Around the Rim

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Fiction

 

In his novel Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance (Dial, 9/08) Kiriyama Prize-winner Lloyd Jones takes his cue from the tango, and writes a sensual novel about how we fall in love. Near the end of World War I the deep suspicions of an isolated New Zealand community force two near-strangers—Paul Schmidt, an Argentinean piano tuner with a German sounding name, and Louise—to hide in a cave overlooking the ocean. Desperate for solace, Schmidt teaches Louise the tango, and the iconic dance becomes their mutual obsession and the trigger for an affair that will span continents. Two generations later, Schmidt’s fiery granddaughter Rosa, running an Argentine restaurant, captivates a young man with the same sultry music that inspired seduction and deception so many years before.

Happy Families by Carlos Fuentes, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Random 10/08), is a series of masterly vignettes, all set in Mexico. The celebrated author explores Tolstoy’s classic observation that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In "The Disobedient Son," a father demands that his sons become priests to honor their dead mother; "Sweethearts" reunites old lovers unexpectedly and opens up the possibilities for other lives and other loves; and in "The Mariachi’s Mother," the limitless devotion of a woman is revealed as she secretly tends to her estranged son’s wounds. Interspersed with short chapters of free-form poetry that resolutely examine homelessness, sexual abuse, gangs and drugs, these stories make clear that Mexico is too full of life and tragedy to be controlled or restrained.

In Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 10/08) an old slaving ship, the Ibis, sets course for Mauritius, refashioned to transport labor, opium and eventually soldiers for China’s Opium Wars. On board is a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, including a bankrupt raja, a widowed tribeswoman, a mulatto American freedman, and a free-spirited French orphan. As old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The story, which spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the backstreets of Canton, is brought to life by the panorama of characters whose diaspora represents the troubled colonial history of the East itself. The novel has been shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

Hanif Kureishi in Something to Tell You (Scribner, 9/08) relates the story of Jamal Khan, a middle-aged psychoanalyst who has an ex-wife, a son he adores, vast reserves of unsatisfied desire, and a crushing secret. Anita, his first love, haunts him, as does an act of violence he has never confessed. The supporting cast includes an array of unforgettable characters: an eccentric theater director, a small flock of charming and defiant outcasts, and a zestfully enthusiastic sister who thrives on the fringe. All wrestle with their own limits as human beings; all are plagued by the past until they find it within themselves to forgive.

Spanning the lifetime of one woman (1896–1962), The Toss of a Lemon by Parma Viswanathan (Harcourt, 9/08) brings the reader intimately into an Indian Brahmin household. Married at ten, widowed at 18, left with two children, Sivakami must wear widow’s whites, shave her head, and touch no one from dawn to dusk. She is not allowed to remarry, and in the next sixty years she ventures outside her family compound only three times. She is extremely orthodox in her behavior except for one defiant act: she moves back to her dead husband’s house and village to raise her children. That decision sets the course of her children’s and grandchildren’s lives, twisting their fates in surprising, sometimes heartbreaking ways. Inspired by her grandmother’s stories, the author brings to life an exotic yet utterly recognizable family in the midst of social and political upheaval.

In The White Mary by Kira Salak (Holt, 8/08) Marika Vecera, an accomplished war reporter who has dedicated her life to helping the world’s oppressed and forgotten peoples, learns that a man she has always admired from afar, famed war correspondent Robert Lewis, has committed suicide. Stunned, she abandons her magazine work to write a book about his life. After finding a curious letter from a missionary claiming to have seen Lewis alive in the remote jungle of Papua New Guinea, Marika sets off to find him. Through her eyes we experience the harsh realities of jungle travel, embrace the mythology of native tribes, and receive the special wisdom of Tobo, a witch doctor and sage, as we follow her extraordinary quest to learn the truth about Lewis, and, ultimately, about herself. 

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo (Doubleday/Talese, 8/08) follows 21-year-old Fenfang Wang as she travels 1800 miles to seek her fortune in Beijing. Although she has no desire to return to the sweet potato fields back home, she is ill-prepared for what she finds: a city under rampant destruction and slap-dash development, and a sexist attitude seemingly more in keeping with her peasant upbringing than the country’s progressive capital. Struggling to forge a life, she soon lands a job as a film extra. While playing roles like woman-walking-over-the-bridge and waitress-wiping-a-table to eke out a meager living, Fenfang comes under the spell of two unsuitable young men, keeps her cupboard stocked with UFO noodles, and learns to cope in the big city. When a friend suggests that she try writing scripts things start to change. Wry and moving, the book gives the reader a clear-eyed glimpse into the precarious and fragile state of China’s new identity.

In Smile as They Bow by Nu Nu Yi, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion East, 9/08; Harper Collins Australia, 10/08), the weeklong Taungbyon Festival draws near. Thousands of villagers from all regions of Burma descend upon a tiny hamlet near Mandalay to pay respect to the spirits, known as nats, which are central to Burmese tradition. At the heart of these festivities is Daisy Bond, a gay transvestite spiritual medium in his fifties. With his sharp tongue and vivid performances, he has long been revered as one of the festival’s most illustrious natkadaws. At his side is Min Min, his young assistant and lover, who endures unyielding taunts and abuse from his fiery boss. When a young beggar girl named Pan Nyo threatens to steal Min Min’s heart, the outrageous Daisy finds himself face-to-face with his worst fears. The novel, whimsical and illuminating, is a revealing portrayal of a culture few outsiders have ever witnessed. The author is one of Burma’s most acclaimed authors; this novel was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

In her new book, In the Country of Deceit (Penguin Books India, 9/08), award-winning Indian novelist Shashi Deshpande recounts the story of Devayani, who chooses to live alone in a small town after her parents’ death, ignoring the disapproval of her family and friends. Teaching English, creating a garden and making friends with Rani, a former actress, Devayani’s life is tranquil, imbued with a hard-won independence. Then she meets Ashok, the new District Superintendent of Police, and they fall in love despite the fact that Ashok is much older and married. Both know from the very beginning that it is a relationship without a future. The author’s resolute prose delineates the suffering, evasions and lies that overtake those caught in the web of deception.

Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire by David Mura (Coffee House Press, 9/08) is the story of Ben Ohara, the sole surviving member his family. His younger brother, a brilliant astrophysicist, has mysteriously vanished in the Mojave Desert. His father, one of a small group of WWII draft resisters (known as the No-No Boys) during the internment of Japanese Americans, committed suicide long ago. His mother, who steadfastly refused to revisit the past, has died with her secrets. Now struggling to support his own family and to complete his historical study, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire (a project that betrays his "lifetime fascination with the origins of my family’s grief and madness"), Ben recalls a childhood colored by the tough Chicago streets, horror movie monsters, sci-fi villains, Japanese folktales, and TV war heroes. He begins to understand the difference between coming of age and becoming a man, and by retracing his brother’s footsteps and returning to the site of the Heart Mountain Internment Camp, uncovers family secrets that have the power to set him free.

In Beside a Burning Sea by John Shors (NAL, 9/08) a US hospital ship patrolling the South Pacific on a mission of mercy in 1942 is split in two by a torpedo. A few survivors, including the captain and an officer, Akira, an injured Japanese POW, two American nurses, the ship’s engineer and a Fijian stowaway, make it to the deserted shore of a nearby island. Akira has suffered five years of bloodshed and horror fighting for the Japanese empire. Now, surrounded by enemies he is supposed to hate, he instead finds solace in their company and rediscovers his love of poetry. The castaways play out a story of love and hate against the backdrop of war.

The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters (Berkley, 8/08) is set in winter in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, where a serial killer prowls the streets. Former Serious Crimes Chief Nergui is ordered back to lead the official investigation but is flummoxed by the case. Enter Drew McLeish, a senior British CID officer sent out to lend his expertise to the inquiry. The evocative descriptions of modern Mongolia create a unique backdrop for a suspenseful mystery full of misdirection and suspense.

 

Nonfiction

 

Thirty years after the journey chronicled in his classic work, The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux retraces his 25,000-mile journey through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, China, Japan and Siberia. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar (Houghton Mifflin, 8/08) describes how the world he recorded in his first book has undergone phenomenal change. Theroux once again witnesses it all close up, traveling as the locals do by stifling train, rattletrap bus, illicit taxi and mud-caked foot.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 8/08), describes how in 1982, having sold his jazz bar to devote himself to writing, Murakami began running to keep fit. A year later, he’d completed a solo course from Athens to Marathon, and now, after dozens of such races, he reflects upon the influence the sport has had on his life and on his writing. This memoir covers his four-month preparation for the 2005 New York City marathon and takes us to places ranging from Tokyo’s Jingu Gaien gardens to the Charles River in Boston among young women who outpace him. Through a mix of adapted diary entries, old essays, reminiscences, and life advice, the author presents a charming volume notable for its good nature and intimate tone.

We are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway (Harper, 8/08) is the fine follow-up to their classic bestseller We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. The authors revisit their relationships with ten American veterans of the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. They also meet, and bond with, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Hu An, who commanded the North Vietnamese Army troops on the other side, and two of his old company commanders. Traveling back to the red-dirt battlefields, commanders and veterans from both sides make the long and difficult journey from old enemies to new friends. When they reach the hallowed ground where so many died, all the men are astonished at how nature has reclaimed the land once scarred by bullets, napalm and blood. As darkness falls, the unthinkable happens—the authors and many of their old comrades are stranded overnight, alone, left to confront the ghosts of the departed among the termite hills.

In Exodus/Exodo, with words by Charles Bowden and photos by Julián Cardona (University of Texas Press, 10/08), powerful images reveal the harsh realities and put a human face on the lives of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico to the US.  Bowden and Cardona take us to border towns, in which impoverished men and women hire "coyotes" to get them across the line; to Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of young maquiladora workers have been murdered; to Minutemen camps along the border, where citizen vigilantes keep watch; to New Orleans, North Carolina, and California, where migrants find back-breaking work in construction, agriculture and other industries; to protest marches, as immigrants assert their right to stay in the United States; and to villages in Mexico, in which remitted dollars are building homes as lavish as the dreams that fuel the migrations.

The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline (Penguin Books India, 9/08) by Sanjeev Sanyal, an Indian economist based in Singapore, examines the powerful economic and social forces that are working to transform India beyond recognition. These range from demographic shifts to rising literacy levels and, the most important revolution, the changed attitude towards innovation and risk that are fundamental if India is to take advantage of the twenty-first century. The story is told from the perspective of the new generation of Indians who have emerged from this great period of transition.

Marrying Anita (Penguin Books India, 8/08; Bloomsbury UK, 8/08) recounts how the author, Anita Jain, an unmarried Indian-American journalist in her thirties, decides she is fed up with the New York singles scene. Having trusted the Western way of finding a husband for years, she decides that perhaps there is something in arranged marriages after all and travels to India in search of a perfect husband. The ads her parents place in the Times of India ("33-year old, Harvard graduate … looking for a broad-minded groom") fail to arouse much interest. She is distressed by the caste system as well as the disgrace attached to single women. This humorous record of her experiences dating is a refreshingly honest look at the search for a mate set against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing New India.

Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand by Duncan McCargo (Cornell University Press, 9/08) describes the violent separatist insurgency has raged in southern Thailand since January 2004, resulting in more than three thousand deaths. Though largely unnoticed outside Southeast Asia, the rebellion in Pattani and neighboring provinces and the Thai government’s harsh crackdown have resulted in a full-scale crisis. The author, one of the world’s leading scholars of contemporary Thai politics, has written the first fieldwork-based book about this conflict. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the region, hundreds of interviews conducted during a year’s research in the troubled area, and unpublished Thai-language sources that range from anonymous leaflets to confessions extracted by Thai security forces, McCargo locates the roots of the conflict in the context of the troubled power relations between Bangkok and the Muslim-majority "deep South."

In Island World: A History of Hawai’i and the United States (University of California Press, 9/08) author Gary Y. Okihiro overturns the accepted record in which the US dominates Hawai’i. He combines human and natural history, and mythic Hawaiian folklore, with interpretations of how Hawaiian behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, and institutions, from surfboards and hula dancing to racial perspectives, gradually entered American culture and vice versa. Hawaiians fought in the American Civil War, sailed on nineteenth-century New England ships and lived in pre-gold rush California. By placing Hawai’i at the center of the national story, Okihiro rejects the idea that continents comprise "natural" states while islands are "tiny spaces" without significance, to be acted upon by continents.

Celebration: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Dancing on the Land, with text by Rosita Worl and photos by Bill Hess (University of Washington Press/Sealaska Heritage Institute September 2008), describes how in 1982 the Sealaska Heritage Institute held a dance-and-culture festival to celebrate the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. A few hundred Native people gathered in Juneau for the Celebration. This event set in motion a renaissance of Native culture that prompted people largely unfamiliar with their heritage to learn ancestral songs and dances and to make regalia for future Celebrations. Today, Celebration is the largest cultural occasion in the state, drawing thousands of people to the five-day biennial festival.

In La Clinica: A Doctor’s Journey Across Borders (University of New Mexico, 9/08) David Sklar recalls how his earliest experiences in a remote Mexican clinic helped shape his career as an emergency physician and educator. Sklar left college in his senior year in 1972 to volunteer at a community clinic in rural Mexico. With absolutely no medical experience beyond being accepted to medical school, he learned medicine by practicing it. Years later, deeply immersed in the stress of running an emergency room and facing a divorce, he decided to revisit the Mexican village and clinic that provided inspiration and grounding in the early stages of his career. Weaving together his time in Mexico, his later career and his marriage, Sklar’s memoir offers a thought-provoking meditation on the virtues of idealism in the face of the inevitable failures that haunt human endeavor.

The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam (Spiegel & Grau, 9/08) is a cry for justice for women’s plight everywhere. Born in a village in Cambodia, Somaly was sold into sexual slavery by her grandfather when she was 12 years old. For the next decade she was shuttled through the brothels that make up the sprawling sex trade of Southeast Asia, trapped in the brutality and horrors of human trafficking, rape, torture and deprivation. Ultimately she managed to escape with the help of a French aid worker. Now an activist working to help enslaved women, she has orchestrated raids on brothels and rescued sex workers, some as young as five and six; she has built shelters, started schools and founded an organization that has so far saved more than four thousand women and children in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau, 10/08) tells the story of China’s 130 million migrant workers, primarily through the lives of two teenage girls. The author, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, follows the girls over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China’s Pearl River Delta. The world of migrants is a world where nearly everyone is under thirty. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout the book Chang also interweaves the story of her own family’s migrations, within China and to the West.  

In The Great Wall Revisited: From the Jade Gate to Old Dragon’s Head (Harvard University Press, 9/08) author-photographer William Lindesay travels across Northern China with his camera and a file of vintage photographs (the earliest dating from 1871), searching for settings where the Great Wall could be examined in the past and present, side-by-side. His book contains 72 of the most striking comparisons, juxtaposing his new photographs with the older images to illustrate the "changes inflicted by man and nature." It presents a thoughtful lesson about the preservation of historical monuments.

The Marco Polo Odyssey: In the Footsteps of a Merchant Who Changed the World by Harry Rutstein (The Marco Polo Foundation, 19/08) tracks the author’s ten-year journey following the 13,000 mile overland route of Marco Polo from Venice to Israel, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and finally crossing China to Beijing. Using every means of travel available including camels, farm tractors, horses and goatskin rafts, Rutstein became the first person known to have retraced this trip. The book chronicles his adventures and authenticates the thirteenth-century journey of the great explorer. Interwoven are historical commentaries, geographical and cultural descriptions that confirm just how little has changed in the last 700 years in many parts of Asia. More than 200 photographs provide a visual travelogue.

Posted September 2008