This just had to be posted and shared, and, eventually, responded to in a suitably clever blog post.

But for now, for all you book lovers out there, enjoy the vindication. For all ye scoffing sceptics who insist that a TV program or video game will suffice and eventually supplant – HA.


Review: Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and the power of fable

Israeli Cover of The Tiger's Wife - quite impressive

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding the beautiful Tea Obreht and her stunning debut The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht was the youngest ever writer to win the Orange Prize and she was named one of The New Yorker‘s 20 under 40. More significantly, The Tiger’s Wifehas appeared on almost every list of the best books of 2011, both commercial and reader-based, and high-brow intellectual and literary.

This last seems to highlight the way that though the book appeals to a wide range of people (it has spent many weeks in the New York Times bestseller list, and has been number 1 on the ABA Indie Bestseller list for almost 20 weeks), it is also receiving praise from critics and prestigious reviewers. This combination of commercial potential and literary value seems hard to find – so what is the secret of The Tiger’s Wife?

The answer is difficult to describe. The book doesn’t exactly have a simple and clear plot, and Obreht’s subject matter stretches from the universality of death to the specificity of the war-torn Balkan experience. Her characters are sometimes mythical and sometimes real, and sometimes both at the same time.

On a simple level, you might say that this is a book about a woman coming to terms with the death of a beloved grandfather, and a country coming to terms with a bloody past, but that would be to ignore the most wonderful thing about the book – Obreht’s talent in using fable to “deliver a truth histories can’t touch“.

Understanding the magic of The Tiger’s Wife goes to the very heart of understanding why we read fairy tales – what emotional and human realities they can reveal to us in ways that normal writing cannot.

Albert Einstein claimed “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” G. K. Chesterton wrote that “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

By refusing to limit herself to realistic writing, Obreht transforms the tragedies of Balkan history and the struggle of one woman to commemorate her grandfather’s life into an emotional truth we can all share in and identify with. Not only this, she delivers a truth that is at once ‘real’ and believable, and also hopeful.

But Obreht’s achievement is even more complex than that, since she never lets her story fall into fable completely. Instead, by resolutely standing on the thin line between realism and fable, Obreht highlights the way that the two are necessary to each other. The conflict between science and superstition that the book deals with – both stylistically and through it’s content – is never resolved precisely because we need both in life. The breathtaking end of the book works exactly like this, leaving the reader stranded between these two poles of life and forcing them to keep thinking about the book for hours afterwards.

Perhaps the real secret to enjoying The Tiger’s Wife is by following W. H. Auden’s advice: “The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” Throw yourself into The Tiger’s Wife, and it will reward you with a stunning reading experience and a moving emotional truth.

Female ‘Sovereyntee’ and The Wife of Bath

Today being International Women’s Day, I’ve been thinking about female role models, as have several other blogs and tweets around. There have been plenty of lists on which literary heroines or fictional characters would come up as our top ten, and with a solid smattering of Bronte and Austen heroines standing next to Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame, there is enough variety to appeal to one and all.

Whilst I’d have to admit that Margaret Atwood’s Joan in Lady Oracle more closely resembles who I am, if we’re talking about heroines or role models for who we’d like to be, Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath comes up trumps.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to go around marrying multiply and playing cougar, as Julie Walters so wonderfully portrayed the Wife of Bath in the BBC adaptation in 2003.

But the Wife of Bath does represent some serious girl power – both in her medieval time and in ours. She refuses to conform to contemporary conventions of womanhood, and with irrepressible enthusiasm and joie de vivre she happily indulges in all that life has to offer with no thought for authority.

But the reason I love the Wife of Bath is for her linguistic playfulness and her role as a woman attempting to rewrite women in the canon. She fills her tale with mini-episodes of transformation, highlighting the way women are adept at adapting to different situations and are able to slide, chameleon-like, into forms that can get them what they want. Rather than seeing this as a terrible necessity of living in a patriarchal world (*yawn*), I would celebrate this ability woman have to get what they want. Their clever flexibility that uses the rules of a particular game to their advantage, rather than loudly demanding that the rules be changed or the game aborted.

The Wife of Bath reminds me of that saying, the one that gets recycled and farmed out by mothers and aunts and grandmothers and older sisters and mother’s best friends at every opportunity. It’s most famous appearance might have been in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when Tula’s mother turns to her and says,

“the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and the neck can turn the head any way she wants.’

This, to me symbolizes the ‘sovereyntee’ women can lay claim to. It’s controversial, I know, to claim that women shouldn’t be the head if they want to, but perhaps there is strength and power to be gained in laying claim to a particularly feminine way of being, one that is just as effective as a male one but perhaps not as clearly dominant – rather than attempting to assert that we’re all the same.

Even the Wife of Bath had to use the language of male scholarship and patriarchal religion to clothe her feminist project, but the fact that she could do that at all is, I think, cause for celebration rather than sadness.

Review: Do We Need To Talk About Kevin?

Finally a review not only for a book that has already been published, but for one that’s been around for a while. I seem to be late to this particular party.

Before it was accepted for publication, Lionel Shriver’s dark and provocative book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, was rejected by over 30 publishers. They objected that the narrator – Eva – was ‘unattractive,’ and that no one would want to read about a mother who failed to form a bond with her son, who, in fact, disliked him.

Indeed, it’s not an easy book. Apart from picking apart traditional ideas about motherhood, the book is ultimately about the brutal, cold-blooded, and premeditated murder of 7 high school students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker by one, 15 year-old Kevin Katchadourian.

Unlike other fiction books on the subject of high school killings – like Jodi Piccoult’s Nineteen Minutes – We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t try and make us understand the killer’s viewpoint, painting him as an outcast, a victim of school bullying who is lashing out at his tormentors. Instead, Shriver asks whether parents can be blamed for their children’s actions. Are you born a psychopath? Or does your upbringing make you into one? Is it Eva’s bad mothering that causes Kevin to become a mass murderer?

Despite all this, the book became a sensation. With an initial publicity budget near zero, the book started by selling slowly, until word of mouth turned it into a US, and then an international, bestseller. Then in 2005, it won the Orange Prize for fiction and now the film adaptation is the star of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Everyone, it seems, is talking about Kevin.

Is it just the shocking and appalling content that has people hooked? Apparently not. Shriver’s prose is not only finely-honed and polished, it also often richly poetic. Her attention to detail is legendary and is used to great effect in the novel. I have read complaints that the book reads as if Shriver sat down with a thesaurus and used it at every opportunity, but I associated her wide vocabulary more with a need to be exact than a desire to show off. Perhaps that’s because I imagine I would write similarly myself. Her characters might not be likeable – Kevin is truly disturbing and Eva resolutely refuses to bow to our expectations of her innate, maternal core (which troublingly I didn’t take issue with at all, I might hate a child like Kevin too) – but they are compelling, and despite their strangeness, somehow feel vividly real. In short, like the film, the book is compulsive and chilling, and if you are disquieted, you are also unable to stop.

One wise reviewer has said that Shriver forces her readers to look inside themselves and then run away from what they find. It’s true, the book presents some uncomfortable truths to its reader, not just about juvenile murder, but also about motherhood and nature versus nurture. It breaks taboos and deals with difficult, complex issues in fine, highly literary language, and (perhaps most worryingly of all), refuses to give the readers an easy answer on who is to blame for a child’s murderous actions. As Shriver says, the verdict is up to the reader. One thing is for sure, it seems we must, indeed, talk about Kevin.

Squeezing It All Into One Line: The Jaipur Literary Festival 2012

It is extremely tempting to try and summarize the wildly intense, brain-and-sensory overload that was the JLF 2012 in a series of one-liners, not least because there were quite a few memorable ones..

They ran from the imperative-
dance naked! do it now!‘ (Hoshang Merchant, Indian writer of Gay fiction)

to the critical-
[Obama’s] Nobel Prize was a prize for not being George Bush‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

to the philosophical-
Sikhism is not something of the hereafter, it is about living the right way in this world. A kind of detachment in attachment.‘ (Navtej Sarna, writer and diplomat)

to the historical-
Hitler and Stalin did not inherit absolute power the way that Peter the Great did, they rose to it – it’s not lunacy or moral imbecility, it’s great people skills.‘ (historian Simon Sebag Montefiore)

to the metaphorical-
turn your body into ink and your mind into paper, then turn your bones into a pen‘ (The Vision of the Gurus session)

to the scatological-
Purgatives are like purgatory, they almost make you believe‘ (Indian writer R. Raj Rao)

to meditations on journalism and power-
the job of journalism is to put pressure on power‘ (David Remnick, Editor of The New Yorker)

on journalism and literature-
there is only so far journalism can go, and then literature takes over‘ (Jason Burke, journalist and writer)

or just on journalism-
Somebody won’t often be able to give you a soundbite about their lives immediately. But if you shut up and follow them and spend the time, that truth will emerge.‘ (Katherine Boo, journalist and writer)

and then on how the internet is affecting the aesthetics of literature-
the internet is our greatest living novel…it’s the playground of millions‘ (Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac)

on modern identity politics-
you’re not purely anything anymore‘ (novelist Teju Cole)

and on how to write that play or novel you have inside you-
Get rid of the delusion that you’ll somehow do it by not doing it. Taking a walk or sitting by the pool isn’t going to magic a play into existence.‘ (Tom Stoppard, playwright)

and finally, perhaps a snippet or two of Bakhti poetry

God, My Darling,
Do me a favour
And kill my mother-in-law


Void is not devoid of God

But of course, as the long list of quotes shows, not only have I failed to catch the festival in one line, I have failed to catch it in a few. And that really was what pushed this festival over the edge of being an experience you can process, postmortem, regurgitate and file away neatly, to being an experience that leaves an indelible mark and changes the scale of the way of you think.

It seems inevitable that the JLF will continue to grow, and I often heard it bandied about during the festival that next year, the organizers would have to shift to a larger venue, so I feel privileged to have been able to attend the festival while it was still (just about) Diggi-Palace-size. But I’m certain that however it grows, and whatever corporate sponsors and celebrity guests it succeeds in attracting, the next Jaipur Literature Festivals will still be about a ‘curiosity about the internal life of words, and about the creative imaginations that give birth to them.’ (Namita Gokhale, novelist and festival organizer)

What’s more, and even better, the JLF, with its huge and uniformly enthusiastic number of attendees, its international participants and its cosmopolitan atmosphere, did and does ‘testify in an uncomplicated way to the power of literature and what it can do.’ (Teju Cole, novelist)

Above and below the hobnobbing and professional networking, and certainly beyond the persistent political controversy, the festival seems ultimately to be about interested, engaged and switched-on people coming together, ready to encounter the other through the written and the spoken word.

(For videos of the sessions, pictures and more info, go to