Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Book Review:

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

12.30.2011

By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Author: Michael Ondaatje
Format: Hardcover, 280 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
Pub Date: August 30, 2011

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The narrative, at first, is plodding and slow as if to mimic the intensive labour one requires in building a foundation. This foundation begins with the voice of a young boy, Michael, who is both inquisitive and yet, disciplined and controlled. And though he is described as a child who is curious, as most young boys are, he is an omnipotent character, one who is not authoritative in tone, but distant.

His maturity is revealed in his perception of those around him, the people who unravel in his mind, more as characters in the play of his short, but life-altering journey on the Oronsay. And characters who by his own confession alter him by his memories of them, seem to both propel him and sustain him much into his later life.

Michael Ondaatje’s craft specializes in making his characters subtle enough for believability and interesting enough to be entertaining. Ondaatje, however, never gives a full disclosure of his intended interpretation of his characters to his readers. We just haven’t the time to fully delve into who we think the characters are because Ondaatje intentionally does not allow us to.

As an author, he gives only what he feels is necessary and quite magically and artistically unveils truths to us we never realized were there to discover in the first place.

The book is written in the style of a memoir and goes as far as to share its main character’s name, Michael, with the author. This in itself can be deceiving since Ondaatje attests to the book’s fiction.

It doesn’t begin as a beautifully read story, but through Ondaatje’s lyrical prose, it slowly builds into a more full-bodied narrative with depth and meaning. What that is exactly, I cannot say—or am afraid to, since in the text, the reader seems to be somewhat forewarned by Ondaatje, the author, through his narrative in saying:

Recently I sat on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understand everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them. – p. 208

Ondaatje’s characters in this sense, are what and who they are. Simply put. (Though complicated.)

And even though the tone and voice of the narrative is seriously written in the style of the memoir and to be taken seriously as such, the characters and their stories feel fantastical, almost circus-like, as found in the depiction and pathetic fallacy of the circus troupe led by the character, Pacipia.

There is friendship in the book and childhood—how both are as fluid as the waters of the journey the Oronsay is on. And the recollection of memories seem to resurface as objects that are thrown overboard a ship only to resurface at sea: buoyant and changed.

The end of the books is what we would normally expect to be the beginning of a story, a scene where Michael is finally greeted by his mother on the shore of England.

But the changes and the growth of the characters have seemed to have already taken place on the ship. Perhaps it is Michael’s absorption of these stories that he is left with to recollect and work out to understand, which creates who he is later as a man and for the entirety of his life—or not. Perhaps it is merely a fictional memoir of a boy-turned-man who voyaged on a ship from India to England and was changed by it as any boy might be. His childhood, like Ramadhim and Cassius’ childhood had ended somewhere during their voyage at sea.

It is a lovely story of boyhood friendship, love unaware of itself, the duality each individual has the potential to possess, the uncertainty of life, and the inevitable changes it brings by the unexpected shores we find ourselves.

It is easy to see why The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.

If you are patient enough to plod through the beginning of the story as one who helps in building a strong foundation, it’s much worth your read. As you turn each page, more is revealed to you—and to the characters it speaks about—which in itself, is a worthy journey for us all. One I highly suggest you take.

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Zara’s Rating

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What’s the longest journey you have ever travelled by car, boat, or plane?

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A Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A Review:

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

12.24.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Format: Hardcover, 336 pages

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

ISBN: 978-0-3455-2554-3

Pub Date: August 23, 2011

***

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel is storytelling with ease. The writing is clear, but what is most beautiful to discover in this book is indeed the language of flowers and their meaning as originally dated back to the Victorian era. The writing is neither lyrical, nor poetic as its subject matter of flowers, their beauty or their bloom, but direct in a clear style of its author and personality of the book’s main character, Victoria Jones.

She is sufficiently plain as her name, if only for her dire circumstances due to the nature of her birth and upbringing. In this, she is quite extraordinary, having no choice, but to be orphaned, having to grow up for most of her childhood in foster homes as a child belonging to the state of California and transplanted from home to home until her eighteenth birthday by Meredith Combs, her disgruntled and exasperated social worker.

The number of times the main character has moved from placement to placement does not speak as harshly to her flaws as it does to the abuse and often the neglect by the foster care system that inhibits her. This regular pattern of neglect and nomadic instability proves to harden Victoria Jones against trust, love, and affection in relationships to the point of disliking physical touch. Ironically, Victoria’s hardness, which is a result of her feelings of inadequacy and failure as a child who is both unwanted and unloved, is a later source of her strength and survival as an adult.

The novel is primarily about the relationship of motherhood in its varying forms as depicted in the characters that surround Victoria Jones. From Elizabeth Anderson’s maternal love for Victoria as a child, Grant Hasting’s paternal love for his mentally ill mother, Catherine, Renata’s distant, yet protective professionalism, Mother Ruby’s over-saturated nurturing, Victoria’s indirect maternal instinct towards her lovesick clients searching for messages and answers in the flowers they seek, and her overwhelming love, yet quick incapacity to care for her newborn infant. This and the yearning for love, a fierce competition for it against the restraints of a character who is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with its social nuances, and the need for reconciliation with the past, is what this book is about.

Though the story moves with ease to convince you of its interesting plot and curiosity enough to advocate for the main character, the characters seemed somewhat unbelievable in their polarity. They are to me what perhaps a reader wishes a character to be, rather than a true reflection of what people are really like. I don’t know, perhaps I am too harsh in judging the cold and emotionally inept girl who is naturally drawn to flowers or the exaggerated characters who are her counterparts. 

Though, Renata of Bloom, deems herself non-nurturing, she is over generous with her business and her money in the care and welfare of the main character.

Elizabeth Anderson, a childless woman is overly patient with a self-indulgent, prickly girl and forgives past wrongs in the cruelty of vengeful, false accusations, and the burning of a vineyard.  

Grant Hastings is wonderfully kind and mature for a young man merely in his twenties with little or no resentment towards the secret of Victoria’s past, her inability for commitment, and her last form of abandonment. Any other man perhaps would be livid. Instead Grant cooks her a succulent meal of chicken upon her return.

Aside from these sometimes over-idealistic characters, the novel moves between past and present to show Victoria Jones’ life education in horticulture and survival, her self-taught ability to take photographs and create a flower dictionary, and in that, create for herself her own meaning in the ways to cope with and understand her world.

The novel not only inspired me to consider studying horticulture for my own search of meaning behind the beauty of nature and flowers, but also allows its readers to recognize the gaps sometimes found in a state-run foster care system that needs be addressed in order for more young children to thrive in self-confidence, family life, and a true sense of belonging.

Though meaning and “[t]he language of flowers is [deemed] nonnegotiable…” (p.63) by Elizabeth Anderson – the main character, Victoria Jones, is able to negotiate her own terms of language, love, acceptance, survival, and growth.

After reading the book, I lay down my own bouquet of Laburnum, White Jasmine, and Agrimony.
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Zara’s Rating

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Book Review: Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan

Book Review:

Glass Boys by Nicole Lundrigan

12.11.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Nicole Lundrigan

Format: Trade Paperback, 304 pages

Publisher: Douglas & Macintyre

ISBN: 978-1553657972

Pub Date: July 29, 2011

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As a reviewer, I feel much like the character Wilda Burry when, “[h]er head wavered slightly, [her] lids lowered, and she whispered, ‘I don’t even know how to begin.'”

Because really, this novel by Nicole Lundrigan is rich with storytelling and family history between the Trench and Fagan families, which at its heart is the core and drama of the book.

The characters, though broken by the altering affects of their relationships, are fiercely honest both in mannerism and dialogue that soon, you as the reader, develop an ease through Lundrigan’s well-paced writing to surely and eventually feel affection for even the worst of the characters and the trouble and darkness that haunts and lies within them.

The chapters, too, end with stark passages that the prose fiction itself transpires into the stuff of poems and wonderful imagery.

There is much to enjoy in the landscape of Newfoundland, in its dialect, and in these characters. Though most, if not all, are left with emotional scarring, heavy blueprints of tangled and complicated pasts, Lundrigan’s writing is neither obtuse nor jarring. And though she covers a span of difficult and sensitive subject matter, she does so with serious, tender pen strokes.

What I thoroughly enjoyed was the precise unravelling of the plot, the depiction and the context of strong brotherly love and Lundrigan’s ability as a female writer to write her male characters so convincingly well.

It is a hidden gem of a novel, filled with dark lusts and perversions, displacement and yearning, recollection and reconciliation if not only with others, but oneself, and is bewitchingly hopeful amongst a long line of tragedy, which should catapult Nicole Lundrigan as an author to where she rightly deserves to be: highly acclaimed and on every bookshelf!

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Zara’s Rating

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Book Review: Away by Jane Urquhart

Book Review:

Away by Jane Urqhuart

12.11.2011

By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Jane Urquart

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Publisher: Bloomsbury

ISBN: 978-0747516774

Pub Date: April 28, 1994

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The body of this novel in its narration is as suspended as the pendulum movement of waves in a body of water, of which the book is gravitationally focused.

It speaks of a history that dates back to 1842 on an island of Rathlin, just off the northern coast of Ireland and moves as its characters move in migration to the area of the Great Lakes in Canada 140 years later. As such, it is both a book of the early politics between the English and the Irish during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century and a book of displacement and yearning, immigration, and the search for home.

But it is also a book that speaks through women of four generations whose astute power to attract men to themselves is both a gift and a family curse much blamed on the dangerous power of beauty found in their pale, white skin against their red, fiery hair.

It is in this beauty that captivated the township of Cleggan, Kinramer, Church Bay, Ballygill, and Ballycarry etc. towards the character, Mary Slattery O’Malley, also renamed Moira, who was believed to be sought and taken “away” by a daemon lover from the sea.

The voice of the book is often written as lyrical fantasy, the language poetic and sentimental, which exemplifies the beauty of not only the landscape of the mind, but its connection to the beauty and glory of Ireland’s and Canada’s natural landscapes, its rivers and its forests.

As Mary Slattery O’Malley was tied to the shores of Rathlin Island and the women in her family after her: Eileen, to the forests and willow trees near Black River; and Esther, to the surf of Loughbreeze Beach – the nature of the land is exquisitely portrayed.

The women, though, become hosts of folklore:

Mary, in her withdrawn state and compulsion to imagine and be drawn to the spirit of her deceased beloved from the sea, removes herself both emotionally and physically from her husband and two children.

This same passion is passed down to her daughter, Eileen, whose innocence and creativity, is drawn to sleep in willow trees, to communicate with and have visions and prophecies from nature and conversations with namely a bird. The same power of compulsion drove her to sacrifice a life of material comfort and love alongside her brother, in search for her misplaced beloved, the political vagrant, Aiden Lanighan.

Though Urquhart’s writing can be both beautiful and poetic in her descriptions of love and nature, even the sorrowful lament of a community struck by famine, I found the extremism in these women to be obsessive, self-indulgent, and delusional to the point of hysteria.

Personally, I would have preferred the book without its political implications or its irrational bouts of “love-sickness,” but enjoyed the language of poetics and folklore told in the love of the landscape, history, and the style of recollection that Urquhart described.

Aside from that, I found its main female characters too melancholy and over dramatic for reason. I would enjoy the novel alone for its lyrical storytelling and haunting spirituality that resides in its respect and wonder at nature. But it’s not a novel I would allow myself to take too seriously. Unfortunately, it takes more than pale white skin and red, fiery hair to seduce me…

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Zara’s Rating

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A Review: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

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A Review:

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

12/11/2012

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Margaret Atwood

Format: Hardcover, 446 pages, First ed.

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0385260077

Pub Date: March 26, 1999

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To decide to enter the fictional world created by Atwood is to willingly submerge yourself into the psyche of her protagonist – because that’s the power of her work. Regardless, of how unwilling you think you may be in becoming drawn into her story and/or stories—I pluralize this because she usually has more layers than one—you will have no choice, but become hypnotized or embodied by the world she creates in her fiction because the voice of her narrative is always so strong.

When I say strong, I’m not referring to the tone of voice or the strength of the characters themselves—though this may very well be true of them—I’m referring to the power of her narrative because the voice she writes in—this inner dialogue—is able to excavate marvellous truths with such clarity, originality, and precision.

Atwood is able to write with not only keen insight and provocative subject matter, she isn’t afraid to offend you with jarring, raw imagery, language, or context. It’s intentional in so far as she deliberately resists being conformed by stereotypical ideas or dogmas. What you expect to happen in novels in how characters are meant to evolve does not happen in the same way in Atwood’s work. The rest comes from a well of either brutal honesty and truth on the part of the writer or the complete professional wizardry performed in the “magic” that Atwood creates with the written word – or both, except there are no tricks with Atwood.

Magic denotes supernatural forces that flow out from nowhere, giving neither its master control nor credit. Atwood’s artistry is magical in that she cannot be duplicated. But her manipulation of the language, her word power and passion for it, and story writing and “showing” – not “telling” is accurately and expertly devised. It is without a doubt, a natural, gifted, and crafted talent. And a dedication to doing the work.

And I think that’s part of the reason why she’s just as resented superficially on a global scale as she is worshipped – the fact that she has been reigned as an iconic, Canadian, female writer and artist. The irony here, is that her ambition, drive, and self-confidence is what probably brought her to the iconic stratosphere, and no doubt, her natural talent as well—but this exact kind of attention and glorification is what Atwood, I think, abhors—and yet at the same time, on some atomic level, demands.

But this inner requirement is not her focal point – it’s not the driving force in her writing or why I think she writes. It’s the compulsion. Writing, for any good writer—for any writer worthy of being acclaimed as having one ounce or more of talent—is driven by it.

The words must come out. The story must be written down. There are no extravagant plans or blueprints. There is no trickery or shortcuts. There is only always: the writer, the compulsion, and the white page – and then the writing itself.

A writer need not have “good” muses or even “many” muses. A good writer need only a supersonic ear to listen to the inner rhythm of language – but most importantly, a “seeing” eye that understands something others know, but cannot articulate. A good writer cannot be taught or bred, but be born of an instinctive talent – and then in ruthless dedication, work in solitude for many hours at a time and finally in years to sharpen his or her: 1) craft, 2) pencils, and 3) ego.

You cannot teach talent. You cannot imitate authenticity. You cannot counterfeit gold and expect to get your dollars’ worth. A bad writer cannot impersonate good writing. You cannot be a fraud. You either have it or you don’t. And if you do, then it’s not a matter of luck or literary providence – it’s a matter of tenacity, 10-inch-thick skin, a great agent, and a receptive audience. Anything else is fluff and trimmings.

Atwood is one of the privileged few who seem have “it” all. But, give her credit, too. She’s worked hard to climb the iconic ladder with an albatross of work – 51 titles in total (I know, I counted) that as a list spans a full two pages over a number of years. Many writers are born with this elusive “it,” but don’t have the confidence or the stamina needed to create the work required to be recognized by both the literary community and by those outside of it. Atwood just turned 72.

And she’s resisted the stereotype that writers – that artists, especially female writers, require self-deprecation, dramatic mental or physical illnesses, a man, or a manic disposition that inevitably leads to suicide or mysterious death. Atwood is no Plath.

So kudos to you, Atwood. Have another glass of red wine. You’ve heard it all before. Yes, so your stories and your characters are dark, sombre, and cynical. I’ve even heard from other people, that your work is “downright depressing.” Damn right, it is! But it is also intelligent, poetic, stark, and dead-on.

Maybe you are, too: dark, sombre, cynical, downright depressed. But, maybe you continually re-invent yourself and shape shift into who you need to be depending on the weather, your mood, or who is interviewing or critiquing your work. Maybe you re-invent yourself not only in your stories, but in order to cover your scent from public reviewers and critics, like myself, who hunt you down with pigeon holes. I get it – I think.

Writing is the most vulnerable art available. There is a miniscule divide between the writer and the work. Good fiction is at its heart a microcosmic truth. Somewhere hidden behind commas, periods, and exhilarated exclamation points, it’ll hammer you on the head. That is, if you can read. (Sorry, my internal literary snob just gave me a drop-kick.)

You either love Atwood’s work or hate it. For some of you, you won’t even tolerate trying to understand it. But there is no in-between, no grey area, no fence to sit on. Atwood makes you choose.

And she does so, in her novel, “Cat’s Eye.”

(I’d go into slight detail “about” the story, but that’s what I believe inside flaps are for. Okay, okay…I’ll give you a hint: Elaine Risley.)

Go out, borrow or buy the book. Borrow or buy all her books.

Be dazzled.

Be star struck.

Be jealous.

I am.

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Zara’s Rating

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A Review: The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

A Review:

The Secret Dsaughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

12.11.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Publisher: William Morrow

ISBN: 978- 0061922312

Pub Date: March 1, 2010

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As soon as I read the first chapter, I was taken by the character, Kavita Merchant, a woman who chose to birth alone in secret without the help of a midwife or the knowledge and support of her husband. Her fear in placing her child in danger at the mercy of a culture that does not readily accept nor desire the birth of a baby girl is justified.

Labour can be one of the most frightening and painful experiences for a woman who has never birthed before. For Kavita to choose to experience this alone with nothing more than a tree branch between her teeth to muffle her screams is not only horrifically barbaric, but heroic. It goes to show just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the needs of her newborn baby.

It is, however, ironic that the discrimination against the baby who is born actually becomes the catalyst for not only her survival, but also her eventual financial and cultural prosperity. Not every baby should be so lucky. Her older sister was not. Her older sister was born a few minutes, to then only be killed by a relative as approved by the conspiracy of her father. And only because she was considered to be born of the “wrong” sex and deemed a useless burden that would one day require a dowry. This injustice drove their mother, Kavita, to better preparation in her second pregnancy and a stronger resolve to resist her husband in order to save the life of her unborn child.

Kavita’s drive to travel a day’s worth from her rural village to a city unknown to her, an overcrowded Mumbai, with the knowledge of what she must do to save her child’s life is not only unbearable to do, but unbearable for me, the reader, to have had to witness. It was so disturbing to me as a mother that after I had read the except, I went to my 17 months-old daughter, picked her up from the crib, and held her tightly to me for 10 minutes, crying. Such parting should not have to take place, but the reality of poverty, of accepted and unaccepted societal norms, sometimes the difficult choice of biological abandonment is necessary.

Kavita Merchant’s polar character found in Somer Thakkar is a liberal, American doctor living in the United States who desires to be a mother, but cannot conceive a child of her own biologically. In the beginning of the novel I empathized with her inability to have her own children and even went so far as to understand her issues in seeing and dealing with pregnant women and pregnancy in general.  But I found her character extremely self-centered and presumptuous. Her relationship with her husband, his family, and her perception of his Indian culture portrayed her as a self-righteous, rigid, and judgemental individual. Her inability to adapt and her resentful attitude toward to her liminality could have easily been interpreted as racist.

She seemed to me to be an insecure individual, possessive over her adopted daughter, always anxious, fearful, almost paranoid that her daughter would someday potentially seek out and wish to build a relationship with her biological parents. Perhaps somewhere in the recesses of a mother’s heart lies a deep-rooted fear to lose a child emotionally to another or lose the primary role of being a mother. I strongly disagree. Unfortunately, I found this to be immature on behalf of a character who is dutifully scrutinized by adopting agencies and its affiliates to exemplify the opposite: a person mature enough to be worthy and well-fit to be a parent.

Secondary characters such as Jasu, Kavita’s ambitious husband must deal with his personal failure as a man and as a father in first, his choice to allow his eldest daughter to be killed; second, his failure in providing proper leadership to his son, Vijay; and third, his inability to successfully provide for his family because of his prideful ambition and illusions about the city of Mumbai. Rather than return to the village of his former home where his wife and son would have been better taken care of emotionally and spiritually, he prevented them from returning to a much more tolerable life than the one they were living as a family in the slums. Rather than swallow his pride about his own error in judgement, Jasu perpetuates more failure by allowing his family to suffer and diminish.

Krishnan, Somer’s husband is also a doctor and a product of two worlds: India and America. He seems to be ignorant of his wife’s peripheral and cultural relationship with their adopted daughter. He attested to encouraging her knowledge and personal development when it came to learning their shared Indian culture, yet desired and pressured her to follow his chosen career path. Rather than fully support her dreams of becoming a journalist, he made it clear that he not only disapproved of her choice, but also wished she had become a doctor like himself.

The men in this novel are much more flawed compared to their women counterparts, but it’s not so much a novel about the battle between the sexes, but rather, the complexities of motherhood, parenthood, and the re-definition of home and family.

Usha/Asha is named twice, perhaps an intentional clue by the author alluding to the character’s duality and her search for understanding her personal identity. She is a daughter of two cultures, two worlds, and two family histories—and she must come to terms with both.

Though I found Usha/Asha’s questions of identity natural and inevitable, I did, find the resolutions around her, far too simple. Frankly, I found her to be a spoiled and ungrateful child, and later, more a daughter of clichés rather than of secrets. She had a biological mother who mourned for her and an adopted mother who succumbed to her every wish in fear of losing her love by being even a bit contradictory or strict simply because she’s an adopted mother, rather than a biological one. Why would a mother choose to walk on eggshells around her daughter in fear of her own insecurities?

Even Asha’s paternal extended family, including her grandmother, seemed to have afforded her special treatment. This was expressed as a desire for a girl in the family, but I suspect it had more to do with Asha being an American than it did with her being adopted.

I did, however, feel for Kavita, Usha’s biological mother. After mourning many years without any knowledge of her daughter’s existence or whereabouts, the actual opportunity to meet her daughter in person was marred not only by her daughter’s presumptuousness, but was also prevented by her mother’s death. Perhaps her mother’s death signified her own maternal death to Usha, who now chose to be called Asha and would choose to define her family within the boundaries of her adopted family, rather than her biological one.

How quickly characters like Somer and Asha judge Kavita so harshly. Somer had told Asha at one point, “At least I wanted you.” What a horrible thing to say to a person, let alone a child, an adopted one. And to presume because Usha’s biological mother gave her away that she didn’t want her! Ludicrous! The omnipotent reader knows that if this were true, Usha would not have been born in the solitude of a house, in the secret of the night without acknowledgement, support, or blessing.

Asha, too, assumes the worst of her biological parents simply because she discovers she has a younger brother. This irrational behaviour only exemplifies her immaturity.

I did not feel by any means, that justice was served by addressing Kavita’s longing with nothing more than a written letter. Imagine, she walked a day’s worth to save her child and all she received in return was a letter from her daughter? Not even a phone call or a personal meeting? And to receive it merely on her deathbed! What a tragedy.

Though the premise of the book was promising and the read mostly easy and enjoyable, I found the characters shallow, predictable, and clichéd. If life were as simple as fated meetings, handsome boyfriends, and dot-to-dot conclusions, then this book would be extraordinary. It is only extraordinary in how far-fetched and easy the plot seemed.

I do, though, remain faithful to my heroine, Kavita. Where the story was told in her blistered feet, her lactating breasts, her shrieks of loss, her sacrifice in the slums, and her respect in maintaining her husband’s honour, I found some form of solace and redemption. She was not born to privilege in the same ways Somer, Krishnan, Dadijima, or even Asha were raised, but was intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing enough that all other characters around her were able to benefit from her one choice—the one burden—she willingly made. She gave up her daughter so everyone except herself could gain. Perhaps that is one truth, one kernel of wisdom regarding motherhood. And for that, Kavita’s character should not be ashamed.

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Zara’s Rating

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A Review: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami

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A Review:

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

By Anita Rau Badami

12.10.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Anita Rau Badami

Format: Hardcover, 432 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

ISBN: 978-0676976045

Pub Date: September 5, 2006

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What began as a somewhat hopeful book, quickly and devastatingly spiralled into a travesty. I was left with the shock of death and loss for all characters and after reading the novel I was angry at its historical injustices.

At the same time, I regretted investing emotional attachments to characters that were deeply flawed. My sense of the novel’s downfall lay at the heart of its characters’ weakness to pride.

Harjot Singh is listless and “disappears” long before he actually decides to leave his family, his pride wounded because he was unable to freely land ashore once he arrived to Vancouver by ship on the Komagata Maru.

His daughter, Sharanjeet (Bibi-ji) Kaur, privately resents her station in life and her duties, unhappy to be obedient to her mother or selfless to her sister, Kanwar. This attitude is not entirely due to her spoiled upbringing, but rather an internal pride, vanity, and materialistic ambition that drives her to first steal her sister’s marriage prospect, Khushwant (Pa-ji) Singh from her sister, and then eventually her niece’s own son, Jasbeer.

Leela (Shastri) Bhat is ostracized by her grandmother, Akka, and her father’s relatives because she is considered a “half-breed,” a daughter of a Punjab, Hari Shastri, and an English woman, Rosa Schweers. Rather than accept her genetic fate and cultural liminality, she loathes her own grey eyes, fair skin, and “White” culture. Instead she prides herself in becoming the wife of a prosperous and prestigious man, Balachandra (Balu) Bhat, who comes from a well known Punjab family and high caste, and submerges herself into adhering to traditional Indian practices. Leela, opposite of Bibi-ji, resents being pulled from her home in India to Vancouver, fearful of becoming, yet again, nameless. Though she suffered racial cruelty from her Indian grandmother, she fails to accept her son’s choice in marriage to an English woman.

These and other characters provide a backdrop to the cruelty and harshness of the warring factions of the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh people, which led to The Partition of India (with its Hindu majority) and Pakistan (with its Muslim majority). Violent acts of brutality by government and militant groups climaxed to the eventual killings of pilgrims at the Golden Temple. This act in itself prompted the assassination of Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, which then led to vengeful killings of Sikhs throughout India. And a year later, Air India Flight 182 is bombed, killing 329 people on board from Canada over the Atlantic Ocean.

Perhaps it is Badami’s intent to situate her characters at the “wrong time in the wrong place,” but also to propel them forward into devastation and loss due to wrong choices, which stem from deeply rooted pride and discord.

The book is without resolution, but is a haunting reminder of the brutality and injustice of war, the interconnectedness between people, their actions, and their consequences, and the cost of life for the sake of land, name, autonomy, and religious freedom, where moderation seems to be the best answer though it is rarely used.

It is a novel of extremes, but then, extremity is at the heart of this book’s subject, while a lesson of temperance is still yet to be learned.

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Zara’s Rating

 

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Book Review: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Book Review:

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

12.10.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Jhumpra Lahiri

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

ISBN: 978-0676979343

Pub Date: April 1, 2008

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Lahiri depicts the restraint of her characters perfectly and reveals to us private desires that cause conflict with the traditions and expectations of Indian cultural and societal norms. But, by doing so, she redefines love and the inevitability of the sorrow it sometimes carries. She is a queen of dichotomy. Though her characters have inner strength that persists and drives them further into their stories, their strengths are also what make them the victims of their own helplessness.

From Ruma’s father in his inability to share with his daughter, the acknowledgement of his feelings for another woman after the death of his wife. To Ruma, who is unable to recover from her mother’s death, only to cope by denying herself a successful career and a rich relationship with her husband and son. The restraint in the relationship between “Baba” and Ruma contain within its silences and tension, a depth of love and feeling that can only be understood by grief, denial, and the need to protect those that are loved.

The story of Pranab Chakraborty and Boudi speaks of an unrequited love that evolves within the boundaries of family friendship, compatibility, and all that is lacking in another marriage. It is a tight-lipped, repressed, and torturous story of one who carries the burden of secret love, while the other remains oblivious to his lover’s personal sacrifice and loss.

Amit and Megan share the reality of a marriage that has reached its low season dented by babies and the monotony of routine. People from their pasts can resurrect old feelings, yet reassure us as readers that passion can still spring up from the loyalty and trust found in married love.

Sudha and Rahul speak of weakened family ties because of the powerful stronghold of addiction and the loss of relationship and trust that occurs when someone is strangled by the compulsion of vices and old stereotypes.

In the story of Sang, Paul, Farsouk, and Deidre, there is truth in the tangles of love, desire, and manipulation. It reflects the compulsions we sometimes have against our better judgement and the inability to see clearly when we feel we are in love.

Hema and Kaushik share with us two opposing lives, which are drawn to each other by family ties and later by circumstance or fate. The drama of their passion and love, though restrained by the reality of other entanglements, seem inevitable and doomed to suffer a sad demise.

Overall, I found the book, Unaccustomed Earth to be filled with good stories, though desolate and bleak. I was inspired by love, but sometimes disappointed by the failings of the characters and their outcome.

Still, after reading the book, I yearned for the stories to continue; for the characters to continue on in their vignettes, if not to provide a glimpse to a more resilient hope of something better for the characters themselves, but also an affirmation that love and lovers actually do “conquer all.”

Compared to Lahiri’s other works, this collection is darker and more sombre in its tone. Your heart will break in reading it, but insist in some way that it must be so.

***

Zara’s Rating

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The Interpreter of Maladies: A Collection of Short Stories that Cross Boundaries & Runs Deep

Book Review:

The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

12.10.2011

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Jhumpra Lahiri

Format: Hardcover, 208 pages

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

ISBN: 978-0618101368

Pub Date: April 24, 2000

***

 

The Interpreter of Maladies is not only a collection of nine short stories, but I think, a name well suited to the author, Jhumpa Lahiri. Her writing is direct and easy, yet expertly and artistically controlled. She gives you just enough detail in the right places so that her subtle hints help bridge the landscape of her characters and their stories.

Yes, her stories entail the immigrant experience, but they also tell a universal story; the story of ordinary living that compels you to appreciate and consider the implications they have.

There is the story of the couple that has grown apart only to reveal the vulnerable parts of themselves to each other in the dark.

The bond between a father figure and a girl who are left only to be separated by borders and the reunion of a missing wife and seven children.

Desire for an American tourist turns dark after a compulsion to confess indiscretion to a tour guide.

There is the stigma and scapegoat of a street woman for the woes that transpire in an old apartment building.

The Love and tolerance of an American mistress toward her Bengali lover only to be thwarted by the inevitability of her relationship’s failure.

The underrated connection between an Indian babysitter and a neglected American boy.

The culmination of a secretly unhappy marriage because of an overly flamboyant wife compelled to ignore her husband’s wishes.

And the story of the isolation and desolation a woman feels in being neglected and misunderstood because of epilepsy.

Lahiri is a master storyteller who doesn’t hide behind obtuse language to prove she is a good writer. She tells you just enough so that you can understand her characters’ positions and experiences, as if they are your own. And she makes the plot interesting enough, that once you come away from the story, you linger, often wishing there was more.

She is a wonderful ambassador of India and America and what it means to be on the peripheral. I am glad to say that Jhumpa Lahiri is my new heroine as a masterful writer, an intelligent artist, and a person with the heart of a poet.

***

Zara’s Rating

***

The Namesake: A Rose Is Not Simply a Rose

By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez

Category: Fiction

Author: Jhumpra Lahiri

Format: Hardcover, 304 pages

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

ISBN: 978-0395927212

Pub Date: August 4, 2009

The narrative is so clear and written with such ease that I easily became engrossed in the story of the Ganguli family as it spanned throughout years, each page, a catalyst to further reading and emotional investment.

The flow of the language is natural and rich in the truth it reveals about the immigrant experience, and though specifically about coming from India and making a life in America, Lahiri writes with authentic detail and wisdom about immigration as it crosses borders, both truthfully and universally.

And though the main character, Gogol “Nikhil” Ganguli is at the centre of the narrative, the specific perspectives and sufferings of the family who surrounds him found in his father, Ashoke, his mother, Ashima, and his sister, Sonali, all speak a truth about the different trials and responses to transition to and from abroad.

Lahiri speaks to the meaning of being ethnic, marginal, liminal, and the complexity of defining yourself and home. There is a tension and dichotomy between the previous country and the new, and the expectations one not only has of himself, but the expectations of those around him, and how these definitions stretch and become malleable and blurred, with an outcome of becoming something new entirely.

The gut of the book is about the naming of things and people; how one identifies himself, namely, Gogol. How, why, and what he was named is a central theme in the novel.

It’s a story about coming into one’s own understanding of his relationship to his culture (old and new), his family, his home, himself, and what he chooses to accept and reconcile in a name.

Surprisingly, the film is as beautiful and rich as the novel it is based on.