Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash: Did you know that the J.J. of Mumbai’s famed Sir J.J. School of Art was a drug lord? Yup, Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy was the king of the opium trade back in nineteenth century British-ruled India. Mumbai Fables is full of such nuggets, and anyone with an interest in Bombay, India, or the evolution of megacities should cleave unto this book and never let go. Prakash, a history professor at Princeton, occasionally lapses into academese, but the fruits of his research will tempt you to forgiveness, and maybe even a PhD.
Madre: The Perilous journeys of a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell: I knew I’d like the narrator when she mentioned that she binds her hair with the elastic band from the day’s newspaper; I do too, Liza! As for the book, Madre is a passionate, fun-filled, and occasionally circuitous exploration of the word “Madre” (Spanish for mother, but you knew that) in all its variations, from curse to veneration and everything in between. Bakewell is a linguistic anthropologist (at Brown University), and this book would be a tad too technical for me if not for Bakewell’s energetic presence driving the narrative. And the cover is really quite glorious.
The Singing Fire by Lilian Nattel: I’ve read tons of novels set in late nineteenth century London, but I can’t recall even one featuring Jewish protagonists. The Singing Fire is a richly detailed, beautifully written (and thus far, wrenchingly depressing) account of a young girl Nehama who’s tricked into prostitution. A parallel story set in Minsk follows the fate of Emilia Rosenberg, who is brutalized by her father. I’m about a third into the book and the two girls have just met; I hope for improved fates for both now. The prose is the real winner here though. “On the gray waters of a nation that disdained spices and ate boiled beef, steaming ships came in with the west wind, carrying perfume and elephant tusks and Sardinian sailors with great gold earrings.” Oooh.
I’m also working on an interview with Camilla Gibb for Bookslut, and consequently re-reading “The Beauty of Humanity Movement”. The link takes you to a post about a reading by Gibb that I attended last year.