reading Posts

“Tender Bar” and reading

Tender Bar that is currently streaming on Amazon Prime is a wonderful adaptation of award-winning author, J. R. Moehringer’s memoir (2005) of the same name. It has been directed by George Clooney and has Ben Affleck acting in it. It is a wonderful film that shows the tender relationship between an uncle and a nephew, but also of the immediate clan and close circle of his uncle’s friends. Somehow the writer manages the fine balancing act between masculinity and tenderness without it becoming toxic. J. R. Moehringer’s mother is a single parent who returns to live with her parents and her brother. It is a full house at home. The mother is restless and despite living many years in it finds it hard to call it home whereas her son has no difficulty in doing so.

There are many scenes in the film that are worth discussing but my favourite scene is when the uncle, played brilliantly by Ben Affleck, recognises the talent his nephew has for writing. Uncle encourages nephew to read and does so by throwing open the cupboard that houses his book collection and simply says, “Read”. At no point does the uncle ever say to his nephew that this is inappropriate for you or is not at your reading level. Incredibly liberating! The reading/writing bug big bit the nephew. Ultimately, he got a place at full-sponsored seat at Yale University.

It is not a mushy film. Just about right in its tenor. No wonder Ben Affleck has been shortlisted for some awards such as the Screen Actors Guild. He has been nominated in the category: “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role”.

J. R. Moehringer won the Pulitzer Prize (2000; shortlisted in 1998) for journalism and subsequently co-authored tennis star, Andre Agassi’s “Open: An Autobiography” ( 2009). He also ghostwrote Nike co-founder, Phil Knight’s “Shoe Dog” (2015). He has now been asked by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to collaborate on the Duke’s forthcoming memoir that is to be published in late 2022.

Watch Tender Bar

16 Jan 2022

George Orwell and an 11 yo reader

Today, my eleven-year-old daughter was introduced to George Orwell”s fabulous essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. The child cracked up with laughter upon reading Orwell’s comments about writing book reviews such as, “grossly overpraising”, “unappetising (books)”, “the complete truth is that this book would be worthless”, and “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to”. She hooted with delight when she read that the middle section of a review that constitutes about 600 words is usually avoidable. 🙂 This is the kid who only reads a book cover-to-cover if it interests her, otherwise she tosses it away after reading the first few pages. And when she likes a book, she loves it. She will not stop reading it, till she is done with it. She only relies on her instinct to appreciate a book. Rarely goes upon recommendations or book reviews or by popular trends amongst her peers. So she absolutely gets what Orwell means. Fascinating watching her respond to the essay.

I was thoroughly entertained as she read out passages from it by doing voices, alternating between Inspector Closeau and Count Dracula/Hotel Transylvania.

Seriously, who needs TV, when one has kids!!

28 May 2021

DK Books – Excellent resource material

A pile of Dorling Kindersley books that Sarah has amassed over the years. They form the core of her library. An absolutely brilliant set of books that are created by teams of experts. Each page layout is done with care to detail, facts, and matching the text with the image. Children of today are #visuallearners and are fortunate to live in an age where books exist that are profusely illustrated with photographs. So they get doses of reality, a visual mapping, while learning becomes an enjoyable experience. These encyclopaedias are so packed with information but the pictures hold prominence in every layout. An interesting methodology to book design as the child immerses themselves in the book, absorbed by the visual richness and slowly, over a period of time, familiarises herself with the text. It is important to note that the text never dumbs down the facts. It presents them as is.

Some of these books were gifted to Sarah when she was 7+ and my goodness, how they magically transformed her reading experience. She would sit for hours looking at the pictures, flipping pages and as her #literacyskills became stronger, she began to make sense of of text too and identify more about the creatures, plants, organisms, experiments, objects, geography, weather, etc presented in the books. These books snapped her out of only being absorbed by picture books and story books. There is some merit in kids being allowed their free time to.do exactly as they please, whether it is daydreaming or flipping through books. They get lost in their own little dream worlds. These moments of daze are crucial to their growth as it is increasingly being documented that the #brain grows in such moments with the nerves connecting, synapses finding new routes. These magnificent volumes are storytelling with a difference. The child visually maps her world. She is incredible to be growing up in a world where these images are easily available. For instance, the book on Oceans has gorgeous pictures that do not make the watery world mysterious. Whereas we grew up in a world where Jacques Cousteau was still discovering the wonders of the deep. This particular volume has a preface by Fabien Cousteau, s/o Jacques Costeau.

During the pandemic, when children were confined at home and had to attend classes remotely, these DK books proved to be extremely useful resource material to have handy. Sure, the Internet exists. It is a vast ocean of readily available information but it is not the same thing as paper editions. Learning and reading in many ways is a sensual exercise. The brain needs to be tickled to come alive and absorb. Kids are surrounded by visuals and learn better if provided sensual opportunities of learning. They need to be left alone to slowly see, observe, ponder over and make connections for themselves. Large format, richly illustrated books like this permit the children to lie down on their tummies and stare into the book. Many peaceful hours can be spent like this without the parents getting frantic about excessive time spent on electronic devices or worrying about which links the children will click upon leading them to external websites etc. Books like this, developed by established brands, are good investments as they are sound on their factchecking and photographs used. It is ethicalpublishing too as every image or text used is always credited. It makes for reliable information that can be shared easily with children.

Of course these books are priced on the higher side but are an excellent addition to any home or school library. I understand the reasons for the expense and do not grudge it at all. I would rather buy one of these books than multiple volumes of different reading abilities to say explain the human body to the child. Children are incapable of grasping more than they can at any given time and slowly grow into these books. But it is incredible watching their growth as one fine day comes that magical moment when everything comes together. Now we are at a stage whereas parents we have to be very careful about identifying animals or fish as Sarah knows the exact species and names them accurately.

During remote learning I found it convenient to consult these books and explain the basic concepts of energy, periodic table, life cycle of rocks, vegetation belts, the various systems of the human body, etc. It was possible to let Sarah browse through the books and get a grasp of the concepts her teachers were introducing in their virtual classrooms. But when the teacher is reduced to a tiny box on a computer screen and valiantly attempts to draw sketches on her computer screen to explain to her class, it works but only to a limited extent. A substantial part of the heavy lifting of ensuring the child understood the concept is left upon the parents — this has been particularly evident during the pandemic. It is as if parents were assisting the schoolteachers in “minding the gap” between acquiring information and learning. Even so, once the kids begin returning to school, this kind of “blended” learning is here to stay. Schools are preferring to adopt the #hybridlearning — mix of digital and physical classes. But somewhere the balance has to be also struck between print books and online resources as well. This is were publishing brands like Dorling Kindersley India prove incredibly useful.

13 February 2021

The Dalai Lama and books on Tibet

. #reading #Tibet #China #DalaiLama #biography #illustratedbiography #AlexanderNorman #TenzinGeycheTethong #TendzinChoegyal #EatTheBuddha #BarbaraDemick #GazingEastwards #RomilaThapar #JourneyToLhasa #DiaryofaSpy #SaratChandraDas #BellsOfShangriLa #ParimalBhattacharya #TibetWithMyEyesClosed #shortstories #MadhuGurung

2 Jan 2021

Dom Moraes “Gone Away: An Indian Journal”

Much of Dom Moraes’s literary output is being made available by Speaking Tiger Books in collaboration with the writer’s literary estate whose executor is Sarayu Ahuja. As a result in recent years, a number of books by Moraes that were not easily available have been republished as affordable editions. A fabulous initiative to resurrect the writings of a prolific poet, writer, traveller and memorist.

“Gone Away” is part of the trilogy of autobiographies written by Dom Moraes. The publishers prefer to describe it as an “unconventional travelogue”. Whatever the descriptor used, this is a book not easily classified. Suffice it to say it is a fabulous testimony of a young man recently returned to India from Oxbridge. Moraes spends three months wandering the subcontinent for a large part accompanied by writer Ved Mehta. These three months prove to be significant in the history of the region. Moraes interviews the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; he meets the young Dalai Lama who was still unable to speak fluent English as he does now but his signature laugh was memorable even then for Moraes to remark upon it; he visits Nepal and stays in the Rana’s palace where wild Himalayan bears roam the corridors much to the horror of Ved Mehta and Dom Moraes:

***

We sank into a sofa and the servants disappeared. We heard voices in the distance
‘I expect someone will come for us,’ I said.
At this point I became aware of an enormous Himalayan bear crouched next to the sofa. It glowered at me. I gasped.
‘Now what is it?’
‘There is a bear next to us. It must,’ I added, groping for common sense, ‘be stuffed.’
‘Honestly, Dommie, I know you have a fantasy life, but what do you think? Have you ever known anybody who kept a live bear in their drawing room?’
‘I only wondered,’ I was beginning lamely, when the bear rose, snarled at us, and shambled loosely out through the farther door.

( Later while exchanging pleasantries with their host’s wife, the general’s wife, the Rani with a soft, calming, dreaming voice, Moraes thought it prudent to mention the bear. )

…I even forgot the bear for a few minutes. Then I felt I should mention it.
‘There was a bear here a few minutes ago,’ I said, feeling idiotic.
‘Ah yes,’ said the Rani family. ‘Which bear?’
‘You have several?’
‘Oh yes. That is one thing you must be careful about: don’t go out at night; they don’t see very well in the dark, and they might not know you were guests.’

****

Another memorable incident, gut wrenching in fact, was the meeting arranged for Ved Mehta and Dom Moraes to meet the famous Nepali poet, Devkota, who was dying from cancer. The locals had a ritual that when a person was dying, he would be taken to the Pashupatinath Temple ghats, on the banks of the river Basumati, where the person would breathe his last. The account of three prominent and young writers of the subcontinent under these strange circumstances is very, very moving. Devkota was only 49. Even on his deathbed, Devkota’s hands were turning cold as was his forehead, covered by a dirty bed sheet that would later serve as his shroud, was pleased to meet the two writers. Moraes and Devkota were able to briefly converse about poetry, the merits of translation and recite some poetry.

***
‘The face that we saw was a mask, with thick dark hair drooping dryly above. Beneath the hair was a fine forehead, with large eyes that opened a little to look at us. Below the eyes the face had fallen in: the cheeks like craters, the lips sunken and wrinkled like a very old man’s. But from under the dirty sheet two long hands projected from stalklike, sand-coloured arms, crept slowly together, and made the namaskar.

One thin hand groped painfully over the mattress towards us.
I grasped the hand in both mine and squeezed it. It was very cold and dry. There was a long pause. Then the mouth unpuckered from its creases of pain. Very slowly, groping and whistling, it said: ‘Cosmic conflagration …’

The poets chatted some more before Dom Moraes closed the conversation by reciting Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘For Any Dying Poet’:

Time cannot pluck the bird’s wing from the bird.
Bird and wing together
Go down, one feather.
No thing that ever flew,
Not the lark, not you,
Can die as others do

****
There are many more accounts in the book of Dom Moraes meeting prominent diplomats, politicians, writers and artists such as Malcolm MacDonald, Jayaprakash Narayan, Han Suyin, M F Hussain, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kishen Khanna, Buddhadeva Bose, Jamini Roy et al. Moraes also managed to reach Sikkim when the Chinese were closing in on the border. There is so much of rhe subcontinent’s socio-cultural history to soak up. The historical incidents and famous people are easily recalled from textbooks but to read this first hand experience is something special.

Do read. 

2 August 2020

On Sridhar Balan’s “Off the Shelf”

Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.

The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.

Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.

Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)

Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.

This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.

31 July 2020

IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON THE INDIA BOOK CONSUMER: EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented time, suspending large parts of human normalcy and disrupting global economies, including India’s. The Indian publishing industry has experienced difficult times with the advent of the pandemic and subsequent complete lockdown. With the ease in the lockdown situation, the publishing industry is focused on book sales and preparing for post-lockdown by seeking answers which can strategically fortify their business needs. As a result, Nielsen Book India has undertaken an initiative to provide meaningful consumer insights to the publishing industry. The research aims to understand book reader’s behaviour and engagement during and after lockdown.

“At Nielsen Book we are committed to supporting the publishing industry around the world during these unprecedented times. In India we have initiated a consumer research study to understand the reading and purchasing habits of book consumers during the pandemic. The study provides a vital understanding of how long people are reading for, their favourite genres and what their preferred formats are (print, e-books and audiobooks) as well as how they are discovering and buying books and how much they are willing to spend. The findings are extremely valuable to anyone with an interest in the publishing sector, providing insights into the behaviour of the Indian book consumer and helping inform future plans.” Vikrant Mathur, Director, Nielsen Book Research, India.

Nielsen Book conducted an online survey of 1,084 Indian adults (with a ratio of 60:40 female/male) to examine the impact of reading and buying behaviour on leisure books (excluding academic books) in India. The survey was conducted from 14 May to 7 June 2020. It was disseminated to publishers, media companies, etc. and across social media where followers used the snowballing technique to reach other respondents. It should therefore be assumed that the majority of respondents are likely to be keen book readers and buyers as per the methodology used to conduct the survey. The responses from employees working in publishing, book retailing and market research companies are excluded from the study.

CHANGE IN TIME SPENT READING AND OTHER ACTIVITIES

The report shows that two thirds of book readers say they are consuming more books since lockdown began. Before lockdown, Indian book readers read books or listened to audiobooks for an average of nine hours per week. Since lockdown this has increased by seven more hours a week. Two out of five respondents spend more time reading print books, similarly one in two spend more time reading e-books and one in five listening to audiobooks.

FORMATS USED FOR READING/LISTENING

On average, print books accounted for two thirds of book reading before lockdown and respondents predicted that print books would remain nearly as important even after lockdown. A marginal improvement was also noticed in the consumption of other formats.

Before lockdown, men tended to spend comparatively more time than women reading print books and listening to audiobooks while women are shifting slightly towards digital books after lockdown. Across all ages, readers are reading majorly print books while it was noticed that the ≥35 years age group (older readers), are marginally consuming more e-books after lockdown.

POPULAR GENRES DURING PANDEMIC

Women are more likely than men not to have changed their fiction reading interests since the outbreak of COVID-19, with both sexes more interested in Crime/Thrillers and Literary/Classic Fiction, alongside Historical Fiction (men) and Romance (women). Historical/Political Biographies followed by Self-Help/Personal Development and Self-Study (learning new languages, etc.) are the most popular amongst non-fiction readers. Respondents with children aged 0-8 are especially likely to have changed their genre interests when buying for children since the outbreak of COVID-19, with increased interest in Picture Books, Activity Books and Animal Stories. Those with children aged 9-17 are more interested in buying Spy/Detective/Mystery Stories, Fantasy and Classic stories.

AUTHOR AND LANGUAGE PREFERENCES

English is the most preferred language for reading followed by Hindi. One in three male readers prefers to read in Hindi. Younger consumers (≤34) are reading more titles from international authors compared to older readers (≥35). Two thirds of respondents prefer both international as well as Indian authors while one in 11 respondents prefers only Indian authors.

METHODS FOR DISCOVERING AND CHOOSING BOOKS

Recommendations from friends/relatives followed by media articles/reviews and general browsing on bookseller websites were the most influential factors on discovering books pre and post lockdown. Female readers are more likely than men to seek out recommendations from friends/relatives and read media articles/reviews. Meanwhile, male readers like to discover books by browsing on bookseller websites and looking at bestseller sections.

CHANGE IN SOURCES USED FOR BUYING BOOKS

Purchasing online followed by physical bookstores and then home delivery were the most preferred options for buying books post lockdown. Six out of 10 respondents expect to buy books through physical stores and seven out of 10 through an online bookshop after the lockdown is lifted, with the proportion higher than before lockdown in each case, but more so for online than in-store. Respondents also think they will make more use of home delivery after lockdown than before.

PURCHASING BEHAVIOUR FOR PAPERBACK BOOKS

Fifty percent of fiction readers and forty percent of non-fiction readers prefer the price point of INR200-INR400 when purchasing paperback fiction and non-fiction titles.

If you would like to request a copy of the report please email: bookindia@nielsen.com

ABOUT NIELSEN BOOK

Nielsen Book provides a range of services to the book industry internationally, aiding the discovery and purchase, distribution and sales measurement of books. We are proud to run the ISBN and SAN Agencies for UK & Ireland as well as providing search and discovery services for booksellers and libraries. Our electronic trading solutions, including Nielsen PubEasy, help everyone involved in the book supply chain trade more easily and our Research services provide retail sales analysis for both print and e-books alongside research from our Books and Consumers Survey. If you would like to know more visit: www.nielsenbook.co.uk

ABOUT NIELSEN

Nielsen Holdings plc (NYSE: NLSN) is a global measurement and data analytics company that provides the most complete and trusted view available of consumers and markets worldwide. Nielsen is divided into two business units. Nielsen Global Media, the arbiter of truth for media markets, provides media and advertising industries with unbiased and reliable metrics that create a shared understanding of the industry required for markets to function. Nielsen Global Connect provides consumer packaged goods manufacturers and retailers with accurate, actionable information and insights and a complete picture of the complex and changing marketplace that companies need to innovate and grow. Our approach marries proprietary Nielsen data with other data sources to help clients around the world understand what’s happening now, what’s happening next, and how to best act on this knowledge.

An S&P 500 company, Nielsen has operations in over 100 countries, covering more than 90% of the world’s population. For more information, visit: www.nielsen.com

Copyright © 2020 The Nielsen Company (US), LLC.
( Used with permission)

21 July 2020

Tim Parks, “Pen in Hand, reading, rereading and other mysteries”

Tim Park’s essays are always a pleasure to read. Short and always packed with information. Some of it familliar, some of it unexpected. Pen in Hand is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily between 2014 to 2017. There are many to choose from but one particular one entitled “Too Many Books?” has a fascinating section on patronage for the independent writer, the history of mass printing and accessing mass audiences and with it the evoluion of the concept of copyright.

Here is an excerpt:

…in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.

For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the one of the only ways anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literary elite, sharing the same written language — Latin — that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.

In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city state, or the Church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not the circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.

With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.

Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.

In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.

This essay was first published in New York Review of Books on April 16, 2015.

4 July 2020

“The Gospel of the Eels” by Patrik Svensson

If there is only one book you can read in 2020 then make it this superb translation from Swedish by art and culture journalist, Patrik Svensson called The Gospel of the Eels. It is part-memoir of Svensson and part-history of eels. It is at one level an exquisitely meditative reflection upon the mysteries of life, why we do certain things in the manner we do — whether it is man or the very mysterious eel. Like man, who has distinct stages on his life, the eel too has been documented of having four very distinct stages of development. It’s transformation from the glass eel to brown to the sexually mature grey/black eel is a stunning form of evolution that no scientist has ever been able to document in detail. It is as mystifying as the vast amounts of water the eels traverse. From the salty water of open seas to going upstream in search of fresh water of inland rivers. These patterns of movement happen at distinct moments in an eel’s life but why they happen no man knows. It is as puzzling as how do these creatures remember their places of birth in Sargasso Sea and return to it for spawning. Svensson’s fascination for the creatures began when his father would take seven-year-old Patrik eel hunting in the local stream. The author himself was never fond of eating the creatures but he developed a lifelong fascination for the mysteries surrounding eels. While seemingly recalling his warmly affectionate relationship with his father and sharing his family history, Patrik Svensson is able to dwell upon how eels have a history in literature dating as far back as Aristotle, who thought eels bred in mud. Pliny the Elder had an equally fascinating theory which stated that eels were born by rubbing two stones together. Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered scarophagi containing eels. Freud’s first academic paper was on the sexuality of eels after he spent a month living in a tiny fishing town dissecting over four hundred eels. Decades later the eel’s sexuality is still not fully understood. It is a fish whose life cycle has not been documented as yet. This despite efforts to tag fish returning to Sargasso Sea or observing them in tanks but nothing has worked. This fish cannot be artificially reproduced. Now it is in danger of becoming extinct for various reasons, many of them can be attributed to man.

The Gospel of the Eels is a book not to be missed. It raises many questions about life, mortality, man’s excessive need to know, what are the limits man should set for himself as an individual and a race and in his interaction with nature, how much knowledge is necessary and how much pursuit of gaining that knowledge is essential. Like his father who was content with living his life and not particularly keen to investigate into his past or that of his beloved mother, similarly, it may not be a bad idea if we let God’s creatures live in peace and if man learned to live in harmony with them and each other. None of this is really spelled out so explicitly by the avowed atheist Patrik Svensson but it is implied and graciously acknowledged. In fact these are some of the questions that are pertinent more so now during the pandemic. If theories are to be believed, the Covid19 is a health crisis created by crossing or rather violating these very same sacrosanct boundaries between Man and Nature. Of course this book was written much before the pandemic happened but its publication is very timely.

It is a stunning book that has been beautifully translated by Agnes Broome. Well worth buying a copy or even gifting generously.

29 June 2020

“Malamander” by Thomas Taylor

Malamander by author and illustrator, Thomas Taylor is a fantastical book about two (approx.) 12yo — Violet Parma and Herbert Lemon. The unlikeliest team who set off to find the truth about the mysterious disappearance of Violet’s parents from the Grand Nautilus Hotel. An event that occurred 12 years ago when Violet was found abandoned in a cot in the hotel room. Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the hotel. He is in charge of collecting abandoned articles and returning them to their rightful owner except that at times decades, even a century, passes by and no one comes forth to claim the lost articles. Then Violet (literally) tumbles into Herbie’s life through an open window in his cramped space. She believes that Herbie is the only person in the world who can help her —- “Because I’m lost…And I’d like to be found.” Brilliant opening line for a fabulous plot for middle grade fiction. And off the two of them go on an adventure plotted marvelously well in Eerie on Sea that seems forever to be encased in thick sea mist or snowfall. It involves wheelchair bound owner of the hotel, Lady Kraken and her cameraluna which operates well on a full moon night to give her a bird’s-eye view of the town in 3D; the charmingly eccentric beachcomber Mrs Fossil, the local celebrity, an author, Sebastian Eels who freaks everyone with his creepy presence, a mysterious character who has a boat hook for a hand and a few more equally fascinating characters. Local life is enriched by local legends that some may believe and some may not. One particular story is about the mythical amphibious creature, Malamander, who lives in the sea but when it emerges on land can walk upright like man. It’s egg is known to possess magical powers of being able to grant any wish.

“Malamander” is the first of a trilogy by Thomas Taylor, who is perhaps better known for his book cover illustrations of the UK edition Harry Potter novels by a then relatively unknown author called J K Rowling. This particular novel of his has a wonderful book trailer and the good folks at Walker Books have been kind enough to create a standalone website recreating the map and landscape of Eerie on Sea . Unsurprisingly, the film rights to this book have already been sold to Sony whilst the author is still working on his second novel in the series.

I cannot praise this book enough for its crisp storytelling, wonderful use of visual imagery without it becoming too overpowering and the fabulous descriptions that are sufficiently sketched to tickle the imagination without being too stifling for the reader. It conjures up a magical space that is seemingly in present day but could for all practical purposes of storytelling be set in any time dimension. It is vague enough in its location details to be not too hyper-local.

Read Malamander and you shall not be disappointed. ( with @Walker Books)

29 October 2019

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