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AIDS Sutra

Negar Akhavi

Untold Stories from India

(Knopf)

This disturbing and brilliant collection of prose takes everything you thought you knew about India, grinds it all up into a bitter masala, adds it to water and makes you gag while drinking it all down.  A production of Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Gates Foundation, it presents the real India to us—the subcontinental juggernaut of over a billion people and numerous languages, dialects, ethnicities, sexualities, and religions.  But, it’s also one of the sites of the highest HIV infection rates in the world—approximately 2.5 million people infected with the virus that causes the disease and an untold number with actual, full-blown AIDS.  The deepest and darkest secrets in India are those that even people who have lived there don’t talk about because to do so would admit that something was very, very wrong.  What makes this enthralling collection so readable is the way it has been structured—an anthology on AIDS in India in the form of essays, memoirs, investigations, and poetry written by journalists and authors of fiction and non-fiction.  Despite all these tales, there is hope—in the form of iconoclasts leading their communities towards “the truth” (whatever it is) across India.  This book represents as clear a clarion call that has ever been issued on the subject of AIDS—it’s a must-ready for anyone who has an interest in preserving humanity, inside and outside India. Shyam Sriram




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An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Elizabeth McCracken

A Memoir

(Little, Brown & Company)

Review [24.Sep.2008]
The trademark dry wit that made The Giant’s House so enjoyable is much in evidence here, even as McCracken unfolds one of life’s worst possible events. McCracken’s amazing memoir manages to convey the loss of a child in utero without much of the sturm und drangone would expect from such a tale.  Much of what McCracken says echoes Ann Hood’s Comfort, another momentous book about losing a child: the particularity of losing a specific child, the feeling, forever after, of being a mother who tallies up more children than the world gives her credit for, the unwitting stupidity of the well-meaning. There is the formerly good friend who, after a three month silence, writes saying she didn’t know what to say. McCracken mentions the many people who saw her and behaved as if nothing had happened. The late, great Carol Shields wrote that happiness is a pane of glass you don’t know you’re looking through until it breaks. Sometimes, there is no picking up the pieces, there is only moving forward with books like McCracken’s in hand to help light your way. Diane Leach




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Armageddon in Retrospect:

Kurt Vonnegut

And Other New and Unpublished Writings on War and Peace

(Penguin)

I’m usually wary of posthumous collections, especially those that consist of previously-unpublished pieces. Most writers are perfectionists, and if they had left behind material they chose not to publish, they probably had reasons for doing so. And in some ways, Armageddon in Retrospect supports my skepticism: to anyone familiar with Vonnegut’s body of work, many of these stories are obviously (and heartrendingly) unpolished. But the strengths of the collection cover for the individual weaknesses: several of the stories here are on par with Vonnegut’s best work, and they are a welcome balm for those of us who felt his passing keenly. The themes are familiar—Vonnegut was obsessed with war in general and Dresden in particular, and both make numerous appearances.  While I recognize that the title story and “Guns Before Butter” are the most accomplished pieces here, I keep coming back to “Happy Birthday, 1951”, the story about an old man trying (and failing) to keep his adopted son from assimilating the violence he sees around him. Also welcome are the handwritten notes, which range from the slightly quirky (“There should have been a secretary of the future”) to the downright grim (“Darwin gave the cachet of science to war and genocide”).  The two non-fiction pieces are worth the price of the book. Vonnegut’s speech at an Indianapolis University is, as the man himself was, crass, cantankerous, and funny.  And his first letter home after being a prisoner of war—reprinted here, typos and all—is heartbreaking, and clearly shows why the war would haunt Vonnegut and his writing for the rest of his life.  Kyle Deas




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The Beautiful Struggle

Ta-Nehisi Coates

A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

(Spiegel & Grau)

This is an elliptically beautiful memoir by Coates, who grew up in a crack-ravaged Baltimore neighborhood during the 1980s watching all the dreams of his father—a stridently positive self-publisher of positive African-American tracts—slowly drain away. He’s a bookish kid who seems to have been torn between admiration for his father’s self-made image as an upstanding member of the community, and his desire to be like his brother, who became swiftly adroit in the ways of the street. There is a sense here, rarely captured, of the creeping dislocation that comes as one watches a community literally dissolve away like so much sand under the lapping waves of the decades’ violent crack wars. Coates’ elegant manner of circling around his subject can be distancing at times, but it allows him a sense of gravitas that is too rarely present in stories of the American city. A strange and wonderful thing, this is a book that captures the tragedy of societal disintegration like few others have.  Chris Barsanti




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Beirut 1991

Gabriele Basilico

(IPG)

Review [26.Oct.2008]
Trained as an architect before winning acclaim as a photographer, Gabriele Basilico brings less a pictorial eye to his subjects (cities and landscapes) than a curious detachment and eager interest in recording how buildings interact with each other and with the surrounding city or landscape. In other words, he is not drawn to the pretty or the elegiac element inherit in photographing a changing urban landscape, but rather wishes to record as well as to be a witness. Basilico’s photos are like those of a neutral police photographer at a crime scene; they show us what remains after that most cruel of wars, an urban civil war. It is a Dantesque vision of hell after the fire has finally gone out. The charred and bullet scarred remains of the buildings in the center of the city stand empty and almost indifferent, it seems, to the damage they have endured; the streets have been neatly swept of rubble. Human figures seldom appear except in a blur at the edges of half-destroyeds building. Photo after photo shows us the reckless and appalling ruthlessness and destruction wrought by the civil war. Each photograph is an individual tile that is part of a mosaic of ruin. Basilico’s photographs do not seek to praise the mutilated city or to wax elegiac, but rather seek to express a consciousness, in a direct and non-confrontational way, of the collective agony of self-destruction. Carmelo Militano




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The Big Switch

Nicholas Carr

Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

(W. W. Norton)

This book begins with a history of the serendipitous forces that came together to make electricity the dominant power source in modern life and therefore changing our lives in so many ways. It then postulates that access to online data is the next life-changing shift. Before long, our computers will have no hard drives at all, and be little more than access points to the cloud of data stored off-site (and who knows where). All of our private photographs, music and files will be stored at data centers run by huge companies like Amazon because that will be cheaper, on both a personal and corporate level, than maintaining the hardware. This book is accessible and thought-provoking, a necessary reading for anyone who cares about where our data is going to be stored and how it will be accessed, now that so many of us are addicted to that very access. Lara Killian




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Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited

Andrew Holleran

AIDS and Its Aftermath

(Da Capo)

Review [10.Jul.2008]
It is no longer possible, nor has it been for some time, to neatly classify AIDS as a ‘gay disease’, although many in their ignorance still do, but it is a disease with a specifically gay cultural history. As Holleran points out, through AIDS “...we have lost a whole generation of gay men, who might otherwise have been valuable mentors to their successors.” AIDS meant the gay community had to grow up fast. It was a young scene, comprised of young people, and as such the psychological tools to make sense of AIDS’ devastation were scarce. And so for a while, the small talk continued. A published writer of fiction, Holleran was, at the time, a columnist for Christopher Street, a gay magazine based in New York. His subject was lifestyle and, for fear of alienating his readership, he sidelined discussion of AIDS in favour of more upbeat topics. As time passed, however, the need for commentary or interpretation on the unfolding events became more pressing than the evasion of the taboo topic. To the tiny degree possible from a literary work, this wonderful text acts as a plug in that gap.  As such, this is essential reading. With heartfelt honesty and in beautifully executed prose, each piece considers a theme or experience linked to the early period of the AIDS crisis. Olly Zanetti




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Everything but the Squeal

John Barlow

Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

There have been a glut of foodie stories in the last few years that have tried to extol the virtues of a particular region or cuisine. Normally such things are consigned to the Sunday magazine section of the daily paper, but occasionally they make it to book form. In this case: John Barlow’s rapturous paean to the pig dishes of northern Spain. A British writer not so long ago relocated to the Iberian peninsula, Barlow has not just a healthy appetite, but a desire to travel throughout his pork-obsessed new home and eat—meal by meal—every single part of the pig. It’s a seemingly simple enough premise, but one that Barlow is able to turn into a witty and learned appreciation of the unique culture of Galicia, the rainy and wind-swept northwest corner of the country where the weather seems as oppressive as the cassoulets are massive and filling, and the people are so pessimistic and ruminative they seem almost friendly” “A straightforward ‘yes’ is just too curt, too bland,” he writes, “A negation, on the other hand, is an invitation to explore the topic further, to muse, to ponder, to seek a solution, or to bemoan the lack of one.” Each experience of the pig conveyed, piece by piece, makes for a delicious and informative morsel. Chris Barsanti


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