Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

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by Vivek H Murthy

As a rule I review fiction on this site but Dr. Murthy’s book is an exception because if there is only one non-fiction you read in 2021, it should be Together. Though published pre-COVID, concepts and suggested action applies to creating connections in this era of masks and social distance. The human need for community he says, is hardwired; grounded in evolutionary underpinnings and if unmet, loneliness is the self preservation symptom of “lack of belonging” or a “genuine connection with people”. Since evolutionary time the narrative of rugged individualism and the pursuit of self determination, a belief that we alone shape our destiny, is at odds with our hardwired needs and affects everyone. Dr. Murthy cites personal experience and examples from the medical field to illustrate that the issue is widespread yet personal in how much togetherness each individual may need. He introduces a “third bowl” concept – not deep so we meld into a stew but one where we retain our individuality and not so wide that we become separate entities. My favorite part of the book was the Circle Framework based on 3 types of relationships everyone must have: Intimate, Relational, Collective. One critical aspect of the framework is that all three types of relationships must be present; only one intimate relationship (say a couple) can be as burdensome as hundreds of the collective – say through social media platforms.

For most people it is not easy to open up and start sharing or to ask for help and the problem becomes worse when we are lonely. Men’s Shed is an example activity that facilitates communication. In giving one can receive and in receiving one can give. In these days where COVID guidelines impose physical distancing we can do a better job of social media or other digital platforms to seek and give “Togetherness”. In this context I adapted his circle concept to my life to see if it would work. I listed my inner circle of 5-15 people who are closest, and I might spend 50% or more time with. My usual way of keeping in touch was hosting dinners/book clubs/gardening/theater/group hikes. We have moved our book club online; instead of dinner we do happy hour or play games on zoom. Like others if I need help (or am in a position of giving help) it is hard to pick up the phone and ask. However, the benefit of proximity can be had with some form of regular digital communication. We may not realize it, but somebody organizes an activity like Men’s Shed. With digital media we ourselves bear the responsibility of creating social contact. Using his guidelines I did the same exercise with the other two categories. I found that I have not been able to keep up with people in the relational circle (professional, travel related, Facebook etc.) but the collective circle communication (family in India, my writing buddies etc.) has improved (yes – zoom and facetime!)

A coach, scientist, author, and professor zoom into a bar: Catch Michele Bolton, Raji Pillai, Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan and Neerja Raman on a panel discussion for Together on February 21, at 4:00 pm. sponsored by Silicon Valley Reads and Indian Business and Professional Women. (IBPW is a non-profit support network that promotes education, leadership and self-development through seminars and workshops.)

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World - Murthy, Vivek H

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

With its inimitable style If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel took me by surprise. I read it because it was our book club selection (I am compulsive that way) and because I am into short stories these days having just published my own book of short stories.

The title story is about two brothers and their physical, emotional and intellectual differences; gripping in language and style. Crisp: “He was my guard. If a child my age happened to be harassing me at school, Deepak would would wait for him on the playground.” It has a nice arc about how they grow apart as they mature into adults and then catch up (sort of) again as families do. Indian families. But then family is named Deepak, Deepika and Deep. Is that funny?

In a nutshell – First generation Indians, a community that has prospered through hard work and/or intellect and are comfortable with their “foreign” culture have born a new generation – not American, not Indian – that feels shackled (to use the kind of word Mr. Patel would use) by its heritage and bounty. This new generation wants to experience the country of their birth the way others who are not Indian do. Much of this rebellion is expressed through “in your face” language (I can’t quote here) and situations (I kept thinking of the show Fleabag) and is compulsive reading. However use of sexual scenes to express every emotion other than love may define a moment but does not help develop basically good characters that people the stories – of any heritage.

Needless to say I am quite conflicted. Its characters seem driven by their physical or environmental needs without any moorings in sight. So I feel for them. Yet they don’t fall off the mental wagon (except in one story). Huh? What did I miss? I wanted to know more about them and also less. But one thing rings true – we can never know another person. It is true.

But that is why we read fiction (what I don’t understand, I can imagine) and not biographies.

Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

I picked up this book at the library because I was looking for something different. And a different new author. Boy did I hit the jackpot.  Animalia is of epic scope from a literature perspective though the animals are pretty much restricted to pigs and people (not the whole animal kingdom as the title suggests). Other than an occasional rat, Animalia: A Novelrabbit, duck or snake the author’s preoccupation is shit – food that goes in and comes out as mountains of shit. Literally it is shit. Then of course there is the other half – metaphorical – need I say it again – shit. Sometimes other body fluids too. But even with all that, there is room for lyrical prose, deft characterization, stinking stys and a harsh indictment of modern society that makes the mean poverty stricken landscape of yore (in rural France) seem like the good old days.

Enough to turn you vegetarian. I found the detailed descriptions of pig-farming reminiscent of movies I have seen on the atrocities of beef (or chicken) farming so from that perspective I am not sure if I found something new in the book.  But what is most commendable and fascinating about Animalia is the travel through time – the poor pathetic family that grows from owning one pig to a rich even more pathetic family that owns a gazillion pigs. Their transition and the damning effects of war on society are the bigger picture in the story. For that it is a must read. And if I ignore half the words in the book dealing with shit and associated activity, the other half of the words are sheer poetry.

I give it a thumbs up but read it at your own risk. I wish the author had managed to find some beauty in the bleakness because that is how life is. But he doesn’t.

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

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A book based on Antigone gets published every year (so it seems). For that most mundane of reasons, or maybe a more nuanced one (too long for this review), Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire was our 15th anniversary book club selection – an honor indeed. We held the review session at an offsite retreat in Monterey, California. By and large, Desibookers liked the book and called it an easy, fast read, engaging, and the characters relatable. As for me, I had a niggling dissatisfaction with the book. I could not pin down why, till the moderator asked each one of us – “who was your favorite character?”. While everybody else listed a (different) favorite character, I was much chastised for ducking the question by saying I had none. I thought Isma was weak, Aneeka was motivated by being a drama queen, Parvaiz, was living a  jihadist nightmare and not a dream, Eamonn – duplicit and going after both sisters… and so on. Stereotypes. Caricatures.

Well, that brings me to The Watch.

Soon after, I happened to be tooling around at the local library and read the back cover of this book based on Antigone. It too was about middle east war (Afghanistan). And written by a South Asian too (Roy-Bhattacharya). Tripe, I thought dismissively.  Then I read the first few pages, brought it home and read it in one day without pausing for breath or sustenance. Yeah. That’s how much it got to me. The front quote from Sophocles, Antigone in the book:

I know that I must die,

E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death

Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.

Every chapter in The Watch is organized so that central event is lead up to and narrated in the voice of each major character – Chapter one starts in Antigone’s (Nizam) voice setting up the death scene in remote Kandahar outpost. Thereafter, every chapter is in the voice of various US military personnel including a medic. We are allowed to get into each one’s head and learn their backstory. Along the way we learn how the military deals with having a Sikh, a Muslim, a Christian and a non-believer as an integral part of the unit. We learn how growing up in different geographies in America affects how we think. Even the opposing viewpoint to Nizam’s is presented in the form of the translator who it turns out is from a different part of the middle east than Antigone and so we learn from the incident of the black turban as well as the name Nizam (a man’s name in one case and a woman’s in another)  that the medic, and others who have studied books know more than those who are informed only by life experiences.

It sets up the tension that is central for Sophocles:  Divine Law vs.  Human Law.

The purity of emotion that comes from Divine Law (represented by Antigone) is what touches us emotionally but leads to chaos with its apparent irrationality;  Human Law strives to preserve law and order and fails in the face of acts of the very humans it seeks to protect.

I ached with every character in The Watch no matter which side they were on. I loved how every one was right and how every one was wrong; their strength. I found no weakness – each was driven by what they believed. Shit Happens so when faced with calamity, I learned, I must hang on to that shred of humanity remaining in each one of us when all else is lost.

Finally I understood why Antigone in death is happier than others in life. I could see myself standing in Nizam’s non-existent (you have to read the book to understand the teaser) shoes.

The Watch is incredibly nuanced and complex. Yet, even if you skip through the detailed lives of its individual characters, you will get the ride of your life. I recommend The Watch.

Finally, I did ask myself if this was a case of pity love (remember my dissatisfaction with the other Antigone tale – Home fire). And probably this review came about to justify to myself that Home fire did really not touch my heart because of a lack of depth in each of its characters.

Happy New Year 2019 and I wish you find peace within and without.

Enter Giveaway: Moments in Transition

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Enter to Win one of 100 copies

Amazon customer reviews:

“A lovely collection of stories, each one unique in time and place, yet connected by the characters of a mother and a daughter, Maya and Jeena, in learning moments. There are other characters that join the tale for each woman to explore dimensions of life and love. Raman is a gifted author, describing each scene with evocative language that speaks to the senses.

I love the format of the book as I can read and reread several stories at one setting or I can read just one story as a respite from a busy day. The stories speak to the power of narrative to convey heartfelt wisdom into the meaning of life. Many of the stories have a common theme, articulated in the “The House on Cantonment Road,” as “…face my fears, make the most of what we had, and live life with laughter.” This fundamental outlook on life provides an underlying optimism that makes reading this book soul satisfying and insightful.”

Highly recommended. You’ll find the meaning of Pistachio Cream and Tangerine Whip in the lovely story “Color Me Happy.”

“Moments in Transition is a comfortable, unsettling awakening to a different culture and human being who happens to be a woman. The prose is evocative, and the interlacing life philosophy is like a visit from an old friend.
Early chapters had me disoriented. I couldn’t see how they all tied together. Then I realized the writer was creating pieces of a puzzle that I would get to put together myself. Immersed in this activity, the chapters flew by.
Highly Recommended”

“Can’t keep the book down. The book grabs your attention right from the opening paragraph. The story line flows smooth, though you do have be alert as the narrator differs in each chapter. It extols the relationship between a mother and daughter and would make a perfect Mother’s Day gift.”

“Snippets of life from three generations. Neerja has skillfully woven everyday happenings in the complex fabric that is three generations of a family. Each story. is a gem connecting the present with memories of a life lived fully.”

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Moments in Transition by Neerja Raman

Moments in Transition

by Neerja Raman

Giveaway ends March 30, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Last Friday we met to discuss Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, published in 2000 in French and in English in 2001. A film based on his novel directed by Dai was released in 2002. Since I selected the book let me confess right away that  I love books about books and how they influence us. So I thought the club would love it as much as I did – but alas – it was not so. While I rated it an 8 out of 10 (highest) the average was perhaps 6 (most were 7) but we had few low ones.

Positive comments were grouped around writing style and character development- especially how in a few succinct words the author creates crystal clear images of the land, its people and their idiosyncrasies. We had disagreement on whether the “re-education” topic was underdeveloped or took over the whole book. Balzac was a weak metaphor for those who felt the enormity of the intellectual loss was underplayed. Since the two main characters seem obsessed with a teenage girl, (many found her the weak link) the context of such a major world event was missing. I think this was the crux of the matter for those who wanted to read about “reeducation”.

For me that was exactly why I liked it: Reeducation is the background to show that the human spirit is so resilient that no matter how awful the circumstance, we just get on with our life – infatuation, friendship and sacrifice in the case of the young. Most of us were troubled by the hasty departure of the little seamstress but for different reasons.

The best summary came from our resident cynical wit : “Sure the boys got reeducated. They found out that girls will always do what they want to do. Love be damned.”

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold: Book Review

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948)  has been described as: “a visionary who still influences American conservation policy” and A Sand County Almanac has been described as “one of the benchmark titles of the ecological movement”.

But I discovered this gem of a book in the dusty, back-corner bookshelf when I cleaned out my library – a surprise – and perhaps that is why I fell in love with it. I had never heard of the author or book. I like reading Almanacs and so I must have bought it from a Used Book Sale and filed it away. In fact my version of the book is Japanese in front (with lovely drawings) and English in the back and I can’t credit the publisher since that part is all written in Japanese.

First, I loved the book for its language. I read it slowly; going back to search for sentences that stuck in my mind through dinner. Complex ideas in simple sentences – we are not talking Salman Rushdie here – that leap across time, distance and diversity of nature.

The first chapter is January. The first sentence is: “Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a night of thaw when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night , but to some who have been asleep for the winter.”

A tinkle is heard across the land – a small transience impacts a large permanence. Some sleep one night, others sleep for months. We all feel something. It makes you think.

That’s how the whole book is. Every sentence is precise; carefully crafted for glorious celebration. Celebration of the human mind, of the land we live in, and the relationship we have with the land and one another.  If I had a favorite it is February. Oaks, rabbits, farms, grocery stores, dogs, you-name-it is held together from the dawn of time to now through the scene of an Oak being sawed. “The stump, which I measured upon felling the tree, has a diameter of 30 inches. It shows 80 growth rings, hence the seedling from which it originated must have laid its first ring of wood in 1865, at the end of the Civil War.” Nature, rhythm, history, action – all in a compact little space

Second, I loved the book for its unfettered compassion. A caring that is delivered with humor and knowledge – never heavy handed. For example:  “As I said, November is the month for the axe, and, as in other love affairs, there is skill in the exercise of bias.” The author has previously confessed that he loves all trees, as he must, but Pines are his favorite. What follows is a full lesson in pine weevils, shade versus sun, hot soil, more or less water – all to show how he may be giving equal care to birch or aspen while still favoring the pine.

Its not only the message in the book – It is how the message is delivered that makes the book something I love to treasure and will go back to again and again.

 

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi : A Desibookers’ discussion summary

Persepolis was the first graphic novel selected in our 15 year book club history. However, every book club member had fond memories of childhood comics: from Archie and Superman to Amar Chitra Katha and Chandama and many of us were new to the graphic novel genre as revived in modern times. So we all loved reading it. It was almost a guilty pleasure (comics were sort of forbidden – at least for me) and everyone enjoyed a trip down memory lane. Also we discussed other new graphic novels and we enjoyed that too. This is a book where we had very little controversy (unusual for us).

The illustrations were great; noted for the exaggerated emotions captured as you might expect from a child and made her experience larger than life. We enjoyed the direct simplicity of language. Each one of us had a funny favorite line and it made for fun sharing. The grandmother and her recipe for buxom bosoms was probably the most oft-cited incidence.

The title is a reference to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, Persepolis even though the book is about Iran in modern times and the connection to the author’s Persian heritage is tenuous at best. We could not understand why the parents had been clueless about the fact that fundamentalism would become prevalent when the Shah was overthrown (and why they were opposed to the Shah given their non-fundamental lifestyle – the explanation provided in the book was weak at best). Thus our quibbles had to do with historical facts but everything was excused because the story is told from the child’s perspective. Also many of us in the group had already read other books about Iran (‘Reading Lolita in Teheran’ was mentioned) so this book presented a new perspective of the same facts. Personally, I have friends in India (the original Zoroastrians) who don’t want to even visit Iran so I felt a bit cheated by the author for invoking Persepolis. They say a title must be a reflection of the book and this one just glossed over that whole history. But then we said – its just a kid’s perspective!

I read the follow up book when she grows up and found that one a bit tedious though it too was funny and an easy read.

Now we all plan to watch the movie!