Stacked: The summer reading special (with Jai Arjun Singh)

(Carried in the Business Standard weekend section, May 2006, this was put together by Jai and me; he did most of the fiction, I did most of the non-fiction and children’s books, and we traded as much information as we could.)

A recently-divorced Booker prizewinner writes a novel about a recently-divorced painter, and now Susan Carey—Peter Carey’s ex-wife—is complaining about his use of the term “alimony whore”. An author finds a photograph of himself as a baby taken with the Boston Strangler, who was then the family carpenter—and Sebastian Junger has a true crime story to investigate. A new, much-hyped British Asian novelist ensures that the word “oolti” will enter the OED; in India, a domestic worker finds the words to tell her own story, her way.

Welcome to the summer reading special, where everything from balloonships and weird words to Matisse, Hindi film vamps and the young James Bond has a place. We’ve tried to make this comprehensive, while sticking to books that are easily available; in order to offer as wide a selection as possible, we may have left out some really good stuff. Only one category is deliberately omitted, and that’s self-help books, on the basis that they won’t do you any good unless you’re motivated enough to locate them all on your own. Otherwise, dive in.


Lazy summers often demand non-intensive reading, the kind where you pick up a book and look through it for a few minutes (perhaps while sipping a tall cool drink) before preparing for your afternoon siesta. The short-story format is perfect for this sort of thing, and Picador has just the right idea with its new series of pocket-sized books called, aptly enough, Picador Shots.

In the UK these books, priced at £1 each, will be made available at convenience stores, pubs, corner shops and so on. No such culture exists in India (“We tried Mother Dairy but they turned us down,” quips Picador India’s Shruti Debi) so you’ll have to trek to regular bookstores for them; they’ll be priced somewhere around Rs 50 each. The pocket-books include short stories by some of the most exciting contemporary writers around — among them Bret Easton Ellis, Colm Toibin, Tim Winton, one of Australia’s most popular authors, and Nell Freudenberger.

These featherweight books will be easy on the elbow but if you’re looking for a slightly more substantial collection of stories you should consider Haruki Murakami’s latest, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Random House). The Japanese master’s writing is an acquired taste, but once you’re hooked you won’t be able to put his books down until you’ve seen them all the way through. A typical description of a Murakami story might read: “A talking frog saves Tokyo from an impending earthquake,” but the stories — with their seamless merging of the real and the surreal — and their startling perspectives on the everyday things we take for granted, really need to be experienced firsthand rather than through jacket blurbs.

I Allan Sealy’s Red (Picador India, Rs 495) is experimental in a different way—this deftly told tale of Matisse, a gang of thieves in Dehra Dun, art, love and cyberspace is one of Sealy’s most masterful novels yet. He plays around with form, inserting poems and turning the text into a kind of poetry, writing the book in themed chapters from A to Z; but it’s remarkable how smoothly Red reads.

At an age when most writers stop bothering to dust off their typewriters/ computers, it’s remarkable how prolific, and how brilliant, Philip Roth has been. His last few books, including Sabbath’s Theatre, American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, all written after he turned 60, have sealed his place among America’s most provocative, powerful writers. His latest, a novella titled Everyman (Houghton Mifflin), is a typical Roth-ian meditation on physical deterioration and mortality. Be warned, this may be a light book (it’s a novella) but it isn’t light reading.

Growing old is also the subject of Abha Dawesar’s That Summer in Paris (Random House, Rs 295), the story of Prem Rustum, an ageing Indian novelist looking back on his muses and his lost loves. In the seeming straightforwardness of its narrative, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £10.99) represents a change of pace for the brilliant young writer whose last novel, the Booker-nominated Cloud Atlas, told six different stories in different voices. In comparison, Black Swan Green is a straightforward Bildungsroman, the story of a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, growing up in a small Worcestershire village in 1982. But this book isn’t just a breather; it’s a top-quality work in its own right, a stunningly effective account of how strange and terrifying the world can be for a sensitive adolescent.

Another much-anticipated novel about adolescent fantasies colliding with hard realities, and the effect that childhood has on adulthood, is Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of My Dreams (Picador) in which Hannah Gavener ponders life’s big and small questions from the age of 14 till a decade and a half later. It sounds like a tried and tested formula, but this book has already received hearty recommendations from the likes of Alice Munro.

Monica Ali’s debut novel Brick Lane drew mixed responses when it was published three years ago. Though Ali’s feel for character and nuance, and the general quality of her writing, were never really in doubt, her treatment of London’s Bangladeshi community was considered by many to be stereotyped. In her new book Alentejo Blue (Random House), Ali shifts gears; the setting this time is the small Portuguese village of Mamarrosa.

Gautam Malkani, who’s been called “the new Monica Ali” and “the new Zadie Smith”, turns out to be neither as polished as the first nor anywhere near as intellectually invigorating as the second. His Londonstani (4th Estate, £7.99) follows four boys in a fledgling Hounslow gang who’re grappling with the big problems — the purity of Asian identity, growing up, and how to pull “fit” women by successful “chirpsing”. The voice, delivered in a bruising mix of street slang (“innit”, “oolti”), SMS speak and rap rhythms, is persistently annoying, and under the fancy wrapping, the story’s basically conventional Boy’s Own stuff updated for this generation—think Nick Hornby with an Asian accent.

Manju Kapur’s Home (Random House, Rs 395) is at the opposite end of the spectrum: this apparently straightforward story of three generations of a Karol Bagh sari shop family is actually a deeply subversive indictment of the Indian family. It’s a much easier read than Kiran Nagarkar’s ambitious, impressive but unwieldy God’s Little Soldier (HarperCollins, Rs 595), a challenging tale that juxtaposes a fundamentalist whose roots are perversely middle-class with a remixed version of the life of Kabir. Say what you like about The Da Vinci Code, but it did give a new lease of life to the historical mystery. The latest, Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree (Faber & Faber), is set in Istanbul during the declining years of the Ottoman Empire and has an unusual detective figure: the eunuch Yashim Togalu, who sets about trying to solve barbaric murders and jewel thefts.

Two-time Booker winner Peter Carey’s new novel Theft: A Love Story (Knopf) might sound like one of those bizarrely subtitled Bollywood movies, but this book, about the adventures of a painter and his “damaged 220 lb brother”, promises to be a lot more entertaining. The story explores themes of artistic fraud that were also dealt with in Carey’s last novel My Life as a Fake.

And finally, keep an eye out for Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (Knopf), translated by Sandra Smith. Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz a few months after she completed Suite Francaise; the manuscript was found in a suitcase recently — six decades after she died in the camps. She had planned the Suite in six parts, but lived to write only two: Storm in July and Dolce. Don’t miss this one.


Almost as bad as the success of The Da Vinci Code was the proliferation of spin-off books that sprang up in its fell wake. One of the few worth reading is John L Allen’s Opus Dei (Penguin India, POUNDS 4.50), Allen was given unlimited access to the religious organization that inspired part of the Code , and does his best to separate the conspiracy theories from the reality. Not quite as intense as Jon Krakauer’s fierce expose of the Mormons, this is still going to rock several boats.

Experienced bartenders ban three subjects of conversation to prevent brawls: politics, sex and religion. If you believe the experts, you’ll have to add the weather to that list. In The Weather Makers (Allen Lane, POUNDS 6), Tim Flannery travels across continents and time to make his point: “We are now the weather makers, and the future of biodiversity and civilization hangs on our actions.”

In The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin Books, POUNDS 11), the author of the original Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, makes large and urgent claims: “I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever…” Neither Lovelock nor Flannery blindly advocate the usual alternative solutions; indeed, some of their suggestions are deeply controversial. Both see India, China and similar countries as key, since we’re in a position to make fundamental environmental choices that will affect the rest of the world.

If that’s too much to deal with at the height of Indian summer, take our next non-fiction pick for a hike. Pradip Krishen’s Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide (Dorling Kindersely, Rs 799) begs to be used as a walking companion not just by citizens of Delhi, but by anyone who lives in similar areas, from Jaipur to Bhopal. The illustrations are fabulous, and Krishen’s Leaf Keys make identifying trees reassuringly easy. His enthusiasm is infectious, whether he’s telling you where to find the only Badhara Bush tree in Delhi (in the Qutb minar compound), or which tree produced the macassar oil that launched a thousand crocheted anti-macassars!

Amir Mir’s The True Face of Jehadis: Inside Pakistan’s Network of Terror (Roli Books, Rs 395) is an intelligent attempt to map the entangled networks and messy history of the jehadis, more useful for the layperson than the specialist. It’s interesting to read this alongside Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War With Militant Islam (Atlantic Monthly Press, $ 26). Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down in 1999, has gone back to 1979, when 66 Americans were held hostage for well over a year in Teheran. Far more conventional is General V P Malik’s Kargil: From Surprise to Victory (HarperCollins, Rs 595), a detailed analysis of the war from his perspective—competent enough, but don’t expect a film version with Barkha Dutt playing herself! And far more disappointing is P V Narasimha Rao’s posthumously released Ayodhya (Viking, Rs 395), which adds little to our knowledge of 1992 or our respect for the late prime minister.

If these four books rest on established categories—jehadi/ patriot/ terrorist, the Islamic versus the Western world, patriotism and nationhood–Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Penguin/ Allen Lane, Rs 295) asks us to question categories and analyse our allegiances. In his view of the world, no one is an island: we are “singularized” by ourselves or by other people at the cost of losing several, often contrasting, aspects of ourselves. He explores and explodes stereotypes, Muslim, Hindu, Western, with trademark acuity and wit.

I tried and failed to imagine a hypothetical dialogue between Professor Sen and Chairman Mao, after reading excerpts from Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s incendiary biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, Rs 1088). In their version, Mao comes across as a pitiless sadist driven by the power of the absolute, uncaring of the cost others would have to pay for his vision—the classic “singularized” man, if you like. The book has already caused controversy in China, but Halliday’s research and his wife Jung Chang’s passion make a potent combination.

Mushirul Hasan’s The Nehrus: Personal Histories (Roli Books, Rs 1295) is an ambitious history of one of India’s most fascinating clans. Even Hasan can’t add too much to their exhaustively chronicled lives, but his perspective and the more personal family photographs raise this book well above the average. Yashodhara Dalmia’s Amrita Sher-gil: A Life (Viking, Rs 695) and Ina Puri’s In Black & White (Viking, Rs 425) use contrasting approaches to reveal the lives of two Indian artists.

Dalmia’s attempt to provide a complete biography of Sher-gil is hampered by the lack of available material—the book really comes to life with Sher-gil’s letters. Ina Puri offers an insider’s account of Manjit Bawa’s life, focusing more on the artist than the art, with a profusion of anecdotes but little in the way of comprehensive background information.

Then there’s A Life Less Ordinary (Zubaan/ Penguin, Rs 195), by Baby Halder, translated by Urvashi Butalia. Baby Halder was married and had children when she was in her teens; she broke a cycle of abuse by coming to Delhi, where she became a domestic worker. Encouraged by her employer, a professor at JNU, reaching back for writing skills almost forgotten, Baby Halder found the internal resources to write the story of her life. Honest, uncompromising and poignant, this is a remarkable book.

Aside from the usual academic tomes and management mantras, this summer sees new work from Amiya Bagchi (Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital, OUP India, ) and a collection of Andre Beteille’s short writings (Ideology and Social Science, Penguin, Rs 250). Seetha’s The Backroom Brigade (Penguin India, Rs 495) takes a close and analytical look at the BPO phenomenon, while Satyajit Das’ Traders, Guns and Money (FT Prentice Hall) offers cautionary tales from the “form of madness” called “the markets”. But my favourite economist of the moment has to be Tim Hartford, perhaps because of his interests, which he discloses on page 231 of The Undercover Economist (Little, Brown, POUNDS 5.99): “You will have gathered by now that I am a big fan of both coffee and beer.” By this time, he’s led us through the intricacies of Starbucks’ pricing mechanisms, the truth about perfect markets and externalities charges, in language that even your humble reviewer can understand—I rest my case.

The remarkable thing about Jerry Pinto’s Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (Penguin India, Rs 250), is not that he never met the queen of the cabaret floor, but that he clearly didn’t need to. This biography explores Helen the vamp, the refugee, the foreigner, the woman of every teenage boy’s dreams, with wit, humour and genuine insight. Fellow Bollywood explorer Connie Hudson displays as much scholarship as Pinto in her book, Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai’s Films (Roli Books, Rs 395), but if you ask who had more fun, it’s no contest: Pinto wins hands down.

“My principal skill in putting these stories together has been a lack of imagination; I could never have thought up the people in them.” And with that, Sanjay Suri takes us on a fascinating tour of Indians in England. Brideless in Wembley (Viking, Rs 495) takes us from the immigrants working in the textile mills of England to the Garba-dating circuits of closed communities, from the Southhall Singhs to the ubiquitous Patels, and explodes many stereotypes along the way.

Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont (W W Norton, $15) takes on far darker material. Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm , was just a baby when Bessie Goldberg was murdered in his twon, apparently by an African-American man with a bad track record. Just two days before the murder, a carpenter called Al DeSalvo finished work in the Junger house—he later became notorious as the Boston Strangler, the man who murdered at least eight women. Junger asks a difficult, and very controversial, question: could justice have miscarried? Might DeSalvo, and not Roy Smith, have murdered Bessie Goldberg?

Next up is a clutch of books about writers and the writing life. Charles J Shields’ Mockingbird (Henry Holt and Co), expected in India by midsummer, is the first biography of the reclusive Harper Lee. He explores her friendship with Truman Capote and tries to find out why she never wrote anything after To Kill A Mockingbird . Dominic Dromgoole, who currently runs the Globe Theatre, writes of his obsession—and every reader, actor and theatre-goers’ obsession—with Shakespeare in Will and Me (Allen Lane, POUNDS 18).

Gay Talese, who helped midwife the New Journalism in America, takes a seat at Elaine’s and examines A Writer’s Life (Knopf, $26) in a slightly wistful biography. Joan Didion analyses grief, death and tragedy with a surgeon’s meticulousness in The Year of Magical Thinking (4th Estate, POUNDS 6.99). But don’t miss Amos Oz’ A Tale of Love and Darkness (Vintage, POUNDS 4.75). Inheritor of a promised, and compromised, land in Israel, Oz finds his way to writing through his father’s library and the eldritch tales of his mother, who committed suicide when he was just twelve-and-a-half.

This is brilliant writing, but suicide, depression and death are perhaps the wrong notes on which to end a summer reading special. Instead, I urge you to discover The Meaning of Tingo (Penguin Books, POUNDS 7), along with Adam Jacot de Boinod, collector of “extraordinary words from around the world”. We will recognize the aviador (Spanish, a government employee who shows up only on payday) immediately; laud the Urlaubsmuffel (German, person who is against taking vacations); and whatever our attitudes to work, give thanks that we are not koshatniks (Russian, dealers in stolen cats).

When this palls, spend some time with the world’s worst, most incorrigible dog, whose thieving, skiving and begging are lovingly documented in the irresistible Marley & Me (William Morrow, $10). If you own a pet, a child or even just a spouse, you need to read this book.


Eragon, Narnia reissues, Lemony Snicket, Pokemon… everything in children’s fiction seems to come with a trademark and a special boxed set, but there are still a few exceptions. OUP has just released The Oxford Illustrated Children’s Tagore , edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, with everything from the cards in Taasher Desh to the curious menagerie from Abol Tabol . And Puffin offers the very useful Puffin Good Reading Guide for Children (Puffin, Rs 195).

8+: Meera Uberoi reworks the old tales, in Lord Ganesha’s Feast of Laughter (Puffin, Rs 160), where the elephant god baffles Kubera with his appetite at a feast, invents the tabla and swallows Vishnu, Brahma and Lakshmi. In Swagata Deb’s The Amazing Adventures of Little (Rupa & Co, Rs 95) the heroine visits a land where time goes backwards, solves mysteries, and discovers what furniture does when it’s left alone at night. And in Moin and the Monster (Penguin India, Rs 155), Anushka Ravishankar introduces an utterly delightful monster who sings off-key and complicates Moin’s life at school.

10+: Eoin Colfer is just out with Half-Moon Investigations (Miramax Books, POUNDS 5.95). At 12, Fletcher Moon is a detective with his first case—who stole the lock of hair off a pop-star’s head that April Devereux bought off e-Bay?

12+: Cornelia Funke is back; in Inkspell (Chicken House, $13), Meggie must deal with the problems of stories—reading them, writing them and of course, being in them. Payal Dhar tries her hand at a fantasy series—in instalment one, A Shadow in Eternity (Penguin India, Rs 295), Maya has to adjust to a world of Seekers, magical training and dark menace. Megan Whalen Hunter offers more of Eugenides’ adventures in The Queen of Attolia (HarperCollins, $5.25), where our hero the thief must steal a man, a queen—and peace.
With Blood Fever (Puffin, POUNDS 6.99), the second book in the young James Bond series, Charles Higson makes his claim to have timeshare rights in 007 alongside Ian Fleming as James has a nasty brush with Count Ugo Carnifex and the evil (but pulchritudinous) Countess Jana. Carl Hiaasen’s Flush (Knopf, $12) is his second book for kids. The villain is Dusty Muleman, who’s polluting Florida’s lakes by, well, flushing human waste into them. Hiaasen chucks in the works—pirates, ailing turtles and two intrepid kids, Noah and Abbey Underwood—and has a blast while he’s at it. This one’s for the kids; and the grown-ups too.





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