Sunday, October 17, 2010

Secret Daughter

After my recent move, I made a rare Coscto run to stock up on some of my essentials. Laundry detergent, tea, and hummas, as well as some unnecessary items like cutting boards and popcorn machines. Needing to get a new book, and wanting to save myself a trip, I found myself circling the long and fully stocked book table at Costco. I picked books up, read summaries, continually replacing the ones in my hands with different ones down the line, until I came to this weeks choice, Secret Daughter. First time author, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, brings to life two opposing but heart rending concerns to jump start her novel, infertility for North American women and the disregard for girls in India. This compelling story is an intimate portrait of family, culture, and the importance of understanding your heritage, and it gracefully weaves together the transcending relationships between a mother and her child.

On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to Asha. But in a culture that favours sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter's life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son. Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband Krishnan see a photo of baby Asha from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion for her. Somer knows life will change with the adoption, but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles. Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, Secret Daughter poignantly explores issues of culture and belonging. Moving between two worlds and two families, one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite their diverging cultural identities, this powerful debut novel explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love.

On the surface, this is the story of a child born in terrible circumstances, the twist of fate that changes her life, and her adolescent search for self that creates ripples with the people who surround her. Yet there are many more layers to this novel. There is great complexity in the relationships between parent and child, and husband and wife, making them both realistic and heartbreaking. There are the questions of class, education, gender and culture in our globalized society, so beautifully illustrated through two seemingly opposite families. The characters are imperfect, but they all learn and grow through their experiences.

Gowda does a wonderful job of showing the cultural discrepancies of Indian life, its diametrically polar aspects. Indians live either in dire poverty or with great wealth. The slums are vividly drawn, such that you can almost smell, touch and taste the florid poverty, pulling us deep into a culture that most of us have only glimpsed. There is a much larger population of adult men than women in India and the fact that female children are killed at birth or aborted is shown as a routine event in the lives of the poor. Though India is the seat of great advancements in technology, many people live without electricity or basic utilities. Education is valued highly but the poor have little access to it. Children from poor families either work at home in caretaking roles or are on the streets begging. It is rare that a poor Indian child gets to go to school.

This is an intelligent and vibrant novel. With lyrical prose, and clear, precise details, the Two India's are richly portrayed. The emotion of the characters was palpable and thoughtfully crafted, with every emotional reaction garnered from the reader, and the Indian terms sprinkled throughout the pages gave it a feeling of authenticity, without distracting from the story. Gowda's writing is powerful, her prose poetic, and the end result an emotional read.

I always love when you get a deeper insight into yourself, or even better, someone in your life from reading a book or watching a movie. It seems these little revelations arise when you are least expecting them, and the usually come from an unexpected source. My Mom was adopted, and although I have often heard her wonder aloud where she gets her curly hair, or the same nose that I have inherited, I never really understood what it would be like to not know your birth parents, or the emotions that would arise knowing you were given up for adoption. This novel gave me a small glimpse into that alien world I never never been able to understand befor

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

This week I decided to read another classic, but I couldn't decide between Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. While walking through the bookstore, both tittles in hand, I was on the phone with my dad, Darcy. We were talking about different authors and books we had read, when I mentioned that I was having a hard time deciding between these two Jane Austin titles. It came down to this, 'which one has Mr. Darcy in it' asked my dad, and so I left the store with Pride and prejudice, and a week filled with wit, humor, and a timeless story of love and relationship.

The carefully controlled movements of polite society often conceal passionate hearts, keen minds, and rebellious wills. Set at the turn of the nineteenth century, the English country comes alive as we are introduced to the wonderfully charming and intelligent heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. As the pages turn, we watch as Elizabeth attempts to stay true to her ideals, while her meddlesome mother schemes to get all five Bennet sisters married in order to secure their family's fate and fortune. The characters are vividly brought to life as they both succeed and fail, in life and in love, bound together with every changing relationship. Pride and Prejudice is not just a love story, it is full of criticism of the society and people who only play before each other and judge by appearances.

I have always wanted to a read Jane Austen Novel. I Don't quite know why. Perhaps because her name has appeared countless times in movies and books over the decades, always with an admirable air to the reference, or maybe because she is one of the most well known female Authors. Either way, I was glad to have finally read one of her timeless stories. Austen, like her heroine Elizabeth, is smart and witty, with a writing style that can easily transcend through generations.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog for Withering Heights, 'To read nothing but the classics would be as foolish as completely ignoring them. The aim is to combine the wisdom of the past with the innovation of the future, as the two are inextricably linked.' I still see the extreme value in this, and can appreciate it even more with each work of classic literature that I consume.

It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.

The Disappeared

A couple of weeks ago I was at the mall with a friend, when we stopped into the bookstore. I needed to pick up a book, and had a certain one in mind, but could not remember the title. So while waiting for the clerk to look up the author for me, I began perusing the shelves and came across The Disappeared. Written by Canadian author, Kim Echlin, this novel is haunting, vivid, and elegiac. It is an unforgettable consideration of language, justice, and memory, 'at once a battle cry and a piercing lament, for truth, for love'. Needless to say, I picked up the book a week later.

Great love stories are inseparable from tragedy. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet: for the iconic lovers in literature, things always end badly. Kim Echlin ups the ante in her third novel by placing her lovers against the backdrop of Pol Pot’s genocidal massacre in Cambodia. Anne Greves is a teenager in Montreal when she first encounters Serey, a Cambodian exile five years her senior, who has lost touch with his family since the borders of his native country were closed. Drawn together by a shared love of the blues, and over the objections of the girl’s father, Anne and Serey begin an affair, with love and death pulsating through the pages, interlaced. When the Vietnamese invade Cambodia and the borders are thrown open, Serey returns home to search for his family and vanishes, prompting Anne to embark on a dangerous journey to Phnom Penh to find him. 'Against the odds the lovers are reunited, and in a country where tranquil rice paddies harbor bones of the massacred', Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But some wounds love can't heal, and when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers that the journey she must now undertake, may reveal a story she cannot bear.

In Montreal, Serey sang to Anne of love and longing. This novel is Anne’s song to him. This story evokes their tumultuous relationship in a world of colliding values, with twin currents of memory and desire, where these two self-exiled lovers struggle to recreate themselves in a world that rejects their hopes. Woven beautifully into this story of love rediscovered, in language which is both poetic and heartbreaking, are the unspeakable horrors wrought by the now retreated Khmer Rouge.

This is a poignant love story and a memorable journey through a nations past. Of all the tensions Echlin successfully negotiates- loss and recovery, betrayal and forgiveness, eastern and western indifference- the intersection of memory and language is the most nuanced. It's direct and devastating. She finds small acts of grace and dignity amid the suffering, and in this novel, it is these quite gestures that speak the loudest.

Stylistically assured, and entirely captivating, Echlin creates sentences beyond our imagining. She captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure. “The smell of the River Bassac,” Anne says, describing her first day in Phnom Penh, “meltwaters from distant mountains tangled into humid air and garlic and night jasmine and cooking oil and male sweat and female wetness. Corruption loves the darkness.” Of the killing fields, she writes: “Depressions in the earth overgrown with grass. Stupas of skulls and bones. The sky.” And later: “We watched two small boys catching frogs in the gullies of the fields, running past paddy and sugar palm and cloth and bone. The grass had done its work.” Most memorable is the lingering stench of death: “People startle at cigarette smoke and rotting garbage and gasoline,” Echlin writes, “surrogate odors of torture and dead bodies and bombs. A bad smell makes them jump.”

Much has been said of the banality of evil. Here we are made to think of the banality of indifference.

I have often noted that I love great historical fiction. The stories can cover a brief moment or grand sweep of time. It is simply that beautiful blending of truth and fiction that always seems to strike a chord. The Disappeared confronts one of the most painful conflicts of our time: the collision between our private, personal desires and the brutal, dehumanizing facts of modern history. This transcending love story manages to penetrate the aching core of the Cambodian tragedy, exposing in terrible detail the consequences for generations living through 'Year Zero".

As those responsible for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge face trial now, 30 years after 1.7 million Cambodians were murdered, this work of fiction is a reminder of the atrocities suffered through this very real episode of political oppression and genocide.

This book was truly enthralling. I read it in a matter of hours. While curled up on the couch after a long weekend of moving, it was the perfect retreat. This is a story that will embrace you from the first page and stay with you like a cherished memory.

The Glass Castle

This weeks book, The Glass Castle was a spur of the moment purchase. Having seen it in a variety of stores before, I didn't hesitate before choosing it to read this week. Author, Jeannette Walls, has carved a story with precision and grace out of one of the most chaotic, heartbreaking childhoods ever to be set down on the page. This deeply affecting memoir is a triumph in every possible way, and it does what all good books should: it affirms our faith in the human spirit.

Jeannette Walls is one of four children brought up by parents who are totally eccentric and often dangerously neglectful, whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. As Walls explains early in the story: "Mom believed that children shouldn't be burdened with rules and restrictions." In the beginning, the Walls family lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, was a painter who couldn't stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an "excitement addict." Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.

Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town, and the family, Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents' betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.

While Walls and her siblings aren't abused by their parents in the conventional sense of the word, the constant chaos and upheaval in their everyday lives and the things they had to do to deal with the extreme poverty they faced - rummaging for food in dumpsters was an everyday occurrence - leave the reader wondering how the kids could even begin to survive such ramshackle parenting. Incredibly, three of the four siblings do better than survive. They grow into highly responsible, caring and contributing members of society.

What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

Here is a biography that will quietly take your breath away. The main characters aren't famous, infamous, or doing anything that will remotely change the world. But in every way, and in a beautiful way, this is a story about the very essence of human spirit. It will touch your heart and make you count your blessings, no matter what challenges you face.