Unconditional Love and Family | The House in the Cerulean Sea, by T.J. Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea,
by T.J. Klune,
Published by Tor (2020)
Rating: *****

Introduction

I’m a sucker for books that contain the fantastic and magical, especially when they’re heartwarming reads. The blurb to this book, on Goodreads, was pretty reflective of something similar so I dived right in. I was rewarded with a journey filled with positivity and love, everything I needed at the time put into words.

Plot

The book takes us through Linus Baker’s life. A quiet man, he is a Case Worker at the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to oversee the well-being of magical children who spend their time growing up at Government-sanctioned orphanages. It’s a job he’s worked for a long time, no promotion, no demotion, and he follows rules to the tee. Out of the blue, he is summoned by Extremely Upper Management at DICOMY and given a super-classified assignment: to travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage.

He is not told much else prior to his departure, but once he arrives on the island, he learns that six dangerous children reside there: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist – all under the care of Arthur Parnassus, who is charming and will go to any length to keep these children safe. Over time however, it becomes clear that not everything about the orphanage, or the island are as they seem, and Linus is faced with decisions to make that go against everything he believes in.

Riding on Characters

Good books, for me, center either around well-constructed worlds, or well-constructed character arcs. Naturally books that combine the two elements are therefore appreciated by me even more. This had a reasonably well-created world, you’re introduced to it early, and through Linus Baker’s view, it becomes quickly apparent what the distinctions from the world we live in today are. That allows focus to shift immediately on to the characters. Having nine protagonists on which the story rides requires meaningful relationships to be forged between each character, something Klune develops naturally. Additionally, each character arc is extremely well thought-out and the book concludes without any unanswered questions, which is a delight. The dialogue is a delight to read, leaving little thinking or effort on the part of the reader to understand each characters’ motives. This by no means undermines the complexity of the characters, but it’s just a pleasure to read something that feels effortlessly written and enjoyed.

Asking the difficult questions

All of that – the characters and the dialogue does not take away from the tough questions the book tries to ask of us. There’s a lot of internal conflict presented within the book about prejudices and differences, and the way we actually respond to these as against the manner in which we ought to be responding to these. It asks of us why we categorize people and experiences into extreme ends on a spectrum, or into pigeonholes, rather than looking at them as they are – complex, and not necessarily classifiable. A lot of the decisions Linus Baker makes through the book are a result of his own reflections on these topics, and they’re an excellent reminder of the need to reflect about these things on our own.

Conclusions

There’s so much joy in this book. I went into it knowing it was a standalone, but I long to understand and read more about the kind of joy Linus Baker is able to spread to the kids he learns to love. I hope there’s some fanfiction to keep me occupied while I wait for a sequel (should it ever arrive).

Open Your Heart | The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love,
by Elif Shafak,
Published by Viking (2010)
Rating: *****

Introduction

This is the first audiobook I ever consumed. It was recommended to me the minute I opened up my Audible app for the first time. I saw it, was intrigued, checked out the plot, and knew I had to read it immediately. Of course, I didn’t audiobook it completely. I ended up reading more than half of it because I felt a strong desire to push forth – the narrative had me so hooked. This is also what has sparked a renewed interest in reading Rumi’s poetry, or beginning to read Rumi’s poetry.

Plot

This is a book with a plot-within-a-plot, a book-within-a-book. The narrator/protagonist, Ella Rubenstein is a housewife, who takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment becomes reading a manuscript titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. The book tells the tale of Shams-i-Tabrizi and Rumi, their respective journeys and how they find each other, and Shams’ role in transforming Rumi’s life. Ella is smitten, and takes to communicating with Zahara, finding that Rumi’s story apparently mirrors her own life, and sorrows, with Zahara being the person tasked with helping her find love, and joy again.

Nested Stories

Shafak does a beautiful job of switching between the manuscript and the real-life of Ella Rubenstein. The transitions between the two feel timely, never abrupt, and the chapters are never too long, so you never lose track of where you are in each story line. They seem to weave into each other purposefully, especially since they are meant to mirror each other – the pacing is well done, and Shafak introduces elements of conflict, or of communication and resolution in away that never seems to take your attention away from either plot. I appreciated deeply how Rubenstein’s letters to Zahara mimicked communications and the building relationship between Shams and Rumi. The conversations Shafak writes are deep and meaningful, opening up the minds of each of the characters in the book.

The Little Things

Shafak embeds the Forty Rules of Love into the book, exposing them by imagining that Shams revealed them throughout his life when the time was right for the person being spoken to, to receive them. You can see this across his interaction with common-people, with Rumi, and through Zahara’s quoting of the rules of love in his conversations with Rubenstein. I loved that each chapter began with the second arabic sound “ba”, and that each section of the book referenced an element. The story, in its entirety, with Shafak’s lyrical writing, made me more mindful and aware and appreciative of the beauty I have surrounding me, and for a while, all I felt like doing was sitting down and taking all of it in.
It opened me up to a new kind of love, and I cannot wait to read more Rumi soon.

Conclusion

Easily one of the best finds I’ve made this year. Worth reading for how well she brings Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi to life.

You Go, Gurl | Equal Rites (Discworld #3), by Terry Pratchett

Equal Rites (Discworld #3)
by Terry Pratchett
Published by Harper Perennial (2005)
Rating: ****

Introduction

Like I mentioned in the earlier Discworld review, reading Discworld is a project that has been underway for a while now, and is likely to take a while still. As always, this remains a series I come back to when I’m in a slump because I know the books are short, the story arcs simple and easy to follow, and the world explicitly explained.

Plot 

Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

Given the premise this sets up, as evident above, and the title, the story is very predictable. Esk faces several challenges as she seeks to become a wizard, ultimately succeeding. What I enjoyed about this is that as the third book in Discworld, you can see Pratchett seeking to examine this magical world from as many lenses as he is capable. In earlier books, he’s looked at the philosophy and mechanics of Magic, and now, he looks and introduces a series of books focusing on the gender implications of a magical world (or of any world, really).

Characters and Sass

Really well-written introductions to Esk and Granny W, who legitimately stole the show for large parts of the book. As compared to the other two books, there is humour led by the protagonists themselves; as opposed to coming out of supporting characters with whom they interact. Pratchett’s inclusion of Simon, a young boy struggling with his magic – to contrast with Esk’s own journey, helps to bring forth the challenges she faces within a setup that recognizes traditional gender roles and restricting women’s use of magic to the limitations that witches are confined to. Granny W has a lot of sass – something that made me chuckle more times than I would like to count.

Discworld Itself

While I fully recognize that this is the first book in the Witches subseries on Discworld, I felt that there was still scope to introduce elements about Discworld to the reader by having Esk or Granny W interact with fresh parts of the world that we hadn’t heard of. What I enjoyed about the previous two books is that they added layers to the physical space that is Discworld. I wished that had happened a little more here.

Conclusion

A solid read that’ll guarantee laughter. Short and predictable, perfect for a reading slump.

Download Machines | How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Richard Witt

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy
by Stephen Richard Witt
Published by Viking (2015) 
Rating: ****

Introduction

Music is a very important part of my life.  I’ve recounted my own personal history with audio forms, downloading and piracy here. I don’t download music anymore – not since Spotify and other streaming services came to India. These services have changed the way that I work in more ways than one. Finding a book that methodically recounted, and exposed a similar history was quite lovely.

Communicating Complexity

When I read non-fiction books that hone in on specific subjects, one of the things I look out for is how well they communicate complexity, or technical information that would not ordinarily be accessed by individuals. This book begins with the discovery of the MP3 format, the science that went into understanding the frequencies the human ear could hear and the compression that was used to produce the output necessary. My knowledge of this is relatively reasonable given my usage of audio production software and a few of my friendships, but what I particularly admired in this book was the kind of simplicity with which chains in a logical sequence of sentences were formed. The filler sentences, the ones that establish context and provide examples and analogies: those are the crucial pieces of information we latch onto in order to understand something better, and Witt does a great job of breaking down some barriers for us there.

Picking Narratives

I highlighted this in another review recently, but it was great to see three figures form such an integral part of this story: first, a researcher, second, someone within the industry, and finally, a pirate. Piracy provides access to a lot of information, but it’s also disrupted industries and forced companies and law to innovate mechanism to prevent the stifling of incentives to produce, or create. These three narratives provide a lot of relatable information and contextualize things to time, since there is now a reference point for when things in the book are taking place, or how they’re actually impacting people.

Conclusion

A book worth reading. The only thing I found disappointing within the book was the lack of discussion of the freely accessible, legal art that’s come out of compression. The Creative Commons license, under which Soundcloud, for example, helps artists protect a original content was almost non-existent throughout the book. This would have felt more complete had it discussed the subject, which I personally believe is an extremely integral part of what piracy has done.

Minimal | The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Magic Cleaning #1), by Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
(Magic Cleaning #1),
by Marie Kondo, translated by Cathy Hirano,
Published by Ten Speed Press (2014)
Rating: 
*****

Introduction

At University, the last evening before it was certain that we would be packing up and returning to our respective homes, one thought stood above all else in my head. Over the past five years, try as I might, I had accumulated a fair number of possessions. What was I going to prioritize carrying back? It was pretty straightforward that evening. I ran through everything I had, thought about what I had left at home, and prioritized accordingly. My approach to it was simple: if I never was able to return to University, what would I be alright letting go of?

I returned home to a house that stood suspended in time, to a room that looked exactly as I had left it in June, 2015, right after my Grade 12 board examinations. I’ve returned here several times on short stints, but never been invested enough in making my room look like I had evolved from the state I was in during that time. So answer papers from past exams were strewn around, a few revision guides were in my shelves, and my exam stationery kit remained exactly as is.

Considering I had time on my hands, I figured I ought to reorganize everything. I wanted to be methodical in the manner I did things, which is why I picked up this book. It did not disappoint.

Structure

Kondo is right about one thing. Nobody really teaches us how to tidy up. I certainly wasn’t taught, or “explained” why things went in particular places. My parents decided where things best fit – and we sort of stuck to those principles, even if (and I never did) come up with better ways to store things. Kondo treats this book as an opportunity to teach. Hence, there’s a lot of structure in the manner she writes, and that’s one of the things I appreciated most about the book. It lays down the premise of why there’s a high likelihood we know very little about what tidying up and decluttering truly means at it’s essence, and builds from there into the philosophy and evidence of how tidying up has assisted her and her clients. It is only after that she goes on to explain and illustrate how to apply these principles, along with additional principles per category of tidying up.

There’s a reasoning to her beliefs about cleaning up that I found extremely helpful, because they allowed you to opt-out and drop out of reading the book, or buying into her system – the one she’s popularized, rather, at any point. That reasoning is at the core of the book, and explains why she remains so passionate about the subject: something that comes to the fore when you watch her TV show.

The Language

Translating this would not have been easy. This is true of all translations: they require a lot of patience and a degree of meticulousness that aids in conveying precise, technical information to a wider audience in a language distinct from the source. The translator has done a fabulous job, not in the least because I smiled throughout my reading of this book. I couldn’t stop smiling because there was a simplicity and joy in the language that communicated the joy of cleaning up so well.

Conclusions

The book works if you buy into it, or go into an open mind and consider implementing any of the things she talks about. Even if you don’t, it’s an excellent theoretical read. For me, though, results were instantaneous. My room, today, is everything I am, personified. Less clutter and all, and that’s definitely helped my headspace.

Classic |Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization #1), by Will Durant

Our Oriental Heritage (The Story of Civilization #1)
by Will Durant
Published by Fine [reprint] (1993)
Rating: *****

Introduction 

I started reading this book in January, 2019. Aside from the big reading challenges I do in terms of volume, there are several subjects I’m curious to learn more and get more information into my brain about. One of these is History. That stems largely out of the fact that I didn’t study History beyond Grade 8, then discovered how much I enjoyed it, and now have a lot of unstructured History floating around in my head. In an endeavour to correct the timeline of events I’ve constructed for myself, I took to reading non-fiction History. The idea was to understand History better within 2019 – and I hoped to finish Will Durant’s entire Story of Civilization series. Little did I know how detailed they were, or how many questions they would spawn. There have been days on end with this book that I’ve stopped reading within a sentence of beginning, because something Durant says piqued my interest sufficiently to warrant a Google break, and down that rabbit-hole I jumped. As a consequence, completing the book took till February, 2020. What a lovely ride it has been. My mind is now filled with so much information – and quite honestly, I am sad that I will no longer relive reading through all of this for the first time ever again.

Underpopular Sides of History

I am – as we are all, a student of History. However, I am a student in a particular domain: Law, and the rest of History, I access through pop culture, or through popularized books on subjects. Microhistories are my favourites.

Most History books I’ve read though, especially those that explain civilizations, offer macroscopic views of what these civilizations were like. They focus on events that are popularized, or have had tangible, lasting impacts on a large population of society. Think, political decisions, dynasties, and wars. There’s less emphasis on movements in religion, philosophy, and art and culture – less, popularized, accessible versions of these histories. Durant spends large portions of time laying out what these were, for the absolute beginner. There is enough contextual information to start at this without any awareness about the Oriental countries, and work your way up to getting some command over unfamiliar names, or at the least, being broadly aware of what they speak of.

 Conclusion

This clearly doesn’t contain the latest information. The edition I read was a reprint. The first volume was published in 1935, by Simon & Schuster, so a lot of the information – for example, on Egypt, is outdated, or is, obvious to us today – it seems commonly known. For the time though, I cannot imagine how much research the Durants (there is credit to his wife Ariel, and I am waiting to see how her co-authorship informs the writing in the later books) must have done to be able to write all of these.

I’d recommend reading it, but take it slow. This is History worth enjoying; worth labouring through, worth conducting thought experiments about – and worth, in every bit, loving.

Intriguing Shadow Realms | Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1), by Roger Zelazny

Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1)
by Roger Zelazny
Published by Avon (1986)
Rating: ****

Introduction

The thing about finding genres of books that you prefer reading is that you’re able to locate books in the genre a lot quicker. Since I properly began reading science-fiction and fantasy books (in that I took my reading of the genre a little more seriously), I’ve been trying to tick off the classics – the books people recommend as foundational texts that have introduced new dimensions of storytelling, or pushed the boundaries of the genre. Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles series was one of these, recommended to me because I enjoy worlds that have complex, but complete and intricate magic systems. It was also recommended because I enjoyed reading Brandon Sanderson.

Plot 

Carl Corey wakes in a medical clinic, with little to no knowledge of who he is or how he got there. He finds the manager of the clinic, and learns that he was recovering from a car accident in a private clinic, paid for by his sister, Evelyn Flaumel. Fleeing from the clinic, he heads to her house. That is where he discovers his identity, as Corwin. He hides his lack of memory from her – and everyone he comes into contact with, discovering his family and his relationships which each of them.

As one of his brothers, Random, makes contact with him, he decides to try to seize the throne of Amber, which is currently held by his brother Eric. Thus begin his adventure across the shadow realms, mixing reality and fantasy.

Amnesia as a plot device

Personally, one of the best creative decisions I’ve come across in recent times is Zelazny’s decision to give his character amnesia. Amnesia is a curious, painful thing: with the loss of memory is the loss of identity, and the desire to build oneself up is evident right from the start of the book when Corwin chooses to flee from the hospital because he feels unsafe over there. Additionally, amnesia adds layers of complexity to the plot. Aside from Corwin’s concealment of his condition throughout the book – which has a huge impact on the way he behaves with others (compared to what he actually wishes to ask), it allows for the reader to be introduced to Amber and the Machiavellian family that seems to rule it along with the protagonist. Corwin is learning these things almost for the first time, and so are we. This allows for a natural introduction of detail, a natural world-building, where no amount of description feels too dreary since Corwin needs to know all the information to help him make better decisions.

Pacing

Zelazny uses few words to communicate intricate plot depths. The pacing in this book is incredible, and I found myself exhausted after reading it because so much happened in just over 150 pages. I speak, and write, in very long sentences, with a lot of commas. Zelazny uses short sentences – crisp, and to the point, achieving his ends with what feels like minimal effort.

Conclusions

Quite honestly, Amber’s construction is extremely complicated – and for a while, I was not sure whether Corwin was in the real Amber or not. The discussion of shadow realms makes it even more complex. However, that’s what has me intrigued, and I’m also eager to see what happens next in this family. It’s why I hope to be reading the whole series.

A Love Story | Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Normal People,
by Sally Rooney,
Published by Hogarth Press (2019)
Rating: 
***

Introduction

This book was recommended to me by a friend who told me she stayed up past her bedtime to finish the book once she started. To me, that’s always a good sign: a story that keeps you gripped to make you ward off sleep is one I’m going to be curious about more often than not. Thus began my adventure with Sally Rooney. I didn’t take a break while reading the book, and my reading of the book was on one of my more productive reading days. However, what kept me going was the hope that it would get better (and better). Unfortunately, while the book was good, I felt the story and the characters – particularly supporting character arcs remained unexplored, making this a lukewarm 3.5-star book for me.

Plot

Quite straightforward. The story follows two teenagers, Marianne and Connell through their final years in adolescence and into early adulthood. They study at the same school in County Sligo and move together to Trinity College Dublin. Connell is popular at high school, and begins a relationship with unpopular Marianne, whose mother employs his mother as a cleaner. He keeps his relationship with her a secret. At Trinity College Dublin, however, the roles are reversed, as Marianne blossoms at University, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book revolves around their everchanging dynamic over the years, examining what bonds them together and what pulls them apart.

The Relationship

Fiction books that rely on characters rather than worlds, or dialogue, need to be able to have firm character arcs: motives, flaws, strengths, that help them blossom through the book. However, a critical aspect of this is their relatability, which, for me, stems out of their interactions with other characters. Where media pieces set themselves up in the context/focus of a singular relationship (think, Titanic), I enjoy them only when I find myself caring about both characters equally. It’s what upset me at the climax of Titanic. Caring about both characters equally means giving them equal footing throughout the book, and allowing them both to play out without remaining in each others’ shadow. More crucially, their interactions need to be real – and not pretense. Rooney accomplishes this by giving both Marianne and Connell strong introductions, and right off the bat, you begin to care about the fate of both characters. As they get to know one another, you begin wondering where their relationship will go. For a book like this, that is particularly helpful, and I enjoyed the fact that I cared about them so much.

However, simultaneously, I was disturbed by the manner in which they romanticized their difficulties. As things progress, there seem to be explanations for some bizarre ways both characters respond to circumstances – but no real discussion of those explanations (which are traumas).

The Writing

Sally Rooney writes beautifully. Her sentences and descriptions are vivid, and in several places, lyrical, like poetry. It’s part of why I kept reading the book. It suited the ending she had set up – which was cheesy and wonderful for the kind of writing she executes. However, it didn’t “move” me in the way that several similar pieces have previously. I wish there was more exploration of secondary characters – their mothers included, which I feel would have added depth to the book.

Conclusion

I completed the book and was left wondering at all the things that could have been. This was, for me, a good, quick, not-so-immersive read.

64 Squares and Technology | Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, by Garry Kasparov

Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins,
by Garry Kasparov,
Published by PublicAffairs (2017)
Rating:
 *** 

This book was recommended to me at University by a guest lecturer who was taking sessions for us in Information Technology Law. I’ve been playing chess against the computer every day since the start of the year (my record is dismal, and improvements, if any, are not noticeable yet), so this book caught my fancy instantly. Deep Blue, in general, is well-documented, but I hadn’t read Kasparov’s thoughts on the game, or on machines generally. Plus, having read Andrew Yang’s bleak painting of what technology was doing to us, I figured it was time for a bit of a more uplifting take on things. One that inspired, and catered to the boundless possibilities that advancements in technology unlocked.

Kasparov takes a fundamentally simple approach the book. He traces through the history of artificial intelligence and machine learning, particularly in the context of chess, and paints how his matchup with Deep Blue came to be – and where the algorithms will take us next, with AlphaGo and everything.

This was a useful exposition of that history. However, my issue with the book is that the blurb made is sound like it would discuss the interaction between humans and artificial intelligence. I was curious, in particular, about Kasparov’s own work with artificial intelligence, and the manner in which he has contributed to chess algorithms and chess database systems, or studied them. That constituted less than one-third of the book, which is the reason for my rating.

Standard of Living | The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, by Andrew Yang

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future
by Andrew Yang
Published by Hachette Books (2018)
Rating: ****

Introduction

A while ago, I wrote about my journey reading about the White House. Since then, I shifted my attention to reading about, and books by candidates running for the Presidency this year. It seemed like a useful way to gain contextual information about some of their policy goals, but also understand who they were as people, in their own eyes. Autobiographies and personal narratives written by the people going through them provide the perspective (and opportunity) for people to articulate their ideas without too much restriction or restraint. I began this journey by reading about Andrew Yang, whose #YangGang trend on twitter blew up in and around the Democratic primary debates when he wasn’t on stage.

Summary 

The title is a mouthful but is a summary of the core argument this book makes: people in America need a Universal Basic Income. This is premised on the changing dynamic of the economy, one that is more technology-focused and technology-driven, which has far-reaching consequences on communities across the economic spectrum. Yang, however, centers his consequential analysis on marginalized communities to showcase how a Universal Basic Income could alleviate additional societal stresses such as drug use and crime that pervade American society.

The Narrative

I enjoyed Economics as a subject throughout high school and University. However, reading non-fiction Economics for me is quite a challenge. Generally, non-fiction – especially those pieces of work that seek to argue a point of view, for me, are easier to follow along if there is a narrative to follow along too. Freakonomics and Outliers, for example, both take case-studies on a chapter-by-chapter basis. That seems like a simple enough way to present argumentative information.

Yang, however, splits up the book, in tone, into two distinct parts. There’s the premise, and the argument. His narrative is built up through the premise itself, drawing on from his own life – hailing from an immigrant family, and talking us through the history (recent past) of America’s economy, to understand the seismic shift that the economy has grappled with in recent years. He moves this narrative forward by talking us through the venture-focused economy America has become, of which, mind you, he is both a contributing cause – and effect. That enables him to portray a bleak picture of what the human has to endure. Additionally, America is a fractured country. Despite being the wealthiest nation on Earth, it has a significant wage inequality. The median, therefore, is not representative. Nonetheless, it is most significant to his argument – and so, he defines his “normal people” – the median in America.

The Argument

This brief history contextualizes most of the analysis that Yang provides. He puts forth, in plain terms, his belief that a Universal Basic Income would help address these issues of wage disparity, and help with the transition that has already begun.

However, Yang’s analysis goes deeper, looking at social dysfunction. He looks at gender imbalances in society, and how income would empower to help further the cause of equality. More importantly, any further stresses on people’s personal and social lives as a result of job disruptances (which Yang links back to the health of the economy) could be contained through the UBI mechanism.

The Humour

There are references to Civilization VI and computer games, which are always worth enjoying.

Conclusion

My only issue with the argument is that I needed more evidence – particularly in the second half. There was a point at which it delved into proselytizing people on the basis of faith and trust, which seemed like it made sense for a Presidential candidate to do, but not as much as an academic endeavour. Some of his statements felt suspect – and the case for the UBI could be made with evidence in a better manner. The tone of the book in these parts was misplaced.

Nonetheless, worth reading – particularly as a thesis on a strategy to cure economic inequality.

Preserve Joy | No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

No Longer Human,
by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene
Published by New Directions (1958)
Rating: 
****

Introduction

Goodreads recommended me this book once I had added a few books on Asian and Oriental history generally. Reading the blurb, I felt a newfound appreciation for the algorithm that suggested gems such as this based on my past reading history. Prior to starting the book, I read a little bit about Dazai. Just getting through his Wikipedia page, I recognized that this was going to be a book that would make me feel extreme emotion, or induce extremities in emotional response. This is honestly a heartbreaking story, from start to finish, but a heartbreaking story that deserves the read for the perspective it offers.

Plot

No Longer Human tells us the story of Oba Yozo, a confused child who became a troubled man, someone unable to show his true nature to most people, and feels disqualified as a human being. The story is told in three parts – three distinct memoranda from different parts of Yozo’s life, that attempt to channel his sense of isolation and loneliness he experiences. You can tell, while reading, that this isn’t a fictional character. Oba Yozo, the name, the person, may be fictional, but his emotional responses, his characteristics, speak of a very real struggle. Dazai’s writing has always been classified as being semi-autobiographical. I can’t attest to this, but Oba Yozo’s thoughts lift off the page and speak to you in a manner unlike much else I’ve read.

Guards and Masks

Across all three memoranda, you can recognize that while Yozo struggles with identifying exactly what his emotions represent and point to, he has a self-destructive streak that makes him consistently behave in a cruel manner to anybody who cares about him. His childhood notebook is easy to read, and you can sort of understand the trials and tribulations of a confused child who increasingly feels alienated from everyone else. However, beyond a point, Yozo seems to do things that cause hurt knowingly, which is at the point that I began to develop a distaste for the character. It was odd to realize at the end of the book that there was such a brutality to his honesty about his misdeeds.

Preserving Joy

At the end of the book, all I could think about was the kind of nurturing, joyous environment we need to create on Earth for individuals who struggle with aspects of their identity. While Dazai’s writing makes it almost inevitable at Yozo would have rejected any further nurturing, it pointed to me that perhaps nobody tried to help him let his guard down. Nobody peered through as clearly as he expected. That miscommunication is fatal, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Yozo.

Conclusion

I’d recommend reading this, but the depth of the translation I read felt lacking in parts. Guess it’s time to take all the manga and anime I’ve been exposed to in the past two-three years and learn Japanese to read the original.

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.