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Book Nook - 07-05-2018

Monday, May 07, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

When Death Knocks
The lives of four Gold siblings are altered when they find out when they are going to die. Does this knowledge become a self-fulfilling prophecy? That is the question Cloe Benjamin’s fascinating new novel, The Immortalists, tries to answer.

One summer in 1969, bored and bothered by the sticky heat, Varya, Daniel, Klara and Daniel Gold, go to meet a fortuneteller or “rishika” as their Indian friend Rubina calls her. The strange-looking and spooky gypsy woman tells them all the date of their death. They do not tell the others, and profess not to care, but the secret they keep in their minds affects them more than they realise.

Benjamin then follows the lives of all four, who seem to carry a cloud of darkness around them. The youngest, Simon, knows that he is going to die young, so he escapes from home, his overbearing mother, Gertie, and a dull future as the manager of his father’s tailoring establishment. He is aware that he is different, and in the homophobic society of the time, he could live freely as a gay man only in bohemian San Francisco. That is also where his sister Klara makes her way to build her career as a magician and acrobat.

Much against his mother’s wishes, he becomes a ballet dancer, promiscuous and flamboyant, till he dies of AIDS, which was just rearing its head then, and baffling the medical community that saw hundred of young men die painful and mostly lonely deaths. Simon dies on the day the psychic had predicted he would, but had he lived dangerously because of her revelation?

Klara meets an old friend Raj Chapal, who starts managing her career, and leads her to possible stardom in splashy Las Vegas. She marries him and has a daughter, but she performs dangerous feats and drowns her inexplicable despair in alcohol, pushing herself to die on the date predicted for her.

Daniel works as a military doctor, and is determined to find out why his younger siblings died; when he is suspended from his job, he gets obsessed with tracing the gypsy woman and finding out if she had indirectly been the cause of their demise. The oldest Varya, a scientist, researching longevity, knows she will  survive to ripe old age, but she also has to make those years meaningful.

Except for a section towards the end, The Immortalists, with its meticulous period research is an absorbing read. Benjamin writes with sympathy about the blighted existence of the Golds, tarnished by foreknowledge; even though their deaths were preordained, she makes each story exciting in its own way. The book seems to say that nobody can fight fate, but what if destiny’s dice were loaded unfairly?
 
The Immortalists
By Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: Penguin Random
Pages: 416

 

Excerpt of The Immortalists:
When Saul dies, Simon is in physics class, drawing concentric circles meant to represent the rings of an electron shell but which to Simon mean nothing at all. With his daydreaming and his dyslexia, he has never been a good student, and the purpose of the electron shell—the orbit of electrons around an atom's nucleus—escapes him. In this moment, his father bends over in the crosswalk on Broome Street while walking back from lunch. A taxi honks to a stop; Saul sinks to his knees; the blood drains from his heart. His death makes no more sense to Simon than the transfer of electrons from one atom to another: both are there one moment, and gone the next. Varya drives down from college at Vassar, Daniel from SUNY Binghamton. None of them understand it. Yes, Saul was stressed, but the city's worst moments—the fiscal crisis, the blackout—are finally behind them. The unions saved the city from bankruptcy, and New York is finally looking up. At the hospital, Varya asks about her father's last moments. Had he been in any pain? Only briefly, says the nurse. Did he speak? No one can say that he did. This should not surprise his wife and children, who are used to his long silences—and yet Simon feels cheated, robbed of a final memory of his father, who remains as close-lipped in death as he was in life.Because the next day is Shabbat, the funeral takes place on Sunday. They meet at Congregation Tifereth Israel, the conservative synagogue of which Saul was a member and patron. In the entryway, Rabbi Chaim gives each Gold a pair of scissors for the Kriah. "No. I won't do it," says Gertie, who must be walked through each step of the funeral as if through the customs process of a country she never meant to visit. She wears a sheath dress that Saul made for her in 1962: sturdy black cotton, with a dart-fitted waistline, front button closure, and detachable belt. "You can't make me," she adds, her eyes darting between Rabbi Chaim and her children, who have all obediently slit their clothes above the heart, and though Rabbi Chaim explains that it is not he who can make her but God, it seems that God can't, either. In the end, the rabbi gives Gertie a black ribbon to cut, and she takes her seat with wounded victory.Simon has never liked coming here. As a child, he thought the synagogue was haunted, with its rough, dark stone and dank interior. Worse were the services: the unending silent devotion, the fervent pleas for the restoration of Zion. Now Simon stands before the closed casket, air circulating through the slit in his shirt, and realizes he'll never see his ­father's face again. He pictures Saul's distant eyes and demure, almost feminine smile.

 

ALSO RECEIVED
The synopsis of Madhu Tandan’s Hemis reads: “Is falling in love only about the fire of sexuality or does it invoke something subtler? Swati believes Akanksha, Ajay’s colleague, hovers as a ‘third’ between them. Ajay is certain his faithfulness is beyond question, yet it has upended his relationship with Swati. With his marriage at risk, Ajay decides to go for a trek in Ladakh, only to be stranded, as the region experiences the worst floods ever to consume it. Forced to seek shelter in a remote monastery in the Hemis Sanctuary, he meets its charismatic abbot, a man unlike any other, and Anna, a young scholar, who is in search of a lost manuscript on the ‘missing’ years of Jesus. Gradually, the uncertainty over Ajay’s marriage turns into an exploration of love and sexuality, against an unusual backdrop of spiritual practices as he realizes that passionate restraint can sometimes produce greater fulfillment than consummation.

“Evocative, soulful and reflective all at once, Hemis is a powerful reminder that nothing else defines us more than our capacity to love.”

Hemis
By Madhu Tandan
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 304

 

Alex Hutchinson’s Endure asks “How high or far or fast can humans go? And what about individual potential, what defines a person’s limits? From running a two-hour marathon to summiting mount Everest, we’re fascinated by the extremes of human endurance, constantly testing both our physical and psychological limits. In endure Alex Hutchinson, Ph. D., reveals why our individual limits may be determined as much by our head and heart, as by our muscles. He presents an overview of science’s search for understanding human fatigue, from crude experiments with electricity and frogs’ legs to sophisticated brain imaging technology. Going beyond the traditional mechanical view of human limits, he instead argues that a key element in endurance is how the brain responds to distress signals whether heat or cold or muscles screaming with lactic acid and reveals that we can train to improve brain response.

“An Elite distance runner himself, Hutchinson takes us to the forefront of the new sports psychology brain electrode jolts, computer-based training, subliminal messaging and presents startling new discoveries enhancing the performance of athletes today, showing us how anyone can utilize these tactics to bolster their own performance and get the most out of their bodies.”

Endure
By Alex Hutchinson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 320

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