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.

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.

Audiobooks

Yesterday, I learned that Audible allows you to sign-up for the service and download a free book. Now, of course, there are a ton of audiobooks available to listen to for free on YouTube, and I could have downloaded mp3 files somewhere. I’m certain of it. However, in times of isolation, you find yourself making decisions you wouldn’t ordinarily make. That was how I downloaded the application, signed-in with my amazon credentials and hunted around for a book to listen to.

I generally wear earphones while running because I like to be doing something alongside my run. This is particularly true when I’m not running on a nice trail, or doing an out-and-back run. During these runs, I’m often circling the same space repeatedly. At the moment, my field is my terrace, and it’s that small space I’m running around in. I tried playing a couple of mind games, even writing about one of them recently, but I gave in to how mind-numbing it became and sought to fill my ears with music and podcasts. This new acquisition upended that.

I found this lovely book, The Forty Rules of Love, which is about Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrez, and has honestly been narrated by the most wonderful voice artist I’ve heard (especially since he’s the first) – he’s doing a phenomenal job of bringing both the characters and the scenes to life.

I wonder if I can read more books this way. If so, it might be worthwhile looking into how I can implement this in my day-to-day.

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.

Holi-Days

Holi is usually a very vibrant time on campus. Especially when it occurs midweek. The only thing I look forward to, since I’m a little averse to how much Holi one can play, is the thandai they prepare in the mess for us each year. I’m looking forward to that this year as well. However, University declared the Monday before Holi (tomorrow) a holiday. That has meant a 4-day long weekend, and most people have taken advantage of this to take trips and go places – or to go home and visit their families. I wasn’t too interested in travel, given my music exam and my general lazy desire to spend time on campus as much as possible – to enjoy all of it before we graduate. Campus is incredibly dead though, and it reminds me of some of the nicest time I spent here, back in December 2017.

The quiet and long weekend also offers the opportunity to use time however you wish. I spent my entire day reading The Chronicles of Narnia, aside from doing the work that I needed to get done and ticking off things on my OneNote to-do list. [I love OneNote and it has dramatically changed my life, but more about that later]

Narnia was a world I was not introduced to when the movie came out in 2005. I was deemed too young to be exposed to that genre of film, and ended up watching the movie to prepare for my watching of Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian released the day my Grade 5 final exams ended in 2008, the same year we relocated from Dubai to Bangalore. To celebrate, my mother allowed me to invite all my friends to my house [we broke the curtain rod, which disappointed me] and took all of us out to Al-Ghurair Mall to watch Prince Caspian in the evening. We were understandably an excited bunch of 10-12 year olds. My mother and my uncle knew nothing about Prince Caspian, and I remember them cluelessly looking to us to try to understand our joy at the return to Narnia and all of the adventures the Royals went on through the entire show. My mom also did this incredible thing [I really do not know when], where she made us take a photograph outside the Prince Caspian poster and made us all individual mugs with the photo on it.

My memory of Narnia is just that. That amazing day, filled with wonder. I didn’t watch the third movie. Today, Goodreads prompted me that The Chronicles were the most-read in the Fantasy genre this week, which was more than enough excuse to launch into myself.

What a fabulous day it has been. I’ve been sitting on my laptop, in my room, yet transported with each book into a new adventure. Launched into a world other than my own. Narnia fulfilled everything that good fiction books have done for me. They’ve all allowed me to live a life that’s removed from the life I live here. Another planet, almost, where anything appears possible, and chapter on chapter, the unimaginable takes place.

Love that fifth year is giving me so much time and reason to read.

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).