The Empty Nest

Title: The Empty Nest
Writer : Sue Watson
Published: 2019
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 2 on 5

Ever since the popularity of Gone Girl and the likes, the number of books tagged with the genre of psychological thriller has increased exponentially. Some do justice to this tag, while some just want that tag to gain attention. I am afraid this book belongs to the latter category.

A teenage girl, a helicopter mom, a laid back stepfather, an abusive biological father who is forced to stay out of the girl’s life are some of the elements that make up this thriller. One fine day, the girl goes missing and nobody believes the mother that she is actually missing until it is too late. Cops go on a goose chase while the mother takes help from her daughter’s friends to start a social media driven chase of her own. A cursory visit from the biological father hopes to increase the suspense factor, but doesn’t really achieve that.

My main disappointment with the book was the disconnect with the characters. The author tries hard to give the characters flesh and blood, but in the end, they are just left with two dimensions and never bloom into full fledged personalities. I am supposed to sympathize with the mother for her fear and anxiety over losing her daughter, but I found myself getting frustrated at her long winded, oft repeated arguments. The center of this story – the girl who goes missing – is so poorly developed that even after finishing the book, I still cannot make out if she was mean or kind to her friend, did she hate her mom for being over protective or was she understood why her mother was like that.

Leaving aside the psychological aspect of the thriller, the book disappoints on the thriller factor too. There aren’t many twists or turns, the whodunnit is not suspenseful enough and when the culprit is revealed, it is not really a shocker.

I picked this up after reading positive reviews on Goodreads. Neither the story, nor the characters created an impact and I was left with disappointment. Counting the positives – atleast the book was small and I finished it fast, so not much time wasted.

 

 

Posted in 2020, Books. 2 Comments »

A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary

Title: A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary
Writer : Anonymous
Published: 1945
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

 

There are countless books written about World War 2 – some are historically accurate while some are fictional accounts. Most of these books highlight the sufferings of the Holocaust victims, which is absolutely needed. Very rarely do we get a glimpse of people on the other side of the war – the Germans. Anne Frank’s diary gave us insights into the atrocities carried out against the Jews and how the general mass stepped up to help the Jews in whatever way they can. This book is a diary of a woman who lives in Berlin and her ordeal at the hands of Russians, long after the war was won by the Allies.

The author remains anonymous to the world, but we know she lived in East Germany, wherein women have made attics and basements their homes to protect themselves from airstrikes as they wait for something worse – Russians conquering Berlin and pillaging the city. The book chronicles the fear as the women wait for Russians to land at their doorstep, the disgust at witnessing the pillaging and rape which the Russian soldiers recklessly carry out and the bravery they show to going to any extent for survival, including striking deals with the soldiers. While the West Germany was conquered by sophisticated enemy of Britain and US, the East Germany people were not so fortunate as they were taken over by the hooligan Russians, most of them being illiterate and rustic.

The author strikes as a woman who is extremely self-aware of her own strengths and weaknesses and the bleak situation she is going to face. The writing is beautiful and tugs at your heart. I knew what to expect from this book – the violence, rapes, starvation, deaths – but this book still left me speechless. The levels to which a human can stoop to took me completely by surprise (or shock). This is not an easy read, definitely not a light one, as the book stays with you long after you have stopped reading it and one needs some time to come out of this painful phase.

Out of all the numerous World War 2 related books, this book stands out for the perspective it brings and its excellent prose. The book is grim and casts a cloud gloom on the reader, but this still remains a very important read.

Entry #3 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020
Entry #2 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

Freedom at Midnight

Title: Freedom at Midnight
Writer : Larry Collins, Dominique Lapierre
Published: 2001
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

India’s independence was a moment of celebration, but also a painful memory as the country was partitioned and millions of people lost their lives. Every year as we take pride in raising the tricolor, our heads also hang in shame for the brutality which we caused in the name of religion. While every school teaches the children when India got its independence, very little is said about the events which led to this historical moment and more importantly, the violent events which followed this moment. To fill this void, I decided to read this book, well knowing, that neither of the authors are Indians and nor were they a witness to these events.

The book starts off heaping a huge praise on Lord Mountbatten, who apparently was influential in India attaining her independence. While there may be some amount of truth in it, the sheer adoration, the flowery praises are so over the top that one starts wondering if this book should have been named “An ode to Mountbatten”.

This book is a result of the interviews with Mountbatten and some archives which he had saved over time. This gives the book a very “English” perspective and can come across as biased in some places. Wish the authors had heard the other side of the story too. While the Mountbattens are admired for their bravery and leadership, we do not see the same treatment for Indian politicians. Gandhi is revered, Nehru gets a few notable mentions, Patel is largely ignored and Jinnah is painted as a monster.

This book did strike a chord with the chapters on the actual partition – the drawing of the line – the exodus that followed and the eventual murder of millions of people. The authors paint such a horrid picture of these ghastly events – the train full of corpses is still a haunting visual for me. The mindless pillaging, rapes, murders, mutilation of human beings by other so-called human beings is so mind numbing – one wonders how religion can become more important than human lives.

The book makes a segue into Gandhi’s assassination. This section of the book reads like a thriller – building up suspense, ending the chapter on a cliff hanger – and has all the elements of a page turner.  If you want an outsider perspective on the freedom struggle and eventual independence, albeit with a touch of fictional narrative, do read this book, by all accounts. If you want a more neutral perspective or even an insider view, then pick up a book by local authors, which is what I am planning to do next. On this point, any recommendations on what book I should read on this subject?

 

Entry #2 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020
Entry #1 for The Backlist Reader Challenge 2020

 

Maybe You Should Talk To Someone

Title: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed
Writer : Lori Gottlieb
Published: 2019
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4.5 on 5

Human psychology has always held a special interest for me and it was only natural that I picked up this book as soon as I read the blurb. Lori Gottlieb is a TV writer turned psychotherapist. As a practising psychotherapist, she witnesses the various reasons one can become anxious, addicted, depressed or suicidal in life. While Gottlieb could have stuck to describing these encounters, she instead puts herself in her patient’s shoes and describes her experience as a depressed soul seeking soul nourishing therapy. And this interspersal of her narrating as a therapist and as a patient is what makes this book so engaging and relatable.

Gottlieb goes through a bitter breakup with someone who she dreamt of marrying and this leaves her shattered and depressed. She continues to counsel as a therapist, but denies the deep rooted truth that she too needs to see one to get over her grief. What starts as a therapy session to get over her boyfriend turns into an eye opening series of discussions with her therapist which ends up with Gottlieb facing some bitter truth of her life.

I have seen a couple of therapists and psychiatrists in my life and none of these sessions came anywhere close to the kind of insightful, meaningful discussions Gottlieb has with her patients and her own therapist. The journey of her patients – especially the one who is facing her imminent death and is coming to terms with it – is such an emotional roller coaster that the reader starts cheering for every small win the patient makes and feels totally torn when they veer off the therapy track. This book re-convinced me that therapy is a much needed addition to anybody’s life, not necessarily the depressed and the oppressed ones. And it also helped me realize that the reason my therapy sessions weren’t that beneficial was because I haven’t found the right therapist for me yet.

The book pulls at your heart as the reader make a strong bond with every of Gottlieb’s patients, Gottlieb herself and even her therapist. To see therapist’s troubled past and how he deals with it while counseling Gottlieb is something I found interesting.

With all the troubled pasts and depressed patients, one might assume that this book makes for a heavy read, but it is anything but that. Gottlieb’s writing style is casual and breezy and this makes the book a very easy read. There might be places where you put the book aside and ponder over Gottlieb’s words, which happened often with me.

2020 has started on a high note for me, when it comes to reading (and reviewing – a review after a whole year!). Hope it only gets better from here.

Entry #1 for Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2020.

 

 

Reading Challenges 2020

After taking a break from reading challenges for 2 years (reading continued, without challenges), I figured out I miss challenges. For two reasons – one, I like the thrill of signing up and ticking them off at the end of the year and two, these challenges helped me discover new books and forced me out of my comfort zone. So, I decided to sign up for a few challenges this year.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 

Let me come clean – I have a TBR list which can last me a lifetime and more. I tend to reach for the newer additions and the older books on the list tend to be ignored. Hoping this challenge will help me fix that. I hope to read atleast 6 books from my TBR list, which are published before 2018.

Nonfiction Reader Challenge 

My list of books over the years is leaning towards nonfiction, so it only makes sense to take this challenge to tilt the balance even more. I hope to have atleast 50% of my 2020 list to be nonfiction, so about 12 books.

Poetry Reading Challenge

I am terrible at appreciating poetry and I blame the lack of exposure for that. Signing up to read one poem a day for a week in a month is my last attempt to infuse some poetry into my life. Let us hope this works.

Becoming

Title: Becoming
Writers : Michelle Obama
Published: 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 3.5 on 5

I am wary of books written by or about celebrities just after they assume an important role or give up one. Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Narendra Modi – the list goes on. As soon as someone takes up CEO role or becomes the PM, either the person himself/herself or someone else comes out with a (auto)biography. I try and stay away from such books but I made an exception with Becoming – for two reasons. I have been in awe of Michelle Obama ever since she came into the limelight. Her grace and dignity are impressive and I wanted to hear what she has to say about her life. And I thought she would have something substantial and meaningful to say, considering she was the first Black First Lady of US. And I am glad I made this exception.

Becoming is neatly segregated into three sections: Michelle’s childhood, her meeting Obama and their marriage, and the tumultuous journey to the White House and their stay there. Michelle had the privilege of growing up in a non-traditional Black family, in the sense that she had a safe and loving environment, father with a steady job and parents who emphasized on providing good education. One stark example would be Michelle’s parents’ insistence that Michelle and her brother speak proper English with the right grammar and pronunciation. While this helped both the siblings to assimilate in the bigger world, it set them apart from the most of the Black families as they were seen as “different”. Michelle’s struggle in settling down on going to Princeton and her natural choice of hanging out with peer Black students is a very emotional read.

Compared to the first section, the second one is slightly boring. Her first meeting with Obama, their initial interaction leading to a date, courting and eventual marriage – this borders on cheesy (for me) in some places. What this section achieves though, is show the contrast between the two personalities. While Michelle was always the do-gooder, approval seeking person, Barrack was hyper-focused on civil rights, and didn’t want to spread his roots and settle down. Heck, he did not even believe in the institution of marriage. This section also shows the dedication Mr. Obama always had on his humanitarian work, his contribution to non-profit work and his sincere empathy.

The concluding section is the most interesting. This is where Obama decides to plunge into politics, by dipping his beak as Senator and eventually aiming for the White House. The amount of hard work, strategy, planning and money that gets poured into Presidential politics is mind boggling. I could relate to Michelle so well when she was on the fence about this. She wanted her husband to achieve his dreams, but also wanted a safe, protective environment for her kids, away from the media glare. She knew that once they enter the political world, there is no shying away from the public. Every word said or unsaid, every dress worn, every hair of strand that is out of its place would get judged and not just for herself but for her daughters as well. How she struggles to keep them grounded and give them as normal as a childhood she could provide is commendable.

As one of the most influential Presidents of the US, Barrack Obama definitely will go down in history with golden laurels, but as the First Lady, Michelle did not fade under his shadow, but made a mark for herself and found her own voice.

Now that I have read the book, I wonder why Michelle named it “Becoming”. There is a theme, of course, on how she climbed the stepping stones of life, but considering her constant struggle of “Am I good enough?”, “Do I belong here?”, “Is this for us?”, a better book title would have been “Belonging”.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Title: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Writers: Ashlee Vance
Published: 2015
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
My Rating: 3 on 5

Elon Musk needs no introduction. He is almost always in the news for both right and wrong reasons, and the latter, more often than not. I am a fan of his vision, his larger-than-life ambitions and his fearlessness. I decided to read this book for two reasons – to know what kind of a life Musk led before he came into the spotlight and also to understand what makes him, him. While the book did give a glimpse of his life and answered my first question, it barely answered the second one.

Ashlee Vance gives a brief account of Musk’s life – his carefree parents, troublesome childhood due to getting bullied, strong bonding with his siblings, his strong urge to move to the US, and the trigger for his entrepreneurship and the eventual founding of companies. He intersperses this with the current happenings in Musk’s life, so this does not follow the chronological order. Vance also tries to explain the troubled relationships Musk has had with his spouses. In short, this book gives us a pretty good idea on how Musk’s life has been.

Vance also touches upon some of the behaviors which is scrutinized by the world. Musk’s recklessness in taking risks, in pushing people to an extent that they reach a breaking point and in being a total control freak. Musk dreams big and so do many visionaries. What makes Musk stand apart is proclaiming to the world on when he is going to achieve that dream even before having a first cut plan on how to achieve it. On multiple instances, Musk has announced release dates and his team had to run amok to meet that date. Setting up aggressive schedules is one thing, but what Musk does is suicidal. He is constantly pushing the team to the brink of breaking with his cold behavior which borders on being abusive.

Vance almost hero worships Musk and such a person cannot do justice to a biography. Even when Vance is discussing Musk’s questionable behavior with his first wife, it is as if Vance is defending Musk’s behavior. Musk is sometimes horrible to his employees and Vance has to say something justifying that. Vance does say he refused to let Musk read this book before publishing, but it certainly looks likes someone edited this book heavily before it hit the press. This book reads like a big list of justification defending Musk’s objectionable behavior.

Vance’s commentary and the numerous interviews barely give a glimpse of why Musk does what he does. And this is my main issue with this book. Musk’s voice is completely missing. I understand this is a biography and not an autobiography, but there is always a way to bring out the inner voice of the person in question. This book is like shadowing Musk and going around watching what he is doing, but what I wanted was to get into his mind to see what was going on. Why does he care so much for the human race that he goes to the extent of setting up a colony in Mars as an alternative world, but is abusive to his wife and demeans his employees who work for him? What kind of an empathy is this that you care for the overall race, but treat the individuals like slaves? What kind of a human  celebrates life but chides his employee for missing work to witness the birth of his child?

I still am a fan of Musk’s vision and his larger-than-life ideas. But a fan of this book, I am not. I will wait for the day when Musk decides to write his autobiography.

 

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