaman who can ‘fix everything that’s wrong with you in three days.’ It seems outlandish and reeks of a scam, but Sam, driven to desperation, goes for it. What happens during the “treatment” – which is a ceremony led by the shaman over three days — makes up the bulk of the book. We also see a bit of Sam and his changed mindset and lifestyle after the ceremony.

What makes Broken People especially compelling is its authenticity, which comes from the fact that it is almost entirely autobiographical, based on Sam Lansky’s actual personality and experiences. He has not changed even the protagonist’s name, which is also Sam. (I am assuming, however, that the names of all the other characters in the book have been changed to provide them with anonymity.) The book also reveals, within itself, how it came to be. It had started out being written as a memoir, following Lansky’s first memoir called The Gilded Razor, which chronicled his years between the ages of 13 and 19 drinking, getting high on all kinds of drugs, and going in and out of rehab. The idea of a follow-up memoir was nixed by Sam’s agent, who advised him to turn it into a novel instead, and that is how Broken People came to be.

In Broken People, the fictional Sam – who is actually a stand-in for the author, Sam Lansky – reflects a little on his early years of substance abuse and accompanying dissolute behavior, but also marvels that he got a book out of it. At the same time, the stress of writing the book, once it had sold to a major publisher, was the ultimate death knell for his relationship with the man he loved (he is gay). But, of course, as he later realizes, the relationship was doomed from the start because ‘you can’t love anyone if you hate yourself.’

Because Broken People is so autobiographical, it is like reading a personal diary, like getting a searingly honest, no-holds-barred look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed. And since everyone, I believe, is at some point on the spectrum of depression ranging from positive-all-the-time to barely-making-it-and-suicidal, it is very insightful to understand what someone who is at the darker end of the spectrum is feeling. I was absolutely riveted and marked up so many pages describing Sam’s depression that my copy of the book is full of Post-Its! Here are some excerpts from what I marked.

Why asked why he didn’t like himself, when he seemed to be a good person, ‘Sam thought maybe there was no why. Maybe some people are just born self-hating and self-destructive and we die that way. And so we go to therapy and twelve-step groups and we take antidepressants and anxiety meds and we journal and we go to yoga and exercise and take baths and drink pressed juices and repeat affirmations to ourselves in the mirror and listen to Brené Brown podcasts. But we’re just swimming against the tide, because the darkness always comes back. All we ever do is learn to manage the symptoms.’

Lying next to his lover, Noah, who was fast asleep, but unable to sleep himself, ‘Sam wondered what it would be like to be Noah instead of himself, to have that loose, fluid comfort. Sam wished that he could make a home in Noah’s body, to live in him like a parasite, to see through his eyes.’ He continues with an insight that I found quite profound. ‘The great curse of being a person in the world [is]—you only ever get to be yourself.’

During an interaction with an older woman, ‘it occurred to Sam that he should appreciate his own youth now, while he still had it,’ followed by the thought that, ‘there was a very real possibility that he would still be pathologically self-conscious and anxious when he was this woman’s age, and that idea, of the years sprawling out before him, of never being able to quiet the chorus of self-obsessed insecurity, of it just going on like this for decades, filled Sam with a dread so black that it was nauseating.’ And then he thinks, ‘It would be better to be dead.’

Despite the dark, despairing thoughts that Sam constantly has, the book also manages to include some moments of levity, mostly in the interaction between Sam and his long-standing close friend, Kat, who has her own share of things that depress her, except that in her case they are external – mostly, the rapidly degrading state of the environment and how little humankind is doing anything about it – rather than internal. She does, however, share some of Sam’s angst, most notably with regard to the size and shape of their bodies.

Here she is, talking to Sam on the phone, “And did I tell you two new stretch marks on my thigh popped overnight? Literally overnight, Sam.”

Sam responds with, “Having a body is the worst.”

Kat heartily agrees. “The worst,” she echoed, like it was a chant.

I found this exchange hilarious — it still makes me laugh.

Further on in this conversation, Sam talks about body-image some more and his struggles with eating and his weight.

And part of me just wants to pull out the rip cord and stop habitually under-eating to maintain a body weight that’s within the bounds of gay-acceptable, but if I do that, will I ever find a husband? But will I ever find a husband anyway? So wouldn’t it be better to just be fat and happy?

Then there were the many insights Sam had after the ceremony with the shaman – which was almost like “spiritual surgery” in how much it changed his outlook. It started with his attitude towards his body, which he had loathed before.

… it suddenly struck him that perhaps this body was worth loving for no other reason than because it was his.’

That was all he was … just another person existing in his body … How had it taken him so long to understand that? … how much energy had he wasted trying to negotiate that insecurity with himself a thousand times a day …What could he do with that energy if he used it for something other than hating himself?

However, it was not as if all was perfect from then on and Sam was completely “cured.” He did, now and again, backslide into his old behaviors, but he was a lot more gentle with himself now, a lot more accepting. When he binged on fast food one night, for example, he felt lousy the next day, but instead of purging it out as he would have done before, he went to a yoga class and made a conscious decision to forgive the lapse.

His interactions with other people – both friends and casual acquaintances – were now a lot less insecure and nerve-wracking, and much more genuine. He was even able to look back on why his relationship with Charles – the man he loved – fell apart. Like most people, Charles understood that ‘bad things happen to you because that is a part of life,’ but when it came to Sam himself, “… I always believed, even if I couldn’t articulate it, that bad things happen to me because I am bad.”

While the shamanic healing that Sam went through seems almost fantastical is its ability to cure his neuroses and depression, it was not unlike a religious or mystical experience that people sometimes report having. In Sam’s case, while it jump-started his healing, he realizes that this was just the start. ‘You don’t just get fixed in a weekend. You have to keep making the choice to fix yourself … to be nice to yourself instead of being unkind … to experience life fully in all its shades of joy and sorrow … to participate in the boring drudgery of self-care.’ Sam realizes the shaman just got him “unstuck” – the healing is something he himself would have to continue to do.

It is not surprising that Sam’s continued healing regimen is comprised of a lot of yoga and meditation, which are known for their calming and restorative properties.

I also found it fitting that the book ends with Sam realizing that ‘Everything was connected’ – which is the essence of the world’s greatest mystical and spiritual traditions.

Broken People
Author: Sam Lansky
Publisher: Hanover Square Press
Publication Date: June 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The 3 Mistakes of My Life” by Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat’s books are, by and large — in what is commonly referred to in literary parlance — “potboilers.” He churns them out with regular frequency, and all them, as far as I know, have been made into (Hindi) movies. (He is an Indian writer writing in English.) The amazing thing about his books is that even though their literary merit is questionable — the writing is very pedestrian, as to be expected from potboilers — they have, by and large, been made into very successful movies. A couple of these movies have, in fact, been not just commercially successful, but excellent, with top-of-the-line directing, acting, screenplay, music, editing … everything that goes into making a great movie. The best example of this is the movie, 3 Idiots, which was based on Chetan Bhagat’s first book, Five Point Someone. Another example is the movie, Kai Po Che, based on his third book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life.

While both the book and the movie are no longer new (the book was published in 2008 and the movie was released in 2013), they returned to the spotlight recently, following the sudden death of the actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, who made his debut in the movie as one of the three leads and whose performance in the movie was widely acclaimed. I had seen the movie when it was released and loved it. I saw the movie again recently following the news of Rajput’s death — it was still so good — and then went back to read the book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, on which it was based. I was mystified as to how such an average book had been made into such a terrific movie. Surely, they must have had to change the story substantially to make it so compelling?

It turned out that this was not the case. Granted, the ending has been changed completely, but the main plotlines, the key ingredients that make up the story, remained the same.

The 3 Mistakes of My Life tells the story of threechildhood friends in their early twenties who start a sports shop together. (While the store sells all kinds of sports equipment, its heart and soul is cricket.) The location is a suburb of the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, which is critical to the plot. Of the three friends, Govind is the businessman, Ishaan is the cricket buff, and Omi does the odds and ends, in addition to being the key to getting the funds for the enterprise, courtesy his family connections in religious and political circles. The other main character in the story is a 12-year-old boy, Ali, a cricketing prodigy, in whom Ishaan sees the potential to go all the way up to the national Indian cricket team. The main tension in the story comes from the fact that Ali is Muslim, and Ishaan’s championing of him does not sit well with Omi’s extremist Hindu uncle to which the shop owes its existence.

While this storyline, in and of itself, is not particularly exceptional, what makes it so is that it ties together four key real-life events that are vital to the plot:

  • The devasting earthquake in Gujarat on January 26, 2001. Although the epicenter was in Bhuj, it caused a lot of destruction in cities such as Ahmedabad. In the book, it destroys the building that was going to be the mall which the friends were planning to relocate the sports shop to. They lose all the money they had made as a down payment on it. Govind, in particular, is distraught.
  • The second Test match in the Australian cricket team’s tour of India in March 2001. The Australian team, rated as the best in the world, had won 16 Tests in a row, including the first match in the series. India’s performance was so dismal in the first innings that they had to follow-on. A loss seemed imminent, with the best-case scenario being a draw. But in what was a historic turnaround, India actually went on to win the match by 171 runs, thanks to an unbroken partnership between the two Indian batsmen on the fourth day. The book referred to it as the batsmen making “eleven Australian cricketers dance to their tune” in public and for the whole day. Ishaan didn’t leave the TV that day “even to pee.” With that win, the fortune of the sports store turned around, and it started to recuperate the losses it had suffered following the earthquake.
  • The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in the US in September 2001. Although this was half the world away, the anti-Islamic sentiments it stoked had reverberations even in India, fueling the simmering Hindi-Muslim tensions even further.
  • And finally, the Godhra train massacre in February 2002, which sparked off full-scale Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. The train was returning from Ayodhya carrying Hindu “karsevaks” when a mob, allegedly comprising mostly Muslims, set fire to it, killing close to 60 people in Godhra in Gujarat. One of those killed was the son of Omi’s uncle, the Hindu fanatic, and in his despair and rage, he comes to kill Ali, who is being protected from the Hindu mob by Ishaan, with Govind and Omi by his side. (In the movie, Omi is on the side of the Hindu mob, but not in the book.)

I find it sheer genius that a writer can take these four different, but highly significant, real-life events that happened in the course of a year and weave them into such a compelling and completely believable story. Chetan Bhagat’s writing style may be mediocre, but in The 3 Mistakes of My Life, I think he has created a remarkable story. Let us give credit when credit is due.

The 3 Mistakes of my Life
Author: Chetan Bhagat
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Publication Date: January 2008

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.