Friday, March 31, 2006

Hyphenated - Canadians

The stamp depicts Laura Secord making her way through the bush during her famous walk to inform the British that the Americans were going to attack Canada.

Indian Minature Painting of Mughal Woman

In July my family and I will celebrate our sixth year in Canada. Often people ask me if I have started to feel Canadian - I'd love to respond in the affirmative because it's almost like your adopted mother anxiously wanting to know if you love her - but the truth is, I feel more Indian than ever!

Don't get me wrong - I love my adopted country and I am loyal to it. I am grateful for all the opportunities it has provided me and my children and in return I will give it the best years of my life, but none of that changes who I am inside, for I will always be Indian. But my children, ahhh, that's another story. They are growing up Canadian; they speak perfect, unaccented English, they ski, they have pool parties, they speak French and do all the things Canadian kids do, except, unlike most Canadian kids, they have Indian parents!

So, when Friday comes around they accompany us to the temple. In March, we celebrate Holi (the festival of color) with our friends; they listen to Hindi music at home and watch Hindi movies (not always out of choice, I will admit, but because it is what my husband and I are watching and they are happy to join in); they eat curry and rice almost everyday of the week and best of all, spend every second summer in India. What does that make them? A few years ago saying they were Indian-Canadians would have seemed unpatriotic, but these days it seems everyone is happy to embrace their hyphenated identities, so I say it with pride: my kids are Indian-Canadians!

What sparked this post? An article by Jhumpa Lahiri ( Pulitzer prize winning author of "Interpreter of Maladies" and "Namesake") in the recent issue of Newsweek. She explains with candor and insight what it was like for her to grow up with two identities, working hard all the time to merge them into one and the effect it has had on her life. The last paragraph of the article is particularly poignant.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

White On Black by Ruben Gallego

Format: Hardcover/176 pages

Published: December 2005 by Harcourt,Inc.

Genre: Personal Memoirs

Orphanages and Diseases - Musculoskeletal

Transalated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz

Often, when I don't have a lot of time to read, I will listen to BBC's Radio 4's "Book of the Week". They cover various genres: Non-fiction, memoirs, autobiography, travelogs, humor and history in abridged 15 min segments which run from Monday to Friday. If I like the abridged version well enough I will go on to read the book in its entirety. Ruben Gallego's memoirs, "White on Black" was one such book.

Publisher's Comments:

This is an extraordinary personal testament, the story of one boy's triumph in the face of impossible obstacles. Born with cerebral palsy in Moscow, Ruben Gallego was hidden away in Soviet state institutions by his maternal grandfather, the secretary general of the Spanish Communist Party in the 1960s. Ruben's mother was told the boy was dead. His was a boyhood spent in orphanages, hospitals, and old-age homes, a life of emotional deprivation and loss of human dignity. And yet, there is no self-pity here, no bitterness, only an unfailing regard for the truth. Gallego's story is one of neglect and mistreatment but also of shared small pleasures, of courage, of the power of the human will, and of a child's growing fascination with books and the worlds he finds in them. Winner of the 2003 Russian Booker Prize, White on Black is "one of those rare books one can call revolutionary" (Corriere della Sera, Italy).

Why I liked it:

This could have been a heart-wrenching, gut-tearing story but the author eschews sentimentality - infact, this book is strangely cheerful in many parts. The author explains why in the preface:

"I'm convinced that life and literature have more than enough of the dark side,. That's not what I want. I write about goodness, triumph, joy, and love. ... Each one of my stories is a story of triumph."

He tells his story of moving from one Russian orphanage to another in little vignettes, moving back and forth in time. The sequence may seem a little choppy at times but overall it gives the readers wonderful insights into the Russian children's homes of the '70's where disabilities and handicaps were looked down upon with disdain and loathing rather than with understanding.

Interesting author fact:

Gallego was saved from this fate by a woman whose name has remained a mystery. The author does not reveal her identity in his book or in his many press interviews. After leaving the "old folks" home he attended college, married twice and has two daughters. In 2000, he was reunited with his mother in Prague (again, no one knows the circumstances of their reunion) and now lives in Freiburg, Germany. Today Gallego's health is shaky; however, he says he has no desire to visit Russia, even if his health permitted it.

Ruben Gallego.

"Dam-damachak", Street Musicians - Pune Maharashtra. INDIA

This image was originally uploaded by lecercle, but I came across it at which is a great photography, art and design blog.

I am reproducing it here because something in that picture arrested me. Not sure if it is the hopelessness/sadness I see in these musicians eyes, or if it is plain old fashioned nostalgia - after all, when I was a little girl there was this group of musicians that would visit our street every weekend. They'd sing for about 20 mins or so and although their repertoire consisted mainly of "Bollywood" songs, their rendition of the normally upbeat songs was so melancholic that I would feel a certain sadness enveloping me as they sang. Till today I always associate a harmonium with sad music - not the depressing kind of sad, just "those were days" sad.

This is what lecercle had to say about his photograph and subjects:

"...I took this in the Old Pune, in a neigbhourhood called Budhwar peth, Interestingly it is also to home Pune's musicians and red light district. I found these musicians on the road singing to their hearts content in exchange for alms from pedestrians. I got a feeling of dejection from them, not even a smile at the cleary visible photographer at their heels. Though the setting met the mood."

I do love the setting -the peeling walls, the neglected door with the rusty lock and the paan- stained lips of the singer.

I will occasionally bore you with more pictures that remind me of my childhood. Hope you won't mind!

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Naked Chef

OK, so I'll admit it - I'm not much of a cook. My repertoire consists mainly of "everyday" Indian dishes - a lentil, curry and a vegetable. Nothing fancy. Hubby, on the other hand, rarely cooks, but when he does it's always fancy, fancy, fancy. Anyway, so yesterday I decided I had to "up" my cooking skills a little and what better way to start than with a brand new set of cookware, right? Ofcourse, right!

A girlfriend and I headed for the nearest "Bay" store and I bought a
Jamie Oliver 7-piece "Stainless Steel"cookware set. Made in collaboration with Tefal the pans are just fabulous to look at - I couldn't stop caressing their shiny bright surfaces and giving my arms a good workout with their reassuring weight!

Why Jamie Oliver? Because, have you ever been able to resist a "Naked Chef"? I know I can't! ;) Seriously, I bought it because it was on "special" for that day with 50% off the regular store price! Woo hoo!

And oh, here's the real reason for my post - I also bought a cookbook to go with it!
Bon Appetit, mes amies!

Here's a lovely summer recipe from the Jamie Oliver website. It gets the official "drool" award.

Clementine Chocolate Salad

Serves 4

8 clementines
1 large handful of flaked almonds
10 fresh mint leaves, finely sliced
6 tablespoons caster sugar
4 tablespoons water
seeds from 1 vanilla pod
100g/31/2oz best-quality cooking chocolate (70% cocoa solids), shaved

I love the idea of having a refreshing salad for dessert. You can have some real fun with this sprinkling different nuts, herbs and chocolate over the top.


Peel the clementines, slice across thinly and remove the pips. Arrange on 4 plates and sprinkle over the almonds and mint. Bring the sugar and water to the boil, add the vanilla seeds and allow to simmer until the liquid becomes a light golden syrup. Try not to touch it too much at this stage. Drizzle the syrup over the clementines and top with the shaved chocolate before serving.

Removing seeds from vanilla pods

1. Score the pods.

2. Scrape the seeds out.

3. Put the unwanted pods in a jar of sugar for delicious flavoured vanilla sugar.

Speaking of recipes do check out Susan in Italy's blog - it's called"Porcini Chronicles: Living and Cooking in Italy"

Friday, March 24, 2006

Cuba on my mind

Written by: Isadora Tattlin
Category: Travel; Biography & Autobiography; History - Caribbean & West Indies
Publisher: Broadway
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Pub Date: May 2003
Price: $12.95

Recommended Reading: Cuba Suspended in Time (Lost Angeles Times)

Interview with the author on NPR

OK, so I'll admit it, Cuba is one of our countrymen's favorite destinations. Almost everyone I know, has either been to Cuba or is planning to go. Yours truly falls in the latter category at the moment. With all this hankering for a trip to Cuba I could be forgiven for imagining that although Cuba is poor and ruled by a dictator, the low crime, free health care, free education, balmy violet waters and lush green tropical paradise had succeeded in lulling the Cuban people into some sort of of a reverie - dreaming of a better life, but not exactly detesting the one they had at the moment. How wrong I was (apparently)! It took Isadora Tattlin's (a pseudonym) book, "Cuba Diaries", a memoir and travelogue of her four years in Cuba, to help me realize my tourist friends and I don't know squat about the real Cuba!

When you live there, like Isadora did, you realize how bad the food shortages are and a shopping list is just a wish list. Most Cubans subsist on rice, beans and squash. Ever since sanctions were imposed on Cuba, getting anything else is next to impossible. There are separate stores or "diplomercados" for foreigners only where sometimes tomatoes may be priced at $17 for 1/4 kilo , but the Cuban people have to head for the state-run-pesos-only bodegas with ration books to buy staples (when available) at subsidized prices. I guess this is why "Tienda de los Novios" or "Store of the Fiances" is such a popular concept. In Cuba, engaged couples are allowed to shop for basic home items at half price at this store between the time of their application for a marriage license and the wedding ceremony! They are also given, following their marriage, two free honeymoon nights in selected hotels. Cubans can use these privileges no matter how many times they may have been married before, and indeed, some locos get married just for those precious sheets, pillow cases and the free honeymoon nights!

She also writes about how most Cubans are moved to thieving or prostititution because their lives are so poor. She describes in detail the colourful "Jinetera" or the young girls in Cuba who prostitute themselves, very often with the permission of their husbands or fathers and become long-time girl friends of Western tourists when they visit Cuba. Often, these jinetera are the soul bread winners for their families and are treated with special affection by the families.

She describes the rundown, near-empty malls and stores (apparently the local Cubans don't have money to use in these stores) and the hopelessly inefficient "paladares" or local restaurants which are usually run out of someone's home. They are not exactly encourged by the government because they compete with tourist hotels, but nor are they completely banned.

As interesting as the book is, after all she hobnobs with Ana Maria Guevera (Che Guevera's step-mother) and has Fidel Castro over to dinner at her house, you cannot help but notice that Tattlin (not her real name) paints a very dismal picture of Cuba and it is apparent from her writing that she cannot wait to leave the place. She comes across a little like a spoiled American princess, who, instead of enjoying a new and novel experience, wishes it was more like "home". Nothing like a homogenized America, is there?

As I arrived at the latter chapters of her book I grew a little ambivalent about her true intentions towards Cuba - can Cuba really be as bad as she makes it out to be? How come she doesn't mention the world famous Cuba National Ballet? The incredibly popular Bueno Vista Social Club for their Latin Jazz? The The beautiful architecture? Cuba's love for baseball and the many baseball stars that Cuba has produced? Why no mention of the free medical education that Cuba offers students from all over the world, the only charge being that they sign a bond stating that the first two years of their careers will be spent helping the less fortunate ?

But, like I said at the start of my review, tourists do not get to see the whole picture, people that live there do. Still, how much would the wife of a diplomat, who lives in the most expensive suburb of Havana and drives expensive Land Cruiser and a Mitsubishi truly get to see of the real Cuba?

This book has left me craving for more of Cuba - the real Cuba- if only it wasn't so elusive.

Cuba is considered a "Museum on Wheels" because it hasn't allowed the import of a single car since the 1960's. Its cars are a vintage-car lover's dream.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Children's book under fire

Publishers: Groundwood Books

Pages: 144 pages(Hardcover)/Black and white photographs.

Genre: Non-Fiction for children

Price: $18.95 CDN

Last year, my daughter S. who is in grade 4, was asked by her school to read the book 'Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak" by Deborah Ellis in order to vote for or against it for the Silver Birch award.

"Three Wishes" is a book about the lives of Palestinian and Israeli children and I remember S. being totally captivated and immensely moved by it. Best of all, she gained such an understanding of this complex international issue . So imagine my surprise when I find out today that the Toronto District School Board has withdrawn the book from library shelves and restricted access to students in Grade 7 or higher.

School boards in York Region, Niagra, Ottawa and Essex County have also either refused to stock the book, restricted access or discouraged its use because some of the Palestinians the author interviewed support terrorism. While it is true that some of the Palestinian children express support for suicide bombings, for instance, 12-year-old Wafa writes: "Killing an Israeli will make me feel glad ... I understand the suicide bombers." But as the National Post points out, if this all-too-prevalent Arab view weren't reflected, "Three Wishes" would be fiction.

S. also liked how Ellis described the creation of the State of Israel. I think it's vital that children understand how Israel came to be- it's imperative that kids understand fully the history and background of the conflict in order for it to make sense to them.

Again, from the National Post, "...Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is that children on both sides provide Ellis with the same basic observation: that the conflict has made them strangers to one another. Danielle, for instance, tells the author "I don't know any Palestinians. If I could meet a Palestinian girl my age, we could play together. That way ... she wouldn't want to blow me up." Michael, the would-be taxi driver, echoes the same thought. Though he lives in Jerulsalem's Old City, he describes Jews as alien creatures: "When I see Jewish boys my age, they look at me, and I look at them, but we don't say anything. I don't know anything about them, and they don't know anything about me...."

The way I see it, by restricting who gets to read this book we are alienating our children from children in Israel and Palestine.

No doubt this book is dark, infact, it can be disturbing in those parts where the kids describe war and when they comment on the stark contrast between their experience and that of sheltered North American children, but, I still think that all kids over 9 years should be allowed to read it. The sooner kids are made aware of children less fortunate then themselves, the sooner the spirit of activism will kick in fueled by empathy for the less fortunate. Having said that however, apparently not everyone agrees with me (big surprise!!!). Here's what Connie Sinclair, parent educator and coach, had to say about the controversy:

"...I think there is a difference between some of the harsh realities in our immediate world that our children HAVE to face and those of the greater world that we chose to expose them to. In parenting our job is to gradually give our children greater responsibility as they grow and to give them greater exposure to the wider world. Yes, kids in Israel and Palestine are exposed to suicide bombers, guns and soldiers and unfortunately they must face that reality. That is not the case with our 8 to 11 year olds, although we have our own set of troubles here. before exposing them to some of the grim realities of the greater world."


Other fantastic books by author Deborah Ellis:

Monday, March 20, 2006

"What you will see inside a Hindu temple" by Mahendra and Vandana Jani

Skylight Paths 01/06

Hardcover: 32 pages/ $17.99

ISBN: 1594731160

Reading Level: Ages 9-12


I was thumbing through last week's copy of "India Today" and came across a snippet on what I think is a really useful book, for the simple reason, everytime I take my kids to the temple, the significance of the visit is lost on them because they do not understand the symbolism of different rituals. The book is titled, "What You Will See Inside A Hindu Temple" and the title is largely self-explanatory.

The author, Mahendra Jain, founder of the New Jersey based Vivekananda Vidyapith, an academy of Indian philosophy, felt that the ideas of Hindu culture needed an explanation, so he and his wife, Dr. Vandana Jani, whipped up this handy guide essentially targeted towards children in the 9-12 age group, but here's hoping they publish a similar book for high school and college-level students, too.

Here's the publisher's blurb:

A colorful, fun-to-read introduction that explains the ways and whys of Hindu faith and worship:

What You Will See Inside… A new series of illustrated books designed to show children ages 6 and up the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of traditional houses of worship, liturgical celebrations, and rituals of different world faiths, empowering young people to respect and understand their own religious traditions—and those of their friends and neighbors.

Visual and vibrant, What You Will See Inside a Hindu Temple features many informative pictures and concise descriptions of what is happening, the objects used, the spiritual leaders and laypeople who have specific roles, and the spiritual intent of the believers.

Ideal for children as well as teachers, parents, librarians, clergy and lay leaders who want to demystify the celebrations and ceremonies of Hinduism throughout the year, as well as encourage understanding and tolerance among different faith traditions.

What You Will See Inside a Hindu Temple will:

# Satisfy kids’ curiosity about what goes on in a Hindu temple attended by their friends, broadening awareness of other faiths at an important age when opinions and prejudices can first form.
# Provide Hindu children with a deeper understanding of the practices of their own religious tradition.
# Give children the opportunity to ask questions, making them more active participants.


More after I check it out for myself.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble

0156032708 Trade Paperback/$14.00/348 pages/Harcourt Publishers/Historical Fiction/2004

One time a friend and I were browsing through the shelves of fictional literature at the local bookstore when suddenly a book fell off the shelf and into my arms. After I got over the shock of being hit with a book, I made a move to put it back, but my friend wouldn't let me; she insisted that the book jumped at me because it was bearing a message I had to read! I put it down to new age craziness at that time, but since then I have heard many people say that when books appear out of nowhere they are usually messengers from the Divine and the "other world". Babe Halliwell, academic and protagonist of Margaret Drabble's fiction book "The Red Queen" , must have heard that too, because when the memoirs of an 18-century Princess of the Korean Yi Dynasty were mailed to her anonymously, and she finds upon reading it that there were so many similarities between her and the Empress even though atleast two centuries were keeping them apart, she was lead to believe that perhaps the spirit of the Red Queen was speaking to her, instructing Halliwell to tell the world her story. "...The Crown Princess sits invisibly at the elbow of Babs, self-summoned from two centuries of sleep, urgent with her messages from the other world".

As soon as Babe Halliwell arrives in Seoul (where she is to attend a conference), she visits the old palace of the Princess, ("Changgyeonggung " or "The Palace of Glorious Blessings", where I, too, once walked) and feels the spirit of the Princess walking with her - but all this takes place in the second half of the book, let me take you back to the beginning...

In the first section of the book, Ms. Drabble chooses to use the first person narrative and has Princess Hong (known to history as Lady Hyegyong) telling us her story almost 200 years after she left the physical world. In other words, she is now a ghost looking back on her life as wife of Crown Prince Sado! I have to admit I really enjoyed this unusual approach to the telling of a memoir....

Princess Hong was married at the age of 10 to the son of YongJo, the ruling king of Korea. Although Korea is a patriarchal society, the Emperor so clearly favored his three daughters over his son young Prince Sado costing him his self-esteem. SInce the only time his father would talk to him was to criticize him. Infact, after the monarch spoke to his son he would always rinse out his mouth, wash his ears and change into a fresh robe! Prince Sado came to hate and fear his father and these two powerful emotions seemed to manifest themselves in many unnatural behaviors including "killing for fun", incestuous orgies, a fear of clothes and so on. The princess' ghost being a product of the 21st century can now label these afflictions with the psychological and sociological jargon that we readers are so familiar with and decides that her husband suffered from "obesessive compulsive disorders', "paranoid schizophrenia" and finally "clinical insanity".

When the unfortunate Prince Sado's madness couldn't be contained the King was forced to do away with him, but according to Korean Law, he couldn't have him killed - the Prince had to be persuaded to commit suicide. I will say no more about that for fear of spoiling it for someone wanting to read the book.

This book has had mixed reviews - people have either loved or hated it! I fall in the former category, but I do think that the second section was long drawn out and most readers will want to just skim over a lot of the pages. Having said that, however, I think Ms. Drabble has spun an exquisite tale about Korea's bright, but tragic princess - she has given us a glowing, overgrown garden of intrigue, lies, murders, madness, magic, violence and claustrophobia, using the ghostly narrator to great operatic effect. Her meticulous research of the historic setting provides us with more than a glimpse into the Hermit Kingdom of 18th-century Korea, although she is very careful to stress in the prologue she makes no attempt to 'describe Korean culture ' or to reconstruct 'real life' in the Korean court.

As one comes to the end of this story there are important questions one must ponder:
  • Why do some of us write memoirs? Is to remember or is to be remembered?
  • In this modern age I suspect blogging is almost like a daily record- why is it so important to us to do this?
  • Princess Hong states in her memoirs that she wrote them to set the record straight regarding her family - do we have a responsibility to preserve the memories and legacies of the people we love?
  • Is there such a thing as direct-messages, either from a text or from "beyond the grave"?

In closing, I will recommend the first part of the book whole-heartedly, especially for lovers of historical fiction - it is a beguiling peek into the life and times of a character we don't often hear of, but the second part of the book might well be left alone.

As I read "The Red Queen" I kept thinking of Anchee Min's, "Empress Orchid" ( Tzu Hsi, China's longest-reigning female ruler and its last Empress) which I read last year. I thought it would be nice to include a short synopsis here provided by the publishers:

To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor's wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will go to any lengths to bear the Emperor's son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Book Review: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

# Hardcover: 336 pages
# Publisher: Harper Collins (January 1, 2006)

# ISBN: 0060791551

# Category: Fiction (Asian)

# Links: Author's webspace

A nice 7 min video clip on India, courtesy ABC/sasgirl

(before I begin the review, thanks must go out to
Tiffinbox for making a copy of this book available to me. Tiffinbox is a blog that explores the cultural fabric of the South Asian diaspora through writing, photography, art and design.)

# Review:

She was one of the most fascinating people I had ever seen in my young life. She came to our house every morning on the dot of eight, with the scent of jasmine flowers. Her dusky face had not a stitch of make-up on it except for a bright red bindi and kajal in her eyes. On her slender dark wrist she wore a couple of green and red glass bangles which jingled as she moved her arms, and she always had the most colourful 9-yard cotton saris which she wore in a style that is preferred by Maharashtrian women. To my girlish eyes she looked like an exotic princess and I couldn't wait to grow up so I could dress like she did. Who am I talking about?
She was Subhadra, my mother's maid

Maharashtrian Woman, courtesy IndiaArt

Sadly, I was too young to know that the green and red glass bangles were the only jewelry Subhadra possessed, her saris which seemed so glamorous in my eyes, were made from rough,cheap cotton. She couldn't afford slippers, so she went without them. Her house was just a little hut in the middle of a busy slum...

I haven't thought of Subadhra in years, but when I broke the spine on
Thrity Umrigar's new novel, 'The Space Between Us' she came vividly to mind. Thrity takes us into the world of a domestic servant through Bhima, a maid servant in Bombay. Bhima, a poor Hindu woman works for Sera Dubash, a well-to-do Parsi lady and when the book opens, she has been in Sera's employment for over twenty years, showing up at work everyday, rain or shine to wash the dishes, sweep the floors, chop the vegetables, do the marketing and taking care of Sera's daughter Dinu like it was her own child.

Sera has been more than a fair employer, she is kind to Bhima, pays for Bhima's grandaughter's education and acknowledges that Bhima is an intrinsic part of the family and yet, because of class and culture dictates (and her own ingrained prejudices) , she has never, not once in those twenty years, ever given Bhima a spontaneous hug, or allowed her to sit at the table with the Dubash family or given her permission to eat or drink from any of the family's utensils (Bhima has her own special plate and cup) and the strangest thing is that Bhima doesn't expect Sera to extend this courtesy to her. She realizes that she and Serabai have a 'space between them' which she will never invade.

Although this book can at times read like a social commentary on the haves and the have-nots of Bombay, the caste system and the power that wealth and education can wield in a country where so many people are poor and illiterate, it would be unfair to limit it to that because it is so much more! It's a poignant and touching book about relationships and relating - master to servant; daughters and mothers; husbands with wives and, best of all - friendships between women (despite hailing from different worlds, the two main characters, Sera and Bhima, developed a friendship based not only on their gender but also on a familiarity that enabled them to share a lot of secrets and tragedies)

The characters are just wonderful - flawed but endearing all the same. I loved both Bhima and Sera and while it might be tempting to love (or maybe atleast pity) Bhima more for being poor, one sees that even the poor are not exempt from heaping their own prejudices on their fellowmen.

While this story may have been set in the big bad city of Bombay, the city famous for its slums and equally famous for its flamboyant Bollywood stars and its filthy-rich industrialists, the questions it raises in no way limit it to any one geographical setting because they are universal in nature. It asks: in a situation of conflict, what must come first, blood (family) or friendship? Is loyalty a more valued virtue or is truthfulness? Must the rich always win? If someone is illiterate and cannot read or write, do they automatically lose their voice?

Besides writing a beautiful story, Thrity Umrigar has also given us some wonderful glimpses into the city of Bombay and its people. The scenes depicting the daily struggles of Bombay’s poor - the queue for the communal toilet in the slums and the dismal government hospitals, as well as the atmospheric Chowpathy beach scenes - are by far the strongest. I also love her insights into the fascinating and endearing Parsi community of Bombay and the way she incorporates Indian speech patterns when her characters, especially Bhima, have something to say. The book is peppered with converations like this one:

"Is this ruffian bothering you, miss?"
Immediately Gopal spoke up. "Ae, mind your own business, yaar. Coming between a man and his betrothed, for no good reason. Private family mamala this is, understand?"

The man wilted under Gopal's stern stare. "Okay, sorry. I just was trying to---"

"Trying-frying, nothing." Gopal pressed home his advantage. "That's the trouble with our Bombay, too many people interfering in other people's private matters." pg: 59

I would dearly love to listen to an audio version of this book when they have one. However, I do think western readers would have benefited from a glossary of the Bombay slang words sprinkled liberally through the book.

Interestingly enough,some reviewers have referred to this book as the female version of "The Kite Runner" -might this novel have what it takes to be worthy of that honor? You'll have to let me know.

Highly, highly recommended!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Guest Book Review: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

It gives me great pleasure to welcome my friend and fellow blogger,
Hello, Melissa as a guest reviewer to this blog!

Here's her wonderful review for,

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

Pub. Date: April 2004

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)

When you go to a movie theater to see a serious drama, you often find yourself squirming in your seat. Cringing, drawing your knees up to your chest, burying your face in your hands. The Kite Runner had me doing all these things, only I couldn’t block the pictures I saw in my head with my hands. All I could do was clutch my head, flop the book down on a table, and turn on the TV to something inane like “The Price is Right.”

I will admit that this is my first attempt at a formal book review, and I’d like to thank Lotus for the opportunity and honor of reviewing for her blog (that I highly respect). Reading a book KNOWING that you’ll review it later is different than just curling up and barreling ahead; I tried to take notes and dog-ear pages. I don’t know yet whether it made the book experience any more or less enjoyable. So while I’ll TRY not to include any spoilers for those of you who have not yet read this, I can’t guarantee it. Feel free to critique me.

Most of us have spent a good part of our lives hearing about Afghanistan in the news. It has been a war torn, poverty stricken, third world country ruled by many different factions over the course of the last three decades. I never understood much about the plight of this country, but this novel takes us from an earlier time in Afghanistan, when it was still a monarchy in the 1970’s, up through the pre 9-11 months, when an entirely NEW war would ravage their land. I now have a great understanding and sympathy for these people, and will never again see a newscast about Afghanistan the same way. Hosseini has done a great service to the country of his birth to bring attention to its situation.

I’m having a hard time trying to boil the plot down into just the main points so as not to spoil the book. The story centers around Amir and his father, Baba. In the beginning, Amir lives a privileged life in a wealthy part of Kabul, complete with servants: Ali and his son, Hassan, in a hut in the back yard. Amir and Hassan are as close as they can be, but are separated by great chasms of class. “…history isn’t easy to overcome. Neither is religion. In the end, I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara. I was a Sunni and he was a Shi’a, and nothing was ever going to change that. Nothing.” This quote encapsulates many of the overlapping themes of this novel: family, religion, class, tradition, brotherhood, nationality.

(a current photo of wazir akbar khan, the neighborhood in which amir and hassan were raised)

The beginning of Afghan strife is when a bloodless coup topples the existing monarchy in 1973. Hosseini describes Amir’s point of view: “…the shootings and explosions had lasted for less than an hour, but had frightened us badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.”

Hassan and Amir take part in a kite-flying competition in Kabul, and after it is won by Amir, the turning point-- in the narrator’s viewpoint-- takes place. The rest of Amir’s life is plagued by a terrible secret shame he witnesses and tells no one, mostly to “win” the affections of his father who also has a soft spot for Hassan, the son of his servant.

Baba and Amir struggle to migrate to America, leaving the estranged Hassan and his father behind in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion. Their new life takes flight, but Amir is constantly shadowed by his guilt over what happened that day of the kite flying contest and the events that ensued. In 2001, Amir is summoned back to a very different Afghanistan than the one he left behind by a friend of the family promising Amir a chance to make things right.

That REALLY BRIEF and bland synopsis is the only way I can think to tell of the book without giving away any of its secrets. Typically, you can see a book’s plot points coming from a mile away, but the surprises in this book are real. Amir’s struggles to emerge from the shadow of his powerful father and his crushing guilt take him on an incredible journey through life, but particularly back to the land that he still considers ‘home’ after many years away. At the time he returns, the Taliban is in control of the country, and much of it is unrecognizable to the now man who grew up there. The danger is palpable as Amir faces demons both real and imagined, both from his childhood and from the present.

Hosseini’s prose and narrative style are enlightening, especially considering that he is and internist by trade and an author in his spare time. His evocation of thoughts, feelings and actions is some of the best I have ever read. Sometimes a book told in a first person narrative as this one is has a preachy, ‘state the obvious’ tone. Hosseini never ‘talks down’ to his reader like this, and I really appreciated it.

I was blown away by this story, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a book that will grab them from beginning to end and teach them much about Afghan culture, history, religion, relationships, and class systems. It forces you to walk Amir’s path with him until the resolution, and by then you are breathless. There is a film in production based on this book, and I can only hope that the director doesn’t flinch from the hard realities and gut-wrenching themes and make it a predictable formula Hollywood tear-jerker.


Saturday, March 04, 2006

Book Review: Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Category: Fiction; Family & Relationships; Fiction - Literary

Publisher: Doubleday

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Pub Date: January 2006


Ayelet Waldman's Website

Michael Chabon's Website

After reading the first few chapters of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits" by Ayelet Waldman, I thought I was in for one of those "wicked stepmother" stories and although it doesn't quite turn out that way, it is about a stepmom's inability to love her husband's child no matter how hard she tries.

Our narrator is Emilie Greenleaf, a trendy Harvard-educated New Yorker who has recently been recruited to work as an attorney for a prestigious law firm in Manhattan where she meets Jack (married with a child) and falls hard for him thus breaking her own rule about never dating married men "... I believe women who date married men are cruel and irresponsible, and they betray their sisters..." because she believes he is her bashert, the Jewish word for soul mate.

Jack returns her affections and soon he has moved out of his marital home and he and Emilia make a home together. The one thorn in this otherwise comfortable relationship is Jack's precocious 5-year old son, William, who Emilia just cannot seem to forge a bond with "...awkward and precocious, he (William) is far more comfortable with adults than with children his own age, an outsider able to explain the shifting orbits of the moons of Saturn but unable to ask another child to join him on the jungle gym..." It is also not unlikely that Emilia's own loss (she lost her 2-day old baby to SIDS) and intense feelings of guilt make the task of coping with a smart-alecky 5-year-old nearly impossible.

Anyway, the reason I think this novel is going to be on everybody's lips is not so much the novel itself (although it is a wonderful piece of writing) but because its controversial author, Ayelet Waldman is the type of author every woman loves to hate, especially after her article in the New York Times where she claims she loves her husband more than her children. She says she can see herself surviving the death of one of her children more easily than that of her husband, writer Michael Chabon. This declaration of love was seen as maternal ambivalence by a lot of indignant mothers and they wasted no time hauling her over the coals in public forums like Urban Baby. After all, loving anyone more than your children is one of the great taboos in societies where mother-love is celebrated
as one of the finest virtues.

Emilia, the narrator, seems in many ways to be a fictional Ayelet Waldman and the comparisons are not hard to find - Emilia is a vivacious red-head, so is Waldman; Emilia finds it hard to love her stepson but is crazy about her husband, Emilia loses her daughter Isabel to SIDS and Waldman had a miscarriage; Emilia is a lawyer, so is Waldman; Emily has huge mood swings, Waldman is openly bipolar...the comparisons go on and on. So bearing that in mind, I think what Waldman set out to do with this novel is to declare to the world her stance on motherhood, but by taking care to express it through a witty novel, rather than another article in the New York Times, she is sugar coating the pill and making sure she doesn't have more mothers personally up in arms against her.

But back to the novel:

It's a mostly witty piece of writing which shines a torch on the mommy world of Manhattan - a world of 5th Avenue apartments, nannies, chauffeurs and conceirges. Waldman has such a great descriptive style and I enjoyed seeing so many landmarks of New York, especially Central Park, come alive in her novel. She infuses a sardonic wit into her writing but can also be very tender. For instance, when Emilia lost her daughter Isabel to SIDS, Waldman used such emotional language to describe the grief and devastation that Emilia felt that I wanted to cry along with Emilia.

This book would make a great choice for a woman-only book club because it is packed with issues just begging to be discussed. For instance,

  • Do you think that a woman who puts her man over and above her kids is an ambivalent mother? What about a woman who completely devotes her life to her kids, is she in danger of making her marriage suffer?
  • Can a woman, or indeed a man, ever love someone else's child as much as one's own?
  • Is there any such thing as the perfect mother, or is that just a myth?
  • What about soul mates? Emilia was convinced Jack was her bashert
  • or soul mate, but does such a thing exist or is it just fantasy?

Readers who have read Lionel Shriver's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" (Winner of the Orange Prize for fiction) may draw a few parallels with the two books - both had maternal ambivalence as a common theme. Why, I wonder, is maternal ambivalence such a hot theme today?