The reading compass

A look back at Nepali Times' 2023 reads

books

Canadian activist Naomi Klein’s book Doppelganger that was published this year is written for our times. The pervasiveness of the social web has not given us greater clarity--facts do not matter when conspiratorial ideas have more traction and the toxic sludge of e-platforms make rational debate futile. Klein herself is often mistaken for Naomi Wolf, a journalist regarded as the mistress of misinformation, and her book title Doppelganger takes on added irony and symbolism.

Doppelganger led this reader to discover Klein’s earlier book, This Changes Everything. Published in 2014 when the times were still innocent and the following year the Paris Agreement optimistically put a target of 1.5 degree threshold by 2050. This year has broken all records, and in November we already hit an average global temperature of 1.4. It is demoralising to think that Klein had been warning us nine years ago that globalised market capitalism cannot solve the climate breakdown because it is the cause of this crisis. Look no further than COP28 in Dubai. This Changes Everything has not aged, if anything it is a sobering reminder that nothing has changed.

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Who better than Sagar Rana, the grandson of Chandra Shumsher, to write the 100-year history of the Rana reign in the 2018 book Singha Durbar? And in the 2023 sequel, Kingdom Lost, he traces the 70-year trajectory of Nepal’s democracy from the very first Rana-Shah-Congress coalition of the fifties right up to the abolition of monarchy in 2008.

Kingdom Lost is more relevant than ever today with royalist parties gaining support for reviving the Hindu monarchy. The book gives us the historical context: BP Koirala becoming the first elected Prime Minister, Mahendra’s coup of 1961, three decades of Panchayat, one decade of conflict, the massacre of royals in 2001 and the last 15 years of a democratic federal and secular republic. India looms large in the book, and today we miss Mahendra and BP who, despite being autocratic and democratic leaders, demonstrated genuine nationalism at a time of geopolitical upheaval. We miss that calibre of statesmanship today.

Kunda Dixit

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Award-winning journalist Gaia Vince’s latest book Nomad Country reads like science fiction with early chapters outlining a dystopian world that is 4°C warmer by the end of the century. ‘Fleeing the tropics, the coasts and formerly arable lands, huge populations will need to seek new homes. You will be among them, or you will be receiving them,’ she writes.

Given the unprecedented heat waves in 2023 in India, China, Europe and North America, Vince’s assumption that large swathes of the globe will be uninhabitable, leading to the next big mass migration to higher latitudes or altitudes, is not far off. Already, people are moving to escape droughts, flash floods, rising sea levels, tropical storms and wildfires.

Despite the pessimistic beginning, Nomad Country is a call for planned mass migration to deal with climate refugees in the new Anthropocene epoch. But how will this reshape humanity, our food systems, our cities and most importantly, our politics? Find out.

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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was a cinematic masterpiece but the three-hour epic can only squeeze in so much about the man ‘whose brilliance was matched only by his internal conflicts’ (and about nuclear fission). The full story is in the Pulitzer-winning book American Prometheus which inspired the movie.

The biography that took 25 years to write delves into the life and times, and the rise and fall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb. It unravels the scientific complexities behind the most destructive weapon in the world, and explores the layered character that was Oppenheimer.

Authors Kai Bird (who wrote a part of the book while posted in Nepal) and the late Martin J. Sherwin combine meticulous research and a masterful plotline to take readers through an extraordinary and often tumultuous journey starting from Oppenheimer’s days as a struggling student in Cambridge to him leading the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Test in Los Alamos. But Oppenheimer’s all-consuming guilt following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the opposition to the hydrogen bomb and finally the revoking of his security clearance make for a great drama.

A thought-proving read that resonates long after the final chapter, especially at a time of heightened geopolitical tension following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Gaza humanitarian crisis. A reminder that the doomsday clock is ticking.

Sonia Awale

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A girl and her father look after a vacation house and those who come to stay in it. Two friends, one grieving the loss of a loved one and the other fulfilled in her life, catch up with each other after a year. A man who escaped war in his country as a young boy finally obtains a house for his wife and children. A young woman sets off to the post office to collect a parcel for her injured employer.

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories in Italian, nine nameless protagonists are bound by the fact that they are foreigners to Italy, all grappling with what home means. In Roman Stories, the characters’ quiet reflections of going about their daily lives are interwoven with casual violence, discrimination and isolation: familiar to immigrants across the world. They are outsiders in lands that they will never quite be allowed to become familiar with.

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In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel Klara and the Sun, the narrator Klara, an android designed as an Artificial Friend (AF) to children, forms a one-sided relationship with the sun as she looks out of the window of the store where she is for sale. When she is eventually bought as a companion for a sick teenage girl, Klara looks towards her imagined connection with the sun in hopes that her charge can be healed from her illness.

Through the eyes of a humanoid machine, Ishiguro examines the connection between technology and humanity in a world where much of the function of people has been replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI). And all the while, this novel set in a dystopian future begins to feel uncomfortably similar to the times we live in.

Shristi Karki

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Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, published in 1961, remains a significant work in his repertoire. The book's enduring popularity and adaptation into a movie directed by Tim Burton reflect Dahl's continued relevance long after his passing. Notably personal to him, the story draws from Dahl's own life, particularly his experiences living with relatives.

Discussions around Dahl's controversial remarks on sexism, body shaming, and other sensitive topics have led to revisions in new editions. Dahl's book remains relevant not only for children but also for adults, serving as a reminder that there is always hope at the end of challenging times. It emphasises the importance of empathy and understanding, virtues much needed in today's world. In a world full of negative news, taking a step back to immerse oneself in the world of childhood imagination can provide a comforting escape.

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Amidst the growing global movement for heritage repatriation, nations like Greece, Cambodia, Mexico, Vietnam, and increasingly India are working to reclaim their stolen cultural treasures housed in museums abroad.

In The Idol Thief, Vijay Kumar shares insights into the investigation of Subhash Kapoor, a notorious art dealer based in New York. The book documents the collaborative efforts between US authorities, India, and the India Pride Project, which Kumar co-founded, to recover stolen cultural artifacts not only from India but also from other nations.

The Idol Thief offers lessons about the depth of investigations that goes into the repatriation of stolen cultural heritage. Nepal, with its rich cultural legacy, has much to learn from Vijay Kumar's book.

Alisha Sijapati

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In this short story collection, author Cho Nam-joo returns to tales of everyday women navigating the pressures of familial expectations and societal norms. The protagonists in the eight stories give an intimate portrait of women who have faced gender-based violence, harassment, or discrimination in the household, workplace, or society.

The characters grapple with expectations that often hinder their aspirations, but some also manage to find small areas of defiance. The strength of the book lies in the universality of the experiences that make the stories not just about Korean women, but women all over.

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In Adania Shibli’s novel, a young Bedouin woman is gang raped and murdered by Israeli troops in 1949. Decades later, a woman in Ramallah stumbles upon the story in a newspaper and becomes obsessed by one minor detail – that the assault happened 25 years ago to the day she was born. She then sets out to gather information about the crime, charting prohibited territories carrying maps that no longer show the geography she was once familiar with.

Minor Detail is a novel where the arc might feel familiar, where people are displaced, identity and borders are erased, and extraordinary becomes every day. There are no names for the characters, but Shibli lists the changing names of the places. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, Shibli’s writing is subtle, calm, and sparse: an example of how when armed with a powerful narrative one does not need to shout, just whisper.

Sahina Shrestha

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