Monday, July 30, 2007

If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar and "Daughter of the Ganges" by Asha Miro

Publishers: Harper Collins

On Sale: 5/29/2007

If I may start with a prediction...

Thrity Umrigar's latest book "If Today Be Sweet"
(its title is borrowed from a poem by Omar Khayyam) will be a darling of the book clubs because it covers a diverse range of themes, like home, family, widowhood, bereavement,community, immigration, culture clashes, the sterility of suburban life, neighbors, contemporary America... in other words, there is something for everyone to discuss.

Sorab Sethna is an Indian-born American who is conflicted because he no longer feels a pull towards his Indian roots. He has recently started to enjoy the American dream and the luxuries provided by this country and yet, something makes him feel guilty for doing so, especially as he recalls his disadvantaged fellowmen in India. His immediate dilemma is what to do with his widowed mother? Invite her to stay with them in the US (which would be very disruptive for him and his American wife) or should he let her return to Bombay to a life that she is familiar with?

Then you have Tehmina, the widowed Indian mother. She is on a visit to America where her son Sorab lives but she finds America so strange and foreign. Life is so regulated in this country, people are so law abiding and disciplined, but cold. She finds the pewter-colored skies of Cleveland dull and misses the warmth, color and chaos of the Bombay streets. She misses her talkative and friendly neighbors. In the rich suburb that her son lives in, it could be hours before you see someone walk down the street and even then they are hurrying by with no time to for a friendly chat.

Tehmina is torn between living with her only son and grandson in the US or returning to the life she is familiar with in Bombay. The reader feels for Tehmina because having to uproot herself to live with her son in a foreign (to her) country is not easy, especially at her age. What will Tehmina choose? Will America win her over as it does with most immigrants or will she return to India?

Then we have Suzanne, the American daughter-in-law who is so unused to looking after a helpless mother-in-law, a country bumpkin , but at the same time, she understands that she can't have her husband Sorab worrying about his mom all the way in India and thus is in favor of the mother moving in with them, except, she then wants a bigger house so that she has her "personal space", something that the Americans seem to crave, notes Tehmina with some amusement.

I see from the book (and from life around me) that immigrants, especially first generation, have very conflicted ideas about home. Where is home? Is it where you are physically located, or is it where your roots are or your heart is, or is home simply a state of mind? This book explores that to a large extent and you realize it is something all of us as immigrants have had to ask ourselves, but for many of us, the answer still eludes us.

Umrigar is probably one of my favorite Indian writers. If you haven't read anything by her I urge you to give her books a whirl. Her writing is tender, elegant and eloquent and she has the most endearing characters fill her books, you won't be disappointed.

You can find my review for "The Space Between Us", here

This Edition: Hardcover

Publication Date: 06/2006

Price: $24.00

I just finshed reading Asha Miro's
"Daughter of the Ganges".

What can I say about this book without giving too much away? I will tell you that it's a remarkable story of hope, love, perseverance, networking and probably something called luck. Anyway, it's about this girl called "Asha" ("hope" in Hindi) adopted as a young girl from an orphanage in Bombay by a family that lived in Barcelona. Neither Asha nor the family spoke a common language to begin with, so communication was by signs and gestures until Asha started to learn Catalan. Asha, like most adopted kids was always curious to know where she had come from and who her natural parents were and she was lucky that her adoptive parents always encouraged her to go in search of her story.

When she was twenty Asha decided to visit India with a group that was going to do some voluntary work in Bombay and Nasik (the city she was born in according to her birth certificate). Asha's description of her drive into the city of Bombay from the airport is my second favorite after "Shantaram's"...maybe I should start collecting literary descriptions of the ride in from Bombay airport as it obviously makes has a huge impact on people! :)

SHe makes contact with the convent in which she had lived in before the adoption and after a series of well-meaning lies that people told her about her past, she is able to finally unearth the truth of what happened... where she came from, who her family is, why they gave her up for adoption etc., thus filling in the blanks of her own personal crossword puzzle.

This is a very powerful story and one that you will enjoy reading. The translation from Spanish into English isn't one of the better ones, but even so, you will be touched tremendously and profoundly. I had tears streaming down my face often in the last 100pages or so of the book.

I am stopping here for now...sorry I couldn't give away everything or it would spoil the read for you.

Note: I have closed the comments box for this post only because I won't be around to read and answer the comments. Thank you for understanding.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Girls of Riyadh بنات الرياض (Banat al-riyadh) by Rajaa AlSanea and a "Blogging Tips Meme"

Hardback | 304 pages | ISBN 9781594201219 | 12 Jul 2007 | The Penguin Press Canada

Genre: Fiction/

Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Additional reading:
Sex and the Saudi Girl from The Sunday Times

Saudi Arabia Women from The National Geographic

Let me introduce you to four young women, Gamrah, Lamees, Michelle and Sadeem. All four well-to-do women are from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and I was delighted to make their acquaintance through Rajaa Alsanea's book "Girls of Riyadh" بنات الرياض, because Saudi society being as conservative and closed as it is, it is unlikely I would have been able to make friends with them through any other avenue.

"Girls of Riyadh" follows the lives, tribulations and loves of these four girls as they go through life in Saudi Arabia.

Gamrah Al-Qusmanji , is married off by her conservative family to Rashid who was emotionally cruel to her because he was in love with the family's Filipino maid. Shortly after Gamrah becomes pregnant Rashid divorces her and she is forced to return to her parents' home in Riyadh where it is not at all fun to be a divorced woman. She learns to take refuge in the internet where she gets to chatting with various men under a cloak of anonymity (because the society is such a prohibitive one, many Saudi women have turned to the internet for relationships)

Mashael Al-Abdulrahman , better known as Michelle, is the daughter of a Saudi father and an American mother. She spends her formative years in the US and cannot adjust to the conservative thinking that pervades Saudi Arabia. She is a rebel through and through and is only able to come into her own when she leaves Riyadh for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Lamees Jeddawi is a young and brilliant student of medicine, but one who learns from her friends' mistakes and is determine not to fail at relationships as they have done. Does she succeed?

Sadeem Al-Horaimli is my favorite character. She was betrothed to Waleed, a young man she grew very attached to, so attached that she agreed to sleep with him before their wedding (something that is not usually done in Saudi arranged marriages). However, Waleed, being a conservative Saudi man, branded her a loose character and broke the engagement off immediately. She had no better luck with Firas who loved her but couldn't marry her because his parents could not reconcile themselves to having a daughter-in-law with a terminated engagement.

The story of these girls and and their very different outlooks on life is told to us by an anonymous narrator through a series of e-mail postings, sent to her online chat site. It is through these e-mails that the reader is introduced to Saudi society and its conservative views on gender roles, marriage, divorce, sex, class, race and so on.

Having lived in the Middle East for many years I had always heard that Saudi society was conservative and that their women, even though they are swimming in wealth, were nothing more than chattels for their men, but I had always hoped it was an urban myth. However, to see it all confirmed by this Saudi writer makes me feel truly happy for the freedom I experience as a woman. Not for all the gold and BMW's in this world would I want to exchange places with any one of those women in the book. And yet again, they are so much luckier than some of the women elsewhere in the Muslim world who are equally put down by their men but don't have the money to act as a balm.

I commend Rajaa Alsanea for writing this remarkable book, although it is no literary masterpiece, it is ground breaking in that this is probably the first time a Saudi woman has dared to write about all the difficulties her gender experiences in the Kingdom. A group of Saudi citizens have filed a lawsuit against Al-Sania for slandering Saudi society and although the book hasn't been banned officially in Saudi Arabia many of the book stores refuse to carry it.

According to Reuters, the success of "Girls of Riyadh" has spurred on the publication of many other Saudi Arabian novels:

Critics have noted that sexual relationships dominate in the output of the new writers, with sensational titles such as "al-Hobb fil Saudiyya", Arabic for "Love in Saudi" and "Fosouq", which means "Debauchery".

One example is "al-Akharun" ("The Others") by a woman using the pen name Siba al-Harz. It has attracted attention because of its dark treatment of lesbianism, guilt and marginalization among Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ite Muslims, as well as its sophisticated use of classical Arabic.

It's easy to see why sex would dominate the work of these novelists. Women in Saudi Arabia grow up cocooned and segregated. They are never allowed to mix with men unless they are related, they aren't allowed to drive or work (unless it's as a teacher or a doctor), they can hardly go anywhere unchaperoned. They are not allowed to pick their own husbands, they are not even allowed to pick their own girlfriends... so their private worlds and thoughts are fertile ground for literature.

This book is an engaging and entertaining read, it is chick lit, but the enlightening kind. Pick it up and read it this summer, you'll enjoy the read.


The wonderful Gentle Reader from Shelflife tagged me with a meme which is both, helpful and fun, the Blogging Tips Meme. This is what you have to do:

When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. -

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. -

3. Don’t let money change ya! -

4. Always reply to your comments. *****-

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. **-

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. -

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***-

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! **-

10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. *–

11. Whenever possible try engaging your reader friends/bloggers with a question or a little survey,nothing like a little interaction. *-

Quite a few people have been tagged already, so I won't tag anyone specific, but please feel free to pick up the tag or else it dies here :(

Thank you Gentle Reader, this was fun to do!

Bonnie at Bonnie's Books is doing a great job of keeping the meme updated. You can check it out here

Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter by Shoko Tendo

Translated by Louise Heal

Hardcover 192 pages

Genre: Memoir

Publishers : Kodansha Intl Jul, 2007
Price : $22.95

Distributers (Canada):Fitzhenry & Whiteside

I grew interested in this story after reading about it in the Guardian UK. Shoko Tendo is the daughter of a member of the Yakuza in Japan. According to Wikipedia, the Yakuza (ヤクザ or やくざ ) are members of traditional organized crime groups in Japan. Yakuza groups are referred to as the "Japanese mafia" with reference to Italian-Sicilian organized crime.

Read more over at the Anthropologist Blog

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Year Without Made in China: One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni

Publishers: Wiley

Hardcover/235 pages/June 2007

Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir

Watch the author on You Tube

When my daughters were younger they played a game around the house. The rules were simple, the first player to name 10 things in the room NOT made in China was the winner. Let me tell you, it was one of the hardest games to win. It was then it dawned on me how China had crept into our home without us even realizing it.

When we read articles about sweatshops and forced labor in China, not to mention the recent news articles about tainted food from there, my husband and I will go tsk, tsk at the news, resolving to buy less from China, but, truth be told, when it comes to prices Chinese products win hands down every time. So when I saw that business writer Sarah Bongiorni had written a book (A Year Without "Made in China") on her family's boycott of Chinese goods for a whole year, I knew I had to read it!

On Jan1, 2005 Sarah Bongiorni decided that she and her family would go without buying any Chinese-manufactured products for one whole year. What they already owned would stay and gifts or loans were fair game. As anticipated, it was very tough trying to locate non-Chinese goods and when they did, they were asked to pay exorbitant prices. There's a wonderful chapter in the book which chronicles her search for a pair of sneakers for her 4-year old son Wes. Despite her best efforts she couldn't find a pair of non-Chinese white sneakers, finally she had to buy an Italian-made pair of sneakers online for $68...a steep hike from the usual $15 that she would have spent at Payless.

Here are a few things she and her husband learned about China:

1. Toys, electronics, lamps, footwear, holiday decorations and increasingly, furniture and clothing are consumer areas that are almost completely Chinese dominated.

2. Even when something is tagged as "made in America" it is quite likely that it is made up of Chinese components or comes in Chinese packaging.

3. A lot of people think that China makes only shoddy and cheap things, but, no, there are a lot of increasingly high-end products coming from there, including Barbie-shaped chocolates and even wedding dresses!

4.Broken appliances are liable to gather dust because the spare parts are all Chinese made.

5.Even celebrating the Fourth of July - with its fireworks, flags etc. - was next to impossible without Chinese made goods.

Finally she learns that a normal life without Chinese products isn't possible. That we are so deeply tied to China that I can't envision how we could step back now

The book is entertaining and reads at a fast pace. The author livens it up with hilarious anecdotes,conversations and mini lessons in global economy and creativity. She's funny, outspoken and when she becomes frustrated with the complexity of her task, which happens a lot, you get frustrated along with her. You come away realizing that going without Chinese goods is a herculean task...are you up to the challenge?

Personally, I would love to buy more non-Chinese products, but not at the expense of my sanity. There is a chapter in the book which describes how the Bongiorni house became infested with mice. Rather than buy easy Chinese-made mice traps, they set about placing narrow-mouthed plastic bottles containing bits of cookies and candy, all over the house hoping that the mice would come for the treats and stay trapped in the bottle. Me? I would have bought the traps regardless of where they were made.

So, I guess the question is, are you worried about China taking over your homes and if you are, are you prepared to do something to stop it if you think it can be stopped? Are the recent "tainted food" articles just what American businesses need to realize that they can capitalize on Chinese weaknesses? Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

American Visa by Juan De Recacoechea

Translated by Adrian Althoff
with an afterword by Ilan Stavans


Themes: Immigration, Urban life

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-20-0 l 257 pages | $14.95
Published By: Akashic Books

When: April 2007

Anyone who has ever traveled abroad cannot help but understand the value of a visa. This little paper or ink stamp on your passport is your sole permission slip to enter a whole new world. But that little ink stamp usually comes with a hefty price especially if it is being issued by a country like the United States, Canada or Britain. You are required to have a zillion documents and all must be in good order with a healthy bank balance and other assets, like a house, car etc in your country of origin. So what happens to people that do not meet these requirements? Are they to be forever denied a chance to visit America, their dream country? That's especially hard when they live across the border and get to watch the American dream unfold but can have no part in it.

Just published by Akashic Books, "American Visa", the story of a Bolivian man's quest for a visa to America, has been described as nouvela noir or a tragicomic travelogue. Authored by Juan De Recacoechea, it has enjoyed incredible success in Latin America and is the highest selling Bolivian novel in over 20 years. In a country of only 9 million people, where the official illiteracy rate is estimated to be only 15%, Recacoechea’s success is no mean feat. "AmericanVisa" is only the second Bolivian book, and Recacoechea’s first, to be translated into English in 50 years!!!

Adrian Althoff, first got interested in this novel when his professors at Amherst asked him to find out what the most popular and bestselling novel in Bolivia was (a history major, he was in La Paz for his thesis research). After he ascertained it was "American Visa" he brought a copy home,read it and said "it was like getting hit with a tidal wave". He knew then he just had to translate it and bring it to the American reading public.

"American Visa" is not the kind of novel you would normally associate with Latin American is not a political novel and there is no hint of magical realism, instead the author chooses to focus on the La Paz of the 1990's.

The protagonist, Mario Alvarez, a retired school teacher and a huge fan of old-school American detective fiction, in particular Chandler and Chester Himes, travels to La Paz in quest of an American visa to visit his son in Miami. As he waits to obtain his visa he roams the streets of La Paz climbing up and down the Bolivian class ladder, mingling with the ladies of the night and getting drunk as often as he can. When despite getting a haircut and donning his best Prince-of-Wales suit, his visit to the US consulate is unsuccessful (the cocaine trade has made the Americans very suspicious of Bolivians) his story takes on lots of twists and turns and starts to resemble one of his much loved detective novels.

I have to confess I found this a hard novel to put down. Written in first person I was more than happy to walk the streets of La Paz (so vibrantly real in the book) with Mario Alvarez, seeing first hand why he was so desperate to leave Bolivia and to start a new life in the US. Recacoechea takes some amazing urban characters like prostitutes, transvestites, cocaine dealers, half-breeds, unscrupulous politicians, and weaves them masterfully into his fascinating tale. This book will also provide you some amazing insights into a class-conscious Bolivian society and will show you how the Latin-American people perceive the United States. At the end of the book you will walk away with a better understanding of why people will commit desperate acts to secure immigration to other countries, a definite plus when you consider that immigration is a hot button issue these days in the US.

I hope Akashic Books will bring more translations our way...I cannot believe this is only the 10th Bolivian text to be translated into English! As one critic remarked, " Ironic that Juan de Recacoechea’s protagonist spends all his time trying to get to America, when it is we who should be getting to Juan de Recacoechea. So true!

Finally, I thought I should share my favorite Bolivian recipe, Cocadas or Coconut Candies:
(for a picture, please go here)

(Coconut Candies or Macaroons)


2 2/3 cups shredded coconut
3/4 cup condensed milk
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon almond essence


  1. In a bowl, mix shredded coconut, egg, condensed milk, and almond essence until everything is well mixed.
  2. Let rest for two or three minutes.
  3. Spread butter on a baking sheet.
  4. Using two teaspoons, put small amounts of the mixture onto the baking sheet.
  5. Bake at medium temperature ( 325 Fahrenheit degrees) for twenty-five minutes or until they are golden, dry and smooth at the same time.

Yields 24 regular-size coconut candies.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket, by Trevor Carson

Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: Popular Culture/Food/Japan/narrative non-fiction

Price: $29.95 (CAD)

On Sale: 5/29/2007

Formats: E-Book | Hardcover

The Zen of Fish on NPR

Lets start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...Sushi as the world knows it today probably had its origins in the 1600's on the streets of Kyoto. It was made by spreading vinegared rice in a box, laying whole fillets of fish on the top and compressing it with heavy stones for a few days. It was then cut into pieces like a cake.

When a terrible fire destroyed most of Edo (today's Tokyo), workers from outside the city swarmed into Edo to rebuild it. These men needed something to eat so stalls sprang up all over Edo serving "hot noodle soup", but in 1686 to prevent another fire, authorities outlawed the noodle soup and as a result vendors switched to making the Kyoto "quick sushi" which didn't require any heat in the preparation. As Edo grew and became one of Japan's major cities, so did the Sushi stalls. As time went on, the technique was modified to allow for quick preparation and by 1818, some Sushi chefs started making hand-squeezed Sushi called "nigeri" (from the Japanese for "nigiru" meaning to squeeze).

In this way, Trevor Corson, in his book "Zen of Fish" traces the social and cultural history, evolution, preparation and development of the humble Sushi from Tokyo to the US, using a California sushi academy (that trains would-be American Sushi chefs) as a backdrop. It's a clever narrative strategy because Corson uses each lesson as a jumping-off point for a discussion on sushi and fun little digressions about the ecology, biology and behavior of some of the fish used in sushi.

Truly, this book is a treasure-trove for foodies or anyone interested in Japan or Japanese food, and Corson's easy and conversational writing style makes this a hugely entertaining and informative read. I swear after you read this book you will enter into a Sushi bar with a confident swagger. I would also urge you visit Corson's blog, it is packed with fun information which you won't want to miss.

I just want to leave you with a few tasty morsels that I picked up from this feast of a book:

1. First off, the word "Sushi" doesn't refer to the raw fish, instead it refers to the vinegar-seasoned rice.

2.The California roll is an American invention which is just getting popular in Japan. Corson writes that when a Japanese chef working in the US couldn't get toro (fatty tuna belly) for his Japanese customers, he combined avocado and crab meat to re-create its appealing oiliness and thus was born the much-loved California Roll.

3. We are all under the impression that sushi is healthy and low in fat compared with other fast foods but a sushi takeout box at a supermarket could easily contain as many calories as two slices of pizza! pg 27

4.Sushi should be picked up with the fingers (preferably)- and eaten in one bite. The fish should touch the tongue before the rice does and shouldn't be slathered with soy sauce and wasabi. (this point has been edited since publishing this post...I had said chopsticks should not be used, but turns out chopsticks are OK, too) pg 321

5. In real-life Japan, sushi is a man's world. The most common argument against women sushi chefs is that a woman's hands being warmer than a man's will cook the raw fish simply by handling it. Sushi is a man's world on the customer side of the bar too..a Japanese woman who walks in to eat by herself will be made to feel most unwelcome pg 53

6. Sushi bars are almost passe on the West Coast where they first started out, but have become almost as ubiquitous as hot dogs in the Midwest...even Wal-Mart seems to have got into the act with sushi counters installed in some of their Texas stores pg 133

For more surprising Sushi Facts go here

I would love to know how you feel about you love it or hate it? ( I can't imagine anyone being indifferent to Sushi). If you love it what is your favorite sushi to eat? I love the one with freshwater eel (picture above) it is absolutely delicious! When you go to a Sushi restaurant, do you sit at the bar or do you prefer to hide out in a booth like I do? :) And finally, if you went to a restaurant where the sushi chef was not Japanese, would you still be tempted to order the sushi, or do you, like many other people, think Sushi must be prepared by a Japanese chef? And do you have any surprising sushi facts to contribute? Or any sushi stories to share?