Bloomsbury Posts

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s “Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are”

 I can’t pretend there isn’t a darkness in some of this data. If people consistently tell us what they think we want to hear, we will generally be told things that are more comforting than the truth. Digital truth serum, on average, will show us that the world is worse than we have thought. 

With the information age there is bound to be a explosion of data. For some years now it has been said that the amount of information uploaded on the Internet every day is equivalent to the amount created in history of all mankind. Some say it is approximately eight trillion gigabytes of data. This is a HUGE! Data scientists like Seth Stephens-Davidowitz make regular attempts to sift through this data to determine what picture it creates.

In Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s basic premise is what is the truth. In his fascinating thesis-converted to-book he discusses how the data swirling on the internet  confirms and conforms to our expectations. We find and get what is comforting. The truth is there is much more than meets the eye. The truth exists on the Internet, it requires being alert to it and looking for it. He cites examples from the recently concluded American elections proving that President Trump’s victory was always in the making. He shows how the number of times the toxic word “nigger” and “nigger, jokes” were searched were in the very same places from where Trump won a resounding victory. It was merely a way of seeing. Traditional media missed it.

And Google searches presented a picture of America that was strikingly different from that post-racial utopia sketched out by the surveys. I remember when I first typed “nigger” into Google Trends. Call me naive. But given how toxic the word is, I fully expected this to be a  low-volume search. Boy, was I wrong. In the United States, the word “nigger” — or its plural, “niggers” — was included in roughly the same number of searches as the word “migraine(s),” “economist,” and “Lakers.” I wondered if searches for rap lyrics were skewing the results? Nope. The words used in rap songs is almost “nigga(s).” So what was the motivation of Americans searching for “nigger”? Frequently , they were looking for jokes mocking African-Americans. In fact, 20 percent of searches with the word “nigger” also included the word “jokes.” Other common searches included “stupid niggers” and “I hate niggers.” 

There were millions of these searches every year. A large number of Americans were, in the privacy of their own homes, making shocking racist inquiries. The more I researched, the more distrubing the information got. 

On Obama’s first election night, when most of the commentary focused on praise of Obama and acknowledgement of the historic nature of his election, roughly one in every hundred Google searches that included the word “Obama” also included “kkk” or “nigger(s).” Maybe that doesn’t sound so high, but think of the thousands of nonracists reasons to Google this young outsider with a charming family about to take over the world’s most powerful job. On election night, searches and signups for Stormfront, a white nationalist site with surprisingly high popularity in the United States, were more than ten times higher than normal. In some states, there were more searches for “nigger president” than “first black president.”

There was a darkness and hatred that was hidden from the traditional sources but was quite apparent in the searches that people made. 

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz tested his hypothesis in other spheres of Internet engagement as well such as economics, mental health and many other general searches. As an economist and former Google data scientist mines and analyses plenty of data to prove his basic premise and it is not pleasant. He uses a lot of statistical data to bolster his anecdotes. He confirms the Internet as being a minefield. It has all kinds of information but it is important to look for clues that will mirror reality as close as possible. The challenge lies in unearthing those clues. Is it feasible for everyone to do it?

Eerily Salman Rushdie who has published a new novel The Golden House told the Guardian that ” ‘A lot of what Trump unleashed was there anyway’ “. ( 2 Sept 2017)

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are is unnerving while being undoubtedly an absorbing read.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s Everybody Lies: What the Internet can really tell us about who we really are Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 338 Rs 499

Happy birthday J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter!

31 July 2017. It is J. K. Rowling’s birthday. So also Harry Potter as decided by J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter books have been in existence for twenty years or the equivalent of one entire generation. The first time I heard of Harry Potter was when a friend based in Chicago wrote asking if I had read this marvellous fantasy book for children. At the time I had not but very soon a copy arrived from a England. Everyone in the family devoured it. At the time I was guest-editor of the special issue on children and young adult literature of a literary magazine. It was the first time that these issues were being put together. The history of modern publishing, particularly children’s literature, can be traced through the history of the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ( US edition published by Scholastic) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ( UK edition published by Bloomsbury) was published J.K. Rowling was an unknown and struggling author. She was single mother writing the book, which she had plotted minutely, in cafes around Edinburgh. Despite her agent’s wise advice “you will never make money selling children’s books” her manuscript was circulated amongst publishers. Most publishers rejected the book. Then it arrived at a fairly recent independent press called Bloomsbury, London. Bloomsbury had been established in 1986 by four people, including legendary editor Liz Calder whose authors include Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Joanna Trollope and John Irving. As Liz Calder narrated in a conversation to me while conducting a master class the British Council, Delhi, she has always been interested in authors. The arrival of the first Harry Potter manuscript was an uneventful day. Till she discovered a group of people sitting around a table absorbed in reading the manuscript, sharing it by passing each page of the manuscript to their neighbour as if they were playing passing the parcel! Bloomsbury decided to publish the debut novel by an unknown author. She was offered $4,000 as an advance against royalties by Bloomsbury. The first print run was for 500 copies. Bloomsbury was also afraid that young boys won’t want to read a book by a woman, they suggested she use her initials. Joanne added her grandmother’s name, Kathleen, to her own, producing “J.K. Rowling.” Soon after it was published she attended her first Edinburgh Literary Festival where a special tent had been set up to promote the book but if stories are to be believed there were only a few people who wanted to meet the author. In USA Scholastic Books won the auction for the U.S. rights to the series, giving Rowling an advance over $100,000, a record for a foreign children’s book. This enabled her to quit her teaching job and devote her time to writing.

The first book went on to win many prizes and catapulted J. K. Rowling to fame. It influenced children’s reading habits tremendously. It became evident to publishers fairly soon that this was a market to be taken notice of. Yet by the time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published the print run had risen to 10,000 copies and the book was still only available in UK and slowly reached other countries. By the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released Pottermania had begun to take root and the publishers were more than willing to ship review copies across the world. I got my copy directly from the London office albeit a few weeks after publication date. With the subsequent volumes ( Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) the fame of Rowling was sealed. She became a global phenomenon. By the time the seventh and last volume, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published she had sold millions of copies of her books. Her publisher, Bloomsbury, had become cash-rich and were able to offer handsome advances against royalties to other authors. In fact the seventh title was released simultaneously across the world and I received my copy of the book on publication day, 31 July 2007. (I reviewed it for Outlook magazine.) It is believed that Rowling has so far sold more than 400 million copies of her books worldwide.

This is what Sarah Odedina, now Editor-at-Large, Pushkin Children’s Books wrote in an email to me about publishing Rowling. At the time Sarah was Publisher of Bloomsbury Children’s Books 1997-2011.

I was there for publication of the first book all the way through to the last book.

It was an amazing thing to be part of and yes the in-house love for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was strong. Particularly led by the wonderful marketing and PR person Rosamund de la Hey who never ever missed an opportunity to let people know just how brilliant the book was and how talented the author was. We were ambitious for the book from the get-go and knew it had great potential to win prizes and sell well – but little could we imagine what that ended up meaning.

Publication of the first book passed fairly normally – like most other books – without anything huge happening but within a few weeks we knew it was different as we started to get letters from children saying how much they loved the book and how the had shared it with their friend and all sorts of reactions from them as readers to the characters and the plot and definitely asking for more. It was really later books in which publication day became a huge focus. At the beginning it was about getting the book out in the shops and seeing how quickly J K Rowling built a loving and loyal readership.

In 2012 Rowling launched Pottermore. It was an incredibly bold move into the world of digital publishing by offering ebook versions of the Potter series. At the time there were multiple ereaders and extensions. Rowling made Pottermore as a one-stop halt to purchase any format ( print or digital) and get extra Potter-related news too. Her first CEO was Charlie Redmayne, now the HarperCollins UK CEO, who for the first time brought the author/publisher in direct contact with the consumer/reader using digital technology innovatively. ( Eddie Redmayne who acted in the movie Fantastic Beasts  is Charlie Redmayne’s brother.) Rowling’s close watch on the film adaptations of her books to screen are legendary as well with accounts of detailed storyboard discussions happening at her home in Scotland. ( Here is a link to Jim Cornish, storyboard artist, talks about his work on the Harry Potter films. )

It is twenty years since Harry Potter and his friends came into existence. Bloomsbury is celebrating it with the release of special editions of the first book in the four house colours — Red, Blue, Green and Yellow. They are utterly splendiferous and a joy to behold! The impact of Pottermania on publishing worldwide is that the healthiest growth rate is amongst children’s and young adult literature, across genres.

31 July 2017 

 

Diksha Basu’s “The Windfall”

“How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Mrs Jha asked. 

Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is about Mr Jha and his family. He belongs to a middle class family and stayed in East Delhi. One fine day a website he had made was bought by an American company for $20 million. This windfall suddenly gave Mr Jha an opportunity to fulfil his ambitions. He moved to a bungalow in the wealthier and leafy neighbourhood of Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, abandoning the crowded apartment complexes of Mayur Palli where it was possible to overhear conversations from a neighbour’s home. He was able to buy himself a snazzy Mercedes and indulged in buying all kinds of clothes. He had a wife and a son too. Mrs Jha has a small business of ordering clothes from craftspersons and supplying them to her clients in Delhi. But once her husband had the windfall she suspended her career to help make the transition to Gurgaon. Their son, Rupak, was studying for his MBA in Ithaca University but was faring so poorly at it. He very soon returned to India without completing his degree.

The Windfall is about these socio-economic transitions that the Jha family made except moving into a neighbourhood and a culture that was as alien to them as visiting a foreign land. There are details about their acquisitions such as sofa from Japan embedded with Swarovski crystals which must be displayed however uncomfortable it is to sit upon or buying a machine to shine his shoes as seen in five star hotels only to embarassingly find it is frowned upon in the new social class Mr Jha aspires to be a part of.  Yet as they discover despite trying hard to keep up with the expectations of their new neighbours these material gains do not put the Jhas at ease.

The Windfall is a readable, pleasantly told tale which starts off promisingly well for its nuanced understanding of economic relationships –many of which are starkly apparent in modern India. It is a fair start for Diksha Basu’s literary career but it is her second, probably her third book, which will be truly worth waiting for.

Diksha Basu The Windfall Bloomsbury, New Delhi, India, 2017. Pb. 

11 July 2017 

 

 

Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth”


Bookseller and award-winning author, Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, Commonwealth is an extraordinarily beautiful ann-patchett-portraitode to daily life in America. It is about an ordinary American family. A family where the parents have separated and built their lives separately with other partners and children again. Families where the lives and secrets of the brood of half-brothers and sisters comes together as it would for any other family. And yet there are many more subtle layers to this magnificently elegant novel. The single working mother trying to manage a brood of children. The mother managing her step children and trying to figure them out. The dying parents and anxious eagerness to share stories and memories before they finally fade away with death. The unforgiving mining of other’s personal lives for stories such as the writer Leon Posen does with Franny Keating. Commonwealth is a pithy commentary on how life proceeds, how people engage, communities are formed and disappear, the prejudices that exist even deep-seated racist attitudes — how families simply exist. The powerful but unobtrusive authorial narrator brings together with an understated deftness of what could have been a complicated story involving so many characters but is not.

Ann Patchett gave a marvellous interview to online literary magazine Guernica where she discusses these aspects to the novel including the very tender portraits. ( https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/when-ann-patchett-is-emperor/?platform=hootsuite ) But there is a particular section in the interview where Ann Patchett’s love for books, reading, bookselling and being a writer come together seamlessly are about recommending books:

“That’s important to me, to recommend books. These are the books that I genuinely love. I read books I hate all the time, and I don’t mention them or talk about them. This is my job, my livelihood: the health and the well-being of the publishing industry. We’re all responsible for this. The By the Book section in the front of the Times Book Review—I get irritated when I read those, and somebody will only recommend books by people who are dead, because it makes them look smart. You know, “I’m reading Aristotle.” Well, great, but you know what, that’s not helping. If what we want to do is promote reading and writing and publishing and making sure this is a business that keeps going—because it is a business! It’s not just an art—then we have to take responsibility. I get sort of crazy and frothy when I think about this. It really matters.”
Read Commonwealth. It is time spent enriched.
Ann Patchett Commonwealth Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 499 
4 November 2016 
 
*Ann Patchett’s portrait is off the internet. If you are the (C) holder please let me know and I will acknowledge it.

Jaya’s newsletter – 2

(Thank you for the response to my inaugural newsletter. Please feel free to write: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com )

westland-332pxThe biggest news in terms of business deals has been the acquisition of TATA-owned publishers Westland by Amazon. (http://bit.ly/2fjVVCP) Earlier this year Amazon had a bought a significant minority stake in Westland but last week they bought the company for a purportedly Rs 39.8 crores or approximately $6.5 million. ( http://bit.ly/2fzdfrJ ) Westland has a history of over 50 years in retail, distribution and publishing. It is an amalgamation of two companies, Westland Books and EastWest Books (Madras). “Amazon’s roots are in books and we are excited to be part of that team in the next phase of our journey,” Westland CEO Gautam Padmanabhan said. The publishing list of Westland, its imprints Tranquebar and EastWest, and imprint extension Mikros, include bestselling authors Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Rashmi Bansal, Rujuta Diwekar, Preeti Shenoy, Devdutt Pattanaik, Anuja Chauhan and Ravi Subramanian, among others. This deal highlights the growing significance of India book markets — the third largest English language and with each regional language being of a substantial size too. It will also have an effect on how publishers realign themselves to create strategically good content which makes for good cultural capital but also astute business sense.

For more on the significance of such an acquisition read Bharat Anand’s analysis of AT&T & Time Warner merger incontent-trap HBR. (http://bit.ly/2feLlOP ) It is a marriage between content and distribution, organizations and tech companies. “Content is an increasingly important complement for every one of the tech companies.” Bharat Anand is the Henry R. Byers Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where he’s taught media and corporate strategy for 19 years. He is the author of the recently released The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change.

Publishing business strategies will be bolstered by the GOI announcement as part of the Digital India movement that “Handsets mandated to support Indian language keyboards July 1st 2017”  All handsets being manufactured, stored, sold and distributed in India will have to support the inputting of text in English, Hindi and at least one more official Indian language (of 22), and support reading of text in all these languages. (http://bit.ly/2fGxrbb ) In Medianama’s analysis this will speed up the switch in India to smartphones (and featurephones), because they have that capability to use Indic languages using the operating system. ( http://bit.ly/2feSTRG ) In the long run, good news for publishers if their content is gold.

14 November is celebrated as Children’s Day in India. Nearly 50% of the 1.3 bn population in India is below the age of 25 years –a sizeable reading market. As the first-ever Kids & Family Reading Report, India edition by Scholastic India notes that 86% children read the books they select but points out that 71 per cent of kids were currently reading a book for fun. This is the way it should be to create a new generation of readers. (http://scholastic.co.in/readingreport )

Jaya Recommends

ann-patchettAnn Patchett’s incredibly stunning novel of families and the writing experience Commonwealth madeleine-thien(Bloomsbury)

Jonathan Eig’s fascinating account of The Birth of the Pill (Pan Books, Pan MacMillan India)the-birth-of-the-pill

Translating Bharat Reading India edited by Neeta Gupta. A collection of essays discussing the art of translating and what constitutes a good translation. (Yatra Books)

translating-bharatMadeleine Thien’s extraordinary novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing  ( My interview with the author: http://bit.ly/2eX5meG  )

On literature and inclusiveness ( http://bit.ly/2fbp9Ym )

Legendary publisher 97-year-old Diana Athill’s latest volume memoir, a delicious diana-athilloffering Alive, Alive Oh!

Book launches:

Amruta Patil  ( HarperCollins India)amruta-patil

Shashi Tharoor ( Aleph)shashi-tharoor

Ritu Menon’s Loitering with Intent: Diary of a Happy Traveller  on 5th November 2016, IHC (Speaking Tiger)ritu-menon-book-launch

Craig Mod’s book launch in Tokyo: http://kck.st/2fk29Tp

Lit fests: ILF Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival‎ ( 5-7 Nov 2016)ilf

 

Literary Prize:  Haruki Murakami wins this year’s Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award ($74,000).    The Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award is not to be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award (or medal)— often regarded as the “Little Nobel Prize”— instituted in 1956 to recognize lasting contributions in the field of children’s literature. (http://bit.ly/2eC70iI ) In his acceptance speech he warned against excluding outsiders (http://wapo.st/2fjZ31u )

World Literature Today, the award-winning magazine of international literature and culture, announced Marilyn Nelson as the winner of the 2017 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. Awarded in alternating years with the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the biennial NSK Prize ( $25,000) recognizes great achievements in the world of children’s and young-adult storytelling.  ( http://bit.ly/2fdIQhX )

jai-arjun-singhJai Arjun Singh’s The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee has been given the Book Award for Excellence in Writing on Cinema (English) at the Mumbai Film Festival.

Interesting book links:

A Phone Call from Paul , literary podcast for @LitHub done by Paul Holdengraber, NYPL is worth listening to. Here is the latest episode where Paul is in conversation with Junot Diaz. (http://bit.ly/2fxF1p8 )

On the Jaffna library: http://bit.ly/2eC7vtb

Iran and Serbia sign MOU to enhance book publishing: http://bit.ly/2fGykAK

How one Kiwi author is making $200,000 a year publishing romance novels online: http://bit.ly/2fdVQEh

Bengaluru barber popularises Kannada literature: http://bit.ly/2eP8N6X

Literary River, Literature vs Traffic installation: http://bit.ly/2f3dpUD

Six wonderful ways feminist publisher Virago shook up the world of books http://bbc.in/2efJYgs

Turkish Government closes 29 publishers http://bit.ly/2f35AhE

3 November 2016 

On “Dying” and “In Gratitude”

jenni-diski51hmou4betl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I’m writing a memoir, a form that in my mind plays hide-and-seek with the truth. It contains what I imagine and what I remember being told. Absolute veracity is what I am after. 

Jenni Diski In Gratitude 

Two women writers, Jenni Diski and Cory Taylor, are diagnosed with cancer and its inoperable. Trying to come to terms with the doctor’s grim prognosis is not easy. Suddenly time takes on a different meaning. Jenni Diski began a column for the London Review of Books once her cancer was diagnosed. It was a series a essays that were published reflecting on her life, her birth family, her writing, her school and most significantly her complicated relationship with the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing, who took fifteen-year-old Jennifer Simmonds under her wing. The Australian writer Cory Taylor too spends a while in her memoir, Dying, remembering her mother and the choices she made. In both the memoirs what comes across clearly is that the two dying writers are reflecting upon their past but are also hugely influenced by and acknowledge the presence of the women who made the writers what they are. Jenni Diski had always nursed a desire to be a writer but had not been very focused about it till she met Doris Lessing and was introduced to her world of writers and other creative minds who always made interesting conversation and had ideas to offer. Cory Taylor discovered that her mother had had a dream to be a writer but never achieved it. She writes in Dying : “Writing, even if most of the time you are only doing it in your head, shapes the world, and makes it bearable. …I’m never happier than when I’m writing, or thinking about writing, or watching the world as a writer, and it has been this way from the start.” Three Australian writers including Benjamin Law wrote a beautiful obituary for Cory Taylor in the Guardian terming Dying as a “remarkable gift” for providing a vocabulary and invitation to speak about that “unmentionable thing”, a “monstrous silence” — death. ( 6 July 2016, http://bit.ly/2dPq0Mx ) These sentiments on writing and the gift of the memoir can probably be extended to Jenni Diski and In Gratitude too.

Apart from Jenni Diski’s and Cory Taylor’s preoccupation with writing and their evolution as writers what comes 41vdphgesjlthrough strongly in both memoirs is the tussle between secular and religious modes of coping with death and its rituals. Also how ill-prepared a secular upbringing makes an individual in understanding burial rites or managing one’s grief once a loved one departs. How does one mourn? The structures of religious rituals seem to take care of the moments of sorrow. There is much to do. Yet the challenge of speaking of death and the process of dying is not easy. Cory Taylor had even contemplated euthanasia and ultimately passed away in hospice care.

In Gratitude and Dying: A memoir put the spotlight on the magnificent leaps medicine and technology have made, in many cases it has prolonged life but with it is the baggage of ethics — whether it is possible to go through the agony of pain while dying a slow death or to end it all swiftly by assisted suicide or euthanasia. These are critical issues not necessarily the focus areas of both books although Cory Taylor confesses in having contemplated euthanasia. While reading the memoirs innumerable questions inevitably arise in a reader’s mind.

Some of the literature  published recently has been seminal in contributing to the growing awareness and need to discuss death increasingly in modern times when advancement in medical technology seems to prolong human suffering. Also in an increasingly polarised world between the secular and religious domains bring to the fore the disturbed confusion that reigns in every individual on how to deal with the dying, the finality of death, disposal of the mortal remains and the despair it leaves the distraught survivors in. Some links are:

  1. “Daughters of Australian scientists who took their own lives reflect on their parents’ plan” http://bit.ly/2dDfvc8 ( Jan 2016)
  2. Amitava Kumar’s essay “Pyre” published in Granta ( https://granta.com/pyre/ ) and recently republished in Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.
  3. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal ( 2015)
  4. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air ( 2016)
  5. Aleksander Hemon’s moving essay on his infant daughter’s brain cancer ( “The Aquarium: A Child’s Isolating Illness” JUNE 13 & 20, 2011 ISSUE http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/06/13/the-aquarium )
  6. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture  ( 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo )
  7. Andrew Solomon’s essay on his mother’s decision to opt for euthanasia ( “A  Death of One’s Own” 22 May 1995 http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1995/05/22/a-death-of-ones-own )

In Gratitude and Dying are strangely comforting while being thought provoking in raising uncomfortable questions about mortality, importance of time, maintenance of familial ties and doing that which pleases or gives the individual peace. Both the memoirs have a confident writing style as if by capturing memories in words the writers are involved a therapeutic process of facing their mortality while the urgency to their writing has an unmistakable strength to its tenor as if no one will have the time to dispute their published words.

Read these books.

Jenni Diski In Gratitude Bloomsbury, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 250 £12.99 

Cory Taylor Dying: A Memoir Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. £12.99 

24 Oct 2016 

 

 

Sarah Crossan, “One”

sarah( My review of Sarah Crossan’s award winning novel-in-verse One was published in Scroll today. Here is the url: http://scroll.in/article/811911/a-novel-about-conjoined-twins-in-verse-beats-facts-that-can-be-rather-terse . I am also c&p the text below. ) 

She’s not a piece of me
She’s me entirely
and without her
there would be
a gaping space
in my chest,
an expanding black hole
that nothing
else could
fill.

Award-winning Sarah Crossan’s One is a free verse novel about Siamese twins Tippi and Grace. One has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards for young adult literature such as the CILIP Carnegie 2016, the Bookseller’s YA Book Prize 2016 and the Irish Children’s Book of the Year Award. Crossan has also won, along with Michael Rosen, the CLIPPA children’s poetry award. Writers consider the CILIP Carnegie, given by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, “the one they want to win” since it is awarded by librarians.

One is about Tippi and Grace, named after Hollywood actresses Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly. They live with their parents, their grandmother aka Gammie, and their younger sister Nicola nicknamed Dragon. Their father is unemployed and has turned into an alcoholic. Their mother works in a bank but is constantly working at home too. Yet the parents never compromise on their twin daughter’s medical care, regular health check-ups and psychiatric visits to Dr Murphy. The novel has been told from the point-of-view of Grace. It is set in a short span of eight months – August to March.

These twins are of the ischiopagus tripus variety – two heads, two hearts, two sets of lungs and kidneys. Four arms, a pair of fully functioning legs. The vestigial leg has been docked. Intestines begin apart and then merge. They are like any other sixteen-year-olds except for the tiny detail of them being conjoined at the hip.

For most of their life they have been home-schooled but the city no longer wants to fund this. So they have to join a private school, Homebeacon High. The twins dread being in public since they are constantly stared at or called monsters and freaks or cursed as devil’s spawn. Fortunately they are befriended by classmates Yasmeen and Jon, who protect them in a manner similar to their family.

We are tired of getting rides
to school and back again every day
so we take the train home
with Jon
and pretend we can’t hear all the words around us
like little waspy stings.

“I bet celebrities don’t even have it this bad,” Jon
says.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like
for you.”

“It’s like that,” Tippi tells him
and points at
a woman across the aisle with a phone
aimed at us like a sniper rifle.

The twins enjoy their short spell at school before they contract a flu which unfortunately develops into cardiomyopathy for Grace. It means that Tippi’s heart is functioning for the two of them. Complications arise, necessitating the urgent physical separation of the sisters.

It is expensive surgery, although the doctors have waived their fees. Sadly, there is no guarantee that the girls will survive the medical procedure. So far the girls have miraculously surpassed all medical expectations to live beyond the two-year life span predicted for them.

Just before the sudden dip in their health, their younger sister, who dreams of being a ballet dancer, is invited to a tour of Russia. Of course, the family is too poor to afford it. To make things worse, their mother loses her job.

Much against their will, the girls decide to allow themselves to be shadowed by a documentary filmmaker for a handsome fee of $50,000. They are not particularly keen to be in the limelight like the conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton (born 1908), who were the wealthiest performers of their time.

If it were not for the twins being conjoined, One would be like any other YA novel telling a story about teenage angst, love, heartbreak, smoking on the sly, climbing trees etc. And this where the beauty of Sarah Crossan’s graceful craftsmanship lies. She is able to become one with Grace and experience the story, the emotional roller coasters, and focus upon the harsh reality of what it means to be Siamese twins.

This is the only one among her books that she spent more than a year researching. She began writing it after watching a BBC documentary about Minnesotan conjoined twins Abby and Brittany Hensel. As shewrote, “I was immediately captivated by the idea of their lives – fascinated by the ways in which these amazing women managed to live as two separate people in one body, and I made it my mission to find out everything I possibly could about conjoined twins. I knew there was the potential for a novel in there, but I was also petrified of writing about something that was entirely unknown to me.”

Crossan spoke to “Edward Kiely, leading separation surgeon for conjoined twins in Europe, to help answer some of my hypothetical medical questions, forcing me to tighten up certain parts of the plot to create a world that was completely real.”

“Although I was working on Apple and Rain at the time, and actually scrambling to get it to my publisher by deadline, I would go to the British Library every day and instead of focusing on Apple and Rain, would ask the librarians to help me find articles and books about the lives of conjoined twins through history and especially medical research about separation surgery. I had found a topic that I wanted to write about, but I wanted to tell it honestly and accurately, because the more the I read, the more I realised how misunderstood the lives of these people have been, and how ready people seem to be to say, ‘If it were me, I would want to be separated,’ without every fully considering the intimacy of such a relationship, not to mention the many joys it brings.

— Sarah Crossan in ‘The Guardian’


One
deserves all the awards it has garnered, not only for the range of issues it touches upon – for instance what it means to be a conjoined twin with no option to move independently but to be tethered in body, mind and, possibly, spirit – making joint decisions and unable to live an independent life – but also for its unique form.

Normal is the Holy Grail
and only those without it
know its value.

There are also ethical issues at play. The documentary is ultimately made more for voyeuristic entertainment purposes than out of empathy for the twins’ predicament. The medical fraternity’s offer to separate the twins free of cost stems from a rare opportunity to understand this unusual biological phenomenon.

One is a seminal book for its refreshing experiment in form and content. Crossan has to be admired for the sensitivity with which she has written the story, without being crudely inquisitive or didactic. She has raised the bar many notches for YA literature.

Sarah Crossan One Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Hb. Pp. 432 Rs 499 

 

 

Meg Rosoff, “Jonathan Unleashed”

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

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

Read it.

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

18 April 2016 

 

Of two women short story writers — Diane Cook and Arlene Heyman

Over the past few days I have read two debut short story collections — Diane Cook’s powerfully imaginative and equally disconcerting Man vs Nature and Arlene Heyman’s incisive and humorous  Scary Old Sex.

Man vs NatureDiane Cook’s ( http://dianemariecook.com/ ) short stories have been published in online literary magazines. For once the book blurb has to be taken for what it is—this is an astonishingly bold collection of stories. It is easily classified as speculative fiction, nudging the logical boundaries of imagination sufficiently to create a world which is not necessarily dystopic but disconcerting nevertheless especially in the new rules governing human social behaviour. There is a cold-hearted undercurrent to the stories that is chilling bringing home the point very strongly — irrespective of the situation, it is always survival of the fittest. What is frightening is that the scenarios these stories delineate are all in the realm of possibility. An unpleasant thought! It is very difficult to get rid from the mind’s eye of the landscape these stories create. Hence it is not surprising that this has been a Finalist for The Believer Book Award and the LA Times Book Prizes, Honorable Mention from the Pen/Hemingway Award, Longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and A Boston Globe, iBooks, and San Francisco Chronicle Best book of 2014.

Arlene Heyman’s debut Scary Old Sex is of a different ilk altogether. The short stories Scary Old Sexare descriptive and yet so detached, almost as if there is a clinical precision in the manner the mind operates.  It is about sex but unlike most stories that focus on the act here the focus on how the mind operates is spellbindingly written. Being a practising psychiatrist is a definite advantage for Arlene Heyman. It maybe unfair to yoke the two distinct aspects of the author yet it is impossible not to see the influence her profession has on her storytelling. She is able to distinguish between the physical and mental wants of the individual. But equally stupendous is the fine detail with which she describes not only the real world but the spectrum of emotions her characters experience — a rare quality not often seen in short story writing. One of the most interesting stories is “In Love with Murray”, probably an autobiographical story based on Arlene Heyman’s affair with Bernard Malamud — it is dedicated to him. Read Elaine Showalter’s delightful review-article in the Guardian about the literary muse, Arelene Heyman, and unearthing the literary history + mystery that this collection encases. ( Scary Old Sex by Arlene Heyman review – lusty, tough and life-affirming , 25 Feb 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/25/scary-old-sex-by-arlene-heyman-review )

Both collections are highly recommended.

Diane Cook Man Vs Nature Oneworld Publications, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 258 

Arelene Heyman Scary Old Sex Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 230 Rs 499

 

 

Nicolas Henin “Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State”

Jihad AcademyTo prevent radicalisation, rather than putting imams on Arab dictators’s payrolls, we could seek to channel the goodwill of all those (Muslims and others) who are shocked by crimes committed in Syria and who simply wonder: ‘How can I help?’ We could devise some sort of ‘legal jihad’ to stop more young people ending up in the clutches of terrorists. We could promote humanitarian, social and other types of engagement. As far as I know, no such programme exists.

In addition, such an initiative would allow Muslims to reclaim the term ‘jihad’, which has been corrupted by extremists and hijacked by the Western media. Jihad– and this is something that we tend to forget–was initially one of Islam’s most beautiful concepts. It is the effort, exerted on and for oneself, with the aim of becoming better, improving one’s life and striving for a fairer world. 

Our young people, whom we often describe as lacking values, of being individualistic and materialistic, deserve opportunities to commit themselves to something better than criminal gangs. ( p.135)

Frenchman Nicolas Henin is a former ISIS hostage. He was captured in June 2013 and spent ten months in captivity with James Foley and others who were beheaded soon after Henin was released. His book Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State is a slim, hard-hitting and alarming account of the rise of ISIS. It documents the systematic rise of terror, the rise of Islamic State and how “the radicalisation of the revolution has proceeded in tandem with the hardening of Bashar al-Assad’s personality” ( p.41)

Here is a man who was an ISIS captive. He has not succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome. Nicolas Henin is a thorough professional journalist. He is very familiar with the Middle East having worked in the region as a freelance journalist for more than a decade.  Like the Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, who negotiated his freedom Nicolas Henin too has ‘Syria in his heart’.  It is hard to even begin to imagine what Henin is going through mentally more so with the knowledge that Paolo Dall’Oglio has been abducted by the Islamic State and is still missing. Yet he has had the presence of mind to write this clear account — Jihad Academy.

After the horrendous attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 when more than a 100 people were gunned down, Nicolas Henin wrote this scathing essay in The Guardian: “I was held hostage by Isis. They fear our unity more than our airstrikes” ( 16 November 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/16/isis-bombs-hostage-syria-islamic-state-paris-attacks )

What is even more terrifying than reading Jihad Academy is the realisation that this is not the first time such terror has been unleashed. The lessons learned from the past are that man-made monsters can easily be created but once in existence these human monsters can unleash an unimaginable horror on their own race.

Jihad Academy has to be read. It is a memoir with a difference. A firsthand account with a sharp and acute understanding of the Islamic State.

Nicolas Henin ( Former ISIS Hostage) Jihad Academy: The Rise of Islamic State Translated from French by Martin Makinson. Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 399