Tag Archives: book review

Lucky Boy – Shanthi Sekaran

3 May

In a nation overtaken by arguments about immigration and the building of walls, Shanthi Sekaran’s new novel

underscores the complexity of the situation.

But immigration issues are more than a decorative backdrop in Sekaran’s novel. They provide the disturbing context for its premise: two women fighting for the right to raise one child, one of them the birth mother, the other unable to conceive a child of her own. The former is a young, undocumented immigrant in the U.S., who works as a nanny-housekeeper for a Berkeley family. The latter is an affluent daughter of successful Indian immigrants who made California their home in the 1970s.

I thank the Muses that we live in the San Francisco Bay Area midst so many talented, astute, and diverse authors. In recent years, we were fortunate to host Mary Roach, Lalita Tademy, and Nayomi Munaweera at our women’s literary dinner. This year, we were lucky to dine and talk with Shanthi Sekaran.

Given the current state of immigration upheaval in the U.S., Lucky Boy is certain to raise even more questions about longstanding failures related to immigration detention, deportation, and the fate of children of undocumented immigrants.

However, other questions tend toward the personal: What defines motherhood? What is most important when raising a child? What do we mean when we consider the best interests of a child?

Two narrative threads course through Lucky Boy, one of Soli, the teenager from a tiny village in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the other of Kavyah, a 30-something, second generation Indian-American living near the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, California.

Kavya, a chef, enjoys a privileged life, one where the greatest challenge turns out to be getting pregnant. When we’re first introduced to her, she and her husband, Rishi, are getting ready to attend the wedding of one of her childhood rivals and friends.

“Preeti Patel was getting married and sealing forever her victory over Kavya. Over the years, the girls had grown from playmates to rivals and begrudging friends. To be fair, it was Kavya who begrudged; Preeti was endlessly gracious, completely unimpeachable in her maintenance of friendship. Preeti was infallibly interested and interesting, and if she felt superior to Kavya, she never spoke of it, never mentioned her own achievements. That was left to the mothers.”

On the other end of the immigrant spectrum, we have Soli, an 18-year-old desperate to leave her dead-end village.

“She was leaving! The promise of it stoked a flame that blazed through her….Already, this existence was nothing but a distant prick of light. Electrified by the promised of forward motion, Soli stretched up to kiss the sky, growing and growing, until she too was a flaming tower, a castle of light, sparking from the eyes, spitting streaks of joy.”

Part of the desperation stems from being abandoned by a succession of boyfriends and romance who, one by one, have all left for America.

“Popocalco offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn. When the money left, the people followed, except for the very poor and very old….always the same faces…not exactly waiting to die, Soli believed, but not quite living, either.”

Soli, an “Indio,” shares only the pleasant details of her former village life with her employers, the Cassidy family. She keeps the “thinner times” to herself.

“You don’t know poverty until it’s you who has to feed and clothe your children, her papi used to say. Poverty is a pit that rumbles in your gut. You squash it down and pack it over with family and drink and music, but still it rumbles, threatening any day to erupt and send you and everything you know careening down a hillside.”

How did Soli and Kavya’s story come to be? Sekaran described hearing a brief report on NPR in 2011 about an undocumented Guatemalan woman who was being threatened with deportation and fighting to be reunited with her child. The court ruled in favor of the adoptive parents. Horrified, Sekaran sought to understand how seemingly good people could be so eager to take this woman’s child. In the process, Lucky Boy was born.

Sekaran researched the case she’d heard on NPR. She also talked with adoptive parents, immigration lawyers and their clients, social workers, and infertility specialists. She read policy reports, including how current detention practices violate immigrants’ rights. And she shadowed a chef so she’d know what it was like to cook on a massive scale for a sorority house.

When it came time to revise her early draft, she studied the way Toni Morrison played with time  in her novel, Beloved. Sekaran then used similar techniques to shape the temporal structure of Lucky Boy, skillfully intermingling flashbacks with current events.

The novel raises many questions, including What defines motherhood? What is best for a child? What is the motivation behind wanting to take away another woman’s child? And on a more political level, How does our current immigration system create untenable situations and fail on so many levels?

I was gobsmacked by this book.

Having written for California Rural Legal Assistance, I had some idea about how horrific the trip across the border can be for those without documentation, but to feel it through the story of a teenage girl who’s filled with so much yearning for a better life? This, my friends, creates a form of empathy that intellectual knowledge and statistics cannot. The sheer weight of the details add to the pain. I had no idea that immigrants are being detained and moved to detention centers that are sometimes no more than tent encampments. They may not have proper clothing or bedding for cold weather even if their detention center is not heated. They can be abused (and often are) by their guards and treated like criminals.

And despite having committed no real crime, they are treated as if they have no rights. They often have no idea where they’re being taken or held, or when they’ll be transferred either to another facility or across the border. They have little access to any form of communication with the outside world, including lawyers. It’s a Kafka-esque system. One that fills me with dread when I put myself in Soli’s shoes.

The only difference between these unlucky immigrants and Shanthi’s parents? The U.S. government wanted her parents and their medical skills, similar to immigrants today who have desirable technology expertise.

Yes, this is tough subject matter, but there are also frequent moments of humor that ring so true, you may smile or laugh out loud. In a conversation between Soli and the cousin she has sought out in Berkeley, Soli’s cousin exposes the irony for many living in the Bay Area:

“‘Nobody here has any goddamn money,” Silvia told her. “Even the people who have money don’t have money.”

Soli asked why.

“It’s their houses, their houses are vacuum cleaners that suck up all their money. Those pretty trees? Money. Those nice flowers? Good paint, no water stains? Money and more money.”

“But they have homes. That’s something.”

“Mortgages,” Silvia said. “They don’t have homes. They have mortgages.”‘

Thus begins the education of Soli.

The story heats up when Soli’s status is discovered, she’s detained for deportation, and also separated from her son, who’s placed in foster care with Kavya and Rishi.

Against all odds, from the confines of multiple detention centers (where phone privileges are given or restricted arbitrarily) she tries to fight for the rights to her son. After days, possibly weeks, of being given only intermittent access to a phone, here is Soli on the morning of the first custody hearing. A guard has told her the phone “isn’t working.”

“But there was the phone. Soli could see the phone. The phone existed.

Soli tried a different tack. ‘Senora, they are taking my son away from me. I need to call the court. I will lose him. The phone in the office? The office phone?’

Her jaw clenched. ‘Get back to your cell.’

‘I need the phone.’

Silence.

‘I need the phone.’

‘I’m calling backup.’ She looked slightly frightened.”

Weeks of frustration, desperation, isolation, and sleepless nights come to a head.

“‘I need the phone,’ Soli growled. She shoved the guard to the side and ran for the phone, but the guard was faster and stronger….

‘Don’t put me there. Please don’t put me there. Please.’

A door opened to a cushioned sunlit closet. The hands threw her in, and she bounced off a wall and landed hard on the padding.

The door shut.

From a skylight, the sun glared down.

Hours came and hours went. Somewhere in Berkeley, people were walking into a room, saying things about Soli and her son….The night passed. She didn’t move.”

Compare this to Kavya’s preparations for the hearing.

“The morning of the hearing, Kavya woke up, showered, dressed, and vomited. It happened so suddenly that she had no time to lunge for a trash can. One second, she was fastening her top button and the next, she found herself covered in a yellow sheet of bile…When she got to the kitchen, her mother was waiting. She’d asked her to babysit that day, had explained to her the reason for the hearing, the possible outcomes…something in her wanted her mother there, in case things went very badly, in case she needed to come home, quit her job, and crawl into bed for days.”

Clearly, lives will be shattered no matter the outcome of this dispute, as lives will most likely continue to be shattered in this country for the near and perhaps distant future. But if Sekaran’s novel can open some eyes to the devastation wrought by our national policies and immigration system, then perhaps the future will change for the better.

I hope so.

Thank you to Shanthi Sekaran for writing such a beautiful and important book. I can only hope that it gains wide readership.

 

 

 

What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

29 Apr

This past Saturday, a friend and I hosted a women’s literary dinner at my home. The guests of honor were Nayomi Munaweera

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and her devastating new novel, What Lies Between Us.

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First, a little background.

Fifteen years ago, Nayomi was earning a PhD in English Literature when she realized she wanted to write fiction instead of WRITE ABOUT fiction. So she dropped out of school (cue parental angst), moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and spent the next decade working various jobs while writing Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on families. 

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Nayomi’s preferred cover

The novel won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and was chosen as a Target Book Club pick this past January. Here’s the Target cover:

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This latest edition includes information about Nayomi’s family (including photos), book group questions, recommended further reading, and a sneak peak at the first chapter of her new book, What Lies Between Us.

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This new novel explores the much more private trauma of sexual abuse, mental illness—including postpartum psychosis, and its impact on families. It depicts the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship bound by a thin strand of desperation with the tensile strength of a spider’s web. A strand that extends to a new baby girl, a strand that will come to break.

“Motherhood. With her birth a new person is released in me. A person who has nothing to do with the person I was before. I had not known until I crossed into this new land what would be asked from me. What is asked is everything.”

The novel also shines a light on how patriarchal and class-based cultures pressure women to make choices that follow others’ expectations rather than their own preferences. And how patriarchy fashions a woman’s sense of self as a reflection in someone else’s eyes. And that reflection is often fractured, missing essential pieces.

Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It was something I learned then. That you could take the crumpled remains of something destroyed and smooth them into newness. You could pretend certain things weren’t happening even when you had seen or felt them. Everything done can be denied.”

But much later, she capitulates: “Nothing is forgotten or finished. All of history is lodged in the earth, in the water, in the strata of our flesh.”

Nayomi shared the background behind her story, saying that women who kill their children are often considered monsters. She wanted to explore what was hidden behind that label. What were the stories behind women such as Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in the bathtub? Nayomi’s research found that these women often do show early signs of distress, but no one really understands just how close to the edge they are until it’s too late. Similarly, the young mother in this novel is surrounded by co-workers in the medical profession and other intelligent people who don’t fully comprehend the depth of her struggles. 

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Anita Fellicelli, gave What Lies Between Us a stellar review. She wrote: “Trauma is rarely captured in literary form with as much fiery intensity as it is in Nayomi Munaweera’s devastating second novel, What Lies Between Us…the novel sinks into the kind of heart-wrenching darkness found in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’…It’s a testament to the power of Munaweera’s dazzling, no-holds-barred storytelling that the novel’s climax still feels shocking.”

I agree. This book shattered me.

And I must disagree with the Kirkus reviewer who lauded the book before saying: “The melodramatic framing device only distracts from the crystalline precision with which Munaweera renders the richness of the immigrant experience as well as her character’s singular longings, fears, joys, and demons.”

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That statement left me wondering if the reviewer was male, because every woman I know who’s read this book did not think of the story’s setup as a “melodramatic framing device,” but as real life fallout resulting from sexual abuse and/or mental illness, experiences that many women share. Experiences that are often hidden from consciousness while heavily influencing the course of their lives. Some end up killing themselves or becoming society’s monsters.

So, be off with you Kirkus! To me, it’s not so much about the “richness of the immigrant experience” as about the darkness that lurks within too many women’s lives.

Nuff said.

 

I Need My Own Country! – Perfect Picture Book Friday

18 Mar

Time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s PPBF!

But first, let’s form a new political party, one run by children’s picture book writers and illustrators. It will be the nicest, most generous political party ever. There will be sharing of snacks and toys and saying please and thank you. No hitting, biting, bullying, or other anti-social behavior. There will be copious amounts of laughter at brilliant puns, riotous rhymes, and lyrical bedtime stories sending us into the land of nod. 

I don’t know about you but I’m thinking about moving to Canada, a place where reasonable human beings live. Where people are thoughtful and nice to each other. But first, a civics lesson:

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Continue reading

A Crankenstein Valentine – Perfect Picture Book Friday

12 Jun

It’s time for Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Book Friday! Ever get cranky on days that everyone else likes to celebrate? Looking for someone who’s simpatico with your outlook? Well, A Crankenstein Valentine by Samantha Berger (illustrated by the fabulous Dan Santat), may be right up your alley. (Yes, I know we’re nowhere near Valentine’s Day, but I saw this sitting on the “new” shelf at the library today and fell in love.) Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 12.29.12 PM Is this your average Valentine’s Day sweet book? 6349266_s End paper hearts, containing the words:

DRY HEAVE

JUST LEAVE

STAY AWAY

PUKE

Put the reader in the right mood. The opening spread shows a bedroom door covered in posters of a skull, “Keep Out,” and “Stay Away.” Mom’s hand, the sleeve of her arm covered in a cheery valentine pattern, pushes open the door. She says:

Have you seen my little sweetheart, Crankenstein? You can’t miss Crankenstein on Valentine’s Day. 

Then on the page turn, the narrative makes an interesting switch to second person:

You would say, HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY! MY LOVE!

Crankenstein would say, YECHHHH!

Mom gives poor little Crankenstein a present:

You would say, Look who got brand-new HEART UNDIES!

Crankenstein would say, YECHHHH!

And the day goes downhill from there. Taking roses to teachers, getting smooched on the schoolbus, eating mom’s lovingly prepared heart-shaped peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the school cafeteria. Oh, the HORROR of the biggest, mushiest, sappiest day one must ever endure at school!  Trouble is, everyone else LOVES LOVES LOVES Valentine’s Day. 26368674_s Until— Soulmates unite.  35380713_s For anyone who suffers through celebrations, events, parties, etc…that everyone else seems to love. All you need is a kindred spirit who feels the same way you do.

Title: A Crankenstein Valentine

Author: Samantha Berger

Illustrator: Dan Santat

Publisher: Little Brown

Pub Date: 2014

Shoe Dog – Perfect Picture Book Friday

6 Feb

Time once again to add to Susanna Leonard Hill’s growing list of recommended picture books. 

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As I passed the “new” shelf in our library, the cover illustration of Shoe Dog caught my eye. Katherine Tillotson, magically transforms a handful of brown scribbles into a sniffing, chewing, boisterous puppy. And when I opened it up for a quick read, Megan McDonald’s playful text kept me laughing and turning the pages to see what mischief Shoe Dog was going to cause next. 

In the first spread, the shadow of a woman enters an animal shelter. Shoe Dog bounces frantically inside. 

“Ooh, look at the puppy!

Who’s a good boy?

You’re so cute. Yes, you are!”

He perked up an ear at the kitchee-coo words.

In the next spread, we see “Shoe Dog” snuggled in the woman’s arms, but he does not yet have his name.

Dog wanted a home.

A real home.

A place full of

hundreds of nose kisses,

dozens of tummy rubs.

A place warm as soup

and cozy as pie.

 

But we soon find out that Shoe Dog is in for trouble. He doesn’t chew boring old dog toys. He chews…SHOES! (Oh, you are so smart to figure this out.)

As shoe after shoe turns into Shoe Dog fodder, he finds himself banished from “The Land of Upstairs,” and sleeping on the downstairs cold, cold floor. In the darkness, he ponders his uncertain future:

 

Shoe Dog did not want to go back

to the Land of Sad Puppies

and Scratched-Up Cats

and One-Eared Bunnies.

No!

For the next long while,

Shoe Dog was a Good Dog.

He did not chew so much

as a fleabite.

But when his human, “She, Herself,” comes home with another round of packages, the “friendly rustle-bustle of Noisy Paper” is sooooo tantalizing!

What will Shoe Dog do? The ending is surprising, but inevitable. Best to see for yourself.

 

TItle: Shoe Dog

Author: Megan McDonald

Illustrator: Katherine Tillotson

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Pub date: 2014

Worst of Friends – Perfect Picture Book Friday

7 Nov

I combed through Susanna Leonard Hills nonfiction picture books and couldn’t believe “Worst of Friends”  hadn’t been reviewed! So here goes…

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“Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were the best of friends, even though they were completely different.”

They shared similar ideas about how the thirteen colonies should become a nation—until they stopped seeing eye to eye on the powers granted the president. Thus begins a legendary feud between the Federalist Party and the Republican Party.

What happens to their friendship? Well, I guess you just have to read the book if you don’t know.

The illustrations, including George Washington eating dinner calmly between JA and TJ while they argue, should bring smiles to children’s (and adults’) faces.

And the ending? Well, the truth rivals anything a fiction writer could ever dream up. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams die on the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th birthday of America’s independence

I love this story. It makes me cry every time I read it. Sniffle….

The extensive bibliography will guide children’s further research into the lives of these two men, and its hilarious foreword titled: “Can Presidents be Pals?” should pull readers into the story.  It’s appropriate for grades K-5.

Themes: U.S. History. Friends who are very different can work together. It’s good to extend an olive branch to a friend before it’s too late. 

TItle: Worst of Friends
Author: Suzanne Tripp Jurmain
Illustrator: Larry Day
Pub date: 2011
Publisher: Dutton, a division of Penguin

Science Ink – A Book “Review” in Tattoos

23 Jun

No matter what they say, how long and loudly they insist that they’re just like you and me, don’t believe them. Scientists are truly different. Case in point: the images they choose to adorn their bodies. In some instances, “festoon” may be the more appropriate word.

I’m talking about the book, Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. Published in 2011, it crossed my radar a few months ago at one of my favorite San Francisco independent bookstores, Green Apple Books, Inc. With a foreword by Mary Roach (of GULP [most recent], Stiff, Bonk, and Packing for Mars fame) and introduction by another popular science writer, Carl Zimmer, this book catches the eye with its cover: Continue reading

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