This awful book, and it is awful, especially the spelling, will have a very bad influence on young minds. It will give children lots and lots of ideas about how to be even naughtier than they already are, and some of them are already EXTREMELY naughty. It is an outrage and I for one will be calling this book to be banned. Mr Wallybottom ( or whatever his stupid made-up name is) should be ashamed of himself.
( Introduction by Raj, a newsagent)
David Walliam’s The World’s Worst Children is hilarious! It is a collection of ten short stories about ten ghastly children. Brats who pick their noses like Peter Picker, Gruby Gertrude who has a gruby room, Miss Petula Perpetual-Motion who cannot sit still, Dribbling Drew who drools far too much or like Brian Wong, who was never ever wrong. But let me allow my six-year-old daughter comment upon it. She was ecstatic upon seeing the book and after reading a bit shot of a tiny ( and her first book review) to her grandmother via WhatsApp. Here it is:
Do you have the book called the world’s worst children? It’s very funny. If you have it read it. Nani. You will see a girl she fart’s a lot! She carries a trumpet with her but she doesn’t blow it with her mouth. Instead she does it with her bums because she doesn’t like to use her mouth. It’s easy to use her bum. And smell like potty comes out from her bums.
Sarah is thrilled this book has wacky illustrations such as of kids licking bowls of ice cream. “Just like me!” she squeals in excitement. Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with her:
“This book is for six”
“I am six!” I can read it!
Then suddenly sad.
“But when I grow up I want to read it again. Can I?”
And here is an audio clip of Sarah reading the book and cracking up with laughter.
The World’s Worst Children is a truly special book. A fantastic cross born of the literary lineage of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. The layouts are superb. The zany play of fonts and colour with each page designed meticulously. The full-of-light watercolour illustrations by Tony Ross support the text marvellously. It looks like a mad riot of colours and words but is very technically sophisticated. For the pure joy it creates in a young reader is unimaginable. David Walliams is a stand-up comedian but to get the tenor right for children by using words such as “stupid” easily in the text is marvellously liberating! Sarah gurgling with laughter said, “Mummy, ‘stupid’ is a bad word is it not?” and then lapsed into a fit of giggles. I watched my daughter read the lines slowly and blend the words hesitantly to graduate rapidly to reading at a comfortable pace.
The World’s Worst Children I would recommend heartily for everyone. It can easily work for leisure reading to being adopted by schools as supplementary readers.
David Walliams The World’s Worst Children ( Illustrated by Tony Ross) HarperCollins Children’s Books , London, 2016. Pb. pp.270 Rs 599
( I wrote an article for the amazing literary website Bookwitty.com on “Penguin on Wheels”. An initiative of Walking BookFairs and Penguin Books India. It was published on 28 June 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/penguin-on-wheels-walking-bookfairs-and-penguin-b/57725752acd0d076db037bf7 . I am also c&p the text below. )
Literature does not occur in a vacuum. It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.”
-Neil Gaiman, Introduction, The View from the Cheap Seats ( 2016)
On the 16th of May 2016, Penguin Random House India circulated a press release about Penguin Books India’s one-year collaboration with Walking BookFairs (WBF) to launch “Penguin on Wheels”, a bookmobile that will travel through the eastern Indian state of Odisha promoting reading and writing.
This is not the first time Walking BookFairs has collaborated with a publishing house to promote reading. Their earlier “Read More, India” campaign saw Walking BookFairs supported by HarperCollins India, Pan MacMillan India, and Parragon Books India. Apart from these three publishers, WBF stocked books from various other publishers, including Tara Books, Speaking Tiger Books, Penguin, Duckbill, Karadi Tales, and Scholastic. “We got books delivered by our publishers on the road wherever we were displaying books.”
The concept of bookmobiles is not unusual in India, for some decades the state-funded publishing firm, National Book Trust, has maintained its own book vans. Yet it is the duo of Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray that has captured the public imagination.
Walking BookFairs was established two years ago while Satabdi Mishra was on a break from her job and Akshaya Rautaray quit his publishing job to set up an independent “simple bookstore” in Bhubaneshwar. The shop, which they prefer to think of as a “book shack”, runs on solar power. It is a simple space with the bare necessities and a garden. They allow readers to browse through the bookshelves, offering a 20-30% discount on every purchase throughout the year.
WBF also doubles as a free library. They introduced the bookmobile in 2014, as part of an outreach programme that would see them travelling to promote reading in the state. Speaking to me by email, Satabdi said,
“There are no bookshops or libraries in many parts of India. There are thousands of people who have no access to books. We started WBF in 2014 because we wanted to take books to more people everywhere. We have been travelling inside our home state Odisha for the last two years with books. We found that most people do not consider reading books beyond textbooks important in India. We wanted people to understand that reading story books is more important than reading textbooks. We wanted to reach out to more people with books. We also wanted to inspire and encourage more people across the country to read books and come together to open more community libraries and bookshops.”
India is well known for stressing the importance of reading for academic purposes rather than reading for pleasure. In a country of 1.3 billion people, where 40% are below the age of 25 years old, and the publishing industry is estimated to be of $2.2 billion, there is potential for growth. Indeed,there has been healthy growth across genres, quite unlike most book markets in the world.
The WBF team has been keen to promote reading since it is an empowering activity. They began in the tribal district of Koraput, Odisha, where they carried books in backpacks and walked around villages. They displayed books in public spaces like bus stops and railways stations or spreading them out on pavements or under trees, whatever was convenient and accessible. “That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops,” they say.
Apart from public book displays, they also visit schools, colleges, offices, educational institutions, and residential neighbourhoods. They soon discovered that children and adults were not familiar with books. Bookstores too seem only to be found in urban and semi-urban areas and are lacking in rural areas, but once easy access to books is created there is a demand. As Neil Gaiman says in the essay “Four Bookshops”, these bookshops “made me who I am”, but the travelling bookshop that came to his day boarding school was “the best, the most wonderful, the most magical because it was the most insubstantial”. (The View from the Cheap Seats)
Speaking again via email, Satabdi says that they’ve found, “Children’s books are always the most sought after. We have many interesting children’s storybooks and picture books with us. We found that in many places, not just children but also adults and young people enthusiastically pick up children’s books, browse through and read them. Beyond a couple of urban centres in India, big cities, there are no bookshops. Most bookshops that one comes across are shops selling textbooks, guide books or essay books. Many people were actually looking at real books for the first time at WBF.”
In India the year-on-year growth rate for children’s literature is estimated to be 100%. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray stock 90% fiction. Rautaray says, “We believe in stories. I think, if you need to understand the world around you, if you need to understand science and history and sociology, you need to understand stories. I believe in a good book, a good story.”
The categories include literary fiction, classics, non-fiction, biographies, books on poetry, cinema, politics, history, economics, art visual imagery, young adult, picture books, children’s books, and regional literature from Odia and Hindi. The emphasis is on diversity, but they do not necessarily stock bestsellers or popular books like romance, textbooks, or academic books. That said, the Penguin on Wheels programme will dovetail beautifully with, “Read with Ravinder” another of the publisher’s reading promotion campaigns, spearheaded by successful commercial fiction author Ravinder Singh.
In December 2015, Satabdi and Akshay launched their “Read More, India” campaign (#ReadMoreIndia), which saw them take their custom-built book van, loaded with more than 4000 books across India. They covered 10,000kms, 20 states, in three months (from 15th Dec 2015 to 8th March 2016).
Over the course of the journey, they sold forty books a day, met thousands of people, and had a number of interesting experiences. One anecdote that gives an insight into the passion and trust that the young couple displays is of that of an elderly gentleman in Besant Road Beach road, Chennai. The older man was out for his daily jog and stopped to look at the books. He wanted to buy some books, but had left his wallet behind.
“We asked him to take the books and pay us later via cheque or bank transfer. He seemed surprised that we were letting him take the books without paying. He took the books and sent the money later with his driver. We want people to read more books. And if people cannot buy books, we want them to read books for free for as long as they want. People pay us in cash, in kind, sometimes they take books pay later, pay through credit/debit cards.”
The Penguin on Wheels campaign was launched because Penguin Books India had been following WBF’s activities and reached out to them. Earlier, they had collaborated for an author event in Odisha, but this new move is a focussed effort that will see the bookmobile travel within Odisha.
The books are curated by Akshay as Penguin Books India said graciously that “they [WBF] know best what their readers like more”. It will consist of approximately 1000 titles from the Penguin Random House stable. The collection will have books by celebrated authors, including Jhumpa Lahiri, John Green, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Salman Rushdie, Ravinder Singh, Twinkle Khanna, Hussain Zaidi, Khushwant Singh, Roald Dahl, Ruskin Bond, and Emraan Hashmi.
Contests and author interactions will also be organised with the support or Penguin Random House. It will start with Ravinder Singh’s visit to Bhubaneshwar for the promotion of his newly launched book, Love that Feels Right. Satabdi Mishra adds, “We are happy to partner with PRH through the WBF ‘Penguin on Wheels’ that will spread the joy of reading around.”
Philip Hensher’s The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: Vols 1& 2 is a fabulous collection of writing. It does a broad sweep from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith, along the way including William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Max Beerbohm, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl, V.S. Pritchett, Naipaul, A.S. Byatt, Ali Smith et al. Here is Philip Hensher in The Guardian writing about this project: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/06/british-short-story-philip-hensher-anthology , 6 Nov 2015.
Putting together such collections is always a subjective exercise. Philip Hensher too recognises that such anthologies are subjective collections as is evident in his analysis of similar exercises undertaken by literary stalwarts like A. S. Byatt and Khushwant Singh. Every editor has their own principle of selection. Hensher has been criticised for his selection of writers, at times seeming almost arbitrary on whom he includes or excludes preferring to rely on “canonical classics”. ( FT Review: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/462cdbcc-7f0b-11e5-98fb-5a6d4728f74e.html#axzz3zeTphElu , 6 Mov 2015) Yet he writes magnificently on the publication history of the short story in Britain. It is pure delight for the literary historian and a lay reader. He charts the rise of the short story as a form published first in periodicals and singly. The practice of anthologizing stories began in the early twentieth century when some of the best authors who had earlier been published in journals found it possible to put together a volume for sale by a publisher. Also the length of a short story continues to be a debatable point. It could be from 2,000 words to more than 30,000 words. He observes that a short story was usually written as single stories in journals by unestablished writers and these could be “very much stranger and more experimental than stories in a collection for a mainstream publisher”. As a form what made the British short story unique was its capacity for topicality, written as a commentary on a topical situation. But now the principal outlet for short stories seem to be competitions. These may offer reasonable prizes but at times these are funded by the eager contestants paying to enter.
There have been discussions about how relevant are these two fat volumes of short stories. Is there any point in buying these hardback print editions when a) most of these stories are available freely online and b) there is little diversity and inclusiveness and male writers outnumber women, not a true representation of modern British writing. Frankly, I think there is. There is something to be gained by reading familiar writers and discovering some unknown ones in this structured manner. Also it helps in organising oneself to read all those contemporary authors who were left out for various reasons such as David Constantine, AL Kennedy, Helen Simpson, Clive Sinclair, Rose Tremain, and Hanif Kureishi. It becomes even more problematic when the article, “The” is used in the book title, implicitly stressing this is a definitive collection of short stories from Britain.
All said and done these volumes are set to be a literary landmark. Buy them for your reading pleasure or academic interest — it is immaterial. They will make a wonderful addition to any personal or institutional library.
Philip Hensher The Penguin Book of the British Short Story ( Vols 1 & 2) Penguin Classics, Penguin Random House UK, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 1400+
My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below. The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission.
The 10-book challenge
There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso. Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be. ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.
These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.
Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African. So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Starsby John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?
Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)
Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.
Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.
Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton was released in 2012. Well before it was published it was being discussed–what will be said, what will not, will it live up to expectations etc. The title is borrowed from the names of two writers whom Rushdie admires, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. The nearly 600 pages are preoccupied with a decade of living under the fatwa, a death threat issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie having written Satanic Verses. From the announcement of the news on 14 February 1989 till the threat perception was reduced to level four by Scotland Yard, Rushdie documents his complete bewilderment, growing frustration, simmering rage and absolutely disgust at the reactions of many who did not support him. He meticulously records his growing isolation from family and friends; the desperation at wanting to socialise but never being able to, at least not without prior planning with the police officers deputed to protect him; and then his growing rage at the hijacking of freedom of expression especially at the altar of religious zealots. He does not mask his distaste for his colleagues in the creative industry who fail to support him, including the “big unfriendly giant Roald Dahl”.
Interestingly he uses the third person technique to write. As if he is a dispassionate observer of what Joseph Anton experiences, though at times “Salman” does intrude and speaks, introspects and reflects. It is curious that many of the reviews ( a few are reproduced below) comment upon the technique recognise it to be a unique way of writing, but do not understand the import of it. Whereas if you read any written account by a woman of a trauma that she has experienced, when the moment comes to describe the actual event, she inevitably switches to the third person narrative. ( It is rare indeed for it to be ever written in the first person. And if it is, then it is usually a draft that has been worked upon extensively till it is worked out of the system of the victim.) In Joseph Anton Rushdie describes a period of his life that must have been fraught with anxiety for every second of the day and night. So it is not surprising that even though he had his diaries to refer to he opts to use a technique that makes the memory of living with terror 24×7 easier to write about. It is fascinating to see him use a writing technique that is normally not associated with men.
Joseph Anton is a detailed account of what happened in that frightful decade of Rushdie’s life, but also consists of references to his family and friends. It is a delightful balance of the personal and professional aspects of a very public figure. Graham Greene was amused that Rushdie had got into more trouble than Greene himself ever had! Whereas Gabriel Garcia Marquez never asked him about the fatwa. They had a straightforward conversation about writing and books, much to the relief of Rushdie. And of course the famous literary spat that John le Carre and Rushdie had in 1997. It was finally called off in November 2012 ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2012/nov/12/salman-rushdie-john-le-carre-archive-1997 and http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/nov/12/salman-rushdie-john-le-carre ). The ups and downs with the family, understanding his parents and their marriage and his utter and complete adoration for his two sons born eighteen years apart — Zafar and Milan– comes through very clearly. The passages on publishing, literary agents, sale of rights, publishing schedules makes one wonder whether the digital age revolution has really changed anything at all. The details, the arguments, the negotiations are the same, whether it was in the 1980s or now. There are moments when the editorial inputs should have been stronger since the text tends to get a little clunky and tedious, yet it reads well.
Years ago I recall attending a literary event where Salman Rushdie with Padma Lakshmi were also present. It was at the Oxford Bookstore, Statesman House, New Delhi. They were (I think) guests of William Dalrymple who was at the store to do a reading. For a long time I reflected upon that evening, but after reading Joseph Anton, a lot is explained especially the sheer joy of Rushdie at being able to live a normal life.
Whenever Rushdie writes non-fiction he does it extremely well. Those years of being “invisible” and yet not, being catapulted onto the front pages of the newspapers worldwide gave him the confidence to speak clearly and strongly. He says what he wants to say. One of the most recent examples being the speech he gave at the concluding dinner at the India Today Conclave, New Delhi held on 18 March 2012. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNzGgYvz92s). He insists that everyone should be allowed to speak without fear. He never really did, now he definitely does not, feel the need to mince words. I liked Joseph Anton.
30 May 2013
Salman Rushdie Joseph Anton: A Memoir Jonathan Cape, London, 2012. Hb. pp. 650 Rs 799
Examples of reviews of the book, dwelling upon the third person technique
http://observer.com/2012/10/gone-underground-in-a-new-memoir-salman-rushdie-looks-bach-at-his-fatwa/ “The first thing readers will notice about this memoir is that the memoirist has written it in the third person. It is not a perspective often associated with self-awareness.”
http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/18/11-revelations-from-salman-rushdie-s-memoir-joseph-anton.html “…the book is written in the third person, as if a ‘biography’ of Rushdie/Anton…”
Pankaj Mishra in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/18/joseph-anton-salman-rushdie-review ) “In his memoir, where Rushdie bizarrely decides to write about himself, or “Joseph Anton”, his Conrad-and-Chekhov-inspired alias, in the third person, … .