Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis: A Novel
Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis is Mumbai through the seductive smoke of an opium pipe. He gives us the city, mostly in the seventies, when there were, apparently, still dens where addicts (along with slumming hippies) could retreat to chase the dragon. In these smoky dens stories were lived, told, and dreamed, stories that feature Muslims and Hindus, transsexuals and thugs, along with well-brought up young Indian men. It is far from being a paradise, but it is a zone where a kind of freedom is available, freedom we see slip away as opium is displaced by heroin, and usually heroin badly adulterated with poisons. Thayil tells the stories of the individuals who pass through the smoke and on to the powder, and also of the city in which they live with poetic aplomb. His prose traps one in the dream he writes.
Rani Sircar: Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British India
This is a memoir, published in 2003, by Rani Sircar, an Indian woman who was born during the Raj (a term, I learned from this book, that Indians don't use), and came into adulthood at about the time India gained its independence. She is mostly concerned to let us know how life was in the old days, to share with us what she calls her "sepia photographs" from her life mostly up until about the 1970s. If one started reading from the book's last chapter, where the author mostly complains about modern India, one might suspect that this is an exercise in rose-tinted everything-was-better-when-I-was-young nostalgia. Sircar is, as the earlier chapters reveal, nostalgic for some aspects of her youth, and some aspects of India in her youth, but her nostalgia is not simple, and she is under no illusions about Indian life under the (sometimes artfully camouflaged, sometimes not) colonial boot. Her experience of India, like any Indian's, is unique to her, and certainly colored by an Anglo-Indian education--she was taught Anglo-pagan rituals such as dancing around maypoles--and that she grew up in a comfortably middle-class Christian family. One might, for example, get the impression from her book that hunger and illiteracy were not problems in the India she has grown old in--they certainly weren't much in evidence in her set--but Sircar is a sharp and self-aware author: she calls herself on this in the book's final pages. All in all this is a fascinating and sophisticated look at a lost world.
William Gibson: The Peripheral
I loved William Gibson's Bigend trilogy, though it sagged a bit in the third volume. I'm happy to see that, with The Peripheral, the first novel to appear since the Bigend trilogy, he's back on his game. It's science fiction, but as is the case with most of Gibson's work, it's grounded in a noir sensibility and a feel for the grittiness of how people--in this case poor American Southerners--live, and especially how they talk. Time travel is one of the components of the novel, and it, and the paradoxes time travel brings with it, are artfully handled. The book is rich with the intriguing characters, good talk, and clever speculation we have come to expect from Gibson, who really is one of the more interesting American (though long based in Canada) novelists now working.
Paul Wilkinson: International Relations: A Very Short Introduction
As the title says. I read it with a student who needed, well, a very short introduction. Not bad for what it is, but the book could do with an update.
Walter Scott: The Antiquary (Oxford World's Classics)
In her introduction to Walter Scott's The Antiquary, Nicola J. Watson notes that this novel has "perhaps been the most underestimated work of (since the end of the nineteenth century) our most persistently underestimated major writer." Since I had bought into the underestimation, I had never read Scott until picking up The Antiquary, and though I enjoyed this novel a great deal, because it is apparently atypical, I can't say for sure that Scott's underestimation is undeserved. What is, according to Watson, atypical about The Antiquary, is the lack of action, the absence for most of the novel of its hero, and the mishmash of genre, which she's right to say are just the sort of thing that certain modern readers (me included) find attractive. That one can, all within the space of a few hundred pages, get a bit of not terribly fustian history, a bit of gothic, a bit of social comedy, and some lovely landscapes seems recommendation enough for readers in our time. Now, to decide whether I want to read any or the other, perhaps more typical novels, in Scott's Waverly series.
Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
It’s a tribute to our growing emotional maturity as a species that a novel like this 2014 Booker Prize winner could be written: an even-handed account of Australian and Japanese soldiers in World War II, focusing on the horrific POW camps in Burma. It opened the door to my perhaps one day comprehending the minds of those who venerate the spirits of the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine, even when they know it upsets their former adversaries. The harrowing descriptions of the camps were very powerful, but overall I found the book padded, repetitive, emotionally overwrought, and artlessly constructed. (**)
The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters 1955-1962: A Selection
It was Blockhead’s David who suggested letter and diaries as excellent reading in bed before sleep, so it’s to him I owe the pleasure I’ve had doing that ever since. He’d previously lent me the six volumes of this correspondence which I enjoyed immensely. This is a one-volume digest. At first I missed the leisurely give-and-take, with each letter answering the previous one, but I soon settled into the treat of these exceptional passages that carry the story of their lives forward apace. Many thanks to George Lyttelton, Rupert Hart-Davis and editor Roger Hudson. (****)
Ian McEwan: The Children Act
A hugely enjoyable read, the more so for its brevity. This is a classic McEwan: clear, meticulous, a deep stab at an authentic view of a profession we depend on but do not know, compassionate drawing of flawed characters, preternaturally intelligent conversations; queasy suspense and fear of, or actual, violence, “we do not know what is going to happen” plotting. Magnificent, educational, satisfying. (*****)
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
Reading “Freedom” is to be immersed in a family and a culture. Franzen is a master of storytelling and artful construction on a large scale; he’s a master at developing characters in their flawed magnificence; a master of setting: rural and urban America in the present and recent past. “Freedom” shows decent people doing shameful things, and apparent good fortune having terrible consequences, and terrible situations being blessings in disguise. In showing the mystery and difficulty of growing up, and inviting our compassion for human frailty and a feeling of privilege at being party to other people’s lives, it’s like the movie “Boyhood” writ vast. Both magnificent creations paint life as tough and glorious. (*****)
Paul Martin: Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure
This deft, witty study, leavened by entertaining anecdote, encourages us to maximize pleasure by seeking it wisely while side-stepping the problems of habituation and addiction. The bottom line for Martin is little but often. Sex (social or solitary) and chocolate (made from pure cacao solids--sucking, not chewing) “tick all the right boxes, including availability, frequent repeatability and legality. When used correctly, they can deliver intense pleasure with a good ending and improve your mental and physical health.” Martin also suggests sensitizing ourselves to often overlooked pleasures of daily life, such as walking, dreaming… and finishing a book. His book was a pleasure to read and finish (in a good way). (****)