Rilla Alexander: Without the doing, dreaming is useless

Sticking with ideas from beginning to end is always difficult; more so in any sort of creative field where it almost always requires self-motivation. When it comes to writing, I have terrible discipline. I’m easily distracted by anything that doesn’t require sitting down and actually working on the ideas my brain throws out. But the thing is, the ideas don’t leave me alone. So it isn’t an entirely comfortable existence, this grapple between imaginary goals and spectacular laziness.

Which is why I was thrilled to see I wasn’t alone in this! In this excellent video, designer and illustrator Rilla Alexander addresses the pervading issue of the creative struggle. She provides examples from her own life and at the end of the video, she reads from her picture book. Her character Sozi daydreams, procrastinates, sets deadlines, gets tempted by new ideas, buckles down and works hard – and finally – she realizes Her Idea.

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

Image courtesy Flying Eye Books

I found myself agreeing to everything she said. Inspired by her similar list of problems, I’m going to try and stick to a steady diet of work, starting with a minimum commitment of an hour a day. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? (“Ha!” snorts the derisive voice from my future)

Among other things she discusses the life-cycle of an idea right from the initial “I love it! I’m so excited to create!” stage to the middle stage of procrastination and the happy/unhappy ending (depending on whether you choose to finish the work or not).

She also has great advice for struggling artists:

  • Deadlines give you realistic expectations. Instead of being preoccupied by how wonderful your idea is, concentrate on getting it done and actually make it happen
  • Break down the idea into small tasks rather than focusing on the whole goal
  • Avoid getting distracted by new ideas by writing them all down in an idea book so you can focus on the task at hand
  • There’s always going to be another idea that looks better but that’s only because you’re not working on it. If you were, you would also discover its flaws and failures
  • Don’t abandon this idea, don’t cripple it with self doubt – just keep working
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A collection of retellings from Indian mythology and Western fairy tales

A school recently asked me to start a reading club for their students, and I had my first session on Saturday. While a club celebrating books sounded right up my alley, I decided to cast the net wider by looking at stories in all formats including but not limited to films, TV shows, cartoons, podcasts, Youtube videos, video games, music, photography, comic books, Facebook, Twitter, and possibly, in a future session, stories told entirely through emojis.

I didn’t want to throw them off the deep end on the very first session, though, so I started off simple. The session focused on retellings.

A poet and scholar called A. K. Ramanujan said, “In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, ‘always already’.”

This is true of Indian mythology and it’s also true of fairy tales the world over. These stories are so old, that they never go out of fashion. Everyone knows them, or knows of them.

But my favourite versions of these tales are retellings, a new way to tell an old story. If a book promises to be an imaginative version of ancient mythology, or if it features fractured fairy tales, I’ll instantly add it to my to-read list. I love it when familiar plot lines are turned upside down, or everyone acts out of character, or even when they’re all transported to another time/world.

I think retellings are so popular partly because we know these old stories so thoroughly that they become exciting and fun when they don new avatars. But I think the problematic aspects of these old narratives also plays a role in us seeking new versions – the casual sexism, the one-dimensional characters, the insistence on being either wholly good or wholly evil without any in-between, the blatant fear of anything or anyone who is different.

To be fair, we live in a different world from when these stories were first told. We have different values, our sense of morality has shifted. I love retellings precisely because we’re free to do absolutely anything with the original stories. The characters and plots are such an intrinsic part of our cultural consciousness, that we can make them more interesting by playing around with them. We know the rules well enough so that bending them doesn’t pose too much of a problem.

Which brings me to the list the title promised.

RETELLINGS OF INDIAN MYTHOLOGY


sita's ramayanaSita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni

This is an utterly gorgeous book, which features the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective – a point of view not many people seem to be familiar with. Only a handful of the students (between grades 5 and 8) were aware of Sita’s circumstances after the war. The book breaks down the narrative and relays the story simply, without any dramatic flourishes but with a great deal of compassion. If you’d like to take a look at the making of the book, you can read this.

Suggested age: 12+

palaceThe Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s an approach similar to Sita’s Ramayana, in that it’s the Mahabarata from Draupadi’s (or Panchaali, as she’s known here) point of view. But it widens the scope and is richer in details since it has much more room to play around with. What I found quite strange was that while the narrative seemed perfectly normal to me, apparently it had created a stir in some other quarters for being too feminist!

Suggested age: Not too many teens might find this appealing since Indian mythology isn’t considered cool, but for those who are interested, I’d say 12+

breaking the bowBreaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana by Various Authors

Where else are you going to find an anthology with a time-travelling Sita, aliens in the Ramayana or Surpanakha as a reality TV show contestant?

Suggested age: Tough to peg an age limit for this one, but I’d say an advanced reader who isn’t afraid to experiment. And of course, any adults with a taste for the strange.

asuraAsura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

I haven’t read this book, but the premise sounds intriguing. You never hear about the Ramayana from Ravan’s perspective. This book’s definitely on my list.

Suggested age: Your guess is as good as mine.

ash mistryAsh Mistry and the Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

This is a book trying to ride the Percy Jackson-induced mythology wave (OH for Rick Riordan to have a free rein to work on an Indian mythology-centric series). But it’s not half bad. Technically, it doesn’t count as a retelling, I suppose, but it’s still great fun. Our country’s ancient tales have so much retelling potential that I’d love to see this trend continue.

Suggested age: 9+

the wordkeepersThe Wordkeepers by Jash Sen

This is a fairly unconventional take on mythology. Like Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress, it isn’t exactly a retelling – more like ancient mythology meets the modern world. The book features peripheral characters from the Mahabharata and has a fascinating blend of new characters, old myths and plenty of twists.

Suggested age: 12+

BONUS:

Also, watch the film Sita Sings the Blues (available for free here), an excellent version of the Ramayana.

FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS


revolting rhymesRevolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl

This is my favourite Dahl book. It’s his interpretation of six fairy tales, told in his inimitable style with dollops of wicked rhymes, clever schemes and surprise endings.

Suggested age: 10+

girls to the rescueGirls to the Rescue by Sowmya Rajendran

I love complaining about the princesses in fairy tales for being generally useless and spectacularly boring (I watched Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the first time a few weeks ago. What even was that?). Which is exactly why I love this book where the princesses do exactly what I’ve been wanting them to do. They take control of their own lives and manage to be interesting people I could actually imagine being friends with.

Suggested age: 10+

hero's guideA Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom by Christopher Healy

This book is the first in The League of Princes series. The fairy tale princes are tired of being ignored and are determined to make a name for themselves. They set out to be heroes but they are astonishingly bad at the job. The book brings together characters from four different fairy tales – Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Cinderella – and is the funniest thing I’ve read all year. If there’s just one book from the list you’ll read, make it this one. I can’t wait to read the other books in this series!

Suggested age: 9+ (If they’re reading Percy Jackson, they can handle this)

ali babaAli Baba and the Forty Thieves: Reloaded by Poulomi Mukherjee and Amit Tayal

I picked up this comic book from my library specifically for the club session. It transports the Arabian Nights tale to present day Mumbai where Ali Baba is an autorickshaw driver and the forty thieves are the Russian mafia. I thought the change in setting was pretty cool, but I expected the book to take more liberties with the plot. But it followed the same story as the original with a change in period.  I’d recommend it for people who aren’t too familiar with the original, or who don’t mind reading the same story in a different setting.

Suggested age: 10+

fairy tale twistsThe Fairy Tale Twists series by Katie Dale

This is an early chapter book series where the stories are told in rhyme and has really inventive twists to familiar tales. My favourite moment was in Prince Charming’s Princess Quest where the prince stumbles upon a seemingly dead Snow White who can only be brought back by true love’s kiss. His reaction? “I don’t even know her. How can I be her true love!” So one of the dwarfs, who does know Snow quite well, steps up to the job and kisses her instead. He turns out to be her true love and they live happily ever after!

cinderThe Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I haven’t read this series, but it sounds fascinating. It’s essentially fairy tales in space, with some of the characters as robots. Each book entails a new take on an old fairy tale, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White. The story takes place in a futuristic world where humans, cyborgs, and anrdroids all coexist.

Suggested age: From what I can make out, 13+

three little pigsThe True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

I’ve been looking out for this picture book for a couple of years now. It dismisses The Three Little Pigs as mere propaganda and tells you the other side of the story. What really happened when Alexander T. Wolf met the three pigs?

Suggested age: 6+

dorothy must die

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

As soon as I read the title, I knew I wanted to read the book (I haven’t managed to find a copy yet). It speaks of an Oz where the Good Witches are up to no good, the Wicked Witches may be the good guys, and Dorothy has gone on a power trip and taken over the kingdom.

Suggested age: 12+

alice in deadlandAlice in Deadland by Mainak Dhar

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books. While I’m ambivalent about zombies, I love the idea of mixing the undead with Lewis Carroll’s crazy world. It’s the first book in the Alice in Deadland series.

Suggested age: 13+

BONUS:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters and Jane Austen. Yes. You’re welcome.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Unlike last time, I’m actually posting this on the correct day of the week, so hooray for small victories! (I started writing this a few hours ago, but then had to leave home, so now it’s technically beyond midnight. But it’s still Tuesday in many parts of the world! Just not in mine.)

top ten tuesday

I add a lot of books to my to-read shelf on Goodreads. Sometimes I don’t even recognise books I stumble across on the internet or in bookstores until I go to add them to my list and find that they’re already there. This week’s theme actually looks fun enough to do on a monthly basis. The top ten books I’ve added to be TBR list in March are:

CHILDREN’S BOOKS


bigfoot is missingBigfoot is Missing! by J. Patrick Lewis

What it’s about:

The book offers a smart, stealthy tour of the creatures of shadowy myth and fearsome legend—the enticing, the humorous, and the strange. Bigfoot, the Mongolian Death Worm, and the Loch Ness Monster number among the many creatures lurking within these pages. Readers may have to look twice—the poems in this book are disguised as street signs, newspaper headlines, graffiti, milk cartons, and more!

Why I added it to my list:

Children’s books and mythical creatures are two of my favourite things. So a picture book with poems about cryptids is definitely something I need to get my hands on.

the storyspinnerThe Storyspinner by Becky Wallace

What it’s about: 

In a world where dukes plot their way to the throne, a Performer’s life can get tricky. And in Johanna Von Arlo’s case, it can be fatal. Expelled from her troupe after her father’s death, Johanna is forced to work for the handsome Lord Rafael DeSilva. Too bad they don’t get along. But while Johanna’s father’s death was deemed an accident, the Keepers aren’t so sure. The Keepers, a race of people with magical abilities, are on a quest to find the princess—the same princess who is supposed to be dead and whose throne the dukes are fighting over. With dukes, Keepers, and a killer all after the princess, Johanna finds herself caught up in political machinations for the throne, threats on her life, and an unexpected romance that could change everything.

Why I added it to my list: 

After finishing the books in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, I remembered how much I missed being lost in a compelling, unputdownable fantasy series. While I don’t expect this book – promisingly, the start of a series – to put me in the same addictive zone as George R. R. Martin did, the author here does promise age-old secrets, magical mayhem, fist fights, knife fights, gypsy caravans, political maneuvering and heroic quests.

splendors and gloomsSplendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

What it’s about: 

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. As they seek to puzzle out Clara’s whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini’s criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini’s ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it’s too late.

Why I added it to my list: 

I can rarely resist mystery and magic, and this one has both in generous doses. According to the publisher, this Victorian gothic is a rich banquet of dark comedy, scorching magic, and the brilliant and bewitching storytelling. I’m a sucker for a crackerjack blurb.

ADULT FICTION


the camel bookmobileThe Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

What it’s about:

Fiona Sweeney wants to do something that matters, and she chooses to make her mark in the arid bush of northeastern Kenya. By helping to start a traveling library, she hopes to bring the words of Homer, Hemingway, and Dr. Seuss to far-flung tiny communities where people live daily with drought, hunger, and disease.

Why I added it to my list:

I found it in a bookstore during my birthday trip to Bangalore. I had never heard of the book before, but the title and blurb appealed to me instantly. I’m hugely interested in unconventional community libraries all over the world, and this one sounded too good to pass up.

the libraryThe Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

What it’s about: 

Carolyn’s not so different from the other human beings around her. She’s sure of it. After all, she was a normal American herself, once. That was a long time ago, of course–before the time she calls “adoption day,” when she and a dozen other children found themselves being raised by a man they learned to call Father. Father could do strange things. He could call light from darkness. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible. Sometimes, they’ve wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God. Now, Father is missing. And if God truly is dead, the only thing that matters is who will inherit his library–and with it, power over all of creation.

Why I added it to my list: 

God (capital G) is, essentially, a master librarian! “Astonishingly original, terrifying, and darkly funny contemporary fantasy”! (Told you I’m a sucker for blurbs). A battle to become the next God! This book sounds SO promising.

our endless numbered daysOur Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

What it’s about: 

Peggy Hillcoat is eight years old when her survivalist father, James, takes her from their home in London to a remote hut in the woods and tells her that the rest of the world has been destroyed. Deep in the wilderness, Peggy and James make a life for themselves. They repair the hut, bathe in water from the river, hunt and gather food in the summers and almost starve in the harsh winters. They mark their days only by the sun and the seasons. When Peggy finds a pair of boots in the forest and begins a search for their owner, she unwittingly unravels the series of events that brought her to the woods.

Why I added it to the list: 

Because a father basically kidnaps his daughter, runs away to the woods, and tells her the rest of the world has been destroyed. Why wouldn’t anyone add this to their list?!

ADULT NON-FICTION


all who go do not returnAll Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

What it’s about:

Shulem Deen was raised to believe that questions are dangerous. As a member of the Skverers, one of the most insular Hasidic sects in the US, he knows little about the outside world—only that it is to be shunned. His marriage at eighteen is arranged and several children soon follow. Deen’s first transgression—turning on the radio—is small, but his curiosity leads him to the library, and later the Internet. Soon he begins a feverish inquiry into the tenets of his religious beliefs, until, several years later, his faith unravels entirely.

Why I added it to my list: 

I’ve read a few long-form articles about people who were brought up in deeply orthodox religions/communities and have now chosen to live away from that world. This book deals with an unfamiliar (to me) religious sect and the implications of losing not only one’s faith but also one’s way of life. I find such stories fascinating!

all over but the shoutinAll Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

What it’s about:

This is the story of Rick Bragg, who grew up dirt-poor in northeastern Alabama, seemingly destined for either the cotton mills or the penitentiary, and instead became a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times. It is the story of Bragg’s father, a hard-drinking man with a murderous temper and the habit of running out on the people who needed him most. But at the center of this soaring memoir is Bragg’s mother, who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes and picked other people’s cotton so that her children wouldn’t have to live on welfare alone. Evoking these lives–and the country that shaped and nourished them–with artistry, honesty, and compassion, Rick Bragg brings home the love and suffering that lie at the heart of every family. The result is unforgettable.

Why I added it to my list: 

Even though I enjoy memoirs by people I know nothing about, this book is so far out of my usual reading comfort zone. If I would have spotted this book in a store or on someone’s shelf, I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. Okay, I probably would have read the blurb, but I would have definitely kept it back. But the author’s delightfully wry article about how the world is divided into two types of people – mustard people and mayo people (Team Mayo FTW) – completely sold me on the his writing. Now I’m itching to read something he’s published.

selfishSelfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On Their Decisions Not To Have Kids by Meghan Daum (Editor)

What it’s about:

One of the main topics of cultural conversation during the last decade was the supposed “fertility crisis,” and whether modern women could figure out a way to way to have it all–a successful, demanding career and the required 2.3 children–before their biological clock stopped ticking. Now, however, conversation has turned to whether it’s necessary to have it all or, perhaps more controversial, whether children are really a requirement for a fulfilling life. The idea that some women and men prefer not to have children is often met with sharp criticism and incredulity by the public and mainstream media.

Why I added it to my list:

I am not thinking seriously about having kids. I am not thinking seriously  about not having kids. I am not thinking seriously about kids at all (except in a strictly how-to-get-more-of-them-to-pick-up-a-book-and-READ-dammit way). But I would love to read this anthology about what people have to say about it. Because as the always-powerful blurb tells me, the book “makes a thoughtful and passionate case for why parenthood is not the only path in life, taking our parent-centric, kid-fixated, baby-bump-patrolling culture to task in the process. What emerges is a more nuanced, diverse view of what it means to live a full, satisfying life.”

stuffocation

Stuffocation: How We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Why You Need Experience More Than Ever by James Wallman

What it’s about:

The book explains and analyses why Stuffocation is the most pressing problem of our time – and then goes in search of its solution. On the way, it goes down the halls of the Elysée Palace with Nicolas Sarkozy, up in a helicopter above Barbra Streisand’s house on the California coast, and into the world of the original Mad Men. Through fascinating characters and brilliantly told stories, the author introduces the innovators whose lifestyles provide clues to how we will all be living tomorrow, and he makes some of the world’s most counterintuitive, radical, and worldchanging ideas feel inspiring – and possible for us all.

Why I added it to my list: 

Ever since I saw The Story of Stuff a few years ago, I started to realise that I really don’t need all the things I surround myself with. It’s been a slow process of choosing to buy less, and my willpower has crumbled on several occasions. But the knowledge of what consumerism does and how useless it is has made me more conscious about my buying habits. I would love to read more stories that celebrate the lack of unnecessary stuff in our lives. I also picked up The Secret Life of Stuff from the same store I bought The Camel Bookmobile from, and this book seems like an interesting addition to the list. You can watch The Story of Stuff below: