Friday, October 29, 2010

Favorite author: Chris Bohjalian

Midwives (Oprah's Book Club)The first Chris Bohjalian I read was Midwives, about a lay midwife who attends a birth in the middle of the night and gets stranded in the snowy, icy weather. The birth goes wrong, the mother appears to have lost a fatal amount of blood, and the midwife must make a life-or-death decision. She attempts an emergency c-section, knowing that the mother will not survive (since the midwife is not a doctor and not equipped for such a procedure). The woman dies and the baby lives. However, was the mother really at death's door, or could her death have been averted? I love the way Bohjalian's books make me think about right and wrong, and the truth in between.

Trans-Sister RadioTrans-Sister Radio is about a man who is in love with a woman, but who decides to become a woman. He goes through the whole sex change procedure (and I learned a great deal about what is involved in that), and the woman in his life, who is not a lesbian, has to consider whether to stay with him. Is she in love with the man he is, or the person he is? Again, Bohjalian forces the reader to question what she knows to be true.

Water WitchesWater Witches educated me about the world of water dousing (the practice of locating hidden water wells, buried metals, gemstones, or other objects). Environmentalists are pitted against ski resort developers in this intriguing story involving family, honesty, and ambition.

Before You Know KindnessBefore You Know Kindness is a wonderful, thought-provoking New England family saga about a gun accident, hunting, vegetarianism, and intense family dynamics. Some of the story is based on Bohjalian's experiences, such as working in a lobster restaurant and deciding then and there to become a vegetarian. An animal rights activist is pitted against his hunter brother, and both of their families become involved in the feud.

The Buffalo Soldier: A NovelThe Buffalo Soldier is about a couple who tragically lost their nine-year-old daughters in a freak flood accident. They end up taking in a foster child, an African-American boy. The couple who live across the street befriend the boy and teach him about buffalo soldiers (African-American cavalry troopers). Bohjalian continues to share his gift of bringing complex characters and plots to life. He explores interesting questions of race, grief, and love.

The Double Bind (Vintage Contemporaries)The Double Bind is my least favorite of Bohjalian's novels, even though it was well written as always. I was engaged in the story--I thought about the book when not reading it, which is always a good sign. I knew there was a plot twist, but I did not deduce what it was going to be until I came upon it. (I'm that way with mysteries, too--just try to enjoy the story and not think ahead to what might happen--I prefer to be surprised.) I found it interesting to note some parallels with a nonfiction book, Strange Piece of Paradise, the real-life story of a female biker who was brutally attacked and years later, tries to unravel the mystery and unleash her own anxieties about the incident. The Double Bind brings the tragedy of the homeless and the mentally ill to the light of day, and also sensitively portrays the collateral damage done to women who are sexually assualted and violated. Bohjalian is a talented writer, and the books of his I enjoy the most are the ones where you can really get inside of the characters' souls. Because of the nature of the plot (and the manipulation of the reader's mind, which is skillfully done), fully engaging with the characters was more difficult with The Double Bind.

Secrets of Eden: A NovelSkeletons at the Feast: A NovelI have two more books on my shelves to read, when I'm ready for another treat: Secrets of Eden and Skeletons at the Feast. The only other novel of Bohjalian's I have not yet read is The Law of Similars, one of his earlier books.

I got to meet Chris Bohjalian once at Annie Bloom's, when he came through Portland on a book tour for Before You Know Kindness. In the old days before children, Mike and I went to see/hear a lot of authors (TC Boyle, Anne Lamott, Kazuo Ishiguro, Molly Gloss, Ruth Ozeki, John Barth, John Irving, etc.). Bohjalian was one of the most engaging, dynamic authors I have had the pleasure of seeing. I bought several copies of the book to give as gifts, and as I was waiting in line for his autographs, Kieran (3 or 4 at the time) bought a Curious George book. Chris Bohjalian signed his Curious George book for him!  That is one book that will not be given away. I look forward to sinking my teeth into more of Bohjalian's novels in the future. I highly recommend his books.

The Law of Similars

Curious George and the Birthday Surprise

Book quote of the day, by Oscar Wilde

It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it." — Oscar Wilde

I like this. We are what we read. At least most of the time.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A memoir about going home

Elizabeth Gilbert describes this memoir as "wincingly funny." To begin with, Rhoda Janzen came up with a wonderful, eye-catching title. Janzen left the Mennonite faith as a young woman and became an English professor. She married a bipolar, bisexual man who verbally abused her over the years and attempted suicide. In her early 40s, she experienced serious medical trauma from a botched hysterectomy, and her husband nursed her through her recovery before announcing to her that he was leaving her for a man he met on That same week, she got in a serious car accident.

Janzen returns home to her Mennonite family to recuperate from life's upheavals. During this time, she writes funny e-mails to her friends, and one of them suggests she should write a memoir. This book is the result, and it reads more like a series of blog posts or e-mails than a straightforward memoir.

With that said, I did enjoy this book. Janzen has a funny, snarky writing style, and she colorfully describes a number of amusing situations and characters. She tries to shed light on the Mennonite lifestyle and offers a Mennonite primer as an appendix. I enjoyed reading about the Mennonite faith and history, but I wanted more.

The book fell short for me in several ways.
  • Although she lovingly describes both her parents, I didn't get a clear sense of her father. Her mom seems like a real character, and I enjoyed the stories about her.
  • She never really explains what made her leave the Mennonite church and when it happened. She described a Vacation Bible School experience as a child where she began to have doubts, but she went on to attend a Mennonite college. What made her decide to leave?
  • She doesn't seem to be fond of children. With a few exceptions (her sister's daughter), she seems to view them as brats. On her Web site, she professes to love children. This does not ring true.
  • The various chapters did not seem to be tied together in any logical way, reading more like independent e-mails or blog posts. (She apparently wrote this memoir in 1 month, because she had nothing else to do while she was staying with her parents.) Readers looking for chronological progression will be frustrated.
  • Most glaringly, I could not help but wonder about her current relationship with her brothers and sisters-in-law. She writes scathingly of her brothers and meanly pokes fun at her sisters-in-law. Even their children are not free from attack. Did she care nothing of her relationship with them, to be so publicly honest about her feelings? This brutal honesty often surprises me when I read memoirs. It seems that many authors care more about fame and fortune (or writing success) than protecting other people's reputations and feelings.

    It's not just her brothers and sisters-in-law she pillories, but they are the closest to her. Then there's her sister's husband's sister's ex-husband, who must have cringed to see how she described him. Her ex-husband, understandably, does not come out well, either.

    This type of writing makes for interesting reading, but I wonder at Janzen's motives and her lack of sensitivity.

    Janzen has apparently remarried and now attends a Pentecostal church, which strikes me as odd. She is at work on another memoir, and I will probably read it. Am I encouraging this unkind behavior by reading her writing? Perhaps. That's something to ponder.
In subsequent interviews about the book, Janzen claims that she still cares for and respects her ex-husband and tried to portray the ups as well as downs of their relationship. I do not remember reading ANY ups, except for the very first time they met. I also wondered why none of her friends and family encouraged her to leave him for years, while she was experiencing such awful abuse.

Even with these criticisms, I did enjoy this book. I especially enjoyed Janzen's descriptions of her mom and her warm, close relationship with her sister, Hannah, who lives in Bend, Oregon. Their deep understanding of each other reminded me of my relationship with my own sister.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Quote of the day

"I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."
--Groucho Marx

This evening while at dinner with colleagues, they were talking about various TV shows they followed. While I do have a few that I like ("Glee," "Brothers and Sisters," "Mad Men," even "The Apprentice"...), for the most part I don't watch a lot of TV. Perhaps 4 hours a week at most.

When people ask me how I have the time to read so many books, my typical response is "you should see my house" (meaning I'd rather be reading than doing housework).

But another reality is I'd rather be reading than watching TV. No commercials. Better for your brain. Some TV is high quality, but so much of it is crap. Americans waste so much of their lives watching crap.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Broken Glass Park: Russian immigrant teen in Germany scarred by life

Sascha, the emotionally scarred 17-year-old protagonist of this gritty novel, has two dreams in life: to write a book about her mother and to kill the man who killed her mother and her boyfriend in a blood-drenched murder (in front of her children).

The author, too, is a Russian immigrant living in Germany, and wrote this novel under a pseudonym. Sascha is scary smart and passionately loves her younger brother and sister, but she sets off on a self-destructive path to get to a place where she can feel something.

Bronsky packs in tons of detail and characters, almost to excess. I don't like it when I can't keep track of all of the characters or I don't know much about them.

The ones she spends more time on (Anton and Alissa, Maria, Volker, Felix) are more colorfully drawn and it's easier to understand their actions and thoughts.

I don't understand many of the choices Sascha makes--such as seducing a young neonazi or being obsessed with a journalist who showed kindness to her--but Bronsky does an admirable job of writing in the voice of a teenager who has seen far too much in her life. She comes to appreciate their new guardian Maria, although she initially treated her with scorn.

It was clear that Bronsky does not yet have children herself, as she shows some naivete in writing about young children. Alissa is meant to be only 3 years old, yet she is in kindergarten and can write words in Cyrillic? She's also exceedingly articulate for her age.

It's an impressive first novel and it feels very European urban in nature. The end of the book leaves the reader wondering if Sascha will ever recover from her tragedy and be able to develop healthy, long-lasting relationships.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Quote of the Day

"A room without books is like a body without a soul."
Marcus Tullius Cicero

I'm guessing that not a single room in our house is lacking reading material, with the possible exception of the kitchen. (The cookbooks are stored in the hall closet, near the kitchen.)

In fact, if this quote is true, our house is jam packed with soul!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Wedding Cake: Light as white cake

I needed a break from the last two heavier-content books I read, so I raced through Lynne Hinton's Wedding Cake. It's the most recent book in a series that began with Friendship Cake, which I read a few years ago.

It's about a group of women affiliated with a church in Hope Springs, North Carolina, who became close when they wrote a cookbook together (the plot of the first book). It's a diverse bunch of women: a couple of married women, an African-American woman, a lesbian, and a young female pastor.

The pastor has moved to New Mexico to run a battered women's shelter, and one of the North Carolinan women is desperate to get her married off. The others endure their various challenges. A daughter announces her wedding to her mom by sending a wedding invitation. Another woman's husband's secrets rise up out of the past. And a woman who is still grieving the death of her best friend and love of her life is surprised to see her friend's ex-husband at her doorstep.

Wedding Cake is light as white cake and easy to read. It was okay. I don't think I'll read any more of this series. I'm ready for some dense, nutty carrot cake again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So that's why I married another English major!

"The pleasure of all reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books."—Katherine Mansfield

My first conversation with Mike, my British husband of 20 years, was about Jane Austen. We were immediately drawn to each other because of our shared love of literature. I introduced him to Alice Walker, John Irving, and many other American writers, and he introduced me to Paul Theroux, Tom Robbins, Charles Dickens, and Salman Rushdie, among others. While traveling together, we swapped our paperbacks. Over the years, we have recommended and given countless books to each other...while also knowing which types of books not to recommend based on the other person's taste. If Mike doesn't like a book, I'm less inclined to read it (and vice versa). He didn't care much for The Life of Pi, so I still have not gotten around to reading it! On the other hand, he liked the Yiddish Policemen's Union much more than I did.

Reading Lemony Snicket to Kieran
We haven't actually been reading a lot of the same books recently, since Mike has been reading a lot of young adult and middle-grade books for research.

A few days ago, he started The Hunger Games, and he hasn't been able to put it down. Usually he will read in bed and fall asleep, book held in mid-air. Last night at 11:15, he regretfully put the book down--only 40 pages to go. I spoke to him a few hours ago, and not only had he finished the book, but he's already started on Catching Fire! We have Mockingjay out from the library, and it's due in several days. He's determined to read it before then. I think it will be another late night again...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

I first heard of this book when our pastor read a memorable story during her sermon--of taking two homeboys out to a restaurant for the first time in their lives. Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries--the largest gang intervention program in the country. The organization's motto is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." Fr. Boyle has been working amongst gang-afflicted kids and young adults for 24 years.

This book is a collection of his stories--full of gut-wrenching pain, beauty, loss, and grace.
He tells stories about homies who are shocked to their core that someone actually believes in them or takes the time for them. Kids who have never felt any worth finally get real jobs and make lives for themselves. Sworn enemies work side by side and become friends. He writes about the women of his church, who love these kids through their flaws and felonies.

The stories are interspersed with lovely quotes that help emphasize his stories and message, such as this one:
"It's when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind's shell and enters the heart." --Denise Levertov  
Some of these kids have been abandoned or abused by their parents and have never experienced the Japanese concept of "amae," living in a deep sense of being cherished.

Fr. Boyle and his colleagues attempt to do this for the homies. He notes, "The great encounter with the 'father wound' is every homeboy's homework." He also writes about moms who take seven separate buses to see their sons, every Sunday, and compares this dedication to the expansive heart of God.

He writes about hardened, violent, criminal gangsters who turn into emotional little boys when they are deeply loved unconditionally.

The title, "Tattoos on the Heart," comes from this story, which gives you a brief glimpse of the deep, enduring effects Fr. Boyle (or "G," as they call him) has on the young people he helps:
"Once, after dealing with a particularly exasperating homie named Sharkey, I switch my strategy and decide to catch him in the act of doing the right thing. I can see I have been too harsh and exacting with him, and he is, after all, trying the best he can. I tell him how heroic he is and how the courage he now exhibits in transforming his life far surpasses the hollow 'bravery' of his barrio past. I tell him that he is a giant among men. I mean it. Sharkey seems to be thrown off balance by all this and silently stares at me. Then he says, 'Damn, G...I'm gonna tattoo that on my heart.'"
In his 24 years of working with homeboys and homegirls, Boyle has buried 168+ of them. Can you imagine?

This book brought tears to my eyes multiple times. Boyle lives out his belief that it is our responsibility as human beings to make sure "the voices on the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens." I feel honored to have witnessed a tiny glimpse of this compassion through these stories.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mockingjay: Real, or not real?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This morning I finished Book #3 of the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay. Suzanne Collins has crafted an amazing allegorical story, full of vivid imagery and memorable characters. As I mentioned in my review of Catching Fire, the world in these books is not as far from our modern-day world as we might think. We are the privileged ones in the Capitol, and the developing world produces much of our goods and services. Their compensation is unfair and their conditions are often untenable. We are aware of this yet we do little about it.

Some readers found Mockingjay to be a highly satisfying end to the series, while others were sorely disappointed. I found myself feeling greatly relieved to be finished with the series, as brilliant as it is. (This is why I gave it four stars rather than five--it's brilliant stuff but I reserve five stars for books that make me feel good.) I feel that way each time I read a dystopian book--with the exception of the Harry Potter series, they seem to be the types of fantasy novels I read (The Handmaid's Tale,The Left Hand of Darkness, The Road, etc.). I felt tainted and disturbed after reading each one of these books. They stick with me for days afterward. That's the point.

Many of the disappointed readers note that Katniss is not her feisty, fiery self in this final book. She seems to be broken and lacking in choices throughout the book. She's often on the edge of the action instead of in the middle of it. That's true...but I think her lack of choice--and her exhaustion--is exactly the point Collins is trying to make. She's still a child, and she's seen and experienced more horror and tragedy than any person should have to bear.



Some reviewers have commented that Prim's and Finnick's deaths were too slapdash, and it's true--they were. However, that reflects the nature of war. Soldiers cannot take much time to mourn their loved ones lest they let their guard down and make themselves vulnerable.

President Coin's complicity in the violence and betrayal disillusioned me. I wanted to believe that the rebels were fighting against the evil, not seeking to continue it. And Plutarch chose to join the rebel cause for what, if not to fight for a higher, more noble cause? In the end, he is no better than those in the Capitol because he joins in Coin's plot.
When Katniss votes to let the Hunger Games continue, I was so disappointed in her. Then after she tricks everyone and kills Coin instead of Snow, it left me wondering whether this was a split-second decision or a calculated move. Collins illustrates the human tendency to perpetuate the violence a person suffers, just as abuse victims do.

Gale's choices did not surprise me in the end, although the love triangle was resolved passively for Katniss instead of her taking a stand and making a choice for Gale or Peeta. This is why some readers have said that Katniss didn't make active choices in this final book. Things happen to her (with a few exceptions) instead of her happening to things.

After all that death and destruction at the end, it was somewhat surprising to have a relatively "happy" ending, although Katniss will always be haunted by the Hunger Games. I'm a happy ending sort of person, so I liked the way it ended.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The girl who fixed the umlaut--a parody of Stieg Larsson

I'm about 3/4 of the way through Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, Book #3 in her Hunger Games series. Mike has been reading pans of this book amongst his children's writing community.

I don't know if I'm just less critical (although I expect not), but I'm having a hard time putting the book down. (I can't exactly say I'm ENJOYING the book...because similar to Stieg Larsson's series, it's not enjoyable subject content.)

I think that when authors have a huge hit, it's difficult for them to meet their readers' expectations in upcoming books. The only major series that comes to my mind in which readers were not disappointed with subsequent books is the Harry Potter series--most people would agree the books got better as JK Rowling wrote more of them.

For those of you who have read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, you must read this wonderful parody by Nora Ephron. I've posted before that I think this series should be called Coffee and a Sandwich. Or as Ephron reminds us, "Kalle fucking Blomkvist."

Friday, October 8, 2010

Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything

I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. Other reviewers noted that Simon Majumdar was a snobby elitist, which might indeed be true, but he was funny. Perhaps they thought so just because he was British!

Majumdar, bored with his day job, decided to travel around the world sampling various countries' cuisines. He found a notebook in which he had  penned several goals, one of them being "GO EVERYWHERE EAT EVERYTHING." And so he did.

He began in his own home country (the United Kingdom), by sampling the best blood puddings and pork pies in the UK. And so began a theme--Majumdar loves meat, and he especially loves unusual cuts of meat--namely innards. Not really my cup of tea.
Next he was off to Ireland to visit cheese makers. Now that I can appreciate. American cheese pales in comparison to British or Irish cheese.

Then he went off to Australia. "Australians are exceptional self-publicists and have persuaded many that Australia is the best country in the world, even if the Aussies promulgating this myth are usually living elsewhere at the time and show little inclination to return. It is the same with their food." Generally, he was underwhelmed by the food he ate in Sydney and Melbourne, but found some diamonds in the rough.

Next, Asia, where he sampled chanko nabe (the food of sumo wrestlers), yakitori, gyoza, kaiten sushi, and kaiseki in Japan. He also had an unfortunate experience with cod sperm sushi.

Then Hong Kong and China...where he really stepped out of his comfort zone and ate dog and stir-fried rat. Even beyond the unfortunate food experiences, Majumdar found China to be did I when I was traveling from Shanghai to Chengdu. The China chapters are not for the squeamish.

He also found Russia to be difficult, but was surprised by Finland.

Majumdar loves the US of A, specifically American barbecue. (Again, because of his serious love of meat.) He makes all sorts of friends in the U.S., who show him a wide variety of what the country has to offer in the way of food. Of course, given the wide variety of cuisines here, he barely skimmed the surface. No visit to the U.S. to taste our seafood and berries! I appreciated his observations of New Orleans and was amused by his disgust at root beer, because my British mother-in-law loves root beer! "I ran to the nearest waste bin and spat it out. Singularly the most vile drink I had ever tried and remember, I had drunk fermented horse milk."

He loved Mexico, as did we. It is very hard to get good Mexican food or ingredients in the UK, so he found it to be a real treat.

Argentina also was a positive experience, but not so Brazil.

In Germany, he met up with brother to sample lots of beer and meat. In Iceland, he tried a delicacy: rotten shark. Blech.

Onto Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Phillippines, where he, unsurprisingly, had several wonderful culinary adventures.

Next he went onto India, where his father was born. While appreciating the great gifts of Indian cuisine and culture, he also found it to be a difficult place to travel. "It is a country so profoundly irritating that I suggested to one Indian official that they replace the Ashoka Chakra on the flag of the Republic of India with an image of a single buttock, just to warn people how half-assed things can be." He seemed to spend the most time in India, appropriate given his cultural background and the depth of culture (and differences in cuisine across the country) there.

He had mixed experiences in Africa. It's interesting that he left Africa to the last part of his year, because it's clear that he was running out of steam and was feeling exhausted at the end after all that travel. Why not put it towards the beginning, when he had more energy?

He met up with his brother again in his favorite country, Spain, and ended with Spain and Turkey.
Majumdar seemed far more likable than I expected him to be, although in Chapter 17, he's downright mean as he laments his flight between New Orleans and Philadelphia, when he is sitting between two obese people. I'm not arguing that this could be unpleasant, but did he really have to be so mean about it?

As someone whose travel adventures are heightened by experiencing the food of a particular area, I enjoyed this book. The huge quantities of meat (specifically organ meat!) got to be a bit tiresome after awhile. Majumdar certainly lived out his goal to "eat everything."

Inevitably, given how huge the world is, he left out many countries and cities, and his adventures could have gone on and on. But was a great way to experience the world. Majumdar's most memorable experiences were eating excellent food with kind people who had just befriended him, making the world a tiny bit smaller.

Reading this book gave me a deeper appreciation of the food I eat, specifically when it is cooked with extremely fresh ingredients. Majumdar kept a blog for much of his travels, and photos and travelogue can be found here. It seems to end in Thailand (probably when Majumdar started running out of steam), but gives far more detail than the book--and the photos are great!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I have to hide some of my books...

No, they are not rated R. But they are books my 14-year-old wants to read.

The other day when I came home with a big stack of library books, he scanned through them to pick out which ones HE would read! He immediately spied Eat My Globe by Simon Majumdar and announced his intention to read it. Before he could whisk it away to his room, I told him that I was going to read it first...if I have to wait for him to read it, I'll be waiting weeks. He tends to read about 10 books at once--no kidding! So it takes him awhile to get through one. I'm 2/3 of the way through Eat My Globe, and he can have it next. I'm really enjoying it, but I'm also getting a bit tired or reading about food adventures. Majumdar is heavily into meat--and all parts of it--and I think I've read enough about eating pork fat, tripe, calf's brains, and sheep's head--not to mention dog, rat, and rotten shark--to last me a lifetime.

The other day Mike was at the Garden Home library and spied a copy of Mockingjay on the's the third in the series by Suzanne Collins. He immediately nabbed it for me (isn't he a darling?). I have had it on hold at Multnomah County Library, but I believe I'm hold 350 or something like that! I asked him to hide it from Chris. When I received Catching Fire (second in the series) as a gift, I didn't get to read it until a year later, because it disappeared into Chris' room. Mike said he'd stick it next to my side of the bed--on the floor. It didn't take long before old eagle eyes saw it. I've told him he gets it right after I'm done. Given that it's so popular, both of us will have to be done with it in about 3 weeks. It won't take me long, but he might have to give up his 10-books-at-once habit to get through it.

I suppose if I had daughters, they'd be stealing/borrowing my clothes at age 14. I know this is a GOOD problem to have...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I met Lizzi through Goodreads (a social networking site for readers). We have never met in person, but I know I would like her because of the way she views life and the world. A talented photographer and observer of the natural world, Lizzi lives in Arizona, is the mom of an adorable little boy, and writes about her love of books in this post.

I hope someday we can meet in person to share our reflections about books, motherhood, and quality of life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Celebrating Banned Books Week at Our House

Captain Underpants, Harry Potter series, The Color Purple, A Wrinkle in Time

Nick thinks this pretending to read Harry Potter is pretty amusing...

Secret Daughter: great story about Indian-American woman who finally discovers her roots

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A poor Indian village woman (Kavita) gives birth to daughters, while her husband (Vasu) and his family only want a son. Her first daughter is taken from her and buried alive before she can even hold her. When she has a second daughter, Kavita and her sister make a long journey on foot to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where they have an emotional parting at an orphanage.

In the meantime, across the globe, a Californian physician named Somer suffers from a series of miscarriages and learns she will never be able to carry a baby. Her Indian husband, Krishnan, finally convinces her to consider adoption. They make their first trip to India together to visit Krishnan's family and adopt a baby girl, Asha, who had been born to Kavita and Jasu.

Some have criticized this book because Gowda tries to tackle too many years (a 25-year time span) in too few pages (about 340). She also switches back and forth between characters' perspectives. It's a little clunky, I must admit, and it took me some time to get used to it and settle into the story.

Some of the characters could have been more developed...a task that might have been easier had there not been so many perspectives or years covered. For example, what was going on with Kavita and Jasu's son, Vijay? How did he become who he was? We meet handsome economist Sanjay in Mumbai, but don't get a clear picture of who he is...similar to Asha's cousins and her mentor, Meena. Her grandfather hardly says a word in the book, and presumably she grows attached to him, but we're not really sure why because we don't glimpse any of their interactions. Perhaps the book was too ambitious in trying to cover too much.

Asha grows up and chafes against her parents. Somer and Krishnan grow apart, especially after Asha leaves for college. Kavita and Jasu have their long-awaited son, who turns out to be a disappointment. They move to Mumbai and continue to live in poverty for most of their lives.

I found the character of Somer to be annoying. She's the only major American character in the book, and some of her choices don't ring true to me. She marries an Indian in the 1980s, yet has no interest whatsoever in visiting India, getting to know her Indian relatives, or eating Indian food? Asha reaches the age of 20 without ever having returned to India. I can't imagine depriving a child of his or her grandparents for 20 years, not to mention not teaching her about her rich cultural heritage. Although the book begins by describing her heartbreaking battles with infertility, Somer was the least well-developed and believable character in the book.

For me, the story came alive when Asha went to work in India for a year on a college fellowship. She meets and gets to know her large Indian family and wise grandmother, and she also comes to appreciate her parents and better appreciate the choices they made.

Gowda also sensitively tackles the extremely difficult issue of females in India, from Kavita having her daughters ripped away from her because they were not male and experiencing scorn because she had not borne a the abject poverty and crippling conditions poor Indian women suffer...and the apparent power wealthier Indian women wield in their own families, yet they are still stifled by social structures and taboos. Asha comes to realize how much more freedom she has had as a woman, growing up in the U.S. instead of India. As Asha's mentor, Meena says, "Mother India does not love all her children equally, it seems." At the same time, Gowda balances the horrific challenges women face in India with the beautiful parts of the culture and the importance of family.

In spite of the book's weaknesses, I'm giving it four stars...because I couldn't put it down. I will read more of Gowda's books. For me, the most important thing about a book is how much I enjoy reading much it sticks with me throughout the day, and whether I think of it when I wake in the middle of the night. This book did those things for me, so I consider it a good read.

Chowpatty Beach, one of the sights Asha visits during her year in Mumbai