Some not-so-recent reads

The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (Vinay Lal) – a short and lively introduction to the history of South Asians in the US, from the colonial era through 19th century Sikh immigration to the present. I don’t think I learned any new facts, per se, but it’s a lot less polemical book than say, The Karma of Brown Folk. Recommended.

The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain (John E. Sarno) – this was recommended by more than one friend as a potential way to cure my repetitive stress injury and shoulder/neck tension. Sarno’s thesis is a little complicated to describe, but basically he says “repressed anger causes many chronic conditions” and advocates a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy for it. I found it pretty unconvincing, although there is some good advice sprinkled here and there in the book. Skippable.

The Trade of Queens (Charles Stross) – final book in Stross’s Merchant Princes series, I basically read this because I had already read the other ones and I wanted to see how it turned out. This series started out pretty interesting (although with many of the same racial blind spots as most SciFi), but I lost interest somewhere around the 3rd book. Recommended if you are OCD about finishing things.

A Fragile Power (Chandra Mukerji) – this is an interesting science studies book on how “big science” works, using two oceanographic institutes (Wood’s Hole and Scripps, thinly disguised as “Big Lab” and “Blue Lab” for IRB reasons, presumably) as case studies. It describes issues like power dynamics within the lab, tensions between engineers who make the instruments and the scientists that use them, how the government uses scientists to further their own ends, and so on. Her main thesis is that the state uses its funding power to maintain a sort of “reserve” of scientific expertise — in the case of the military, they have an interest in people who understand and can map the sea floor, and so they fund scientists to train students in the use of these technologies. Although “big science” is not “academic engineering,” many of the observations she makes in her book do seem relevant. I don’t think anyone has done a study of this sort on academic engineering, where there is a lot more industry sponsorship. A good thesis topic for… someone else. Highly recommended.

The Space Between Us (Thrity Umrigar) – a novel about a Parsee widow and her relationship with her servant, who has been with her for a long time. At times touching, and at other times melodramatic, it exemplifies a kind of middle-class sensibility about poverty and class-relations in India. The personal tragedies don’t transform into a larger critique of the system. I’m sure Amitava Kumar would have something more intelligent to say about it. Somewhat recommended (cautiously) if you’re interested in South Asian lit in English.

Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett) – a Discworld novel about soccer. Perfect during the World Cup.

The Beautiful Struggle (Ta-Nehisi Coates) – a touching and beautifully written memoir about growing up in Baltimore, raised by an ex-Black Panther father. Coates struggles against the expectations of his father and himself, becoming Conscious and getting the Knowledge that his father prized so much. Highly recommended.

Passport Pictures (Amitava Kumar) – a book about immigration, unheard voices, the politics of knowledge, where the rubber of theory meets the road of reality in postcolonial and transnational studies. The best part about this book is how it questions itself and how it takes what might be arch turn of phrase and actually tries to answer it. For example, “if the word ‘curry’ doesn’t have a stable referent or a fixed origin, how can its changing use by postcolonials be seen as a sign of resistance?” Recommended for those with an interest in immigration from South Asia and a taste for some postcolonial theory (but with examples! And poetry! And photography!)

Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon) – this was definitely not what I expected. A kind of potboiler of a detective novel but with more drugs and cultural references than you could shake a stick at. A tribute to LA in some era that I can’t recognize. Much more approachable than the monster tomes that Pynchon has put out (and I have not read), this book was also a real page turner.

The City and The City (China Mieville) – I, like others, am a bit of a China Mieville fanboy, but I think this is one of his better novels (it derailed a bit at the end for me, but I don’t want to give anything away). It’s set in a very strange city — two cities in the same place, to be precise, and it really brings up a lot of interesting questions about society divisions, (un)seeing, and global politics. The allegory doesn’t seem too far from reality. Recommended!

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