Open by Andre Agassi

Title: Open
Writer : Andre Agassi
Published: 2009
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

Andre Agassi was the first tennis player who I came to admire from the time I learnt what tennis is. I remember watching the first tennis match of Agassi with his bandanna (so fitting that I don’t recall who his opponent was) and rooting for this guy without even knowing his name. There was something about Agassi – his passion, his resilience to not quit and more than anything his vulnerability (he lost that match) was so attractive. I went on to become his fan.

Agassi is honest and transparent in his autobiography. His life is like an open book (heh), so I don’t need to delve into what part of life he covers and what he leaves out. Starting with his early childhood days of growing up under a strict father who put Agassi into a very rigorous training – so rigorous that Agassi starts hating tennis. His teenage years of fighting with himself and the world, getting wild haircuts and attires just to be invisible, which the world thought was to gain attention – this journey is so heart wrenching. Agassi recalls every critical match in his life and dissects it with a retrospective view and comes up with reasons on why he lost matches and why he won some. It is so difficult to digest that Agassi lost some really pivotal matches in his life. And it all comes down to the player’s state of mind. A player can predict how the match will go based on just one’s own state of mind. To see the happenings in the player’s mind, up close, coming straight from the horse’s mouth is incredible.

Agassi explains a tennis match in such a beautiful way, by comparing it to life.

It’s no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.

Despite the rich and stardom status, Agassi was always grounded. There are so many instances in the book where he came across as an average human being and reached out and helped others and not throw his weight around. His own struggle when his coach’s child is fighting with a life threatening disease shows how close he is to his “team” and treats them as family more than anything.

For someone who breathes, eat, sleeps and lives tennis and whose life was made by that very sport, Agassi’s hatred towards tennis is hard to believe. He really means it when he says he hates tennis – reiterated multiple times all through the book.

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book.

I play and keep playing because I choose to play. Even if it’s not your ideal life, you can always choose it. No matter what your life is, choosing it changes everything.

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Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve

Title: Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve
Writer : Ben Blatt
Published: 2017
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

If you love statistics and you love books, this book is a must-read for you. Blatt digs into numerous books – some classics, some contemporary, some bestsellers and some fan-fiction and churns numbers to answer many interesting questions.

Blatt starts with an anecdote in which two scholars use statistics to determine the authors of essays published anonymously. While these scholars had painstakingly manually mined the data in those years, Blatt achieves the same by writing a program to mine the data. He confirms what was claimed by scholars years earlier. Using this as a base, he expands his program to mine books to answer some interesting questions.

We have all heard about using adverbs sparingly, but did Ernest Hemingway really follow his own advice? Blatt mines Hemingway’s books and confirms that Hemingway did stick to his own advice. Blatt also realizes that men write a lot about men and little about women, but women authors do not discriminate. How many authors use cliches and how often? Is the writing style different for British and American authors? Which author uses the most exclamation points and in which book? And of course, the question which the book title answers – what is the author’s favorite word? These are some of the questions which Blatt answers in this book.

Some questions/answers are more interesting than others, but the whole book keeps you engaged. Given the nature of the chapter, you can read these chapters in any order. Blatt details out his data sample (what books are considered and what are not), justifies his choice and explains the technique he used. He makes it very clear what data he is after and how he achieved the results. His idea of mining fan fiction works for some of the question is genius.

The book is not set out to teach you writing techniques or make you a bestseller author overnight. This book answers some of the questions any book reader would have wondered one time or the other. I wish the book was longer and hope the author is planning on a second book already. I wonder what questions he is going to answer next!

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The End of the Wasp Season

Title: The End of the Wasp Season
Writers : Denise Mina
Published: 2011
Genre: Thriller
My Rating: 2.5 on 5

A wealthy, abusive father/husband commits suicide by hanging himself. A woman who works as a bargirl/escort is brutally murdered by bashing her head beyond recognition. Cops find a truckload of cash stashed under a table in the kitchen. Alex Morrow, our detective, walks in to find the murderer and save the world.

This thriller stands apart from the rest of the books in its genres for the fact that readers already know who the murderer is. We only need to wait for Alex to put all the pieces together and solve the puzzle for us. To be honest, the whole suspense of whodunnit is spoilt. Once I know who the murderer is, I really don’t care why he/she did it.

Brownie points to the author for creating a smart, female detective character who happens to be solving cases while heavily pregnant with kids. This is where it ends for me, though. The plot, characters and the final ‘cracking the mystery’ was very meh! It is very hard to digest when the whole case gets solved because some random guy who is not connected to the case spills some beans to yet another random guy who happens to contact Alex.

I didn’t know this was a second book in a series when I read it. I did feel there was some backstory about Alex which I was missing, but this was no deterrent in following the case.

A not-so-intriguing plot, not-so-believable characters and the biggest letdown of all – knowing the murderer before the cops know it – all this makes this book a very disappointing read.

Uttarakaanda

Title: Uttarakaanda (Kannada)
Writers : S L Bhyrappa
Published: 2017
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 3 on 5

Reading has been going good this year so far. I have read quite a couple of books (and well ahead of my yearly goals), but not all of them were review worthy so did not get a mention on this blog. I am also consciously trying more local writing and this book was part of that attempt.

S L Bhyrappa is no stranger to Kannada people. He has many popular books under his belt and he is best known for his fluid writing and the subject he chooses which make you ponder. Compared to his other books, Uttarakaanda is touching a more common topic but is no less thought provoking.

Uttarakaanda is the story of Ramayana from the perspective of Sita. Bhyrappa has kept the story as is – no manipulations, no deviations (except for the part of Ahalya) but still manages to make you look at the often-told story in a completely different light. The book is written in Sita’s POV in first person narrative. It begins at the time Rama throws out Sita from his kingdom and abandons her at Valmiki’s ashram. It then goes back and forth into past and present – meandering between Sita’s birth (or discovery), her childhood and her eventual marriage and her exile period.

While Sita is narrating her story, one cannot miss the importance Bhyrappa has given to highlight her relationship with the people around her. Owing to her unknown origins, she did not have a rosy childhood. While her father treated her like his own, she did not get the same treatment from her mother. She develops a very close bonding with her sister and cousins and eventually is respected and admired by the people in the entire kingdom. After her wedding, her narrative focus continues to be on her bitter-sweet relationship with her husband. While she is happy and proud that she gets to be the wife such a well respected man, she also finds Rama aloof and unemotional. She expects him to emote and express but finds him still and stagnant, no matter the situation.

The story continues through their exile and her eventual kidnapping by Ravana and the rest and then culminates in Sita’s death. All through the journey, Sita’s pain and suffering is so eloquently expressed that one feels angry and sad on Sita’s behalf. Her undoubted dedication to her husband but being doubted by the same person and finally being thrown away – Sita’s love turns into hatred for Rama. Her moment of triumph comes when Rama asks her to come back during his yagna but she flatly refuses. We will never know what Rama went through, but Sita is in a state of moral victory.

Sita ends up being in Lanka, in the midst of hundreds of enemies and a lustful king for many years. She continues to stand her ground, keep up her fight and never lets her resolve waiver and this is what is considered as the greatest victory of Sita. Any other woman in her place might have weakened and accepted death as a welcome alternative. I was hoping to see this as the main focus of the book, but it isn’t as elaborate as I had hoped it would be.

There is no surprise either in the story or the characters. But to see the same saga being retold from Sita’s eyes and to read it in Bhyrappa’s words make this book a very engaging read. If you are looking for answers for some age old questions, you will not find them here. If anything, it will only increase your list of questions.

 

The Chimp Paradox

Title: The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness
Writers : Steve Peters
Published: 2012
Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help
My Rating: 4 on 5

With so many self-help books on the market (on the library shelf, in this particular incident),  I was wary of picking up this one which claimed to help me achieve ‘success, confidence and happiness’ all at once. I flipped through the pages right there in the library as I was curious to know how the author plans to do this. As I started reading the first chapter, I was hooked. And the book naturally came home with me.

Steve Peters is a well-known psychiatrist who is said to have helped many sportspeople in managing their minds which helped them win Olympic medals. Peters starts off with explaining that our mind is made up of two parts – Human (the logical part) and Chimp (the emotional, irrational part). He uses some real-life incidents to explain how we react and behave depending on whether Human or Chimp is in control. He also creates a ‘Computer’ which contains basic autopilots on how you will behave depending on your past experiences. Peters also introduces Gremlins and Goblins which are some undesired behaviors/autopilots which the Chimp has installed in the Computer. He also introduces some moons of confidence and whatnot, which to be honest was a bit too much for me.

There is nothing new in what Peters puts forth – we all know there is a rational and irrational part in us and we behave differently depending on which part is pulling the strings. But the way Peters creates two images – Human and Chimp – and explains when each one of these are in control is eye-opening. He suggests some exercises at the end of the chapters which really help. He goes on to explain the differences between Goblins and Gremlins and how we need the moon of confidence and happiness to balance the solar system. This is where I lost interest and I just flipped the pages to get it over with.

I have always had a problem with anger and I have tried quite a few things to manage it. With the help of exercises in the book, I realized my Chimp is much more in control than my Human (no surprises there) and I learnt how to handle my Chimp. I can feel the anger rising up in me but immediately my Human comes into picture and the Chimp goes to a corner and gets busy eating a banana. I have started feeling calmer and less angry ever since I started practicing this. I have taught a trick or two to my 8-year old son too and I see it working with him as well.

This book does not offer any groundbreaking theory or solution – there is nothing new which we don’t know already. But the book works because it has laid out commonly known facts in simple terms and it offers practical solutions to handle situations. I have been going ga-ga over this book and ‘Human’, ‘Chimp’ and ‘Banana’ have become part of our common lingo at my family these days.

 

 

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The Forgotten Garden

Title: The Forgotten Garden
Writers : Kate Morton
Published: 2008
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

This came out way back in 2008 and it was always in my radar since then. I kept hearing and reading about how good this book is, so I have no idea why I hadn’t read this book till now. Now that I read it and enjoyed it, I am kicking myself why I didn’t pick this up earlier.

The Forgotten Garden spans across four generations – we have an abandoned child, a children’s book author who goes missing, a suitcase with personal things which is kept a secret from its owner and of course, the mysterious garden. The book starts with Nell, one of the central characters, learning on her 21st birthday that the family she grew up with is not hers by birth and that she was found abandoned on a ship and was ‘adopted’ by this family. With her world completely shaken, Nell vows to find her real family and her roots. Cut to the present time and we have Cassandra, Nell’s granddaughter, who sets out on a similar journey, only this time to reveal what secrets her grandmother had kept.

The book goes back and forth between different generations, times and geographical locations. Nell was found abandoned on Australian shore and she finds herself going to England to find her roots. Nell has a children’s story book in her suitcase and the author takes us to the previous generation where the author, Eliza, of the story book grew up as a girl. Eliza was orphaned and was adopted by her maternal uncle, much to her aunt’s chagrin. She grows up with her cousin Rose and her much loved garden. This garden turns out to be her heaven, where she seeks refuge whenever she needs time, space and peace.

There are many strong women characters, each one distinct and different from one another. While we have an air of mystery and stubbornness with Eliza, Nell comes across as an introvert and of contemplative nature. And then we have Cassandra who is more soft and emotional. Eliza’s Aunt is also a very strong character with her motherly responsibilities coming first before anything else. Rose too shines at times – especially when we get to see her contrasting against Eliza.

This book is labeled as a mystery – which it definitely is. But the “mystery” is nothing breath-stopping or jaw-dropping. For me, this book is much more than the mystery element. I could relate to the characters in the book and could understand why they behaved the way they did. I see a lot of Nell bashing in reviews as to how ungrateful she is for treating her adopted family the way she did. While I felt the same for some time, I can understand looking back why Nell behaved this way.

The mysterious garden takes center stage of the book, paying homage to The Secret Garden. The author goes to great length to describe the beauty and the mystery of the garden and the maze. While she describes how Eliza feels at home at the garden, I felt a longing to have a little space for myself in this world.

When Breath Becomes Air

Title: When Breath Becomes Air
Writers : Paul Kalanithi
Published: 2016
Genre: Non-Fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of Paul Kalanithi, who was a neurosurgeon and who passed away at a very young age due to lung cancer. This book is a record of his short but fruitful life and his brave journey of staring death in its face until he finally embraced it. Kalanithi was an English Major with his goal set on getting into literature and becoming a writer. He was interested in knowing what makes humans think, where do brain and mind connect and during the course of his life, changes his direction from writing to become a neurosurgeon.

Kalanithi ponders about this role as a surgeon when he has to make decisions which could cost or save a life. He also wonders how surgeons are bearers of bad news – patients are informed about their terminal illness and relatives are informed about the death of their loved ones. He sees the mysterious working of human brain when he meets patients who speak only in numbers or who appear to be in another world altogether.

When Kalanithi is in his final year of residency with dreams in his eyes of making it big in the medical world, life gives him a wake-up call as cancer comes knocking on his door. Even as a doctor, he can’t help but live in denial that it is not cancer but some stray pain in the body. When the news is confirmed, Kalanithi is devastated and so is his wife, but as doctors, they immediately kick into a action mode. They consult the best oncologist and thus begins Kalanithi’s treatment.

Death may be a one time event, but living with terminal illness is a process.

This book has no spoilers – we all know Kalanithi dies. The journey from turning from a neurosurgeon into a cancer patient and the moral questions that he asks and answers on the way is the meat of this book. During his first visit to this oncologist, all he wants to know is how much time does he have to live. His doctor refuses to answer that and instead veers him to look at his values and live by them. Kalanithi has plans in life.

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: what was I supposed to do with that day?

There is no self pity or melodrama in Kalanithi’s voice. It comes straight from the heart and touches yours. The afterword by Kalanithi’s wife is heart breaking. I cried and sobbed while reading her chapter.

Does this book answer questions on morality? Not really. But Kalanithi does show us how to live life fully, no matter how short it is. He also shows how to die – staring death right into its face and embracing it with a smile.

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