Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide


Category: Political Science - Political Freedom & Security - Human Rights; Political Science - Political Process - Political Advocacy; Social Science - Women's Studies
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-26714-6 (0-307-26714-8)

Pub Date: September 8, 2009
Price: $34.00

How you respond to husband-and-wife Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book "Half the Sky" is likely to depend on two variables: what you think about activism in general and how you view activists from developed, western countries working to help the less fortunate in developing worlds. Some people see the latter as an unnecessary interference in third world matters, but I happen to think that wherever help can be obtained, that is where it must be sought!

In their book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" the authors argue that the key to economic progress in the world lies in unleashing women's potential. The book then goes on to provide scores of examples of women whose futures seemed bleak and yet, when they were given a helping hand, they rose to the occasion and pulled not only themselves out of dire poverty, but also their families and in some instances, the whole neighborhood! The authors titled their book after an old Chinese proverb that says "Women hold up half the sky." It's time that people around the world recognize the full implication of that wise proverb and work together to ensure that women everywhere are able to rise to their fullest potential so that we all can benefit from the contributions they will make to global society.

The book also provides helpful information on how to help oppressed women...

Here are some ways (borrowed from the Oprah.com)

Make girls smarter. Many pregnant women living in poverty don't get enough iodine, so their fetuses' brains do not develop properly. Their children routinely lose ten to 15 IQ points—particularly the girls, for reasons not fully understood. The solution: Iodize salt, at the cost of a couple of pennies per person per year. To contribute, go to Helen Keller International (HKI.org).

Support a woman's business. With a microloan of $50, a woman can start a business, producing income she can use to feed her children and send them to school. To make a loan, go to Mercy Corps (MercyCorps.org) or BRAC (BRACUSA.org), two groups helping women around the world.

Keep a girl in school. A girl who gets an education will have fewer children, earn more money, and be able to help her younger siblings. One excellent support program operates in Cambodia, where uneducated girls are at great risk of being trafficked into brothels. For $10 a month, you can keep a girl in school through American Assistance for Cambodia (CambodiaSchools.com), or for $13,000, you can build an entire school that will revolutionize life in a village forever.


If you don't have money to give, here are some ways yo can help them for free!
Join the Half the Sky movement.Spread the Word
The best way to fight poverty and injustice is to educate women and girls. All you have to do is log on to Facebook or your favorite social networking site!



GlobalGivingWatch This Video Watch
Never underestimate the power of a girl. Watch this video and e-mail it to everyone you know. Then, learn more about The Girl Effect.



Join the Half the Sky book clubStart a Half the Sky Book Club
At the heart of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book is the belief that women hold up half the sky—and that the injustices of the world can be stopped when all women and children are educated and empowered. Get discussion questions from Nick and Sheryl and more with Mercy Corps' book club.

Kristof and Dunn have put together a remarkable book, one that will surely be remembered as one of the most important books of the decade. Kristof has said that if the great moral struggle of the 19th century was the abolition of slavery and that of the 20th century racial equality, then that of the 21st century would be gender equality. The riveting story-telling, sobering statistics and practical will leave you with no choice but to sit up and pay attention...it's time to pick up the gauntlet and do our part for women, start by buying a copy (or two) of this game-changing book, I know you won't regret it!


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wrong About Japan (A Father's Journey With His Son) by Peter Carey

Category: Travel - Asia - Japan; Social Science - Popular Culture; History - Japan

Format: Trade Paperback, 176 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada

Pub Date: January 3, 2006

Price: $17.00


My first Carey and I was excited not only because it was a book about father-son bonding (always an "aww.."with me) but a travelogue about a place I have fantasized so much about visiting...Japan!

Peter Carey and his manga-crazy 12-year old son decide to visit Japan and instead of doing the regular tourist dance, one that involves visiting temples in Kyoto and boring museums, they decide to explore the world of manga and anime and to see how these art forms have influenced Japanese culture. Ofcourse, his assumptions are just that- assumptions -we don't know for sure how many of Carey's deductions on Japanese culture are true or just something that he makes up as he goes along. I suspect the latter is true.

This is a tiny book with just about enough information to generate a longish article in some very mediocre travel magazine (I want to say, inflight magazine), so I have no idea why Carey decided to turn this into a travel nouvella, oh wait, I do believe he mentions something about this book helping to pay for his airfare to Japan!

Hmmm, well, now I feel exploited! For the reader this is a pretty pointless exercise in reading, although certain passages about "Manga" (its origins from "Kamishabais or storytellers selling candy on the streets of Japan) is quite interesting and he also has a great travel quote, probably one of the best I have come across in recent times:

"This is how it is with travelling - the simplest things take on an air of great inscrutability and so many questions arise, only to be half born and then lost as they are bumped aside by others. The most mundane events take on the character of deep secrets."

About the writing....I can tell Carey is uncomfortable with this particular genre, he repeats information, provides very few details of locales and conversations are almost non-existent unless it's Carey interviewing someone (there are a lot of those). In the end it's not hard to see that Carey is wrong about Japan and we were wrong to expect anything else! I will say, however, that this might serve as a good handbook to understand this generation's obsession with all things Japanese... also, you will come away wanting to pick up a copy of Isao Takahata's "Grave of the Fireflies" on DVD.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Pub Date: May 22, 2009

Price: $29.95


After having amazing success with her first two books, "Purple Hibiscus" and
"Half of a Yellow Sun" (which won her both the Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom and a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant here in the United States), it seemed inevitable that Chimamanda Adichie would soon launch a book of short stories. "The Thing Around Your Neck" is its intriguing title and it contains 12 short stories some of which are set in Nigeria (the author's home country) and the rest in the US focusing on the Nigerian immigrant experience, the fragile balance of family life and the cultural fissures manifest among Nigerians settled in America.

Maybe it's just the short story format that I am not partial to, but many of the stories, although very readable, failed to engage me in the way Chimamanda's writing normally does. Well, perhaps, I shouldn't be blaming the short story format because I didn't have any difficulty enjoying Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" or Daniyal Mueenudin's "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders", but I found myself just very mildly engaged in many of the stories from "That Thing About your Neck". Come to think of it, using JL's collection of stories as a yardstick is probably being very unfair. Most anthologies of short stories from a single author are mixed news, at best. If one, two, or perhaps three stories succeed, the reader feels the collection worthwhile. JL's book was an exception where all of her 8 stories were wildly praised by readers and critics alike...definitely a triumph!

Ofcourse, there are flashes of brilliance in "That Thing Around Your Neck", but not nearly enough to make me go you MUST read this book!!! Having said that however, I would like to point out some of the stories that you might enjoy reading. The title story for instance, which implies the choking isolation of a Nigerian girl who relocated to the US from Nigeria only to find that her new country is nothing like she expected, is one which astutely explores the alienation and loneliness that an immigrant feels. She does find love with an Africa-philiac man but cannot figure out if he loves her for her or if he loves her for being an exotic African woman. She notes, "white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same-- condescending". With this storyline Adichie is also turning the lens in on Americans and their rather mixed relations with Africans.

Then there is "The Arrangers of Marriage," where an orphan is forced to marry a Nigerian medical student doing his internship in the United States. Again, like the girl in the title story, this protagonist also finds things are not as she was led to believe, for her new husband had omitted to tell her family that he was already married to an American woman (for a green card) and was yet to be divorced from her. In creating protagonists like these Adichie is keeping it very real because many immigrants leave their homeland thinking "the grass is always greener on the other side" only to find out that it isn't necessarily so. The frightening thing for such immigrants is that once they leave, Nigeria is no longer home either. Home is now a gray space between the two.

"Jumping off Monkey Hill" is apparently autobiographical and the setting is a writing workshop for promising African writers but lead by a white scholar, an apparent "expert" on Africa, who criticizes a story with a homosexual theme put forward by one of the participants saying "homosexuality stories weren't reflective of Africa". Which leads to the question...what is an African story? What is perhaps noteworthy is that Adichie has three stories in this collection with a homosexual theme!

My favorite story of the bunch was the last one, titled, "The Headstrong Historian"...I simply love how Adichie used this one family's history to illustrate how the advent of Christian missionaries and the free education (in the white man's language) they offered the children of the Africans severed the people from their faith, history and culture. A very moving story. I've linked to the story in the "Newyorker" magazine so you can enjoy it as well!

A summary of this book inevitably makes it seem bleak, but because these stories are shot through with grace, elegance and empathy they leave the reader with a positive, rather than negative impression. Adichie's language is clean and crisp, with a musical quality that I have enjoyed in her previous novels and which I am pleased to note continues over to this one.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Locust and The Bird by Hanan Al-Shaykh and a "GIVEAWAY*

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs

Format: Hardcover, 320 pages

Publisher:
Pantheon

Pub Date: August 25, 2009

Price: $28.95

Translated from the Arabic by Roger Allen


Having lived for years in the west I know that many people here don't "get" the concept of arranged marriages. For many of us, falling in love is the only reason one should get married. Having someone pick a match out for you is more like a business transaction....where's the romance, the passion, in something like that, right? But for many, arranged marriages are a way of life. Falling in love amounts to nothing, it carries no weight as Kamila, a beautiful and impetuous girl from a village in in South Lebanon was about to find out.


Although Kamila was in love with one Muhammad, her family decreed that she should marry her dead sister's aging husband
(the sister was bitten by a rabid rat) . Kamila was only 14 years old but was deemed a suitable match because she was strong enough to look after her husband's kids, cook his food and warm his bed. More importantly, her sister's widower was the patriarch of the family and it almost seemed as if Kamila was sacrificed to him for the sake of her extended family who lived under his roof. Kamila's husband, Abu- Hussein Muhammad, was pious and strict whereas Kamila was free-spirited and irreverent. She defied him every chance she got and no matter how hard the family tried, they were unable to tame her.

It wasn't long, however, when she managed to reconnect with the love-of-her-life, Muhammad and very soon the two were planning secret rendezvous in Muhammad's bedroom in the house he shared with his family or in darkened cinemas. I'd love to tell you what happens next, but I can't for fear of giving away the story.

Kamila's story is narrated to us in the first person but written by her daughter, well known Arabic writer, Hanan Al- Shaykh. Al Shaykh says that the first person narrative was a deliberate choice, she said, “My mother wrote this book. She is the one who spread her wings. I just blew the wind that took her on her long journey back in time.” I found this to be a tenderly-crafted memoir and even though the faults of our protagonist Kamila are quite glaring, you cannot help but fall under her spell, and that is a tribute to the writer who has made Kamila an utterly irresistible character.

Although the protagonist's personality towers over the book it doesn't dwarf it. I found myself thinking a lot about different issues that this book bring up, like "First Loves", are they really as special as they are made out to be or they over-romanticized? "Child Marriages", granted, this was Beirut in the 1930's but even they knew better than to allow a man to get his 15-year old wife pregnant? "Child Abandonment", at what point does a mother's happiness become more important to her than her children and how do you ever explain that to your children? "Illiteracy", what role it plays in establishing one's status in the hierarchy of life. Would Kamila's life have been any easier if she could read and write?
"Legacy", towards the end of her life Kamila was frantic about having her life recorded, how important is it to us to be remembered fondly and accurately?

The cover art is striking and, to me it looks like a vintage movie poster. Because Kamila could neither read nor write, going to the movies was her only entertainment and the reader will note that she gleaned everything she knew about love and life from the movies. Which brings us to the interesting question of how much does art influence life? You will ponder over all these issues and more in this beautiful memoir, so if you would like your own copy simply write me a line here and I will be happy to put your name in a hat for a draw that will take place in about two weeks from now.

**************WE HAVE A WINNER*************

DRUM ROLL PLEASE........................................

It's Apu of "Apu's World". Congratulations Apu, please send me your address and I would be delighted to put a copy of this book in the mail to you!

A Q & A session with the author:

What does the title, The Locust and the Bird, refer to?

The Locust and the Bird is a fable about a king who was taking a stroll in his gardens when a Locust flew into the wide sleeve of his robe. A bird, in hot pursuit, flew in after it. The king sewed up the sleeve, sat on his throne and asked his people: “What is up my sleeve?” No one knew the answer. But it so happened that a man named Bird, who was desperately in love with a woman called Locust, was standing in the crowd. He came forward, only the face of his beloved in his mind, and proclaimed to his king:

Wails and Tales.

My life story is one long revelation.

Only the Locust can capture the Bird.

This is a story my mother told me. The locust signifies famine, hunger, destruction and unhappiness. Birds signify spring, love, hope and song. All these states describe my mother’s life.

Why did you finally decide to write and share your mother’s amazing story? Did she read any parts of it before she died, and what did she think of it? Did you sit down with her on a couple occasions right before and while writing the book, or are most of these tales your recollections when she told them to you growing up?

My mother left me when I was seven years old. This was her way of telling me why. As she unburdened, her story became an epic tale.My mother was illiterate, so she couldn’t read or write. But when we knew the book was going to be published, she had second thoughts: she didn’t want people to know how poor she’d been. When she was a child, she had to comb the fields after the harvest to find corn to eat. But after I read her a couple of chapters over the phone, she gave me her blessing.Yes, we sat together many times so she could relate her story, and then we continued over the phone, between Beirut and London . She’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember something and ring me at four in the morning.

Movies play an interesting and pivotal role in the book. What do you think movies represented for your mother? Do you think books played the same role in your own life?

Movies educated my mother. She learned everything about life through movies; about history, wars, countries, love, human bondage and relationships. She mimicked the movies: dressing, walking and talking like the stars she saw on the screen. She even learnt that pearls are found in the sea, and not in the ground. She escaped her stifling world through movies, as I later, entered a magical world through books.

You are primarily a fiction writer, how was it writing a non-fiction book, and one so personal as the memoir of your mother? Was it easy or difficult to find her voice and put it on paper?

I never felt writing The Locust and the Bird, that I was writing non-fiction. I felt all along it was a novel, the only difference being, in that when you write a novel, you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to end. In this book, I knew all along where I was heading. In my fiction I usually inherit the soul of my characters to such an extent that I inhabit them for a while, and the same thing happened when I was writing this, I stepped into her shoes. What made it easy, is that my mother had the spirit of a novelist, she was a natural storyteller, and she remembered small details, like the color of a stone. It didn’t come easily at first. I struggled with her voice at the beginning. I wrote the first chapters with myself as narrator, but that didn’t work, and then I tried writing in the third person, but it lacked immediacy. Then when I realised that my mother had been burdened all her life by her illiteracy, I realised I was her voice in the sense that I was simply a conduit, and I all I had to do was put the pen on the page, something she’d never been able to do.

Though The Locust and the Bird takes place in Lebanon , how is it a universal tale?

The Locust and the Bird is a universal story in the sense it’s about families, and everything that surrounds them: love, divorce, adultery, abandonment, poverty, injustice. But most importantly, for me, it’s a story about forgiveness.

There is a line in the book that your mother, “transformed her lies into a lifetime of naked honesty.” What did you mean by that line, and what does it say about your mother and her life?

My mother lied all her life, she was crafty and deceitful; but of course she did this to survive, and escape the confines of society and home. She used to be called a seductress, and I was worried, when I began the book, that she’d seduce me too, out of bravado, or to cover up the painful parts of her life. But in fact, she told me her story with an astonishing directness and honesty. And that’s when I got to know her for the first time.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal al Saadawi; Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and Lions Head, Four Happiness by Xiaomei Martell


Nawal El Saadawi is a psychiatrist in Egypt and once, while researching a piece for neurosis amongst Egyptian women she had the opportunity to visit some women in prison, one of whom, Firdaus, stood out so much that after Sharai had finished interviewing her she felt compelled to write her (Firdaus')story. Because she took artistic license with some of the details this is not a true biography but because it is stunningly close to what Firdaus suffered, it truly hits you in the gut

Firdaus was born into a peasant home in Egypt. From a young age she realized that being born a girl was a curse. Women were just property that men owned....chattel. Even their bodies didn't belong to them, but to the men that "kept" them. She was only a little girl when her Uncle's hands would steal to her thighs as she worked on kneading dough for the family meal, and then, when she was not much older she was given in marriage to a grotesquely-ugly man in his '60's who used her for his pleasure and violently beat her when he was in a sour mood. When she ran away she was used again by the man who befriended her and not just that, he allowed his friends to use her too.

After what she had thrust upon her it's no wonder she wandered into prostitution and although that bought her independence all she really wanted to do was to get a job and become a "respectable" person. She soon learned, however, that is far better to be a brazen prostitute than a helpless saint and goes back into prostitution, until she is imprisoned and put to death for a murder that i won't go into here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment of the book.

"Woman At Point Zero" is only 108 pages long, more of a nouvella than a novel, but it packs a punch. Even though the woman is guilty of murder none of us can think of her as a criminal...as her crime is borne of anger at her lifelong mistreatment at the hands of men

Told mostly in the first person, the narrative voice with its rhythm, pace and patterns of repetition, convey an urgency and passion that kept my attention rooted to the book (I read the book, cover to cover, it in about 90 mins or so). The book was written more than 30 years ago but the fact that it continues to resonate with women readers of today shows us that for many women in the world freedom and independence are simply words and nothing that they have truly experienced.



Category: Fiction - Literary
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Pub Date: May 26, 2009
Price: $28.95




"SO often we're told the woman's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter and sister? A baby's illness the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty or even in the best of days are considered insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who age battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. " Pearl Louie in "Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See, pg 228

I hate to argue with the protagonist but I think women make infinitely interesting characters because of their ability to endure and bear physical and mental agony despite their delicate appearances. "Shanghai Girls" is a story of two sisters. Pearl and May are ‘beautiful girls’ — models for advertising and calendar posters — but when their father loses not only the family money but also the girls’ savings, he sets them up in arranged marriages with a pair of Chinese brothers from America and so begins the girls' epic journey across the Pacific to America (not an easy feat in those days because the Americans had no interest in taking Chinese people). The story goes on to trace their lives in America so irrevocably different from the High society and glamorous lives they lived in Shanghai and how they walk the tight rope between maintaining their Chinese identity and, yet being afraid of being overly Chinese because of all the discrimination that people from China were exposed to.

This is a truly lovely book...beautiful family drama, multi-dimensional characters and prose that is rich with emotion and replete with everything you need to know about Chinese immigrant families in Los Angeles in the'40s and '50s. Although some parts of the book drag a little, See is such a brilliant narrator of history that you soon get caught up with interrogation games at Angel Island,(like Ellis Island but the immigration processing station in San Francisco Bay Communist witch hunts in in L.A., illegal citizenship and "paper sons", the lure of Hollywood and the importance of proving one's Chinese identity during America's war with the Japanese. If you like historical fiction, you might like this one. I don't think it compares favorably with her previous two novels though.




Author: Martell, Xiaomei
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
Publication date: 1 April 2009

Food-oirs or food memoirs are are everywhere these days. When I visited our local bookstore recently I was agape at the large space provided to this very popular sub-genre and I can see why...more than anything it is the sight, smell and sound of food that engages so many of our senses. Any wonder then that many of us look at the world through food? Food also teaches us so much about culture. For instance, when I travel my impressions seem to start and end with the food. While my friends are busy clicking photos of monuments, buildings etc, I am most likely noting down recipes or trying the local food because it teaches me so much about the people.

"Lion's Head, Four Happiness" is a sweet account of Xiaomei Martell's childhood in China during the turbulent years of Mao's Cultural Revolution. She was born in 1964 on the borders of the Mongolian steppes. The youngest of four daughters - her name translates as 'Little Sister'. Her family had few material goods.There was a lot of rationing of food in those days and this brought out the creative side of Chinese women because they had to plan the menus carefully.

Unlike most novels set in the time of Mao, politics is peripheral in this one, and understandably so as a child's knowledge of what was going on at that time would be limited. Instead, the readers are treated to a host of Chinese kid memories, like playing "pig toes" with her friends (a game requiring dexterity and coordination); riding on the back of her mother's bicycle reading the revolutionary slogans (her first lessons in literacy as the author likes to call it) and the festivities of the Chinese New Year, especially the making and eating of "jiaozi" or Chinese dumplings. Birthdays, although special, were not celebrated...at the very most the birthday girl or boy would be treated to an extra egg, or a peach if it was in the summer.

The interesting title also happens to be the name of Xiaomei's favourite Chinese dish from the south whose origins can traced back to the sixth century. The Lion's heads were generously-sized meatballs and ‘Four Happiness’ refers to the qualities attributed to the meatballs - affluence, health, harmony, and joyfulness.

All in all this is an enjoyable read...I enjoyed the recipes and the casual way she presented them. Might try making the Chinese tea eggs some day....they sound tasty!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich


  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Pub. Date: July 2009
  • 384pp





When Katherine Russell Rich lost her job with a Newyork-based magazine, she didn't do the usual rounds of employment agencies, nor did she sent out a barrage of resumes to other newspapers, instead, she travelled to India to learn Hindi!!!

She enrolled herself in an Hindi immersion course in the palace city of Udaipur where the school arranged for her (and the other students taking this course) to live with Hindi-speaking families so that they listen to and have a chance to speak Hindi everyday.

This book then, is not only a memoir and/or a travelogue but a wonderful and exciting exposition of how our minds change when we learn a new language and how we come out of the experience completely transformed!

I've always been curious about what a new language might do for me. After all,learning a new language isn't simply about learning a whole new bunch of words...it's about being able to use those new words to appeal to the cultural sensitivity of the people whose language you are learning and thus, you are actually learning to both think and feel like someone else from a different culture. How cool is that!!!

The possibility that learning a new language could change the core of one's identity, one's beliefs, the way one thinks about friends, family, surroundings and even the way one thinks about time, is just dazzling to me! For instance, according to a Newsweek article, the gender of nouns can have an effect on how people think about things in the world... take the noun "bridge" for instance. In German, the word for bridge, Brücke, is feminine. In French, pont is masculine. So when in experiements German speakers were asked to describe a bridge, they saw prototypically female features; French speakers, masculine ones. Similarly, Germans describe keys (Schlüssel) with words such as hard, heavy, jagged, and metal, while to Spaniards keys (llaves) are golden, intricate, little, and lovely. Guess which language construes key as masculine and which as feminine? :)

And then, there's the question of how people whose language you are trying to learn actually feel about you speaking in their tongue? Most are chuffed that you are making the effort, but Russel Rich felt that some Indians resented her for doing that. She says, “I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I’m breaking the fourth wall.”

Also, and this happens in India particular, speaking in English is the privilege of the classes and a status thing...address someone like that in Hindi and you might get a dressing down!

As Rich's language skills improve, she also uncovers darker truths about friends, neighbors and the country in which she lives. She happened to be in India the year Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the nearby state of Gujarat. Rich is startled to discover the mistrust and fear her Hindu friends feel for their Muslim compatriots. Then, when she tells her rickshaw driver shukriya or “thank you,” he gets annoyed at her. Shukriya is a word with Urdu or Muslim origins. The “pure” Hindi word, he tells her, is dhanyavaad. I don't think any dictionary will tell you the difference between the two "thank you's", these are things you pick up only when you live with a language and its people.

I am grateful to Rich for turning herself into a guinea pig in order to study the effect of language on the mind even if her writing at times appears to be rather scattered and in random order...this is a book I think every body interested in words or language will enjoy and I daresay will seriously make you consider learning a new language!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer is Short, Read a Story!

HarperPerennial celebrates the short story this summer. Buy some. Read some. Talk some.

Do you have a favorite short story? Tell me which one it is and why you like it so much. Do you write short stories? If it's online, share the link with me. Do you advocate reading short stories? If yes, let us know why. I know a lot of readers who aren't great fans of the short story format, myself included, tell us what we're missing! Do you have a source for good short stories online? Share the link!

I’ve got a copy of Petina Gappah's "An Elegy for Easterly" to give away for the best comment.


Petina Gappah is the voice of Zimbabwe. In this astonishingly powerful debut collection, she dissects with real poignancy the lives of people caught up in a situation over which they have no control, as they deal with spiralling inflation, power cuts and financial hardship - a way of life under Mugabe's regime - and cope with issues common to all people everywhere; failed promises, disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. Compelling, unflinching and tender, "An Elegy for Easterly" is a defining book, and a stunning portrait of a country in chaotic meltdown.

Have a happy summer everyone!

An update:

Now you can all listen to Petina Gappah's interview on NPR. It also features an excerpt from everyone's favorite story, "The Mupandawana Dancing Champion" so you can get a feel for her writing style.

******* My sincere most apologies for taking so long to pick a winner, but with summer here the days tend to fly by so very quickly. There were so many good comments that I decided I had to draw for the giveaway, and the winner is.......... drum roll please............. Lorraine!*************

Lorraine, please write me with your address, so I can mail you out a copy as soon as I can, thank you!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gringo: Coming of Age in Latin America by Chesa Boudin


Scribner, April 2009

Hardcover, 240 pages




I remember myself at 18...all I wanted to do was to explore the world and then to write of my discoveries, but back then, growing up in India, it really wasn't the thing to do, instead, it was the time to focus on finishing university and to concentrate getting a well-paying job. How different things were for American student Chesa Boudin. When he turned 18 in 1999 he enrolled in a Spanish immersion class in rural Guatemala...not finished with his South American experiment he applied for a Rotary International Ambassadorial S'ship which sent him to Chile in 2001. From there he traveled to Argentina at the height of their financial meltdown; to Venezuela where he worked in the Presidential Palace; to the jungles of Colombia on a human rights mission, and the mines of Bolivia. He also traveled steerage on a riverboat along the length of the Amazon. This voyage is documented in his fine book Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America.

Before I go further you should know that this young man is the child of former members of the radical political group Weather Underground, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, so it is not unusual to see him detailing leftist political shifts in Latin America as they happened in the '90's...but always running parallel to this political commentary is Boudin's own personal journey as he comes of age in Latin America.

Perhaps one of the most profound accounts in the book comes from his time in Bolivia when he visits a mine worked by Bolivians desperate for the scraps that the Spanish conquistadores left behind:
These miners, and how many thousands more like them, were working under conditions that couldn't have improved much since the Spanish colonial era. There were no bathrooms, no drinking water, no food. And at the shaft opening where they dumped tons of mineral slag every day for sorting, I had seen plenty of young boys hard at work-- age is difficult to estimate when in a different country but they were prepubescent, of that I was sure. My own physical discomfort began to seem paltry in comparison with their daily trauma. I was appalled. Sitting in the mine shaft that day I couldn't understand how anyone could subject themselves, much less their young sons to this suicidal work. And for what? A starvation wage? The dream of finding a few ounces of silver the Spanish left behind? I began to regret going to the mines at all. Maybe my being there only added to the workers' humiliation. They had generously invited me into their hellish world, deep inside the earth. All I could offer them in exchange was a cheap present of a few sticks of dynamite.

I also enjoyed his keen political insights into Venenzuela and the era of Chavez. While one gets the impression that Boudain approves of Chavez overall, he has some criticisms as well. As he said in an interview:

I have criticisms of the Chavez government that the Chavistas don’t welcome. There is a lot of corruption in Venezuela and a lot of crime in the streets. The government has not made genuine progress in those two areas, and recently Chavez devoted a lot of time and energy to reforming the Constitution so he could stay in office longer, legally. I thought they should have spent more time developing new leadership.


Why should you read this book? After a decade of dictatorships in the '80's, Latin America is now experimenting with democracy... people at the grassroots level are learning to participate in the political process and bringing to power, in a big way, socialist leaders who have promised to make life better for its downtrodden citizens and to a large extent they have kept their word. Democracy is being reinvented in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere. Ecuador isn’t as far along in its own process but it’s coming along. All over the continent there is more grass roots participation in political movements than there has been for a very long time. What better time then to read about and be aware of the countries that makeup the continent to the south of us?

Boudin has attempted a very earnest and readable book on his time in South America...it is a travelogue but reads more like socio-political commentary. Either way, it's a very enjoyable read and recommend to any and all with an interest in South America.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li


  • Hardcover: 352 pages

  • Publisher: Random House (Feb 3 2009)


Contemporary literature by Chinese writers and others is filled to overflowing with wonderful works set in the time period of the Cultural Revolution and then, the more recent Tiananmen Square era of Chinese history, however, it is the period between these two mammoth events which marks the setting for Yiyun Li's stunning debut novel "The Vagrants".

It is somewhere in the late 1970's, actually March 21, 1979 to be precise, and an announcement has been made in a poor town of China called "Muddy River" that a young woman, called Gu Shan has renounced her Communist/Red Guard ties and will be executed for her dissent. On the day of her execution Gu Shan is presented onstage, her neck bloody where her vocal cords had been cut (to prevent her from shouting out counter revolutionary slogans) before being hauled off to her death.

The novel then proceeds to follow the lives of some of the citizens of Muddy River who attend the denunciation ceremony and as we read on we see the effect that this execution has on the community as a whole.

"The Vagrants" was inspired by the real case of a condemned woman whose kidneys were removed before (to be donated to a highly placed party official), and body mutilated after, her execution. Although this central event around which the book revolves is in itself is so shocking and riveting, it is the complexity and the depth of Yiyun Li's characters that make this book so interesting. For instance, there's 19-year old Bashi, a young, sexually curious "good-for-nothing", kind of person. Some critics have unfairly referred to him as a pedophile, but I think he was more of a simpleton longing to love and be loved...I think he just felt more comfortable around younger people because they were kinder to him. Then there's 12-year old Nini, deformed at birth on account of a kicking her pregnant mother received at the hands of the condemned Shan Gu. The incongruous love story between Nini and Bashi is probably the sweetest, most tender portion in the book.

We are also introduced to
the Huas, former beggars, now trash collectors who in their younger years sometimes salvaged and raise abandoned babies,only to be forced, ultimately, to give up all of their adoptive daughters. It took me a while to figure out that they were the "Vagrants" of the story. There is also Kai, an anchorwoman of the propaganda department's daily loudspeaker broadcasts – but who puts her privileged life at risk by being one of the leaders of the protest after Shan Gu's (who was her former classmate) execution. The smaller characters are no less interesting...a child who betrays his father; another who kicks dogs; a man who desecrates corpses and so on.

Like Gu Shan, Kai's character was also based on a real-life character, who led a protest for the executed woman and who was then executed herself.

So what did I think of the novel? I think Yiyun Li does a splendid job of painting for the reader life in post-Mao China. We are buoyed by the stirrings of a democratic revival, but alas, it is short-lived and the people soon go back to their depraved, tormented lives. I guess, what I kept looking for, but never really found, was a few moments of happiness in all that grimness, a glimmer of hope in that tremendous bleakness. Just when I thought the lives of some of the characters were about to improve, things suddenly get worse for them. It is a very grim novel....lots of misery, sadness, cruelty and depravity and offers little in the way of optimism about Chinese society. Still, let that not keep you from reading this book...perhaps as we read about what it felt like to live in such a totalitarian society we will find gratitude in our hearts for the lives we lead currently.

About the Author: Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. The Vagrants is her debut novel.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tokyo Fiancée by Amelie Nothomb


  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions (December 30, 2008)


"From the age of three to eighteen, the Japanese study as though possessed. From the age of twenty-five until they retire, they work like maniacs. From the age of eighteen to the age of twenty-five, they are only too aware they have been granted a unique interval: this is their chance to blossom..."
Amelie Nothomb writing in "Tokyo Fiancée"

Nothomb writes this to explain the phenomenon of "train-station" universities in Japan. Train-station universities are as numerous (yes, you guessed it) train stations and most students visit campus just to meet up with friends or to model their latest outfits...academics is the last thing on their minds and because the syllabi at these universities are student-friendly, most everyone breezes through their courses.

The novel "Tokyo Fiancee" is filled with other such cultural tidbits about Japan and the Japanese, but that is not all you should be reading this for, it is also a tale of sweet but largely unrequieted love between the author, a Francophone Belgian, visiting Japan to refresh her Japanese language skills and to teach French to Japanese students and Rinri a young Japanese man, totally in love with the French language and by extension, anyone who spoke la Francaise. To Rinri, being able to express himself in French gave him license to indulge his inadmissible feelings of love...something he couldn't have done in Japanese or to a Japanese woman as it is impolite in Japanese society to talk of love. In Japan, love is the stuff of literature, not real life.

Amelie is completely charmed with Rinri and the sweet love and concern he shows for her, but when Rinri starts to press the issue of marriage Amelie gets uncomfortable and hastens to find a way out (and I thought it was mostly men that had trouble with with the "C-word"!) No wonder then, the publishers have described this as a contemporary love story, where the woman's love of independence trumps her desire to be loved and needed.

Amelie, in this sweet autobiographical novel, says what she experienced for Rinri can best be explained using the Japanese term, "Koi"which is understood as a relationship in which a couple likes one another enough to be intimate but one that does not come with the trappings of love - a relationship based on camaraderie and sexual desire rather than romance. Do we have the equivalent of "Koi" in the English language? I am curious to find out!

This is a wisp of a book, only 152 pages, but a very worthy read. Nothomb is a very entertaining writer with a mischievous sense of humor. She also skillfully uses the linguistic and cross-cultural misunderstandings between herself and Rinri to offer fun insights into Japanese traditional culture...the ending is exquisitely tender,I had tears in my eyes!

If you like "Tokyo Fiancee" you might also want to read Nothomb's "Fear and Trembling", about a sadistic coworker who instructs her in the rigid hierarchies of office life. "F & T" is drawn from Nothomb's time working at a large Japanese corporation.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Honolulu: A Novel by Alan Brennert


  • Hardcover: 368 pages

  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press;

  • Author: Alan Brennert





Scared yet excited, fatigued but energized, Regret and a group of young picture brides from Korea look out from a cabin window as the old ship they had boarded in Yokohama, Japan pulls into the Port of Honolulu, Hawai'i. Each girl expects to see a young, nice-looking gentleman of means (as per photos received) so imagine their shock and horror even when they discover that instead of handsome young men they are greeted by a motley group of wizend older men with skin as tough as hide revealing that the owner of that skin was not a scholarly man who had a white-collar job but one that had to work hard in the open. One of the girls is so overcome with disappointment and horror that she uses whatever money she has left to board the ship back to Japan and then Korea. The other picture brides are not so lucky and they, including Regret, disembark the ship, marry the men waiting for them and spend the next few years enduring the tough life of sugarcane plantation workers in Hawai'i.

After Regret is beaten up by her husband several times (and miscarries due to the beatings) she runs away to Honolulu , shrugs off her unfortunate moniker "Regret", takes on a new name "Jin" (gem) and in her new avatar she becomes a seamstress, mending clothes for hookers in order to keep herself afloat. Jin's story follows a lot of twists and turns not unlike her adopted country and Brennert does an excellent job of tying Jin's story to the historical events in Hawai'i at that time.

Although this is historical "fiction", Brennert's book feels meticulously and exquisitely researched...it is filled with cultural details of that period - songs, food, clothes, historical events and even historical figures. I have, however, just one quibble with an incident that occurs in the early part of the book:

When Regret was beaten up by her husband for the second time she was advised to go to the Pastor of the Korean Methodist church for resolution, I wonder why Brennert didn't have her go to the local Dong-Hoi instead. According to histories written about the plantations in Honolulu, the Korean plantation workers had banded together to form a mutual aid society called Dong-Hoi with, at its head a judge (voted in by the workers) called Dong-chang. THe Dong-chang ruled in marital disputes and a man beating his wife was seldom tolerated. Also, the Dong-Hoi did not encourage gambling and drinking, infact, they prohibited it, so I am not sure how Mr. Noh, Regret's husband was painted by Brennert as a gambler and drunkard.

But aside from that quibble, "Honolulu" is a wonderfully-written tribute to the people of Hawai'i and while it is primarily the story a story of Jin, the Korean picture bride who had to learn to throw off the Confucian notion that women were worthless, it is also the story of how Asian, Portuguese, Spanish and Filipino workers were brought to Hawai’i by the sugar barons who needed laborers to work on the plantations, thus sowing the seeds for the multi-ethnic society that Hawai'i is today and that America is mirroring. Brennert likes to say, the story of Honolulu is in many ways the story of Barack Obama, and the story of America as well.

Finally, Hawai'i, at some point or another figures on everyone's travel plans...rather than just arming yourself with the usual guide book, why don't you grab a copy of "Honolulu" and learn, through the most wonderful and evocative writing, the history of Hawai'i? Reading and knowing the history of a place can add a different dimension to one's travel there.

This is Alan Brennert's second novel featuring Hawai'i. The first, was an equally wonderful book titled "Moloka'i", which I would recommend very highly too

And now here's a dessert talked about several times in the book. Enjoy!

Pineapple Cream Pie

The filling for this pineapple pie is made with canned crushed pineapple, cream, egg yolks, and sugar. The pie is topped with an egg white meringue.

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup of butter
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 (15 ounce) can crushed pineapple
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup of milk or sweet cream
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • Baked 9 inch pie crust

    Instructions:
    FILLING: Mix butter, sugar, pineapple and egg yolks in a saucepan. Dissolve cornstarch in milk (or cream) and blend into pineapple mixture. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thick. Pour mixture into a cooked and cooled pie shell.
    MERINGUE TOPPING: Beat egg whites until frothy, then slowly beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar. Beat until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Spread meringue over the pie and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until meringue is lightly browned.


  • Wednesday, May 13, 2009

    Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents by Minal Hajratwala






    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 430 pp. $26
    Genre: Indian diaspora, memoir, travelogue, history, non-fiction,migration



    Sorry it's taken me so long to come up with another review...I have been reading "Leaving India" by Minal Hajratwala and although it's not a door-stopper it's not one of those books you can speed up, hence the delay.

    When I first heard about "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents" by Minal Hajratwala, and what the publishers had to say about it -

    Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents . Beginning with her great-grandfather Motiram's original flight from British-occupied India to Fiji, where he rose from tailor to department store mogul, Hajratwala follows her ancestors across the twentieth century to explain how they came to be spread across five continents and nine countries. Hajratwala ... (more)brings to light for the very first time the story of the Indian diaspora and its shaping by the historical forces of British colonialism, apartheid, Gandhi's Salt March, and American immigration policy. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

    - I thought I would lap all of this up in one sitting...after all....being an Indian myself and with relatives all over the world this could have been my story...but after a great start I found myself easily bored with the book. I just felt there were too many detailed descriptions and anecdotes about far too many members of this humongous family, some of which were nice to read and others, downright boring. The part I liked the best was when Minal turns the microscope on herself and writes about her experience with racism in the US and her coming out to the world and her parents about being a lesbian. It was the part that touched me the most...such a pity I had to wait till the end to read it.

    I think you will be well served to just listen to a couple of numerous interviews Hajratwalla has given NPR and other radio stations and, ofcourse, ifyou are still clamoring for more, there is always the book.


    Monday, April 20, 2009

    Mexican High by Liza Monroy (The Read Your Way Around the World Challenge)

    * Publisher: Bantam Books

    * Pub. Date: June 2008

    * ISBN-13: 9780385523592
    * 352pp

    *Genre: Autobiographical fiction

    I chose Mexican High by Liza Monroy for the "Read Your Way Around The World Challenge" hosted by Global Voices Online because ig would be my first book set in Mexico City. Also, with Obama just having returned from a visit to Mexico I thought it it might be quite a topical read. If you're taking part in the challenge, please don't forget to tag your post with #gvbook09


    It's never fun for a kid to have to change schools and it has to be downright frightening for the kid who happens to be a High School senior who is not only called upon to change schools but to live and study in a different country.

    Milago Marquez (who, embarrassed by her unusual name, insists on being called Mila) is the only child of a US foreign service worker transferred to Mexico in Milago's final year of High School. As most highly paid expats are wont to do, Mila's mother enrolls her in a fancy International school that caters to American expats and the kids of the Mexican elite.

    The school is mostly divided into two groups of kids....US and international students(many from diplomatic families) and the kids of the Mexican elite (government officials,gangsters and businessmen) aka as "fresas". Fresas are rich, designer-clothes wearing, spoiled kids...highly nationalistic,they will only speak Spanish and they look down on anyone who is not rich like them, especially gringos (foreigners, mostly American) It doesn't take long for Mila to figure out that with her normal US upbringing she sticks out like a sore thumb and that in order to become an insider she would have do what the rest of the kids are doing which included getting high, cutting classes,having sex and drinking hard alcohol. So acceptable is it for Mexican teenagers to engage in alcohol-fueled social events that even at their school-council organized "lunch" parties every Friday after school (Cocteles), Bacardi along with other alcohol was the main staple..there was little or no food served.

    I had a rather hard time deciphering which year this book was set in. The author mentions "Nirvana" and the grunge look being the craze of that year and from what I remember Nirvana was formed in the early 1990's so I am going to presume that this is when the story was set.

    Initially the book did hold me captive...I was appalled and aghast to learn what these kids (most of them as young as 17) did to themselves, and as the mother of two teenage girls I felt compelled to read on. Also, I did enjoy her glimpses into Mexican culture, however, as more and more absurd subplots entered the story, I started to grow tired of our protagonist, her friends and their antics and I literally just thumbed through the last 70 pages of the book.

    What you will take away from the book:

    a)Perhaps a better understanding (not flattering) of the Mexican elite and their children...of the politics, corruption and violence that exists in that country( It was not uncommon for Mila's classmates to be summoned home during the school day because a family member had been kidnapped or assassinated) ;

    b)A visual image of the environs of Mexico City like "Angahuan" a town destroyed by the volcano Paricutin which erupted in 1944 and where people ride horses instead of cars and speak the local Purépecha tongue instead of Spanish; "Villahermosa", a paradise for anthropologists with its remarkable Olmec ruins, the Chiapas one of Mexico's poorest towns with a large population of agrarian Mayans and a trip Real de Catorce, a rural desert town where Huichol Indians go looking for peyote in the surrounding hills to sell to tourists wanting to undertake a mystical peyote pilgrimage,

    c)Mexican food (Monroy got me hooked on "Cafe de Olla" (coffee made in earthernpots with cinnamon, brown sugar and clove), "Sincronizadas" ( ham and cheese quesadillas);

    d) A keener understanding of the role of a foreign service worker and e) a fond regard for teenagers in North America, who despite their foibles, seem so much more grounded and focused than Mexican teenagers.


    Why autobiographical fiction:

    Well, like Mila, Liza Monroy is also the daughter of a US foreign service and spent her last few years of High School in Mexico City. According to the author, many of the characters(and the incidents they got embroiled in) are based on people she knew in High School. Since these characters were based on real people I expected them to feel authentic and inspired, instead, many of Monroy's characters feel empty and souless. I was hoping Monroy would use Mila to give us an insider's view of Mexico City, and I suppose she did, but it's a dark view of a tumultuous city through the eyes a rather conflicted, sometimes-stoned 17-year old girl, so I am not sure I can set much store by it.

    A warning: While it is set in high school, "Mexican High" is definitely NOT recommended for any reader under 19.

    CAFE DE OLLA (MEXICAN SPICED COFFEE)
    Categories: Mexican, Beverages
    Yield: 6 servings

    3/4 c Brown sugar, firmly packed
    3 x Cinnamon sticks
    6 x Cloves
    6 tb Coffee (NOT instant)
    6 x Julienne slices orange zest

    In a large saucepan, heat 6 cups of water with the brown sugar, cinnamon
    sticks, and cloves over moderately high heat until the mixture is hot, but
    do not let it boil. Add the coffee, bring the mixture to a boil, and boil
    it, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Strain the coffee through a
    fine sieve and serve in coffee cups with the orange zest.



    Friday, April 10, 2009

    # TEA AND OTHER AYAMA NA TALES by Eleanor Bluestein and a GIVEAWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



    Publisher: BkMk Press
    PubDate: 11/30/2008
    ISBN: 9781886157644
    Price: $16.95


    "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales" by Eleanor Bluestein is a book of 10 short stories set in a mythical country somewhere in the South-East of Asia. Although Ayama Na is a fictitious land, its characters and their surroundings are vibrantly alive. What the reader gathers quite early on in the book is that Ayama Na used to be a thriving country which was then taken over in a bloody coup. The new tyrants ensured the country became a cultural wasteland by putting to death as many artists, (dancers, playwrights, actors etc.) as they could find. The rest of the people were forcibly taken to labor camps where they toiled day and night in the fields or mines, eventually starving to death. Furthermore, the country was dotted with landmines making it virtually impossible for anyone to escape.

    The stories in this book are set in modern-day Ayama Na. The nation is in the process of rebuilding itself emotionally and physically- artists are back at work, American tourists are arriving in the country in droves and the King and Queen have just given birth to an heir - all appears to be good, however, the country is still shackled by poverty, superstition, corruption, tyranny and machismo.

    Through these 10 remarkable stories Eleanor B. - winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction - has conjured up a wounded country populated by amputees begging in the streets, a pineapple farmer, obnoxious American tourists, an outspoken beauty queen, novice Buddhist monk, a one-legged prostitute with deep red hair and impoverished fisher-folk living in crude houseboats because they can't afford proper houses. Written with a rare sensitivity about ordinary people confronting the anguish of their past while trying to live meaningful lives in the 21st century, the stories in this volume weave a magical web of emotions around the reader. Bluestein is a captivating narrator often using prose so vivid it makes the land breathe...she also also possesses the gift of description and her wonderful use of colors, smells and sounds evoke the full flavor of life in Ayama Na.

    In "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales", Eleanor Bluestein has created for us a country that will not be easily forgotten. At times bewitching and enticing, at times unattractive and charmless, Ayama Na is a nation at a crossroad...which route will it follow? As I read, I was reminded of our visit to Cambodia last year..they are also a nation fighting to throw off the shackles of the past and learning to embrace modernity much to the angst of the traditionalists. I was intrigued enough to ask Eleanor Bluestein if she had Cambodia in mind when she developed Ayama Na...read her interview to see what she says!


    **Giveaway** I have a copy here (kind courtesy the author) for one lucky reader- all you have to do is leave a comment and you'll be entered in the draw...good luck!

    To order your copy from Small Press Distribution click here, or from Amazon click here

    For a brief Q & A session with the author, please go here

    Blog Tour Stops:


    Wednesday, April 1st: The Bluestocking Society
    Monday, April 6th: Bookstack
    Wednesday, April 8th: Nerd’s Eye View
    Friday, April 10th: Lotus Reads
    Monday, April 13th: 8Asians
    Wednesday, April 15th: 1979 Semi-finalist…
    Friday, April 17th: Ramya’s Bookshelf
    Monday, April 20th: Feminist Review
    Thursday, April 23rd: Trish’s Reading Nook
    Tuesday, April 28th: Medieval Bookworm
    Wednesday, April 29th: Savvy Verse and Wit

    For more reviews of this, and other fine books, visit TLC Book Tours

    April 20,2009

    ****** I want to congratulate Zibiliee,winner of the giveaway...thanks, all of you, for participating, stick around for there will be more! Zibilee please contact me privately with your mailing address, thank you!**********


    Interview with Eleanor Bluestein of "Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales"













    Eleanor Bluestein has worked as a science teacher, editor of science textbooks, and designer of multimedia educational materials for Internet delivery. For a decade, she co-edited Crawl Out Your Window, a San Diego based literary journal featuring the work of local writers and artists. She lives with her husband in La Jolla, California, where she writes fiction and volunteers as a court appointed special advocate for foster children. Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales is her first book. (courtesy BkMk Press)

    Here is a brief Q &A session with the author:

    1. How did this wonderful collection come about? I read you are a science teacher and a textbook editor by profession, so when or how did you make the leap to fiction?

    Thank you, Angelique, for that characterization of this collection. I made that leap to fiction in the interval between my six years as a science teacher and my return to work as a science text book editor. I took some years off to be a full time Mom to my son and daughter, and during those years I enrolled in a writing class at UCSD extension (University of California, San Diego) and started writing fiction. I continued to write fiction when I returned to work as an editor, a profession less demanding than teaching. I could never have written fiction at the same time I taught public school (grades 7, 8, and 9).

    2. I am most curious as to why you chose to base your stories in a mythical country over a real one and which country actually inspired Ayama Na. I have my guesses (Cambodia?) but I don't know for sure if I am right. And as a second part to the question, why the South East of Asia? What is your connection to that part of the world?

    You are right. It was mostly Cambodia that inspired these stories. I’d traveled there and also to Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. All these countries found their way into the Ayama Na tales (in Thailand, I visited hill tribes, for example), but the characters’ back stories, the war-torn landscape, the nation’s tragic recent history, the tension between tradition and modernization derive in large part from what I saw and learned in Cambodia. The choice of a mythical country evolved as I wrote the stories. A mythical country gave me the freedom to combine elements of real countries and to add purely fictional elements, such as the long drought. I have no connection to that part of the world, really, except that I was a tourist in South East Asia on three separate trips—relatively brief trips at that.


    3. You have sketched some very entertaining and unforgettable characters in this volume of short stories. I was particularly taken with Dali-Roo, the robot-obsessed peasant; the one-legged prostitute in "The Artist's Story" and lil' Aleeta from "A Ruined World"...do you have any plans to use any of these characters in other stories or maybe in a novel? And while we're on the subject of characters I may as well ask you if you drive the characters and architecture of these stories, or have you found it is the other way round? :)

    Thank you, again, Angelique. These characters are all fictional inventions, although the robot AIBO is real—an expensive Sony product, now discontinued. I saw it demonstrated at a mall shortly after returning from Cambodia. At present, I have no plans to use these characters in other stories or a novel, but I’d never say never. I have imagined Aleeta’s future. The second part of your question is so interesting to me and so hard to answer. Sometimes, when I’m very lucky, the characters take over—this happens for me especially when writing dialog. At other times, story is a cerebral act, thinking, thinking, trying this or that, seeing what works. And sometimes it just seems a miracle to pull off a paragraph.


    4. The tourists in your stories are all pretty obnoxious...did you deliberately sketch them that way to make us think about our responsibilities as tourists? In the story titled "The Blanks", the guide Kenchoreeve was of the opinion that people who gawked at his country had an obligation to shop. It was the price they paid for the right to treat Ayama Na as if it were a third world theme park. I found that very interesting because it spoke to me as a tourist, reminding me that when I visit a country, I really do have a duty to give back.


    No, I didn’t consciously intend any lessons for tourists, but I definitely found myself examining and using my own attitudes about travel as I wrote these stories. I didn’t say so aloud, but I didn’t like to be taken to crafts shops—I thought it a waste of time; I considered riding an elephant too hokey. I also left “good” jewelry back in America, took out hand wipes or Purel and sanitized my hands before eating, and I certainly liked knowing about a tour guide’s personal life. Maybe that’s why I feel forgiving and affectionate toward the Americans in these stories.

    5.What's next for you Eleanor? Will you continue writing short stories or do you have your sights set on something different now?

    I’m working on a novel that takes place in San Diego, the city I call home. I also have a completed novel that I’m trying to market. That one takes place in Los Angeles and France. It’s a newspaper story, literary mystery, and romance.

    6.Have you been back to South East Asia recently?

    I traveled to Thailand and Cambodia in 2003 and to Viet Nam in 2005, but not since. I would very much like to return to Cambodia, which was just at the beginning of a huge tourist influx when I was there—hotel construction all over the place. The country was modernizing rapidly and has changed.

    7. What's the last book you read and immediately passed on to someone else?

    Indignation. Philip Roth. I passed it along to my son. We have different reading tastes, but we are both huge Philip Roth fans.


    **please leave your comments on the main post...thank you!**