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The Mystery of Life and All Those Big Questions…

Confession time and don’t raise your eyebrows – I am not about to disclose that I am giving up life to lead an ascetic life on the Himalayas nor am I going to give up my job to spend the remaining life as a poster painter of the streets of Paris. I have nothing against the ascetic living individuals or poster painters, especially the latter since it does kind of have a 1920s glamour associated with it, but I can’t imagine myself as creature deprived of home delivery, cab service and Kindle!

Anyway, as usual I digress; where was I? Oh! Yes! Confession time – I am a crier! As in a bawler! As in I cry over books and movies. I bawl and drown the world in my river of tears. For someone who takes life stoically and bounces through heartbreaks through cherry optimism which even I find nauseating in myself at times can spend hours crying when Elsa is left to fend for herself in the Jungle- yes Born Free! I cried buckets when Boo rescued Jem Finch and takes him home – yes To Kill a Mockingbird! I cried when Maria left without meeting the children – yes Sound of Music. Let’s not even get into the hours of uninterrupted tears shed on reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. My new year’s eve 2013 was ushered with me shedding buckets of tears for while reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I even cried when I understood how poor Snape repented through his life in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (I mean who cries while reading a Harry Potter? I do! I cried for one whole day when Sirius dies!) I am sure I forgetting a million others, but the point I am trying to drive home is that I CRY!!!!

One of my all-time favorites reads, which inevitably leads to a lot of crying, thereby increasing sales of Kleenex and I am so surprised I have never written about this book is called “Welcome to The Great Mysterious” by Lorna Landvik. I had never read Ms. Landvik before I picked up this book and I have never read anything since. But, boy! Am I glad that my flatmate picked up this book one summer afternoon three years ago when our community library was selling of some of its older collections due to space constrains.

The Great Mysterious” is not a mystery/thriller – in fact it is one of the best happy books that I have read – true there are some heartbreaking moments, especially around chapter 10 and 11 (My Kleenex quotient jumps from 3 to the whole box Now!) but in the end when you close the book, you will have a smile on your face.  The book is about dive Geneva Jordan, a broadway star who is in between projects and nursing a broken heart and menopause. It is at this serene moment of her life that her twin sister Ann, arm twists her into babysitting Ann’s 13 year old son Rich, while she and her professor husband take a much needed work/vacation for a month in Italy. Geneva Jordan is not particularly happy at the thought  of spending time in the back woods away from the glamour and comfort of New York where  she had decided on spending this time indulging herself and taking a much needed vacation while coming to terms with the crucial changes in her life. The other worry she had was that Rich suffers from Down Syndrome and she is not quite confident as to how she would manage such a child. After much pleading and emotional turmoil, she agrees to take on her nephews care and moves into her sister’s house for a month. It is there that her transformation begins – how she begins a warm relationship with its natural ups and downs with  her nephew Rich, new enriching friendships with Barb, who is mother to Rich’s best friend Conrad and James the mail man and the discovery of small joys that are far more beautiful than the most expensive indulgences. Intertwined with this journey of self-discovery via a memory book that a 13 year old Geneva and Ann created seeking to find answers to the big questions in life called “The Great Mysterious” and the understanding that all relationships have several layers and a person may not be the way they seem and that the past gives strength for living for the future, when you know how to look!

It is not, and I repeat NOT a pedantic book.  Written in an engaging first party narrative from the point of view of a very warm but very human Geneva Jordan, the book does not aim to be a high brow literature. Instead it tells you an unstoppable story which makes you turn page after page until you reach the end. It’s a funny book – there are many ha ha moments and critics can say that it’s a very linear story and far too simplistic etc. but the book is what it’s meant to be – an entertainer! There is nothing holier than thou or oh! look at the bright side of things and Down Syndrome is god’s gift etc etc. Instead it’s a joy ride of a book – where you laugh, scream and the cry your way through. It’s like talking to a great companion and realizing at the end of 2 hours, that the companion is actually a great friend to whom you can go back whenever you are happy or sad or just need company time after time!

Personality and Duplication in London

Late last night I finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as part of my RIP 2013.  I had read the abridged children’s version long back and I was very curious to come back and read this classic which had spawned more than 125 adaption in stage and films alone and has become a part of our everyday conversation when referring to people with hypocritical characters traits or with dual personality, medical or otherwise.

Wikipedia, (my ever trusted resource and where would I be without thee!) tells me that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 and may have been inspired by a dream as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifelong interest in the good and bad side of a man’s character that coexisted with each other.

I don’t think there are many out there who are not aware of this plotline. Nevertheless, here goes a brief synopsis – The tale is narrated from the point of view of Mr. Gabriel John Utterson, a well-established lawyer and a generous gentleman.  It begins with Mr. Utterson being unease with a will which he had drawn up for his friend and well-known physician Dr. Jekyll and pertained to the half million sterling legacy which would go an Edward Hyde, after the latter’s death or disappearance. Mr. Utterson is in total distrust of Edward Hyde and believes that Dr. Jekyll is in the grasp of some vile plot which has forced him to name Edward Hyde as his successor and fears that Edward Hyde may actually murder Dr. Jekyll to get his hands on the wealth. He is aware of the loathsome nature of Mr. Hyde which is further blackened when his kin Sir Richard Enfield shares with him the story of Edward Hyde trampling a child. Mr. Utterson tries to argue with Dr. Jekyll and tries to make him change his mind about his will but it of no use. He even solicits the help of another friend Dr. Hastie Lanyon with whom Dr. Henry Jekyll has parted ways on reasons of scientific disagreement. Things take a turn for worse, when Edward Hyde is charged with the murder of an harmless and well respected Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew.  Sir Danvers was also Mr. Utterson’s client and to ensure that he does not compromise one client over the other, he visits Dr. Jekyll to understand if the latter has been hiding his prodigy. Dr. Jekyll vehemently denies the same and promises Mr. Utterson that he is through with Edward Hyde and he shall never see the man again. Things begin to look up as Edward Hyde is no longer heard off and Dr. Jekyll once more begins interacting with society and doing good among the unfortunate and taking up his old friendship with Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson. However things come to a sudden halt as suddenly Dr. Jekyll becomes a recluse again and Dr. Lanyon suddenly dies claiming to Mr.Utterson that he never wishes to talk of Dr. Jekyll again. Mr. Utterson then sets off on a quest to save his last friend and find the truth about Edward Hyde with startling results.

What can I say about this book that has not been said before? To begin with, I am sure you have read books which are like roller coaster rides – you rush through one page after the other with such intensity that when you reach the end, it leaves you grasping for breath. This is one of those books – its only 92 pages but it’s a tour de force.  You do not read this book leisurely and it does not leave you feeling complacent. It’s something you sit down and read and then get up and go for a walk or a run or something, because its gets your adrenalin pumping.  In my case because I read it far into the night I could not go for a run – the night watchman might have called the doctor or the police or both to see the crazy girl from flat #805 run around the apartment block at 3:00 am, as it is, he thinks I am a freak. Anyway, I went and cooked enough food for next two days and finally slept at 6:00 am in the morning!

Enough about the physical impact of the book – let’s talk about the book instead! It’s written in a direct and no frills voice. The descriptions are minimal and the author does not waste words in describing the house, garden or the table patterns.  He gets right to the story and starts his narration with very little prelude. There is ample time spent however in building the characters and though he uses very limited words to describe a character, their actions define them infinitely better – showing once again what a good author can do without being verbose. There is a lot of action in this book; however, there is no description of anything gruesome or vulgar. It’s only through words and atmosphere that the author manages to convey the feeling of depravity and terror in the presence of Mr. Hyde.  The author therefore uses a description of the weather and the fog as a constant companion to the action; but I cannot help but think that it is both an effort by Stevenson to create an eerie atmosphere as well a metaphor for clouding of a good man’s thought which prevents him from seeing the whole truth.

Metaphor in fact seems to be the very corner-stone of this tale. One could state that novella was an attempted Victorian morality tale. I am not sure what was Robert Louis Stevenson’s motivation in writing this piece and I am sure it was much more than a simplistic understanding of good and evil. The story talks about the duplicate nature of Victorian society, where behind the veil of gentlemanly conduct, there lurked many depravities of character. There is the concept of how both the good and bad exist within a man and too much pressure on bringing out the good may lead to violent eruption of the bad side. It’s also a can be seen as a cautionary tale of development of science – 1880s saw a number of scientific advancement and the tale could have been a question on how too much scientific interference in man’s constitution may alter it – something far-seeing considering we see the side effects of many medications our character everyday now .

The story is far seeing in many ways and there are multiple layers through which one can interpret this tale. Ultimately it’s a very very good read and I now understand why this work has been adapted more than 125 times.

Alleluia for Reading!

I read this article on Huff Post where social psychologists David Kidd and Emanuele Castano argue that reading classics like Tolstoy,Chekhov etc enhances what they term as “theory of mind”. In a study published online in Science, the duo argue that while the best sellers of might be a thrilling voracious mind ride, it is literature which actually helps us intuit better, empathize better and improves thoughts, sensitivity and ability to understand motivation.

In a study that they conducted, they asked their subjects to read 10-15 pages of popular fiction or literary works. Examples of literary work read included Anton Chekov, Don Delillo and popular fiction included best sellers like Danielle Steele’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  The participants were then made to undertake some psychological tests like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2 – the participants had to look at a face for 2 seconds and decide whether the face was unhappy, sad, afraid, happy, angry etc. The second test was Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test – the participants looked at a slice of a face and were asked to pick 4 complex emotions.  The results showed that both the reading groups did better than people who did not read or primarily read nonfiction.  But the results within the reading group were dramatic – the literary group outperformed the popular group by about 2 questions out of 36 in the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test and missed fewer questions out of 18 in the like Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2. The results substantiate the hypothesis – reading literature improves the mind and related cognitive abilities. The scientists are quick to point out that the theory does need more development.

Now having said all of that mouthful, one cannot deny what I had harped for ever – reading is awesome and reading books that are deemed classic, albeit difficult will only improve our mind. True they are not easy reads and true not all of them can be read – case to the point, my utter dislike for Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, but if we attempt 10, atleast we will come out like 4 at the least and the effort of reading in itself is mind exercise. I mean if there is ever a reason to read more classics, this is very much “it”.

However I am still curious about certain questions – this came up also on one of the comments and I was also thinking about stuff in the same lines: what about comic books? Does reading of comic books say a slower/more animated mind-set? I not only mean the Batman/Superman genre but Tintin and Asterix comics; I know a lot of kernels of ideas in my youth came from reading  and re-reading these two comic series including my interest in Roman Civilization. Then there are books that are now considered a classic but originally not believed to be literary at all – like James Joyce’s Dubliner or Lorna Doone by Richard Blackmore. Does reading of these book enhance cognitive skills equally as reading Charles Dicken’s  Great Expectation  since Dicken’s work was hailed as a masterpiece right from the start and not in hindsight and therefore cannot be credited to changing tastes and belief system of the mankind? Finally of course the question remains as to what is considered to be a classic and literary? Per Wikipedia, In the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say” and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says (italics in the original translation): “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him” This kind of falls in line with what Kidd and Castellano argue on the ability of classics to make people think. But Calvino also says  is a personal choice one cannot develop a universal definition of what is Classic Book since “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics” .  I mean till 1975 The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger was considered to be obscene and vulgar and still makes a lot of people uncomfortable in calling it a classic

Some of these factors I am sure go into what we read, consciously or subconsciously and define our behavior and cognitive skills. I have interacted with two groups very closely – my university years were filled with voracious readers who read extensively and all kinds from Sylvia Plath to Tolstoy to Jhumpa Lahiri. I work on the other hand with a set of extremely bright and funny but very non reading people. While both the groups are kind and generous, the fact remains that most of my university “geeky’ friends are more sensitive and more attuned to people’s emotion and can sense change in a person’s temper than the other set. While I always knew this, I also kind of presumed that corporate world takes on a different kind of mental capabilities and I was an aberration and not a norm; considering most of my university friends continue working in the field of academics, social services and arts.  However I never thought that reading and more importantly reading classics had anything to do with the cognitive capabilities. Again the Kidd and Castellano study is hardly definitive, but it cannot but help but make me wonder.

Caveat – This is not a blanket theory and there are exceptions and contradictions because one cannot typecast entire mankind in slot! But yes to end, a mental high-five for reading – any kind of reading! One will always be better off than a non-reader.

 

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