September 5-11, 2007

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Book Box


India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy

India, which this month celebrated the 60th anniversary of its independence, has a great deal to be happy about. It has become one of the most powerful economies in the world and is building strong alliances regionally and internationally. This illuminating and highly readable volume by economist and cricket historian Ramachandra Guha, however, makes a compelling argument that India's most profound success is not its economy but its nationhood. "At no other time or place in human history have social conflicts been so richly diverse, so vigorously articulated, so eloquently manifest in art and literature," writes Guha, "or addressed with such directness by the political system and the media." India After Gandhi goes a long way toward explaining which founding fathers (and mothers) made this possible. The list ranges from the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who had the bravery to abolish parliament to save Indian democracy, to Satyajit Ray, whose social-realist films became a mirror of the new state. Guha carefully tracks how the young country forged an idea of itself and used it to bind disparate groups. He takes a close look at the forming of the Indian Constitution, which at 395 articles and eight schedules is one of the largest in the world. If one criticism can be leveled at this impressive history, it is that it would have been helpful for Guha to apply more of his biographer's skills to the great number of characters an American reader will meet here. Guha is an elegant analyst of why India succeeds—and he brilliantly describes the permutations of India's complex government—but it would be terrific if he brought to life the people who believed in the project as well as he describes the ideas that kept them aloft.

((By Ramachandra Guha; Ecco; 912 pages; $34.95 cloth))
—By John Freeman


The Great Man

A mistress, a widow, a sister and two biographers fight over the legacy of a fictional painter in Kate Christensen's frothy new novel. The great man of the title is Oscar Feldman, a contemporary of Jackson Pollock whose sole medium was the (unstylish) female nude. "When I think of art, I think of women," says Feldman in a fake New York Times article that starts the book. And now the women of Feldman's life get their revenge by thinking (aloud) about him. The novel proceeds in a series of snappily scripted interviews, luncheons and dinner parties scattered around Brooklyn and SoHo, which Christensen depicts with just the right flick of snobbery. Feldman's former mistress, Teddy, is forever feeding one guest after another the most delicious meals, as if the sitting room of her Brooklyn brownstone were the setting for a wake, not a battleground. Lentil soup with cardamom, blueberry cake with ice cream, these are the weapons—one could almost create a cookbook from the detail Christensen lavishes on these scenes. Christensen has great fun turning the tables of the largely male-dominated art world of the '50s. With Feldman gone, it seems clear now the women had just as much power as the men. This is the third such novel about the abstract expressionist art world in as many years—following John Updike's Seek My Face and Patrick McGrath's Port Mungo—and Christensen's doesn't suffer by comparison. Though her characters sometimes resemble clichés, she always manages to penetrate their outer skin to reach the aching, grieving individuals beneath, something Oscar, for all his talent, never seemed to accomplish.

((By Kate Christensen; Doubleday; 305 pages; $23.95 cloth))
—By John Freeman

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