Category Archives: Nonethnic-specific

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Blue NotebookClearly, James A. Levine is a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s an endocrinologist and professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic, he co-directs Obesity Solutions, a project of Mayo and Arizona State University (where he also professors), he’s credited with pioneering the treadmill desk, he NEATly Gruves … oh, and he also happens to write bestselling novels.

Perhaps he never sleeps – at least not well. He confesses to as much, about the “vivid nightmares” he endured for years after meeting a Mumbai child prostitute in his detailed “Afterword”; although narrator Meera Simhan provides a superb reading, you’ll need to turn to the actual pages for Levine’s not-to-be-missed additional insights, memories, afterthoughts, and more.

As part of investigating child labor in India, Levine found himself on the infamous “Street of Cages” in Mumbai, “one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country.” There he saw a 15-year-old girl in a pink sari, writing in her blue notebook. “I’ve found that the mantra ‘Education is the answer’ is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.” Levine’s nightmares repeatedly ended with the specter of the girl standing over him in the middle of night. And so he “finally set out to write her story – it spilled onto the paper” in 58 days and became this, his debut novel.

Batuk, as Levine named her, was 9 when her father sold her to a brothel. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder and after she’s been heinously abused, she is eventually sent to “Common Street” where she lives in a “cell, with its steel bars … the size of a toilet.” Her best friend is beautiful Puneet, who “occupies the nest two down”: “Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.”

“I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil,” Batuk introduces herself. “My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.” That pencil records her shattering life, recalls the stories she was told as a village child, and enables her to create her own as the only means of escaping her unbearable reality. Summoned to a luxury hotel to be a spoiled heir’s temporary sex slave, Batuk takes what solace she can by writing of the horrors she endures on sheets of hotel stationery. Her literacy will preserve her sanity, even when her body can no longer endure.

As unflinchingly brutal as the novel is, Levine cautions that “[t]he pictures I paint onto Batuk’s canvas … are not fully accurate.” These children’s fates are even worse: “Were the burdens of sufferance to be detailed in their duration and intensity, the book would be agonizing to read. I can only open the door but then leave. I paint these images … and apologize that they are only glimpses. More than that I cannot sustain.” Neither, too, could most readers …

Batuk’s uncompromising testimony haunts with its inhumanity, even as it bears witness to a remarkable young girl’s strength, ingenuity, and somehow, hope. Her stories become her salvation – and will also inspire her audience to enable and ensure salvation for others like her, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

Homeless BirdKoly, the only daughter in a poor, rural Indian family, leaves all she’s ever known to fulfill her duties in an arranged marriage. Once the wedding is over, Koly realizes her family was tricked: her new husband is a sickly young boy whose parents are interested only in her dowry. Paltry as it is, it’s enough to take her dying groom to the holy city of Benares for a miraculous cure, and if not that, then at least a blessed burial.

Just 13, Koly becomes a widow. Tradition bans her from returning to her own family, so she assiduously serves her new family Over the next four years, Koly’s sister-in-law marries and leaves, her father-in-law dies, and her bitter mother-in-law remains unrelenting in her accusations and demands.

Koly dreams of escaping her hungry, belittled, desperate life, but she never expects that freedom will come as a result of abandonment: her mother-in-law leaves her in Vrindavan, a town where too many discarded widows meet their end. But thanks to the remarkable kindness of strangers, Koly is destined for so much more.

Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2000, Gloria Whelan writes deftly of unchallenged traditions that begin with the devaluation of girls which allows for child marriage, abusive in-laws, and ends with disposable widowhood. Whelan empowers Koly to better face her bleak challenges: she is Brahmin-born, India’s highest caste; her mother teaches her a valuable practical skill, embroidery; her father-in-law secretly enables her literacy (the title originates from one of the poems in his beloved Rabindranath Tagore collection). Clearly aware of her younger audience, Whelan invests Koly with the determination to survive and thrive.

Should you choose to go audible, hapa British Indian actress Sarita Choudhury is an ideal narrator as she effortlessly adapts her voice from despair to feisty to hope to resolve to wonder. Her authentic range gives credible plausibility to even the deus ex machina-ending that may give cynical naysayers cause to sigh once or twice, but should ultimately leave most readers exhaling with relief and joy.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009 (United Kingdom), 2001 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets to EdenThe day after Alice Hayward is baptized, she’s found strangled in her own home; her husband George is on the couch with a bullet through his head. The apparent murder/suicide understandably has the couple’s tight-knit small Vermont town in shock, especially causing a crisis of faith for Reverend Stephen Drew.

Into Haverhill swoops an angel of sorts – at least a renowned celestial expert with two inspirational bestsellers to buoy her lofty (some might say loopy) status. Eerily enough, Heather Laurent is one of two surviving daughters who lost their parents to a gruesome murder/suicide decades back when they were teenagers. Which gives Heather much to talk about with the 15-year-old Hayward daughter, Katie. Meanwhile, deputy state attorney Catherine Benincasa is certain the Hayward tragedy needs further investigation, and at the top of her must-be-questioned list is the good Reverend Stephen.

The prolific Chris Bohjalian (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer, whose 17th title – Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands –hits shelves July 8) has become my latest go-to aural author, encouraged as I am with his repeat cast of dependable narrators, especially the versatile Mark Bramhall who is part of this title’s marvelously convincing quartet. Stephen, Catherine, Heather, and Katie, each get their unique say – although I can’t help wishing that Alice, too, might have had the chance to voice herself beyond snippets from her journal. Indeed, even after the whodunnit-reveal, only the two corpses will know the whole truth of that fateful evening … and their ‘secrets of Eden’ will remain forever buried in separate graves.

That sort of ponderous ambiguity is what keeps me going back for more books Bohjalian: what’s on the page (or stuck in the ears) is a many-layered story that always demands deeper engagement.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Armenian American, Nonethnic-specific

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

With or Without YouAh, well … who needs enemies when you have relatives like debut author Domenica Ruta? ‘Dysfunctional’ sounds nearly sane after meeting Ruta’s family on the page or stuck in the ears – choosing the latter is especially recommended as Ruta herself narrates with chilling, detached efficiency.

Her father – who abandoned her mother during a Hawai’i vacation when he found out she was pregnant – was mostly absent. Her “Uncle Vic” – apparently known by many of the extended family to be a pedophile – sexually abused her as a child.

No one, however, compared to Ruta’s mother Kathi: “Spell [her name] with a Y or, God forbid, a C, and she’d lacerate your face with her scowl.” Drug addicted (“a narcotic omnivore”), neglectful (“Groceries could wait another day, but Calvin Klein and HBO could not”; “There were several occasions on which my mother let Uncle Vic sleep in my bed when Auntie Lucy threw him out”), abusive (“‘You miserable c***. You don’t love me. You never loved me. I knew it’”), Kathi is surely one of the most monstrous mothers memorialized between the pages.

Occasionally, surprisingly, Kathi’s maternal instincts kicked in – albeit in roundabout ways – especially when Ruta’s education was at stake: she helped sell a “brick of cocaine” to pay for parochial school, she dressed Ruta “like a prep-school fetish out of Playboy magazine” for her interviews at the “ten most expensive boarding schools in New England” believing she was gaining Ruta admission, then “was envious, heartbroken, and scared, but, more than that, more than anything, she was proud” when Ruta entered 10th grade at Phillips Academy Andover.

In order to live to tell all, Ruta survived a teenage suicide attempt, her own addictions (alcohol is her drug of choice), and decades of mother/daughter toxicity, until she finally exorcises her past in print. Amazingly, in a telephone call with a New York Times writer, Kathi affirms Ruta’s memories: “‘She lied about nothing. She told the painful, honest truth.’” No chance of a James Frey-style exposé here! 

Ruta is a visceral writer, arranging her words with blunt clarity. She miraculously avoids any self-pity. Through the bleary and brutal, she even manages surprising moments of pithy humor – laughing through drowning eyes and clenched teeth.

Reading (or listening) with dropped jaw will surely fulfill any Schadenfreude fantasies, while reaching book’s end should inspire respect and admiration, perhaps even some fear: the next line of that U2 song that I assume inspired the title continues with “And you give yourself away …” and then multiple repeats of “I can’t live / With or without you …” Now that Ruta’s given herself to legions of readers, let’s hope her survival instincts remain stronger than ever.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Nonethnic-specific

World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

World ClassComprised of just 27 pages which hold 14 poems, this collection feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. That said, the spare verses by J.C. Elkin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated ESL teacher at a Maryland community college, are not without complexity and depth, inspired by her actual students’ lives: “Their names, nationalities, and some occupations have been changed, but their circumstances in these narratives are real. The quotations are as exact as memory permits,” Elkin explains in her introduction.

“My students arrive in dust storms of change,” Elkin’s first poem opens in “Foreign Soil.” She empathizes with their struggles in “World Class,” herself once an ex-pat abroad who “know[s] how it feels to be the alien.”  The “‘Tribal’, ‘slanty-eyed’, / Slavic, ‘rag-head’ strangers” in her class are her “heroes and friends / who put their lives on hold for twelve long hours a week, / asking probing questions, aiming for the A.”

She writes of Hala, who was once a superintendent of girls’ schools in Pakistan, where nine million girls are denied an education. She bids “Vaya con Dios” to Fernan who returns south of the border to bury his mother. She regrets not letting JoySong keep the textbook that wasn’t hers, especially when she returns the next day with bruised signs of spousal abuse. She commiserates with Verdad whose son’s English is not expanding with quite the right vocabulary. She’s left speechless by Young who can’t connect words into comprehensible sentences, but knows exactly how to show his appreciation towards her.

“I’m proud to say I help,” Elkin writes. “Ashamed I don’t do more.” Yet, what she accomplishes here is perhaps that most important ‘more’: giving voice to the newest generation of Americans-in-the-making. Her ‘help’ is never blind, as she knows when to be firm with chronic latecomers, because “[t]he wait list is full of contenders.” She is uncompromisingly honest, ready to expose her own insensitivities; she admits to her own ‘them/us’-mindset as she, too, once thought “‘[t]hey should speak our language or just go back home.’” She confesses without guilt that when she sees one of her students bearing the suffocating weight of her hijab while Ramadan-fasting in steamy August heat, she realizes”… watching her melt in submission, I hate her religion today.”

As brief as Elkin’s Class may be, her universal lessons are many … and each a learning experience ready to share.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

The Circle by Dave Eggers

CircleThanks to Annie, her college roommate and best friend, Mae’s escaped from her stupefying utilities job in her “wretched” hometown and entered the Circle, an enviable high-tech company (think Google + Apple + steroids) where Annie is one of the “Gang of 40″-power wielders.

Mae begins in CE – Customer Experience – where every call is scored and anything less than 100 is followed up with inquiries about improvement. Those numbers control Circlers’ lives far beyond work: personal worth becomes measured in smiles, zings, posts, responses, and rankings. The Edenic campus subsumes you: it’s abuzz 24/7 with concerts by the famous, epic parties, workshops that can take you virtually anywhere, and even luxurious dorm rooms so you never have to leave.

Initially drawn away from the halcyon Circle walls – her father is ill, her parents are struggling with inadequate health insurance – Mae is gently chided for not being more involved in her new enCircled life. But Mae succumbs to the unrelenting pressure to participate, quickly moves up the Circle rankings, until her very words (coached as they are) are literally cast in steel writ large: “SECRETS ARE LIES,” “CARING IS SHARING,” “PRIVACY IS THEFT.” When she embraces a life of total “transparency,” she’s catapulted into an unimaginable reality of neverending performance.

As intriguing and timely a premise as Circle presents, Dave Eggers (the bad boy-genius who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founded that legendary once-indie-now-almost-mainstream-literary-empire that is McSweeney’s) falters markedly here. Too much of Circle just doesn’t work [choose What is the What or Zeitoun instead]. Eggers’ doom-and-gloom-techno-warning-in-a-shiny-package is heavy-handed, clumsy, and incessantly whining. Less than a quarter through, we get the warning signs loud and clear, but must tediously wait for Mae to catch up (but will she?). Throwing in a hoodie-d object of lust feels merely desperate, and you can’t help but wonder why Mae is so blind to his not-very-mysterious identity. That obsession at least provides a modicum of distraction from her cringe-inducing encounters with former foster child Francis. And the whole subplot of ex-boyfriend Mercer (who creates light from discarded animal parts – go ahead and ponder that) as the sole voice of reason just might cause your rolling eyeballs serious damage.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail here is that if you choose to go aural, you might be surprised to learn that African American male actor, Dion Graham (who turns out to be the best part of all that is Circular), narrates this morality tale told from the point of view of a young, small-town, presumably white woman. Perhaps Graham’s casting is merely habit – Graham appears to be Eggers’ go-to narrator for all his titles – but his smooth voice underscores a visceral layer of creepazoid, interchangeable, lack of individuality. So much so that it might be the only reason not to lectio interruptus until the less than satisfying end.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

InterestingsMeg Wolitzer‘s latest bestseller begins with an intricate overview of the hierarchy of privileged teenagers. In the summer of 1974, six 15- and 16-year-olds meet in Boys’ Teepee 3 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, an arts-focused summer camp for the entitled, and baptize themselves the titular Interestings.

Four of the six – exceptionally advantaged siblings Ash and Goodman, gifted dancer Cathy, only son of legendary folk singer Jonah – are the anointed ones: “like royalty and French movie stars, with a touch of something papal.” On the fringe is the “touchingly ugly” Ethan, the one truly brilliant artist who is an animating genius. The last of the six, Julie Jacobson, a scholarship student from Long Island who can’t believe she’s been invited into this “hot little nucleus,” will emerge from the tent with a new name, Jules, and complementary reborn identity as Ash’s best friend and Ethan’s unrequited love.

Over the next four decades, these six lives will intertwine and overlap. Jules will serve as the primary narrator, her perspective clouded by both envy and loyalty. Ash and Ethan surprise everyone by choosing each other and detailing their wealthy glamorous lives in thick, vellum envelopes every year; Jonah will choose robotics over music after being drugged as a child by her mother’s not-famous-enough-lover who steals his youthful nonsensical tunes; Cathy will leave the dance world for a financial empire that literally collapses on 9/11; Goodman will have to find an alternative life; and Jules will bear her less-than-stellar life from her fourth-floor walk-up (although her life does eventually include an elevator).

As the Interestings mature, they bear witness to almost a half-century of quotidian Manhattan life in the latter 20th-century-into-the-21st: the many layers of class and privilege, the AIDS death sentence until it isn’t, the lure of the Moonies, the advent of a media-savvy generation of really rich, the neverending gender gap in business and arts, growing autism diagnoses, victims of multiplying global economies, the different degrees of legal as defined by income bracket.

At almost 500 pages or nearly 16 hours stuck in the ears (adeptly read by actor Jen Tullock), getting to know the Interestings requires commitment. Temporary adoption that might be, by story’s end, whether you disdain or admire Jules, wish less control for Jonah, believe Kathy or Goodman, forgive Ash, or understand Ethan, one thing remains true: “… as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn’t stop watching, because, despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.” True that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenWhenever I hear that a book is about to be transformed into celluloid, I get into a little panic to read the original, oftentimes titles I ironically wouldn’t have opened otherwise. Occasionally, I’m pleasantly rewarded, Miss Peregrine among those few that fill me with literary gratitude. And truth be told, I might actually go see the film as the surreal Tim Burton is set to direct; IMDB lists a July 31, 2015 release date.

As faultless as narrator Jesse Bernstein is in creating the memorable aural incarnation, you’ll need to keep the printed book nearby (libraries rule!): if a picture is worth a thousand words, then the full splendor of this debut novel by writer/filmmaker Ransom Riggs is only possible in conjunction with the ‘peculiar’ photographs interwoven throughout the text.

Take, for instance, this cover … look closely – no ordinary little girl, she! So young Jacob Portman, too, learns when his beloved grandfather dies in his arms, his final words a mystery for the 16-year-old to solve: “‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.’”

As Jacob slowly emerges from the shock Grandpa Portman’s murder, he finally becomes aware that not all of Grandpa’s “unfathomably exotic” life adventures he told Jacob growing up were figments of the old man’s imagination. In search of truth, Jacob manages to convince his parents to allow him to spend the summer on a small island off Wales where Grandpa once lived many decades ago.

A Holocaust survivor, Grandpa grew up in the titular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, from whence many of his fantastical stories originated. When Jacob arrives on the remote island, and begins to explore, he discovers the orphanage is mostly in ruins. Until, one day, it isn’t and Jacob finds himself facing the impossible.

In a feat of whimsical collage, Riggs essentially combined “authentic, vintage found photographs” with his own speculations about their subjects. Riggs explains in an interview at book’s end, “… among the photos I found, the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children. I began to wonder who some of these strange-looking children had been – what their stories were – but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know their real stories, I’ll make them up.” Working his own brand of ‘peculiar’ magic, Riggs’ visionary endeavor proves ingenious and extraordinary; so inspiring and plentiful are his found photos, that the peculiar adventures continue in just-released sequel, Hollow City. Riggs admits he has “tons” more great photographs, as yet unused … which begs the question, of course, how many peculiar books might we dare hope for?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, European, Nonethnic-specific

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are WaterOver the past couple weeks, I’ve been a bit of an ethnic voyeur, picking up bestselling ‘mainstream’ titles in search of their APAness. I confess I picked up Wally Lamb‘s latest purely because I somehow learned the protagonist is named Annie Oh – Oh usually being a Korean last name. ‘Oh’ turns out to be Annie’s moniker only by (first) marriage, that Annie was born Anna O’Day. Her husband Orion is the official Oh, an Italian Chinese hapa whose only inheritance from his Chinese American father is his last name.

At almost 600 pages or over 23 hours stuck in the ears (the eight-member cast is superb, and includes Lamb himself reading Orion’s chapters), Water is not a light commitment. Here’s the skeletal overview: Annie’s second marriage is imminent, this time to a woman. To get to the wedding on time, over half a century of exposition must be revealed; Water then concludes with what happens three years after the blessed event.

The novel is sprawling, with complicated overlapping narratives that revolve around (essentially) little orphan Annie who survives a horrific past, is rescued by Orion, raises three children together, discovers her violently angry artist soul, falls in love with her gallery owner, and must finally face her demons on her wedding day. Intertwined stories include an African American artist who is murdered by a KKK member, the aging artist who first discovered Annie’s work whose son then gives Annie’s youngest daughter her major break, a monstrously abusive cousin who was both victim and victimizer, a manipulative student who ruins her professor’s career, and so much more – all compounded with issues of class, gender, politics, religion, and race, oh my.

While the novel occasionally felt overly detailed and therefore long (did I really need to know that the pantry had grape jelly to put on the muffins?), I admit that actively connecting the APA dots throughout proved to be a fascinating process. From the “effeminate Korean cashier” who is also the “hostile Korean boy” at the corner grocery where Annie gets her cigarettes, to the fact that the 1882 Exclusion Act can be so casually mentioned, to wondering if I’ve read the Chinese American history texts Orion orders from Amazon, added quite a different layer to my usual ‘let-it-just-sink-in-and-then-react’ usual intended approach.

By book’s end, this experimental literary engagement proved so engrossing, I’m in the middle of doing it again: stay tuned for the Moonies and an HIV-positive Japanese American lawyer in Meg Wolitzer’s much-lauded The Interestings.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Nonethnic-specific

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth

Hi, Koo!What is it about panda bears that makes them soooo utterly irresistible? Click here to see if you could possibly be immune to those “chubbly-wubbly.” Curmudgeon that I usually am, even I succumbed to “beary love.”

Jon Muth personally knows their inevitably undeniable appeal: his giant panda, Stillwater, and his nephew, Koo, have helped make Muth a mega-bestselling, multi-award winning author/illustrator many times over with Zen Shorts, Zen Ties, and Zen Ghosts, as well dozens of other titles to Muth’s name.

His latest – hitting shelves today – is an ingenious celebration of young Koo’s multifaceted talents: Koo is a prolific poet who can embed all 26 letters of the alphabet (watch for the capitalizations) as he shares his appreciation of the unique sights of the changing seasons in 26 haiku. The wordplay is especially clever and entertaining: a charming challenge for older kiddies, a lyrical delight for the youngest.

Koo opens with autumn, anticipating a change in wardrobe, leaves, and warmth. He’s joined by two friends as they chase melting icicles and a vanishing cat. Crocuses announce the coming of spring, when too much indoor TV time finally turns to outdoor adventures. Birds make nests, and Koo mourns the accidental death of a bug (oh, be still my heart!). Summer arrives with violet petals and butterfly kisses, and Koo takes a moment of quiet, sharing the splendor with two avian companions lovingly perched … on his head, of course!

Spring is in the air (finally!), the perfect reason to share this whimsy and glee: say ‘hi, Koo’ with his heartfelt haiku.

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific