From Publishers Weekly
This collection of short essays by the Anglo-Indian novelist and senior U.N. official would seem to hold out the promise of an ethnographic consideration of the life of letters. Alas, the title essay, about the "book souk" in besieged Baghdad, is something of a red herring. These essays, newspaper columns and speeches do not, by and large, try to assess the situation of literature in war-torn regions, or any other regions for that matter. In one piece, the author describes the experience of having his novel adapted to the big screen; another is an elegy for a defunct Anglo-Indian review; a third is an anecdote of traveling to Spain for a cup of coffee. These are all personal reflections—as when Tharoor devotes an entire column to answering the criticisms of an Indian journalist, deflecting critiques of his hairstyle and choice of clothing. Tharoor's novels, as he never tires of writing, have been lavishly praised all around the world. But this book's topics—as well as the author's liberal use of culture-specific shorthand—would seem to make it primarily of interest to the Anglophone Indian community. (July)
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Tharoor, multitalented and multifaceted, is an undersecretary at the UN, a journalist, a biographer of Nehru, a celebrated novelist with a bent for satire, and a polished and pointed essayist. He begins this far-ranging, piquant, and enlivening collection of essays about reading and writing with a charming piece about his boyhood addiction to books, primarily British in origin, a reminiscence that segues into the first of many illuminating cross-cultural inquiries into how the imagination trumps prejudice. Turning to the Indian tradition, he considers the power of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, and how it inspired him to write his controversial Great Indian Novel (1991). Tharoor then ruminates insightfully on the works of Pushkin, Neruda, Narayan, le Carre, and Rushdie; globalism and culture; and the state of literature (precarious) and illiteracy (rampant) in America. His diplomatic work meshes with his literary passion throughout, but it is especially tangible in his sensitive account of a visit to Baghdad's book row in 1998, where he witnesses the power of books under even the most trying circumstances. Donna Seaman
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