Sunday, November 28 2021

Dive In


People think magic realism is all about your imaginationit's not true. There are many historical facts and research behind my book and my story. [...] Other magic realism writers, lots of South American writers, they've been saying there are many facts, historical, political facts and cultural facts, in their writingso I research a lot when I’m writing.

This is Shookoofeh Azar talking about what kind of work went into her novel ‘Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’. In 2010, Azar moved to Australia from Iran as a political refugee, and she wrote this book in Farsi. The translator of the book chose to remain anonymous “for reasons of safety”. A masterpiece of imagination and storytelling, the book delves into the act of writing and reading, which faced brutal censorship in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. The story of a family fleeing violence, it is a book about the love of books. 


Earlier in 2021, Shokoofeh Azar talked about her writing process and politics in an event with Champaca. Listen to her speak about this unique, powerful book in a conversation with Kavya Murthy here. Using storytelling traditions from magic realism to Persian tales, it is a book that talks to us about the life-altering changes wrought under authoritarian rule.

Editor’s note: This excellent newsletter is part of splainer’s partnership with the wonderful bookstore Champaca. Founded by Radhika Timbadia, this women-run enterprise epitomises all the values we advocate: integrity, independence, a genuine investment in quality, and great care for their customers (read more about their philosophy here). In a world ruled by Amazon, we need more Champacas! We’ve come together to champion each other’s businesses, and help serve each other’s patrons better! Do let us know what you think of their newsletter—which you receive one Sunday every month as a splainer subscriber. PS: Splainer does not make any revenue if you buy from Champaca. This isn’t about money.

Big Story

Lions & Tigers & Bears

This month, we looked at our shelves and put together a list of books we love about animals—from feline friends to ferocious beasts. This list features memoirs, fiction, natural history and picture books. We hope you find something here that you like, and rediscover the natural world and its inhabitants with us.


My Family 

Ruth Vanita’s translation of Mahadevi Varma’s little known classic, ‘My Family,’ is the lyrical story of Varma’s chosen family—her animal companions. The delightful writing and charming illustrations paint the picture of an urban modernity permeated by nature.


I Like Cats 

Sunny cats, sad cats, grinning cats, bad cats, cats with scowls and cats with jowls, and more! Hand-bound with a silk screened cover, ‘I Like Cats’ by Anushka Ravishankar features a gallery of irresistible feline characters from some of the best-known tribal and folk artists of India. It is a delight for cat lovers, art lovers, and artsy cat lovers!


Beasts of India 

Here are India’s best-known beasts—the tiger, the elephant, the deer, the snake—rendered by a variety of folk and tribal artists, including Kanchana Arni and Gita Wolf from Tara Books. Each of their artistic traditions conceives of the beast in distinctive ways, as original in the imagining as it is in the rendering. Individually screen-printed on handmade paper, it is a wonderful introduction to Indian painting styles is an art and book lover’s dream.


The Cat Who Saved Books

In Sosuke Natsukawa’s novel, bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookshop he inherited from his beloved grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The cat needs Rintaro’s help to save books that have been imprisoned, destroyed and unloved. Translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai, this is an enthralling tale of books, first love, fantasy, and an unusual friendship with a talking cat.


Other Minds 

By Peter Godfrey-Smith, ‘Other Minds’ is a bold new story of how nature became aware of itself. A story that largely occurs in the ocean where animals first appeared, it tracks the mind’s fitful development over millennia, exploring the incredible evolutionary journey of the cephalopods, consisting of the squid, the cuttlefish, and above all the octopus. By tracing the question of inner life back to its roots and comparing human beings with our most remarkable animal relatives, Godfrey-Smith casts crucial new light on the octopus mind—and on our own.


Gospel of the Eels 

Translated from Swedish by Agnes Broomé, this book by Patrik Svensson combines a focussed study of the eel with personal memoir. An interest that begins with his late father’s obsession with eel-hunting, an exercise that shaped Svensson’s own adolescence, the mystery of the eel runs parallel to the mystery of his late father. ‘The Gospel of the Eels’ is not a science lesson, but the story of a lifetime fascination with something that refuses to be pinned down. Read a review by curator Nirica here!


Lost Cat 

The closest thing Mary Gaitskill has ever written to a memoir, this stunning book-length essay is the story of how Gaitskill rescued a stray cat in Italy and brought him to live with her in the US, where he went missing. As she explores the unexpected trauma of her loss, Gaitskill describes how she came to foster two siblings, Caesar and Natalia, two inner-city children who spent summers and holidays with Gaitskill and her husband. The joys and ultimate difficulties of this relationship lead to a searing examination of loss, love, safety and fear, and how our limited understandings brush against our unlimited hopes.



This is a story about a girl called Yangdol and her life in a remote Himalayan village in the mountain kingdom of Ladakh. She dreams of seeing a Snow Leopard—one of the most elusive creatures on the planet. Self-published by indie artists Pankaj Singh and Athulya Pillai, and inspired by stories they’ve heard on their travels, ‘Yangdol’ is a beautiful lesson in kindness towards all animals—and a treat for all ages.

Headlines that matter

‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ by Sophy Roberts

The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ is an unusual travel book by Sophy Roberts, a travel writer based in the UK. In this book, Roberts travels across eight time zones in Siberia in search of pianos. The book has three sections that span the last 250 years of modern Russian history. Each section traces the spatiotemporal fate of nearly 24 pianos, both indigenously produced and imported. Roberts’ quest for these instruments and the stories of the pianos are a palimpsest in which we see Russia’s history, landscape and regional travel writing.


Roberts tells us the unique story of each piano: their makers, owners, players, tuners, and the places they were housed in. She speaks of a Steinway Grand that travelled with the famous pianist Svetslov Richter who performed to sell-out crowds in a whirlwind tour of Siberia. Another piano that survived historical vicissitudes and Siberia’s damaging swings in humidity was made in the German workshop of Grotrian-Steinweg in the 1930s. It now resides in the basement workshop of the Lomatchenko family of piano tuners and restorers in the central Siberian city of Novosibirsk. They were deeply moved, one of them to tears, on hearing of Roberts’ interest in their work. The family dreams of starting a Russian piano factory to manufacture the best instruments in the world. The story of each piano in the book is therefore of people’s lives and aspirations as much as it is about instruments and history.  


The stories are testament to Roberts’ experience and resourcefulness as a journalist. She meets people, gathers stories to trace provenance, tracking these pianos across a vast landscape. Her empathy for people comes through, but most of all it is her connection with the instruments we see, perhaps one of the reasons she tells the stories so well. 

Shortlisted for the 2021 Stanford Dalmon Travel Book of the Year prize, ‘The Lost Pianos of Siberia’ reveals not only an unexpected musical legacy, but profound and brave humanity in the last place on earth you might expect to find it. We read it in our Champaca Book Subscription as we read along the theme of travel.

We’ve also put together a Spotify playlist, compiled by our curator Thejaswi Shivanand, to accompany your reading of ‘The Lost Pianos’featuring both past and present Russian pianists!


In today’s edition

From our Shelves

  • We spotlight women writers from India


Life at Champaca

  • Sign up for the Champaca Book Subscription to read books that explore the different ideas of travelling—through space, through time and inward.

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