Of summer reading, the Presbyterian minister Henry Ward Beecher, once said, “There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs.”
I have to agree. When summer rolls around, I’m always on the lookout for a different kind of book — one that feels like it belongs just as much in a beach cabana as it does it on a park bench, an airplane, a moving train, or my bed; one that makes me think and feel just as much as it allows me to relax and smile; one made for my attention span that alternates between the ability to concentrate and the desire to flit about.
I wrote earlier about how much I enjoyed Gene Yang’s new collection of graphic short stories, The Eternal Smile.
Here, then, are some of my other reading picks for this season:
Rakesh Satyal’s Blue Boy (Kensington Publishing).
Hirsh Sawhney’s Delhi Noir (Akashic Books).
Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery (Random House).
While I sit here in steamy New York City awaiting the arrival of my first child and reading lots of non-fiction birthing and pregnancy books, these fictional reads have succeeded in take me through the three places that have been a part of my life so far: Ghana, India, and the US.
1. The United States: Set in suburban Ohio, Rakesh Satyal’s Blue Boy is written from the point of view of a Kiran Sharma, a self-aware twelve-year old boy and only son of an upper middle class Indian-American family. On the cusp of adolescence, Kiran has nothing much in common either with the Indian kids in his family circle or with his school mates. He loves ballet, has a collection of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, and is a pro makeup artiste in the making. When his mother catches him playing with her makeup, Kiran’s defense is lightning fast: he claims that he is dressing up as the blue god, Krishna. Playful and always surrounded by girls, Krishna becomes Kiran’s alter ego as he not only decides that he will figure out a way to be him, but will also play him in the upcoming school talent show.
As a child of the 80s, the pop culture references, the impeccable portrait of suburban desi life (such as the interminable weekend potluck parties with family friends), and the cringe-worthy scenes of school yard bullying all had me flipping the pages to find out how Kiran would rise above the challenges of his world. Satyal’s voice is pitch perfect in this extremely endearing, sometimes laugh-out-loud, and always sensitive coming of age novel that takes us into the mind of a child struggling with his sexuality–and comes to terms with being different in more ways than one.Â [Read an excerpt.]
2. India: A long way from suburban Cincinnati where I encounter the dark underbelly of Indian social life and middle school, I travel to the murky underside of India’s capital city, Delhi with guide and editor Hirsh Sawhney’s Delhi Noir.
In the introduction,Â editor Sawhney writes:
“Good crime fiction … forces readers to reckon with the inequity and cruelty inherent to modern societies. It’s only natural that Delhi’s book-buying-and-publishing citizens would avoid such writing. Any insight into their hometown’s ugly entrails would threaten their guilt-free guilded existence and the bubble of nationalistic euphoria in which their lives are contained. They are too dependent on the power structers and social systems intrinsic to the city–embassies, government offices, and corporations; rural poverty and illegal immigration–to risk looking critically at these things.”
Part of the 26 part Noir series from Akashic books (with another dozen or so more on the way, including Mumbai Noir), this particular collection features stories by 14 well-established Indian authors who are little known here in the US, all organized by distinctive neighborhoods. Detective, crime,Â social networks, class, and corruption all collide in stories that “aim to see Delhi as it is.”
Some of the stories are hard to stomach, like Mohan Sikka’s “Railway Aunty” where a college student becomes the boy toy of a middle class family friend and stumbles into a prostitution ring. But they are delicately carved windows into aspects of a city (and country) that often do not make it to the mainstream reading marketplace. [Listen to excerpts.]
3. Ghana: Though I didn’t consciously seek it out or expect it, Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery, does just what Sawhney suggests good crime fiction ought to do: it invites readers to examine and “reckon with the inequity and cruelty inherent to modern societies.” In this case, the culture and society is Ghana, one of Africa’s most developed nations where modernity and “tradition” go head to head in intriguing ways.
The main character here is Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, a well-respected crime investigator based in the modern Ghanaian capital, Accra. When a young AIDS volunteer and medical student is found dead in a rural forest near the small town of Ketanu, Dawson is shipped in, so to speak, to help solve the mystery. The journey away from his home also takes him to a part of his childhood that he has long avoided: Ketanu also happens to be the town where his mother’s sister lives and where his mother had disappeared after a visit there when he was only 12 years old. The opportunity to solve two mysteries at the same time is one that Dawson is certainly not about to turn away from, and this decision has many interesting ripple effects.
This book has been on my radar for a while, not least because the first novel by a Pasadena based medical doctor and native of Ghana is being compared to the ever-popular Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies No. 1 Detective series, which are set in Botswana and which I’ve long been a fan of. While the marketing pitch certainly succeeded in piquing my interest,Â the similarities end with the Africa connection and the mystery genre.
Inspector Dawson is nothing like Precious Ramotswe, McCall Smith’s Agatha Christie-inspired protagonist who is marked by her common sense wisdom, humor, and leisurely pace. Far from perfect, he quickly makes evident his anger management issues, a weakness for marijuana, and an eye for female beauty (though he is a devoted husband and father). While solving the mysterious death, he makes mistakes that make him question his own instincts. At the same time, he brings his big-city training and experience to a small town where he questions and challenges traditional Ghanaian practices such as the offering of virgins as wives to fetish shrines and the belief in juju, or witchcraft and the reliance upon local healers. (The clash of modernity versus tradition also extends to Inspector Dawson’s home life, where we watch his own son who is suffering from a congenital heart defect being taken to a traditional healer, in one of the most powerful scenes in the novel.)
Given that he hasn’t lived in Ghana for several decades now and only went back once during the writing of this book, I was impressed with his the authentic flavor of Quartey’s fiction, starting with his integration of pidgin English into the dialogue and extending to his vivid eye for local mannerisms. The mystery was well-developed as were the primary and secondary characters, and the subplots, and to top it all off, there was a balance of activism, observation, and good old-fashioned storytelling that reeled me in and kept me reading. I look forward to the next installment of this series and to getting to know Inspector Dawson better–and hopefully don’t have to wait until next summer. [Read the opening of the novel.]