“The 3 Mistakes of My Life” by Chetan Bhagat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Burnt-Out Case” by Graham Greene

Of all the books I have read by Graham Greene – who was an amazingly prolific writer, often regarded as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century — I have found A Burnt-Out Case the most poignant. It is about a world-famous architect, Querry, who is “burnt out” emotionally and ends up in a leper colony in Africa, in an attempt to get as far away from his life as he can. I first read this book when I was younger, and it greatly resonated with me at that time because I was also trained as an architect. I recently read it again and found that it is now relatable to any older person going through a mid-life crisis and questioning the worth of anything they have accomplished in their lives. Either way, it is an excellent book, amazingly well-written.

We don’t hear much of leprosy anymore, but at the time the book was written, the disease was much more common with millions of people infected, mostly in poor countries. This was also a time when Christian missionaries were very active, and one of their many charitable works was creating and running leper colonies, where lepers could be treated. Because of the social stigma associated with leprosy, these colonies were typically located in remote and isolated regions, far from cities and towns, and it is to one such colony in Africa that the disillusioned Querry arrives, trying to get as far away from his life in Europe as a plane and then a boat would take him. The term “burnt-out case” has a very specific meaning in leprosy – it refers to leprosy patients who have been cured but have suffered severe mutilations in the course of repeated infections, losing most of their extremities like fingers, toes, nose, etc., rendering them barely recognizable to themselves and to others. The doctor who runs the leprosy clinic diagnoses Querry as being a “burnt-out case” as well; only in Querry’s case the disease is in his mind rather than in his body. He simply can’t feel any emotion anymore, neither joy, nor sorrow, neither pleasure, nor pain.

A Burnt-Out Case is the story of Querry’s time in the leper colony and of his interactions with the people there. There is the doctor, who has his hands full with patients and works tirelessly from morning to night; also, he is a confirmed atheist and is there for no other reason than to use his skills to alleviate pain and suffering. There are the Catholic missionaries who have set up the colony, and who find themselves mostly concerned with the physical well-being of the patients rather than their spiritual upliftment; they have to make sure to keep the hospital facility running, which means they are preoccupied with thinking of things like generators, plumbing, roofing, and so on. And then there are the patients themselves, in particular, the boy assigned to be a helper to Querry, who happens to be an actual “burnt-out case” himself and is severely mutilated.

In the course of time, interacting with all these people and being away from the wealth, fame, and success that had destroyed his “soul,” Querry seems to achieve some measure of peace from the demons that plague him. He even eventually agrees to use his architectural stills to design a functional structure for an extension to the clinic and sets up a drawing board in his room. Sadly however, just when he is starting to heal, starting to feel some emotions, his past life and fame catch up with him. He had tried very hard to stay completely anonymous so he could be left alone, but he is discovered, and the consequences are disastrous.

In addition to being so well written, I found the book so detailed and so vivid that I felt I was actually there at the leper colony, seeing the story unfold before my eyes. Of course, this is in large measure due to the author’s extraordinary talent as a novelist, but I also found out that he had actually visited a number of leper colonies in the course of his extensive travels, which had inspired the book and made it so authentic. We are so fortunate to have authors like this who have traveled to different parts of the world, writing books that viscerally take us to places we would never have a chance to visit, at a different time, and have experiences we would never have in our own lives.

The only quibble I had with the story is that it builds up the myth of the architect as a “creative genius,” somewhat similar to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. While such books are very inspiring, almost heady, to young architects, they are sending the wrong message that architecture is a solitary vocation, when, in fact, it is much more of a collaborative effort than a writer or an artist. A real-life Querry would not be so “burnt-out” because he would be working with a team of people on his architectural designs rather than being completely on his own, and it is much harder to get disillusioned when you are working with others.

A Burnt-Out Case
Author: Graham Greene
Original Publisher and Date: Heinemann, 1950
Reprint Publisher and Date: Penguin Classics, April 1992

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

“Amrita: Or to Whom She Will” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

This is the debut novel of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, most famous for her 1975 Booker Prize winning novel, Heat and Dust, and for writing the screenplays of several Merchant-Ivory films, two of which she won Oscars for. I love these movies and have also enjoyed her books immensely, including Heat and Dust, so I was delighted to come across a book of hers that I had not read. Born in Germany and raised in England, she moved to India after getting married and chose it as the setting for many of her novels. I have found that she brings a unique sensibility to her writing – a merging of the insider’s and outsider’s perspective that is hard to find in books written by other Indian authors. This was in full display even in her debut novel, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will.

The story is about Amrita and Hari, who are ostensibly in love with each other and want to get married but are thwarted by their respective families as they belong to different socio-economic classes. While the story of star-crossed lovers is as old as the hills, especially in India, this one is distinctly different. It is more of a comedy than a drama or a tragedy. The focus is not so much on the love story of the protagonists, but on the detailed descriptions of each member of their families, delving into their personalities, their relationships with each other, their interactions with other people, and their day to day lives. And all of this is done with so much warmth and humor that you feel an affection for each one of these characters, all the way from Amrita’s stern and stately grandfather, a retired barrister, to Hari’s nieces and nephews, a brood that his sister is continuing to add to because her husband, like so many others, “still thought of nothing but [his] own pleasure.”

In addition to the melee of characters, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will is filled with so many details about life in India at that time – it was published in 1955 — that it serves, I think, as a good record of what newly independent India, still shaking off the vestiges of colonialism, was like. You get the impression that Jhabvala observed every little detail of life in her adopted country, not taking anything for granted as native-born Indians might tend to do, and was able to capture that on paper. The result is a vivid portrayal of life in India, in all its festive messiness, teeming with vignettes on everything from the food that was cooked to wedding celebrations to the abundance of servants in upper-class families to long-distance travel by train with the “shame” of having to be in the third-class carriage. It was so close to my own childhood memories of India that reading the book made me feel extremely nostalgic. This, along with how well-written and easy to read it was, made Amrita: Or to Whom She Will a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Amrita: Or to Whom She Will
Author: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Publisher: Fireside (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: June 1955

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

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This book, published in 1966, is regarded as a modern American classic, but I had never read it. It kept coming up so often in discussions and articles related to books that I eventually got hold of a copy from the library. Classics can sometimes be a difficult read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I found it immediately accessible and readable. I have always appreciated books in which the story is so powerful that no literary gimmicks are needed to tell it, and this is very much true of Flowers for Algernon. The writing is so straightforward that it can easily be read even at the school level; however, the story itself is one that can be appreciated at any age. In fact, I think the older are you, the more meaningful it is.

The story itself is very unique, and I don’t recall reading another story remotely similar to this. It is almost science fiction but not quite. It is about a mentally disabled young man — in those days, the term “retarded” was still being used — on whom an experimental surgical procedure (on the brain) is done to try and “cure” his mental condition. The experiment was first done on a mouse named Algernon and the results were very promising. So, as the next step, the scientists who had come up with the procedure wanted to try it on a human, and Charlie was selected as the subject.

At first, all goes well, and Charlie becomes very smart, with an IQ in the genius range. In fact, he becomes much smarter than everybody around him, including the scientists who devised the procedure and performed the surgery on him. However, this does not last, and it is the erratic behavior of the mouse, Algernon, and his subsequent death, which provides a clue into the fate that awaits Charlie. He eventually loses the surgically induced mental boost that he had received and goes back to his original mental state.

The story is told through the progress reports that Charlie has been asked to maintain throughout the experiment, and we can see his initial reports written like a child and riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, slowly progressing to where they are normal — written by an adult with their full mental faculties — and finally back again to where they are simplistic and child-like. It is so sad to see Charlie regress, even though you know that not only is this a fictional story, but also, that it is fiction which is not rooted in reality. Even in the present time, over 50 years after the publication of this book, we do not have any kind of surgical procedure to cure “intellectual disabilities” in the people who have them.

However, what we do have now is a much better understanding of the relationship between the biology of a brain (nodes, lobes, cortex, etc.) and behavior and ability. And what I especially liked about this book, apart from it being a good read, is how starkly it makes the connection between the two. As human beings, we don’t like to admit this, but most, if not all, of our abilities and behavior comes from the wiring of our brains. It is this which determines whether we are geniuses or slow or somewhere in between, and this is something we are born with, and therefore have little control over. (The memoir, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, that I wrote about a couple of years ago is another book that highlights the connection between our brains and who/how we are.)

I think this understanding leads to an entirely different take on life, where you have much less “awe” of geniuses and much more empathy towards those who are at the “slow” end of the spectrum.

I am not sure if the author set out to write a meaningful story, one with an underlying philosophy. But even if he did not, I’m glad to find a book that highlights such an important issue. It’s not something I come across often in the realm of fiction.

Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes    
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 1966  

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

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

The author of The Secret History, Donna Tartt, is best known for her book, The Goldfinch, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which was recently made into a movie. Even though the movie was almost universally panned by critics, I loved it, which made me want to read more of Donna Tartt’s work. The Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, and like The Goldfinch, it is extremely long (592 pages) and amazingly detailed. In fact, given the length of her books (The Goldfinch was 784 pages), I was not surprised to find that she publishes a book only every 10 years or so — The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was her third book, following her second one, The Little Friend, which was published in 2002. 

The Secret History came to me so highly recommended that I didn’t bother with knowing what it was about — my copy of the book from the library was missing the blurb — and I plunged right into it, prepared to stop reading as soon as it got uninteresting. And for such a long book, this seemed more likely than not. But much to my surprise, I found it fascinating and while it did lose a bit of momentum towards the end, I was so invested in the story by this time that I had no trouble finishing it — I had to know what happens in the end.

The book is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the protagonist is a new student, Richard, who has transferred to it from a local college in California that he attended after high school. He is not close to his parents and they do not care much about him either, and with no siblings as well, there is no real family that he is close to. This makes it believable that he would be strongly attracted to a small group of students who keep to themselves and choose to be isolated from the other students. In fact, not only do they distance themselves socially, they are academically separated as well, as they study Greek exclusively under the tutelage of a brilliant, charismatic, and eccentric professor, who seems to have the kind of leverage with the college that is needed to create such a closed classroom.

Richard manages to break through and get inducted in the group, and at first all goes well — he loves the closeness and the camaraderie as well as getting deeper into Greek and the classics. But then, there is an accidental murder during one of the Greek rituals being performed by the group (it is called “Bacchanalia” — there is actually such a thing, as I found when I looked it up), and this murder is then followed by a deliberate murder of a student in the group who was blackmailing the others to keep quiet about it. As a reader, you know this is coming, since the book starts with a prologue about the murder — so it is not a “murder mystery” as such — but you don’t know the “how” and the “why,” which keeps you hooked. Then there is the whole aftermath of the second murder, how it plays out with the family of the dead student, and what effect it has on the group.

While the basic premise of The Secret History — that a professor can form an exclusive club of students within a college and dictate their academic requirements, that some students would actually want to be part of such a club that won’t really give them a usable degree, and that anyone would want to get so knee-deep into Greek that they don’t care about learning anything else — is downright unbelievable, it is to the author’s credit that she can take something so implausible and craft a story around it that seems so believable, so authentic. And the book was so vivid, so full of details about the lives of these students and about life in a college town, not to mention the extensive discourse on Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, that I was completely hooked.

And rather than being intimidated by the length of the book, it was so nice to have a good long book to sink my teeth into!

The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt   
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 1992 

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

“Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

I was entranced by this book. Not only was it such a gripping story, the quality of the writing was so lyrical that I actually read the book slowly to savor it, which is not something I normally do. Also, the story is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which, being from neighboring India, was something I knew a little about — but not a whole lot. Any reference to war in India usually brings to mind its long-standing conflict with Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, its conflict with China in the 1960s. Most Indians don’t pay much attention to this relatively small island nation, just south of India’s border, except when the conflict comes to our doors, as with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” this is the same militant organization that is on one side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with the other being the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of two women, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, growing up in different parts of the country. They never meet, but their lives intersect towards the end in an unexpectedly brutal way. The Sinhalese woman, Yasodhara, grows up in the capital city, Colombo, in the years before the conflict, and has what can best be described as an idyllic childhood, with a loving extended family. When the civil war escalates and the brutality of it comes too close to home, Yasodhara’s parents immigrate to the US and she lives there, shielded from the conflict, until she returns to Sri Lanka for a visit — urged by her sister who has returned before her — to heal from a broken marriage.

In parallel, we also follow the life of Saraswathi, who grows up in the north of the island in a Tamil enclave, and despite the best efforts of her parents to keep her away from the conflict, she ends up being recruited by the Tamil Tigers to join the war for “Eelam,” the independent Tamil state they want. Saraswathi had dreamt of being a teacher growing up, but then she was captured by Sinhalese soldiers and suffered such horrific sexual violence that the only two options she could see before her were suicide — like some of her other friends who had been subjected to the same violence — or joining the Tamil Tigers. She ends up choosing the latter, and the memory of the abuse she suffered makes her a particularly brutal soldier, one who has no problem with wielding a machete and slashing even women and children to death. Her ferocity, cold-bloodedness, and fearlessness make her rise quickly through the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and lead her to become what is perceived as the highest honor for a soldier in the movement — a suicide bomber.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is beautifully written, capturing the magical quality of the island, its tranquility, and its lushness in the years before the conflict, as well as the horrors of the civil war once it starts, the brutality, the riots, the senseless slaughter of people, the atrocities committed on both sides. Seeing the war through the personal lives of the two protagonists who are from the opposite sides of the ethnic conflict, and who get embroiled in it without wanting to, shows that there no winners in a war — everyone loses.

Despite the war being the central thread running through the book — and it is to the credit of the writing that I approached these parts with a sense of dread and foreboding — a good part of first half is devoted to describing Yasodhara’s extended family, starting with both sets of grandparents and going as far back as when the British departed the island in 1948.  This made Island of a Thousand Mirrors a truly multi-generational saga, with details about the lives of the different family members, their houses, their food, their day-to-day activities, family dynamics, family traditions, childhood friendships, first loves, and marriages. Not only was it fascinating to see how life and customs evolved in Sri Lanka — and in my case, to see the parallels with life in India — but also to see it captured in such beautiful, evocative prose. Here is an example, describing an interior courtyard in the childhood home of Visaka, Yasodhara’s mother:

The queen of this domain, an enormous trailing jasmine, impervious to pruning, spreads a fragrant carpet of white. When the sea breeze whispers, a  snowing flurry of flowers sweeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.

Another example, this one describing a dip in the ocean by Yasodhara’s father, Nishan, when he, as “the last British ships slip over the horizon,” is cavorting on beaches he does not yet know are pristine:

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

With prose that is so poetic through the book, reading it was sheer delight. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Author: Nayomi Munaweera              
Publisher and Date, US Edition: St. Martin’s Press, September 2014        
First published in Sri Lanka in 2012 by Perara Hussein Publishing House

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

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

What made me pick up this book from the many displayed in the ‘New’ section of my local library was the quote by Paula Hawkins on the cover, calling it a “twisting tale of love, loss, and dark family secrets.” I loved Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, which was also a huge bestseller, and an endorsement from her seemed very promising. If it was even one-tenth as good as The Girl on the Train, that would be good enough for me.

Having finished it, I can say that it was — just about. I was at least able to finish it without forcing myself to — it did manage to sustain my interest right up to the end, which is no mean feat, given the number of books I started recently that I was forced to abandon after a few chapters because they just didn’t grip me. As the title of the book suggests — Searching for Sylvie Lee — there is a mystery at the heart of it, which makes you want to go on reading until it is solved. Over and above that, however, I also found the book well written, with a cast of characters in a setting that was unusual, to say the least. The majority of the book is set in the Netherlands, and most of the main characters are Chinese, either immigrants or, in the case of the younger generation, either Chinese Americans or Chinese Dutch. Here in the US, we are surrounded by Chinese Americans, so there is not much novelty, but in the Netherlands, people of Chinese origin are still a rarity, and it was very interesting to read about their experiences.

The basic plot of the book is that a young Chinese American woman, Sylvie — Ivy-league educated, smart, and successful — goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother — and then just disappears. She was supposed to have travelled back to the US, but never shows up. Her family is panic-stricken, and her younger sister, Amy, travels to the Netherlands to try and find her. The reason their grandmother was there to begin with was that she had been living permanently with her well-to-do niece, Helena, helping her with raising her son, Lukas. In fact, Sylvie was sent to stay with them for most of her childhood, as her immigrant parents were struggling to make ends meet in the US. Thus, Sylvie and Lukas grew up together, and she had a strong maternal bond with her grandmother, which she was never able to cultivate with her own mother even after she was brought back to the US.

The story is alternately told from the points of view of Amy, her mother (who, in turns out, has a critical role to play in how the plot unfolds), and Sylvie herself. Also, it is told in staggered timelines, with Sylvie’s chapters set about a month before Amy’s, so we are seeing their experiences in parallel, but without really knowing what happens to Sylvie until closer to the end of the book. It was an interesting plot device, one that I haven’t come across very often, and it was effective in sustaining the momentum of the story while progressively inching towards the mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

While I did find the end a little anticlimactic — it started out seeming like a murder mystery but wasn’t really — I enjoyed the overall storyline, the writing, and especially the details about life in the Netherlands as well as the Chinese Dutch experience of it. Those were very authentic and seemed to come from the author’s own experience of being of Chinese descent and currently living in the Netherlands. Searching for Sylvie Lee is by no means a work of literature, but it was overall, a good read.

Searching for Sylvie Lee
Author: Jean Kwok                               
Publisher: William Morrow               
Publication Date: June 2019       

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

“Imagine Me Gone” by Adam Haslett

Imagine Me Gone

This is the sort of book that quietly grips you. You don’t realize how invested you are in the narrative until you turn the page and gasp.

That’s because it’s sort of a quiet story. A story of a family, a husband and wife, their three kids, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member. Haslett’s ability to so thoroughly transform his writing to believably portray five different voices is impressive, displaying his comfort and agility with his craft. The thoughts of his characters are so rich with details and suggestions that you feel comfortably burrowed into their minds.

This is especially important for this book, which deals with mental illness at its center. John, the father in the story, is prone to serious depression, an illness that his oldest son, Michael, comes to inherit. Thus, the narrative is laced with a sense of dread, but also inevitability, as you witness the children growing up and the parents growing old. These dual themes push the story forward in a thoroughly engaging fashion. There is something so beautiful about reading about the way in which people can care for each other, want to solve each other’s problems. The love between these family members is complicated and nuanced, and a real pleasure to read about.

However, some of the power of this novel also comes from the fact that the characters do not have to just worry about their mental states of mind. Worry about money, partnership, setting—all of these problems seem to chase the characters as well, giving one a sense of the relentlessness of the world. One big problem does not mean others cease to burden. It was an artful glimpse into some of the many stresses of living with or loving someone with a mental illness.

Haslett uses a number of creative techniques to embrace his characters. Playing with form, instead of just telling a straight narrative, can be gimmicky in some novels, but here, it really works. Hasslet includes things like letters characters have written, medical forms being filled out, and these help to further deepen our understanding of the characters themselves. Furthermore, from Maine to Massachusetts to London, Hasslet is able to weave in the settings in a beautiful way, unpacking the ways in which the character’s surroundings are emblematic of their mental state.

Really, this book is stunning. The prose is both pretty and well observed, and the plot engaging. Most importantly to me, as someone who has lived through a family member’s illness, Hasslet was able to vocalize parts of the experience that I had not even conceived into words yet. It all felt very true. I can’t recommend it enough.

Imagine Me Gone
Author: Adam Haslett
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: May 2016

Contributor: Sarisha Kurup attends Bowdoin College in Maine.

“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.

“The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop is a cute read, particularly for music buffs (which I am not). The protagonist (Frank) has had a bohemian childhood, raised by an unconventional and controlling mother with a passion for music on vinyl that she passed on to Frank. Frank owns a music store on a run-down street that sells only vinyl and lives in an apartment above his store. The street is populated with several other run-down stores run by picturesque (and down and out) characters, all of who form a tight knit community where they mind each other’s business. The scene is charmingly set and Frank’s encyclopedic musical knowledge and his “super-power” to find just the right music that speaks to each customer is eloquently described.

Into this setting walks our heroine – a mysterious foreigner who falls in love with Frank (and he with her). The story proceeds and sad things happen but there is some romance and lots of music. Gentrification comes to the run-down street and vinyl is supplanted by CDs and Frank suffers, but the book manages to end on a relatively positive note.

This is not a deep book or even an excellent book but it’s a cute read and the music playlist is lovely – I have been listening to it on Spotify and the range of genres is amazing.

The best thing about this book is that it got me to check out Joyce’s other writing and I found her previous work and read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by her, which I absolutely loved.

If you read this book first, you’ll be well served. If you read Harold Fry first and come to this book expecting something as powerful, you will be disappointed. 

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce

A friend brought me Rachel Joyce’s new book The Music Shop (also reviewed here) and I liked that so much that I looked up her previous work and found this title which is evidently her best known work.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of an awkward, socially inept, mostly overlooked and undervalued plodding sort of man with an unremarkable career and dreary retired life. Harold gets a letter from an ex-colleague saying that she is in hospice, dying of cancer and he is struck by the fact that this woman did something remarkable for him that he never acknowledged or gave thanks for and she simply dropped out of his life for decades. He decides to write back, a note of a sympathy in a sentence or two, but as he walks to the mailbox to mail his missive, he finds himself just walking further and further towards her hospice (which is hundreds of miles away). Without forethought or plan he finds himself taking weeks and months to walk to her side and meet her before she dies.

As the story unfolds we learn about Harold’s life – his unhappy marriage and his lack of success as a father, his friendship of Queenie (the dying colleague) – in small snippets, interspersed with the details of his journey, the people he meets and the life stories that are impacted by his journey. We come to know his wife and the love and promise of the early days of their marriage, decaying to endless anger and bitterness in the present moment. And we see Harold as anything but unremarkable in his quest.

This is a short book and a very quick read, written in a straightforward, direct manner with no frills and flourishes. The story is powerful, reading almost like a biblical parable. And the ending is sublime with two twists, one that I saw coming pretty early on and the other that knocked me over. There are a couple of patches in the middle where I was impatient with Harold’s entourage and some side stories, but other than that, each page was a gift.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: July 2012

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer and an avid reader of fiction.

“Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Snap by Belinda Bauer is a murder mystery longlisted for the Booker in 2018, and I absolutely loved it. I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries which are gripping, well paced and well plotted but mostly formulaic – it’s not easy to churn out book after book that makes for a pleasant afternoon read, quickly devoured and quickly forgotten but fun while it lasts. There are many authors that do a great job in the thriller category (Lee Child, Baldacci, Turow, etc.) and many that do a wonderful job in the murder mystery genre (Louise Penny is a great favorite and so is Ian Rankin).
However, writing in the same genre but in a class apart are others, like Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, Colin Dexter, Tana French.

Like these stellar writers and perhaps even surpassing them, Belinda Bauer has written a murder mystery that is wonderfully populated with characters and their broken lives just like a literary novel, but with the characteristic pace and plotting that makes a mystery novel a page-turner. I couldn’t decide if I should read slowly to savor the writing and the details or read fast to move on with the plot. I did a bit of both!

The protagonist is Jack, a teenage boy trying to hold his family together in the absence of both parents and dealing with the murder of his mother. His character, his thoughts and his trauma are very well depicted with a light and deft narration and Jack retains his teenage-ness without descending into melodrama or pathos. Jack’s siblings, his neighbour and the police men and women are brought to life beautifully, with each having a very distinct voice and personality. The story unfolds slowly and surely but the end doesn’t fully live up to the promise of the beginning. Even so, I highly recommend this book and will be buying a copy or two to give as gifts.

Snap
Author: Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Bantam Press
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Seema Varma is an ex-engineer, a voracious reader of fiction.