Reviewing Posts

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

Bear Grylls Adventures

Given how more and more children are being reared in urban settings it is getting tougher for them to be close to nature. For instance I was very surprised to watch the look of astonishment on a seven-year-old boy’s face when I was explaining crop cycles. Till then he was under the impression that the fresh produce arrived in the shop magically. Well, he was clued in sufficiently to realise people carted it in but was not curious enough to ask where did it actually come from? Where was it grown? So if urbanisation is robbing children of this basic knowledge of farming / nature under normal circumstances. Imagine how challenging it is to explain to the children on how to manage themselves in diverse ecosystems particularly at the time of natural disasters.

There is a paucity of literature on how adults should behave when a natural disaster strikes. What are the immediate responses and how to survive the long haul. ( Within this there are other complications of gendered responses, fragile situations and how to rehabilitate.) There is even less literature available for children on how they should respond in such situations. And if there is, it is mostly confined to Girl Guide or Boy Scout manuals, not necessarily accessible to the majority of children. Also books on disaster management need to be pitch perfect while communicating to the children rather than talking down to them. It will inevitably result in a brain freeze on the part of the kids and builld a resistance. This is where the Bear Grylls Adventures, a series of slim chapter books, created by noted adventurer and survival expert Bear Grylls are a delight to read. Simply told adventure stories in different settings where within the plot the young readers are shown how to respond and behave in different scenarios — earthquakes, blizzards, desert, jungles, sea and river. A pleasure to read these pitch perfect books.

In India the books have been published by Bloomsbury India. They are a set of six books reasonably priced and a must in every school library if not in every child’s personal library. In fact the importance the publishers rightly give to these series was evident at the posters displayed in their world book fair stall held in Delhi.

Bear Grylls Adventures by Bear Grylls. Illustrated by Emma McCann. Bear Grylls is an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, a Bonnier Publishing Company, Great Britain, 2017. ( In India the books are distributed by Bloomsbury India and are priced at Rs 199 each.) 

8 February 2018 

 

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

In conversation with Namita Gokhale on her “Lost in Time”, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

Lost in Time: Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusions is Namita Gokhale’s first young adult novel, published by Puffin India but not her first publication for children – a few years ago she published the hugely successful Puffin Mahabharata.

Lost in Time: Ghatatkacha and the Game of Illusions is the story told in the voice of young Chintamani Dev Gupta who is sent packing to a birding camp near Sat Tal lake. Chintamani, AKA Chintu Pintu, is inexplicably transported to the days of the Mahabharata. Trapped in time, he meets Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimbi. The gentle giant, a master of illusions and mind boggling Rakshasa technology, wields his strength with knowledge and wisdom, and imparts the age old secrets of the forest and the elemental forces. In his company, Chintamani finds himself in the thick of the most enduring Indian epic – the Mahabharatha. A tender look at a remarkable friendship as well as the abiding riddles of time , this visual treat of a book casts light on the first born son of the Pandavas, – one who finds rare mention in the fading pages of myth and legend. But there’s more to the story. Aided by Dhoomavati, the mistress of smoke and secrets, Chintamani returns to his own time – our time – and urban life in Gurgaon, AKA Gurugram. The rhythm of modern urban life, and his passion for football, cannot erase the memories of his incredible encounter with the past, and his friendship with Ghatotkacha which defies the barriers of time.

It is a lovely book about a minor but significant character of the Mahabharata. Namita Gokhale in her story has told the story tenderly, focusing not just on the legend of Ghatotkach but placing it well within the context of the major episodes of the epic. Yet there are two elements in the book that are baffling. One is the illustration of Ghatotkach. According to legend he is given the name that he has because of his bald pate shaped like a ghada/ an urn. Yet the illustrations on the book cover and accompanying the text show him to have beautiful long hair. The second was the promotion for the Puffin Mahabharata written by Namita Gokhale ten years ago. Chintamani after returning to modern India is intrigued by the epic and goes to his bookshelf to locate it. He recalls his mother buying this particular version of the epic and then proceeds to quote the book blurb. Curious way of promoting the previous book given it has already been mentioned in the opening pages of Namita Gokhale’s publications.

All said and done it is a beautifully written book especially the stunning passages of the milky way, playing with the sunlight and weaving a hammock out of cobwebs. Absolutely gorgeous!

On Sunday, 26 November 2017, at the Times of India LitFest, New Delhi, Namita Gokhale’s book was launched. After which I was in conversation with her. Watch the event here:

28 Nov 2017 

 

Of Bitches

11 October 2017 is International Girl Child’s Day, declared by the United Nations. The idea is to raise awareness of issues facing girls internationally surrounding education, nutrition, child marriage, legal and medical rights. The celebration of the day also “reflects the successful emergence of girls and young women as a distinct cohort in development policy, programming, campaigning and research.”

But what happens when the young woman gains consciousness in a world where many of the structures are still very patriarchal; they inform and dictate many relationships and policies. Feminism, particularly women’s movements, of the 1960s onwards have influenced young girls world over. Women learned how to express themselves in a manner that enabled them to be heard. Slowly and steadily the impact was discernible in different spheres. In publishing too for the first time women’s presses were being set up. Virago and  Kali for Women were established. The magazine Ms was launched by Gloria Steinem. Women in Publishing was established at this time by Liz Calder, one of the co-founders of Bloomsbury. In India for the first time Status of Women Report ( 1975) was released. There was definitely a shift in perceptions and constructive action was being taken. Soon publishers worldwide recognised the growing importance of giving a space in their lists to women’s books — either by women or for women.  In living memory there has been a dramatic shift with now there being more and more women authors being published.

In this context there are three collections of essays that I read recently — Bad Feminist ( Roxane Gay), Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults ( Laurie Penny) and The Bitch is Back ( ed. Cathi Hanauer). These three books can be yoked together not only for their feminism but also that they mark the manner in which the feminists conduct themselves, the choices they make and how they evolve as individuals. Some of the older feminists as those sharing their experiences in their essays included in The Bitch is Back comment upon living their feminism by negotiating their spaces regularly and thereafter making peace with the decisions made. The common thread running through all these essays is how challenging at times it can be to find the same sense of equality and entitlement that men of diverse backgrounds seem to have in all societies. Women have to negotiate their spaces and stand by their choices, at times it is not easy, but feminism has granted this at least — the space to negotiate and as some of the older women discover it is also about making peace with having your own identity. There are two particularly fine essays that encapsulate and address many of these issues in The Bitch is Back — “Trading Places: We both wanted to stay home. He won. But so did I.” by Julianna Baggott and “Beyond the Myth of Co-Parenting: What we lost — and gained — by abandoning equality” by Hope Edelman.

These books are meant for everyone and not necessarily for feminists. Read them. Discuss them. Share them and not just with the girls in your circle as they come of age. It is a way of seeing. Hopefully reading about alternative gendered perspectives will enable a healthy debate in society and contribute to the transformation of traditional patriarchal structures of thinking.

11 October 2017 

 

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

“How to Disappear” and “Project Semicolon”

Mental health issues at the best of times are rarely discussed. It continues to be a socially taboo subject despite it affecting millions of people across the world and of all ages. Despite it being an information rich world now where there are myriad ways of being able to communicate with people 24×7, loneliness and severe mental stress is on the rise. Recently I read a young adult novel How to Disappear and Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over published by Project Semicolon that consists of  testimonies by people affected by or have witnessed those suffering with mental health issues.

How to Disappear is about a shy and reserved young girl, Vecky Decker, who rarely meets or interacts with anyone, even with her classmates. The only person she is fond of is an old schoolfriend, Jenna, who has now moved to another city. The novel is about her discovering a new life through her virtual life by creating an Instagram account which belies her reality. She accrues more than 2 million followers. Yet ironically she continues to be a fairly lonely girl in real life. Later of course the plot morphs into a predictable sugary conclusion with Jenna becoming a local heroine for her good deed. She uses her vast social media network to find her lost friend, Jenna, whom she suspects is on her way to a cliff to kill herself.

Project Semicolon is an equally disconcerting book for the varied number of testimonies it has gathered. It not only gives an insight into the minds of people crumbling internally though outwardly all may seem well but it also helps in imparting a message of hope. For many of these accounts are by people who have survived a particularly rough patch in their lives either tackling their own mental health issues or of their loved ones.

Both the books are worth considering for a library where these can be shared widely. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly and must be discussed frankly.

Sharon Huss Roat How to Disappear Harper Teen, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, NYC, 2017. Hb. pp. 380 

Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , NYC, 2017. Pb. pp. 

 

 

 

“The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life”

Ann Burack-Weiss’s The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life is a slim volume where she explores through women writer’s prose what it means to them getting old. For decades she herself has been a social work practitioner who focused from day one of her career on the caregiving of the elderly. It was unusual when she chose this vocation in the 1960s but four decades later it is not. ” I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life.” It gives her a perspective and an understanding in a particular phase of a woman’s life when she is inevitably relegated to grandparent duties whereas continuity theory states that as people age they do not change their patterns of thought or action but continue to approach life in the same way as they always have.

Ann Burack-Weiss has been fascinated with the memoir/ autobiography or the essentials of life-writing experience. It encompasses a range of forms such as the transcribed interview, dictation, journal, letter and auto-fiction. According to her since the 1960s feminist scholars have been explored the woman’s “agency” ( the ability to speak and act on her own behalf) or the lack thereof. “They note that, through the ages, most of the writing about women, in fiction and nonfiction, has been by men, and that the male lens inevitably leads to distortion.” But as she discovers that many of her quoted authors in the book — Colette, Fisher, Sarton, Florida Scott-Maxwell– had published compelling life writing well before the editors determined what was worthy of inclusion in their collections. “The only possible explanation for their exclusion is that the editors themselves had little interest in what the old women had to say.”

The writers included in this book are categorised according to arbitrary time divisions:

1862-1909 (Fin de Siecle) — Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, M.F.K. Fisher, Anai Nin, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton

1910-1929 (Progressive Era) — Diana Athill, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Doris Grumbach, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Madeline L’Engle, Gerda Lerner, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton

1930-1943 (Great Depression- World War II) — Isabel Allende, Mary Catherine Bateson, Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Annie Ernaux, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna O’Brien, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Ropihe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alix Kates Shulman

1944-1960 (Baby Boomers) — Diane Ackerman, Alison Bechdel, Terry Castle, Mary Gordon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Mairs, Nancy K. Miller, Alice Walker

It is interesting Ann Burack-Weiss chooses to quote Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize for Literature ( 2002) acceptance speech where Morrison focuses on “word-work” and being an old woman. Toni Morrison’s last novel God Help the Child ( 2015) which began life as a memoir but transformed into a slim novel explores these very themes. It reflects upon the cycle of life from the perspective of an older writer. What truly struck me at the end of 2015 was that none of the “Best of 2015” lists included this novel even though it was “Toni Morrison”. Perhaps old age is too stark a reminder of one’s mortality.

It is a slim volume but gives one much to think about.

Ann Burack-Weiss The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. Pb. pp.190 

27 Sept 2017 

 

Pramod Kapoor’s “Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography”

Well known publisher Pramod Kapoor, founder, Roli Books, has published his first book as author — Gandhi: An Illustrated BiographyIt is a scrumptiously designed edition with plenty of photographs laid out throughout the book. More importantly it is lucidly written and immediately immerses the reader into the narrative. Writing biographies is not an easy nor an enviable task as the author is always trying to balance the narrative between being in the footsteps of their subject or stressing on only a few aspects leaving out large chunks of facts. Pramod Kapoor in his book Gandhi achieves the fine balance with panache. There is a grace with which he documents Gandhi’s life as well delves into uncomfortable subjects such as Gandhi’s sexuality, troubled relationship with his eldest son or even the vow he took of celibacy aged 37 and yet opted to sleep naked at night with young women including his beloved niece in his bed.  Historian Sunil Khilnani has endorsed the book saying ” Pramod Kapoor’s book is a personal and wonderfully intimate photographic journey through Gandhi’s life. Even those familiar with Gandhi’s story will disocver things with surprise, delight, and inform them in this moving book.”

As of 22 September 2017 the book will be released internationally with editions available in Russian, German, French, Italian, Dutch, UK, and USA. Here is a longish book trailer of 11 minutes but its time well spent watching it:

Pramod Kapoor Gandhi: An Illustrated Biography Lustre Press, Roli Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. pp 326

24 Sept 2017 

 

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017