Archive for April, 2012

On my bookshelf – 3

Actually, I still have two books from last time’s pile that I haven’t got to yet, but when has that stopped me from filling up my shelves again?

This visit to the library yielded a rather fiction-heavy collection, relatively speaking, of course. My last few books have taken me, each, the better part of a week to finish. So, I decided to lighten things up and indulge in some Wimpy Kid, which delivered the easy reading the series promises (less than two hours!) and I believe I did laugh out very loud a few times. Also not in the picture above, is The Shanghai Moon (no relation to the Jackie Chan starrer that pops up every time I google the book), my first Lydia Chin/Bill Smith book. Entirely satisfactory.

I am currently nearing the end of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, which is Kevin Roose’s account of the semester he spent at Liberty University, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s baby, and the largest fundamentalist Christian university in the United States. Roose, whose background is definitely liberal (he transfers to Liberty from Brown), intends this experience as an exercise in participative journalism, necessitating a fair amount of deception. Also, Roose’s timing is uncanny – he records an interview with Falwell just before he (Falwell) suddenly dies.  Thus far, it has been highly entertaining reading, and I am endlessly amazed that this book is actually the work of a nineteen-year old.

Dealing with the same theme as Coming of Age in Mississippi, is Maya Angelou’s highly acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, that I am looking forward to. I also have two Ruth Rendells on my shelf – A Judgment in Stone (which I had to place a hold on)  and In Sickness and Health (which I randomly picked off the shelf at the library). The last mystery on the pile is Maisie Dobbs, my first Jacqueline Winspear, which along with The Shanghai Moon were recommended by Oprah’s Book Club.

Onto books that are certain to take me longer – Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chefthe memoir of New York based chef, Gabrielle Hamilton. With weightier subject matters are, Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade, which I am sure was recommended in The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (which I read last year and loved), and Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (with a sufficiently self-explanatory title).

An exciting pile, as always.


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“I don’t understand. These were Jews escaping the Nazis? But – they were going to Shanghai?

“It was their only choice”

“What do you mean? I thought they went to other countries in Europe, or came here [United States of America].”

“Survivors did, after the war. But as the Nazis rose in the thirties, countries all over the world closed their doors. Everyone knew what was happening, but no government was willing to deal with a flood of desperate refugees.”

– From The Shanghai Moon (2009) by award-winning author S. J. Rozan

I would not have expected a lesson in world history, a tidbit that has escaped me entirely until now, from a mystery that involves a jewelry theft in New York City, but I’ve come to expect treats in unexpected places.

In Shanghai Moon, Lydia Chin and partner Bill Smith are private investigators, hired to recover jewelry that belonged to a young brother and sister who fled Austria for Shanghai in 1938. Chin and Smith’s mysterious Swiss Client informs them that the jewelry thief, a corrupt official from China, is in New York City, and is likely to sell the jewelry in Chinatown. While Chin (who is Chinese-American) and Smith navigate the crowded alleys of little China, a couple of people involved in the investigation turn up dead, and the duo realize they have something big on their hands. And that is the mystery they must solve.

Chinatown is described deliciously in the book which brought back memories of eating delicious, vegetarian, Cantonese grub on Mott Street, and looking for egg tarts and hand-pulled noodles in the area.  I found the plot complicated (in a good way), exciting, and just a little confusing and read the book from cover to cover in less than 24 hours. The denouement is reasonably satisfying, while the much of the story is told through letters and diary entries, that sound quite unnatural. And because there are so many of them, I found them a tad wearisome. But the detectives are spirited, and I did enjoy my introduction to the Chinese-American detective, and the cultural references that came with it. Also, a lot of history is interwoven into the plot, from the Japanese invasion, to the conflict between Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist troops and Mao Zedong’s Communist army, and the tumultuous climate that prevailed in Shanghai during those times.

Now, onto the history lesson. According to Encyclopedia of Diasporas: Immigrant and Refugee Cultures Around the World

From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents, such as visas, health certificates and financial statements.

What happened to them during the Japanese occupation of the city?

Under the pressure of Nazi Germany, the Japanese Authorities proclaimed, on 18 February 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month…Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous and insufferable situation.

And? What happened when the War was over?

they were able to leave, and most made plans to go to another country to join their family or relatives. They had never planned to come to China in the first place, ending up there simply because they had no other choice. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, became their preferred destinations, but the door of most countries were not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel, and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

There was Jewish presence in China much before theWar, and this continues today.

You learn something new everyday.

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Black history month may have come and gone, but April is still a good time to read Coming of Age in Mississippi: An Autobiography by civil rights activist, Anne Moody. Originally published in 1968, this unsentimental portrait of growing up in racist Mississippi is at once distressing and inspiring.

Moody’s story begins on a Mississippi plantation around 1944, with the almost four year old author watching her parents leave for the fields every morning. Her parents separate not long afterwards and her mother struggles to put a roof over their heads and a loaf of bread on the table, as she ekes out a meager living as a waitress or housekeeper. Frequently pregnant, or between pregnancies with her new boyfriend, Raymond, the author’s mother is often sad and emotionally unstable. Raymond’s family never accepts her mother, ostensibly on account of her being dark and their being a high yellow. As in much of the world, there are caste systems within caste systems and bubbles within bubbles.

Although always aware of the color differences between her own family and the whites they work for, Moody becomes cognizant of the implications of being black at about seven years of age.

…not only were they better than me because they were white but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.

Moody begins paid work at nine years of age, sweeping porches and later graduating to babysitting and housekeeping. On the other hand, her step-father, an ex-soldier, struggles to find a regular source of income.

White businesses in town employed Negroes as janitors only, and there was never more than one janitor in any single business. The Negro man had a hard road to travel when looking for employment. A Negro woman, however, could always go out and earn a dollar a day because whites always needed a cook, a baby-sitter, or someone to do housecleaning.

While this meant that black women often had a more reliable source of income, being The Help meant that you had to deal with white prejudice (sometimes white friendliness too), subtle Klan threats, or with your white master’s advances.

I had never heard of a single affair in Centerville between a Negro man and a white woman. It was almost impossible for such an affair to take place. Negro men did not have access to white women. Whereas almost every  white man in town had a Negro woman in his kitchen or nursing his babies.

A straight ‘A’s student and eighth grade’s homecoming queen, Moody enters high school and learns how the daily life of blacks is fraught with danger as she hears about black men being killed for getting out of place. She experiences a new fear, “the fear of being killed just because I was black”. She resolves to stand up for her rights and leaves home at fifteen , “sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day”.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmet Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders…. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

Writing about her own feelings of anger at fellow blacks’ seeming apathy, and their real fear of white fury, and white animosity towards blacks,especially insubordinate blacks, Moody paints a picture of the desperate life in the 1960s, towns seething with passionate hatred and shaking with palpable terror.

Moody’s real involvement with the civil rights movement begins when she wins a basketball scholarship to the highly ranked Tougaloo College, and gets involved with various organizations involved in the movement, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Moody evolves from being a discontented high school student to a passionate and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and becomes what she calls a professional agitator, participating and leading demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins. Before she turns 23, she becomes a prominent agitator, gets arrested, gets blacklisted by the Klan and eventually becomes dispirited with what seems a hopeless battle. Towards the end of the book, she reaffirms her life’s mission knowing that she can never really leave the Movement.

Coming of Age in Mississippi  is not only the personal history of a civil rights activist, but a lesson in American History, a lesson in courage and persistence, and the story of how a people fought to make their dreams happen. “We shall overcome some day”, they said, and they did.

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On my bookshelf – April 2012

It’s time for quarterly appraisals. Goodreads tells me I’ve made good progress on my reading challenge, and with 18 books under my belt, I am two books ahead (I’ll be the first to admit that my target of 60 books in one year is rather modest).

I just finished Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein. I met Orenstein’s daughter Daisy Tomoko, earlier this year in her intimate and wry memoir, Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother. Whether she is recounting her anguishing journey to motherhood, or chronicling her struggles to help her daughter navigate all the pinkness and prettiness of girlhood, Orenstein does not shy away from admitting her uncertainties and contradictions. While this is sometimes endearing, those of you looking for advice on how to help your own daughters lead more balanced lives, may come away with more questions than answers.

Earlier last month, I read an  Early Reviewers copy of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, which I received from  LibraryThing, another thought-provoking study in ambivalence, where author Akash Kapur teeters between elation upon seeing India’s progress, and despair, upon pondering the accompanying disarray.

Currently, I am in the middle of two absorbing, and entirely different books: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and Coming of Age in MississippiPrecisely because workflow management and the civil rights movement share so little in common with each other, they are good to read in parallel.

Up next, I have The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir, which I also received from LibraryThing and the highly acclaimed Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children, which I’m shocked to discover has remained on my TBR pile from nearly half a year before I became a parent. A book on Search Engine Optimization balances my plate.

I’ve taken on one another reading challenge this year, the What’s in a Name 5 challenge, and I’ve read three out of six books required to complete it.

As always, I am utterly thankful to my local public library for making my book-ish life so exciting.

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About two months ago, I received an Early Reviewers copy of Akash Kapur’s India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India, courtesy LibraryThing. I chose the book for obvious reasons: I am Indian with a keen interest in contemporary India, not as much politically as the life of the common man or woman. I did not suspect that the book would hit so close to home, literally.

Akash Kapur has a rather unique vantage point when observing and writing about Indians in India. Born in India, he moves to the United States in 1991 at the age of 16. Somewhat less impressed with his life in America, he returns to his place of birth after twelve years, only to find it, surprise, changed. Changed into America, almost. And changing still. Kapur is not your average Indian by any means. Not only is he the product of Indian and American parentage, but he was raised not in a typical Indian city (or village), but an atypical, experimental, universal township called Auroville. Situated near Pondicherry, a former French colony, Auroville has half as many French as Indian, and nearly as many German as French residents. Auroville is about 160 kilometres from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, where some of the story is set (and where I’m from, I might add). Surrounded by village settlements, Auroville is unlike any other town in India.

When Kapur returns to India in 2003, he finds India in development mode. He senses that a small segment of people, mostly rural, mostly older, are critical about the transformation, but is himself enthusiastic about the apparent progress seeing how the young, educated workforce are able to cross social and financial bridges and live the good life, sort of the Indian version of the American dream. However, upon conversations with a medley of subjects –  rural Indians, urban Indians, and everybody in between, Kapur becomes less elated and more skeptical about India’s new shine. Development, he comes to understand is …

…a form of creative destruction. For everyone whose life was being regenerated or rejuvenated in modern India, there was someone, as well, whose life was being destroyed.

Kapur touches upon many social issues affecting contemporary, modern India – a crumbling feudal system, casteism, untouchability, homosexuality, atheism, the changing position of women in society, general lawlessness, urbanization, and booming real estate. He also expresses alarm at ecological time bombs – rampant pollution. He wonders at the irony of a “a population capable of maintaining ritualistic levels of hygiene at home, yet that dumped its garbage on the streets without compunction”. He comments on what has historically been India’s attitude towards the environment – poverty eradication seen as an imperative, and ecological activism as “luxury for the rich”. Kapur’s subjects have viewpoints all over the spectrum – strongly for, strongly against, ambivalent; and can be considered representative of at least a part of the vast and diverse population.

However, what seems most at the root of it all is the constant tension between the city and the country, between urban living and rural living, between technology, shopping malls and the fields, between real estate and agriculture. Kapur begins his book  on the East Coast Road. Once “a potholed tar road that meandered across the South Indian countryside, cutting through rice fields and coconut plantations and sleepy fishing villages”, this national highway now leads thousands of young professionals to their busy days at technology companies. I have been around when this piece of the world suddenly became visible, became a suburb, and then got absorbed into the city itself. My familiarity with this road spans from the 1990s through mid 2000s, when software and outsourcing companies started setting up shop along its length. I have traversed the East Coast Road (or at least a part of it) on my way to my first job for a few years. While employees waited in designated bus stops all along the highway, the 45-minute journey almost always led to encounters with herds of cows relaxing right in the middle of the road, and mangled remains of stray dogs having being run over by nighttime truckers. Kapur is really talking about home here.

The title India Becoming seems incomplete to me. Rather than use any of the several words for change – transformation, transition, evolution, Kapur has chosen to use the word becoming as if to imply a definite end point. America? India, a socialist nation has embraced capitalism with so much gusto that Kapur “began to feel that the country was being engulfed in its encounter with capitalism, swallowed by a great wave of consumerism and materialism that threatened to corrode the famous Indian soul”. Famous Indian Soul aside, development has been a mixed blessing. With new opportunities, higher salaries, the ability to purchase first and even second homes, cars, the power the send the kids to the best private schools, to be able to think nothing of spending a month’s salary at one of those fancy malls, to cross social boundaries that previously left some oppressed on caste/gender based grounds, progress certainly seems sweet. Kapur writes that cities, however, “nurtured the ambition but they also fed the anxiety”.

…thought came to me that Bangalore was India’s America: a chance at a new life, a beacon on a hill that attracted the young and the ambitious and the talented from across the globe.

I suspect that the same can be said of most Indian cities.

However, this large scale migration of people into the cities (where all those opportunities are) has seriously undermined the villages. In a country where a large segment of the population still relies on agriculture and allied sectors, this does not bode well. Farming is not nearly as lucrative,  but farmlands can make good money as real estate. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes of the antipathy between the city slickers and the clodhoppers. She quotes Wendell Berry:

 Eaters, that is, must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

If everyone feels that farming has no future, where is all the food going to come from? If all agricultural lands are made unusable, and converted into apartment complexes with swimming pools, what is going to feed a burgeoning population? Besides pointing out, rightly, that India’s development has ignored crucial issues of sustainability and has only widened the gap between the rich and the poor, Kapur has little to say about what he sees India becoming, or what can be done to address the real issues that he writes about. Although the title hints at India’s future, the book is strongly rooted in the present.

Kapur’s prose in uneven, sometimes beautifully eloquent and at other times flat and inadequate. In general, Kapur does a better job of depicting a nation in flux than describing his subjects. Local slang can be tricky -in one episode, a man who has deliberately committed a parking violation, responds to being questioned with a haughty ‘What goes of yours?’. I am fairly sure that the original utterance was ‘tera kya jaatha hai?’, roughly translated from Hindi as ‘what is your problem?’. Kapur provides just the literal translation, which deemphasizes the arrogance in the reply and probably only makes people wonder that they do speak funny English in India.

Over the course of the book, Kapur shifts from being enthusiastic, then ambivalent, and later alarmed at the state of affairs in India. The central theme of the book is his feeling conflicted between exhilaration on one hand, and profound sadness on the other. He finally decides to quell his uneasiness, sit back and enjoy a pivotal moment in India’s future. I myself am unable to shake aside my concerns and take on the role of an eager audience. I am unable to find peace in my ambivalence and am still torn between feeling a sense of loss and pride.

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