The Ocean at the End of the Lane

As we age, we become our parents

My first introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work was American Gods, not the book, but the TV series. The first few episodes were engrossing. But then halfway through the season, I lost interest. Maybe it was the mysticism, maybe it was the violence. And since then I had not bothered to read a Neil Gaiman work. Till now.

Lately, while browsing Goodreads and Reddit, I kept coming across recommendations for this book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is a short story, they said. It has elements of magic, fantasy, and symbolism, they said. That drew me to this particular book. The beginning was quite captivating. This is the story of a lonely young boy living in a village in Sussex county in England. He loves books, the second thing that the protagonist has in common with me. A series of events leads him to meet his neighbour, a young girl named Lettie Hempstock. The Hempstocks are a mysterious family, consisting of three generations of women living on a big farm. Strange events start happening in the village after which the narrator heads out with Lettie to defeat the “monster” that is causing these events to happen.

The story is short and does include a lot of magical elements as promised. The symbolism of the duck pond as the ocean is quite fascinating. The book is filled with beautiful comparisons and observations. I especially loved the author’s explanation of the difference between children and adults.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.

This struck close to my heart. This was effectively the description of the rat race that people, once they grow old, enter into and never manage to come out.

For me though, once the mysterious events started happening in the book, the story took a deep dive (possibly into the pond, sorry the ocean) and never came up again. But this is not judging the quality of the book. Fans of Gaiman will probably enjoy it. Readers who are into the magic, fantasy, symbolism genres would also appreciate it. Unfortunately I’m not a fan of this and hence the feeling of being disappointed.

But still I give the book full marks for its poignant observations on certain topics, adulthood – I do not remember asking adults about anything, except as a last resort,” books – I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible,” and life in general – “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.” Read it for the magical story and such fascinating introspections of the protagonist. I may  or may not pick up another Neil Gaiman book but these highlights in my book will stay close to my heart forever.

Featured Photo Credit: Cristian Palmer
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The Order of Time – A primer on understanding time or a waste of time?

Even the words that we are speaking now
thieving time has stolen away,
and nothing can return.

Upfront I must admit this was one of the most complicated books that I have read this year. And as I end this book, a question comes to my mind. Was this a coherent set of thoughts? Or was it a ramble? Was it a primer on understanding time, or a waste of time? Honestly, I don’t know.

The Order of Time is written by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian theoretical physicist. Rovelli is one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory. As the title suggests, the book is on the subject of time and the various theories for understanding time that scientists have developed over the years.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part of the book is called The crumbling of time. Here the author starts out with describing what physics has learnt about the concept of time. Many earlier theories on time have since been debunked by scientists and with each new theory, the concept of time has become more and more complex. To me, it seems that time has become its own nemesis.

The second part is called The World Without Time. This part of the book is a unique one. Here the author tries to describe what a world would be without time. The third is called sources of time. According to the author, this part is “the return journey, back toward the time lost. This third part of the book is what the author claims to be the most difficult. Yes there is an actual warning in the book by the author encouraging the less intellectually minded to skip a couple of chapters because of their dense subject matter.

I would be lying if I said that I understood this book completely. Or at all. To put it out frankly, other than a few paragraphs scattered here and there throughout the book, I felt that a considerable part of the book was above my intellectual payscale. I’m not sure if it is a case of bad writing (or translation. This book was originally written in Italian) or it is simply that the modern concepts of theoretical physics are beyond the reach of the average human brain.

The author has used quite a romantic style of writing with metaphors generously sprinkled throughout the book often between dry facts about time. It is evident that the author cares deeply about the subject and his writing is heartfelt. But I felt a lack of coherence in the treatment or the exploration of the subject. Maybe it was just the technical nature of the content. I simply had to rely on the easier passages to carry me along the book.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, the author goes on one of the strangest digressions I’ve ever come across. The author reminisces about a couple of his teachers, and starts to write an almost personal letter to them, who are since dead. But then he suddenly catches himself realising that he is digressing. I wonder if this was an subconscious stream of thought that the author dived into and apparently the editor chose it interesting enough to retain it.

Benedict Cumberbatch The Order of Time
I guarantee you’ll enjoy my narration even if you don’t understand a bit of it.

One useful tip. If you can, get the audiobook version of the Order of Time. It is read by Benedict Cumberbatch and he does a brilliant job of it. The genius actor makes even the most complicated parts of the book a pleasure to listen to.

All in all, I feel that this book will be suitable for quite a limited audience. Maybe those who are already experts in modern physics or are interested in this subject area would consider this book a worthwhile read. For the rest of us mortals, I’d suggest giving this book a miss. You might as well save your time. If there is indeed such a concept, now that the author has denied it in this book.

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True Grit Book Review

Lately I have been abandoning many non-fiction books one after the other. Apparently I had been too hasty in my book selection. In order to break the chain and refocus my mind, I decided to read a quick fiction book this time. I picked up True Grit from Charles Portis as a tale of revenge, bravery and honour. It follows the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year old girl Continue reading “True Grit Book Review”

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Where the Crawdads Sing – Book Review

Suspension of disbelief. When I became old enough to understand what this phrase meant, I used it as a worthy ally in my book reading journey. Simply put, what it means is that to truly enjoy a movie, a book or any other form of fiction, you need to ignore some of the more “impossible” plot points in the creative work to derive a sense of enjoyment from it. So it is very important to put aside your critical faculties and not keep on saying WTF every time you encounter something that your mind can’t bend around.

So like any other work of fiction, I had this in my backpack as I picked up “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Rave reviews by celebrities helped bolster the feeling that I was in good company with this book.

“I can’t even express how much I love this book! I didn’t want this story to end!”–Reese Witherspoon

The coming of age story in this debut novel by the author is of a young girl, Kya, who lives in a marshland in North Carolina. Abandoned by her family, and ignored by the town at large, she learns to live in isolation but in touch with nature. Gradually, she learns to make a living by fishing, and selling her catch to a friendly family (a trader named Jumpin’) in town. Having no reason to attend school, she cannot read or write. But gradually, she even learns to read with the help of a one-time friend of her elder brother.

Like any coming of age story, she falls in love but after a couple of heartbreaks, she vows to never get fooled in love again and starts to prefer the company of her less human friends than to suffer another rejection. With lots and lots of time on her hand, and no one to disturb her, she starts doing what any other person would do. Write. With her extensive first-hand knowledge of the marshland, she pens down a few manuscripts on the flora and fauna of the area. Within a few years, she becomes a best-selling author, all this without having to meet her agent or publisher, or attend any marketing events! Using the royalties from her book, she even manages to renovate her familial home and even buy out a considerable portion of the marshland!

Now the clincher of the story, what makes this a murder mystery is the mysterious death of one of the inhabitants of the town. Unfortunately, the detectives assigned to the case make a buffoonish mess of the whole case by relying on circumstantial evidence to implicate the marsh girl as the prime suspect. Kya is arrested and held in a prison cell for a couple of months without trial. I particularly liked the way the author projected her time of isolation in the prison cell as a continuation of her isolation in the marsh. The book then ends with a short trial of the marsh girl as she is defended by a famous attorney – a white knight who magically appears in the story.

Now, why did I not like the book? Well, all of these events by themselves are alright. But somehow the entire set of events do not gel into a believable plot. Moreover the development of some of the characters is lacking. It is evident that the protagonists, her love interests and her friends get a sufficient number of pages to be explored and presented. But the side characters are merely cardboard cutouts – the detectives, the mysterious attorney, etc. Even Jumpin’ and his family are partly hidden in the shadows. Except for an episode each devoted to Jumpin’ and his wife, they are left underdeveloped. It would have helped to introduce a back-story for Kya’s attorney (as to why he would be willing to defend her pro bono), or the resort project that causes Kya to walk-in to the town office and walk out with the deed for the marshland in her hands. Oh, and the poetry? I simply skipped those parts without a second thought.

The author has written non-fiction before, however this is her first stab at a novel. So she could be forgiven for the flaws in the book. But this then becomes any other story about growing up, facing heart-break and rejection and then overcoming the odds to some extent. I had picked up this book because of the glowing reviews online and had read that it was a murder mystery. But in essence the book feels more like a YA, romance genre. Read this if you’re interested in living in the woods or learning about the marshland life. Else you are better off leaving the marsh girl in peace. Both you and her will be better off this way.

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When by Daniel H Pink – Book Review

Before I started this book, I had kept reminding myself, “Suspend your disbelief.” The reason I did this was that I have been very cynical of behavioural/psychological/anthropological books that spout studies selectively and creates an artificial narrative. Specifically an example is the spate of books that attribute certain behaviours of the modern human to that of his ancestors when they roamed the savannah. I’ve said it before as well that my brain does not process kindly such attributions. And in keeping with the times, this book too has this attribution somewhere in its pages (economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution).

“When” starts off quite well. The author structures the book into three parts – The Beginning, the Middle and the End. Each part deals with a specific time of any project/activity/task and it discusses how that particular part fits into the bigger picture. The author quotes multitudes of studies to bring home the point.

Mercifully the book is not too long and rambling. And that is where the good things about the book end. Although the author mentions in the introduction that this book can be used as a practical guide, by the time I reach the end, I’m left wondering for what. Other than a Malcolm Gladwellish analysis of social, mental and psychological phenomena, I didn’t finding anything much to take away from this book. To put it even more plainly I couldn’t discern the purpose of the book.

There are a few commonsensical tips scattered in the book. If you’re a morning person do your heavy work in the mornings. If you’re an owl, do it later in the day. Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up to rehydrate yourself.

Interestingly the useful content of the book follows the much repeated peak, trough and recovery graph that the author introduces at the beginning. The chapter on Midpoints seemed much devoid of actual useful information mirroring the trough that people face somewhere during the midpoint of a project.

The author proposes many changes in the daily schedule for a person for him to take the maximum benefit of the “when” concept. However, a typical working professional is highly constrained by the office timings and rules for him to gain any significant benefit out of these. A twenty minutes mid-day nap? Good luck convincing your boss to implement this idea.

Some of the most supposedly most actionable parts were the Time Hacker’s Handbook chapters. I assume this was the practical steps part that the author talk about. But in the end, these seem like simple (and repeated) life hacks. The Zeigarnik effect has been discussed in much detail in other books that I have read. Atul Gawande has better explained the importance of checklists in his excellent book. Yes, the Seinfeld chain recommendation is well known to most familiar with the self-help genre.

Getting the timing right in any aspect of life is quite important, and quite difficult. If done right, any material on this can definitely help improve the quality of one’s life. But as far as this book goes, I would not recommend this book more than a quick and light read, compiling many of the experiments done earlier as well as a miscellaneous collection of productive tips.

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.—MILES DAVIS

Thankfully this book didn’t take much of my time.

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