Book Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 

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What’s it about:

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the keeper of keys at the Natural History Museum. Werner grows up an orphan in a German town, with the future of a mining life looming ahead. But it’s the turbulent times of WW2 and they both get uprooted and cast far away from comfort. For Marie, it’s the excruciating escape to Saint-Malo and the fear of American bombs that drop from the sky. For Werner, it’s the promise of a better life, a life filled with science and discovery but something that soon catapults out of his control. How do these two unite and under what circumstances? That forms the crux of the story.

What I thought: 

Few books in the recent times had my attention the way this one did. From the get go, you fall into rhythm with the narrative that the author is trying to build. He cuts back and forth, past and present, cuts across locations, France and Germany, meticulously building characters and premise. He takes you deep into the minds of the folk who had to experience the war first-hand. Directly or indirectly. So much that war itself becomes a living breathing character.

Apparently this book has been ten years in the making, and it shows. I can’t begin to imagine the countless hours of research that something of this magnitude would take. I haven’t read a lot of World War fiction so can’t say this with absolute certainty, but something that usually doesn’t get talked about a lot is how the World Wars affected the common folk. And how differently the world view appears from the ground up. Doerr succeeds here immensely; he doesn’t sugar-coat, and there’s absolutely no attempt to emotionally entangle the reader. I’ve never seen bluntness used so to such an effect.

The chapters are kept short, some even just a couple of paragraphs, which keeps the momentum going. It’s also a clever way to make the book unputdownable, as there’s always something or the other happening. The language is crisp, yet poetic. And the author is somehow able to set up a whole scene, sights and sounds and smells, with just a handful of words at times.

If I’m talking so much about the technical aspects of the book, I think it’s because it deserves to be highlighted. This is a book where one soon realizes that the narrative is going to be bigger than anything, even if it tells two extremely personal tales. It might not have the gravitas of, say The Book Thief, but it makes one walk away with a feeling that they’ve just beheld something epic.

Keywords:

world-war-II, France, Germany, Saint-Malo, Sea-of-Flames, Jules-Verne, radio, Hitler’s-Youth, Clair-de-Lune

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Book Review: They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera

 

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What’s it about:

Two teenage boys (with some *cough* emotional baggage) find out that they’re going to die sometime over the course of the day (magic of Death-Cast, don’t ask me!). But they end up having the time of their lives when they discover each other through an app called Last Friend that allows the dying to make one last friend. And as is usually with books that are described as “life affirming” or “heartbreaking” or “an emotional roller-coaster”, this one too has a lot of heavy touchy-feely bits. It’s pretty much the Young-Adulting for Dummies!

What I thought: 

It didn’t break my heart. It didn’t even give me the tingles.

Maybe I’m too old for this (at 27!) or maybe I’m just cold inside, but I really really wished that this book had adult protagonists. That would have lent much more gravitas to this otherwise simplistic narrative that never goes anywhere outside of where you expect it to. Yes, the boys are queer and yes they fall in love just moments before death knocks on their door, and yet I wasn’t shook. I just had an “oh okay then” moment and was happy to be done.

Part of the blame could be laid on the characters. Mateo and Rufus are so very cookie cutter that the sense of deja vu completely washes out any trace of empathy. Even the deeply personal moments don’t ring up an emotion. And you know there’s something wrong with the writing when a first person narrative fails to get you into the heads of your characters.

All this but credit has to be given where due, so I’ll say the premise was fantastic. And the world-building was authentic and on point. I liked the little segues into other characters’ lives and how it all intertwines at the end. I liked the clever red-herring, though the author wastes too much time to make it work. And that is pretty much all I got.

In the end, this is definitely a good book but if you’re out looking for LGBT reads, there are much better ones to choose.

Keywords:

young-adult, queer-protagonists, death, family, loss, friendship, self-acceptance, overcoming-your-fear, finding-love-in-a-hopeless-place

Book Review: The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad by Syeda Imam

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A jewel of a book!

Such an eclectic collection of mostly personal accounts, memoirs, and commentaries on the city that I call home.

From Narendra Luther‘sHyderabad through Foreign Eyes” which sets the stage nicely for what’s to follow, to Bilkees Latif‘s “Rare Visage Of the Moon” that talks about the lesser known Mahlaqa Bai – an Urdu poetess and courtesan, and then you have Sarojini Naidu‘s “Letters too tell stories” which painstakingly unfurls the loss she felt after the death of the 6th Nizam.

Each chapter charts the evolution of Hyderabad, from the opulence of the Nizams to their eventual downfall, the accession to the Indian Union in 1948, and what became of the city thus, how it transformed into the bustling concrete jungle of today yet never losing the spirit and harmony that has become its trademark. The spirit of Hyderabad and its people being the unifying thread that runs through every essay.

There are other interesting essays that detail the inclusiveness of the Nizams and by extension the city. Yezdayr Kasooji‘s “Growing up a Parsi in Hyderabad” is a wonderful account of the Parsi community and culture and how they had adapted to the local traditions, in true Hyderabad fashion. There’s just so much here for anybody who’s associated with Hyderabad that it makes for an overwhelming read. There’s even an aside on how the peculiar Dakhani language came to be.

Reading this book has given me a newfound appreciation for the city of Hyderabad. And I was saddened that there’s such a rich history to this place that most might never know. This is definitely a book worth picking up!

Book Review: Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

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Any book that makes you wanna rush home just so you could resume reading is a good one indeed! This was mostly a fun, heart-warming read and Simon is just so adorable as a person that it’s hard to not empathise with him, and actually wish that you knew him. I mean, he wears a freaking dementor costume for Halloween!

But the bigger point is this; even though I wasn’t really on-board with the narrative from the get go (I’m nearing my 30s and nowhere in the head space to go through a YA coming-of-age story), but there are a few books that always breakthrough, due to the larger picture that they paint. And this book grew on me with every page – Simon, his friends, his school, his parents – and I realised that’s because everything feels so genuine and relatable. And as someone who’s experienced this often, coming-out is not just about your sexuality, we come out everytime we don’t fit into the boxes that the society puts us in. And this all the more special because at its core it’s not really about Simon being gay, there are so many other battles that he’s fighting every day.

And it just hits me while I’m writing this that there’s so much that this book addresses in the short span. How to stand up to bullying, how to be more inclusive, more accepting, and how to be better parents even.

And last but not least, Becky’s superb prose! The language is fluid and it does read like a 16 year old’s inner monologue, but there are some really curious phrases that I enjoyed e.g describing someone’s voice as “thin and high like Voldemort”. It’s simple but effective.

Overall, this was time well spent. Would I read the sequel? Not unless there’s one from Simon’s POV again.

Book Review: ORIGIN – Dan Brown

The Line:

Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. (from Goodreads)

But this is a Dan Brown novel and you know how it’s gonna play out.

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What I thought:

How effortlessly is Dan Brown able to take the same characters and narration, put them in a different location, slap a new controversy/premise, furnish some Wikipedia-esque details about famous people and their art, and voila – call it a new installment! If that sounded like praise, it definitely isn’t.

Because I, for one, really wish Robert Langdon retires and settles down (let’s get him hitched with Elizabeth Sinskey), just so we wouldn’t have to read another book where he has to play the I-know-stuff-and-I-see-what-you-don’t symbologist with a *cough* good heart *cough*. I mean, can we just collectively accept that we’re five books down already, and yet if asked to write a character analysis, most people wouldn’t go beyond Mickey Mouse and Claustrophobia.

But let’s give credit where it’s due, Brown actually choses a pretty compelling topic for Origin i.e the origin of life itself; which piqued my interest as a skeptic. While I did not walk away with much to muse on, I’m hoping this book will at least help a few to question their own religious orientation. There are always people who would ask what is the point of life if there is no god? Why am I here? Where am I going? But is a supreme being really essential to explain life? To explain us? And what if someone were to tell you that life needed no designer after all? Would that be enough to crumble the foundations upon which most of the world’s religions lay? Or would it be business as usual? That people are ultimately gonna believe whatever gives them a sense of comfort?

All those questions the book does pose and if that seems like a worthy exercise, by all means go ahead and read the book! I’m sure you’ll come out a little wiser.

Where it falters is pretty much everything else, the formula is still intact. There is a murder, there’s people on the run, there’s a secret organization, and Robert Langdon is unwittingly dragged into the mess plus he has codes to solve while marveling at art and architecture! If you see, those were the exact same things that made Angels & Demons such a fantastic read and left a lasting impression on me as a teenager when I read it. But now, you just keep flipping the pages wearily, rolling your eyes at regular intervals.

The brighter points, then? The philosophical discussion, for sure. But also, the art! Here we’ve moved past the Renaissance period onto the modern art eraThough I will have to agree with Langdon and say that I’m much more at home with Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Botticelli. Origin is set in Spain, and we start off at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao with its esoteric displays of modern art. Then we meet Antonio Gaudí(an architect famous for his spectacular modernist art) in Barcelona where things get much more intriguing. Sagrada Família, in particular, stands out for its sheer ambition and is soon to be the largest church in Europe. Brown does know how to set these great action pieces in epic locations, that’s his USP after all.

I’m not gonna touch upon the finer points of the plot, because that was a source of my constant chagrin. It’s 2017 when this book came out and most the plot devices and twists that the author employs have been done to death with. Even that final twist, which I saw coming from miles ahead, and was somehow hoping is just a red-herring. But no, Brown succumbs to the clichés because he apparently cannot do any better. There’s a sect of Brown-heads who will argue that one mustn’t judge his books for the prose or the plot, rather we should point our attention at the topic that is discussed. I get that, I do, and I enjoyed Inferno for the ethical dilemma it posed around a real issue. Origin lacked direction, and by the end I wasn’t sure if the book really achieved what it set out to do.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? These are the existential questions that frequently pop up in the book. I think it’s time Dan Brown asked those questions about himself.

Keywords:

Robert-Langdon, Spain, Artificial-Intelligence, Primordial-soup, Darwin, creationism, modern art, Barcelona, Winston Churchill, family-drama, science-vs-religion

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

The Line:

Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. (from GoodReads)

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What I thought:

If there are books that make you literally grope for words (and breath), because you don’t think that anything you’re ever gonna say could truly encompass what they made you feel, this is definitely one of those!

Call Me By Your Name is a prime example of what could be achieved when the author lays his soul bare on paper. And if this is purely fiction, Andre Aciman is truly one of the most brilliant writers around. A first person account of a 17 year old might sound a little trite to the unawares, but Elio’s relentless dialog with his desires, his dreams, his destiny is nothing short of a revelation, both in terms of the matter at hand and the craft. What a great character study too, when you reach into such depths of his personality that authors usually aren’t capable to letting you delve. And there is acumen, oodles of it. The characters all display a heightened sense of perception, a delight! But predominantly it’s Elio and his mind that I fell in love with, if that is even possible!

Before my mind goes off in tangents, a word on the prose too. In a lot of ways, what makes this book special is the language. It’s beautiful, poignant, heart-wrenching – without being overtly dramatic. Most of the sentences that hit you hard are the simple ones. A sea of emotions conveyed at the economy of a few words. So I lingered on each page a little longer, contemplated Elio’s own thoughts as if it were mine own. I wasn’t eager to finish reading his story, yet I couldn’t put the book down.

The final chapter was bittersweet. The movie ended where it did for cinematic purposes, but the book goes a little further and there’s an open ending, joy!

Now excuse me while I go find someone to call them by my name. Later!

Keywords:

Italy, old-world, queer, protagonists who read books, love, sensuality, longing, coming-of-age

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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I have always asserted that books could never drive me to tears. But that is until now; because Uncle Tom’s Cabin came close, very close. And if it could have such an effect on me, after all these years when slavery is pretty much done and dusted with and everybody acknowledges it for the abominable act that it was, I cannot even begin to ascertain the way it would have moved the population that was directly or indirectly a part of it, back when it was originally published.

Much of that can be credited to the author’s devastating portrayal of the black families: what they were in the eyes of the slave-keepers and traders, what they had to endure, and ultimately, what they had to lose. It almost feels ridiculous to say this in retrospect, but the book’s raison d’etre is to show that the slaves were just people, after all.  We, in the current world, have the privilege of history. We know how ultimately slavery was abolished under Lincoln in 1865, but at the time that book was published, things were still under steam. A group of people would vehemently hold on to their belief (based on their holy book) that the slaves were better off under their masters, that they needn’t be free. And I suppose this book served as a bird’s eye view to finally see the issue of slavery as a humane problem. That every man was equal under the eyes of God, to quote the Bible.

Christianity, indeed, is one of the bigger themes of the book. And one that Harriet uses to drive her point home multiple times. It begs the question of whether it would have been impossible to make people see the good side without bringing God and salvation into the picture, but as was evident, it did serve her purpose. Take Tom for instance, our lead character, who is a man of integrity, compassion, courage and just what you’d call a “really good fellow”. It is frequently implied that Tom is the person that he is because of his faith and his joyous submission to God. So much so that his unwavering faith helps him even in death. He knew that he was going to a better place. And he makes it clear to the people around him, and by extension, the readers.

The other political and civil messages are delivered through various characters such as George Harris for instance (an industrious man who flees to Canada with his wife and child to attain freedom from his abusive master). Even otherwise, Harriet populates her book with characters who fall under every corner of the moral compass. It’s through these characters that we see the plight of the slaves and also of the keepers. One of my favorite sections of the book are the debates between Augustine St. Claire and Miss Ophelia. Two people who are on the same page about slavery, but for totally different reasons.

It’s all these ideas and contemplative remarks bouncing off the pages that make this book such a thrilling read. There’s hardly ever a dull moment, because even when nothing of import is going on, the narrative still keeps you mulling. And while this is not a book that one praises for its prose, I will say that it was pretty functional. The fact that she even went as far as to get the voices distinct is no small achievement.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important book; not just for what it stands for, but also for what it was able to achieve. In Abe Lincoln’s own words, Harriet was “the little woman who made the great war”.

Score Saturday: On the Nature of Daylight – Max Ritcher

“If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?” 

Been a while, folks. 🙂

But today I’m back with probably one of the best pieces of music I’ve heard in a long while. It all started with the arrival of Arrival in my life. Yes that 2016 sci-fi movie that turned out to be something much more than a mere sci-fi movie. I found the movie, and the short story that I had read later, to be both extremely sublime pieces of art.

Anyone who has seen the movie will remember this soul-penetrating piece of music that is played at the very beginning and then at the end of the movie. In a way, it binds the story together in a musical continuum. At the surface, it seems very simple. It’s mostly the same melody playing over and over again, intensifying as time progresses.

But it speaks to you and in a way only music can, you suddenly find hope in the enveloping canvas of melancholy.

 

 

Unsaid things…

All the things you will not say,
because you’re too scared to
show me
what you really feel

All the things you will not say,
because you’re too hesitant to
admit
that you care

All the things you will not say,
because you believe
it’s pointless
to talk about something that can never be

And all the things you will probably never say,
because you rightly assumed
that I would not want to hear them

But maybe, just once,
I would want to hear you say them,
somewhere other than my head.

UK


I guess we all have moments in our lives that make us bleed poetry. And I know that my skills are yet rudimentary and I can only manage a freeverse. The above is still probably only the first draft and I might improve it in future. But for now, it has served its purpose.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Book Review

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The author dedicates this book to all the boys who’ve had to learn to play by different rules.

Little wonder, then, that this one moved me to bits, resonated with my soul on different levels, made me look back on my own life as a round peg in a square hole!!

Aristotle(aka Ari) is quite unlike the every day 15 yo teenager. Introverted and troubled and yet wise and loving, he lives in a cocoon, observes details that nobody seems to care about, and frequently wonders why he doesn’t act like people his own age. He’s got virtually no friends but that is until Dante comes along. Dante is the dreamer, the artist, the kind of an angelic soul with just the tinge of naughty undertone that it’s hard to not fall in love with him.

The friendship between Ari and Dante is so beautifully etched that I started to feel a little envious by the end of it. When people speak their minds without any ego or other kind of bullshit, it’s such a delightful thing, really. And this book embraces it whole heartedly. A lot of dialogues made me go ‘oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh!’ and that’s no small achievement.

It was both scary and thrilling just how much I was able to relate to both Ari and Dante.

“I want people to tell me how they feel. I’m not so sure I want to return the favor.”

The above line by Ari seems like a very simple observation about himself but it struck me deeply as I echo the same emotion. There are a lot of these little drizzles of almost cathartic insights into an introvert’s psyche which I was constantly agreeing with.

The prose is simple, just like how a 15-17 yo boy would think. The books feels like more of an inner monologue; there are no heavy conversations and most of it feels like how you’d talk in real life. And like I said before, sometimes all it takes is a couple of words to trigger a deep response within you.

There’s naught much else that I will say here other then, GO READ IT! This is the best coming-of-age story I’ve read in years. And for a change, I cried because I was happy not sad!