The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto

Mitch Albom’s books have always interested me. That’s how I picked up his latest book, The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, from the school library. And when I began, I kind of lost interest. I started listening to English music only in the 90s when my daughter was growing up listening to and singing English songs. And therefore my awareness about bands, musicians and songs is pretty pathetic.

I remember reading Markus Zusak’s book The Book Thief where the Narrator is none other than Death. The author here cleverly uses Music as the Narrator. Music says, “However well used, I am a loan, not a possession. You give me back upon departure.” (Page 4) It simply can’t be truer! And what a hypnotic pen picture Music paints about how talents are bestowed at birth. “Before newborns open their eyes, we circle them appearing as brilliant colours, and when they clench their tiny hands for the first time, they are actually grabbing the colours they find most appealing. Those talents are with them for life. The lucky ones choose me. Music. From that point on, I live inside your every hum and whistle, every pluck of a string or plink of a piano key.
I cannot keep you alive. I lack such power.
But I infuse you.” Magical indeed. Speaks volumes for the master story teller Mitch Albom is.

the-magic-strings-of-frankie-presto

The story is the life of a great guitarist, Frankie Presto. The narration alternates between Music and the reminiscences of the who’s who of music including singers, song writers, instrumentalists and others like Darlene Love, Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Paul Stanley, Tony Bennett, John Pizzarelli, to mention a few, about Frankie Presto. It suffices to say that I thought Frankie Presto too was a real person. Only later did I realize that the central figure is completely fictional and his life is beautifully blended with real life events, giving it an authentic feel. Therein lies the success of the author and the book.

Some of the lines of Music are vintage Mitch Albom.
All humans are musical. Why else would the Lord give you a beating heart?
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes, they are the wrong ones…
Everyone joins a band in this life. One way or another, the band breaks up…
Everyone joins a band in this life. Sometimes they reunite…
Everyone joins a band in this life. And what you play always affects someone. Sometimes, it affects the world…
Every loss leaves a hole in your heart…

Music’s chastisement of humans is so very apt. “You humans are always locking each other away. Cells. Dungeons. Some of your earliest jails were sewers, where men sloshed in their own waste. No other creature has this arrogance—to confine its own. Could you imagine a bird imprisoning another bird? A horse jailing a horse? As a free form of expression, I will never understand it. I can only say that some of my saddest sounds have been heard in such places. A song inside a cage is never a song. It is a plea.” Loved that last line!

Timeless wisdom from another very powerful character, El Maestro: “This is life. Things get taken away. You will learn to start over many times – or you will be useless.”

I am glad I persisted in reading. And my interest in the story gathered momentum. The lucid magic of Albom’s language is enchanting like the magical strings of Frankie’s guitar.

Loved the book and will give it 4 stars. This is only because I did not know many of the musicians. Aficionados of English music are likely to give it a 5-star rating. So if you are one, you will probably enjoy it.

The Four Agreements

It’s not every day that one reads a life-impacting book.
One that inspires. One that galvanizes you to reflect. Look within.
One that goads you to unlearn whatever you have learned so far in the journey of life.
One that exhorts you to take on a new trajectory by following a new set of agreements that will emancipate you from all self-limiting beliefs and fears.
One that helps you to be free from being a judge of oneself and others.

That is how The Four Agreements impacted me. Some books change lives. Forever.

Don Miguel Ruiz, the author of this book of timeless wisdom, is a nagual* from the Eagle Knight lineage. Toltec wisdom, is distilled and collected in the crucible of this amazing little book. Toltec philosophy is a path that teaches us to transcend our self limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging behavior patterns so that we may live a fulfilling and authentic life.

It’s is seemingly simple to follow the four agreements.

the-four-agreements

However it is when one starts practicing it that one realizes how deeply our self-limiting thoughts, fears, assumptions and beliefs are entrenched. No doubt it is a powerful code of conduct for anyone who aims to improve oneself day after day. If you want to live your own truth, Don Miguel suggests we align ourselves to these: being self aware, being receptive to change and to nurturing the intent to make that change happen.

On hindsight it is remarkable to notice that two of the most amazing books I have read are little ones!  One is The Alchemist. The other is this one.

5 stars for this book. I will go back to it again and again. Loved it.

P.S: Just because I loved it you don’t have to read it. If you are on that path of self-discovery, am sure that the book will find its way, for when the student is ready, the teacher appears!

* Naguals (pronounced “nah*wahl”), native American masters capable of transforming minds are people with knowledge of the higher realms.

When Breath Becomes Air

It is from Mohanlal’s blog, The Complete Actor¹, (which I follow regularly – he does write about some very thought-provoking matters) that I read first about Dr. Paul Kalanithi and his book When Breath Becomes Air. I had decided then to get the book and read it during summer holidays. Thanks to Amazon (I must say a ‘Jai ho’ to the e-commerce giant for their tempting offers for book aficionados like me.) I was able to get the hard bound Random House copy of this book priced at Rs. 669/- for Rs. 339/-! It’s an absolute pleasure to get the books that you want at discounted prices delivered at home. Ah, it’s bliss!!! 🙂

Imagine this: You are a brilliant neurosurgeon. You also are a post doctoral fellow in neuroscience. You dabbled in English Literature, Human Biology and Philosophy and then decided to go ahead doing medicine at the prestigious Yale. You have a flourishing career. You are a compassionate person, rooted in values with a deep calling for medicine. You have a young and equally brilliant wife. And when life and it’s dreams are aligned to fruition, you take ill. And the prognosis? Stage 4 lung metastases. How would you handle this cruel fate? That’s exactly the sum and substance of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s deeply moving, intensely disconcerting memoir about his journey towards Death.

When Breath becomes Air

The last 22 months of his life was spent in writing the memoir and undergoing cancer treatment. The prologue of the book that went on to be a best seller for 75 weeks, begins: “I flipped through the CT scan images….” and goes on to give graphic details. But it is the last line in the first paragraph that is a stunner that takes one’s breath away: “But this scan was different: it was my own.” From then onwards, the book moves on in a gripping fashion, laid threadbare with flowing prose, with references to many gifted writers and their works and dealing with the existential question – how meaningful can we make our life to be in the face of certain and fast approaching death. There are pages that will leave you choked and with a lump in your throat. It is poignant that he stops with a message to his young daughter, who was born at a time when his life was fading, wasting away and yet he was facing it bravely and with integrity. The last days of his life are written by his wife, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi in the form of an epilogue. Dr. Paul Kalanithi passed away on 9th March 2015 at a very young age of 37 and after that the book was published by Dr. Lucy, fulfilling the word she had given to her husband.

It was painful reading the book for it was heartbreaking; yet, it was enriching and inspiring. Death is considered morose, morbid and macabre  – people shy away from talking about palliative care, physician assisted dying and death. The openness with which he deals with the “other side” – that of death – shocks the reader. When Dr. Paul Kalanithi sent his best friend an email in May 2013 revealing that he had terminal cancer, he wrote: “The good news is that I’ve already outlived two Brontës, Keats and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven’t written anything.” An ardent lover of Literature, he couldn’t have put it across more succinctly. When his carbon dioxide levels rise precariously, and vestiges of hope diminish, he even says to his wife, “I am ready.” In the epilogue, Dr. Lucy enciphers it: “Ready, he meant, to remove the breathing support, to start morphine, to die.” The camaraderie that the family displays when the icy hands of death strikes their beloved  ‘Pubby’ is paradoxically heartwarming.

This book will change your life. Read it. It will leave you with a lot of thoughts. Of living and of dying. At the same time, let me also tell you – it is not a tragedy, though it can be tragic when a brilliant doctor is lost to Cancer – he would have done a lot more to the living and dying, had he been alive.

  1. http://www.thecompleteactor.com/articles2/2016/03/gods-letter-2/

Dying to be Me

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have fascinated me ever since I started reading books of Raymond Moody and Brian Weiss. The latter’s Many Lives, Many Masters, Message from the Masters and Only Love is Real were read with great interest and curiosity. I would like to believe that there are so many things that we do not know about. NDEs are of that realm. Besides, some of the accounts have been experienced and narrated by respected physicians that it is not only hard to ignore but is also scientifically intriguing.

Dying to be Me is another book that deals with the near death experience of Anita Moorjani. When diagnosed with Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, Anita underwent everything that a normal human being undergoes: denial, distress and then a gnawing, overpowering fear. She tried everything possible other than chemotherapy – many of which were conflicting practices that worsened her cancer. In the book she documents her journey through cancer, her near death experience and her miraculous cure which she attributes to the shifts within her that accelerated her cure. I found the book quite an interesting read.

Dying to be Me

What are the takeaways for me from this book and its reading?

1) Acceptance. Whatever you are faced with accept it and go with the flow. Yes, it is a tall order, especially when one faces trials and tribulations but it is good to cultivate the feeling that everything that happens is for one’s highest good.

2) Self-love. It is essential to be kind, compassionate and have empathy for oneself. This is most therapeutic – for, if we can’t love ourselves how can we love others? It is essential that we love ourselves unconditionally. Never be judgmental – of us or of others. Realize that each one of us is truly magnificent and never nurture feelings of inadequacy. No one is better than or worse than me. We are equal and there is an underlying connection amongst all of us in this universe. Yes, we are all connected.

3) Remove fears. Remove all kinds of fears that cripple and paralyze us for most of our fears are quite unfounded. They are limiting in nature and stand in the way of expressing our magnificent selves. It is essential that we just pay attention to whatever feels right at the moment and act accordingly. For this we have to train ourselves to listen to our intuition.

4) Change: To change ourselves, we have to start with our belief systems. A belief is an energy and when we allow our true spirit to shine through, we can create transformative shifts within us. And that opens ourselves to infinite possibilities.

5) Be authentic. Being a people’s pleaser or seeking approval from others at the cost of one’s own interests can have a disastrous effect on our authenticity. So is saying ‘yes’ when we actually want to say ‘no’.

5 stars for this book. I hope you read the book. 😀

Mahashweta: A Review

” The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.”
– D H Lawrence

The story of a bright, beautiful and talented girl living with her father, stepmother and step sisters who are not as pretty or brainy has plenty of vital ingredients for a potboiler. But far from it, Sudha Murthy in her compelling reader, Mahashweta, has converted it into a captivating tale of a woman who rises like a phoenix from the ashes of her own self.

Mahashweta - by Sudha Murty

Mahashweta – by Sudha Murty

Imagine this: After troubled growing-up years without your biological mother to share and care, meeting a dashing young doctor who is besotted with you and then that fairy tale love culminates in a dream marriage – it has all the trappings of a happily-lived-ever-after story. But not for Anupama. The edifices of her dream world crumbles when she discovers that she has an incurable disease. What happens to her after this revelation and the twists and  turns in life that she has to cope forms the crux of the story.

Sudha Murthy in all her grace and wisdom has succeeded in making Anupama a symbol of all women who fight against odds, both expected and the unexpected. As a reader, I loved the decisions that she takes in the end – they are perfectly in line with the character etched by the author. It is indeed a tale of hope, acceptance, and through that emerging victorious and much more stronger. Through this poignant story Murthy brings to light societal prejudices and stereotypes.

The best thing about the book lies in the postscript. And coming from somebody as respected as Sudha Murthy who is not only an established writer but also the trustee of Infosys Foundation, am sure it is only the truth. If with this book, if one person has moved away from the oft taken path, therein lies the success of the book. And if that is the yardstick, this book is a runaway success.

World Book Day Thoughts

Today is World Book & Copyright Day. Can’t have a better day to celebrate it as today is the birthday of the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare and the day the celebrated Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes was buried. A birth and a death. In between is the journey of life. With technology changing every minute, to me the power of the Book is still unquestionable. Yet as an educator I can see that the love for books and art of reading books is dying.

My books

How did I come to be an ardent book lover? I remember fondly my childhood days. Daddy used to read books to us just before we went to bed. And the most vivid memory is that of Dad reading Jim Corbett’s stories to us. Probably because we lived in the midst of coffee / tea plantations with forests and wildlife around in Valparai, Anamallais, I could connect that with the topography mentioned in the stories. Dad had a knack of reading it in such a way that it painted a picture in the mind’s canvas. He bought us lots of books. During summer holidays when we spent time at Dad’s work place, he introduced us to the books of Enid Blyton. My guess is it is those books that got me hooked to reading – not surely the classics. Abridged editions or original versions were not good enough to inspire me read more.

Later as I grew up, I not only started reading but also collecting books and build a library. I do have lots of books now and would love to keep on reading. However, today, when I see students around me not really reading, I wonder if it is because many of us, English teachers, focussed first on classics. (We are old school, you know! I plead guilty of this till recently when I laid hands on a wonderful book called Caring Hearts, Critical Minds by Steven Wolk, which completely changed my perceptions and brought in refreshing insights.) We wanted them to read Oliver Twist and Three Musketeers or Anna Karenina and Moby Dick first. There is nothing in them that would hold their attention. I must also add that those books were written by adults for adults. Yet, we asked our students to read them.

Instead if we ask them to read something they can relate to – like something they see around them in the real world – may be they would find reading a more engaging experience. For example reading books like Freak the Mighty (Philbrick 1993) that explores friendship or the award winning Bamboo People (Mitali Perkins 2012) that hinges on the redemptive power of love, family and friendship. Or Copper Sun (Sharon Draper 2006), the riveting story of the trials and tribulations of an African girl and the practice of slavery. Any Small Goodness (Tony Johnston 2003) a story steeped in hope, love and warmth. Or Scrawl (Mark Shulman 2010), a juvenile fiction that deals with social issues like bullying and peer pressure.

The sad truth is we teach reading to test. Not for the pure pleasure and love of it. We ask them the very evident questions, not those that will make them think. “Instead of teaching ‘Reading’ as a school subject”, how about teaching “reading filled with real purposes, experiences and emotions of life” asks Steven Wolk.

Yes, we need to do this to stoke the embers of this dying fire of reading. For even in this techno savvy geeky world, everything boils down to reading. Adult life is full of that. Read, comprehend, analyse, synthesize, extrapolate and create completely new things out of what you read. Granted what you have to read may not be in hard copy but surely it is in the form of an e-book, kindle edition and or the plain and simple PDF. I hasten to add that this is also reading, but minus the essence. I mean the heady fragrance of a brand new book or the musty smell of an old book. To a connoisseur of books both are sure to gift a very special olfactory experience. Something that makes one clamour for more!  Sniff, sniff and sniff!!! Open-mouthed smile

By the way, did you know that there are perfumes that you can spritz on your e-reader or kindle to make it smell like a paper book? It is like bottled scent of ink on paper – check this one out! Eau de books??? Or is it meant to be worn as an actual perfume? In any case, I doubt if even book lovers would love to walk around smelling like a book. It is great to sniff will it be so to walk around wearing it on your sleeve?

Smell of a book

I think language teachers have their tasks cut out. It is time that schools, teachers and parents helped today’s digital generation discover the simple joys of reading books. Meanwhile, I have rediscovered the joy of reading, thanks to a lot of books that my children, Aathira and Praveen, gifted me for my birthday. From The Immortals of Meluha I am traversing into the absorbing tale of the The Secret of the Nagas (Amish Tripathi – the second in the The Shiva trilogy).

Are you reading too? Happy World Book Day to you!

** Caring Hearts, Critical Minds; Steven Wolk, Stenhouse Publishers; Page 191