In 1918, just as World War I was ending, (2 months before the armistice was signed), a pandemic started. The disease was influenza, only influenza. ThIn 1918, just as World War I was ending, (2 months before the armistice was signed), a pandemic started. The disease was influenza, only influenza. That's what everyone thought. All the conditions at that particular point in time led to a pandemic that killed nearly 60 million people (according to all estimates) This book gives you all the information you need to understand how the human race sat around while something of this magnitude swept through the world. Remember: It was only influenza. Not deadly AIDS or SARS.
There are several things to unpack in this book. One book review will never cover everything and I don't intend to do that anyway. I am going to enlist three things that I learned from this book that were absolutely important revelations.
1. The truth is important. Especially, during war.
A lot of the book is about how newspapers across the US wouldn't print anything that would "affect the war effort" or "affect morale adversely". It also shows how people in public administration weren't willing to take the most basic precautions because it would spread panic and affect morale. It also shows how the army was turning a deaf ear to all the doctors in the administration who were telling them to stop moving soldiers across the country and across the Atlantic. Anything but the truth (half truths, lies) will only adversely affect the collective ability of people to fight a crisis.
2. Good science needs the right combination of people, time, money, luck and state of mind.
Paul Lewis and Avery were very similar. They were well respected and old. They each had a particular problem on their mind and they spent much of the time after the pandemic solving it. Avery came out of it with the discovery that DNA contains genetic material. Lewis came out of it with an obsession to win back the respect of the two people whom he respected the most. Eventually, this obsession killed him / he killed himself in a foreign land. He succumbed to the very virus he was investigating. (yellow fever)
3. Documentation is important. Especially, during a crisis.
This last point really resonated with me. What one must understand is that the crisis will blow over. During a crisis, it's often to become frustrated with the apparently unnecessary paperwork when one is facing problems that question the very existence of the human race. Having the perspective to look past a crisis into the future and understanding what can be learned from this horrible thing that so many people suffered through and died in, is the most important quality in every bureaucrat and politician out there. It's often very easy to be short sighted and deal only with the problem right in front of your face and not care about anything else until it is solved. (Or worse, say "Let's take care of everything else after this particular problem is solved")
Apart from these, there are a lot of things I have learned from this book (I have nearly 20 pages of notes). I plan to condense those into more bullet points and publish them on my blog soon.
That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where non conformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, becomes a mask of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where unorthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent. -- Learned Hand
The Outcast is about exactly that, an outcast. Lewis, whose life the book follows, is deeply disturbed after an eerily unfamiliar and mysterious and lThe Outcast is about exactly that, an outcast. Lewis, whose life the book follows, is deeply disturbed after an eerily unfamiliar and mysterious and life-changing event. Once it happens, he doesn't know how to deal with it. A parent who refuses to give him the love and affection that children expect and need and a small village where everyone looks at him as the outcast, lead to bad things in his life. And then, more bad things. And finally, a really bad thing that is foreshadowed almost from the first few pages of the book itself when his dad says "Dicky pitched in to rebuild it exactly the same way".
This is somewhere around the end of the second part of the book, and there is a whole 30% of the book after this and don't go through that expecting anything happy to happen. Except for the first 5% and the last 5% everything in between is very depressing and hopeless. This was a very real book about how life in a small town goes about: the frightening similarity of it year after year, the hold that a few people have on this routine, the feeling of being powerless when all you are is normal. Coming out from a college campus after 5 years of no movies and the same 10 restaurants, I was in a unique mood to deal with this book.
I would give this 4/5 if only it didn't drag on every time I thought the climax had occurred. It was painfully long towards the end and the hopelessness got a little bit too much to be real for me. I had to finish the last 15% of the book in two days because I was done with this and wanted to move on. That said, this book has some really good writing and a great treatment of loneliness and general outcast-feelings.
She held him and hugged him hard. She stroked his hair. Her blouse was slippery on his face, her skin was warm, and her pearls dug pleasantly into his forehead. Her breath smelled familiarly of cigarettes and what she’d been drinking and her scent was the one she always had. He heard her heart beat and felt absolutely at home.
She was the first to admit her painting wasn’t very good and although she loved doing it, it’s hard to stick at a thing if you’re aware you’ve an unshakeable mediocrity.
Lewis craved their company so as not to be alone all the time, and then craved being alone just to be away from them.
He understood people’s previously mystifying attachment to the world of work – it got you out of all sorts of things.
It was an odd feeling, a looking-glass feeling, that he had, that all his life he had been on one side of the glass with everybody else on the other and now the glass had broken and the thick, broken pieces were at all of their feet.
Her hair was loose. She stopped in front of him and glanced over her shoulder, like a schoolgirl out of bounds, and breathless with not knowing how to say what she needed to. They looked at each other, and her face, with all its need and hope, went straight to him, as it always had. He felt something like love.
I distinctly remember one thing from Selby’s other book Requiem for a Dream: a lack of punctuation.
It was quite hard to understand the characters and
I distinctly remember one thing from Selby’s other book Requiem for a Dream: a lack of punctuation.
It was quite hard to understand the characters and what they were saying. Their motive was extremely easy to understand though: get the next fix. Throughout the book, the characters run around trying to extend the drug induced state that they were in.
In Last Exit to Brooklyn, the characters are hard to understand. Period. They are living in some of the worst conditions possible and deal with the kinds of internal demons and external despair that is hard to comprehend. The book is structured as 5 or 6 stories about several characters who all live in the same neighbourhood and have run-ins with each other some times. Throughout, the stories are disorienting, the characters are unable to work or do anything consistently except doing drugs or drinking alcohol, which they seem to be doing almost throughout the book.
This was a hard book to read (It took me nearly a month to work up the nerve to get through the final 3 stories after reading the first 3). The book lacks a rigid narrative structure which makes it hard to expect what’s going to happen.
My favorite story was The Strike. Running for about 30% of the book’s length, it is the story of Harry, a lathe operator at a factory in Brooklyn. He is part of the union and that is the most important part of his identity. He doesn’t work, he has trouble at home, he believes that his co-workers respect him when they actually think that he is a weirdo and avoid him as much as they can. The union contract ends and they go into a strike, Harry is put in charge of the strike by the people at the top of the union and this increases his sense of importance; everyone else still sniggers at him and uses him to their own ends (getting him to buy beer or food and expense it to the union and then take off with the food)
I liked the story probably because it was the closest to normality in the whole book (Harry has a huge set of problems that show up in the second part of the story).
The last story “Landsend” has several characters and a distinctly large number of children who are living in “The Project”, an apartment complex for Lower Income families. This story also has two normal characters, Lucy (a mother of 2 trying to stay away from the trouble-makers in The Project) and Ada, an old widow who lost her son to war and her husband to old-age.
Landsend also has two characters from previous stories, Vinnie and Mary who are in a dysfunctional marriage with 2 children. They argue right through the story; their first argument is written normally, and that was anxiety inducing enough because of how dense the prose was and how hopeless the argument was. From the second time they are shown, everything they say is written ALL IN UPPERCASE. This adds something else to their conversation. It’s almost like seeing characters fight on screen about something pointless and something that you know is not going to be resolved and will just lead to more fights. (It was suprirsingly reminiscent of a scene from The Marriage Story (2019) where the two lead characters fight in Charlie’s apartment when they are frustrated with how their divorce proceedings are going in court)
Towards the end, the book has some great pictures of Selby Jr and quotes from him. Reading what he had to say about the “Dark side of the American Dream” and why he wrote the way he did (The lack of punctuation and the constant use of UPPERCASE is a method for him to give the reader an experience instead of just a story) has piqued my interest and I look forward to reading his 2nd and 3rd novels. Not right away though, I need to take a break from this breathless, anxious prose.
P.S. My favourite review excerpt for this book was: “An urgent tickertape from hell” => A PERFECT description.
noun. (a) a mass for the dead (b) a solemn chant (such as a dirge) for the repose of the dead
noun. (a) a strongly desired goal or purpose
noun. (a) a mass for the dead (b) a solemn chant (such as a dirge) for the repose of the dead
noun. (a) a strongly desired goal or purpose (b) something that fully satisfies a wish
I understood the title after I had finished reading the book. For almost 3 years, people I know have been telling me how this is the most disturbing movie about drug addiction ever made and how it changed their perception of the parties involved. I concur with them: this is definitely one hell of a disturbing book.
Selby Jr manages to convey the hopelessness and the helplessness of Harry, Tyrone, Marion and Sara in a single sentence:
Their disease made it possible for them to believe whatever lies it was necessary for them to believe to continue to pursue and indulge their disease, even to the point of them believeing they wer not enslaved by it, but were actually free.
This book reminded me of everything that is great about reading and why I stick with this habit in the first place. I don’t have anything except good things to say about this book. This book doesn’t have any punctuations. Single quotation marks (like those in I'll) are replaced by forward slashes. There are no double quotes. Thankfully, there are full stops, the characters are very less so it’s possible to make sense of who is talking. I got used to this after reading around 30% of the book.
Marion’s character is the most fascinating. Her psychologist’s reaction when she asks him for the money and he asks him about the needle marks in her arm is painful and sums up my thoughts about where the book was going to go in the first half:
I mean, you’re not like those … those peopel who roam the streets mugging old ladies for enough money to get dope. Your’re cultured and delicate and have been under therapy – and the therapist – they looked at each other for a few moments. Arnold becoming more and more confused and pained. But why? Why?
And Marion’s answer to that:
Marion stared at him for a moment, then sighed loud and long, her body responding as if it had been squeezed tighter, Because it makes me feel whole … satisfied.
This book is worth a read. And then some. The writing is fabulous; the subject matter is dark and disturbing; the characters are vibrant and extremely troubled.
A few quotes from the book that I have to share here:
It wasnt that they couldnt stop using, it was just that this wasnt the time. They had too much to do and they werent feeling well. When everything was straightened out they would simply cut the whole scene loose, but for now theyd take an occasional taste to hang loose.
Sometimes they would fix up new cookers just for the sake of doing it. It was part of keeping house. The entire routine made them feel a part of something. It was something looked forward to with the greatest of joy and anticipation. The entire ritual was symbolic of their life and needs. The careful opening of the bag and the dumping in the cooker of the dope, and dropping in the water with the dropper. Making a new collar from time to time for the dropper so the needle would fit snugly, Harry using a piece of matchbook cover, Marion a piece from a dollar bill.
There was a voice, loud and clear, saying they were hooked, but good, and they tried to shrug it away but it persisted, more as a feeling than a voice, that permeated their every cell just as the dope they were addicted to had already done, and they tried combating it with another voice saying so what, it was no big deal, they could stop any time they wanted to, it was no big thing and what else was there?
The enemy ate away at their will so they could not resist, their bodies not only craving, but needing the very poison that ground them into that pitiable state of being; the mind diseased and crippled by the enemy it was obsessed with and the obsession and terrible physical need corrupting the soul until the actions were less than those of an animal, less than those of a wounded animal, less than those of anything and everything they did not want to be.
Austen doesn’t disappoint. As always, Catherine is a great heroine. She has the pure gold heart of an innocent 18 year old. The writing is flawless anAusten doesn’t disappoint. As always, Catherine is a great heroine. She has the pure gold heart of an innocent 18 year old. The writing is flawless and at times, it gets right to the point without ever mentioning it.
Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another.
There’s several others that I like. This one towards the end of the book especially resonated with me:
I hope, my Catherine, you are not getting out of humour with home because it is not so grand as Northanger. That would be turning your visit into an evil indeed. Wherever you are you should always be contented, but especially at home, because there you must spend the most of your time. I did not quite like, at breakfast, to hear you talk so much about the French bread at Northanger.”
Catherine’s mom really hit the nail on its head here! A great read.
I only have one more Austen novel to relish: Mansfield Park. I want to re-read Emma and Pride and Prejudice after that. And maybe watch the movie for both. Yeah, I’ll do that. ...more
This book was on my list since Ishiguro won the Nobel prize. And then, Kalyan recommended it. So, I got right to it. I liked it a lot. It was a welcomThis book was on my list since Ishiguro won the Nobel prize. And then, Kalyan recommended it. So, I got right to it. I liked it a lot. It was a welcome change from my lately formed chain of serious non fiction books. This book is serious in it's own sense, so don't think it's all fun and games just yet. Ishiguro says a lot in this book about old age, job satisfaction and contentment without explicitly saying anything on any matter related to these.
There's this quote that appears in several places: "Life is best understood in retrospect. The cruel joke is that we must live it in the direction we least understand." This means that the journals we write, the diaries we fill with entries (that for some, start with "Dear Diary") are always without a plot, they are a set of entries that define particular points in your life. There is no consideration for what might happen next. Today, you might be writing about the great pasta you had for dinner, and tomorrow, the world might come crashing around you. Would you then delete the pasta entry and instead, write "I have an ominous feeling when I see these storm clouds. They are gray to the point of appearing black to the paranoid eye."?
Of course not. And that's the way this book is written. As Mr. Stevens, an English butler in a large house that has lost it's splendor and is now owned by an American, takes a road trip through "Great" Britain, he writes down various journal entries in various places. These are well constructed pieces of prose, I almost believed that they hadn't been edited to read so well and fit each other perfectly when read as a book. The journal entries tend to go into the past and pull out memories, then switch back and forth between various timelines. There's the ominous event that happened to his old boss; the thing that happened between him and the old housekeeper, the only woman in the book that he talks about; the time England's PM came to "his" house. All of these are tied together by the only common thread: the narrator, Mr. Stevens.
If you want to sit back and read what someone else's diary would read like, if they were able to edit their diary entries later without affecting the content just to make the prose better, this book is for you.
A few quotes from the book that I can't not mention.
Even in Downton Abbey, Carson used to take himself WAY too seriously:
The butler’s pantry, as far as I am concerned, is a crucial office, the heart of the house’s operations, not unlike a general’s headquarters during a battle, and it is imperative that all things in it are ordered – and left ordered – in precisely the way I wish them to be. I have never been that sort of butler who allows all sorts of people to wander in and out with their queries and grumbles. If operations are to be conducted in a smoothly co-ordinated way, it is surely obvious that the butler’s pantry must be the one place in the house where privacy and solitude are guaranteed.
For all his talk about manners in the book, he really disappoints when he doesn't offer his condolences to Kenton and then, goes on to bash her for some "error":
‘For my part, Miss Kenton, whenever new recruits arrive, I like to make doubly sure all is well. I check all aspects of their work and try to gauge how they are conducting themselves with other staff members. It is, after all, important to form a clear view of them both technically and in terms of their impact on general morale. I regret to say this, Miss Kenton, but I believe you have been a little remiss in these respects.’
A quote about Britain:
‘We’re always the last, Stevens. Always the last to be clinging on to outmoded systems. But sooner or later, we’ll need to face up to the facts. Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago perhaps, but in today’s world? What was it Mr Spencer said last night? He put it rather well.’
For it is, in practice, simply not possible to adopt such a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide good service.
for a great many people, the evening was the best part of the day, the part they most looked forward to. And as I say, there would appear to be some truth in this assertion, for why else would all these people give a spontaneous cheer simply because the pier lights have come on?
P.S. You will find out why the name of the book is what it is in the last chapter. So, hang on!
At the end of this book, Ishiguro managed to completely confuse me about what he / Mr. Stevens thought about England. He is loyal to his boss who seems to think England is outdated, and at the same time, believes his own argument that Britain is Great. I have a nagging feeling that this is intentionally done, to throw the reader....more
After reading this book, I have a newfound respect for art. Mainly, paintings, sculptures, pots, utensils, things that are kept in museums. I realize After reading this book, I have a newfound respect for art. Mainly, paintings, sculptures, pots, utensils, things that are kept in museums. I realize now that these objects, some of them bare stones from 1000s of years ago, have survived all this while and will survive for a lot longer. When I saw them, I became a part of their eternity. They became a part of my life. That's what this book is about: art not for art's sake, art as the driving force of mankind, a deeper understanding of art than a transient piece that evokes some feelings in us.
Heavy preface, I know. The one liner wasn't hard to come up with: Theo Decker loses his mom in a museum accident, he takes a painting from that museum, and everything spirals from there.
This book has great writing. It's not easy to read because somewhere around the middle of the book the plot stalls. Theo is in a drug-ridden haze which he is unwilling to come out of. It's really boring to read about, and I (legit) felt like I was in some sort of a haze too because I was falling asleep reading the book and waking up not knowing where I had left off or what was going on; because what was happening 40 pages ago felt exactly like what was happening right now. My point is, this book closely resembles what Theo's thoughts were at the moment you are reading them.
In fact, at the end of the book, he admits to it when he says that he wrote this as a journal in real time that he kept right from when he was a child and a teacher of his gave him a journal to cope with his mother's death. So, when you read this book, you have this up-and-down feeling as if you are feeling exactly what Theo is feeling and going through what Theo is going through but one looking glass away; as if he has taken away the soul of what was happening to him and is telling you just the facts making it harder for you to wrap your head around what sort of a room he is or what he is doing. Like having a normal lens looking at his life instead of a wide angle lens. Your understanding lacks perspective and throughout the book, you need to be alert and supply this consciously.
His mother's death is something that overshadows the book like a cloud covering the sun on some overcast day. About 15 years later, he still brings her up in conversation. He still traces everything that he does back to her. It's incredibly heart breaking and sad. It scared me in the beginning of the book when he says things like How was it possible to miss someone as much as I missed my mother? I missed her so much I wanted to die: a hard, physical longing, like a craving for air underwater.
The book is also about the Barbours. When Theo goes to their house, we see their house only from his perspective: a kid who has just lost the only parent he loved and doesn't know how to deal with the world yet. When he returns after all those years to meet the Barbours, I thought about it for the first time from their perspective and realized the impact that he must have had on them! It's really beautiful to read it.
The book is also about Boris. About the difficulties of his life, about how similar his life is to Theo's, about how differently they both approach what happened to them, about how Boris says Theo's father is good even though he says it only because Theo's dad would never be as brutal as he is with Theo with Boris, his son's friend, a third person: the distance makes him decent. And sometimes that is what you need to be decent with someone else: distance. Too close is not always good.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, this book is about The Goldfinch. Not the painting as much as the finch itself. The little guy who spent his whole life chained to the wall, who looks at you earnestly from nearly 400 years ago. What was the bird like? Did children like him? Did he ever fly freely in the sky or was he chained at birth? The last few pages of this book summarize everything that Theo and Welty and Boris and anyone who came in contact with this painting, even Horst, felt about this painting. ... And if I could go back in time I’d clip the chain in a heartbeat and never care a minute that the picture was never painted. Only it’s more complicated than that. Who knows why Fabritius painted the goldfinch at all? A tiny, stand-alone masterpiece, unique of all its kind?
And we can never know that.
That was a heavy review to write. I should put some of the quotes I like here, just in case you need more convincing to go right ahead and pick this book up:
What had happened, I knew, was irrevocable, yet at the same time it seemed there had to be some way I could go back to the rainy street and make it all happen differently.
‘When you feel homesick,’ he said, ‘just look up. Because the moon is the same wherever you go.’ So after he died, and I had to go to Aunt Bess – I mean, even now, in the city, when I see a full moon, it’s like he’s telling me not to look back or feel sad about things, that home is wherever I am.” She kissed me on the nose. “Or where you are, puppy. The center of my earth is you.”
Yet all these aspects were – to me – so tender and particular they moved me to despair. With a beautiful girl I could have consoled myself that she was out of my league; that I was so haunted and stirred even by her plainness suggested – ominously – a love more binding than physical affection, some tar-pit of the soul where I might flop around and malinger for years.
“It’s a joke, the Fabritius. It has a joke at its heart. And that’s what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt. Velázquez. Late Titian. They make jokes. They amuse themselves. They build up the illusion, the trick – but, step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly. A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether. The thing and yet not the thing. I should say that that one tiny painting puts Fabritius in the rank of the greatest painters who ever lived.
That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.
Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.