Bloomsbury Posts

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 6&7), 23&30 July 2019

Dear Reader,

This is a double issue as time whizzed by before I knew it, the week was over!

As the book fairs, literature festivals and literary awards season draws near, the number of titles being released into the market increase exponentially. Some of them being the “big titles” that the publishing firms are relying upon. Two of them featured here are two such titles. These are the thrillers — The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

Alice Clark-Platts, founder of Singapore writers group and a former human rights lawyer, has published her third thriller. The Flower Girls is about the killing of two-year-old girl by two sisters, who are six and ten, respectively. It is a case that had caught the imagination of the media. The older sister had been incarcerated but the younger one had been let off as she was too young to be tried. Instead the police force helped the parents and remaining daughter to assume new identities and start a new life in a different city. Two decades later the case is recalled as another five-year-old girl goes missing. It is an absorbing tale for its details of the murder and trial that seem to defy human imagination. It is as if there is an underlying truth to the horrors a human being is capable of, almost as if it is the transferance to some extent of a lived experience by the author to the page, but not necessarily a replication of any case she has dealt/read. Apart from the horror of the actual crime itself, there are many pertinent issues raised in this novel about the troublesome aspect of incarcerating one so young, arguments for parole, the course of justice and the prejudices people may have that may colour their judgement. The best discovery in this novel is the creation of DC Hillier, almost as if she is the female response to Jack Reacher or a modern reincarnation of Miss Marple. The potent combination of a fine instinct for sniffing out criminals built over many years as a Detective Constable, phenomenal memory, dogged persistence to pursue clues, and a fascination for being first on the crime scene, make DC Hillier a character worth following in the coming years. Her beat will remain unchanged. It will be the small town but there will be plenty of opportunities for stories to occur as tourists visit the seaside. Since The Flower Girls is her first appearance on the literary landscape, DC Hillier will take at least another 2-3 novels before she settles down, but once she does, she will soar!

Rating: 4.5 / 5⭐

Debut novelist Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is already an NYT bestseller. It’s first print run was 200,000. It is a psychothriller that is gripping. It moves swiftly. There are short sentences, crisp dialogue and the length of the chapters match the smart pace of the storytelling. It helps that the author studied English literature at Cambridge University and earned his MA in screenwriting at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. This professional training has helped create an undeniable page turner. All those who have endorsed the book, such as Lee Child, David Baldacci, Joanne Harris, Stephen Fry, and C. J. Tudor, are absolutely correct in their assessment of it being an excellent, slow-burning psychological thriller. It is about Alicia Berenson who is accused of killing her fashion photographer husband Gabriel. No one knows why she did it since after shooting him in the face she stops talking. After trying to attempt suicide, she is taken into custody and then sent off to asylum called The Grove. The story is narrated by forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber whose opening introduction about himself is that he “was fucked up”. He is offered an appointment at The Grove and becomes Alicia’s therapist. It is a gripping tale undoubtedly and no wonder it has already been sold into 39 territories and is being developed into a major motion picture. Be that as it may, there are details in the story that give it away as amateur work that will go largely unnoticed with most readers. For instance, when Alicia hands over her diary to Theo Faber to read, he says that judging by the handwriting, it was written in a chaotic state of mind, where the writing was barely legible and doodles and drawings taking over some of the pages. Yet, the diary extracts reproduced in the story are beautifully composed with complete sentences, perfect dialogue, smooth narration and build the plot seamlessly. A bit puzzling given how Alicia is known to be of troubled mind. Later too as the plot hurtles to the end, the inexplicable switch in the timelines while acceptable when the reader is in a reading haze, are bothersome details when reflecting upon the story later. It is unfair to the reader for the author to switch timelines as if for convenience to tie up the loose ends in the plot. This is a novel that has possibly been written with a view to adapt it to the screen and the magic has worked. It is to be seen if the subsequent novels of Alex Michaelides will inhabit this dark and depressing world. Whatever the case, Alex Michaelides’s brand of psychothriller, is here to stay and will spawn many versions of it too.

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

The third book is a collection of short stories by Indian women writers called Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. It is a pleasant enough read if read with zero expectations about reading fantasy stories that take strong imaginative leaps into a magical realm. Most of the stories are pleasant to read. The stories are preoccupied with worries of the real world such as of sexuality, child molestation, infidelity, etc. Two stories that stand out are “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. “Gul” is about a nautch girl during the uprising of 1857 and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” is about child molesters. While most of the stories in the collection have immense potential, they tend to fall flat on their face for the inability of the writers to lift it off the ground with elan. Instead most rely on done-to-death details as pods and strange creatures. When the story is to take an imaginative leap it lands straight into a world that is a mere transplantation of existing reality or the world of mythology. So there is a rave party, a mysterious laboratory, lesbians, etc. There is nothing truly breakaway in Magical Women except for the fact that it is a breakaway collection of talented storytellers who may one day astound the world with their true potential. For now, most of them, are holding back. I wonder why?

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

And then there is The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk. An eco-fiction that Tash Aw in his 2013 review in the Guardian referred to it as hard-edged realism meets extravagant fantasy.

It is easy to see why Wu’s English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Murakami and David Mitchell. His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there’s even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.

Encapsulating such a rich novel is not easy but suffice to say it that the author’s environmental activism, trash in the sea, concerns about climate change, a deep understanding of environmental disasters, has helped him create an extraordinarily fantastic novel. From the first sentence it immediately transports the reader into this magical world of the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo, created with its own myths and folk legends. Fantastic novel that years after the English translation was made available, it continues to find new readers, with new translations.

Rating: 4/5 ⭐

The final book is Leaving the Witness: Existing a Religion and Finding a Life, a memoir by a former Jehovah Witness, Amber Scorah. It is an account of Amber’s life as a Jehovah Witness, finding a husband from the same community and then travelling across the world to become missionaries in China. Amber knew Mandarin so could speak to the locals. Her grasp of the language improved as she began to communicate more frequently with others. She managed to get a job working on podcasts, at a time when podcasts were barely heard of, and yet her shows became so popular that Apple ranked it amongst the top 10 podcasts of the year. While in China, she befriended many outside the community, even made friends like Jonathan online, but kept it a secret from her husband and their circle as this was considered taboo. Soon she begins to question her proselytising as questions are raised of her regarding her beliefs. She is forced to question her blind faith in the cult. Slowly her marriage disintegrates too. Leaving the Witness reads like her testimony, a reaffirmation of her belief, except not entirely in the manner that her church would have approved. Amber Scorah chooses to leave the community and build a life of her own. It is tough for she has to learn how to make friends, she has to learn simple things like understanding popular culture references in casual conversation, being able to enter and enjoy a social engagement without feeling horribly guilty etc. It ends sadly with the death of her infant son at the daycare centre but it also is a strong testament to others wishing to leave suffocating environments that it is possible to do so and build new lives. It is not easy but it is possible. In fact the book has been placed on O, The Oprah Magazine Summer 2019 Reading List and Trevor Noah invited Amber Scorah to his talk show. It is a good book and deserves all the publicity it can garner.

Rating: 4.5/5 ⭐

Happy Reading!

JAYA

30 July 2019

Tishani Doshi’s “Small Days and Nights”

I had been prepared for ugliness because that’s what grows in India, sprouts and flourishes like the hair on a dead person. But the space in which you from adult to child, that leaf-thin whiplash, that I had not expected.

I do not need the freedom I imagine I need.

Dancer, poet, writer and literary critic Tishani Doshi’s second novel Small Days and Nights is about thirty-something Grace who is half-Indian, half-Italian. Upon her mother’s death she discovers she has a younger sister Lucia. Lucia has Down’s syndrome which their Italian father insists on referring to as “Mongoloid”. Grace decides to take charge of her life and one of her first decisions is to move her sister home. This despite protests from Lucia’s Teacher at the home. The sisters move to a home their mother had bought many years earlier for a song. Now it is considered to be prime property. Ten acres of land with a detached house by the sea. Grace relies upon a young girl from the village called Mallika to help her manage the house and Lucia and the many stray dogs they seem to have become responsible for. This is a domestic scene that is quietly idyllic. It is a feminist utopia with no men in the household. Although men from the village come to Grace regularly seeking funds and offering unsolicited advice. The sisters also get unwelcome visitors like hostile property brokers.

Small Days and Nights focuses on a tiny slice of domesticity, a world that is usually invisible to most, at least in literature but is all around us. There is something reassuring to know that women’s fiction can make matters of “little” importance such as “caregiving”. Even the frustration that Grace feels for Lucia one day and vents it upon her younger sister by becoming physically violent is understandable to those who are caregivers 24×7. Caregiving is a relentless and an unforgiving responsibility but to those on the outside incidents like this became an occasion to pass judgement. Whereas it is far more complicated than it looks. The outcome is that Lucia is taken away from Grace’s care and back to the home.

While it has the makings of an internationally acclaimed novel there are moments in Small Days and Nights which are bewildering such as the act of Grace taking Lucia out of the home where she was well provided for and Lucia was obviously at ease. Why was it necessary to remove Lucia from her comfortable environs? Or an equally inexplicable act of Grace taking off for long weekends to the nearest city, Chennai, to be with her friends. Wanting time for oneself is a self-preservation act which is necessary for every caregiver but taking time out like this can only be managed if there are reliable people to step in while the primary caregiver is away. Caregiving is a responsibility and not a noble act. It is a constant in one’s life and impossible to take a break from even with support staff to help with the minute-to-minute supervision. And as Grace discovers to her dismay that once she was away Lucia was not being provided for instead she had been abandoned by the maid. Another cause for friction between Teacher, the villagers and Grace.

Small Days and Nights has a way of consuming one with a seemingly insignificant women’s domestic drama but lingers for much longer for the larger issues it raises such as what is the definition of a household, of a family, of relationships, of love etc? The responsibility of caregiving is a thankless task where every caregiver needs their safety valve moment without also having to tackle the judgement passed upon them by outsiders. It forces conversations upon readers about women and their world that would otherwise not under ordinary circumstances be considered as worthwhile.

Small Days and Nights is an unforgettable novel.

5 June 2019

“The Journey Of Indian Publishing” by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

I recently contributed to How to Get Published in India edited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.

Here is the essay I wrote:

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AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher.  My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi.  These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.

In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of  The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.

To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!

The Daryaganj  Sunday  Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.

From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.

In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.

By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins  India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.

Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.

As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality  is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses. 

The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting! 

3 Feb 2019

Mohammed Hanif’s “Red Birds”

Nihilistic resistance is the worst kind of enemy; it was all the rage, we were taught in our Cultural Sensitivity 101.  Colonel Slatter had laid out the foundations: We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. No lands captured, no slaves taken, no mass rapes, fuck their oil wells, ignore their mineral deposits. You can outsource mass rape. War has been condensed to carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees. People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who belived in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, not they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks. 

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds is a brilliant political satire using primarily three narrators — Momo, a teenager who dreams of becoming a millionaire after having read Fortune 500; Ellie, a US fighter pilot who ejected out of his burning plane in to the desert and Mutt, Momo’s dog, who has been anthropomorphised by the novelist. The three sections of the book are the three locations where the story is set — the desert, the camp and the hangar. These are in a geographical location that is never very clear where it exists but many readers will recognise it to be an amalgamation of many conflict zones around the world. For the first two sections of the book the women characters of Mother Dear and Lady Flowerbody are present and contribute to the conversations but it is reported speech. Mother Dear is Momo’s mother and absolutely furious with her husband for having taken away their elder son, Bro Ali. Father Dear introduces Lady Flowerbody as his co-worker. Lady Flowerbody is the new Coordinating Officer for the Families Rehabilitation Programme who “works with the families affected by raids and is conducting a survey on post-conflict conflict resolution strategies that involve histories and folklore”. Whereas Lady Flowerbody claims she is writing her “PhD thesis on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires; it might come out as a book called The Children of the Desert“. It is only in the third section of the novel, “In the Hangar”, that the women characters speak and when they do it is powerfully and lucidly.

If the story can be encapsulated in a nutshell it would be about the family in the refugee camp whose elder son went off to the hangar but never returned. Dear Father is suspected by his family of having sold off his elder son. Dear Mother who is mostly confined to the kitchen cooking is given to ranting but she is mostly “off stage”. The male characters — her husband and son, later to be joined by the pilot and a nomad-turned-doctor — mostly hear her out with the husband being the most dismissive of her angry monologues particularly when he cannot understand her obsessiveness with the lack of salt and her inability to cook a decent meal. Ellie is a participant and a spectator to this, more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but he has his own concerns to worry about. Ellie worries about his wife and his job.

Former Pakistan Air Force pilot-turned-journalist Mohammed Hanif scathing political satire Red Birds is reminiscent of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Apparently cadet Hanif discovered Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 in the Air Force Academy library. In an interview with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in 2014, Hanif said he loved Heller’s novel and read it “at least 22 times”. He said he found the book funny but their lives were not unfunny. Hanif adds that Heller certainly changed Hanif’s outlook on the world he was living in.

Red Birds is a fine novel. The deadpan style of writing reveals the absurd situations of war zones. The absurdity of the scenarios are funny too. But it is chilling to realise that these absurd moments are plausible in a conflict zone. Take for instance Father Dear carting piles and piles of files, the nomad-turned-doctor who is called in to treat Mutt, the teenager Momo who learns to drive and steers while sitting on a pile of cushions or Mother Dear who is worried about the lack of salt ( which is actually not unfunny for many, especially women, who have lived in conflict zones).

Red Birds is a sharply satirical novel that cannot be ignored. It is bound to be on the literary prize lists in the coming year. Perhaps even win a prize or two. Read it!

To buy on Amazon India:

Hardback

Kindle

7 November 2018 

Book 14: 1-15 October 2018 / children’s literature and young adult literature

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

In today’s Book Post 14 included are some of the children’s literature and young adult titles I have received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

15 October 2018

Richard Charkin, Director, Bloomsbury’s address at IPA Congress, 11-13 Feb 2018, Delhi

From 11-13 February 2018 the 32nd International Publishers Association (IPA) Congress was held at Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. The International Publishers Association (IPA) is the world’s largest federation of national, regional and specialist publishers’ associations. Its membership comprises 70 organisations from 60 countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas. The congress was organised in Delhi along with the collaboration of the Federation of Indian Publishers ( FIP).

It was a wonderful congress with multiple panel discussions that fortunately ran in succession rather than in parallel and many fascinating conversations were to be had on the sidelines. It was a phenomenal gathering of publishers from around the world. The full programme can be accessed here.

On the first day of the congress the morning session included a Global Leaders Forum discussion led by the NITI Ayog CEO Amitabh Kant. The panelists included: Dr. Y. S. Chi, Elsevier, USA; Matt Kissner, John Wiley, USA and Richard Charkin, Bloomsbury. The panel discussion can be heard in the YouTube link given below. It was interesting to hear these global leaders of publishing, across different formats of publishing — academic and trade, share many similar concerns and talk about the growth of business.

Richard Charkin’s address ( heard from 1:33:30 mins in the link) was particularly pertinent, for here was a seasoned publisher sharing his experiences of many decades in the industry as well as offering great perspectives on how to deal with the future of this business. His mantra of “paying attention to authors” which is often tragically forgotten is worth paying heed to if the industry has to grow globally. Here is the edited version of my notes with inputs from Richard Charkin.

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Speaking from my experience in general book publishing and academic and educational publishing particular issues affect English language markets. Predictions are a fools game! I shall focus on what will be my hope for the future.

  1. 1980-90s — all about book marketing. Leaders frequently came from sales end of business.
  2. ’00s/noughts – Focus on technology and logistics. “How else do we get better? Distribution? Growing size? Complexity of retailers? This resulted in the business people leading companies. We now have very few companies led by publishers.
  3. 2010s- Where are our profits? Returning to our roots — IPR, authorship, how well are we serving our authors?, how does it compare to the growth in self publishing?, What value can we add for the customer/author? ( “Our customer is the author, as well as and arguably more than the reader or retailer”)
  4. We get the responsibility of developing the authors by selling rights throughout the world.
    If only we could kick the habit of overpaying very successful authors. Thus we have created a system where established authors with large unearned advances authors are effectively being subisdised by the less successful. Without unearned advances we could perhaps pay a higher overall royalty rate. 
  5. Control wastage. Even if we halve costs the impact on our bottomlines would be substantial.
    Retailers would then become less than not diverse. Resist monopolistic control of some retailers. Editors would get back into leadership positions, which is really at the core of publishing roles. Also they would become more professional and understand the markets better they serve. Understanding role of the editor is understanding readers and authors. Also it would do away with the egocentric role it has become of late.
  6. We know what is “IQ” and later came “Emotional Intelligence” but I would like to emphasise on “Cultural Intelligence” which is the recognition of differences between old and young, rich and poor, one country and another, understanding boundaries globally and internationally with different cultures. We have a core, we need to recognise the bits around the edges.

We need to work together to build a global industry. Most importantly serve our authors.

13 July 2018 

Katherine Rundell “The Explorer”

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer is about four children who crashed in the Amazon jungle. They do their best to figure out the jungle and how to survive till they come across a cranky explorer. He is as surprised as they are about each other’s existence in the jungle. Nevertheless he takes charge and rather gruffly guides them on what to eat and what not to eat in the jungle. It is he who ultimately helps the children leave the jungle and return home for which they are eternally grateful.

The Explorer as with the novels Katherine Rundell writes is inspired by a historical fact. It becomes the basis of her fiction for young adults. For this particular novel it was the British geographer and explorer Peter Fawcett who was an artillery officer “with an astonishingly tough constitution and enough moustache for three men.”

He spent much of his life in search of what he called the City of Z, a city he imagined as richly sophisticated and peppered with gold. 

In 1925, shortly after crossing the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary river of the Amazon, he and his two companions disappeared. He was never heard from again. 

Katherine Rundell has an eye for incredible detail in the storytelling making the action and landscape come alive on every page while at the same time the scrumptious illustrations are a bonus. In The Explorer it is the tiny details of jungle life, the behaviour of sloths, what kind of beans are appropriate to eat or not, descriptions of the river bank and the foliage — all ring true and understandably so, given the amount of research Katherine Rundell puts in for every book.

There was so much to look at; so much that was strange; so much that was new and vast and so very palpably alive.

The trees dipped down their branches, laden with leaves broad enough to sew into trousers. He passed a tree with a vast termite nest, as big as a bathtub, growing around it. He gave it a wide berth. 

The greenness, which had seemed such a forbidding wall of colour, was not, up close, green at all, Fred thought. It was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships. 

Fred breathed in the smell. He’d been wrong to think it was thick, he thought; it was detailed. It was a tapestry of air. 

The story itself about the children coming together on this adventure is so beautifully done wherein the individual personalities remain distinct but ever so slightly as the story progresses they also bond as a team. It is a triumph in storytelling for young adults — they who are at the cusp of adulthood but not too far from childhood and love imaginative storytelling. Hence it is absolutely wonderful that The Explorer won the Costa Book Awards 2017.

Katherine Rundell The Explorer ( Illustrated by Hannah Horn) Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. pp.

2 May 2018 

Richard Ford “Between Them”

I know he didn’t take pleasure in books — where he could’ve found what we all find if we don’t have faith: testimony that there is an alternate way to think about life, different from the ways we’re naturally equipped. Seeking imaginative alternatives would not have been his habit. 

Between Them by Pulitzer prize winning author Richard Ford is a warmly told elegy to his parents — Parker Ford and Edna Akins. The title “Between Them” can be misleading for it implies that Richard Ford was a disruption in his parent’s lives. Whereas the portraits he creates via the two essays written decades apart about his parents is of the warmth, love and laughter that existed in their home. His father was a salesman selling starch and had to be on the road every week, returning home for the weekend. His parents were very close to each other having fallen in love at a very young age, married soon thereaafter and always remained together. For years they travelled together on the road selling starch. Fifteen years later their son was born. With the birth of Richard his parents had to make a few adjustments to their lives particularly as his schooling began, the biggest change for the close couple was to live apart for five days of the week.

Yet as Richard Ford writes in this excerpt published in Granta:

As time went on, did I ever sense that something was wrong between them? No. It was my child’s outlook to think most things were right. And yet if life’s eternal drama is of events seeking a more perfect state, their life and mine was not that. My recalled feelings over that time – my little-boy life, in Jackson, on Congress, in my first years, in the forties and beginning fifties – are of a hectic, changing, provisional existence. They loved me, protected me. But the experience of life was of events, of things and people in motion, and of being often alone and to the side of things. Which did not make me sorry and does not now.

Richard Ford wrote the essay remembering his father fifty-five years after his death whereas the essay about his mother was written soon after she passed away in 1981. Yet he published the essays in 2017 arranging the later written essay about his father first and that about his mother second. A telling arrangement since his memories about his father come through as being crystal clear. It is a straightforward narrative about a young boy recollecting his relationship with a more or less absent father since he was on the road mostly and then to lose him entirely when Richard was merely sixteen. It helps the reader considerably to get a narrative about America of the 1930s and the undeniable achievement of Ford Sr. to hold a job through the Depression. The account of his mother with whom he seems to have had a  closer relationship is a bit fuzzier with the adult Richard Ford tweaking his boyhood memories vis-a-vis his mother.

These tenderly written essays are memorable for not only being a deeply personal account by Ford of his family but also for the meditative aspect — for making the reader too introspect on the idea of family, love, memories.

Richard Ford Between Them: Remembering my Parents Bloombsury Publishing, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 180 Rs. 499  

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 

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