Month: March 2015

Congratulations to Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma Family Life pb coverLast week Indian-American novelist Akhil Sharma won the Folio Prize for his novel Family Life. I met Akhil when he visited London last spring to talk about his eagerly awaited second book. Akhil was born in New Delhi and migrated to the US in the late seventies. Having initially pursued a career in investment banking, he came to prominence as a writer in 2001 with his first acclaimed novel, An Obedient Father, which won that year’s Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award (available from Faber). Akhil Sharma was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007, so expectations around his second novel were considerable, but the process of writing that book was for Akhil a long and painful one – as you’ll hear in this interview, he likens the many drafts the book went through to a war of attrition. It’s testament to Akhil’s skill that the reader is unaware of those years of labour, as she races through the story of Ajay Mishra who, like his creator, came to America aged eight, and like his creator had a brother who was left permanently brain-damaged by a terrible swimming pool accident, which changed the lives of everyone in the family beyond recognition. It’s a story of immigration and of illness, yes, but perhaps most of all, as the title puts it with disarming simplicity, a story of family life, warts and all, told with humour, warmth, and a complete absence of sentimentality. This novel comes with a reputation of having been a dozen years in the making, so my first question for Akhil was about the transition from those years at his desk to at last going out into the world to talk about it.

Anna Karenina revisited

Anna Karenina Bartlett OUP“The text of Anna Karenina is like a Persian carpet of intricate symmetrical design, whose workmanship can only be appreciated by seeing the reverse side.”
Rosamund Bartlett

I had the pleasure of chairing Rosamund Bartlett‘s event at the Oxford Literary Festival yesterday afternoon in which she talked about Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, and the experience of producing the first new translation of the novel for Oxford World’s Classics in almost a century.

For people who didn’t make it to the event, I thought I would repost this interview I did with Rosamund last summer in my (fledgling) Conversations with Translators series.

Craig Stanford on Planet without Apes


Chimpanzee

“Evolutionary success is not a birthright nor is it a guarantor of survival in perpetuity. Natural selection wrought the living ape species, and like all animals their time on Earth is limited by changing environments, the emergence of competing species, predators, and the like. Some species cope well in a variety of environments. Such generalists are often abundant and hang around for many millions of years. Other species lack such evolved-in versatility. Nearly all of the billions of creatures that have ever lived are now extinct, and the vast majority of ape species are just a few more members of the club. We may some day join them. But until that distant day comes, this Earth is all we have, and the four great apes will be our only extended family. Along with their very distant relatives, dolphins and elephants, they are the most socially complex creatures with whom we share our world.”
Craig Standford, Planet without Apes

Craig Stanford, Uganda, 2010Professor Craig Stanford’s recent book, Planet without Apes (Harvard University Press), looks at the plight of our four closest relatives – the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orang utan – all of which have been driven to the brink of extinction through the destruction of their habitat, poaching, and disease. (2011 estimates put their combined numbers in the wild at between 300 and 400,000.) Craig’s message in the book is not despairing, but it is stark – urgent, coordinated action is needed if we are to avoid eradicating within decades these highly social animals whose intelligence and culture we have only recently begun to understand.

[Picture credits: chimpanzee – Craig Stanford; author in Uganda – Erin Moore. Reproduced with thanks.]

(This is the first in a projected new series of “five-minute podcasts”: I’m aware that I overshot that limit in this instance but the magic five minutes is probably a goal to work towards rather than a target to expect to hit first time… I could easily have asked Craig questions for an hour – I’ve long been interested in primatology – but I’m hoping to expand the podcast audience by giving listeners just enough to whet their appetite and also reason to go and explore the books discussed.)