A Book A Week Challenge – Week 28

Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” starts off with a reference to John Donne’s Sermon XV where he points to a section that describes the walk into the gate of heaven which leads to the house of God –

There shall be no Cloud or Sun, no darkness nor dazzling – but one equal light

No noise nor silence- but one equal music

No fears nor hopes- but one equal possession.

No foes nor friends- but one equal communion

No ends nor beginnings- but one equal eternity.

Even though Vikram Seth doesn’t specifically articulate why he uses the full length of this poem, he uses this as a beautiful foundation to create one simple harmony of love between two musicians.

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Book #: 28

Title: An Equal Music” by Vikram Seth

Pages: 484

He is a violinist and she is a pianist – who is now married and has a child. His love stayed with him and every string that his violin strummed reminded of her. “I cannot bear to be in the company of others, but when I am alone, I am sick with memory,” he tells us. The beauty of writing in this book comes from the skill of “articulating” music. Yes, the articulation and not the rendition. The detailed notes on what Beethoven’s third symphony third reference sounds like if there is harmony and if there is a strong stress on the guitar. This for me the absolute winner from this book- since it is far easier to execute the art form than explain the execution of it.

The protagonist is a restless guy, as you would expect from many artists, whose minds always wander around looking for something to feed their ever burning desire to communicate – not in words but their art forms- paintings, music, dance and so on. The restlessness is indicated with the pace at which the sentences are formed. Short sentences bring in the urgency – “I and the verb form”. This is what you observe all through the book where he wishes to tell us about his urgency or restlessness.

“(…) my fixed point in the week is Saturday morning swim. If I lapse there, I will lose all pattern to my days”

Generally, musicians to get a perfect symphony, every chord needs to be strummed with absolute precision in terms of timing, pressure, and harmony with other instruments. Vikram Seth brings this conflict into the routine of the protagonist. He has her all over him – around him – every moment he thinks of her she is there. He needs to means to express himself through and the balance he tries to accomplish in everything he does. Here is where the struggle of a musician surfaces, he needs to maintain harmony in his non-music life to get that music right. But, can he express the vigil somewhere – no he cannot because the seeking is intense.

There is a phase in the book that blows you away when he finds that the person who he loved so much for life is going deaf- for a musician, it’s a nightmare-  He walks to the medical library and finds books to research the deafness.

“I put on the records of Schubert string quintet and it is to the sounding of that music that I make my first acquaintance with the elaborate chaos that lies behind that tiny drumskins of my outer ears”

Overall, Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” is a masterpiece in terms of its writing – even though the plot is clichéd- the beauty of lovable characters, their behaviors and the raw sense of articulating music- makes it a beautiful read. It goes through the crests and troughs of extremely emotion opera but leaves with the serenity at the end of it.

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A Book A Week Challenge – Week 27

“Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery,
That all started with the big bang (Bang)!”

The theme of famous Television sitcom “Big Bang Theory” goes like this. Yes, truly the evolution of species has transpired many historical events with few species surviving and few became extinct. The survived species were regarded to as “the fittest” in Darwin’s words and in order to survive, these species had to “adapt and evolve”. Humans (Homo Sapiens) thus evolved to be most advanced species.

“Everything is not well until it’s not over” applies perfectly for the evolution lifecycle as Humans emerged to be the most “fittest and advanced” species then came the destruction of his surroundings thus followed “Collapse” of few societies. Jared Diamond, one of my favorite non-fiction authors of all time, picks this aspect of human evolution and tries to inquire why few societies survived much longer than others, despite being exposed to similar challenges.

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Book #: 27

Title: Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or survive” by Jared Diamond

Pages: 539

“Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or survive” might sound like it is deemed to end on an apocalyptic note, but Jared Diamond’s brilliance lies just there – he makes his case with a five-point framework and gives all his details- with even more engaging examples ranging from New Guinea to Pitcairn and Henderson Islands to Greenland to Iceland to Rwanda to Mayan to Haiti to the Dominic Republic to China” – and then leaves it to your own judgment as to decide what next steps that are to be taken.

“Just as in the past, countries that are environmentally stressed, overpopulated, or both, become at risk of getting politically stressed, and of their governments collapsing. When people are desperate, undernourished and without hope, they blame their governments, which they see as responsible for or unable to solve their problems. They try to emigrate at any cost. They fight each other over land. They kill each other. They start civil wars. They figure that they have nothing to lose, so they become terrorists, or they support or tolerate terrorism.”

This is a really long elaborative narration of what happened in various societies with narration spreading over Four sections and 17 chapters. Each section leaves you with a note to ponder which ties up in the finish line.

We, as a generation, are on the edge of a negative exponential curve with problems staring right in your eyes demanding answers. Jared Diamond points out few of them broken into categories:

Natural Resources: Natural habitats, wild food sources, biological diversity and soil

Ceilings: Energy, freshwater, and photosynthetic capacity.

Man-made harmful things: toxic chemicals, alien species, and atmospheric gases

And Human population.

The efforts are being made to curb these damages with conferences happening across the world to discuss the contribution of various nations within their capacity to fight environmental damages. The results might not be as explicit as the stock market prices or currency appreciations/ depreciations but our belief in bringing a new generation to this planet is the hope.

Jared Diamond pinpoints to increasingly alarming trends in terms of biodiversity, soil loss, freshwater limits, overfishing and climate change- which is no longer in the phase of “might happen”. We pushed ourselves to the limits of “it’s happening” and the action plan is for right now- You act, you fight, you survive else go through the societies that no longer exist among us.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 26

I am a huge fan of narratives that take into account more than one perspective on any issue or story. Of “Vantage Point” style narratives, the judgement is left to discretion of the reader. You might want to take a strong stance against the criminal when you read or hear about the crime, by absolutely being dismissive of caring about the opposite narrative. Many a times, it is due to the fact that the crime is ridden on “sympathy” and “hatred” as its back bone.

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Book #: 26

Title: The Association of Small Bombs- a novel” by Karan Mahajan

Pages: 276

Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs” is a vantage point-isque narrative of a bomb blast in a market in Delhi. It effects multiple parties that got attached into the web of death at various corners of the mesh. There are two brothers, their surviving friend, two families – one grief struck, other relieved, one terrorist – who suffers from the problems that every one of us could encounter.

The success of this novel depends on how you perceive the killers / terrorists. There are many of them- influenced a lot by revenge and not as much by radicalism. There are no screams of “Allah” after the bomb blast. But, their fight is honest – they want Kashmir and revenge for Gujarat Riots.

Karan Mahajan wins with his simplistic writing- no Americanized or Europeanized terminologies. The writing stays within the boundaries of the sub-continent where story happens. The phrases you use are from those of regular basis- no barrier between written and spoken language.

The only shortcoming, if you want to call it, is the way in which the book ends. There is an un-triggered rush towards the end and you would have wished it to run for a few more yards. Overall, Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs” is an absolute winner within the framework it operates and presents you with the multiple versions of the story. You are the jury to decide who is on which of this webbed association? – the one who triggered it or the circumstances.

Abbas Kiarostami – A Tribute

As I sat down to write the tribute for Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away two days ago, all I could think of is “just watch his films”. It is not as simple as it might sound, putting someone’s lifetime efforts in words. Struggling for words to describe their work is always the most justified response to the brilliance and genius that they brought to our world. As he leaves us, it is only duty of us to “slow down, pause and appreciate the beauty of art on a frame.”

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The common question that a filmmaker or artist from any part of the world had to encounter at some point in their career is “Does the art reflect the society or does it affect the society?”. To put in simple terms “Are our stories on frame or canvas taken from the society?” or “Are our stories on frame or canvas meant to feedback into the society?”

Abbas Kiarostami explains it rather straight forward, with no second thoughts. “There is nothing invented or created by the filmmaker or an artist. The artist takes only what naturally occurs in the Universe and visually narrate a story that we, do not pause to experience in its right form”. His movies explain how he stands by this philosophy.

Calling himself as “unplanned filmmaker”, Abbas revolutionized the Iranian Cinema. My first association with Iranian cinema comes from Jafar Panahi when I saw his “Taxi”, “Closed Curtain” and “This is not a Film”. As a simple movie enthusiast from India, my exposure to world cinema is limited to film festival movie list. But, I must agree that Jafar Panahi played a huge role in my understanding of Iranian Cinema. He himself is a student of Abbas and his style of filmmaking cannot be completely differentiated from his master.

As I explored the world of Iranian cinema, there is no escaping the visuals of Abbas Kiarostami. The first film I saw of him is “Like Someone in Love” and I was blown away by it. Then I watched the four movies which were termed as part of “Koker Trilogy” and “Taste of Cherry”. Most of the present generation filmmakers from advanced privileged industries often struggle to make “pure storytelling” as the base of their films. They have often carried away with the availability of technology so much, where the underlying story gets lost in the way.

This is the beauty of Iranian cinema. With the excellence work of narrators such as Abbas and Jafar, the stories form the core center of the movie and these stories could as well be the story of your friend or yourself. Your desire as a kid to watch a soccer game, your compassion towards your friend who probably might lose his life during the earthquake and your struggle to get a basic education form the premise of their works. His work is mainly centered around children and these characters of children extend their roles in follow-up movies.

For instance, the child you watch through his trilogy is the same, seen through the eyes of multiple characters and operate in an ever changing world around him.

Having children at the epicenter of your film is not only interesting but immensely challenging. “Children are not there (in the movie) for fame or money. They are there on a specific agreement between you and them. If you step out their agreement zone, they are no longer there. They are out of it. You can never get them back once u lose them”

His way of filmmaking is not rule book based. It was straight from his heart. His lead actors are from the real world and their conflicts are real. The only thing that is not real is the touch of it. You might not be able to touch and sense the characters but you are already experiencing their world.

His love and inspiration, as he many times stated, comes from Jean-Luic Godard, Akira Kurosawa, Chris Marker, Poet Rumi and the New York City. This is what Akira Kurosawa had to say about his films.

Akira Kurosawa, the greatest filmmaker himself, speaks of Kiarostami’s films as:

“Words cannot describe my feelings about them … When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”

As a regular Indian film viewer, the movies of Satyajit Ray were an eye opener for the experimental style of filmmaking it was and to follow it up with the works of Akira Kurosawa and Abbas Kiarostami only makes it difficult to appreciate the work of others.

But, what these filmmakers leave us with is not a discussion on which style of filmmaking is better than the other but the ability to acknowledge varied styles of filmmaking. After all, the sole aim of any art form’s is to interpret the world around us in a more artistic way that you often try to escape from.

Abbas Kiarostami – You will be remembered as a genius who accomplished his task in this universe with a brilliance that could only spread across the geographies and generations. May your Soul Rest in Piece!

Image Courtesy: Indiewire.com

“A Book A Week Challenge”- Half Way Pit Stop

Half way through the year which would mean reaching a half-way point through the challenge or resolutions you set for yourself at the beginning of the year.

I set out to read 52 books “A Book A Week Challenge” and prepared a reading list that is spread across genres and demographics. Half Way through, I was able to finish 25 of them. I missed a week due to calendar synchronization and another since I needed a break. It might sound as “breaking promises” but you need to rejuvenate in order to keep up with the challenge you set for yourself.

Here is the list of 25 books that I finished during the year and the links would take you to my thoughts on these reads:

Week 1:Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis

Week 2: “1984” by George Orwell

Week 3: The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama” by Nigel Cliff

Week 4: Chivaraku Migiledi” by Buchi Babu (Telugu)

Week 5: The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Week 6: The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan

Week 7: Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Week 8: A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry

Week 9: H for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

Week 10: David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell

Week 11: Neuro Tribes” by Steve Silbermann

Week 12: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs” by Lisa Randall

Week 13: Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande

Week 14: The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

Week 15: A General Theory of Oblivion” by José Eduardo Agualusa

Week 16: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Week 17: A Wild Sheep Chase” by Haruki Murakami

Week 18Better Living Through Criticism” by A O Scott

Week 19: My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk

Week 20: By Night the Moutain Burns” by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

Week 21: The Morning they came for us” by Janine Di Giovanni

Week 22: The Gene” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Week 23: This Divided Island” by Samanth Subramanian

Week 24J” by Howard Jacobson

Week 25: Smoke Gets in your Eyes and other Lessons from the Crematorium” by Caitlin Doughty

I am half-way through.

I am happy to hear back with your recommended reads or if you wish to come aboard, we can use a collaborative way for effective reading and discuss the books.

Please feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions, recommendations in the comments section. Follow or share the blog if you love and wish to embark on my remaining journey through the year.

The post first appeared in Medium for ‘The Writing Cooperative” here

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 25

“What happens when you die?” might probably be the most investigated or most debated question. It might as well be the source of driving force for many religious philosophers across the world. Depending on which side of theism your ideology stands, you might have heard multiple versions of answers for this question. The common thread though, instead, is that none of these philosophies talk about your physical body – the skin, muscle and blood of it.

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Book #: 25

Title: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium”

Pages: 246

Caitlin Doughty’s twitter bio reads “Mortician” and “Mega-Curmudgeon” but doesn’t end without adding a hashtag called “#DeathPositive”. Well, you might want to believe all of that would be a perfect description of her, especially, if you haven’t heard her “reading” book or reading the book for yourself.

I happened to listen to her reading session and further ended up reading the book, which makes me believe that the “Curmudgeon” part, however tempting it is to associate for a mortician, seems a false claim. She is unusually joyful for someone who almost more than “eight” dead bodies on a daily basis. As she describes her routine, she explains how different parts of your body reacts to the temperatures of 800-plus degree Celsius.

“Smoke in your eyes” in the terms of description is “a detailed account of a routine followed by a mortician and the nuances associated with dead bodies”, but it might be the most gross or understating the value of this book. The objective of Caitlin as she describes to make “death as beautiful and hygienic as you can”

In terms of her routine at privately owned “West Wind Crematorium”, the expectation of her is to eat berries in the break while the bodies burn but as the dust spreads and settles in “unexpected” places, well, you could not even dare to attempting thinking of food, let alone eating berries.

Talking about death, decomposition and charring of body to dust sound gross at the outset, but the process associated with the final destination after your death had improved rather significantly from since “Medicalization” of death. Living no longer avoided the dead. They both survived in the clean sheets, sanitized before the body of dead is no longer anyone’s responsibility.

Caitlin as she describes eloquently how different parts of human body transform from being alive to being dead and then pre-cremation, which later transforms to raw dust. It is your final destination as we fight through our daily challenges, conflicts, emotions, race, creed, sex and any barriers the world currently fights for.

It’s a 246 pages read but even before you realize or reflect on what transpired in the book, you would have already been halfway through the book. You would understand why someone would take up such unconventional profession. The process of house picking, the preparing the body and charring it, and then now “customization” of death – where thumb prints now printed onto necklaces. The body would have passed it’s our journey even before you think what happens to the soul.

Overall, Caitlin’s “Smoke gets in your eyes” is a joyful and interesting ride into the crematorium which you might never be willing to visit.