Someone said the worst part of being cooped up in our homes is that we can no longer look forward to things—the anticipation of an impending visit with grandkids, the excitement of an upcoming concert or ballgame, the simple pleasure of planning a dinner with friends. All that and more is now hanging in a kind of indefinite abeyance.
But we still have books. We can look forward to reading those we haven’t had a chance to get around to or to anticipate the arrival of a new release in the mail or online.
The subjects of my self-isolation reading have been wide-ranging and may seem strange to some—a police procedural novel, a history of a faraway place and time, and a wise-cracking political handbook. I’ve also been anticipating my next book, and while writing this, it arrived! But for now...
Trace Elements by Donna Leon
Usually Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels are among my favorite police mystery series, but this time Ms. Leon disappointed. Even her hero, Guido Brunetti, seemed bored. The novel is missing much of Leon’s characteristic Venetian local color, the interplay between and among the phlegmatic Brunetti and his wife Paola and their children, and even the tension of a stilted conversation between Brunetti and his officious boss, Vice-Questore Patta. The plot is thin and predictable and the pacing leisurely to the point of somnolence. In fact, I did fall asleep one night while plowing through this one, a first for a Commissario Brunetti story. Maybe after over two dozen well-crafted and engaging novels, Ms. Leon is tired as well.
The Anarchy—The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple
My father’s side of the family has a long history in India. My great-great grandfather first arrived there from England in the early 19th Century when the notorious East India Company still ran things and my father and grandfather emigrated from Bangalore to United States in the early 20th Century. When I saw an ad for this book, I thought by reading it I might learn a bit about what my forefathers were up to and maybe why my grandfather left with his young son.
William Dalrymple is an award-winning Scottish historian and art curator who has lived in Delhi for over 30 years. He’s known for erudite, deeply researched works and his literary writing style. This latest offering is no exception.
The Anarchy is a lengthy fact-filled tome with scores of characters, wanton killings, bloody battles, a devastating famine, and regular regime crises. With great detail, Dalrymple relates the way an unregulated private trading company with its own mercenary army took over a rich multi-ethnic empire of hundreds of millions of people—and looted it.
The narrative is dense and at times I found myself returning to a chapter’s start to get my bearings. Helpfully, Dalrymple provides a 10-page dramatis personae in the beginning that describes the players: the British, the French, the Mughals, the Nawabs, the Rohillas, the Marathas. If some of those names sound unfamiliar, you see the problem. With our Western-centric cultural baggage, even well-read Americans will soon get lost in esoteric details and lack of familiar historical reference.
All that notwithstanding, this is a quality scholarly telling of a seminal period in Indian and British history and a necessary background to understanding not only the current love-hate relationship between these two countries, but also the continuing conflicts in contemporary Indian society. This is mind-expanding history, but not for the casual reader or the faint of heart. And I didn’t learn anything about my ancestors.
Un-Trumping America, A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again by Dan Pfeiffer
This is a book for dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, the true believers who don’t care whether the candidate is Bernie or Joe, Kamala or Amy, Elizabeth or Pete, since they will vote for anyone but Trump. It’s a breezy, funny, and occasionally profane handbook for those who would do anything (almost) to get rid of the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Dan Pfeiffer is a former Obama campaign staffer, White House communications director, and senior presidential aide, now co-host of the “Pod Save America” podcast. He’s a talented raconteur and writer with a knack for the zinger put-down. Throughout the book, he regularly excoriates Mitch McConnell and ridicules Ted Cruz, and he abhors Donald Trump (almost as much as Paul Ryan, a frequent punching bag). He points out that, due to our un-democratic institutions (the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court) and various state laws (voter suppression and gerrymandering), we are on an inexorable “path toward being a country where a shrinking conservative, white minority rules a growing, diverse majority.” If that continues, Pfeiffer predicts, the system will collapse.
While cleverly presented, his “plan” won’t be new to anyone familiar with the modern Democratic Party’s favorite issues. For example, Pfeiffer proposes, inter alia, that we “fix” the undemocratic Senate by modernizing its rules (particularly the filibuster), get big money out of politics, “reform” the courts through various packing and term-limiting schemes, strengthen worker rights and trade unions, rein in the emergency powers of the presidency, and require candidates to disclose their tax returns and investments.
Read this one for the irreverent jokes and snide zingers, not for any special insights.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.
A sad note to all those who enjoyed Ben Dreyer’s grammar book after I wrote about it last May: Dreyer’s 95-year-old father Stephen died on April 17th from complications of Covid-19.