India Calling reminded me of River Town and Factory Girls, two books about China but with a very similar feel of being able to penetrate into the daily lives of locals. Now this book is about India rather than China, but many stories are eerily similar: stories of great differences between cities and villages, stories of dislocated families when young people move to the cities and into a very different lifestyle, and stories of wrenching changes happening within one generation and leaving everyone uncertain as to what the new rules of behavior might be.
And this book, too, is written by an outsider since the author, although ethnically Indian, was born and raised in the United States and moved to India (only temporarily, as it turns out) as an adult. As he describes the subtle cultural shifts he had to make as a child when visiting his grandparents and cousins, it’s clear that he defines himself as an American and that no Indian acquaintance is fooled by his name or his appearance.
The book ends abruptly without much of a conclusion but I found it fascinating and kind rather than critical, even when the author clearly disapproves of some of the local customs.
Primates are hip subjects for books these days (see Ape House and Bonobo Handshake), and The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore takes the drama one step further by making the primate, here a chimp called Bruno, the narrator of an unlikely but acutely told story. I loved the chimp’s big personality and his perspective on the lab where he meets his love, a researcher called Lydia, and on the wider human world. It reminded me of how difficult it is to write credibly as an “other” character (shades of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). On the other hand, I spent half of my time reading this (big, fat) book raging against an author who wants us to believe that (1) rape can be a successful start to a sexual relationship and (2) a relationship with an ape, even a speaking and highly intelligent ape, can be satisfying and desirable for the obviously intelligent and socially adept Lydia. Is it still acceptable to think of women as idiots?
There is ample potential in The Free World: the vast historical landscape of 20th century Europe, a large family of Jewish emigrants from Latvia (still part of the soviet Union), marooned in Rome while waiting for their final destination, which they hope will not be Israel, and the individual choices that led them to emigrate. But I found the novel quite boring, perhaps because rehashed Soviet history is not really my cup of tea, and indeed I much prefered the snatches of more personal drama, in particular the story of Polina, one of the daughters in law, who left an abusive husband and expectations to take care of her parents, and who blossoms in a society that prizes her ability to connect with others. And I’d love to know what happens to her after the novel ends.
In Started Early, Took My Dog, the author of One Good Turn is at it again, but with a simpler set of plots that quickly come together into the unlikely story of a retired police detective who suddenly decides to raise a child and embarks on a series of harrowing encounters with shadowy figures, protected from afar and not always perfectly by her ex-colleagues, who are themselves covering up old misdeeds. Fun, nicely twisted, and full of well thought-out asides on raising children.
In the overly practiced mode of an exploration of the given issue wrapped around a true story , Moonwalking with Einstein tells the story of the author’s successful quest for the US Memory Championship title and explains the techniques he learns from other champions and stories of various memory freaks. My personal favorite was the description of the “chicken sexers”, who sort out male and female chicks since the industry shamelessly prefers females. Apparently the best chicken sexers can examine 1200 animals an hour, which makes most other jobs extraordinarily attractive since the sexers spend those hours peering down the cloaca of birds (you’ll have to read the detailed description!).
Apart from a few savants, memory champs use techniques that are very old, dating back thousands of years, and that mostly exploits the amazing spatial memory all humans possess. And while I’m now convinced that any of us can learn them and remember freakishly large amounts of information, I continue to wonder why we should bother. Isn’t the whole point of modern life that we can rely on technology to remember on our behalf? The feats of memory seem to be just as pointless as any other sport. Why bother putting the ball in the goal? But at least there’s a sense of fun doing it. I cannot see how remembering the order of cards in a deck, or long sequences of random digits, can be anywhere as satisfying.
The Tiger’s Wife is the personal story of the heroine, a doctor like her grandfather, recounting her close relationship with him after his death, interspersed with stories of his life, as the poor but bright son of a widow and midwife and protege of the local pharmacist, stories of the village where he grew up, and the uneasy life in post-war Yugoslavia, where former neighbors are now fiends, and live on the other side of the border, and your grandmother’s birthplace may well have been wiped off the map.
The stories are rich and masterfully over-layered, but some I found too ethereal. Come on: would a hungry tiger, even one that has lived in a zoo all his life, somehow forget that he can just jump on humans to get a snack? And the deathless man just gets more tedious with each non-death he encounters. So I came away with a feeling of admiration but not full enjoyment for the book.
The Autobiography of an Execution is a true-life memoir of an attorney who defends death-row inmates, but it’s really a passionate argument against the death penalty — not, as the author strenuously argues, because some death-row inmates are indeed innocent (and we meet one like that), but because it’s simply wrong to kill anyone, even someone who has committed horrible crimes (and we meet many like that), and even someone who is not particularly remorseful or sympathetic (and we meet some like that, too).
The argument is made well, and the arcs of the legal stories are interesting — and the author’s young son, with his tender heart and his questions about the unfathomable work of this father, is just delightful. But I must admit having a hard time reading through the intricate legal proceedings, which I found to be mindnumbingly tedious, even if the author explains that he simplified the details a bit. I could never be a lawyer!
The author of My Korean Deli buys a deli (with his Korean wife and her family, hence the title) and runs it for a couple of years before throwing in the towel, having made little money, witnessed his mother-in-law and main employee literally work herself into exhaustion, and all the while continuing his editing job at a literary magazine, a job that seemingly allows for an amazingly flexible schedule, one in which days can spend without a minute spent in the office, or even on any remotely job-related task… But the heart of the book and the part I preferred is the insider’s view of what it means to run a small business, one for which the owners are stunningly poorly prepared, from understanding the implications of buying a business from someone who cheated the sales tax authorities to working with wholesalers. But they learn, they learn to manage an employee who brings his gun to work (and decide to keep him on!), they learn to compromise with customers who resist all changes, and they learn the hard way how difficult it is to comply with the multiple rules of running a business in a large city.
The stories of the idiosyncratic in-law family are a bonus.
When I was nine or ten years old, I loved a series of books for kids about a spy called Michel. Everything about the books was fascinating: his training, the secret mission, his amazing self-control — all that was missing was a woman spy. The Company We Keep supplies it. The first half is the story of the couple’s adventures as CIA spies in central Europe and Asia, which are a mix of the tedious (lengthy sojourns in parked cars, hoping to get a glimpse of suspects), the mundane (getting dental care in Dushanbe, via Moscow) and the terrifying (getting shot at in Sarajevo). It’s all good fun on the surface, but we can see that assignments make little sense for the operatives themselves, that they often cultivate friendships for ulterior purposes, and that their double or triple identities lead to serious problems in their personal lives.
The second half of the book occurs after they leave the CIA and it’s boring and often distasteful. Boring because spies are just people so they renovate bathrooms and deal with aging parents just like we do. Distasteful when the methods of spying, when carried over into regular life, show their real colors of systematically getting around the rules.
One cold day in 1992, a container of bath toys went overboard in a freak storm over the Pacific. The toys (ducks and other creatures) floated all the way to Alaska, and perhaps beyond, and the author of Moby-Duck goes looking for them and how they managed to travel so far. Along the way we meet beachcombers and the very entertaining Beachcomber’s Alert! magazine, environmental organizations that compete for funding and dispute each other’s techniques and approaches, a blind oceanographer, and Canadian school children who write charming messages to be loaded into beer bottles, a technique that seems to be the best method we have now to test oceanic drifts.
This is a long and meandering book, and I loved part of it while I found others boring. I loved the tracking of the ducks, the description of the horrifying plastic pollution in Alaska, where some beaches are just covered with tiny pieces of colored plastic, loved the author’s voyage on a container ship and his adventures snorkelling off Hawaii (in the name of science, searching for plastic pollution!) I was bored by the descriptions of the Chinese toy factories and could not see the relevance of the trip through the Arctic, despite the beer bottles and the always whimsical thoughts of the author who says he fears the unknown, but managed to travel to very exotic locations for his research.