A spooky book for a spooky season

Thursday, October 30, 2014

One of the traditions I have never had is to read something spooky or scary for Halloween. The idea has always enamored me, and why not? Reading ghostly books during Halloween, Christmas books in December, and romance books around the Valentine's day season simply enhances the holiday experience. Sure, there's nothing spooky about Halloween in the real world, but if the make-believe worlds in books and movies and TV shows are to be believed, then ghouls and ghosts are just waiting for a reason to rise from the dead and send the still-alive people running for their lives.

(Original photo here)

It's not that I haven't ever wanted to read horror fiction. It's just that I have had very little success with this genre. When I was a kid, my family used to watch all kinds of horror movies and TV shows, and I would watch with them. They would cover my eyes every time something nasty (or sexy) would happen on screen. Of course, that only made the genre scarier than it should be. So most of my memories of these horror-laden years include bodies buried in walls (to this day, I have an urge to go knocking on walls to make sure there are no spots that sound different and hence could have a body hidden behind), dogs ripping apart people's bodies by clawing through their stomachs (and splattered stomach goo matter for added effect), invisible men who can regain their bodies only by eating human flesh, entire families murdered and drained of blood by their vampire-in-residence landlord, and several other ghastly details that I won't regale with you yet. Even though today's horror movies and TV shows are just as spooky, they appear almost laughable to me, compared to my memory of the horror of whatever I watched during the 80s and 90s.

Considering how jumpy I can be when I am around this genre, I have mostly strayed away from horror books as well. Still, a few years back, I chanced upon David Morrell's Creepers, which wasn't a particularly good piece of literature but boy, was it creepy. That book kept me up at nights and made me highly sensitive to unexplained sounds. It took a while for the effects of that book to wash away. Since then, I haven't read a genuine horror fiction (The Walking Dead and other dystopia don't count).

So that brings me here. I do want to read something horror. Sure, it may keep me up at night, and sure, I may not read another book from this genre for a few years. But if I can read a book that's very good, even if it is very scary, and if I can say at the end that the book was well written and well-constructed, that would be worth it. I have a strong desire to read Stephen King, as he is considered the king of horror novels. When I checked the popular horror fiction list at Goodreads, 14 of the top 15 were books by him. His books can be very long though. Two other books I have been considering reading are Horrorstör and We have Always Lived in the Castle. But I'm also curious to know what other horror books have been particularly good - something YOU would recommend, something genuine and believable, something that has possibly kept you up, and made you feel as if you were experiencing it. I know I am asking for trouble here by looking for a book that's going to make me feel all the horrors that my 12-year old self watched. But, I realize that it's time my adult self revisited this genre and experienced it from a (hopefully) grown-up perspective.

What is the scariest book you ever read?

Switching Time by Richard Baer

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Switching Time
I have a big fascination with Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). It started with reading Sidney Sheldon's Tell Me Your Dreams, in which a woman has three alters and since this is Sidney Sheldon, there's a lot of sex and damaged woman issues. Then there was an Indian movie, Anniyan, that tackled this issue. The movie was a success but it was more entertaining and less informative about the illness. I've read that book and watched the movie multiple times just because that illness fascinated me. And so, when I saw Switching Time for sale in Audible, I purchased it after doing a quick review scan to make sure people were somewhat happy with the book and that it wasn't fake like Sybil's story is.

Switching Time is about a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder and told from her psychiatrist's perspective. Karen, the subject with the disorder, has 17 alters that were born to help her deal with severe trauma. She has been raped too many times by her father, her grandfather, her grandmother's brother, neighbors, friends of her father, and others. While this was happening, her own mother pretended she couldn't see what was happening in front of her, and years later, would deny that any such thing happened.

Karen's father and grandfather were members of a small cult and would brainwash Karen into believing that she was a devil and deserved to be tortured. As part of their rituals, she has had all kinds of pointy objects scar her skin and inserted into her. If not the rituals, then it is some night-time gathering at her parents' house, where her father invited his colleagues to rape Karen for a fee. Some men weren't too comfortable about this, but the fear of losing their jobs made them accept this "offer". I was honestly in shock. I know that there is a lot of abuse in this world but it's always been something I read about in the news, or vaguely mentioned in a book, or seen in a movie or the news. I have also read a few books where there is significant abuse, but nothing of the sort that's in Switching Time, where one person gets abused consistently over a significant period of time. Karen mentions growing up hearing everyone question her self-worth that it never occurred to her even as an adult that they could be wrong, that she deserves every bit of respect that every other person gets.

When Karen arrives at Dr. Richard Baer's office, she doesn't have even one iota of confidence or desire to fix her problems. She was depressed, docile, diffident, and not sure what to look forward to during her therapy sessions. It isn't until a few years later that her disorder is revealed.

It is fascinating what the mind is capable of to protect itself. Karen's mind would split itself when she was facing a particularly unbearable trauma. Some of her alters are males who were created when she was being raped. Since a male doesn't have a vagina, it cannot feel the rape, thus protecting Karen from the experience. They also do not share those terrible memories with Karen, so she really didn't "know" most of these incidents when Dr. Baer was treating her. Besides, each of these alters held a certain trait of Karen - there was an artist, a sweet little girl, a devout, and two alters who took care of all the alters and managed them. There was also one who had a propensity to steal, another one who over-ate to deal with issues, and then several alters who came out when Karen was hurt particularly bad and hence would forever carry those pains with them.

Yes, there is a lot of sad stuff in this book. But oddly enough, it was also optimistic. I knew that she will recover and I just wanted to cheer her on while she battled her inner demons. If reading about child abuse is something you can stomach, this is a book that should be on your list. Despite how much Karen has suffered, Switching Time is really about the awesomeness of the human mind and how it can also be fixed.

Be warned though that the writing in this book isn't particularly great. It reads more like a journal and could have benefited from a good editor to remove some of the repetitions and redundancies. It was easy on the ears though - it gave the impression of someone narrating their experiences realtime. Therefore the audiobook is certainly highly recommended. There's also a ton of fascinating stuff in this book so those made for some exciting listening. This is probably among my fastest listens - the audiobook is about 13 hours, but I took to listening to it whenever I had a few minutes to spare.

This audiobook is from my personal library.

The Sunday Salon: Gone Girl and We Bought a Zoo

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Sunday 

It's 6.30 AM now as I type up this post. I've been up for a while - certainly early for me for a Sunday, but glad to take advantage of it now that I cannot go back to sleep. Later today, we are planning to drive along the Blue Ridge parkway and see the Fall colors. I've been gearing for this trip for months and there was always something in the way. Fall's definitely in town now. All the leaves haven't turned yet but enough to give a nice warm color. But it's been cold and windy!

Yesterday, the husband and I went to watch Gone Girl. Both of us had read and enjoyed the book when it came out, except for that somewhat anti-climactic ending. (SPOILER THOUGHTS START: I thought them killing each other would save humanity and also make me feel that all that drama up until that point was not for nothing. SPOILER THOUGHTS END) However, I wasn't sure at all that they could make a successful movie out of a book whose main selling point was the fact that the reader is inside the heads of two messed up characters. It would be very hard to put the viewer inside the head of a movie character.

But the movie was good. Better than good. So much better than I thought it would be. For one thing, the evil is much more real in the movie. Even though I knew what would happen, I still jumped in my seat at some parts. The acting was also pretty solid. Moreover, even though the movie stayed true to the book throughout (based on my recollection of the book two years after reading it), I was able to accept the ending now that I saw it on screen. It made sense, and why not? That's what Amy wanted all along and she could either continue the fight or do something about it and be the winner.

While still on the movie Gone Girl, did anyone else keep count of the number of times Amy gets hit in the head? I counted three - twice by Nick and once when she gets robbed. It seemed supernatural that she lived through it all without so much as a grimace. I do have to admit something though - something that I felt after reading the book as well. Even though I thought Amy's character was super insane, I was proud of the girl for not submitting to her crappy life and trying to do something about it. Of course, she used several questionable methods to get that done, so that's where the love ends. However, the movie felt very sexist to me. I don't remember getting that vibe from the book but it's possible I just don't remember that anymore.

Watching this movie has made me crave some Gillian Flynn so I started reading her Dark Places last night.

I also watched We Bought a Zoo this week and that's another book I loved when I listened to it about a year or two ago. Unfortunately, although the movie was enjoyable in its own way, it was not true to the original story for the most part. In the book, Benjamin Mee's wife was alive for a good part of their adventure with a zoo they had just bought. But Mee gets a new love interest in the movie and I thought that was a little disrespectful to the original Mee (I wonder what the original Mee thought about it). The book was focused on some on Mee's wife's struggles with cancer and their journey through renovating and reopening a dilapidated zoo. The movie  focused on Mee's new love interest, his fragile relationship with his son that suddenly gets resolved one day without much explanation, and a tiny bit on the zoo. It was disappointing though Matt Damon's acting was pretty good. I may have enjoyed it more had I not read the book but I kept thinking unkind thoughts about Mee's love interest (even though I like Johansson) and that ruined the movie a little for me.

Have you watched either of these movies?

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hatching Twitter
"Hashtags are for nerds," Biz replied. Ev added that they were "too harsh and no one is ever going to understand them."

I have a confession to make. I have a morbid curiosity for what goes on behind some of the most popular technological companies out there. I love to find out how some of their products came into being, who decided who would become the CEO, and how these companies or people got funding to build and sell their products. I don't care much for established products of yesteryears such as Microsoft, Yahoo, or Apple. But dish me some of the sordid stories from Google, Facebook, or Twitter and I'll probably be all ears. I guess some of that interest comes from being a programmer myself but it's fascinating to learn how an everyday programmer, the likes of whom I see everyday at work, would build something that the world would just adopt heavily.

Still, none of that eagerness nor watching (and being shocked by) The Social Network prepared me for just how sordid a background Twitter has. Seriously, I'm surprised that such a discordant company led by people who barely got along managed to produce a product that is used by every Tom and his neighbor.

Hatching Twitter starts at the very beginning - with Blogger's creation. Evan "Ev" Williams developed what would become Blogger and it wasn't soon before it was bought by Google. After a brief stint at Google, he left the company and started a podcasting company called Odeo along with his neighbor Noah Glass. Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone joined shortly, along with several others who would be part of this group for a long time to come. Although they were officially building a podcast product (though that term was not yet in the mainstream), unofficially an idea to share status messages with other people in an SMS-like manner was taking hold among them. Jack Dorsey came up with the idea first, and soon they put together a very early version of Twitter. Then they sat waiting for people to sign up.

Except, it didn't get anywhere.

It isn't until months later that Twitter began to make a tiny name for itself at a time when startups were all the craze.

I found Hatching Twitter immensely fascinating. These founders are clearly very intelligent, but most of them were also very introverted or socially awkward. Twitter was a big part of who they wanted to be. As Noah often said, Twitter was where he could make lots of friends and not feel too alone, as he often did in real life. These guys bonded with each other easily, but some of them were quick to back-stab someone if it meant getting a leg up in the small Twitter corporate ladder. Jack and Ev abhorred confrontation and many a problem at Twitter could be blamed at their hesitation to address issues constructively.

Over time, Twitter's leadership changed hands quickly and people were getting fired. Jack Dorsey was made CEO first since Twitter was his idea after all. Noah Glass was fired from the company even though he was a big part of the company. When Jack wasn't fixing problems but trying to make new plans for Twitter, the board fired him and made Ev the CEO. The board would later do the same thing to Ev and make Dick Costolo the CEO. There were times I wanted to gouge my ears out - this company was filled with people who didn't know how to solve problems! Unfortunately, that's the story of many corporate companies.

If only the story ended there.

Just as in fiction, Jack comes back to get his revenge on Ev for firing him. He seemed to be playing some mental chess where he moved his pieces (the people influencing Twitter) around and managed to get back on top. At least, this is what the author says and after doing a fair bit of research since, this does seem to be true. Amidst all this betrayal and poor sportsmanship at Twitter, Noah's is certainly the saddest tale of all. He had a very effusive personality and was often a difficult personality to handle, but I got the feeling that he was also the only genuine person working at Twitter. Being fired from the one company he poured his soul into hit him too hard, so much that he has mostly disappeared from social media.

There were some interesting mentions that most of us users were a part of. Remember the #failwhale that used to grace the page of Twitter every so often? The #failwhale is also a big part of the book. I was amazed to learn that Twitter's failwhale woes hung around for years. I joined Twitter in early 2010 and even then it was the one page I ran into more times than any other. The #failwhale is also one prime reason for both Jack and Ev to get fired. Another interesting detail was that the Twitter founders didn't care for the hashtag. They considered it too technical and didn't think users would ever understand how to use them. Programmers do need to get down from their high horse and give people more credit.

This audiobook is from my personal library.

The Sunday Salon: Gearing up for a different kind of Christmas shopping

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Sunday 

The husband and I just booked our tickets to India for next month. We'll be there for a whole month and be back in time to see the end of the Christmas holidays. Shopping for an India trip is always tricky. It's like Christmas shopping. I don't know if this is a global custom (it probably is) but we try to buy something from here that family in India will appreciate. When I say family, I don't just mean immediate family. I do mean immediate family, and aunts and uncles, and some neighbors who are good friends, and best friends, and cousins, and new babies, and any kind of kid, and whoever else we consider a big part of our lives but don't fall into the above buckets. It's a giant web.

When I was still a little girl, I used to look forward to these visits from the then very small number of family members who were in the US. There would be clothes, candies, perfumes, and beautiful home decor items. We used to be in Dubai at that time, so no matter how rich or poor we were or how similar the industries in the two countries, we would unfailingly have one bag of items that were just gifts. There have been embarrassing moments when we bought something for Cousin X but not for Cousin Y who we were not expecting to meet during the visit. But of course, as fate would have it, Cousin Y has planned an impromptu trip and we are left wondering how to give something to Cousin X in front of Cousin Y. One of the most common gifts I have seen handed over was perfumes. I could never understand what people saw in perfumes, since I didn't like them at all. Perfumes were also a highly subjective item like intimates - what smells like luxury musk to you could smell like a choking hazard to me. You wouldn't buy intimates as gifts, would you?

When I was planning my first trip to India as a grad student, I was getting panic attacks about what to get people. Buying a gift is already a nerve-wracking deed for me. Will the recipient like it? Will she wear it? Will he look at it in confusion? On top of that, I was a student living on a small stipend and I could empty my entire savings on just the shopping part. So I bought candies. Bags and bags of candies. If the TSA did open my bag, they would have wondered if I was headed to some weirdo Halloween celebration in the wrong month of the year (May). Of course, we get candies in India, so there is nothing American about them. But multiple aisles filled with a million different kinds of candies has not yet arrived in India.

Of course, a lot of time has passed since the days when I would be excited to see a bag of goodies sent from the US to being the one who now sent those goodies. There is really nothing that's not easily available in India now. In fact, it's even cheaper there and we do often buy stuff from India and bring them here. Of course, this is all because of lower cost of living (and salaries) in India. That does make our US shopping a little easier to deal with - there's always candies (I won't be surprised if we are building an entire generation of Diabetes illnesses in our families) - but also difficult when it comes to some special people.

Although I'm looking forward to this trip, I have never yet had a stress-less vacation to India. There are friends and family to meet and then more. We haven't yet nailed down our plan yet but I'm hoping that the husband and I will get to do some real vacationing as well and keep the meet and greets to a minimum. I'd love to be able to say that I actually vacationed in India. This is also going to be our first trip to India since we got married almost three years ago, though we were were both in India briefly when my husband's mother passed away.

Vacation plans aside, I have been listening to The Emperor of All Maladies this week and finally decided to put it down. It's a rich book and a treat for anyone fascinated with the history of cancer (and I did learn a few good things) but my mind is just not on the book. I have been guilty of preferring silence in the car at least twice this week. Since I had a few unused Audible credits, I just purchased three audiobooks and am wondering which one to start with.

What are you reading or listening to?