Tag Archives: Haves vs. have-nots

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

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner, foreword by Brian Michael Bendis, afterword by Jeet Heer

Fagin the Jew“I am Fagin the Jew of Oliver Twist,” begins the ‘father of the graphic novel’-Will Eisner‘s 21st-century literary reclamation of the 19th-century classic. “This is my story, one that has remained untold and overlooked in the book by Charles Dickens,” a tattered old man insists. “Tarry a bit, Mister Dickens,” he speaks directly to his maker, “while ol’ Fagin here tells you, Sir, what I really was and how it all came to be!!”

The infant Moses Fagin arrived in London with his parents after surviving the pograms of Eastern Europe. While England was kinder to immigrant Jews, the more recent arrivals from Middle and Eastern Europe “were regarded as lower class.” Fagin paraphrases Dickens’ own A Tale of Two Cities-opening as he remembers his upbringing: “These were grim times, and yet the best of times for us newcomers.”

Moses learned early of life on the rough streets, but was given the chance of a promising future when he was hired as a houseboy to a wealthy Jewish merchant who soon enough came to treat him more like his own son. A single unthinking action sends Moses back to the streets, where he must use every means to survive. Again and again he’s mistreated and betrayed, unjustly accused and imprisoned. Somehow, he manages to keep some semblance of humanity and, in his later years, provides a haven-of-sorts for homeless boys, including the young Oliver Twist. The “Epilogue,” narrated by an adult Oliver – now a happily-married, well-established barrister – offers an apocryphal “turning point in Fagin’s life and his legacy” that is especially,  sigh inducing. Oh, if only!

As memorable as Fagin’s narrative is, the context in which it was written is perhaps the more enlightening story, especially as revealed in Eisner’s 2003 “Introduction to the First Edition.” In reimagining Fagin, the legendary Eisner – whose name is on the U.S. graphic industry’s highest awards – was, in essence, responding to his own stereotypical creations more than a half-century earlier. In 1940, Eisner introduced The Spirit, which featured an African American character named Ebony. By 1945, after surviving military service, Eisner became “more aware of the social implications of racial stereotypes, and [he] began to treat Ebony with greater insight.” More years passed until Eisner realized how Ebony was “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image.” Eisner transferred that new awareness toward “produc[ing] graphic novels with themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice Jews still face.” In the original editions of Oliver Twist, he “found unquestionable examples of visual defamation in classic literature … Combatting that became an obsessive pursuit …”

For this 10th anniversary issue, Fagin is bookended by an illuminating foreword and afterword that provides further insight in the story’s creation and aftermath. The levels of reclamation are especially intriguing – from Eisner’s distancing of his own stereotypical creations, to his rescue of Fagin from ignominy, to many-Eisner (of course!)-winning comics maker Brian Michael Bendis and culture journalist Jeet Heer‘s involvement in getting one of Eisner’s ‘minor’ titles to more and more readers.

Much like Jean Rhys gave Jane Eyre‘s ‘madwoman in the attic’ a voice in Wide Sargasso Sea, and Tom Stoppard offered Hamlet‘s schoolfriends a play of their own in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Eisner literally gives life to Fagin: “This book,” he rightfully insists, “… is not an adaptation of Oliver Twist! It is the story of Fagin the Jew.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2003, 2013 (10th anniversary edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, British, European, Jewish

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

I Am Malala“‘Who is Malala?’” the gunman demanded on that fateful day, October 9, 2012, before he shot three bullets into a bus carrying teenage girls to school. Unable to answer then, Malala answers now in her new memoir for all the world to read: “I am Malala and this is my story.”

Years before she became “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban,” readers may be surprised to learn that Malala was already an international ambassador-in-the-making. Even if the bullet that “went through [her] left eye socket and out under [her] left shoulder” was what put her in the glaring spotlights, her determination to get an education – not only for herself, but for all girls in her village, her country, and beyond – was nurtured early: at 11, she wrote about her life under Taliban control  for BBC Urdu under an assumed name for her safety; at 12, she was featured with her father in a documentary, “Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education,” by Adam B. Ellick and Irfan Ashraf for The New York Times website; at 14, Archbishop Desmond Tutu nominated her for KidsRights‘ 2011 International Peace Prize (which she subsequently won in 2013), and Pakistan awarded her the country’s first ever National Peace Prize. On her 16th birthday, following her hard-won recovery, she addressed the United Nations in New York; she became the youngest person to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Co-written with Christina Lamb, one of the world’s most lauded journalists, I Am Malala is a page-turning revelation. That said, for the most effective experience, choose to go audible. Malala herself reads the “Prologue,” which chronicles that fateful last day in her native Pakistan: “… I left my home for school and never returned.” The British actress, Archie Panjabi, seamlessly takes over as narrator and never falters.

That a 16-year-old’s life can fill a 300-plus page book with so much history, family saga, tragedy, joy, and inspiration, is a remarkable feat. To become such a renowned public figure so young will surely prove to be both a blessing and a challenge. “By giving me this height to reach people, [my Allah] has also given me great responsibilities,” she writes with earnest purpose. “Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country – this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.”

For all that she’s accomplished thus far, what she might/can/will do as a mature adult should include dreams achieved, rights guaranteed, and wishes fulfilled. Here’s to the next spectacular volume of multiple memoirs to come.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Pakistani

Looks Like Daylight: Voices of Indigenous Kids by Deborah Ellis, foreword by Loriene Roy

Looks Like DaylightDeborah Ellis has a doubly powerful schtick: first, her nonfiction titles give underrepresented children a highly visible podium for their very own words (Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children SpeakOff to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, Children of War: Voices of Iraqi RefugeesKids of Kabul: Living Bravely through a Never-Ending War); then she ends up putting her royalties where her pen goes. Her latest gives center stage to young people throughout the North American continent who are Native Americans south of the border, and First Nations people to the north; her royalties benefit the First Nations Children & Family Caring Society of Canada. Her gifting has proven impressively prodigious: she’s parlayed her bestselling success to raise over a million dollars for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Street Kid International with the first three (of four) titles of her award-winning signature Breadwinner series alone.

Regardless of the different monikers – Iqaluit to Inuit, Nez Perce to Navajo, Pueblo to Seminole, and so many more – the 45 young people here share an indigenous heritage: they are the original Americans. “These are the stories of young people who have inherited the challenges of colonialism,” writes Dr. Loriene Roy in her “Foreword”; Roy is Anishinabe, former president of the American Library Association, and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. “These challenges of family dissolution, family/intimate partner violence, diabetes, alcoholism/drug abuse, foster care, bullying, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), self-abuse and suicide are the outcomes of the efforts of majority cultures to abolish traditional lifeways …

“Yet they live and often, thrive,” Roy concludes.

Ellis spent two years crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada to speak to these surviving, thriving young people. In her “Introduction,” Ellis lays bare the horrific Native history through the last two centuries: from genocide to the creation of schools for survivors designed to “‘Kill the Indian in him and save the man,’” to the legalized abduction of children for indentured service or even slavery, to the attempts to abolish indigenous languages (of an estimated 300 original languages, half have disappeared; of the remaining 150, 130 are threatened with extinction as today’s children can only speak some 20 languages), to the replacement of the Native diet with handouts of canned and processed foods. “The children in this book have inherited this history. That they are here at all is a miracle.”

These resilient youth are definitely ‘here’ – each learning, adapting, sharing, thriving. Tingo, 14, is working to get over grief: “… grief over losing our land, our language, our customs, our ways. Grief often comes out as trouble.” Mari, 18, helped get smoking banned from public parks in Minneapolis. Myleka, 13, and her brother Tulane, 14, represent a new generation of proud artists. Cohen, 14, who belongs to the remote Haida Gwaii, helped battle the logging companies who arrived to cut down their trees.

But sometimes, illness and death are just too close to home. Miranda, 12, knows too many sick people damaged by the nearby petrochemical plants: “It’s almost a normal thing here to die of cancer, especially if you’re a woman.” Destiny, 15, has survived five suicide attempts: “I guess I was meant to live … I guess maybe the Creator is telling me … you’ve got something important to do before you die …”; she lives “just over the hill from where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place … For white kids it’s just something in a history book. For me, it’s my family. … They’re still killing us today, but now they do it with alcohol and drugs and bad food and suicide.”

Solace and strength comes in many forms, sometimes via surprising options. Isabella, 14, is an actress hoping to break Hollywood’s stereotypes. Danton, 14, performs extensively with his family group, the Métis Fiddler Quartet, including during the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Ta’Kaiya, 11, is already a staunch environmentalist with numerous international speaking engagements, a website, and has thus far been in four films. Cuay, 12, is a skateboarder: “Skateboarding is the fastest-growing sport on native American reservations.” Lane, 14, is a multi-generational lacrosse player; named by French priests in the 1600s, the sport is a Native creation: “Lacrosse has been played by my people since forever, since long before your people came here.”

And speaking of us non-Native people, Jeffrey, 18, gets the final word today of all days: “I come from the Watuppa Wampanoag Reservation of Martha’s Vineyard … It was my ancestors who greeted the Pilgrims when they landed on Plymouth Rock, and my ancestors who helped them survive through the first winter. When you think of Thanksgiving, think of us.” [For an unforgettable novelization of the life of the first Native American graduate of Harvard who was also Wampanoag, check out Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing.]

In spite of his history, Jeffrey “get[s] squashed for being Native” in high school. Growing up, he didn’t understand his heritage: “It felt like a disadvantage.” And then he got involved with the local youth council, eventually attending a UNITY conference which “transformed” him: He left behind feeling “empty, angry, and alone,” and found “connection … in the traditions of their own communities.” Unlike too many of his contemporaries who didn’t survive, Jeffrey, and many like him, do what they do “for the Native youth who will follow us, seven generations from now.” That’s reason for thanks-giving indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Native American

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books: The Shadow of the Wind, Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven, The Rose of Fire by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

Cemetery of Lost Books 1.2.3 plus Rose

Well, crud. In spite of making a list and checking it twice, thrice, and more, I read these in about as ‘wrong’ order as I possibly could. But before I offer two preventative options, some quick background: the full Cemetery of Forgotten Books by internationally bestselling Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón;is a series of four volumes, plus a single (thus far) short story. For us non-original text readers, the series is translated by Lucia Graves, the daughter of renowned English poet and novelist Robert Graves (I, Claudius). While I can’t comment on word-to-word accuracy, more than a few phrases carried an anachronistic din; would a well-raised teenager in the 1920s (no matter how feisty) speaking to an older man thusly – “‘I’m cold and my bum’s turned to stone …,’” much less tell him to “‘shut up’”? Original readers, please do chime in.

But back to order. Literally. The first three Forgotten Books are pictured above, together with the short story, “The Rose of Fire,” which is available as a free download by clicking here. I can’t find any further information on the fourth and final Book – if anyone has any tidbits, do share! Nope, I’m not above begging!

So here’s two suggested paths through the Cemetery:

  1. You could choose the books in the order they were published: Shadow, Angel’s, “Rose,” Prisoner.
  2. Or, you could choose to read chronologically by narrative: “Rose,” Angel’s, Shadow, Prisoner.

Inexplicably, I ended up reading Prisoner, Angel’s, Shadow, “Rose.” I went audible (highly recommended!) with each of the three novels voiced by a different reader: Peter Kenny (Prisoner) was the trio’s best for his diverse characterizations, Jonathan Davis (Shadow) felt a wee bit subdued in comparison, and Dan Stevens (Angel’s) was the most memorable purely because of his star factor [Stevens is currently best known as the late – sniff, sniff! – Cousin Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey; he had hidden Kindle-sized pockets sewn into his Downton costumes so he could spend every available second reading for his 2012 Man Booker judging duties!].

All that said, the most important detail to take from this multi-volume post is to read them all, in whatever order you can grasp your hands around. For now, let’s choose option 2. Why know more before you need to? Not only is ignorance bliss, but delayed gratification will surely keep you swiftly turning the pages.

Let “Rose” set the mood by explaining the 15th-century origins of the titular Cemetery of Lost Books, and introduces the literary Sempere family. The Cemetery and the Semperes – all ensconced in Barcelona, a darkly magical city with a terrible history – appear in every volume. Fast forward to the 1920s in Angel’s Game, in which a young writer, David Martín, survives a brutal childhood during which Sempere & Sons was his only refuge: “My favorite place in the whole city.” He begins his career writing newspaper articles about grisly murders, then moves on to his own popular horrific fictions published regularly under a pseudonym. He falls in love with an elusive woman he loses, but is forever adored by a young girl Isabella who refuses to leave him. When the one and only title that bears his true name is ignominiously dismissed, he begins to write a new book in fulfillment of a shockingly lucrative contract for a mysterious foreign publisher. And then the real-life murders begin … and multiply.

Almost three decades later, in The Shadow of the Wind, the Sempere son, Daniel, is on a quest of his own. After discovering Julián Carax’s novel of the same name, Daniel quickly learns that his is one of the very last copies in the world. But a devoted reader always wants more – even after learning that some monster is out there burning every Carax book – and Daniel decides he’s going to find Carax himself.

A few years have passed when the The Prisoner of Heaven begins with Daniel now a husband and father. His closest friend, devoted bookshop employee, and sworn bachelor, Fermín Romero de Torres, is about to get married to the one true love of his life. Although Daniel has never doubted Fermín’s love and loyalty to the Sempere family, he needs to find some definitive answers when a wealthy stranger makes a surprise purchase at the family bookstore and is eventually revealed to be using Fermín’s own beloved name. The real – or not? – Fermín’s confessions returnDavid Martín and his devoted assistant Isabella to the page, revealing a multi-layered past Daniel never even knew he had.

Concepts and constructs of authorship, identity, so-called truth, perspectives of good and evil and every grey zone in between, are all here just waiting to be questioned and challenged. Meanwhile, literature literally saves lives, from Great Expectations to The Count of Monte Cristo; the 2013 paperback version of Prisoner includes a “P.S.” section that ends with Zafon’s own eclectic list of “Dead Fellows You Should See and Read Frequently” (from Brontë to Faulkner to Dos Passos!). Yes, each novel stands alone, but when read together, the connections become sublime, even at the price of your own memory (sanity?!); interwoven and overlapping, whose story is reliable, who is even able to speak the truth, who will deceive you once again, prove to be the most daunting mysteries of all. Beyond the body count, go ahead and attempt to figure it all out … at least until the next book comes along and turns all theories to … well … fiction. Superbly done.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004, 2009, 2012, 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, .Translation, European

Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

Serafina's PromiseSerafina, who lives in the outskirts of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, has never had the chance to go to school. With rarely enough to eat, her family has nothing left over to pay the school fees, much less buy the required uniform. While her father works at a city grocery store, her pregnant mother and widowed grandmother Gogo grow herbs they sell on a city street corner. Exhausted from carrying water, chopping wood, and more, Serafina dreams of getting an education and becoming a doctor: at 11, she is well aware, “Education is the road to freedom.

When the family’s hut is swept away by a sudden flood, her family manages to survive while many others do not. Serafina’s parents rebuild on higher ground, where they welcome baby Gregory. Having previously lost infant brother Pierre to malnutrition, the family is constantly concerned for Gregory’s fragile health.

Determined to start school in the new year, Serafina devises a plan to fill an empty jar with extra coins that will pay for her tuition. She has to double her walks to collect extra water for the plants Gogo will help her grow – and later sell – but she knows that all the hard work will take her to a promising new future.

Like her award-winning all the broken pieces, Ann E. Burg presents Serafina’s story as a lyrical novel in verse. Burg remarkably renders the difficulties, tragedies, and joys Serafina experiences into spare, essential phrases, creating a resonating example of less is more. To read both all the broken pieces and Serafina’s Promise is to appreciate their elliptical beauty, even as you’re both disturbed and inspired by the young protagonists’ tenacity and resilience. Don’t miss either.

Tidbit: In case you needed any more prodding to pick up Serafina, here are two more reasons: Haitian People’s Support Project and Pure Water for the World, where Burg is donating a portion of her royalties. Read well, do good.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

Red Thread HoodAlthough I can’t recommend this book, I sure would like to find some readers who might want to discuss it. As it’s apparently a “national bestseller” – so touts the cover of the paperback edition – perhaps a few of you who have already read it might want to chat …?

Here’s the basic set up (warning: eye-rolling spoilers ahead) … Maya Lange runs the Red Thread Adoption Agency, connecting prospective American parents with abandoned Chinese girls. “In China, Maya wrote in her first brochure, there is a belief that people who are destined to be together are connected by an invisible red thread. Who is at the end of your thread?” Maya has facilitated magical matches for hundreds of Chinese girls, and she’s working with her latest group of waiting parents: her close friend Emily who has suffered too many miscarriages, save-the-world Sophie whose cheating husband left the love of his life when she became inconveniently pregnant, entitled Nell with her John Adams-by-marriage pedigree who’s desperate to get the one thing she can’t have, mournful Susannah with her Fragile X-syndromed daughter, and determined Brooke with her overbearingly loving husband. Svengali-like Maya, who controls their immediate future, has secrets of her own – she creates happy families because she can’t have one of her own.

In between the complications of the overprivileged – Emily who’s less mature than her resentful, anorexic (but, of course!) stepdaughter, Nell who attempts to pay for priority matching, Theo who teaches American businessmen how to buy women in Thai – Hood offers brief glimpses of the Chinese mothers and daughters and their impending separations. As predictable as those faraway stories are – evil in-laws, a baby before marriage, an unlucky weaker twin – they seem far more sincere than the overwrought tribulations of the American parents-to-be.

Hood’s novel has an irresponsible glibness about it … a sense of ‘hey, it’s just fiction!’ And yet, the premise of transracial adoption is very real, and here it’s presented with entitlement and commodification. Whether intended or not, too many of Hood’s characters are failed parents frantic for redemption via replacement: a mother who resents her mentally and emotionally damaged daughter, another who blames herself for her baby daughter’s death, another who competes with her unpleasant stepdaughter, a father who abandons his daughter before she’s even born. Whether birthed or adopted, privileged or deprived, cherished or abandoned, all over the world the daughters suffer most of all.

Soap opera antics aside, Hood spins a fairy tale of unrealistic happy endings that are downright disturbing. With no disrespect intended at Hillary Huber’s fine narration, after surviving over 8.5 hours – disastrously rubbernecking-style – the story I would much rather read is that of Blossom, Jordan, Ella, Beatrice, and Honor Maile (that middle name belonging to a dead daughter – ‘honor the dead’? – oh good gawd!) in 10, 15, 20 years. Here’s hoping the daughters someday, somehow find their own true voices …

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010

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

The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Case of the Love CommandosMysteries don’t get any more substantially delicious than this: Vish Puri voiced by Sam Dastor as written by Tarquin Hall, with just the right balance of page-turning entertainment and sociopolitical insight. Before you partake, however, you should know that this is #4 in a series; while each installment provides standalone delight, only reading in order – The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – will provide full satisfaction. Yes, they’re that good. So if you haven’t already, go catch up quickly!

Vish Puri, founder and leader of Most Private Investigators Ltd., is the “winner of six national awards and one international, also. … The Federation of World Detectives saw fit to name [him] super sleuth some years back. [His] picture was on the cover of India Today.” But for now, he’s taking a break from enjoying his laurels (although he always has time for a quick snack), as he’s convinced of “‘nazar lag gayi’ – the evil eye was upon him.” He’s actually failed to solve the Jain Jewelry Heist case, and now he’s somehow managed to get pickpocketed as he prepares to embark on a short family pilgrimage. Still, he insists, “‘My radar is working twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, only.’” And much to his wife Rumpi and his Mummy’s disappointment, Puri decides he can’t take that much-needed break, after all.

Puri’s operative “Facecream had never asked for his help before and he wasn’t about to turn her down.” Facecream’s latest assignment for the Love Commandos [a real-life volunteer organization "dedicated to helping India's lovebirds who want to marry for love"] has gone awry: would-be-groom Ram – of the Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ caste – has been kidnapped from a Commandos safe house and his bride-to-be Tulsi – a “highborn Hindu” – is afraid her disapproving, all-too-powerful father will stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. And then Ram’s mother is found dead, and the case suddenly becomes far more than a missing persons report.

While Puri and Facecream take on India’s illegal caste system, political intrigue in the highest echelons, genome mapping without consent, marriage brokers, that rare ethical lawyer, and an evil Swedish medical director with heinous secrets, Mummy’s off in the remote mountains and shrines chasing a case of her own. Even as she recovers the stolen wallet in spite of being told by Rumpi that Chubby (her pet name for her inestimable son who only begrudgingly ever accepts her good help) did not want her involved, Mummy savvily realizes the pickpocket and his oversized belligerent wife have far greater riches in sight.

As proud as Puri is (when the evil eye has turned away, only) of his most excellent radar that eventually solves all, he’s not above accepting a few new truths. He knows to be humbly grateful (enough) when Mummy shows her sleuthing prowess once more – the chutney doesn’t fall far from the pakora, after all. And although he still frowns on marriage-without-parental-approval, Ram and Tulsi’s commitment to each other teach him plenty about true love … and thankful is he for Mummy, Rumpi, their three daughters, and a “house … filled with grandchildren and laughter.” He won’t be needing any pilgrimages to appreciate his many blessings.

There remains, however, one question left unanswered … oh mighty triumvirate of Vish/Sam/Tarquin: Where’s #5 already??!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British, Indian, South Asian

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Sleeping DictionaryAfter 10 installments of her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, DC-area-based Sujata Massey goes historical with her latest Dictionary, published this summer after six years in the making. Dictionary marks the debut of a new series Massey intends, The Daughters of Bengal, each set in India. Given a choice between 500 pages in print or 16-plus hours stuck in the ears, choose the latter: Sneha Mathan’s crisp, enhancing narration adds both authenticity and depth.

From beloved daughter Pom (“our father … would sometimes say that a daughter’s life lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred”), to freedom fighter Kamala (“‘you are too valuable to risk being arrested’”), to cherished wife and mother (“he held me as if the past had never happened”; “Your loving daughter, Kabita Zeenat Hazel Smith”), Dictionary follows the trajectory of a determined young woman through two of India’s most tumultuous decades when the sprawling country moves from colonial British rule to violently fractured independence.

Orphaned as a young girl in 1930 when a tidal wave destroys her West Bengal village, Pom is reborn as Sarah, a Christian servant at the girls-only Lockwood School. Alternatively abused and ignored, she tenaciously manages to learn more than the privileged British and Indian students. When she’s accused of a terrible crime, she barely escapes; before she reaches her intended destination of Calcutta, she mistakenly disembarks in the smaller city of Kharagpur where her new life as Miss Pamela keeps her trapped for too many years. By the time she finally arrives in Calcutta and becomes Kamala, she has more secrets than baggage. Her love of books – the only vestige of her truncated childhood – saves her again and again, especially in leading her new friends close enough to be family, fellow citizens committed to a greater cause, and even everlasting love.

Combining history, social commentary, espionage (Massey’s literary reputation thus far is based on thrillers, after all), and love-story-across-race-and-class-lines (British-born, Minnesota-raised Massey herself is hapa Indian and German), Dictionary is an intricate journey that occasionally lingers a bit too long (Kamala’s not-quite relationship with Pankaj), then suddenly speeds through rather too conveniently to its ending (no spoilers!). That said, learning the original meaning and history of the title alone was worth the read, especially as Massey adds her own literary layers. Besides, bumpy journeys can often be quite enlightening, detours and all.

Tidbit: Well, how interesting … look what Google pulled up: this no-relation-to-Massey’s-novel, celluloid Sleeping Dictionary features quite the high-power cast (Hugh Dancy as the dispatched English officer, Jessica Alba as the lowly local girl – I just have to cringe for so many reasons! – Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins!). But it never went to the big screen, landing straight to video in 2003. Has anyone seen it?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian African, South Asian, South Asian American

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

Southern Cross the DogLet’s start with this fascinating article: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin – go ahead, take a few minutes to read it.

You’ll see from that giant close-up photo that author Bill Cheng is indeed of Asian ethnicity. He’s Chinese American, in case you were wondering, and was just 29 when his debut novel pubbed last May, a book that follows the lives of African Americans in rural Mississippi during the decades following the Great Flood of 1927.

Mega-award winning author Colum McCann blurbs, “Cheng, almost literally, writes out of his skin.” Ironically, McCann – an Irishman now domiciled in NYC – himself has a reputation for writing beyond his background, but who’s noticing? Indeed, that’s exactly Jin’s premise: “Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng’s writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens? …In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.” Ouch.

Cheng apparently hadn’t set foot in Mississippi before he went on book tour in the deep South. But that didn’t stop him from creating the absolutely convincing, haunting voice of his African American protagonist, Robert Lee Chatham. Moreover, if you decide to stick the book in your ears, actor Prentice Onayemi will undoubtedly dispel any lingering doubts.

Robert Lee Chatham survives the Great Flood with his parents – his mother already hopelessly damaged by the brutal lynching murder of her older son, his father desperate to save his remaining child – only to be put in the care of a brothel owner. He does the rest of his growing up at the Hotel Beau-Miel, but is again set adrift as a young man. His journey keeps him moving, as a laborer, fugitive, prisoner, friend, and lover; he bears the scars of ingrained prejudice of his violently segregated surroundings, but runs as often from his own demons.

Beyond ethnicity, Southern Cross is a Bildungsroman of epic proportions, rhythmically punctuated by Cheng’s devotion to the blues, “particularly country/delta blues,” he reveals in the publicity letter that accompanied the book. “I thought my first full-length work should be a tribute to that kind of music, those stories, those people.” As if in answer to his ethnic questioners, he adds, “I wanted to capture the sense of a country and people that was unsure of itself, that was tenuous about the future. I think that has some resonance with how I think America is today.”

That said, choose Southern Cross with certainty. The only bottom line you really need to know? It’s a good story, very well-told. Simple as that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Chinese American