A Shannon Chakraborty Appreciation Post

TLDR: Best fantasy series I have read in the recent past, highly recommend.

So the Daevabad Trilogy caught my eye because of two main reasons:

  1. The eye-catching cover of City of Brass, the first book, showcased in the fantasy section of nearly every local bookstore when it came out.
  2. The name of the author. SA Chakraborty is not only an Indian name, but is also a name from my part of the country. So I was curious, went and looked up the name, and found out that the writer was a New Yorker, and the initials stand for Shannon Ali. I didn’t think too much of it, other than a few mental tsks at the fact that obscuring the first names of women writers of fantasy for marketing purposes still seems to be a thing. (Don’t take my word for it – JK Rowling, NK Jemisin, VE Schwab are all part of the same club).

I did not read City of Brass right away, waiting it out because my queue was already backlogged. Plus, without any idea of how long the trilogy would take to complete, it didn’t make sense to plunge in and then wait for yet another Windy Winter. It was only when the second volume, Kingdom of Copper came out just about a year later, and to equally positive reviews, that I jumped on. A few days later, there I was, blinking at the last sentences of the epilogue to the second book, after a grueling sequence of mayhem, death, and heart-stopping action. “I’m home”, said the lead character, as tears sprang to her eyes. I was sitting in the courtyard of the public library next to my workplace, my lunch forgotten next to me, my skin breaking into goosebumps even though it was a sunny afternoon. I remember taking a deep breath, steeling myself to wait another year for the story to end. And then I sent a few texts to different corners of the globe, with the general message of “Drop everything and please read Daevabad trilogy”.

Empire of Gold, the third book, came out last month. Almost a year since I read the first two, and I realized I didn’t even have to refresh my memory, because the story had stayed with me. And when I was done, about twenty four hours later, there was the satisfied-yet-eager feeling that accompanies the best of endings. A good book is one that makes you miss the world, a magnificent book is one that encourages you to seek out even more. Empire of Gold jump-started my reading again this year, after a lag brought about by the quarantine period.

The Daevabad Trilogy is djinn-fiction set in the middle-east, in an opulent, magical city filled with magical beings that have complicated political and personal histories. Things happen when….wait, let the author herself set things up, instead of me blathering on.

A City and Its People

The city of Daevabad is described by the writer in such vivid detail that one wonders how much is her own creation and what bits existed in some forgotten manuscript, and of course it is the intriguing details of the city’s make-up and history that drive a majority of the tale. Turns out Chakraborty spent the better part of a decade poring over and creating these backstories before she began working on the actual book, as a sort of historical-fan-fiction-woven-with-fantasy project. It also helped that she was a history nerd, with a major in medieval Islamic history.

To appreciate the world of the books, it helps to know a bit of Islamic djinn canon. Djinns are fire elementals, capricious, endowed with superhuman powers, and yet human-like in the sense that they have children and may die, and as the books make it clear, they are immensely political. That the prophet-king Suleiman conquered the various races of djinns, stripped them of their magic and made believers of these capricious spirits is known. The ones who rebelled against Sulaiman’s rule were the ifrits, and they were forever banished. Suleiman gave his ring of sovereignty and the source of all djinn magic to Anahid, first of the Nahids of the tribe of Daevas, and the founder of the city of Daevabad.

Our ancestors spun a city out of magic—pure Daeva magic—to create a wonder unlike the world had ever seen. We pulled an island out of the depths of a marid-haunted lake and filled it with libraries and pleasure gardens. Winged lions flew over its skies and in its streets, our women and children walked in absolute safety.

The city is divided into various quarters, each populated by one of the six tribes that make up the djinn, and is ruled by the Qahtani family of the Geziri tribe. It is clear that there are undercurrents of hostility and mistrust among the various tribes, along with uneasy alliances, since the Qahtanis took power by force from the Nahids. Compounding all these issues is the presence of Shafits, half-human half-djinns who are allowed to live in their own separate quarters but with, shall we say, distinctly lower social status in this world.

It is into this unstable sociopolitical powder-keg that Nahri, our identifying character of the story, finds herself transported. Much like protagonists of other, familiar fantasy sagas, she finds her regular life and identity pulled away from beneath her feet, and most of the first book is her coming to terms with her mysterious connection to the Daevas since, as it turns out, she is a Nahid. Or maybe a shafit, we don’t know yet. Nahri’s priority is to figure out who she is and where she stands amidst the complex and contradicting options put before her, with nothing but her wits and street smarts about her.

“I wanted to find a balance between a starry-eyed dreamer and a ruthless pragmatist; someone who’s learned to temper her ambitions with realism and is largely okay with the moral ambiguities of doing what she needs to survive. I also wanted to explore the idea of someone being alone in a world that so strongly revolves around family and community.”

As much as the story is about Nahri — and yes, I know, so far this sounds totally like a Chosen One on a Quest story, it is the supporting characters that make the book so, so much more. What helps here is that we are not just introduced to Daevabad from Nahri’s perspective, but also from within. The viewpoint of Alizayd Al-Qahtani, the younger son of the ruling king, one who is being trained to become the general to his elder brother Muntadhir when he eventually ascends the throne. His lens comes with the bias of being part of the ruling circle in the city and recognizing the injustices being perpetrated on the shafit. Ali is someone that is entrenched in the political system, both through his privileged bloodline and his training, and what he needs is to decide between his love for his family and his desire to see things change. When we first meet him, he seems to have made some choices that are going terribly wrong. And then things get worse.

Then there is Darayavahoush Al-Afshin. Dara for short. Once upon a time, Dara served the Nahids as one of their weapons of war, and his name has since become legend. He had disappeared for a long time due to reasons unknown, and his presence back in Daevabad, with Nahri in tow, causes jubilation in some quarters and terror in others. Things are further complicated by the fact that while transporting Nahri to the city, sparks fly between the two. And take my word for it, this is not a hurried, love-at-first-sight relationship. Half the first book is the journey undertaken by the two to reach the city, and they encounter friends and foes, and worse, each other’s idiosyncrasies on the way. The first kiss, when it happens, feels earned by both.

It would be unfair of me to reveal further of the plot, and besides, it is impossible to explain the complicated politics of Daevabad and the myriad subplots that weave throughout the story. A lot of reviewers have compared the series to George RR Martin’s A Game of Ice and Fire. To be honest, while the shallower aspects of Martin’s writing has seeped into a lot of fantasy, the comparison holds good here because of the way in which Chakraborty refuses to boil down her narrative into a straightforward good vs evil narrative. The main theme of the series is the complicated nature of relationships, both familial and of the heart. The secondary theme is the unforgiving nature of history, specifically the cycles of oppression and liberation that perpetuate across generations until someone decides to learn from them and, forgive me for this, “break the wheel”.

Spoiler-free list meant to titillate and intrigue, but will possibly be confusing:

  • There are excellent curve-balls thrown into the story, involving not just the city and its djinns but the building blocks of grudges and betrayals that led to the present moment.
  • We are introduced very early on to the earth and air elementals, ghouls and peris respectively. Later on, we meet the water elementals, the marids, first in a harrowing sequence involving Ali, and then in much greater detail in the third book. Its beautiful how all these different beings are woven into the main storyline.
  • The second book jumps forward five years from the events of the first. The third book begins immediately after the cliffhanger epilogue of the second.
  • There is a marriage of convenience. And broken hearts, broken promises, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. Also, the family showdowns give a whole new meaning to the term “bound by blood”.
  • For a while, I thought Ali and Muntadhir’s relationship mirrored that of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, and was on tenterhooks wondering if fiction would follow history.
  • There are various points of the story where the characters are placed in positions of convenience, where they could have said “fuck it” and let things be, choosing to be beholden to the status quo. But of course, it’s their choices that drive the story. I loved that.
  • Dara is added as a point of view character from the second book onwards, and suddenly it makes so much sense. It’s also heartbreaking to both identify with his impulses and to understand how he is pulled into events that spiral beyond his control.
  • Pay close attention to Nahri’s personality – her reactions to events telegraph what she wants, and also what she needs. She gets the former at the end of the second book, and she has to work to earn the latter in the third.

So. Much. Love.

There are so many reasons why I love this trilogy so much. I was burnt out on SFF for quite a while, mostly because the tropes were getting tiresome, and there are only so many variants of Chosen Ones on a Quest to defeat a Dark Lord that one can take in without feeling wiped out. Hard fantasy also has had this tendency to force the reader into doing homework, trying to figure out milieu and context through maps, linguistic tongue-twisters, and a whole bunch of expository text referred to as “world building”. Dragons, witches, elves and dwarfs are de rigeur, as are pseudo-European medieval feudal kingdom settings.

Obviously, for me, it’s the joy of seeing characters and settings that do not fall in that narrow band that has dominated fantasy all throughout. It is not as if djinns have not appeared in Western fantasy at all, but those appearances have primarily been through a first world filter. The “genie” in this setting is a fast-talking trickster figure that grants wishes, and then chooses to side with the protagonist, becoming a secondary character in the hero’s quest. I am thinking of the titles that come to mind – The Thief of Baghdad, Disney’s Aladdin, I Dream of Jeannie, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, only the last of which has any motivation to go beyond the surface level tropes associated with these beings. Of late, of course, there has been better works – Helen Wecker’s Golem and the Jinni comes to mind, but even that is set in early 20th century New York, with brief flashbacks to a far-flung past.

So unlike the Eurocentric fount of stories, it’s refreshing to see a world inspired by stories of court intrigues set during the Abbasid Caliphate.

For one, the period I particularly enjoy—the Abbasid Caliphate—was in many ways a bridge between the ancient world and the more “modern” medieval era, witnessing an incredible syncretism of different cultures, languages, religions, and customs. I like seeing the way places and people change: that a proudly Arab Muslim court might be modeled on a Persian Zoroastrian one, led by a wazir whose family had been Buddhist priests centuries earlier, and that it would have employed Greek scholars and Hindu surgeons and sent trade missions to China. I don’t have any illusions that this was always peaceful, but these were teeming, fascinating, and diverse cosmopolitan cities.

To be clear, Chakraborty is not the only Muslim writer with spins on Islamic folklore. Names I can think of include Saad Z Hussain (his The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday is short but beautiful, and Djinn City is on my list), Sami Shah’s Fire Boy is set in Karachi, while G Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen brings together djinns and cyberpunk, two genres I never thought of seeing together. And of course, I should not forget Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, which is the closest to superhero djinn fiction I have ever read.

The characters and their arcs, and by this I mean not just the three main characters I mention, but the ever-widening supporting cast that Chakraborty situates around the protagonists. It helps that the names are beyond fabulous — who can help but swoon at names like Muntadhir, Zaynab, Manizheh, Irtemiz, Mardoniye, to name a few. There are even Bangla names thrown in (Subhashini and Parimal Sen, and it warms my heart to see the former spelt the proper Bengali way). The homework part of reading fantasy automatically goes away, since these names are not only culturally familiar to me, but also rooted in a classical tradition instead of being made-up fantasy tongue twisters. The nomenclature of the world is a confluence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian cultures, and you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the differences.

As much as it feels like obligatory love triangle is telegraphed with two male and one female lead characters, the beauty of these books is how it subverts those expectations. It is clear that a lot of thought went into the individual motivations of each character, and Chakraborty recently talked in a Reddit AMA about how she wanted her main character to go through different shades of love—infatuation, sexual experience, trust and mutual respect, while also becoming better people. The Quest therefore is not just a tagline or a MacGuffin; finding a magic sword or defeating an Evil Lord could be the endgame in a different unending war, but for Nahri, Dara, and Ali, it is all about finding themselves, owning up to and healing the pitfalls and mistakes of the past. The series does not end with a grand flourish of hashtag winning; it awakens to another day in the life of the city where change is in the air, and they who remain need to get to work.

Final note about how immersive the story was. I read the books on my Kindle, and as I was in the middle of Kingdom of Copper, I realized around lunchtime, with a shock, that the Kindle had run out of charge at a crucial point. I ran to the library next door, hoping that there would be a copy left. No luck. In a final act of desperation, before giving up completely, I searched the library app to see if they had an e-version I could read on my phone. Whaddya know, Hoopla had the audio-version. So I scrubbed the audio all the way to the correct chapter which, on a phone, is madness. And I spent 45 minutes listening to Soneela Nankani narrating the story, only half-wincing at the rolling r’s in her pronunciations of Nahri and Dara. But there you go, that’s how much it hooked me. And hopefully will do the same to you.


On Stephen King Rarities #4 (with Epilogue)

Oh, you thought I was done? Psych!

It never really ends, you guys.

Actually, it has ended, for now. But not without a denouement of sorts, involving suspense, trepidation, and finally, joy.

So remember I talked about this publishing house called Dragon Unbound, which did these funky cast iron and asbestos covered rebindings of first edition Stephen King books? The owner is a gentleman named Paul Suntup, a collector and entrepreneur, who apparently had bigger ideas. One of these ideas was a different publishing house, one dedicated to producing the highest quality handcrafted items possible. I know, it’s sort of a vague commitment –– how exactly does one even measure that kind of quality anyway? The mission statement of the company is simple and profound.

(Our) books (are) created with care and grace by craftspeople such as letterpress printers, hand bookbinders, paper makers, typographers and artists, using some of the finest bookmaking materials…they are handbound, one at time, and we go to great expense to utilize only the finest materials available. Most of our editions are printed letterpress, which is the printing method perfected by Gutenberg, who used it to produce the first book printed from moveable type in the West, the now-famous Gutenberg Bible.

Suntup Editions began in 2017 by publishing an art portfolio of David Paladini’s illustrations to Eyes of the Dragon, a book written (obviously) by Stephen King and one that would have fallen squarely into the young adult category, had that term existed in 1984. It was written by King for children, his and his pal Peter Straub’s kids, to be precise. Paladini’s illustrations graced the mass-market paperback, and this was the first time they got their due. Suntup would go on to publish The Covers Collection, a set of high-quality prints of Stephen King book covers, done with the original artists’ blessing. That project is still ongoing.

But in the beginning of 2018, a video on the Suntup Editions website announced that they were going to release their first specialty book. The promise was bold –– 200 signed copies, out of which 185 would be for sale at $525 each, plus 26 lettered copies at a staggering $3950, and a small number of unsigned “gift” edition copies for a mere $110. Renowned artists Rick Berry and Dave Christensen were picked to contribute artwork –– Berry produced 8 paintings, and Christensen, known for the original 70s covers to Salem’s Lot and The Shining, did a set of black-and-white illustrations. The descriptions of the books bordered on pornographic.

The Limited Edition is a smyth-sewn quarter leather binding, with Japanese cloth front and back boards and a gold stamped spine. The edition is printed letterpress on Cranes Lettra Pearl White cotton paper, and housed in a custom clamshell box with a leather spine label.

The Lettered edition is limited to 26 copies for sale lettered A-Z, and is signed by Stephen King, Rick Berry and Dave Christensen. It is printed letterpress on moldmade Arches wove paper with a deckled fore edge, and handbound in full crimson goatskin leather. Endpapers are marbled, and made exclusively for this edition. The binding is sewn and rounded with a hollow back designed to prevent sagging fo the page block.
The title is made using six original Royal glass typewriter keys which are inset into the cover, and the letter designation is a Royal key inset into the lower back cover.
The book is housed in a custom walnut wood box designed to resemble an original royal Model 10 packing crate, and features a black velvet-lined book bed. The box is laser engraved and handcrafted by Dick Olson at his workshop in Farmington, new Mexico.

The book that Suntup chose to inaugurate this ambitious project was, in a word, perfect. After all, what Number One Fan can resist the siren song of Misery?

Annie Wilkes by Rick Berry

Collector forums went haywire. I was following the Dark Tower boards, and there was no doubt that people were about to throw the contents of their wallets at the altar of Suntup. I was one of them, obviously. Except I had a sinking feeling that I would be severely disappointed by the proceedings. Years of experience dealing with Mondo poster drops had deadened me to the devastating pain of adding an item to a shopping cart and clicking on check-out, only to see the message “the item is no longer available”. Add to it the fact that not all the limiteds were going to be on sale, a chunk of them were made available to customers who had bought the portfolio and prints from Suntup before. The lettered editions were already snapped up. Things were looking bleak, but I was going to try, no question about it.

I woke early the day of the drop. Did everything with an eye on the clock –– I have had experiences when I missed a drop because I was distracted at the last minute. Created my account, logged in to said account, made sure I was logged into Paypal. Alarms were set to 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds to the release time. The sale was to go live at 8 AM on a Monday morning, and the next few minutes would decide if my week would be in tatters, or if I would be walking on air the next few days.

As soon as the buttons became active, my fingers flew on the keyboard. My stomach fluttered. There was a roar in my ears. Even as I clicked “add to cart”, I hit refresh on the backup laptop to make sure at least one of the orders would go through. Browser pages faded to white and status bars inched to completion. Teeth gritted, fingers clenched, I waited for a server crash, or a browser freeze. When “Order complete” message came up, the part of me still hopped up on adrenaline refused to believe in reality. I held my breath and waited for the actual email confirmation to come in. On the second laptop, I hit refresh on the main product screen. It was three minutes past eight, and the limited edition was sold out.

The email came in. I sighed. I remember laughing, and feeling light-headed and jelly-kneed. That whole week, I made for delightful company at work and beyond. It felt like a good start to 2018, a happy foundation for the whole year ahead. Reading the comments on the DT forum after the sale was over also made me realize just how lucky I had been.

Exactly six months later, on August 13, the package landed. Between February and then, I saw one copy of the limited edition (not the lettered) sell for $4000 via public auction, sight unseen. Since I was in Los Angeles, and the company is located in Irvine, I was one of the first recipients of the packages. It’s probably the only item for which I have created an unboxing video. Some day, when I am ready, the video will be put up online. Call me stupid, but holding that book in my hands felt like a quasi-religious experience. It was the first Stephen King book I bought via the primary market. That had to mean something, right?

The Fourth Book

Misery, Suntup Editions


Where do we go from here, how do we carry on

Will I continue to buy more of the King collectibles? Honestly, I do not know. Sometimes I feel like there is a part of me that wants to say “enough”. Comic art takes a lot out of me, and a huge part of my interaction with my primary hobby is to draw imaginary lines in the sand that dictate what I will go after next. It’s easy to give in to the frisson of excitement that follows a ninja purchase, but that is not what I crave any more. I have a handle on the art collecting bug, for sure. But there are enough Stephen King limited editions that make my palms itch, still. The limited edition of The Stand, for example, is bound in goatskin and comes in a wooden “coffin” box, wrapped in glassine paper. The Cycle of the Werewolf comes with a pencil sketch by Bernie Wrightson. And of course, finding a matching set of the Dark Tower Signed Limited books requires a matchless combination of single-minded determination, deep pockets, luck, and the right connections.

My absolute favorite King collectible is for a book that I never even finished reading, and one that does not figure on a top 20-list of his titles. It’s the lettered edition of The Regulators. Here’s the description (emphasis mine):

Hand sewn, hand bound in brown Morocco leather and Winchester 30 caliber bullets. The spine has the title and author’s name blind stamped wet to look like it was branded. The end leaves are of hand made and colored paste paper. The book is housed in a hand made faux-ammunition box covered in wood veneer with gold stamping on the side.

Yeah, the book has real fucking bullets embedded into the cover. But even more interesting are the signatures. Regulators is written by Richard Bachman, King’s pseudonym, and is a “dead man”. So to keep the story straight, the book came with dummy checks signed by the writer, which meant Stephen King signed as Bachman. Each check was made out to familiar names –– #A was to Carrie White ($125, prom dress), #I was to Roland ($50, a six-shooter), and #Q was to Pennywise Party Entertainment($100, balloons). A delightfully kooky presentation, and I have only seen it come for sale once in the last three years.

History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.


“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.


The Second Marie Kondo post

This is a followup to my first Marie Kondo post, and is meant to serve as a thought-dump of what I took from the book, and how it has affected my life. I am well aware of the risks of sounding vaguely faddish — like people that can’t stop talking about their cross-fit classes or that new vegan diet that has changed everything and why you should take them up too, because life is meaningless otherwise, darling.

Uh-huh. The context here is that I have, for a while, been wondering about specific things regarding my lifestyle. The only thing that moved with me to LA from India, were my collection of books. These are books that have (mostly) been bought from 2002 onwards, ever since I graduated from college, and have moved with me from apartment to apartment, city to city. The ones bought before 2002? Most were transferred to my parents’ place in Assam. A lot of those have ended up in the library in my mother’s school, or have gone to her students who seemed interested in reading.

Over the last few years, I have been curating the books that stay on my shelves, which is to say that the ones on display in the living room are the ones that I *love* to own. Now a bulk of these books are comics and manga, and while I have quirks related to those (case in point: at one point, Watchmen was present in my shelves as the original 12 issues, a trade paperback, a 10th anniversary trade paperback, and an Absolute Edition. Right now, I just have the Absolute Edition and the original 12 issues), the comics get read and reread frequently. I cleared out a couple of shelves before moving to LA, and last year, a chunk of comics that I never read went to the local comic-book store. But despite my occasional cleanup, I still had way too many books. And the sad thing is — it’s not like I reread any of them. They were all just there, as a function of my taste and what was available in bookstores in the last decade. You have to remember, that was a time when e-readers did not exist, and neither did Flipkart or Amazon. If I saw a book at a used bookstore and did not pounce on it, I had no idea if I would ever see it again. So yeah, I bought everything, because I was earning enough and I could. My buying habits changed over the years, and it’s no longer about going nuts during a discount sale or bidding on random deals on eBay,

The best thing of Marie Kondo, in my opinion, is that she does not talk of minimalism — which right now is an -ism that encourages a competitive zeal in lowering the number of possessions you own. Ms Kondo’s techniques help enable a certain kind of mental freedom in evaluating your possessions. You do not need to disown everything, she says. All you have to do is to find the things that bring you joy. Which meant that the question she asked was not “what do you want to throw away?”, it was “what do you want to keep?”

One fine day last week, I did what the KonMari method prescribed. Which is to tackle one kind of item at a time — in this case, books — and piling them all in one place; and without being distracted, to sort them one by one into two categories: the ones that spark joy and the ones that don’t. At first, I was too lenient. Of course, I loved my Terry Pratchett paperbacks, and the Tom Sharpes, and the Robert Heinleins and the Andrew Vachsses. They were not getting out of my sight. Why on earth would I want to get rid of my Harry Potter first edition hardcovers? Or the Kamala Subramanium Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana that I bought so many years ago? Those books were memories for me, and it seemed criminal to get rid of them.

Except, if I took away my projected feelings for them, they were just semi-yellowed, well-thumbed blocks of paper, most of which hadn’t been opened in years. My Stephen King Dark Tower books were still waiting to be read since 2005 or thereabouts. The Richard Burton Arabian Nights volume, pretty as it was, had never been opened in the United States. I reread some Vachss and some Pratchetts every now and then. But not the books I owned; I would just download them on my Kindle when I wanted. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the books weren’t really bringing much of value to my life, they were more fetish objects than the ideas they represented. Once that switch flipped in my head, it became easier and easier to understand what I should keep, and what should go.

I ended up with 9 boxes of books that I no longer wanted, after 2 nights of sorting. I took them all to the local charity shop. The books that still remain fit one shelf; there is another shelf that I will refer to as a ‘probation area’; I have left the books that I may put up on eBay, or give away as gifts, or are novel enough to merit their presence. I could not get rid of the first edition of Gods, Demons and Others, as much as I thought I would; nor could I let the Diana Wynne-Joneses go. But I have given myself 3 months – if the books on the probation area still remain untouched and unread, they all go.

One might think that there is an addendum where I reminiscence about the emptiness the missing books have left in my life, but on the contrary, I feel happy. And free, in a way. Is that a two-thumbs-up vote for the KonMari method? I guess. I still feel like I cheated because I did not do anything about my comics, but you know, I am okay with that. My comics have always sparked joy in my life.

In addition to what I did above (and I did that with my clothes a few weeks ago, which was easier), I have been doing specific things that Ms Kondo recommends in her book.

  • The most important thing is that of mentally assigning things in their right place, at home. She advocates figuring out where every item you own belongs, so that the amount of clutter is minimized, and also you think more about where something new should go, when you think of buying it.
  • Clearing the space around the kitchen sink, the bathroom shower and wash basin. It helps a lot, both in terms of aesthetics and mental calm.
  • Folding my clothes the right way and stacking them horizontally, not vertically; that’s one of the smartest moves ever. I did that with everything, including socks, underwear, hand towels, pocket squares and t-shirts, and it really serves its purpose well.
  • In general, using the ‘spark joy’ method is a great way to figure out if you want to do something, anything at all. An invite to a dinner party? A choice between reading this book or that book or not reading either of them? If it’s not making me happy, why should I be doing it all?

Pop Culture Update: Books

I haven’t really been writing much about things that matter, like books and comics and things that make me want to run around my room shrieking with happiness. This post tries to fill that gaping void in your life.

There are a lot of shitty fantasy trilogies around, but Hunger Games is not one of them. The books were recommended to me by a librarian who sat next to me at a Neil Gaiman show. The movie trailer came out a little while ago, and no doubt I would have dismissed it as another of those post-Twilight teen-angst bubbles. But hey, librarian-recommendation. So I read book 1, and was blown away, and finished books 2 and 3 the same week. It’s hard to read when you’re on vacation, but these were just that good.

What’s the series about? If you’ve read/watched Battle Royale or The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King, you will understand that Suzanne Collins takes familiar tropes, at least in the first book, and then takes those to their logical conclusion in the sequels. The protagonist is a girl that plays with metaphorical fire, and kicks up a political hornet’s nest of epic proportions. The cast of characters features a gruff Mentor-figure, a star-crossed relationship , a Diabolical Villain (who does not even make a proper appearance until the beginning of the second book – well-played there, Ms Collins), a Faithful Confidante, and surprisingly, the most awesome Fictional Fashion Designer you’ve ever seen. The three books work beautifully well together, and I loved the way how the storyline unraveled the world’s back-story slowly, the characters acquiring voices of their own. The books brought me on the brink of tears multiple times, and made me skip a healthy regime of sleep just so that I get my pulse-rate back to normal.

I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War on a recent flight. Had heard good things about the book on Joe Hill’s Twitter Geek list, even though I had known of Brooks as a parody guy. Expectations were low – how much more can this whole zombie fad be milked anyway? Turns out it can, and wonderfully at that.

Brooks looks at the zombie outbreak as an actual worldwide event and examines its sociopolitical implications. He presents it like a documentary-style set of interviews with survivors, soldiers, politicians, inventors, people from all over the world – much unlike traditional zombie media, where the focus is on a small band of individuals. The interviews lay out the timeline of the “war”, from the time the zombie outbreak caused society to break down, the slow and eventual return to some form of normalcy, and finally, the climactic showdown. In the process, it covers how every aspect of society is changed as a result – from racism to film-making, military strategy to everyday slang, how certain countries take the lead in containing the social meltdown, and how society mutates to keep up. The interviews lead into one another, jumping across continents, showing just how random events on one side of the globe affect other countries.

The book has tonnes of disturbing moments – a traumatized young girl’s account of a zombie attack, political shenanigans that lead to loss of lives, a zombie vaccine that turns out to be a marketing placebo, the build-up to nuclear war between unlikely enemies. And it has moments of stunning epicness – I refer to them as F!$* Yeah Moments. The Japan arc, for example, blindsides you completely, with two unlikely “protagonists” undergoing their own trials against the zombies. Pay close attention to the real-world nudge in the South Africa arc – where a plan concocted during the apartheid years to contain race mobs is resurrected to contain the zombie attack.

The movie is in production right now, but with stars like Brad Pitt attached to the movie, I have a feeling that the everyday aspect of the book will be abandoned in the favor of focusing on specific individuals. This book offers the refreshing view that human society as a whole can be heroic, somehow I do not see Hollywood subscribing to that utopian ideal. Oh well.