Homeland Revisited

The New York Times Book Review – In the middle of his accomplished book, “India Calling,” Anand Giridharadas tells of meeting a Maoist revolutionary in Hyderabad. The city, nicknamed Cyberabad, serves as a base for both the globalized Indian economy and an armed insurgency at war against the country’s inequalities, rooted and new. India’s Maoist — or Naxalite — movement began as a rural struggle against exploitative landlords in a caste-conscious, socialist nation but has now arrayed itself against the forces of global capitalism reshaping India. When Giridharadas pushes the Naxalite — What does one fight have to do with the other? — the man answers with a striking notion: globalization is reducing people to their specific economic task, stripping them of their humanity, just as caste had done. And software engineers in gated communities have become the new Brahmins. Giridharadas follows the curve of this argument, allowing it to seduce us. Then, he reveals that this rebel, although waging revolution by night, reports by day for a newspaper he himself describes as a shill for the multinational transformation of India. “I have to earn my lunch,” the man explains. “I’m not a whole-timer for revolution.”

The scene accentuates Giridharadas’s appeal as a writer. “India Calling” has what Hanif Kureishi once described as “the sex of a syllogism.” Full-figured ideas animate every turn. So, simultaneously, does Giridharadas’s eye for contradiction. The combination both pleases us and makes us wary — distrustful of shapely ideas, including the author’s own.

Continue reading my piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times.


When London Was Capital of America

The Observer – The decade before America’s declaration of independence in 1776 saw more Americans visiting England than ever before. This engaging social history, written with a novelist’s eye for character and plot, tells their tale – one author Julie Flavell calls “a missing chapter in the social and cultural history of Americans abroad.” Read my review in The Observer.


Conflicted Feelings

“The Surrendered” opens with an image reminiscent of a war photograph. An 11-year old girl is riding on top of a train, cradling her two younger siblings against the cold with a stolen blanket as they flee south with other refugees at the start of the Korean War. The image is iconic, beautiful in its way and shot through with foreboding. Nested together, the orphans are “these last of their kind.” And soon, the girl, June, is the only one left.

The novel opens up like an album of atrocities, though the stills that are hard to look at alternate with more alluring ones, in a book that has perhaps as much sex as it does death. Its characters are so convincingly etched, its story carried forward with such a momentum of empathy, like the refugee train, that it is more felt than intellectually encountered. Its author, the Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee, recently told an interviewer that he wanted “to give a certain bodily experience to the reader. Because I don’t think I can explain war.”

In this he succeeds: his words provoke what Susan Sontag, in her dissection of war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, called“the pleasure of flinching.”

Continue reading the review in The National.