April 2016 Posts

Noelle Stevenson, “Nimona”

nimoina-coverNoelle Stevenson’s debut graphic novel Nimona is about a young shape shifter who is a badass sidekick to super villain, Lord Blackheart. It is utterly delightful for its romp through the world of evil. Nimona for all her evilness comes across as a super-confident young girl who is not deterred by any challenge. Sometimes even Lord nimona2Blackheart is taken aback by her boldness.

According to Wikipedia, Nimona is a fantasy comic by the American comics writer and artist Noelle Stevenson. Stevenson started Nimona as a webcomic while a student at Maryland Institute College of Art. The comic was first published in June 2012 and doubled as Stevenson’s senior thesis. HarperCollins published the webcomic as a young adult graphic novel Noelle Stevenson in May 2015.  In June 2015, 20th Century Fox Animation acquired the rights for an animated feature film adaptation. It has won a few awards and was shortlisted for the National Book Award 2015. ypl_nba2015pg

It is a book about a mighty girl. Meant to be owned. Savoured. Read over and over again.

Noelle Stevenson Nimona HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2015. Pb. pp. 270 $12.99

18 April 2016 

Meg Rosoff, “Jonathan Unleashed”

Award-winning young adult writer Meg Rosoff is a brilliant writer. No wonder she has been awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award ( ALMA) this year or what is fondly referred to as the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature, given its whoppingly delicious prize money of £430,000. It is given to an author for their body of work. ( http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/05/meg-rosoff-wins-astrid-lindgren-memorial-award-how-i-live-now ) What is particularly satisfying is that such a passionately ferocious storyteller is conferred the award for her work in young adult literature within weeks of the publication of her first adult trade novel, Jonathan Unleashed.

Jonathan Unleashed is about Jonathan Trefoil, in his twenties, living in New York, working in an advertising firm that he does not particularly relish but the saving grace in his life are the two dogs he is babysitting. Dante and Sissy belong to Jonathan’s brother who has had to relocate to Dubai for a job. Thrown into this mix are his girlfriend who does not particularly care for the menagerie, a vet and old school friend/colleague. His girlfriend persuades him to get married online since her magazine will sponsor it. He has a breakdown with the pressures of work and a love-life that is nerve-wracking — Jonathan has a better sleep at night cuddled up in bed with Sissy, the cocker spaniel, than his girlfriend! It is a Meg Rosoffromance novel with the rawness and honesty of young adult writing and at a quick pace that is never dull to read. Meg Rosoff gets the various emotions of dogs ever so well. Not surprising given her love for the four-legged beasts. The relationship between humans and dogs is superbly executed and can only be written by one who has lived and observed dogs closely. Jonathan Unleashed is hilarious and impossible to put down.

Read it.

Meg Rosoff Jonathan Unleashed Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp.280 Rs 499 

18 April 2016 

 

Pam Munzo Ryan “Echo: A Novel”

ECHO-medalYour fate is not yet sealed,

Even in the darkest night, a star will shine, 

A bell will chime, a path will be revealed. 

Award-winning writer Pam Munzo Ryan’s Echo is a stupendous book. It is four stories intertwined, much like a symphony coming together in the last movement and hence, “a novel”. The first three stories are about four children — Friedrich Schmidt ( Oct 1933, Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany), orphans Mike and Frankie Flannery ( June 1935, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, USA) and Ivy Maria Lopez ( December 1942, Southern California, USA). Each story focuses on their love of music, playing the harmonica, piano and flute exquisitely.  It is a beautiful space the children create with their talent at a time of grim reality — concentration camps, rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews and the marginalised, the Great Depression, state of orphanages, adoption, the captivity of American Japanese after Pearl Harbour by the government, segregation of Mexican children in schools, etc. There is a touch of magical realism which seems to be perfectly acceptable in young adult fiction (but would have been nitpicked about in adult trade literature such as Yann Martel and Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novels). The magical thread binding the stories has an extraordinary fairytale element to it. It is the harmonica presented to the craftsman Otto when he was a child by the three princesses Eins, Zwei and Drei upon whom a spell has been cast by a witch. Once Otto as an adult decides to donate the harmonica it is found by the other children — Friedrich when he worked as an apprentice at the local harmonica factory, Frankie who had dreams of playing in Alfred Hoxie’s then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards, and later Ivy Maria Lopez who uses it to perform in her school orchestra. In 1951 the young musicians perform Gershwin together at Carnegie Hall.

Ivy felt as if she’d been touched by magic. Her eyes caught the glances of other musicians. And it was clear they felt it, too. 

Who can explain it?

Who can tell you why?

Fools give you reasons,

Wise men never try.

Some enchanted evening. . .

Tonight there was a brilliance in the hall, a communion of spirits, as if Ivy and the conductor and the pianist and the orchestra and everyone in the audience were one, breathing in and out to the same tempo, feeling one another’s strength and vision, filling with beauty and light, glowing beneath the same stars. . .

. . . and connected by the same silken thread. 

Here is a wonderful profile from Kirkus Reviews of Pam Munzo Ryan ( https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pam-munoz-ryan/)

Echo is written for young adults but it is a magical book that will appeal across ages. Appreciate it for its inspired storytelling or read it as a conversation starter in classrooms but read it you must.

Pam Munzo Ryan Echo: A Novel Decorations by Dinara Mirtalipova. Scholastic Press, An imprint of Scholastic, New York, 2015. Hb. 

16 April 2016

Zainab Sulaiman, “Simply Nanju”

Simply NanjuZainab Sulaiman’s book Simply Nanju is about a young differently-abled boy and his classmates. All of them have a bunch of challenges but have caring teachers and didis who tend to the children during school hours. This is a story with good diversity in the representation of communities albeit restricted to a narrow socio-economic class. Every single character’s story has been sensitively created by the author. A story about differently-abled children is an excellent idea given the paucity of literature in this area.

It is also timely given the debates about the ‘Accessible India Campaign’ and the Central government having released the ‘Inclusiveness and Accessibility Index’ that measures the actions and attitudes of different organisations towards people with disabilities.  ( HT Editorial, 6 April 2016, http://www.hindustantimes.com/editorials/government-must-remove-the-barriers-and-fast-track-the-disability-bill/story-0r7PDbg8ghLa54JlSEkykO.html )

The editorial continues to say:

The United Nations pegs the disabled in India at 15% of the population but the census of India fixes it at just 2.2%. This means there are many who do not get access to the State benefits that are due to them. One of the main reasons why the numbers are low is that the enumerators often don’t ask the right questions; families tend to hide those who suffer from mental illness; and sometimes they are unaware of challenges like autism. To redress this situation, the government needs to pump in more money on public awareness programmes and train enumerators better.

Last, but not the least, political parties must stop dillydallying on the passage of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, which is pending in Parliament. The Bill replaces the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. Instead of seven disabilities specified in the Act, the Bill covers 19 conditions. The Bill is being brought in to fulfil obligations under an international treaty. Many have criticised the Bill, saying that it’s not perfect — but then no Bill is. At least this has expanded the number of disabilities and that is a step forward and will give many more disabled people access to opportunities and funds that are earmarked for them.

There are sweet touches of incorporating lingo spouted by the kids such as “Shutyamouth!” and “Tensioning”. Children tend to experiment wildly and it is not easy to transfer it on to texts but Zainab Sulaiman has. As she tells Archit Taneja in a fabulous blog post on the Duckbill website “I did get some of the lingo from the kids I worked with at a school. It’s an interesting jumble of their mother tongue and what they learned at school. As teachers, we would try really hard to change this and make them speak “proper English”. However, I’ll admit that I cracked up every time they used them. I secretly wanted them to talk more like that! ” ( https://theduckbillblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/zainab-sulaiman-interviewed-by-archit-taneja/ )

The story is a gentle whodunnit story of trying to discover who is the culprit responsible for stealing notebooks in class. Unfortunately this story is a flat and standard narrative of children’s literature, not very nuanced and far too noisy relying on many conversations to propel the plot forward. Also the premise of the book relying only on children of financially challenged backgrounds with stereotypical characteristics of domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholics etc is a little difficult to digest. It would have been preferable if the book focused on differently-abled children and brought out the challenges by creating a landscape that would resonate with readers of all age-groups and social standing. Despite every good intention and experience of the author working as a special educator this book will only further alienate such children. Young middle class readers ( who are presumably the prime target group) will read it as pure fiction and move on little realising that such individuals exist around them too. If the purpose of literature is to help sensitise grave issues such as disabled children Simply Nanju is a book that falls far short of expectations. Yet sell it will. Probably even get adopted as supplementary texts in schools since there is little or no literature on the subject. It will make an excellent conversation starter encouraging debates in schools.

All said and done it is a book that must be read.

Zainab Sulaiman Simply Nanju Duckbill Books, Chennai, 2016. Pb. pp. 122. Rs. 199

Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”


I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing. 

We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins. 

(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman Romecatchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of SPQRRome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth Wolf and baby twinsand baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.

For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.

In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.

SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!

Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

5 April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Raduan Nassar, “A Cup of Rage” ( Transl. by Stefan Tobler)

Raduan Nassar…I could’ve found plenty of reasons to trip her up, not that I was so naif I demanded coherence, I didn’t expect that of her, I didn’t boast of that myself, only idiots and bastards proclaim that they serve a single lord, in the end we are all beasts born of one and the same dirty womb, carriers of the most vile contradictions, …” ( p.19, A Cup of Rage)

A Cup of Rage is a slim book of 47 pages and seven chapters. Each chapter consists of one long sentence. It is about a pair of lovers — a young female journalist and an older man who inhabits an isolated farm. They spend the night together and the following morning without any warning they tear into each other. It is unexpectedly barbaric and devastating given how a little while earlier they had been so lovingly tender. A Cup of Rage is an extraordinary text for its intensity and the power game between the couple. The book was first published in 1978.  Given that women’s movements and feminism were gaining significance in the 1970s the old man’s venomous verbal tirade directed at the emancipated woman/lover followed by the stinging slap he delivers gives the reader a shocking jolt. The unexpectedness of the rage could be seen at face-value as a spat between lovers or as a commentary on the changing social structures and gender equations. Even though I am not familiar with the source language — Portuguese — there is something in the tenor of the translation by Stefan Tobler that makes the story truly magnificent. Sure, there is passion evident in the opening sex scene but the incredible skill of this translation is evident in the energy being carried over to the next day’s incident. Somehow it gets incredibly transmitted in the English text. It has been a while since I read a text that was absorbing to read from the word go.

Raduan Nassar writes these long sentences making one breathless but akin to moments very similar to how we think –flitting from topic to topic, a roller coaster of emotions, going off at a tangent sometimes but somewhere keeping it altogether with a bit of philosophical reflection and analysis. The chapter-long sentence broken occasionally by punctuation moves so seemingly effortlessly. It is like a dance. Fluid. Broken by moments of intensity ( whether in conversation or action) punctuated by moments of such detached reflection bordering on meditation. There are moments when the text is better engaged with as a reader when read out aloud. Stefan Tobler writes in The Independent, “The writing has the sheer unstoppable force of a child’s temper tantrum, and only on a second read – or as an editor or translator – do you see the intricate patterns and repetitions that combine to produce this crushing emotional onslaught. He plays fast and loose with standard syntax and punctuation to convey the turmoil and onward rush of his characters. Most of his pages-spanning chapters in A Cup of Rage are a single long, evocative sentence.” It is no wonder then that as soon as the book finishes you go back to the first page to begin reading it once again. According to an email correspondence I had with Stefan Tobler  the first draft of this translation was written almost ten years ago but he returned to edit intensively a year ago. To quote him: ” It was a joy to have something both so precise and so passionate to work with.”

Raduan Nassar is a farmer now and has been for many years. He is considered a modern literary giant of Latin Ancient TillageAmerica despite having written only two novels. Ancient Tillage is his second book although it was published first. The first English translation has been done by Karen Sotelino. Literary techniques employed in both texts are very similar but in A Cup of Rage these come across as a little more sophisticated, probably a testimony to the quality of translation. It is difficult to say since chronologically A Cup of Rage was written after Ancient Tillage but published first in the 1970s.  It could be that by the time he wrote the second story the author had experimented more with writing. But there is a distinct difference in the two texts. In A Cup of Rage the interior monologue comes across as a richly textured, passionate and sensual. In Ancient Tillage it is flat and dull with a touch of bewilderment. It could be due to the ages of the protagonists too in the stories — young in Ancient Tillage and old in Cup of Rage — thereby being a remarkable comment on Raduan Nassar’s skill as a writer, the ability to be in character of a young and an old man so wonderfully.

His evolution as a writer and experiments with literature are not very well documented since Raduan Nassar sparingly gives interviews. He prefers to be a recluse albeit not in a similar fashion to J. D. Salinger.  Stefan Tobler wrote a wonderful profile of the eighty-year-old Brazilian author in The Independent to coincide with the publication of the first English translation of these texts. ( http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/raduan-nassar-became-a-brazilian-sensation-with-his-first-novel-now-published-in-english-the-world-a6877851.html )

I am not surprised A Cup of Rage has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Read the two novels for a glimpse into the earthy brilliance of Raduan Nassar’s writing.

Raduan Nassar A Cup of Rage ( Transl. Stefan Tobler) Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2015. Pb. pp.50 £5.99. First published as Um Capo de Colera in 1978. 

Raduan Nassar Ancient Tillage ( Transl. Karen Sotelino) Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2015. Pb. pp.50 £7.99. First published as Lavoura Arcaica in 1975. 

2 April 2016