My fridge-cold seedless green grapes,
Soft Animal has been out in the world for a few weeks and is doing better than I expected. Having written novels in India for several years, you know that basically each book is a lottery. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, books fade away after one swift bloom, no one talks about them, they’re not setting the world on fire and so on. Relentlessly optimistic, I take comfort in the fact that all my books are still in print, still being bought and sold, even if in small quantities. That’s something: as long as you have readers, you’re alive in the world.
But Soft Animal is doing well, thanks mainly to word of mouth campaigns. I’m going to talk about the large one in a minute, but on an informal level, my mum sent the book details out to all her friends and acquaintances and they all ordered like three or four copies each, and now every now and then she gets a message from someone saying how much they like it. (I also sent out links to my own friends and professional acquaintances, but I felt shy about following it up, so I just said, “Hey, it would be so great if you could support me by buying a book” and left it at that. It’s hard marketing yourself! You have to be really confident about people’s love for you versus their irritation with your plug messages.)
[Here’s where I add a link so you can get yourself a copy and see what everyone’s talking about!]
I had asked Karuna Ezara Parikh to blurb my book which she did amazingly. Karuna is the author of the incredible novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First, and a collection of poetry called Where Stories Gather. (You must read them both, Karuna writes prose with a poet’s eye, so all the sentences are gorgeous and lush.) We’re actually friends in real life, not just online, which makes it all the nicer to admire each other’s work. Anyway, after a while observing the Indian bookish space—where a lot of book posts on Instagram are just pretty pictures with the blurb, no critical ratings at all, and newspapers and magazines are killing their book section—she decided to start an online book club, and friends, Soft Animal is her first pick!
You can join Karuna’s Kitaab Club on Instagram here—and we’ll be in conversation on the 21st of May (5 PM IST, 1.30 pm CEST) where you can also ask questions, which will later be recorded as a podcast.
Personally, I’m excited about this both as a writer (obvs) and a reader. I’ve long thought that India needed a book discussion space in the vein of say, Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club in the US, with some conversation, some critical thinking, some championing of books that might otherwise fall under the radar. I have my own bookish Instagram account, as you know, but that’s really just for small reviews, not so much a giant readalong as KKC is doing. There’s something about having community in reading a book—do you love it, do you hate it—and how many other people are having the same experience.
Anyway, thanks to this my book jumped up the Amazon rankings and is now selling consistently! So hurray for book clubs and hurray for word-of-mouth recommendations because in this day and age of More Books Than There Could Ever Be Enough Readers For, this is what we need.
I actually went to a physical book club yesterday. I had a nice one in Delhi, a bunch of friends, lots of dinner and drinks and chatting, enough debate to keep things lively. It was just a small club—still is—most of us friends from school or college or just life. I enjoyed the camaraderie of it, but we were also friends, you know, so it was about friends meeting and talking about books, not the books bringing us together. Maybe I should’ve remembered this when I went out yesterday, hopeful that I would meet some new potential bffs.
I wasn’t that hopeful, to be honest. The book they’d selected: The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot was just the sort of book I couldn’t stand. (More about that in a minute.) But it was a nice day, and the cafe wasn’t too far from where I live, and a room full of women talking about books is always an exciting thought for me. I did an English Literature degree after all, and I did make some extremely sisterly bonds in college.
When I first moved to Berlin—well, if you can call it moving, dashing in and out of the city—I was so scared I wouldn’t make any friends, that I tried harder than I normally would. Every occasion—large online meet ups like this for example—would hold at least one person who I could later hang out with and we’d talk and become besties instantly, instantly. You can see where this is going: fear made me force connections and while in one or two cases, I’ve actually gotten lucky, and kept the friends I made in the beginning, it just wasn’t sustainable. I was tired out from trying so hard, every new meeting felt like an audition, and when things didn’t go well—not badly, just not great—I felt crushed, as though I had personally failed.
The truth is by the time you’re in your forties, you have a pretty clear idea of what you enjoy and what you don’t. If you’re very lucky, you have some good friendships already—even if not in the same city—so you know what your model for relationships should look like. It’s one year later now and I have some friends, and also, vitally, more to do and keep myself occupied with, so I’m not quite so eager any more. It’s a bit like dating, isn’t it, except at least with dating you have sex to distract you and in the case of friendships, there’s actually no stakes at all. If you think about it, friends are the least transactional relationships you can have, you could walk away from them at any time, and the only reason to make an effort is if you enjoy the company of the person as exactly who they are.
Lenni and Margot is uplifting literature. I don’t mean literally, I mean that’s the genre it falls into. Think Amor Towles or Frederik Bachmann or that book about an Elinor someone? Lessons in Chemistry (which I enjoyed despite myself)? Books which follow a routine: quirky underdog, often unloved/misunderstood, makes an unlikely friendship, everything is okay in the end! (Well—and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s on the blurb, in Lenni and Margot’s case they’re on an end-of-life ward so not quite okay in the end, but you know, lessons learned, plotholes tied up.)
did a really good job summing up his mixed feelings about upmarket fiction over here so I'll let you read that first before I add my own thoughts.
Lack of connection is my biggest problem. I felt absolutely nothing for Lenni and Margot, even after reading an entire book about them. Lenni is a seventeen year old girl dying of cancer, Margot is an eighty three year old woman who tells Lenni her life story. At no point was I moved or even, frankly, that interested. I could “see the strings” so to speak, I knew that at this point I was supposed to cry, at this other point I was supposed to shake my head fondly and go, “That Lenni!” But these characters were flat, set pieces almost. A list of points supposed to make you feel things, like a Netflix Christmas movie.
Don’t get me wrong: a lot of up lit is nicely done. I still feel manipulated but pleasantly so. It’s like when you read Agatha Christie and you solve the puzzle along with Poirot. A pleasant brain scratch, like doing a crossword puzzle. But while Christie never makes me impatient (her ideal detective book, she once said, stopped at 50,000 words), these ones do. I’m so often waiting to feel something that by the time I reach the end I’m more irritated than I normally would be. [Lessons in Chemistry was saved for me mainly because of the dog character, I liked him a lot even though he was basically a dog genius that understood everything and was a stand-in parent.]
Anyway the book club was okay. Most people gave the book a six or seven out of ten, I gave it a three—which did not help me win friends and influence people. At some points I thought I was talking too much, but no one else was saying anything, so what could I do? After two years of therapy, I’ve become okay with having unpopular opinions—or at least, expressing them in public. Not every meeting is destined to hold your new best friend, a lesson learned late for me, but better late than never. (I’m particularly working on ironing out all my “people pleasing” tendencies, so I’m more awkward and silent these days than I’ve ever been, but happier for it.)
Related: I’m getting a bunch of messages from so-called “book marketing” services. Most are straightforward, offering me deals of 100 rupees per review, which they claim they’ll flood on Amazon and Goodreads. Today I got one that offered me “tailor made author branding” and curating “in-person author experiences.” You’ve got to wonder if these people read your bios at all before sending out their messages (almost always on Instagram DM). They probably don’t. I wouldn’t advise you to sign up for any of these, they seem scammy. On the other hand, what can I say about actually being able to sell your book? You hope for the best, even eight books later, and you hope the people talking about your book will help sell it. I’ve had launches with three people in an empty bookstore, and famously, a reading at a cafe where it was just me (and a couple who was there on a date, but who couldn’t leave after I fixed them with my gimlet eye). The truth is, you’ve got to hustle, even if it might make you unpopular, and hope that your book captures enough of the zeitgeist that it becomes a movement, a phenomenon. Having a newsletter helps, of course. Hand out free copies judiciously, and remember, readers can usually sniff out a paid for marketing campaign and that might make them (unfairly) avoid your book, even if it’s the greatest work of social commentary since Jane Austen.
Just a fun thing: Happened to book tickets very late at night one day for a comedy musical improv night, and was regretting it when the day finally rolled around yesterday. I’d been out late the night before, and this must be old age, because even though I was careful not to drink too much and eat my dinner at a proper hour etc etc, I was still sleepwalking all through the next day. I actually told myself I’d only go out three times a week during the summer, but I feel my low energy levels are going to limit me to maybe only once. Twice if I’m lucky. Or maybe I should resist the lure of late night spots and go home at 11 pm no matter how much fun I’m having. Old age! It comes to us all!
Anyway, the improv group is called Kaleidoscope and they were doing basically my favourite bit from Whose Line Is It Anyway, where they took audience suggestions and made up a song on the spot. In the second act, they did a long Broadway show, also completely improvised. It was really good! And really funny.
Anne Frank: A Graphic Memoir: Picked this up on a whim from the library, just to revisit it and found myself deeply moved once more. It’s the uncensored Anne Frank (her father bowdlerised bits) so there’s also long descriptions about the female genital organs and so on, but mostly, it’s so beautifully done. The art is vivid, she comes alive, and again I was struck by how well and clearly she wrote. The world lost someone who could have been one of the finest writers in it if she had been allowed to grow up. Would recommend this graphic novel if you can find it, the pictures are beautiful.
The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch: Also a library book. My first Murdoch, the Booker winning memoirs of a man who has taken a remote cottage by the sea. He used to be an actor, and had lots of lovers, and is he slowly going mad or do creatures exist? Slow read, but beautiful.
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Varghese: If a white person had written this I’m sure I’d roll my eyes at how the people smile with white teeth in brown skin blah blah blah exotic India during the Raj, but I’m giving him a pass (for now) because the first section of the book is about a child bride being brought to Travancore to marry a forty year old widower and that’s really vivid and finely done, so I’m hoping this second bit (Scottish doctor arrives in Madras) is going to improve as well. It’s a mammoth book, and I’m only 15% through so who knows, who knows.
Gosh, how much cooking I do these days. And I’m really into it? It’s the best hobby. (When I get bored there’s always frozen pizza which is delicious and/or pesto on pasta.) But I was searching for a nice simple chicken pulao recipe, not biryani, I can never do it well enough to be happy with it, but just rice with chicken, Singapore/Indian adjacent. I found this nice recipe and it turned out beautifully. (I added a tablespoon of Shan Bombay Biryani masala to it.) (You may not be able to get Shan masala in India easily, because it’s Pakistani, so any sort of biryani masala works as well, I should think.)
Also because our microwave is broken, it tasted even better reheated on a pan with a spoon of ghee, which made the bottom layer crispy and the top soft and fluffy, so there’s an extra tip. I used chicken legs which we shredded once the rice was cooked, so each bite had a bit of chicken in it.
No links this week, because I haven’t read anything super interesting, so send me things! I’m at a bit of a loose end, so I’m looking for new exciting things.
Platform Magazine asked me a bunch of questions though, so if you want to read about what I was thinking when I wrote Soft Animal, you can do that here.
As always, have a great week and I hope to see you for the book discussion on the 21st!
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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