Ann Patchett

I am drowning in Ann Patchett. When I read her latest essays now, I catch a fleeting hello, a nodding glimpse to something she has mentioned in her older essays which I am also reading. It’s like I am stitching. She is making me re-arrive at the personal essay as a form of journalism. Many gods of journalism, who cannot stand that other people read and write will die about this. But what else is new? They die about something or the other every day. But read Ann Patchett – she is remaking journalism, both the ‘serious’ one and the chota bheem one.

Whiny muffins like me who cry about too much work should read her essay ‘Nonfiction, an introduction’ where she outlines the beginning of her journey as a freelance writer. She says she learnt how to swallow pride as she watched some of her best sentences get chopped up by editors who worked with knives. She learnt, she says, how to write better by anything and everything that came her way. One day she’d be writing about ballroom dancing, another day about boutique farming, and some other day, about a lip balm. She soaked in everything she wrote and didn’t complain. In the end, it would all come together as she returned home to write what she really wanted to write – fiction.

“Somewhere along the line I learned to experience only the smallest, most private stabbing sensation when I watched my best sentences cut from an article because they did not advance the story. Ultimately, this skill came to benefit my fiction as well. The conversations I had had so often with magazine editors were now internalized. I could read both parts of the script. Did I think that was a beautiful sentence I had written? Yes, I did. Did it further the cause of the novel? No, not really. Could I then delete it? It was already gone”

AM had once said that to be a writer, one has to become small. There was so much to carry in that sentence that it made me afraid to think that I’d never be able to do it. But it’s true. Becoming small is the only mark of a writer thirsty to learn, a journalist hungry to see.

Cielo Drive, Didion, & Dawn

I have been obsessed with the Cielo drive murders. It began one ordinary morning three days ago, when I was minding my own business by not paying any attention to deadlines. I was watching Didion again with my breakfast and we got to the point where she describes sitting in the pool when news of The Manson murders reached her. 

The 60s ended for her with these murders, she says. And for the first time in the many times I’ve watched the documentary, I felt compelled to dig into the murders. The thing with culture, contrary to what I believed all this while is that it is sometimes as alien to the person in it, as it is to someone outside. That was the point of  ‘the center will not hold’

Why and how – what kind of dark instinct could cause someone to drive to a celebrity’s house and murder a pregnant woman and her friends? But it didn’t occur to me that everyone who heard it in 1969 found it just as confusing as I did in 2020 hearing about it in my Bgudi home.

When I first watched it, many things about the documentary didn’t make sense to me. And I assumed someone who was born and brought up in America might find it easier to understand. Three days ago, I realised that even Didion wasn’t clear about what the hell was going on. Of the many things that I found puzzling was why strangers lived with one another in big mansions at Hollywood. Firstly, I thought only film stars lived there. Secondly, wasn’t it weird for married people with a child to have loud musicians over at their house all the time? And just what in the world did Didion mean when she said they had no idea who was sleeping at their house of 28 bedrooms?

Turns out she was just as lost as I am about the whole thing. She was just moving with things and when they got unbearable (drugs on her child’s bedroom floor) – she wanted normalcy, silence, order.

I can’t believe there’s the slightest chance that I might have driven past the Cielo Drive last year at L.A. I am wildly mad at myself for not having been in the mind space to absorb the city as deep as I know I have the capacity to.

Like one waste body, I was thinking constantly of internal group politics. Gahhhhh. Why does it always happen that I don’t know how to make friends and if I do, I don’t know how to keep them, and if I can’t, I don’t know how to still have the time of my fucking life? I want too much. I still think it would have been perfect to have found my soul mate in LA with whom I could’ve walked its slopy streets, drank its orange sun with some tall drinks, and talked endlessly about women and writing and stories and love.

I spent the last two days watching one film after another on the Manson murders, watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I found funny and very well-done. Everything from the loud, wet plop that I came to look forward to with delightful anticipation every time Brad Pitt emptied the can of dog food onto a plate — to the conversation DiCaprio has with the intimidating little girl who tells him ‘And if I can be a tiny bit better, I want to be’ which became my motto for the night — I loved.

I can never understand what the fuck people mean when they say things like ‘didn’t reach expectations’ or ‘overrated’ or ‘hyped’ – Why do you think it’s about you? And why the insistence to measure everything watched, heard, and read in a system of numbers and ratings? Doesn’t your body watch the film along with you? Even in the most dabba film in the history of the world, you can’t find a scene that reached out to you, and held your attention?

When you say something is ‘so overhyped, it scares you to watch/read it’ – you are saying that you value other people’s judgements over yours and your body’s so much – that you don’t think you can muster the capacity to allow room for art to stand on its own with you.

When did we become bigger than art? Who are these important people who can make room for the hype to reach them but not the films and books? Pah. Self-importance is yet another prized Savarna possession. The Avarna relationship to art on the other hand is far more reliable. It’s you – your body – your eyes- and whatever it is you are breathing in. That is all. In the arms of an Avarna romantic, hype dies, math dies, and so does the English-medium love for logic and neatness.

This doesn’t mean you force yourself to feel and love everything you watch and read (although I don’t see the problem with that). No no. It means you believe in the capacity of even the most badly done film or play or book to have its moments. Didion said it best – “Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will possibly strike you as simple-minded. To engage my glazed attention a movie need be no classic of its kind, need be neither L’Avventura or Red River, neither Casablanca nor Citizen Kane; I ask only that it have its moments.”

Spent the day reading and dreaming about Dawn Powell. Her diary entries are just thrilling as her short stories. And I am feeling delicious feelings in my stomach about stalking yet another writer and eating her words inside out.

Read a few bits from Didion’s The White Album and am in awe of how her mind is what I am actually reading when I am reading her – every jump, map, note, flutter is readily available. How it would be to own her mind! Reminds me of a Borges short story called ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ in which various people come to own Shakespeare’s memory in the hope of being able to write like him, they can’t and keep looking for ways to get rid of it. Lol.

Jamaica Kincaid is yet another writer giving me butterflies. This story called Figures in the distance blew me away. A young girl is obsessed with death and tells the story of each dead body she hears and dreams about. Her mother’s hands catch dying people all the time and the girl grows more and more curious.

Storytelling becomes so much more intimate when a woman reads out another woman’s story, and a woman watering plants, and adjusting the phone tucked into her waist, listens to it and believes that it’s all she wants to do for the rest of her life.

Because of Joan Didion

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I mentioned Joan Didion for the first time in Seattle today. I must have said her name in my mind plenty of times but for the first time today, in Seattle (I cannot say this enough) I said her name out loud to my roommate.

My roommate is from Lebanon. Her name is Maha. She took a blue post it from her purse and wrote Joan Didion’s name down in small letters:

J-o-a-n  D-i-d-i-o-n

and I felt the quiet smile I always feel when I see Didion’s name in print.

At the visa interview in Chennai, when the white man behind the glass door had asked me what my SOP was about, I had said Joan Didion. And when he asked me who she was, I had felt incredibly stupid saying ‘She is an American writer’

***

Maha and I were saying how excited we are that they are going to take us on a study tour to Washington DC at the end of this month. I told her, ‘It’d would be tragic to be so close to New York and still not see it’

Ah! New York! You want to see because of Friends?

Yaaa, I said and then with a calm that took even me by surprise I said, ‘Because of Joan Didion’

It will always be Joan Didion’s New York for me now. In the way that it will always be Parodevi’s Bombay, and Adichie’s Nigeria. Cities are built to keep women away. Women may never belong to a city in the way that men do but cities always only belong to women.

Esra, who is from Turkey and now a student here like me, said that Orhan Pamuk is a psycho and we both giggled like children. She said – “Back home we don’t like his writing in Turkish very much. If we want to make fun of someone, we say you are talking like Pamuk writes”

Then she told me that he once put his phone on the balcony and took pictures of the city. “Same time each day and he saw different things it seems – such a crazy that man”

And now it is Esra’s Turkey. Like it is Elif Batuman’s Turkey (but it will never be Pamuk’s)

***

Here I must add because after years of not knowing, and then knowing, I am not going to suddenly unknow who I am – How do Dalit men and women figure here? Can cities ever belong to us? I don’t know. Maybe other cities can belong to us – perhaps even more than ours ever will. Then again – not all of us can afford to walk into strange, new cities and make them ours. But because of some odd luck that I am here now – I want to try.

Seattle is empty without my Basavanagudi cows and their dung, without the trees and their rains. But it is still mine. Today I woke at 5:30 and made it mine. I made it mine as I made hot water and drank it from a red mug. I made it mine as I walked on the same street up and down, effortlessly avoiding Starbucks. I made it mine when I was so distracted by the houses, I missed a turn. I made it mine when I saw a huge Ferrari showroom, said bah, and took a picture. I made it mine when I walked into Ba Bar last night and ordered Garlic Crab Noodles with a glass of wine.

I sat by the bar eating my food, drinking my drink and watched as the young bartender in front of me (grey dress with a slit down the side) climbed up the ladder in her black Nike shoes, and gently picked a bottle of scotch. I watched as she smoothly came down, her right hand clutching the bottle, her left holding-not holding the ladder.

This city is hers more than mine. But because she is now locked forever in a moment that I am writing about and because the next time I eat crab noodles, I’ll be in Bangalore, I will think about how she brought the bottle of scotch down and just like that – the city will be mine again. I sat today and put all my things in this city, so it is not empty anymore. That’s why I am sitting here writing this at 3 in the morning. It could be jet lag also, but lol.

 

 

Dalit Women Speak Out – The Writing Workshop

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The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.

The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.

The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.

I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.

But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?

Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?

I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.

I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.

But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.

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The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.

Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.

I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.

 

When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”

That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.

When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.

When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.

–          Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.

She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.

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Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.

There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.

I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.

When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.

The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.

At this Jamnadevi giggles.

***

When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.

60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.
60-year-old Jamuna Devi is the Sarpanch of Gram Bamana in Madhya Pradesh. She rebelled against her family and managed to study till the 11th std. She wanted to do engineering but wasn’t allowed to – and so, out of vengeance, she made her lazy husband do engineering. Today, Jamuna Devi is fighting for the labourers who were displaced due to the Bhakra Dam project.

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What I learnt from reading The Murder Room by PD James

The Murder Room

It’s probably a bad idea to read a detective novel over three months. You forget who died, who had the most convenient alibi, and whose house was most unkempt. But if you’re reading PD James’ The Murder Room, it’s pardonable to stretch it for as long as you want.

The murder is just a background against which you discover characters whose lives and routines keep you more occupied and thrilled. This is what makes PD James incredible, that she is able to keep your interest in these things despite an equally compelling murder mystery.

***

I have learnt more things about teaching from Adam Dalgliesh than I have from my own experience in the classroom. Today I’m as unprepared as I was on the first day of class. But I have come to realise that in the profession of teaching, it’s sometimes an ordeal to talk to students like adults.

My response to their various hostilities range from giving hostility back; to ignoring them completely; to confronting them to talk it all out. But neither of these is a fitting response.

In a room full of Murder suspects, Dalgliesh interrogates everybody with the sternness of a businessman and the aloofness of a lover caught daydreaming. This is possibly the best response to unwarranted attacks and general hostility. When the suspects are tired of the cross examining and the hundred odd restrictions on their movements, they begin attacking Dalgliesh – sometimes even personally.

Dalgliesh has a clear sense of his job. He doesn’t care about settling power matters with those who question it. He wants to solve the case – if that gets in the way of people’s fragile ego, he gives exactly two and half fucks and moves on with his life.

A recent discovery that has made me very uncomfortable is that as a teacher, I have taken too many liberties to feel offended at the drop of a hat. While sometimes, I reserve the right to take offence, I should probably learn to be aloof.

I have bad days. Trapped in files and piles of admin work, I have often lost my temper. I continue to envy colleagues who talk to students in a consistently reasonable, annoyingly patient way.

When I think back to all those times that I have lost my cool, I cringe. Because there is nothing not performative about anger. Both on the inside and outside.  Regardless of what it’s about and where it’s coming from. This doesn’t make it less genuine – even if performance is a lie. It just makes me wonder if it’s really all that necessary – ashte.

Adam Dalgliesh is calm. During his worst moments – he’s still calm. He’s never severe on himself.

When Adam and Kate go to interview the mother of some murdered woman – Kate is taken aback by the generous make-up on the mother’s face. For a moment, I was also judgy bitchita. I was all ‘Why are you putting make-up on face when cops are coming to talk about your daughter’s murder?

The stepfather doesn’t figure here because it’s clear from his mannerisms that he’s happy step-daughter’s dead.

Adam Dalgliesh, calm as iceberg on ocean says – ‘It’s her wish to grieve the way she wants to. Clearly her daughter’s death made her vulnerable. So if she wants to brace the day by doing something that makes her feel powerful – why shouldn’t she do it?

I couldn’t applaud because book was heavy so I made my feet applaud.

***

Tally Clutton is my wonder woman. She craves solitude more than anyone else I have ever known. And she craves it not because she likes herself, but because she loves London. She knows she’ll never be able to enjoy the city if she doesn’t see it and live it alone, day after day. She walks the streets of London with the calm desperation of a woman in love willing to surrender.

She wants nothing more than to spend her last few days swallowing the city in slow, deliberate gulps. Sigh. I want to live and die like Tally Clutton. But before that I want to read all the PD James I can get my hands on.

You can watch the BBC adaptation here. But it’s a little blah because it ain’t the Tally Clutton from the book 😦

Once upon a not so long ago

Image Credits: The TLS Blog
Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

If like me, you come from an adolescence that didn’t know it was happening while it was happening, if you weren’t aware of the joys that investing in oneself can bring — if you made the mistake of making one person central to your entire life, then you will hurry through the remainder of your youth with a biting madness.

Marquez’s life changed after reading the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It paralysed him first and then set him free. ‘I didn’t know you could lie in writing,’ he said.

Paris Review
Image Credits – Paris Review

A discovery that did the same for me was ‘I didn’t know I could live like this’

Live how you ask. Like you are alive after a long time of being dead. Like you don’t want to share your day with anybody because you guard the time you have like a lion guarding his cubs. Like any moment not spent doing the things you love (even if it is sleeping for 8 hours or staring at yellow curtains for 3 hours) makes you cringe. Like the thought of marriage makes you say no thanks, I’ll give you one kidney if you want. Pliss leave me alone.

When you spend your youth chasing fears and running away from them at the same time, there’s very little left to love yourself. You go to bed unhappy and wake up miserable. You will allow a beautiful thing like love to cripple you. You will invite self-pity and aren’t too far from depression.

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I spent last night poring over Amulya Shruti’s blog. Her writing is like carpentry. You can’t help but watch as she is at it – tugging, pulling, breaking, joining, cutting, welding and then when she’s done: the work stands itself up and grins at you. Almost as if the writing came out of her body. This confirms a long standing suspicion I have had of the connection between music and writing.

The practice of writing is not to make writing perfect but to train your body to become a sort of vessel for writing.

Here is a piece on Kishori Amonkar. Read it. Ila explains it better than I can.

Kishori Amonkar has always said about music: that she was not singing a raag, but that the raag was coming through her — where the music was more important than the musician.

India Samvad
Image Credits: India Samvad

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Before leaving to college yesterday, I listened to Paromita Vohra speak at IIHS on YouTube (Bless you) — been reeling from too much love since then – for everyone in general but myself, in particular. No one else has made loving oneself seem so attractive and desirable.

She speaks with a clarity that can arm you with a rare pleasure for work. I myself went to college with a spring in my bum.

She wonders what it must have been like for Lata Mangeshkar to go to work every day with the conviction of producing a perfect song. Apparently she drove directors mad because she wouldn’t let go until the song could not be made more perfect. What must it be like to have this kind of a relationship with work? Paromita asks. Then she says, “I like writing perfect columns. I’m not saying all my columns are great but they are definitely good”

With Paro Devi & her fans - Jan 2018
With Paro Devi & her fans – Jan 2018

I love women. I love it even more when they talk about their work and take pride in what they do. It’s the most glorious ache to spend hours agonizing over each word, sharpening each sentence until they become flesh- ripping canines.   

How to produce good writing though? How to make that glorious ache visible? How to begin? How to develop style? I was thankful to all the faces that asked these questions. 

Vohra said – ‘It’s important to know yourself and to know the kind of things you like to write. It’s the only thing that helps. You should be able to show your own political journey in your writing.’

Often she has said that she likens the act of writing columns to Bollywood film songs – there’s rasa, there’s oomph, there’s persuasion, there’s a question and then there’s some degree of attempt at solving this question.

This comparison never fails to make me happy. A large part of my childhood was spent listening to these songs, watching useless films and feeling guilty about not doing productive work. But then there are writers like these who seem to be rooting for all the pleasures of my childhood and saying — no no that was good, it’s what makes you write. Work is play, play is work.

For someone whose only occupation was to imagine her own death while brushing her teeth – and to weep while she rehearsed what others would say and feel at her funeral – a commitment to working towards something – no matter how bad she is at it – is a gift, a luxury.

"I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again - as I always am when I write" - Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph
“I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again – as I always am when I write” – Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph

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Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

Meta Diaries: Days Seven and Eight

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A new contest we’ve added this year (for other fests to grab, and announce it as the first time anyone in college has ever conducted it) is Pretext.

I’ll just say the word interpret and give you a picture of Hitler’s jingling anatomy and a Nazi symbol for heart. Do what you can in 5 minutes. So this happened on Day Seven and we saw some ten contestants staring at fellow team mates hungrily and blinking rarely.

Our first Panel at Meta was to commemorate 50 years of JAM (Just a Minute) Our panelists were alumni Darius Sunawala, Prof Cheriyan Alexander and students Izrael and Zahed.

Coming as I do with only a degree in Bollywood, I had for the longest time assumed that JAM is what little Anjali did in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – where she picked the word Maa and stumbled and stuttered until Paa came and rescued her.

I was wrong. JAM has been adapted and made raita-khichdi of by many. It was a delight to watch Darius speak of the good ol days. Prof Arul Mani had told us at JAM the other day that Nicholas Parsons based the rules of JAM on an incident from school. His professor caught him daydreaming and asked him to explain to the class what was being discussed without hesitation, repetition and deviation (!)
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CK Meena’s Lec Dem on women in journalism was proof that we need sessions like these every other week. Some five bois were rolling eyes at the mere mention of women.The eyes came out of sockets when she hadn’t even reached the fem of feminism.

Nevertheless, she told us about how women reporters back then were rare and if they did join, were given dog shows and cake shows and flower shows to cover. Maybe the bois should have rolled eyes at this.
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Day Eight began with a change in venues. But that has never bothered Meta.

Our event Nose Cut (are the creative peeps listening?) was quite the hit. After slight mind acrobatics, it was decided that Alok Nath, Rakhi Sawant, Tiger Shroff and Lola Kutty would be put together. Most of the participants chose Alok Nath and the one team that chose Lola Kutty won the audience over with his rendition of confused malluness and ever-falling pallu. At one point he said ‘female chetas’ and people howled.

Anchor What made me Dil-Khush yesterday because two BCA students came first.

The gulabi moment of the Young Adult Fiction panel was one Miss Sarah Rodriguez announcing quite coolly that “no writer writes for the entire world” and Prof Rincy Thomas declaring that “there should be an event at Meta where boys should be given a copy of The Princess Diaries” – that was our all-women – all -kickass – panel at Meta this year.

The highlight of the day was writer SR Ramakrishna talking about translating the late UR Ananthamurthy’s autobiography – Suragi. When he read out some excerpts, I couldn’t help but notice how much the voice was like the one in Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri (A word with you, world – also translated by SR Ramakrishna)

It was amusing to note that in three of the five excerpts he read, three people died — and all very casually. ‘He played cards and then he died’

Managed to get a signed copy. Cannot wait to read it.