Books April 2012

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Walkabout
James Vance Marshall
New York Review Books

First published in 1959, this luminous and haunting parable about two children from Charleston, South Carolina, rescued in the Australian outback by an Aboriginal boy has long been overshadowed in the popular imagination by Nicolas Roeg’s dark and violent film version, produced in the early 1970s. The book, now reissued, is essentially a story of redemption from the ills of civilization, as Lee Siegel cogently explains in his introduction. But if Christian themes of love, sacrifice, and transformation form the core of the story, the intricate, nearly tactile descriptions of the endlessly strange flora, fauna, and geology of the bush are its true animating force.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Katherine Boo
Random House

Boo, a New Yorker writer, spent three years among the residents of a makeshift settlement in Mumbai to discover what makes people succeed or fail when they start out on the ground floor in newly prospering India. Organizing her story around a court case involving a woman who deliberately burns herself to ruin a family whose frail success she envies, Boo untangles a web of material while revealing the intricacies of daily life in a slum (the various categories into which refuse must be separated before it’s sold to a recycler, for instance, and the difficulties that composite materials introduce into this process). Her vividly detailed report conveys the terrible unpredictability of lives buffeted by vicious neighbors, grotesque mishaps, and corruption so endemic as to seem surreal—all of which will be familiar to readers of Rohinton Mistry’s brilliant, Oprah-anointed novel, A Fine Balance. Boo’s apparent conclusion—that ubiquitous corruption and indifference are poison no matter what opportunities capitalism and meritocracy promise—is unsurprising. Far more unsettling, if inadvertent, in these times of somewhat reflexive multicultural tolerance is the unsparing portrait she paints of what will strike many careful readers as an almost unrelievedly rotten and selfish society, culture, and population. (After finishing this book, not a few readers may give two cheers for the Raj, “the Odd Incorruptible.”) Most marvelous, as Boo observes, is that, in spite of such an atrocious setting, “some people are good.” This is a troubling drama, and the “characters”—a 16-year-old garbage trader, a 12-year-old scavenger, a woman who schemes to become a slumlord, and her daughter, who hopes to become a teacher—all of whom Boo presents with honesty, will break readers’ hearts.

Derby Day
D. J. Taylor
Pegasus

Taylor, an English writer in his early 50s, is a little young to fit the image of the Man of Letters; nevertheless, he may be the closest thing we have to that antiquated ideal. A prolific critic for the British broadsheets and smart mags, he has also written 17 books—including the finest (that is, the best-written and most astute) biographies of Orwell and Thackeray; a lively, discerning, and surprisingly moving social history of upper-class and bohemian social life between the World Wars; two probing studies of post-war British fiction; and nine novels, all tinged with melancholy and enlivened by a mordant wit. Some of his novels are “serious,” others stylish, historically informed entertainments with dark undercurrents. Taylor’s latest, which effectively marries a crisp, offhand tone with a bleak outlook, falls into the latter category. Set in late-Victorian England, this intelligently conceived novel, nominated for the Man Booker Prize, offers not only an intricate picture of the physical details of its time and place but also an admirably nuanced portrait of the social relations and attitudes of its milieu. Taylor’s historical knowledge is so deep that it’s fluent—the novel isn’t a period pastiche as is, say, Downton Abbey. The story revolves around England’s most prestigious horse race, the Derby at Epsom Downs, an event that, like the novel itself, attracts people from all walks of life with varying degrees of interest in the race itself—along with all the drama and dirt that come with them—to a single dramatic event. A criminal plot provides focus (and Taylor is obviously fond of his dogged detective, who also appears in an earlier novel, Kept), but this is, like all good novels, a rich study of character. Taylor layers texture and color in an almost painterly style, as he combines the complexity and formality of a Victorian novel with the narrative tightness modern readers demand.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
Agatha Christie
Harper

Among the pleasures of this charming, deeply absorbing book—first published in 1977 and now reissued in a special edition to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Dame Agatha’s birth—is the ease with which it draws the reader in. Christie’s tone, as she sifts through a life that spanned a good deal of the 20th century, is that of a close, interesting, and cheerful friend. Born in 1890 into the now-lost genteel world of independent incomes and daily life eased and enlivened by cook, housemaid, and nurse, she had a felicitous childhood, and dotes on such memories as Sundays with her grandmother and make-believe games. In fact, throughout, she delightfully, if unstylishly, prefers to expand on happy periods. In keeping with this approach, Christie stays mum regarding what remains the great mystery surrounding her: she gives no account of her reasons for—or activities and whereabouts during—her famous 11-day disappearance in 1926. Although she obviously had an interesting life that included two world wars, two husbands, a great deal of world travel, and a hugely successful career, Christie’s intimate and astute recounting of the domestic and personal daily details of these experiences is what makes this an immersive book in which a reader will easily lose hours. Also, any fan of Christie’s work will be gratified by the generous details of her budding career and of the genesis of particular characters and plots, all of which she describes casually, which modestly suggests that anyone could write as she did.

Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir
Agatha Christie Mallowan
William Morrow

Just reissued, Christie’s witty account of her yearly expeditions in Syria in the 1930s with her second husband, the esteemed archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, is at once a captivating depiction of quotidian life at archaeological digs and a romantic portrait of adventurers and scholars in the interwar Near East. Her relaxed narrative of the organization and effort in archaeological investigation (Christie balanced work on her fiction with the cleaning, cataloging, and labeling of the finds) and of the landscape and people in the region is engrossing—but what makes this book bewitching is the nostalgic glamour that infuses it. Enduring drab, dangerous wartime London, Christie occupied herself with war work but also with writing this Mesopotamian chronicle because she wished “to remember that there were such days and such places”; the result is an airy, winsome recollection tinged with a sense of irretrievable loss.

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