Rinsing Rincewind | Interesting Times (Discworld #17), by Terry Pratchett

Interesting Times,
by Terry Pratchett,
Published by HarperTorch (1998)
Rating:
***** 

Introduction

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett in my second year of Law School, by a junior who had just come in and shared a love of reading, but was also willing to talk about his books and share them with me. By then I had read Good Omens, but had never ventured into Discworld. This friend of mine shared with me the Discworld Reading Guide 3.0. Although I remain aware that every book in the Discworld empire (if I can call it that) can be enjoyed independently, it felt nice to have some direction in the manner I approached all the books. And so, in 2017, it was, that I finally began this task. I return to finish and tick books off my list whenever I feel like I’m going through a reading slump or I need more dry wit and humour in the material I’m consuming, and Sir Terry never disappoints me. A quick addendum before I begin the actual review: I’ve not written any reviews for other Discworld novels, but will be writing them henceforth.

Plot

Rincewind is returned to Unseen University and makes a deal with Ridcully to go to Discworld’s oldest Empire to help them with their current revolution in exchange for being allowed to come back for good to be called a wizard. Due to the fact that the old Emperor is about to die, the struggle to determine his successor was about to begin, but there were also workers uniting after reading What I did on My Holidays. We get a History lesson, Sir Terry style, what with an Asian empire, diplomacy, slavery, and oppression, Barbarians, and pretty much everything else all wrapped up into one.

Dialogue

I’ve always enjoyed Pratchett’s work because of the rapid exchanges and dialogue weaved into the book. While large portions of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far are written in the third-person descriptive, there are several bits of dialogue to help further the characterization and contextualize plot development. However, given that this is a world of it’s own, it is easy to slip to large bits of dialogue – swathes and pages of exchange between characters. Tolkien is often accused of doing this – although, that is something that is worth getting into in another piece altogethr. Pratchett keeps his exchanges short and sweet and filled to the brim with bone-tickling humour. A prime example of this is the exchange amongst the faculty at Unseen University.

Setting Up Ankh-Morpork

Ankh-Morpork features prominently in Discworld, and this is the first Discworld novel I’m reading that takes place for the most part away from Ankh-Morpork. One of the things I admire about this series is how it’s both stand-alone and a series. Books therefore need to establish some level of context, and also need to further larger plot narratives within Discworld. I’ve been super interested in the art of world-building, and what creative decisions authors take while building up worlds and conjuring up stories. What I found most unique to Interesting Times was Pratchett’s use of the historical empire to reflect various aspects of Ankh-Morpork from the previous books, while using Rincewind’s own ruminations to introduce someone reading this book exclusively to the mad world that is Discworld.

Conclusion

An extremely fast-paced, humorous read. Classic Sir Terry.

Spidey Sense | Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time (Children of Time #1)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky,
Published by PanMacmillan (2015)
Rating:
****

Introduction

In 2016, this book seems to have set the Science Fiction world alight. My discovery of the book was only in late 2019, and this was my first read in 2020, which was quite a nice way to start off the year. What intrigued me the most when I found the book on Goodreads was the fact that the author’s last name was Tchaikovsky, and for a while, I thought there was a connection with the famous composer. Turns out there is none. Then I discovered that the author was a legal executive – and the commonality in profession and vocation perhaps drew me to the book even more. This was a solid read, and I’d gladly recommend this as an excellent starter book for those curious about themes that you will meet frequently in Science Fiction/Fantasy writing.

Plot

An experiment seeks to uplift monkeys to sentient levels through an engineered nanovirus, in order to place them on a habitable planet. Unfortunately though, that project is tampered with, and all the subject monkeys are killed. Nonetheless, the nanovirus is transported to the intended planet, infecting several species of insects. Spiders end up becoming the chief beneficiaries as a result of this “botched” experiment. Thus begins one prominent narrative throughout the book, which explores spiders as rulers of their planet – looking at the kind of society they set up. The second, interconnected narrative is a group of humans fleeing from Earth, now destroyed by a final world war – who end up finding the spider-race planet. Thus begins an intermingling of worlds.

History 

Over the past few years, I have noticed that the Science Fiction/Fantasy books that I enjoy indulging in the most are books which have elaborate histories constructed for the world they seek to establish. This, for me, enables a greater contextual understanding of the issues that the book seeks to deal with, and allows me to immerse myself in the world that the writer envisages with more ease. With this genre particularly, there needs to be an element of relatability for me – a fine tightrope between creating a distinct world and actually allowing for some elements to continue uninterrupted from the world we know. History does this best. Tchaikovsky accomplishes this wonderfully. Aside from all the chapters aboard the ship fleeing Earth, Gilgamesh, Tchaikovsky weaves the history of compelling spiders like Portia, looking at how her species develops language, understands rules to live by, and develops culture to pass down through their civilization. It’s amazing.

What’s even more remarkable is the fact that Tchaikovsky weaves what is clearly an inter-generational saga into a singular, mammoth book, without losing track of the key plot points he seeks to elucidate. That takes a fair amount of foresight, and inspired writing. For me, only one other author has managed that successfully, and perhaps that speaks to how recently I’ve discovered how much I enjoy this genre, but that’s Cixin Liu.

 Conclusion

This book is a great introduction to science-fiction/fantasy because it establishes a planet afresh, and perhaps gives the nicest overview of the kind of dilemmas the genre seeks to engage with.

Instability | Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun,
by Elias Khoury
Published by Picador (2007)
Rating: 
*****

Introduction 

This book has been on my to-read shelf since 2016, and I was intimidated about picking it up because I feared that I would not like it. When I first heard about this book, I heard only good things – from the plot, to the characters, to Khoury’s writing – people praised the decisions he made throughout. I was told it was impossible for me to not enjoy it, and that I would leave the book with several questions.

The history of the Middle East is a history I have read obsessively about because of my own connections to that part of the world and my desire to understand how so much conflict has been allowed to persist in such a localized area for so long, with and without intervention.

At the start of this year, I decided that aside from reading a large volume of books, and reading widely, I wanted to remove books from my to-read shelf. My Goodreads is filled with all sorts of things I’ve shelved, and I figured that discarding those, or reading those would lead to better predictions from the algorithm, and fresh finds – things I’d genuinely like to read. After all, there’s too little time to do all the reading I want to be doing.

Thus began my adventure with Khoury. I completed the book in class, and recommended it instantly to the person seated next to me – certain that I had found another reader. So it was to be, and long may this book continue to travel.

Plot

The book is structured as a stream-of-consciousness narration by Khaleel, an almost-son-like figure to Yunes, a Palestinian freedom fighter, who is in a coma. Although others have given Yunes up for dead, Khalil sits vigil by his hospital bedside and recounts stories, in an effort to make sense of their lives, and to make some contact with Yunes.

Detail

There is incredible detail in Khoury’s writing. He spent years listening to stories at refugee camps, and those stories fed into the novel – and that experience shines through in a manner irreplaceable by any other experience. He weaves to life the Palestine cause, and in doing so, he is able to showcase the true sense of displacement that refugees live with and the burden that places on them. There are portions of this book that it hurt to read because I felt helpless – it felt unfair, and left me with deep despair that humans had to go through the harrowing experience of seeing their home, being able to identify it, but not being sure what the world identifies it as.

There is naturally, a grandioseness to Khoury’s writing that leaves you remembering the words he writes. One that stood out for me was:

“in the faces of those people being driven to slaughter, didn’t you see something resembling your own?”

These lines asking the Palestinians to understand the Holocaust.

This is an Odyssey.

Conclusion

If you cannot tell, I am enamored by this book – for it takes ordinary stories and everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and raises them to myth. If there is a book you read this year, please let this be it.

Did Not Hurt |This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay
Published by Picador (2017)
Rating: *****

Introduction 

The NHS has fascinated me for a long time. As a non-British person, I’m truly in awe of the fact that healthcare, on a grand and very visible scale is affordable to everybody across the nation, and is chosen by people across economic classes. I understand that national healthcare models exist around the world, and in no means am I proclaiming the NHS to be the best – I am not an expert on the matter and have read limited literature around it. It just fascinates me that the system can exist with public backing.

I know one doctor who works within the NHS. I’ve never discussed the system with him. I know a few doctors – several of them in my own family. I’ve never discussed their cases or any funny stories they may have to share. However, I have imagined, as I do think everyone in the service sector does, that they would have seen some characters in their lifetime. I’ve always wondered what that journey was like. Adam Kay peeled back the curtain in his memoir, and I was enriched for it. Through his book, he takes us through his time as a junior doctor in the UK.

Entertainment

This was a stunningly entertaining book. It’s taken from Kay’s diary, and has retained it’s original format for the most part, with short entries interspersed with longer ones. While the format does take some time to get accustomed to, Kay writes in a manner that is unfiltered and accessible, giving you an insight into how he thinks really quickly – and boy, is his brain hilarious. There are jokes aplenty, and succinct, witty, two-line observations that’ll make you chuckle. The humour cuts across Kay’s treatment of more serious, current-day issues that the NHS has to tackle, including doctor allocation, understaffing, as well as a host of personal issues that professionals in the medical field go through that we, as patients sometimes take for granted.

All-in-all, it makes something very scary (medicine and people’s lives on the line) seem less scary, and I’m grateful for it.

Emotion

There are some very, very touching tales throughout. Doctors have a lot of empathy, and Kay certainly knows when to flick this switch on. The book ends hurriedly and abruptly, and you understand – especially around the final few pages, the kind of emotional toll and rollercoaster doctors must go through on a daily basis. I found myself thinking about surgeons most frequently, or diagnosticians, who rapidly must move from patient to patient, putting negatives behind them as quickly as possible.

Footnoting

Particular mention has to be made of Kay’s footnoting. The first thing I laughed about in the book was a note about footnotes that directed me to read the footnotes. At first, I didn’t understand why. Generally, especially when I’m reading e-books, I tend not to read footnotes. This practice is largely owing to the cumbersome nature of navigating to the footnote and navigating back. However, Kay uses a fair amount of medical terminology – and supplies helpful, contextual information in laypeople-English in his footnotes. Quite often, these are supplemented with humorous anecdotes, that made the footnotes a delight.

The other option would have been to omit medical jargon that was beyond the grasp of reasonably informed individuals – but that would have been inauthentic and a disservice to the craft he performed. I’m pleased that was not the route chosen.

Conclusion

Excellent, sit-down and laugh your heart out read. Worth a Sunday afternoon.

Rogues, Raju and Redemption | The Guide, by R.K. Narayan

The Guide,
by R.K. Narayan
Published by Penguin Classics (2006)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

R.K. Narayan has been an ever-present name in my life. My mother first introduced to me to Malgudi, but it was my father who took me to Gangarams Bookstore and helped me find and buy my first (and only copy) of R.K. Narayan’s work, Malgudi Schooldays. Aside from finding and watching the adaptation on YouTube, my next interaction with Narayan was in Grade 10, where I read his short story A Horse and Two Goats. Then I discovered that R.K. Laxman (of The Common Man) fame was his brother. I remember thinking then, as I do now, that sitting with them for a meal served on a banana-leaf would have been an absolute joy.

On a whim, I discovered an academic article titled How To Read an Indian Novel, which left me flabbergasted because of its claims, but also because I had never come across a reading guide for an entire country, especially none as diverse as India. It baffled me. I took the advice to heart though, and Narayan was recommended, his work The Guide gaining particular prominence in that critics literary imagination. Thus begun this journey, which I took to instantly thanks to it’s setting in Malgudi – a place I want to call home.

Plot

Raju, a storekeeper at the Malgudi Railway Station discovers that he can use his gift of the gab to make more money as a tour guide to visitors. He leaves his store to the station porter’s son, finding a friend and a taxi to become a guide who is known throughout India. Unexpectedly though, Raju’s life takes a turn when he falls in love with Rosie, the wife of a scholarly tourist client, Marco. Raju confesses his love to her, and Rosie separates from Marco, who had treated her terribly.

Being with Rosie leads to estrangement from his family, and Raju loses his house and store to debt. Raju encourages Rosie to take up her passion of dancing, and together, they make Rosie one of India’s top dancers. Raju then commits an act of dishonesty that changes his life once more, and he ends up in jail for forgery.

Raju returns to Malgudi after two years. Narayan pans the scene to an abandoned temple by a river, when local villagers take him to be a Sadhu and approach him for advice. As Raju’s words turn true, he is proclaimed and considered a saint, and he begins a second life at the goodwill of people. However, amidst a severe drought, one of Raju’s proclamations is interpreted to mean he will be fasting to bring rain – leading to the book’s ambiguous ending.

Characters that are Human

Very often I find myself struggling to identify with characters across fiction books owing to their clear polarizing character traits. This is truer of books that were published in the 1900’s (ones I have read) as compared to newer books, which have developed nuance into their writing. However, as is appropriate of Narayan’s writing style (in the little literature of his that I have inhaled and consumed), characters here are grey. They are human, with flaws and quirks, and mistakes committed, and their own perspective on morality.

That drives this book. I believe that having characters that are human makes books with dacoity or forgery, or even acts of dishonesty – plain, white lies even, more bearable, because they allow you to understand the perspective of the character committing those acts. For moments, they are relatable – they live and breathe, and so, they make mistakes, when they see ends they wish to have. Raju, Rosie, and everyone else in the book is wonderfully human, and I am grateful for it.

Simplicity 

Another defining trait of Narayan’s writing, I would think, is his simplicity of prose. There are short, crisp sentences. There is dry wit. There’s an ease to reading his books, which, in particular, help make this book easy to navigate – particularly since he takes you back and forth in time repeatedly. There’s no complex narrative structure at play, and no plot within a plot. This is a page-turner that is a delight to read.

Conclusions

I want to visit Malgudi, and would urge all of you to read this – for you will want to meet the characters there too.

Classical Music, Declassified | Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music,
by Jan Swafford
Published by Basic Books (2017)
Rating: **** 

Introduction

By December, 2019, I had decided that one of the things I wanted to do in 2020 was to get back to classical music more seriously. For several years, between Grade 6 and Grade 10, classical music had consumed large chunks of my time: amidst theory lessons and piano lessons, all I was learning was classical pieces for examinations, or music in method books, all composed by famous composers. It was only in one of my later theory lessons that my music teacher at the time introduced me to the different periods of music composition. That revelation coincided with the time I was learning about literary periods, and the overlap was quite a phenomenon for my young mind.

Of course as time passed, my interest weaned off, and I stopped my piano lessons and everything that went along with it. For a while, therefore, I played the same 3 pieces I learned for exams in 2011 every time someone asked me to perform. Anyway, long story short, I figured that if I was going to get back to classical music, I ought to educate myself about it’s history and relevance, to some degree. Enter Jan Swafford.

Short Chapters 

One of the classiest things to do. With non-fiction books that present brief histories of, or introductions to individual subjects or niche areas, there’s often this desire to cover everything in the field, which stems out of the author’s own passion for the subject. I know that if I wrote a non-fiction book, for example, I’d want to cover everything imaginable about the subject. However, very often, that slips into making the book inaccessible to the general public – an outcome that isn’t the most desirable when you are trying to influence or improve general visibility for a craft.

Swafford keeps his chapters short and crisp, with a lucid writing style and dry wit that sparks off the page and keeps the pages turning. One of the more helpful things is the fact that he doesn’t seek to delve into a historical overview of every significant piece in an era or by a particular composer. He writes about the pieces that appeal to him – displaying a bias toward choral pieces, but that nevertheless allows him to explain the characteristic features of the piece by the composer.

Additionally, along with short chapters, the thing I admired was the selection of recommended pieces neatly highlighted in Bold, allowing for optional (yet highly recommended) listening alongside the reading. This book consumed me. Quite honestly, it left me wondering why books didn’t come with recommended soundtracks or playlists, and whether I could embark on another quest: to create playlists for the books I read – to capture the mood and emotion of the book most appropriately. That is, however, for another day.

Simplicity

Swafford is a composer himself. Another peril of having an expert write a book meant for beginners is the prospect of highly technical language. I’m not a complete beginner to music theory, however, there is jargon that is consistently beyond me. I am not an expert, and would not have liked for this book to have assumed any knowledge. To my surprise, the book assumed nothing. From start to finish, it felt as though someone had clasped my hand and walked me across all the 88-keys of a piano, teaching me what each sounded like and meant, but also helping me build the vocabulary into my own lexicon.

Swafford does a magnificent job structurally, building through and weaving more famous composers with less publicly known faces, allowing you to appreciate the breadth and depth of technique employed by these composers.

What I wish the book contained though was a little more contextual information at the beginning of each ‘era’ so to speak – to place and locate it precisely in history. The issue with exploring composers is that at times (quite often), their histories overlap, leading to repetition. This is not a fatal flaw, nonetheless, I did feel that it compromised my own reading of the subject.

Conclusion

I’m looking forward to reading his more “heavy” work, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, very soon. This is definitely a good starting point for anybody interested in understanding classical music better, or for anybody seeking some good classical music recommendations.

Survivor Guilt | Dear Edward, by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward,
by Ann Napolitano
Published by Dial Press (2020)
Rating: 
***

Introduction 

Dear Edward was one of my one-day class reads. It was a really, really quick, page-turner that took up a Monday morning and got done by the time I went for lunch. I came across the book on Goodreads and the blurb had me intrigued enough to dive right in. Survivor’s guilt is something I find intriguing because it feels like such an odd facet of human behaviour. Of course this is a sweeping, generalized statement, but in society, we’re so used to switching off and stepping away from responsibility, that sometimes we take responsibility or blame ourselves for things that we do not necessarily have control over. Hearing that a book delved into that, into the thoughts that go on in that process made me fascinated instantly. I dived in with hope, as I do with most books, but as I’ll explain in this review – I was a little confused by the way the plot developed.

Plot

Really simplistic. A plane crashes en route Los Angeles from Newark, killing everyone on board the aircraft except a 12-year old. Through narrative flashbacks and switches to the present-day, the story takes us through Edward’s life after the crash, and what he remembers and deals with as he attempts to cope with life after – without his family, adopted by his uncle and aunt, and being the most famous 12-year old in his neighbourhood.

The flashbacks deal with observations of various characters on the plane and what they were up to in their final moments, which plays into a key plot device of foreshadowing the latter half of the book where Edward discovers letters addressed to him by the relatives of all those individuals.

Something I found out after finishing the book was that this was based on a crash that took place in 2010, killing everyone except a 9-year old Dutch boy – a story that captivated Napolitano’s imagination so much that she knew it had to be told.

Struggle

Napolitano does an excellent job of portraying the struggle and unease that comes with surviving trauma. A large portion of this I felt came out of the dispassionate, disconnected, neutral narrative tone that was adopted to the entire book, insofar as it felt like there was always an arms-length distance between the reader and everything Edward was experiencing. In a lot of ways, the book’s development was almost a social, scientific observation of Edward’s actions and the actions of those around him – with fact and analysis intertwined and behaviours explained and rationalized as best as possible.

A key element that I felt added to that tone was the air of mystery that surrounded every character. There’s very little attention given to the backstory of every character, and even while describing events on the plane, or things Edward goes through at school, there’s very little diving into Edward’s past. The only time we see it happen is with Shay, another character central to Edward’s development, but this comes quite late on in the entire story as Edward breaks down walls he’s built around him to protect himself.

Clichés 

One of the things I found disappointing was the way in which Napolitano portrayed some characters, which allowed for the furtherance of clichés and tropes about professions. A key example here is the flight attendant, who is unprofessional in dealing with passenger requests on a regular basis and feels extremely out of place compared to other characters in the book. There is a classic stereotype associated with unprofessional staff in the hospitality sector, flight attendants included, and Veronica’s character allowed for the furthering of that stereotype by latching onto it and not creating any depth of character for them. Where characters are introduced in novels – especially coming-of-age novels, I find that these characters need to be central to the growth that takes place – and I didn’t really see that happen here.

The Ending

The plot arc was set up so wonderfully, especially with the dispassionate narration, because it was all so expected. Once the letters were introduced, it was a certainty that Edward would read them and learn things about people wishing things for him or wanting him to do things and fulfil the life that they believe their loved ones would have had. However, I expected that this is where Napolitano would introduce some amount of emotion into the story – to inject the feeling that would have brought Edward to life – a character that is impacted by what he reads. That would have imparted warmth to me, knowing that every event, every interaction Edward had did actually impact him.

Au contraire, reading the chapters about the letters were the portions in which I felt the storytelling was the most cold and the most distant. It was glossed through, glanced over, and felt like it was put together to help piece together the romantic conclusion the book had primed itself for once Shay was introduced.

That was unfortunate.

Concluding Thoughts

I wish we had a more fleshed out story with a little more soul. This is clearly a heart-wrenching premise, but it needed more for me, and that’s what impacted my rating the most. Read for a depiction of the kind of guilt that’s difficult to put into words.

Science, Actually | Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing,
by Delia Owens
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2019)
Rating: *****

Introduction

My book picks this year have been eclectic, but that’s the kind of spread that brings me the most amount of joy in my reading. Over the last few years there’s been a surge in the volume of historical fiction being read. I tried putting the genre aside for a while, but there’s something wonderful about being able to travel through time and live in a distinct period and learn about the culture that prevailed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Delia Owens’ debut novel shows us just about all of it, and is going to rank high on my year-end list for sure.

Plot 

The main storyline takes us through the life of Kya Clark, between 1952 and 1970 (ages 6 through 25) as she grows up alone in a shack in the wet wilderness of North Carolina, having been abandoned by everyone in her family. We understand early on that Kya is a survivor, foraging and teaching herself skills to participate in a limited manner in the community, to get her essential supplies among other things. To the townspeople though, Kya is labelled as “the Marsh Girl”, uneducated, poor, and living alone and disconnected from the rest of civilized society. Owens introduces the centerpiece of the book: Kya is on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews, a rich town kid who is/was her love interest. Around the trial, Owens threads us along on a date-jumbled journey to understand the harsh reality of Kya’s life, and the reality that the public understands.

Nature 

This is a very vivid book. One of the things I learned after completing it was that Delia Owens is an American wildlife scientist. This shines through in her writing, which in some portions is so intricate – while describing foliage, or describing the kind of fish that Kya manages to get her hands on. Owens is skilfully able to tread this fine line between painting a perfect picture through her words, without her descriptions becoming excessive. That balance stems from the fact that Kya is gifted in her own understanding of wildlife and nature, allowing for nature to feature as a character, almost, upon which both Kya, and the furtherance of the book’s plot and narrative rests.

Kya’s reference points all stem from her surrounding environment, a fact that mirrors reality. Nature clearly plays a role in our upbringing (cue the nature versus nurture debate), and Kya is no different. This use of nature though, in making it the focal point of Kya’s life, allows for her depiction as a feral being, Mowgli-esque. Her isolation enables her to understand human interactions with nature far better than others, and her relationship with the environment is fundamental to her identity. Owens’ exposition of this relationship, by including wordy descriptions of the environment while critical scenes are taking place: abandonment, return, and love, made me feel that Kya had a personal relationship with nature that was left unexplored, and as all good books do – it left me wondering what was left unsaid about that relationship, and where it could go next.

Class 

Historical fiction leans on conflict and division very frequently, and this book is no different, relying on the class divide to allow for the development of the trial, and the tension in that trial even more. Kya is supported by a minority of the population, and her exclusion from the rest of the public speaks to her background and economic class. However, something I found interesting is that for a book set in 1950’s North Carolina, there was little direct mention of race – a choice that I found curious. Where race is introduced, it didn’t necessarily play a large factor in the book’s plot development – a creative choice I respect. The substitution with economic class allows for a less-traditional exploration of the divide in North Carolina at the time, and one I admired.

Conclusion

This was understandably one of the bestsellers last year. I’d sit and read it again in a heartbeat. Would recommend highly.

Wordy Self-Portraits | Min Kamp, by Karl Ove Knausgård

Introduction

The fourth book in this series received 4-stars, but other than that, I gave the remaining five books 5-stars (on a scale of 5). Now that ratings are out of the way, let’s get cracking.

Narrative non-fiction is the kind of non-fiction that feels the easiest to read because it never feels like you’re studying – which is often a feeling even the best-written non-fiction books give me. Autobiographies and biographical writing is generally therefore the least tedious real-life material to consume. As a natural consequence, I’m pretty big on the genre. Discovering that Knausgaard (and I will request you to bear with the spelling through this piece) existed was therefore pretty astounding. I read the first book in the series through December, and committed to it at the beginning of the year – embarking on a journey of too many pages.

The Title

If you read the title – I’m sure you’re going to think about Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. Now, there’s this inquisition about whether or Knausgaard is an anti-semite for utilizing a title so similar to Hitler’s work for his own. The books however, rarely delve into political expression, using humour in some portions to poke shots at how politically correct Swedish individuals are. Discussion about the title only stems in the last book, however, that is, as Knausgaard has admitted, an afterthought, and delves more into Hitler than any justification about the title itself. There is no definitive answer for why Knausgaard chose the title, other than the fact that it appealed to him. It has, however, sparked off  a large debate about what associations to Hitler are permissible (and was printed in Germany under a different title).

Slow, Methodical Writing

Naturally, if someone is able to write six books about various happenings in their lives, they ought to be able to write well. Knausgaard definitely done that, however, this is not a light read. This is largely because it’s almost as if Knausgaard opens the only door guarding his mind and lets slip any veils that exist between his mind and ours. Things are extremely detailed. At various times, he slips into a comprehensive, minute account of the most minor, inconsequential actions. This is especially true of physical activities that form a part of his daily routine, like washing dishes, or setting tables.

While that may not appeal to everyone, I found that across the first two books, which deal with the death of his father and his marriage, this minute detailing helps to portray how solitary the struggle that Knausgaard faces is. This isn’t something he shares with anybody – his grief, his joy, they’re all emotions he experiences alone, and thus, it’s almost as though he experiences them more fully.

Existentialism

Across all six books, there’s a definitive quest for a sense of purpose. This is prominent in books two and three, which he writes after about four or five years of the first one, and the money is running out. What I appreciated was how much he engages with these thoughts of existentialism and a quest for purpose, and how often he oscillates between trying to find that purpose and assuaging himself that life doesn’t need to have fixed purpose at every point of time. There are segments where Knausgaard admits to the writing being forced, out of the need to feel purposeful. That resonated with me because I was trying to figure out how I felt about my hobbies at the time: things I did purely for the joy of doing them – and how seriously I wanted to pursue those passions.

Conclusions 

As you can tell, I didn’t ponder over the book too much. I enjoyed it because it felt like the kind of writing I wish to pursue on my own blog. I’d recommend reading it, because everyone’s life has moments we can relate to as human beings, experiences so fundamental that they feel shared. Knausgaard’s life is no different, and you will find atleast one page (of the many) that you feel connected to. That alone makes the journey worthwhile.

Reading the Obama White House

Introduction

In the past 4 years, since Donald Trump took over the Oval Office, I’ve been intrigued by the circumstances that got him there. I’ve missed having President Obama in power. There are only a handful of instances where the policies and politics of America has a direct impact on my life as an Indian. I’ve missed having President Obama because of the optics of everything and the image he projected of America. There was a quiet, commandeering strength about him, as opposed to the 3am twitter updates that President Trump (still not used to this) offers up. The result of this has been a lot of reading about America, and about Obama himself – and what the White House is like and what it represents. I was interested in understanding how Obama forged a White House in his image, and what Presidents do once they leave – which set me forth on a journey in reading several books. I’ll leave ratings and links to these books below, but here are some things I observed that were common through these narratives.

Most of these books are memoirs written by former Obama White House staffers. A few disclaimers:

  1. There are more books describing the Obama White House I haven’t read;
  2. I have read books presenting arguments which criticize the Obama White House; and
  3. I have not read books about previous White Houses. My experience with the other White Houses come from History reports and pop culture.

The Books

  1. Ben Rhodes – The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House – *****
  2. Dan Pfeiffer – Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump – ****
  3. Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lauren Oyler – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House – ****
  4. Katy Tur – Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History – ***

The Stories 

I loved reading through each of these because they portrayed an incredibly personal narrative of some of the most defining moments in the last few years under Obama’s presidency and during the 2016 Elections. There’s a ton of insight that would have ordinarily been available only if White House staffers were entitled to maintain personal twitter feeds during their time in the White House.

Alyssa Mastromonaco and Dan Pfeiffer write the books that will make you laugh about Obama. Everyone knows President Obama had a great sense of humour, knew how to make people smile (and when), and both these individuals tap into a goldmine of memories they’ve created with Obama front and center to tell you the kind of things you wouldn’t have expected from the Commander-in-Chief, including comments on people’s wardrobes.

If Mastromonaco and Pfeiffer write about Obama the person, Ben Rhodes takes Obama the professional and gives you insight into that separation of powers (do you see what I did there?) Something I’ve wondered about is the kind of toll that certain decisions and politics takes on the personal lives of those in power – and how personal lives actually unfold with so much chaos and noise all around you all of the time. Rhodes tackles this issue-by-issue, almost – constructing a wonderful timeline of everything Obama & him experienced in the White House. In each chapter, Rhodes explores what Obama the President and Obama the person felt – where they coincided, and where they separated, and the burden this placed on him. At all points, the book exudes this warmth that Obama clearly imparted on all of the members of his Service – individuals who still feel privileged to have been a part of things.

And if Rhodes gives you that insight, into that warmth, Katy Tur is able to write about the exact opposite – the narrative that Trump was able to tap into in order to unite the country not through action, but through words – none of which exuded warmth and inclusion, but exclusion at its highest.

Concluding Thoughts

These make for good reads if you’re interested in the changing face of American politics. You’ll take to them far easier if you have bias, I think – as with most pieces of literature. My bias shines through here.

A Life, Lived | Stoner, by John Williams

Introduction 

My weekend has been filled with reading and books, which is just the weekend I needed to recover for the week that lies ahead. On Friday, I spent a couple of hours on Goodreads, trying to figure out the stuff I wanted to explore and get through by the time Sunday night rolled around. Stoner was a fresh find, an indirect find, so to speak. I saw a book about John Williams’ life – a book that described itself as an essay about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and I was intrigued. I’ve only ever heard of the name John Williams in the context of film scores, so to hear that there was this celebrated novelist I knew nothing about who seemed to have a cult-like following for this “perfect” book, I had to read it. Thus it was that I sat on my desk last evening after a scrumptious meal and I made a new friend: William Stoner.

Also, no, the book is not about weed.

Plot Summary

John Williams navigates you through the life of William Stoner, a lifelong academic and a Professor of English at the University of Missouri. You’re introduced to Stoner posthumously in the first chapter – an introduction that lays down clear benchmarks for the kind of expectations you should have from the book. Williams tells you in no uncertain terms that Stoner was an ordinary man, who had an ordinary career – who did nothing extraordinary. Over the course of subsequent chapters you learn about Stoner’s upbringing on a farm, and you’re transported through the different phases of his life and the different decisions he takes – in finding love, in working on English Literature, in understanding the impact of war. It’s really an unremarkable plot. Quite simply put: it’s one man’s journey through life.

The writing, however, is incredible.

Characters

It’s pretty evident from everything I’ve said above that the character: Stoner, is central to the entire plot. He drives it forward, slows it down, and brings it to a close. Some books which place a singular character at their center, or a singular perspective at the forefront struggle because they don’t establish the character’s voice early on. As a result, expectations are wayward. Williams does this remarkably well.

First, he stays away from writing in the first person at any point. The entire book is told in third person, giving the author more control over the kind of observations he is able to fit in about Stoner’s life – about Stoner’s temperament, for example.

Second, Stoner is set up very, very early on in the book.

You can tell that he’s in for a life of hard work and challenge. This isn’t exclusively because of the description of his farm-upbringing. Williams also achieves this end by labouring through descriptions of Stoner’s entire thought process. When, early on, Stoner is faced with the decision of going to school or continuing to stay on the farm – Williams doesn’t cut to the chase and reach the outcome (Stoner goes to University). Instead, Williams explains everything that terrifies Stoner, what excites him – and why he ends up acceding to his fathers’ pushes. For me, as a reader, it helped me understand Stoner’s motivations, but it also laid out how much thought (sometimes fruitless) the character put into everything he did. Thinking is hard work – and setting up a character who ponders deeply about everything, who doesn’t fully comprehend or rely on intuition early on in the book sets him (and you, the reader) up for everything that you’re going to see.

Third, supporting characters are eased into the story in small batches. Williams makes it clear that the focus is never supposed to be away from Stoner. Even when the scenery changes – like when Stoner moves to University, or the times change – like when World War I breaks out, Williams doesn’t introduce more than 2 characters into Stoner’s life arc. This clarity of writing allows each individual’s character arc to develop fully (only one character is written out early – killed in action), but more crucially, it allows Williams to lay out, slowly, Stoner’s dynamic and interaction with each person. That enables them to be more organically involved in Stoner’s life. This is best illustrated not through Edith, but through Gordon Finch. Finch is introduced as a friend. Stoner and Finch get on really well – exchanging observations about University life that you’d only ever exchange with your closest peers. Finch disappears, enlisting for the war, and returns in an administrative capacity more senior to Stoner. However, their rapport doesn’t change – and lasts right through to the end. Now, Finch was introduced with another character, Masters (the character who dies young). In my view, settling on a small group reflects the reality of the life of an academic. More central to the argument I was making though, is the fact that it allows for the development of more meaningful interactions with these characters – which keeps the spotlight on Stoner. As the reader, you’re rarely caught onto picking a favourite character: you’re firmly on Stoner’s side, interested solely in the kind of relationship and impact each character will have on his life.

Conflict

After I read the book, I went on to read a few essays I mentioned earlier – about why Stoner was the perfect novel, and they all point to the way conflict is explored. Each one of them highlighted how conflict was introduced at exactly when it needed to be in Stoner’s arc.

While I agree with that, I think some nuance exists in the kind of conflicts introduced. There are the big conflicts: the one with Lomax, the affair Stoner has and the conflict with Edith, the conflict when he tells his parents about continuing on with his studies in English Literature. However, conflict remains a central theme throughout the book – one that shouldn’t be ignored. Williams’ success doesn’t lie exclusively in the fact that he is able to introduce these big conflicts at the right time.

To me, a large portion of that success is owed to the lucidity of his writing of an internal monologue and the internal conflict that Stoner faces almost on a daily basis. We’ve explored this in the above section – on how this helps set up Stoner’s character. Here, what I’d like to concentrate on is the role of this internal monologue in those bigger conflict arcs.

I shall illustrate this through the conflict with Lomax (the conflict with Edith has too many layers and will give away too much of the book). Professor Lomax is another faculty in the English department who Stoner has several scuffles with, climaxing in the big scuffle regarding whether a particular graduate/doctoral student should receive passing marks in his oral examination. Now, while this entire scuffle could have been projected through the single dimension of being an indirect power struggle in the department between Lomax and Stoner, a large amount of the conflict’s introduction takes place through the internal monologue.

Stoner first notices this student when he sits for a graduate seminar Stoner teaches – and Williams elaborates Stoner’s thoughts at the start. In fact, Williams creates a narrative of doubt through every interaction that Stoner has with the graduate student – which culminates the introduction of the conflict with Lomax. Without these deliberate portions of the narrative devoted to exploring Stoner’s internal dilemma about how the student in question has been admitted, the larger conflict loses value. More importantly, what Williams is able to achieve is the opportunity to introduce a counter-narrative and a counter-characterization that is equally powerful by allowing Lomax to replay the entire monologue from a different perspective.

It is a phenomenal lesson in storytelling.

Concluding Remarks

I recognize that a large part of my analysis may not make sense without a reading of the book. Hence, please read the book. It is short and well worth any time you may have. The Guardian wrote about how the book had a ‘sad tone’, and how Williams himself was confused at why people thought Stoner led a sad life. I have to agree. There is a sadness to Stoner, but there is also joy – in equal part. Remember, Stoner’s life is ordinary. It is relatable. Therein lies it’s power.

I loved the book. As someone contemplating a career in the academy, this was just a beautifully told tale of someone determined to teach, and to love, to the best of his capabilities – while making mistakes along the way. A life truly lived. Another great book I’ve read in 2020, earning ***** (5 stars).

Old Dog, New Tricks | Play It Again, by Alan Rusbridger

Introduction

First off, I must apologize for the title. I tried long and hard to find something more suitable, but nothing felt quite as right as this did. Apologies, Mr. Rusbridger, if you do read this.

Secondly, some context. This marvelous book was recommended to me by the genie that is Goodreads, thanks not in small part to my recent completion of another book on classical music (which I should hopefully review shortly), and the fact that Year of Wonder is now a book I am currently reading. My own history with classical music is long and storied. It forms a part of a poem, and a blogpost from early 2016. At present, I am falling in love with it all over again. I’ve begun piano classes, I listen to more classical pieces, I’m engaging with my own study of music theory – and I’m enjoying every bit of it. However, it has been 6 years since I properly attended lessons and focused on technique instead of playing things by the ear. As a consequence, my dexterity is something I am relearning. In that sense, finding this book felt like more than a coincidence. My review might therefore be coloured by this experience.

Plot Summary 

Pretty straightforward really. Rusbridger explains it in a video he recorded, which you can see here. In a series of diary-style entries, Rusbridger recounts taking up the challenge to learn and play Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G minor Op. 23, which is one of the most daunting pieces of music ever written. There are added layers to the challenge, though. First, he gave up the piano when he was 16, and took it up as a serious hobby only past the age of 40. Second, he’s got a day-job (and not any day-job. At the time, he was Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian). Third, he wants to learn it in a year – committing to do so by giving himself 20 minutes a day of dedicated practice. To anybody, developing a habit over the course of a year by attempting it for just 20 minutes of a day sounds ludicrous enough. To commit to learning a fresh piece of music – and something that lasts 10 whole minutes isn’t just committing to a habit – it’s committing to teaching yourself something new that develops on past knowledge, which is incredible.

To give you a spoiler alert: yes, he manages to play it, and rather successfully, I might add. There are snippets of his playing in the video I’ve linked above.

The Writing 

I’ve often found that diary-style entries face the arduous challenge of establishing context in as few words as possible before developing plot, or rather, furthering plot in a manner that is engaging, yet succinct. Some preliminary comments on length and style before analyzing the writing itself.

Some books written as journal or diary entries end up writing these extracts at length. They feel well-edited, meticulously-crafted – that the thoughts come in a structured manner, or a structured flow at all points of time. While it is arguable that journal/diary writers do spend time thinking about what they wish to write about, I often feel that there is an erosion of the unfiltered thought that takes place when they are crafted to be literary. There’s a beauty to the natural flow of thought when somebody sits down with a pen and paper to write – the brain hops, skips, and jumps, and you can see that with the writing. It feels organic, and natural, with stops that are as abrupt as these thoughts themselves. There is no doubt to Rusbridger’s talent in the English language (he studied at Cambridge and was a journalist, for goodness sakes’), but what I loved here is that the diary entries never felt too long. While we do not know whether these were extracts culled out of longer pieces of writing from each day, there’s a flow to the book that feels like I could’ve sat and written it at home.

This does two things for me: one, it makes it incredibly easy to read, even when it’s discussing something like the art of choosing which piano to buy – something that is incredibly boring if you cannot hear the tone of the pianos being compared and the subtle differences in tone. Two, it makes the amateur portion of his piano playing feel more genuine. You can see that this is something he is incredibly passionate about – (at least this one project), but having the writing laid out in a very amateur-like way makes it feel more relatable.

Interweaving Subplots and Interviews 

The book would have been incredibly boring to the general public if it was exclusively about him learning new sections of the piece each day, with stylistic changes being described as if you understand everything about how the piano is to be played. It would make for excellent technical reading, and I wouldn’t mind reading that too, but that’s for another day. There’s a lot going on in Rusbridger’s life, as I pointed out. There is success not only in the fact that he does play the piece at the end of the book, but that he doggedly and determinedly ensures he gets in as much practice as possible whenever he finds the time.

It’s evident that he needs to make the time for this hobby. He explains, at different junctures, the WikiLeaks stories, the phone hacking scandals, and other stories – including the rescue of a Guardian reporter from Libya (where he conceives the title of the book). All of this means that pages turn not exclusively because you’re interested in finding out more about his journey with the piece, but also because you’re trying to figure out whether or not he’s succeeding in the other things that are the top of the priority list for the paper and for him.

While that is admirable, what I enjoyed even more was the fact that he presented the art of learning this piece in a very holistic manner. It isn’t him self-learning, or self-teaching the piece. In technicality, once you learn how to read music, you can pretty much learn how to play anything – for playing sakes’. It’s clear that he doesn’t want this. He enrols in regular lessons, which you can see changes his perspective on the piece by giving him an observer to play to every time he visits. There are nuggets of information from professional pianists whom he has the opportunity to spend time with (as a result of his day-job), and all their interpretations offers him with the chance to look at the music through his own eyes – and reflect in the music a story that he connects with, which I think is beautiful. He also speaks to neuroscientists to understand the art of memory and learning an instrument better in an attempt to figure out what the easiest way to commit the piece to his brain would be.

All of this portrays Western classical music and its performance as being so much more than the random notes and squiggles on a staff. Indeed, in various moments, Rusbridger taps into his historical knowledge to offer different views on the context and meaning of Chopin, which I absolutely adored.

The Personality 

This would’ve also been a little less interesting if the writing didn’t allow the personal side of the story to shine through. I’ve stated above how personal the challenge itself becomes, but Rusbridger takes that one step forward, involving the reader in several aspects and decisions he’s taking on the fly. This includes the fact that he ends up building a music room in his house, he buys a piano, and he attends a couple of amateur piano conferences. There is humour interspersed in his own reflections of the kind of mountain he’s trying to climb – all of which really allows you to see who Rusbridge is beyond this singular focus he has for a year.

Conclusion

Listen to a performance of Chopin’s Ballade. Then read the book. It’s a wonderful exposition of how immersive classical music, or any hobby can be really. For me, it’s deepened my own resolve to learn the piano to enjoy it as much as I possibly can, given the history I’ve got with the instrument. It’s also convinced me that I can learn new things at any age, and I’m never going to be dissuaded by my age as an excuse to learn a skill I’m interested in. Without much doubt, this book earns ***** (5 stars).