September 19, 2017
September 18, 2017
Bhargavi found positivity in a book that emerged from the fire of the Holocaust. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Emile Frankl, a leading psychologist of the time, is a book based on real experiences that he witnessed when he was taken prisoner. Although the first part of the book is harrowing as it deals with the harsh realities of the Nazi regime, the rest of this book breathes with fiery optimism and gives great hope and great courage. Originally written in German, the English version is a small volume that makes for quick reading.
Bhargavi was impressed by these words: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” The book confirms that it is the search for meaning rather than meaning itself that makes even brutality bearable. Listed among the top ten influential books in the world, this one is a must-read.
Abhaya mentioned another book filled with hope but that carries a redeeming sadness — The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, again a small book with a beautiful message encapsulating lost childhood. One of the most translated books from French, the story is about a pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara desert where he meets the little prince.
Talking about sad books led to the inevitable discussion of death, its inevitability, and how some cultures let go of their elderly to die as compared to the fight with death today that involves methods like cryogenics to preserve the body until a cure is found. On the downside, conquering death can only be a strain on our own resources and that led to a discussion of the science fiction scenario laid out by John Wyndham in a book called Trouble with Lichen, where extended mortality is shown to lead to complete upheaval, causing fundamental changes in the way that society is organized.
More books coming up.
September 15, 2017
Moleskin, Leuchtturm, Whitelines and Rhodia refer to different brands of notebook. Which ones do you have? Do you have different notebooks for different subjects or do you fill everything into one great big book? Do notebooks make you feel like writing more? Do you go back to them sometimes and use them to write your fiction?
You can also read a post we’ve done on Writing in a Notebook.
September 14, 2017
Rebecca Solnit’s essays are everywhere on the internet these days. This essay is adapted from a talk she made at California’s Novato Public Library earlier this year. The first thing that came to mind when I read this essay was the poet Khalil Gibran’s quote:
Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky, We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
For this is what Solnit talks about- the link between forests that were open to the public and public libraries and the security she felt in ‘an aisle of books and an avenue of trees’. Public libraries have played a crucial part in Solnit’s writing career. She knows the trees of St. Novatus that spoke to her in her childhood and lived before her and many generations before her in many different names.
Solnit explains how the reader in her became hunter gatherer, greedily devouring knowledge from the library she loved and how this exploration within also led to an exploration without. Her prose unravels the journey of solitude that a writer must make to connect with people whom she doesn’t know but who love her words. You can read this poetic essay In Praise of Libraries and the Forests that Surround Them here.
Another essay I read with nature as a backdrop was an essay about the travails of writing. The author, Melissa Harrison, had already written about this river before and so she knew the river like the back of her hand, the kingfishers and voles that formed part of its ecosystem and the feelings it evoked in her and ‘yet the rhapsodic piece I planned to write kept its face firmly turned away from me for the duration of my stay in Dorset, and although I waited and waited, I’ve been back home for over a week now and still it will not come.’ She speaks about the problems that creativity encounters- is it a talent? Can it be taught? It’s a question she must answer several times in the capacity of a writer and speaker but she knows that there is no clear-cut answer to this.
This paragraph, however, seems to me a lifebuoy for authors drowning in writer’s block. An answer that is more than satisfactory, almost complete:
I can’t explain exactly what it was that moved me from a state of utter creative paralysis to one in which I had produced a novel. The truth is, it was a confluence of events, all deeply personal and therefore not of much use to anyone else. Writing Clay, though, was not the end result, but the start of a long process – one that continues to this day. Learning to write means learning how to live.
September 12, 2017
September 11, 2017
Sumit was in the mood for some poignant novels, the saddest one he has ever read being A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry but the book he got to the BYOB Party was the memoir Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing.
“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” This is how Laing talks about the emotion that most of us are ashamed of. Loneliness, unlike introversion and aloneness, is a lack, a void that needs to be filled. Laing explores how life in a new city forced her into a self-imposed loneliness that technology only widened. It was art that helped her to capture her emotion and celebrate it.
“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
Since the book talks about art, Sumit enjoyed going to the internet to see the paintings that she referred to. Emotions can be rendered in words and with the palette as well.
A discussion ensued about terribly moving books like The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and how solitude, contrary to loneliness, provides the fuel for the self-churning that results in great works of art, scientific innovation and philosophical insights.
Aravindh talked about an extremely moving book called When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The saddest part of the book for Aravindh was that this was the only book of the lucid neurosurgeon that he would ever read. The book is memoir and relates the tale of a life of inquiry cut short by inoperable lung cancer.
“While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact. In addition, to the patient and family, the brain surgery is usually the most dramatic event they have ever faced and, as such, has the impact of any major life event. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability – or your mother’s – to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? How much neurologic suffering would you let your child endure before saying that death is preferable? Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
The questions that Kalanithi asks make the reader stop for a moment and evaluate his or her own life, if only for a fleeting moment. Other books that deal with these profound questions include Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture and Christopher Hitchen’s Mortality.
More poignant books in Part 4.
In the late 1980s, a student called Francesco Cirillo found a way to tackle the productivity issues he faced using a 25-minute tomato-shaped kitchen timer. Instead of trying to finish studying everything all at once, he divided his work into manageable chunks. The Pomodoro technique was born. Fun fact: In Italian, Pomodoro means Tomato.
This technique is especially useful for writers who would benefit greatly from writing continuously for a distraction free twenty-five minutes, only to resume again. Have you tried it?
September 7, 2017
We’ve all read social novels where writers with a lofty view and ‘an edge of advocacy’ set out the here and now. These novels are instructive. Consider: ‘Zola and the coal miners, Hugo and the urban poor, Sinclair and the industrial working class, Steinbeck and the dispossessed rural migrant.’
Now in a period of history where voices are suspect as there are too many voices anyway and ‘cultural appropriation’ makes a writer insecure as opposed to the omniscient voice of the writer who knows all, the whole premise of the social novel is being questioned. Not just the social novel, but the novel itself as “the art of the novel is itself too white”.
Jonathan Dee examines Go, Went, Gone, a new novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, a book about the refugee crises and an exceptionally well-written one except that it makes him uncomfortable for reasons that are unclear. Even the protagonist is pushed in the story to ask the refugees questions for reasons he himself does not understand. Another book like Exit West by Mohsin Hamid presents the refugee as more human—Hamid abandons the realist template to explore issues like these, something that Dee thinks is perhaps the right way to deal with such themes. Prose is not always enough to convey the stories of the people of today and even if it does, there could be a fault so glaring that readers are oblivious of, as it is the fault of the imagination.
Do you agree that social novels have served their purpose? Read this thought provoking essay The Lives of Others by Jonathan Dee here.
September 5, 2017
September 4, 2017
Sourajit, a scientist working at ISRO on the moon mission talked about another Nobel Prize winner’s work. A House for Mr. Biswas is V. S. Naipaul’s masterpiece. The story is biographical — an unflattering farcical tragedy of his own father, one who fights against an unrelenting destiny.
“The problem with the book is that it is far too episodic and so if you skip a couple of chapters, you aren’t missing anything. His style, on the other hand, is terrific. There is nothing that his observant eye misses- be it the socio-political or the cultural. The other thing that I noticed is that he is very rude. He says the meanest things about communities and mines the personal tragedy of his own family. In spite of all this, you know that he is not glossing over anything either good or bad. And so you empathize. It’s almost as though he has an obligation to be honest, although I honestly don’t know if he is misguided or not in this endeavor.” Saurojit arrived at the gist of what has made a man who is undoubtedly judged and judgemental a great writer whose prose is nuanced. He read out a passage from the book that throws light on his writing style:
Soon it seemed to the children that they had never lived anywhere but in the tall square house in Sikkim Street. From now, their lives would be ordered, their memories coherent. The mind, while it is sound, is merciful. And rapidly the memories of Hanuman House, The Chase, Green Vale, Shorthills, the Tulsi House in Port of Spain would become jumbled, blurred; events would be telescoped, many forgotten. Occasionally a nerve of memory would be touched – a puddle reflecting the blue sky after rain, a pack of thumbed cards, the fumbling with a shoelace, the smell of a new car, the sound of a stiff wind through trees, the smells and colours of a toyshop, the taste of milk and prunes – and a fragment of forgotten experience would be dislodged, isolated, puzzling. In a northern land, in a time of new separations and yearnings, in a library grown suddenly dark, the hailstones beating against the windows, the marbled endpaper of a leatherbound book would disturb: and it would be the hot noisy week before Christmas in the Tulsi Store: the marbled patterns of old fashioned balloons powdered with a rubbery dust in a shallow white box that was not to be touched. So later, and very slowly, in securer times of different stresses, when the memories had lost the power to hurt, with pain or joy, they would fall into place and give back the past.
In case the contrarian views of V. S. Naipaul put you off, you may like to know what women think of him (everyone knows what he thinks of women writers).
More books in Part 4.