Literature Posts

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has been here for three days; he is in New York to interview famous science fiction author H.H.H. Mandern onstage to celebrate the launch of of H. H. H. Mandern’s new novel; in it, he revives his wildly popular Holmesian robot, Peabody. In the world of books, this is front-page news, and a great deal of money is jangling behind the scenes. Money in the voice that called Less out of the blue and asked if he was familiar with the work of H.H.H. Mandern, and if he might be available for an interview. Money in the messages from the publicist instructing Less what questions were absolutely off the table for H.H.H. Mandern (his wife, his daughter, his poorly reviewed poetry collection). Money in the choice of venue, the advertisements plastered all over the Village. Money in the inflatable Peabody battling the wind outside the theater. Money even in the hotel Arthur has been placed in, where he was shown a pile of “complimentary” apples he can feel free to take anytime, day or night, you’re welcome. In a world where most people read one book and that this night will be the glorious kickoff. And they are depending on Arthur Less. 

2018 Pulitzer-prize winning novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer. It is a comedic book about Arthur Less, a white male gay writer, about to hit fifty, who to avoid attending the wedding of his ex-lover decides to accept all the “literary” invitations in his inbox to attend around the world. A surprising win at this year’s Pulitzer award, Less is a delightful novel for its romp through the literary space around the world, attending book launches, panel discussions, literary festivals, workshop retreats, creative writing classes etc. Wait for the superb end!

Andrew Sean Greer was in Italy when he heard he had won the Pulitzer Prize. To confirm the win he called his friend, novelist and former winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Michael Chabon. This is what he posted on Twitter.

In this wonderful interview with Isaac Fitzgerald on AM to DM, Buzzfeed News, Andrew Sean Greer discuss writing of this comedic novel which also happens to set a new benchmark for gay art/queer narratives. Greer says that at first Less was a sad and serious book but taking pity on the character he rewrote it. He admits that events and places the character visits are “totally pilfered from my life, in a kleptomaniac way”.

Less is going to be a book that will be exceedingly difficult to forget. It will stick for years to come. There is something about it that is impossible to shed. It is there forever.

Andrew Sean Greer Less Abacus, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, London, 2018. Pb. pp. 265. Rs. 499 

25 June 2018 

Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

Siddhesh Inamdar’s “The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage”

Instead of muddling up so many things in your head, why can’t you simply be with me? Here. In the moment. 

Siddhesh Inamdar’s debut novel The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage is about a young couple, Rohan and Ira. They have been married for a while but have known each other since they were students. Now they are feeling the strain of living apart from each other as Ira is studying in New York and Rohan continues to work in Delhi.

The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage is light fiction where the anxiety felt by the lonely husband about his marriage is compassionately presented. The wife’s point of view is equally sharply sketched even though the reader inhabits Rohan’s mind more than that of Ira. Despite being physically absent from Delhi for large parts of the story it is Ira’s character that comes across far more strongly than Rohan.

It is a simple, often to-be-found tale among young Indian middle class couples and yet there is something rather lovely in the way The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage casts its magic spell. It will be a joy to read what Siddhesh Inamdar spins out next.

Siddhesh Inamdar The Story of a Long-Distance Marriage HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 180 Rs 199

19 June 2018 

Shandana Minhas’s “Rafina”

Shandana Minhas is a publisher and a writer. She established her independent publishing firm Mongrel Books recently. ( I interviewed her in 2017 for Bookwitty.) Rafina:A Novella published in 2018 but is one of her earliest books. It was written in 2004.

Rafina is about a young girl who is trying to supplement her newly widowed mother’s income by working in a beauty parlour. Rafina begins to learn the trade from her mother’s best friend Rosie khala who moonlights by attending to rich clients in the comfort of their own home. After a few months, suitably impressed with Rafina’s hard work, Rosie recommends her to the parlour she works in — Radiance. Ever since Rafina could recall she had dreamed of being a model as famous as the one on the hoarding visible outside their cramped government accommodation. Working at Radiance she firmly believed was the first step to earning that fame. Rafina is a lovely modern day version of Cinderella, the beautiful girl who against all odds rose to the top of society to be lauded by the very same people who had earlier ignored her.

Given that it was written in 2004 Rafina is a pleasant enough read with glimpses of the confident writer Shandana Minhas evolves into. I interviewed the author via email. Following are edited excerpts of the interview:

Why a modern day version of Cinderella? Are there not enough versions of the story? 

The older, darker versions of Cinderella, hopefully. Nearly every culture has a fable of a woman who uses her beauty as a weapon in class warfare, going back hundreds of years, featuring greed, violence, self mutilation, and lust more nakedly than Disney did. The details vary but the conflict and the endgame –upward mobility through some form of concubinage – remain the same. In the Brothers Grimm’s ‘Aschenputtel’, the dropped shoe is not dropped but stuck in pitch laid down by the king’s son to trap the object of his desire after she keeps running away from his advances. Pigeons fly down to peck out the eyes of the evil stepsisters as they escort the girl they persecuted in and out of the church when she eventually marries him. Rafina is set in a city though. In Karachi the pitch is invisible. And the pigeons would get fried on kundas.

Rafina is an unusual name. 

I chose it because I met a Pakistani girl called Rafina when I was young and it was such an unusual name it stayed with me.

Frankly I am super impressed that with your hands more than full with parenting, toddler, ageing  parents, new publishing house etc you found the time to see Rafina through publication.

Me too.

Even though you wrote it in 2004 was it your first completed piece of fiction? How is it the novella was not published then, why now? 

Rafina was created mid-2004. I was a mother to a toddler, and months away from having a second child; I was in the run up to writing my first novel, Tunnel Vision, a draft of which I completed during that pregnancy. I suspect a lot of young fiction writers feel they can’t really call themselves writers till they’ve had a first novel published, and that at that point in time, facing the idea of being completely subsumed by motherhood, I too was more interested in reaching that – as it turns out entirely illusory – benchmark.

Why Rafina is being published now is because my literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, was looking for a publisher for The Good Citizens, a collection of my shorter fiction; it included Rafina, and there was interest in it as a standalone.

Did you have to tweak it a bit given that it was being published 15 years after it was written? 

Apart from minor restructring for flow, and turning up the dial on certain elements (her sexuality, for instance, was subtextual in the first draft) and down on others, I stayed with the story I first told. Teesta Guha Sarkar’s astute editing sharpened Rafina at the level of the sentence and the word by highlighting repetitive words and phrases and expressions that really hadn’t aged well. Kanishka pointed out plot points that needed reinforcing. I also referred to feedback writer friends had offered over the years. I found I was seeing Rafina and the world she was moving through more clearly than I first had. It was an illuminating exercise, draping language onto a fuller-figured story, mouth full of pens instead of pins.

How did this story come about? 

The original Rafina was actually about 14,000 words longer than this. When I started writing it I thought it was a short story but it turned out to be a novella. And about six years ago, when The Good Citizens began to crystallise, I tried to condense the novella down to a long short story. And now I’m thinking this is actually the first in a series, a desi Claudine. Rafina continues to refuse to fit into a box just because somebody wants her to.

Tell me more about Rafina. Did she develop as a character as you had wished or is there more to her? 

I think she’s well developed for a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, in that there is more to her than the desire to please other people and she embraces that rather than stepping away from it. Setting your own market value rather than letting others set it for you, that’s journey enough for a slim volume, I think.

I like the way you get the crowd of people working furiously in the salon but with distinctive personalities. Are the characters inspired by real people? 

For a brief period in my early twenties I had some exposure to the inner workings of the local fashion and beauty industry; the voyeur in me took notes of course. I was always more interested in the people behind the scenes than the ones in the limelight. The ensemble cast of the styling world started as composites of people I came across, or heard about. During fashion or film or TV shoots, my hours with stylists and their assistants were spent haw-ing and hai-ing over their experiences, and gossip about various industry players. Hair-raising. Literally. I’d like to clarify though, in case the owner of the salon my loyalty currently lies with is reading this, that all female employers in the industry are not bad, in fact some treat their employees with the dignity they deserve, and respect their legal rights too. I think we can sense it when we walk into a salon, the happiness quotient of the people who work there. And they often have to do with the littlest things, like putting up a Christmas tree and lights when some of your staff is Christian.

If you had to write this story in 2018 would you change bits and pieces in it? Would you tackle it differently or let it remain? 

I’m so glad you asked about tackling it differently or letting it remain as it was. It was THE question, for me. The answer I eventually arrived at was, I could refine language, I could tweak plot, but I couldn’t touch character. Character was what was giving this book the heart people seemed to be responding to, and my cold authorial hands were better left tucked in my armpits.

As for whether I would tackle it differently now, Rafina is in a way a historical document too, as fiction is; it is set in the time right before social media exploded in Pakistan. This is a different world, there is more room for ambitious young women to attempt escape, and more consequences too. I would have no choice but to tackle it differently.

 What are you working on next? 

I am working on finding the time to write again.

Shandana Minhas Rafina: A Novella Picador India, an imprint of Pan Macmillan Publishing India, New Delhi, 2018. Hb. pp. 170. Rs. 450 

17 June 2018 

An interview with Sam Cooney, Publisher, “The Lifted Brow”

The Lifted Brow is an Australian literary magazine which was established in 2007. In a very short time it has gone on to establish a formidable reputation in the global literary landscape. A few years later they established a publishing firm call Brow Books which too has established a fantastic reputation as well. Most recently Brow Books have sold UK and Commonwealth rights of Intan Paramaditha’s Apple and Knife , short story collection, to Harvill Secker.

“Paramaditha’s stories are shockingly bold and macabrely funny, powerfully defamiliarising the cultural lore of patriarchy. What makes them special is their lack of interest in representing women as victims – here, the taboo of feminist anger is flagrantly and entertainingly broken.”
–The Saturday Paper

Sam Cooney is the publisher of The Lifted Brow and Brow Books. He came to India in January 2018 as part of the Australian Publishers delegation. The delegation is organised by the Australia Council for the Arts and has now become an annual feature. The main aim is to encourage cross-pollination of the two publishing industries and fostering business ties. I met Sam Cooney at a reception hosted in January 2018 by H. E. Harinder Sidhu, High Commissioner, Australia at her residence in New Delhi.

When we met Sam gave me a copy of The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two that blew me away with the quality of contributions. This is what I wrote to Sam upon reading the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the second volume. Now I can understand why publishers are reading this journal closely to spot new talent. It is extraordinary craftsmanship you have in the bunch of writers. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, all write with such strength and powerful voices. The manner in which they express opinion and play with the form of prose and poetry to make it their own is splendid. I cannot decide which of the contributions is my absolute favourite. It probably is “Humans pretending to be computers pretending to be humans” about Amazon Mechanical Turk. Wow! It is at moments like this I never know if we are now living in a speculative fictionalised world or is this reality? It is a bit surreal. After reading the essay I cross-checked with a few of my programming friends who said this particular business exemplifies the sheer ingenuity of Bezos to monetize at every given opportunity.

I also like the way the editorial board of TLB has arranged the articles. So while you can dip into it at any point there is a fascinating trajectory from fiction to non-fiction with some of it sounding so real that it is impossible to tell which zone are we in — real or imagined. I was stunned to read the experimental essay “Two or three things auteurs know about auteurs” and that the dialogue in this piece is constructed entirely from quotes by Jean Luc Godard and Baz Luhrmann.

Here is an interview with Sam Cooney. It has been lightly edited.

Sam Cooney.
Photographer: Alan Weedon

*****

Why did you decide to launch the literary magazine The Lifted Brow? How did you select the marvellous name?! 
 
The Lifted Brow was founded by writer and editor Ronnie Scott, with the first issue being published in January 2007 when he was in his very early twenties. He edited the magazine for five years/for thirteen issues. (You can read an interview with Ronnie here at HTMLGiant which sheds a lot of light as to how and why The Lifted Brow was created, and its purpose.) The origins of the magazine’s name are a mystery – some say that the name just magically appeared on the front cover without anyone even typing it, some say that its anagram for the worst swear word there is in the English language, some say you can simply ask Ronnie Scott and he’ll tell you a very straightforward and unremarkable story of how it was decided.
 
How do you seek contributions? According to Wikipedia you have an impressive list of established writers as well. How did you manage to persuade writers like Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood to contribute? 
The various editors of the magazine (you can see them all here) source contributions both by direct commissioning and by reading unsolicited submissions. Each issue of the magazine is made up of a combination of commissioned work and submissions – it’s central to our ethos that we are always open for submissions from new writers/writers we don’t already know. For the bigger writers we’ve published over the years: it never ceases to amaze how easy it is to find the email address of any writer, no matter how famous, and it’s also always a surprise how positively any writer can react to an unknown editor/publication contacting them for new work if that editor/publication is doing so with genuine keenness and built from a love and respect for that writer’s work.
 
What is the process of selection and editing for the essays? 
For each round of submissions, every piece is read and assessed by several people – a mix of editors and interns. These readers assess pieces against criteria we’ve internally agreed upon—criteria that is very specific to The Lifted Brow, specific to the kinds of work we want to publish and why—and then we come up with a longlist of the best pieces, which are then discussed by the editors, who ultimately choose which pieces to work on and publish.
Our editorial process is incredibly rigorous and thoughtful. From all I know of the industry, I have no doubt whatsoever in saying—and it is not meant to sound self-aggrandising to say—that our editorial process is the most generous and detailed of any literary publication in Australia. This is especially important because we choose to work with writers who are often emerging (and this doesn’t mean young), and we also work with writers who are constantly pushing the boundaries of writing. Sometimes we have worked with an writer for over a year on a piece, going back and forth with edits until the piece is the best it can be.
We also sometimes open for pitches and not just for finished pieces – in these instances the editors assess the pitches and then choose the ones they will ask the writers to write for us.
 
What have been your learnings from managing a literary magazine for so many years — publishing, reading patterns, changes in literature, distribution etc ? 
 
My learnings are far too many and far too deep to even outline here properly. But a couple of important ones: I’ve learned that the single most valuable quality that a publication and organisation must maintain is its integrity. What The Lifted Brow—and our entire organisation has—is the complete trust of its communities, whether it be readers, writers, artists, funding bodies, other publications, publishing houses, or people who belong in several of these communities.
I’ve also learned that there is nothing more important than energy and enthusiasm – that the best editors are people who are completely devoted to seeking out the most interesting work, and that there are no shortcuts to do this.  There are too many lazy editors who wait for the writers and writing to come to them, to their inboxes, or via social media, or via their group of friends or acquaintances. This is how the status quo is maintained, and it’s wrong.
The only way the magazine has been able to sustain itself for so long is that our entire staff are all volunteers, and always have been. It sucks, because every single person who has ever worked on The Lifted Brow deserves to have been paid for their time, labour, skills, knowledge, etc. But the plain fact of the matter is that no matter how we’ve been able to find money (sales, government funding, events, etc), once we’ve covered printing costs, contributor fees, and all the many other costs of producing a publication and running an organisation, there’s never been enough money to pay our staff. And we’ve never wanted to change what we make and how we do it in order to chase short-term dollars – we’ve always said that we are trying to make meaning and not money, that our goal is always to make whatever money we can from exactly the work we want to publish. Still, paying staff my single biggest goal, and is why I am now actively pursuing a not-for-profit model, so that we can unlock ways of securing income that will allow us to pay staff.
We’ve recently transitioned from a private company to a not-for-profit organisation. We’ve always operated like a not-for-profit in that any money we make will always go back into our operations, but now we are legally and structurally a not-for-profit, including being registered with various government bodies and having a board and etc. We hope to be able to pursue funding through various trusts and funds that are only open to not-for-profits, as well as looking at philanthropy and other approaches. It’s a model that other organisations have successfully realised, and we are looking to them for clues and guidance.
 
Why did you decide to launch a publishing house — Brow Books — in addition to the literary magazine? Does it not put a strain on the editorial team as the cycles of publishing are very different. 
We launched Brow Books for the same reason that The Lifted Brow was launched – because no one was doing something that we believe is hugely important. (The Lifted Brow was created because Australian literary journals of that era had become quite staid/were closed off to writers who didn’t conform to a narrow definition of ‘good’ writing, and Ronnie Scott was reading other literary publications from around the globe and decided that Australia desperately needed one.)
Brow Books will publish books that other presses won’t take on because they are deemed (often mistakenly, in our belief) commercially unviable, or too weird or provocative – books that are incredibly important to our society and culture, writing that feature voices and ideas that need to have that mainstream platform of being published in book form. We don’t see enough of the kinds of writers and writing we publish in our magazine and on our website go on to publish books, which we’ve long thought was frustrating – and in Australia, if you are a writer then you basically need to have access to book publishing in order to sustain a career.
One central guiding principle to Brow Books is that we won’t publish a book if another Australian press can and would do a better job of publishing that book, and we haven’t strayed from that so far. Brow Books exists to fill a gap – there are too many book presses in Australia publishing the same kinds of books, competing with each other, and we definitely don’t want to add to that noise.
Brow Books staff are largely separate from those who make our magazine – as you’ll see here.
Who commissions books on behalf of Brow Books or is it the same editorial board of TLB? 
 
Me and the rest of the book editors are in charge of finding titles for Brow Books – whether it’s through our open submissions or through commissioning.
In an interview with Kill Your Darlings you remarked that while it is interesting to review existing literary magazines-cum-book publishers such as Granta, McSweeneys, New York Review of Books, these models cannot be copied exactly in Australia. What are these differentiating factors you refer to?
 
I said that these models couldn’t be copied exactly, but that something very similar could work. Different factors include: our population in Australia is smaller and sales numbers are commensurate; there isn’t a tradition or culture in Australia of philanthropy in the literary arts; we’re trying to set our organisation up in an era that is distinct from when these others were established; that pretty much all of these above mentioned literary magazines-cum-book publishers had/have one very rich person propping them up for at least a period of time.
What are the key differences in your editorial practices/commissioning for The Lifted Brow as a literary magazine/longform and for the book publishing programme? Or to put it another way — what are the focus areas of these two very distinct forms of literature that you are now responsible for?
 
In fact, the focus areas are the same! We see Brow Books and The Lifted Brow (as well as our website publishing, our events, and everything else we do) as being different ways to attack the same goals.
 
I liked your phrase “agile publishing”. How do you propose to apply it in your publishing programme/s? Will it also involve experimentation with forms and formats or the experimentation will be restricted to print formats alone?
Any kind agility we have will be due to our size, and our willingness to be proactive in our commissioning. We aren’t reinventing publishing in any way – we are huge fans of books and how publishing has worked, but we also see big gaps and problems particularly in Australian publishing. Our experimentation, at least in the short term, will largely be in respect to content – to who we publish, and what kinds of writing we publish. We are much less interested in experimenting wildly with physical or digital formats – it’s not where our interest nor where our strengths lie.
17 June 2018 

DK Reference books for children

Quite often adults seek age appropriate non-fiction books for their children/students that will give authentic information. In the information age where plenty of free “content” is to be found online it is not very easy persuading people to buy encyclopaedias for their wards. It is a seemingly expensive proposition when free information is readily available. Yet it is worth considering that little children’s brains are like tabula rasas who could benefit from sponging correct information rather than having to unlearn knowledge later in life. It is far more challenging to forget and start afresh rather than build upon a well-established foundation. Another school of thought claims that there is absolutely no need to give children expensive reference books to browse through. It is best such books are kept in the “ready reference” section of school libraries for them to consult on a need-to basis. I do not agree.

Take for instance Explanatorium Nature which offers a look at how nature works.  It is a scrumptiously produced encyclopaedia with generous double-page spreads explaining basic processes such as how do the stingers of bees work? How do mantis and geckos hunt? How do humming birds hover? How do frogs communicate? How do snakes move? Even the metamorphosis cycle which in earlier textbooks were confined to illustrations is beautifully explained with pictures taken at different stages of a frog’s cycle from that of a tadpole to an adult.  Questions are not confined to the world visible to the naked eye but micro-organisms are also discussed. No expense seems to have been spared in using pictures taken with electron microscopes to show how does algae grow? How does mould work? These are questions about nature that are forever being asked by children and adults alike. To have it produced in such a luscious publication will make a child browse through a book and read it. In all likelihood also shun electronic engagement for it is ultimately a beautiful book to possess too.

A similarly spectacular set of book are the Super series made in collaboration with the Smithsonian — Super Bug, Super Human, Super Nature and Super Shark. Take Super Bug for instance which has the most remarkable photography to discuss a few unusual bugs found on earth. Many of these insects look very menacing when looking at these magnified images published. Every tiny detail down to the tiny hair sensors on their legs, their eyes, antennae, devouring prey and even the spiracles found in a centipede are visible. Horrifyingly accurate photography that are mesmerising to little children. Young readers are absolutely unfazed by the creepy-crawlies magnified so many times to their actual size. It is an incredible way to showcase information and for the child to learn. It has the additional advantage of teaching children to be sensitive to the “invisible” world of living organisms around them as every individual is critical to earth’s biodiversity and important this ecology is preserved.

The physical landscape is equally intriguing for little minds that are just gaining consciousness about the world around them. Children are curious by nature. They also observe sharply and have a million questions. For instance, how are waves formed? Why do earthquakes occur? Why do mountains exist? How do volcanic eruptions happen? Why do different seasons exist? Why do we have day and night? These are complex questions as they delve into physical geography but children have to start somewhere. They may as well begin looking at Geography A Children’s Encyclopedia which has pictures and illustrations showing simply and clearly different physical formations. At the same time without dumbing down information using technically accurate terminology so that the young reader begins  to form a firm foundation of knowledge about the earth.

Designed in similar spirit to educate, inform while being visually accurate is The Complete Human Body: The Definitive Visual GuideFrom the smallest component that of a cell to different body systems are described. The book is divided into five sections — the integrated body which explains evolution and cellular structures, the anatomy with the main body systems described in detail, how the body works goes into greater depth as to how each system such as the nervous system or the reproductive system works, the life cycle, and diseases and disorders. Some adults may not take kindly to such a comprehensive encyclopaedia being recommended for children for its very detailed information about the human body especially the reproductive system. On the contrary such a book is a must in every household and multiple copies of it in school libraries as it is better the next generation is accurately informed rather than misinformed and perpetuate myths about their bodies through gossip and hearsay. Also having such a book within the home or school will hopefully enable honest and frank conversations between adults and children rather than never opening up communication channels for such topics as in many homes subjects about the human body continue to be taboo.

While on the question of mechanics, two other DK publications by David Macaulay, are equally stupendous — How Machines Work and  The Way Things Work Now: From Levers to Lasers, Windmills to Wi-fi, a Visual Guide to the World of MachinesHow Machines Work won the Royal Society’s Young People’s Prize 2016 for it is an interactive book using book production ingenuity of a pop-up book combined with that of encyclopaedic information to explain the basic principle of mechanics. For instance that of levers has a set of levers embedded in the book cover that the child can play with. The concept of a lever and a fulcrum and its applications are not always easily understood by young minds; yet in this incredible spread there are tiny elements tucked into the page which a child can pick up and use to understand how a see-saw functions, how is a balancing act achieved or even how extraordinarily heavy loads are easily picked up using the lever system. Way Things Work is a very popular DK title that has been in existence for many years and has been revised and updated a few times as well, most recently in 2016. It explains simply the principles and working of many machines ranging from screws at work, sewing machines, chain hoists, aqualung, amplifier, solar cells, fingertip input, helicopters, smartphones, wi-fi, satellite navigation, speech recognition etc. It is a reference book that is entertaining, informative while being heavily illustrated it will fascinate any young reader.

Finally a book like the Home Lab: Exciting Experiments for Budding Scientists which won the Royal Society’s Young People’s Award Book Prize 2017 and the best STEM publication of the year is a well-laid out book explaining simply how to conduct basic experiments at home. For instance making rubber band planets, how to make a battery out of a lemon to learn about electrical circuits, how to make invisible ink, how to make a breathing machine, to create stunning stalactites or even how to create a DNA model. Application of encyclopaedic knowledge garnered and learning applications of it using ingredients found mostly at home is a fabulous way of introducing children to experiential learning. It is a form of learning that children are never likely to forget. Also it will teach them mental agility to apply their bookish knowledge.

Increasingly it has become critical in this noisy world that children learn skills and acquire knowledge rather than remain passive recipients of information as many become addicted to electronic engagement. It is this space of being entertaining, informative and offering a deeply immersive experience that these exquisitely produced DK books offer to children. These are definitely expensive books and may not always be easily considered by many parents who are constantly trying to balance household budgets. Yet to buy these titles for the children is undoubtedly a great investment as it is extremely rewarding watching a child get absorbed in the books and later watch in fascination how they regurgitate the knowledge gained. It is a magical transformation and well worth considering!

All these titles are essential go-to reference books meant for children.

All the books mentioned have been published by Dorling Kindersley or DK and are available in bookstores and online retail stores.

15 June 2018 

Jane Harris’s “Sugar Money”

‘All those slave, the friars bought with borrowed money.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Father Prudence, years agone. They took a loan from the French government and another from another merchant in London. Being the case, the French authority might say those Fort Royal slaves and their descendants belong to them. The London merchant might say the same. Of course, the friars would argue otherwise but some would say they lost the right to the slave because of the debt and their misdoings.’

‘They might have repaid those loans since.’

‘No,’ Emile replied. ‘I asked around St. Pierre the other night. They never repaid one sou, to this day. Everybody knows they are in debt from Salines to St. Domingue. That’s why they want those slave back, to grow more cane. Cane is sugar, sugar is money. That’s all we are to them. But loan or no loan, the English will care not one farthing. Now they rule the land of Grenada, they must surely lay claim to the slaves at the hospital. And if we take Celeste and the rest without permission, those Goddams will say we stole them.’ 

Jane Harris’s third novel Sugar Money has been shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It is set in 1765 when two brothers Emile and Lucien are charged by their French master, Father Cleophas, to return to Grenada and smuggle home forty-two slaves claimed by English invaders ( commonly referred to as “Goddams”) and working at the hospital. It is a tricky mission as there is the constant danger of the two brothers being caught. Since the two brothers are slaves themselves they have no option but to obey. Emile is under no illusions about how dangerous the mission is but is tempted to return to Grenada for he can meet his sweetheart Celeste. The action-packed novel spread over a few days is narrated by the younger brother Lucien who was taught English by a Scotsman working at the Grenada hospital.  The French friars want “their” slaves  back as they need help to till their cane sugar plantations in Martinique.

In the Afterword Jane Harris elaborates  upon the true incident which inspired her story.

In 1738, the French Colonial Government in Grenada built a hospital overlooking the main town of Fort Royal (now known as St George’s). By 1742, the hospital had been handed over to the care of a band of mendicant monks or friars: the Brothers of Charity of the Order of St John the God — les Freres de la Charite — who had been running a hospital in the neighbouring island of Martinique for almost a hundred years. the friars looked after the sick but, in order to fund their charitable works, they also ran plantations alongside their hospitals — plantations which relied on the labour of enslaved people. The poverty-stricken friars took out loans in order to purchase these slaves, some of whom they trained as nurses to work alongside them in the hospital. the rest of the slaves were set to toil on the plantations, growing indigo and sugar cane. …the British invaded Grenada in 1763 and took over the hospital. 

She continues that in August 1765, one of the mendicant friars, Father Cleophas, travelled from Martinique to Grenada in an attempt to persuade the slaves to return with him. Unfortunately he was discovered by the English and asked to leave. After which he persuaded a “mulatto” slave to go on a mission for him. It was disastrous as the English once again discovered the plan and prevented most of the slaves to escape. Of the 11 who did to Martinique had to return to Grenada and they saved themselves by blaming the mulatto slave. As a result he was the only one made an example of and hanged.

Sugar Money is an absorbing read with some truly horrific descriptions of how the slaves were treated by their masters. The brutal violence is relentless with the slaves living in constant fear. It is a story that is truly horrifying for what happened in the past but also with the knowledge that such situations continue to exist in many parts of the world even now*. It may not always be the colonial master and slave relationship but many people are being exploited in a similar fashion for purely business gains.

In an interview Jane Harris clearly states what set her off on this quest to write this historical fiction. Also being acutely aware of her white privilege; a fact which is good to know particularly in an age where conversations about cultural appropriation are constantly being resurrected.

Of course, I was – and am – very aware of my white privilege and did ask various friends, writers of colour, if they thought I was crazy to tackle such a subject. They told me that yes, I probably was crazy – but as long as I did it well enough, it wouldn’t matter. So, that was the challenge; I knew I’d have to write a good book.

She adds:

Research is crucial. It begins when I have the idea for a novel and carries on all the way through to the final draft, even to proof-stage. I’m one of those writers who likes to be as historically accurate as possible, so the research never ends. However, I’m also a great believer in ‘hiding’ the research. Your research notes shouldn’t be visible to the reader. If a fact isn’t relevant to the story then, really, it shouldn’t be in the book.

Even though The Observations is entirely a work of imagination, not based on true events, the period detail still has to be accurate. Gillespie and I is also a work of imagination, set in the art world of Scotland in the late 1880s, at the time of the International Exhibition, and so I had to undertake a good deal of research to get the detail of Glasgow and the art world right.

When it came to Sugar Money, research had a hand in steering the plot. These were real people, enslaved people, and I felt I owed it to them to stick closely to the facts. Having said that, there are great gaps in what is known about the true story behind the novel, with the result that I had a lot of inventing to do. With some of the people involved, all I had to go on was a list of slave names and it was from those names that I built their characters. For instance, I just knew that someone called Angelique Le Vieux had to be a force of nature. At other times, in terms of narrative, I had to piece together the plot by looking at the motivation of a character and analyzing what actually happened in real life e.g.: X happened and then Y happened – so why did the person involved make the decision to do Y? That’s often how the narrative grew. So, the facts often drove the fiction.

Sugar Money is a gripping book waiting to be turned into a period film. The descriptions are so vivid that it seems the action is happening in front of one’s eyes.

Jane Harris Sugar Money Faber & Faber, London, 2017, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 452 Rs 499 

*As I was writing this blog post news came in that US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 from the Bible often used to defend slavery while defending his government’s policy of separating immigrant families.

15 June 2018 

 

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 was founded in 1996, the Prize was set up for “excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world”.  As always the prize celebrates and helps readers discover fantastic women writers. This year’s shortlist is formidable — a trademark of the Women’s Prize for Fiction even in its previous avatars as Orange Prize and Bailey’s Prize.

 

 

The shortlist consisted of: 

In a wonderful ceremony held in London, Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

There was an enormous roar when Kamila Shamsie’s name was announced as the winner. This is what Kate Moss, founder of the prize, had to say:

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire explores the complicated relationship Isma has with her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz. It is also a modern retelling of Antigone in which Isma, whose mother has died, works hard to raise her brother and sister. When they reach adulthood, Isma leaves for the US to study at university while her brother, Parvaiz, who has unfortunately become radicalised in Britain, leaves to join ISIS, following in the footsteps of their jihadist father. Aneeka, meanwhile, is torn between her love for her older sister and her twin. The idea of two sisters where one is conventional, bordering on timid but keeps the home fire burning while the other leaves home and enters the world of men with far reaching consequences has been encapsulated in myths and legends. There is Antigone and her sister Ismene from the Greek myth, and Mary and Martha in the New Testament. The Sophoclean chorus giving a background and a perspective on the “tricky” position British Muslims occupy is provided by the character of a Muslim MP and Home Secretary, Karamat Lone, and his son, Eamonn. It’s a prescient novel for it is considered to have predicted the rise of British Pakistani Sajid Javid, current Home Secretary of Britain. In fact she wrote about it in the Guardian too.

Poet-cum-novelist Meena Kandawamy’s When I Hit Youabout her four months as a married woman. At one level it is an account of the horrific marriage she found herself in. She walked into it knowingly having met her husband online while involved in an activism campaign. Her parents and this man shared similar ideological positions which probably coloured her decision to marry. At another level it is as if Meena Kandaswamy puts herself under the scanner and analyses her life using all the feminist theory she has read and practised over the years. Putting the book at this curious intersection is incisive while making the acute conflict of the desi social expectations of a young girl to “settle down” and that of a professional writer/poet. In fact before her marriage Meena Kandaswamy was used to travelling whereever and whenever she desired. She terms herself as a “nomad” in the book. After marriage there was a gargantuan difference. She was suddenly confined to the small house in Mangalore. After walking out of her marriage Meena Kandawamy wrote an article in the first person for Outlook magazine. ( “I Singe the Body Electric”, 19 March 2012). It was the first time she spoke of the domestic violence. Interestingly she chose the first person mode to write of the traumatic experience.

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is an astonishing bildungsroman for its incredible craftsmanship in telling the story of Turkish American student Selin who is enrolled at Harvard University for literature and linguistics. Set in the 1990s it seems like a different world altogether. From a bewildered young woman, exposed to the academic world where everyone seems to flaunt their “knowledge” who grows in to a sophisticated version of her younger self, of a young woman comfortable in her skin with who she is, her choices, her knowledge and the relationships she forges. It is not an easy book to read. It takes a little while to get into but once past the first hundred pages it is impossible to put down. Elif Batuman’s love affair with Russian literature continues in this novel too beginning with the title which echoes Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is an extremely powerful story about a family of mixed race. The father, Michael, is in prison, but his wife, Leonie, lives with her two children and her parents. Michael is ostracized by his family for marrying a “nigger”. Leonie is a chemical addict who does not have much time for her children or parents yet she is insistent on making the long road trip to fetch Michael once he is released from prison. The narrative alternates between the thirteen-year-old son and Leonie. At times their stories overlap offering different perspectives about their family, their own histories and racism. The sensitive portrayal of the older brother with his baby sister is memorable. Jesmyn Ward is the Toni Morrison for a younger generation. She won the National Book Award 2017 for this novel.

Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight is about an unnamed narrator wondering whether to have a child or not. Every meditative reflection is interspersed with a long interlude about a scientific discovery of the Victorian period.  The first section involves the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays; the second section is about psycho analyst Sigmud Freud and the final section is about Scottish surgeon John Hunter who was exceptionally well known for his knowledge of the anatomy, both human and animal. In fact John Hunter’s fine collection of over 14,000 specimens was acquired by the British government and even today exists at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.  Sight is a literary example of psycho-geography — a combination of personal reminiscences and factual historical content. It is also an attempt to get at a further truth which is about how we see one another and we see ourselves especially the female experience which is most often taken away from human experience.  It is a constantly evolving process of the individual’s subjectivity vs objectivity. It was first discussed in a similar meditative fashion by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria. It is unsurprising given that Coleridge too like Jessie Greengrass was inspired by John Hunter’s work and its focus on the distinctions between life and matter. As Jessie Greengrass remarks in an interview “having a subjective self is something which allows us privacy but also separates us even from the people we are closest to” and this is the angle she explores as a novelist in her powerful debut Sight.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by debut novelist Imogen Hermes Gower is a rich historical fiction set in the Georgian period involving courtesans and mermaids. It is a lovely story, detailed about late 18C England and yet the strong women characters seem as if the 21C attitudes towards women have been supplanted back in time.

The novels shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018* are riveting. Every single one of them is special for the tenor of writing, storytelling, and great diversity in style — memoir-like novels, retelling of myths, magic realism, and bildungsroman. These are books meant to be read as they are changing contemporary literary landscape and the authors will be considered literary giants in years to come.

*My article on Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

7 June 2018 

 

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs is a visual delight apart from beingpacked with information. The well-recognised dinosaurs such as Triceratops ( Three-horned face), Mamenchisaurus, Kentrosaurus ( Spiked Lizard) and Tyrannosaurus Rex ( Tyrant Lizard King) are described beautifully. There are full-page colour spreads with exciting information about each highlighted in a comment bubble within the illustration. Alongside it is an illustration in a box comparing the height of a human being to that of the dinosaur. Neatly presented in a panel on the side is the geographical location of the dinosaur, in which year were the fossils first discovered, dimensions of the animal, and its diet. Without it being too much of an information overload, details about the dinosaurs are presented so clearly with simple visual layouts and a clean font used that even I for the first time in years has finally understood in one fell swoop what Trynnosaurus Rex is all about. It is utterly brilliant.

Triceratops

Tyrannosaurus Rex

Titanosaurus Indicus

Dinosaur books exist by truck loads in the market. A significant proportion of storybooks for children particularly for pre-schoolers rely upon dinosaurs. Many times they are anthropomorphised. The dinosaurs often used are Trynnosaurus Rex and Mamenchisaurus, so much so these complicated names come tripping off the tongues of tiddlers. Most of the dinosaurs children are familiar with are found in USA, Europe and China.

Kotasaurus

Laevisuchus Indicus

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is where the Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs is exceptional. It has mentioned the few dinosaurs found in India like Titanosaurus Indicus, Kotasaurus, Laevisuchus Indicus, Rajasaurus Narmadensis, and Therizinosaurus. What is truly astonishing is that these dinosaurs were drawn by Krishna Bala Shenoi based on the evidence  available.

Rajasaurus Narmadensis

The editors and illustrator did try and search for illustrations that may have existed based on the skeletal remains discovered except that no satisfactorily clear images were to be found. This is what the illustrator Krishna Bala Shenoi had to say about the process:

Indian dinosaurs haven’t been represented in a plethora of paleoart or scientific reconstructions in the way that most commonly known dinosaurs have been, for a variety of reasons. The references I had to work with (some given to me, some discovered online) were so few in number, so lacking in detail and, most significantly, so contradictory between themselves that I had to do a lot of fairly unscientific guesswork.

Therizinosaurus

My process came down to collecting the images I could, constructing a notion of the dinosaur that sort of fit the multiple references, and then filling in the blanks with details from similar dinosaurs that had richer libraries of visual resources. In one case, I used images of a toy dinosaur (different from the one I was illustrating) as a springboard for the construction of the dinosaur’s body.

I was initially very reluctant with every move I made, fearing I was way off the mark, but later discovered how wrong paleoart has been over the years. That was comforting in a way; it gave me permission to be okay with, essentially, making some details up. So I just had fun with it.

I illustrate digitally, but there’s a misconception that that means it’s not hand drawn. It very much is. I work on a device called a graphic tablet which ports my drawing/painting from the tablet surface onto my computer screen in real time.

This is an extraordinary achievement and is a testament to how much effort the editorial team is willing to put in to make available authentic information in a stunning layout.

This is a book for keeps. To be read. To be shared. To be bought for reference, libraries and school resource materials.

To be gifted liberally simply for the pleasure of holding and reading a beautiful book.

Scholastic Encyclopaedia Of Dinosaurs Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Pb. pp. 80. Rs 399

Reading level: 9 – 16 

Amazon

Flipkart 

30 May 2018 

#Horror

#Horror ( Amazon and Flipkart)  is an anthology of horror stories for middle grade.  It consists of various young writers most of whom debut with their stories. Journalist and writer Siddhartha Sarma is the only writer who has previously won a literary prize too — Crossword Prize for his powerful young adult novel The Grasshopper’s Run. It is a pleasure to see his comeback story “Hive” as the opening short story. It sets the right tenor for the volume with its mildly comic plot and an unexpected twist.

The stories are original with familiar themes of zombies, ghosts, school scenarios etc. ( Vampires are missing!) Some of the writers who stand out are Satadru Mukherjee with his magnificently creepy “Wives’ Tale”. It is going to be a while before I can look at a lizard again without freaking out about the ghosts the reptiles may harbour! Anuj Gupta with his freaky “The Smiling Portrait” nudges the perfectly ordinary into a dark, disturbingly sinister space — its very unsettling! Anukta Ghosh ‘s “The Night Bus” may seem to be a predictable ghost story but in her quietly restrained, elegant writing style, she makes the story magical.

#Horror is undoubtedly a sparkling set of stories with a few experiments in formats too — unusual offering in an otherwise predominantly prose collection. For instance C G Salamander and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya’s short story in graphic format “The Textbook” is unforgettable particularly the last frame. “Eterni-tree”, the long poem in rhyming couplets by Kairavi Bharat Ram is astonishing for how it operates at two levels — one of telling a story pleasantly but at another level, the existence of the chilling undercurrent, is fairly mature storytelling for one so young. Kairavi Bharat Ram is a gap-year student with another publication written while she was still in school — Ramayana in Rhyme.

The well-thought out arrangement of the stories is just as it should be. Beginning with the seasoned writer Siddhartha Sarma and slowly introducing new and strong voices, with the subjects ranging from the familiar to the unusual. Thereby ensuring the young readers are not too taken aback by completely unfamiliar themes. An equal amount of care seems to have been taken with the layout and design. There is a crispness with the speckled look for the double page spread between stories, with an illustration to hint at what is to come.

Many of these stories beg to be read over and over again. The stories have the charming, old-fashioned, languid style of storytelling that absorb one completely from the word go. Adults will love the book too!

#Horror is the perfect introduction to horror stories for middle graders. It is also the launch of a fine new generation of young writers who are going to make their mark in years to come.

Grab #Horror asap!

#Horror Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India. Pb. pp. 120 Rs 299

Reading level: 10+ to young adults 

 

29 May 2018