Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
June 27, 2010

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This luminous novel sends an ailing man named Kirpal Singh, known as Kip, on a grueling journey by train across northern India to Kashmir and into his past, which rises from a sea of summoned memories.

That past becomes the story’s present. Kip, son of a military hero, joins the Indian army when his father is killed in the line of duty. He is posted to headquarters in the mountains of Kashmir, a beautiful, remote, and violently contested region cloaked in glaciers. Surprisingly — for Kip is a Sikh, a class of legendary warriors — the youth is sent not into combat but to the general’s kitchen, where he earnestly sets about mastering the varied cuisines demanded by the officers’ sophisticated palates. Outside the kitchen, Kip remains an innocent, bewildered and ultimately defeated by what he learns about the human cost of national rivalries and sectarian hatred.

Jaspreet Singh creates a swirl of sensual allusions, from the herbs and spices of Indian cooking, to the silken allure of women Kip dares not touch, to the withering heat of the subcontinent and the unearthly cold of the Kashmiri peaks. The sensuality adorns without obscuring the solemn core of the story, the small tragedy of a young patriot who comes to realize that he doesn’t know his country at all.

Readers who are less than au courant will be astonished to hear that Emily Gould is the latest media “It” girl. After leaving, in her mid-20s, her super-cool job as editor of the gossip blog, she appeared in The New York Times Magazine anointed as the voice of her generation. Celebrity ensued.

Readers will be astonished to hear it because no such ambitious and culturally savvy young person is in evidence here, in Gould’s snarky, shrugging, sexually exhibitionistic account of her life to date. A self-described “prickly and pretentious little jerk,” she emerges in these pages as a jaded underachiever who feeds her appetite for self-pity by orchestrating failure, whether by dropping out of college, settling for and then huffily quitting dead-end waitressing jobs, or sinking her one long-term relationship by cheating on her boyfriend. She even buys a puppy she doesn’t want, just so she can fail at dog ownership.

Gould is glib and quick with a putdown. She may yet prove capable of becoming her generation’s Fran Lebowitz. But she needs to wake up to the movable feast around her and stop gazing only in the mirror.

If you asked her, Tilly Farmer would say she has the perfect life, though you might think she’s in a rut. Married to her high school sweetheart and hoping for a baby, Tilly works as a guidance counselor at the same small-town school she graduated from 15 years ago. There she happily organizes the proms and musical productions she remembers fondly from her own teenage years. Tilly considers herself the community’s font of stability. When people break, Tilly likes to think, she fixes them.

At the local fairgrounds one summer day, she wanders into the fortune-telling tent and comes away with what the fortune-teller — another old schoolmate — calls “the gift of clarity.” Before long Tilly begins to slip into trances that reveal unsettling visions — her alcoholic father falling off the wagon, her husband packing up a moving van — all the more unsettling as they begin to come true. Suddenly Tilly must figure out how to fix the one thing that has never broken before: herself.

Allison Winn Scotch deserves credit for attempting to customize the chick-lit formula — and with magic realism, no less — but not too much credit. A formula it remains, cute and predictable.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at

CHEF By Jaspreet Singh

Bloomsbury, 256 pp.,

paperback, $14


Free Press, 224 pp.,

paperback, $16

THE ONE THAT I WANT By Allison Winn Scotch

Shaye Areheart, 288 pp., $24