Tag Archives: Literary Non-Fiction

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.

Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry by Manjima Bhattacharjya

MannequinTitle: Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry
Author: Manjima Bhattacharjya
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN:978-9385932229
Genre: Gender Studies
Pages: 216
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Can fashion and feminism ever go hand in hand? Hard to think of them together, right? Like the perfect bedfellows, isn’t it? And yet, lo behold, “Mannequin” by Manjima Bhattacharjya marries them and how! We are, in my opinion, quick to judge the fashion indsutry, without knowing its ongoings or caring to know about it. And the brunt of it all, whether you admit or not is borne by the women in the industry. Bhattacharjya through this book reflects on feminism and the beauty business and this is done purely through first-person narratives, insider stories, histories that have been buried long before and heavy research and subtext.

“Mannequin” looks at the 70 billion dollar industry at home and what it does and doesn’t do for the women who work in it. The recognition they deserve and do not get most of the time. Bhattacharjya with a very detailed view, traces the history of the fashion industrt – the role of women when it started in the 60s to what it is now and frankly as a reader I felt, not much has changed. The industry sadly still objectifies women instead of seeing and acknowledging their agency and talent.

At the heart of the book there are uncomfortable questions for sure but it is also a personal account of the author, the industry and its women. The writing at no point is pedantic. Yes it is data heavy but that is alright. The narratives and stories are told humanely and that is what is needed.

What role does fashion play in the entire feminist discourse? Does it have a role at all? What about the industry? What do the men of the fashion industry think? The author raises questions and answers are given – maybe not all the time but most of the time with solid research to back. “Mannequin” is the kind of book we always needed and finally got it.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem : Essays
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-1250160652
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I love Didion’s writing. So I may be biased, but that’s alright. I remember the first time I read Didion. It was “The Year of Magical Thinking” and I was floored. I was gutted as well, amongst other things that I was feeling as the book ended.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a collection of essays written in the 1960s, almost fifty years ago – a time and place that current readers have not and will not experience (not that I have as well). At the same time, somehow while reading the book, it all came alive right then and there. Didion paints not just one image but a landscape on paper. Her talent is truly timeless and every time she writes something, she almost supersedes the last piece/book.

Didion’s writing though may seem America-centric but is actually quite deceptive, in the sense, it encompasses the world-view which you only understand after a couple of essays. Maybe that’s why (one of the many reasons for sure) that this book was the one that was the essential breakout work.

Didion’s prose is grounded. It doesn’t stray at any point in time. From speaking of Joan Baez (which is a very affectionate portrait of a highly intelligent woman) to a think piece on the Santa Barbara Coast to Las Vegas and the culture of quickie marriages, there is always this sense of voyeurism and at the same time,​ this need to soak in more of what she writes. This collection, ​in fact, reminded of her other collection of essays, The White Album and After Henry, whose content is very similar to “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”.

It takes a while to kick into the book, but it is also a good beach read (Surprised? So was I when I started it on a quick getaway). Her musings about life, in general,​ are also worth reading, even if you might not agree with some. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is one of the best essay collection you will ever read. So, please do not miss out on it. ​

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra. Translated by Megan McDowell

Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra Title: Not To Read
Author: Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695630
Genre: Non-Fiction, Literary Essays
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I discovered, “Bonsai” by Alejandro Zambra in 2014 and since then I have never looked back. I’ve read all his books and all I can say is that I am glad he exists in the same universe as we do and continues to write. This time it was a collection of essays, some old and some new, collected in a book “Not to Read” and published by the very erudite folks at Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The thing about Zambra’s writing is the high level of engagement he was with his readers, even without meaning to I guess. You instantly relate to what he has to say about libraries, personal libraries and books in general. At the very superficial level it is this, but at a more constant and deeper level it is his writing which seems so effortless thanks to the translation really. McDowell has done a spectacular job of giving words to his thoughts and words of course in another language so smoothly, that you almost want to read the original (written in Spanish).

The essays are spread over three sections and each section, without a doubt is a joy to read. Zambra makes you travel with him, through his literature and also through his pieces on literature. I will for one never forget how he and his friends photocopied books as they were (and still are) very expensive to buy when they were students. What is most endearing is that even when he could afford to buy the originals, the photocopy stacks still remained on the shelves. Or the time when he visits a friend’s house and comments on the shelving of books and the technique used (a hilarious piece by the way).

Zambra’s writing connects with the reader in all of us and that’s why it is so accessible. Another thing about reading books about books is the discovery. Just by reading “Not to Read”, I have chanced upon a dozen or more writers I would’ve never known. Well, the glitch is that most of them aren’t translated to English but hey, I hope wanting to read them will finally make me enroll for Spanish classes. Anything that would make you read new authors, I suppose.

Alejandro Zambra has not praised or touched on the big Chilean writers – either because he doesn’t admire their writing, which is fair or because he sincerely feels there are alternatives (which I was glad to know of). This is a very important aspect of a book about books in my opinion – giving alternatives to what already exists. The cannons of literature will remain and revered, but we need something else to hold onto as well.

“Not to Read” can be read in one sitting (like I did) or better yet dip into it time and again, read an essay or two and mull over its magnificence. I am only too happy that more authors are writing about books and reading. One of my favourite genres so far. I strongly recommend everyone to read this book.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

When They Call You A Terrorist Title: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Authors: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250171085
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Rights
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

This book will not be an easy read. Not because it is written in a difficult to understand manner, but because the lives spoken of haven’t been easy. So, if you get squeamish easy, then this book isn’t for you. This book is about the world and how it is, how it always was – how racism is so deep-rooted that it might take ages before it is wiped out completely. And yet, this book does not only deal with the issue of racism or schizoaffective disorder, it deals with identity and the basic right to live, which should not be taken away from anyone at all.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors life has not been an easy one at all. Being sheltered and fed wasn’t easy while she was growing up. As I have mentioned, her brother who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and a mother who works from dawn to dusk, just to ensure the kids are fed and clothed.

What upsets me the most is the involvement of the police when it comes to mental health organizations when it comes to checks or emergencies. I mean how would they know what it means to be mentally unstable and what one goes through? But that is just one part of the story.

The crux of the book is what it means to be black in today’s world and how unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality causes havoc in people’s lives. Patrisse outraged the most in 2013, when Travyon Martin’s killer went free, which led to the formation of Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele give you insights into how it is to survive in the face of violent racism. We think nothing is going on, that we live in evolved times, but that is all well and good in the comfort of our homes. What happens in the world is simply horrific.

“When They Call You A Terrorist” hits hard (like it should) and will make you think twice about how sometimes we behave when it comes to people who are different from us. This is a book that is most needed for our times. The situations and people will always remain the same, till an entire culture changes, the one that says Black Lives Matter.