Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cross Currents

Cross CurrentsCross Currents, by John Shors

In March 1987, my friend Debbie and I spent a few days--not long enough--on an unspoiled Thai island, Koh Samet. The visit was arranged by Debbie's friend, Noi, who worked for Finn Air and whose Bangkok family was very protective of us. Even though Debbie and I were intrepid travelers by this point, they didn't want us traveling on our our time on this island was wonderful because we were on our own, and it was absolutely of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It was so relaxing--all we did all day was laze around reading, writing, swimming, and taking walks. And eating amazing seafood.The owners didn't seem to speak much English, and we had to let them know when we wanted to eat by using sign language.

Me on Koh Samet
The memory of our time on that pristine island, where we had a bungalow on the beach and ate our meals in front of the ocean, was ever present as I read this book, set on another unspoilt Thai island, Ko Phi Phi. It's the story of an American, Patch, who is working for Lek and Sarai, owners of a very small resort (which sounds similar to the one where we stayed).

Patch develops a strong friendship with Lek and Sarai's children and becomes part of their family. But Patch's stay continues longer than any other American...and they realize that he is on the run from the law. Soon Patch's brother Ryan and his girlfriend Brooke arrive to help him, but there's trouble in paradise. Brooke and Ryan's relationship is in trouble, and she realizes she is attracted to Patch.

The climax of the story is the December 2004 tsunami, which sweeps everyone into crisis. It's the second book I've read in the past year about the tsunami; the other one was the heart-breaking memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Another photo of Koh Samet (me, age 22)
It's a terribly bittersweet novel, and it moved me at the end. I don't think it's Shors' strongest novel--my two favorites were his first ones, Beneath a Marble Sky and Beside a Burning Sea. At times I tired of the descriptions about everyone's clothing and a bit too much "telling" rather than "showing." At other times the story dragged on, with slow plot development. On the other hand, I liked the way he described the lives of the Thais who lived on the island, the rich family life of Lek and Sarai, the tenuous relationship between the foreigners and the Thais, and the relationship between the brothers--strained but loving.

And most of all, I enjoyed this book because it made me think of that lovely Thai beach...and saddened me to think of what happened to all those people who lost their lives or loved ones in the great wave.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Sleeping Dictionary

The Sleeping Dictionary (Daughters of Bengal, #1)
The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

As a long-time Sujata Massey fan, I was anxious to get my hands on her latest novel, and it did not disappoint!!

Sujata Massey was born in England to parents from India and Germany (just like my friend Nandita), and she grew up mostly in Minnesota. After working as a reporter, she spent several years in Japan where she taught, studied, and began writing her first novel, The Salaryman's Wife. That first novel grew into a detective series with smart, industrious, and savvy Rei Shimura, a Japanese-American antiques dealer who lives in Japan and solves mysteries on the side. I read every single one of the Rei Shimura novels as soon as they came out and have widely recommended them to friends. In fact, the Rei Shimura series is the only detective series I've devoured in its entirety outside of the VI Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (my first introduction to detective novels). I'm not naturally drawn to mysteries, so I'm highly selective. Authors (e.g., Sue Grafton and Patricia Cornwell) lose my attention if their books are not well written or if I get tired of the main character. Of course, Rei Shimura held my attention completely because of the series' setting in Japan (mostly). Loved them!

So onto The Sleeping Dictionary. This book took six years for Massey to research and write, because it involved so much in-depth research into Indian history, culture, and language. Massey's family comes from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and she spent time there as a child (read her wonderful diary entries here!), so it was a natural choice for setting this novel. 

It's the story of Pom, who lives with her family in a small village by the sea. Her family is very poor, but she feels secure and well loved until a tidal wave wipes out her whole village and her family. Completely alone and helpless in 1930s India, Pom is a survivor. She ends up at a British boarding school, where she is renamed as Sarah and begins working as a maid. She learns how to read and write while operating the fan in a classroom. When she befriends a wealthier Indian girl, Bidushi, who she had known as a child, she comes to discover her own intelligence and talents. Although she hopes to become Bidushi's ayah and always stay together, these dreams are soon dashed by tragedy.

Still very young, she next finds herself in the city of Kharagpur, lured into prostitution at a high-class brothel. As an Indian girl without a family, she has few options for survival. She desperately tries to cling to her dignity in the midst of her despair at being forced to sell her body, and she continues to nurture dreams of becoming a teacher. (The title of the book comes from the term for young Indian women who slept with British men and taught them the ways and language of India.)

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot and adventure in the novel, but I will say that she moves to Calcutta where she renames herself as Kamala, begins to work for an English man, and gets involved in the Indian independence movement.

So here are some of the reasons why I loved this book: 
  • Pom/Sarah/Kamala is a strong, spunky Indian female, and I found myself rooting for her immediately and throughout her story. Faced with desperately difficult choices in her life, she does the best she can with what is given to her. While she is certainly a victim many times in her life, she has no privilege to wallow in misery and self-pity, but time after time she finds ways to rise above her difficult circumstances.
  • I could practically taste Calcutta through Massey's detailed descriptions of the city. I've traveled only in the north of India (we concentrated our time there in Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan), but I found myself intrigued by the City of Palaces and sad to read about its devastation during the pre-Independence riots and violence.
  • I have read great quantities of Indian fiction (and a bit of nonfiction, too), but this book taught me things I did not know...for example, about the massive famine in Bengal caused by the British Empire hoarding India's rice (millions died), India's amazing female freedom fighters and independence activists, Japan bombing India during the war, some members of the Indian resistance movement joining the Japanese led by Subhash Chandra Bose, to name a also gives the Anglo-Indian perspective on what was happening during that time.
  • Massey develops multidimensional characters, including Hindus, Muslims, and British, and even some of the women who are sucked into prostitution. Kamala herself makes some unfortunate decisions and lies to people because she feels she has no choice. She's a complex character who is far from perfect. Both Kamala and Simon evolve through the story. There's even a Scottish clergyman who is open minded, fair, and compassionate...imagine that!
  • As a consummate book lover, I enjoyed the sheer love of books in this novel. From the moment "Sarah" borrows books from a kind teacher at the British boarding school and her gradual collection of the great masters, to Kamala landing a wonderful job as a librarian for Mr. Lewes...books offer her an escape from the great losses in her life.
I was excited to learn that this book is the first in a planned trilogy, AND that Rei Shimura will be making a reappearance! The Sleeping Dictionary will be near the top of my "Top Reads of 2013" list! If you enjoy reading historical fiction or books about India, the colonial era, or strong female characters, give it a try! 

Here is Sujata Massey speaking about The Sleeping Dictionary, and an interview with her.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Orange Is the New Black

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's PrisonOrange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, by Piper Kerman

I'm completely hooked on the Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black," so I was anxious to read the memoir that is the basis for the show. I'd heard an interview with Piper Kerman on "Fresh Air" several months ago, so I already knew that the book is notably different than the show.

Here's the plot in a nutshell if you're not familiar with the show. Rich, Smith-educated white girl smuggles drug money for her girlfriend. Ten years later, after she has reinvented her life and gone to the other side (she's engaged to a man), the feds show up at her door. She has to go to prison for 15 months (13 months with time off for good behavior) because of the mistake she made as a young woman.

She serves her time in Danbury Prison in Connecticut, and toward the end of her sentence she gets transferred to even worse places--Oklahoma City and Chicago. While in prison, she makes friends and learns how to survive.

Here's what is most different about the book and show, and what I preferred:

  • When she first arrives at Danbury, many of the other prisoners reached out to her and helped her. Not so in the show, at least not right away. Win: book.
  • In the show, we learn the back stories (and actually see them) of the other prisoners. In the book, this rarely happens. It's mostly about Kerman's experience alone. Win: show, by far (this is the best part of the show!). Apparently in reality, it wasn't cool to ask why a woman was in prison, so Kerman didn't often know the back stories.
  • In the show, Piper is housed at Danbury with Alex, her former girlfriend. They have an affair and she becomes attached to her again. Her long-suffering fiance Larry finds out and breaks off their engagement. In the book, she runs into Alex Nora in the end, as they are rounded up to testify against someone else (part of their plea bargain). But they do not have an affair. They develop a tenuous friendship instead. Win: book, although the show is much more dramatic and interesting to watch.
  • We hear more about prison creativity in the book. Piper becomes an expert at making "prison cheesecake" with a variety of the movie, we don't get this level of detail. Win: book.
  • "Crazy Eyes" is an exaggeration of the show, as are several of the other characters. A woman flirts with Piper in the book, but not so aggressively as in the show. Red Pop doesn't bully her by starving her in the beginning of the stay, but she is an important character. Crazy, meth-addicted fundamentalist Christian who tries to kill Piper seems to be another fantasy. Win: book. The show plays into the stereotype of lesbian (and other types of) aggression in prison. In fact, there's a lot more lesbian sex in the show than in the book.
  • "Pornstache" (a perverted, masochistic guard) is much bigger in the show than "Gay Porn Star" in the book. He doesn't last long in reality, and he doesn't deal drugs or sleep with prisoners. Win: book (reality).
  • Larry is much more neurotic and self-obsessed in the show than in the book. He takes advantage of the information he gets from Piper to go on "This American Life" and share personal stories of the prisoners. He breaks it off with Piper when he discovers she's back with Nora Alex. None of this happens in the book. They are both loyal and much less interesting to a TV audience. Win: the book (for love, at least, if not for TV viewing).

When Piper moves to Oklahoma City and then Chicago to testify, it's much more horrific and bare than Danbury, which seems almost "comfortable" in comparison. It's hard to know how they will address this, if ever, in the show.

As Kit Steinkellner writes in this article on BookRiot,
"Orange is the New Black is a fine memoir. Orange is the New Black is a revolutionary first season of television."
I have to agree. I enjoyed the book, but the TV show is so much fuller, mostly because the stories of the diverse prisoners are so much more interesting than the rich white woman's. I'm glad Piper Kerman wrote her story, though, because it's called attention to the bad conditions of women in prison and their lack of control over their environment.