Since I’ve spent the week gazing disbelievingly at the news instead of reading, I thought I’d try something a bit different – a bookish “newspaper”…
Click on the book titles for the full reviews.
Seventy years ago today, India finally gained independence from the British Empire and was partitioned, thus bringing into being the new state of Pakistan. Happy Independence Day!
Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage. A definitive account of the long road towards independence and partition.
Set in the Calcutta of 1919, this is first and foremost an excellent historical crime novel, but worked through the plot we hear about the rise of Gandhi and the Congress Party, and the move towards non-violent resistance. The main character, Inspector Sam Wyndham of the colonial police force, is British, there to uphold the Raj. His sergeant, Surrender-Not Bannerjee gives the educated Indian perspective. He is ambivalent about the question of independence but believes it will inevitably come, and that it is therefore the duty of Indians to prepare themselves so that they are ready to run their own country when that day comes.
Set in the present day, this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. But Taseer suggests that India’s disconnect with its own culture and heritage pre-dates Empire, that already India had forgotten or distorted its history and that this has fed into the divides within modern society. Though Taseer avoids giving any easy answers, I came away from the book with a sense of optimism; a feeling that perhaps the intellectual direction of India might finally be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future.
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WHITE SUPREMACISM IN THE US
No Western country is free of the taint of racism, but this week it is America which has had a sharp reminder that white supremacism has not yet been defeated.
In a simplified nutshell, Gerald Horne’s argument in this book is that the Revolution was in large measure a response to the colonists’ fear of London’s drive towards abolition of slavery. Horne argues that slavery underpinned every aspect of the pre-1776 economy and as such was seen as crucial by the colonists, even while slave resistance was growing and slave revolts were becoming more common.
When two white men rape a young black girl, her father, Carl Lee Hailey, takes the law into his own hands. Grisham tells the story of the subsequent trial in a plot that widens out to look at racism, ethics, fatherhood, friendship, politics, gender and, of course, corruption and the law. While there’s a lot of sympathy for Carl Lee, especially amongst the black townsfolk, there is also a sizeable slice of opinion that vigilantism, whatever the provocation, is wrong; and then there’s the minority of white racists who think Carl Lee should be lynched. Soon the town is plunged into fear as the Ku Klux Klan take the opportunity to resurrect the days of burning crosses and worse.
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ESCALATING TENSION OVER NORTH KOREA
It’s a strange old day when Kim Jong-un no longer seems like the maddest megalomaniac amongst world leaders…
MacArthur was involved in most of the important military events of the first half of the 20th century, not least the Korean War which ended with the current partition, as two sides of the broken country stare at each other over the Demilitarized Zone – one backed by the might of the US, the other shielded by the power of China. This book explains how we got here…
This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. They provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order.
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The annual Edinburgh Festival is underway with its usual eclectic mix of weird and wonderful plays, performance artists, brilliance and awfulness.
In McDermid’s humorous update of the Austen original, our heroine Cat Morland is fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, having been home-schooled by her mother in a Devon rectory. So when her well-off arty neighbours Andrew and Susie Allen invite her to come with them to the Edinburgh Festival, Cat is thrilled. Naturally Cat is mainly interested in the Book Festival and I doubt there is anyone better qualified to write about that event than Val McDermid.
Cat had convinced herself that in spite of Henry Tilney’s failure to appear at the Book Festival grounds, he would surely attend the dramatic adaptation of last year’s best-selling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For. Had they not touched on the subject of the fluency of women’s writing at Mrs Alexander’s dance class? Was this not the most sought-after ticket of the Fringe? And was not the Botanic Gardens the coolest of venues?
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This week’s front-page headline in the Kirkintilloch Herald is:
Flu vaccine coming to East Dunbartonshire Schools
A particularly virulent strain of flu wipes out the population of most of the world within a few weeks. This is the story of before that event and twenty years after it. Just before the flu struck, famous actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack during a performance of King Lear. The story is based around him and the people who were connected with him – either family, friends or people who were in the theatre that night. The future story has as its main character, Kristen – a child actress in Lear, now a young woman travelling with a band of fellow actors and musicians bringing Shakespeare to the small communities of survivors that have sprung up since the apocalypse.
The time feels much like the present, but society has been destroyed by a lethal virus. The narrator, Shannon, is a young man living in isolation with his older brother, Rohan, in a well-stocked house prepared by their now-dead father for just such a contingency, since he always feared that one day disaster would strike humanity. It’s been months since they saw another person, but one day a young woman, Denny, appears at the farm and throws herself on their mercy. Suspicious at first, both men soon find themselves attracted to her, but it still seems as if Denny may be hiding a secret…
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No books, but he deserves a section all to himself…