Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hiatus maybe

Took up a new job recently and it's consuming every bit of energy I have. Sadly, reading, reviewing and visiting blogs have had to take a backseat. There is so much on my plate right now I want to scream! Might go on hiatus until after Christmas.

(image: Edvard Munch's "Scream")

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What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostela by Jane Christmas

What is the one thing that might make you spend some time browsing through a particular book at a book store? For some it's an interesting cover or the blurb, for others it's the title, but for me, it's usually the first line of the book. I'm such a sucker for good first liners that I decided to collect a few that really stood out for me.

I guess no post on first liners could ever be complete without Tolstoy's line from Anna Karenina:

"All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way".

Although this quotation for years has stood unchallenged as a stand-alone statement about the human condition, I read in Id's blog that author Rachel Kadish challenged it in her book "Tolstoy Lied". I can't wait to read the book for myself....

Another great first line often quoted and more often the subject of a joke is from Moby Dick:

"Call me Ishmael"

I really didn't think much about this particular first line until I saw some graffiti in Toronto the other day which read "Call me, Ishmael" !

From Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age":

"Dear Husband, I lost our children today".

I will confess when I first saw those lines they were so powerful that I knew then and there I was going to be by the book. Although it was an impulsive buy I will never regret it because the book turned out to be an absolutely golden read and is now nominated for a Guardian First Book Award.

Paperback/Sep 2007
Greystone Books
288 pages
$21.95 CAD

The book I am reading currently not only has a great opening line - "Impulse is intuition on crack"- but a great title as well!

"What The Psychic Told the Pilgrim" is Jane Christmas' true adventure story of traveling on foot to Spain's Camino de Santiago de Compostetla to celebrate a milestone - her 50th birthday . This decision to make the pilgrimage that most people take years pondering over was made on a short plane ride that Christmas took. What made Ms. Christmas want to undertake such a challenge? I will tell you...but first, a few words on the Camino de Santigo de Composteta:

The Way of St. James or St. James' Way, often known by its Spanish name, el Camino de Santiago, is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great, are buried.

A midlife crisis, wanting to get away from a troublesome teenager and the chance to roam free are some of the reasons for wanting to do make this pilgrimage is what Jane Christmas told Macleans magazine. Also, she had always found it difficult to express her Christian faith and it seemed to her that this was one way to do it. She was accompanied by 14 other women. Initially Christmas was happy to have them join her because she thought it might be a kind of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" but turns out the group started splintering into cliques, and there was all this subtle backbiting that morphed into Lord of the Flies on estrogen.

I have to confess to thoroughly enjoying this book! It's a good, funny read with descriptions so lucid and real it almost felt like the author was holding my hand and guiding me through this brutal walk. The 800-kilometer walk with its mountainous, muddy, rocky terrain, its cranky and competitive pilgrims and the crowded and mostly full pilgrim lodges sound quite daunting to me, but its not without its good moments and ofcourse, the wonderful humor of our host together with the history and other excellent background information she provides of the walk, pulls you along quite nicely. "What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim" is however so much more than just the is a conversation on women's friendships, motherhood, a reflection of one's faith, of pushing oneself to the limit, the celebration of a milestone and a journal of self-discovery.

n closing, I will take a virtual walk with this author anytime, but if I ever sign up for a real pilgrimage, especially something as brutal as this in a fit of midlife madness, please hit me!

About the author:

Jane Christmas worked as a newspaper editor for twenty-five years and has written for the Hamilton Spectator, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. She is the author of The Pelee Project: One Woman’s Escape from Urban Madness. She has three children and lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, Soucouyant, Dowry Bride

What with work and Christmas around the corner, I haven't had time to put down my thoughts on books read, so I thought I'd do just a quick summary of some of the books I've been reading.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears: Although this book might not quite go down in the annals of immigrant-themed literature, it does stand out for the questions that it poses to us as readers. The questions that kept coming at me as I read about this Ethiopian protagonist trying to find a place in his adopted country (the US), were:
  1. Do immigrants (especially first generation ones) ever really consider their adopted country home?
  2. What are their feelings about the land that they grew up in - the one that nurtured them when they were young - Does that land grow distant to them the longer they stay in this new land or does it always exert a strange and magnetic pull on them?
  3. Are hyphenated Americans, somehow different from other Americans or does every American consider himself or herself to be part American and part the nationality of his ancestors?
  4. Finally, we hear so much about the American dream but does every immigrant or refugee really come here seeking it? The three protagonists in this novel certainly don't. Although they are relieved to get shelter and refuge from the fighting in Ethiopia, they are not happy in the US. Their life is a struggle and they do resent having had to leave their country where they were once well off and important people only to have to start life all over again and at the bottommost rung of the ladder.
This is what makes Mengestu's novel so special, so unique. He shies away from the usual trappings of the immigrant story and presents a very honest look at the lives that many immgrants are forced to of loneliness, bleakness and despair. The title of the book is taken from lines of Dante’s Inferno that are admired by Joseph who claims; “The glimpse from hell into heaven is understood best by an African. Except that for Africans, they begin in hell, they come out just for a moment, and then they return.” Dinaw Mengestu's "Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears" is a truly thoughtful account of love, identity, rupture, dislocation, memory and race. Read it if you can.

*update* I just heard it won Guardian UK's "First Book" Award.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Kensington (September 1, 2007)
  • Language: English

  • The Dowry Bride by Shobha Bantwal

I was so disappointed by this book. The title is such a hook, the cover art so enchanting, but the story falls flat and how! The writing is amateur, the plot predictable, the characters are not engaging, they are not even fully developed, I just couldn't bring myself to go beyond page 100. I'd be very interested in knowing if anyone else has read this book and if you agree or disagree with me.

  • Paperback: 200 pages
  • Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press (Jul 19 2007)

is the impressive debut novel by Canadian writer David Chariandy. Longlisted for the prestigious Giller and shortlisted for the popular Governor General Award, Soucouyant is a haunting and disturbing read of a prodigal son returning to his family home to find that is mother is losing her mind to senile dementia.

The novel is set in Toronto in a place called Scarborough with which I am somewhat familiar. It tells the story of a Trinidadian couple (the lady is of African origin and the man's family is South Asian) who moved to Canada (shortly after the ban on colored people was lifted) trying to make a better life for themselves. Unfortunately, rather early into the marriage, Adele, the wife, started showing signs of losing her memory. Could it be something genetic or has Adele employed "forgetting" as a ruse to rid her mind of her traumatic past? Or is a soucouyant sighting to blame? In Caribbean folkore a soucouyant is a vampire-like female monster.
We don't know for sure but based on our nameless protagonist's thoughts, I would assume that Adele, the mother wants to forget her past but in the effort to do that is losing the present too. "Memory is a bruise still tender," he thinks. "History is a rusted pile of blades and manacles. And forgetting can sometimes be the most creative and life-sustaining thing that we can ever hope to accomplish. The problem happens when we become too good at forgetting. When somehow we forget to forget, and we blunder into circumstances that we consciously should have avoided."

This was a difficult read for me because of the subject matter, but the prose is a delight...lyrical, even poetic at times. Most of the action takes place inside this small dilapidated house in Scarborough but when Chariandy takes you outside and to the Scarborough Bluffs his descriptions are mesmerizing, almost gothic.

This a novel about memory and forgetting; of racism and overcoming prejudice; of bruises and healing. It's worth a read.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Shodh by Taslima Nasreen

Shodh (Getting Even)/Taslima Nasrin. Translated by Rani Ray. New Delhi, Srishti Publishers & Distributors, 2003, 227 p., $11 (pbk). ISBN 81-88575-05-4.

Exiled (and now hounded in the very place that allowed her to take refuge) Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen is perhaps more skilled at irking Muslim fundamentalists than she is at writing. I don't mean any disrespect, but after having read "Shodh" (getting even), I would say her writing is very average, however, it is the subject matter of her novels that gets everyone talking.

In "Shodh", Jhumra, a well-educated Bangladeshi girl marries her boyfriend Haroon. Haroon lives with his parents and when they marry, Jhumra is expected to live with them like any other Bangladeshi woman. But life with her in-laws is claustrophobic. She is not allowed to go anywhere unveiled and as the "bou" (daughter-in-law) of the house she is expected to do all the cooking, cleaning,etc. In other words, she is her mother-in-law's handmaiden. Jhumra's independent streak does not take kindly to this and the last straw is when she is forced by her husband to abort her first baby because he insists that it couldn't be his own (he finds it impossible that Jhumra could have conceived within 6 weeks of marriage). To get even with him, Jhumra has an affair with a neighbor and when she conceives for the second time (this time Haroon is delighted), she passes the baby off as Haroon's knowing full well that it is not. It is in this way that she "gets even" with Haroon.

Nasreen takes great delight in painting the South Asian men as ignorant boors who want (and for the most part get) subservient wives who literally live and breathe just for them. Almost all the characters in this book are thoroughly dislikable and although I understand that the author is trying to make a point about gender discrimination in many South Asian societies, I find that the lack of any truly likeable character in the novel makes for a rather imbalanced read.

However, I did not see any reason why fundamentalists should attack this particular book so vehemently. As far as I could see there was no insults heaped upon Islam or anything like that. The entire controversy makes you ask if we (those of us that live in a free society) bear the responsibility to protect public intellectuals who examine and question the undesirable customs and traditions of a society or must they be sacrificed at the altar of religion?

Who is Taslima Nasreen and how did she become controversy's child?

According to the Guardian:

Her own experience of sexual abuse and her work as a gynaecologist in Bangladesh - where she routinely examined young girls who had been raped - informs her angry writing about the treatment of women in Islam and against religion in general. Her most famous novel, Lajja (Shame), focused on state-sponsored persecution and violence against Bangladesh's Hindu minority and sparked off protests which led to the proceedings against her. Her four volumes of sexually explicit memoirs - still banned in Bangladesh - and outspoken newspaper articles have also fueled her notoriety.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

From The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Twe

HarperCollins, Canada Pages: 336; $17.50(CAN)
Genre: non-fiction, memoir, adventure,Burma

The 2002 winner of the Kiriyama Book Prize

I remember reading one time that memoirs are our modern fairy tales, where a child through sheer grit, determination and a fairy godmother/godfather escapes his/her evil destiny and emerges triumphant.

In Pascal Khoo Thwe's case, his demons were not wicked witches or ogres but poverty, dictatorship, sickness, starvation and war but he overcame them all and escaped Burma to study at the University of Cambridge—the first Padaung tribesman to do so.
Khoo Thwe tells the story of his wonderful tribal childhood and his daring escape in his amazing memoir "From the Land of Green Ghosts" .

Padaung women
Picture courtesy:anoexorcism

Pascal Khoo Thwe had a childhood few can boast of having. He grew up in a remote, (part-Christian, part-animist, with elements from the Buddhist religion) tribe in the remote hills of a tribal Shan state. His grandmother on his father's side belonged to a remote hill-tribe, the Padaung, most famed for its 'giraffe-necked' women. Infact, in 1930 his grandmother joined a troupe of Padaung women who toured England in a circus freak show. The author’s grandfather was a powerful tribal leader, the last one of the clan. Thwe goes on to introduce readers to some of the traditions, cultures and delicacies enjoyed by his tribe - including a recipe for smoked pigeons with marijuana sauce!

In the central portion of his book Khoo Thwe describes his attempts to enter the Catholic priesthood and his days as a student of English literature in Mandalay. In Mandalay, Pascal came up against some of the hard political realities of living under regime of General Ne Win which put him on the dangerous path of a guerilla fighter in the movement for democracy. Also in Mandalay, while working as a waiter at a famous Chinese restaurant he had a chance encounter with Dr. John Casey, a celebrated Cambridge professor. The two shared a fascination with the writings of James Joyce and struck up a scholarly correspondence. This chance encounter was to change Pascal's life.

In 1988, the year that pro-democracy demonstrations ignited by economic instability and political oppression led to the massacre of hundreds by the Burmese security forces, and the declaration of martial law, Pascal joined the resistance against the SLORC dictatorship, and was forced to flee from his home. Eventually he joined the Karenni rebels in a camp near the Thai-Burma border and his escape through Thailand to the United Kingdom was with the help of Dr. John Casey who used his contacts to get him out of Burma and into Cambridge on a scholarship...

This is a fascinating, and at times, harrowing story, but it must be read, not just for the adventure aspects of the story and the brutality inflicted by Burma's repressive regime on its people, especially on its minority ethnic groups of which Khoo Twe is one, but also for the beautiful imagery that Khoo Twe creates when he writes about his Padaung village and its beautiful people. Also, for anyone that has left his home to live in a country other than his own, let me just share with you what John Casey told Pascal Khoo Te when he felt extremely lonely and isolated in this new strange land. "Don't forget that being an exile is one of the hardest things there is. The ancient Greeks thought that exile was a sort of death. Hold on to your traditions and your faith. Remember what your faith means to the Padaung and your family. You are bound to be disorientated. In a way you are luckier than many undergraduates you will be mixing with in that you know exactly what your traditons are. Most of them don't. You're a Catholic and a tribesman, you will have had hugely more experiences than your peers. I think you should write down your life experiences and all that you can remember about your tribe" pg 279-280

Very sound advice...when I first came to this country (Canada) I was told to do the same thing to cure my homesickness and it worked.
Oft late I've aquired an insatiable appetite for books on Burma. Recently I read Emma Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma" and next, I hope to read "The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Happy Diwali! दीवाली

Happy Deepavali to all my Indian friends and to everybody that celebrates this wonderful festival of lights!

How do you plan to celebrate the day? We are going to watch "Om Shanti Om" and "Saawariya" (back-to-back) and then we're going to the temple for the Puja, dance and fireworks! So excited!!!

It's raining awards! The wonderful Melody Lee of Melody's Reading Corner has given me the "You're An Amazing Blogger" award. Thank you so much Melody! This blog's amazing only because of all you, dear readers, so thank you all!

I would also like to thank the amazing Sia of the fabulous Indian cooking blog, "Monsoon Spice" for the Thinking Blogger award.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home by Eduardo Machado

Book: Hardcover | 9.25 x 6.25in | 368 pages | ISBN 9781592403219 | 18 Oct 2007 | Gotham Books | Adult

Eduardo Machado was only 8 years old when his upper - middle class Cuban life came to an abrupt halt. Castro and the revolution of 1959 overthrew the then Prime Minister Batista and proceeded to nationalize educational institutions, hospitals, privately-owned businesses and even private land. As a result many Cubans, especially the ones that possessed money were forced to run away to the US. Eduardo and his 5-year old brother were airlifted to the US as part of Operation Peter Pan and they were followed by their parents about a year later. (at that time the US was sympathetic to the plight of the Cubans and many were able to start new lives in Miami and Los Angeles without too much of a problem).

So in that sense, Machado's memoir "Tastes Like Cuba: An Exile's Hunger for Home" again is a fairly architypical immigrant story but with one difference....Machado traces his family's journey from Cuba to the States and their induction into life in the US through food. In the book's early chapters you get descriptions of the traditional Cuban meals cooked in this grandparents' homes...there are recipes for the Cuban staple, black beans, Moros y Cristianos,(pg 42) Yuca with lime mojo and the famous Cuban Pork Roast.

In their first months in the US as exiles, his mother is unable to find Cuban foods like chorizo, yuca, plantains, fresh pineapple, black beans etc, so she learns to improvise with American processed foods, creating dishes like "Garbanzos with SPAM "Chorizo"(army ration SPAM) and Velveeta grilled sandwiches.

Soon however, they were curious enough to try Mexican food which was available in plenty throughout Los Angeles and soon the mom was making Cuban Enchiladas with Mexican corn tortillas. But ofcourse, like almost all immigrant families, American food culture soon permeated the Machado household and his mom was baking Southern Pecan pies and flans which I suppose signaled that the Machados were now firmly Cuban-Americans and no longer just Cubans.

Although this is not a recipe book, it is the wonderful recipes and descriptions of Cuban food that carry the book along. The memoir itself although interesting and moving sometimes tends to run into long,rambling passages, something I am not fan of. For me, the author's childhood reminisces, the food and his first return visit to Cuba made for enjoyable reading, the rest I will confess I found quite boring.

One notable fact I took away from this book is how unforgiving Cuban exiles can be when fellow exiles that sing the praises of the homeland.

Some recipes from "Tastes Like Cuba" that I hunted down on the internet.

Gladys' Garlic Chicken

( Gladys was someone Machado met on one of his visits to Cuba. She was running a paladar in a formerly exclusive section of Havana. Machado was enthralled by her cooking and intrigued by her situation...she was managing a business in a house where she used to work for members of the pre-Castro social elite)

Bistec Empanizado (Breaded Steak)

VACA FRITA (Pan-Fried Flank Steak With Onions and Mojo Sauce)

While we're on the subject of recipes there is another recipe book that came to my notice and all because of its rather quirky title, "The Axis of Evil Cookbook" by Gill Partington with recipes collected from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria and Cuba.

Saddam Hussein she notes loved eating gazelles that were reared for him on a diet of cardamom and Kim Jong-il insists on importing delicacies from all around the world while his people are eating rice with bootlaces (no, there is no recipe for that)


Koresht fesenjan (chicken casserole)

Koresht is a delicately spiced Iranian casserole or stew, usually served with rice.

450g chicken pieces

225g ground walnuts

3 onions, chopped

4 mugfuls pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons sugar

A pinch of cardamom

1 teaspoon salt

Saute the chicken and onion in oil for about 15 minutes, stirring so it doesn't stick to the pan. Now chuck in the other ingredients, reduce the heat and cover the pan. Simmer gently for two hours, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be thick and aromatic, but you may need to add some more water while it's cooking.

I haven't tried this recipe or indeed any of the other 100 recipes in the book, but I am highlighting it here because I love the idea of putting together in a recipe book foods that the enemies of George Bush enjoy eating! There are also numerous cultural anecdotes and political insights.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Biography & Autobiography, Haiti, Immigration

Format: Hardcover, 288 pages

On Sale: September 4, 2007

Price: $23.95

Publishers: Random House

I just finished reading Edwidge Danticat's gentle tribute to the two most important men in her life, her father Mira and her uncle Joseph, and I am sad, angry and heartbroken. Read on and you will understand why.

In 1973, constantly hounded by Duvalier's "Tonton Macoutes",
“a battalion of brutal men and women aggressively recruited from the country's urban and rural poor,” Edwidge's parents immigrated to New York, leaving her and her younger brother, Bob, in the care of Uncle Joseph, their father's older brother who was the pastor of a Church in Port-au-Prince. Joseph and his wife Tante Denise were the children's surrogate parents for 8 years and Edwidge grew to love them like her own. They were not the only kids the couple looked after...they also brought up Marie Micheline, the daughter of a Cuban friend who just disappeared one day and never returned, as well Tante Denise's brother's daughter. I mention this so that you get a glimpse of how large-hearted, generous and kind the couple were.

(Danticat has written an essay about the Marie Micheline in the June issue of the New Yorker, you can find it here.)
(The author with her Uncle Joseph and Tante Denise in Haiti 1973)

Although her parents were away, her father's literary presence was always felt by Dandicat who faithfully received a three-paragraph letter from her father. It was those letters which instilled in Danticat a gift for the greatness of story.

In October 2004, there was political upheaval in Haiti. For the first time a UN force was sent to help stabilize Haiti. Rebels seized towns and cities and some entered Uncle Joseph's church compound, threatening his life. Joseph, who was then 81, escaped Haiti in disguise and flew to the US to visit his dying brother (Edwidge's father). However he landed in a deadly detention center in Miami (the Kome detention center) where the immigration officials treated him as an unwelcome refugee (just because he indicated he might like an extension on his visa on account of the trouble in Haiti) rather than the temporary visitor that he was.

To read Danticat's lacerating description of how the officials at the detention center treated her elderly and sick (he had suffered cancer of the throat and could only speak with the aid of a voice box) uncle filled me so much anger, frustration and shame. Unlike Cuban refugees who are processed and released to their families after landing on American soil, Haitians are routinely imprisoned, then deported. Within days of his detention, Uncle Joseph took ill. Accused of faking his illness he was denied his medicines and received minimal medical attention...handcuffed to a hospital bed he died alone because his family was not allowed to visit him.

Along with Danticat I ask, why this discrimination against Haitian immigrants? Why wasn't her uncle who was both, old and sick, not allowed to die with dignity and with his loved ones around him? Why couldn't the world's greatest country have shown more humanity?
Because of the trouble in Haiti it wasn't possible to take Joseph's body back for burial next to his beloved wife Denise, instead he was buried in Queens, New York. When Edwidge's father heard about the burial arrangements he remarked,
"If our country were ever given a chance and allowed to be a country like any other, none of us would live or die here."

Truly, that remark speaks volumes, after all, who really wants to live in exile? Who wants to be a foreigner all of his or her life? But refugees have no choice, it's run away or be killed and it is good for us to realize that in our dealings with them. Danticat’s father died about six months after her uncle from pulmonary fibrosis that had ravaged his body for more than a year. Danticat writes “This is an attempt at recreating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back in both celebration and despair. I am writing this only because they can’t.”

"Brother, I'm Dying" is a heartbreaking read. In many ways it is the archetypal American immigrant story -- parents from the home country struggle and sacrifice to afford their children a better life- but it's also uniquely Haitian in the struggles depicted. Do buy yourself a copy!

On October 4, Edwidge Danticat testified before the U.S. Congress' Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Her powerful testimony can be found here

I have been awarded the 'Schmooze Award" by Lalitha or Starry Nights of "Across the Miles" Thank you so much, Starry!

About the award :- This award is for the bloggers who “effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship.”

In turn, I would love to award it to:

A Reader from India
Happy Reader
Holly Dolly

Everyone on my blogroll deserves this award but I wanted to use this opportunity to express my thanks to these 14 bloggy friends for their frequent visits to my blog despite how busy they are...thank you, it is much appreciated! Please forgive me if you are frequent visitor to my blog and I have forgotten to nominate have my heartfelt thanks too and feel free to use the schmooze award!


The Guardian First Book Award Short List (thanks, Sanjay)

I was so happy to see Tahmima Anam's "A Golden Age" on the list. I really enjoyed the novel! Another book that looks like a very worthy read is
"Children of the Revolution by Dinaw Mengestu

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude by Ann Vanderhoof and Man Asian Literary Prize Short List 2007

Edmund Hendrix sells sugar cane, mangoes and spider apples at Raja Jahan’s along the North Coast Road in Trinidad.
pic courtesy: Chris Ramirez of the New York Times

A friend pointed me to the Travel Section of the New York Times on Sunday because they had an excellent feature on the Caribbean in general and on the eats of Trinidad in particular. As travel writer Sam Sifton took us through the country that was VS Naipaul's muse for so long and as she ate her way through "bake and shark" ( a fish sandwich) barbequed chicken, crab fritters etc., I was reminded of a book I read 2 years ago titled "An Embarrassment of Mangoes"

Category: Travel
Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
Publisher: Anchor Canada
Pub Date: January 12, 2005
Price: $21.00

"Embarrassment of Mangoes" is the account of a Toronto couple in their mid-40's who quit their high-paying jobs, rented their home and moved into a 42-foot sailboat to sail the Caribbean for two years. This book is part memoir, part travelogue, part nautical adventure and part recipe book. The couple sail through ports like Georgetown in Bahamas, Grenada, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad all the while treating us to vivid, warm and enchanting descriptions of the islands they visit and the fascinating islanders they meet. Altogether the Vanderhoofs visited 47 islands in 16 countries, for a total of 7,000 nautical miles ! Ann's account is entertaining, engaging and, if you enjoy sailing, packed with information on the joys and headaches of sailing.

I was lucky enough to hear the author speak at a library in Toronto and after she spoke all the attendees were treated to some of the edible goodies she discovered in the Caribbean. That night I gorged on mango and papaya salsa, pina colada cheesecake and coconut brownies. They were out of this world and prompted me to try more recipes from her book, all of which turned out wonderfully! I just wish her publishers had thought to include an index of recipes to make it easier to access in a hurry.

Here are a couple of simple recipes from Ann's awesome repertoire of Caribbean recipes:

One-Pot Coconut Brownies

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate (3 squares)
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2/3 cup flour
1/3 cup coconut milk powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup fresh shaved or coarsely grated coconut

# Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9-by-9 inch pan.

# In a medium saucepan melt chocolate and butter. Remove from the heat, and add sugar,eggs, and vanilla. Stir until smooth.

# Stir in flour, coconut powder, baking powder, salt and nuts. Mix well.

# Spread mixture in prepared pan. Sprinkle coconut shavings on the top.

# Bake for 25-30 minutes or until brownies dimple slightly when you press them in the center. (If coconut shavings begin to get too brown, cover top loosely with aluminum foil)

#Cool and cut into squares.

(Makes 16-20 brownies)

For her MANGO CRISP recipe, please go here


Culled from CBC

Five authors from Asia have been shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, worth $10,000 US.

The five shortlisted works were chosen from a long list of 23 and are:

  • Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad's Sister.
  • Reeti Gadekar, Families at Home.
  • Nu Nu Yi Inwa, Smile As They Bow.
  • Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem.
  • Xu Xi, Habit of a Foreign Sky.

The Man Asian Literary Prize focuses on new works which are still unpublished in English. It was created by the same company that sponsors the prestigious Man Booker Prize, open to published authors from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of former British colonies.

Dalisay teaches at the University of the Philippines in Manila while Gadekar is originally from New Delhi, India. Rong was born in China and Xu Xi is a Hong Kong native of Chinese-Indonesian heritage.

Most notable on the list is Burmese author Nu Nu Yi Inwa whose book languished in the hands of government censors for a year before it was allowed to be published.

Smile As They Bow concerns the poor and socially outcast of rural Burma, also known as Myanmar. It follows the lives of three young people: Daisy James, a gay, transvestite medium, his partner Min Min and a young beggar girl. The book will be published in English in September 2008.

The long list included 11 writers from India, now whittled down to one, Gadekar. Her novel, Families at Home, is about the suicide of a young woman from one of New Delhi's leading families.

Canada's former governor general, Adrienne Clarkson, is on the international jury set to choose the winner, to be announced on Nov. 10.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"King of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan and the seductive world of Indian cinema"

The first thing you need to know about this book "King of Bollywood: Shah Rukh Khan and the seductive world of Indian cinema" is that its author, Anupama Chopra is probably India's most interesting and well known film critic. She writes about Bollywood for many local and international magazines and also presents a very popular film review show on NDTV, one of India's leading news channels.

Now, coming to the book, anyone who knows anything about Bollywood will have heard of Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) , the reigning King of Bollywood. When SRK was in Toronto last year for the premier of the movie "Kabhi Alvida Na Kehana", he had large crowds come out to greet him, volumes that the local police had never dealt with before, not even when Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise visited. I know, I was there! ;)

Chopra's book delves into SRK's family background (his father was from Peshawar, his mother from Bangalore), his childhood in Delhi, the struggling years, the love of his life Gauri, and, finally, his phenomenal rise to fame.

Chopra, after hours and hours of interviews with SRK, tells his story in a lively and engaging manner. She smartly sprinkles the pages of his autobiography with a lot of information on the Indian film industry, Bollywood in particular. She tells us about the big film houses like Yash Raj films, Rajshri films, Sanjay Leela Bhansali of "Black" and "Devdas" fame and Karan Johar of Dharma Productions who she believes was a big player in the construction of Shah Rukh Khan as a global icon. All this is very helpful because what she is doing in fact is analyzing the evolution of the Bollywood film industry through the lens of Shah Rukh Khan. She also touches briefly on the dark side of Bollywood...its underworld financiers and how many stars are victims of extortion by the mafia. "An industry joke went that movie budgets would now have to include the mafia payments. Armed bodyguards became a favored fashion industry"

Anupama writes about her subject with a lot of affection and you can tell that she is genuinely fond of him, but her writing is at its strongest not when talking about SRK but when reviewing seminal Indian films like "Mother India", "Devdas" and "Dilwale Dulhaniya Leh Jayenge". She does such a great job of examining these films that I want to view each one of them again.

(SRK and Madhuri Dixit in "Devdas". Devdas is based on Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's novel of the same name published in 1917. According to Chopra, it was written in 1901 but Chatterjee at that time dismissed it as a work written when his mind "was completely befuddled by drink"

Dilwaale Dulhaniya Leh Jaayenge or DDLJ has become a Bollywood landmark. It articulated a value system that is so attractive to Indian viewers: that the extended family is sacrosanct and individual desires must be sacrificed at the altar of greater social good.

So what made this very ordinary boy from a middle class home in Delhi, one who has a limited range of expressions and has never even kissed a girl on screen such a heart throb, such a star...the King of Bollywood? Chopra doesn't come out and tell us directly what SRK's magic formula is but you sense he has a certain charisma, a work ethic, a penchant for taking risks with his movies and an intense energy that simply lights up the screen and peoples' hearts.

In closing, I would say this is a very useful book if you enjoy Bollywood and if you're curious about one of its leading actors, Shah Rukh Khan. It is not a work of great literary genius, but it's not fodder for the tabloids either. Check out Deepika Shetty's excellent review
(it was the one that prompted me to read the book). Taryn of "I Read Too Much" has reviewed the book as well and I really appreciated reading it from her perspective.

Further Reading:

Charles Taylor's review in the New York Times

Savitha Gautam's review for The Hindu

I am planning on putting together a list of books on Indian cinema, fiction and non-fiction. Would appreciate your input, thank you!

Some other books on Indian cinema:

Sholay : The Making of a Classic/Anupama Chopra. New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2000,

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: The Making of a Blockbuster by Anupama Chopra

Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief: Inside the World of Indian Moviemaking by Stephen Alter

Lights Camera Masala : Making Movies in Mumbai/Sheena Sippy. Mumbai, India Book House, 2006

Helen : The Life and Times of an H-Bomb/Jerry Pinto. New Delhi, Penguin, 2006

Filming the Gods : Religion and Indian Cinema/Rachel Dwyer. New Delhi, Routledge, 2007

The Spirit of Lagaan: The Extraordinary Story of the Creators of a Classic by Satyajit Bhatkal

Bombay Cinema; Ranjani Mazumdar

Bollywood: A History by Mihir Bose Lotus Collection Roli Books

Filming by Tabish Khair (fiction)

Hero: A Fable by I. Allan Sealy. Viking, New Delhi. (fiction)

Show Business by Shashi Tharoor (fiction)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Strawberry Fields By Marina Lewycka and Living Libraries

(The Official Guide to the 28th Annual International Festival of Authors, Oct 17-27, Toronto. As you can tell, it has quite a star-studded line- up )

I bought tickets to go see Marina Lewycka talk about her book "Strawberry Fields" at the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto, but sadly I was sick that weekend and missed the talk.

"Strawberry Fields" is the author's second book (the first was the very funny "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) and while this one is pure comedy too, the author is wanting to draw our attention to the plight of Britain's migrant workers most of whom travel there from poorer countries in Europe like Ukraine, Latvia, Romania etc.

Just like some of the characters in Lewycka's book, real migrants come to Britain as seasonal agricultural workers (they are not qualified but have paid corrupt officials for the necessary documents) . On arrival in Britain they are met by unscrupulous "agents" who confiscate their passports and send them to work in strawberry fields where they collect strawberries (a backbreaking job) for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for a paltry sum, most of which is returned to their employers as food and lodging fees. Lodging usually consists of a caravan that the migrants share with atleast 10-12 other people. Infact, in Britain, Lewycka's book was called "Two Caravans" but the name was changed to "Strawberry Fields" in the US because the publishers weren't sure how familiar we were with caravans this side of the pond!

Britain is not the only country where migrant workers are exploited and underpaid, journalist John Bowe in his book "Nobodies" documents how workers in the orange orchards of Florida are herded into hellish living quarters and treated with brutal force by labor contractors if they mishandle the fruit. From an article written by him in the Newyorker:

"... To get to the fruit, pickers must climb twelve-to-eighteen-foot-high ladders, propped on soggy soil, then reach deep into thorny branches, thrusting both hands among pesticide-coated leaves before twisting the fruit from its stem and rapidly stuffing it into a shoulder-slung moral, or pick sack. (Grove owners post guards in their fields to make sure that the workers do not harm the trees.) "

As I write this I look at my glass of Tropicana juice with suspicion. Do we as consumers need to now question where our food comes from, under what conditions they were grown and if anyone was harmed in process?

"Strawberry Fields" is a work of fiction and "Nobodies" is investigative journalism but I have coupled them together because migrant labor and modern slavery is a common theme in both books.

For a more detailed review of Strawberry Fields go here


Living Libraries

(from Radio Australia's Don't Judge a Book by it's Cover)

Lismore in New South Wales, Australia has recently joined some cities in Europe with a "Living Library". The 'books' in this library are a group of people with unusual occupations and lifestyles -- or people from different social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. There are over 50 volunteer 'living books' in Lismore's catalogue.

Visitors have the opportunity to 'read' one of these 'books' for an informal half-hour conversation. The library creates a safe environment where people who would not normally meet can sit and talk.

Isn't that a great concept? Apparently it's been around since early 2000 but only in a few select cities in Europe. Lismore's current selection of living books includes
a Filipino Migrant, an Indigenous Australian person, a homeless person, a farmer, Muslim, person with a physical disability and so on.

Ofcourse, each Living Library developed throughout the world will be unique as it will have its own issues to deal with...if your community had a "Living Library" which "book" do you see yourself borrowing? :)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Poster Art From India and Urban Camouflage in Japan

Poster Art from India

For as long as I can remember colorful posters have been part and parcel of India's cultural landscape.

Educational posters:

When I was in school, educational posters/charts were as much a part of the classroom as the blackboard and often they were used to give students lessons in a variety of subjects from the important (Alphabet) to the instructional (how to tie bandages) to the spiritually uplifting (Moral Stories) to the sweetly old-fashioned (An ideal boy) . But no matter the lesson, we loved the posters because they were vibrant, bold, colorful and gave the otherwise dull classroom such a lift. Looking back I realized many of those charts defied logic and would cause much merriment and scorn if used in classrooms today, but I feel so affectionate towards them.

Chart No. 64 (An Ideal Boy: Good Habits)
(click on the picture for more detail)

(please note the ideal boy strolls with his ideal girl before he brushes his teeth or has his bath, ugh!)

Oh, my, lots to learn here!

To read more on educational posters from India treat yourself to Tara
Publishers "An Ideal Boy: Charts From India" by Sirish Rao , V. Geetha and Gita Wolf

Synopsis: Vibrantly colored educational charts which are cheaply printed and widely distributed are one of the most interesting examples of popular art in India. Whether dealing with natural history, religion, personal hygiene or first aid, their graphic style speaks of an inquisitive and outward-looking world view.

Bollywood Posters:

The most commonly seen posters in India are Bollywood posters. Besides the huge billboards that grace the skyline of Bombay, Madras and other big cities in India, you will find that every inch of public wall space is also taken up with gaudy pictures of Bollywood stars and starlets, making for very colorful city streets.
Some of the big billboards...a common site in any Indian city

Even the auto rickshaws get into the act. This one sports a picture of the actress Kajol.

When I was growing up, Bollywood posters were always hand painted but with today's technology it is a dying art indeed.
(A hand-painted print from the '70's)

Posters of the Indian Pantheon:

This post on the poster art of India would not be complete without mentioning the posters of gods and goddesses. Religion is integral to Indian life. Much of their social life, dietary habits and milestones are tied into religion. Pictures of Hindu deities can be found in every place of work, worship and residence and even on the roads (pic below)
A small tea stall owner has plastered his walls with religious art

These paintings certainly provide some color to the otherwise drab walls

(all pictures courtesy Metroblogging Bombay)

For more on Indian graphics, pick up "Graphicswallah" by Keith Lovegrove

Synopsis:A sourcebook for designers and those fascinated by Indian culture. Lovegrove has selected the most exciting graphic work - ranging from the vernacular graphics of the humble signwriter to the advertisements of blue-chip agencies - to reflect the religious, political and cultural diversity of India.


Urban Camouflage

What would you do if you were being followed? Confront your stalker? Run? Hide? I'd probably choose the latter, but some Japanese designers have a solution that is far more innovative, they sell disguises made from cloth that can be hidden on one's person. The disguises take many forms, the most popular being the "vending machine". When feeling threatened, all the user has to do is to behind the sheet, printed with an actual-size photo of a vending machine.

From the NYTimes:

"...The devices' creators argue that Japan's ideas about crime prevention are a product of deeper cultural differences. While Americans want to protect themselves from criminals, or even strike back, the creators say many Japanese favor camouflage and deception, reflecting a culture that abhors self-assertion, even in self-defense.

"It is just easier for Japanese to hide," Ms. Tsukioka said. "Making a scene would be too embarrassing." She said her vending machine disguise was inspired by a trick used by the ancient ninja, who cloaked themselves in black blankets at night."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 06 Mar 2006

Pages: 304

Genre: Non-fiction, travelogue, Politics, Burma

The condition of Burma, especially after the military crackdown on its revered monks in 1998 and more recently, a few of weeks ago, is a running sore on the face of democracy. Interestingly enough George Orwell seemed to know what was in store for Burma's future way back in 1948 when he wrote his dystopian novel "1984", or so Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) an American journalist seems to theorize in her travel memoir, "Finding George Orwell in Burma"

Larkin uses Orwell's book "Burmese Days" ( a fictional story but based on his experiences in Burma as a policeman in the British colonial service). to guide her through modern Burma (1995). She visits the same places that Orwell did collecting testimony from average Burmese laboring under a totalitarian regime and finds it, well, Orwellian.

In Burma there is always the feeling that you're "being watched", your conversations taped and your movements tracked.
Political dissidents disappear completely, their names and lives simply vanishing from historical records. The State's brutal physical force includes torture, rape,beatings, forced relocation, destruction of villages and forced/slave labor. It also manipulates the emotional life of the Burmese people... its psychological power is so fierce that fear,paranoia and self-censorship threads through every conversation and gesture. All this makes George Orwell something of a prophet and Larkin is convinced (as are other Burmese citizens) that Orwell did not write just one book ("Burmese Days") about Burma's police state, but a trilogy that also includes Animal Farm and 1984.

Although Larkin uses Orwell's writing as a narrative hook, her book could easily stand alone as a travel, social and political commentary on modern Burma. Larkin's prose is quite wonderful and full of delicious observations of the Burmese people... their love of books, the tea shops where they gather to converse amid steaming cups of chai, their love of the cinema . We are treated to wonderful images of sugarcane juice vendors squeezing fresh cane through a mangle; people making daily visits to the neighborhood pagoda,where colorful shrines draped in garlands and candles dot the base of the building; market alleyways stacked high with multicolored longyis, silks and terracotta trunks and so much more, but the colorful images are lures as Larkin delivers a bracing dose of reality on the police state that is Burma.

(Burmese women traveling in a train)

Boy Monks in Burma
pic courtesy Asian Explorer

This book is a must-read for people interested in Burma. Thank you, Sanjay, for recommending it to me.

Update: I just heard from Penguin USA that Larkin is the guest author on their Blog this week. She recently returned from a couple of weeks in Burma and is writing about her experience and observations on the Buddhist monk protests and other Burma/Myanmar military regime crackdowns.

You can find her posts here

(I've closed comments because we recently discussed Burma and the Saffron Revolution here)