Hot Chai in the City 

Vikram Chandra and Mary Roach held audiences in thrall last month, talking about Mumbai gangsters and the precise weight of souls.

How does a nine-hundred-page novel about gumshoes and gangsters in India garner a seven-figure book deal and critical accolades? By being brilliant, apparently. According to Vikram Chandra, his Sacred Games ($27.95, HarperCollins) — which did exactly that — is about "how we pass each other in our lives. It's about form and structure, about order, or chaos. How much control do we have over our lives?"

Chandra, who teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley, launched his stateside book tour January 9 at Cody's, where a large, attentive audience sated on wine and cheese let out a collective groan when he inadvertently spoiled a minor but poignant plot point.

He read episodes from the text about blithe cops shaking down the proprietor of a Mumbai strip club and a gang lord briskly assuming control of a prison barracks and plotting a hit on inmates belonging to a rival "company." Responding to a listener's query about how he achieved such streetwise verisimilitude, he mentioned Elmore Leonard's background man, whom the detective-fiction doyen calls Legs. "I don't have a Legs," Chandra said with a shrug. But he does have the wisdom to shut up and listen when he interviews folks. While researching the novel, he visited an Indian prison and other unsavory locales himself. "It doesn't matter where you get your details from, as long as it comes alive on the page," he said.

Sacred Games has been compared to The Godfather, but Don Corleone never waxed philosophical as he narrated his life story to a cop during a languid standoff. "My wife," Chandra told the crowd, referring to his spouse and fellow author Melanie Abrams, "always wants me to say, 'This is not just a boy book.'"

Is there life after death? Unfortunately, says Mary Roach, author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife ($24.95, Norton), "we will all one day have an answer. Reporting back is the problem."

New in paperback, Roach's meticulous but mirthful expedition into the history of scientific efforts to prove or disprove the existence of the soul — and a place for it to go postmortem — has captivated readers, and it's easy to see why. Most books about the afterlife, she intoned during a recent reading, "are earnest and spiritual, with not a lot of humor." That's not a problem with this former Salon science writer, as proven in her latest effort as in her debut book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

And on a cold but brightly sunny Saturday afternoon, Roach was indeed alive, hunkered down in front of an attentive and decidedly suburban crowd in the utilitarian basement of Martinez' vintage downtown library. She quipped about quacks such as Duncan MacDougall, who weighed tuberculosis patients and their deathbeds on an industrial-strength scale before, during, and after their mortal-coil shuffling-off in an attempt to measure the soul's avoirdupois. "I love that can-do spirit," Roach said cheerfully, adding, nonplussed, that MacDougall's research has inspired modern-day experimenters to try to obtain the definitive results that eluded their predecessor.

She talked about meeting two families in India that bonded with each other after one clan's young child was hailed as the reincarnation of another's most recently deceased member. And she described a staged "haunting," designed to get a rise out of patrons in a skin-flick theater: No chance of traumatized children in the audience, see? But — go figure! — most moviegoers didn't notice.

Roach is almost done with her third book. She told the crowd that it is tentatively titled Bonk: Sex in the Laboratory. But she's open to suggestions.

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