This Week’s Hot Reads: Oct. 15, 2012

From New Delhi’s day-laborers to international gun runners. By Mythili Rao.

Several Ways to Die in Mexico CityBy Kurt Hollander

Life and death in a Mexican mega-city.

“Tell me how you die and I’ll tell you who you are,” an old Mexican saying goes. It’s a phrase writer and journalist Kurt Hollander introduces early in this fascinating account of Mexico City—a book not so much about death as about the many forms of microbial, particulate and sub-particulate life that make up a mega-city. Hollander, who grew up in New York, moved to Mexico as a young man and was quickly seduced by the capital. He hung around artists, organized exhibitions, and bought and ran a billiards hall and bar. Then he got sick. Doctors diagnosed chronic ulcerative colitis, a painful condition exacerbated by Mexico City’s stressors and pollutants. That’s how Hollander got interested in “microscopic Mexico City”—the invisible layer of bacteria, viruses, parasites, amoebas and chemicals that coats the city. Mexico City ranks No. 1 in the world for gastrointestinal infections, and a significant portion of the book is devoted to tracing how the sources of these infections make their way into the city’s food, water, and alcohol in the first place. Hollander’s history of Mexican food and alcohol—from Aztec pulque to present-day Coronas—and his analysis of Mexico City’s tap water are brilliant, even if his narration frequently meanders away to other Mexican curiosities. In a city so teeming with interconnected life, who can blame him?

Try the Morgue By Eva Maria Staal

An international gun-trafficker puts her work behind her to start a family.

Can women have it all? The high-impact career, the harmonious marriage, the healthy, well-adjusted child? A best-selling Dutch novel written under the pseudonym Eva Maria Staal asks this question almost without meaning to. When the story opens, the author’s life centers around work—as an international arms trafficker. “We’re selling freedom, you and I! Freedom, security, and peace, Maria,” her boss Jimmy Lui tells her. Jimmy’s charisma keeps Maria enthralled with her work, even when her assignments end with her dumping her long-term boyfriend, hiding in a bunker in Chechnya, getting carjacked in China, and escaping from a hospital in Pakistan. Maria has the instincts to deal with the job’s physical dangers, but it’s harder to guard against its moral and emotional ones. Eventually, Maria has a falling out with Jimmy and goes to work for his competitor. When she discovers that her first new assignment involves child-trafficking in the United Arab Emirates, she quits the business for good, settling down with the old boyfriend she dumped to raise a daughter. Still, traces of her old life—the Glock in her linen closet, for one—linger. Fast-paced and emotionally perceptive, Try the Morgue takes an unforgettable, unflinching look at the brutal business of brokering freedom.

The Middlesteins By Jami Attenberg

An obese matriarch’s health complications upset the delicate balance of a contentious clan.

For conclusive evidence that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, look no farther than the Middlesteins, the fictional family at the center of Jami Attenberg’s new novel. Richard Middlestein’s wife of nearly 40 years, Edie, is eating herself to death, and just as she is due for major diabetes surgery, he leaves her, and his departure is ruled nothing short of heartless. “I just had to get out of there,” Richard tries to explain to his model son, Benny, who has suddenly begun losing his hair. Benny’s wife Rachelle has declared that Richard can no longer see his twin grandchildren. Meanwhile, Richard’s moody daughter Robin starts drinking more and speaking to her father less. As Edie’s health fails, the family fumbles to take care of each other—or failing that, simply take care of themselves. The Middlesteins could easily collapse into caricature, but Attenberg blends just the right amount of neuroticism with rationality and selfishness with maturity to keep her characters in the safe realm of laughable-but-believable. Warm and expansive, this book is a funny, fresh, take on the timeless theme of family dysfunction.

A Free Man By Aman Sethi

A close-up look at a mazdoor ki zindagi, a Delhi day-laborer

The acclaimed non-fiction volumes from India are piling up—Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Siddhartta Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Sonia Falerio’s Beautiful Thing, to name a few. A new addition to the list comes from journalist Aman Sethi, who is less interested in beauty than freedom. A Free Man chronicles Sethi’s investigation of the life of a Delhi laborer. While reporting on a bill to provide health insurance for construction workers, Sethi encounters a worker named Mohammed Ashraf. When Ashraf’s bombastic quotes catch the attention of Sethi’s Hindu editors, Sethi returns to find out more. Ashraf works as a painter, but before that, he sold eggs, lemons, and lottery tickets, worked as a butcher and a tailor, repaired television sets and studied biology. Sethi hangs around Bara Tooti, the hub of Delhi’s day-labor market, with Ashraf and his friends Lalloo and Rehaan, and little by little learns how these men live and where they came from. He also learns his way around the city’s byzantine liquor laws and crumbling hospitals as he follows his new friends deeper into their lives. What results is a stunningly original portrait of the city’s underclass—a revealing look at urban India told with humor, compassion, and verve.

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The Greatcoat By Helen Dunmore

A Royal Air Force coat leads a young bride into an affair with a long-dead ghost.

World War II haunts the town in Yorkshire where Isabel Carey has moved to begin married life with her husband, Philip, a doctor. An abandoned airfield with its guardhouse and bomber station sits just on its outskirts; locals speak in hushed tones when they recall the soldiers who came and went. Philip is competent, serious, handsome, loving. “Philip did not seem ever to feel like an imposter in his own life,” she thinks to herself, more than once. “Perhaps that was why she had married him.” But newlywed life is not what Isabel expected. Her husband works long hours, visiting patients through the countryside; the flat they’ve rented is cold, creaky and dank; the landlady walks heavily above them. One cold night, Isabel finds an old Royal Air Force greatcoat in the cupboard and pulls it into bed to warm herself. Not long after, while asleep under the coat, she’s awoken by the sound of a young soldier knocking on the window. She closes the curtain and pretends not to see him, but he returns, again and again, and they begin an affair. Careful prose and a prim sensibility order the fantastical elements of the story, but muzzle them, too. Is adultery really so bad when one’s secret lover is long dead, incorporeal, and invisible? The Greatcoat is spooky—but just barely. It takes more than a ghost to make a ghost story.