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I’ve been trying hard, and failing, to read a book.

It’s not the first time. It doesn’t happen often, and so when it does happen, these books remain in my mind vivid, as the Sydney Opera House in June.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a couple others.

Not that these books were complex in language, but they featured elements and situations that bored me. However, I did finish One Hundred Years of Solitude and mentally kicked myself for putting it off for so long. It took me a good nine months to finish that book because I kept forgetting I was reading it. That’s a great book—I admitted when I did read it.

But the dragon tattoo was too much for me. It went into such gruelling detail about sex that it threw me off. I don’t mind descriptions that add value to a story, but as I was reading it, it felt as if the author could’ve edited away some of the detailing and still achieved a crisp narrative. But that’s just me. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about the book was surprised that I quit halfway through. I got tired of waiting for the exciting part of the story.

That happened about five years ago. Perhaps I was too young to digest it. Perhaps what was casual description for many was too gory for me. That’s when I realised I could return a book without reading, and not feel guilty about it after.

Except, now, after all these years, I’m reading a book that I don’t feel like finishing. It’s a lighter-hearted than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and it’s non-fiction. But it’s still too much detail. It’s a semi-biography of an American-Australian author. It’s the first full-length comedy book I’m reading, and although I appreciate the author’s ability to laugh at her faults and shenanigans, some of her anecdotes aren’t funny—they’re just silly.

It feels as if I’m too old to laugh at these stories. Some of them are too personal—stuff that I’d take to the grave. Of course, there’re learning opportunities in every embarrassing situation, but sometimes, lessons are personal. Writing about the time you strutted around the school in sex-stained jeans thinking it was cool, isn’t cool. Now imagine an entire book of stories like that. Of course, not every story is about sex, but the embarrassment-level is quite similar.

I’m certain there’re some stories in there about good things that happened to the author—like winning a game or passing a big test.

I’ll know for sure when I get there. If I get there at all.

That’s what I’m struggling with now. I know it’s a popular book. It may even be a good one, according to most readers. But perhaps it’s just not for me.

Ever been there?

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Set me Free

Salvatore Striano quote from Set me Free

I haven’t met a Shakespeare fan I didn’t like. 

Dreamy fierceness oozes from his words like a tube of toothpaste, and make readers stick like mosquitoes on an oil plate.

And when two mosquitoes meet on oil plate, what else would they share than their love for wit that landed them there in the first place? 

It was with that curiosity that I picked up Set me Free by Salvatore Striano. The title itself wasn’t any different from the thousands that line the library aisle. It was the sub headline of the book that forced my feet to retreat and my hand to reach out: The story of how Shakespeare saved a life.

At that moment, I knew I had to read it.

Life got in the way, many times, slowing down my progress. And yet, I persisted—the deadline loomed and I didn’t want to be that person who extends a library book because they were too busy not reading.

I read in the bus, I read walking around the lake, I read in bed at night sipping black coffee.

This tale come from behind bars. It’s the story of a high-security, long-sentence serving prisoner in Italy. The narrator, Sasà—the prisoner himself—tells how he’s been a frequent visitor to jails since he was seven, walking us through various parts of his life leading up to the present. And all the while, he explains the realities of prison life, the solitude and hopelessness that hugs the air, and the spite that separates groups.

What’s Shakespeare doing in a place like this?

Saving souls, of course.

The narrator goes on to illustrate how one accidental play they put on opened the vault to an under-appreciated realm of sonnets and theatre. He reads Shakespeare, and with every play he finishes, Sasà feels himself glow and grow as a person. And in the end, the book closes with a hint of how even inside prison, lessons from good literature change and free people of their darkest despairs.

It’s a well-told short book.

However, at many instances while reading this book, I felt a tinge of irritation scratch the surface of my patience. For there are pages in the book that function, not as part of the story, but as the author’s opinion and observation of The Tempest. I scoffed, remembering CliffNotes. The narrator does this a lot—there’re chunks of references, poetic verses, and lengthy explanations of how and why Prospero forgives his enemies in the end. Sasà even argues with a fellow prisoner, who plays Prospero, for doing the character injustice.

As I read on, though, my annoyance melted. I grew intrigued at the narrator. For he’d internalised Shakespearean characters so much that he began identifying their real-world counterparts.

As readers, we see the plays help him discover his feelings towards the people in his life. His wife was like Miranda—loyal and pure. An older cellmate, a mentor and guide was Prospero—a father-like figure in jail. And he, the narrator, himself was Ariel. It becomes more than a role in a play, and we see how Sasà lets Ariel and other Shakespearean characters influence his own behaviour. Like an earthworm tossing out the dirt to let a breath of fresh air down the ground, these fictional men wade in and out of Sasà’s consciousness, picking out hatred and sadness, and replacing them with gardening, writing, and composure.

This is a small book. With a big takeaway. 

The more I recall incidents in the book, the more I understand the impact of these plays on the narrator. From being a thief, drugger, and gangster, he emerges as a poet, and a rather philosophical actor.

This is a good book. Give it a read.

Good morning, midnight

Don’t ever write sentences in fragments.

That’s got to be the primary advice anyone gives a writer. Even though it sometimes makes sense to break up a thought into shorter and snappier phrases. In a story, in particular, it helps convey the narrater’s emotions and thought process. 

But—

It’s still a fragment. Therefore, it warrants ceaseless scorning from those who label themselves as writing gurus and advocates of good writing. 

Well, tell it to Jean Rhys. Because she shoves her finger at all the writing rules I grew up reading and fearing I’d accidentally break.

Not long ago, a friend of mine handed me her copy of “Good Morning, Midnight” and declared it was a brilliant book. Oh well, I mused. This was, after all, a person who loved and cherished Jean Rhys as an author. Of course, she’s biased in her opinion of the story’s likeability.

I still chose to give my friend and her favourite author a chance. What’s the worst that could happen?

Jean Rhys was a Dominican-born writer who grew up and lived in England for the most part. I’d already read her Wide Sargasso Sea (and written about it), the prequel to Jane Eyre, and loved how complementary Rhys’ version was to Bronté’s. I enjoyed the mellow writing style, the sheer distancing between characters and their points of view, and the easy-to-read prose. Despite the sadness that leaps through the words, it’s still the kind of book you can read at a noisy bar without getting distracted.

And that’s what I expected when I opened “Good Morning, Midnight.” Something about the blurb of the book indicated to me that it’s the story of a prostitute, and I stepped into the narrative expecting depression, sadness, and self-hatred. Instead, Rhys threw at me a cold stream of consciousness—an account of incidents narrated so blandly that they jumped out at me. Conversations in reported speech. Reporting of meetings and bar scenes as if seen from the outside. It was a woman recounting her mundane existence in such chilling prose that grips you by the throat, leaving you gasping for air—a taste of what the character herself experienced at the time.

To say it’s a good book is an understatement. To say Jean Rhys has done a great job is a disgrace to her writing. Every scene is in the present tense, enhancing the realness of the situation. As a reader, you’re not listening to the story from someone who witnessed it. Instead, you’re in that moment looking into the mysterious life of this Pernod-driven woman who lands herself in pitiful circumstances without the least foreshadowing. Even though, as a reader, you’re aware you’re at a vantage point and that none of the ongoings can affect you, you do end up hurt—connecting with the protagonist, feeling her and the molasses-like darkness that engulfs her everyday life.

“But they never last, the golden days. And it can be sad, the sun in the afternoon, can’t it? Yes, it can be sad, the afternoon sun, sad and frightening.” 

Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys brandishes excellent writing in your face, making you rethink every rule in the books. People cringe at repetition and incomplete thoughts. And yet, Jean takes it all along for a ride, plays around with regulations as they were a toddler, twisting and twirling, doing as she pleases.

And when you finish the book, you’ll realise Jean was an incredible writer. She not only captivates but also tells the story in a way that involves readers without involving the narrator. It’s quite a masterpiece. It’s a wonder why this book isn’t as celebrated as Wide Sargasso Sea.

What the hell am I’m trying to say? Just read the damn book, if not already. You won’t be sorry.

The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street. 

Osho’s Book of Man

I never imagined I’d find a book that I liked and disliked in equal measure. But then I read “The Book of Man” by Osho. He’s a famous Indian godman, and until a few moments ago, I didn’t know he was also a dead man.

I had read quotes of Osho before, and so the idea of reading a book meant for men excited me. But I also wondered how preachy the book would be. I knew that Osho was a Zen master and his disciples were abundant, so I was a little apprehensive I’d find something on the lines of the “do this in life and you’ll have everything you need” dogma.

The first thing that stood out to me in the book is its Contents page. Before I read any book, I go through the chapter names. I try to extract the essence of a book just by looking at the way the writer names their chapters. In this book, Osho addresses various issues from a man’s perspective; from facing the mother to serving the wife, from marital affairs to soulful meditation — every chapter is a name of the various roles a man has in life. Some of the names are, The Zorba, The Macho, The Playboy, The Politician… you get the idea.

It’s a lot similar Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” except Osho takes a more detailed view of things. Just the few pages amazed me. Simple narrative, great advice, amusing anecdotes brimmed throughout. It was an easy read, also because of its good print and fine paper. And even though I wasn’t the “intended” audience, I enjoyed the book nevertheless.

Reading through these chapters, I realised not just the truth in Osho’s words but also that I agreed with his points of view. To me they seemed obvious, something I already knew deep within my mind. And it made it all the enjoyable to turn page after page.

For example, the idea of raising a child terrifies me. Children are perceptive, they observe so much and learn all they know from what they see and hear. One wrong move by the parent and a child has a wrong idea rooted in its mind for life. And that’s why I try to stay away from kids, even when colleagues bring their kids to work. What if I’m having a bad day, and blurt out something I the kid shouldn’t hear? Of course, it could be just me being me. Not many of my friends think the same way — they love kids, they play with kids, and they never over think it as much as I do. That’s why I almost yelled out in agreement when I read passages like this:

“Children are very vulnerable because they are born as a tabula rasa — nothing is written on them, their minds are pure. You can write anything you want on the child.”

To me, Osho said all the right things, and my first impression of the book and the man soared through the skies.

Commenting about fasting, he says that there’s no point in it. He goes on to say how the world reeks in poverty and starving people while we have all the food and still fast — just for the attention it brings us. Here Osho picks on Mahatma Gandhi.

“Mahatma Ghandi had everything available to him, although he lived like a poor man. One of his intimate followers, a very intelligent woman, Sarojini Naidu — has a statement on record that to keep Mahatma Gandhi poor, they had to spend treasures on him. It was not simple poverty, it was a managed show. He would not drink milk from a buffalo because it is rich, rich in Vitamin A and other vitamins. He would not drink the milk of a cow because that too is rich, and poor people cannot afford it. He would drink only the milk of a goat because that is the cheapest animal and poor people can afford it. But you will be surprised; his goat was being washed twice a day with Lux toilet soap!”

Wikipedia says Osho was an outright critic of Gandhi so I understand the hatred. But this is a powerful moment; a lot of people revere Gandhi and try to live like he did. The writer has scattered the whole book with truths like this, truths that makes the reader cringe.

Excited, I read on. About sixty pages into the book, I stopped. Something had changed, and it was a change too jarring to ignore. His tone became more opinionated, losing sight of reason. Not a god-loving person, he attacks religion and social customs. I do it, too, so that’s not weird. But what was weird, though, is that he lashes out against Christianity and the holy trinity. And to make it a more distributed criticism, he names a few Hindu beliefs silly, too.

As he goes on, some of the claims become narrow and even absurd.

Speaking about homosexuality,

“Homosexuality is a necessary phase in the growth of a man or woman[…] So drop any attitude about homosexuality; that is nothing but the propaganda of the ages. Nothing is wrong in it, it is not a sin. And if you can accept it. And if you can accept it, then naturally you will grow out of it and you will start being interested in women, but you have to pass through it.”

That was painful speed-breaker moment. I read on, though, because I wanted to see where he went with these claims. Turns out, no where.

The quote had a disclaimer about Osho’s four stages of sexual growth: auto-sexuality in a child, homosexuality which precedes heterosexuality, and then the last phase of going beyond phase — brahmacharya.

By that time, I had lost interest in Osho. I had thought his observations were relatable, yet revolutionary in a way. But it turned out that I don’t have the maturity to accept all his teachings. My perspective had changed, and I grew disappointed.

In hindsight, I don’t regret reading the book. Well, there were moments I wished I hadn’t, but there were also moments I cherish. In short, this book sparked such conflicting emotions in me. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, because most of it is too subjective. Also, the writing is almost terrible. As a reader, it turned me off. I began wondering why Osho made the same point in three different sentences. As a web copy writer, I twisted in my seat at the repetition in the book — it was far from thoughtful. If I had edited the manuscript, I would’ve cut out at least 70–80 pages.

Oh, and Osho also wrote a book for women, titled The Book of Woman. And yes, of course, it’s pink.