Library love (in rural India)

Gone Reading is an American company marketing products for readers.

What, you ask, are products for readers; surely one needs nothing more than light and a book?

Um, sort of. Bookmarks are nice. Bookends, booklights, bookish games …. yeah, quite a few things actually.

If you’re planning to get a reading light, a journal, T-shirts or mugs with reading-themed epigrams, please consider Gone Reading. They donate 100% of their profits to charity. Specifically, to charities that promote literacy. More specifically, to charities promoting literacy in the developing world. Like this one, you picky-picky devils.

That’s a picture of a library in Geejhar, India, that Gone Reading and a local charity READ Global are building together. Here’s what Brad Wirz, CEO of Gone Reading had to say in his email:

“GoneReading just started marketing itself in September, but our goal is to bring the magic of reading to the far corners of the world by providing significant funding to organizations such as READ.  We donated just $4,500 last year, but our goal is to quadruple that amount in 2012, growing significantly from there.  GoneReading donates 100% of its after-tax profits.  We’re lean and mean, with an all-volunteer staff…”

Hear ye: philanthropy and the capitalist business model need not be mutually exclusive. So, instead of Amazon or Chapters or Brookstone or Williams-Sonoma or wherever you’d normally shop for such items, do consider Gone Reading, where your funds will help get kids reading. Gone Reading will further sweeten the deal by offering a 25% discount to all readers of this blog. Please please use NIRANJANA25 at the checkout (ends April 7, 2012).

Here are some of Gone Reading’s products. I was rather taken with these bookends.

And this game would pair well with a robust red.

And this cake charm bookmark is quite delish.

And if you usually shop at Oxfam or Ten Thousand Villages, well, yes.

Disclaimer: I’m writing about Gone Reading because they are a non-profit working in an area I’m interested in; I have not been compensated for this post. Gone Reading did send me this small but perfectly formed reading light that my son immediately appropriated.

I can testify that despite a week’s worth of abuse at the hands of a four-year-old who attempted to tie the stem into a love-knot, the light still works fine.


I also wanted to share this moving story from Canadian novelist Terry Fallis, whose book club remembered a member lost to cancer by setting up a library in her name.  The group wanted to “find a fitting way for us to honour what Vicki had meant to our humble monthly gathering of book lovers.  […] Money was raised and other arrangements made, and on January 31, 2012, there was a grand opening. In Dhaberi, a small farming village in central India, a children’s library opened its doors for business. Vicki’s Library. The funds donated purchased 500 children’s books and will pay a librarian for two hours a day, to work with the children and check out their books. Our book club has pledged to keep the library open. I cannot think of a better way to honour a good friend who loved books and reading as much as Vicki did. ”

Please read the entire story here.

Then Again by Elyse Friedman

Seldom, I believe, has a writer been as poorly served by her book covers as Elyse Friedman. Waking Beauty, a darkly thoughtful exploration of the unfair advantage beauty bestows upon the (unworthy) recipient, had a pink-and-white-and-blonde-and-sparkly cover, thus dooming chick-lit fans to chagrin even as readers of literary fiction averted their eyes.

Then Again, with a smart, punchy title that can be interpreted in at least two different ways in the context of the  plot, written with a precision that would make a watchmaker glow, features a split image of a pallid, glowering girl on its cover. Everything about it–the girl’s faintly repellent gaze, the gimmicky shot , the shiny stiff paper of the cover– begs that the book be tossed aside. Which I would have undoubtedly done had I not LOVED Waking Beauty.

Tom Robbins once famously said, “It’s never to late to have a happy childhood”.  What if someone took that to heart–a someone with the wealth and connections of a successful Hollywood screenwriter–and decided to relive his childhood for an entire weekend, literally? The reluctant participants in the scheme include the screenwriter’s sisters Michelle (the novel’s narrator), and Marla.  The trio’s parents are dead (natch), but Joel the screenwriter has arranged for a faux mom and faux dad. The Toronto house the siblings grew up in twenty years ago is recreated down to the avocado green carpet and the struggling tree out front.

What a setup. And Friedman has the prose skills and the sheer balls to carry it off.  The narrator’s voice alternates between syrupy sentimentality and hard-edged observation, and this pairing works beautifully with the theme of revisited adolesence. The novel’s pacing is impeccable, skittering between past and present till the two fuse in an explosive climax. The delight of such a book lies as much in the big idea as in the tiny details; I was reminded on more than one occasion of the film Goodbye Lenin . I leave you with this image from the novel. “…Canadian movies, publicly funded and carefully crafted–like chilled white pie crusts, pinched and perfect…”  I’m going to tear off the miserable front cover of Then Again and replace it with a gilded portrait of Friedman.

This review-ish piece is my contribution to John’s Read a Canadian Book Month challenge.

Weekend roundup of literary tragedies.

The  past literary week brought nothing but misery. First: the wonderful and amazing site Readerville has ceased its existence. I am indebted to Readerville for many reasons, but most for introducing me to E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series. I’m going to write an ode to the books one of these days, but for now: Benson is to P. G. Wodehouse as wine is to Welch’s.  The raw material is the same–upper-class Britons in the 1920s and 1930s–but Benson is more subtle, more acerbic, and far more addictive. If you are an oxygen breather who speaks English, you ought not miss this series.

Lucia in London (Black Swan)

I was a lurker on the Readerville site for the most part, and it was a privilege to eavesdrop on a group of intelligent, articulate people all incorrigibly obsessed with books.  The site’s demise has halved my daily surfing time. 

I also finished  the new Sookie Stackhouse novel “Dead and Gone”  this weekend. The 9th book of Charlaine Harris’s vampire-meets-bonkable blonde series marks the point where I’ve officially quit the habit. Dead and Gone is not much more than a pile-up of corpses and perfunctory sex, and the prose has as much life as do Sookie’s vampire suitors. Any faith I might have had in’s ratings has been destroyed by the four stars readers awarded this pap.   

Dead and Gone (Sookie Stackhouse, Book 9)


And finally, David Eddings, author of the The Belgariad and The Malloreon series, died last week. In spite of the predictable plot, the spineless female non-sorceress characters, and the not-so-hidden similarities with The Lord of Rings, these  books are beloved to me, and as much a part of my teenage years as Clearasil and Air Supply.

David Eddings

David Eddings. Picture Copyright: Ballantine Books

Now that Eddings has reached the great big Faldor’s Farm in the sky, I am going to re-read all ten books in memorium of a writer who never failed to entertain his readers. 

An Outline of the Republic by Siddhartha Deb

Front CoverThe republic of India is often imagined in the shape of a diamond, with Kashmir and Kerala marking the north and south, and Bombay and Calcutta defining the western and eastern regions respectively. Such a map, however, would be incomplete; north of Calcutta lies a fragile strip of land (no more than twenty miles wide) that connects the Indian ‘mainland’ to the seven hill states of the north-east. Bounded by Burma, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, these states form one of the least-explored regions of the world, and are the setting and subject of Siddhartha Deb’s An Outline of the Republic.

Amrit Singh is a Delhi-educated journalist who works for a sleepy Calcutta newspaper named (inappropriately enough) the Sentinel. Going through the newspaper files, he chances upon a photograph of a young woman being held at gunpoint by two masked men. A note states that the woman is a porn actress killed by a north-eastern rebel group named MORLS, as a warning to those engaging in “corrupt activities.” Posted to the region on a routine assignment for the Sentinel, Amrit decides to privately investigate the photograph, partly out of curiosity and partly because a German acquaintance hints that his magazine in Tubingen will pay well for an article on the picture. The story, Amrit is instructed, must portray “the mystery and sorrow of India through the story of the woman in the photograph.”

North-eastern India, the reader learns, is rich in oil; the locals, however, have not benefited from the oil wells constructed by the Delhi government. Rebel groups are hence numerous, and have long been fomenting minor trouble, so as to convey their frustration and resentment to the central government. Deb introduces into this real-life scenario the rebel group MORLS (Movement Organized to Resuscitate the Liberation Struggle), which casts itself as a guardian of morality. MORLS’s activities include ordering women to dress modestly, forcing prostitutes to give up their trade, and threatening drug users with violence unless they kick the habit.

An isolated event in a remote location is thus revealed to be no less than a microcosm of the global conflicts of our age. Boundaries and borders—both physical and imagined—are fragile; nothing is one-sided in this novel. The German magazine is guilty of desiring to reduce India to a snappy sound-bite, but Amrit Singh, in search of an easy-to-market story that might grant him financial freedom, is no less culpable. The Delhi government may have suffered under the rule of imperial Britain not long ago, but is now quite content to take advantage of a far-away people in a far-away place.

As Amrit travels to the state of Manipur, and then across the border to Burma in search of his story, reality and illusion begin to blur. The woman in the photograph might not have been a porn actress. She might not be dead. The photograph might have been staged, either by the Indian government to discredit the rebels, or by the rebels themselves, as a warning to the local population. As Amrit goes deep into the region, the difference between the center and the periphery too becomes shadowy—Delhi is no longer the locus, but an unreal and increasingly irrelevant place.

Shades of Heart of Darkness indeed; in fact, An Outline of the Republic is prefaced by a quotation from Conrad “Do you see the story? Do you see anything?” Amrit is always searching for an objective truth, the real story under the layers of narrative, and the novel never veers from the viewpoint of a dispassionate observer.

This self-consciously journalistic tone, however, sometimes leads to the prose taking on an “explaining” note. Manipur is described as having “the highest rate of educated unemployment in the region, rampant drug use, promiscuity, AIDS, and regular violence with government forces as well as ethnic clashes.” Describing the diversity of passengers on a bus, Deb writes that it “felt like a microcosm of the region, indeed of the nation.” At its best, however, the novel is a clear-eyed declaration that nothing less than the truth should do—however complicated and elusive that truth might be. A subtle exploration of identity and conflict, without a whiff of exoticism, An Outline of the Republic is a timely addition not just to writings on India, but to the literature of the peripheries of the world, making the reader question whether ‘far-away’ is perhaps closer than previously imagined.

(This review was one of my earliest published pieces, and appeared in RainTaxi Review of Books. )

Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

Your hunt for the most boring Wikipedia entry ever ends now. Type “Yellowknife” in the search box, and you’ll hear the gurgle as the spirit is sucked out of one of the most intriguing cities on the planet.

I mention Wikipedia because most non-Canadian readers of Steve Zipp’s debut novel Yellowknife will in all likelihood want need to look the city up. So, here are some facts about Yellowknife before I begin my review.

First, a map of Canada.  Yellowknife is just above the big black C.

Political Divisions

(This map is available at

Yellowknife is the capital of the NorthWest Territories. The NorthWest Territories are almost twice the size of France. The population of the NorthWest Territories is about 41,000 people. All together now: Looonely!

In the 1930s, sizable gold deposits were discovered in Yellowknife, leading to a mini gold rush. The rush waned towards the end of the century, but save your sympathy for the Yellowknifers; in the early nineties, the area turned up diamonds. The city now calls itself “The Diamond Capital of North America.”

And in what is possibly the most redundant sentence in Canadian prose, I add that Yellowknife is very cold.


Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife is set in the eponymous city in 1998. It’s a delirious read, one that incorporates the region’s history into a truly zany storyline. Endeavoring to describe the plot any further is akin to eating soup with a fork–you get some bits and pieces, but miss the main meal. Picking up my spork: The book features an entomologist who offers his arm for mosquito bait, a conceptual artist who wanders around garbage dumps, a drifter who learns to live off dog food, and about twenty other oddball characters who come together to do their thing in Yellowknife.

And what a city it is, in a region “so remote it’s almost mythical.” A restaurant menu in Yellowknife might include fried ptarmigan, sweet and sour bearpaw, scrambled caribou brains on toast, and detoxified bear liver.  There’s an annual  Caribou Carnival, where activities include tea boiling and log sawing; people sip frosty drinks “in glasses made of ice.” The local newspaper is called the Yellowknife Blade. A posh restaurant accepts diamonds in lieu of cash; waiters carry loupes on their person. Zipp assumes the reader is familiar with the region (or has a huge vocabulary); I for one had to look up “pomarine jaeger” (a sea bird),  mukluks (a type of boot), horsetails (a plant)…you get the idea.  At least I knew   Zamboni, thanks to my years in Canada.

The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing. Zipp quotes from Kafka, Jack London and Bulgakov, amongst others, and his prose is notable as much for its intelligence as its humor. You read it here first: Zipp is blood brother to Tom Robbins.  There are many interesting and erudite passages to showcase; it is purely a function of this reviewer’s base mind that the quoted section deals with sex (or its lack thereof).

Danny the drifter finally has a chance to get it off with the most beautiful woman in our dimension. But then she asks if he has a condom.

The answer was plain on his face. She might as well have been asking for a condominium. “Christ” she muttered and reached for her clothes
“No, wait, I can find something. A plastic bag. A rubber glove.”

No luck. Danny then tries to salvage the situation.

“No problem…I’ll pick some up tomorrow….Do you have a favorite brand?…Any particular color or flavor?”


If I have one quibble, it is that Yellowknife sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. It’s as though Zipp had a hundred great ideas, and he shoehorned them all into this 286-page book. The resulting read is breathless though manageable, but it gets sticky when it comes to the characters. There are so many appealing dramatis personae vying for the role of protagonist that ultimately, I wasn’t truly invested in any character. Just as I got into Danny’s adventures, bam! a new character squealing “Forget Danny, look at me!” would cavort on the page. I suppose I could have treated the book like the aforementioned soup and just enjoyed whatever came along, but I kept getting distracted, wondering where that tempting piece of pineapple lurked, and if the spongy object I was chewing on was a mushroom or a pellet of Bounty…

It is a sad, sad thing that Zipp’s novel, published by the small press Res Telluris, should languish in obscurity. I do not know the author (apart from exchanging a brief email correspondence regarding the timing of this review) and I have no hesitation in flogging his work in every possible way. Here is the publisher’s website, and here is the author’s blog. Do buy the book. Or, if you must, download it for FREE from the publisher’s site. And don’t forget to send Zipp a mash note asking him to write another novel real soon.

add to :: Digg it :: Stumble It!

Read Your Way Around the World Challenge: Iceland

Today (April 23rd)  is World Book and Copyright Day. It’s organized by  UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. I feel obliged to honor the occasion–especially now that I’m in the middle of a copyright flap 🙂 

Global Voices is conducting a book challenge titled “Read your way around the world”  to mark the day.   

  Global Voices Book Challenge

The Challenge is as follows:

1) Read a book during the next month from a country whose literature you have never read anything of before.
2) Write a blog post about it during the week of April 23.
3) Tag your posts with #gvbook09

I joined the challenge on Lotus Reads, and chose Paradise Reclaimed by the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness.  Laxness  won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, and his book has been on my shelf for a long long time. It seemed the perfect choice.

Paradise Reclaimed

Alas, my response to the challenge was less than successful. This book was just not my thing. 

Paradise Reclaimed deals with the adventures of a farmer named Steinar of Steinahlioar (I don’t know how to insert the special characters that every proper noun in this novel seems to require). Steinar is a simple man who happens to own a  beautiful horse. When the king of Denmark visits Iceland, Steinar decides to present him the horse, and thus sets out on the first of his travels. On the way, he meets an Icelandic Mormon who tells him all about the Promised Land.  After a couple of adventures, Steinar abandons his wife and son and daughter and sets off for Utah.

Steinar’s farm falls into disarray. The daughter is raped and becomes pregnant; in her innocence, she insists it’s a virgin birth.  The wife and son are relentlessly exploited. Their land is destroyed.

I quit reading here, midway through the novel. It was just too depressing and infuriating.

I’ve no doubt that this novel is a saga of the redemptive power of goodness, but mostly, I just wanted to kick Steinar in the seat of his pants. The introduction by Jane Smiley states that the novel “asks us to accept in Steinar a man of radical innocence, who neither ruminates upon nor questions his own decisions, but acts and then accepts the results of his actions.” Well, the novel failed to make me accept Steinar or suspend judgement; I blamed him soundly for going off half-cocked to Utah. Laxness evidently intends Steinar to be something of a tragic hero. Not that I’d dream of contradicting a Nobel prize-winning writer, but Steinar seems to me a bit of an ass; I can understand his desire to see the Promised Land, but why couldn’t he take his willing family along instead of leaving them to the wolves? As for his wife and children, they never blame Steinar for abandoning them; rather, the daughter weeps for her father and says “If Daddy is a  Mormon, then I want to be a Mormon woman.”

I also think much of my inability to relate to this book stems from my ignorance of Icelandic folklore–I can tell I’m  missing all sort of references to myths and historical events that would have made this book a much richer read.  This omission is of course entirely my fault (I should  have hunted out the Cliffs Notes), but if I had read something about Iceland, I couldn’t have chosen this book for the challenge.  Anyway, the overall feeling was rather like reading Beckham’s autobiography without ever having seen the man kick a ball.  Not satisfactory.

I have to say: Laxness has perfect control of his material. I’m admiring the way the author plays off Steinar’s innocence against his child-like wisdom even as I resent the plot turns. He successfully  uses a strange satirical humor while writing about brutal events, and there’s a fable-like tone to the prose that perfectly suits this kind of story. In sum, I think I’ve picked the wrong book by the right author. I can’t bring myself to finish Paradise Reclaimed, but I’ll be hunting out other works by Laxness. Oh, and I’ll have start figuring out those special characters soon.

The Interpreter of Ladies: misplaced letters in book titles.

Have you heard of The Interpreter of Ladies by Jhumpa Lahiri? It’s about a man who, following an incident with a spice grinder and a bolt of lightning,  is able to read the minds of Ivy-educated Indian-American Bengali women…

The ever-dependable Guardian has come up with yet another enjoyably pointless nerd game: what the classics might sound like with  misplaced  letters.  And so we have “Louisa May Alcott’s Little Omen, in which the idyllic Massachusetts childhood of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy is suddenly ruptured when their mother gives birth to her first boy, young Damien March…” No anagrams, and no substitutions–you can only drop letters, not re-arrange them.

I’m contributing my mite to the cause by focusing solely on writers of Indian origin. Besides Lahiri, I have:

Five Pint Someone by Chetan Bhagat : Surviving competitive beer-drinking at IIT. 

Same by Salman Rushdie: In which the author discusses his entire oeuvre.

The Eros Walk by Anita Rau Badami: A Bharatanatyam teacher in a small Indian town gives private lessons…  

Beastly Ales by Vikram Seth: Author describes his tour of England’s pubs in iambic pentameter.

Sacred Gams by Vikram Chandra: Bollywood actress insures her legs for a million rupees; underworld gangsters want their “cut”. 

The Mistress of Ices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni : A seller of exotic gelato discovers her inner Dairy Queen.

God I could go on and on… Do take a stab.

The Famous Five in the Mystery of Political Correctness

I return to blogging after a month during which I was so frantically busy I had neither the time nor energy to read anything but children’s fiction, and previously-read children’s fiction at that. I revisited my Captain Underpants box set, several Eva Ibbotsens, and my collection of Richmal Crompton’s William books (I own all thirty-eight; make of that what you will). I then picked up one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. The Famous Five, as most know, are a crime-fighting group consisting of Timmy the prescient dog who unfailingly barks at villains and nuzzles the good guys, junior studmuffin Julian, his brother Dick (I kid you not), their weepy-eyed sister Anne and their cousin George, poster child for serious therapy, failing which a sex-change operation is certainly in her future. The foursome lived in some part of Britain conveniently peppered by caves and smugglers, and were always eating enormous teas and renting caravans in between catching Desperate Criminals Who Had Baffled Scotland Yard.

I loved the series as a child. Twenty years later, the book made me want to rinse my eyes out with Purell. The part where Julian tells a female character the trouble with her is she doesn’t have a brother to “keep her in her place”, I quit reading, and donated the book to my local library. (But now, upon sober reflection, I think I ought to have stamped out its existence completely, ideally by stabbing it with a Basilisk fang.)

I now hear the Famous Five is being relaunched as an animated series. By Disney. With the offspring of the original Four as the lead characters. With a new PC angle. According to this article on the BBC website,

They feature 12-year-old Anglo-Indian Jo, short for Jyoti – a Hindi word meaning light – who, like her mother George [NB: So she got that gender thing sorted, eh?], is a tomboy and the group’s team leader.

Other characters include Allie, a 12-year-old Californian “shopaholic” who enjoys going out and getting “glammed up” but is packed off to the British countryside to live with her cousins.

Her mother was Anne in the Famous Five, a reluctant adventurer who has now  become a successful art dealer.

The team is completed by adventure junkie Max, who is 13-year-old Julian’s son; Dylan, the 11-year-old son of Dick, and dog Timmy.

Famous Five

(Picture from

Back in the days, Blyton’s work had a huge following in the Commonwealth countries; perhaps one of the reasons for introducing Jyoti is an attempt to continue that appeal to the next generation there? I’m really curious to see if the Disney series will do the trick in the Indian market.

Kate Christensen wins the 2008 Pen/Faulkner award

Buy now from Amazon!I was thrilled to hear Kate Christensen’s novel The Great Man had won this years PEN/Faulkner award.  Christensen is in good company–past winners include Roth and Updike and E.L.Doctorow and DeLilo.  Only 4 women have won the award since its inception 28 years ago…

Readers of this blog may recall reading my gushy review of the book posted here early Jan (the piece was originally published in Eclectica magazine). From my review:

The seeming effortlessness of the read is misleading however; this is fine, fine writing. Christensen can carve an image in your mind with a few deft words–a dog who resembles “a mournful miniature hippo,” or a toddler who looks like “an evil little elf,” with “potential for explosiveness in the manic corners of his mouth.” There are lovingly detailed, impossible-to- resist descriptions of food, which left me aglow with lunch ideas for the next few years.

But the prose truly takes off when Christensen is describing a setting. A dinner party, a kitchen with a meal in preparation, a trip to the grocery store are all described with such articulate panache that we are sucked right into the scene, eavesdropping on a neighbor’s revelations about an old flame even as we stir our soup bowls to identify that elusive spice. Somebody buy Christensen a ticket to see the Taj Mahal.

To have my taste affirmed by a discerning judging panel leaves me feeling all smug and satisfied. Seriously, though, do read this book–it’s devilishly clever.  

The Washington Post  has an interview with the author and more news about the award. 

An evening with Yann Martel

We’ve been having an unseasonal bout of snow lately (heavy even by Ottawa standards), and I’ve been contemplating the prospect of 4 months more of the same with something approaching desperation; a slave to the radiator till spring! Friday night, however, saw me slipping along the icy streets towards St. Brigid’s Church, where Yann Martel was giving a talk. Here’s a picture:

(This picture was taken by John W Macdonald. More pictures at

At this stage I make the shallow and irrelevant observation that Martel looks more yuppie-ish than I’d imagined.

Martel spoke about the new illustrated edition of Life of Pi. Now I’ve never been keen on illustrations in a novel outside of children’s literature–all too often, they interrupt the flow of the story, and break the spell cast by the plot. But the illustrations in this book made me reconsider my stance, for they are illustrations in every sense of the word–going well beyond translating words into pictures to illuminating ideas. Objects hazily imagined become beautifully clear–we can see what Pi’s raft looked like, for instance, or where Richard Parker sat on the raft. The pictures themselves are gorgeous, with jewel-bright colors and astonishingly clever perspectives; all the scenes are depicted as though viewed through the eyes of Pi–a trick that pulls the viewer right into the picture.

Martel also spoke about the organic relationship between writer and illustrator, in this case an artist named Tomislav Torjanac, who, despite being located in a  small Croatian village, not only succeeded in getting his work chosen by Martel, but also managed to locate pictures of South Indian food for his paintings, all thanks to the internet. Fascinating.

The second half of the talk dealt with Martel’s attempt to inveigle Canada’s prime minister into reading. (I’ve blogged about this in an earlier post.) Martel’s chosen a wide variety of books–Maus, Oranges are not the only Fruit, the Bhagavad Gita—and hopefully, one of these will pique Harper’s interest.

The talk, however, faltered a bit for me when Martel began to link the importance of reading with the state of the Western World. He set up the West against the East, labelling the West as deeply unhappy inspite of its material wealth, and the East… you get the idea. Anyone who has seen anything of poverty knows this to be a gross oversimplification, and a dangerous romanticization of what is a very wretched condition.  But there’s no denying the passion and piquancy of Martel’s idea, and I hope he succeeds in getting Harper to put aside the Guinness Book of World Records (reputedly his favorite book) for a pint and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.