Category Archives: Penguin Random House

Figuring by Maria Popova

Figuring by Maria Popova Title: Figuring
Author: Maria Popova
Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1524748135
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Science
Pages: 592
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.

Figuring is a beautiful combination of science with art. The alignment sticks – how each of them is intertwined and how art inspires science and vice-versa. It is like her website, only more detailed – pieces that go on and go and that’s what I loved as a reader, knowing I didn’t have to scroll up or down and could be after reading one paragraph or two and going back to it after a cup of tea.

Maria Popova’s book brings the wonder of scientists and then combines it with hearts and emotions of people, mainly women scientists and that to me was most unique. Figures looks at love, and truth through the interconnected lives of historical figures across four centuries. She begins with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and it ends with Rachel Carson who was so important in the environmental movement.

And in all of this, Popova includes more artists, writers, and scientists (which makes it even more fun to read) – women, and queer and their contribution. What I love about Figuring is that it is like a rabbit hole that you would love getting into. Maria Popova interconnects, segregates, and makes you question matters of life, love, and the heart and what are we doing to leave an impression on the world.

Figuring asks big questions and it isn’t afraid of doing that. There is so much happening in the book that it takes some time to assimilate all of that, and only then can you get into its groove (or at least that’s what happened to me). Figuring would seem disconnected and disjointed in most places, till it all falls into place and that’s when you as a reader start seeing it for what it is. The book is a marriage of art, life, science, music, philosophy, feminism, decline of religion, free love, astronomy and poetry, and honestly no one better to do it than our very trusted Brain Picker.

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Interview with Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Last year I read a book called The Rabbit and the Squirrel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and was deeply touched and moved by it, as most readers who read it were. It is a short book about love, friendship, and loss, told with great brevity, given it is only about sixty pages long.  I wish it were longer. I wish we had more illustrations by Stina Wirsén, as the book moved along and became larger than what it is. But, I am glad it is out there in the world for all to read, love, and appreciate. Siddharth is a friend and I am only extremely happy to have this short interview published on my blog. I wish him more such books, for readers such as I. Thank you, Siddharth.

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Why the long hiatus between The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Rabbit and the Squirrel? 

I don’t think of myself as a professional writer. I make things – photographs, drawings, books. So I don’t measure a gap between books but try and look at what I had done with my time. Between the book, there were photographs, shows I curated, houses I designed – it was all a way of being. But I am also very interested by nonsense things, such as swimming at sea, and I can spend hours, even days looking at cat videos and drinking Goa’s Greater Than gin.

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The theme of The Rabbit and the Squirrel to my mind is more than friendship. There are so many emotions that take over this small book, almost everything packed into one. What was the writing experience like? How was it collaborating with the illustrator, Stina?

You know, I have almost no recollection of writing this little fable. I’d made it for someone I cared for deeply; I see now that tenderness for my friend eclipses all recollection of the writing process. Perhaps the story had always been there, a memento of shared, private time. The process of bringing the fable to book form was urged on by my astonishing publisher, Hemali Sodhi; and it was edited with such grace by Niyati Dhuldhoya that it became something else – a rarer, leaner thing – under her attentions.

Stina, the book’s illustrator, is also its co-parent – her sublime, frisky, careful illustrations give this book soul and energy. She is a close personal friend, and instinctively suggested to me to publish this fable – the book exists not only because of her sterling drawings but quite simply because she had been the one to suggest that I publish it.

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How important is the writer’s role in the scheme of things today? When the world is literally falling to pieces, what part do writers play in providing some semblance of hope? I say this because The Rabbit and the Squirrel is full of hope, even though fleetingly. 

Writing, and language, holds steady all that is intangible in our lives. In the articulation of our existence – the articulation of prejudice or heartbreak, of dissent, of rage – we are also able to repair. Language is both a measure as well as the meaning of our time. The writer’s job is to hover a lamp over what is, with language, she must illuminate, show and reveal. Reading is a form of civilising the most private self. It is a way of recognising that a part of this world is falling apart – and then of marshalling language to undo this damage.

Do you ever think one can write without reading? 

No, firmly, absolutely no: you cannot write without reading widely, promiscuously. Your writing will only be as good as your reading.

Your favourite books?

Beloved – Toni Morrison.
Light Years – James Salter.
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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Is there another book that we could look forward to? A novel, perhaps? 

I would be so lucky to serve another book. (And thank you for your support over the years, Vivek).

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The Rabbit and the Squirrel moved me to tears. I know several people who have had the same emotions evoked while or after reading the book. What was your intent when you started writing this universal tale? 

I had no intention except to make a gift for a friend. That is what I think of it, still and always, a private little thing made for, and with, love. But yes, I know what you mean – other friends have said that, which has always reminded me that all of us going about our lives with so many broken pieces in our pockets. All of us are suffering. All of us are enduring.

You can buy the book here

Please do buy the book. Please do read it. Please weep and laugh as you read it. Please repeat the process all over again. Gift the books to loved ones. You will be gifting them joy.

And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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Title: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
Author: Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Cai
Publisher: Walker Books
ISBN: 978-1406385403
Genre: Children’s Fiction, Literary
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am a sucker for retellings or adaptations. A real-time sucker. Love the way some authors take a jab at it, make the classic their own, and then there are some who just cannot communicate what they want to. Thankfully, Patrick Ness belongs to the former category. And The Ocean Was Our Sky doesn’t read like a retelling. It doesn’t read like anything I have read before (yes you have heard this a lot, but this time it is really true). Alright, to cut the long story short: I absolutely loved And the Ocean Was Our Sky – loved the minimalist prose and the breathtaking illustrations. On a side note, let me also say that I loved how it veered away from the plot of Moby Dick soon into the book and I thought it was very refreshing.

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Now to the plot: The whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt. They hunt men. Men who hunt them get hunted. Men who don’t hunt also get hunted. They are led by Captain Alexandra, fighting a war against men. Till they attack a man ship and from it emerges a man who will lead them to the myth of the very devil – the most evil of all men. The one that will change their lives forever. That in short is the plot of the book. It is a story of whales and men and how when we take over their world, what happens in the end.

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What makes it different or interesting you ask? Patrick Ness is at the top of his game. This book may be sparse in terms of the writing, but every word lends gravitas. Every word that perhaps is not there in the story, is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Rovina Cai. The story comes alive through another dimension as you read and experience the illustrations at the same time.

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The morality play of the book is strong and is much-needed in times such as these. It is a book for both children and adults. I would say more for adults, just to get the point across that every life matters. The twist in the tale will take you by surprise for sure, but that’s hardly the point of the story. And The Ocean Was Our Sky is so heartwarming (I found it to be) and heartbreaking in so many places – the kind of book that will make you question so many things about life, death, and the in-between.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water CureTitle: The Water Cure
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241334744
Genre: Women, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I finished reading The Water Cure at neck-break speed. There was no other way to read this book. Yes, it started off a little slow. Yes, it took its time to grow on me but when it did, there was no turning back. There is a lot happening in the book – it is dystopian, it is feministic (well, you will struggle to see it but its there) and in most parts, it is also very fantastical. It may seem that there is no story really but there is, and the writing is on point – every word and every sentence where it should be.

At various points in the book, you might even think that the book is loosely based on King Lear and maybe it is, but it is so much more than that because the King soon disappears in the book. House on the island, alone by the sea. Three girls, Grace, Lia, and Sky live with their parents’ Mother and King (see the use of a patriarchy term right here – while the parents have no names, the father is always known as King).

Their worldly knowledge comes only from what the King dishes them. They have no contact with the outside world. They are in a world of their own. Till of course, like I said, King disappears, Mother takes over and their world crumbles as other men wash up on their beach, lay claim to their land and everything changes for them – in an instant.

Mackintosh’s writing isn’t easy but it is extremely engaging. There are times when you feel the book isn’t even dystopian as it claims to be, but there are only parts that are far and few in-between. The plot is for sure disturbing, but if it is to your taste, then I would recommend that you carry forth and finish the read, because it is extremely rewarding. The storytelling is unique and mesmerizing. Mackintosh is a new voice that has to be heralded, and this one most certainly read like a debut. It is that good.

How to Love a Jamaican : Stories by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican Title: How to Love a Jamaican: Stories
Author: Alexia Arthurs
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 978-1524799205
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Some books feel closer. They almost feel like a hug. “How to Love a Jamaican” is one of those books. Every story to me seemed wondrous and not a single plot or theme was out of place. And but of course, the stories are diverse, intricate, and provide a lot of authentic insight into the lives of Jamaicans living at home and out of it. The stories blend into each other – exploring themes of loss, love, personal growth, the immigrant experience and mainly what can be called home.

I was also aware of the number of books written exploring this theme and tactic and yet How to Love a Jamaican seems new and fresh. I think it has to do primarily with the writing. Some stories will obviously strike a chord more than the others, but each one will find a special place in your heart. I am a big one for short stories, so this collection did not disappoint me at all.

What is most interesting that Arthurs doesn’t try and explain the idiosyncrasies used or the words, or the phrases. They naturally flow with the stories and that’s that. It is up to the reader to want to know more, which works for a reader like me. My favourite story is “Slack” which opens with a scene of a tragedy and moves to become something larger, which left me bereft and smiling at the same time. “Shirley from a Small Place” is all about the rootedness to home, not forgetting where you came from, a dominating mother, and of course all the culture, pride and food. It seems as though it has all the tropes, but having said that, they work brilliantly. Like I said earlier, it is all about the writing.

The book reads very fast and yet there are moments that will make you stop in-between the read. Arthurs is also most times funny and extremely empathetic toward her characters. And I am sure most of them are known personally to her, for the book to be so involving and engaging to the reader.

“How to Love a Jamaican” is an unusual collection of short stories. It may seem run-off-the-mill at first place, but do not be fooled by its simplicity. There is so much simmering underneath that facade. Read it to understand the Jamaican experience and a different point of view which is redeeming, emotional and liberating, all at the same time.