Jaya Posts

Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore”

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel Killing Commendatore ( translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Gossen) is about a nameless male narrator who is a portrait painter. He is excellent at his work and in great demand. His methodology is unique as he never works with a live model but before commencing work has long conversations with the subject, sometimes spread over many hours:

It was critical to feel a sense of closeness, even just a little, toward the client. That’s why during our initial one-hour meeting I tried so hard to discover, as much as I could, some aspects of the client that I could respond to. Naturally, this was easier with some people than with others. There were some I’d never want to have a  personal relationship with. But as a visitor who was with them for only a short time, in a set place, it wasn’t that hard to fine one or two appealing qualities. Look deep enough into any person and you will find something shining within. My job was to uncover this and, if the surface became foggy (which was more often the case), polish it with a cloth to make it shine again. Otherwise the darker side would naturally reveal itself in the portrait.  ( p. 14-15) 

One day the artist retires to the mountains while his marriage crumbles. He retreats to the home of a famous Japanese artist Tomohiko Amada which is no longer occupied as Amada San has had to be admitted to an old people’s home by his son. It is the son Masahiko, an ex-classmate of the portrait artist, who sublets his father’s home. The portrait artist refuses to accept any more commissions even though his agent insists he should not vanish. All is well until an offer arrives that he cannot refuse. It is a commissioned project with one caveat. The portrait has to be made with a live model. And thus begins a professional relationship which morphs into familiar acquaintance between a neighbour and super-rich businessman Menshiki and the artist. An acquaintanceship that extends itself to looking out for each other while exploring the mysterious ringing bell in the garden of Tomohiko Amada. At this point a bizarre, fantastical, parallel dimension is added to the tale, much like going down a rabbit hole into another world. It involves the sudden appearance of a two-foot figure, the Commendatore, as seen in the painting. He insists he is an Idea who appears to a selective few humans but the fact the Commendatore exists and converses with the portrait painter adds a peculiar dimension to the story. Ulitmately this fantastical exploration is a mere artistic digression that doesn’t really add much to the plot except for offering a hint of magic realism.

Killing Commendatore the title is borrowed from the Tomohiko Amada painting discovered by the portrait artist in the attic. It is a very violent painting showing the killing of the commendatore from the famous scene in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It is probably a turning point in Tomohiko Amada’s own career as an artist when he seemingly veered sharply from the European art tradition that he had learned in Vienna to that of a very classical form of Japanese painting. It is a painting with a scene from the Asuka period, set over a thousand years ago. But the violent manner in which the killing of the commendatore is depicted by Tomohiko Amada is interpreted by the portrait painter as being a painting that Amada San painted for himself alone. It probably hearks back to the time he spent in Europe, at the time of the growing power of the Nazis and in which the young Tomohiko Amada had got embroiled as well. It is probably why that this painting wrapped in brown paper is lying in the attic since Tomohiko Amada was known for getting rid of his paintings as soon as he had done painting them. This one he kept. Even his son did not know of its existence.

In typical Murakami style there are the male characters playing out their lives, sometimes very mundane existences. The almost Gatsby-like, very white haired, Menshiki who is very suave, wealthy, well dressed is very masculine at the end of day who always gets what he wants. ( Murakami translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese.) True he pays handsomely for all that he desires. But it is ultimately very masculine to not expect a no. The portrait artist too falls under Menshiki’s spell even though he knows he is going to be paid very well for the commissioned portrait. The conversation is lack lustre. The women in the novel whether the ex-wife, the various mistresses, the young 13 year old daughter of Menshiki born of an affair he had a long time ago are reduced to sex objects. It is absolutely bizarre that the pre-pubescent girl is so obsessed by her breasts and her first frank conversation with the artist is about her chest size. It is ugly.

And yet in Killing Commendatore there is something very different, very compelling to read, despite the unfortunate portrayal of women. It is as if in this 70th year he wishes to reflect upon his craft and seems to bring together his two loves — the art of writing and his love for music. In many ways, the conversations in the novel revolving around music, or the artist putting LPs on the turntable while working, listening to opera, Strauss, Schubert, Verdi, while also being able to converse knowledgeably about Bruce Springsteen and jazz, are not out of character for Murakami who is known for his love for music. This novel’s dramatic storytelling is much in a similar vein to that of operatic dramas that are definitely overdone. Not many will appreciate this novel for it tends to meander a fair bit but on the other hand it is an act of patient endurance upon the part of the reader to fully admire Murakami’s writing.

I am glad I read the book and I am not even a Murakami fan.

As always the amazing Chipp Kidd has designed the cover for this novel too. 25 years he has been designing the covers for Murakami’s novels. First time in 25 years Murakami asked Kidd to revise his draft drawing. Here is the story published on Vulture.

The book had a global release on 9 Oct 2018, the same day as Frankfurt Book Fair opened. Great timing!

9 Oct 2018  

To buy on Amazon India

Kindle

Hardback 

Neil Gaiman “Art Matters” illustrated by Chris Riddell

Brilliant storyteller Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters is a little book, a collection of his thoughts published in recent years,  by the magnificent illustrator Chris Riddell. It is a collection of writings written over a period of years by Neil Gaiman, stressing the need to read and write what you like. To create and spread ideas. To be free to express oneself. To spend time in a library. Everyone has the right to do so. But it is the credo on the right to make good art that is tremendously forceful. It is utterly brilliant and worth committing to memory, internalisting it and sharing it over and over again.

Slim little book but oh, ever so powerful. Parts of it were published earlier in The Guardian.

  1. A response to terror by Chris Riddell and Neil Gaiman – in pictures: In the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, the award-winning illustrator and writer team up to present the artist’s creed in the face of atrocity. It stressed the importance of ideas and how they would spread irrespective of violently negative forces terrorising people to keep quiet.
  2.  Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell on why we need libraries – an essay in pictures
    Illustration: Chris Riddell : Two great champions of reading for pleasure return to remind us that it really is an important thing to do – and that libraries create literate citizens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best thing ever you would do is to read this book and buy multiple copies of it to distribute widely. It is outstanding!

5 Oct 2018 

To buy on Amazon India

Art Matters

Scholastic India’s Pride list ( Oct 2018)

Scholastic India has just announced a fantastic collection of LGBTQ titles meant for young adults. Conversations about sexuality at the best of times are a difficult space for parents and educators to negotiate with teenagers but when it comes to having frank and open conversations about the gender spectrum then many folks are flummoxed. This Scholastic India list is a tremendous selection to begin with. The Scholastic group having accrued nearly a century of book publishing experience understands and is sensitive when it comes to making books, especially for young adults. So this is a fine selection of really powerful, thought-provoking and well written books exploring gender issues. Here is a peek in to what Scholastic India has to offer.

3 October 2018 

 

 

 

 

Reading young adult literature

There is a tremendous spurt in middle grade novels and young adult literature. It is also a grey area as it is never clear what kind of stories may attract the young readers. Even so there is a great mix of storytellers and stories being published regularly. There is so much variety to choose from. Here is a selection:

Beginning with the seasoned writers like Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Subhadra Sen Gupta, all of whom have new books published. Well, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s is a reissue of one of her earliest collection of historical fiction short stories. It is a revival of her backlist that is very welcome. Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings was first published nearly two decades ago but it remains one of my all time favourite collection of short stories. These stories with children as the protagonists are set in different periods of Indian history — King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, King Krishna Deva Raya, Princess Jahanara and British India.

Paro Anand’s The Other is a path-breaking collection of short stories for young adults exploring critical issues like gender, sexual abuse, grief and loneliness and much, much more. It is a set of stories that even adults will do well to read. ( I wrote about it too and embedded a fantastic conversation between Paro Anand and Sunil Sethi too.)

Ranjit Lal is another very prolific writer for children. Over the years his storytelling has matured to magnificent levels. His child protagonists are always very well-defined and easy for the young readers to identify with as they are ordinary folks. His plots are of the familiar too. Even when his stories become sinister and dark, the scenarios are completely plausible as there is a logical progression from the point of the personal and known. Again spaces that are easy to recognise. This holds true for Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House which is set in Mumbai. Teenagers Bozo and Chick, ably assisted by youngsters in the neighbourhood, try and solve the mystery of the masked strangers living in a more or less abandoned home. Mixed with generous doses of references to real life such as love jihad or terrorists attacking Mumbai using the sea-route make this novel unnerving but a gripping read.

And then there are two extraordinary middle grade novels by USA-based writers of Indian origin — Ahimsa and The Night Diary. Both novels deal brilliantly with the Indian freedom struggle. ( Read interviews with Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani.) 

Award-winning writer of adult fiction Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh is a tremendous book. Friendships between magical creatures and little children, the implicit trust that binds them, always makes for a perfect story. Hansda has achieved it charmingly so in his own gem of this utterly fabulous Jwala Kumar.  A fun, fun book is Tommy Greenwald’s Crimebiters! It involves little children and a crime-fighting vampire dog. Need I say more? It is utterly delicious!

Three collections of short stories that are equally engaging are Grandpa Tales and Grandma Tales ( edited by Lalitha Iyer) and Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories. The stories edited by Lalita Iyer are a great collection with the contributing authors mostly sharing stories that they heard from their grandparents. In the next edition of these anthologies it may be better if there was a wider selection of stories representing the diversity of India rather than focused on a handful of regions. Nevertheless these are two entertaining volumes. The third one is a curious book of flipped stories. So to read the scary stories you read the book one way and to read the funny stories you flip the book. The two stories that stand out in this volume are “Of Grave Importance” by Adithi Rao and “When I Was a Little Girl” by Shabnam Minwalla. 

But the new voice in children’s literature to be noticed is Cordis Paldano. A theatre professional who has also been trained in Tamil street theatre called Terukkutu, Cordis Paldano’s debut novel The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a stupendous book. It has an excellent sense of drama and timing. Being true to the elements of street theatre that thrives on incorporating elements into the performance of local socio-political developments, this book too is no different. It is a brave book. Cordis Paldano is the talented new kid on the block and worth following!

Given that the festival season is here. These books would make tremendous Diwali gift packs whether for reluctant or mature readers.

Happy reading!

30 October 2018 

To buy on Amazon India

Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kings

The Other 

Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam House

Ahimsa 

The Night Diary

Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbagh

Grandpa Tales

Grandma Tales

Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories

The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat 

 

 

 

 

An interview with Veera Hiranandani about her middle grade novel, “The Night Diary”

I had been hearing about Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade novel The Night Diary for a while. It had been impossible to get hold of in India when lo and behold, PRH India announced it was releasing the Indian edition of the book. Fantastic news! I read an advance copy and loved the novel. There is such little literature available for children explaining the freedom movement through fiction, allowing for dramatisation of events without making it too hard to understand. Of late the desi writers based abroad who have begun to feel the crying need for the lack of such literature and presumably been told stories about the Indian freedom struggle have begun to write novels for the younger generations. Three writers, who happen to be women and are based in USA, have written middle grade fiction. Chitra Bannerji Divakurni, Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani. 

After reading The Night Diary, I emailed Veera Hiranandani. Here is a lightly edited version of her interview. 

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Veera Hiranandani is the author of The Night Diary, which was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition and is a New York Times Editor’s Choice Pick, The Whole Story of Half a Girl (Yearling), which was named a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a South Asian Book Award Finalist, and the chapter book series, Phoebe G. Green (Grosset & Dunlap). She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. A former book editor at Simon & Schuster, she now teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute and is working on her next novel.

She adds “I was raised in a small town in Connecticut. Growing up wasn’t always easy. My mother is Jewish-American, my father is from a Hindu family in India, and I didn’t know any kids like me where I lived. But coming from two cultures and not always fitting in has probably made me a stronger person. I was also pretty shy, so I spent a lot of time quietly watching other people.

​Maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer if I wasn’t forced to look at the world a little differently. Food was another thing that helped me connect with both sides of my family. I consider Jewish matzo ball soup and Indian samosas my favorite comfort foods. I love eating, cooking, and reading books about food. Nothing helps bring people together better than sharing a good meal. When I was younger, sometimes I wished I was different, but now I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

What inspired you to write The Night Diary?

My own father was nine when he had to leave his home during the Partition. I heard him and my aunts and uncles tell the story as I was growing up–that several weeks after India’s Independence, my father, his four brothers and sisters, and his mother decided to leave Pakistan and made it over the new border by train. My grandfather had to stay behind. He was a doctor in the Mirpur Khas city hospital and they didn’t want him to leave until they found a replacement, but a few weeks after, he decided to leave anyway because he was worried about his family.  They lost their home, their community, but they made it safely. As we know, many people did not. When I got older, I became more curious, did more research, and wondered why I never learned much about the Partition in school in the US, such a significant event in our global history. When I became a writer, I knew I wanted to shape a story around this time, but it took me a while before I felt confident enough to do so.

Having lived in USA all your life, how did your family keep the memories of the freedom movement and Independence alive?

I think it was only through my father’s family that I learned about India’s independence and the Partition. Occasionally we would talk about the history surrounding this time if my cousins and I asked questions. But if I hadn’t been curious or interested on my own, these stories might have faded away. There was a desire to leave the difficult times in the past and focus on the future. I think that’s common for many families. But if that happens, then we will forget and not have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made and honor those who were lost. Survivors of the Partition are in their last decades of life and I believe it’s up to my generation to preserve this history and pass the stories down to younger generations in whatever ways we can.

What are the stories you accessed for writing this book? 

I listened to my father and other relatives. I also read many historical accounts and novels. I read collections of oral testimonies and listened to several online. There’s a wonderful website preserving these oral histories called The Partition Archive of 1947. They have a wide variety of oral testimonies from people who lived in many parts of India before independence. Some had to leave, some stayed, some crossed into Pakistan, some crossed over the new border of India. There are stories mostly from Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. I tried to listen to as many point of views as I could. I wanted to create a story that wasn’t based particularly on one story, but could explore the many questions I had about the Partition and be representative of many experiences.

Was there much literature to read? If so in which language ? Or did you rely mostly on oral narratives?

I relied on books in English (I only speak English), but I wanted to read historical analyzations or novels of the Partition by those who had South Asian origins and had more than just an intellectual interest in the history. I didn’t really find much out there for young readers, but some of the books that helped me were The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan, Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari.

What are the back stories for this novel that you left out but undeniably built upon to tell the wonderful story of The Night Diary?

I knew I wasn’t trying to recreate the exact story that my father’s family went through. It wasn’t representative enough of more experiences and I was writing fiction. I began with the idea of family traveling in the direction a Hindu family would be traveling, because that’s what my father did, but I wanted to take a wider view. I decided the main character, Nisha, would come from an interfaith marriage (her father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim). I wanted her to be able to ask the questions I had about the Partition—why did diverse communities who lived peacefully before the Partition, break apart so quickly? Where did the violence and hate come from? I thought those questions would be quite powerful coming from the perspective of a character who feels ties to both her Hindu and Muslim identities. I’m also a product of an interfaith marriage. My father is Hindu and my mother is Jewish, so though it’s an entirely different context and a religion, I connected to the idea of having to navigate multiple identities. There were a lot of influences from details of my father’s story, but I was often shaping them in different ways for the story I wanted to tell.

To tell a story about a conflict and subsequent displacement is never an easy task. It is traumatic. Yet how did you manage to create such a simple and lucid while retaining the sensitivity and pain? Did this story go through many drafts?

Thank you and yes, it went through at least ten full drafts, and many smaller ones. It wasn’t an easy task. I hoped to stay truthful to the history, but also explore the questions I had and create as many connections as I could to survivor experiences. I knew there was no way I could write a book about the Partition and not include some of the violence, but I really wanted the younger generation to have access to it. I tried to strike a balance of what a young reader could handle and what actually happened. I think writing a diary from a young person’s point of view helped me render it in a more innocent and direct way. That’s how I felt Nisha would process and write about her experiences. The diary format at times was restrictive, but also helped me keep it in Nisha’s voice. I also thought it would be appealing and accessible for both young and older readers.

Was it a challenge to find publishers for The Night Diary

I was lucky enough to have some nice interest in the story and talk to a few editors about the project. I think people not only found the historical knowledge valuable, but the connections to current events as well–the global refugee crisis, and the discrimination against people of color and xenophobia felt in the US today. I ultimately was able to go with the editor, Namrata Tripathi, at Penguin who I felt was not only an experienced, extremely insightful, and detail oriented editor, but who also had an Indian background and family ties to the Partition. To have an editor who would be able to access this story on both an editorial level and a personal one only helped with the authenticity I was trying to achieve. It truly was a gift.

What was the editorial process like for The Night Diary? For instance did you have to explain much about the context to your editors or did the movement of #weneeddiversebooks ease the publishing process?

Because I was working with someone who knew a significant amount about the context and the culture I was writing about, I didn’t have to explain a lot. Therefore, we mostly focused on the strength of the story and she added to my knowledge at times. But we still had beta readers to help fill in our knowledge gaps. Penguin has been very behind this book from the beginning, but I think organizations like #weneeddiversebooks are hugely important and have paved the way for publishers and readers to understand the necessity and benefits of diversity on a global level.

Why did you feel it necessary to include a glossary of terms in The Night Diary? 

Publishing the book first in the US, after having many non-Indian American readers read the book, I found that many people did not know several of the South Asian terms I was using. I wanted young readers unfamilar with some terms have a resource right in the book. Now that the book is published in India, the glossary must seem irrelevant or readers might be able to improve the definitions!

What has been the response of audiences in USA to your book? What has been the response of the Indian diaspora to your book? 

I’ve had many positive responses and it’s very moving to me. When I decided to write this book, I wondered how much interest it would have, but I knew I needed to write it so I kept at it. I’ve had South Asian American adults express excitement at being able to share this story with their children because they also had parents who were affected by the Partition and now have a context to talk about it. I’ve had South Asian American kids tell me that they’re excited to see Indian/brown characters characters in a book given to them in school because they’ve that experience so rarely. I did a school visit with a large South Asian population and kids were literally cheering as I mentioned some of Nisha’s favorite foods in the book (especially for the sweets). I remember what it was like to feel that I was the only one who knew what dal, kaju katli, or gulab jamun was and I would never expect to see it mentioned in a book, so I understood their excitement.  It has definitely opened doors for some people and I couldn’t be happier about that! It seems to be getting a positive response in India as well, and that is truly humbling and gratifying.

3 October 2018 

Kiran Manral’s “Missing, Presumed Dead”

Popular writer Kiran Manral’s latest novel is a thriller called Missing, Presumed Dead. It is about Aisha, a wife and a mother, who goes missing. She has a history of being “mentally” fragile although it is not very clear if it is a genetic inheritance from her mother or a bit of manipulation on her husband, Prithvi’s, part to keep Aisha heavily sedated. But this is not all the inheritance that Aisha has to contend with—it is also the very real fact of the property and other immoveable assets she stands to gain from her parents. A possible reason why Prithvi does not abandon her completely though he would rather spend days away from his family with a travel bag always ready in the boot of his car. He has also moved the family to a remote hill station in northern India, ostensibly for the protection of Aisha. It is not a happy marriage and Aisha remains very stressed. It is not made any easier for her husband and their two children by her OCD for maintaining cleanliness at home. Aisha’s place in the home is taken by her illegitimate half-sister, Heer, who had unexpectedly materialised at her Aisha’s doorstep. Coincidentally it happened a couple of days before Aisha’s mysterious disappearance. This is where the plot thickens.

Missing Presumed, Dead is a rivetting thriller for most parts of the novel particularly when it grapples with the puzzle of Aisha and Heer’s story and how Prithvi gets embroiled in it too.  Kiran Manral’s strength has been mostly writing romance novels with inevitably the women characters etched very well. These are her strengths. She understands the space they inhabit beautifully, how the silences of women communicate far more than it seems and how they negotiate spaces continuously every single day. She also understand the romance novel space very well with the perfect lightness of touch, moving the plot smartly without overdoing it with details but focused solely on the romancing couple. Transiting to writing thrillers ( and this is not her first thriller), Kiran Manral has got the right pace in plot movement, the characters are far from flat and are easily imagined in the flesh and blood, and though there are details in the novel to build suspense they are not entirely sufficient. Thrillers tend to be packed with tiny, tiny details that it is impossible to understand the plot if every little sentence is not read and understood. It is like a large canvas with tiny details etched in. Writers of thrillers leave little to the imagination and ensure that every detail in the room/space inhabited by the protagonist is described as is their interaction with other charcters. Also much of the fast paced plot is conversation driven. Parts of this are true for Missing Presumed, Dead making it captivating to read but something is still lacking. Perhaps if Missing Presumed, Dead had been a short story it would have been a fine example of crime fiction. Be that as it may it is still a good read for it is a confident step in the direction of seeing Kiran Manral blossom as a crime fiction writer.

2 October 2018 

Book Post 12: 23-29 September 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 12 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

1 October 2018

 

Book Post 11: 16- 22 September 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 11 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

24 September 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paro Anand’s “The Other”

Award-winning writer Paro Anand’s latest book for young adults is a collection of short stories called No Other: Stories of Difference . These are stories that are as bold as those published in her previous book Like Smoke. They revolve around critical issues like transgender, sexual abuse, conflict. Without badgering the reader with a preachy tone these stories carve out a niche for holding a dialogue about these mostly taboo topics. It is a very tough space to negotiate and Paro Anand does it superbly.

On Saturday, 22 September 2018, Paro Anand was in conversation with veteran journalist Sunil Sethi about this very book. It was part of the “Talking Books” series launched by Cafe Turtle, Khan Market, New Delhi. Do listen to the recording I made of the conversation. It is 45 minutes well spent.

 

To buy: 

Kindle 

Paperback

24 September 2018 

Reading for pleasure!

Dispersal time in school is always a very noisy and crowded affair. Adults milling about waiting to pick up their little children who are released from their classrooms in batches. Always I stand amongst the crowd with a book in my hand, reading peacefully. Yet there will be at least one person who while passing by will remark on how I am always seen with a book in my hand. Or there will be others who will throw sideway glances at my reading a book whereas will not be perturbed at all by others looking into their smartphone screens! Reading is meditative. Depending on my mood I can read reams and reams or go extremely slowly through a book, savouring every page. Having said that in recent days I have managed to read a few books. An eclectic but satisfying collection.

To begin with is the utterly delightful The Unexpected Truth About Animals:A Menagerie of the Misunderstood by zoologist Lucy Cooke. In it she devotes a chapter each to a motley collection of animals such as eels, sloths ( Lucy is also the founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society), pandas, chimpanzees, hippopotamus, vultures and bats to name a few. She packs in plenty of history beginning from when the animals were first discovered,  much of the information and sometimes myths about these creatures that became fashionable were propounded in the Victorian era, and are later dispelled with as recently as in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century. It is like reading an Attenborough series on natural history but with a lot more razzmatazz and spunk. It is a laugh-out-aloud book with full of incredibly fascinating but silly facts. Did you know that female sloths yodel for a mate only in D-sharp? Did you know that a group of chimpanzees can be located deep inside a forest by the amount of noise their flatulence makes? Did you know that Sigmund Freud’s first published paper was on eels? It was called “Observations on the Form and Fine Structure of Looped Organs of the Eel, Organs Considered as Testes”. It is a book that can even be used as bedtime reading to children in judicious doses. Lucy Cooke writes extremely well. Yet it is so packed with information that it can only be read in morsels and not at one go. A precious book indeed!

Sticking with the theme of nature is the deliciously soothing memoir of milennial Helen Jukes who had a dull day job called A Honeybee Heart Has Five Opening. It was stifling but it could not be wished away. To give herself some peaceful me-time Helen Jukes decided to become an urban beekeeper. She reads up extensively about it and meets other beekeepers too. Her friends realising how determined Helen is to be a beekeeper gift her a beehive for Christmas, to be collected in Spring. It fits perfectly with the popular belief that for a hive to flourish ideally it should be gifted and not purchased by the intended owner. The enforced self-reflection maintenance of a beehive imposes upon Helen also helps her cope with the everchanging world around her. It helps her come to terms with her rootlessness and build a community around her, much like her little charges. It is an incredibly amazing memoir, which Helen MacDonald, bestselling author of H is for Hawk rightly calls “Strange, beautiful and unexpected. I loved it.” Even Alex Preston who reviewed the book for the Guardian has praised it saying “moved and delighted me more than a book about insects had any right to”.  Speaking of memoirs, Alex Preston’s astonishing memoir As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books is a must read as well. It has been exquisitely illustrated by Neil Gower with full page paintings of the birds. While reading the memoir it will encourage the reader to take up birdwatching as well as prompt the reader to scurry to make a marvellous reading list as well. I read it many moons ago but it has still not left me.

The incredible centring reading these books gives is much like the peace bestselling Matt Haig advises on getting in Notes on a Nervous Planet. He speaks so much good sense but marshalled together in this manner it never gets dull. What is particularly spectacular is his psychogram chart. An imaginary unit of measure he introduces “to measure psychological weight as we each feel it”. He does underline the fact that psychological weight fluctuates greatly. Psychograms are a subjective measure. Nevertheless here are some examples:

Walking through the shopping centre      1,298 pg

Looking at images of perfect bodies you’ll never have            488pg

Guilt from not going to the gym                     50 pg

Arguing with an online troll                           632 pg

Having your job replaced by a robot          2,156 pg

The things you wish you haven’t done but wish you had        1,293 pg

The book is exactly as the title describes it — notes on a nervous planet. Matt Haig’s argument being basically everyone seems to be rushed for time, wanting to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities, clean forgetting that we only have one life and limited time. Matt Haig knows what he is talking about having been on the brink of suicide and suffering from acute depression. He has pulled himself together again and still has his low days but it does not prevent him from share wise advice and enjoying each day as it comes. So he also devised a list of minus psychograms. Here are a few fabulous examples:

The sun appearing unexpectedly from behin a cloud                     57 -pg

Being on holiday somewhere with no wi-fi (after the initial panic)            638 -pg

Being lost in a good book                                                                      732 -pg

Being surrounded by nature                                                               1,291 -pg

A close relative recovering from an operation                                 3,982 -pg

And so on.

Matt Haig is someone worth following on Twitter and reading everything he publishes. He writes sensitively without preaching; he is empathetic and imparts immense wisdom. Apart from self-help books such as Notes on a Nervous Planet he has also published novels and utterly gorgeous christmas stories for children. Truly a talented man!

I also managed to read a pile of Australian literature in recent days and loved it. Beginning with the fictional biography of Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley which is about the artist Elizabeth Gould whose husband was the famous John Gould. She assisted her husband in drawing many of his specimens and inevitably in pencilled his name next to her initials on the drawings. She died in 1841 at the age of thirty-seven, soon after giving birth to her eighth child, but by then she had also completed more than 650 hand-coloured lithographs of the world’s most beautiful bird species. She also illustrated Charles Darwin’s Galapagos finches. She was also a friend of Edward Lear. In the book John Gould is heard saying “I have a bird-sketcher of my very own. Trained, talented. And she costs nothing at all.” The Birdman’s Wife is a fictional account of Elizabeth Gould but it was triggered off by the discovery of a few pages of her diary tucked between her husband’s well preserved letterbook, a book of correspondence. It is a slow paced while rich with details portrait of a woman who wanted to serve her husband well but at the same time comes across as lonely and overworked. The Birdman’s Wife written by a birder and academic Melissa Ashley so there are many splendid descriptions of birds sometimes taking away from the main story but after a point it matters little since at least Elizabeth Gould is finally recognised for her work.

Some of the other stupendous Australian books I read were:

  • a meditative novel inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present called The Museum of Modern Love. It is by Heather Rose and won the Stella Prize 2017
  • a stunning collection of short stories by Fiona McFarlane The High Places. It won the Dylan Thomas Prize 2017.
  • Storyland by Catherine McKinnon extraordinary novel that spans centuries narrating the history of the Australian continent. The manner in which the novel has been written too is fascinating with the chapter breaks leading to a different era. It is somewhat like a gaming book where you can choose how to read the book but whichever option you select will always present a lucid narrative. Extraordinary!
  • Tour de Oz is the true story of cyclist Arthur Richardson and two brothers Frank and Alex White who chose to ‘circumcycle’ Australia in 1899. Four years before the launch of Tour de France! Arthur cycled in one direction and the two brothers in a counter-clockwise direction. While narrating the events itself sports journalist and author Bret Harris also uses it as a reason to describe the continent of pre-Federation Australia.

All in all, a satisfying few days reading a pile of interesting literature.

To buy:

The Unexpected Truth About Animals:A Menagerie of the Misunderstood 

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Opening

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books 

Notes on a Nervous Planet

The High Places

 

20 September 2018