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The new, darkly hilarious India

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Despite the growing popularity of such Indian writers as Salman Rushdie, Kirin Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Chandra and others, many American readers still see India -- a giant, complex country of many cultures, languages and voices -- through the fog of cliché: a mystical home where the yogis roam, and cinnamon-scented clouds of lyricism hover over the nation's landscape and literature. And never mind some areas' grinding poverty; you can almost hear the old hippies telling each other, "Oh, they're much more detached from those kinds of unpleasant things than we are." Well, roll over Kipling, and tell Rabindranath Tagore the news: Aravind Adiga is here to burst the India cliché bubble.

The 34-year-old Adiga recently won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for The White Tiger, his darkly comic novel of an Indian chauffeur/entrepreneur's woes and ambitions. Adiga is a former journalist and it shows in his straightforward style, but his immediacy is balanced by the rich detail of his densely woven tales, not to mention his gift for hilarious, biting satire.

Balram Halwai, in a series of letters to the Premier of China (who is scheduled to visit India soon), tells the story of his life, mixed with sharp, slicing commentary on Indian society. Beginning as an ill-educated denizen of mid-India (which he calls The Darkness), Balram grows from hardworking youth to chauffeur to entrepreneur. During his transformation, he murders his boss as an act of "social entrepreneurship" and gains self-respect through his sardonic scrutiny of India's elite, who carry on what he calls the nation's tradition of bribery and sacrifice of the many for the benefit of the few.

If that synopsis sounds dark, well, it is. But thanks to Adiga's gift for description and satire, the novel is also hysterically funny, albeit in a dark way. Scenes of natural beauty are described in compellingly gorgeous language, while villagers who talk about politics are "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra." Balram's experience of India may be hellish, but Adiga also makes it exhilarating and even somehow enticing, largely through Balram's bigger than life view of his country and its adjustments to the 21st century. Adiga's brilliant The White Tiger is a don't-miss read, one of the best of the year.

The subtitle of this well-made, thoughtful humor book says it all: "A livesaving guide to shaking off the horrors of the last eight years, with practical advice on relapse, remission, and recounts." Using the time-tested "12-step" approach to overcoming unhealthy addictions, and retelling the familiar stories of incompetence, arrogance, snooping and idiocy of the Bush administration, Stone takes us through a program designed to get the nation back on track and in touch with what life was like before Bush. Step one is "Acknowledge the problem"; step two is "understand what you've been through"; and so on, through "undergo detoxification," "make amends," to "say a prayer." Along the way, Stone invites respected writers such as Andrew Tobias, James Gleick, Tony Hendra and others to add their own tips on how to recover from the Dubya Days. There have been many books about Bush Co., but soon, this will be the only one you'll need.

Bennett, a popular British writer (The History Boys, The Madness of King George), concocts a fun, comical novella -- a fairy tale, really -- about the power of books, and how their subversive potential might be played out in Buckingham Palace. It begins when Queen Elizabeth II winds up in a mobile library while chasing after her wayward corgis and, lo and behold, becomes an avid reader. Her book habit takes control of her, and she begins to question the underlying reasons for her reign. The Queen eventually turns to writing and, in the process, triggers a constitutional crisis that upends her nation's governance. This is delicate, light satire, but with a few wicked pokes in the eye for those who assume they're enjoying high status because they deserve it.

This no-holds-barred oral biography of the man whose "gonzo" style changed journalism is as unpredictable as Thompson himself, and as stimulating. People who knew Thompson well, including his ex-wife Sandy, old friends, his frequent illustrator Ralph Steadman, and actors Jack Nicholson and Johnny Depp, share their stories, gradually building a three-dimensional portrait that belies the drink-drugs-and-guns cardboard cut-out image of Thompson that he encouraged. This is a caring bio that will delight, outrage and haunt you, and make you wonder if there are any more like him to be seen in our lifetime.


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