Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: "Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil

Title: Narcopolis
Jeet Thayil
Penguin Press
Date Published:
April 12, 2012

How I Heard About It: I was selected as a blog-tour host for this book. A review copy was kindly provided by TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

Two Sentence Summary: This book is so expansive and multifaceted that my typical "two sentence summary" will be almost impossible to apply, however... here goes!

"Narcopolis" spans approximately 30 years in the life of a city (Bombay), intricately weaving together the lives of its colorful inhabitants to offer us (reader, outsider) a lens through which to attempt comprehension.  Vacillating between the defined perimeters of opium den, harem, and hovel; between tragedies of the personal, cultural, and environmental; between the lives of scholars, criminals, and children, "Narcopolis" attempts cultural encapsulation through constant flux and a flood of poetic revelations.

Things I Think: An amazing professor of mine, poet Norma Cole, always reminds her students to "be more curious" when reading: look up unknown words, cross reference obscure facts, let the text lead you on an adventure as you move from book to book to gain a more complete level of understanding.  Thayil's "Narcopolis" definitely made me more curious in this way.  Admittedly, my knowledge of Bombay was limited when I encountered this book, and I found myself so inspired by Thayil's rendering of this history that I could not (and still cannot) stop researching the time period he describes. 

As indicated by the title, the urban relationship to drug trade is very much at the novel's heart. While the reader becomes acquainted with most characters through Rashid's, a popular opium den on Shuklaji Street, the darkening times lead to darker addictions; garad (heroin imported from Pakistan) gains precedent in the addicts' circles, and its arrival is accompanied by the darkness of riot and violent persecutions.  Even nature rebels against this seemingly doomed city, as devastating floods make streets like Shuklaji even more unlivable. 

"Heroes, she said, were not always pure in motive and character, sometimes they told lies or they were conflicted and unhappy..." (85)

What particularly impresses me about "Narcopolis" is that Thayil's characters are so genuinely flawed but, simultaneously, so impressive and powerful and full of spirit.  Though the novel's pages are riddled with the horrors of murder, addiction, and abuse, a three dimensional understanding is at all times portrayed: no action occurs without the reader's awareness of its underlying motives.  We see, as the residents of Bombay see, that a "dying city" can elicit a human's most banal behavior, regardless of their efforts to stay strong. 

Favorite Quote: A eunuch prostitute that goes by the name of Dimple is asked why she takes drugs, and responds: 

"It isn't the heroin we're addicted to, it's the drama of life, the chaos of it, that's the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered - why would we choose anything else?"

This so encapsulates the utter despair that constantly underscores the seemingly hedonistic ways of the book's main characters.  

"Narcopolis" can feel overwhelming at times, with its flood of verbiage and unfamiliar terminology and transitions.  This effect can certainly be chalked up to the author's attempt to enact "the haze" that accompanies the opiate atmosphere of Bombay.  Be prepared to approach "Narcopolis" with a desire to hand yourself over to an experience of the unfamiliar, at times a dance of hedonism and, at others, one nightmare of a trip.


Thank you so much to TLC for inviting me to be a host on this tour.  There are still several stops left for "Narcopolis," so to read further reviews be sure to check out the schedule! 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s "Hurrah’s Nest"

Just a quick update to let you know that my review of Hurrah's Nest, a collection of poetry by bay area author Arisa White, is now up on the Switchback website. Check it out here!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Review: "The Narrows" by M. Craig

Title: The Narrows
M. Craig
Papercut Press
Date Published:
September 10, 2011
How I Heard About It: Author M. Craig (a.k.a. Maggie) reached out to me in February to link up as writers.  She also told me about her first book and the exciting, independent Brooklyn-based Papercut Press. Maggie kindly sent me a copy of The Narrows to read and review.


That's why we come to the Narrows, because we're all a little different.

So says Sim, the book's punkish yet sweet protagonist. Working as a servant to the infamous (shady) Lord Nogron's daughter, Sim finds herself in a confusing and sticky situation, one which means she must flee and start her life alone, elsewhere.

Through a stroke of luck, Sim stumbles into a friendship with charming young quester Cader, who just so happens to have an opening for a roommate. Cader introduces Sim to his gorgeous home (Kailash), his intricate roommates (Prudence and Kai), and the Bikeway Narrows. Cader also finds Sim a day job, working for the eccentric Azzer, a gadget repairman who specializes in magical devices and helps Sim begin to hone her latent magic-weaving talents.

Others have described Sim's favorite neighborhood, the Bikeway Narrows, as a literally-magical Portland. The neighborhood felt a lot like my own: San Francisco's Mission District. (I think this was some clever writing on Maggie's part; she relies on the universality of bike-filled, coffee-shop-loving hip, youthful urban areas to paint a scene that is immediately accessible.)

M. Craig at a launch party for The Narrows. [[via]]
With dashes of steampunk (brass goggles, leather pouches, carriages), some old-school magic (magic dust, wands, the occasional fairy or dragon), and plenty of the difficulties faced by an early-twenties woman in a big new city, Craig's book is already a complex undertaking.The meat of the novel, however, lies in its allegorical social commentary, taking a look at the ramifications of corporate takeover in terms of environmental and political impact. Factories spewing toxic, black magic byproducts are run by an exploited dwarf population, a race whose rights are consistently ignored by the government. There is an aggressive population of soldiers that monitors the Narrows to keep an eye on the myriad things that have become illegal. (Beer-brewing, for instance, has been forbidden and bears a punishment of lifetime in jail.)

Truly on her own, Sim now has an opportunity to grow in an understanding of her own identity. A new friend, known simply as Wood, brings Sim's sexuality to the forefront of her mind and she begins to explore who she is, what she wants, in the context of a world (sadly not unlike our own) in which homosexuality can bear the heavy consequences of discrimination and hate crimes.

She had to figure out who she was and then maybe she could figure out what was right and wrong in the world and what was worth fighting for.

This quote is so at the heart of what The Narrows ultimately does: consider big-picture morality and justice through the lens of an equally tough and vulnerable young woman. Sim's journey is hugely adventurous and always surprising.

There are a plethora of plot elements, fantasy world-modifications, and genres in play, which can sometimes become overwhelming for the reader to track or comprehend. The trick I discovered was to let The Narrows wash over me, carry me along at its own pace, without feeling some sort of academic stress to figure out all of the linkages. The novel ends in a manner that hints at future installments, so perhaps Craig has plans to wrap up any loose ends in book number two?

Maggie has generously agreed to do an interview with me, so stay tuned for future discussions with the author herself! In the meantime, you can read more about (and order your own copy of) The Narrows here, and be sure to check out the website for Papercut Press in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

New Features and Ratings System. Hooray!

Yesterday, The Chef and I were discussing my penchant for reading multiple books simultaneously.  While he is more of a "steady as she goes," one at a time type of fellow, I've almost always got poetry, nonfiction, literary fiction, and a "popcorn" book in the rotation.  (The popcorn category can encompass a variety of things, but usually this is something I read more for entertainment, less critically, to balance out the heavier stuff on my plate.)

Having finished both a SUPER INTENSE literary award-winner and a young adult thriller last night, I came up with the idea to do a new feature called "Veggies vs. Popcorn," two mini-reviews in which super different books can snuggle up together.

NOTE: I've decided to change my ratings system to align with that of GoodReads, where my reviews are also cataloged. Instead of a 1-10 scale, I will now be rating books from 1-5.

5 - I am crazy-impressed/-smitten/-awestruck and unspeakably envious of the author's skills.
4 - I really liked this book and would recommend it to my people.
3 - Equal amounts of "wow!" and "what?" moments. 
2 - Not really my cup of tea.
1 - I can't.

So, coming this week, get ready for ....

I hope you are having a wonderful week so far!