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Thoughts on Manu Joseph and Cheryl Strayed

Thoughts on Manu Joseph and Cheryl Strayed

The first time I gave everything up and decided that I’m now whole-heartedly a member of the Manu Joseph fan club was when I read this wonderful post. Followed by the many wonderful snarky things he has written since then.

Last week I finished reading Joseph’s second book, The illicit happiness of other people (TIHOOP) and the prose is just a fascinating trip down his dark dark brain. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be somebody like him. Someone who sees the honest (although sometimes pessimistic) side of things and manages to spin stories that are funny, yet intelligent (both his books Serious Men and TIHOOP focus largely on NASA scientists, neurosis and philosophy) and observations (about Bombay and South Indian aunties. Topics I am well versed with).  I wonder if it’s exhausting to be like him, editor, writer, novelist, stern stare giver. I mean I have one job and one column to write a week and I’m pretty exhausted. It reminds of what Sheena once called Jerry Pinto; “Tana-tan”.

Manu Joseph’s novels are as poetic as his reporting is sharp. His sentences almost like daggers, never once becoming flowery or using an extra word.

manu

I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and all my free time and my commute to work is spent following her through the Pacific Coast Trail. I have been a fan of her work since before I knew who she was and she used to write the anonymous Sugar Says column on The Rumpus.

Wild is the story of her hiking the long trail after her mother’s death and her divorce. There is something about Strayed’s work that feels strangely motivational. I mean I haven’t once thought of actually doing anything like that but the act of doing something so tough and pushing through despite hunger, heat, snow and cuts and bruises is empowering. A lot of articles call her the anti-self help writer. Don’t sit and think about what you want to achieve and how you feel about it, stop thinking and fucking do.

The book is blunt and raw and straightforward. The story of her incredible journey is interspersed with stories from her life that led to this trek itself. Her writing so clean and passionate, I can feel the pain of her blistered feet. It’s sad without being maudlin.

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Judging ’em by the covers

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Judging ’em by the covers

The cover of J. K Rowling’s highly anticipated novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy was released a couple of days ago as was Manu Joseph’s new book, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. Both are bright yellow, eye-catching and you know they will command a place of prominence at all bookstores (Not accounting for the popularity of the writers, of course).

If you walk into a book store, with absolutely no reviews, tweets or marketing ploys hard-selling books swirling about in your head, what would make you pick a book? The unfortunate and inevitable answer is the cover. The second is the title and synopsis.

We can try to not judge a book by its cover, but judgment comes naturally to us. Book covers, like magazine covers are pretty important to make a sale.

This is why it is so surprising that so many writers have such terrible book covers. Almost the entire rack of books written by new Indian authors (The journalist-turned-author, the IIM graduate-turned author, The-nutritionist/fashionista/twitter account turned writer) have uninspiring, boring and corny covers that give you no indication of what the book contains. Hearts, coffee mugs, clip arts of women with shopping bags; they just blend into each other and you can’t tell them apart.

Having sat in on a few magazine cover ideations, I know that the writers and designers work together on a cover that will best represent the magazine (or at least the writers will agree with the designer’s point of view). Unfortunately in publishing, the writers have only so much control over the cover design. At a discussion panel on the rise of Indian chick-lit I attended, Kiran Manral, author of The Reluctant Detective pointed out that she has no idea why the publishers decided to put a high-heeled shoe on her cover. And, that as a first-time author, she had no choice but to agree. You’d think a writer who has finally got their work published would fight tooth and nail to have it look the way they want. But then again, you’d rather lose that battle than not have your book published at all.

Aesthetics are important in almost every field and while we want to be idealistic and say that if the writing is good, who cares what it looks like, for the average book readers and buyers, the cover is the first thing that attracts your attention. (Disclaimer: This is only applicable to retail items. You can look like Einstein or never comb your hair like APJ Abdul Kalam; if you’re a genius, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to adhere to the society’s superficial standards of beauty.)

Think of the beautiful cover of The Great Gatsby or the iconic Lolita or the simplicity of the Godfather that manages to thrill you. Of course, book covers take on a different meaning once you’ve read the book. In my head, angst is the cover of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the rye, Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird will always make me feel homesick, DBC Peirce’s Vernon God Little always makes me feel wretched and Zen at the same time.

Colours, fonts (JK Rowling’s new book cover has two different fonts and it grates my eyes), images all contribute to the emotion they are trying to convey.

Here is some visual stimulation for you. Flavorwire has some great minimalistic book covers here, some book covers compared to their movie posters here and some book covers with exceptional design here.

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