Category Archives: Books

Novels about Colonialism

For March the reading is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Novels about Colonialism:

Everyone in the Reading Group enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. It’s about Dutch colonialism (or trade at least) in the Pacific and the relationship with Japan.

My own thoughts: I especially liked the first and third parts. The second part seemed to me to be a variation on vampire stories (monks killing women and babies to gain immortal life). It was a quick, exciting read, with a dashing denoument. However, I tend to like a slightly deeper treatment of real historical and social circumstances (with plenty of thrills, of course). For many of the members, it was a bit difficult to get into as they found the opening slow.

My preference by way of historical, but still exciting, fiction about colonialism is  Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It’s a difficult read because of the rich use of many languages (Bengali, Hindi, English, French), but extremely rewarding. The book illustrates the social, gender, caste, and class boundaries encountered by Indians, British, Americans (including a mixed race American) in a way that is fascinating and provocative. It will set you thinking about the limitations that our origins impose on us; and about how many limitations and boundaries were affected by colonization by Europeans throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Plus there’s  a fabulous, swashbuckling finish!

The next part of what promises to be a trilogy, centered around Britain’s Opium Wars in China, will be published this coming fall. I can’t wait!


New Reading

The group: Brother’s Karamazov.

On my own: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Hugo’s Les Miserables, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories.

I’ll post soon on recent group reading and reactions.

Upcoming Reading

Trotsky's Grave

The club is reading Barbara Kingsolvers’s Lacuna for February. It examines Trotsky’s last days in Mexico with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

I read Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand Patenaude, and wow, those Mexican muralists were really wild. And Stalin and his henchmen were incredibly murderous and devious. A great read.

February Reading

Michael Pollan - The Omnivores Dilemma

Michael Pollan - The Omnivore's Dilemma

Our next book is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan traces four different food sources: industrial agriculture, large-scale organic, small-scale organic, and hunter-gatherer. I started it last night and couldn’t put it down.  The book made me feel quite virtuous for limiting my kids’ soda consumption when they were little. It’s amazing, and disturbing, how closely tied our food production is to petroleum.

One of the difficulties with books like this is that the changes necessary to address the problems outlined require seemingly massive restructuring of the American food system. My husband Paul’s home-grown tomatoes are a start, I guess.


Speaking of The Way We Live Now, here’s an interesting essay from Chris Hedges — author of the indispensible War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.

He quotes the documentary The Corporation:

A corporation that attempts to engage in social responsibility, that tries to pay workers a decent wage with benefits, that invests its profits to protect the environment and limit pollution, that gives consumers fair deals, can be sued by shareholders. Robert Monks, the investment manager, says in the film: “The corporation is an externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine. There isn’t any question of malevolence or of will. The enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed.” Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface Corp., the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, calls the corporation a “present day instrument of destruction” because of its compulsion to “externalize any cost that an unwary or uncaring public will allow it to externalize.”

“The notion that we can take and take and take and take, waste and waste, without consequences, is driving the biosphere to destruction,” Anderson says.

The ease of externalizing of costs worries me. And the difficulty of opposing that externalization — recently seen in the debates over energy, the killing of coral reefs, the debate over universal health care. I don’t see how we get past this impasse. If Obama can do that, his will truly be a transformational presidency.

Another Voyage to India

Though I’ve been too busy to post recently, the book club met twice. They loved Indian Summer, and also loved the book we read for June: Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants.

Next up, a return to India for Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It’s loosely patterned after the 1001 Nights, with a husband telling stories to his wife, and deals with the partition of India, which began on midnight August 15, 1947. Hence, the title. Two babies, one a wealthy Muslim, the other a poor Hindu, both born at that fatal hour, are switched in the hospital as raised by each other’s parents, leading to all sorts of fantastic intrigues, woes, and magical events. Especially after one discovers that all of the 1001 babies born at the moment of partition have special powers.

Sicily on My Mind


I’m going to Sicily for a week to see championship fencing. In my carry-on bag are the following titles:

The Robb title is nonfiction, about the history of the Mafia on the island, literature and art as well. I read a similar book of his on Brazil (A Death in Brazil), which was riveting. Sciascia is a heralded crime novelist, also dealing with the Mafia. For light reading, I’m packing Lampedusa’s classic, The Leopard, about Sicilian life and aristocracy during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy during the mid-nineteenth century.

Day of the Owl

Richard Price

Lush Life

I just found a new site called bookforum. It has lots of information and links, plus an interesting discussion of one of my favorite novelists, Richard Price. His new book, Lush Life, is on the top of my “to read” list.

There’s also a review of four Iranian women novelists.

Next stop, India – Politics, Passion, and Pillage

In honor of my daughter and Mina’s daughter working and studying in India, the book club has decided to read Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

It helps that I’ve already read it*, so I can whole-heartedly recommend this vivid history of end of the British Raj and the founding the modern states of Pakistan and India. It’s a panoramic portrait of the tricky politics of religion, caste, anti-colonialism, and British attitudes toward imperialism.

Juiciest — and what sold my picky fellow readers — is the sex. Namely, the romantic triangle featuring the last Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbattan, who presided over the partition and the British exit, his glamorous wife, Edwina, and her passionate love affair with the handsome, lonely, and brilliant Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

Gandhi and Jinnah, the fiery Muslim who insisted on a separate state, the conflicts and violence among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and the British incompetence and indifference that led to horrific violence as the British left are described with cinematic flair.

It’s a great read, and should produce lively discussion.

*I prepared the index

Books to Consider – February 2008

  • Ann Patchett: Truth and Beauty – Nonfiction about friendship of two writers.
  • Doris Lessing – Early work
  • Liam Callanan – novelist suggested by Maryellen
  • Edith Wharton bio – suggested by Barbara
  • Gertrude Bell: The Desert and the Sown – Travel writings of a “female Lawrence of Arabia”
  • Lampedusa: The Leopard – An Italian novel about the dying Sicilian aristocracy and the rise of democracy
  • Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian – A novel about the meaning of history and ancient Rome
  • Anne Enright: The Gathering