Tag Archives: Politics

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

I'll Be Right There*STARRED REVIEW
“I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea’s political situation,” writes Kyung-sook Shin, recipient of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, in the ending of her latest spectacular novel in English translation. Ironically, those missing details make this story urgently universal: in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and too many other countries in tumult, young people will continue to form life-changing bonds and fall hopelessly in love.

While people vanish without a trace and others die senselessly, Jung Yoon matures into young adulthood as she loses her beloved mother, meets a once-in-a-lifetime mentor professor, forms and renews intimate friendships, and creates “forever” memories with her first love. Her self-preservation in the midst of brutal turmoil comes at an impossibly high price. Years later, in spite of what she survives (and others do not), the title becomes an anthem to hope: “‘I hope you never hesitate to say, I’ll be right there.’” Shin’s searing, immediate prose will remind readers of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, and their stories of ordinary lives trapped in extraordinary sociopolitical circumstances.

Verdict: The well-earned lauds for Shin’s two titles currently available in English translation should ensure that more of her thus far 17 novels will arrive Stateside.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Korean

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

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Burgess BoysSmall-town Maine, where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised, has been home to her four novels. In her first title since she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for her novel-in-13-stories, Olive Kitteridge, Strout returns to tiny Shirley Falls where she set her acclaimed, chilling debut, Amy and Isabelle. This time, in The Burgess Boys, she brings the whole wide world to the isolated mill town, from ex-residents who never intended to go ‘home,’ to refugee transplants who long to return to people and places that no longer exist, to the ubiquitous media with their imposing, exposing cameras that send the worst of Shirley Falls around the globe.

As soon as they were able, the Burgess boys left Maine, both becoming lawyers who landed in Brooklyn. Jim, the eldest, became a celebrity corporate attorney and lives a lavish lifestyle with his old money trophy wife and their almost-grown children. Bob also chose the law, but most of his Legal Aid clients can’t afford to pay him; his ex-wife remains his best friend, although she left him for a Park Avenue life with a new husband who could give her the children she desperately needed. Bob’s acerbic twin, Susan, is the only Burgess who stayed Shirley Falls-bound, solo-parenting a quiet teenage son, Zach, after her husband abandoned the family to move to ‘real’ Sweden after growing up in New Sweden, Maine.

Lonely, isolated, friendless, Zach’s done something terrible: a pig’s head, a mosque, Ramadan. Susan hysterically calls her brothers home. For the first time in decades, the Burgess siblings are forced together to face not only the charges threatening Zach’s entire future, but their own troubled relationships with each other, as well as their long-dead parents – a father killed too young in a horrible accident, and a mother whose bitterness poisoned them all. In spite of Zach’s heinous act, Strout avoids absolutes, moving fluidly between condemnation and empathy by adding diverse community voices, including a devout Somali storeowner who witnessed his son’s brutal murder, a twice-divorced Unitarian minister, and an elderly lodger in Susan’s home who has listened for years to Zach’s loud music … and his tears alone at night.

The single extraneous voice appears in the “Prologue” and then disappears: an unnamed Shirley Falls transplant to New York explains how she came to “‘write the story of the Burgess kids’” – those opening five pages wouldn’t be missed. And since I’m quibbling, might I add a quick warning that what ubiquitous narrator Cassandra Campbell (hard to pick up a book without getting her stuck in your ears) thinks are regional and international flourishes will just need to be ignored. Thankfully, Strout’s words are stronger than Campbell’s grating accents. By book’s end, what you’ll remember most are the challenges, negotiations, joys, acceptances, and renewals of the remarkably resilient bonds that make up family.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri

Teaspoon of Earth and SeaBefore she is even a teenager, Saba Hafezi reveals herself to be quite the unreliable narrator. Telling stories, however, is what will save her youthful soul … and many of those around her. “This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach,” Dina Nayeri‘s ambitious, sprawling debut novel opens.

At 11, Saba and her father are irrevocably separated from beloved mother and twin. Father and daughter quietly settle in a remote northern Iranian village on the Caspian Sea, where a coven of local women raise Saba, feeding her, chiding her, nurturing her, loving her. She is one of an inseparable threesome – the beautiful Ponneh and the desirable Reza whose mother regularly interrupts Saba’s tales with her own. Being only half a family, growing up deprived of her other half, Saba seems to live only half her own life. To compensate, she imagines what Mahtab and their maman might be experiencing on the other side of the world as she carefully constructs their faraway lives based on her obsessions with pirated copies of American television shows and films, and illicit copies of English-language books.

But in spite of her daydreams of (im)possibility, Saba’s must accept some semblance of immediate normalcy. She matures into young womanhood, agrees to an arranged marriage to a much older man who welcomes her with kind gentleness … until she asks for what he deems as too much. She witnesses the controlling, violent, murderous injustices happening all around her, always encroaching closer to home. Safety can no longer be ensured, and both father and daughter realize they must invent a new narrative to guarantee Saba’s future.

“I am an Iranian exile,” Nayeri writes in her ending “Author’s Note.” “This story is my dream of Iran … Saba longs to visit the America on television as I long to visit an Iran that has now disappeared.” Just as Saba feeds her assumptions and dreams, Nayeri had an international team of willing friends, family, colleagues who “helped [her] research this book from the United Sates, France, and Holland.” Takes the world to create a village these days, especially one that no longer exists.

Twenty years after Saba’s last memory of her departing mother and sister (recounted over 420 pages or 15.5 hours if you choose to have Sneha Mathan lull you into imaginary worlds), nothing – and absolutely everything – will have changed: “I must stop telling myself stories, but it is too much in my nature,” Saba ponders on the final page. Even at book’s end with so much revealed, we remain too mesmerized not to continue to believe.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Iranian, Iranian American

Author Interview: Julie Wu

Third SonAt 22, Julie Wu had a “vision” about a sad young boy that she immediately rushed to capture in words. From those initial notes, she would take almost a quarter century to bring him to the page: at age 46, she “bloomed” as a first-time novelist. The Third Son, about a Taiwanese boy and his journey from being the abused son in a privileged family to his reinvention as a successful American immigrant, finally hit shelves in April this year.

I just discovered this humorous post you did for Beyond the Margins: “What It Means When Your Reviewer is Mean, Unfair, and Totally Doesn’t Get It,” in which you “fess up” about your own state of mind when you wrote a negative review of a medical article years ago. So have you encountered any bad reviews of The Third Son? If so, how did you react?
Oh, of course. I know that reading taste is so individualized. I’ve been lucky that the majority of the reviews have been so positive, but when I get a bad one I read it and see if it makes sense to me. If I find a common thread in bad reviews, I should take note. If I find [it] totally different from what others say, I chalk it up to taste.

And what might you say to such a reviewer if you ever met him or her?
I guess I would say I’m sorry you didn’t like my book. Hope you like my next one!

I take it you’re not the confrontational type … no spats at the next AWP, huh?
No – you can’t browbeat someone into liking your book.

So at 46, let’s say you’re almost half-way to the other side, so to speak … our generation might easily live to be 100 apparently. And, even better, you’re a doctor, so you can heal yourself. You’ve had many incarnations during your first half – violinist, opera singer, doctor, mother. The “mother”-title you’ll keep forever, of course. So what about “writer”? Think this one will stick for a while?
I view the “writer” role as my ultimate one. It encompasses the whole of my life’s experience. Everything I have goes into a piece of writing.

Having fulfilled the stereotypical Asian immigrant parents’ dream of becoming a doctor, how did they react when you decided to give up your practice and devote yourself full time to writing? Do you think you’ll ever go back to doctor-ing?
Well, I kind of took the backdoor route to a full time writing career. I had kids first, so the reason I gave for quitting my medical job was to take care of them. And once I was home, well …

… and an immigrant grandparent wants ONLY the best for their precious grandchildren!
Exactly! And it’s possible I’ll go back in some capacity. We’ll see.

Let’s talk Third Son – which was almost a quarter-century in the making. Through the many, MANY drafts and revisions, you kept some two percent of the original draft – I read a quote that said the final was 98% different from the first draft. What was that writing process like?
It was a tremendous learning experience. It took all that time for me to mature as a person and a writer, for Taiwan to develop free speech, and for Al Gore to invent the Internet as it now stands.

The Taipei Times reported in an article last fall that yours is the first novel in English that talks about the 228 Incident and the subsequent White Terror. So your debut title has made literary history! How have your readers, especially Chinese Americans, responded to the history lesson you’ve woven into your epic story? [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Julie Wu,” Bloom, October 30, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese, Taiwanese American

The Third Son by Julie Wu + Author Profile

Third SonVision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son

So how many detours can a writer make before becoming that writer?

If you’re newbie novelist Julie Wu – who knew as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1980s that writing was what she wanted to do – the answer might include a Master’s program in opera performance (after serious training in the violin), medical school and the related internships and residencies required to become a doctor, a successful Boston-area practice, and motherhood.

Two decades-plus ago (but who’s counting?), Wu was “too intimidated to try writing,” as she revealed in an April interview for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. The award-winning novelist-to-be Allegra Goodman lived in Wu’s dorm, having already published, while other fellow Harvardites were also writing novels. Despite the encouragement of a teacher who admired Wu’s first freshman expository writing assignment so much that she suggested Wu move into a creative writing section, Wu decided instead to be “practical.” She thought about taking a short story class but didn’t have anything to submit for the application. She kept reading – “I simply love novels – the immersive nature of them. They’re really the original virtual reality programs, made to run on your brain” – and graduated with a degree in literature. Her own writing was yet to come.

Then at 22, Wu had a vision about “a little boy in Taiwan – it was so vivid I rushed immediately to write it all down, and that’s when I realized that that was how to write – that it wasn’t just pushing words around, it was about having a vision and really communicating that vision to other people.” She planned on a novel – “I wanted to be, you know, Tolstoy” – but another almost-quarter century would pass before Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, finally hit shelves in April earlier this year just after she turned 46.

Wu began writing in earnest in 2001, producing Tolstoy-worthy lengths before eventually distilling her original vivid vision down to just over 300 pages: “I lost track of the number of revisions. I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts. Someday I’ll have a big bonfire,” she told Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet. She estimates she kept a mere 2% of the original draft.

The one element that remained unwavering throughout was, of course that “little boy in Taiwan.” He became Wu’s eponymous “third son,” Saburo Tong, who is more comfortable with his Japanese first name than his unfamiliar Taiwanese moniker Tong Chia-lin. Born into a politically prominent family in Japanese-controlled Taiwan, Saburo comes of age in the 1940s and ’50s, a tumultuous time on his small island home as it moves from Japanese control to U.S. invasion to mainland Chinese domination. Inextricably woven with Saburo’s narrative is the violent history of Taiwan’s 228 Incident, which began with the Taiwanese uprising against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on February 27, 1947, resulted in the brutal massacre of 10-30,000 Taiwanese on February 28 (“228”), and ushered in the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted nearly four decades during which thousands of citizens were harassed, imprisoned, and murdered. [... click her for more]

Author profile: “Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son,” Bloom, October 28, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Even before Naomi Benaron‘s debut novel hit shelves last year, it earned a substantial literary gold sticker as the winner of the biennial 2010 Bellwether Prize – the largest monetary award for unpublished fiction in North America, which was rebranded in 2011 as the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. But before you begin Running, might I suggest you read Benaron’s “Fiction and Social Responsibility: Where Do They Intersect?” (her mother’s story of ripping off the Nazi flag from a German ambassador’s car in Switzerland is especially memorable); her careful, thoughtful essay provides enriching context as to why and how Benaron writes what she does.

Through fiction, Benaron humanizes the inconceivable numbers of the Rwandan genocide into individual lives. Using carefully researched historical, cultural, political details, she introduces a young Tutsi, Jean Patrick Nkuba, and follows him from his Rwandan boyhood when he loses his father and goes with his mother and brother to live with his uncle, to his adulthood on the other side of the world as he tries to make sense of all that he has managed to miraculously survive.

Jean Patrick is a gifted runner with Olympic potential. His nationally-lauded talent temporarily protects him when tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups begin to escalate. But by 1994 when the Tutsi slaughter by their Hutu neighbors erupts and an estimated half-million to a million Rwandans are massacred over 100 days, Jean Patrick will have to run for his life … and keep running. In one of the world’s most horrific man-made tragedies, Jean Patrick’s beliefs of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ ‘truth’ and ‘lies,’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’ no longer apply; all that he knows of his compassionate father, his courageous brother, the local bully, his beloved sweetheart, his devoted coach, and so many others, will be tested again and again and again.

A self-described social activist and fiction writer, Benaron is also a marathoner and Ironman triathlete: “My best lines come to me when I am in motion,” her website bio reveals. How fitting, then, that I took Running with me on multiple runs (it’s 14+ hours stuck in the ears), with inspiring pacing provided by narrator Marcel Davis. While I’m not quite sure about Davis’ Rwandan accent – which he seems to use or not use at his own will, as opposed to remaining constant according to the characters – Benaron’s story will keep you listening, even long after your legs have been thoroughly exhausted.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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