“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.

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

Ways to Hide in Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

transcription

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Blood.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

The Outsider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 100 year old Man.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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