• A Disappearance in Fiji *** (of 4)

    Sargent Akal Singh has been banished to desk duty in Fiji. The year is 1915 and Britain rules its colonies with guile, brutality, and economic mastery. Singh, the educated son of an Indian villager figures his one way out and upward is to become a policeman. Sikhs are respected by the British, and expected to fulfill that role. He is sent to Hong Kong, but after a professional misstep lands in Fiji.

    Befriended by a native Fijian on the police force and a compassionate English doctor, but overseen by a condescending British officer, Singh is sent to wrap up a case of a missing Indian “coolie” woman. Wealthy British plantation owners imported hundreds of indentured Indians to work sugarcane fields without pay. Living conditions for Indian laborers, we learn in great detail, are miserable, and British overseers mete out punishments and abuse without fear of accountability or retribution. A missing Indian woman should be meaningless, but Akal Singh, and his friends, are so conscientious and likable that we root for their success while learning about colonialism in very personal ways.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.

  • In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh *** (of 4)

    egyptGhosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt.  Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue.  In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks.  It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth.  So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea.  It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader.  Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo **** (of 4)

    Annawadi, one of a million Indian slums, lies behind Mumbai’s glittering new international airport.  Statistically speaking we all know slums suck, but before this book I don’t think any of us have ever really met the truly poor and destitute.  This book brings them to life with deep honesty and power.  Not surprisingly, like all people, slum dwellers are replete with human foibles and aspirations: competitiveness, ambition, depression, anxiety, desire, anger, and inadequacy.  What the slum dwellers have in common as we come to share their lives is the necessity of fighting for dignity or earning enough for one more meal beneath a system so severely stacked against them as to induce miasthmatic hopelessness.  This isn’t a happy book, but it is an important one, because in bringing poverty and injustice to the fore through the lives of Manju, Asha, Abdul, Kalu, Rahul and their peers we learn to see these people as real rather than faceless abstractions.  Moreover, their plight is not so different from the poor in New York, Paris, or Lagos.  Mostly this book is worth reading because it is so riveting.  Boo’s research is incomparable, her book is a page-turner.

  • Ghost Wars by Steve Coll **** (of 4)

    This book changed the way I viewed the CIA.  I used to believe they were ideologically driven bumblers, but after observing the careful exhibition of the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan from the inception of the Soviet invasion during the 1980s years through  the 9/11 attacks of 2001 I realized how really difficult it is to gather good intelligence.  You have to assemble electronic data (spotty at best) and human intelligence.  Your spies on the ground are being paid and their loyalties or veracity cannot be independently verified.  Often you are trying to gather data from extremely hostile territory where your opponents are in the business of flooding your sensors with misinformation.  And how in the world do you maintain your own objectivity as information arrives at CIA headquarters?  Don’t we all tend to find what we are looking for rather than what we are not?  The only shortcoming of this book, perhaps, is its length and detail, but in trying to ascertain what someone like Osama Bin Laden is up to, or the next Osama might be planning, detail is really what it is all about, isn’t it?

  • The Big Necessity by Rose George **** (of 4)

    Summary:  Everybody poops.  Nobody talks about it.  It’s a big problem everywhere.  In the First World disposing of sewage consumes too much water and generates unimaginable quantities of industrially and pharmaceutically contaminated waste.  In the Second World, sewage isn’t treated; just dumped in the local river.  In developing countries, 2.6 billion people crap in the open in close proximity to their drinking water.  Poop is one of those topics nobody wants to talk, write, or read about, but the author, Rose George, makes it seem like the most important environmental issue on the planet.  She runs out of steam toward the end of the book.  There’s a little too much focus on India and not enough on Africa, but those are minor quibbles.  Kudos to her for discussing the unmentionable.

  • The Case of the Man who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall *** (of 4)

    The second in the series of Tarquin Hall mysteries taking place in contemporary New Delhi.  In this one our food-loving detective, Vish Puri, whose assistants he has nicknamed Tubelight, Handbrake, and Facepaint, go after the murderer of Dr. Jha, an Indian Guru-buster.  Jha, fed up with India’s surplus of money-hoarding Gurus and Swamis makes his living unmasking fraudulent healers until he dies mysteriously while attending a meeting of an Indian laughing club.  He perishes during a particularly hysterical knock-knock joke and Puri suspects foul play.   Good, bad, funny, pathetic, wild, contradictory, modern, and ancient India are all lovingly displayed in a mystery that seems rather secondary to the main character:  India at the crossroads from the 18th to 21st century.

  • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese *** (of 4)

    This is a half-century story of Marion Stone, born in the late 1950s  as the twin son of a British physician and a nun (oops).  Both his parents vanish at his birth leaving him to be raised in a medical outpost in Addis Ababa by two Indian doctors, where he learns medicine first hand before becoming a surgeon, like his father, later in life.  The characters are lovingly drawn and Ethiopian poverty and politics provide the continuing backdrop, the most interesting character in the book is medicine.  I’ve never cared a great deal about the science and art of medicine, but Verghese, a practicing surgeon, lays it out in such graphic detail I was riveted by the myriad details, diagnoses, and decisions trauma surgeons must master.

  • Talkative Man by R.K. Narayan *** (of 4)

    In the small fictional Indian town of Malgudi an independent, very amateur journalist pauses over coffee to tell a story.  His subject is the mysterious, fashionably attired, Mr. Rann who arrives one day at the train station.  But doesn’t leave.  His story unfolds rather matter-of-factly and preposterously as we, the readers, stumble behind the reporter through the streets.  Together we soak up local culture, meet village elders and children, larger-than-life city women, and bureaucratic station masters as Mr. Rann’s mystery is patiently revealed.  It’s a short novel:  116-pages.  As the author says in his postscript, “I could have stretched the story, but that was I thought that this story needed.”  There is more depth here, however, than many books thrice as long.