Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reflections: 4321

The experience of reading 4321 was one of the best parts of 2017, and the disappointment I felt when it didn't win the Booker Prize was one of the low points of the year. To be fair, I haven't yet read Lincoln in the Bardo (the winner), so maybe I over reacted just a bit. 

In any case, after many years and several excellent books, Paul Auster has given me a precious gift through this book. I mentally lived several lives (that of the protagonist and imagined deviations of my own life), and understood myself better. 

All of us wonder about the extent of determinism vs. free will in our lives. We all wonder if our lives could have taken drastically different journeys if only we had taken a certain fork in the road, or if only a random event had not happened or happened at a different point in time. So many what-ifs, so many parallel universes that materialize in our heads as we indulge in wishful thinking and conjuring. 

Would we be the same person we are today if we lived in a parallel plane of time and space where we took a different route? Would we be happier, more fulfilled, or less so? If only, if only, if only we knew!

So, Auster imagines and writes  four different lives - four deviations and what-ifs for his protagonist - the sensitive and good natured Archie Fergusson. And through his compelling, exhilarating, and brilliant writing, the fog is lifted, the nagging voice of what-ifs quiets down. 

You are who you are, no matter the external journey! Your internal journey is what counts. Yes, depending on your circumstances, there will be detours, changes, adaptations etc., You will either change for the better or for worse, but certain fundamental things about you - your natural proclivities, what brings you happiness and fulfillment, the things you always seek - will remain the same. In that sense, it doesn't matter what turns you took or did not take, what unfortunate or fortunate circumstances befell you, everything neutralizes in the bigger picture. 

This is hard to articulate, but I will try, if only for better clarity for myself. Considering my current life to be the neutral average baseline, I'll consider a few drastic alternatives, one of which is living on the streets out of poverty. This seems the most drastic of all, but if I walkthrough the scenarios (despite the caveat of living in your mind vs. facing the reality of it), I realize that no scenario will give me more sorrow or more happiness or more fulfillment than the other. They all neutralize with their different kinds of peaks and lows. Yes, living on the streets seems more harrowing, but if that's all I know, and am surrounded by, my measure of happiness would be different anyway! The types of choices I make will be similar, my inclinations will be similar, leading me down similar paths, thus living a life that will vary in its specifics, but in a broader perspective, everything adds up to the same equation within you.

I'm not denying that I'm more luckier or blessed than someone on the streets. I'm not saying I might as well live on the streets. I'm not in any way trivializing poverty. Definitely not. I am indeed blessed in so many ways, but in everyday life, we all get habituated to our individual blessings (as well as miseries) and revert to some internal equilibrium that is more or less the same regardless of the specifics of your life.

We keep thinking that the extent of one's happiness or fulfillment is tied primarily to circumstances and getting/receiving things - material and otherwise. So, we are prone to wondering how the journey of our life could have been idealized, re-lived, and re-traced to ensure maximum fulfillment. What a realization that it doesn't matter a whit! Such an ideal journey cannot exist either! It's always up to you - no matter where you are - to realize yourself and attribute meaning/happiness. 

Here's another illustration through a story from the Panchatrantra (Indian fables) that I've been reminded of so much lately. 

A learned sage and his wife are desperately seeking to have a child. The sage immerses himself in a long and powerful prayer to God. Having finished his prayer in the Ganges, he flings out his arms in entreaty, and a mouse, slipping from the talons of an eagle flying overhead, neatly lands in his hands. The sage treats the mouse as God's blessing, and using his ascetic powers transforms it into a beautiful baby girl. 

The couple are ecstatic with the child, and raise her with much love. Soon, it's time for the girl to get married. The doting father wants only the best bridegroom for his daughter. He introduces her to some of the most powerful forces and lords of nature - the Sun God, the Wind God, and the God of Oceans. The girl is not impressed with any of them and refuses to marry. The sage than takes her to the powerful, majestic God of Mountains. The girl is unmoved by his magnificence and is walking away, when she spots a mouse scurrying from the mountain. She instantly falls in love and wants to marry the mouse!

The sage resigns and accepts the nature of reality, and transforms her back to her true self - a mouse. 

We each have our own inner trajectory independent of the nature of circumstances! Call it biological determinism or destiny or anything else - but hopefully the realization frees you to appreciate and make the best of your present.

I fell in love with Auster, his writing, Archie, and every aspect of this book that relentlessly propels you to chase the words, to want to ravenously consume all the thoughts, to wrap yourself with the emotions, to inhale and to live, to submerge and drown, to lose yourself within the alternate worlds. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Recent Memorable Literary Reads

I read my way through the 2017 Man Booker Prize finalists, except for the one that ended up winning (Lincoln in the Bardo). Of the ones I read, one book shot up to be my most favorite of all time (will write about it soon), and the remaining four made an impact on me. I think they are all worth reading. In the order of my preference, recording some of my thoughts on these books:


Exist West might seem like yet another book on the woes and complexities of immigration. But it's different from the ones I have read so far, in that it's not a narrative that follows just one main perspective - that of the protagonists'. The book's narrative structure is the most interesting aspect. Written in third person, it's style is part documentary, part essay, with just a little bit of traditional story telling. I think it works! This type of narrative is devoid of explicit or too much emotion, and I think it's a deliberate choice to be as detached and objective as possible while Hamid points to the multiple tentacles that wrap and distort the issue of immigration. Through vignettes of different people's stories, he showcases how each person is affected by the issue, and how when viewed through their lens, their reactions and fears are understandable. Immigration is complicated because the stories of people are so varied, their motivations to move (even metaphorically speaking) are so different. Trying to put them all in a couple of buckets is a gross simplification. 

Can a world without borders truly exist? What does it mean for immigrants to assimilate and settle into a new country? Everyone wants to feel connected, to belong, including the native population. Driven by the need to associate oneself with their "home" and cultural identity, if immigrants keep holding themselves apart from the new country, isolating themselves, setting up their own mini-borders and communities, aren't they perpetuating the differences and the divides? Open borders do not mean human beings will open their minds and hearts to the borders they create within themselves. It's a subtle and nuanced discussion in the book.  I am a fan of Mohsin Hamid for many reasons, but primarily for his writing - he knows how to use minimal words to convey much - my polar opposite! 

History of Wolves is an emotionally difficult read, but a powerful and thought-provoking one on the role of faith (especially religious faith) in our lives. It explores the deep murky waters of morality and spirituality. Our decisions have a ripple effect on other lives, and sometimes the consequences veer out of our control regardless of how pure our intentions and motivations are. Through two stories, the author presents the classic question at the apex of morality - in the end, do intentions/belief matter or the actions/consequences? "Both" is a non-answer, and "circumstantial" is an easy answer, because articulating the underlying definition of good and bad is still convoluted. What if we believe something, and then act in a different way? Our thoughts and actions need to ideally align and resonate with each other for us to live true to ourselves. But what is its implication on morality?

It's scary and disturbing how much of an illusion we cocoon ourselves into in the name of faith. Everything gets rationalized, is attributed to higher purpose and meaning, when the reality is our choice to be ignorant and disillusioned. In this case, it's more straightforward to see the biases and illusions of blind faith or misguided thoughts. But we all live and operate under so many biases and illusions, and often we don't even realize them because they are not as stark or obvious as religious faith. 

Although I liked the book for its themes, I did not like the writing. Everything is cast in gloom, every description focuses on the unflattering, uglier side of things. The author makes her point about not glossing over the dirt that is underneath superficial beauty, but the prose became off-putting after a while. I also wish there was a deeper discussion of religious faith from a different lens, not the one that is clearly clouded.

Elmet is another disturbing, but powerfully written book. It's the heartbreaking story of one oppressed family that is struggling to survive amidst social and power conflicts. It is reminiscent of several stories and movies of ruthless landlords crushing the underdogs. What was impressive to me (and hence biased me) was the excellent writing and characertizations. This is the author's debut novel, mostly written during her commute to work! 

Autumn deals with the impact of changes - changes to our land, our country, our home, our family, and to ourselves. Change to the macro does seep into the micro. It's a poetic but mostly abstract narration on how bigger changes to society (Brexit in this case) slowly trickle down to our individual journey. This book is less about the story, and more about the characters and the writing. It was brilliant in places, but quite obscure in other places. This is part of a series of 4 books, so I'm guessing the things that were vague will have threads of continuity in the other books. It is worth reading for those pages and paragraphs that leap out with brilliance and insight and leave you with a mental punch.
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Hate You Give is an unapologetically forceful and masterful book on racial discrimination and police brutality in the United States. Closely following the shocking real-life stories that have dominated the news, the author alternates between righteous indignation and clear-eyed objectivity in analyzing the stereotypes that are so entrenched in our psyches that people don't even realize the extent of rash judgments they provoke. 

What I really liked about this book was the way the author brings out the slippery slope of logic and rationality. Anything, if worded and meticulously arranged a certain way, can be made to seem perfectly logical, reasonable, and rational. This is the real danger, the terrifying threat that's facing us today - discrimination is reduced to one tiny aspect of its elemental state; it is coldly rationalized without compassion. The radical solutions are propagated as practical, sensible, and even fair-minded. We are not as rational as we want to believe; our feelings and emotions bias our perceptions and construct seemingly cohesive narratives of "logic" that are riddled with holes! 

I think it's the belief that one is right because one is logical and rational, that results in a breeding ground of twisted fundamentalism and extremism that is almost impossible to logically argue against. The only way out is openness to dialogue, openness to understand different experiences by  weaving in empathy and compassion along with logic.

 A very relevant and poignant read. 
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Finally, despite all the depressing and disappointing state of affairs around the world, there is always hope, goodness, and the prevalence of our better nature to overcome the darkness.

All The Light We Cannot See is a beautiful, heart-wrenching book on the purity of thought and actions amidst a scenario as vile as possible - the second world war. The book grew on me gradually, and I appreciated it more as the echoes of the story and characters washed over me long after I finished the book. We all hold the power to directly and indirectly make a difference in people's lives - even a complete stranger. It's a sobering and uplifting realization to motivate us to always do the best that we can, to always resurrect our better nature, even during dire situations of life and death. Such goodness is often not visible, it is not glaring in its gloat, for it demands no grandeur or pomposity. It comes in quiet, subtle ways, and leaves a lasting impression that can only be felt and realized. 

News of the World is another simple story of goodness and compassion. It's the story of a dutiful military man and an orphaned girl struggling to find her footing in an ever changing, unsettling landscape. Sometimes, the struggle is realizing and recognizing when and in what ways we have the opportunity to positively impact someone's life. And most often, goodness is symbiotic, and is not a one-way street.

So much of our world is now focussed on the visual and loud nature of things - everything needs to be seen, to be loudly beautified in its representation and glorification to be believed and internalized as "good". But there are so many gestures of everyday living that have the potential to add to up to something significant; something that can't be measured or captured in a tangible form. The very hope, the trajectory of our existence, rests on such goodness and light that cannot be seen, but does live around us and within us.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Memorable Reads: On the Complexities of Marriage

Some thoughts on my recent reads dealing with the complexities of marriage in all its messiness and beauty.
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"Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide - security, children, property, and respectability - but now we also want our partner to love us, desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends, trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot. The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer.", Esther Perel

What marriage means to us has indeed ballooned into an idealized version of the old and the new, the fairy-tale and the mundane. The endless demands and entitlement towards happiness, acceptance, and romantic love have creeped into our implicit ways of thinking and living. It's now easier to feel dissatisfied and want more - the flip side of healthy self-worth. Everyone is worthy of the type of love that unconditionally and unfailingly fulfills them through decades, right? Why settle? It's becoming increasingly common for us to understand someone when they say - "I love my spouse, but I'm no longer in love".  Ah, the problems plaguing the first world!

It's an interesting state of affairs, indeed. 

Esther Perel is a renowned marriage counselor. Her recent book, The State of Affairs is a deep dive into infidelity - the various types, causes, the motivations, the perspectives of all the different people involved, its impacts (both positive and negative), and what all of this means for the future of the institution of marriage / monogamy. I loved the book - most specifically, Perel's open-minded, empathetic, judgment-free discussion. It might seem like a depressing book with its numerous case studies of infidelity (and their frequency/prevalence in marriages these days), but the surprising aspect is how the treatment of the topic doesn't weigh down the reader. My takeaways were hope and optimism. Infidelity need not be the end of the world (or a marriage). As with everything in life, it is what you make of it. We have perhaps attributed too much significance to it as  the most important pillar to bolster a marriage. Detaching the moral and social conditioning/connotations, Perel urges us to reevaluate our expectations towards marriage, and some ways to handle the underlying issues that result in infidelity. The institution of marriage has always evolved - its relevance, the roles of the people, the expectations/values, structure etc. Now it's perhaps teetering at another turning point - burdened with too much idealism and expectations. Something has to give, and it's up to the individuals involved to prioritize and collaborate on the revision. It fosters great food for thought and meaningful discussions. 

A quote that spoke to me - "Collaborate in transgression, rather than transgressing against each other". The book requires an open mind to consider aspects of human nature that are difficult digest, but that only worsen if ignored and brushed under the metaphorical rug.

Her older book, Mating in Captivity, starts to address the strains of marriage that eventually lead people to drift apart and loose their "eros" - the erotic vitality - the spark that purportedly keeps marriages alive. Perel has an expanded definition of this vital energy. It is the zest for life, the feeling of "aliveness" and excitement that individuals cultivate (yes, one needs to keep nurturing it), and that is then shared by the couple. It's a very interesting discussion. This book, as with all her books and speeches, does not have a list of techniques or strategies. It is a discussion of the many circumstances and the reasons why the vital energy drops. It's up to the individual to figure out where they fall, and how to address the issue. 

My main takeaway was the importance of maintaining your sense of self, your identity and individual interests within a marriage. Merging into one entity is not the goal. This has always intuitively made sense to me. It's easy to fall into a co-dependent relationship where you want to share everything with each other, do everything with each other, spend as much time as possible with each other, and keep closing the gap between the two until there is this fairy-tale merging of souls or whatever. As paradoxical as it sounds, this is sometimes the issue. We are innately attracted to mystery; we are drawn towards that which we don't know enough of, that which sustains our interests and keeps beckoning to learn more. Once the mystery is solved, the interest begins to wane. There is nothing morally wrong about this - this is just the way we are built. 

When you maintain your identity and keep exploring yourself, investing in your interests, and taking care of some of your varied needs independent of your spouse, you empower yourself, gain confidence and awareness of yourself (recognize what you want vs. don't want), and thus nurture your vital "eros". You might even find yourself "evolving" into a newer version of yourself. There is always something more to you than just your role in the marriage. Most importantly, do not depend on your spouse for every one of your emotional needs. Expand your horizons and your community - we have friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors for a reason. 

The old saying, "A hedge between keeps friendship green" applies to all relationships. We are often fearful that this is contrary to the objective of marriage and paves the way for people to drift apart. I guess it's all about the balance. It's not about neglecting your spouse or their needs, but about relieving some expectations and burdens off them so you both have room to breathe and grow.

Casual conversations with happily married couples who've been together for decades despite rough storms have the same words of wisdom - "Spend time away from each other! Give space, so when you come together, you appreciate each other much more."

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Do not judge a book by its cover. Do not judge a marriage by its external appearance either. No marriage/relationship is as it appears on the outside. The tangled webs are often not even visible to the people in the relationship. You can spend decades with a person and still not know them well enough. And what an irony that many successful marriages owe more to the buried secrets than honest revelations.

In this absorbing book, Groff writes about a marriage - successful by all external standards - from the dual perspectives of the husband, and then the wife. It's natural for each of us to have different perspectives of the same thing, but what is interesting is how our perception of ourselves shapes the choices and perceptions of our reality. This was most interesting to me. 

If you believe your are good, if people around you love and admire you, your immense self-worth shades how you view your life, the choices, and outcomes. If you believe you are "bad", that you are undeserving and of little worth, everything is accordingly colored. But looking from an objective standpoint (as the reader), the illusions on both sides are brought to focus, and the notions of "good" and "bad" cease to apply. The bad seems to be the good, and vice versa. The full story emerges, and Groff forces us to recognize the common misapprehensions and illusions within our own lives. 

I liked the book for its writing, the layered themes, and characters. Many reviews find this book negative or depressing, but I felt it was "uplifting" because of its insights. 


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Memorable Reads: Flavors of Love and Romance

Some thoughts on recent memorable books on love and romance. 
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Who doesn't remember their first crush or infatuation? Is that heady, confusing feeling really love? Could such a feeling sustain itself as people grow, mature, and turn into different versions of themselves in their adulthood? I'm ever optimistic that some bonds last in one way or the other because of the impact they had on our lives, if only for a few moments in the swiftly changing sands of time. 

One the one hand is Rowell's beautiful illustration of an innocent wholesome version of first love tempered by friendship and understanding. Each person finds acceptance in the other, and despite the uncertainties of growing up and facing the future, there is recognition of something deep and lasting, even if it's only a kernel. The pangs of this first "love" will echo throughout one's life as a fond memory of what-ifs. With succinct writing, Rowell brings so much to this simple story.

And on the other hand is Murakami's take on the turbulence of grief, loneliness, lust, and friendship on a young person's coming of age journey. Love seems too elusive when there is a gaping void seeking comfort and numbness. The attachments and relationships are clouded by insecurities and vulnerabilities, and everything is slippery to hold onto, because too many things have happened too fast to someone too young.  This is the sort of first "love" that is confusing and angsty - the kind that sets people on the impossible hunt for the "perfect" feeling that both encompasses and surpasses the tangle from their past. The memories turn into haunting ghosts that are difficult to let go, and burying them seems inadequate. 
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And then, as we enter adulthood and wade through the complexities and realities of life and relationships, we start to know ourselves better. Unlikely bonds blossom unbeknownst to us, maturing from grief, disappointments, and self-awareness. Jojo Moyes is excellent at writing such stories of messy lives and "flawed" people. Nothing is straightforward, there always seems too much baggage (who doesn't have them?), but people still come together out of a shared journey, and a recongition of how they complement and complete each other despite (or because of) their imperfections. There are no happily-ever-afters but always a possibility for making the best of your circumstances, if you are willing to give it a chance. 

After You is the sequel to Me Before You, a tragic love story. In the sequel, the protagonist deals with her crippling grief and guilt. She gradually learns how to move on, and recognizes that love comes and lives in so many different forms. There even could be multiple soul mates, if we choose to believe. And then is her other book, One Plus One, where the unlikeliest of people are thrown together by circumstances. We often don't even realize how much we need something, even if it is a crazy teenager, until we are open to the experience of receiving. Moyes's characters are unique and complex, her writing funny and insightful. I enjoyed both books, but particularly After You.
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Ah, then there is the idealized love - of lightning and passion; the purity of feeling and simplicity of the intense feeling; the happily-ever-after. This kind transcends social barriers, the pettiness of practicality and probability, and triumphs. It's the kind meant for a book or a movie. And so is Flowers from the Storm. It's one of the best written books I have ever read. Laura Kinsale is a brilliant writer, and a treasured find. One thing that I am always fascinated is the process, the trajectory of falling in love with someone. Kinsale excels at chasing and capturing this elusive shift in feeling. In this case, it is all the more fascinating to me as I see the protagonist shift from codependence to something more deeper, more abiding because of the nature of acceptance, the essence of the woman who gives without wanting. I am also biased by the affliction faced by the protagonist - a stroke leaves a brilliant man void of speech and conventional ways to communicate. He gets cruelly labeled as mentally ill and insane, and is understood by only one woman. Kinsale's portrayal of this is brilliant and nuanced. It tore my heart. I will come back to this book many times. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reflections: Quiet

The Myers & Briggs Personality Test (MBTI metric) classified me as 99% introverted 10 years ago. I agreed with it. Several wondered how I managed to escape the elusive 1% in the metric. This was not good news to people at work and family. I was always advised to change, to "better" myself. It was non-negotiable. Such an introverted personality (no matter what other traits they possess) is essentially perceived as a liability to oneself and to people around them. 

And so, I tried to change. I remember a conversation with my dearest friend, a fellow introvert who figured out the key strategies for self-adjustment. She would walk me through potential social scenarios and brainstorm ways in which I could participate in conversations, things I could say, how I could voice the statements etc. etc. Feels pathetic, doesn't it? But I needed it. I always did well 1-1, but in a group, I wanted to disappear and remain invisible. Why add to all the noise? But, that's how the world works - visibility and noise matter a lot.

Fast forward to the present. Increasingly over the past couple of years, people have been calling me "extroverted" and "bubbly" - terms that have never been associated with me. When I correct them, they vehemently disagree (much to my secret pleasure), my family senses "a change" in me, some friends were confused by my apparent dual personality, some old friends were pleasantly shocked, some even took offense when I wanted to shut out and be myself when I'd been "bubbly" just an hour ago, and the one person who has seen and lived through this journey with me finally commented - "you have brought out the better version of yourself".

So, the researcher in me, wanted evidence I could understand more objectively. I retook the MBTI test, and now I am 61% introverted. Still an introvert, but close enough to straddle and switch between personalities when needed. I recognize it as a survival necessity.

In my personal journey of self-improvement and awareness, this is significant for me. It took 10 years of painful reflection and constant calibrations, walking the fine line between being genuine and mustering some "fake" enthusiasm in light of the bigger goal, negotiations with family and friends over the frequency of socializations vs. solitude, and most importantly, recognizing and accepting the core of who I am, the things about me that will never change and that I do not want to change. There are still days when I hear people "pleasantly" cursing my introversion, telling me that I "don't seem like I even exist" (the existential questions that such statements trigger!), and there are days when I want to curl up and give up. 

And then I read this book that was recommended to me by several. I wish I had read it sooner. I wish I could just hand this over to people who refer to introverts with a negative inflection, who perpetuate the belief that extroverts are the "right type" of personality, the more lovable, "normal" people. 

Well researched and written with clarity, insight, deep empathy and understanding (for the author is an introvert herself), this is a comprehensive book for anyone curious about the personality differences and misconceptions surrounding introverts and extroverts. Every type of personality has intrinsic strengths and values. They are suited to specific types of jobs or environments, but are in no ways incapable of going beyond their sphere of "suitability". It requires some flexing of their personality "muscles" to fake and adopt some traits/skills to get to where they want to be. Many times, it is their uniqueness and how they apply their skills uniquely that matters. If networking is important to your career, you need to suck it up and do it. How often you do it, how you go about preparing for it, etc. is where you strategize, given your personality type. I appreciate this pragmatic and practical approach. Brimming with research from multiple cultures, this book is full of interesting case studies of famous and ordinary people, and their strategies. I found the book extremely useful. And those who are in relationships with introverts (professional or personal) will find this useful as well. 

It is terrible to feel like an anomaly, to feel flawed and guilty for just being who you are. Even now, when I am complimented for having "improved" myself for the better, I feel some resentment and frustration. But, I remind myself that there will always be two versions of yourself - one that is shaped by how you see yourself (your self-awareness), and the second is how others perceive you. You have no control over the latter, and for the most part, that's just the superficial aspect of you. How others perceive you matters in a practical sense to get through day-to-day things that build equity over time. Do not let it cloud your own self-awareness as much as possible. All the changes, self-improvements, and calibrations you make within yourself need not be (and will not be) apparent to others. In that sense, validation and acceptance needs to come from within you. Easier said than done, but that's the journey we all take. 

PS: Another book on Introversion I recommend is this one I read almost 8 years back (it is a lighter and quicker read).

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Purpose and Community

Very broadly speaking, one's ability to feel fulfilled and happy in life is tied to two things:
1. Purpose - understanding, accepting, and following that which brings purpose and meaning to one's life; constantly pursuing "projects" to keep one engaged and stimulated.
2. Community - establishing a social circle - be it big or small. We are social creatures that need the company of fellow beings, no matter how reclusive we claim to be. Often times, the community around you is essential to feed your purpose, and to feel connected to something bigger than yourself. It is a means to look beyond yourself, to receive and give both tangible and intangible things that all add up to your overall well-being and happiness. 

I believe both of these things come together in one's definition of self-worth. Sometimes, you need one more than the other. Sometimes, you need to renew, reset, recharge, or reinvent your purpose or community, and it is a painful process. Especially as one grows older, or goes through major life changes like retirement or the loss of one's spouse, it's an extended community, the company of people around you that enables you to reinvent a sense of purpose by first cultivating a renewed sense of belonging. 


I often think it is plain luck and a blessing to be surrounded by people who foster positivity and love. These two wonderful books reiterate the value of recognizing and appreciating the blessing of loving people around you. Even when all seems grim, or without meaning, the right kinds of people around you will inspire you to find meaning, joy, and color in life. 

I loved both these books for their quirky wit and satire, the charming characters, and the simple but evocative writing. Both Fikry and Ove are similar protagonists in terms of their overall temperament. Ove especially reminds me of people in my life - crusty curmudgeons with a tender soul.  

I recommend these books for a feel-good read that also encourages you to think more deeply about the people in your life.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Reflections: The Goldfinch

After a really long time, a book caught me in its throes and wrung me out in the best way possible. 

When the dust settled down after the hype, and after my husband's fervent recommendation, I began reading this tome of a book with its intimidating size and intriguing premise surrounding an orphaned boy and a masterpiece of a painting. A painting plays an important role in the coming of age story of an orphaned boy? I think this apparent absurdity is what pushes one to get past the first few slow moving chapters. The author compels the reader into curiosity and establishes a firm investment in the boy's chaotic life. 

Let the size of the book not intimidate you. Once you get sucked in, you will wade and swim through it fast enough, because there are many questions - practical and philosophical - you want answered. And it's a refreshing bout of relief when nothing is left hanging to the reader's interpretation like most award-winning-cerebral books are wont to do. Everything is wrapped and tied, and concluded in the most practical and philosophical way possible. It left both my heart and mind satisfied and replete. If you are wondering how a book can end on seemingly contradictory notes of practicality and philosophy - that's where the book gets its well-deserved recognition and merit. 

"sometimes bad things need to happen to bring about something good in the end"

"sometimes good things lead to bad things"

We all react to life and its tragedies and triumphs in markedly different ways. But, during each phase, what we are fighting for is the desperate need to establish and find meaning, to attribute meaning to something instead of nothing, and to hold onto an anchor of support, a coping mechanism to help us stay afloat. How we establish meaning, and to what we cling onto as anchors/coping mechanism is up to the individual. Viewed from this basic truth, rights and wrongs, good and bad, have little relevance. Viewed from a detached and high-level perspective, the characterizations of actions/motivations seem insignificant in relation to the picture that emerges; all the numerous deeds and events transform to mere stitches and knots and zigzagging threads of colors when we step back and view the big picture of the tapestry that came together because of them. In the end, it's the forest, never the trees. Does it matter whether we followed an invisible (but existent) pattern, or if a pattern emerged incidentally?

We can try very hard to do the right thing to someone (and to ourselves), but that may not help that person find stability and meaning in their lives, because what "ought to be done" is never objective. Each person finds their own truth, or a version of the truth that they can live with. We weave our own realities, lay down structures with things that provide meaning to us. 

Some striking quotes that pulled together everything for me:

"How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet - for me, anyway - all that's worth living for lies in that charm?"

"...I've come to realize there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between reality on one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And - I would argue as well - all love."

"And just as the music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of colors across the sky - so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime"

"Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair."

Really interesting characters, compelling writing, and universal themes that are cohesively brought together in a unique context. Highly recommended read.