Friday, October 18, 2019

Please Look After Mom – A Wistful and Heartwrenching Portrait of a Mother

“Even though I’m a mother, I have so many dreams of my own, and I remember things from my childhood, from when I was a girl and a young woman, and I haven’t forgotten a thing. So why did we think of Mom as a mom from the very beginning?”

Some books help us pass time. Some other books possess the power to look through the time passed in our lives and call attention to things we have taken for granted.  Korean novelist Shin Kyung-sook’s novel, Please Look After Mom (originally published in 2008 and translated to English by Kim Chi-Young in 2011), which won the Man Asian Literary Prize, clearly belongs to that later category of books. The novel is a haunting tear-jerker, which reminds us to appreciate and reciprocate the never-ceasing, unconditional love one receives from his/her mother. Although set in Seoul, South Korea, Shin Kyung-sook’s devastating tale deals with universal themes like motherhood, loss, tradition, loneliness, and familial roles.

A large part of this international best-selling novel is told in second-person narration which is initially off-putting, but gradually it achieves an eloquence that adds to the reading experience. Carefully divided into four chapters, Please Look After Mom opens with the mysterious disappearance of a 69-year-old woman named Park So-nyo in a crowded Seoul subway station. She’s accompanied by her husband both having arrived from the countryside to the big city where their four children are living. The first three chapters are narrated by the woman’s elder daughter (Chi-hon), elder son (Hyung-chol), and the husband respectively. While the family desperately searches for her, wandering around the streets and putting up ‘missing’ posters, the aforementioned family members reflect upon the sacrifices she has made for them although they never truly appreciated or acknowledged it.

The journey down the memory lane is littered with small details and events which after mom’s absence looms large and deepens each character’s guilt. The novel’s strength lies in the way it skilfully juxtaposes the specific Korean history (the Korean War, dictatorship, etc) and culture with the universal theme of ever-changing family dynamics. Park So-nyo grew up in the country in an era when war and poverty threatened to topple people’s lives. She’s illiterate yet a very hard-worker, and helped all her four children to study and lead a successful life in the city. The central question that haunts the characters’ mind, when they piece together the selfless nature of Park So-nyo, is why they only saw her as the ‘Mother’? Why didn’t they comprehend that she was once a child and a young woman with dreams and aspirations of her own? (“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom.”) She has meticulously co-ordinated each and every part of their lives, yet only when she has slipped out of their lives they come to value her existence.

It takes time to get accustomed to the different narrators and their own unique voice. Furthermore, the memories are interweaved in a manner that’s a bit meandering. Yet the emotions derived from the meandering thoughts -- such as despair, regret, shame, helplessness, etc -- strongly resonates with us because we are able to reflect on our own memories of our altruistic parents. Kyung-sook’s prose is very simple, lacking lyricism. However, the scenarios and the memories described here are so devastating to emotionally overwhelm us. Although the tone of the novel could be described as gloomy, the author finds great beauty in evoking the details of long-dormant memories. Despite an occasional passage of sentiment and melodrama, Please Look After Mom deftly examines the suffering and frustration of a self-sacrificing maternal figure (and this tale has originated from a society that’s quite similar to my own). 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Bad Blood – An Intriguing and Appalling Account of a Massive Corporate Fraud

“By positioning Theranos as a tech company in the heart of the Valley, Holmes channeled this fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.”

Blood analysis is one of the basic procedures, ordered by doctors, to check our health or to find any signs of disease and abnormalities. Some tests are done with a drop of blood, but some elaborate evaluations require drawing blood through syringes from people’s veins. It might be a painful and fearful procedure for some. A Silicon Valley startup called Theranos -- combining the words ‘therapy’ and ‘diagnostics’ – promised a compact machine that would make blood testing quicker, less painful, and faster. People could pinprick a drop of blood from their finger and do their own blood tests in the comfort of their home, and the results will be wirelessly sent to doctors for further diagnosis and interpretation. Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford at the age of 19 (in 2003), pitched that this idea would revolutionize health industry, bringing down the cost and distress associated to a basic blood test (cited as the ‘iPod of healthcare’).

Backed by a list of highly esteemed men, which includes venture capitalists Tim Draper and Donald Lucas, respected professor Channing Robertson, entrepreneur Larry Ellison (co-founder of Oracle), Thernaos rapidly raised its funding, putting the company value at $9 bn. The board members also included some popular figures such as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, the former Secretary of State. The giant drugstore chains such as Walgreens and Safeway believed in Theranos’ ability to revolutionize the industry and became the company’s retail partners. Elizabeth Holmes, touted as the next Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, cozied up with the Obama administration and she even became Obama's Presidential Ambassador for Entrepreneurship (Holmes was also friends with Hilary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea). But what lead to Holmes’ downfall, who is now awaiting trial in a federal criminal indictment case for fraud? The reason is simple: the technology – Holmes’ brainchild – never worked.

John Carreyrou, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist of Wall Street Journal, tells the sumptuously detailed story of Theranos' unbelievable rise and shocking collapse in his book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (published May 2018). For more than a decade, Holmes had kept hidden from her investors that the technology  for blood analysis didn’t work the way she wanted to work. Moreover, she and her company president, Sunny Balwani fostered an atmosphere of secrecy and fear in the Theranos premises, firing and intimidating employees (also surveilling them) who dared to raise questions about the blood testing devices’ potentiality.
Elizabeth Holmes
Hyping your product to get funding while concealing your true progress and hoping that reality will eventually catch up to the hype continues to be tolerated in the tech industry,” writes Carreyrou and later mentions that the fatal flaw of Theranos is seeing itself as just a tech company. Although, the company was engaged in designing a device that would evaluate a drop of blood and quickly send the relevant data wirelessly to the patient’s doctor, the incorrect results would put people’s lives at stake unlike a defective smart phone. The defect in Theranos' device will have real consequences for a person’s safety. Nevertheless, Holmes continued to dupe regulators, scientists, investors, and even introduced her faulty devices into the market. An apt analogy in the book goes like this: “It was as if Boeing built one plane and, without doing a single flight test, told airline passengers, “Hop aboard.””

John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood starts with the background on Holmes: her charismatic personality, the passion and creativity that impressed her mentors at Stanford and later her high-profile investors. Holmes didn’t have much of a scientific background apart from an internship in a medical testing lab. Before zeroing-in on the idea of designing a compact and easy-to-use blood-testing device, Holmes thought and patented ‘TheraPatch’. It’s a sort of band-aid that would painlessly draw blood with the help of tiny needles, test the sample, and eventually propose an appropriate drug dosage. The idea did fascinate many investors, allowing her to raise few million dollars, but by 2004 she abandoned the idea since it seemed so unfeasible.

John Carreyrou provides ample details about Holmes’ obsession with all-things-Steve Jobs, and her ability to instantly charm people and recruit them for her cause (“Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that forced people to momentarily suspend disbelief”, the author writes). Carreyrou also introduces other principal players in the first half of the book, particularly Sunny Balwani, a dot-com millionaire with zero science or health care experience. Theranos’ COO, Mr. Balwani was Holmes’ unofficial enforcer, tasked with menacing the employees and keeping dissenters in-line. Balwani, nearly 20 years older than Holmes, was in a romantic relationship with her (which was mostly kept under wraps from investors and board members). The second half of the book chronicles Theranos’ slow unraveling. Holmes briefly enjoyed media spotlight, her profile decorating magazine covers and providing ‘inspirational’ speeches. But the ethical quagmire Theranos increasingly got itself into raised concerns among the company’s employees (some fired, some were intimidated to leave) which led to a story tip off that brought in the journalist John Carreyrou.

Bad Blood remains as a testament to the power of true investigative journalism. Carreyrou’s reporting is based on extensive research. He was strongly backed by his editors despite facing numerous threats of lawsuits from the bullying and aggressive Theranos’ lawyers. Most importantly, Carreyrou’s detailed expose is written like an espionage thriller and it is unputdownable. Eventually, Bad Blood not only offers a vivid portrait of Theranos’ rise and fall, but also questions the ‘big picture’ peddling of Silicon Valley culture. Furthermore, Carreyrou indicts the charitable media coverage which failed to understand the basic difference between a startup in tech industry and a startup in life sciences.

Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos has already been the subject of a podcast titled The Drop Out (Hulu has ordered a limited series based on this podcast) and an Alex Gibney documentary – The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. A feature-film project involving director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) and actress Jennifer Lawrence is already under development and will be released in 2020. 

Friday, August 23, 2019

Inspector Imanishi Investigates – A Whodunit with Interesting Social Context

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) was one of Japan’s best-selling and most prolific crime novel writers. He has written hundreds of detective and mystery novels, but only a handful of them have been translated into English. Unlike the works of his contemporary Edogawa Rampo (pseudonym of popular mystery fiction author Taro Hirai) Mr. Matsumoto’s stories focused on the social themes of the era, especially the bleaker aspects of postwar Japanese society. Matsumoto’s sleuths aren’t geniuses, but they solve the crimes through dogged perseverance. Another fascinating aspect of the author’s work is the way he instills the sense of place, providing us an armchair tourism of Japanese cities’ culture in that particular era. The central mystery I feel is secondary in Matsumoto’s novels since the focus largely falls upon characters, local culture, postwar devastation, etc.

Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates was first published in 1961 and translated to English by Beth Cary in 2003. The eponymous detective’s work ethics, his formal relationship with his wife, his idiosyncrasies (love for bonsai and haiku) the determination with which pursues each and every little lead reminded me of Martin Beck, a fictional Swedish police detective who featured in ten novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, written between 1965 and 1975. The plot kicks off with the discovery of a corpse under the tracks of a stationary train at a Tokyo station in the early morning hours. The victim isn’t killed by the train. He was strangled, his face bashed to an extent that makes identification nearly impossible.

Detective Eitaro Imanishi of the Homicide Division of Tokyo Metropolitan Police arrives at the scene, and the ensuing investigation bestows him with a single clue: according to witnesses in a bar the previous night, the victim spoke with a northern dialect, and the word ‘Kameda’ is overheard in the conversation between the victim and his companion/alleged murderer. The investigation proceeds very slowly but progresses steadily, thanks to the detective’s tenacious nature. He takes day-long train trips to rural areas, writes formal letters to inquire different precinct police departments. Some of the people supposedly connected to the investigation mysteriously die even though it’s closed off as natural death. The destruction of records at the end of World War II also impedes his inquiries. Nevertheless, Imanishi figures out that the crimes are somehow connected to a member of Nouveau Group, nihilistic Westernized artists gaining prominence in the early 1960s.

Matsumoto’s novel offers a dissection of a society, where gender roles are clearly delineated. Like any classic detective fiction, the woman in Inspector Imanishi Investigates remain dependent, vulnerable, quiet, and often confined to peripheral portions in the action. It’s a typical portrayal of 1960s household in Japan, and the women (Rieko and Emiko) who don’t confirm to their social roles are met with bleak ending. Such dated character sketches makes the work a bit unexciting. But Matsumoto excels in constructing a tightly-woven mystery. While early 1960s were generally known for Japan’s astounding post-war economic recovery, the author paints an unsavory portrait of a divided Japanese society, where war’s impacts are still felt.  Overall, Inspector Imanishi Investigates offers fine crime fiction tourism with nice social and cultural references pertaining to a particular era in Japan. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

The Hot Zone – A Bit Out-Dated yet a Thrilling Account of a Lethal Virus

“We don’t really know what Ebola has done in the past, and we don’t know what it might do in the future.”

Richard Preston’s 1994 non-fiction book The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story covers the outbreaks of Ebola in Africa (a deadly virus) and the virus' alarming outbreak at a monkey-house in Reston, Virginia in 1989. Named as Ebola Reston, the new virus strain found in a US laboratory was eerily similar to Ebola Zaire, which was first reported in Congo in 1977 (and from 2014 has ravaged across West and Central Africa killing thousands of people). Unlike the other pernicious Ebola viruses, the Reston virus caused only asymptomatic infections and couldn't cause disease in humans. The Hot Zone was often praised for its gripping narrative, which at times reads like a chilling horror literature. Of course, since it’s a twenty-five year old book, some of its portions are clearly outdated. Epidemiologists have also found problems with Preston’s amplified writing style and the way he supposedly twists the true nature of Ebola to keep the readers ‘terrified’, keeping up with the promise presented in the book title (the book was adapted into a six-part miniseries this year by Nat Geo channel).

The first two chapters of The Hot Zone are brilliantly written; the visceral account of what Ebola does to human body was so disturbing and scary to read. Although some of Preston’s choice of words to describe the people dying of Ebola (‘liquefy’, ‘bleeding out’) were criticized to have stoked sensationalism and unfounded fears (about the disease), the riveting prose keeps us wholly engrossed (provided you don’t take Preston’s description as the only clinically accurate version). The Hot Zone was written at a time when the general public had no knowledge of Ebola virus (even the scientific community was then coming into grips about the emerging, extremely deadly viruses) and some of the big fears addressed here were allayed over the years (like Ebola was ‘possibly airborne’).

 At the same time, the criticisms laid out against Preston’s book, for instance that it totally exaggerated the dangerous of Ebola in humans, were found to be misconception after the 2014-2016 West African Outbreak, which killed over 11,000 people. The current Ebola epidemic in Central Africa (particularly in Congo) that was first declared on August 1, 2018 has resulted in 1,700 deaths and counting. The vaccination and treatment efforts of the selfless doctors in Africa are also thwarted by the military conflicts in the region and the continent's lesser-developed healthcare system.

The Hot Zone has the undeniable quality of creeping us out (“Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles”). Although the origin of Ebola virus is still a mystery, Preston kicks up the scare factor by focusing a lot on the Kitum cave (in Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya). The author’s description of the place makes it seem preternatural, where invisible, primitive enemies are waiting to wreak havoc on the entire human race. Even Preston’s own journey into Kitum cave doesn’t reveal anything about Ebola. Similar to the vivid chronicle of Ebola symptoms in Charles Monet and Nurse Mayinga, the peek inside Kitum cave simply contains the power to terrify the readers, but adds nothing much from a scientific perspective.

Preston brings a much-needed interesting subtext into his ‘thrilling’ narrative late in the book, when he talks of deforestation of tropical rain forests and the aftermath of AIDS epidemic. “In a sense, the Earth is mounting an immune response against the human species. It is beginning to react to the human parasite, the flooding infection of people, the dead spots of the concrete all over the planet, the cancerous rot-outs in Europe, Japan and the United States, thick with replicating primates, the colonies enlarging and spreading and threatening to shock the biosphere with mass extinctions. Perhaps the biosphere does not 'like' the idea of five billion humans”, writes Preston, contextualizing how the rapidly enlarging host of deadly viruses is linked to human’s adversarial impact on environment.

Having finished The Hot Zone, I have now started to read David Quammen’s 2014 book ‘Ebola: the Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus’, which is said to be toned down and less dramatic than Preston’s book. Also, I am interested in reading Richard Preston’s updated follow-up to his 1994 book, Crisis in the Red Zone (published July 2019).