Friday, January 7, 2022

Pathways to Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander: Non-fiction


The author, Rosamund S. Zander, in Pathways to Possibility indicates that our childhood stories have a lasting impact on us even as we mature and become adults.  Some of these impacts have detrimental effects in adulthood. Hence Zander promotes that it is important for the individual to evaluate these stories and determine how they can be transformed to enable the individual to move productively in adulthood.

Zander describes some of these childhood stories that can be modified so that the individual would create ways to confront or transform these old stories into new possibilities. By doing this the individual can be rid of childhood hangups and drawbacks that hinder beneficial growth in adulthood.  

It appears Zander prescribes, for some, an intensive therapeutic time as the individual pays close attention to those stories that are holding the person back and not enabling the person to move forward for a fulfilling lifestyle. 

Pathways to Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander is an interesting read. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders - Non-fiction

George Saunders in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain evaluates short stories by four Russian writers set in Russia in the 19th century. The stories depict the way of life in Russia exposing the classism during that era.

Saunders uses these stories to train his students on how to write short stories. He dissects each of the stories, mulls about how each author presents the story giving a glimpse of life and culture in Russia. Certain components of each of the stories are pulled apart with an understanding of its meaning and portrayal of the characters in the stories.

Saunders delves into how the Russian authors could have depicted the stories in a different light. He suggests possible interpretations of the various scenarios in each of the stories. 

Throughout Saunders brings in short story writing techniques. It is a brilliant methodology of engaging the students in the art of the appropriate process of arranging words, phrases as well as incorporating metaphors and clever sentence structure to enable each short story come alive in the eyes of the reader.  

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is a constructive handbook for writing short stories. It provides significant insights along with very good examples of how to engage the reader in a short story. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

The Last Gift by Abdulrazak Gurnah - Novel

The audio version of The Last Gift by Abdulrazak Gurnah was narrated superbly by Lyndam Gregory. It was a joy to listen to the story that took the reader into the world of  a racial couple living in England. 

The author captures the trials and tribulations of Abbas and Maryam who did not follow the norms of their cultural upbringing. They live together and raise their children in an unmarried state. Maryam's parents reluctantly cope with this abnormal type of lifestyle. 

There are scenes of trauma, family secrets, long bouts of silences that emanate from Abbas. Their children feel British and yet have to accept that reality of being visible minorities. 

It is a moving story of this couple with an unusual past living as best they can with their children facing a variety of challenges. In many aspects some of the scenes can be classified as typical family dynamics of a dysfunctional sort. Gurnah's portrayal brings in the added nuances of a racialist family. His descriptions are captivating in a poignant manner that has a profound impact on the reader.

The Last Gift by Abdulrazak Gurnah is an engrossing story with many lessons to reflect on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan - Non-fiction

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan reveals the trials and tribulations of her life from childhood onwards to her present life and can be characterized as a memoir. 

Tan describes a variety of scenarios that are horrifically portrayed with, what appears to be, brutal honesty. The reader may be alarmed and may want to stop reading at intervals. 

The author takes the reader back and forwards in time and travel to China,  America and Europe. It brings to the forefront the lifestyle of the Tan family. There are a variety of explanations of how this family has evolved over time through tragedy, loss of family members and coping with being Chinese, Asian-American or just being American.  

Tan's revelations are detailed with a blunt and sometimes uncomfortable disclosure of the interactions among the family members, especially with the author and her relationship with her mother. 

The author portrays her life's descriptions in terms of her achievements or lack thereof along with the books she wrote. For instance, as she describes the creation of The Joy Luck Club the reader is faced with her writing process followed by the editing and publishing processes. For some readers this may appear to be overwhelming and perhaps a bit of an over abundance of the complexities of Tan's life.

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan is an unusual read with an alarming portrayal of a writer's life that is a difficult one. The ending was a sad surprise. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis - Non-fiction

Review by:

It is hard to think of a writer who has had more success than Michael Lewis at turning forbiddingly complex situations into propulsive nonfiction narratives. His first book, the semi-autobiographical Liar’s Poker, drew on his own experience as a bond salesman in the 1980s to tell a vivid story about the predatory culture of Wall Street. He has since repeated the trick, though with fewer autobiographical elements, with an impressive range of subjects, from statistical analysis in baseball (Moneyball) to the credit default swap market and the 2008 financial crisis (The Big Short). His success derives from an ability to take incredibly wonkish-sounding premises and turn them into the kinds of stories that get made into films starring, respectively, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale.

His new book, The Premonition, is the story of a group of medics and scientists who attempt to get the US government to take pandemic response seriously. In a New York Times interview in January 2021, Lewis described the book, which he was then still working on, as “a superhero story where the superheroes seem to lose the war”. It’s a little grandiose, but it’s an accurate enough elevator pitch. Lewis’s main subjects are a group of extraordinarily dedicated, resourceful and conscientious people who understand how drastically underprepared America is for a viral pandemic. They know what needs to be done to redress the situation, but are up against the fragmented dysfunction of the federal government and the malicious indifference of the Trump White House.

Lewis is unashamedly and, at times, cornily earnest about what he refers to at one point as this “rogue group of patriots working behind the scenes to save the country”. One such rogue is Charity Dean, a deputy director of California’s Department of Public Health, who becomes, in the days of Covid’s first emergence, a kind of underdog heroine in the fight to get the federal authorities to take the threat seriously. Then there are Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, who shaped pandemic planning in the George W Bush administration, and later, with Dean and others, worked from outside the nucleus of power to try to mitigate the unfolding catastrophe.

If this is a superhero story, it’s one that lacks a supervillain. Though you might expect a book by Lewis about the US government’s grotesque mishandling of the pandemic to be a late entry into the Big Trump Book canon, the 45th president is a mercifully peripheral presence in its pages. As with his last book, The Fifth Risk, Lewis’s approach here is to find a small number of unheralded individuals working within vast systems, and use them to portray the workings (or, in this case, not-workings) of those systems. The malevolent force in The Premonition is institutional malaise. Lewis’s underlying argument here, though, is hardly compatible with the conservative “big government doesn’t work” boilerplate, which posits centralisation as the root of all societal evil. Rather, he portrays a system that is both incredibly vast and insufficiently centralised. “There’s no one driving the bus,” as Joe DeRisi, one of Lewis’s main subjects, puts it. DeRisi, a biochemist who developed an extremely useful technology for rapid viral testing, spends much of the book banging his head against institutional brick walls in an attempt to get his innovation adopted as part of a wider campaign against Covid.
If this is a superhero story, it’s one that lacks a super­villain – instead the malevolent force is institu­tional malaise

And so although the book’s action takes place within the context of the Trump administration’s drastic mishandling of the crisis, Lewis is more interested in the political conditions that exist before the pandemic. Fiasco though Trump’s leadership was, there is no attempt to lay the entire blame for the crisis at the feet of his administration. To put it in medical terms, Lewis diagnoses Trump as a comorbidity.

It is the CDC – the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – that emerges as the main antagonist. As the country’s public health agency, the CDC is, as its name suggests, technically responsible for preventing the spread of disease. But the book presents a damning portrayal of an organisation in which no one is willing to risk getting fired by making a wrong move, and in which an institutional abundance of caution amounts to a form of recklessness. The fact that the director of the organisation is appointed by, and can be fired by, the president also means it’s a role that tends to go to yes-men. As Lewis writes of Trump’s differing relationships with CDC director Robert Redfield, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “If Donald Trump had gotten up and said, ‘Fauci, you’re fired,’ nothing would have happened, which is likely why he never did it […] To fire a competent civil servant is a pain in the ass. To fire a competent presidential appointee is as easy as tweeting.”

Although Lewis does justice to the complexity of the scientific and institutional problems he’s examining, he rarely gets bogged down in their density. He is at least as interested in characterisation as he is in, say, explaining the science of stuff like viral genetic sequencing. The wager here is that the investment in the former pays off by getting the reader through a fair amount of the latter. And so he devotes a large proportion of what is a relatively short book to establishing his characters’ back stories. We first encounter Charity Dean, for instance, dealing more or less single-handedly with a TB outbreak in her Santa Barbara jurisdiction, trying to get a useless coroner’s office to perform an autopsy on a TB-riddled corpse. (By the time I got to her standing in the parking lot of a morgue, rolling up her sleeves and opening the corpse’s ribs with a pair of garden shears as a bunch of terrified men in Hazmat suits look on, I had narrowed down my casting preference to either Kristen Bell or Reece Witherspoon.)

When Lewis gets to the pandemic itself, surprisingly late in the book, he’s faced with a contradictory problem, with respect to the imperatives of narrative journalism: a major historical crisis is unfolding, but it’s happening mostly in the form of Zoom calls. (This, of course, is also the contradictory problem of our time: the moment itself is dramatic, but the individual’s experience of it is profoundly static.) A representative scene has Dean and DeResi on a Zoom call with Priscilla Chan, philanthropist and wife of Mark Zuckerberg:

“The meeting with the Biohub was meant to start at one thirty in the afternoon on April 29th. Shortly after one thirty, Charity unmuted herself and turned on her video and tried to stall by making small talk with Priscilla Chan about their children. At length Priscilla said, ‘Um, maybe we should just get started?’ Joe DeRisi was in his own box. He had one of those faces that would always look younger than it was, Charity thought.”

I was mostly willing to park my epistemological doubts about the position Lewis adopts as a kind of omniscient third-person narrator, but I did find myself questioning whether, with this kind of scene, he’s encountering the formal limits of the kind of pacy, thriller-ish style he favours. At times, in fact, the book can seem less like a work of narrative journalism than an exceptionally vivid script treatment. Of Dean, for instance, he writes: “She’d crash meetings that her boss didn’t want her to attend and announce her arrival by dropping this huge binder on the table: Boom!”

I found this sort of approach strangely unsuited to the story the book tells, largely because it never quite translates into a story at all. And yet, in the end, without his ever having to spell it out, Lewis’s message comes across very powerfully: the US government, in its institutional dysfunction, is in danger of abandoning its citizens to a private sector that is even less equipped to deal with large-scale disasters such as Covid. The Premonitionends on a profoundly depressing note, with Dean abandoning the civil service to found a healthcare startup. “She’d entered the private sector,” writes Lewis, “with the bizarre ambition to use it to create an institution that might be used by the public sector.” When she tells people in the business world that she wants to save the country from another Covid-like catastrophe, she says, she gets blank looks. But when she tells them she wants to do “private government operations”, like a kind of healthcare Blackwater, their eyes light up. “Oh wow,” they say, “you could take over the world.”

My Personal Comments: The Premonition - A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis is an excellent read. The author illustrates the realities of the public health system in America. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

A Promised Land by Barack Obama - Non-fiction

A Promised Land by Barack Obama reveals many details of behind-the-scenes situations that give rise to his successful campaign for President of USA. This is followed by the stunning descriptions of his first four years of his Presidency. 

It is a candid portrayal of his first campaign that is filled with many hours of being on the road and away from his family.  He expresses his love for his wife, Michelle and his children and brings them on the road with him as much as he can. His self-depreciating humour and his deep focus on his end result of winning the Presidency gets him through this gruelling time of campaigning. His excellent staff lift him up through the down times and celebrate their wins throughout the campaign.

His sincere account of his first Presidency brings to the surface his relationships with his staff and cabinet members. In his description of each of them he highlights their physical attributes along with their personality traits. Hence his jostling around as he interacts and works with them to achieve his Presidency goals. He is mindful of how they will perform and gives them a tremendous amount of latitude to fulfill their duties. He honestly outlines his disappointment when the agenda does not flow accordingly.  

He illustrates the enormity of the duties as they come on his desk regularly and are of a diverse nature. Sometimes these issues are of a crisis kind and have to be attended to immediately while other aspects of his duties have to be put on hold until the crisis is sorted out.  

As the reader engages in this historical account there is a sense that Obama takes great pride in his responsibilities while being aware of the rights entailed in delivering to the people of America. Obama has a conversational style of writing. It seems the reader is having a conversation with him as many questions surface that remain with the reader.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama is a fascinating and valuable historical account of this time period in American history.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Atonement by Ian McEvan - Novel

Atonement by Ian McEwan is set in an English town in 1935 and covers the time span into the world war and beyond. The main characters are teenagers in this first part of the novel.  The reader is enticed to witness the antics of these characters, one being a writer with talent. 

In this three part novel, McEwan illustrates the  family dynamics between the upper-class Tallis family and the staff working for this family. The reader witnesses the love relationship between the housekeeper's son, Robbie and Cecilia the elder daughter of the Tallis family.  The second daughter, Briony observes this relationship flourish.  The reader is confronted with intrigue as Briony causes mayhem for this relationship. 

McEwan illustrates how the children grow up during WWII creating situations that brings in remorse and the children's career paths that are unusual and yet appears typical of any family. 

Atonement by Ian McEwan has an unusual plot that weaves in a variety of family nuances that keeps the reader interested until the end of the story.