ANDREA SEABROOK, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Yesterday we talked about how to make your travel meaningful, but a big, expensive trip isn't always an option these days. Today, we'll talk about the books to read to satisfy that wanderlust without ever leaving your couch, whether it's into the depths of the Amazon or off to some imaginary land.
What's your favorite book, old or new, that takes you somewhere new? Give us your recommendation. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation on the website, npr.org, click TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, how politicians bounce back from scandal even if the Congress doesn't, but first, summer books that take you places.
One of those books is "Miss New India." Novelist Bharati Mukherjee tells the story of Anjali Bose, a young woman from a middle-class family in a small town in India with a big decision to make: please her father and go along with his plans for arranged marriage or dare to venture off to the big city.
Bharati Mukherjee joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Thank you. Hello, Andrea.
SEABROOK: Hello, there. Anjali is such a wonderful character. Everyone is drawn to her, and she does decide to take her destiny into her own hands.
MUKHERJEE: I fell in love with her as I was writing the novel. She's so spunky in some ways and at the same time very na�ve about the seismic changes that are going on in India because of the economic boom.
SEABROOK: And she is something - I don't want to give away too much, but something happens to her, and this is a tiny clip from the book. In just a day, India had gone from something green and lush and beautiful to something barren and hideous. Her sister had deserted her, and her parents were prepared to marry her off to a monster whose father demanded a set of golf clubs. It just says so much.
MUKHERJEE: I hope it's both chilling and funny. Golf clubs.
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SEABROOK: Right exactly. I can see right in that the new India and the old India.
SEABROOK: Is that what you mean?
MUKHERJEE: Yes and consumerism, the levels of consumerism. We all have our needs and desires. But Anjali's is for happiness, personal happiness, not duty, not kowtowing to parents and Hindu tradition, but I want to find out for myself who I am, what I deserve, what I can do. And so she sets off for the very new world within India.
SEABROOK: She sets off for Bangalore, and I understand that so much of this book came to you through conversations with young women, especially young women working in call centers in Bangalore. Tell me about that.
MUKHERJEE: One of the early tip-offs to me about the enormous changes that were going on with being in a Bangalore house, home, where the young woman from a nearby village, who had been hired to baby sit newborn twins, suddenly said after two weeks of work: I'm sorry, this is too much work, I'm going to try applying for call center jobs. The pay is better.
And I knew that something has happened to the fabric, traditional fabric of India, but after that, I mean, as I was watching the young people, especially women, with modest education and minimal, like my character Anjali, very dim prospects for happy future, come in un-chaperoned into the city because there were jobs, and they were well-paid jobs, that they were into self-empowerment. They felt good about making money themselves instead of having to be dependent on family and husband and consumerism.
You know, Bangalore has become such a city of exciting and monumental contrasts. You have slums still. You have remnants of the orderly smallness of British cantonment towns from the British raj days, and then the enormous industrial parks and corporate campuses, IT campuses, with glass and steel towers and 21st-century kind of perks for the employees.
MUKHERJEE: Yes, and, you know, Pizza Hut.
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MUKHERJEE: Those are places to date, by the way. Romance blooms there - and lots of pubs. I was amazed at the - my husband and I went with some of these young employees to pubs where the music was incredibly loud, and it was all headbanger music, and these young people in tight jeans and T-shirts were really into the music.
SEABROOK: It occurs to me that Anjali, as she goes on this self-exploration, is also na�ve of the city.
MUKHERJEE: Yes, and she feels of - you know, think of someone who has lived a very sheltered life, whether she wanted to or not, in a small town, always told what to do, scolded if she wanted to do something on her own, suddenly coming into - it's not even 21st century. It's like 22nd-century, sprawling, minute-by-minute expanding Bangalore. And she says that she feels like a twig in a flood, just carried with the flow.
It's what, you know, absolutely got to me in good ways was the energy of the city. Bangalore, everything is changing, everything is extreme, and it's happening sort of minute by minute.
SEABROOK: Let me bring in another guest now. This is Laura Miller. She joins us from our bureau in New York. She's a senior writer and a books critic for Salon.com. Welcome to the program.
LAURA MILLER: Thank you.
SEABROOK: Let's - have you read "Little Miss India"?
MILLER: No, I'm sorry, I haven't had a chance. Sorry for that one, yes.
SEABROOK: Excuse me, "Miss New India." Excuse me. I've seen several reviews of it, and it looks just marvelous, and I want to ask you, Laura Miller: What do you look for in a book when you want to escape?
MILLER: Well, there's two things. One is I want it to be set someplace that I don't ordinarily frequent. So often I like it to be set either out of the United States or in a part of the United States that I don't know so well.
And then the other is that I'd like it to have a really strong storyline because one of the things that can create a really powerful sense of place is a really strong storyline. It kind of builds a world around you as it goes along.
SEABROOK: And Bharati Mukherjee, your book, Anjali's character seems to me to be going through the same metamorphosis that India and Bangalore is itself.
MUKHERJEE: Absolutely. I'm using - I'm blending together the story of one young man, young woman coming of age from very na�ve to an understanding of who she is, and the story, the very dramatic story of India, transformations in India in the last 50 years.
SEABROOK: And you have this nexus of Americans in India, learning the language and sort of submerging themselves in the culture, and then Indians who are yearning to be American.
MUKHERJEE: Yearning to be American, and some who are required by their job in call centers, to give themselves American, easy-to-pronounce, preferably one- or two-syllable American names and manufacture an American bio. And what Anjali does it pretend, to customers in the training classes, pretend to customers that she's from Rock City, Illinois, population 351 and what the median age is, what the football rivalry in two high schools in that area is. I mean, she really knows her stuff.
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SEABROOK: They create their own world, practically, for...
MUKHERJEE: Because some of the companies, especially up to about three years ago, insisted that their customer support service young ladies, even though they're in a little cubicle in Bangalore, pretend that they are American so that there would be a comfort zone for the customer who is sitting perhaps in Iowa City, Iowa or Kansas.
SEABROOK: Bharati Mukherjee, thank you so much for your time today. That gives us something to dangle in front of our listeners. Thank you for coming on.
MUKHERJEE: Thank you.
SEABROOK: Novelist Bharati Mukherjee joined us from our station KQED in San Francisco. Her latest novel is called "Miss New India."
Turning back to you, Laura Miller, you have several recommendations for us. One of them takes readers to an imaginary world: "The Magician King."
MILLER: Yes, this is the - a book by Lev Grossman. It's the sequel to a book called "The Magicians," which a lot of people described as Harry Potter grows up, although I like to think of it as a kind of a blend of Harry Potter and Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," a kind of a great sort of Gothic tale of college friendship.
And this new one, "The Magician King," is - if - to follow the same formula, which is a little bit of a Hollywood formula, but I think it works in this case, this is a little bit like "The Lord of the Rings" meets "Infinite Jest."
It's about a group of people who go to, you know, a kind of a - they come from our world to a magical land that they have been yearning to visit, and then when they get there, they discover that it is not actually as exciting as they thought it would be.
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MILLER: And they have to find a way to amuse themselves, and the main character decides to go on a quest that takes him on a long sea journey.
SEABROOK: So a book, a great summer book can take you someplace that's not a real city, either. It can be an imaginary world.
MILLER: Yes, I mean, I think a lot of people will be doing that this summer when a book called "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin comes out. This is the guy who has written the books that "The Game of Thrones" television series is based on, and the new installment is due in a couple of weeks. People are excited.
SEABROOK: We're talking summer books this hour. What's your favorite book, old or new? 800-989-8255. Or firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Andrea Seabrook. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook, in Washington. We're talking about books that satisfy, or at least scratch, the itch to travel. Give us your recommendation. What's your favorite book, old or new, that takes you somewhere new?
Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com. And my guest right now is Laura Miller. She is a senior writer and book critic at Salon.com and a contributor to the New York Times Book Review. She's also written a book of her own, "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."
And Laura Miller, let me have you hang on, and we're going to do sort of a lightning round through callers here. We've got a ton of people with a ton of great ideas for good reads this summer. Let's start with Andreas(ph) in Mooresville, North Carolina. Go ahead, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
ANDREAS: Hi, my step-dad recently gave me a wonderful, wonderful book. not much of a storyline, really, more of a nice Caribbean cruise and flight that you can take with Jimmy Buffet: "A Pirate Turns 40," excellent, excellent read.
It kind of just brings you along this wonderful time through practically every island and little cove that you can imagine in the Caribbean in his own way describes it. You know, it's Buffett. It's a singer-songwriter and a wonderful, wonderful way.
SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Andreas. Now let's turn to Gregory(ph) in Bartonville, Illinois. Go ahead.
GREGORY: Hi. Yeah, my recommendation is Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
SEABROOK: Oh, yes.
GREGORY: It used to be a bit of a cult classic when I first picked it up, and I read it three or four times, and every time I read it, I always discover something new. And your screener at the beginning asked if there was something about it that applies to our world.
Well, I think Douglas Adams reflects - the whole base of his book is reflecting on the silliness of our modern world and one little planet called Cricket, where they've locked away, in some sort of time prison, and they figure out how to break out, and as soon as they break out and discover the rest of the universe, their whole goal is to destroy everything non-Cricket and all the silliness that develops from that. And it just kind of reminds me of what's going on in the Mid-East and stuff right now.
SEABROOK: Thanks for your call so much, Gregory, and I of course am also a huge Douglas Adams fan. These are books again that take you someplace really else, Laura Miller.
MILLER: That's right, they are, and they're so funny, which is a great thing, summer reads. I think people either want crime, or they want humor, and there's not - there's probably some crime in "Hitchhiker's Guide," but they're just so wonderfully hilarious that that makes them kind of ideal hot-weather reading.
SEABROOK: Let's do a little bit more on our lightning round here, Tara(ph) in Tacoma, Washington, go ahead.
TARA: Good morning. First, may I comment upon your speaking voice? It is lovely.
SEABROOK: My goodness, thank you.
TARA: I'm so impressed. Thank you for taking my call. There is only one book for me that has been a passion over these years, and it not only takes you away, but it gives you insight on many things. It's Peal Buck's "The Good Earth."
It was introduced to me when I was in high school, and you know the thrill that those you've-got-to-read-it books made in those days, and after maybe one chapter, I was taken away even back when I was 15, 16. I loved that book, and when the film came out, I refused to see it for a long time because I've never seen a film that really stood up to the book.
But the film that they put out was a very close re-creation, and it takes you to a time in China when - before any political issues were involved, none really in this book. I just told the story of a simple family, a simple farmer, his getting a wife, the interplay between he, his wife and the land, which was the most important to Wang Lung.
And over the years I've read it many times, and it still brings me to that place, mentally, and also it speaks to your heart. It encompasses things that could happen in America, back in the day, as well, taking the simple issues of family life and bringing it to the fore.
SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call, Tara. Laura Miller, what about it, the classics?
MILLER: Yes, well, you know, Pearl S. Buck is a writer that not that many people read anymore, although there was a revival of interest in her last year because there was a biography, a new biography of her published.
So if the caller wants to read something new to go along with that, she can read the story of Pearl S. Buck's life, which was really fascinating because her - she was the daughter of missionaries and grew up in China.
SEABROOK: I'm always dragged back in the August heat to Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens, and of course this year being the 100th anniversary of his death, who could help picking up - but pick up a copy of "Huck Finn" or Mark Twain again?
MILLER: Yeah, those are both obviously great books that are - they do have a kind of a summer mood to them, too, as well.
SEABROOK: Tell me about one of the recommendations that I know you've made, a recent review of "State of Wonder." It's a retelling of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
MILLER: Yes, this is by Ann Patchett, who had a very popular bestseller a few years back with a book called "Bel Canto," which was about a hostage situation in an embassy in Peru and an opera singer.
This is also set in Latin America, although it's in the Brazilian Amazon, and it's the story of a scientist, a woman sort of pharmacology researcher who lives in Minnesota, who has to go up the Amazon to find a former mentor of hers who is with this remote tribe researching this possible revolutionary new fertility drug.
But this kind of genius, difficult genius of a doctor has not been heard of and refuses to communicate with the drug company that's funding all of this, and so the heroine kind of gets sent up the river to find this woman.
SEABROOK: What I love about your review that makes me want to run out and buy this is the sense that Ann Patchett got in there all of the themes of "Heart of Darkness" - the jungle, the primordial nature, the coming out of the animal in the human - and then puts it all in female characters and themes of fertility.
MILLER: Yes, I mean, it's a really fascinating book because it's - often if you change the gender of kind of a classic sort of male adventure story, you know, the women characters often don't seem as powerful.
But in this story, they are these immensely powerful figures. They're doctors. This force that the renegade researcher is trying to rein in is, in a way, kind of a terrible force, the force of fertility and the force of the desire for motherhood or the kind of power that mothers have over children, and she's kind of run amok the way that Mr. Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" has, and it's kind of terrifying in its own way, but it's very different.
I mean, it's incredible how the story stays the same and yet is very, very different when the principals are made female.
SEABROOK: Let's go back to the phone, Carl(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, what do you have for us?
CARL: Hi, I recently finished reading through a series of six books called the "Thursday Next" series by a British author named Jasper Fforde. And in this book, in these books, the main character is Thursday Next, works for a literary detection branch of the British government that he can travel back and forth between the real world and the book world.
MILLER: Yeah, those are great. I love that series. They're very - any bookworm is going to really enjoy those because she gets to kind of jump into your favorite classic books.
CARL: Yeah, I've never read any books that make me feel so smart and so stupid at the same time.
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CARL: There's so many literary allusions that you just don't get until you read it three or four times, you know.
SEABROOK: Wow, that's such great brain food. Thanks so much for your call, Carl. Let's go now to Alex(ph) in Milton, Florida. Hi, it's TALK OF THE NATION.
ALEX: Hi, how are you?
SEABROOK: Good, how are you? Go ahead.
ALEX: Doing great. I recently read a book that my daughter gave to me called "Chasing Faith" by Mark Miller. And I liked it because it took me on a journey across country. It's about this girl who loses her mother to a drug overdose and loses her faith in God when that happens and goes on this cross-country trip with her very strange father.
And it reminded me of a trip that I took many, many years ago, across country, and through the Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon and all this beautiful scenery that we have here in the United States. But it also sparked a conversation with my daughter about religion.
The character in the book meets all these people from different religions on their trip across country, and it sparked up a lot of thoughts that I had when I was younger about religion, some of the same things that my daughter is struggling through right now and trying to figure out what people (unintelligible).
ALEX: It was a very interesting book.
SEABROOK: Give us the name of the book, one more time.
ALEX: "Chasing Faith"...
SEABROOK: "Chasing Faith."
ALEX: ...by Mark Miller.
SEABROOK: Thank you so much for your call. Laura Miller, we have a couple of emails I want to read here to. The phones are jammed. Everybody has got...
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SEABROOK: ...you know. This one is from Christine(ph) in Volcano, California. I have an old and wonderful recommendation for young people, "Mrs. Mike." I read it several times when I was growing up and just love learning about Canada and the north, the indigenous people, the hardships that life can deliver and so much more. I'm 50 now and recently reread "Mrs. Mike." It was a satisfying read that I'd recommend for anyone who love it when they were younger and for our new generation of readers curious about a very tough woman learning to live and love in a tradition unfamiliar to her own.
One more email. This is from Lindsey(ph) in Flagstaff. My two favorite books that take me to foreign countries in my mind are "House of Spirits" by Isabel Allende and "The Mango Season" by Amulya Malladi. Both books not only whisk you away to exotic locations but also immerse you in exotic cultures and changing cultural norms. Was it difficult for the author you were interviewing to describe the culture of India without sounding like she was lecturing the reader?
Well, I could have asked. It didn't sound to me like she was lecturing to the reader. Laura Miller, what's on your bedside table right now?
MILLER: Oh, well, sometimes - I'm reading a lot of books that will be coming out in the fall because, you know, I get these early copies of them. But something that I read just recently that's just coming out right now - I just finished this - it's called "Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead" by Sara Gran. And this is a - you know, my sort of summer indulgence is I like detective stories and this is a very unusual - it's kind of maybe even surreal or metaphysical detective story.
Claire DeWitt is this, sort of, surly and difficult detective who uses dreams and divination tools like the "I Ching" and even a little recreational drug use to solve her mysteries. And she goes to New Orleans and it's - you know, I love that city. I haven't been back since Katrina. And it's a kind of a - both, you know, an evocative and also very tragic portrait of what happened to that city and full of the sort of - you know, when she called it the city of the dead, you know, so many of the people there are hunted by the people who died or what was lost in the city itself. And it's just - it's kind of got this interesting touch of the crime story and a little bit of mystical, sort of, wonder as well.
SEABROOK: My guest is Laura Miller. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go straight back to the phones. Let me see. We have Farhan(ph). Let me see if I got your name right, Farhan in Lansing, Michigan?
SEABROOK: Oh, good.
FARHAN: Thanks for taking my call. Actually, the very first recommendation that Ms. Miller suggested reminds me of the "Earthsea Trilogy" or "The Cycle" by Ursula Le Guin. But the book I actually called about was Joshua Slocum's "Sailing Around the World Alone." It's written about 1895 by the first person to sail around the world alone. And he was a sailing captain who couldn't adapt about age 16 and sailing ships where passe. And he rebuilt this 37-foot boat and sailed it around the world and really good writing and a really great story.
SEABROOK: Wonderful. Thank you so much for your call. Let's go to Paul in Wichita, Kansas. Hi. You're on the air.
PAUL: Hi. My - one of the best books I've ever read that really gives a sense of traveling would be "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman.
PAUL: It's been...
SEABROOK: Oh, God. I love Gaiman.
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PAUL: Everyone always think I say diamond, but it not. It start with a G.
SEABROOK: No, Gaiman, G-A-I-M-A-N.
PAUL: Yep. (Unintelligible).
SEABROOK: Yes. He's a science fiction writer, isn't he?
PAUL: Yeah. And it's - the book and the main character, Shadow, meets a guy who called himself Mr. Wednesday, who turns out to be Odin. And through various, you know, kind of - they're pretty much traveling around the country. And the way Neil Gaiman writes, you almost feel like you're sitting in the backseat or just tagging along with him and really get to experience what it's like to go on kind of back road tour of the Midwest and part of the South. It's just an amazing book that I cannot help but read over and over again. Highly recommended.
SEABROOK: "American Goths," G-O-T-H-S.
PAUL: Gods, G-O-D-S.
MILLER: No, Gods.
MILLER: G-O-D-S, yeah.
SEABROOK: Excuse me, "American Gods." Fans of the book may be interested to know that HBO is going to be making that into a series.
SEABROOK: ...which is very exciting news.
PAUL: Oh. Excellent.
PAUL: It's very...
SEABROOK: And he's going to write a sequel because, obviously, they want to do - they want a lot of story and he's got to write another book to give them material to work with. So that's also exciting.
PAUL: Yeah. I read that on the Neil's site the other day and get really excited.
SEABROOK: Great. Thanks so much for your call, Paul. Let's go to Sharon(ph) in Redwood, California. Go ahead.
SHARON: Yes. Hi. You know, I'm sure everybody is doing this. As you hear people recommend, you think of more things.
SHARON: So I originally called for "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," which is an epistolary novel that takes place on the Guernsey Isles during and after World War II.
SEABROOK: Oh, wow.
SHARON: Amazing. I was saying to the screener the only bad part of the book is when you finish it and think I miss this people. If there's been my friends, I need to go back.
SEABROOK: You say it's an epistolary novel. Who is writing to whom?
SHARON: It's - in the beginning, it's a woman who was writing a humorous - a humor column for The London Times, I think.
SHARON: And so she - because you need a have humor when people are bombing you. And then a man writes to her and says I found one of your books. And she's one of those people who writes notes to herself in a book about what does this means and what about that, and she asked the funniest questions. And so he starts corresponding with her, and he lives on Guernsey and he mentions the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And she asks if she can correspond with the people in society about what it was like because Guernsey Isle was occupied during the entire war.
SHARON: And it was occupied the day after they sent their children to the mainland. So he didn't know what was going on.
SEABROOK: Sharon, one - your last recommendation that you mentioned?
SHARON: Oh, the other one. Well, "Rowing the Atlantic" is by Roz Savage, the woman who rowed the Atlantic, R-O-W-E-D, on her own. She now became the first woman to solo row the Pacific, and she's also solo rowing the Indian Ocean.
SEABROOK: Sharon, thank you so much for your call. Laura Miller, thank you, too, for joining us.
MILLER: My pleasure.
SEABROOK: Laura Miller is a book critic at salon.com. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, Congressman Anthony Weiner succumbs to his sexting scandal. But it might not be the last we hear from him. We'll talk about political lives after scandal. That's next. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.