“One More We Saw Stars” by Jayson Greene

How does someone cope with an unimaginable tragedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How Not to Die Alone” by Richard Roper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Us” by David Nicholls

I really liked this book. I borrowed it from a friend with no expectations, just a mild curiosity. I had heard of the movie “One Day” which was based on a book by the same author, but that was all I knew. I started the book, preparing to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grip me right away. (I do this for a lot of the books that I borrow, and since I do not buy them, I feel no compulsion to read them if I do not find them engaging.)

But I did! Us was engaging and funny and very well written, right from the first page consistently until the very end. At the same time, it was not dense or dark, and I came away from reading it with a pleasant sense of enjoyment, despite it not having a “fairy tale” ending as such.

Us is the story of a man’s last-ditch attempt to save his 25 year-old marriage. It is set in England. The man is Douglas Petersen, who has a very conventional personality and is perfectly “nice,” even if somewhat staid. He is the kind who has checked all the right boxes in his life — he has worked hard to become a biochemist, he has a stable job, he started off in academia but eventually moved to a better career with a bigger paycheck in a corporation, and is, by all accounts, a successful man with a respected career and a decent income. In contrast, his wife, Connie, has an artistic temperament and is very free-spirited, with a laissez faire to life. They are set up by his sister and it is a case of opposites attracting — Douglas falls madly in love with her, and Connie is drawn to his stable personality, his methodical approach to life, which is so different from her intense and often turbulent life as an artist. After three years of dating, she eventually agrees to marry him.

They are happy enough in the beginning, and the shared grief of the death of their first child, a daughter, shortly after she was born, keep them close. Their bond is maintained after their son, Albie, is born and while he is little. It is when he starts getting older that the relationship starts to get strained and the differences in their temperaments become more pronounced. Douglas also has a difficult relationship with Albie, which only deteriorates as Albie gets older, and it is almost at breaking point by the time Albie turns 17. It is also around this time that Connie figures that she is no longer happy in the marriage and tells Douglas that she would like to leave him.

The catch is that they had planned a grand vacation in Europe that summer to celebrate Albie’s graduation from school, and rather than cancel it, Douglas and Connie decide to go ahead with the trip. After all, they have been together for so long – what are a few weeks more? Douglas, on his part, hopes that the trip will make Connie rethink her decision to leave him, and it will also help him to get closer to his son. So they set off.

However, the trip is a disaster almost from the start. The differences between them — Douglas’s methodical, planned approach to everything in contrast to Connie’s more relaxed, artistic temperament — are accentuated. Albie, who is much more like Connie and just cannot abide what he sees as Douglas’s heavy-handedness, doesn’t even want to be on this trip. Things come to a head in Amsterdam and Albie leaves to go off on his own, with a girl he has met there.

Connie and Douglas dejectedly prepare to return to England – so much for their grand vacation – when Douglas decides on the spur of the moment – uncharacteristically for him – at the airport when the flight home is boarding that he is going to stay on in Europe and try and find Albie. The rest of the book narrates his various adventures and misadventures as he embarks upon this quest. He does eventually find Albie and they even have a reconciliation of sorts, but at the end of the day, it really does not save his marriage as Douglas had hoped it would. He and Connie stay on together for about a year after the Europe trip — it did make Connie reconsider and try to make their marriage work — but eventually, the realization of how fundamentally different they were could no longer be swept under the carpet, and she does go ahead with leaving him. The separation, however, is amicable and they are able to stay friends and co-parent Albie, who has also, by this time, settled into an agreeable father-son relationship with Douglas.

What I really liked about Us, in addition to how enjoyable, witty, and well-written it was, is how spot-on it was about people and relationships. The characters of Douglas and Connie were so authentic and their interactions extremely believable. In particular, the rocky relationship that Douglas has with his son was accurate to a tee — anyone who has a teenage kid can completely relate to their interaction. I also liked the fact that there was no dramatic fallout between Connie and Douglas. Their relationship starts to fray only gradually, which is closer to how it is in real life. Connie’s innate artistic temperament, which had become dormant after years of domestication and parenthood, eventually starts to reassert itself, and leads to her feeling less and less close to Douglas until she decides she owes it to herself to leave and try to find what makes her happy.

Despite Douglas’s wishful thinking, as well as ours as readers — we are rooting for him, the protagonist — there is no “happy ending” here where the marriage is saved. But at least, the story does not end on a discordant note as it was threatening to when it started.

Us
Author: David Nicholls
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: October 2014

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

“How to Behave in a Crowd” by Camille Bordas

How to Behave in a Crowd

After several unsuccessful attempts at trying to find a book that could sustain my interest, I finally managed to find and finish How to Behave in a Crowd. I typically pick up so many recommended books from the library that I don’t remember where I heard about this book — it’s not a best-selling or award-winning book that everyone knows about. But once I started reading it, there were two main aspects to it that captured my attention and sustained it until the end: one, it is set in France and written by a French author (Camille Bordas’ previous books are in French but this one is in English); and two, it is a first person narration by a eleven year old boy. Not only was it so interesting to be immersed in a culture I know very little about, there is also something very clean and direct about a narration from a child’s perspective — it is free from the convoluted thinking that adults tend to have.

The book itself is not so much a story as a slice of life — a slice of about two years in the life of Isidore Mazal, or Dory as he is called, the youngest of six children living in a small French town with his family. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about his parents, the same cannot be said about his siblings, all of whom are academically brilliant and exceptionally bright — they are always reading or busy with research and other intellectual pursuits, with little interest in socializing or being with other people. While Dory is different from them and is more “normal,” growing up in a house overrun with high-achieving siblings makes him a lot more mature compared to other kids of his age.

Shortly after the book opens, the father dies unexpectedly from a heart attack, and since he was away from home on work a lot, the family is, for the most part, able to carry on with their lives as before. Dory’s mother continues to get a widow’s pension, and there is no financial impact either, at least none that Dory can discern. His siblings continue on their high-achieving academic paths, with three of them eventually getting PhDs, and the eldest even moving to the US to get a second PhD. In France, PhD defenses are so long and such a memorable event that the entire family attends, that after the PhD defense of the third sibling, one of Dory’s brothers (who is into music rather than academics) quips: “Sometimes I wonder if [our] father didn’t die when he did just to avoid all the PhD defenses.”

While there is no dramatic fallout as such from the father’s death that happens early in the book, we see that in the course of the following two years, most of Dory’s siblings battle with disappointments and struggle to live up to the promising future everyone thought was in store for them. Dory himself had no great expectations to begin with, so there are no academic disappointments in store for him, but on the personal front, he has to deal with the death of one of his closest friends, Denise, who committed suicide. Even though she was severely depressed and had been talking about suicide for years, it still comes as a shock to him. But Dory copes without falling apart, just as he did after the death of his father, and the book ends with the subtle understanding that Dory, despite being the youngest, has become the source of comfort and support for his troubled older siblings.

In addition to the uniqueness of the setting (France) and the unconventional narration (by a pre-teen boy), what really amazed me about this book was the steady sprinkling of quips and insights throughout, to the extent that I actually had to highlight the pages on which they appeared with Post-it tabs. I already mentioned the one about the father dying to avoid sitting through his kids’ long and tedious PhD defenses, which I thought was really funny. Here is another one, which is what Dory thinks when Denise tells him matter-of-factly that he’s a conformist and goes on to add that all children are.

I took this as an insult but then I realized taking the work “conformist” as an insult was the most conformist reaction and so I let it slide.

And this is where Dory and Denise are discussing how they are advised to be strong after tragedies and have the courage to hold on to the small pleasures of the moment. This is what Denise has to say:

“Courage my ass. It doesn’t take courage to be in the moment. What really takes guts is to live each day as if you were going to hang around for the next ten years at least. Account for something. Live up to something. Now, that is hard. That requires a little more pondering and reflection, a little more strength.”

Another one, this time by Simone, one of Dory’s older sisters, when and Dory are discussing dictatorship and why good people never want to become dictators:

“All good people want is to be left alone and help those around them. The problem is good people lack ambition.”

And finally, this is what Dory’s mother tells him when he asks her about finding another husband or boyfriend some months after his father dies:

“It’s your memories with the person that become your love for the person, you know? And building memories takes time. A lot of time, actually. I don’t think I can do it again. I don’t believe I have enough time left to do it again.”

I found it amazing that a young author can have such profound insights and is able to capture them so effortlessly in her writing. How to Behave in a Crowd may not have won a lot of critical acclaim or commercial success, but I considered it a rare find for its dollops of wisdom sprinkled so unassumingly throughout the book.

How to Behave in a Crowd
Author: Camille Bordas
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Publication Date: August 2017

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

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Becoming

While the buzz about this book started well before it was published last November and all but guaranteed that it would be a bestseller, I did not feel particularly compelled to read it. I am not very interested in politics and had no special fascination for Michelle Obama to want to read her memoirs, any more than I cared to read books by or about any other first ladies, or any politicians for that matter, including Barack Obama. But then, a friend told me about the audio book of Becoming and how good it was, especially because it was narrated by Michelle Obama herself. It so happened that I had a long road trip coming up and decided to give the audio book a try.

I was blown away – it was so good! Not only was the quality of the writing impeccable and the narration flawless, it was such a detailed and honest account by Michelle Obama of her life that I felt like I had undertaken the journey with her and understood everything she had gone through. While I was not able to finish listening to the audio book on my road trip, I bought a physical copy of it after I returned and am amazed to find that even after finishing it, I can keep returning to re-read parts of it with as much interest and enjoyment –and admiration of the quality of the writing — as before.

In Becoming, Michelle Obama captures her life (until now) in three parts. In the first part called “Becoming Me,” she describes her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago with her family. Although they were working-class and far from wealthy, she had a happy childhood – her parents had a stable marriage and were loving but firm; she had a great relationship with her brother who was very popular and well-liked in the community; and she had a large extended community of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and was never lonely. While the neighborhood she lived it gradually became gentrified, going from a white majority to mostly black, about the only angst she experienced in her childhood was academic pressure – she was extremely driven and even the smallest slide in her own performance weighed heavily on her. She describes how the demoralizing assessment of her as “not being Princeton material” by her college counselor in high school motivated her to — as she puts it, “I’ll show her!” – actually get into Princeton, where she was one of the very few black students. She continued her Ivy League education with a graduate degree from Harvard Law school and eventually moved back to Chicago to work as a high-powered lawyer in one of the glitzy high-rise office buildings, which she had seen as belonging to a totally different world when she was growing up in the city. It was there that she met and fell in love with Barack Obama, who was an intern at her firm.

In the second part, “Becoming Us,” Michelle Obama describes her courtship with Barack, their marriage, the birth of their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and their early years as a family. She talks about the challenges she faced as a working mother, trying to balance her home life with her professional one, her growing disenchantment with the world of corporate law, her struggle to find work that was meaningful and uplifting, and her initial reluctance but gradual acceptance of her husband’s calling into politics born of his genuine desire to make a difference. What was most interesting to me to read about at this stage of her life was her growing realization that her enormous drive and motivation that had pushed her to get an Ivy League education and a high-paying, high-powered job in corporate law came more from her personality of “checking the right boxes” and of wanting to earn the admiration of people rather than from a true calling. This realization was all the more vivid for her as it contrasted so sharply with that of her husband, who got into politics not out of self-glory or to make himself feel good but out of a genuine desire to do good for the country. I could also relate to how a person like her, who was meticulously organized and obsessively tidy, could learn to co-exist with someone who was the other extreme — messy and disorganized — without affecting their close and loving relationship. As she puts it, “you find ways to adapt.”

The third part of the book, “Becoming More,” is devoted to the eight years Michelle Obama spent as first lady in the White House while her husband was the President of the United States. She talks about the challenges that come with the position, the close and unending scrutiny of her every move including the clothes she wore, the visits with foreign dignitaries, her various initiatives as first lady including the emphasis on eating right, the constant presence of the Secret Service which made going anywhere an enormous undertaking, and the attempt to shield her daughters from the public glare and allow them to lead as normal a life as possible. Given how well documented Obama’s years as President were as well as my own lack of interest in politics, I found this part the least compelling of the three in the book.  However, it is an essential part of her story, and I appreciated that she did not glorify it in the least, any more than make light of it. Over and above all, it served as an important reminder that even if something looks glamorous on the outside, there is as much pain, grief, and just plain, old-fashioned hard work as there is with anything else in life.

It’s a rare privilege to be privy to the thoughts and experiences of another person, and in the case of Becoming, they are not just “stream of consciousness” notes by Michelle Obama but a meticulously detailed narrative that is so well written that you can enjoy reading it for the quality of its writing alone, even if you are not interested in her life story. I didn’t think I was, but I got hooked once I started reading. There are no major dramatic moments or upheavals here, no childhood traumas that she had to contend with or obstacles that she had to overcome. Despite being black, she never talks about any kind of victimization or overt racism apart from what her husband had to encounter as the first black US President. Her story is just that of a regular person who was smart and hard-working and was driven to do well, and subsequently had the good fortune to meet, fall in love with, and marry a kind, generous man who went on to become the President of the United States.

Becoming
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez

So far, I have not had a great track record with regard to liking award-winning books, so when I came across a recommendation for The Friend as the winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2018, I picked up a copy of it with some skepticism. But, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise — I actually liked this book! It was deep, as award-winning books invariably tend to be, but not at all dense. In fact, I found it an easy read, not just because of its relatively short length but also because of the writing style, which was simple and sparse, devoid of any literary flourishes. It takes a special skill to be able to pack an emotional punch using the simplest of language, and I was gratified to find that this was applauded by literary critics just as much as it was appreciated by me.

The Friend tells the story of a woman writer whose closest friend, a male writer, commits suicide and she ends up taking in his dog, who is equally devastated by his absence but cannot express it. Over the course of the next several months, both the woman and the dog end up finding comfort in each other. They are still grieving, but they grieve together rather than by themselves. The woman writer — the protagonist — lives alone and never married, and while she teaches writing, she never had any close friends apart from the man. He was actually her professor when she was studying to become a writer, and while they were not romantically attached — apart from the one time they slept together, at the suggestion of the man, as an experiment to see what it would like — they had become best friends and remained so for many years, right up to the time the man dies. Because the woman has no support structure, she would have unraveled from the grief, were it not for being forced to take in the dog. She does this only because she is begged to by the man’s wife, who tells her that she cannot look after the dog properly as it was in deep mourning.

The setting of The Friend is in Manhattan, and the protagonist lives in an apartment that does not allow dogs, which is another challenge that she has to contend with. The dog is an enormous Great Dane and is therefore impossible to hide, bringing with it the risk of eviction. The protagonist is advised by her acquaintances to give up the dog in order to be able to hold on to her impossible-to-find rent-controlled apartment, but she finds that she cannot. In the end, she applies for the dog to be considered as a support animal, and her application is accepted, allowing her to continue to stay in her apartment with the dog.

Apart from this, there is no conclusive “happy ending” for the book as such. It is simply a story of how a person and a dog bond with each other through their mutual grief for the person who is now missing from their lives. Just like the woman, the dog is at first so devastated by the absence of his owner that he can barely function. In time, however, both of them come to find some comfort by being with each other and settle down to an existence where they have accepted the pain and slowly learn to live with it.

While those who are dog-lovers would be able to completely relate to this story and vouch for the depth of love and feeling a dog can have for its owner, I found it very poignant and moving even though I am not a dog person. This is despite the fact that the book is not overtly emotional or sentimental. In fact, the grief is very understated, and with the protagonist being a writer, it captures her extensive ruminations on death, loss, suicide, and even writers and writing, all of which are extremely insightful. This is a book focused on thoughts and feelings rather than on things happening, because apart from the main cataclysmic event at the beginning, not much happens.

While the writing style is simple, it is also quite unusual. It is written in the first person — which is quite common — but the man who dies is addressed in the second person, as “you.” So the entire book reads like a letter addressed by the protagonist to the man who has died. None of the people, including the narrator, are named, except for the dog, whose named is Apollo. Even the man’s current wife and two ex-wives — he was quite a womanizer — are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, and Wife Three. (I couldn’t help being reminded of Dr Seuss’ Thing One and Things Two from The Cat in the Hat.) Also, it was not clear if the “friend” from the title of the book refers to the woman, the dog, or the man who has died. It could be any of them, or it could be all of them.

In contrast to most books that are about death, suicide, loss, or mourning, The Friend was far from being the expected tear-jerker. While it does immerse us completely inside the mind of someone trying to cope with the irreversible loss of someone they love, the emotional punch it packs is a lot more subtle. I found that it had a meditative quality to it that made it seem much more like philosophy than fiction, and I am happy rather than bemused by its National Book Award win. It was very well deserved.

The Friend
Author: Sigrid Nunez
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: February 2018

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

“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

I really wanted to like this book. It was highly acclaimed with glowing reviews from both literary critics and readers, and was the finalist for the 2018 National Book Awards. It had come to me highly recommended by a published author whose writing I greatly admired. Also, the focus of the book was the devastating AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, which killed thousands of people in the US as well as in many other countries. The quality of the writing was impeccable, which was almost a given, considering that the book was so well acclaimed. It had all the ingredients that go into making a great book, and I should have liked it.

Sadly, I did not care for it. I doggedly continue to read it until the end rather than abandoning it half-way, hoping that, at some point, I would start to care about the protagonists and the outcome of the story. But it failed to evoke any kind of response, leaving me deeply disappointed and questioning whether it was the book or if it was the loss of my own ability to be empathetic and moved by the tragedy of others.

While the plot of The Great Believers revolves around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it actually has two different timelines that alternate throughout the course of the book. The first timeline starts in 1985 and revolves around a group of gay men in Chicago, who are starting to fall victim to the disease one by one. The main protagonist is Yale, and the book opens with the funeral of his close friend, Nico, who has just died of AIDS. Yale is, at that point, in a steady relationship with another man, Charlie, and while some of the other friends in the group are starting to fall victim to the disease, Yale thinks he is safe as he is in a monogamous relationship and both he and Charlie recently tested negative for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). However, Charlie cheats on him and ends up contracting the virus. Yale is devastated, and at the same time, is terrified that he has been infected as well. He eventually gets himself tested, but it is negative, and Yale is so relieved that he ends up seducing a young intern at the art gallery where he works. In an ironic twist of fate, this intern, who Yale thought was not even aware that he might be gay, ends up being HIV positive himself and infecting Yale. Not everyone who is HIV positive gets AIDS, and Yale is able to hold out for a few more years until he eventually dies in 1992.

Throughout Yale’s ordeal, he has had the love and support of Fiona, the younger sister of the friend who had died of AIDS at the beginning of the book. Fiona is like a sister to Yale as well, and she is by his side until the very end, except on the day he dies—she has delivered her baby prematurely just the day before and while she desperately wanted to be with him when he was so close to dying, it just was not possible for her.

Fiona herself is the protagonist of the second timeline of the book, set in 2015, and she has come to Paris to track down her daughter, Claire — the one who was born the day before Yale died — who has been estranged from her parents for many years after joining a cult and refusing to come home. Fiona, who is by now divorced from Claire’s father but is still on friendly terms with him, comes to Paris to find Claire based on a video a friend had sent her showing someone who looked like Claire on a bridge in Paris, accompanied by a toddler. Fiona hires a private detective to track down Claire, and they are eventually able to find her. She is able to have a reconciliation of sorts with Claire, meet her granddaughter, and decides to move to Paris to be closer to them. She has always felt guilty about not being with Yale the day he died, which subconsciously may have impacted her relationship with her daughter. By the end of the book, with the decision to move to Paris, she feels that she is finally making amends.

Try as I might, I couldn’t really bring these plot lines together, and the alternating of the chapters between the 1985 and 2015 plotlines blunted the impact of both stories for me. Had I perhaps only been immersed in the story of Yale and the tragic unfolding of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, it would have touched me more. Granted, I knew little about it prior to this book, and I would imagine the story would be a lot more poignant and searing to those who experienced it, either directly or through someone they loved.

However, I think that one of the distinguishing hallmarks of great fiction is that it is able to give us a visceral experience of a tragedy in human history that we don’t know much about, to make history come alive for us.  The Great Believers was not able to do this for me at all.

The title of this book, by the way, comes from a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald that is printed at the beginning, but which, I am sorry to say, I found quite meaningless.

All in all, I didn’t like this book, more so because I thought I should like it.

The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: June 2018

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

“The Woman in the Window” by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window

How and why I picked up this book to read is an interesting story. I had vaguely heard of The Woman in the Window as being similar to the two hugely successfully thrillers of the last few years — Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, published in 2012, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, published in 2015. Both had gone on to being made into movies. While I didn’t care for their movie adaptations, I absolutely loved both these books and had bought copies of them to add to my permanent collection. Yet I did not feel particularly compelled to read The Woman in the Window. With a name so much like The Girl on the Train and the story also being similar — a woman sees something from a window, similar to how the protagonist in The Girl on the Train saw something from a train — it seemed like a knockoff, something I was not particularly interested in. Also, the buzz surrounding it was nothing like it had been for Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. In my experience, thrillers have to be really, really good, otherwise you just end up feeling stupid after reading them, feeling like you have wasted your time.

Then, just a couple of days ago, I happened to come across an article in the Feb 11, 2019 issue  of The New Yorker magazine which was a detailed exposé of the author of The Woman in the Window. The author’s name, A.J. Finn is a pseudonym — he is actually a guy called Dan Mallory. The article in The New Yorker was 14 pages long  — I was surprised to see such an in-depth investigative report on one person! It described how Mallory had lied his way throughout his career, climbing up the corporate ladder in the publishing world on false pretenses; how he used his good looks and charm to full advantage to dazzle bosses, peers, and subsequently, readers on book tours. He faked illnesses and deaths in his family to write touching essays to get into college, to evoke sympathy in his colleagues, and justify his absences.  He pretended to have two Ph.D.s, including one from Oxford, which he did not have. (He was enrolled in Oxford — again by lying on his application — but never completed his Ph.D.) It was almost unbelievable that someone would go to such lengths to promote themselves and get a leg up in the literary world.

Coincidentally, I had to go to the library later that day to pick up a book and I happened to see a copy of The Woman in the Window sitting on the shelves, available to borrow. In the past, I had simply glossed over it, but now I checked it out. I was curious, first of all, to see if it was any good, and second, to find out if, knowing what I knew now about the author, whether that would affect what I thought about the book. I had a free evening and was able to read it right away.

What I found is that Dan Mallory is a very good writer. The pacing of the book is excellent –almost like a movie. (A movie is already in the works, and the script-writers should have no trouble adapting it.) The protagonist is a thirty-something woman who has gone though a very traumatic experience fairly recently which has made her extremely agoraphobic. She used to be a child psychologist, but now she never leaves her house and passes her time drinking, taking lots of medications, playing chess online, chatting with fellow agoraphobes in an online chat room, and following the goings-on in the lives of her neighbors in whose houses she can see (apparently, no one believes in closing their blinds or shutting the curtains in her neighborhood!) One day, she sees a murder in a neighboring house through her window and calls the police, even venturing out of her house to help, despite her agoraphobia. But it turns out that no one will believe her — they think she is crazy. And this is not just because she is almost always drunk and drugged, but also because of the lies she is always telling about her family. (These lies are related to the traumatic experience which made her agoraphobic to begin with.) But she knows what she saw, and in the end, it turns out that she was right. The book ends with a dramatic confrontation between her and the killer. (This, by the way, is on the roof of her house and in the pouring rain —  already movie-ready!)

In addition to being well written — whatever his failings, Dan Mallory (writing as A.J. Finn) is a good writer — I found The Woman in the Window riveting enough to read all the way through. And it was an easy read — I finished it in the course of a single evening. The pacing was great, with very short, fast-moving chapters — almost like staccatos in a piece of music — and the tension was maintained throughout.

However, while I was easily able to read the book all the way though, the final reveal about the murderer was quite a let-down. It was too easy and too glib — it just made you feel cheated. Simply put, the ending didn’t live up to the rest of the book, and when I finished it, it wasn’t with the sense of fulfillment at having read a good book but instead with a feeling of dissatisfaction at having wasted my time. It’s a pity that a writer who is obviously talented and can write well could not come up with a gripping ending to a promising story of crime and suspense. The Woman in the Window was stylistically excellent but ultimately lacking in substance.

And with regard to that exposé in The New Yorker, I think it is a credit to Mallory’s writing that I forgot all about it when I was reading The Woman in the Window. It shows that art and creativity can transcend all of our failings and foibles as human beings — you don’t have to be a perfect person to create a perfect piece of art.

The Woman in the Window
Author: A. J. Finn
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: January 2018

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

“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

Still Me

Still Me is the third and final book in the Me Before You trilogy, which started with the publication of Me Before You in 2012. That book was a huge hit and was subsequently made into a movie. At the time it was published, it was not intended to be a trilogy — it was only after the critical and commercial success of the book that Jojo Moyes, the author, wrote two more books that continued to tell the story of the main protagonist, Louisa. (In a recent interview I heard, Jojo Moyes disclosed that she was motivated to write more books by the large number of enquiries from fans who wanted to know how Louisa went on to live her life.)

I wish she hadn’t. It seems to me that sometimes when you create something so spectacular, you should just leave it alone rather than try to continue with it, hoping that the continuation will be just as brilliant and successful. It usually is not. A case in point — Harper Lee’s recent Go Set a Watchman which purports to continue her much-loved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, but has ended up almost destroying its legacy.

First, some background. I read Me Before You a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend and was blown away by how good it was. It tells the story of Louisa, a regular girl in a small town in England, who loses her job when the local café she was working in suddenly closes down; she then starts working as a companion to a young man, Will, who is confined to a wheelchair after a terrible accident that leaves him a quadriplegic, a condition where all four of limbs are paralyzed and which is incurable. Unknown to Louisa, Will is planning to end his life in six months in a facility in Switzerland which provides medically assisted suicide. While Louisa and Will get off to a rocky start, they come to develop a very close friendship and she falls in love with him. But despite her best efforts to change his mind, and unlike a traditional happily-ever-after romantic ending, Will chooses to go through with his assisted suicide plan and dies. The book ends with Louisa reading Will’s last letter to her in a café in Paris that he had visited and loved. The book was beautifully written, the story was so poignant and sad, and at the same time, so fill of wisdom and profound insights on life and living. Will’s letter ends with this:

“Don’t think of me too often. I don’t want to think of you getting all maudlin. Just live well.

Just live.”

I absolutely loved Me Before You.

I read the second book, After You, some months later. It lacked the punch of the first book — that was a really hard act to follow — but it was still a decent read. We find Louisa still mourning Will’s death, unable to pick up the pieces and not knowing how to live until a teenage girl, who turns out to be Will’s daughter from his younger philandering days (he didn’t know about her at all) shows up at her doorstep, with a lot of issues that need to be sorted out. While this plot line does seem quite contrived, along with Louisa meeting and falling in love with a new guy, Sam, there are some good things in this book like the descriptions of a support group that Louisa joins for those who have lost loved ones, as well as the descriptions of Louisa’s small closely-knit family in England, their individual eccentricities, and their family dynamics. The second book was nowhere close to the first book in terms of the plot or the quality of the writing, but it was still very readable.

I wish I could say the same for the third book, Still Me, which came out a year ago. The fact that it didn’t generate any kind of buzz should have warned me. The reason that it even appeared on my radar at all was because I recently heard Jojo Moyes on a BBC Books podcast that I listen to. She mostly talked about Me Before You and also read parts of it. It brought back the memories of how much I had loved it. I hadn’t read the concluding book in the series, Still Me, so I picked it up. I also got the first two books in the series and reread them so that I could go back to the beginning and remember how the story unfolds. I was delighted to find that I loved the first book, Me Before You, even more than I had done before. Being older and with a more mature perspective on life, I was able to appreciate its wisdom and insights a lot better. And it was just an incredibly sweet romantic story, even though it had such a sad ending.

I found the second book, After You, just as I had done before — not a great book but still enjoyable.

Still Me, unfortunately, was a real letdown. In this book, Louisa gets a job as a companion to the wife of an extremely wealthy man in Manhattan, and the book is centered around the dysfunctions of this family, the trivial details of their lives, and how eventually Louisa is betrayed by the wife and loses her job. Fortunately, her cranky neighbor comes to her rescue and she ends up reuniting the old woman with her long estranged family. And she and Sam, her boyfriend from the second book, temporarily end their relationship and she starts seeing a man in New York, who, get this — looks just like Will, the former love of her life — but she eventually breaks it up with him because he turns out to be a typical shallow New Yorker. And if all of this wasn’t unbelievably melodramatic enough, there is a whole Sleepless in Seattle type finale to the book in which Louisa has to go to the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan to be reunited with Sam who comes to New York for her!

All in all, it was so ludicrous that I wish that I could go back and “unread” Still Me. What a disappointing, run-of-the-mill, movie-potboiler ending to such a lovely story! It has almost spoiled Me Before You for me. While I can appreciate that authors, just like any of us, have their highs and lows, and cannot always write brilliantly (“You can’t live on a permanent high,” I was once told), I do wish that authors would realize this too. Not everything they write is going to be as inspired as something spectacular they may have written at some point. They should not mess with perfection. If any of their creations turns out to be a masterpiece, they should be thankful for the inspiration that led them to create it and move on to create something else. Leave the masterpiece alone for the rest of us to enjoy.

Still Me
Author: Jojo Moyes
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication Date: January 2018

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

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

nine perfect strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers is the new book by Liane Moriarty, who has written several novels including the smash hit, Big Little Lies, which was adapted to a highly successful and critically acclaimed TV miniseries in 2017. The TV adaptation was so well done that I went back and re-read Big Little Lies to find out how a book that was enjoyable but not great had been made into such a terrific show. Nine Perfect Strangers is the first book by Moriarty since the Big Little Lies TV series, and needless to say, it has been highly anticipated, as there has been talk of it being similarly adapted for TV by Nicole Kidman, one of the main stars of Big Little Lies. I have always enjoyed Moriarty’s books — they’re very entertaining, with interesting plot lines, and easy to read — and naturally, I read Nine Perfect Strangers as soon as I could get a copy of it from the library. I was curious to find out if the success of Big Little Lies had impacted Moriarty’s craft.

Nine Perfect Strangers is the story of nine people who check into a wellness retreat for ten days and what happens to each one of them in the course of those ten days. While some of them are single or divorced and have come to the retreat by themselves, there is also a young couple as well as a family of three. Each of the nine people have different issues of their own they are hoping the retreat will help them with, and we learn about each of them as the story unfolds, which is told progressively from each of their individual points of view. The singles include a romance novelist whose career seem to be coming to an end, an ex-football player who has become not just out-of-shape physically but also apathetic mentally, a gay lawyer whose relationship is in crisis because his partner would like to have a child and he is strongly against it, and a stay-at-home mother of four whose husband has left her for a younger woman making her deeply insecure. The young couple is primarily at the retreat for couples counseling — they are having issues with their marriage after they won several million dollars in the lottery a few years ago, and it has completely messed them up. And finally, the family comprising the husband, wife, and young adult daughter has gone through the trauma of losing the son — the daughter’s twin brother — to suicide three years ago and they are each consumed not just by grief by also by guilt as they each blame themselves for his death.

In addition to these nine protagonists, the other main characters in the story are those who work at the resort — the owner, Masha, who was a high-powered executive several years ago but quit the corporate world after a cardiac arrest that almost killed her; and two of the employees, one of whom, Yao, was one of the paramedics who had attended to Masha during her cardiac arrest and now hero-worships her.

Given the cast of characters and the plot, there are plenty of opportunities for both drama and comedy that are Moriarty’s trademark and make her books so entertaining. The back stories of each the nine “guests” at the resort as well as of Masha and Yao are interesting, and despite being mostly light-hearted, the narrative has occasional flashes of real insight that are brilliant. Unfortunately, these are not built on, and about halfway into the book, the plot also goes off-course. The retreat is working very well until about Day 5, with lots of meditation, digital detoxification, healthy food, smoothies, massages, counseling sessions, and long periods of silence — just what you would expect in a retreat of this kind. Also, as expected, it is incredibly hard for the guests to adjust to this at first, but they all feeling physically and emotionally better as the days go by.

So far, so good. But then, both the retreat and the plot rapidly degenerate into a mess where the guests are drugged and locked up together, all for the ostensible purpose of forcing them to undergo a dramatic transformation. Masha turns out to be a crazy megalomaniac, and Yao goes along with her as best as he can until he finally comes to his senses. Of course, as with all of Moriarty’s books, it all ends well — and for most of them, including Masha as well as Yao.

Despite this, I still found Nine Perfect Strangers a fun read, and I had no trouble finishing it. As light and breezy as Moriarty’s other books, it is not meant to be taken seriously, so the ridiculousness of the plot halfway into the book did not turn me off it as it may have done for a more heavy-duty book.

Nine Perfect Strangers
Author: Liane Moriarty
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: November 2018

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

“The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

the epic city

I picked up this book on the streets of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during my recent visit to the city. I was looking for something local to read and couldn’t seem to choose from among the scores of books by Indian authors at “regular” bookstores like Crosswords. Walking down Park Street, one of the most famous streets of Calcutta, I stopped at one of the streetside book stalls to browse through its collection. I had discovered some excellent books from streetside stalls like this when I was growing up in India, and history seemed to repeat itself. The bookseller handed me a copy of The Epic City and told me it was very good. I read the blurb, which was intriguing; I was also very impressed with the credentials of the author. But what really clinched the deal for me was this quote from the back cover:

 “Stop and ask for directions in Delhi and no one knows, because no one is truly of the city. Ask for directions on any Calcutta street corner and a half-dozen mustachioed men will appear out of nowhere. They may offer radically divergent views on the matter, a street fight may break out as a result, rival political camps may emerge, and traffic may be barricaded for the rest of the afternoon. But it is their city, their streets, their neighbourhoods.”

Not only was this so well-written, it described Calcutta to a tee!

However, The Epic City is not just an ode to Calcutta, glorifying all the wonderful things about it such as its history, culture, character, vibrancy, and the passion of its people. It is also an unvarnished look at the city, warts and all, including the dirt and grime, the poverty, the chaos, the overwhelming number of people, the crumbling infrastructure, and the sheer difficulty of getting anything done. While all of this can be said of any major metropolis in India, Calcutta, in particular, seems to be caught in a time warp, according to Kushanava Choudhury, the author of The Epic City. And yet, it hasn’t seemed to have kept him away. He was born in Calcutta and moved to the US when he was 12, but the lure of the city was so strong that he returned to Calcutta after graduating from Princeton to work as a journalist, went back to the US to do a Ph.D. at Yale, and returned again to write The Epic City. His first return was born from idealism, of wanting to make a difference; the second time, he returned simply to capture the essence of the city he loved.

As a result, we get to experience Calcutta through Choudhury’s eyes at three different stages of his life: growing up in an ancestral home as part of a large, close-knit family with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; working as a journalist fresh out of college in The Statesman, a leading Calcutta newspaper; and finally, as a married young man attempting to be a writer. Needless to say, he has a wealth of stories to share about the myriad aspects of life in the city, all of which stem from his own personal experiences. Some that stood out for me include the attempted renovation of his ancestral home by his uncle, an architect trained in the US, who finally gave up because of the labor problems and red tape, and returned to the US; his grandmother’s death, which brought the entire extended family back together in the ancestral home for her cremation; his search for an apartment to rent with his wife, the news of which spread like wildfire and resulted in many people voluntarily coming forward with prospective apartments that were not remotely what they were looking for; chasing news stories as a journalist that involved trying time and again to have meetings that kept getting postponed; and participating in the omnipresent “addas” of people hanging out having fervent discussions about politics, books, sports, philosophy,  or literally, anything under the sun.

I found The Epic City a perfect companion for my visit to Calcutta, as I could relate first-hand to many of the experiences so eloquently captured by Choudhury and became familiar with several of the places in the city that he described in the book. But even for those not living in or visiting the city, it shows how it is possible for someone to love a place despite all the many inconveniences of life they encounter there, so much so that they would actually choose to live there instead of a much easier, comfortable, and less stressful life in their home country.

The Epic City may not entice you to move to Calcutta, but it certainly allows you to understand and appreciate those who do.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: October 2017

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

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.