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I Do Not Come to You by Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

As the opara (eldest son) of the family, Kingsley O. Ibe has certain responsibilities: he must make his parents proud, study hard, and become a great man. But times are hard in Nigeria and in spite of Kingsley’s degree in chemical engineering, he cannot find a job. In spite of Kingsley’s father’s great knowledge, hard work, and superior educational background, he cannot work because of his illness, diabetes. And Kingsley’s industrious and skilled mother is losing her tailoring business because of changes in technology and the time it takes to care for his father. Kingsley’s brothers and sister need school fees and books and uniforms, and his girlfriend, Ola, “the sugar in his tea,” may not be able to marry him unless he can show the ability to support a wife and family.

So slowly, inexorably, Kingsley is sucked into the business of his rich uncle, Cash Daddy. Kingsley becomes a 419-er, breaking the law and bilking foreigners so that he can do what is right: take care of his family. (The number “419″ refers to the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud.) It’s a sad story, and the author, who lives in Abuja, Nigeria, develops the story deftly with just the right amount of sympathy for Kingsley and his plight mixed with enough detail about the heinous scams he perpetrates to make us have mixed feelings at best about this character.

The culture of corruption that pervaded this story made it a striking companion to the nonfiction book I read just after it. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is set in Mumbai, India, where Ms. Boo spent three years researching, interviewing and observing the residents of a Mumbai slum that has grown up near the bright, sparkling Mumbai International Airport. The full title of the book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. There’s not much hope in the story. The central characters in the book are a family of Muslim garbage brokers who buy scavenged garbage from their fellow slum-dwellers, sort it, and take it to recycling centers to sell again. The same culture of overwhelming, near-inescapable corruption, bribery, and governmental chaos keeps the garbage pickers of Mumbai in poverty and despair just as the fictional Kingsley Ibe in Nigeria is unable to escape or retain his integrity in an environment and governmental structure that only rewards cunning and dishonesty, not integrity or even educational attainment and hard work.

I just cannot imagine living in a country where bribery is the only way to achieve a semblance of justice, where votes are for sale, and where the poor are not only poor but forced into slavery, prostitution, and degradation. I suppose I am way too middle class American WASP, but I had to keep reminding myself while reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers that this book was nonfiction, that these were real people. And while the first book, I Do Not Come to You by Chance, was fiction, the things that happen in the book were real. 419-ers exist. People who work hard to get an education are unable to find jobs in a broken economy. People are turned away from hospitals because they cannot pay exorbitant amounts of money for simple health care. People like Kingsley turn to lives of crime and extortion because they see no other way to provide for their families or to survive.

I kept asking myself as I read Ms. Boo’s book, which reads like a novel: where are these people now? The Annawadi slum was slated for destruction/removal; has it been removed? What happened to the families that Ms. Boo writes about in her book who are dependent on trash from the airport to resell for basic necessities? Did the book itself change the lives of these people in any way? For the better? For the worse?

“The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

“It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”

I Do Not Come to You by Chance was awarded the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, first novel Africa.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

Related articles:
The Letdown of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Paul Beckett.
An Outsiders Gives Voice to Slumdogs: Katherine Boo on her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
Reform, in the Name of the Father by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.
The Book Boys of Mumbai, NYT Book Review by Sonia Faleiro, January 4, 2013
Meet the Yahoo Boys: Nigeria’s email scammers exposed by Jim Giles.

The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda

Not exactly my kind of book. The Savage Fortress was inspired, writes the author, “by the real Savage Fortress–a maharajah’s palace near Varanasi, India–as well as his life long fascination with the goddess Kali.”

So, this Hindu goddess:

'Goddesses' photo (c) 2008, LASZLO ILYES - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

And this rather medieval looking maharajah’s palace:

'India - Varanasi - 010 - one of the Maharaja palaces' photo (c) 2007, McKay Savage - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

And the tag line is: Heroes aren’t made. They’re reborn.

If you’re interested in a reincarnation story in which an British teen of Indian ancestry must fight to keep Ravanna the evil god of the rakshasas (demons) in his place of exile so that Ravanna won’t take over the world and make it into a place of (more) chaos and suffering on a grand scale, then The Savage Fortress is your book. To me, it just felt evil and confusing, although I will admit to a certain train-wreck fascination. The writing certainly ranged from adequate to good, but I’m just repelled and bewildered by Hindu mythology. If everybody is going to come back after death and fight the same battles all over again, what’s the use?

Then there’s the Kali motif that I found deeply disconcerting in this story for middle grade readers:

“Kāli is the Goddess of Time and Change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilator of evil forces still has some influence. . . The figure of Kāli conveys death, destruction, and the consuming aspects of reality. As such, she is also a “forbidden thing”, or even death itself.

Can mercy be found in the heart of her who was born of the stone?
Were she not merciless, would she kick the breast of her lord?
Men call you merciful, but there is no trace of mercy in you, Mother.
You have cut off the heads of the children of others, and these you wear as a garland around your neck.
It matters not how much I call you “Mother, Mother.” You hear me, but you will not listen. From a poet named Rāmprasād Sen in Wikipedia article on Kali.

And our hero, Ash, ends up defeating Ravanna with the power of Kali, the goddess of Darkness and Death. Ewwww. (I’m not too fond of zombies or vampires, either.)

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni

In addition to The Canterbury Tales (which appears in my novel) and Wuthering Heights, I was drawing on works such as The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, and the Indian Wise-Animal tales, The Panchatantra. Just before beginning my book, I reread Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto because I really liked the feel of that novel. ~Chitra Divakaruni

A group of diverse people are trapped by an earthquake inside a visa office, and to survive emotionally they begin, one by one, to tell their stories.

“Unless we’re careful, things will get a lot worse. We can take out our stress on one another–like what happened–and maybe get buried alive. Or we can focus our minds on something compelling— . . . We can each tell an important story from our lives. . . Everyone has a story,” said Uma, relieved that one of them was considering the idea. “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.”

So each of the nine people trapped in the unstable building tells his or her story. I thought the premise was genius, and the execution was good, too. I don’t care much for short stories, but these were knit together by the over-arching plot of nine people imprisoned in an office with possible death staring them in the face. The themes of the characters’ stories were inter-woven, too. The stories were all about thwarted desires and about what happens when we get what we think we want, but not what we really need or want.

What story would you tell if you were to tell about One Amazing Thing that had happened in your life?

I’m thinking about using this book in a high school World Literature class that I’m planning for next year. If you’ve read it, what do you think? Could high schoolers relate to the characters in the book? Wouldn’t it be a good introduction or exposure to colliding cultures and grace under pressure?

Do you have other reading suggestions for an 11-12th grade World Literature class?

Saraswati’s Way by Monika Schroder

Twelve year old Akash sees patterns of numbers in his head. The village math teacher can only take him so far in math, bu he puts an idea in Akash’s mind of winning a scholarship to a school in the city. So Akash prays to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom, to make a way for him to hire a tutor to teach the math he needs to know to pass the scholarship examination.

The last book I read, Words in the Dust, was set in Afghanistan and was very Muslim, and now this book, set in India, is very Hindu. Akash prays to Saraswati, goes to the temple, performs Hindu funeral rites for his father (Bapu) in hopes that his Bapu’s soul will be freed to go . . . somewhere good. If this honest and vivid depiction of Hindu religion makes you uncomfortable, as I must admit it did me to some extent, then maybe that’s a good thing. I tend to forget that there are people who live and die in the grips of what I would consider an enslaving and false religious tradition.

Akash becomes a child of the streets, living in the railway station in Delhi. He works and works to find a way to attend a school where he can learn more, especially more math. He makes some good decisions (saving his money and not sniffing glue) and some nearly disastrous ones (dealing drugs to make money). And in the end, the reader is left with only the hope that Akash might, just possibly, be able to go to school and get off the streets.

Author Monika Schroder says in her Author’s Note:

A boy like Akash has only a slim chance of fulfilling his dream in contemporary India. Yet I wanted to write a hopeful book about a child who, with determination, courage, and some luck, achieves his goal against all odds.

If you like this book about a street child in India and you’re interested in similar or related stories, I recommend:

Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth. Brief Semicolon review here.
Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins. Semicolon review here.
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan.
What Then, Raman? by Shirley Arora.
The movie, Slumdog Millionaire.

BBAW Interview Swap

Swapna Krishna of S. Krishna’s Books is a 20-something reader and book blogger from Washington, D.C. Since she’s about the age of my Eldest Daughter, it was a blast to swap interviews with her for Book Blogger Appreciation Week and get some reading recommendations from the younger generation.

We don’t know each other at all, but I am indebted to you for several good reading suggestions including Best Intentions by Emily Listfield and Eat, Drink and Be from Mississippi by Nanci Kincaid. I see that you also enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett. That brief list makes me think we share a fondness for literature set in the South. Is that so, and if so, can you name other favorite pieces of Southern literature?

Yes!! I do very much enjoy literature set in the South. One of my favorite authors, not just of Southern fiction but generally, is Karen White. She specializes in Southern fiction – I love The House on Tradd Street, The Memory of Water, and The Lost Hours, just to name a few. I also loved Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, a book I know made its way around the blogosphere.

How did you get started as a reader? As a book blogger?

I’ve been a reader all my life – I started reading at the tender age of 3, thanks to my older sister who taught me to read! I started as a book blogger over 2 years ago. I had gotten to a point where I would buy books, bring them home, and realize I’d already read them but didn’t remember the titles because I didn’t keep track of what I was reading. I tried a paper journal, but I filled it up so quickly that it seemed silly. I’d already been reading book blogs by then, so I thought I’d start one to review books, but also just to keep a record of what I’d read!

If you could vacation in a book world, where would you go to get away from it all? What book would you like to enter into and interact with the characters?

Oooh, lovely question! This is cliche, but probably Harry Potter. I loved how vivid of a world J.K. Rowling created. Those books are still my escape when I need to get away from life for awhile. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them.

I read at your website that you are a member of the National Book Critics Circle. What is that, and why did you join?

The NBCC is a association of book reviewers, mostly print reviewers. I joined when I started working with The Book Studio, a book website that features video interviews with authors. I haven’t really done much with it, but it’s nice to have!

I also noticed your South Asian Review Database and your South Asian Author Challenge, a different kind of “Southern literature.”What are those all about?

That’s so true, I didn’t think of it that way, but it is a different type of Southern literature, ha! South Asia consists of countries around the Indian subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. My heritage is South Asian, so I’ve always been very interested in literature from the region. In mid-2009, I realized there wasn’t a huge presence of South Asian literature within the blogosphere, and the South Asian Challenge was an effort to rectify that. The South Asian Review Database is a place where anyone (challenge participant or not) can come to link up their reviews of books by South Asian authors. It’s all my effort to promote the literature of the region, I only wish I could do more!

What are your favorite books and/or authors from South Asia?

Well, I’ll have to include the cliche answers, Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri. Rushdie got me interested in South Asian literature when I read The Satanic Verses in high school (though, knowing what I know now, there’s no way I could have fully understood it and I must go back and read it sometime). Recently, I’ve become a cheerleader for Thrity Umrigar. All of her books are good, but The Weight of Heaven just blew me away. Additionally, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Secret Daughter was just amazing. I also love Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (she is an incredibly prolific author, but I’ve only read 2 of her books) and Indu Sundaresan’s historical fiction.

What book or books inspire you?

Hmmm, this is a tough one. Books with beautiful writing usually inspire me, hence why I am such a fan of Salman Rushdie. Fyodor Dostoevsky, W. Somerset Maugham – these are writers I love simply because their prose speaks to me. It really stirs something within me.

What do you like to do when you’re not reading?

When I’m not reading, I’m usually spending time with my husband. He works a lot, so when he’s not working, we’re usually together. We love watching TV, and to a lesser extent, movies. I’ve gotten him into Indian movies (he isn’t Indian), so we’ve been watching more of those lately! We love to eat good food and we travel A LOT (a little too much lately, if you ask me!) I love spending time with my friends, though many aren’t local, so I do spend too much time on the phone, and it’s why I travel so much. I also just love to experience the area I live in, Washington DC.

You’re sort of a veteran book blogger. What advice do you have for those who are new to book blogging?

Funny, I don’t think of myself as a veteran! I guess my advice to those who are new to book blogging would be to READ. I know it sounds silly, but seriously. Read anything and everything. Consistent posts are crucial if you’re trying to build an audience. Additionally, I know it’s tempting to start clamoring for review copies the second you start a blog, but resist that temptation and wait for awhile! Review your own books or library books – build up a healthy review library before you start asking publishers for books.

Thanks, Swapna. I really did enjoy getting to know you and your blog, and I’m planning to read some more South Asian fiction soon. You’ve inspired me!

And here Swapna interviews me. You know, you could just be-bop back and forth all day: Swapna to Semicolon, Semicolon to Swapna, S. Krishna’s Books to Semicolon’s reviews, etc. Have a great day.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

A coterie of Anglican nuns comes to a remote Himalayan village to establish a convent, school, and hospital fro the improvement and benefit of the natives. Instead of making any impression at all on the villagers, the nuns themselves are changed and brought to confront their deepest fears, desires, and inadequacies.

Simple enough to summarize, the novel can be read as simple and somewhat simplistic. When confronted by the great and inscrutable Mysteries of the East, Western Christian minds can only choose to give in and “go native” or be broken by the weight of all that cumulative Eastern wisdom. This truism would probably satisfy many readers of Godden’s novel.

However, it doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t really believe that a “bend or be broken” moral was all that Ms. Godden meant to convey in this novel either. The following conversation between Sister Adela and a Hindu prince that she is tutoring is key:

“Pantheism?” he cried, writing it down delightedly. “And that? How do you spell it and what is it?”
“Saying that God is in everything, animate and inanimate, in the trees and stones and streams.”
“That sounds very beautiful,” he said thoughtfully, “but it certainly isn’t true.”
Sister Adela was surprised. “Why are you so sure?” she asked.
“Because,” he said, “we can conquer trees and streams and stones; we can cut down the forest and dam the stream and break up the stones, but we can’t conquer God.”
“Now he,” he said pointing with his pen, “might very well be in the mountain. We call it Kanchenjungha, and we believe that God is there. No one can conquer that mountain, and they never will. Men can’t conquer God; they only go mad for the love of Him.”

Ms. Godden isn’t advocating mountain worship any more than the psalmist was: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” Rather, the mountain is a symbol, a picture, of the invincibility and yes, the inscrutability of God Himself. When we come face to face with the Eternal we can either give up or go mad. When we recognize our own nsignificance and inability to be anything, we can repent and be still or run screaming off the cliff. Job or Job’s wife?

There’s a movie version of Black Naricissus with Deborah Kerr as Mother Superior Clodagh. I’ll probably check it out even though I fear it may be a disappointment. Hollywood isn’t known for making deeply meaningful and subtle spiritual films.

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

I had been saving the ARC I received of Mitali Perkins’ new YA novel Secret Keeper for a treat and because I thought that a review closer to the time of publication would be more helpful to readers. In December I succumbed, and read it.

Such a powerful story! It’s something of a romance, and I so wanted everything to turn out just like the fairy tales. And yet I felt as I read that it couldn’t really have a traditional happy ending and that it couldn’t have been written in any other way. Secret Keeper is a tale of love and loss, of traditional family and of new ways and mores creeping into and disrupting the old conventions. It’s a story that bridges cultures and creates understanding and makes even WASPs like me feel a twinge of identification with the characters and their very human situations.

The main character of the novel is sixteen year old Asha, the younger of two daughters in the Gupta family. As the story opens, Asha, her sister Reet, and their mother are on a train headed for a visit of indeterminate length with their Baba’s family in Calcutta. Baba (Father) himself is in America looking for work, having lost his job as a result of the economic difficulties in India in the early 1970′s, the time period for the book. Asha is not sure how the small family will manage to fit into her uncle’s household in Calcutta even for the short amount of time she expects them to stay before Baba send for them to join him in the U.S. Asha’s grandmother lives with Asha’s uncle’s very traditional family, and the three women will be three more mouths to feed, unable to make much, if any, contribution to the welfare of the family. As events unfold, Asha depends on her diary, nicknamed Secret Keeper, to hold her thoughts and dreams and to keep her sane in a tension-filled household.

Girls, especially those who are trying to balance responsibilities to family and to themselves, will find Asha to be a sympathetic character and a role model. When she is faced with a crisis, she makes the best decision she can both for herself and for her small family, and even though her solution to the family’s problems is imperfect and open to criticism, it is the difficulty of her decision that makes the family strong again and renews their bonds, bonds that have been stretched to the breaking point.

I really think that this book is Ms. Perkins’ best book to date, an exploration of cultural norms and changing roles, of responsibility to self and to family, and of flawed but loving answers to difficult issues. I highly recommend Secret Keeper, available in bookstores and from Amazon starting today. (Click on the book cover to order from Amazon.)

Other reviewers:

Book Embargo: “It was a beautiful book.. (haven’t I said that already?) But it really was. The family dynamics, with the father gone to America, the mother and two sisters left to live with relatives. The money problems, the Indian culture, it was all so beautifully written and described.”

To This Great Stage of Fools: Born January 11th

Alan Paton, b.1903, d.1988. Mr. Paton is the South African author of at least three novels: Cry, the Beloved Country, Too Late the Phalarope, and Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful. All three are well worth your reading time. Previous Alan Paton birthday posts:
Alan Paton and Cry, the Beloved Country.
Alan Paton’s other two novels.

If you like Cry, the Beloved Country, you should definitely read Paton’s other two novels. Then, you might also like these books, somewhat similar in style and/or subject matter.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya is the story of Rukmani, the fourth daughter in a poor family in India. Her life, as she and her family become poorer and poorer, is still a life of dignity even in the most impoverished circumstances.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is also, like Cry, the Beloved Country, about love and forgiveness and about a prodigal son and the lengths to which a father will go to reclaim that son.

River Rising by Athol Dickson is similar to Cry, the Beloved Country in that it deals in a redemptive way with race and race relations, but the setting is Louisiana in the 1920′s.

Try any or all of these, but first, if you’ve never read Cry, the Beloved Country, do so. I highly recommend it.

Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins

Monsoon Summer is light reading for the teenage set, but it’s good, decent, well-constructed, light reading, with even a few details and episodes thrown in to provoke a bit of thought.

Jazz Gardner is fifteen, the daughter of an ethnic Indian mother, who was adopted from an orphanage in India as a young child. Jazz’s father is a computer programmer, the strong , silent type, who supports her mother in all her philanthropic projects. Jazz is expected to participate in “helping others”, but she doesn’t really think she has the right personality to help anyone since the only time she ever attempted to do a good deed, it turned into a disaster. Since then, she’s stayed out of philanthropy and used her time to run a successful tourist business with her best friend, Steve.

Now Jazz’s mom tells her that the family is going to spend the summer in India, helping out at the orphanage that Mrs. Gardner lived in before she was adopted. And at about the same time, Jazz realizes that her feelings for Steve, her longtime business partner, have turned into something more than just platonic friendship. Unfortunately, there’s no indication from Steve that he sees Jazz as anything but a friend and a partner. And other girls are after Steve. And the business needs her. And who wants to go to India, anyway?

Jazz learns a lot about herself and her own abilities as she copes with a foreign culture, and she learns something about how to relate to Steve, even from the other side of the world. The picture of India and Indian culture is vividly drawn, and Jazz’s Indian friend, Danita, has something to teach Jazz, just as Jazz finds out that she has gifts that can help her friend. I think I’ll recommend this one to Brown Bear Daughter, even though she’s only eleven (going on twenty). The relationship between Jazz and her friend, Steve, is treated sensitively and yet honestly.

The orphanage in the story is a Christian orphanage, so the characters are mostly at least nominal Christians. The religious differences between India and the U.S. are hardly mentioned. However, the cultural differences loom large. Jazz is amazed at the possibility that her friend, Danita, may marry a much older man in order to provide a home for herself and her orphaned sisters. Jazz is also surprised at the caste prejudice that she encounters as Indians who look different are treated better or worse according to their perceived caste. Then, too, Jazz is trying, as do many adolescent girls, to figure out her own attitude about her body, about whether she is attractive or not, what it is that makes a girl pretty, what others think about her looks and why. These more thoughtful parts of the novel come across as real without being preachy or over-emphasized.

If you’re looking for a good, solid story for your teenage girl that will hold her interest without being a problem-of-the-week novel or a trashy romance, Monsoon Summer fits the bill.

World Geography Week 12: India


Music:
Felix Mendelssohn—Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture

Mission Study:
1. Window on the World: India
2. WotW: Sri Lanka
3. Bold Bearers of His Name: Pandita Rambai
4. WotW: Bhutan
5. WotW: Gonds

Poems:
My Poetry Book: When It’s Time to Play

Science:
Electricity

Nonfiction Read Alouds:
Friends of India–Hill This one is a missions books that we have on hand.

Fiction Read Alouds:
A Little Princess–Burnett I love this classic story of Sara Crewe and her attic room and her courage and perseverance.
Daughter of the Mountains–Rankin

Picture Books:
Take a Trip to India—Lye
If You Were Born In India
Take a Trip to Nepal—Lye
Mama’s Saris–Makhijani Available in 2007. I read about this picture book here at Fuse 8, and I wish we had a copy to go along with our India study. Bee Girl would enjoy it as much as she enjoys her shawl from France that she drapes about her in various artistic and fashionable ways.

Elementary Readers:
Remarkable Story of Prince Jen—Alexander
Anni’s India Diary—Axworthy
What Then, Raman?–Arora
The Road to Agra–Sommerfelt
To the Top! Climbing the World’s Highest Mountain—Kramer

Movies:
Choose Your Own Adventure: The Abominable Snowman
Lagaan

As always, I’ll be happy to take suggestions.