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.

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).

Tell the Wolves I’m Home | Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt,
Published by Random House (2012)
Rating: **** 

This is a very touching tale. It was a good pick after Black Leopard, Red Wolf – especially because of the kind of emotions I was left it at the end of that book, the eerie, not so optimistic kind.

The book itself is very layered, but centers itself around a singular premise: grief. June is forced to cope with the death of her beloved uncle Finn, a gay man in the 80’s who passes away as a result of AIDS. She has grown up resenting her uncle’s boyfriend, Toby: a man blamed by her parents for her uncle’s death. June and Toby were also often competing for her uncle’s affection, attention, and time, leading to a complex relationship. His passing forges an unexpected friendship between these two individuals. June’s uncle was an artist, and through discovery of his art, we learn how grief impacts two people close to the departed and the way they share in their sorrows and their joyful memories.

There’s an emotional weight to the writing. Their friendship begins with a posthumous gift that Finn gifts to June through Toby. June slowly discovers Finn’s spirit living on in Toby – who replaces Finn as an uncle-figure in her life.

Rifka Brunt’s writing is enjoyable. The book itself, is wholesome. I’m not left with unanswered questions or unresolved emotions – but moral conflicts that are easily resolved, and a story that feels complete. I docked a star for its simplicity. Things seemed too convenient, for me – and I would have appreciated if June’s voice was a little more suited to her age throughout the book. Often it felt that Brunt purposefully chose a voice younger that June’s actual age, which takes away from the kind of relatability the book enjoys.

For the imagery and the symbolism, and the description of grief and friendship, this is worth reading.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf | Marlon James (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (The Dark Star Trilogy, #1)
by Marlon James,
Published by Riverhead Books (2019)
Rating: ****

This is a book that proclaimed to be an African Game of Thrones. Its publication was pretty timely, given that Game of Thrones (the TV series) was due to end in May, 2019. That comparison, however, would carry the weight of what George R.R. Martin had written through his novels so far, with the conclusion of that series presently awaited. Irrespective of the comparison, which I will address later, I think this is an African fantasy series which I will follow, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment soon. The strength of the writing derives in its ability to blend, uniquely, African mythology and narrative – while staying true to the voice James tries to give his characters.

First, we must address the structure of the tale. We’re introduced to a narrator, and the novel itself begins with one of the eeriest opening lines that come to memory,

“The child is dead. There is nothing left to know.” 

Who is the child? How did they die? Who knew the child would die? Did anyone? Could someone have prevented it? Who says these lines?

We are, almost instantly, introduced to Tracker. We learn he is a hunted, renowned for his skill. We learn, that as with others who are at the top of their craft, he has principles he follows while working. We learn one of these was that he worked alone. We also learnt he broke that principle – learning to work in a group, and searching for a boy. (At which point you wonder whether this boy is the same child referred to above). James structures the novel as a series of chapters where Tracker takes you through a part of the plot, containing an event, or events, or introducing characters and stories which form part of a larger narration. Each of these ends “But that is not the story.”

That structure is pulled off marvelously. Its the first time I’ve noticed such explicit messaging by authors pushing individuals to read the next chapter. But that’s not the only purpose it serves. It heightens a lot of the intrigue, and the mystery, and foreshadows the ending beautifully – for you’re always left in wonder about what James’, (and Tracker’s) endgoals are. The unpredictability served me well.

This is very dark writing. There’s a lot of violence, some gory imagery, and a lot of opiod description. There’s a malevolence that hangs in the air throughout the novel, which I think is something that’s reminiscent of Game of Thrones. And contrary to what other leading reviews say, I don’t believe that this story lacks subtlety. The reason I say this is because we don’t know what the forthcoming installments in the series will bring – and there could be several plot points, or introduced elements that James chooses to use.

I docked a star because for the promise of description, there’s little to excite the imagination about the forests Tracker lurks. There is description of several things, but not much about the setting – in places where there could be. The other element that made me uncomfortable was the uncertainty with which some decisions in writing were made. There appears to be a lot of confusion, for example, about Trackers’ own identity (his sexuality, for example). If that was a deliberate decision, and I can understand why authors might choose to do that (for it mirrors the confusing nature of the spectrum in reality; and the conflict one often fees), it was written without care.

I hope James fixes that. The latter more than the former.

For everyone else looking to dive into African fantasy or African mythology, and to have your mind absolutely blown by a swarm of plot – this is a book you need to pick up. It will leave you baffled and craving more, and if you’re me – you will spend a night collecting material on African origin stories and mythology.  And then you’ll watch Black Panther.

The Books behind the Movie: Beautiful Boy

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction
by David Sheff,
Published by Mariner Books (2007)
Rating: ****

Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines
by Nic Sheff
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers (2008)
Rating: ***

I first heard about the Sheffs’ story when I saw the trailer for “Beautiful Boy”, starring Steve Carrell and Timothée Chalamet. The trailer had me hooked. I was intrigued by the father-son relationship, and when I found out that there were two books, one written by the father, and one by the son – allowing you to see two perspectives to the story in realtime, in first-person narration, I just had to read them. I read both back-to-back one evening, gripped by the experience, the grief, the love, and the story.

Nic Sheff writes about his own exposure to drugs and alcohol and becoming addicted to meth. David Sheff writes about watching his son getting exposed, and his own exposure to his son – when he was high, and the struggle in loving someone unconditionally. Nic’s own narration is factual, it reads the way an autobiography would – outlining anecdotes and emotional responses, with a lot of reflection about these instances. David’s narration is largely emotional – dealing with the anguish of conflict and confrontation with his own child, and feelings associated with uncertainty about his son’s whereabouts and activities.

These are gripping reads, both of them are. I admire their willingness to share this very, very personal story. David Sheff is a writer and journalist, and the writing flair comes across almost immediately, permeating through the book. Nic’s book, on the other hand is slightly less refined, in quite a few places. It would, however, be absurd to draw conclusions without reading both accounts of the same experience, which is what pushed me to get through the writing, in parts where I struggled.

After reading them, I watched the movie.

I think that’s when the impact of the books really hit me. This is a very real story. It’s people’s lives, told out – in their messy glory. I’m not an addict, and I’m not certain what kind of impact this kind of literature has on addicts themselves. But it’s someone’s personal account, and I think that’s valuable. For me, as a non-addict, it got me to grasp at how grave the issue can get, and the kind of conflict you might go through if you’re in close proximity with someone who suffers with addiction. It also taught me about the different kinds of rehabilitation processes that exist in response to addiction, and the kind of things one might go through while using those facilities and processes. It got me to understand addiction from a fresh perspective, which I’m grateful for.

 

 

The Forest of Enchantments | Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Forest of Enchantments
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,
Published by HarperCollins India (2019)
Rating: ***** 

I’ve had a soft corner for Divakaruni’s writing since I first came across her work, and the projects she undertook – retellings of Indian mythology. It was this premise that got me hooked almost immediately. Coupled with her simplistic writing and excellent narration, it sowed the seeds for criticism I had of Amish’s later works. Retellings of Indian mythology often suffer from an attempt to try to force new elements of plot onto the reader, or to surprise the reader with information that wouldn’t ordinarily fit into the original tale. Divakaruni does surprise you, but her surprises feel organic, and they align comfortably with characters goals, ambitions, and weaknesses from the original epics – making her retellings believable and more human.

The Forest of Enchantments is no exception. It marketed itself as a retelling of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, but the book evolved into so much more as the plot progressed. I believe the book is an exploration of the Ramayana that gives the characters a human voice. The plot is the same as Valmiki’s Ramayana, barring a few surprises when Sita is in captivity. The perspective that Divakaruni offers, however, is one that makes the story a lot more enjoyable. You realize quickly that it is the women of the Ramayana who are ignored throughout the story, and the men who drive the tale with their decision-making and their alpha nature.

Divakaruni plays this to her advantage. It allows her to show the male characters in clear shades of black or white, with decision-making and emotional responses akin to the original epic. However, it gives her the freedom to build on the female characters. Sita, Mandodari, Kaikeyi and Surpanakha. We get to see the shades of grey, the emotional responses that make us, humans, who we are. As Sita is enamored by Ram, so are we, but as Sita agonizes and is frustrated by his decision-making, we are too. We are afflicted by the pangs of desire that Sita’s heart feel. Divakaruni shows us that at the heart of the Ramayana was a love story that forced a constant choice between duty and love.

The most poignant moments come at the end of the book. For me, the conclusion of the book makes it a must-read. The injustice Sita feels has been done to her comes to its fore, and you can relate to the range of emotions she experiences. That’s why this book is beautiful. As compared to the stoic tale the Ramayana is, there’s colour here. The rage of red, and the ache of blue: they’re all portrayed perfectly. I was left pondering how far we go for love, and what love actually deserves.

Some additional comments are reserved for the beautiful cover of the book, and the incredible typesetting. I haven’t been this enamored by a hardcover for a while now, and it will take quite the book to top this one – in terms of look and feel. This is a highlight of my year, and will prompt more reading into Indian mythology, I’m sure.