Tuesday, October 19, 2021

What if ?

I recently read Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver.

I'm a huge fan of Lionel Shriver's fictions and when I knew that she recently had a new novel published, I had to get it. The fiction is about Kay and Cyril Wilkinson, a married couple who are both healthy and vital medical professionals in their early fifties. After seeing too many of their elderly patients in the NHS in similar states of decay, they devise a plan to die with dignity when they have both turned eighty.

In the story, Kay watched how her own father's mental health deteriorating before he passed on. By the time her father died, she could not cry but only had a sense of relief. Cyril proposes that they will swallow some pills and kill themselves when they both turn eighty. The idea is they do not wish to burden the state, namely the National Health Services nor their grown up children.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

'He continued to track the steady rise of life expectancy in a spirit of dismay. " In news reports about our 'ageing population,"he pointed out over chicken pot pie, " presenters no sooner mention increased longevity than immediately add,' which is a good thing, of course!' The aside is compulsive. But it's not a good thing! We're not living for longer. We're dying for longer!"'

Cyril laments about the increase in NHS budget due to inflation cost and medical services for the aged.

'"People our age," he observed whilst the couple were still in their mid-sixties, " cost the service twice as much as the average thirty-year-old. But by eighty-five, that differential is five to one ! Five times as much dosh to keep alive some old coot who slumps half-asleep in front of Come Dine with Me all afternoon, compared to a taxpayer with young children who can still have a laugh on a fine day out and play a spot of footie." '

Amidst contemporary issues involving Brexit, mass migration and the coronavirus, the author portrays twelve parallel universes, each exploring a possible future for the Wilkinsons from spending senior years in a retirement home to discovering a cure for aging and cryogenic preservation. The subject matter is grave but the writer has peppered her writings with some humour and wit.

Lionel Shrivel's prose is thought-provoking, relevant and contemporary.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Future Perfect

I have recently read two books by the same title. Future Perfect by Jen Larsen and Future Perfect by Felicia Yap.

Future Perfect by Felicia Yap is a science fiction thriller that was released this year. It is a page-turner, a compelling read if you are into science fiction. The story spans from the snowy 1980s Montana to 1990s Manhattan to a drone-filled 2030s Britain.

What if there were an iPredict app who could give you forecasts for the day, would you want it ? It is 8 June 2030. the Police Commissioner Christian Verger cannot believe that iPredict tells him that he has a 99.74% chance of dying the next day. In case iPredict is correct, he needs to tell his fiancée Viola that he loves her. The day has begun badly. Viola has left him and their voice assistant, Alexa has been acting up. When he asks for a single expresso with two sugars, Alexa's voice is disapproving ' as far as a voice assistant can sound disapproving' Alexa serves him a cappuccino and insists that he always has a cappuccino in the morning and that he should be taking less sugar to minimise blood sugar spikes given 'recent sleep metrics and health data'. As Christian checks his Work app and finds that there are 148 notifications and five missed calls from his advisor, an e-pigeon lands on the balcony ledge holding a special delivery. It is a letter from Viola. Only then he realises that his fiancée has moved out. There has been some tension between them and she needs some space apart to work out where their relationship stands. She has taken her cat, KitKat and most of her belongings. She does not know why her fiancé is calling Ella's name and talks in his sleep. Ella must be a ghost from his past and he is evasive when she asks him. In the meantime, Christian is in a race to solve a crime. A bomb has exploded during a fashion show, killing a beautiful model on the catwalk and they have to find the murderer. The much celebrated fashion designer Alexander King is not postponing his fashion show scheduled to be held in London that very evening despite what happened during his show held in Manhattan the previous evening. Christian wants to survive the day and comes clean with Viola about his tumultuous past that explains who Ella is.

The fiction is narrated in the first person voice of the characters and through their individual narratives, you get to know each character and the internal conflicts each of them has to struggle with. There are full of surprises for the reader along the way. As the story unfolds, you get to put together pieces of information like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Felicia Yap has woven together a futuristic story that is also a story about love and friendships. Technology could advance, the core of humanity remains. Future Perfect is a very smart and captivating read. 

Felicia Yap grew up in Kuala Lumpur. She read biochemistry at Imperial College London, before achieving a doctorate in history (and a half-blue in competitive ballroom dancing) at Cambridge University. She has written for The Economist and The Business Times. She has also worked as a radioactive-cell biologist, a war historian, a Cambridge lecturer, a technology journalist, a theatre critic, a flea-market trader and a catwalk model. 

Future Perfect is the author's second novel. Yesterday was her debut novel. In Yesterday written by Felicia Yap , there are only two categories of people. Monos, the majority , have only one day memory while the elite Duos have two days’ worth of memory. They have to record their days in their iDiaries so they can have a memory of some kind. The question is: Can one be  truthful in their account of their everyday? Yesterday is a story about love between two people even though their union is disapproved  by the society they live in. It is also about memories and what we choose to believe and things that  we could remember but must forget. It is another compelling read.


Future Perfect by Jen Larsen is a coming-of-age story set in California. In the story, every year on her birthday, Ashley Perkins gets a card from her grandmother. Every year Ashley's card also contains a promise, lose enough weight, grandmother will give her something. For instance, 75 pounds for a shopping trip in Paris. Ashley does not think there is anything wrong with her physique or her looks. She is big but she is happy with her body. Her grandmother wants her to lose weight thinking that she will have a better future. Ashley is a brilliant student and she dreams of going to Harvard. She wants to be like her grandmother who is a surgeon. This year, Grandmother offers her the one thing she really wants : four years worth of tuition fee to attend Harvard University if she gets weight-loss surgery. Ashley is grateful to her grandmother for caring for her and her father since her mother left them. She studies hard and works part-time as a server at a busy restaurant in the neighbourhood. But she does not want to get weight-loss surgery.

Ashley's good friends are also going through issues of their own. Jolene is a transgender and her parents disapprove of her choice and identity . Laura is free-spirited and wants to pursue her artist dreams while her dad wants her to go to college. The story is about being comfortable in your own skin, finding your directions and knowing who you are.

Ashley is a confident teenager. As she grapples with what others think and she knows that her grandmother only wants what is best for her as she loves her, she agonises about taking up her grandmother's offer. Ultimately she decides to stay true to herself , believes in herself and not affected by how others may view her. It's about embracing your body image.

Its author, Jen Larsen has first written and published Stranger Here, a memoir that is about her struggle with being overweight. There is a similarity between Larsen and Ashley. Future Perfect is about self-possession and believing in yourself, a necessary trait for everyone.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

What's on your mind?

Every so often we are  trapped inside  our own head  but  we will  appear to fit in with the community we live in  so long as we  go with the social norm, abide by rules and perform perfunctory tasks as functional human beans. A zillion thoughts zap and whizz through your head as you make your coffee, answer your texts, scroll through your emails, read the news and carry on with your daily tasks, do you know your thoughts ?

Last weekend, I re-read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The author's prose is beautiful, melancholic and poetic. 

In this coming of age story, Esther Greenwood has aced every subject she does at college and due to her proven academic record, she has even persuaded her Class Dean to allow her to be exempted from taking any chemistry examination. She has made a straight A in physics even though physics has made her sick the whole time she learns it. When she feels that she will feel worse about chemistry as she sees 'a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab, and all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt and aluminium' become abbreviations with different decimal numbers after them. She feels as if she will go mad, that's how she comes up with the proposal and presents it to the dean without letting on how scared and depressed she is. She continues to sit in class pretending to be taking down notes and that pleases the chemistry teacher Mr Manzi. The Faculty Board takes it as a real step in intellectual maturity.

When nineteen-year-old her wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing that she will finally realise her dream to be a writer. The editor, Jay Cee mentors her. All her life she has told herself studying and reading and writing and working like mad is what she wants to do . When Jay Cee asks her,

‘ Doesn’t your work interest you, Esther?’

She tells her that she is interested in everything.

Then Jay Cee asks her what she has in mind after she graduates. She says she does not really know.

Here is an excerpt of the exchange.

‘ “I don’t really know,” I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock, hearing myself say that, because the minute I said it, I knew it was true.

It sounded true, and I recognised it, the way you recognize some nondescript person that’s been hanging around your door for ages and then suddenly comes up and introduces himself as your real father and looks exactly like you, so you know he really is your father, and the person you thought all your life was your father is a sham.

“I don’t really know.”

You’ll never get anywhere like that.” Jay Gee paused. “What languages do you have?’“‘

When the photographer comes to take photos of her and the other interns for the magazine, they ask her what she wants to be, she says she does not know.

‘”Oh, sure you know,” the photographer said.
“She wants,” said Jay Cee wittily, “to be everything.”

Her mother teaches shorthand and typing to support them ever since her father passed on. She is always telling Esther to learn shorthand after college so she can have a practical skill as well as a college degree. But Esther aspires to be writer and a poet.

She has won a scholarship of Philomena Guinea,a wealthy novelist so her future is set to be bright. Instead she finds herself spiralling into depression and become suicidal as she finds herself in a society that refuses to take women’s  aspirations seriously. When she does not make the writing course at the summer school, she considers spending the summer reading ahead and writing her thesis, then she thinks about putting off college for a year and apprentice herself to a pottery maker. She considers travelling or writing a novel. Her boyfriend, Buddy Willard has disappointed her as she finds out that he is not what he has projected himself to be. She also thinks about dropping the honours programme but when she looks up the requirements of an ordinary English major, she finds that she does not meet half of the requirements. In honours, she is free to choose what she wants to read. She tries to imagine a life where she is married and it will mean getting up at seven and cooking him eggs and bacon and toast and coffee, and then washing up after he has left for work. That seems a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s. Esther begins to feel isolated, she cannot sleep and cannot read as she feels a bell jar descending on her and she is trapped inside the airless jar. With the support of her mother and the novelist, after receiving appropriate psychiatric help for six months, Esther manages to think things through . When she is prepared to return to college, it is the heart of winter.

Here are some quotes from The Bell Jar.

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.

The trouble was, I had been inadequate all along, I simply hadn’t thought about it.

The Bell Jar by  Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar  by Sylvia Plath  is a timeless read. It is brilliant. It was first published in 1963 under a pseudonym. 


Friday, September 3, 2021


Kudos is the third instalment of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy following her earlier novels, Outline and Transit.

In Kudos  , Faye,  a British writer is on her way to an unspecified city in Europe to attend a literary event with a view to promote the book she has just published. The chain of narratives are made up of the conversations that Faye has with the characters whom she encounters. On the plane, she listens to the stranger seated next to hers telling her the story of his life : his work his marriage and the harrowing night he has just spent burying the family dog before flying off. At the literary festival, she meets her young publisher, writers and translators and they have all these conversations about art, about family, about politics, about love, about sorrow and joy, about justice and injustice all the questions that we humans ask.  From these conversations, you only learn  that  Faye is divorced and has since remarried. She has two sons and the city that she is in is one that she once visited with her son. She serves as  a conduit for the characters that she encounters and narrates the conversations that she has with them. There is this fascinating exchange between a young guide and Faye that I find relatable.  

The young guide’s mother is the festival’s director. Herman is his name and his mother has decided to make use of his unusual navigational abilities to guide participants around the city. ‘His recollection of pretty much every place he’d been in his life was entirely clear, as well as that of many places he hadn’t been, since he liked to study maps in his spare time and to set himself topographical challenges that were often very satisfying to resolve. He had never visited Berlin, for instance, but he was fairly sure that if he were dropped in the middle of it he’d be able to find his way around and might even outwit some of the natives in getting, say, from the swimming pool in Plötzensee to the Berlin public library in the shortest possible time.’

I wish I could have a fraction of his navigational abilities as I have poor sense of directions and I cannot quite recollect every place I have been in my life. From the conversation, we know that his mother has encouraged him to read books.

All his life his mother had encouraged him to read books, not because she was one of those people who believed reading books improved people but because she had pointed out that studying imaginative works would at least enable him to follow certain conversations and not mistake them for reality. As a child he had found stories very upsetting, and he still disliked being lied to, but he had come to understand that other people enjoyed exaggeration and make-believe to the extent that they regularly confused them with the truth. He had learned to absent himself mentally in such situations, he added, by going over passages he had memorised from philosophical texts and revisiting certain maths problems, or sometimes by just reciting some of the more obscure bus timetables in his repertory, until the moment passed.’

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, 14 July 2015

Herman goes to a specialised school for maths and the sciences. He is an excellent student and he is popular with the other pupils as he is able to help them with revision for the public exams. He has not got on all that well with his teachers and he hears his mother be criticised on his account but she has never criticised him. His mother said this :

It was human nature for people to wish cruelty on one another simply because they have been shown cruelty themselves : the repetition of behavioural forms was the curious panacea with which most people sought to relieve the suffering caused by precisely those same forms. He had tried to find a way of expressing this contradiction in mathematical terms, but since it was inherently illogical he had not yet succeeded. As far as he knew a problem couldn’t be solved simply by infinitely restating it, unless you relied on infinity itself to break certain factors down.

Herman tells Faye that he ‘concluded that most questions were nothing more than an attempt to ascertain conformity, like rudimentary maths problems.  According to his mother he had been completely silent until the age of three : she had got into the habit of talking to herself aloud with no expectation of a reply, and she was therefore very surprised when one day as she was looking for her keys and asking herself where she’d put them, he informed her from his highchair that the keys were in the pocket of her coat, which was hanging in the hall. After that he had talked non-stop.

Herman also tells Faye that the college gave a special award called ‘Kudos’ to its most outstanding male and female student. He says,

It was interesting that in conferring this award, the fact of gender was retained beyond  that of excellence: at first it had struck him as illogical, but then he had decided that having never personally found gender to be a factor, he was perhaps not in a position  to fully understand its significance.’

Herman won the award. He asks Faye if her children are good at Maths.  When Faye expresses her concern that neither of them has pursued that subject and she sometimes worries that it was the consequence of her own interests lying in a different direction, so that she had involuntarily made some aspects of the world seem realer and more important to them than others. Herman responds that such an idea is impossible and there is no reason to trouble herself on that account ‘ since research had proved that  parental influence over personality outcomes was virtually nil. A parent’s effect lay almost entirely in the quality of his or her nurture and of the home environment, much as a plant will wilt or thrive according to where it is placed and how it is cared for, while its organic structure remains inviolable.’

He elaborates that his interest in maths pre-existed any attempt to encourage or thwart him. Faye argues that she has known many people whose ambitions were the result of parental influence, and many others who had been prevented from becoming what they had wanted to be.

Herman believes  that Nietzsche  ‘had taken for his motto a phrase of Pindar’s : become what you are.’ He recognises that he has been fortunate in that no one,as yet, has tried to stop him being what he is.

It is incredible that such wisdom has come from a young person like Herman.

 In Kudos, Faye’s inner life is illustrated through her observations on the landscape,  conversations with the young guide, the other writers at the festival, the journalist, the publisher and also her son who called.  

Splendid writing, beautiful prose, insightful  and thought-provoking .

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Law and Order

Stories about triumphs over evil are always a pick me up. I recently read two novels that I would very much have liked to read in one instead of two or three sittings. They are Big Law by Ron Liebman and Tinhead City KL by Stuart Danker.

In Big Law, Carney Blake, thirty-seven years old,  is a young partner at  Dunn & Sullivan, one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. Dunn & Sullivan is a BigLaw firm located in the spanking new glass and steel tower stuck smack in the middle of Times Square. in Manhattan. There are  over twenty-five hundred lawyers on the payroll and another three thousand staff employees. In his full eight years as an associate and a second year as a newly minted partner, Carney has represented dozens of high-profile clients.  One day he is suddenly summoned by his firm’s chairman, Carl Smith who has asked him to represent the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit involving an explosion in a factory in India. It is a major case of the firm and before long Carney and his associates discover corruption and maliciously orchestrated schemes that go straight to the top of the firm. The defendant is General Renewable Energy (GRE). When GRE’s plant in the Assam region of India blew up, many were killed due to delayed employee evacuation. GRE settled claims for environmental damage brought by the Indian government but its compensation offers to its workmen were far less generous. One young Indian lawyer named Dipak Singh took on the case for the workers and families. He managed to get judgment for two and a half billion dollars. There were rumours about strong ties between the judge and the powerful Singh family. GRE refused to pay up and started investigating into how the case ended as it had. When company assets in the U.S. and elsewhere had to be seized by the judgment plaintiffs to satisfy the judgment sum, Dipak Singh needed a U.S. law firm and Dunn & Sullivan were engaged. Carney found out that GRE had retained Peter Moss who had a vengeful vendetta against Dunn & Sullivan and their chairman, Carl Smith.

The novel is narrated in the Carney’s voice who is writing a memoir. Carney learns  about Peter Moss’s plan to destroy Carl’s firm when he is on the case. Peter and Carl were once colleagues at Dunn & Sullivan and the partners at the time were amused by their heavy competition when they were both vying for a hard-to-get  partnership at the firm.

Peter Moss and Carl Smith are both cold blooded. Peter’s madness and narcissism does not stop at taking over Dunn & Sullivan. He has a son who lacks a killer instinct and will disappoint him. Despite his love for  his son, Josh, ‘he simply cannot help relegating Josh to some lesser role in the world’s order’. Carl is going through a divorce and his wife, Polly has hired  Iván Escobar, who is ‘ known as “Iván the Impaler” for his cutthroat tactics, his take-no-prisoners behaviour’. All these nasty lawyers who have made it to where they are appear to wear highly tailored suits. In Carney’s voice,

‘ As far as Peter was concerned, lawyering was made up of a mix of ingredients. Like a potent drink. Understanding the law, knowing how to use the law , how to argue it when necessary –all were part of the mix. So were assertiveness, aggression, creativity. Put all that into a cocktail shaker. Add a splash of deviousness. Shake and pour. There you go.

  To Peter, putting those two congressmen in that goose blind was actually the essence of lawyering. So was the way he had positioned the GRE case, something he thought of more as an offensive weapon than a lawsuit. ‘

In Big Law, the nasty lawyers are  portrayed as mercenary, cunning and unscrupulous. There are also the  smart and ethical lawyers like Carney who cares about his brother and alcoholic father, Jeremy Lichtman and Gloria, the associates who assist Carney on the case and Dianne who is dating Carney. Good characterisation of Judge  Brown and Anka  Stankowski, another senior partner in the firm. Carl is keeping him at arm’s length so he turns to Anka when the Peter is proving to be formidable  and vicious opponent. Anka is  sixty- eight years old, described as  having  ‘her meaty fist around one of those thirty-one-ounce Starbucks Trenta iced coffees’. In Carney’s narratives, Anka  ‘was  known in the firm’s hallways as “ Jabba the Hutt” and  ‘Judge Brown looked like a judge. She was in her mid-forties, dark-skinned, with stern, unattractive features, eyeglasses even your grandmother wouldn’t wear, and a hairdo like a helmet.  She had on a necklace of white pearls pulled out  over her judicial robe.’

Big Law is a captivating tale that you want to devour in one sitting. Its style of writing is straightforward, fast-moving and concise. The novel is a roman à clef  based on personal experience of Ron Liebman who had an impressive legal career. He has been a law clerk to a federal judge, an assistant U.S. Attorney, partner in a boutique litigation law firm, and a senior partner in one of America’s top law firms.

Tinhead City, KL written by Stuart Danker is a fast-paced dystopian thriller set in Kuala Lumpur. From the fast- moving narratives, you feel a sense of doom yet amidst the chaos and danger, there lie flashes of hope and grit. Imagine a city where policing is no longer in the realm of humans but Justicars. A Justicar is ‘ colloquially known as a tinhead – that thing sat motionless in its designated docking bay, idle only until some law needed enforcing’.

A city run by cyborgs is not just the setting of the story but an oppressive character that casts an ominous air throughout the story. Aside from the city,  the protagonist, Zach Ti along with other main characters Dice and Tara are also well portrayed. Zach is half Chinese, he speaks only a passable amount of Cantonese and Mandarin but read none of it. His dad has left him to fend for himself since he was twelve and he hopes to re-unite with his father one day. There is this thread running through the story where there are flashbacks  about his father and  what he had said to him before  he left. The father has promised to come back for him and the father remains an elusive character throughout the story.

In the story, the KL city,  once glimmering is now an oppressive wasteland under the ruling of Mutiara Corp that uses tinheads to run the city.  These tinheads are not particularly bright even if they look the part. They are not built for problem-solving  and someone should look into reprogramming them as they use excessive force to go around hurting innocent people and first time offenders unnecessarily.

Nineteen-year-old Zach Ti sells pain killers  and antidote to those victims who have been punished by the tinheads who administer suppression drug on their victims through lodging a syringe  in his or her Uniband as  punishments for purportedly breaking the law. The tinheads have become heavy handed. As he goes around the city, he witnesses a woman getting capital punishment for allegedly touching a tinhead and the woman cries that she has not touched any tinhead. He tries to revive her by jabbing a vial of prevention serum into her Uniband but in vain. Zach needs to earn enough chits to get the EMP slug to replace the EMP slug that his father had given him. He  has made a mistake in lending it to one woman by the name of Darlene who claims to know his dad. He is a good kid and then he accidentally kills two of the tinheads, he has to run for his life. He has become a wanted man. When that happens, he has to reach out to Dice to have a place to hide. How far can you run when you wear a Uniband where you conduct all your activities through it? He is picked up by an elite rebel faction known as Brotherhood and there he meets Tara whom he partners as they undergo some regimented and extremely tough military training and soon they both find that Brotherhood’s methods are more than questionable.

Tinhead City KL was longlisted for Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2020. It is Stuart Danker’s debut novel. Excellent characterization and vivid descriptions of the gruesome happenings that  will send chills to the reader, an engaging read indeed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

About Love

Heart Burn is Nora Ephron’s roman-à-clef based on her marriage and divorce from her second husband, Carl Bernstein in real life.

In Ephron’s words,

In the book, I thinly disguised myself by making myself considerably more composed than I was at the time

In the story, Rachel Samstat, aged 38, a food writer  is married to Mark Feldman who is a political journalist. When  she is seven months pregnant, expecting their second child, she finds out about her husband’s affair with Thelma Rice. On discovering about the affair, she leaves Washington with their toddler, Sam, takes the shuttle to New York and stays in her father’s apartment . Then Mark comes to New York and tells her that he wants her to go home.

The story is narrated in Rachel’s voice.

‘ “I’m not coming home if you’re going to see her anymore,”I said.

“ I’m not going to see her anymore,” he said. ‘

Mark starts to cry and Rachel cannot believe it because in her narration ‘if anyone was entitled to cry in this scene, it was going to be me; but the man had run off with my part.’

Rachel narrates,

 ‘ There has been a lot written in recent years about the fact that men don’t cry enough. Crying is thought to be a desirable thing, a sign of a mature male sensibility, and it is generally believed that when little boys are taught that it is unmanly to cry, they grow up unable to deal with pain and grief and disappointment and feelings in general. I would like to say two things about this. The first is that I have always believed that crying is a highly overrated activity : women do entirely too much of it, and the last thing we ought to want is for it to become a universal excess. The second thing I want to say is this : beware of men who cry. It’s true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own.’

Rachel .goes back with him only to find out that he has not broken up with Thelma. After giving birth to their second child, she plans to leave Mark. When she is in the hospital,  Marvin, her obstetrician asks her if she believes love. She says she does.

Here is Rachel’s take  about love.

‘ Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal.  Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.’

Rachel  ends the marriage when  they are at a friend’s place for dinner and they happen to be talking about one of their common friend’s marriage . It dawns on her that she cannot pretend it is okay even though she is terrified of being alone, she will just rather not sit and try to figure  out how to get him to love her again. Kudos to her.

Rachel  was once asked by her friend Vera about why  she had to turn everything into a story.

In her narration,

‘ Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

  Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.’

Heart Burn is a bittersweet story. Ephron’s second marriage ended exactly the way the one in Heartburn does but most of the characters and many of the things  in Heartburn are entirely fictional, some of the things happened to her friends and more importantly she was never a food writer. In Heart Burn, Rachel offers us some of her favourite recipes.

Nora Ephron, the screen writer for Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry met Sally died in 2012 at the age of Seventy-one.  I would love to watch these films again.

In Weather by Jenny Offill, Lizzy Benson is a librarian, married with Ben and they have a son named Eli. She was Sylvia's grad student and Sylvia pulled some strings to get her the library job even though she does not have a proper degree for it. Sylvia pays her to answer her email and to travel with her to keep track of things when she goes to conferences. Sylvia wants to set up a foundation to 'rewild half the earth'. They have dinner with people from Silicon Valley. Some of them are donors for her podcast. But these men are more interested in current technology, de-extinction and genetic-engineering. The young techno-optimist guy who is seated next to Lizzy opines that when all those who are unnerved by the current technology are no longer around, there will only be talk of what has been gained. Lizzy says to him,

'But wait , that sounds bad to me. Doesn't that mean if we end up somewhere we don't want to be, we can't retrace our steps? '

The young guy ignores her utterance and goes on to list all the ways he and his kind have changed the world and will change the world. In Lizzy's narration,

' He tells me that smart houses are coming,that soon everything in our lives will be hooked up to the internet of things, blah,blah,blah, and we will be connected through social media to every other person in the world. He asks me what my favoured platforms are.

I explain that I don't use any of them because they make me feel too squirrelly. Or not exactly squirrelly, more like a rat who can't stop pushing a lever.

He looks at me and I can see him calculating all the large and small ways I am trying to prevent the future. " Well, good luck with that , I guess," he says.

Sylvia says, 'These people long for immortality but can't wait ten minutes for a cup of coffee'.

As the story progresses, we know that Sylvia is losing heart in her project trying to tell the mass that humans are nothing particular special and we should give more regards to the other creatures on earth.

Bali 2008

Aside from worrying about climate change, Lizzy also worries about her former drug addict brother, Henry and her mother. Lizzy just had her birthday. Though she is feeling existentialist blues but it is not all despair as she has family members whom she cares for.

Lizzy has a good sense of humour.Those who come to the library include an adjunct who has been working on his dissertation for eleven years and she has to spend time pulling books for him and then gives him reams of copy paper, binder clips and pens, 'the man in the shabby suit who does not want his fines lowered' because he is pleased to contribute to the institution, ' the blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper' and there is the lonely heart engineer.

Here is an anecdote about her work day at the library on campus. In her words,

'I brave a theory about vaccinations and another about late capitalism. " Do you ever wish you were thirty again?"asks the lonely heart engineer. "No, never," I say. I tell him that old joke about going backward.

We don't serve time travelers here.

A time traveler walks into the bar.'

Sylvia calls her. Lizzie talks about the mystics to her mentor.

' " Of course, the world continues to end," Sylvia says, then gets off the phone to water her garden.'

Offill's avant-garde style of writing reflects with wry humour on how we live through the musings and narratives of Lizzy Benson about her fears for climate change and contradictions . Interesting style of writing. Though the narrations are fragmented, they effectively tell about contemporary life in the present world setting. Insightful and thought-provoking.

Sunday, July 11, 2021


 I definitely love receiving books as presents so long as they are not about vampires or some self-help manuals. Lolita is one fiction that I received way back from the time when I was  to start living as a grown-up.  It took me decades to finally read it though there had been some false starts. I remember reading Amy Tan’s musings in Opposite of Fate entitled ‘ my love affair with vladimir nabokov’ whereby she writes that if she is ever stranded on a desert island, she would choose Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov ‘to provide her with endless entertainment and literary puzzles’. But then Amy Tan has also written that  ‘Thanks to my mother, I  was raised to have a morbid imagination. When I was a child, she often talked about death as warning, as an unavoidable matter of fact.’

Apparently  anyone  who reads Lolita  will be besotted with its prose as it is stylish and brilliant so I know I have to read it ( Nope  it is not the FOMO me talking).  You will be awed by its fluidity and wordplay if you can get past the icky and hideous idea about Humbert Humbert’s fixation on a twelve-year-old girl as a  thirty-seven year old man and his insane  and delusional behaviour partly because he might have been pining for Annabel, the girlfriend he had when he was thirteen years of age. Annabel who was  a few months his junior died of typhus in Corfu. They had a tryst and were going to meet again but she died. He has been haunted by how he feels for Annabel and thus when he meets Lolita, in his what we would commonly regard as pervert and cunning mind, he loves his little Lo. He claims, ‘until at last,  twenty- four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.’

Nabokov writes,

‘ I LEAF again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which cause each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.

If you know that the unreliable narrator is writing the apologia from his cell awaiting his trial for murder, you may get past whatever  misgivings you have about the subject matter that is unsavoury and that the narrator is sick, deranged and comical, you will enjoy its astounding prose despite its appalling subject.  If you find it acceptable that  Humbert Humbert is suffering from unrequited love and mentally unstable,  you might put aside your horror and begin to pity the character who is otherwise really creepy. Here are some of Humbert’s verbose entries.

This daily headache in the opague air of this tombal jail is disturbing, but I must persevere, Have written more than a hundred pages and not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been around August 15,1947.Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head – everything. Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, . Repeat till the page is full, printer.

As greater authors than I have put it : Let readers imagine,’ etc. On second thought, I may as well give those imaginations a kick in the pants. I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a ‘young girl’, and then, into a ‘college girl – that horror of horrors The words ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.

‘ My lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary we followed, and I suppose I have reached here a point where I cannot avoid that chore. ‘ – Excerpts from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

From the foreword in the fiction , we know from the beginning of the story that the narrator died of coronary thrombosis, a few days before his trial for murder was scheduled to start in November 1952. The foreword is part of the fiction. The fictional foreword writer is Dr John Ray who has been given the manuscript by Humbert’s lawyer to edit by reason of a clause in his client’s will which empowered the lawyer to prepare ‘Lolita’ for print. Dr John Ray who is as fictional as the rest of the characters is treating the subject a psycho- pathological study and in his foreword writes ‘ and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader.’

The manuscript begins with his defence for his evil mind, Lolita had a precursor.

‘ In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.’ – part one of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

With such detailed narration of all that hideous intent lurking in a demented mind of the narrator, Lolita was initially a rather disturbing read for me as there is nothing poetic about the subject matter. Despite its disturbing and controversial subject matter, Lolita has been hailed as a classic. Amy Tan is very impressed with Nabokov and you have to agree with her if you are passionate about words. I am.

Idiopathy is Sam Byers’s first novel. There is no enthralling storyline but there are compelling characters. Excellent prose and narratives. Though the main characters namely Katherine, Nathan and Daniel are flawed and far from likeable, they feel real as they each have their idiosyncrasies, absolutely self-centred, self-obsessed and have issues with intimacy. They are  known to each other and had been close  at some point of their lifetime but they are unable to figure out how they feel about one another now.  Katherine and Daniel used to be a couple and Nathan was their friend.

They are damaged individuals and have unresolved pent-up issues with their respective families.

Katherine is self-destructive and a cynic.

Byers  writes,

Katherine didn’t like to think of herself as sad. It had a defeatist ring about it . It lacked the pizzazz of, say, rage or mania. But she had to admit that these days she was waking up sad a lot more often than she was waking up happy. What she didn’t admit, and what she would never admit, was that this had anything whatsoever to do with Daniel.’

The story begins with a scene from a family gathering where Katherine attends while her sister has somehow avoided due to being tied up with some terrible cow business. Katherine has moved from London to Norwich and she had moved together with Daniel ostensibly for his job. Now they have broken up.  Daniel is in a relationship with Angelica who  is completely different from Katherine. Angelica is sweet, obliging, caring and has travelled to’ give the impression of nomadic flux, of freedom – a concept Angelica and he friends seemed to hold dear.

Katherine is the facilities manager at a local telecommunications company. She is paid to be obsessive compulsive as she ‘monitored chairs for ongoing ergonomic acceptability and suitable height in relation to desks and workstations, which  she checked in turn to ensure compliance with both company guidelines and national standards for safe and healthy working environments. She performed weekly fire alarm checks and logged the results. Each morning she inspected the building for general standards of hygiene, presentation and safety. She fired at least one cleaner per month. She was widely resented and almost constantly berated.’

Her father has left them ‘with a woman he‘d met at the doctor’s surgery while waiting to have his cholesterol levels checkedHe sends two cards a year, for Christmas and her birthday.

Katherine’s mother is quite dysfunctional and as Katherine was growing up, her mother was  found drunk on Pernod at ungodly hours of the day. Somehow Katherine and her sister have turned out reasonably OK.

Katherine hates the idea that ‘she might be the sort of person who had mummy issues. She was, or so she liked to think, much too alternative and free a person to find herself constrained by an unimaginative inability to slough off all those childhood hurts.

She is  full of contradictions and  a rather morbid character. ‘As a child,  Katherine had almost always imagined her death to be the result of suicide.’ Now , older as she is, she is ‘aware of the utter lack or romanticism in killing herself.

Daniel also has his own insecurities to work with. He comes across  a self-indulgent character and he prefers genuine quantifiable achievement such as the yearly bonus. Like any liberal he wants less to change the world than simply to be around people who wants the world to be different in all the same ways. So he is thrilled when Angelica  voices her opinions on global responsibility and has a sense of the wider world, everything Katherine is not.

When Daniel was six years old, his father took him to the office for the morning as he had an earache and could not go to school. His father could not leave him at home alone as his mother was away visiting her sister. Since the age of four, he had developed a morbid fear of solitude. Some years later, his mother left to live with a man she’d known for four months and two weeks. He would wake in the night even more often and always suffered a sense of loss that would, over time,  infect his daily sense of being.

Katherine and Daniel argue a great deal.

 ‘A typical argument between Daniel and Katherine, during the phase of their relationship in which they’d become adept at disagreement, began with Daniel passing Katherine a book he’d read and urging her to read it, telling her the ending in particular was fantastic. Katherine became angry, saying the book was now ruined. Daniel pointed out that he hadn’t told her anything about the ending, he’d just said he liked it.

‘Now there was a burden, she thought: loving someone; being loved. Dreams of houses. All that crap about forever. The conversation about kids that never quite happens. And what a weight to be loved, too; to know that another person had invested their future happiness in your weak self. The walking on eggshells; the daily effort not to hurt, and when you did, as of course you always would, all that effort was erased, the memory of all that you’d done to spare them pain simply obliterated by pain itself.”

Nathan has just come out of rehab and he contacts Katherine whom he once had a crush on. Katherine then contacts Daniel and counts on him to make the arrangement for their get-together. Nathan has moved back to live with his parents.

Nathan has been an awkward and problem child. To Nathan’s aghast, his  mother, Helen Coverley,  is MotherCourage who has founded the internet support Mothers Who Survive and she has also published a book entitled Mother Courage : One woman’s Battle Against Maternal Blame. In her book, she calls him Harry.  Nathan watches his mother  appear on television to talk about her journey as a mother and makes herself a martyr dealing with her guilt and shame for having  Nathan, their only child behaving the way he did. Nathan was doing drugs, tattoos, organising raves etc.To his parents, Nathan and his generation do not understand the most basic fact of life and they are perpetual adolescents.

Nathan is so upset about his mother’s publication and television appearance that he walks into the bookshop and buys all the remaining copies of the book in the shop. He then carries the books across town to the river and hurl them all one by one ‘into the grey depths‘, rip out pages. Byers writes,

‘ He saw paragraphs of his past as they caught the wind and were gone.’

Idiopathy features a mysterious cattle epidemic that lands the title of the book. Sam Byers‘s first novel is peppered with wit and dark humour. It is a meditation on zones of discomfort, love and loneliness. He is insightful and indeed a talented writer.