Category Archives: Literary Non-Fiction

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Draft No. 4 Title: Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process
Author: John McPhee
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374142742
Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing Skills, Essays
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I have read books on reading. I have read books on writing as well. But off-late no book on writing has made me laugh and “Draft No. 4” managed to do that. It made me chuckle and kept my spirits high and also in its own way told me that it is okay to not get that sentence correct, that it is alright to not stress over punctuation sometimes and also that there will be times that you will not be able to write. It broke a lot of writing fallacies that are out there and made me see writing in a whole new way.

Also, if you have to learn about a subject, then why not turn to one of the very best? John McPhee is a professor of journalism at Princeton, writes for The New Yorker and has published over thirty books. Let me also tell you that “Draft No. 4” could have easily fallen in the trap of being preachy and pedantic, which it doesn’t. McPhee makes you see how writing is – truly is for those who are writers and also for those who want to become writers.

What I loved about the book is that I could identify with most of it. For instance, McPhee states that while you might write for only two to four hours a day, your mind is working twenty-four hours on the book. He also mentions of “the elegance in the less ambiguous ways” – for instance, the turn of the phrase or where to place the bracket words (he does get to technique as well).

This is a collection of essays that doesn’t take away from the joy of writing. It lends to it beautifully. He of course says and advises the way he has to, but also gives you room to come up with your comfort rules of writing. The ones that actually work for you. So why must you read this book then? Because it will open your mind to going back to the basics of writing (which is what every writer says but most don’t really know what they are talking about) and implement them in your way to your advantage. McPhee makes it seem simple (not without mentioning its cons and the power of writing to drive you crazy sometimes) and at the same time ironically tells you that your fourth draft perhaps will be the best one, ready to publish.

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The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein

The World Broke In Two Title: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature
Author: Bill Goldstein
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-0805094022
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, Literary Non-Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To want to read a book since a while and then to actually read it and not be disappointed by it is kicking Murphy’s behind. I had to say this because I was apprehensive about whether or not I would enjoy reading “The World Broke in Two”. I love books centered around literary events and what happened in the past between authors and what were the circumstances like. You get the drift. This book is about the year 1922 and four authors that changed the course of English Literature – Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Stearns Eliot, and Edward Morgan Foster. Each battling with their personal demons and on the side trying to make sense of their professional lives and where they fit in in the scheme of things.

“The World Broke in Two” is a fascinating read and I don’t mean it in the loose sense of the word. I really do mean it. If you have interest in history, books, the creative process, and more so the changes that took place after WWI, then this is the book for you. I don’t mean to broaden the scope of this book, but it can be classified over genres and that is also the beauty of this title.

What I loved the most about this book is how Goldstein brings to fore the various writing processes of these four authors. He describes the process in detail, not to forget the anguish of these writers, the self-loathing at most times and how they also learned from each other. For instance, how E.M. Forster learned from Woolf when she gave him a copy of Jacob’s room. The book is layered with anecdotes and what is wondrous is that it is almost like a Russian doll when it comes to discovering more books to read for a novice reader. Goldstein very tactfully blends the historical with the literary – neither of which feel too much of at any given point in the book. The book if anything, reads like a novel.

Goldstein does not shy away from speaking of the authors’ mental and physical challenges and how they sometimes became an impediment and at others a catalyst to surge ahead. “The World Broke in Two” is a stunning read about four authors, the worlds inhabited by them and at the core of it, their writing which is paramount to this book.

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix Title: The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature
Author: Viv Groskop
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241308639
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am a sucker for Russian Literature. I have read Anna Karenina twice and the Brothers Karamazov about two and a half times (I dropped it half-way the third time, because it was getting too much for once to handle) and not to forget Master and Margarita about twice as well. There are many more Russian works of great significance and most of it is classical or semi-modern. What I also love is books about books and “The Anna Karenina Fix” merges these elements beautifully. It is a book about books but Russian Literature and how it can save your life (well in more ways than one) and also how one can actually learn from it.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” by Viv Groskop is a handy guide to life as learned from the works of Russian Literature. Be it Chekov or Turgenev or Akhmatova, every book or author chosen by Groskop in this book has had a role to play in her life – in making her live it day after day, month after month and year after year. It is a warm and fuzzy (well, not so fuzzy) book about humans, their frailties, passions, desires and weaknesses when it comes to that.

The book charts the author’s relationship with everything Russian – language, art, culture and how she weaves her memories with the classics is something any reader who loves books will enjoy. At the same time, Groskop introduces the Russian classics to you if you hadn’t heard of them and does a very good job of that. Also, even though there are spoilers, but that will not take away from the experience of reading these Russian books if you want to at some point.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” is a solid book about living life and how to actually go about it through some Russian books. It is sublime, lucid and provides a great reading list as well. She also could have gotten preachy about the life lessons, however that doesn’t happen at all. If anything, it is all about what you can take away personally from these books and apply to your life (if you want to, that is).

Academic research material is not heavy-handedly used in the book. If anything, the language is extremely simple, just as it should be. “The Anna Karenina Fix” is the kind of book that creeps up on you unexpectedly and stays long after. It is also the kind of book that will make you read other books, which is a double-win if you ask me. So, go, read this book!

Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby

Lit Up Title: Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives
Author: David Debby
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1250117038
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Books about Books
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

How does a teacher ensure that children read? How does he get teenagers who are constantly on social media and on their phones to get to pick up a book and explore the world in its pages? As an English teacher, that was the biggest task in front of David Denby. It would be an awkward start for sure – one to convince them to read, get them interested in books, which were an alien concept to them and second how to go about that.

“Lit-Up” is a story. It reads like that for sure. How David went about doing this not in just one public school but three of them, sure is motivating. For me, it was the honesty of the writing that came through and stuck. David talks about his challenges with the same enthusiasm as he highlights the small successes. How his encounters with students shape him as a teacher and a person and through that how he started enjoying some books a little more filled me with so much joy.

What is interesting also is the selection of books – the twenty-four books are quite diverse – from Faulkner (very challenging you think? Not for Denby’s students) to Plath to Huxley and Orwell (both seem so relevant as of today) and more. At the end, what Denby really has to say is “choose what you want to read and read as much as you can”. This level of engagement with students is what will suck you into the book.

“Lit-Up” is one of those rare books that makes you want to get up and make a change – no matter how small or big. It just makes you want to do something worthwhile with your life and teachers do it so well. They just reach out to you and make that one difference in your life. Denby chose to do it with books and reading. A read that hits all the right chords.

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City Title: The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-9386432575
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I have always been fascinated by Calcutta – right to its portrayal in movies to books to even theatre and sometimes even TV shows that are genuinely set there. Something about that city – it has managed to mingle the traditional and the modern so well, that it makes me more curious about the thing they do, how they do it and why – the culture of Calcutta cannot be spread across one book or one review (most certainly not), however “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury is indeed one of its kind books on the city.

I remember my first visit to Calcutta. It was 2011 and I had gone there to prepare for a course, which meant Calcutta was home for about forty-five days. The city was hesitant to be my friend initially and as I learned its ways and sought it out, it almost became a second home. Everything about it seemed better and yet there were times that nothing about it made sense to me. Sometimes I would find the people cold and distant and at others extremely affectionate. The polarity of the people lends itself to the city or is it the other way around?

So as I read “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, I would often find myself nodding my head and agreeing or disagreeing with what he was saying about the city. Kushanava arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve – migrated from Calcutta with his parents. After graduating from Princeton, he decided to move back home – Calcutta that is and this book is a medley of experiences of that movement. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot encapsulate Calcutta in a book, but people must and need to so readers can know about this soulful city.

The book traverses through the city and Choudhury introduces to places and people off the streets. He makes us acquaintances of jobless men, of looming buildings, of a city abandoned and people who are there and yet only in a limbo. Calcutta belongs to a different era perhaps. Or it did. Yet, it struggles so hard to keep up with the rest of the country. Choudhury at the same time in his writing is hopeful of what the future holds.

“The Epic City” is written from inside out and also to a large extent from outside in. There is a quality of frankness and melancholy in Choudhury’s way of describing the city that almost breaks your heart. You want to know more about the place and yet you want to resist, because Calcutta then seems like an aged queen whose grandeur is not lost, yet she is.