Sold

by Patricia McCormick
First sentence: “One more rainy season and our roof will be gone, says Ama.”
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Content: There is violence toward women and a (non-graphic) rape scene. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Lakshmi is a 13-year-old girl in the mountains of Nepal who is just getting by with her mother and step-father and baby brother. Their existence isn’t great: they depend on the weather to make sure their livelihood — growing rice — is secure, and Lakshmi’s stepfather is a gambler and a drunk, spending all their money on cards and booze. Still, it’s not a terrible life. That is, until one monsoon season wipes out their entire crop. There’s nothing else to pay their debts with, and so Lakshmi’s stepfather sells her to a buyer that’s passing through. Lakshmi thinks she’s off to be a maid, and that the wages will go home to her family. Turns out, though, that she’s been sold into slavery, and that her “job” is prostitution. (I loathe to use that word, because I feel it implies some sort of choice, and Lakshmi has NO choice in the matter; in fact, she’s drugged and repeatedly raped at the beginning since she’s unwilling to do what she’s told.)

Eventually, some well-meaning Americans come in and shut the business down and rescue the girls who want to be rescued (go white savior moment?) but there’s a lot going on culturally with the girls.

This is such a hard book to read. Not technically; it’s written in loose prose verse (they weren’t simple enough to be poems, but it wasn’t really a prose book either), and so it went quickly, but emotionally? It packs a wallop of a punch. Toxic masculinity and patriarchy and class divisions are going to kill us all. That someone would sell their child to be a sex worker, that men would want to come visit them, that women would imprison these girls for their own gain? It’s a lot to stomach and it makes me feel both incredibly angry and incredibly hopeless.

It’s an excellently written book, and I’m grateful someone told their story (even if it’s a white woman). Even if it is emotionally draining and difficult.

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Pashmina

by Nidhi Chanani
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: The main character is in high school, and there is some references to sex. I’m not 100% sure if it’d put it in Middle Grade Graphic Novels, but it doesn’t feel like it fits in with the Teen Graphic Novels either. Hm.

Priyanka Das has a decent life: she and her mom live in America, and whileshe has unanswered questions about her father, or why her mother left India, she has a pretty good life. That is, until Pri’s curiosity about India gets sparked by a magical pashmina Pri finds in her mother’s suitcase. The pashmina gives Pri a glimpse of India, and she desperately wants to go. And she does, eventually. But when she gets there, it’s nothing like she expected, and yet everything she wanted.

On the one hand, this is written by an Indian, and it very much embraces the “India as amazing homeland” narrative that so often comes up in Bollywood movies. The narrative that one can find oneself in India is not a new one, and yet it still is something that resonates. It works here, primarily because it’s not a white person co-opting that (says the white person), but because Pri’s does actually need to go to India to see what it was her mother left behind. I liked that part of the story. The magical pashmina, though, didn’t do much for me. It does have a good reason to be there — it specifically helps women take charge of their lives — but it felt, well, forced. That, and Pri felt younger than she was in the book, which was a slight disconnect.

Even with those (slight) criticisms, it was a good story about family, and about how learning about your family’s past helps accept and understand your present. It was also nice to “visit” India for a bit.

A good debut novel.

Siddhartha

by Herman Hesse
First sentence: “In the shadow of the house, in the sun on the riverbank by the boats, in the shadow of the sal-tree forest, in the shadow of the fig tree, Siddhartha, the beautiful brahmin’s son, the young falcon, grew up with his friend, the brahmin’s son Govinda.”
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Content: It’s dense. And there’s some illusion to sex, though nothing graphic. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I picked this up because I was looking for something to fill out one of my last bingo squares, one on a religion I knew very little about. I picked Buddhism, mostly because it’s the one I know the least about (though I do know some). A friend suggested this, even though it’s written by a Westerner, because it’s an accessible read for Westerners about a Buddha-like character and Buddhist thought.

It’s basically the life journey of Siddhartha, a young, well-to-do man in India (I’m assuming). He starts out with everything and then gives it up to join the shramanas, a group the eschews material things in search of knowledge and nirvana. He leads that life for a while, until he sees a beautiful woman, and he gives up his path for the path of material things and love. He finds happiness for a while, but eventually gives that up for a simpler life of service and meditation by a river.

I’m not sure I fully got what this book was supposed to teach me. It’s one of those that I think will be different at different stages of your life, and that multiple readings will lend to more insights. I’m glad I read it, even if I didn’t fully understand it. It’s definitely given me something to think about.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

by Paula L. Freedman
First sentence: “When Ben-o came over on Saturday for movie nigt, my dad answered the door wearing gray silk pajama bottoms and his Math Teachers Play by the Numbers T-shirt, an unlit pip clenched between his teeth.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s a lot of questions about religion and God in this. Plus some 7th-grade kissing. If we had it at the bookstore I’d probably waffle between putting it in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) and YA (6-8) sections. It could easily go either place.

Tara Feinstein is your typical New York City middle schooler. She has two best friends, Rebecca and Ben-o (thusly named in fourth grade when there was a Ben D., even though he’s since moved away), and is looking forward to 7th grade. She’s been attending Hebrew School for the past few years — her mother, who is Indian, decided that Tara needed to get in touch with her Jewish (from her father) side — and is wondering whether or not to go through with her bat mitzvah in December. And like a typical middle schooler (at least one in my house), she has questions. About whether or not going through a bat mitzvah is somehow denying the Indian side of her. About whether or not there is a god. About why Ben-o is acting so strange and Rebecca seems to be hanging out with a girl that Tara just Doesn’t Like. Typical middle schooler stuff.

There really isn’t much overall conflict in this. Mostly it’s like life: a series of ups and downs. Tara and Rebecca accidentally ruin a priceless heirloom sari that Tara’s been given by her aunt. The new friend Rebecca has turns out to be a bit of a kleptomaniac. Ben-o turns out to like like Tara, but covers it up by hanging out with another girl, which is confusing to say the least. So, there is Drama (which, on the one hand, will make this book imminently relatable to everyone, but I was a bit Done With, only because there’s so much middle school Drama in my own house that it was a bit overkill for me).

What I did enjoy was the melding of the cultures. How Tara’s Indian aunt called Tara’s Jewish grandmother “Ruthie-ji”. Or that the grandmother would bring a matzoh ball soup to a Diwali celebration. Or the way Tara melded the two at her bat mitzvah: wearing a dress made out of the ruined sari and serving Indian food. What better way to celebrate the good things in all cultures and traditions? I also enjoyed her musings about God and the afterlife and religious traditions. It’s that which kept me reading in spite of my Drama overload. And it’s was those elements that made the book good (for me).

Just One Year

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds.”
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Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs in addition to a handful of other milder swear words. Also there’s off-screen sex and some drug use. For these reasons, the book is in the Teen (ages 14+) section of the bookstore.
Others in the series: Just One Day

The book opens with Willem de Reuter, Dutch actor and playboy, waking from a coma. For those who have read Just One Day, you know exactly what point in the overarching story of Willem and Allyson that this picks up. The question is: where does Willem go from here?

While I’ve known that this book was coming out since reading Just One Day, I have to admit that I’m not sure it needed a companion book, or that Willem’s side of  the story needed to be told. That said, I was curious about Willem as a character, and the path that he took over the year that Allyson was trying to figure herself out. It turns out that while Willem’s path was more adventurous than Allyson’s, it essentially was the same: he needed to figure himself out.

However, it was Willem’s adventurous lifestyle that made the book for me. He couldn’t shake the memory of Allyson — or Lulu as he called her — and the searching for her (and, inadvertently, the healing from the grief of his father’s death three years before) took him to Mexico and India as well as through rural Netherlands and Amsterdam. I’m a sucker for books like these, ones where the main character gets to travel the world, giving himself over to the experience of seeing things.

And even though Willem is uncertain about his direction and, admittedly, a bit angsty (or in a funk a we’d call it around our house), he’s a pretty amiable character to be traveling the world with. I love how he picks up friends as he wanders from place to place. And how he just falls into experiences. It seems so… effortless.

I do understand that in many ways this is a fantasy. Not only the love-at-first-sight thing, but also the Fate/Kismet/Karma thing. No one’s life is that effortless, that charmed, that fate-driven. But, it was a nice fantasy to immerse oneself in for a while to get away from the drugery of “real” life.

Audiobook: The Lowland

by Jjumpa Lahirir
read by: Sunil Malhotra
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I admit that I picked this up solely because M is currently in the part of India where this is set. I thought: Kolkata, Bengali… I should see if I could learn a little more of where M is staying for the next school year. Other than that, I really had no expectations.

It’s a much more political work than I was expecting. While, nominally it’s the story of the relationship between two brothers, Shubash and Udayan Mitra, Lahriri uses the background of the political unrest and Communist movement in India as a backdrop. The two brothers, who were close as children, grow apart as Udayan (the younger) gets involved with the Naxalite movement and Shubash heads to Rhode Island to pursue a PhD. Udayan gets married to Gauri (which Malhotra alternately pronounced Godi and Gori, so I had to check on the spelling) and then ends up killed by the police. When Shubash comes back for the funeral, he takes pity on Gauri, mostly because she’s pregnant, and marries her, bringing her back to the US.

That is the first third of the book. At which point, I was left wondering: What on earth is Lahiri going to do with the rest of the novel? Well, much like Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, Lahiri explores the ramifications of those decisions. We follow Shubash and Gauri, and later Gauri’s biological daughter, through the years to present day (when Shubash is 70, and Gauri s in her mid-60s), and experience the fallout. Because there is fallout, and it’s not pleasant.

As I mentioned to people that I was reading this, their first question was “Do you like it?” Well…. no. And yes. It wasn’t bad enough to abandon. Malhotra was a delightful reader, capturing both Indian and American accents well. Perhaps it was him who kept my interest in the book going, because I was constantly annoyed at the characters. Gauri could never get past her dead love and move on with her life. And right up to the end, she never thought about the consequences for her actions, acting impulsively. But the thing that really infuriated me was Shubash’s insistence that because he wasn’t the sperm donor for Gauri and Udayan’s daughter, that he wasn’t her father. He. Raised. The. Girl. He was there for her when her mother abandons her, and yet he still questions whether or not he’s her father. *grumble* Biology isn’t what being a parent is about.

Maybe that was Lahiri’s point, in the end. Because, after finishing the last disc (a very unsatisfying ending, by the way), that’s what I got out of it. Family is what you make, and loving and caring for other people is the way to happiness.

So maybe it was a good book after all?