Virginia Woolf Posts

“Written in History: Letters that Changed the World”

Best-selling and prize-winning writer of history and fiction Simon Sebag Montefiore ‘s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World is a fantastic addition to his list of publications. It is a selection of correspondences between eminent people at significant moments in history. Matching form for form, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s introduction too is in the form of an epistle addressed to the reader. In it he describes the principle upon which his selection of letters has been arranged. He also gives a crisp and informative account of the various purposes letters have served over the ages. “Some letters were intended to act as publicity, some to remain absolutely secret. Their variety of usage is one of the joys of a collection like this.” This collection consists of letters that are public letters ( like Balfour promises a Jewish homeland), letters that were designed to be copied out and widely distributed in society such as the public letters of great correspondents ( Voltaire and Catherine the Great were enjoyed in literary salons across Europe) or official letters announcing a military victory or defeat. Or letters that were political and military in nature revolving around negotiations or commands and could not be read out in public. For instance Rameses the Great’s disdainful note to the Hittite king Hattusili or Saladin and Richard the Lionheart negotiate to partition the Holy Land. This is a fine selection of letters originally written in cuneiform, on papyrus, then letters written on parchment or vellum, until paper was created in China around 200 BC. Letter writing belonged to all spheres of life. The beauty of letter writing is that nothing beats the immediacy and authenticity of a letter.

Written in History is a splendid anthology. It is a fabulous introduction to different moments in history made ever more delightful by the short notes written by Simon Sebag Montefiore preceding every letter. It is a wonderful, wonderful book which balances the act splendidly between providing information, being sensitive to the correspondents and being a sophisticated performance of a walk through history.

In March 2019, London-based Intelligence Squared’s acclaimed events on great speeches and poetry presented an event based on Letters That Changed The World. Joining the author on stage were No 1 bestselling novelist Kate Mosse. Together they discussed letters by Michelangelo, Catherine the Great, Sarah Bernhardt, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing and Leonard Cohen.

A cast of performers, including Young Vic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, rising star Jade Anouka, Dunkirk actor Jack Lowden, and West End star Tamsin Greig, brought the letters to life on stage.

In January 2019 Simon Sebag Montefiore attended the Jaipur Literature Festival. He gave a splendid public lecture-cum-performance on the Romanovs. Here is a recording of the event where he held the audience spellbound. Much like the reader is with Written in History.

10 April 2019

Patti Smith “Devotion”

In 2016 Patti Smith was invited to deliver the Windham-Campbell Lecture, delivered annually to commemorate the awarding of the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. It has now been published in an expanded form, Devotion, by Yale University Press with an essay on writing, an unsettling short story ( which in a way illustrates her musings of the opening essay) and finally, her lecture. Here is an extract: 

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Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. the words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. The words that formed LolitaThe Lover, Our Lady of the Flowers.

There are stacks of notebooks that speak of years of aborted efforts, deflated euphoria, a relentless pacing of the boards. We must write, engaging in a myriad of struggles, as if breaking in a willful foal. We must write, but not without consistent effort and a measure of sacrifice: to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of the imagination for a pulsating race of readers.

Things are slow moving. There is a pencil stub in my pocket.

What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exists.

Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air.  A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside.

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply love.

Patti Smith Devotion: The 2016 Windham-Campbell Lecture Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. Hb. pp.

28 April 2018 

Amitava Kumar’s “The Lovers”

My review of Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers was published in OPEN Magazine on 25 August 2017. Here is the original url titled “A Passage to America” . I am also c&p the text below. 

An immigrant finds his place of mind—like the author himself

The Lovers | Amitava Kumar | Aleph | 255 Pages | Rs 599

AMITAVA KUMAR’S The Lovers is about Kailash, born in Ara, Bihar, who moved to the US in 1990. At college he met his mentor Ehsaan Ali when Kailash enrolled in his ‘Colonial Encounters’ class. To earn a few extra dollars, Kailash worked in a university bookshop. Some of the women he met on campus became good friends, some his lovers. With every woman— Jennifer, Nina, Laura, Maya and Cai Yan—he learned a little more about himself as a man, a lover, a student, a reader and of his culture, whichever one it may be at a given moment. The Lovers works at multiple levels. Superficially the novel explores different shades of love— puppy love, sexual love and marital. At another level it is the platonic and nurturing love between teacher (Ehsaan Ali) and student (Kailash) that is the bedrock of the novel. Ever so slowly and gently, the promising student Kailash blossoms as a teaching assistant and later, writer. ‘The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.’ The narrator relies heavily upon memory to plot his journey and define his identity—tough since ‘he had become a translated man, no longer able to connect completely with his past.’

The Lovers is an autobiographical novel documenting the trajectory of Kailash aka Kalashnikov or AK47 or AK from the burning plains of India to an intellectual in America, a path very similar to that of the author himself. Kailash may not be Stephen Dedalus but he certainly grows in confidence, wherein his tastes in literature are concerned. It is evident in the structure of the novel. Over the years, from being an Indian student unsure about the literary canon he grew up with, Kailash becomes familiar with examples of international literature such as Gramsci, Tagore, Wittgenstein, Hanif Kureishi, Luis Borges, Agnes Smedley, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Judith Butler, Virginia Woolf, Nazım Hikmet et al. Slowly he incorporates desi writers such as Ismat Chughtai too. He realises that the India he left in the 1990s has changed to become a new India which is disconcertingly unrecognisable and is now part of the global village.

The immigrant novel is in a category of literary fiction which straddles two cultures—the author’s land of birth and adopted country. In The Lovers, despite having had the privilege of getting an American citizenship, Kailash continues to feel lost in his adopted country. ‘My father had grown up in a hut. I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York.’ He tries to fit in, but falters at times. Even world literature that exposes him to various cultures fails to help, and leaves him yearning for the holy grail of the ‘hybrid culture that groups of people scattered across the world, removed from their roots, have created in response to alienation and a kind of collective loneliness?’ This is unlike his adventurous friend Pushkin Krishnagrahi, a Brahmin from Gwalior, a member of the new India who was now at home anywhere in the world.

It is significant that The Lovers has been released in the 70th year of Independence for India and Pakistan. As with two lovers, there is an intensely passionate relationship between the two countries which has historically been hostile. In the novel the two countries are represented by its citizens —Ehsan Ali (Pakistan) and Kailash (India) who away from their countries do not harbour any ill feelings towards each other and live in harmony. Ehsan Ali is probably modelled upon the intellectual Eqbal Ahmed, a prominent anti-war activist.

The Lovers is extraordinary craftsmanship, charting the blossoming of a timid new immigrant into a confident writer.

25 August 2017

An extract from “The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta” by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury is a memoir of his time spent in Calcutta. It is the city of his parents and he has strong familial ties. Despite studying at Yale University he moves to Calcutta to join The Statesman as a reporter. After two years he quits and returns to do his doctorate from Princeton University. There are incredible descriptions recreating a city which is an odd mix of laid back, sometimes busy, always crowded, crumbling juxtaposed with the shiny new concrete jungles. The language is breathtakingly astonishing for in the tiny descriptions lie the multi-layered character of Calcutta. As William Dalrymple observes in the Guardian that The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  is “a beautifully observed and even more beautifully written new study of Calcutta”. All true.  Yet it is impossible not to recall the late photographer Raghubir Singh’s book Calcutta, a collection of photographs that sharply document details of a city where the old and new co-exist and continue to charm the outsider. Both the books by Kushanava Choudhury and Raghubir Singh are seminal for the way they capture an old but living city but with a foreigner’s perspective that is refreshing. For instance the following excerpt about little magazines and literary movements encapsulates the hyper-local while giving the global perspective.

The excerpt is taken from The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury published with permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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From Tamer Lane, along the gully that leads to the phantom urinal, there is a house with a mosaic mural of two birds with Bengali lettering. The letters read: ‘Little Magazine Library’.

Sandip Dutta sat in the front room of his family home. He looked a bit glum, half asleep, just like a Calcutta doctor in his chamber. Not one of those hotshot cardiologists who rake in millions, but more like the para homeopath without much business.

Surrounding him were bookshelves piled high with stacks of documents. Behind them was a glass showcase covered with pasted magazine clippings, like in a teenager’s room. They included cut-out pictures of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Ingmar Bergman, Vincent Van Gogh, Jibanananda Das, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, two big red lips, one big eye, Salvador Dalí and Che Guevara. A cartoon read, in rhyming Bengali: ‘Policeman, take off your helmet when you see a poet.’

On one wall was a taped computer printout: ‘‘‘I have been following the grim events (in Nandigram) and their consequences for the victims and am worried.” Noam Chomsky, Nov 13, 2007. 4:18:17 a.m. by email.’

Curios from local fairs were indiscriminately piled high on the desk. Cucumbers made of clay, pencils carved into nudes, tubes of cream that were actually pens, pens with craning rubber necks like swans, bronze statues from South Africa, masks from rural Bengal, a porcelain dancing girl from America. Behind them, Dutta looked like an alchemist in his lair.

‘I went to the National Library in 1971 and I saw that they were throwing away a bunch of little magazines,’ he said. ‘I had a little magazine of my own then, and I took it as a personal affront.’

No one was archiving little magazines at the time. No libraries kept them. When Dutta finished his masters, he started collecting them. At first he had a job that paid fifty rupees a month, then another for one hundred rupees, teaching three days a week in a remote rural school. ‘They were funny jobs,’ he said. ‘Jobs basically to buy magazines.’

In 1978, he got a teaching job down the road at City College School, he told me. That same year, in the two front rooms of his house, he began the Little Magazine Library. Since then he has been running this operation by himself – a bit like those heroes in Bollywood films who take on a whole band of ruffians single-handedly, he likes to say. His is a one-man effort to save the ephemeral present.

Every afternoon he came home from school and set to work at his library. A couple of days were devoted to maintenance, spraying to prevent bookworms and termites. The rest of the afternoons, he kept the library open to the public.

In Bengal, literary movements were usually connected to one little magazine or another. The heyday of the Bengali little magazine was probably the 1960s, when the poets Sunil, Shakti and Sandipan brought out Krittibas. No magazine today packs the same literary punch. Yet people keep publishing Bengali little magazines. By Sandip’s count, each year 500–600 little magazines are still published.

The little magazine originated in early-twentieth century America. Many of the radical strands of modernism – like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first serialised in the Chicago based Little Review – first appeared in little magazines before anyone bet on their viability in the capitalist market. The early works of T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and many others were all published in the little magazines of their day. Unlike regular magazines, they relied on patrons and modest sales rather than advertising. Shielded from market pressures, they provided a place for writers to be read, even if by a small number of people, and they gave intrepid readers a way to discover new writers. In Calcutta, like so many other aspects of life taken from the West – the tram, homeopathy, Communism – once adopted, little magazines then took on a life of their own and became central to how we understood ourselves. In a proper capitalist system, these magazines would have vanished long ago, taking with them thousands of writers. But like those 1950s Chevrolets in Havana, the Bengali little magazine rolls on, patched up, creaky, a source of local pride, as if it were uniquely ours and as integral to Bengali-ness as a fish curry and rice lunch.

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Kushanava Choudhury The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta  Trade Paperback | 272 pp | INR 499

21 August 2017 

The Hogarth Shakespeare

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On 27 June 2013 Random House announced the Hogarth Shakespeare list. It was a few days before the Penguin Random House merger was announced. The Hogarth Shakespeare list was to be launched in 2016 to coincide with Shakespeare’s 400th birthday celebrations. The press release stated: “Hogarth, Random House’s transatlantic fiction imprint, today announces a major international project to delight Shakespeare fans worldwide: The Hogarth Shakespeare. The project sees the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought alive for a contemporary readership.” This international publishing initiative is led by Hogarth UK and published in partnership with Hogarth US, Knopf Canada, Knaus Verlag in Germany and Mondadori in Spain; and Random House Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. The novels will be published simultaneously across the English-speaking world in print, digital and audio formats.

On 9 September 2013 some of the writers publishing retellings of Shakespeare’s plays were announced. Canada’s most eminent novelist, poet and critic Margaret Atwood had selected The Tempest – the play
of magic and illusion thought to be one of Shakespeare’s last. Atwood comments:
‘The Tempest has always been a favourite of mine, and working on it will be an invigorating
challenge. Is Caliban the first talking monster? Not quite, but close…’

Award-winning novelist and critic Howard Jacobson, best known for his prizewinning tragi-comic
novels had chosen one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays – The Merchant of Venice.
Jacobson comments:

For an English novelist Shakespeare is where it all begins. For an English novelist who also happens
to be Jewish The Merchant of Venice is where it all snarls up. “Who is the merchant and who is the
Jew?” Portia wanted to know. Four hundred years later, the question needs to be reframed: “Who is
the hero of this play and who is the villain?” And if Shylock is the villain, why did Shakespeare
choose to make him so?

‘Only a fool would think he has anything to add to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare probably never met
a Jew, the Holocaust had not yet happened, and anti-Semitism didn’t have a name. Can one tell the
same story today, when every reference carries a different charge? There’s the challenge. I quake
before it.’

These two additions to the series were alongside Anne Tyler’s take on The Taming of the Shrew and
Jeanette Winterson on The Winter’s Tale. A few months later Jo Nesbo was commissioned for a retelling of Macbeth.

The three novels published so far under the new imprint — Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl are immensely readable stories. The plot structures are very true to the original plays. The three writers who have published their stories so far have explored their pet themes — sexual identities, Jewish identities, commerce, immigrants and family life. Of the three stories Jeanette Winterson’s is so far the best. Her testimony at the end of the book reads:

I wrote this cover version because the play has been a private text for me more than thirty years. By that I mean part of the written wor(l)d I can’t live without; without, not in the sense of lack, but in the old sense of living outside of something. 

It’s a play about a foundling. And I am. It’s a play about forgiveness and a world of possible futures — and how forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions. Time is irreversible.  ( p.284 -5)

 

The Gap of Time is the only novel of the three published to include a synopsis of the original Shakespearean play. According to the editors it is unnecessary since every reader has access to the Internet and can easily look up the reference. But easy and smooth internet access is not always a given for many readers.  Having said that it is also not possible for all readers to verify the authenticity of the retellings available online. So it may have been prudent to include a few extra pages in every novel with the original story and include a precis on the official web page for the series: http://crownpublishing.com/hogarth-shakespeare/ .

All the novels are undoubtedly lovely to read. But as Dr Peter Kirwan, Assistant Prof of early modern drama, School of English, Screenshot_20160705-165432University of Nottingham and theatre critic pointed out on Twitter ( 4 July 2016) “One thing that strikes me about the three Hogarth Shakespeare books so far is their shared setting in worlds of extraordinary privilege. And I worry that perhaps it’s too easy to transfer Shakespeare to the domain of the privileged, which seems an unhelpful message to send.  I say again – not a fault of any individual book, but am interested by this indirect link. And I think that there are many resonances with Shakespeare today that integrate a broader range of class experiences. Tyler’s interest in the immigrant experience and Screenshot_20160705-165545Winterson’s in the poverty divide are, for me, where the series’ true potential lies. A potential, that is, to use Shakespeare to highlight contemporary instances of intersectionality and cultural meeting points rather than privileging the already-powerful dominant perspective.” ( Tweets copied from his timeline @DrPeteKirwan.)

All said and done this is  a series worth collecting and reading. Later this year the novels by Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbo are to be published. A rich year!

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HogarthShakespeare_slide-conv

About Hogarth
In 1917 Virginia and Leonard Woolf started The Hogarth Press from their Richmond home, Hogarth House, armed only with a hand-press and a determination to publish the newest, most inspiring writing. It went on to publish some of the twentieth century’s most significant writers, joining forces with Chatto & Windus in 1946.
Inspired by their example, Hogarth was launched in 2012 as a home for a new generation of literary talent; an
adventurous fiction imprint with an accent on the pleasures of storytelling and a keen awareness of the world.
Hogarth is a partnership between Chatto & Windus in the UK and Crown in the US, and its novels are published
from London and New York.

Jeanette Winterson The Gap of Time 

Howard Jacobson Shylock is my Name 

Anne Tyler Vinegar Girl 

Hogarth Shakespeare, Hogarth, an imprint of Vintage, Penguin Random House, London, 2015 / 16. 

5 July 2016 

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