Under my byline

Summer in the city

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 16 May 2009

The season in books

“Hot town, summer in the city / Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty”, go the words of Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1966 hit song. Back then summer was still innocent, and every day might end well: “Cool town, evening in the city / Dressing so fine and looking so pretty”. Something strange has happened in the world of books this year: the bubbling tumult of new books and gathering trends, so visible last year, seems to have faded a little. But there is plenty of urban grit this time around, and it looks as if “the city” has moved to the centre of the written world, in fiction, non-fiction or books for children. This year it’s all about variant experiences of the city and urban culture, direct or indirect, real or imagined, good and bad. Even the master Premchand, writing from rural India in the early 20th century and now in a fresh and promising translation, absorbed his subjects’ ambivalence towards the city, inevitably associated with their oppressors and somehow unreal. Here are a few books, new and renewed, to read “In the summer, in the city”.

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in VeniceJeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Geoff Dyer
Random House India

Jeff is a moribund arts journalist from London, in Venice for the Biennale. There he meets and has a short-lived but thunderous affair with Laura; then they go their separate ways. The second half of the novel, this time in the first person, concerns a Brit in Varanasi, possibly the same Jeff, so mesmerised, yet essentialised, by the utter filth and alienness of the city that he cannot leave. Dyer is such a gifted writer that one never feels shortchanged; his descriptions of the experience of Indian classical music are uniquely vivid and truthful.

Anderson, WintergirlsWintergirls
Laurie Halse Anderson

Lia’s anorexia began in her early teens. The book opens with Lia aged 18, having just lost her best friend, and on the brink of a terrible crisis. Unable to connect with her parents or anyone, she is ever more tightly bound in her dark world, obsessed with calories and never at peace. Salvation finally comes once old patterns have been broken and relationships begin to mend. “As difficult as reading this novel can be,” said Publishers Weekly, “it is more difficult to put down.” Ages 12 and up.

Premchand, RangbhumiRangbhumi: The Arena of Life
Munshi Premchand
Trans. Christopher R King
OUP, forthcoming

A schoolteacher from small-town Uttar Pradesh who struggled to support an extended family on his salary, Premchand often wrote about the rural underdog, the peasant at the mercy of landowner or colonial authorities — but his characters are memorable. His prose is plain yet passionate and filled with pain. Premchand has been ill-served by many translators; this new translation of his novel Rangbhumi, set in the 1920s-30s and about “the tensions between the rulers and the ruled”, promises better.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf HallWolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
Fourth Estate

Tudor England, Henry VIII’s reign in particular, is well-travelled territory for all sorts of writers — from serious historians to popular novelists. Its themes and even its characters are well-established and familiar. But not so in the hands of Hilary Mantel, whose excellent Wolf Hall is the first of two historical novels on Henry’s reign. It’s told from the point of view of plebeian Thomas Cromwell, the sidekick of Cardinal Wolsey who outlasted his master. A brilliant and inquisitive man, he’s perfect for the role.

Philip Alcabes, DreadDread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu
Philip Alcabes

Every other year, it seems, the world faces a new and unprecedented health crisis. This year it’s swine flu. Although relatively few have died of these emergent diseases, they loom very large in our imagination and daily life. Why so? Philip Alcabes, a professor of urban public health, plunges into history for context, showing, with lots of examples, that our reactions reflect our current prejudices and anxieties (foreigners, animals, the unknown) — so it has always been. Alcabes is a spirited and sceptical storyteller.

Tarquin Hall, Case of the Missing ServantThe Case of the Missing Servant
Tarquin Hall
Random House India

A detective story for teens. Vish Puri is a “Most Private Investigator” whose favourite targets are Delhi’s cheats, crooks and murderers — but most of his work involves screening prospective marriage partners. Finally an interesting case falls into his lap, of an honest man accused of killing his maid. Hall, a British journalist and writer who has spent years in India, takes his hero on a pan-national hunt for the missing maidservant. First book in a promised series.

Wendy Doniger, The HindusThe Hindus: An Alternative History
Wendy Doniger

Anything novel with the word “Hindu” in it is guaranteed to raise strong opinions. Professor Doniger, a Sanskrit expert in Chicago, is no stranger to that. In this book, with its provocative subtitle, she traces the story of Hinduism from Harappan times onwards, following in particular the role of women, lower castes and classes and animals like horse, cows and dogs. A lot of her work involves close re-readings of texts, so this is an academic work — albeit an accessible and thought-provoking one.

Peter Brown, Curious GardenThe Curious Garden
Peter Brown
Little, Brown

Urban planning, of which there has been precious little in India, is beginning to attract more interest around the world. In New York, thanks to citizen activism, a disused elevated train track was recently rededicated as a park. In this book, young Liam, who lives in a dystopian city where everybody stays indoors, finds a staircase up to the old track. He learns how to care for the few plants which have set down roots there, and slowly transforms his neighbourhood. For young children.

Colm Tóibín, BrooklynBrooklyn
Colm Tóibín

Able to compose pages of patiently undemonstrative prose, the Irish Tóibín is nevertheless (or thereby) a profound and powerful writer. In this book, which opens in poor, provincial 1950s Ireland, Eilis leaves behind her mother and sister to move to Brooklyn to slowly make a life there. But rather than an immigrant story (there are so many) this in an emigrant’s tale; eventually Eilis returns to Ireland, where she finds herself suddenly something of a catch, and has to choose whether to remain or return.

Parismita Singh, Hotel at the End of the WorldThe Hotel at the End of the World
Parismita Singh

In her hotel at the end of the world, where India meets China, Pema and her husband serve food to two travellers; one, Kona, blind but far-seeing; the other, Kuja, with stumps for legs. In this graphic novel, Parismita Singh has them exchange their tales, which draw upon local folklore as well as history (the Japanese during World War II) and fantasy, while the rain pours down: especially the story of the “floating island”, a promised land of plenty.

Reich, Plastic FantasticPlastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
Eugenie Samuel Reich
Palgrave Macmillan

We’re all familiar with financial fraud — but here is the story of a real-life scientific fraud which shook the scientific world. A young German physicist named Jan Hendrik Schön had the best minds in his field convinced, between 1997 and 2002, that he was able to make electronic devices from organic rather than silicon crystals, and, moreover, use those devices to do unprecented things. The oddest thing in the story is Schön himself, a quiet and modest man despite all the acclaim.

Henkes and Dronzek, BirdsBirds
Kevin Henkes, Laura Dronzek
Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins

My father, who travels more than I do, tells me that outside the cities there are very few birds in India. It’s the urban environment, abundant in food and dotted with parks, which suits a great many kinds of birds. So, justly, here is a beautiful and imaginative book by a husband-wife pair (Henkes writes, Dronzek illustrates) for very young children in the city. To be read near an open window when the birds are out and about.

Tilism-e HoshrubaTilism-e Hoshruba
Syed Muhammad Husain Jah, Ahmed Husain Qamar
Trans. Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Random House India

In 2007 Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s virtuoso translation of The Adventures of Amir Hamza by Ghalib Lakhnavi was published to great acclaim. This time, his appointed task is much more ambitious — all 8,000 pages of this Urdu fantasy, supposed to be part of the Amir Hamza epic but set in India, and composed in 1883-93 by two rival storytellers in Lucknow. The first of 24 volumes is due in June.

A S Byatt, The Children's BookThe Children’s Book
A S Byatt
Chatto & Windus

Her first novel in seven years, The Children’s Book is being received by A S Byatt’s readers with joy. Byatt is a cerebral novelist, and one reads her novels (her great hit was Possession in 1990) for their intellectually daring scope. In this one the heroine is a writer whose children suffer for her craft — but it is also blessed with a story, following the fortunes of four families between 1895 and the aftermath of World War I, and a host of characters, some, like Oscar Wilde, from real life.

T J Stiles, The First TycoonThe First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
T J Stiles
Alfred A Knopf

Cornelius Vanderbilt is the man for whom the term “robber baron” was first used in modern times. Totally self-made, when he died in 1877 this New York-based railroad and steamship magnate was worth a staggering $100 million. Vanderbilt founded the corporation as we know it today. Stiles says he “was a man of action — decisive, dramatic, and always interesting. He courted physical danger, fought high-stakes financial battles, and always set the terms of his existence”. A terrific subject for a dense but satisfying book.


4 Responses

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  1. Christopher King said, on 3 May 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Dear Rrishi Raote

    Thanks for the kind words about my translation of Rangbhumi. It’s actually out now (at the very end of 2009) and I hope your opinion of it remains the same on further acquaintance with it! At any rate, it would be fun to meet you when I come to India for three months during July-October.

    Christopher King

  2. Rrishi said, on 3 May 2010 at 6:53 pm

    Absolutely — I’ll go find the book now. Look forward to meeting you.

  3. […] Fuente: papelenblanco | Imagen: raote […]

  4. "Brooklyn" de Colm Tóibín | Blog Ocio said, on 5 December 2012 at 8:50 pm

    […] Fuente: papelenblanco | Imagen: raote […]

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