What We're Reading, March 30-April 5

A new comedy from Ian McEwan; the true-life adventures of the Victorian Brit who stole the secrets of tea from China; a Kenyan contemporary of Obama's father remembers the Mau Mau rebellion; and a new Russian master spins surprising fictional gold from the Godot-like tale of Soviet citizens waiting in an endless line.

Solar

Solar

By Ian McEwan

Physicist Michael Beard won a Nobel Prize some years before the novel opens, and he hasn't done much since except mess up yet another marriage (his fifth), try to pick up a lot of women and gain weight. As head of a new British institute studying climate change, he's floundering — and messing up his life even further by covering up the death of a younger colleague who was having an affair with his estranged wife. But, as comedy sometimes has it, things go in this book from worse to bad, and Beard makes his way almost all of the way back to the top of the Nobel heap before ...

Sorry. Although McEwan lavishes his talent for character-making on this Portrait of the Physicist as a Deceitful Roly-Poly Man, he still depends on plot to carry us along. So I don't want to give the game away. Except to say that the time frame in this book, compared with McEwan's triumphal novel Saturday, is a bit messy. And compared with his fine novel Atonement, his best-known work among U.S. readers, Solar seems a little arbitrary. Some of the Roly-Poly physicist's more antic humor reminded me of the near-slapstick comedy in the work of Kingsley Amis. But because of its ups and downs, I'm not pushing this book toward you and saying read it, please. It's a fine example of a serious British writer trying to work in the tradition of C.P. Snow, joining the worlds of science and culture. That's a good thing. There is, in fact, a lot of science in the book, but not as much heart as I would have liked. — Alan Cheuse, reviewer for All Things Considered
Hardcover, 304 pages; Nan A. Talese; list price, $26.95; publication date, March 30

For All The Tea In China

For All The Tea In China

How England Stole The World's Favorite Drink And Changed History

By Sarah Rose

Sarah Rose traces the adventures of British botanist Robert Fortune, who went deep inside the interior of China in the mid-19th century to gather seeds and samples of the country's most prized tea plants. Fortune was sent on the mission by Britain's East India Company. After decades of relying on China for tea, British businessmen decided to try to build their own tea industry in India. The mission was risky. China's imperial rulers forbade foreigners to travel in the country's interior, so Fortune learned Chinese, shaved his head, attached a long black braid to his scalp and passed himself off as Chinese. His mission was so successful that before he died, India surpassed China as the world's biggest tea producer.

Sarah Rose is an established journalist but this is her first history book. It's a wonderful combination of scholarship and storytelling. Through Robert Fortune, she takes us on a gripping, Victorian journey through the rivers, valley and mountains of 19th century China. Fortune averts pirates and a brewing mutiny. He manages to talk his way into a green-tea factory where he witnesses workers adding toxins to the tea to make it more luminous and green. (This was tea for the export market; Chinese traders believed foreigners liked their green tea really green.) If there is one slight — but only slight — flaw, it's in the occasional literary flourish. But Rose more than makes up for it with her anecdotes and surprising revelations (who knew green and black tea came from the same plant?). — Guy Raz, weekend host of All Things Considered
Hardcover, 272 pages; Viking; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 18

Dreams In A Time Of War

Dreams In A Time of War

A Childhood Memoir

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Despite Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's delicious name, his many books in English, his literary prizes, political activism and years of living, writing and teaching in the U.S., he's probably still not as well known in this country as other African writers of his generation, especially the Nigerians Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Oddly, this small book, a memoir, may change that, if for no other reason than it offers a penetrating look into the world that shaped the father of our current U.S. president. Thiong'o was born in 1938, two years after Barack Obama Sr. And, like the elder Obama, he traveled far and endured much on the path to an education that would change his life, even as the world he had known was falling away. Dreams in a Time of War tells the story of this young man's coming of age as the British colonial system was crumbling, both of its own weight and under the bloody threat of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Having read Ngugi Wa Thiongo's novel Wizard of the Crow, an over-the-top, strangely funny political satire set in the fictional "Free Republic of Aburiria,' I was expecting something of the same in his new memoir: some kind of hyped-up, half-fantasy world with magical characters, told with a Garcia Marquez-like wink. But I was wrong. This is a quiet book, delivered in a matter-of-fact, languid style that makes its moments of drama that much more intimate, painful and even shocking. The scenes are familiar to many a memoir: a difficult, sometimes abusive father; a fiercely devoted mother; the thirst for the education that will set our hero free; the shame and a longing for those left behind; the daily indignities of colonial life — all told against the backdrop of great events, in this case Kenya's struggle for independence. But the history was new to me, and Thiong'o's telling of it accessible, readable and poignant. — Michel Martin, host, Tell Me More
Hardcover, 272 pages; Pantheon; list price, $24.95; publication date, March 9

The Line

The Line

By Olga Grushin

On her way to the school where she teaches, Anna comes across a shuttered kiosk with dozens of people queued up in front of it. What could they possibly be selling? New curtains? Leather boots? Perhaps oranges? Her imagination runs wild. It's the early days of the Soviet Union and any supplement to her meager rations would be welcome. When it's revealed they're selling tickets to an illicit concert conducted by a famous composer now living in exile, Anna's musician husband gets caught up in the anticipation. The people stay in the line as months pass, every day disappointed when a sign is hung in the window: "Closed for accounting," "Will reopen Monday," "Will reopen in January." The queue becomes a community, held in place by faith and hope, a microcosm of life in a newly communist state.

I'm not sure which is the bigger accomplishment, Grushin's ability to depict the tumult, disappointment and daily grind of life in post-revolution Russia, or the light touch of her style. The city her characters inhabit may be oppressive, but The Line is not. Grushin brings a complicated era to life: when the political rallying cries no longer rallied, when artists who supported the regime realized they were its new targets, and when it became clear to the people on the ground that the revolution did not overthrow inequality. Olga Grushin's previous novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, brought her comparisons with Bulgakov, Gogol and Nabokov. She may have expatriated to the United States, but it's obvious the Russian masters still run in her blood. — Jessa Crispin, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 336 pages; Putnam; list price, $25.95; publication date, April 1

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Books Featured In This Story

For All the Tea in China
For All the Tea in China

How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

by Sarah Rose

Hardcover, 261 pages | purchase

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For All the Tea in China
Subtitle
How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
Author
Sarah Rose

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The Line
The Line

by Olga Grushin

Hardcover, 322 pages | purchase

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The Line
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Olga Grushin

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Solar
Solar

by Ian McEwan

Hardcover, 287 pages | purchase

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Ian McEwan

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Dreams in a Time of War
Dreams in a Time of War

A Childhood Memoir

by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Hardcover, 256 pages | purchase

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Title
Dreams in a Time of War
Subtitle
A Childhood Memoir
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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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