Harper Collins Posts

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men” by Katrine Marcal, translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming

Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.

Her name? Bertha.

How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!

There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.

Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.

It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.

1 August 2021

“The Windsor Knot: Her Majesty the Queen investigates” by S. J. Bennett

S. J. Bennett’s Windsor Knot ( Harper Collins India) is her first mystery novel in this newly launched series. It is also the beloved young adult author’s debut foray into adult literature. In it, she has the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II as an investigator. Rozie Oshodi is the Queen’s assistant private secretary who doubles up as her sidekick investigator. According to the author, “the Queen’s new Assistant Private Secretary. Rozie is a Nigerian Londoner who grew up in a council estate in Notting Hill and went on to serve in Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army. She is quick-witted, brave and somewhat amazed to find the Queen is asking her to do increasingly unusual things.” In fact, the real Queen’s current equerry is Lieutenant Colonel Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, a Ghanaian-born British army officer. Like Rozie in the book, he’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. S.J. Bennett adds:

I’ve always written books with a feminist element to them, and I’m fascinated by the idea of a ‘little old lady’ surrounded by men, someone who is deeply respected, but not always taken seriously. In this series, the Queen (my Queen) has learned that she can trust only certain women to keep her secrets. They are her assistant private secretaries, a role I interviewed for myself after a brief career as a strategy consultant with McKinsey. I’ll never forget walking across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get that job in the end, and it’s still the one that got away.

The Windsor Knot investigates the mysterious death of a Russian on the premises of Windsor Castle. The novel is set at the time the Queen is 89 and approaching her ninetieth year. She comes across as a sparkling old lady who is very aware of the manner in which she should conduct herself as a British monarch and yet, she seems to exhibit the excitement and enthusiasm of a little school girl in getting to the truth about Maksim Brodsky, the Russian pianist. He had been invited to entertain her guests the previous night at dinner. The manner in which he is found in his room is scandalous and all attempts are made to ensure that the story is underplayed. More so, when they discover a little more about his Russian connections. Yet, those in the know, including the Queen, cannot help but speculate on the circumstances of the death. More so, since Brodsky was known to also run a political blog. So could he have possibly fallen foul of the Russian authorities, especially Putin? ( The eerie parallels of political intrigue to the ongoing story about Roman Protasevich, the Belarus blogger, are purely coincidental. Prostasevich has gone on record saying that the authorities will kill him for managing Telegram channels broadcasting mass protests against the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko. )

Back to the novel. The Queen’s top policemen are investigating the crime. They are Ravi Singh, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Gavin Humphreys, Director General of MI5 and the most junior of the trio, Detective Chief Inspector David Strong. They are a motley bunch who are perfect team in this mystery story. The author has everything, diversity, true representation of British society, a peep into royalty, the secret conversations, the investigation, and it is pure delight in reading excellent English, nuanced and truly Queen’s English without having to read mangled words and phrases.

I truly love how the author has set her characters in place. I can just see them develop and if she maintains the pace of creating two novels a year, she is on to an excellent formula. I hope she does not run out of ideas and plot settings. First books in a series are always dicey but S. J. Bennett is on to a good thing with this launch. It is the perfect antidote for the gloom and doom that we are surrounded by. This is just the kind of lighthearted banter, mixed with some detective work, that we as readers need to help us look the other way during theese dark pandemic days. Life goes on despite being reminded of our mortality on a daily basis.

It is the perfect blend of Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Very English. Very much aware and happy being in the space it inhabits. And makes the best of the scenario. You don’t need to be a Royalist or an Anglophile to appreciate this kind of storytelling. Just go with it and enjoy it. The author has a very tight control on the language. She will hone her point-of-view skills fairly soon, once the characters begin to assert themselves. The first book is always a testing ground for the roles everyone will play and the author figuring out how to manipulate the scene. Soon everyone will find their niche and it will develop beautifully. I am so sure of it. This first book has sufficient glimpses of a good series in the making.

In fact, the first volume has an extract from the opening pages of the second novel in the series scheduled for publication in November 2021. It is called The Mystery of the Faberge Egg. I cannot wait to read it. Just as the webseries, The Crown, inspired this storyline, these books need to launch a webseries of their own.

On a drive one English spring evening, I found myself thinking about an episode of The Crown. The young Queen Elizabeth II had picked up a painted soldier from a model battlefield and absentmindedly returned him to the wrong place. Her punctilious private secretary corrected the mistake. And I thought to myself that, while it made a nice observation about the private secretary, it was something the Queen – the woman I knew – would never have done.
I haven’t met her, but my father has, many times. In the course of a long career in the army, he’s hosted her at the Tower of London, drunk cocktails on the Royal Yacht Britannia and been awarded medals at Buckingham Palace. The woman my father knows is funny, engaged, well-informed and good company. She would have understood that it’s impolite to fiddle with someone else’s model battlefield, and if she’d ever moved a soldier it would have been to put him in the right place, not the wrong one.
That got me thinking, here’s a woman with a lifetime of learning, who is often thought of as not very clever. But she’s recognised as a world expert on horse racing, and there are many other fields besides, such as military history, that she knows extremely well. Also, while we’re all looking at her, she’s looking out. She must spot things all the time that others don’t see.
What a perfect set-up for a detective. The woman I know could do it brilliantly.

Meanwhile, read The Windsor’s Knot — it is the perfect read.

8 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 June 2018 

Luke Kennard “The Transition”

‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘Maybe there is something wrong. Something wrong with you which The Transition can’t fix. Your parents could take some responsibility there. They could have given you more of a sense of enterprise and self-reliance instead of coddling you into believing that the world owes you a living. They could have set you up with the basics in life, but then I suppose they were the sort of people to have five kids without thinking about it.’

Award winning British poet and critic Luke Kennard’s debut novel The Transition is about a young man, Karl, who after running up a tremendous credit card debt along with online fraud and tax infraction faces either imprisonment in a low security prison for fifteen months or has to join a programme called The Transition run by the government.

The Transition was founded, the notary public had explained to him, because there had been a steep increase in cases such as Karl’s. A generation who had benefited from unrivalled educational opportunities and decades of peacetime, who nonetheless seemed determined to self-destruct through petty crime, alcohol abuse and financial incompetence; a generation who didn’t vote; who had given up on making any kind of contribution to society and blamed anyone but themselves for it. 

Karl was considered to be an ideal candidate for admission to the programme since he had been “conditioned into total indifference”. He is required to move into his new home with his wife, Genevieve, as soon as possible.

The Transition is set in a dystopic world in the near future but it is unsettling for the scenario it etches is plausible. The seemingly middle class bonhomie presented in the pamphlets advertising the scheme is carried through with happy, smiley individuals and yet the mentors selected for every new couple moving in can resort to some particularly horrendous ways of disciplining their wards. The correction systems may have graduated from the poor workhouses of the nineteenth century to be transformed into genteel homes situated in middle class suburbs yet little else has changed in terms of measure of punishment meted out.

Karl tries to rebel against the system especially when it dawns upon him that he is probably part of an “exploitative social-engineering experiment”. He also wants to protect his wife who is mentally fragile and needs to be cared for, he is also good at recognising the signs of her spiralling downwards, except that his mentors who are so focused on the correction aspect fail to see Genevieve’s deterioration.

The Transition is a rare debut novel where the simple plot haunts one for days after having read it. As the Financial Times said it is “too real for comfort” yet entertaining.

Luke Kennard The Transition 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp. 328. 

28 Sept 2017 

 

Guest post: Renuka Narayan on “Bolshoi Confidential”

bolshoi-confidential(In 2013 Sergei Filin, Artistic Director, Bolshoi Ballet was attacked with acid. Later Pavel Dmitrichenko, a dancer at the Bolshoi was convicted of organizing the horrific acid attack. On 3 November 2016 it was announced that Pavel Dmitrichenko has been allowed to return to the world-famous theatre to use its rehearsal suites but did not say whether there was any prospect of him returning to the stage with the renowned ballet company. “Yes, I have been training there for a couple of months,” said the 32 year old soloist, who gained fame for starring in roles including Ivan the Terrible.

***

Journalist and writer, Renuka Narayan, read Bolshoi Confidential documenting Bolshoi Ballet’s 240-year-old history and recommends it highly. With her permission I am reposting her short review of the book published earlier on her Facebook wall.) 

Caught up with ‘Bolshoi Confidential’ that came out last month. It’s a big fat backstage view of 240 years of the underbelly of the Bolshoi Ballet. Its author, Simon Morrison, an American professor of music at Princeton, has gathered lots of material and shared all kinds of interesting and shocking facts and millions of miles of gossip.
I didn’t like his tone about how the rural Russian masses brought to watch the ballet in the old Soviet era had to be told when to clap. So what? Did American ‘hicks’ understand George Balanchine back in the day? Watching great ballet, opera and theatre can be life-changing for people. Nureyev, for one, as a little boy, heard Chaliapin sing at the provincial theatre of Ufa, fell in love with the stage and became a dancer.
Also, with this gossipy approach, the author reduces some legendary dancers into flat caricatures…for eg, someone like Mathilde Kschessinskaya, a Tsarist favourite who taught Margot Fonteyn the most exquisite things in Paris (read it in Fonteyn’s book), comes across as a horrible creature in one-sided stories. Unsatisfying. I especially felt the author’s basic disconnect with dance in his long chapter on Maya Plisetskaya.
I cannot analyse ballet with any expertise, not having learned it or watched nearly enough. But I have watched ‘the dance’ almost all my life. So I know the genuine impact on me of Plisetskaya’s steely legs, the movements of her long powerful arms, the lyrical ‘Russian back’ that entranced me even on film. She ‘danced strong’. Some of my most concentrated hours were spent watching her films at IIC for she seemed the power and soul of movement personified. But this man basically says she was all over the place. What? Are you supposed to dance like a prim WASP lady taking tea? I felt a bit cross that this writer possibly didn’t ‘get’ her, that he had no real feeling for the dance itself, just for the tittle-tattle. Perhaps I’m mistaken in my first impression and I’ll read it again.

Nevertheless, an ‘unputdownable’ book about that mysterious, secretive world. Many Indian dancers will relate to the horrors described here of how Russian artistes had to pander and submit to bureaucrats and politicians.
Recommend highly, with these initial reservations, for anyone interested in info about that iconic dance institution!

Bolshoi Confidential published by HarperCollins 

19 Nov 2016 

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