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  • The Cost of Money: Cash or Card?

    What was the last thing you purchased? A pack of gum, a t-shirt or half a dozen apples? How much did you pay for it?  If you remember the amount you paid, there’s a good chance you paid in cash. Why is that so? You’ll know the answer by the end of this post. MY PAY PALS I don’t use a credit card. Never have. Does that impact my credit score adversely? Perhaps, but that’s a conversation for another time or the comment section. The reason I’ve never wanted a credit card, despite being offered many over the years, is because credit cards allow you to spend money you don’t have. I abhor the idea of buying stuff on credit. I know I sound financially illiterate and more than a little old-fashioned but please bear with me. While I do use debit cards, I’ve never stopped using good old cash. In India, we’re currently going through a period of looking down at cash in favour of digital payments for even small purchases like a glass of lemonade. I see the value of not having to dive into my wallet and waiting for change, but I believe that using credit or debit cards and digital wallets like Amazon Pay leave a far greater dent on your savings than using cash. There’s something about pulling out your wallet, fishing out the right amount, counting it, handing it over and waiting for change that has a far greater psychological impact on us than merely scanning a QR code, punching in the amount and tapping a button. This psychological impact is called the “pain of paying”. THE PAIN OF PAYING The term “pain of paying” is based on the feeling of displeasure caused by paying for our purchases. Studies using neuro-imaging and MRIs show that paying stimulates the same parts of the brain that process actual physical pain. I dare say I could’ve told you that without the MRI! You might think that this pain of paying applies only to expensive things. Nope. Any price will do. It’s not as much about the price as it is about giving up something we possess. Money, in this case. One needs to buy stuff with money since love and fresh air aren’t the best modes for barter! But if they were, we’d be loath to part with them too. PICK YOUR PAIN: CASH OR CARD? What we do get to choose is our form of payment. The trouble with using cash is that first, you need to have some in your account. Then there’s the inconvenience of withdrawing it and finally, the annoyance of pulling out your wallet, counting it and waiting for change. In contrast, a single swipe of your credit or debit card or scanning a QR code on your cell phone frees you from these hassles. But it’s not all hunky-dory. Cards and digital payment apps are just means for us to avoid pain in the present, often levying an even higher cost in the future. And I’m not referring to their sky-high interest rates. SPENDING MADE SMOOTHER Consider this. Making payments has become easier and easier over the last three decades. Why do you think that has happened? To make things easier for the customer? Or is to banish all bends in the road that result in a customer giving sober thought to whether or not, they really need a particular item? And weighing the benefits of acquiring their new purchase against the disadvantages of parting with their hard-earned money? The folks in expensive business suits call it the ease of spending, emphasizing the smoothness of the experience. Or is that just a euphemism for a slippery slope? While cards and digital payment apps provide convenience, some cash-backs and discounts to their users, they also share data of our spending habits with businesses which, in turn, use that information for targeted advertising. Digital payment apps and cards make us unmindful of the prices of the things we buy and their ultimate utility and value to our lives. That’s why I asked you about the last thing you purchased and its price. SHOP NOW, PAY LATER Another major psychological advantage credit cards have over other forms of payment is that they separate the time that we consume goods or services from the time that we pay for them. They reduce my current pain of paying because my mind doesn’t register the tapping of a credit card as handing over money. If I pay 160 rupees in cash for a coffee, I pay for it roughly around the same time as I consume it. And I feel the pinch of my over-priced iced coffee. If I put it on a credit card, I pay for it more than a month later. However, at the time that I’m sipping my coffee, it feels almost free. And when I do pay for it, I will never truly register the cost of this over-priced iced drink because it will be clubbed along with a car servicing invoice, my monthly Netflix subscription and grocery bills. FUTURE PERFECT There’s another thing most of us do. At least the optimists. We usually imagine we will have more money in the future than we do in the present, even if the future is only 45 days away. And so, we happily ring up the expense in the present. By minimizing the pain of paying, credit cards create an air of detachment that makes us more willing to spend. On the other hand, paying with cash has in-built salience. THE ROLE OF SALIENCE Salience is a grown-up term for being aware of something. Cheques are slightly less salient than cash but we still have to write out the sum and hand it over. It registers in our mind as a loss when we hand over a cheque. Credit cards have even lesser salience – just a swipe or tap (note how nowadays, we don’t even need to hand over the card). We often barely even notice the amount. Digital payments top even this. Point and tap. You barely need a pulse to pay! So, the next time you think about economising, switch to cash. It may be an enriching experience. In more ways than one!

  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

    Such a Fun Age is a light, witty yet piercing look at race, class and privilege. The novel's plot is woven around two women at different points on the affluence and privilege scale. One is a 25-year college-educated black woman, Emira Tucker, who works as a babysitter to a precocious toddler named Briar who talks a mile a minute. The other is her employer, Alix Chamberlain, a white woman in her early thirties who furthered her penchant for writing letters — mostly asking for freebies — into a small women-centric business via the good offices of social media. Kiley Reid chooses the ideal inciting incident to open her novel. An unexpected incident at the Chamberlain household prompts Alix to call in Emira to babysit her daughter, outside her usual working hours. She takes the child, Briar to a nearby grocery store where Emira is apprehended for ‘kidnapping’. A heated argument ensues, cooling off only when the kid’s father arrives to clarify the situation. The entire fracas is recorded by a tall stranger on his phone. This scenario sets the ball rolling (for more than one character) but not quite in the way one would imagine. To be honest, I picked up this book because I was curious to see how a debut novel about a babysitter found itself on the longlist for the Booker Prize. Now I know. While it may be Reid’s first novel, the writing is self-assured and unpretentious. We see the story from two perspectives — Emira’s and Alix’s — allowing us a grounding in both worldviews. Ultimately, that’s what the book is about – the way we see the world given our own experiences, which themselves are constructed by factors such as race, gender and affluence. The same incident means different things to different people, resulting in varied reactions. Reid weaves in themes of race, privilege, class and money into the tapestry of her plot and characterisation with a light touch. Not once does it feel like a lecture. Instead, it’s a quick read that makes you ponder all of the above while you stand in the shoes of the characters and see where they’re coming from. There are no hard lines of right and wrong and each character has a degree of relatability. Apart from her job-related inertia, Emira deals with all the situations that most 20-somethings encounter — money worries, friend circle dynamics and the questions that position themselves just outside the rosy bubble of a new romantic relationship. In Emira’s case, it’s an inter-racial relationship prompting an imagined conversation with her boyfriend. “Are we really gonna do this? How are you gonna tell your parents?... Are you gonna take our son to get his hair done? Who’s gonna teach him that it doesn’t matter what his friends do, that he can’t stand too close to white women… that he should slowly and noticeably put his keys on the roof as soon as he gets pulled over?” By asking these questions, Reid makes the characters come alive as 'real' people who will live on, even after you flip the last page. The language is colloquial and conversational but it retains a searing quality that sizzles through, straight to the bone. Such a Fun Age deftly shines a light on the lazy liberalism of privilege. How folks who don’t have any skin in the game can often, even with the best intentions, indulge in tokenism and virtue-signalling that is of no benefit to the unprivileged. And yet, it leaves the privileged with the serotonin-infused air of having done their bit. The keen depiction of human foibles and pretentions, in my opinion, is the strongest element of Reid’s writing along with her ability to convey her character’s emotions with specificity. “The closer she got to Kelley Copeland’s locker, the more Alex felt as if she were being watched. She began to feel unnatural in all her movements, as if she were pretending to read a magazine when she was really trying to overhear a conversation.” Sentences like these make your skin prickle in recognition of the cringe-worthiness of the moment, transforming a mere description of fact into an immersive experience. Such a Fun Age is the kind of book that would be tremendously enjoyable to discuss in a book club because it kicks up so many ideas and interpretations but is tough to review if one is wary of giving away the plot. Do read it if you’re looking for a breezy read that will leave you with food for thought. I would love to read what you make of the book in the comments. That way I can talk about the book some more!

  • Rising above Imposter Syndrome

    This website, Tamed by the Fox, completed a year last week. It’s been both harder and easier than I thought it would be. Harder because I’d thought it would involve only writing posts and uploading them. How naïve was I! Had someone told me, a year ago, that I’d need to learn about SEO, create sitemaps, design promos and generally be solely responsible for the all the little things that fall under the umbrella of site upkeep in addition to writing, I would’ve taken off for the hills. Learning on the job and applying my new-found knowledge challenged me and yet it was easier than I imagined. Easier because I’m doing something that I previously believed myself to be incapable of. Could I do better? Of course, but the fact that I’m still here, after what has been a steep learning curve, is a personal victory against procrastination, self-doubt and indiscipline. It hasn’t been a breeze though. I suffer from imposter syndrome, believing myself to be less capable than others consider me. Imposter syndrome is a strange thing. It makes you feel like a fake in spite of genuine achievements and abilities. In my case, these feelings tend to cluster around writing but I know that it can show up in several different contexts for other people such as work, relationships, fitness, etc. It's natural to lack absolute objectivity regarding your own skillsets. Imposter syndrome, however, robs one of confidence in what one has already achieved, attributing it to luck, a lack of competition or some other external factor. I like to think of it as a kind of confidence dysmorphia. It clouds the perception of your own abilities, gnawing away at the connection between your hard work and the resulting accomplishment. Imposter syndrome is currently considered undiagnosable in medical circles. I realised that I suffered from it during a conversation with a friend a few years ago. This friend of mine is a poet amongst other things and is also extremely well-read. He told me about how he felt that his poetry was merely ornamental and not ‘good enough’ even though other people liked it. And that he felt like an imposter. For me, it was like looking in a mirror. For days, I thought about that conversation and my own realisation. I concluded that imposter syndrome is a story we tell ourselves, falsely presuming our unworthiness. The way I see it, imposter syndrome is the mirror image of the ‘fake it till you make it’ credo, because it has you thinking that even though you’ve made it, you’re still faking it. IS IMPOSTER SYNDROME DIFFERENT FROM SELF-DOUBT? Self-doubt usually occurs before or during a task. Imposter syndrome hits us after achieving a target or even though we’re considered ‘good’ at something. Think of it as Self Doubt attending the after-party of your achievement and making snarky comments about how undeserving you are. It may seem counter-intuitive and frankly, like something that would be easy to dismiss. Yet, it persists. Left unchecked, imposter syndrome can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy if it is allowed to turn you away from a path you wish to pursue. OVERCOMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME Look, I’m no psychologist, (this is a verifiable fact, not just my self-doubt talking!) so you don’t need to trust me. But here’s how I deal with imposter syndrome. THE LEARNER MINDSET I cast aside all thoughts of being good at writing. I think of myself as someone who wants to learn and is willing to do the work. Having the mindset of a learner keeps away the pressure to always get things right while allowing you to grow. TALK IT OUT Speaking to my poet friend made me recognise my own problem. In advising him, I helped myself. The things I told him were what I needed to hear too. I asked him not to compare the first draft of his first work to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This is the trouble with being well-read! It raises your expectations from yourself to unrealistic levels. It’s like expecting an amateur to play like Roger Federer on song at Wimbledon. Just not gonna happen! LOOK BEYOND THE SPOTLIGHT Remember that we see other people’s achievements but not the work that goes into them. The bad days when all of their ideas are miserable fails, the reworking, the research and the piles of thankless, monotonous work – we don’t see that. If we did, perhaps we would see that we aren’t dumb if we don’t just ‘get it’ in the first attempt. I remind myself that hard work is a symbol of drive and discipline, not a cancellation of all claims to talent. Ability is a buildable trait and self-confidence certainly helps. 1% INSPIRATION, 99% PERSPIRATION Oscar Wilde personifies my idea of effortless genius. I imagine him writing plays, short stories and essays while indulging in witty repartee all day long with the effortless effervescence of a butterfly. And yet, the truth is, he was fastidious about punctuation and grammar. Proofreading is not a task for butterflies, not matter how gifted. It requires the kind of painstaking checking and rechecking unsuited to the impatient. I recall an anecdote about Wilde being asked how he spent his day. He is reported to have said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon, I put it back again.” This gives me hope each time I find myself stuck in a gyre of self-doubt. If you have similar feelings, tell yourself that just because you’re not as good as you would like to be, it doesn’t mean that you’re no good. And if you prefer to take advice only from artistic geniuses, then let me quote Vincent van Gogh. He said, “If I am worth anything later, I am worth something now. For wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning.”

  • Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler

    What makes the world go round? Romantics say love, the literal-minded spout something about the rotation of our planet while some others say money. If you’re part of the last group of people, read on. Actually, read on regardless, because the subject of this book is likely to come in handy. In Dollars and Sense, economist and bestselling author, Dan Ariely and financial writer and comedian, Jeff Kreisler answer questions about money that we all should be asking in the pursuit of better understanding why we never have enough money. This is a delightfully funny book about our unconscious motivations, irrational instincts and misguided choices regarding money. Dollars and Sense isn’t a self-help book because it accepts that we can’t be helped. In other words, Ariely and Kreisler recognise that we are bound by our psychology to make flawed decisions. By illustrating how our brains and emotions hijack the decision-making process, this book provides us with tools to game the system. The system, in this case, are our own minds. Understanding this can help us make better financial choices, spend smarter and save more. This book seemed like a good investment to me. I wasn’t disappointed. There is no fancy jargon to keep out folks who maintain a safe distance from the pink papers at the newspaper stand. This book discusses the psychology of money in the spirit of a conversation between friends – without judgment and with plenty of anecdotes. You might even find yourself chuckling in recognition at some of the scenarios described in the book because they’re so close to our own lives. Sample this: “Marco Bertini, Elie Ofek and Dan ran an experiment in which they gave coffee to students. They placed milk and sugar nearby in either fancy dishes or Styrofoam cups. Those who got their milk and sugar from the fancier set-up said they liked the coffee more and would pay more for it, even though, unbeknownst to them, it was the same coffee as the one served near the Styrofoam cups.” Tell me this has never happened to you! If it hasn’t, then you’re savvier than yours truly. That’s what makes behavioural economics so interesting and if it’s as well-written and humorous as Dollars and Sense, then it’s a win all the way. Ariely and Kreisler break up their book into 3 parts to delve into the following areas: WHAT IS MONEY? Money represents VALUE. Money itself has no value. It only represents the value of other things that we can buy. It’s a messenger of worth. And then, there is the idea of OPPORTUNITY COSTS. When we spend money on one thing, it’s money we cannot spend on something else, neither now nor any time later. HOW WE ASSESS VALUE IN WAYS THAT HAVE VERY LITTLE TO DO WITH VALUE Ariely and Kreisler shine a light on mind tricks like sale signs promising unbelievable discounts on marked up prices, the exaggerated value we place on things we own or our self-righteous desire to discard the laws of demand and supply to soothe our sense of fairness. To illustrate our love for sales and how discount signs cause us to make bad money choices, the authors narrate a story about the American department store chain, JCPenney. “In 2012, Ron Johnson, the new CEO of JCPenney, scrapped Penney’s traditional and slightly deceptive practice of marking products up and then marking them back down. In the decades before Johnson’s arrival, JCPenney always offered customers coupons, deals and in-store discounts… Johnson made the store’s prices ‘fair and square.’ No more coupon cutting, bargain hunting and sale gimmicks. Just the real price, roughly equal to those of its rivals and roughly equal to their previous ‘final’ prices… Most customers detested it and abandoned the chain, grumbling about feeling cheated, being misled and betrayed by the real and true cost, and not liking the fair-and-square pricing. Within a year, JCPenney lost an amazing $985 million and Johnson was out of a job.” Just goes to show that customer may be king but that’s not necessarily a good thing for the king! HOW WE CAN DEVELOP BETTER FINANCIAL SENSE We’re human and yes, we make silly choices and place a greater value on pleasure in the present than our needs in the future. Once we know our Achilles’ heel, we can work around it. Ariely and Kreisler appear to be optimists and believe we can use even our irrationality to give ourselves an edge. Packed with real-life stories and thought-provoking experiments, Dollars and Sense really makes one think about our dollars and cents. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book is about Pablo Picasso being approached in the park by a woman who insisted he paint her portrait. He looked her over for a moment, then, with a single stroke, drew her a perfect portrait. “You captured my essence with one stroke. Amazing! How much do I owe you?” “Five thousand dollars,” Picasso replied. “What? How could you want so much? It only took you a few seconds!” “No, ma’am. It took me my entire life and a few more seconds.” Ariely and Kreisler demonstrate how tempting it is to misjudge great value or ability as being too expensive when we fail to acknowledge the years of effort that have gone into achieving a level of excellence. I enjoyed reading Dollars and Sense. You might want to read it too, even if only to answer the eternal question: Cash or Card?

  • Seeking Synchronicity

    In January 2013, I visited Chennai on a professional assignment with a few team members. One day, we had the morning to ourselves. A colleague asked me to accompany him to buy a saree for his wife. Amongst the ones we saw was a muted gold silk saree with a rhomboid weave of golden and silver thread. My colleague considered purchasing it but eventually preferred another. That night, I spoke to a friend who told me about a dream he had the preceding night. He lived in the US and so his night was my day. He’d dreamt of walls covered in a sort of wallpaper made of silk. And it was the colour of muted gold covered in rhombi. Taken aback, I told him about having seen a saree that morning, very similar to what he described. We laughed it off but the incident has stayed with me. Over the years, I wondered if it had been a synchronicity Even prior to that incident, I’d often wondered about the kinds of happenstance that, in my case, revolved around pieces of information, books and people. Sometimes, I’d be thinking about an idea and would find a book about the concept the next time I popped into a bookstore. Or would meet and get to know people who engaged my curiosity in a particular direction. To me, these signs were answers to questions I wasn’t asking aloud. In fact, sometimes, I wasn’t even asking them. At least, not consciously. Most of these instances don’t stand out and could be brushed aside as coincidences. Though in hindsight, their meaning is easier to spot because the paths they opened up and the places they led to became apparent. I refer to this as Synchronicity now because Signs from the Universe (which is what I called such occurrences earlier) makes me sound flakier than a croissant and paints the Universe in a most unflattering light - as if it doesn’t have better things to do than to send me signals! Also, I learnt that this wasn’t something that I alone had noticed. Synchronicity as a theory was propounded by Carl Gustav Jung, a pioneer of analytical psychology. He expanded the scope of his theory by working with physicist and Nobel Laureate Wolfgang Pauli. They described synchronicity as circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection. In other words, synchronicity states that some events are meaningfully related not by cause and effect, but by some other principle. Quite often, external events in our lives resonate with our internal psychological and emotional states. Which does not happen in case of simple coincidences. Also, synchronicities often appear in times of emotional intensity or when we are faced with a choice. There are times when ideas or people cross our path as if the universe put them there – in a response to our need. One of the most famous instances of a synchronicity is from Carl Jung’s experience of treating his patients. It is called the story of the golden scarab. Jung wrote about it in his book Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. His patient was a well-educated young woman whose concept of reality was strictly rational and geometrical. As a result, Jung had found her psychologically inaccessible. He wrote, “Well, I was sitting opposite her one day with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She’d had an impressive dream the night before in which someone had given her a golden scarab – a costly piece of jewellery. While she was telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned around and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window pane from outside in the effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeoid beetle whose gold green colour resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘There is your scarab’. This experience punctuated the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance.” Sometimes, the breakthrough or synchronicity is stunningly memorable as in this case. At other times, it could be gentler. And the significance of those signs is also deeply personal because each of us carry our own universes of meaning in our minds. For instance, curls of pencil shavings may be a core memory from your childhood. And so, only you would appreciate the significance of unexplained pencil shavings scattered on a window sill in an otherwise pristine house that a realtor is showing you. In explaining his theory, Jung didn’t hold back from using the language of Physics (with help from Pauli, of course), though he did stop shy of using the term “Big Bang”. Carl Jung spoke about how “under certain conditions space and time can be reduced to almost zero, causality disappears along with them because causality is bound up with the existence of space and time and physical changes, and consists essentially in the succession of cause and effect. For this reason, synchronistic phenomena cannot in principle be associated with any conceptions of causality.” While researching this post, I came across another astounding tale of synchronicity. In the early 1970s, the actor, Anthony Hopkins was starting out in the movies and was cast in The Girl from Petrovka, a film based on a novel (with the same name) by George Feifer. As preparation for his role, Hopkins decided to read the novel. He walked around London checking every bookstore. Unfortunately, not a single copy was available. Disappointed, he took the subway back home. On the train, he spotted an object left behind by someone. It was a copy of The Girl from Petrovka. This is a pretty amazing story but it gets better. At some point during the making of the movie, George Feifer, the author of the book, came to the set. While chatting with Hopkins, Feifer mentioned that he’d lent his copy of The Girl from Petrovka to a friend who had left it on a train. Utterly surprised, Hopkins pulled out his book and showed it to the author. Feifer exclaimed, “That’s my copy.” That’s synchronicity for you. A coincidence so striking, meaningful and utterly impossible to orchestrate that it exceeds all possible explanations. Perhaps what comes to us as new information in this lifetime has been explored in another lifetime. Is it possible that synchronicities are nodes on the branches of lifetimes on the tree of destiny? A synchronicity may appear in the form of dreams, symbols, numbers, conversations, spontaneous encounters and ‘trickster’ events. Trickster events are those which initially have a negative effect but reveal a positive impact in the long run. Like missing a flight only to meet someone on the next flight who works at a company you’re applying to for a job. Or walking into a music store because the friend you are meeting for a drink is delayed. And you end up enrolling in piano lessons every Thursday, and realise after a few months of lessons that music comes naturally to you. In the words of J Mike Fields, “Synchronicities are the doors to the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes waiting for integration.” I know all of this may sound a bit unbelievable. I’ll understand if you think I’ve lost my marbles. That’s fine. I do have a suggestion though. Just to strengthen your assertion, look back upon your life. Who knows? You might spot a synchronicity hiding in plain sight in the guise of the merely coincidental. Or perhaps, you’ll uncover a curiosity for coincidence and its serendipitous sibling, synchronicity. You may choose to explore it further to learn the various types of synchronicities and their links to quantum physics, the concept of karma and past lives. Would this blog post then count as a sign for you from the Universe?

  • The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor

    Award-winning author, Andrew Taylor sets this historical crime novel, The Scent of Death, in the year 1778 in British-controlled New York during the American War of Independence. His protagonist, Edward Savill is an English clerk from the American Department in London arriving in New York to aid Americans loyal to the Crown seeking reparations. However, this is a country at war and there are many who are settling personal scores in the midst of civil unrest and strife. On his first day in New York, Savill is taken to the murder site of a Mr Pickett. His murder raises some intriguing questions which are temporarily and conveniently answered when the testimony of an informer concludes in a black man being hanged for the murder. Yet, there are some loose ends. Thanks to the connections of his superior at the Department whose niece he is married to, Edward Savill lodges with the Wintours, a family of American aristocrats with their fortunes in decline. The patriarch of the Wintours is a former judge. His wife suffers from ill-health and has all but withdrawn from public life. Their only son Captain Wintour is missing, presumed dead. Their daughter-in-law, Arabella hails from old money and is enigmatic possessing the kind of beauty that enchants all that come in contact with it. The majority of the characters we encounter are British loyalists and cling to the notion of an eventual victory for King George III. In the kind of unwritten dramatic irony possible only in historical fiction, the reader is well aware that this is not how the cookie will crumble, giving the plot an underlying tension. The New York of 1778 depicted in The Scent of Death is a melting pot for loyalists, rebels, slaves, financial and moral decay. It is a place rife with murder, persecution, betrayal, looting, shadowy attackers and buried secrets. It’s tough to know what or whom to trust. Taylor’s The Scent of Death is a slow burner yet keeps one riveted with plot twists and a sense of foreboding. The writing is atmospheric and makes the scenes come alive. Andrew Taylor injects enough historical detail to illuminate the stage but not so much as to distract from his story or slow down the pace. The landscape of the novel is populated with grey characters – not the kind that are likely to have you rooting for them. Most of the characters aren’t what they appear to be. Their motivations are complex and layered and it’s not easy to figure them out. Arabella is a prime example. Savill and through him, the reader, hardly knows anything about her. What little we know is what she chooses to reveal. It’s like seeing a mirage in the desert. And yet she holds sway over the narrator and the novel. Both her presence and absence are note-worthy. This air of hidden motivations and stealthy machinations permeates every chapter of the book. Taylor emphasises the unsteadiness of the ground his protagonist stands on by using the first person narrative. As a result, Savill doesn’t have access to the thoughts and feelings of anyone other than himself. Neither does the reader. This way the sense of unease, shifting loyalties and other characters’ personal agendas feel more visceral. In contrast, using a third person omniscient or even a third person limited point of view would have provided a more distant perspective. Savill’s first person narration adds to the sense of the reader meandering alongside the protagonist in a maze of hidden truths and misdirection. The themes of race, justice, revenge and loyalty are woven into the plot along with the imagery of light and dark. Taylor writes, “For some people, loyalty is a commodity.” This applies to the ties of loyalty between American subjects and their British rulers across the ocean or to the loyalty that the rebels feel towards their countrymen and their revolution to throw off the yoke of British rule. Family members having divided loyalties, on the basis of their political moorings or perhaps more practical considerations, also plays out. Taylor slips in a historical reference of just such a split between Benjamin Franklin, a founding father of the American Revolution and his son, William Franklin, a British loyalist who was the Royal Governor of New Jersey. The Scent of Death opens with the lines, “This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first.” Perhaps Taylor meant for them to be metaphors for each other with their mirroring states of ruin, ripped loyalties and multiple suitors. Ultimately, the novel paints a convincing portrait of the ravages of war and how, in the midst of a conflict, there are no heroes. Each side partakes in its share of cruelty, plunder and terror. Historical fiction like The Scent of Death strips back the patina of one-sided history that most of us take for granted – one that is painted in the colours of the victors and viewed with a false sense of inevitability that hindsight engenders. I enjoyed this novel enough to add Andrew Taylor’s much-acclaimed novel, The American Boy to my reading list.

  • The Allure of Simplicity

    Walking on a trail running along the fields near my home, I clicked some pictures of the reeds and wild flowers that sprout in the winter months. Nature’s variety seems boundless. Who knows how many kinds of flowers and plants there are in the world. How Nature creates such bounty, beauty and functionality while eschewing superfluousness is an absolute wonder. Of course, none of it happened all at once. It usually takes thousands of years for evolution to erode the pointless and perpetuate the essential. But then, Nature is never in a hurry. After all, it has a lot of time and space. (Yes, this is my idea of a Physics joke!) Simplicity has a ring of truth about it, an elegance and a staying power that beats trends and momentary peaks and troughs. If you’ve ever seen a belt of sand dunes, you know what I mean. Functionally, it’s just piles of sand shaped into crescents by the wind and yet, one can keep looking at them, mesmerised. The same is true for sitting on a beach and watching the waves roll in and recede, and then do more of the same. Perhaps, this applies to our lives as well. Yes, we live in consumerist times and there are unending mounds of stuff everywhere we look. And yet, the call of the classic and understated is eternal and cuts through the clutter. I’m reminded of two photographs that were in the news a few years ago. One was a picture of a meeting between the Emperor of Japan and the Saudi Crown Prince in September of 2016 while the other was from the Saudi King’s visit to Japan a few months later. The coverage of the Saudi King’s visit was overrun by headlines of golden escalators, silk carpets and luxury cars. In contrast, the Japanese Emperor met with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in a room with screen walls, two wooden chairs and a small table with a flower arrangement. Even though the visits took place months apart, my mind has collated them into a single conversation of ideals and highlighted the distinctly Japanese trait of winning an argument by speaking the softest. Wherein lies the appeal of simplicity? Is it only functionality and lack of embellishment that win us over? Or does simplicity strum a chord within us that longs to live unpretentiously with adequate belongings to make our lives easier but not smother our surroundings with everything ever invented. Clutter stresses us out, on a sub-conscious level. Which is why it feels good to live with less. Not everyone needs to or can be Marie Kondo, arguably the world’s most famous tidy-upper, but it’s helpful to recognise that acquiring possessions must have a cut-off point. After all, there are only so many mugs, rugs, clothes or vases that a person needs. This is something I like to remind myself as well. A few years ago, when I moved out of Delhi to our farm in Belgaum, I packed one large trunk of clothes I had never worn. Most still had their tags peeping out of the bags they came in. It shocked me and I was ashamed of my hoarding ways. I’m working on correcting that by cutting down my purchases and discarding before I buy. Which is why I find the story about the Zen monk who welcomed a traveller into his dwelling is so impactful. The Zen monk had only a sleeping mat and a few wooden pots in his room. His visitor asked why he didn’t have any furniture. To which the monk said, “Where is your furniture?” His guest responded, “I don’t have any furniture. I’m only passing through.” The monk smiled and said, “So am I.” Travel light – that’s the message. And that doesn’t mean giving up on aesthetics. Instead, one can focus more on quality if the pressure to collect quantity is deducted from the equation. The one and only Leonardo da Vinci said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” He absolutely hit the nail on the head with that. Except that he too had trunkfuls of clothes, given his dandy ways. Aah well… so da Vinci wasn’t perfect, but at least he was working on it! So can we.

  • Book Recommendations to Overcome a Reading Slump

    We’re well into the second month of the year and if you’re like me, you have a reading target for the year. And if you’re really like me, you’re lagging behind so miserably that the whole idea is beginning to look impossible. But I’m an optimist. I usually wake up looking to turn into a new leaf almost every other day. Some people call that delusional. I call it Tuesday! My usual reading target is 24 books in a year. I have achieved that target only once in the last five or six years which is when I began keeping a count of the books I read. Mostly, I end up reading 17-18 books in a year. Therefore, with a renewed spurt of afore-mentioned optimism with real-life data shaking its head in disbelief, my target for this calendar year is 36 books. For the mathematically-oriented, this translates to reading 3 books a month. It's the 9th of February and I’ve read one book. So clearly, something’s got to change. I need to get out of my reading slump. And from my extensive experience of such slumps, I know that one of the important elements of achieving the requisite momentum to get out of a reading slump is to pick the right book. Something that is fast-paced or soothing (depending on what you need) but mostly, something that reads like a letter from an old friend… easy-going, fun and with bits that make you chuckle or sit up in surprise. I hope to stumble upon such a book recommendation but for you, dear reader, I bring a list of books I’ve read in the recent past that should help jumpstart your reading battery. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN by GARTH STEIN The Art of Racing in the Rain is the story of the Swift family narrated by the half Labrador and half either Shepherd, Poodle or Terrier protagonist, Enzo. At the centre of Enzo’s life and the story is Denny Swift, an aspiring professional race car driver dealing with family and financial issues. Enzo’s perspective as narrator is what makes this novel shine. If you’re looking for a heart-warming book about family, loss, resilience and hope, this may be just what you’re looking for. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by MATT HAIG Have you ever wondered how your life would’ve turned out if you’d done a few things differently? The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is a novel about the decisions we make and how every choice we are offered is both a fruit of previous choices but also a seed for future possibilities. The Midnight Library is a charming little book to curl up with. It reminds us to value our small victories and joys in a world that glorifies the flashy. THE READING LIST by SARA NISHA ADAMS Between the pages of a library book lies the List– a handwritten catalogue of eight novels with no obvious similarities- written out for no one in particular just in case they need it. For reasons of their own, the protagonists, Aleisha, a teenage librarian and Mukesh, an elderly widower who has until now kept his distance from books, start reading the novels on the list, forming an unexpected bond with books and each other. A MAN CALLED OVE by FREDRIK BACKMAN The protagonist of A Man called Ove is a grumpy and rigid old man. He decides to end his life, seeing no point in carrying on. Ove has a plan and the tools to achieve it. That’s when a couple moving into the neighbourhood ruin his design. This book will warm the cockles of your heart while reaffirming the inescapable truth that few things are more essential than the belief that one is loved and needed. MORE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS AHEAD If mysteries and thrillers are more your speed, here are a few more recommendations that will keep you engaged without getting too complicated. Remember, easy-peasy is the vibe we’re going for. THE PLOT by JEAN HANFF KORELITZ The Plot is a novel about Jacob Finch Bonner, a struggling writer who steals a riveting plot narrated to him by a student who dies before completing his novel based on the same plot. Jacob’s book ends up becoming a blockbuster and he, a celebrated author. There is, however, one tiny fly in the ointment - someone knows his secret and is threatening to reveal it to the world. The writing is engaging and the narrator’s turn of phrase and ironic tone elevates the story injecting it with humour and insight while keeping you turning pages to discover the identity of the murderer in Jacob’s novel and the blackmailer in his own life. A DEATH IN THE HIMALAYAS by UDAYAN MUKHERJEE Set in the hilly environs of an idyllic little village in the Himalayas, this novel sets the stage early when an English activist found murdered in the nearby forest. Clare Watson is a victim with many supporters, quite a few enemies and a secret or two. Neville Wadia, a suave, former policeman is the primary but unofficial investigator of the case. He carries the baggage of his past as do most of the suspects. THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by JOEL DICKER The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a cold case whodunnit delivered with a literary flair. It’s a novel about two authors – Harry Quebert, a celebrated senior writer who is arrested for murder, 33 years after a fifteen-year-old girl that he loved goes missing; and Marcus Goldman his protégé who, struggling with writer’s block after his successful first novel, resolves to clear his mentor’s name. With a host of suspects, fading memories and looming deadlines, Marcus is up against many challenges. This is an absolute page-turner with lots of plot twists. Joel Dicker’s style and narrative technique make it even better by imbuing an investigative thriller plot with literary allusions, three-dimensional characterisation and social commentary without letting up on the pace. Happy reading, folks!

  • One Coffee, Please. And a Portion of People-Watching

    The barista called out the name scrawled on the venti cup, “Cappuccino for Aditya.” I smiled, a gentle wave of satisfaction washing over me. That was close enough, I thought to myself. My guess had been Abhishek, Abhimanyu or some other common male name starting with the letter A. Sorry for the abrupt opening. Let me start at the beginning. I was nursing a frappe at the Starbucks outlet at the Mumbai airport, killing time before checking in for a flight to Delhi. I was travelling alone and, as always, carrying a book. I settled into a cushioned cane chair, placed the book next to my drink but chose to watch people instead. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a Peeping Tom or an eavesdropper, I admit that I enjoy trying to guess the details of strangers’ lives from what I can observe. I’m no Sherlock Holmes but it is fun to try. Starbucks is especially helpful with regard to an added element of my pastime - guessing the names of strangers. Unlike most other coffee chains in India, Starbucks doesn’t bring their customers’ orders to their tables. Instead, they prefer to call out the customer’s name along with their drink order. Which works out perfectly fine for me, the name-guessing people-watcher! My little game rests on the theorem that certain people suit their names to a T and studying their appearance and body language can sometimes help one intuit this stuff. At other times, it’s just fun to watch people in public spaces and imagine what they’re like. So, this Aditya from paragraph one was tall, fair, with a lankiness to his frame, and a certain affability to his body language. There was a casualness about him that made me think of parents who want their child to have a roll number in class that comes somewhere near the top. I’ve known parents who believe that a single-digit roll number will somehow turn their lackadaisical offspring into a competitive merit-lister. Anyway, a name beginning with an A usually lands a spot in the top ten. At least, alphabetically! If you’ve persisted with this post till this point, I commend your patience. Or perhaps, you too are a people-watcher. If yes, do leave a comment on what you consider the best places to watch people. I'm partial to coffee shops. I like my creature comforts, you see. Comfortable couches, the fragrance of coffee brewing, the trickle and spurts of moody coffee machines spewing hot and bitter liquids, the hissing of the milk steamer, punctuated by the bings of the cash register and the hum of conversation. This is my preferred setting with its soothing symphony of sounds. There’s something about the informality of a cafe that allows for people’s personalities to step out. Also, there is an element of waiting or solitude involved. Unlike restaurants, where people usually arrive together for a meal, a coffee shop is a place with many purposes. One could walk in there to work, to catch up with friends, for first meetings – whether dates or interviews, to savour a beverage while reading a book or to buy a drink on the go. To watch a person while they wait is a whole different ball game. Touching up their make-up or glancing at the door every few seconds, clicking a selfie (at times, a whole portfolio), making phone calls, texting or scrolling through social media or glancing through the week-old newspapers lying around. And then, there are also those who come prepared with a book. Like yours truly! Airports and railway stations are considered by many to be great places for people-watching. I differ on that front. The anxiety and rushing about of travel can cause most people to depart from their true nature. Almost nobody rushes to a café in a state of urgency. Apart from me, that is! And that’s what makes watching folks, as they settle in with a drink or a muffin, so entertaining. That is, until you catch someone’s eye who is doing exactly what you are. In a moment of shared confidences, you smile sheepishly, look down and open that book lying next to your coffee.

  • Beautiful World, Where are you by Sally Rooney

    Beautiful World, where are you is not a book for everyone. If you’re the kind of person who likes fast-paced, plot-driven stories, then this is not your kind of novel. Which is not to say that there is no action whatsoever. It’s just that many of what would count as major events take place either before the novel opens or somewhere off the page, and are referred to as having happened in the final chapter which serves as an epilogue. With Beautiful World, where are you Sally Rooney sets out to write a story about friendship and love in the midst of economic disparity and a kind of existential dread. The thread of existential dread or more precisely, a questioning of the true place of an individual with all the cares that occupy our minds in contrast to the larger context of recorded history, our species and the planet is fitting given that Beautiful World, where are you was published in September 2021, after the world had been through multiple lockdowns. This is Rooney’s third novel, following Conversations with Friends and Normal People. I have read neither but I do know that focussing on her protagonists’ coming of age and their relationships is a feature of her novels. And in that sense, Beautiful World, where are you is similar. It is about two best friends (who met in college), Alice and Eileen who are nearing 30. Alice is a successful and much-feted author who moves to an oceanside town in Ireland after a stint in New York where she suffered a mental breakdown. Eileen, on the other hand, works as an assistant editor at a literary magazine in Dublin, making very little money. The main mode of communication between Alice and Eileen is email, in which they discuss their romantic lives and weightier matters such as the collapse of civilization, the end of beauty, commodification of art, the conspicuous consumption of the privileged few built on the backs of the disadvantaged multitude and the strangeness of fame. Dare I say that if it wasn’t for these pithier bits and Rooney’s experiments with narrative style, Beautiful World, where are you could easily be classified as contemporary romance or contemporary women’s fiction instead of literary fiction? Though I must add that I liked Rooney’s style given as it is sparse yet beautiful in how it delves into relationships without devolving into sappiness, with sentences like, “They looked at one another for a long moment without moving, without speaking, and in the soil of that look many years were buried.” Beautiful World, where are you made me question the difference between characters who are aware of and concerned about the world and its socio-economic and political history and those who use it to sound intelligent and well-intentioned. The difference, in my opinion, lies in action. Or more precisely, the choices they make. Else, it comes across as pretentious navel-gazing with citations! The two lead characters of Beautiful World, where are you talk a good game but we don’t see that much in terms of walking the talk. At least in the case of Alice, one makes the supposition that her novels are about characters dealing with these issues and her politics and socio-economic views make their way into her work. Not so with Eileen. Her actions are restricted to reading about ancient civilizations and The Brothers Karamazov and whining to her friends about their lack of care for her. The other two major characters in the novel are Felix and Simon. Felix is a guy Alice meets on a dating app who has a blue-collar job at a warehouse and a shiftiness that is tough to pinpoint. But Alice persists in her relationship with him even though as readers, we have no idea why. Perhaps, it is supposed to be short-hand to establish how egalitarian Alice is despite her financial success and how untouched by intellectual snobbery. This from a character who claims to have created a “a gulf of sophistication” between her estranged family and herself. For his part, Felix is uncomfortable with the power and intimidation Alice wields as a consequence of her success and financial freedom, till, suddenly, he isn’t. Felix is the most underwritten character of the lot. Simon is the other love interest. He works as a political assistant to a Left-leaning politician. He is also the most religious character in Beautiful World, where are you which is viewed as odd behaviour by the other characters. Given that Sally Rooney is Irish and bases her novels in Ireland, I presume this is a nod to the sharply declining number of people who identify as Catholic in a country which for centuries has been recognised as fervently Catholic. In the last census taken in 2022, the percentage of Irish residents who described themselves as Catholics fell to 69% from 84% (the numbers are even more stark in cities like Dublin) in 2011. But, I digress. Simon Costigan is, we are told repeatedly by every major character, very good-looking and never short of the attention of women. Yet he remains devoted to Eileen who is said to have great potential even though we never see any evidence of the same. She is also a character almost entirely lacking in agency. The little smidgens of agency that she displays are only to reject the good things that happen to her, in order to test the depth of interest of the other party. This cloying neediness gets quite trying after a point. Eileen is that person who waits fervently for other people to cajole her to do things she wants to do and sulks in a corner when they fail to coddle her enough. And yet, we are told that Eileen is worthy of great things. Told but never shown. Even when we are allowed a momentary flashback into Simon’s memory of his relationship with Eileen, whom he has known and adored since they were children, we are none the wiser as to why he loves her so much. I wonder if this makes Simon fall into the category of male characters referred to, on social media, as “men written by women”? His emotional issues are referred to but never explored. We are presented only the symptoms which dovetail neatly into what the female character, Eileen requires for her happy ending. In terms of style and format, Beautiful World, where are you is partly an epistolary novel where Alice and Eileen send each other lengthy emails. Written in first person, these emails give the reader a peep into Alice’s and Eileen’s beliefs, psyches and emotional worlds. In a sharp contrast to the intimacy of these parts of the novel, there are chapters written in a distant third-person. A perspective so distant that you may feel like the narrator’s level of knowledge about the characters is the same as you, the reader. It reminded me of times when I have sat in a café and watched the people seated at the table next to mine. Sample this. “On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases. The two women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight, their arms wrapped around one another, for a second, two seconds, three.” The two women mentioned in the excerpt are the protagonists and the fair-haired man is Simon but the third-person narrator gives us no hint of their inner emotions or thoughts. Rooney carries this off with a great deal of skill though I’m not sure what it establishes for the story itself apart from the author’s skill. To me personally, the bits that sparkled were where the characters speak of relatable things in ways that are poetic, emotional and sadly beautiful like, “We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness.” That’s the stuff that conjures up a concrete image, stirs up unnamed emotions and points to an idea too ephemeral to be cloistered into words. The theme of friendship and how it changes yet remains the same as our lives change is a major theme in Beautiful World, where are you. It makes you go down paths wondering if one’s friends view us as we were when they first met us and whether one of friendship's virtues is to see potential in our friends that others miss. Beautiful World, where are you also explores the juxtaposition of the personal versus the universal (as in matters that are considered of greater importance such civilization, art or economic models). Is one more important than the other? The weakest link of Beautiful World, where are you is the ending. It feels like Rooney wants to wrap it up in a pretty little bow without showing us the character growth that would be required to arrive at such a point. As a result, the ending feels forced and frankly, trite. Before I wrap up, let me make the case for the inclusion of quotation marks. Can we please have them back? Life is confusing enough, what with civilization collapsing around our ears (if you believe the novel’s protagonists)! Characters speaking without quotation marks to signify direct speech just makes the world even more confusing. With due apologies to Friedrich Schiller (whose poem The Gods of Greece is the inspiration for this novel's title), this is my note to the author, editor and publishers of this novel: “Beautiful World, where are the quotation marks?”

  • The Charm of Whimsy

    Every now and then, burrowed into the prosaic paths of the commonplace is nestled something whimsical. Amazing and amusing in its quaintness and imagination, it makes us smile and adds a sparkle to the humdrumness of everyday life. I’m very easily charmed by whimsy – a quaint café, an interesting bookmark or a delightful hobby or trait is all it takes. A few months ago, a friend, Shruti sent me a link to something called a literature clock. It’s a website that operates as a clock, telling you the time. It updates every minute without the user refreshing the page. Before you judge me as particularly simple-minded with a roll of your eyes, let me clarify that while I am easily amused, it is not quite that easy. This online clock’s beauty lies in its revealing the time as part of a quote from a piece of literature. Which means that someone searched for quotes from thousands of works of literature that would represent every minute of a day. To me, watching it change from one timely quote to another is gratifying. Is it strictly necessary? Of course not. But then, neither is dancing. To the best of my knowledge, nobody dances to cover the distance from point A to B! Speaking of going from A to B reminds me of a company that goes from A to Z, Amazon (check out the logo and you’ll see that the arrow travels from A to Z). It’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation with a dismal reputation for profit-gouging and fostering a toxic work environment for a majority of its employees. I’m certainly not a fan. Even so, I came across a page on its site quite by accident which managed to humanise this global profit-squeezing, mega-corporation. The humanising effect didn’t last long but given my opinion of Amazon, even that ounce of goodwill generated was no small achievement. The page in question is an Error 404 page which basically pops up only when Amazon can’t find whatever you’re searching for. Except that this page has a picture of an employee’s dog and a little write-up about it. Apparently, Amazon has a Dogs at Work program allowing employees to bring their dogs to work. The whimsical charm of this webpage was enough to make me forget for a while what I was searching for in the first place. That is the power of whimsy. It fires up our imagination, emotions and turns the run-of-the-mill into something memorable. And sometimes, it can also turn into a lifestyle and a business. Like it did for Zack MacLeod Pinsent, a 29-year-old British man who, at the ripe old age of 14 ditched his denims for bespoke 18-Century clothing. He chooses to dress like a Regency gentleman every day, regardless of quizzical looks from strangers and the effort required to tailor his own clothes in a fashion that has been out of fashion for a couple of centuries. But it’s obvious that it makes him happy. And frankly, he cuts quite a figure. More power to him. We can all sprinkle some whimsy into our lives in whatever manner we like. Most of us already do, I’m sure. It could be a playful pair of spectacles, reading Wuthering Heights or Harry Potter every winter or gifting hand-made dreamcatchers to friends and family. It’s quirks like these that spark joy even if nobody else understands the point of them. Carry on regardless. As did, Edwin Hubble, the brilliant American astronomer who is often credited with having revolutionized mankind’s understanding of the Universe. He has the rare distinction of having an asteroid, a crater on the Moon and a space telescope named in his honour. Here on Earth, the planet of his birth, a planetarium, a stretch of highway and a school were named after him. His was an exceptional mind. However, by most accounts, he was also quite eccentric. After a stint at Oxford University in England, he adopted a fake British accent and began to go about dressed in a cape and carrying a cane. I suppose you could call it an affectation but I find it both droll and delightful! To me, whimsy is like stardust. Even a dash of it catches the light, making everything shimmer.

  • The Best Books I Read this Year

    When I'm reading a book I like, I often pause to reread a line or phrase to admire the artistry of its construction or the beauty of the thought expressed. I feel excited about returning to the book while I go about my other activities because I can't wait to find out what happens next. And yet, something strange happens as the book approaches completion. I try to slow down because I don't want to let go of the characters yet and I don't want the story to end. But end it does. But over the years, my favourite books have always left me with ideas, fragments of dialogue or expressions that made them unique. In no particular order, these are five of my favourites from the best books I read this year. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by CELESTE NG Celeste Ng’s debut revolves around the lives of a mixed-race family of five, the Lees. The novel opens on the day of their older daughter, Lydia’s disappearance and death. This isn’t a whodunnit. Instead, it explores each character’s heart-breaking secrets which they kept to themselves in the hope of holding on to each other and the price they end up paying for their silence. Ng paints a moving portrait of the immigrant experience as well as what it feels like to be considered different in a college town in Middle America. Read it for its emotion, style and pace. I was left with a pit in my stomach wishing things had turned out differently for the Lees. ORIENTING: AN INDIAN IN JAPAN by PALLAVI AIYAR Orienting: An Indian in Japan is divided into ten chapters, each dealing with an element of the Japanese experience. For the average Nipponophile like myself, anecdotes about lost umbrellas and tiffin-boxes that are almost always located and returned, the intoxicating fervour of the sakura-viewing season and the technological marvel the Japanese call a toilet fit right into my idea of what Japan, with its sushi-dispensing vending machines and kintsugi philosophy, is all about. Thankfully, the book doesn’t dissolve into an endless stream of praise. Some chapters deal with the foibles of Japanese culture, including their oppressive working hours, political apathy and xenophobia, to provide a balanced view of what it is like to live in Japan. Pallavi Aiyar writes with the clarity and specificity of a journalist and the whimsy and humour of a novelist, making this part memoir, part travel literature and partly, a collection of essays immensely readable. SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by SHELLEY PARKER-CHAN She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise to power of the Hongwu emperor, better known as the founding ruler of the famed Ming dynasty. The twist in this reimagined tale is that this is the story of a girl who is foretold a life that will amount to nothing while a glorious future is predicted for her brother. A historical fantasy novel, She Who Became the Sun is about desire, destiny and the desire to alter one’s destiny. Shelley Parker-Chan’s style is lyrical yet pacy with characters that seem drawn from real life and have weaknesses, conflicting desires and ill-judgement, making them come alive. The characters of this novel have stayed with me long after I turned the last page of the novel. Their joy, ambition, pain and desire leave its mark thanks to Parker-Chan’s splendid writing. I look forward to reading the next book in the series. TALKING TO MY DAUGHTER ABOUT THE ECONOMY by YANIS VAROUFAKIS I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Yanis Varoufakis makes the story of the rise of capitalism such an entertaining story with lots of references to iconic movies, Greek mythology and classic literature that you may be forgiven for thinking of economics as interesting! Get your hands on a copy if you would like to read about industrialisation and colonialism and the rise of debt as the backbone of our economy without falling asleep. I was delighted by his perspective and his lack of jargon. Does it explain everything? No. But does it make you want to read on and learn a bit more than you know? Yes, and it’s a fun read. What’s not to like? THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by JOEL DICKER The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is a cold case whodunnit delivered with a literary flair. It’s a novel about two authors – Harry Quebert, a celebrated senior writer who is arrested for murder, 33 years after a fifteen-year-old girl that he loved goes missing; and Marcus Goldman his protégé who, struggling with writer’s block after his successful first novel, resolves to clear his mentor’s name. With a host of suspects, fading recollections and looming deadlines, Marcus is up against plenty of challenges. This is an absolute page-turner with lots of plot twists. Joel Dicker’s style and narrative technique make it even better by imbuing an investigative thriller plot with literary allusions, three-dimensional characterisation and social commentary without letting up on the pace. Read it if you’re looking for an riveting book to curl up with this weekend.

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