Educated: Tara Westover

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. Tara Westover’s journey from no schooling at all to Cambridge and Harvard is as strange as it gets. That you still have people in today’s world who have no use for hospitals and schools and no regard for safety of their own children is difficult to believe indeed. Tara’s Mormon family is eccentric many times over. The father speaks to God directly (and lets everyone know that), believes strongly in the ‘end days’. Her mother is a blind follower and her brother, an abusive man who knows no boundaries. To grow up in such a world and come to understand its grotesqueness after a lifetime of brainwashing is an accomplishment. ‘Educated’ – as Tara calls it. Tara does a great job in capturing the different worlds she inhabits – the scrapyard wasteland of Idaho to Cambridge’s gothic buildings. She also succeeds in keeping a pace in the narrative that never slackens. However, in the end, it’s just the uniqueness of her story that wins the day.

Do read.

People’s History of the United States: Howard Zinn

Zinn presents an alternative history of America, a perspective in which the US is the oppressor. Always. It traces the atrocities towards Indians, Blacks, women and the working classes. The book didn’t work for me because the view is extreme left. Capitalism is bad and all the Presidents of the US including Lincoln and Eisenhower were villains. Zinn doesn’t apologize for an unbalanced view of history. In his view, he is countering a viewpoint of American bravery and enterprise that has been taught and preached all along, so he is allowed to be biased. While there is some logic in that reasoning, an unbalanced view does not make good reading, as the preaching behind the history comes through and is not very attractive. His Utopian ideals of socialism, obsession with labor strikes, and such other things make the book hard to read. The length of the book (729 pages) doesn’t help either.

Don’t bother.

The Book of Jakarta: Edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy. W. Kusuma

“The Book of Jakarta” is a lovely anthology of short stories the celebrate the city. The stories cover a wide range of subjects from ill-fated love to class prejudices to 1998 riots directed against the ethnic Chinese to the struggle of the traditional tolerance in society with increasing fundamentalism – but all of them capture Jakarta as a soulful, living, breathing city. The city is an important character in every story. The vivid imagery of Jakarta and the indomitable spirit of its people – charming and endearing – shines through each story. Having lived in the city for many years, I grew nostalgic for a place that I miss dearly. At the same time, the book made me realize how little of Jakarta I had come to know in my time there and how much more I should have explored. The short stories have been translated from Bahasa Indonesia to English – but the quality of translation is so good that the translation never becomes a barrier. Many a time, I found myself slowing down the reading to make sure I savored every word. A lovely book indeed!

Surrender: Marylee MacDonald

Surrender is an engaging memoir set in times not too far back in time and yet so different from the present. Marylee tells us of her life as an adopted child, of living with an emotionally unavailable mother and an abusive father. Life turns full circle for Marylee when she gets pregnant at sixteen and has to put her baby up for adoption. It’s an eventful life indeed and Marylee does full justice writing about it. She does a particularly great job in painting a vivid picture of her surroundings and events happening around her. Her account of the time spent in the home for unwed mothers in Phoenix is particularly engrossing. It’s a book to savor.

The Midnight Library: Matt Haig

Matt Haig tells us a story with a message – live the life you have and stop regretting the lives you could have had. Nora Seed gets an opportunity to witness lives she could have lived and finds they all had their share of problems. While the concept is good and the message meaningful, the writing lets it down somewhat. Haig’s dialogs are ordinary and he repeats his message too many times like a self-help book. There are inconsistencies that are difficult to ignore. The concept of Nora entering a life and not knowing anything about it makes it inherently unfair for her to like and live that life. An interesting experiment nonetheless.

Read only if you really want to understand the message.

My Name is Red: Orhan Pamuk

A story set in the fifteenth-century Ottoman empire of miniaturists in Istanbul, ‘My Name is Red’ is an example of excellent storytelling. A notable feature was Pamuk’s portrayal of complex personalities. Shekure thinks something, says something else, now loves Black, now Hasan. A great job with creating intriguing, crafty, complex characters. The book ends on a high note too.

A must-read!

Room: Emma Donoghue

What a book! An amazing book told from the POV of five-year old who is born in captivity and has never seen the outside world. His mother has been kidnapped and detained by a savage. It starts dark and depressing but the POV of a five-year old makes it a little light. When they escape and make it to real world – it strikes the mother and the son very differently. Brilliant concept, brilliantly executed.

Don’t miss it.

Yemen – The Unknown Arabia: Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has a deep love for Yemen and takes us on a journey to the country – both in the north (Sanaa) – and the South (Aden). He introduces the readers to the multiple tribes, communities and historically significant sites through his travels. And when I say he takes the readers on a journey, he does that effectively. The accounts, despite being commonplace, are so vivid and real that you end up with a good glimpse of the enigma Yemen is. The book is pre-civil war – so it largely keeps away from the politics and the conflict, but does a great job in introducing readers to Yemeni culture. At the end, Mackintosh-Smith leaves us at the rooftop of the house he lived in Sanaa, chewing qat and watching out the city and other rooftops hosting fellow qat-chewers.