Book Review: Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

This was their perfect moment. Another almost-erased history unaborted. And this house with its hundred-plus years. This house with its stained-glass and leaded windows. This house with its generations cheering, saying, Dance, y’all and Ashe and The ancestors are in the house, say what? I and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.

The sixteen-year-old Melody says, “…I’d be the period,” at her coming-of-age ceremony. It’s not an empty statement that is made by a teenager who thinks that the world revolves around her. Melody is aware of her blackness. Of the race massacre and the fire that her black family survived in Tulsa. Of the constant battle her grandparents fought to weave a net of financial security for their family. Of her father’s childhood in which there were no class privileges. Of her mother’s absence, and the love that could have held them together. But Melody still doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the impact two teenagers’ curiosity, about sex and biology, had on their lives. Of how something shifted and became even tighter in her grandmother’s heart. Of how something became even tender in her grandfather’s soul. Of how she became everything for her father. And of everything that her mother could have had, and everything that her mother lost.

In less than 200 pages of lyrical writing, Jacqueline Woodson brings every character alive in Red At The Bone. Her entire cast is memorable. Even Baby Benjamin (as my friend Vishy points out here) whose life is described in just a couple of passages. CathyMarie who props up Iris when she didn’t know she needed help. Sabe who won’t stop talking about fire and gold, but she had every reason to keep talking about them. Sabe, who is a staunch Catholic, and her little rebel against the nuns. Never mess with a momma who is grieving her daughter’s lost adolescence. She would brave the inferno to protect her child’s heart. Above all, Iris. She needs a lot of empathy. While every other character gives all their love to what she creates, in the process of creating the very thing, Iris believes she has lost the person whom she could have possibly become. How would she try to become that person when she didn’t have the time and opportunity to meet that person? Through Iris, and her journey toward discovering herself, Woodson explores the themes of sexuality, teenage pregnancy, motherhood, racial identity, and love.

You’re going to learn this. I mean, I hope you learn this. Love changes and changes. Then it changes again.

On the surface, Woodson’s writing looks effortless. The story goes back and forth in time, there are multiple perspectives, but her storytelling doesn’t falter. It doesn’t wait anywhere to take a breath. It unfolds with the confidence of a writer who leans back on her chair, and just let the words flow from her fingertips to the keyboard. The sentences don’t jostle each other. They politely arrive, one after the other, from Woodson’s heart, with a certainty that’s almost magical, as though her Black ancestors themselves want her to tell their stories.

Shoot, I love that people think the world is even halfway ready for what we about to bring.

(I read this gorgeous book along with my friends Vishy and Bina, and we had an extraordinary discussion after that. I feel grateful.)

Book Review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Bird Cottage, written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett, asks many questions. Why does one give up the comfort of a known life, and move to a cottage in the countryside, just to run a research on birds? Why does one antagonize one’s neighbour whose cats terrify the birds? Why does one choose to end up seeming rude to visitors who struggle to understand that every sudden movement would startle the birds? Why does one challenge nasty authorities when they try to destroy the birds’ homes? Why does one choose birds over everything else, at the cost of being called a misanthrope? Why? Why does it matter? But what else matters?

Gwendolen Howard wrote two books – Birds As Individuals and Living With Words — about her extraordinary yet quiet life with birds whom she extensively researched for more than three decades. The male world of science then, in the first half of the 20th century, looked down upon her reports. But Howard’s research offered an intimate view of her life with birds, and revealed a side that was largely unknown about the avian universe. Her best friend Star, a Great Tit, even learned to tap on tables and windows for a specific number of times when Howard requested. Howard was often found walking in Sussex, with a bunch of birds perched on her shoulders and arms. I often think of the image, and it warms my heart.

In Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage, fact meets fiction. Meijer takes some creative liberty, presents Howard’s life based on the available material, and fills the gap with her own imagination. The final product is a story that’s idyllic and heartbreaking in equal measure. After all the struggle to keep her cottage a safe haven for the birds, Howard left it to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust, with the hope that it would be turned into a sanctuary, but her dreams died too. Her books, I figure, are out of print as well. But it is comforting to know that there was a person who was unconditionally trusted by the often-misunderstood birds. And there will always be somebody, braving all the ridicule, only to deeply love life in their own ways.

I shouldn’t ask myself whether what I’m doing is useful, or whether it’s enough. The birds show me that time is not the straight line that humans make of it. Things don’t come to an end, they just change form. A feeling becomes a thought, a thought an action, an action a thought, a thought a feeling. The first feeling returns, traces lines through the new one. The first thought sleeps a while, then crops up again later. This is how times intermingle; this is how we exist in different moments all at once.

Book Review: Mermaids in The Moonlight by Sharanya Manivannan

Then there are dreamers like you and me who want to believe there can be mermaid in lagoon. Fish-tailed, with a human heart!

Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in The Moonlight starts from Mattakalappu in Ilankai. A note at the end of the book reads that we may know Mattakalappu as Batticaloa, and Ilankai as Sri Lanka. I am Tamil. And I know these places as how Nilavoli’s Amma calls them in her stories, and that’s how I want to remember these places too. From the meditative, enchanting Kallady Lagoon, as they try to listen to the song of a mermaid whom they name Ila, Amma tells Nilavoli about the mermaids, mer-creatures, and marine spirits of the world, and their stories which are deeply rooted in magic, faith, justice, love, longing, and loss. Just like the ocean, their stories come in waves, encouraging the child in me to hold on to wonder and curiosity, and comforting the adult in me with its poetry and the truth that I choose to see.

‘There is a lot of sorrow in this place,’ Amma whispered to me.
‘Sometimes you just have to pause and feel it.’

Mermaids in The Moonlight is just not imaginative, but it is politically correct, and that’s the change I have been hoping for children’s literature. The characters are from Asia, the illustrations are inclusive, there are stories about the women of Mattakalappu who lead their families, and there is a delightful surprise at the end, making the stories come full circle. There is also something beautiful about Hanuman, Ravanan’s daughter, and a love story about them that travelled from Thailand. The search to know more about mermaids can’t end with the book; it starts from there.

There are so many stories that disappear, like tears underwater…

When the book is set in Mattakalappu, how could Amma not talk about the land that saw war and pain? Children’s literature doesn’t just have to be about wise, talking animals. In ‘Mermaid in the Moonlight’, while relating the story of women in Rameshwaram in India, Amma tells Nilavoli about the people who reached the coastal town on tiny boats, escaping the war. The stories can hold safe space for adults, and children to understand that the world is kind and cruel at the same time, and to tell children that when life becomes overwhelming, curling up in the lap of stories could be restorative. Amma gives Nilavoli many things – truth, imagination, curiosity, and the cultures of many peoples. A child loved like that can make the healing less painful.

Book Review: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Millennials would hate Barrington Jedidiah Walker (Barry), and the Gen Z’s would call him a dinosaur like his grandson who banters with him. In Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Barry narrates what happens in his life from May 2010 to May 2011 while also recalling his life in Antigua, how he learned to live as a black immigrant in England, and how he is going to muster the courage to divorce his wife, and move in with Morris whom he has clandestinely loved for 64 years.

He is 74-years-old in 2010, but for him time has stopped ticking after the 70’s. He dresses like he has stepped out of the 50’s and looks ridiculously dapper. He is misogynistic, self-absorbed, hilarious and sometimes inappropriately funny. “Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium,” Barry proudly declares. It’s easy to understand why his wife Carmel chose him. But the mystery of how the kind, empathetic, perceptive Morris fell in love with Barry remains unresolved.

Barry is everything that the dwellers of 21st century despise. Through that lens, Barry becomes unlikable. Here is where Evaristo’s storytelling becomes even more powerful. She shows all the great and dark sides of Barry not because she wants to say that everybody is flawed and perfect at the same time, but she holds a mirror to the system that makes life difficult for everybody, that influences the process of making decisions, and that makes and breaks your image, that you meticulously sculpt, in the eyes of your partners, friends, children… All the while Barry could be thinking that he was in control of most parts of his life, but the system, which’s created to oppress the people of colour, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, was always at the wheel.

Named after Shabba Ranks’ addictive song Mr Loverman, Evaristo’s novel could be easily mistaken as a celebration of the life of a gay man who comes out of the closet at 74, and rides into the sunset with his childhood sweetheart, but through the second person narrative, where Evaristo’s words burn with grief, anger, and self-righteousness, the book also delivers a feminist sermon on what it means to be a black woman in England, the stigma around postpartum depression in the 60’s and 70’s, the pressure to play ‘gendered roles’, and the bouts of loneliness that the broken system impose on women.

If Barry’s chapters are full of colours, jokes, his narcissistic cartwheels, and sharp commentaries on racism, linguistic politics, and sexuality, if Barry’s chapters come across like a flowery filter on Instagram, Carmel’s chapters are sepia toned. A sharp contrast. Carmel talks about things which Barry refuses to share. It’s easy to love Barry — thanks to his large personality — but it’s not hard to understand Carmel. It’s not hard to empathise with her. Carmel could reach the point of making brave decisions at the end, but she wouldn’t understand what it was for Barry to live two lives for 50 years, and neither would Barry understand how Carmel feels about being a cover for her husband for half a century. As much as they think that they made each other’s life miserable, it’s not difficult to see what actually made everything unnecessarily complex and painful — colonization, racism, slavery, homophobia, misogyny…

If Barry is still living, he would be 85. And by now, he should have become politically correct, and more informed about systemic oppression. In 2010, he said…

‘Morris, I am an individual, specific, not generic. I am no more a pooftah than I am a homo, buller or anti-man.’ I start to quietly hum ‘I am What I am’. ‘You homosexual, Barry,’ he says, going po-faced on me. ‘We established that fact a long time ago.’ ‘Morris, dear. I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’ I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it…

…Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don’t like to buck the so-called ‘system’, like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it.

Among all sorts of growth that Barry experiences between May 2010 and May 2011, standing up for what he is, and what he believes in, must be the most meaningful. The cost — of having been forced to love a man in secret, breaking his wife’s heart, worrying if his grandson would throw one nasty glance at a white person inadvertently, and get some bullets pumped into his temple for that, being loathed by his own daughter — should be borne by the system.

He could write many letters apologising to Carmel, but he must ask himself if he would receive an apology from everybody who wronged his ancestors, who made his life harder than what it should have been. So, he should see some labels here. He is a black, gay man. He is an immigrant. He could be richer than many of his white neighbours, but he will forever be seen as a black immigrant. And for that, he can’t be oblivious to the existence of the box and labels. He should recognise them. He should take sides. He should fight the fight because it’s just not about Barry anymore. It’s about reorienting the whole world. It’s about keeping, and leaving it safe and inclusive. Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 can share some tips.

Somewhere in the last chapter of Mr Loverman, Morris says, “..let we enjoy the vibes, man, enjoy the vibes.” It’s strange that he almost sounds like Barry here, but that’s the whole mood of the book. The battle is going to go on for some time, and while that goes, you might as well listen to some good music — Like Shirley Bassey’s The Girl from Tiger Bay — and no, you wouldn’t be judged for living your life.

There’s a crack in every pavement
Underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing
As history repeats

Yes many times I’ve wondered
Why a part of me remains
In a place so full of beauty
That somehow never changed

I bought a ticket of a lifetime
There’s no denying who I am
Forever young, I will stay
The girl from Tiger Bay

Time has me believing
That there’s nothing left to prove
I feel the love within me
And love can’t be removed

All the memories and the scars
They dance away into the stars

Book Review: Woof!: Adventures by the Sea by Aparna Karthikeyan

That extra-friendly black-and-white dog I see at the beach every weekend, what does he do after humans leave? That reclusive brown dog I see at the tea stall, why does she prefer buns to biscuits? That senior white dog I used to see on my biking route, what is he doing now? Would he be lonely? Or does he have friends? What’s their story? How did they start living on the roads? Aparna Karthikeyan makes me ask such questions through her book Woof!: Adventures by The Sea. All the animals we see in public places, how much do we know about their lives, and how can we make their lives better? In the heartwarming tale about a pack that lives on the Mumbai beach, Aparna offers subtle answers. She throws gentle spotlight on the strays, our own Indian mongrels, and relates their stories with imagination that brims with authenticity, and empathy. If Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildlings made me purr for the cats in Delhi, Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! makes my imaginary tail wag, wag, wag for the strays in Mumbai.

On the third day of the great Mumbai monsoon, a small cardboard box appeared on the beach. It had rained and rained all afternoon; the sky was still and grey, and the sand was soggy. The box got wet very quickly. It started wriggling. The jute rope around its middle danced; the packaging tape along its sides bulged. Suddenly, a leg punched a hole through the top; quickly, another popped out. Then came a very long nose. And one folded ear. By the time half the creature had emerged, a small crowd had gathered. They were all dogs. And they were not happy.

The life on the beach is hard for the Don, and her friends. They are all stray dogs. Besides the harsh elements — the sun, the sand, and the sea — their souls are battered by the sheer struggle of living amidst a sea of humanity that ignores their existence, or unleashes its cruelty on them. Adding to their misery, there’s now another puppy — our heroine Shingmo. She will now become a part of their pack (the alpha is a girl, and that’s refreshing!), their joy, their everyday battles, and above all, she will go on a bigger adventure. While Shingmo is our heroine, the story just doesn’t follow her. The narrator knows about every dog in the pack, and even everything about their rivals. All the dogs’ backstories are memorable, their voices unique, their characteristics distinct. It’s only right to say that the book’s cast is an ensemble.

My favourite illustration by Sagar Kolwankar

Woof! starts with a very delightful illustration. It’s an introduction of the characters, with some adorable adjectives about each dog’s personality. Throughout the book, Sagar Kolwankar’s artwork is a fitting companion to Aparna Karthikeyan’s story. Just like how, in Aparna’s words, the dogs’ unique traits come to the surface, the illustrations, even if shown without any captions, can make me identify the dogs. Who can forget Thin’s Dustbin-is-Best face!

You know, people keep talking about this thing called kindess; they write poems and songs about it, but I haven’t really seen it much… Of course, some people are kind, but mostly, they’re very, very busy. They don’t have time to notice us; we’re just lumps curled up on the sand.

A rounded commentary about humans is made by Thug, a misunderstood dog, who just wants to have a chat, be scratched and hugged. People of all types can be found in Woof! Damu doesn’t have money to buy a cup of tea because he spent all that he had to get medicines for the strays. A policeman feeds the dogs biscuits dipped in tea. A woman brings meat and rice for the strays on the beach after a storm stops lashing. These are quotidian scenes in India, and they are even more soul-nourishing when they appear in Woof! because the dogs talk about them. And then there are those who abandon the dogs on the road because the dogs don’t know how to be Labradors, because the dogs are too much responsibility, and because the dogs are forgotten after a baby’s arrival. Imagine reading this book to a child. And how wiser the child would be for knowing that there are all sorts of people, different choices, and what does it take to being right! And, books on dogs don’t have to be awww-inducing, and tickle young readers with stories about goofy dogs. In Woof!, there is an elderly called Coconut, and he is often found ruminating about death. His meditation is full of wisdom, and warmth.

I should be forgiven for being too sure about the belief that stories about strays should end with our heroine finding a home. But Aparna Karthikeyan doesn’t end the book there. She gives that, and more. The pack’s bigger adventure, which makes them heroes in the eyes of the humans, is quite a surprise. The author just doesn’t talk to you, about adopting our Indies, in a non-preachy fashion, but she also decriminalizes the strays through the bigger adventure, and through every back story. She tells you why the strays do what they do. When humans are quick to call the strays a menace, the book shows that knowing them makes it easier to love them, and they should be loved. They deserve nothing less.

Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! Adventure By The Sea is a paean to our community dogs, our Indian mongrels. This country is their home, our hearts their thrones.

There’s enough poori in the world for everyone.

Anu Boo approves of Woof!

Book Review: We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

The solar system in Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space consists of Cash, Fitch, Bird, and their parents. Who is the sun? Or rather, what is the sun? Isn’t it supposed to be love? But the siblings feel they are just drifting in the vast, dark, cold expanse of the universe, like rogue planets. The parents don’t stop fighting, and the siblings are mired in their individual battles. Cash has failed a grade, and because of which he can’t be on the school’s basketball team. Fitch struggles with a terrible temperament. And Bird, a very memorable character, who is the only one who tries to keep the family together, feels invisible. When they begin to believe that their lives can never intersect, a national tragedy — the Challenger disaster of 1986 — brings them together.

Erin Entrada Kelly is a empathetic storyteller. Even when she plants a couple of stereotypical characters in the story — like Fitch’s friend who can’t stop saying funny things about a girl who shows borderline interest for Fitch, like the girls in Bird’s activity group — she presents them all in a relatable light. There are mean children, but that doesn’t mean that they will always be mean. When Erin Entrada Kelly relates Fitch’s anger issues, the story seems extra real, as though it’s narrated from the place of lived experience. When she talks about Cash, the boy who ends up studying in his siblings’ class, she exhibits so much love for him. Everybody is special, including their parents, and especially their mother. She fights with her husband for gender equality, drops Gloria Steinem’s name in an argument, but always warns Bird to not eat junk because girls are supposed to look a certain way. The parents’ hypocrisy is criticised by the children, but Erin Entrada Kelly somewhere quietly asks, “Who is not hypocritical?”

Bird dreams of becoming the first female Shuttle commander. Her dreams are fuelled by her kind, passionate teacher Ms Salonga, who was not selected for Teacher in Space program. She might have been rejected, but she becomes a winner by spreading her love for space, by stirring curiosity in the young minds. She spends the entire month of January in 1986, 28 days before the launch of Challenger, by conducting activities after activities to make her students fall in love with space exploration. Her activities are profound. From questioning and understanding the need to learn about the universe, to drawing differences between humans and machines, Ms Salonga’s activities brim with her love for the universe, and only because of her enthusiasm, when the tragedy takes places, it hurts. It becomes easier to imagine why a 12-year-old Bird would be devastated by a national tragedy that she doesn’t experience first-hand, and how the catastrophe has the power to make and break dreams.

The imaginary exchanges which take place between Bird and her role model, astronaut Judith Resnik are the best parts of the book. A girl, who is made to believe that she is plain, who has big dreams, feels seen and heard, by an astronaut, whom she has never met, and whom she will never meet. Through those exchanges, Erin Entrada Kelly tells the young readers, and readers who feel young, that humans can be a mote of dust, and the universe can be incomprehensibly enormous, but that doesn’t mean we are insignificant, and that doesn’t mean our dreams don’t matter. And the author doesn’t offer a happily-ever-after. She shows that everything is not going to be rosy. The family doesn’t collapse into a group huddle at the end. But there will be helpers, and they will believe in our dreams, and in ourselves, as much as we do, and more so during the times when we struggle to believe in ourselves.

Sometimes I look up at the sky and I see all those stars and my mind works overtime. There is so much up there to explore. Who knows what’s happening in all that space? Maybe there’s someone on the other side of the Milky Way, looking up the sky just like I am. Maybe they see a dot in the sky and they make a wish on it, and the dot in the sky is Earth, and they’re actually wishing on me.

Book Review: A Velocity of Being

The dawn of our fast friendship was also a peculiar point in culture. Those were the early days of ebooks and the golden age of social media, when the very notion of reading — of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual surrender to a cohesive thread of thought composed by another human being, through which your own interior world can undergo a symphonic transformation — was becoming tattered by the fragment fetishism of the Web. Even those of us who partook in the medium openheartedly and optimistically were beginning to feel the chill of its looming shadow.

Cover courtesy: Brainpickings

…writes Maria Popova of Brainpickings fame in her introduction to A Velocity of Being, Letters to A Young Reader, edited by herself, and Claudia Bedrick, who has published this paean to reading, under Enchanted Lion Books. The book is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers, by creative people in several dimensions of life, about why they read, how does reading change them, who read to them when they were kids, and what sort of books they read now. Each letter is accompanied by visual interpretations of the letters, rendered by talented illustrators. From the passage I have quoted here, readers might come to a conclusion that Popova and Bedrick look down upon people who read on devices, but their truth is far from that. They don’t judge how you read, but they worry about the answer to the bigger questions — do you read at all? Will the generations who follow us read at all?

I took solace in a beautiful 1930 essay by Hermann Hesse titled The Magic of the Book in which the Nobel laureate argued that no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. Decades before the Internet as we know it existed, Hesse wrote: “We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority.

It was at this point, when technology was actively changing the landscape of reading, Popova and Bedrick began a project that went on for 8 years — reaching out to writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and even a Holocaust survivor, requesting for letters from them, their offering to young readers, and for the young readers in adults — and ended with this book, a brilliant meditation on reading. The book is Popova and Bedrick’s gift to everybody involved in the grand, noble business of words. I picked up the book today to refer to my notes. Unwittingly, I read one letter after the other, ran my hands on the illustrations, only to realise that I was engrossed that I had almost forgotten to write this blog. It feels like A Velocity of Being has a beating heart; it almost can be felt when you touch the book, and something in you shifts, as though your love for reading quietly collides with the collective devotion that emanates from all the letters.

Image courtesy: Brainpickings

My favourite letters are the ones written by Jacqueline Woodson, Alain de Botton, Diane Ackerman, and Janna Levin. For now, I vividly remember their letters. A few months later, if you read the book, and talk to me about your favourites, I might say that I love what you love because I love everything about this book. In the Illustrations Department, each artist’s work is precious. Sometimes, the illustrations match the letters, and sometimes, they even lift them up. The Fan Brothers’ artwork of Where The Wild Things Are is ridiculously stunning that whenever I look at it, I gasp, and wish that I could be a part of that group, and listen to the monster read the book to me.

In her letter, Woodson writes about what reading does, and what matters most, as she holds her son, and reads a book to him. “…the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here…” — the priceless joy of sharing a story with someone, reading a book together. Diane Ackerman writes about the time when the bookmobile was her portal to multiple universes created by writers. “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book… they explore and celebrate all it means to be human,” says Ackerman. The title of the book is borrowed from Janna Levin’s letter. Levin is one of my favourite scientists, and I immensely enjoyed her book Black Hole Survival Guide. Her sciency letter reads, “Books look static and quiet but they are not. They exude a pressure. They have a melody and stride. But they are only effective when balanced by the pressure of the reader, when they can reflect as well as transmit, when they elongate or quicken according to the velocity of the reader. You, reader, define the experience of the book. Every book you read could only be read in precisely that way by you.” All the 121 of them, loudly, quietly, humorously, beseechingly, assertively, tell the young readers that books are our light to navigate this dark, cold, chaotic yet magnificent universe.

Who was I when I was as young as the intended audience of A Velocity of Being? I was a shy, anxious girl, who was deposited in the only library in my neighbourhood, by my sister who wanted a break from me as she went on adventures by herself. I wish I had the curiosity to look around, be enchanted by a cover art, be piqued by a title. I wish I had the courage to walk up to the stoic librarian, and ask for a recommendation. I sat on a stool, and prayed for my sister to return on time to collect me.

At school, I was taken to the library just a handful of times. It was hard to focus on what the librarian was saying, for my focus was constantly buried in my classmates’ giggles. The librarian had a massive mole on her chin, and several strands of hair hung from it. A harmless mole looked like a goatee on her face, and the girls in my class couldn’t look beyond that. Maybe, that undermined the librarian’s confidence. She always seemed restless, and removed, and the children were mean to her. I wish she had taken me into the safe world of books, but she had to fight her own battles. The librarian continued to work in the school, but the classes were suspended, ending my journey into the world of books, even before it started. So, A Velocity of Being magnified my loss unintentionally, but it’s still okay. I am in my early 30’s, and I want to be optimistic about making up for what I couldn’t access when I was younger.

That’s why Alain de Botton’s letter resonates with me the most. His letter has a universal tone; its audience can be anybody — the youngest, the younger, and the young.

Dear Reader,

We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Yours,
Alain

Book Review: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I wouldn’t have discovered Nora Ephron’s Heartburn if the awesome folks at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh Market, hadn’t recommended it. At this point, after reading a bunch of books recommended by them, I knew that I might end up liking Heartburn as well, although the book’s rating on Goodreads doesn’t reflect my sentiment.

I quite liked Rachel Samstat. She was 38, a food writer, 7 months pregnant with her second child, and her second marriage was crumbling. She had moved into her father’s apartment to get a respite from her husband’s adultery, and the book started…

I was in New York, staying in my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.

The book was published in 1983, and the story unfolded in the 70’s. Rachel had no social media then to casually follow her husband’s digital footprints, and to unwillingly learn that she was being betrayed. It had to happen the old-school way. She had to rummage in the socks drawer, run through the telephone bills, and look for inscriptions on the books gifted to her husband by his friends. Even after discovering that she was being cheated, Rachel related her story with the distance that a raconteur takes while narrating a funny anecdote, and her story still felt intimate.

Everybody in her life was funny. Perhaps, it’s just the way Rachel saw them, choosing to see what she thought was the chief aspect of their personalities. Her mother had a near death experience, and ran away with a man who believed he was God. Her father married her best friend’s sister. Her first husband froze his dead hamster, stored him in their own freezer, and offered a tiny bouquet to his deceased hamster-friend every day. One of her friends proposed her, jumped into a seal pond, and the seals followed him into the pond in horror to reclaim their habitat. They all made hilarious cameos in her story. In between, she dropped recipes to make some of her favourite delicacies. They appeared at random junctures, but she was that person whose life was built on the love for cooking, and who could express her love articulately through food, and even if she were moaning about her breakup, she was kind enough to get distracted, and shared recipes. She even shared one of her delightful essays titled Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections, and the next time when I eat mashed potatoes, I will think of Rachel.

Once in a while, Rachel addressed the reader, and assured that the story had a plot, but it was weak. It still worked for me though. If a book started with the central character being pregnant, one could predict how it would end. Although her narration seemed like she was rambling, it seemed warm, funny, and soulful. I caught myself laughing out loud quite a few times, and that’s saying something. I usually don’t laugh when I read funny books. The laughter usually rings in the head, and it dies there. Rachel made it audible.

When Rachel made the final decision, she sounded very unlike Rachel. Her ability to see the funny side of things disappeared. She seemed world-wearied, broken, exhausted, and maybe, she should have felt all of that a long while ago, and if she had, the book would have ended up sounding like another jilted person’s side of the story. It still was, in some way, perhaps. In her story, the husband was totally at fault, and while she questioned her contribution to the collapse, she was relieved by the betrayal.

That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

At the end, Rachel justified her proclivity to turn everything into a story and a joke. I bought her view, and that also made her totally unreliable. What was she telling me in the first place? But it didn’t matter anymore.

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

I must admit that Rachel’s sense of humour was not clean. It was replete with stereotypes about gender, and race, and some of her jokes reminded me of what the standup comedians dish out as jokes these days. I found myself stopping, and wondering if people laughed about such mean things forty years ago, and I squirmed in the thought that people still do. I wished some personal growth for Rachel.

Perhaps, if Ephron were alive, she might have written a sequel, and I would have still bought that book. I might not necessarily care about Rachel, but I am curious about her life. I liked the way she made me laugh when her jokes were politically correct, and when it stemmed from bewilderment, surprise, revenge, and resignation. I liked her more for she hadn’t lost hope. Also, there must be a TV show on this book.

Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.

Book Review: Love And Other Thought Experiments

…she took her ID and prepared herself for the retinal scanner. She wondered what the computer saw as the reader slid across her face. Pattern recognition or something more? Humans stared into each other’s eyes for lifetimes, trying to gauge what the other was thinking, feeling. Will you be faithful to me? Will you be kind? The machine verified your identity in seconds and determined if you were trustworthy in a few more. The questions weren’t so different…

Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments started like an innocent novel. Rachel, and Eliza are thinking of having a baby, and that’s when an ant enters Rachel’s eyes. Despite the blurbs on the back which scream that Love and Other Thought Experiments is a philosophical fiction, and the ideas explored in the book are wild, I still presumed that the book was going to follow their relationship, but I couldn’t have been more wrong than that. The book is so compelling that it’s been a day since I finished reading but it continues to linger in my mind, and offers meaning for the parts I couldn’t fathom when I read the book. Imagine this: you go to bed, have bizarre dreams, and wake up with a faint memory about the dream. You do that the next day. The next day. You repeat for 10 days, and you are left with a bouquet of dreams but you don’t know what they would mean if they were stitched together. On the 11the day, the dreams come together, divulging the great design that they produced. Reading Love and Other Thought Experiments is akin to the process of dreaming and collecting dreams, and finally being told what the dreams signify. But the book is even beyond that. It’s just not about a bunch of vignettes being braided together in the last chapter. The book is about how each chapter stands on its own even when the significance of its existence is open to interpretation, and how all the chapters form something beautiful when they finally meet. Quite like the human life itself, perhaps?

Each chapter begins with an epigraph. In her own words, Sophie Ward tells me about thought experiments which deepen the understanding of the human nature. I had heard of some of the experiments, and I was new to many of the ideas, but that didn’t ruin the experience for me. Sophie Ward removes the layers on the ideas, irons them out, places her people on that philosophical landscape, and then tells me their story without ridiculing me for not knowing being philosophical and sciency. Her stories come from many places — love, loss, grief, marriage, relationships, consciousness, artificial intelligence — and they travel from one country to another, one part of the world to another, and one part of the universe to another. As the stories move from one terrain to the next one, the genre bends. At one point in time, the book is a literary fiction. It later morphs into a philosophical fiction. And then it quietly becomes a science fiction. For me, that’s not a complaint. I had invested in her people so much that I was ready to follow them, even to a moon. My tour around the Internet made me realise that the book is detested for how it changes its avatar in the last chapter, and how what was believed to be the ‘big reveal’ was a disappointment. I only wish that the book took some more pages to justify the end. But I can’t imagine an another end.

Love and Other Thought Experiments asks many an important question. What is reality? What does it mean to be alive? What is death? What does it mean to romanticize the past? What is our future? What is technology doing to us? Who is the Creator? What is consciousness? Even when all the questions are answered, would you be happy with the answers? And what helps you on your quest? What is the role of love? Do you get to choose the answers?

I saved the best part of the book for the last paragraph — Sophie Ward’s writing. It’s breathtaking. What could have easily become conceited is rescued by Ward’s confident words, detailed imageries, and earnest effort to make complex concepts accessible in her stories. I vividly remember the chapter on Ali, and the one narrated by the Ant herself. The book’s golden wisdom is unearthed in that chapter. Through the surest words of the ant, I understand the beauty and contradictions and struggles of being human. And I shouldn’t be judged for hoping for a moment that I had an ant in my head, and that she understood me more than I can possibly imagine. The Internet tells me that the ant who lived in Sophie Ward’s keyboard ended up starring in her book. From now on, when I look at ants, I have another reason to smile. And let me borrow a word which the book borrowed from James Joyce, and change its meaning to its actual sound to record my feeling about the book. Ameising.

She wondered if she could even be considered the same person now that every cell in her body had been replaced, more than once. It didn’t seem to matter so much when the effect was growth and health but now that shrinkage and damage were the order of events, it mattered a lot. Was it possible that her mind could escape the same process? Those connections had also been replaced, many times over. Her memories, too, were different, shaded by the events that had taken place since. If you were made of remembrance and your memories changed, did you, who remembered, change too?

Book Review: Father of Lions

By the time he was eighteen, Imad had discovered an immutable fact: animals were better than people.

The war was at his door, the ISIS waited to behead him, and he was cooped up in his house along with his wife, and a lot of children. And none of those predicaments perturbed Abu Laith (Imad). What made him despondent was the inhuman condition of his Zombie (a lion cub), Mother (a lioness), Father (a lion), Lula (a bear), a bear cub, and many other animals who were stranded in Mosul Zoo during the war. How would he keep the animals alive? How would he even take a quick trip to the zoo to ensure that it wasn’t bombed? At the heart of Louise Callaghan’s Father of Lions: How One Man Defied Isis and Saved Mosul Zoo lies the truth that…

…good things come from being kind to animals.

The help arrived in the form of Dr Amir Khalil, a conflict rescue vet, who was as determined as Abu Laith to free the animals. But humans struggle to understand why anybody would risk their life to liberate a pack of wild animals when millions of humans were engulfed by the war. Humans ridiculed Dr Amir, threw funny glances at him, made the rescue process unnecessarily difficult for him, but people like Dr Amir, and Abu Laith always knew that one should not be coerced to choose between humans, and animals, and if hurdles were intentionally planted on their way, they would jump over them, come what may. There should be enough room on this planet for every sentient being.

If people cared for animals, they should care for humans, and if they cared for humans, they should care for animals. Kindness should not be divided.

A year ago, I was mixing food for Ramu, a stray dog whom I befriended on my cycling route, and for reasons which I still don’t fathom, Ramu growled, and held my hand roughly for a brief moment. Dogs understand, and wait patiently when their food is being prepared, but Ramu was going down the hill already. He couldn’t see that I was trying to help him. The way he held my hand felt like a bite, and I went to the nearest hospital to start the rabies vaccine course. The receptionist at the hospital quizzed me to gather information for a report, and he loudly wondered, “You tried to feed a stray, and the dog bit you. Why do people still do it? Life is busy, and hard as it is. Why do people create time for animals, and even let animals hurt them?” Next time when I come across that question, I am going to recommend Callaghan’s book as the answer.

Wherever humans suffered, animals suffered too. Their food, their care and their lives were almost always the first casualties of war: pet dogs left to starve because the owners had to feed their children, zoo animals abandoned when keepers fled from fighting.

Anu Boo – my dog – is my best friend. Every once in a while, when I stay awake until the darkest hour – 3 AM – of the night, I would be visited by a sort of anxiety that I know too well. “Am I equipped enough to protect Anu Boo if a catastrophe falls upon us?” I ask myself. I play several scenarios in my head, add layers after layers of what-ifs, and I reach for the answers impatiently as though walking through a maze. Sometimes, the answers are comforting. Sometimes, the answers are so inadequate that I punch the walls of the maze. And that’s why books like this one become important. They are written to tell us that it’s okay to love animals despite knowing that we will live longer than them, and to tell us that there are people like us, and they will see us for the way we hold animals in our hearts.