Mar 092014

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.

Feb 262013

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.

Jan 202012

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?

Nov 222011

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.

Sep 182011

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.

Jul 152011

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.

May 292011

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.

Mar 292011

Mr. Vish Puri, chief detective of the Most Private Investigating Company, solves Delhi crimes.  Well, he solves crimes when he isn’t investigating philandering spouses.  The crime in this mystery is not terribly complex and the investigation team is more comic than CSI.  Nevertheless, Hall captures contemporary India in transition.  Every topic, and then some, investigated by Anand Giridarardhas in his scholarly India Calling is on display in this book.  You’ll have to pay close attention to keep track of India’s current class and caste struggles, the exchange of old British-derived stodginess for the mishmash of new India, and the frustration of corruption.  Much of it passes by as humor, but don’t be fooled.  This author has captured India today and the reading is easy.

Mar 222011

A young NY Times journalist, Anand Giridharadas was born and raised in the U.S. to parents who immigrated from India to escape that country’s stultifying economy of the 1960s.  He returns to India after college to work.  He discovers a country mid-transition from rural, caste-dominated, and tradition-bound to full throttle modernity.  Not only must he come to terms with a country he recalls from childhood visits and stories not really matching what his parents left behind, but simultaneously he describes India not quite living up to its reputation as an engine of commerce, democracy, and progress.  There are stalled dreams, thinly veiled prejudices, Indian-bred inefficiencies, and heart-breaking corruption.  The book begins with deep insight and then slows to a crawl.  Without much outside evidence in the form of data to back his observations I began to wonder on what basis he could make his sweeping assertions.  To his credit he calls it like he sees it.  To his detriment, it’s hard to know how much of what he sees is accurate.  In the end it was just too much work to read all the way to the end.