It's the middle of August, which means it's time to talk summer reading. I've had a couple of flights lately, which gave me an uninterrupted opportunity to dig into some new books. Here's the lowdown on a complete hit by Sendker I loved, a complete miss by Roy I disliked so much I didn't even finish reading it, and the new book by Adiga that falls somewhere in between.
Jan-Philipp Sendker has done it with The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, translated from German by Kevin Wiliarty. Although the beginning feels slightly contrived, the novel quickly blossoms into a sensitive tale about life, love, the senses, and the unique perspective of the differently-abled. Set partially in Burma and partly in New York City, it's the tale of a woman who travels deep into Burma for the first time to learn about her father's childhood. As she hears about his experience she meets the core of her father's personality, before he was forced to bend to the expectations and needs of others. The book, thick with Buddhist sensibility, unfolds a gorgeous love story and reveals both the healing power and deadening numbness of love nurtured and love gone wrong.
And Anuradha Roy definitely did not do it with The Folded Earth. Quite the opposite (and yes, I was aware the author was not the same as Arundhati Roy). There were some promising possibilities: a beautiful cover (always taken by those), a plot partially woven around the previously unknown love letters between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, and a setting in the foothills of the Himalayas. But... but... I finally got fed up with the protagonist's endless spiral into depression (it does get depressing, eventually, reading about depression) and at the point she chose to fall in love with the second uncaring, cold, trekking-obsessed man who will never properly love her within a hundred pages, well, continuing to read was clearly not going to sort her out of that situation. I admit I skimmed to find out how the scandalous letters between Nehru and Edwina turned out, and to see what happened to a couple of other characters, but for all intents and purposes this is a book abandoned.
I was very excited to see how Aravind Adiga's new book, Last Man in Tower, turned out. With every book I pick up by Adiga I expect to be engulfed by the White Tiger experience (I did the same thing with Between the Assassinations)... and that's a lot to demand of a book. In a mild fit of disappointment I put it down for a month, but finally decided it was worth finishing. There's the explosion of shoddy urban expansion in Mumbai, the strong-arm tactics of shady developers, respectable middle class dreams of wealth and possessions... and one very stubborn old man, Master-ji (a retired school teacher), who refuses to be bought out and move to another apartment building when a developer decides to tear down his building. His choice provokes the unmitigated wrath of his neighbors. It's frightening, and fascinating, to watch people's dreams of prosperity dashed as they band together against Master-ji in response. There's no moral high ground in this dog-eat-dog world, but it's an interesting portrait of social mores, anxiety over status, and the ways in which people justify unscrupulous means to achieve what they feel is their right.