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3 good books for January reading

January 20, 2011

Published by The Christian Science Monitor

Travel the world through these three new books just released this month. In them, the Dalai Lama flees Tibet to save his followers, three men grapple with the past in post-war Sierra Leone, and an Indian-American returns to the country his parents left.

1. India Calling, by Anand Giridharadas

To foreigners, “old” India was a poverty frozen, caste-driven country, equal parts tradition and corruption. “New” India means outsourced American jobs, fuzzy transpacific IT phone calls, and glitzy Bollywood films. When visiting relatives as a child, Anand Giridharadas, though the son of two Indian immigrants, didn’t view the country much differently. It “seemed to function on low expectations and almost otherworldly powers of acceptance,” he writes in India Calling.

On a college vacation, however, he feels a personal connection to his heritage for the first time. And so, just a few decades after his parents left India in search of a better life, the author returns for the same reason. He accepts a consulting job in Bombay, later becomes the first New York Times correspondent in the city, and eventually comes to understand the many intricacies of modern day India.

More important than its slowly growing economy, writes Giridharadas, is the way the country’s citizens have changed their conceptions. No longer do they view their lives as stagnant. Indians are reinventing themselves – studying vocations outside familial expectation, marrying for love – and at the same time embracing the customs they once shunned. Giridharadas successfully uses his first-hand account of self-discovery to illustrate a larger picture of empowering change.

2. The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

Years ago Aminatta Forna earned acclaim for “The Devil That Danced on the Water,” a memoir about her investigation of her activist father’s execution. She returns to contemporary Sierra Leone in her newest book, The Memory of Love.

Set in the country’s capital post-civil war, the novel centers around three men: Adrian Lockhart, a British psychologist longing to help the traumatized but increasingly aware that he can’t; his patient, Elias Cole, a former academic with a haunting confession to share; and Kai Mansaray, a native Sierra Leonean and brilliant orthopedic surgeon who befriends Lockhart. In alternating points of view, the men tell their stories, seamlessly transitioning between past and present. All three recall memories of love and loss. It is not clear right away that their tales are connected through one woman.

Forna, a former BBC journalist and documentarian, has seen the cruelties of the war-ravaged West African country first-hand, and has devoted a career to chronicling them. In careful, precise prose, Forna makes even the seemingly commonplace details meaningful. These particulars speak to overarching themes of human experience: devotion, betrayal, and resilience.

3. Escape from the Land of Snows, by Stephan Talty

Much has been written about the life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, including his own comprehensive autobiography. But for readers who have never delved into the spiritual headman’s life before, Stephen Talty’s Escape from the Land of Snows is a good start.

In March 1959, 40,000 brutal Communist Chinese troops were stationed in and around Llasa, Tibet’s capital and the Dalai Lama’s home. The young monk, “central to every Tibetan’s sense of his or her own life in a way that no other leader, not even Mao in China … could equal,” had an important decision, and ultimately a treacherous journey to make. Escaping capture in the impending battle would render Mao Zedong’s goal of total Tibetan submission impossible. And so began the Dalai Lama’s escape: a two-week, near-death trek to India through the highest terrain in the world, and with thousands of Chinese soldiers biting at his heels.

The “harrowing flight” will no doubt capture the attention of readers, but so will its context. Talty delivers thorough background on Tibet’s political landscape prior to the 1959 uprising and telling details on the Dalai Lama’s isolated childhood. Even seasoned readers of the subject will find new understanding of the monk’s transformation from overwhelmed and mischievous child to compassionate world leader.

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