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Aug 24, 2017

Three Book Reviews

Reading fiction makes me strongly aware of passing time, sand grains traveling faster than ever down the constricted throat of an hour glass. Most often I find myself questioning, why am I wasting my time reading some one else's version of 'non-reality' when there is so much of reality or real world left to explore. Even if I succeed in reading a truly genius work of 'non-reality', there is a strong tendency for these stories to disengage, tumbleweed like and blow away, fast fading across my prairies of forgetfulness. I simply cannot seem to hold on to these superbly crafted non-realities by any of the master wordsmiths of our times.

Non-fiction on the other hand gets hungrily ingested and cataloged for future reference, adding on to an accretion of wondrous snippets of information about the universe and everything in it. There is so much to learn and non-fiction writing is one of my most primary, go-to learning aids.

Being a lifer in the digital era - searching on Google or taking the endless elevator down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is usually my first nature as it might be for any urban human of my vintage. But there are times when you feel the spiritual need to disconnect from all technology, start on a diet of eating fruits and berries, stop shaving, plant your organic cotton, pick it and weave your own clothes and chirp with the crickets at sundown. Knowing my own limits, I have so far only attempted the first step of this yogic regimen - disconnect from all technology.

During the few hours of my technology abstinence, in the absence of search engines and other crowd sourced enlightenment, I revert back to reading scrolls - books, if you insist on using the correct modern terminology. Whether it is to tackle existential questions or to figure out a past President's horticultural habits, there is a usually book out there somewhere documenting just that.

Every other month I become fascinated with aging, death, growing old and the old age's titillating promise (or the only silver lining?) of making a person wiser. In search of this wisdom or you could say as a part of prepping early for the final act, I attempt reading realistic accounts of people who have been there and done that or books about old age written by people who have worked and lived close with old people like physicians and care-givers. I have chanced upon some very illuminating reads this way - like Sherwin Nuland's The Art of Aging: A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being and Atul Gawande's Being Mortal : Medicine and What Matters in the End.

Most recently I landed upon The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman's Life by Ann Burack-Weiss, that belongs to the preparing for old age genre. Unlike Nuland and Gawande who (were) are physicians, Burack-Weiss is a social worker and her book reads a little bit more like an academic work than a non-fiction best seller (which the other two were.) 

That said, her focus on the writing and thoughts of notable women on old age and death and curating these into a cohesive account, is unique and as a woman, interesting to me. There were places I skimmed through the pages when it started reminding me of protracted thesis documents and the hours spent in musty libraries jotting down references to beef up the appendices. Yes,that's how we did it in the dark pre-digital era, right around the time when I was young and the wheel had just been invented.

The Lioness in Winter is interesting if you are curious about the winter of life and are familiar with some older women authors like Maya Angelou, Anais Nin, Joyce Carol Oates, Simone de Beauvoir and a bunch of others and might care to know what they thought about growing old. Or if you are a woman with some free time to read (that's a rare animal, the free time factor eliminates all the probables), it might be worth a try.

How many times have we relived with Holocaust ensconced in the warmth of our couches? I know my answer, far too many to count. The list of non-fiction books on Holocaust I have read is shorter compared to Holocaust movies. There was Night by Elie Weizel and Diary of Anne Frank - that's about it.

Last week I added one more to the list - Man's Search for Meaning by  Viktor Frankl. Again like The Lioness in Winter, Man's Search... also verges on being an academic dissection of life in concentration camps through the eyes of Frankl who was a psychiatrist imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, almost through out the entire war. He was imprisoned in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The author intended his writing to be a honest description of every man's life in those dreaded camps and wanted it to serve as inspiration to never give up on life even when it gets as tough as it got for those Jewish prisoners.

Frankl's work to me seems like a treatise on hope penned in the most hopeless of situations. A first-hand account of the most wretched people on Earth (at one time) and written matter-of-factly by a person of scientific and logical temperance - which I am pretty sure Frankl was. Are you like that? Then you might like Man's Search for Meaning.

Mohsin Hamid is a notable novelist of our age, the kind you keep watch on especially if you have roots in the Indian subcontinent. Why did I pick Exit West? It is fiction, but it is one of the very few fictional takes on a very contemporary crisis and I was curious how the 'non-realistic' version of contemporary reality looked like. Also, I have read a few of Hamid's earlier works like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, that I found interesting. Since the current truth of the Middle East refugee crisis is too hard to bear, I thought maybe fiction might present a more tolerable picture. I was not mistaken.

Exit West names no names, geographies of conflict are kept deliberately obscured by the author. Although that didn't stop me from imagining it all playing out in Syria. We get to see the yin and yang of human nature responding to wars and displacement through the two protagonists - one female and one male. Unlike the refugees of the present day crisis, in this work of fiction, magical realism makes sure there is no heart-wrenching, lifeless supplicated forms of little children washed up on Europe's beaches.

It is a quick read. Despite the place and the time where the story is set, the narrative does not delve into the miseries of people fleeing their native lands in the wake of wars but rather on exploring the psychology of human nature and relationships in a dystopian but seemingly (new) normal future.

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