Saturday, 21 May 2016

Review: Stoner

Stoner Stoner by John Edward Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

Rarely does a book, seemingly unrelated captures your feeling in words that you wish were your own. Sometimes, when I am reading a book, or staring at the to-read pile at my desk, I feel a thought very similar to the one articulated above. Now that we have gotten it out of the way, let's come to the book.

An american classic, almost two years since the last one. I have since grown averse of the genre. They have a way of doing things to your heart. Today, the sole reason I started this book was to get it off my to-read list. It's been there for months. And I am glad I took it on.

"He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist."

The author captures so many moments in words like this. Some are uttered by characters. Some, are part of the narration. The character building of William Stoner, is like our own character building. Slow exploration, cautious, little surprises at what we find, constantly chiseling away things that we wanted to be, from the things we actually are.

And early on, you feel a little sympathy for him. Soon it morphs into anger at his stupidity in courting Edith. In a very similar vein, Elaine Edith makes you want to empathise and emote for what she is. But it becomes harder and harder. At a point, you could actually feel the grating of her shrill nervous voice, as she engages guests in the house warming party.

Slowly, the novel brings you in, makes you feel welcome. After a while, you're not a guest. You become a member of the family. The characters annoy you, make you feel pity for them and in the end make you feel an invisible agony at being unable to reach out fix things, give a shoulder for them to cry.

WT has an affair. And ironically the affair has some of the best words about love. “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

I don't want to say much more than this. There is an odd sense of satisfaction. Of having seen something that was so magnificent. Not by the banal definition of the word. But in the way of something that is limited to just the flawed, human lives.

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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Watson was a misogynist and racist. Halley was the one who actually haggled Newton into publishing Principia Mathematica. Robert Hooke was a shameless plagiarist. Wolfgang Pauli's wife ran of with a chemist. Avogadro, of the Avogadro no. fame, was brought to a school by his mother who hitchhiked 4000 miles, to make sure he got an education and died shortly after they got to the school. Henry Cavendish was quite possibly the worst introvert in history. Almost half of Science's discoveries are misattributed, either because the discoverer's were very secretive, or because the ones who got the attribution were more influential in there fields. And the barrage of facts goes on and on like this.

A Short History of Nearly Everything (henceforth known as ASHONE) is one of those books you have to careful to keep at an arm's length, or you'll have to go through an existential crisis, every few chapters. Bill Bryson loves to make statements like this, often without any warning.

“99.99 percent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.” And this,

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth's mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life's quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result -- eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly -- in you.”

These seem innocuous enough, at the face of it. But by photon, stop putting so much pressure on me. I don't need to be aware of the fact that something that has been successful for 3.8 bn years can and very possibly might end with me. Okay? No. NO.

Everything I have read in this book, every page, taught me something new. I am not sure I will retain a percentage of that in the long run. But oddly enough, while most books ultimately leave you feeling that you know very little, this book massages your ego a bit and makes you feel like you got something out of a book and can, at least for a while, rest on the fact that so much knowledge was shoe horned into you.

“The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don’t truly understand.”

This is one of those books that will make you rethink many things in your life. Needless to say, if you are open enough to it. ASHONE has it all. Witty writing, Science and well, some Geology. Or does that come under science too?

There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.”

This should be made a compulsory reading in all high schools, as soon as students are capable of handling the language used.

I had in mind a long review, but for some reason, my brain refuses to play along. Perhaps a few days later.

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Friday, 13 May 2016

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I opened 'When Breath Becomes Air' once again, I wanted to read something entirely different from the first time. The first read was in the middle of a night, in my college dorm. It was a race against time and sleep deprivation. Once I had started it, I couldn't stop. I raced through the prologue, and immediately wanted to know the story of this man, one if you had told me orally, I would've dismissed as pseudo-motivating feel-good story of someone who never existed. (I'm stupid that way')

But after reading it for a second time, I feel even more inadequate than the first time. I wanted to see meanings in this book, of mortality, of death, of bravery, of love, of commitment, of hard work. And I found them all. Perhaps, it is my tendency to try to relate to my life, whatever I read, is the source of this feeling of inadequacy. This book is pregnant with emotions and hidden meanings, struggles in every page, and bravery in every word. There is also a lining of honesty that shines through everything else. This is the kind of honesty that can scare you, when you know what it takes to be that honest.

Paul Kalanithi, is so different from the doctors that India, or for that matter, TamilNadu generates. There is no ruthless memorizing and vomiting. There is no counseling. There is only an year of intense coursework and an 18 month cycle of application process. Paul, interestingly, or perhaps obviously, didn't seek out to become a doctor initially. He was aiming to become an English professor, if pressed to given an answer for the question- "What are you going to do with your life?". A double major in English and Biology, it was Walt Whitman, that finally pushed him to Medicine, to know the Physiological- self.

From there, Paul highlights little of the gruesome coursework that is needed. He only mentions them briefly. Throughout his life, he makes unconventional choices, and perhaps that is why he succeeded. Once he gets into Stanford, Paul highlights the transition from a medical student to being a Doctor - A surgeon, in words that make even a layman like me appreciate the gravity of the transition. His discussion of cadavers, and the exploration of the relation between a medical student and his cadaver, is spot on, says my friend who happens to be a Medical Student. Everyone can hack a bone, but then very few can write about it with an air of authority like Paul can.

Paul traces his life, like this, quoting anecdotes, cases and brings us to the point where he is diagnosed with Terminal Cancer. From then on, his decisions take a new dimension of meaning. They are the decisions of a man who is dying and who knows about it in uncomfortable levels of finitude and detail. He declares, at a point, "You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote towards which you can ceaselessly strive". And I haven't read a more precise utterance about perfection and the struggle for it.

Paul was at the prime of his life. He was not an aging man, someone who had enjoyed at least a bit of what life had to offer. He was on the other extreme. Someone who put a stopper on all his pleasures, including having kids, so he could finish his internship of a decade, and finally become a Neurosurgeon-Scientist. And when you find suddenly that everything you have ever worked for, is no more than a mirage, everything that you ever hoped will enjoy in the not so distant future, is now non existent, it is VERY HARD to act like Paul did. The immediate acceptance of what lay in front of him, is something that many of us may not be capable of.

After treatment, with first regime of drugs, he goes back to the OR. He works once again, and fulfills his requirements for graduation. The intermediate time is peppered with so many truisms about mortality, and if you look carefully, love - for life and for the profession.

Paul had a debilitating pain, a strained marriage and a possibly futile decade with him. And when he died, he had the best of marriages, an integrity that rivals everything else in the face of death and a rich legacy, this book and another human being - his daughter Cady. Many of us aren't capable of achieving even one of these things in an entire lifetime, with stable health and a great circle of family and friends. Paul did, and he had Lucy with him, who in the last line, stated poignantly, "I was his wife and witness". Lucy has written the epilogue of this book and her wondrance at the ability to love Paul, in his absence, is one of the best lines about love I have read so far.

Rest in Peace, Paul. Thank you, for this book, for your life.

Old review below.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

I got to this book after a confusing night. I had hours ago, skimme2d through the Bhagavat Gita, and was contemplating the idea that we were nothing but a mere instrument in God's hands. This God person has been a source of much head ache to me recently. I have tried to rationalize, and well, as you guessed, I got nowhere. But not really because God himself is irrational. It is just that there are so many conflicting versions of him, that the only way to believe in him with any degree certainty is to refuse to believe anything except one version. There are more tolerant versions and versions less so. But all of them somehow point to the idea that all we do and act on is just according to God's wish. No other way. And I refused to believe it.

Paul Kalanidhi seems to reaffirm my decision. Perhaps it is too arrogant that a man's struggle with matters beyond my comprehension is mentioned as just a reaffirmation of my decision. But that doesn't take us away from the fact that he fought a magnificent battle.

This book inspired awe, instilled sadness and sowed courage. It is not often you get to see someone fight. Paul fought and he did so magnificently that for a while, everything else is going to seem so trivial. The writing is like a gentle lullaby. Soothing, and it almost succeeds in hiding the pain latent in the words. To fail is something. To be denied the chance to win is something else. When faced with the second, Paul carved his way out. And for that, I think he deserves all the praise I can think of.

His theological musings, as well as the pages on mortality, are so elegant and touching. There is no pseudo parading from a moral high horse. He plays the game, and he isn't afraid to lose. Only if we all could play the game.

Rest in peace Paul. There are not many dead men that I respect like I do you. Rest in peace.

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Review: Burden Of Democracy

Burden Of Democracy Burden Of Democracy by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Indians love to exhort in the fact that India is a nation of contradictions. In fact, it is readily apparent to the outsider, the contradictions that embody the nation state called India. From the very birth of this nation, people have raised hue and cry that it won't survive at all. And they were are all, in their own way, justifiable. But India chose to beat those odds, and for extra points, settled on Democracy as its chosen mode of government.

And it was the most important choice that was ever made. Perhaps, it was, as P.B.Mehta cheekily points out, the result of the British Colony having produced too many lawyers affluent in the Western model of governments. But the choice of Democracy was not intuitive nor was it the result of a revolution as in the case of France or America. It was much a vehicle of social change as it was the result of one.

The idealism associated with State and Democracy in the beginning days of independence, was very high indeed. But now, it has devolved to a point where

There are very few people you can come across that won't fault the government for whatever issue they have, on in some manner, indirectly imply that the state should be more authoritative and have more punitive powers. And it is not surprising that recently, the Modi government is looked upon to provide exactly that kind of governance. Never mind that India survived only because BJP was kept at bay.

There are various contradictions in India's choice of government. And more to the point, there is no clear consensus on what Democracy actually means. There is the issue of Politics of Inequality, politics of caste, Identity politics, low caste mobilization, and the issue of widespread corruption.

P.B.Mehta examines all of these, claims that India needs a much stronger moral anchor for the Democracy to be better than it is today, quoting the US as an example. He deconstructs the psychology of both lower caste mobilization and also studies why there isn't actually a social reform happening every time an oppressed society is elected to power. The pointer at the fact that there is a goal of power and not equalization or of opportunity to their community, is succinct.

The exploration of the results of India's in-egalitarian society effacing it's individuals and the derivation of the micro politics of corruption based on this injustice, as an effort to prove their worth and to assert their authority, is particularly mind-blowing.

This is the smallest book on my shelf, yet the one that made me think the most. What I have mentioned here is really a miniscule amount of what is contained in the book. It is sure to make you ask uncomfortable questions and at times, merely make your jaw drop in the awe of scholarship of P.B.Mehta.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see if he has written anything on Nationalism.

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