French Posts

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 

Meeting Arundhati Roy at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 25 Aug 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017 The Bookshop held a lovely interaction with award winning writer Arundhati Roy. The Bookshop is a warm space that magically transforms a literary evening into an electric engagement. Personal invitations had been sent to the select audience. There was no structure to the event which was a pleasure.

Arundhati Roy plunged straight into a conversation. She began the evening remembering the late owner and legendary bookseller K. D. Singh. She then read a long passage out of her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness . Hearing an author read out from their own novels is an unpredictable experience but in this case turned out to be extraordinary. Despite the novel being varied and politically charged in many places, reading it alone, a reader tends to respond to the text. Listening to Arundhati Roy narrate it last night was revelatory as she has a soft lilt to her voice which brings out the rhythm and structure of the storytelling, softpedalling to some extent the political punch, but never undermining. Hearing her read out aloud was like being lulled into a level of consciousness where the magic of storytelling overtook one and yet once it is was over it was the politically charged experience of the episode from Kashmir which she chose to narrate that lingered on. It probably would be worth getting the audiobook which the novelist has recorded herself. On the left is a picture taken by Mayank Austen Soofi and tweeted on 17 May 2017 by Simon Prosser, Publisher, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House.  On 24 August 2017 a digital companion to the novel was released called the Re: Reader. It is being hosted on a website of its own. According to the report in the Hindu, “The Re:Reader can be accessed on a smart phone by logging on to its website. The visitor is greeted by a ‘floating menu’ of different chapters, each with its own set of animated icons, sound effects, music, and a carefully chosen excerpt.

“Re:Reader has snippets of text from the 12 chapters of the book. Animations show the text in a new light; music brings the period to life, and with portions read by Arundhati Roy, it makes for a dreamy, heady ride. But none of these bits of ‘media’ are presented as ‘content’ for independent consumption. They are there to tempt, to intrigue, to transport the viewer to the Utmost world, not to reveal or substantially replace it.” Later this innovative reading experience may be converted into an app.

At The Bookshop interaction Arundhati Roy mentioned how when she writes fiction she does not let anyone, including her literary agent David Godwin, know that there is a work in progress as she is unable to handle the questions about when it will be ready for submission. Also knowing full well that once she hands over a manuscript there is frenzied activity and she needs to be prepared for it. Interestingly when the manuscript of this novel was finally completed to her satisfaction she lay down on her couch and wept for hours.

Given the small group sitting in a circle around and at the feet of the author made for a lovely intimate gathering allowing for conversation to flow easily. Sure there were many in the audience who were awe-struck by the celebrity they were enagaging with and yet the vibes were peaceful. It was an evening where Arundhati Roy shared insights about her writing and editing process, some of which I scribbled down in my edition of the novel.

There are many parts of the book which need a book of their own. 

This book is fiction as much as my first novel The God of Small Things was. I use every part of myself to write fiction. Experience informs your writing. Fiction is trying to create a universe which if it were unreal what would be the point of creating it? 

When asked if it was an “autobiographical novel” she said “What is an autobiography? These questions do not matter if this autobiographical or the truth. The character in fiction is more real and eternal than the real person.” 

While writing fiction my body feels very different. With non-fiction there is a sense of urgency. In fiction I am just at my own speed. It is almost like cooking — it takes as much time as it takes. 

When asked about editing her manuscripts she replied “ I don’t draft and redraft sentences which some people attribute to arrogance. I think of structure and characters take their own time to deepen. These are people I want to be able to spend rest of my life with. I don’t write sequentially. I already have a sense of it. It is a combination of control and release.” 

On the structure of this novel she said: “This book is much more complexly structured. It is like a big metropolis in the fluid world. It has its old parts and its pathways. It has its democracy. The crowds have faces in it. When you see the narrative as a city then you are going down blind alleys.”

On writing: “The way things are here and now I would not want to write it scared. Just write.” She added ” Factual knowledge has to be charged. My instinctiveness works the best for fiction.” 

On the parallels being drawn between Anjum and Mona ( made famous by Dayanita Singh’s photographs), she said “Anjum is not Mona but she is in Mona’s situation. Mona is definitely not a political person unlike Anjum.

Arunava Sinha, journalist and established Bengali to English translator, posed an interesting question to Arundhati Roy. He asked if she had had any interesting questions from her translators. Apparently the Polish translator has been flummoxed by sentences such as “evil weevil always make the cut” whereas the French translator has found the “Acknowledgements” the toughest such as “who queered my pitch”. As for the Hindi and Urdu translations she is working upon them line by line.

While discussing her author tours as was done over summer she says she felt as if she herself was a tourist living in Jannat for she visited 20 cities in the space of 24 days. Surprisingly she returned home with no jet lag whatsoever! The reception to her book has been tremendous and she has been reading and promoting the book to packed audiences. In Buffalo, for instance, she was to address a 1000-strong audience and surprisingly not a single copy of the book was sold at the venue since every single member of the audience was carrying their very own dog-eared copy of the novel. Another anecdote was about Kashmir which forms a large part of this novel since “you cannot tell the story of Kashmir in a footnote”.  She has recently returned from a visit to the state where she met Khan Sahib, an old friend, who had scribbled in his copy of the book extensively with comments trying to figure out the references in the book. What was even more incredulous were the visitors she had coming by all night asking her to autograph their editions of the book.

All in all it was a fabulously magical gathering.

26 August 2017 

 

Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

( My review of Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was published on Bookwitty on 10 July 2017. I have c&p the text below. ) 

A rich literary tradition once flourished in Timbuktu, a crossroads where for centuries the imams as well as the general population were receptive to ideas that passed through the city. Visiting scholars brought religious as well as secular volumes, and an industry grew up around the copying, transliteration and translation of a wide range of texts.

Wealthy patrons kept manuscripts in family collections, bequeathing them to subsequent generations. In the twenty-first century, families still have trunks filled with these books. At seventeen years old, Abdel Kader Haidara inherited an extensive library from his father, Mohammed “Mamma” Haidara. It consisted of gems such as “a treatise about Islamic jurisprudence from the early twelfth century; a thirteenth-century Koran written on vellum made from the hide of an antelope; another holy book from the twelfth century, no larger than the palm of a hand, inscribed on a fish skin, its intricate Maghrebi script illuminated with droplets of gold leaf.”

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is journalist Joshua Hammer’s detailed account of Abdel Kader Haidara’s achievement in amassing and protecting an extraordinary library of these manuscripts. In the 1980s, Haidara undertook expeditions, sometimes by boat or camel, far and wide across Northern Africa to persuade families part with their heirlooms.

Haidara curated the collection with care: “He was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance – pointing with pride to Ahmeda Baba’s denunciations of slavery, and to the strident correspondence between the jihadi sultan of Massina and Sheikh Ahmed Al Bakkay Al Kounti, a mid-nineteenth-century Islamic scholar in Timbuktu known for his moderation and acceptance of Jews and Christians. As time passed he became something of a scholar himself, revered by many peers in Timbuktu for his knowledge of the region’s history and religion, sought after by parents to offer their children guidance.”

Polite and discreet, Haidara was a deft negotiator in multiple languages. In return for the manuscripts, Haidara compensated the families handsomely, be that in currency or with livestock, grains or camels—or once, with a commitment to build a mosque and school. Meanwhile, funding poured in from a long list of sources as diverse as the Ford Foundation, the Princess of Luxembourg, and Muammar Qaddafi.

Haidara housed the collection at the Ahmed Baba Institute, where it could be conserved and digitally archived. But in 2012, Timbuktu fell to the Al Qaeda-supported Islamists, Ansar Dine, and the collection was no longer safe. So, in an extremely delicate and high-risk operation, Haidara masterminded the smuggling of 350,000 volumes out of Timbuktu to safe houses to Bamako, a government territory.

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The rescue entailed quietly gathering the manuscripts into 2,500 metal trunks, and then spiriting them away under the rebels’ noses, primarily using teenage sons and nephews of Timbuktu’s librarians as couriers. Haidara monitored the operation from a control room in Bamako, eight phones ringing every fifteen minutes with updates. Incredibly, every single manuscript was evacuated to safekeeping, though some received rough treatment by soldiers at roadblocks. Ansar Dine was overthrown by French forces in 2013, but the manuscripts remain in hiding.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is rich with historical and military detail, to the extent that at some points maps would have been welcome, giving more breathing space in the text. Joshua Hammer follows two distinct narrative strands: the literary history of Timbuktu and its librarians, and the changing political landscape (and resulting war tactics) within the Maghreb. The result is a fascinating, if at times dense, account to read.

Joshua Hammer The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu Simon and Schuster, 2017, Pb. 

11 July 2017 

Censorship, state and formation of literature

A Stasi official observing the interrogation of the lover of an East German playwright whose loyalty to the state is questioned, in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others, 2006

An extract from the New York Review of Books review by Timothy Garton Ash of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature by Robert Darnton” ( 23 October 2014)

I have only once met a censor on active duty. In the spring of 1989, my friends at the newly founded Polish opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza let me take a cartoon up to the in-house censor at the printing house of the main Communist Party daily, on whose weary old presses Solidarity’s organ for the dismantlement of communism was now being produced. I knocked on the door, only to find a bored-looking woman in a floral dress, with a cigarette on her lip and a glass of tea at hand. She slowly scanned the cartoon and the article to which it related, as if to demonstrate that she could read, and then stamped her approval on the back of the cartoon.

My taskmistress showed few obvious signs of being an intellectual, but one of the leitmotifs of Robert Darnton’s new book is how intellectually sophisticated censors have often been. Drawing on original archival research, he offers three fine-grained, ethnographic (his word) studies of censors at work: in Bourbon France, British India, and Communist East Germany. In eighteenth-century France, the censors were not just writers manqués; many were writers themselves. They included men like F.-A. Paradis de Moncrif, a playwright, poet, and member of the Académie française. To be listed as a Censeur du Roi in the Almanach royal was a badge of honor. These royal censors initialed every page of a manuscript as they perused it, making helpful suggestions along the way, like a publisher’s editor. Their reports often read like literary reviews. One of them, M. Secousse, solicitously approved an anthology of legal texts that he himself had edited—thus giving a whole new meaning to the term “self-censorship.”

In British India, the censors—not formally so called—were scholars and gentlemen, either British members of the elite Indian Civil Service (the “heaven born”) or their learned Indian colleagues. Harinath De, a candidate for the post of imperial librarian in Calcutta in 1906,

had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Marathi and Guzerati, along with some Provençal, Portuguese, Romanian, Dutch, Danish, Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle High German, and a smattering of Hebrew, Turkish and Chinese. He got the job.

Besides being a librarian, that job involved contributing summary reviews to an extraordinary printed catalog of every book published in the Raj from 1868 onward. It included more than 200,000 titles by 1905. Although given to describing anything with erotic content, including the hanky-panky of Hindu gods, as “filthy,” these literary monitors were often highly appreciative of the works under review, especially when the authors showed some virtuosity of style and depth of scholarship.

In the summer of 1990, Darnton, the lifelong historian of books and censorship, had the thrill of finally meeting two real-life censors. In East Berlin, the capital of the soon-to-be-history German Democratic Republic, he found Frau Horn and Herr Wesener, both holders of advanced degrees in German literature, eager to explain how they had struggled to defend their writers against oppressive, narrow-minded higher-ups in the Party, including an apparent dragon woman called Ursula Ragwitz. The censors even justified the already defunct Berlin Wall on the grounds that it had preserved the GDR as a Leseland, a land of readers and reading. Darnton then plunges with gusto into the Communist Party archives, to discover “how literature was managed at the highest levels of the GDR.”

He gives instances of harsh repression from all three places and times. Thus, an eighteenth-century chapter of English PEN could have taken up the case of Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, a princess’s chambermaid, who was walled up, first in the Bastille and then in a convent, for a total of thirteen and a half years. Her crime? To have written Tanastès, a book about the king’s love life, thinly disguised as a fairy tale. In 1759, major works of the Enlightenment, including Voltaire’s poem on natural religion and Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques, were “lacerated and burned by the public hangman at the foot of the great staircase of the Parlement” in Paris.

In British India, civilized tolerance of native literature turned to oppression in the early years of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalist protests grew following the partition of Bengal. A wandering minstrel called Mukanda Lal Das was sentenced to three years’ “rigorous imprisonment” for singing his subversive “White Rat Song,” with lyrics that come out in the official British translation like this:

Do you know, Deputy Babu, now your head is under the boots of the Feringhees, that they have ruined your caste and honor and carried away your riches cleverly?

In East Germany, Walter Janka suffered five years of solitary confinement for being too much involved with György Lukacs in 1956.

Yet such outright persecution is not Darnton’s main theme. As his subtitle suggests, what really interests him is “how states shaped literature.” They have generally done so, he argues, through processes of complex negotiation. In eighteenth-century France, censors made suggestions on grounds of taste and literary form; they also ensured that no well-placed aristocrats received unwelcome attention and that compliments to the king were sufficiently euphuistic. Different levels of authorization were available, from the full royal privilege to a “tacit permission.”

In East Germany, elaborate quadrilles were danced by censors, high-level apparatchiks, editors, and, not least, writers. The celebrated novelist Christa Wolf had sufficient clout to insist that a very exceptional ellipsis in square brackets be printed at seven points in her 1983 novel Kassandra, indicating censored passages. This of course sent readers scurrying to the West German edition, which visitors smuggled into the country. Having found the offending words, they typed them up on paper slips and gave these to friends for insertion at the correct place. Among its scattering of striking illustrations, Censors at Work reproduces one such ellipsis on the East German printed page and corresponding typewritten slip.

Klaus Höpcke, the deputy minister for publishing and the book trade (a state position, and therefore subordinated to higher Party authorities), seems to have spent almost as much time in the 1980s fending off the Party leaders above him as he did curbing the writers below. He received an official Party reprimand for allowing Volker Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman, the scabrous story of an apparatchik and his chauffeur, to be published, albeit in a carefully “negotiated” form. Finally, in a flash of late defiance, Deputy Minister Höpcke even supported an East German PEN resolution protesting against the arrest of one Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1989.

Some celebrated writers do not emerge trailing clouds of glory from the cold-eyed files of censorship. Voltaire, that legendary champion of free speech, apparently tried to get the royal censors to suppress the works of his enemies. It was the censor-in-chief who, while he might not have agreed with what Voltaire’s enemies said, defended their right to say it.

The office of the East German Politburo member responsible for culture, Kurt Hager, “kept long lists of writers who sent in requests for visas, cars, better living conditions, and intervention to get their children into universities.” A plea by the writer Volker Braun to be allowed a subscription to the leading West German liberal weekly Die Zeit went all the way up to Hager, with a supportive letter from the deputy minister, who argued that this would provide Braun with materials for a novel satirizing capitalism. In the course of tough negotiations with senior cultural apparatchiks in the mid-1970s, Braun is even recorded as saying that Hager was “a kind of idol for him.” Can we credit him with irony? Perhaps. Writers who have never faced such pressures should not be too quick to judge. And yet one feels a distinct spasm of disgust.

17 March 2017 

Seagull Books ( 2017)

One of my favouritest independent publishers is Seagull Books. They have a magnificent stable of writers. They specialise in world literature making translations from across the world available in English. They have distinct lists too. For instance Africa, French, German, Swiss, Italian and India lists. Their lists on Art, Cinema, Conversations  , Culture Studies, Theatre and Performance Studies etc are equally delicious and worth exploring.  As for their Fiction list — it is stupendous! 

Seagull Books has been publishing exquisite books for some decades now. What is truly remarkable about their publishing programme is that they do accord equal respect to their readers worldwide. So it is immaterial where you may purchase a Seagull title but the quality of production will always be the same. Seagull Books have now signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to make Seagull World Literature available in India.

The founder of Seagull Books, Naveen Kishore, believes in publishing what he wishes to as he told me in an interview ( 2013). In fact for his work he has been awarded the Goethe Medal. Every year the publishers produce a fine catalogue which is a collector’s item by itself for the author contributions and Sunandini Banerjee’s incredible designs. Take a look at the current Seagull catalogue ( order form). It is delicious!

16 March 2017 

Pocket Penguins

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POCKET PENGUINS

Introducing 20 Pocket Penguins

THE   FUTURE   OF   PENGUIN   CLASSICS

26 May 2016

A-format paperbacks

 

Pocket Penguins are the bold next step from the world’s most recognizable publishing brand.  They are the future of Penguin Classics.

On 26 May 2016 we launch with a carefully curated list of twenty titles, highlighting a mix of the famous and unjustly overlooked that celebrate the pure pleasure of reading. Colour coded to reflect their original language, Pocket Penguins contain complete texts in a compact format designed to pick up, pocket, and go.

“These books are intimate, grand, funny, widescreen, painful, visionary – and we have been put on earth to make you want to read them!”

Simon Winder, Publishing Director

 

A REVOLUTION IN READING

In the space of one year, over 2.2 million Little Black Classics have been sold worldwide, demonstrating a huge new appetite for reading the Classics.

A RETURN TO COLOUR AFTER DECADES OF BLACK

 Since 1946, Penguin has been publishing classics in winning formulas and pushing the boundaries of cover design. Our use of oil paintings on black covers paved the way for a look that dominates classics publishing today. Now the timeless tri-band simplicity and bold colours of Pocket Penguins will show the power of leaving authors’ names and titles to speak for themselves.

On the 70th anniversary of the first Penguin Classics, Penguin’s Art Director, Jim Stoddart, has produced a new design that is both approachable and contemporary.

“The new range blossoms from black into the technicolour of Penguin’s heyday. While this is a comforting nod to past Penguin, this is very much a series of books for the modern age.”

Jim Stoddart, Art Director

THE FIRST TWENTY

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA                                         RUSSIAN

Mikhail Bulgakov

This ribald, carnivalesque satire – featuring the Devil, true love and a gun-toting cat – was written in the darkest days of the Soviet Union and became an underground sensation.

 

MRS DALLOWAY                                                                  ENGLISH

Virginia Woolf

The lives of a woman preparing for a party and a young man suffering from shell-shock converge on one June day in 1920’s London, in Woolf’s great novel of time, memory, war and the city.

 

THE SECRET AGENT                                                              ENGLISH

Joseph Conrad

Set in an Edwardian London underworld of terrorist bombers, spies, grotesques and fanatics, Conrad’s dark, unsettling masterpiece asks if we ever really know others, or ourselves.

 

THE GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK                                                 CZECH

Jaroslav Hasek

Drunkard, malingerer, oaf and possible genius – the story of Czech soldier Svejk and his misadventures in the First World War is one of the most hilarious and subversive satires on war ever.

 

THE LOST ESTATE                                                                  FRENCH

Alain-Fournier

A novel of desperate yearning and vanished adolescence, the story of Meaulnes and his restless search for a lost, enchanted world has the atmosphere of a dream and the purity of a fairytale.

 

THE CALL OF CTHULHU                                                       ENGLISH

P. Lovecraft

Mad, macabre tales of demonic spirits, hideous rites, ancient curses and alien entities lurking beneath the surface of rural New England, from the man who created the modern horror story.

 

THE BETROTHED                                                                   ITALIAN

Alessandro Manzoni

Two lovers must face tyrants, war, riots, plague and famine in this teeming panorama of seventeenth-century Italian life.

 

METAMORPHOSIS                                                               GERMAN

Franz Kafka

An ordinary man wakes up to find himself turned into a giant cockroach in Kafka’s masterpiece of unease and black humour.

 

THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE                               GERMAN

Rainer Maria Rilke

This dreamlike meditation on being young and alone in Paris is a feverish work of nerves, angst and sublime beauty from one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.

 

THE HOUSE OF ULLOA                                                        SPANISH

Emilia Pardo Bazan

Set in a crumbling Spanish mansion, this gloriously comic and gothic novel follows the fortunes of an innocent young priest as he enters a world of moral decadence, sexual intrigue and corruption.

FATHERS AND SONS                                                            RUSSIAN

Ivan Turgenev

This humane, moving masterpiece of families, love, duels, heartache, failure and the clash between generations caused a scandal in nineteenth-century Russia with its portrayal of youthful nihilism.

 

OUT OF AFRICA                                                                    ENGLISH

Karen Blixen

In one of the most passionate memoirs ever written, Karen Blixen recalls running a farm in Africa at the start of the twentieth century, and the love affair that changed her life.

 

WALDEN                                                                                                ENGLISH

Henry David Thoreau

One man’s account of his solitary and self-sufficient home in the New England woods, this is the original book about abandoning our ‘lives of quiet desperation’ and getting back to nature.

 

A PARISIAN AFFAIR                                                             FRENCH

Guy de Maupassant

Sparkling, darkly humorous tales of high society, playboys, courtesans, peasants, sex and savagery in nineteenth-century France, from the father of the short story.

 

THE BEAST WITHIN                                                              FRENCH

Emile Zola

Zola’s tense, gripping psychological thriller of adultery, corruption and murder on the French railways is a graphic and violent exploration of the darkest recesses of the criminal mind.

 

THE COSSACKS and HADJI MURAT                                    RUSSIAN

Leo Tolstoy

Two masterly Russian tales of freedom, fighting and great warriors in the majestic mountains of the Caucasus, inspired by Tolstoy’s years as a soldier living amid the Cossack people.

 

THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO                                                                ENGLISH

Alfred Russel Wallace

The great Victorian scientist’s heroic adventures across South-East Asia, from Singapore to the wilds of New Guinea, encountering head-hunters, jungles, birds of paradise and new discoveries that would change the world.

 

THE RAINBOW                                                                      ENGLISH

D.H. Lawrence

Following three generations of a family in rural Nottinghamshire as they struggle, fight, labour on the land and discover who they are, Lawrence’s rhapsodic, poetic and mystical work rewrote the English novel.

 

MY CHILDHOOD                                                                   RUSSIAN

Maxim Gorky

In one of the most moving, raw accounts of childhood ever written, Maxim Gorky describes, with appalling clarity and startling freshness, growing up amid poverty and brutality in Tsarist Russia.

 

O PIONEERS!                                                                         ENGLISH

Willa Cather

A rapturous work of savage beauty, Willa Cather’s 1913 tale of a pioneer woman who tames the wild, hostile lands of the Nebraskan prairie is also the story of what it means to be American.

For more information: Caroline Newbury, cnewbury@randomhouse.co.in

20 Feb 2016   

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

Literati: “Ink on the Brink”

jaya_bhattacharji-300x300(My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 17 October 2015) and will be in print ( 18 October 2015). Here is the http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/jaya-bhattacharji-rose-on-india-coping-with-book-bans/article7770216.ece. I am also c&p the text below. )

It remains to be seen how India, despite its business potential, copes with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, and book bans

According to Nielsen’s The India Book Market Report 2015, released at Frankfurt Book Fair on October 14, the print book market in India is worth Rs. 261bn (£2.5bn), making it the sixth largest in the world, and the second largest of the English language markets. U.K. publishers’ revenues, including e-books, home and exports, are worth £3.3bn. India is the second most populous country in the world, with 1.28 billion people. The literacy rate is rising rapidly, from 65 per cent in 2001 to 74 per cent in 2011; it is predicted to reach 90 per cent in 2020. One quarter of young people define themselves as book readers, comprising by themselves a larger group than the population of the U.K. which is 65 million.

It explains why, for some time now, publishers worldwide are keen to explore strategic partnerships with their Indian counterparts in English and regional languages. According to a 2010-12 report Rebalancing the Economy from the House of Commons, Parliament of Great Britain, “40 per cent of U.K. publishing revenues are derived from exports”. Though the statistic is three years old, it will hold validity in 2015 since the links between British publishers and India are amongst the oldest given the colonial past.

But what happens when a market like India with huge business potential mutates into a territory synonymous with cultural policing, muzzling of free speech, book bans and intolerance of ideas? Does it still remain an attractive market to invest in? Increasing number of writers from various Indian languages are returning their Sahitya Akademi awards and Punjabi writer Dalip Kaur Tiwana returned her Padma Shri in protest against the assassination of rationalist scholars like Kalburgi. For some writers, this form of intellectual censorship is linked to the horrific lynching incident in Dadri. Noted Hindi writer, 90-year-old Krishna Sobti, said while returning her award that India did not need any more “Dadri or Babri”.

***

I have contributed an article on the theme of Independence in Indian Children’s Literature for the inaugural issue of
The Read QuarterlyThe Read Quarterly
. It is a journal on children’s literature, founded by Sarah Odedina and Kate Manning; the Kickstarter campaign has been endorsed by Neil Gaiman. Some of the other contributors include Nury Vittachi, Eoin Colfer, Gita Wolf (Tara Books) and Daniel Hahn. My article maps the literary inheritance of independence/partition of Romila Thaparsubcontinent. Much of it is inadvertently focused on hagiographies written to suit a specific ideological position, reinforcing communal Public Intellectual in Indiapoints of view that took root in British India. Fortunately, there are noticeable positive shifts in contemporary fiction, but as Romila Thapar, the eminent historian, wrote to me, “The goal of the national movement was such that communities came together for a cause and set aside what separated them. It is these moments that need to be remembered in the present times.”

Pigeons of the DomeCultural pluralism, democracy and secularism, the defining traits of India, are now under severe threat. Two collections of short stories published this past month address the complexities of Indian culture and ethos being intimidated by communal forces. Deeply disturbing but essential reading is the Pigeons of the Domes: Stories on Communalism edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (Niyogi Books). It was put together with the sole intention of “tracing the secular thread in the fabric of modern India, a thread that goes back many centuries.” It consists of stories by Gulzar, Ajeet Caur, Asghar Wajahat, Deepak Budki and Keki Daruwalla.

‘They Eat Meat!’ is the opening story in Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015 winner,the-adivasi-will-not-dance-cover-for-kitaab-interview Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new short story collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. In ‘They Eat Meat!’ Panmuni and Biram Soren go to live in Gujarat, and are surprised to learn that they would have to stop eating non-vegetarian food to be accepted as citizens. According to the author, “The impetus behind the short story was the experience a Santhal family had in Vadodara during 2000-02. …the things I have mentioned are all as they were told to me by this family. I just changed the names. I wasn’t there in Gujarat in 2002 when the riots happened, but I was curious to know what happened, the insider-outsider equation, the pure-impure thing, the veg-non-veg thing, and so I wanted to write this story….This story first appeared in the literary magazine from Kathmandu, La.Lit. Prawin Adhkari and Rabi Thapa, the editors, published it in August 2014 with the title, ‘DON’T MIX WITH THEM, THEY EAT MEAT!’…It read more like an eyewitness report (in the third person) than a fiction based on facts. For the Speaking Tiger version, my editors and I took the report-like feel out and turned it into more story-like. … In the La.Lit version, imagination was minimum; in the Speaking Tiger version, there is more imagination.”

tram_83_301This fine line between fact and fiction is well summed up in the astounding debut novel, Tram 83 by performance artist and poet, Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated from the French by Roland Glasser, published by Deep Vellum Publishing. Lucien, the protagonist, while reflecting upon his work, asks: “Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist?” It is not surprising that Indian writers are protesting intellectual censorship by returning state awards.

17 October 2015 

Storyweaver, Pratham Books

final-logo-pratham-booksWelcome to StoryWeaver from Pratham Books : http://www.storyweaver.org.inbanner-2-fc6332eba5193186348e9c5190fee65b

A whole new world of children’s stories. It is a platform that hosts stories in languages across India and beyond. So that every child can have an endless stream of stories in her mother tongue to read and enjoy. StoryWeaver is an open platform designed to be innovative and interactive. It invites both, the weaver of stories and the reader to connect and share the fascinating world of words and illustrations. This then, marks a new chapter in children’s literature and publishing. Come discover the magic of stories and the joy of reading – a cornucopia that will delight endlessly.

Medianama has a wonderful article on Pratham Books and Storyweaver. It is available at: http://www.medianama.com/2015/09/223-pratham-books-open-source/ But I am also copy-pasting the text in case it is not easily available sometimes.

Non profit trust Pratham Books has launched StoryWeaver, an open source digital platform, which features 800 stories in 24 languages (14 Indian and 12 international languages), with an image repository of over 2,000 images. These will be openly licensed and free of cost; content creators and other users will be able to read, download, translate, version-ise and print through the platform. Users will also be able to create and publish new stories, using the Creative Commons licensed content on the site.

The stories are available in Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Konkani, Malayalam, Marathi and Odiya, along with English translations to all these languages (and Tamil and Telugu, excepting Assamese and Malayalam). It lists publishers like itself, African StoryBook Initiative and World Konkani Centre. The stories can be filtered by reading levels as well. The platform provides DIY videos for creating and translating stories. ( https://storyweaver.org.in/tutorials )

Anyone can translate stories by clicking on the ‘translate’ option under the selected story, which redirects you to login via Pratham Books, Facebook or Google+ and provides a host of Indian and African languages, along with French, German and Spanish to translate to. It displays the original text for reference and once done translating it lets users put in a new title, creator details and publish. Pratham Books says that it has generated more work opportunities for illustrators through their CC work. It also states that its primary users are teachers, librarians, writers and parents.

The trust hopes that this move will not only encourage more content creation but also address the scarcity of multilingual story resources in India and multiply it. With the launch of the platform, the trust has also created a “Weave a story” campaign where it has roped in children’s books writers Anushka Ravishankar, Soumya Rajendran, Rohini Nilekani and Rukmini Banerjee to write a special story for children. StoryWeaver will invite users to translate these stories and the trust expects that 100 new versions will spawn out of the 3 original stories. The first story to be launched on the platform is Ravishankar’s “Its All the Cat’s Fault”, which is expected to get 5 derivative versions today.

Google Impact Challenge shortlist
In August 2013, Google had shortlisted 10 non-profit organisations in India as finalists for its Google Impact Challenge intended to support a technology based social project with an award of Rs 3 crores. Among these was Pratham Books which intended to develop an open source platform to create and translate 20,000 e-books in minimum 25 languages to enable 20 million book reads by 2015.

Launch of books crowdsourcing platform
In June, Pratham Books launched a crowdsourcing platform called DonateABook which let nonprofits and schools raise funding for books in order to provide them to Indian children. It connected book seekers with people who wanted to give books away. Then, there were 30 campaigns on the website, looking to raise between Rs 3,500- Rs 110,000 for multiple cities and towns in India.

The projects have been assigned for underprivileged kids, kids from government schools in villages, immigrant construction workers’ children and more, and sought books across Indian and English languages. Individuals as well as organisations who wanted to get books for the children they work with could also start campaigns on the platform. The platform sought to get 50,000 books for children by this Children’s Day, which falls on 14 November every year.

The Bangalore-based trust publishes cost effective books across Indian languages. It publishes books across genres like fiction, science, history, maths and nature among others. It claims to have published over 300 original titles in 18 languages, totalling up to 2,000 books across genres of fiction, nonfiction, and story books on science, history, mathematics and nature

 

8 Sept 2015

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

The spirit of fiction, Emma Donoghue talks about her new novel, “Frog Music”

( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. ) 

Author Emma Donoghue.

Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview: 

Why do you like writing historical fiction?

Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?

How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?

Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.

How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?

In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.

When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?

For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.

How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?

Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.

Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.

Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.

Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?

No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.

The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?

Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.

Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?

I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).

Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?

They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.

Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.

As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.

Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.

Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.

Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?

I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.

Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?

I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!