Life in the conflict zone. Illustrated memoir. | MUNNU by Malik Sajad


4.5 STARS!!

I really enjoy reading memoirs that are written as graphic novels. That added visual feature is such a great way to develop an instant picture of the time, place and feel being described, the details and character expressions conveying more than words sometimes do.

Munnu is the third and probably last book I will be reading on the Kashmir issue, at least this year. But it marks a perfect conclusion to my attempt at trying to understand the human side of the Kashmir situation more deeply. The book is a semi-autographical coming-of-age story of a young boy growing up in Kashmir through the peak of the armed conflict. What I found very interesting was that the author depicts all Kashmiris as the Hangul Deer, or the Kashmir Red Stag, which is now an endangered species, due to the destruction of most of their habitat and poaching, and everyone else is shown as human. It is a clever metaphor and the symbolism is completely on point.

The chapters covering Munnu’s younger years were the most enjoyable, which is nearly half the book, with some really sweet laugh out loud moments interspersed in the tense lives of the artisan family. These two pages in the picture below are probably my favourite. Its a hilariously innocent conversation between Munnu and his older classmate after they see two dogs mating.

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But there is no shying away from death, loss and tragedy and how it affected the psyche of parents or gave young children episodes of PTSD. As Munnu grows up and becomes an adult, innocence is lost and “life” takes over, which is essentially a day to day struggle to remain out of trouble while navigating through numerous check posts and curfews. And that is where the story loses its charm… and why I couldn’t rate it a full 5.

A must read for sure.

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Best of 2017: Non Fiction


I read some amazing non-fiction in 2017, ranging from memoirs to behavioural science to psychology and health. Even though reading 14 non-fiction books in a year has been a major achievement for me, a first infact, I regret not being able to cover a lot more of the exciting stuff that is being written and published almost every week!

With renewed vigour to read a lot more in 2018, here are the 4 books that compelled me to think and stayed with me in 2017.

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THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg

I enjoyed this thoroughly researched, well written and extremely interesting so much, I still haven’t stopped talking about it to people, months after having read it.
If you’re curious about the neuroscience of how habits work and manifest themselves through our daily routines, and want to really understand the key to altering or developing habits, then this is a great book to read. It is simply written and full of case studies from neurology, business, marketing, analytics, crime, religion, disasters /crises – – illustrating how habits are used by organisations and systems to influence beliefs and attitudes to elicit desired behaviours. You’ll read about Pepsodent, Alcoholics Anonymous, Target’s marketing analytics, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and much more!


51PF0757JNLBETWEEN TWO WORLDS: ESCAPE FROM TYRANNY: GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF SADDAM by Zainab Salbi

This is an intimate, revealing and disturbing first hand account of life inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and what it was really like for the people who were loyalty bound to the tyrant. Zainab Salbi’s father was appointed Saddam’s personal pilot, and someone who Saddam considered a dear friend. Fear made his friends acutely loyal. As much as this book is about how Saddam impacted Zainab and her family, eventually forcing it to break apart, it is also a chilling portrait of the man himself. Of all the stories one had heard about his savagery and ruthlessness, there is still more, and that in itself makes this book a remarkable read. To appreciate and understand Salbi’s struggles, her grit and determination to break out of a life controlled by fear and psychological manipulation, having a complete perspective on Saddam is imperative.

I already feel like I will read this book again.

 

25899336WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I will not be saying a lot about this book except that it is definitely one that you must read if you haven’t yet. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, When Breath Becomes Air has been one of the most talked about and appreciated books in 2017.

Written by a terminally ill neurosurgeon, who, finding himself on the opposite end of the table, looks back at his long and arduous training to become a neurosurgeon and comprehend what really lends meaning to life.

 

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DEAR LEADER: FROM TRUSTED INSIDER TO ENEMY OF THE STATE, MY ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA by Jang Jin-Sung

The two things we’ve seen mentioned together the most this year are Trump and North Korea. North Korea has always been a topic of interest for me. I find this book fascinating and absorbing because the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they manage to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question. In an article with the Guardian, he describes the
regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the centre of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

 

With that I wrap up my thoughts on my top 4 non-fiction favourites from 2017. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought about them!

Until then, happy reading!

Book Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah


Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars
I’ve been watching Trevor Noah on The Daily Show a lot this year. I like his sense of humour, which is funny but also ruthless. Most of the content on the show is about Donald Trump and all thats going to hell in the American government under his presidency. It is well researched and Noah does a really good job of talking about issues and calling out a bluff with that twisted smile on his face.

So reading this book had been on my agenda for a while; and when I found an audio version read by the author himself, I decided to listen instead of read.

Trevor Noah’s story is surprising because it is difficult to imagine someone transitioning from the life he describes in South Africa to his current persona we see on TV. And that is why, his story is also inspiring. In this book, Noah shares his story of being born biracial in a country under apartheid, when it was literally a crime for blacks and whites to have sexual relations, let alone have children together. Being exactly one of those children, Noah was brought up almost like a secret until apartheid was outlawed, by which time he was 7 or 8 years old.

Being a colored person in a county where segregation by race was the only way people classified or identified themselves, Noah was always maneuvering situations where he had to constantly establish his identity, not just to himself but also to everyone else around him. What I like about the book is that even though he had a really difficult life growing up, the expression is honest and candid, and without a hint of self pity. Its a story proudly told.

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Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran – Marina Nemat


Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside a Torture JailPrisoner of Tehran: One Woman’s Story of Survival Inside a Torture Jail by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It amazes me to read stories from around the world that reveal how in the name of religion, power, politics, revolution…. innocent people who choose not to comply end up paying such heavy prices to maintain the most basic of liberties.

It is not that I live in an idealistic world, oblivious to the realities and sufferings that result from war and violent conflict – but when one reads in such detail, the ordeal of an individual who survived a conflict, the gravity of what he/she endured really hits home. From a statistic, this person turns into someone who you get to know almost as intimately as your own family and friends, and it is that connect that provides such perspective into the silent suffering and strength of millions trapped in conflict zones.
I think with war continuing to carry on in so many parts of the world for so many years, one dismisses it as an event beyond one’s control and in the process also loses sight of all the lives that are changing and getting lost everyday.

This is an important story, one that took so much courage to tell.

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Book Review – Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim


Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was meant to be investigative journalism, but it certainly does not read like one. Infact there was quite a controversy around it being publicised as a memoir – a woman’s journey of self exploration, much against the wishes of the author, who protested that tagging it as a memoir stripped the book and the author from its journalistic expertise.

While this may well have been the effect for many readers, it did not really change my perception about the book or the author’s journalism expertise. I still picked it up believing that it would provide a rare and engaging insight into this unexplored section of the North Korean society.

But the irony is that it reads exactly like a memoir, and not an interesting one at that. First I almost quit at 20% and then at 60%, and then just trudged on to the end because I wanted to read about what the author witnessed when Kim Jong Il died. But the details she shares from her two teaching months come across as so superficial, that anyone who has been reading about North Korea or has watched enough videos on YouTube, won’t be surprised by or find anything new in her reporting. There is so much of herself in there that all of this taking place in North Korea almost seems like a sub plot.

So much lost opportunity, not just in the writing but also in the information / investigation of information, especially since the book is a result of ten years of work.

People read about North Korea to understand it beyond the generic assumptions we have or make about the country, it’s systems and people. Investigative journalism is probably the most potent and dangerous means of getting the real picture. But how does it work in a country like DPRK when your every move is being watched, every word heard. So I understand that this is a big challenge and carries immense risk and may not actually provide the results one hoped for.

But a nearly day by day, lesson by lesson account of her time teaching English there adds no value to the larger scope of information that could have been gleaned and what one actually learns from this book could easily have been wrapped up in a chapter or two.

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Daughter of China – Book Review


Daughter Of ChinaDaughter Of China by Meihong Xu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The remarkable story of a military spy who is then treated as an enemy of state, in the backdrop of a cautiously protective and paranoid China in the cold war era. No wonder they say that if this story wasn’t true, a Hollywood script writer would have written it.

The simple language and first person narrative transports you into that time and place in China, when the country’s most defining transitions take place and where Meihong’s life path unfolds. Reading the first hand experience and perspective of a former ‘red’ citizen is an eyeopening account of the fear psychosis that was built under Chairman Mao’s rule – something that is deeply reminiscent of how North Korea functions even today.

The stories of the two women, other than Meihong, that impacted me a lot were those of her aunt and her paternal grandmother. Those are extraordinary stories of principle, courage and endurance… and make you wonder about the measure of human capacities for tolerance. I like this story because it is true and honest, and becasue it shows you how the worst can happen to the best of us, and how even the worst will one day be behind you. Yet there will be more to come and the only thing you have to do is try and keep your courage, trudge on and make the most of what you have.

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