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.

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