‘Turtles All The Way Down’ by John Green (Book Review)

'Turtles All The Way Down' by John Green

I seem to punctuate my reading spells every now and then with a good Young Adult genre that seem to awaken some leftover “YA emotions” hibernating in some corner of me and I time-travel. Interesting exercise that this is – to look back at one’s vulnerable time as a YA, now ensconced in the acquired wisdom (more or less) in a dear exchange of youth, hope and careless optimism – is to see life come a full circle.

The Book: is a first-person narrative by the highschooler protagonist Aza who keeps getting into an obsessive hypochondriacal cycle of over-thinking going down into an infinite and ever-tightening spiral, a condition she is very well aware of, but unable to extricate herself from. In other words, this book is primarily about how it feels to be trapped in mind of a mentally ill person. Yet, just like touching someone else’s body isn’t the same as having someone else’s body, reading about mental illness may not be even close to actually experiencing it, though it behooves us to educate ourselves and empathize. Other characters in the story are Aza’s mother, her friend Mychal, almost-boyfriend Davis and the psychotherapist, Dr. Singh. But the character I most enjoyed was Aza’s longtime best friend Daisy – a Star Wars fan fiction writer coming from a very modest family background with tons of practical wisdom, quick wit and humor that I loved!

One day, Aza tells Daisy about the struggle with competing “voices” in her head and to understand which one is the real her at its core (if there be one at all – which in itself is a pretty scary and defeating thought). And Daisy shares with her this little story about a conversation between a scientist and an old religious lady:
Having explained the Big Bang and how the earth and life came into being, the scientist asks his audience if they had any questions, and an old lady raises her hand and says, ‘That’s all fine and good, Mr. Scientist, but the truth is, the earth is a flat plane resting on the back of a giant turtle.’ The scientist decides to have a bit of fun with the woman and responds, ‘Well, but if that’s so, what is the giant turtle standing upon?’ And the woman says, ‘It is standing upon the shell of another giant turtle.’ And now the scientist is frustrated, and he says, ‘Well, then what is that turtle standing upon?’ And the old woman says, ‘Sir, you don’t understand. It’s turtles all the way down.’  Thats how the book gets its curious title, and aptly so because, in my opinion, this alludes to the eternal question that has haunted the thinking man: Who am I?

The philosophical conversations between Aza and Davis are intertwined with inspiring literary quotes. The climax of the book is not that Aza gets cured of her affliction and lives happily ever after; it is, instead, very realistic and makes you shed tears, it also hopeful believable and very beautiful. As I turned the pages to Acknowledgements, I was touched to find these last few lines, “It can be a long and difficult road, but mental illness is treatable. There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t” and a treatment referral helpline for SAMSHA 1-877-SAMSHA7. John Green’s writing is, as always, very engaging, clever and is in an honest voice. I give this book 4 stars on Goodreads.

 

Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Book Review)

img_1434Intro: You know Trevor Noah, right? The Daily Show on CC, its previous host Jon Stewart, his replacement and all that good stuff? No? Then wherever have you been getting your ‘authentic news’ from? And if you know him, Noah’s biracial looks, his almost British accent and his sincere humor would’ve made you curious. And when his book came out, you’d have wanted to read whats the fuss all about (and understand why he is even writing an autobiographical book in his early 30’s!). I wanted to read it too, but it was Bill Gates recommendation that made me move it from my ‘To Be Read’ list to ‘currently reading’.

About: Born in apartheid to a black native mother and a white father, (during a time when inter-racial relationships were against the law with up to five years of imprisonment) Trevor’s birth was actually the result of a “crime”. This is where the book gets its name (in case you were wondering). Being the comedian that he is, one is poised to laugh at some joke he is going to crack, and so when you start reading his book, you are not surprised by the humor. What is surprising, a few pages in, is when it is not all jokes. He talks about apartheid not as a concept, but as a day-to-day reality he grew up in, about the racial discrimination and miserable lives of the black natives in ghettos (away from the white neighborhoods), with hardly any means struggling to make ends meet. For me, all I knew was “apartheid” is policy of “discrimination based on one’s race” and that it ended in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the first black president; this book shocked me with the length, breadth and the depth of it. And how the world outside (especially, America) is so different with so much going on.

Noah describes how the black community kept fixing problems of the past, when they were pillaged for generations, and never progressed using skills or education to move ahead in life. It was a curse that Noah’s mother called the “black tax” that they had to keep paying just to bring everyone back up to zero. Read this excerpt from the book just for the sake of perspective:

“I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?”

Sounds terrible isn’t it? Stuff like that certainly gives me the blues and I go in a denial mode, but Noah’s humorous take on everything lets you take it all in without any of that gloom – that, I think, is the value of this book! Some incidents are outright hilarious and you could not stop laughing out loud. The mixed kid that he was (and looked), Trevor was always confused which group he really belonged to – blacks, ‘coloureds’, Indians or the whites – and his insight into their inter-group dynamics is nothing short of remarkable. But he found is place as someone who gets people’s work done, and so, he was welcome everywhere! “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your of my color.” His coming of age chapters are entertaining with his many heartbreaks, his years of hustling selling pirated CDs, being a DJ and all his entrepreneurial endeavors which he pulled off quite successfully.

The main theme of the book is Noah’s relationship with his mother, Patricia Noah, who raised him singlehandedly. She was stubbornly religious and tried her best to inculcate religious faith in him. But she was also an independent thinker, fierce and fearless, who raised her son by never letting any social, racial or economic boundaries come in the way. She understood the importance of language, and made sure Noah learnt to speak English (which black people did not), along with other native tongues. Trevor was a very naughty kid and a handful for his mother, almost always giving her a good chase around the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they were a great team and he credits his mother for making a man out of him; this book is Noah’s heartfelt tribute to his mother.

Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is entertaining, interesting and, of course, funny. But you would leave the book having learnt so much about racial discrimination, poverty, domestic violence and adversity, and everything that made such a brilliant comedian out of him!

 

 

EXTRAS:

“My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies.
I went with the cookies.”

“That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.”

“The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.”

“It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in.”

“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.”


Book Review: ‘The Secret Life Of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd

'The Secret Life Of Bees' By Sue Monk KiddWhen I finally got around reading it amidst several projects (a family wedding, relocating to another state, getting back to work after years, to name a few),  maneuvering through digital / physical library copies, whenever available, (oh, and some other books I finished during that period), I eventually did finish The Secret Life of Bees. The point of sharing my eventful summer activities is not to demonstrate my utmost capability and managerial skills (which I kind of did), but to emphasize that notwithstanding, the book stayed with me. Some thoughts and some feelings from sporadic readings staked themselves up in my heart and nudged me like the annoyingly persistent inner voice to take it up and finish it.  To mentally pick up from exactly where I had left every time, without any loss of interest or motivation is, I think, quite remarkable. In my case, it was not as much about the story (which was also very good), as it was about how it was told.

It is 1964 country deep in South Carolina  and the Civil Rights Act has just been passed (in theory), but the country has still to catch up (in practice). The story revolves around a 14 year old Lily Owens with no mother and a tyrant for a father. In a series of events, she and her black caretaker Rosaleen find themselves in another town, where Lily is trying hard to find clues about her deceased mother. There she meets the black beekeeper Boatwright sisters, especially the eldest (and my very favorite) August, and her life changes.
[On a side note, talking of bees, how often do you see the subject of a catchy book title carry over to the content (like that book with really no hedgehogs) I mean, who does that? This one actually has several bee references; now ain’t that funny, honey!]

To sum it up, The Secret Life of Bees has the prowess to cut through all the noise around you and suck you in and hold you there. How Lily talks to herself (and to the readers) about her emotions and stuff seems so deep and so believable. There were times I found myself letting out a cathartic weeping spell that seemed to wash my soul clean. Oh boy- did it feel good or what! This book is a coming-of-age drama, Steel Magnolias, Oprah kinda feeling all rolled into one. If the honesty and candor in the expression grips your heart, the alluring imagery makes it soar. I recommend this short book just for the experience of it. Four Stars on my Goodreads.

Extras:
The paragraph below conjured up images of bright sun, summer, humming bees and insects, and all the charm of country living and olden times (when life was different, quieter and, perhaps, simpler):
The woman moved along a row of white boxes that bordered the woods beside the pink house, a house so pink it remained a scorched shock on the back of my eyelids after I looked away. She was tall, dressed in white, wearing a pith helmet with veils that floated across her face, settled around her shoulders, and trailed down her back. She looked like an African bride. Lifting the tops off the boxes, she peered inside, swinging a tin bucket of smoke back and forth. Clouds of bees rose up and flew wreaths around her head. Twice she disappeared in the fogged billows, then gradually reemerged like a dream rising up from the bottom of the night. We stood on the porch in the pink light shining off the house. June bugs flickered all around, and music notes floated from inside, sounding like a violin, only a lot sadder.

The movie trailer (that I have not watched yet):

Book Review: ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by C. S. Lewis

img_2882Book Dedication by C. S. Lewis to his goddaughter Lucy Barfield:

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be 

your affectionate Godfather,
C.S. Lewis

Even before reading the first word of the first chapter, the above dedication threw me into whirlwind of emotions, waking me up from a stupor that I must have fallen into as I grew out of girlhood, and greatly moved me with the timing that C. S. Lewis talks about when one is old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

Leaving behind the cozy make-believe one with fairy tales, as we dip our toes into the real world, waters get increasingly rough and life gets progressively complicated, leaving us disillusioned long before we realize. It is then, defeated and despondent, that we return to these very “fairy tales” for hope and happiness to get through the real world.

Life comes a full circle.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first book written and published in a series of seven books under a collective title The Chronicles of Narnia (though the reading order is controversial). It is about four siblings who are sent to live with an old professor in a very big and a very old house to be safe from the dangers of World War II. There they discover a wardrobe in one of the rooms that leads into the magical realm of the world of Narnia. Here there are mythical characters, animal talk and a life in their cozy homes, (which by the way was my favorite part making me feel so warm, happy and secure.) Nothing like escaping into such a world, and having tea and cakes by the fire in one such cottage, be it in your imagination. The kids and some of their jungle friends fight against the evil White Witch and her army of wicked creatures with the help of the mighty king of beasts, the royal Lion Aslan.

The popular novelist Stephen King believes story is the boss of everything in a novel, and this book is all about the great story told in an uncomplicated manner. I loved the book and was happy that I interjected my regular reading with it. A classic in children’s literature, it is a refreshing re/read for those who have grown tired of being grown-ups. Five stars on my Goodreads.

A beautiful excerpt:
There was no trace of the fog now. The sky became bluer and bluer, and now there were white clouds hurrying across it from time to time. In the wide glades there were primroses. A light breeze sprang up which scattered drops of moisture from the swaying branches and carried cool, delicious scents against the faces of the travelers. The trees began to come fully alive. The larches and birches were covered with green, the laburnums with gold. Soon the beech trees had put forth their delicate, transparent leaves. As the travelers walked under them the light also became green. A bee buzzed across their path.

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Book Review: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy. By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Book Review. Book Cover. Inspiring and motivating Quotes.“Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the sh*t out of it.”

Sandberg is the COO of Facebook whose husband of 11 years suddenly died in May 2015 during their vacation in Mexico. Their friend and psychiatrist Adam Grant helped her cope with the tragedy. This book is the result of Sandberg’s personal insights, Grant’s research, several interesting studies and inspiring stories of many who faced adversity -death, illness, sexual assault, war or other extreme hardships- and how they got over it.

Here are some important points I noted:

  • 3 P’s that stunt ones recovery (per psychologist Martin Seligman) :
    1. Personalization– belief that we are at fault for a given adversity
    2. Pervasiveness – a belief that an event will affect all areas of our lives
    3. Permanence– a belief that the aftershocks of the adverse event will last forever.
  • It is important for family and friends to reach out and acknowledge the pain and assure that they are there, rather than avoid because they are uncomfortable or not sure what exactly to say.
  • Journaling, or even voice-recording, could be a powerful tool for learning self-compassion. By putting feelings into words, you give yourself more power over them. At the end of the day, write down 3 things you are grateful for. Another more active form that builds self-confidence would be to write down three things that you did well in the day, the “small wins”. 
  • Building resilience in children depends upon the opportunities they have and the relationships they form with parents, teachers, friends and caregivers, fostering four core beliefs:
    1. That kids have some control over their lives: This comes with clear and consistent communication of expectations, and giving them structure and predictability.
    2. Learning from failure: Tell kids that if they find something difficult, it means their brain is growing. Foster a “growth mindset” as against “fixed mindset,” e.g. when applauding say “you tried so well” as against ” you are so smart”. The latter actually puts a cap of sorts that discourages kids to go beyond.
    3. That kids matter as human beings: Listen closely to their ideas, make them feel that others notice , care for and rely on them. This helps them create attachments.
    4. They have real strength to rely on and share: Help children identify their strengths. This is a great tool in life and critical after any traumatic events.
  • Just as family stories help children feel a sense of belonging, collective stories create identities for communities building collective resilience that is the need of the hour in today’s fragmented world.
  • We have blind spots- weaknesses that others see but we don’t. It is important to seek constructive criticism; one of the best ways to see ourselves clearly is to ask others to hold up a mirror.

The last part is about learning to love and laugh again, especially after a partners death. Sandberg gives statistics and stories of how prejudiced the society is, particularly towards widows, if they try to find love again. Her own case proves the point: encouraged by her family and friends she started seeing someone, the news story received some very angry and mean comments.

I found Sandberg’s intimate description acute pain she and her kids experienced day in day out quite touching, and left me teary eyed many times. It is indeed difficult to get through loss or trauma, but trying is all we can do. And if there is support of either family – friends, or if one reaches out to groups facing similar struggle, along with right tools, it becomes easier.  Also, finding greater meaning in life makes it bearable.
Option B: Facing adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy is well written, not too big, comprehensive and an easy read. 5 Stars of Goodreads.

Helpful Links: OptionB.org,  Facebook Page.
Some thoughts from the book:
“Self-compassion isn’t talked about as much as it is usually confused with self-pity and self-indulgence. Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human.”
“Children look for acceptance in drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex.”
“Talk to people about their grief instead of avoiding the conversation because you are uncomfortable or you think they will not feel good about it.”