Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

This is the third book I have read by Lahiri, and probably the best. She tells another in depth story of her people, but this one spans about 50 years and starts in India in a suburb of Calcutta. The boys play in the field across the lowland (of the title), an area that floods during the rainy season. We get a sense of life there, the boys go to school, eventually attend local colleges. Udayan sees the inequities of the world and becomes a revolutionary. Subhash becomes an environmental chemist and goes to America for grad school. Udayan marries Gauri, a philosophy major. Udayan dies early in the book and Subhash comes back to India and rescues pregnant Gauri from his parents by marrying her and bringing her back to Rhode Island.

There are many layers to this book that I enjoyed. As usual, I enjoyed learning about another culture, another historical period. I knew nothing of the student uprisings in India and may want to look into these more. The emigrant experience is always dear to me - the not quite fitting, the accent, the food, but also the wish to stay in America. Then the complexity of families - both what is expected of Indian families and then what happens to the family in the U.S. I also liked the act that libraries and academia played an important role in this story. 

The tale was told by the various characters of different generations, not necessarily chronologically, as memories brought us back to the past, filling in gaps of our understanding. Even Udayan has a voice at the very end.

I have a new state to explore. The only thing I remember about Rhode Island is visiting my freshman roommate's family in Newport and driving through it to Boston. It is a very New Englandish state and I forgot how much it is exposed to the ocean. I may take a loop around it when I attend a conference in CT next year.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler (2004)

I was looking for a young adult book to send to a relative in overseas and came across this in the best sellers for younger readers. Felt I had to read it before I sent it. I like books that combine today's world with magic or fantasy, and this one combines it with the mythical world of mermaids and mermen. I got a bit critical in my mind about the way some practicalities were treated, like writing and speaking under water, but if I let that go, it was a pretty good story of a girl looking for answers and finding herself. I am wondering if there are too many America focused references, but that may be OK too.

Emily lives with her mother on a houseboat. She doesn't have too many friends and has never learned to swim, but now wants to take swimming lessons. I don't think I will be giving too much away, when I say that once she hits water, she becomes a mermaid and she of course has to explore this new ability. She makes friends with a mermaid her own age - Shona. Besides a doting mother, who doesn't want to talk about her father, we also have the mystic Millie and the sinister lighthouse keeper Mr. Beeston.  I love water myself, so I liked all the images of underwater. Hope my relative likes this.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Saudi Arabia by Hunt Janin and Margaret Besheer (2003)

Cultures of the World series. I had our children's book specialist order various children's books on
countries around the world, as our ESL students sometimes have to write about their own cultures for their classes, and we had very little in simple language. I am having some Saudi students over for a dinner during the holidays, and when I saw that this book had come in, I decided to read it, so I do not make some great mistakes while hosting them.

It is embarrassing to say how little I knew about Saudi Arabia. I knew where it was and that much of it was desert, but there is much more variety in this large country. There is dessert, mountains, the big port city Jeddah on the Red Sea, and then the oil is on the east side and gets distributed to the world through the Persian Gulf. Of course the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Median are also there, in the western part.

I got a sense of their history and am now curious about Laurence of Arabia. (Let's see if I actually read the books I checked out by him and about him.) I did not realize that present day Saudi Arabia was only established in 1932. I had heard about the royal family, but it is now all in context, in a framework. Women did not get mentioned much and appeared in very few of the photographs. I have read about them elsewhere and am concerned about their status, but I will respect that this book for children was written to not be controversial and not confront Saudi beliefs. It looks like they have been amazingly successful at keeping Western influence to a minimum. The riches they have received from oil go towards the betterment of their society, building, modernizing, without allowing alcohol, immodesty and other things restricted by their religion to enter their social structure. Since women are not to talk to men not in their family, there is no socializing outside of the family, so no restaurants, movie theaters, art galleries. I would definitely like to hear more about this from the students when I next meet them. I also got a sense of their relationship with the U.S. (Yes it is about the oil, but not just.) Only through understanding will I be able to make a difference in this world.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

This may be one of the best books I have read this year. I just finished Looking for Alaska and then had dinner with a bunch of librarians and one said this was even better. I agree.

Hazel is sixteen and has cancer and has to carry around an oxygen tank everywhere. Life is pretty depressing until she meets Augustus at a support group. He has lost his leg to cancer, but is otherwise healthy. He appreciates her irreverent humor, and understands what it means to be sick. They share books and he uses his Make a Wish to get them both to Amsterdam.

Incredible insight into terminally ill teenagers touched me deeply. Since I listened to the audio version, there was an interview with the author at the end. Green was going to be a chaplain at one time and spent some time in a hospital with very ill children. He promised himself that he would write a book for them at some time, but it took a long time to come together. It was worth the wait.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (2010)

I know this was a bestseller, but where sometimes books start slow and they pull me in, that I am sorry to see them end, this one started out with an interesting premise and then seemed to drag on and I could not wait for it to end.

Ralph Truitt is wealthy, keeps most of his small Wisconsin town employed, but is terribly lonely and unhappy in the winter of 1908. His first wife and daughter died and his son ran away from home years ago. So he places an ad for a "reliable wife" in a paper and
Catherine Land shows up in the train car he sends for her. She throws her fancy clothes out the window and steps off the train in a simple black dress. Both of their pasts are full of secrets, though Ralph shares most of his with her, she does not reciprocate, but slowly starts liking and appreciating the man. He asks her to go after his son in St. Louis that some investigators have found for him. This is where it gets all complicated.

One of the parts of the book I liked was that Catherine learned most of what she knew from libraries. She never got to attend school, but her younger sister taught her to read and she just found libraries a good, safe place to be and worked her way through many books. At one point she starts fantasizing about a garden and reads a ton of gardening and botanical books.

I don't know why it felt like the book dragged and the winter seemed endless. For all of the story to evolve it seemed like many more months would have passed, but who am I to say. It was about grief, forgiveness, family, the possibility of change, so I can't say I didn't like the book.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (2010)

I don't think I have ever really understood what happened in World War I. Ken Follett actually tries to explain it in an interesting novel format. He is only able to give us a glimpse into what the thinking was in England, Germany, Russia and the United States, but it points out the absurd reasons that brought much of the planet into this disasterous war.

We see a Downton Abbey type English family with a suffragette sister who falls in love with a German. They have a servant who is one of my favorite characters in the book. We see the trenches, the futility and huge loos of lives in trench warfare. It helped to see some similar scenes in Downton Abbey and then I felt I needed some more visual understanding, which is why I found the Eyewitness book on WWI in our children's book section.

Part of the action is in Russia, where we see the hard life of factory workers in St. Petersburg. I can't say I still understand all the events that led up to the Revolution, but I could see how in all that chaos the Baltic countries got their independence. The Western front was pretty set in a stretch between Belgium to Switzerland on the French-German border, but the Eastern front seemed to move all over the place.