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.

 

 

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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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 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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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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H is for Hawk

Title: H is for Hawk
Writers : Helen Macdonald
Published: 2014
Genre: Non-fiction
My Rating: 4 on 5

H is for Hawk is in parts a memoir, in parts a dissection of T.H. White’s life and review of his book ‘The Goshawk’, and in parts an adventurous journey into the world of goshawks. Helen is devastated when her father passes away unexpectedly leaving her to cope with the grief. Having trained many falcons in her life, she naturally turns to her avian friends to find solace. She chooses to train a goshawk and she sees her own feral temperament reflected in the bird. She buys a baby goshawk and spends days holed up in her apartment making friends with the goshawk and training it.

The focus of the book is mainly on the author training the goshawk. Her hesitation on deciding whether this is a wise thing to do (can she be dealing with another living being when she herself is drowning in grief) and her anxiety when she is choosing the hawk (will the hawk accept her and what if it rejects her) and her fear of failure (“I am overfeeding her” or “I am starving her”) and the ultimate fear of losing the hawk while on a hunt – comes through so well through the pages that at time I almost gasped or cried with Helen. While Helen is training the hawk and teaching it to hunt, she realizes the real reason why she decided to take up this challenge.

I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.

While the main thread of the book is about the goshawk, there is a strong parallel thread about Helen’s grief. She tries to find words to express her grief, share it with her mother and brother and ways to come to terms with it. She reads a lot of books on grief, talks to therapist, goes on a course of anti-depressants but still feels that hole left in her heart. In her attempt to explain her grief, Helen says:

Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It is from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone.

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

The writing is simply beautiful. Helen has a way of expressing herself – be it the beauty of the wild or the pain in heart – she describes it to beautifully that you are right next to her feeling everything she is feeling.

The author is highly influenced by T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ which she had read as a child (and hated) and she turns back to this book to use a reference when she is training her own hawk. Instead of just sticking to White’s experience of training his hawk, Helen tries to decipher why White went through what he did. His troubled childhood (mother abandons him and never gets his father’s approval), difficult adolescence (he is sent to a boarding school where he is sexually abused), and an even worse adulthood (he realizes he is homosexual and the world doesn’t accept him) and White has to prove himself to the world again and again. His decision of training a hawk is along the same lines – to prove a point rather than for his love for hawks – and that is why White and his hawk suffer through the ordeal and fail miserably in the end.

Let me admit, I had no idea what a goshawk was until I read the book (I still don’t know how to pronounce it, BTW). This world of falcons, hawks and training them to take them on hunts is a whole new world to me which I absorbed with the curiosity of a child. Every object (jesses), technique (whistling to call the hawk back) and the bird’s actions (bating, snaking) in falconry has a word and it was amazing to learn this whole new vocabulary. While this was the part I enjoyed, the part where Helen takes her hawk to hunt pheasants, pigeons and rabbits was disturbing. The author does raise the ethical question of whether it is right to hunt with hawks. Her justification didn’t convince me and I still think it is wrong, but I don’t want that to change my love for the book.

I picked this up with an attitude of ‘not my cup of tea, but let’s this a try’ and was captivated and amazed by the book all the way through. I learnt a lot of new things (alarum is a valid word, though archaic, did you know?) and not just about hawks. I am glad I decided to give this book ‘a try’.