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Archive for December, 2017

I discovered ‘Princeless‘ through my friend Bina from WOC Reads, who has been recommending it for years. I finally got a chance to read it today.

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The first scene in the story depicts a fairytale, like Rapunzel. A princess with golden hair is imprisoned in a tower, which is guarded by a dragon. One day a brave prince arrives, fights with the dragon and kills it, and saves the princess. The prince and the princess get married and live happily ever after. We have read many fairytales like this. In the next scene, we discover that the princess of our story, Adrienne, is reading this popular fairytale. She calls it hogwash and finds a lot of plot holes in it. Adrienne, contrary to the popular image of a princess, is dark haired and dark skinned. But, unfortunately, when she turns sixteen, the exact same fate befalls her – her parents put her in a tower and put a dragon outside to guard her. When a prince comes in search of her, the dragon eats him. The princess is frustrated with this clichéd fairytale life. Then one day, she finds something interesting under her bed. By that time, she and the dragon are friends. And then instead of sitting in the tower waiting for a prince charming, she and the dragon decide to do something. What follows is a cool, stylish, rip-roaring adventure, the likes of which we have never seen.

I loved ‘Princeless‘. It takes the traditional fairytale, turns it upside down, and creates something new and beautiful and charming. If you are tired of traditional fairytales in which the princess is saved by the prince, and have wanted to read a new type of fairytale, in which the princess take charge and does her own thing, this is that book. It is contemporary, modern, empowering and stylish. Get it today and read it. And gift it to your daughter. And your son.

Have you read ‘Princeless‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Adichie’sDear Ijeawale‘ for a while now. I got it as a Christmas present yesterday. I couldn’t resist taking it out today and I read it in one breath.

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Adichie explains at the beginning, the way she came to write this book-essay. One of her friends became a mother and asked Adichie to advise her on how she could raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie was hesitant because she was not sure she was the right person to give that advice. But then she decided to write to her friend what she thought about it. That letter is this book.

The book is short at around 60 pages. It can be read in one sitting. I loved all the fifteen suggestions, each page, and every line. My highlighting pen was working overtime and it didn’t know when to stop. In the book, Adichie covers most of the things that a parent of a girl baby will think about and worry about. The advice she gives is insightful, wise, brilliant, inspiring, nuanced. It is beautiful.

Instead of writing more about the book, I will share some of my favourite passages from it, to give you a flavour of the book. There are too many of them and so this is just a random selection of my favourites.

On Sharing Child Care

“Share child care equally. ‘Equally’ of course depends on you both, and you will have to work it out, paying equal attention to each person’s needs. It does not have to mean a literal fifty-fifty or a day-by-day score-keeping but you’ll know when the child-care work is equally shared. You’ll know by your lack of resentment. Because when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.”

On Reverence and Equality

“Tell Chizalum that women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronizing undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed and revered’ because they are women. It makes me think of chivalry, and the premise of chivalry is female weakness.”

On Marriage

“Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy, but it is not an achievement.
      We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women preoccupied with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not preoccupied with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to the one than the other. Is it any wonder that, in so many marriages, women sacrifice more, at a loss to themselves, because they have to constantly maintain an uneven exchange?”

On Keeping One’s Name

      “Even some friends made statements like ‘You are successful and so it is OK to keep your name.’ Which made me wonder : why does a woman have to be successful at work in order to justify keeping her name?
      The truth is that I have not kept my name because I am successful. Had I not had the good fortune to be published and widely read, I would still have kept my name. I have kept my name because it is my name. I have kept my name because I like my name.”

On Feminism and Femininity

“If she likes make-up, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either, let her be. Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.”

On Opinions

      “Please note that I am not suggesting that you raise her to be ‘non-judgemental’, which is a commonly used expression these days, and which slightly worries me. The general sentiment behind the idea is a fine one, but ‘non-judgemental’ can easily devolve into meaning ‘don’t have an opinion about anything’ or ‘I keep my opinions to myself’. And so, instead of that, what I hope for Chizalum is this : that she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane and broad-minded place.”

I must be the last person to read ‘Dear Ijeawale’, but if you haven’t read it yet, please get it and read it now. It is a beautiful, brilliant, inspiring book.

Have you read ‘Dear Ijeawale‘? What do you think about it?

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I have had this graphic guide to feminism for a while and have dipped into it from time to time, but today I thought I will read it properly from the beginning till the end.

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The book starts with a definition of ‘feminism’ and other important terms and then describes how feminist thought evolved from the middle of the 16th century. It describes the development of feminist thinking and the fight for equal rights across the centuries. It covers most of the important moments – Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering book, the fight for the right to property, the right to keep one’s earnings, the right of a divorced mother for access to her children, the right to vote, the right to higher education, the right to professions which were closed to women, women’s suffrage, First Wave Feminism, Second Wave Feminism – and brings the discussion till today’s time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Many of the important personalities who were part of the feminist movement are portrayed beautifully and realistically. I have dipped into this book before and knew about many of the things that it described, but it was wonderful to read about it all in one place – it was a huge educational experience. I found that there was a big difference between First Wave Feminism and Second Wave Feminism as described in the book. While the former described how feminists fought for rights and there was a lot of action there, the latter involved a publication of a lot of books and that part of the book and the movement was more about how feminist thought evolved. One of the things I loved about the book was that if a feminist said one thing at some point and said the opposite a decade later, the book highlighted that. Thus the book didn’t shy away from controversy and depicted the real world as it was – beautiful and imperfect. So, though the book was a graphic guide, it was not simplistic – it was complex and nuanced.

There are some limitations in the book though. It talks mostly about Anglo-American feminism. The authors are conscious of that, and the book mentions that in the first page. So, though there are mentions of feminists from other countries – Simone de Beauvoir gets good coverage (can’t ignore her), and there is mention of Nawal El Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak – those pages are few and far between.

A couple of big things that I think the book missed are these. The first was the day that Icelandic women went on strike in 1975, fighting for equal rights and which brought about huge change in the laws of that country. Reading about it gives us goosebumps even today. That was a very important event not covered in the book. The second one was Billie Jean King and the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match she played with Bobby Riggs. I think that was an important moment. Another important event was how Billie Jean King and her fellow women players founded the WTA, making it probably the only sport where women players run the show themselves and how they have nurtured it and made it thrive and become a huge success across the decades. This is one of the huge, feminist (in my opinion) success stories which has been missed in the book.

I have a wishlist for a book on feminism. The first thing is it should cover contemporary issues – in today’s world of the Women’s March and the #MeToo hashtag, we need coverage of these important contemporary events and discussions. The second thing is that the coverage should be global. Feminism means different things to people in different parts of the world. That diversity should come out in the pages of the book. In some countries, the issue is not equality in terms of legal rights, because equality is enshrined in the law. But the issue is more on the ground, where even though a woman has equal rights as a man according to the law, she really can’t pursue an education that she wants, pursue a career she is interested in, marry a person she likes. The family, community, society all exert pressure on a woman – sometimes emotionally and psychologically and sometimes violently – and prevent her from enjoying and exerting her legal rights. This situation requires a more complex battle for equality and freedom. The third thing I would like the book to explore would be the interesting things that happened in some countries which are normally not talked about. For example, the first woman pilot who fought in a war was Russian. The first woman astronaut who went to space was Russian. How did it happen that Russians turned out to be pioneers in gender equality much ahead of other countries, atleast in some areas? How did it happen that there is more gender equality in China (a Communist country) than in Japan (a capitalist country)? How is it that countries where there is better gender equality on the ground, struggle to elect a woman head of state, while countries where gender equality on the ground needs more progress, select women heads of state effortlessly? Why is there this contradiction? I would also like the book to talk about pioneering women, who defied the social norms of their time and the hostility of the patriarchy and achieved great things in their respective fields and contributed greatly to the feminist cause, though they might not have called themselves feminists or they may not have been well read in feminist thought. Well, that is my wishlist. Hope somebody writes that book. Hope one of my feminist friends who is reading this will give it a try.

Introducing Feminism – A Graphic Guide‘ is a wonderful introduction to feminism. It uses the comic format effectively and it is sophisticated, complex and nuanced. It has limitations, but that is to be expected in an introductory book on this subject. If you want to read about feminism, but have been intimidated by the classics written by feminist scholars, this book is a wonderful place to start. It is also a great book to gift to your daughter and son.

I am giving below some of my favourite pages from the book.

Feminism :

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Patriarchy :

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Harriet Martineau :

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Virginia Woolf :

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Post Feminism :

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Sojourner Truth :

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Alice Walker :

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Have you read ‘Introducing Feminism – A Graphic Guide‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Toni Morrison’sThe Origin of Others‘ when I visited the bookshop for Christmas shopping last weekend. It was slim, had big font, covered important contemporary themes in Toni Morrison’s powerful voice, and had an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was too tempting to resist. And last but not the least, it had this awesome cover. Doesn’t Toni Morrison look majestic in that picture? I can’t stop looking at it! It gives me goosebumps!

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I took out ‘The Origin of Others‘ yesterday, and didn’t go to sleep till I finished reading it. This book is based on lectures that Toni Morrison gave early last year. In the book, Morrison explores the idea of why, as human beings, we love employing an ‘Us vs Them’ way of thinking and differentiate some people as ‘others’ and ignore them and discriminate against them and sometimes indulge in violence against them. She also looks at how literature aids this behaviour and surreptitiously makes us discriminate against people we regard as ‘others’. While discussing the way literature biases our outlook, Morrison picks some of the finest writers – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway – and gently pokes a finger at them. Sometimes this gentle poke is more forceful. For example, she says this about Flannery O’Connor – “Flannery O’Connor exhibits with honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other.” If we think that what is going to come next is some good praise for Flannery O’Connor, we would be mistaken. Morrison doesn’t spare herself when she looks at a particular situation when she regarded someone as the ‘other’ and has unfair expectations from this person. Morrison also talks about a book which she describes in glowing terms, in which the roles of the insider and the other are reversed – Camara Laye’sThe Radiance of the King‘. I want to read that book now.

Morrison’s book has six chapters which address different aspects of the theme of ‘the other’ – ‘Romancing Slavery‘ which talks about how people justified slavery and propagated it and how the legal system defended it, ‘Being or Becoming a Stranger‘ which describes how a person becomes an outsider or is come to be regarded as one, ‘The Color Fetish‘ which describes how literature employs skin colour to drive the narrative, ‘Configurations of Blackness‘ which explores the definition of ‘black’ and how people differentiate between different types of blackness, ‘Narrating the Other‘ which describes how literature describes the ‘other’, including first person memoirs of slaves and outsiders’ accounts, ‘The Foreigner’s Home‘ which talks about what happens when the role of insider and outsider are reversed and also addresses the globalization and migration that is happening today. During the course of the book, Morrison talks about memoirs of slaves, stories of escaped slaves and the fate that awaits them, and memoirs of plantation owners in which these owners casually describe the way they treated slaves with indignity. Morrison quotes from some of these books and articles, and it is heartbreaking to read.

I loved all the chapters, essays, in the book, though I loved the first half of the book more than the second – I felt the first half was stronger and Toni Morrison was more in her element there. The book has a brilliant introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which he beautifully argues why this book is important today, when we are living in these challenging times. I remember Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘ at the end of the Cold War era, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That book implied that, from then on, human beings will get together and live happily ever after. Well, things haven’t gotten any better, and Fukuyama’s book sounds laughable now. Toni Morrison shows how some of the oldest biases from across the centuries, probably from the earliest days of humankind, are still alive and kicking, and have put down roots in new and sophisticated ways, and how our challenges are still immense in rooting them out to reach that happily-ever-after state we yearn for.

I loved ‘The Origin of Others‘. It is wise, perceptive, brilliant and a must read for our times. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The first passage in the book, which made me smile and gave me goosebumps :

“We still played on the floor, my sister and I, so it must have been 1932 or 1933 when we heard she was coming. Millicent McTeer, our great-grandmother. An often quoted legend, she was scheduled to visit all of the relatives’ houses in the neighborhood. She lived in Michigan, a much-sought-after midwife. Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room : without urging, all the males stood up.”

This insightful passage :

“How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.”

And my most favourite passage in the whole book :

“It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes – especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.”

Have you read ‘The Origin of Others‘? What do you think about it?

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I got this collection of poems by Hermann Hesse as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I didn’t know that Hesse wrote poems, till I saw this book.

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This book has 31 poems in bilingual form, with the original German version on the left and the English translation on the right. The poems are about love, loss, friendship, war, the yearning for a beautiful, mythical, innocent past, imaginary cities, the beauty of nature, about nights and dreams, about life and death. The poems are beautiful, lyrical, poignant. It is to be expected because it is Hesse. When Hesse pokes his finger gently at modernity and technology and today’s godless world, irrespective of our beliefs, we can’t resist taking his side. For example, when he says this :

“Nobody knows you, my friend; this new age had driven
Far away from the silent magic of Greece.
Without prayer, and cheated out of gods,
People stroll reasonably in the dust.”

And when he says this :

“But we, your younger brothers,
Stagger godless through a confusing life,
Our trembling souls stand eagerly, opened
To all the sufferings of passion,
To every burning desire.”

There are beautiful lines throughout the book, like this :

“To listen to the song forever in blessed pain”

and this :

“The summer lightning of shy human friendship”

and this :

“But sleep has turned into a frightened bird,
Difficult to catch, to hold, yet easy to kill;”

And thought-provoking lines like this :

“And one day you will know
That the sweet breath of this life,
The precious possession of the heartbeat,
Is only a loan”

and this :

“And that for every hair on your head
Somebody endured one struggle, one pain, one death.”

And inspiring lines like this :

“And as flowers die,
So we die, too,
Only the death of deliverance,
Only the death of rebirth.”

And these lines were so beautiful that they made me cry :

“But the mild night,
That bows with its gentle clouds above me,
Has my mother’s face,
Kisses me, smiling, with inexhaustible love,
Shakes her head dreamily
As she used to do, and her hair
Waves through the world, and within it
The thousand stars, shuddering, turn pale.”

I loved most of the poems in the book. It was vintage Hesse. There is a translator’s note at the beginning of the book which is five pages long. In that note, the translator James Wright, talks about what is the common theme among the poems of the book, and brings forth examples and supporting evidence to build his case, including excerpts of a review of Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund‘ and an excerpt from Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf‘. (In case, you are curious, Wright says that the common theme binding the poems in the book is homesickness and argues elegantly on why that is the case. He ends that discussion with these beautiful lines – “That is what I think Hesse’s poetry is about. He is homesick. But what is home? I do not know the answer, but I cherish Hesse because he at least knew how to ask the question.“) This ‘translator’s note’ is one of the most brilliant introductions to a poetry collection that I have ever read – it is accessible and insightful. And I have to repeat it again, brilliant.

I loved reading this collection of Hermann Hesse’s poems. I am delighted to discover that one of my favourite novelists wrote poetry too. I can’t wait to read more of his poems now. If you like Hesse’s novels, you will like this.

Have you read this collection of Hermann Hesse’s poems? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘ by Dylan Thomas from one of my favourite friends as a Christmas present. If you don’t know Dylan Thomas, he was the poet who wrote that powerful poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night‘.

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In this book, Dylan Thomas describes a typical Christmas that his family celebrated during his childhood in Wales – he describes how all Christmases merged into one another and were very similar, how his whole family and uncles and aunts and cousins all came together and celebrated, how in one year a neighbour’s house caught fire which led to a lot of excitement, how they waited for the postman to deliver packages which contained presents and how excited they were to open them, how it snowed outside and everything was white and they made snowballs and threw them at their cats, how Dylan Thomas blew up balloons till they burst and woke up uncles who were taking their afternoon nap, how in the evening there was always music and the uncles played the fiddle while the aunts sang – this and many other anecdotes and stories are shared by the author. The whole book is structured like a conversation between a grown-up Dylan Thomas and a boy and Thomas tells the boy how the Christmas during his childhood was different, was better. One of my favourite characters in the book was Aunt Hannah, who has a soft corner for wine and who loves singing. The book is beautiful, charming, nostalgic and is filled with descriptions and images that only a child’s mind can paint – beautiful scenes which we imagine naturally when we are children and which we forget how to, when we grow up. The book is also filled with beautiful illustrations on every page. I loved ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘. It is a beautiful book to read on Christmas day.

Have you read ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘? What do you think about it? What book did you read today, on Christmas day?

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‘Childhood’s End‘ by Arthur C. Clarke was highly recommended by one of my book group friends. So, when I saw it in the bookshop last week, I couldn’t resist getting it. The story told in the book goes like this. It is the beginning of the twenty first century. (This book was written in the early 1950s. So that was five decades into the future.) There is a project which is planning to send humans to Mars. But on the eve of that trip, suddenly people see giant, silent spaceships floating in the sky of all the major cities. Aliens with vastly superior technology have arrived on earth. It is like a scene straight out of the movie ‘Arrival‘ (or Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘, if you prefer that). The Mars project sinks without a trace. Soon the leader of the aliens, called Karellen, contacts the humans. It soon becomes apparent that the aliens want humans to get together and live in peace and prosperity with no social or political boundaries. It sounds too good to be true. No one knows what their true aims are. The aliens also don’t reveal themselves. They use the UN to get their work done. The only person who can talk to the alien leader is the UN Secretary General. He goes to the alien ship regularly for meetings. But even he is not able to see the aliens. He is only able to talk. Most people accept this situation and peace and prosperity fill the earth. But some people don’t accept this situation – they suspect the alien overlords’ intentions and they want their former imperfect lives which had freedom. They protest in different ways.

Well, lots of stuff happens after this. What is the aliens’ true purpose in coming to earth? Do they reveal themselves to humans? Does the too-good-to-be-true-peace-and-prosperity last? What happens to some of the humans who want to go back to the previous free and imperfect way of life? The answers to these and more are revealed in the rest of the book.

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Childhood’s End‘ is not a very long book, at around 250 pages, but it is epic because it covers a time period of more than a century. Because of that, the characters who are there at the beginning of the book are not there at the end of the book. Except for the aliens, of course. They seem to be ageless and a century seems to be nothing for them. The first part of the book, after the initial events, is mostly about the conversations between Stormgren, the UN Secretary General, and Karellen, the head of the alien overlords. This was probably my favourite part of the book. In the third part of the book, there is a boy who dreams and we are taken inside those dreams. They are beautiful, amazing, surreal, mindblowing. I would love to see how it would look like in a movie. There is a lot of similarity between this book and Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘ – the way the spaceships arrive, the different nature of the aliens, the nonlinear, circular nature of time. These are broad similarities though – the details are very different. It makes one wonder whether Chiang was inspired by Clarke’s book. I also felt that there were some similarities between this book and Clarke’s own ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘. But I can’t tell you more, because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. I loved the way Clarke has embedded biblical themes, images and characters in the story – it was believable and very intelligently done. I also loved some of the utopian changes that Clarke describes in the book. I wish it had happened in our real world. My favourite character in the book was the alien Karellen (he speaks the legendary lines – “The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for Man“), but I also loved Stormgren (the UN Secretary General), Jan Rodricks, who tries to defy the alien overlords and succeeds, Professor Sullivan who helps Jan, Rashaverak, an alien scientist in Karellen’s team, and many other major and minor characters in the book.

There was one interesting thing that I noticed in the book. Arthur Clarke makes predictions on how the futuristic technologies in the early and middle twenty first century will look like, in the story. As the novel was written in the early 1950s, he was looking fifty years ahead. The big predictions were grand – stuff like there won’t be regular cars but there will be flying cars etc., the kind of stuff which is the staple of science fiction. On the small stuff, he doesn’t really make predictions. At around the year 2030 in the story, one of the characters carries a camera with a lot of photographic film. One character has a library at home with bookshelves filled with rows and rows of traditional paper books. It is amazing how science fiction writers and futurists got all the small stuff wrong, while their big predictions still feels futuristic. No one predicted the arrival of the computer in every home, or the internet, or the smartphone, which is so ubiquitous these days. Even stuff like the digital camera and digital books. If we can travel back to the ’50s and show the people of that time, a Kindle or a digital camera, it looks like people will be amazed. Probably even Arthur C.Clarke. It just shows how predicting the future is a difficult business. The big things almost never happen and if they happen it is suddenly out of the blue. While the small changes, developments and progress keep happening and we miss it – it is like the world changed while we were sleeping!

I loved ‘Childhood’s End‘. I have read two Arthur Clarke novels before – ‘Rendezvous with Rama‘ and ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘ – and I can say now that ‘Childhood’s End‘ is my most favourite out of the three. I have heard science fiction fans say that Clarke focuses on current technology and pushes the envelope a bit and shows us what happens then, and though there are some aspects of that in this book, I think that it is very different from that traditional Clarke book.

I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

“An earlier age would have regarded Professor Sullivan as an expensive luxury. His operations cost as much as a small war : indeed, he would be likened to a general conducting a perpetual campaign against an enemy who never relaxed. Professor Sullivan’s enemy was the sea, and it fought him with weapons of cold and darkness – and, above all, pressure. In his turn, he countered his adversary with intelligence and engineering skill. He had won many victories but the sea was patient : it could wait. One day, Sullivan knew, he would make a mistake. Atleast he had the consolation of knowing that he could never drown. It would be far too quick for that.”

Have you read ‘Childhood’s End‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Arthur C. Clarke book?

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A few days back one of my book group members wrote a post on rare books asking readers to share their thoughts on rare books and list out their favourite rare books – rare books that they have and rare books they would like to have. 

As this is one of my favourite topics, I thought I will write about it here. So, here are some of my favourite experiences with rare books. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please do share your experiences with rare books in the comments or post on your blog and tag me.

For me, typically a rare book is something I read when I was a kid and it went out of print and I couldn’t find it again. Other rare books are ones which I found in the library when I was in school / college but which are no longer available now. Some of my favourite rare books and the experiences I have had with them 🙂

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(1) The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett – Arnold Bennett wrote many books and at the beginning of the 20th century, he was one of the important writers in English. But most of his books have gone out of print now except for ‘The Old Wives Tale‘. ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ was an odd book in his list, because it was, what we can call today, a thriller. In Bennett’s days there were no thrillers. Most of the story in this book happens in a hotel, there are cool, stylish dialogues, and the main character in the story is the heroine, who is awesome. This book was far ahead of its time. I didn’t read it when I was a kid – my dad read it aloud to me and my sister, and told us the story. I have lots of fond memories of it. When I tried getting it when I went to work, it was out of print. Then I discovered a publisher who printed out-of-print books when a customer orders. I got it from them. It was expensive and it was the pre-Kindle era and the book was poorly formatted. But when I read it, it took me back to my childhood, and that made me very happy – so I am glad I got it.

(2) Nobody’s Child by Elizabeth Dejeans – This was probably the first book I ever read. Read is actually an exaggeration. My mom read it and told me the story. It was probably the first thick book I tried reading. I was reading Ladybird books those days which had adventures similar to Enid Blyton’s books. My dad laughed at me and said that I should read more serious books and sent my sister with me when I went to the library next time. My sister thrust ‘Nobody’s Child‘ on me. It was thick and when I tried reading the first page, I couldn’t understand a word. Then my mom took pity on me and read it and told me the story. I don’t remember the story now, but I remember vaguely that it was sad and it was about a girl who was an orphan. Years later, after I grew up, I tried getting this book. I didn’t remember the name of the writer, and there were many books called ‘Nobody’s Child‘. But after a lot of searching, I finally discovered the writer’s identity and also found an e-copy. It was one of the great days of my life. Hoping to read it one of these days.

(3) A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee – Toynbee’s book was the historian’s bible before it went out of vogue. In this book, Toynbee tries to study all civilizations since the dawn of time and tries to fit them into a common framework – bssed on how civilizations are born, how they grow, how they achieve their heights, how they die. In a sense, he was trying to write the mother of all history books. The original had 12 volumes, which was later abridged to 2 volumes. My dad was a history teacher for decades and he has been raving about it since I can remember. A few years back, when I discovered that my favourite bookstore had published a one volume illustrated edition of Toynbee’s masterpiece, I was thrilled! It is one of the treasures in my collection.

(4) The Art of Cricket by Donald Bradman – I read this when I was in school. It was an exquisite 1958 first edition with amazingly thick paper, the likes of which we will never see again. It is one of the finest books on cricket and it talks about everything – how to play cricket, cricket history and everything in between. There is even a wonderful cricket puzzle in the end. When I tried getting a copy of this book after I went to work, it was impossible to find. Then one of the publishers brought it back in print and I was thrilled.

(5) Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R.James – James’ classic is regarded as the greatest book on cricket ever written. For many years, it was almost out of print. The only edition available was published by an American university press in the sociology category. It was ironic that the greatest cricket book was out of print in the cricket playing world, but was kept in print in a country which doesn’t play the game and hates the game. I was glad though. I paid a king’s ransom and got it. Reading it was one of the greatest experiences of my reading life.

(6) Two books by Alexei Tolstoy – Alexei Tolstoy is a distant relation of the more famous Leo. During his heyday in the 1920s, he was famous for two famous epic novels – ‘Ordeal‘ and ‘Peter the Great‘. ‘Ordeal‘ was regarded as THE novel about the Russian Revolution, for years. Alexei Tolstoy also wrote science fiction for children, much before science fiction for children was written by western writers. He was a pioneer. After the collapse of communism, all his works went out of print. Fortunately, I have both ‘Ordeal‘ and ‘Peter the Great‘. I got it during my schooldays at my school book fair, when Soviet era books were still available. I will never lend them to anyone.

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(7) And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokov – Sholokov won the Nobel prize for this book. It is in 4 volumes and it is bigger than ‘War and Peace‘. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print. When visiting a secondhand book sale a few years back, I saw a hardback edition of one of the volumes. My heart started beating faster! I was so excited! I asked the organizers of the sale whether they had the other volumes. They took out all four and gave it to me! Wow! It cost me 400 rupees (100 rupees per volume), but for me it was priceless! I don’t know whether the sale organizers knew the value of the thing they were giving away!

(8) Dragon City (Tex Willer comic) – I read this when I was in school. It was around 200 pages long and it was the longest comic I had read at that time. One of my friends borrowed it from me and I never got it back. I have pined for it for years. Recently, the publishers brought it back on print. They jazzed it up – the new edition was a hardback and it was in full colour. When the courier guy delivered it and I held it in my hand, I cried.

(9) Karunguyil Kunrathu Kolai (Murder in Black Sparrow Hill) by T.S.Duraisamy – There is an old Tamil movie called ‘Maragadham‘ (Emerald) starring Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini. It is a family favourite. It is based on this book. But this book has been out-of-print for decades. Then someone saw a copy in a library in Pondicherry, found a publisher and brought a new edition out. When I got a copy, my mom was still around. I came home late that night, found mom sleeping and left it next to her pillow. When she got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she saw the book next to her and she couldn’t resist opening it and start reading it. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I hope it made her happy too.

(10) Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima – I discovered this Cuban classic through the movie ‘Strawberry and Chocolate‘. The book was banned in Cuba, I think, and the English translation was out-of-print. When it came back in print, I was so excited and got it.

(11) Basingstoke Boy by John Arlott – This autobiography of John Arlott has long been out-of-print. When I discovered a secondhand copy on Amazon, I pounced on it. It is a hardback and as good as new. Sometimes we get lucky.

(12) Winnetou by Karl May – I have read Spaghetti Westerns (Western stories written by Italian writers), French / Belgian Westerns, even Indian Westerns. When one of my friends told me that Karl May’s ‘Winnetou‘ is her favourite Western, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. Then I did some research and discovered that it is a German Western. English translations of Karl May’s books were either non-existent or hard to come by. Then a beautiful soul called George A. Alexander translated the first volume of the trilogy into English. I was so excited! I don’t think he has translated the second and third volumes. I am still waiting for them.

(13) Don Juan, the Life and Death of Don Miguel de Mañara by Josef Toman – While discussing favourite books, one of my friends told me that her alltime favourite book was this one. She said that one day she hoped to find a used copy and read it again. I have never heard of this book or this writer before. So I did some research and discovered that he was a Czech writer of yesteryears and this was his most famous book and it was highly acclaimed during its day. There was one English translation done in 1958 and that was long out-of-print. I thought I will try to track a used copy and if I am able to find one, gift it to my friend for Christmas. Luckily, I was able to. I was so excited when the book arrived and I held it in my hands! And I couldn’t resist reading it, before gift-wrapping it, because I knew that the chances of this rare book passing through my hands again was extremely remote. I have to say that it is a beautiful, powerful book and I am glad I read it.

(14) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie – I haven’t read any of Rushdie’s books yet. But this being his only book which is not available in India, and the only book which is probably still banned in India, it has always had the attraction of the proverbial forbidden fruit. So when I went to work abroad and chanced upon this book in a bookshop, I couldn’t resist getting it. I smuggled it in my luggage when I moved back home. I hoped to read it someday. One day one of my father’s friends came to visit and he spied my bookshelf and his gaze immediately fell upon this book and he asked me whether he could borrow it. He was a person whom I knew since I was born and he has always been kind to me and so I said ‘Yes’. And that was that. The book went and disappeared and now it is never coming back. This is what comes of keeping your rare books on display at home.

(15) Film World by Ivor Montagu – I had a professor on college who used to give away his old books every year. He didn’t give it away for free, but used to charge a nominal price for each book, like 5 rupees. He wanted students to know that they had to earn the book. He also wanted to make it affordable for them. He was a wonderful human being. When I first went to the book giveaway he had organized, I was amazed at the collection, he had put on display! Most of them were out-of-print. I got a few. This was one of my treasured ones. In it, filmmaker and film critic Ivor Montagu talks about all aspects of film making and the film industry of his time. It is not very big, but it is very beautiful. Used copies of this book are still available in Amazon (US) for affordable prices, even now.

(16) Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt – It feels strange to include this book here, because it came out only last year. The original was in German and it was published in the 1970s. This was the first ever English translation. It is around 1500 pages long and it is the mother of all books I have, in terms of physical size (photo below – it is nearly the size of a newspaper as you can see). Only 2000 copies of the book were printed in hardback, and they have been sold out. There are no plans for a paperback or a Kindle edition. The book is already out of print. I think I am the only Indian to have a copy of this book. (If you have a copy, I would like to meet you and catch up over a cup of coffee.) I know only two others – Melissa (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) and Tony (from Messenger’s Booker) – who have a copy of this book. I don’t think anyone has reviewed this book yet, though I remember Tony starting to review it. I have kept the book in a safe, dust-free place. I hope that when I get old, and get poor, this book will make me rich. (I wrote a post about this, when I got this book. If you are interested, you can find it here . )

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Rare books that I covet very much and hope to get some day are :

(1) The Mediterranean by Fernand Braudel – I saw this first in my college library. It was a Penguin paperback from the ’80s. I have been coveting it since. This and ‘The Identity of France’, also by Braudel. Both of them are out-of-print and hard to come by. However, I was able to get Braudel’s ‘Civilization and Capitalism’ when it came back in print. It is one of my treasured books.

(2) The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by  João Guimarães Rosa – it is regarded as one of the greatest Latin American books, but the English translation is long out of print. An online scanned copy version was available but the publishers ensured that it was taken down. It was like people didn’t want to publish it and they also didn’t want people to read it. I hope they bring it back. Used copies in Amazon are available from $350 to around $2500. I hope to buy it when it becomes $35.

(3) Cricket Country by Edmund Blunden – Blunden’s First World War memoir and his poetry are in print. But his cricket book is not. I want this back!

There are two books I have which are about rare books.

(1) Lost Classics : Writers on books loved and lost edited by Michael Ondaatje, Michael Redhill, Esta Spalding and Linda Spalding – Writers talk about books which they loved and which are rare or out-of-print now. Beautiful book! I wrote a long review of it when I read it. If you are interested, you can find it here.

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(2) A Pound of Paper by John Baxter – it is Baxter’s memoir on collecting rare books.

That is it. That is the end of this novel 🙂

Please do share your experiences with rare books in the comments or post on your blog and tag me.

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When I discovered that Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s first novel ‘Stuck Like Lint‘ had come out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to read it. The story told in the book goes like this. Debika receives a package one day. There is a book in it, which is a collection of short stories. It is written by her friend Trisha. Debika used to edit Trisha’s books. Then one day Trisha disappears from her life. And many months later, this book suddenly lands on her doorstep. Debika feels betrayed, because her friend told her that she was suffering from writer’s block, and then disappeared from her life, and then published a book a year later, taking the help of another editor. But Debika is unable to resist reading the book. The rest of the book contains the short stories from Trisha’s book, interspersed by Debika’s observations about her friendship with Trisha.

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I loved the structure of ‘Stuck Like Lint‘. I didn’t realize that Trisha’s book was a collection of short stories. I thought it was a novel, told from multiple viewpoints. But when the characters didn’t repeat, I looked at the stories more closely, and discovered that Trisha’s book was a collection of short stories. I loved the way Debika’s observations and reminiscences between two stories moved the main plot forward, before we enter into the next story from Trisha’s collection. I wondered what the connection was between the main plot and Trisha’s stories, and that question is answered in the final story, which weaves all the strands together and brings out a surprising revelation.

I liked all the stories in the book. Most of them had surprising endings which I didn’t see coming. Most stories were about women who were in tough or challenging situations which they were trying to cope with and overcome, sometimes by fighting things head-on, sometimes by doing something unexpected, sometimes by trying to escape to a safer place. Though I liked all the stories, l loved some stories more. Some of my favourites were these :

Sheela’s Escape – it was about a woman who works in a bank and takes care of her family and her life is routine, when one day she makes an unexpected friend in the bus she commutes.

Lakshmi – it is about a woman who is a maid in a rich person’s home and her love for her child.

Status Quo – a beautiful love story which made me cry.

City Girl – it is about life in the city and the countryside, and family and relationships and friendship and love. This was the longest story in the book and I loved it.

Gul – a beautiful story about love and family and friendship which made me cry.

The Trade Off – the final story which had all kinds of surprises in it.

Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s prose is soft and gentle and flows beautifully like a serene river. When we read some of the beautiful sentences, we can feel that the author has taken them and shaped them and sculpted them carefully and polished them softly till they shone brilliantly. Sentences like this –

“There is this dent on her shin, as if she had walked into something while her flesh was fresh cement, impressionable”

– and this –

“as they turned westward, the road ahead shone like a stream of gold with the first rays from the east falling on it”

– and this –

“The night spread out a sequined sky before her as she lay on the bed, sleepless.”

Reading those sentences was like being enveloped by the warmth of a cozy room during winter.

I loved the beautiful cover of the book. It is exquisite, gorgeous, even surrealistic. It is such a brilliant riot of colour. Niyogi Books have come out with beautiful covers in recent times and this cover showcases exactly that.

I loved ‘Stuck in Lint‘ – its unusual structure, the beautiful story, the gentle prose, the surprising endings, the brilliant vivid cover. It is a beautiful book. It is hard to believe that it is the author’s first book. Such a brilliant debut. I can’t wait to find out what Shefali Tripathi Mehta comes up with next.

Have you read Shefali Tripathi Mehta’sStuck Like Lint‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Tonke Dragt’sThe Letter for the King‘ by accident while browsing in the bookshop a few weeks back. The storyline was wonderful and the potted biography of the author was fascinating and I couldn’t resist it.

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The story told in ‘The Letter for the King‘ happens in the imaginary kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. In the first scene, we are taken inside a chapel where a few young men are meditating. Their swords and shields are there in front of them. These men are going to be knighted the next day by the King of Dagonaut. On the day before the knighting ceremony, they are supposed to lock themselves inside the chapel, light candles and keep it in front of themselves, and keep a vigil throughout the night, meditating and contemplating on what it means to be a knight. They can’t talk, they can’t open the door of the chapel, they can’t eat, they can’t go out. If they break any of these rules, they won’t be knighted the next day. Tiuri is the youngest of the five young men. On this night of the vigil, suddenly there is a knock on the door. Our five young men ignore it. But then Tiuri hears someone speak, asking for help. He is torn between following the rules and helping someone in need – a tussle between the mind and the heart. His heart prevails. He goes and opens the door. One rule broken. He finds an old man outside. Tiuri asks this old man what he wants. Second rule broken. This old man gives him a letter and asks him to deliver it to a particular knight who is staying in an inn, which is a few hours away by horseback. The old man says it is a matter of life and death. Tiuri leaves the chapel and borrows a neighbour’s horse and leaves for the inn. Third rule broken. Many things happen after that and before long Tiuri finds himself riding across a forest with bad guys chasing him, trying to kill him and prevent him from delivering the letter. What follows is a fascinating and gripping adventure across forests, cities, rivers and snow-clad mountains, which entertains readers of all ages.

I loved ‘The Letter to the King‘. It is gripping from the first page, the story moves at a roller coaster pace and there are surprises at many places. It is an old-fashioned adventure yarn and it is beautifully written. Tonke Dragt’s prose is simple and spare and complements the gripping narrative. The simplicity of the prose somehow aids the blooming of an occasional beautiful passage like an exotic flower. The book is also filled with illustrations by the author which are done using points – I think this style is called ‘stippling’ – and they are very beautiful. You can see one of the illustrations in the cover image below. The novel was originally written in Dutch nearly fifty years back. It is hard to believe that it has taken so long for it to be discovered by English readers.

Tonke Dragt’s life is fascinating – she was born in Indonesia, she was a prisoner in a Japanese prisoner camp during the Second World War, during which time, as a teenager, she wrote her first book on paper she got by begging and borrowing. After the war, her family moved to the Netherlands and in her thirties, she published this book. As they say, the rest is history. Today she is regarded as one of the greatest writers of children’s books from the Netherlands, and she has been knighted for her services. It is a fascinating, inspiring fairytale. I can’t wait to read more books by Tonke Dragt. If you have children at home or you have young nieces / nephews, this book would make a great Christmas / holiday gift for them.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“There was once a man who saw a rainbow, a beautiful rainbow. It stood in the sky like a high, arched bridge, with its ends touching the earth. The man said to himself, ‘I shall journey to the end of the rainbow. And then I can follow the bridge to the other side of the world. He set off on his journey and he travelled for a long time. He passed through cities and villages, through fields and deserts, over rushing rivers and through thick forests. And, all that time, he kept looking forward to what he was going to see. He knew the place where the rainbow ended must be magnificent, beautiful…The closer he came to his goal, the more he longed to see it. But when he got there, the rainbow had vanished, and the place where it had touched the earth looked just like anywhere else. And the man was very sad. But then he thought of how many beautiful things he had seen on his journey, how much he had experienced and learnt. And he realized that what mattered was not the rainbow itself, but the search. And he returned home, with a happy heart, and he said to himself that there would be plenty of other rainbows in his future. And indeed, when he got home, there was a rainbow right above his house.”

Have you read Tonke Dragt’sThe Letter for the King‘? What do you think about it?

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