Deep Singh Blue by Ranbir Singh Sidhu

Before I moved to California, I thought of the state in binaries–NorCal and SoCal. NorCal was wine, technology, Berkeley, redwoods, and the irresistible melancholic appeal of Haight-Ashbury. SoCal was Hollywood and the Grammy Awards, surfer beaches, Disney, fitness, and kidney-shaped pools–all about mainstream glamor, and hey, I opted out of (i.e. was ejected from) that game long ago. And I was peripherally aware (from having read Steinbeck eons ago) that there was farmland towards the east. And wasn’t there a desert too, near the border with Nevada?

When I did move to NorCal, to the Bay Area, hive to H1-Bees, it was pretty much as I’d heard–I was in the land of the dosa delivery, unfathomable home prices, kindergarten coders and #technology.  And then I learned more about California, and realized that the NorCal/SoCal binary was false–as most binaries are. Sure, you can divide California into a geographic north and south, but half an hour east of my city I’m in the Central Valley, home to an agriculture-based economy which produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the United States. The region is sole supplier of all the almonds, olives and pomegranates in the country. Towards the southern part of the Valley, on the SF-LA route, lies Kern County, where not very long ago, KKK activities were comparable to those in the deep South. Today, the population in Central Valley is mostly white and Hispanic, but there’s also a sizeable Hmong community. And there’s a goodly number of Punjabi Sikhs, some of whom settled the area over a century ago; the first wave arrived in the 1860s, and but the largest number arrived during the 1970s. This is an area and (more importantly) a subculture that receives little to no coverage in mainstream media, art, and literature, not when there’s so much #glitter elsewhere. So when Ranbir Singh Sidhu asked if I’d review his novel Deep Singh Blue, set in the Central Valley of the 1980s, I agreed at once. I don’t know Sidhu, but I’d read his fearless, candid piece in Salon last year, and I knew I was in for an unsettling ride.

32

The protagonist Deep Singh is born in a “no-name Central Valley town” to parents who’d immigrated from an Indian village. “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written–the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. […] Dad came to look for work, Mom came to marry him. They had no handholds to keep them secure, and the world they encountered was as mystifying as it was terrifying.” Deep’s parents, unable to settle, move from town to town, “each one held fast in its own [Central] Valley noose.” They finally end up literally and metaphorically at the very edge of the Central Valley, overlooking the Bay Area but unable to cross over, in a town with a missile base, high levels of KKK membership, and a used bookstore full of romances and Bibles.

Sixteen-year-old Deep, refusing to be dwarfed by his universe, tries to understand his place and his community, but is doomed to eternal displacement thanks to his family’s frequent moves. Full of teenage hormones, rage and sheer dumb bravado, he drops out of high school to attend community college, where he meets twenty-seven year old Lily, a half-Chinese woman with an “all-American” “biceps and blue sky and engine oil” husband. Lily gives him his first cigarette and first taste of gin, and soon they’re in a messy, destructive relationship.  Meanwhile, Deep’s older brother Jag is withdrawn and sullen, walking on the edge of violence, with a messy inner life that causes him to shut off from the world. The parents live in a sort of joyless denial of their isolation, mindlessly watching television and refusing to acknowledge their older son’s mental issues or Deep’s frustration.

Deep, for the most part, engages with the world in a blackly comedic way, walking into the girl’s locker rooms on a dare “to see what would happen”, running away from home (but in the wrong direction, d’oh!). He is compassionate one moment and massively cruel the next; in a sense, the lack in Deep’s environment is reflected in his own behaviour–he is complicit in Lily’s deranged, desperate acts of racism, and oblivious to the consequences of his stupider actions. You want to clout him on the head, yes, but you also want to rescue this kid from his brutal surroundings, whisk him to a city abloom with museums and libraries, where he can talk to random strangers about Spinoza and  Camus (The Stranger is one of the central motifs of this novel).  The only paths open to Deep seem to be futile resistance or passive acceptance, until life lessons, delivered through experience and through tragedy, bring Deep to a recognition of what he truly needs–and  values–in his world.

Sidhu pulls no punches when discussing the themes of alienation, voluntary exile, and the search for meaning in an absurd world rendered even more surreal through cultural difference.  Deep is constantly othered, and his statelessness stands in sharp contrast to the (white) locals’ deep affiliation with the nation-state, and to his uncle’s vision for the Sikh people carving a separate country (Khalistan) for themselves out of India. Sidhu’s vivid prose sharply illuminates Deep’s inner life as well as his California surroundings; altogether, the novel is deeply and rightfully unsettling in its exploration of topics such as masculinity, dislocation and white nationalism.

Lest all this sounds too earnest and theory-heavy, I want to mention (again!) how very funny I found this book. Here’s Deep’s dad, telling a prospective daughter-in-law (who looks like “the unhappiest girl who ever lived”) that his son works in oil. Jag was formerly employed in a warehouse in a refinery, see? Here’s Deep getting ready for his future–by practising to be a drunk “like Dylan Thomas”. Here’s the uncle, persuading Deep to fly to India and join the fight for Khalistan. “I’ll buy your ticket. No worries. Lots of fun for a young man. You’ll be a freedom fighter, like George Washington? They’ll give you fresh rotis every day, like home.”  Oooh, yes. The next time someone asks me to recommend a California novel, I’ll point to Deep singing the blues.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

So, it turns out that I’ve birthed a child who likes reading and science. Specifically, he likes reading about science, which is Not My Thing at all (I finished The Martian in under an hour because I skipped the bits I didn’t understand). It’s been challenging to find him books we both like, and when we struck gold with the Young Reader’s Edition of The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, I had to share the good news.

images.jpeg

TBWHTW is the true story of, um, a boy who harnessed wind energy. As a fourteen year old, William Kamkwamba hacked a windmill to provide electricity to his home. Good but not unusual in the Bay Area, you say, where peanut’s first word was “circuit”, followed by “Apple stock”? Well, Kamkwamba  overcame lack of schooling, zero supplies, and famine conditions in his quest to build his windmill. It’s a great story, one that actually deserves the accolade inspiring. Not because he’s from Malawi, but because this kid could take a microplane and a table fan and some EVOO and fashion a drone to Mars. This isn’t some creepy third-world inspiration porn: it’s Kamkwamba’s resourcefulness and intelligence and integrity and sciency-ness that make him a hero. And yes,  it’s all great reading.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987, in a small farming village near the town of Wimbe in Malawi. He’s curious and adventurous and a natural-born tinkerer, cracking open old radios to figure out their secrets. “The [parts of a radio] that look like beans are called transistors, and they control the power that moves from the radio into the speakers. I learned this by removing one and hearing the volume greatly reduce.” (That’s how you do it, kids.) He wonders how gas makes a car move, how music is stored shiny little discs, how dynamos work–and realizes that he needs to know more SCIENCE.

But just when things are going well, nature and government conspire to bring about a catastrophe. The new Malawian President, “a businessman… [who] didn’t believe the government’s job was to help farmers”, eliminates fertilizer subsidies. William’s family, like most farmers,  now can’t afford to buy fertilizer for their maize crop. When the rains fail, Malawi begins to starve. Due to mismanagement and corruption, the government stockpiles of grain don’t reach the needy, and in a very short while, people are dying of starvation and cholera.

William drops out of school as his family can’t pay the fee, and soon, they are down to one meal a day. Somehow, the family must survive till the next harvest. “The bones were now showing in my chest and shoulders, and the rope belt that I’d made for my pants no longer worked. … My arms and legs looked like blue-gum poles and ached all the time. I had trouble squeezing my hand into a fist.” And William’s dog…oh, man.

Just as the family is on the brink, the next harvest comes in, and they are safe. But there’s still no money for school, so William keeps up with academics by reading his friend’s class notes. Then his life changes: he discovers the Wimbe Primary School library, which has three giant shelves of books. (This.This.)  He finds a book explaining all things science, but it’s in English.  “I devised my own system…for example, if I was interested in a photo or illustration labeled Figure 10 and I didn’t know what it meant, I’d comb through the text until I found where Figure 10 was mentioned. Then I’d study all of the words and sentences around it.” And then he’d ask the librarian to look up words like voltage and diode in the dictionary.

Having thus learned English, William chances upon an American text book called Using Energy, which depicts a row of windmills on the cover. He realizes: “If I could somehow get the wind to spin the blades on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I could create electricity. And if I attached a wire to the dynamo, I could power anything, especially a lightbulb.” Charlie, you can keep your Golden Ticket.

After much trial and error, with the use of old bicycle spokes, a lotion tub, a broken cassette player, an old shoe from the garbage dump et al, William rigs up a working prototype. Followed by an actual, electricity-generating windmill that powers four bulbs and two radios in his home. This one:

640px-William_Kamkwambas_old_windmill.jpg

(By Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando – William Kamkwamba’s old windmill. Uploaded by Church of emacs, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9424456)

 

Much to his surprise, William’s windmill gets a little press coverage, and then a lot.  He gives a TED talk in Tanzania (utterly charming, he’s all of nineteen), and becomes a TED Global Fellow in 2007. He gets to complete high school. He travels to America, where he sees a wind farm, with windmills like those on the cover of Using Energy. At age 23, in the year 2000, he attends Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering. Meanwhile, with the money from the sales of this book and from TED donors , he helps provide electricity to every home in his village. He drills a borewell for his mom so she doesn’t have to walk two hours a day for clean water; the spigot from the borehole is free to use for the women of Wimbe. He installs solar panels on the village rooftops, and he helps the friends who supported him back when he was on a quest for copper wire and car batteries. He’s set up a nonprofit called Moving Windmills to help fund local village improvements and to pay for tuition.

This is the rare book that’s a winner on every count–it teaches kids about everything that’s important, and it’s a fast-paced, never-preachy read. Bonus points to co-author Bryan Mealer for making the story accessible but not overly Americanized (Kamkwambe uses the word petrol rather than gas, for instance). The book comes in three editions– a picture book for the very young, this young reader’s version (suitable IMO for 8-14), and a regular old people’s version. Read them all!

 

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

One of the dead giveaways I’m old, old, old is that I cheerfully part with my money to gain information I’d have sacrificed a limb to avoid in high school. Hands up if Figures of Speech sends a cold wave down your front, with the memory of similes, not metaphors–or is this all hyperbole? Anyway, last week, I sought out, and hugely relished Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. It’s full of useless, joy-sparking explanations of  rhetorical devices;  I can now tell you what hendiadys, epizeuxis and aposiopesis are even though I can’t pronounce them. The book starts off with a boring preface, warms up in Chapter 1, Alliteration, and then takes off in Chapter 2, Polyptoton, which sounds like a growth where no growth should occur, but is, in fact, “the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech.” Forsyth notes that one of the best known examples of Polyptoton is a song sometimes said to be about oral sex–“Please Please Me” by The Beatles, where the first please is an interjection, and the second a verb. Who knew grammar could blow you away like that?

41fcotso9CL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Forsyth, who looks and sounds as though he spends his hours reading the dictionary aloud to Pippa Middleton on a punt, doesn’t actually set out to teach you how to coin a perfect phrase. This book’s primary aim is to make you chuckle when you recognize the particular stratagem at work–and to then render you unable to read Wodehouse without gleeful ejaculations of adynaton! and diacope! There’s also much satisfaction in understanding why some phrases work “instinctively” better than others, and in putting a name to a hitherto-unknown rule. Take the hyperbaton for instance, which is the deliberate flouting of the rule for adjective order. Did you know that adjectives in English must be in a certain order?  I would never say that I have a literary brown old little odd blog, because it sounds weird and somehow off, but I could never explain why. But now I’ve learnt that it must be opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun, so I’ll own to sporadically updating my odd little old brown literary blog. And oh, Forsyth informs us that the only person who has carried off consistent hyperbaton “lived a long long time ago in a  galaxy far away. In Dagobah, to be precise.”

One of this book’s most appealing qualities is Forsyth’s careful choice of examples to illustrate the rules. There’s plenty of quotes from the usual suspects–Jesus, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker–and some delightfully unexpected ones. Sting, in stalker mode, showcases the periodic sentence in “Every Breath You Take”.   Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty” is an example of a chiasmus, but in the same chapter you also learn that T.S.Eliot insisted on the middle initial because he was “painfully aware” of what T.Eliot spelled when read in the reverse. The most extreme example of litotes is perhaps when Emperor Hirohito announced, after the two atomic bombs had been dropped, that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” “Space: the final frontier” works so much better than “This is Space, which is the final frontier” because scesis onomaton sets a scene.  In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can’t recommend it enough for the reader in your life–especially if it happens to be you. Buy it!

 

Because you can never have too much Calvin and Hobbes

From A.V. Club: “… Rafael Casal used Watterson’s work as the basis for Hobbes & Me, a web series in which classic Calvin strips are acted out, word for word…..With tousled hair and a striped T-shirt, Casal himself plays Calvin. Rapper-actor Daveed Diggs, now renowned for originating the roles of Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton, portrays Hobbes, donning striped pants and a fuzzy coat to resemble a toy tiger come to life.”

This. THIS.

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

I’ve been on a long hiatus from blogging, but I’ve finally found a novel to kick (start) me out of the slump–Chasing Shadows, by Swati Avasthi. The book was published in 2013, and sat unread on my shelf for 2 years while I was busy devouring a baker’s dozen of The Ranger’s Apprentice, moving house, juicing (NO), running (MAYBE), getting fitted for reading glasses (old age sucks) and so on.

Chasing Shadows is a YA novel dealing with death and mental illness, so if you are a young Young Adult, proceed with caution. There, can’t sue me now.

 

It’s the last year of high school in Chicago for Savitri and twins Corey and Holly, long-time friends who are tighter than family. Savitri is Corey’s girlfriend and Holly’s BFF–an equilateral triangle of friendship, see?  They’re endlessly loyal, preternaturally aware of each other’s needs and boundaries, and they have their future planned together for college in Chicago. Savitri is smart and sensible and articulate, while edgy intense Holly has a passion for graphic novels featuring female superheros saving the world. And Corey…well, Corey is murdered on page 10, in a maybe-random shooting at a traffic light.

Holly, seriously injured in the shooting, is unconscious in hospital–and finds herself in a netherworld with Corey, bargaining with the half-snake overlord of death for her brother’s life. Savitri, unhurt, feels the guilt “like stones” as she keeps vigil by Holly’s side. When Holly emerges from her coma, she’s focussed on tracking down Corey’s killer, and Savitri must make some hard choices–help her friend in a dangerous, unhinged quest, or abandon her when she most needs support.

This is a beautifully layered book that impresses on so many levels–the thoughtful arrangement of Craig Phillips’s graphics (in Holly’s view) with the written word, for instance, and the careful connections made while fleshing out of the characters’ families and backgrounds–Holly’s father is a cop, while Savitri’s father abandoned the family. I was particularly struck by the cross-referencing of Holly’s fantastical netherworld with the Hindu myth of Savitri’s namesake, who was known for her piety, wit and devotion to her husband; when Savitri’s husband dies, she follows Yama, the god of the underworld and bargains (successfully) for her husband’s life. When Holly loses the will and ability to deal with the outside world, it’s stories that provide her a language she understands, and a narrative that feeds her needs. Stories offer comfort and healing in a time of grief, but as with all powerful objects, the story can be dangerous. (That’s why people try to ban them, eh?)

I really admire how Avasthi juggles so many elements without the narrative sinking under its own emotional weight. There is a lot going on here, what with two narrators, the graphics, the myths, the superhero graphic novel inspiring Holly, Savitri’s racial identity, the whodunnit angle  of the shooting, the exploration of the trauma caused by violence and subsequent recovery–and it’s all topped with a boatload of teenage angst. But Avasthi has some seriously powerful, disciplined prose that keeps this book not just afloat but triumphantly aloft; at the end, Chasing Shadows stands as both tribute and testament to the power of a good story. Read this!

City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

I admired Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor hugely, and so when her publisher emailed requesting a blog review of Khan’s new novel City of Spies (Aleph, 2015), I jumped at it. Khan is an Ithaca-based writer of Pakistani descent who roots her work in her lived experiences (and her personal vision) of socio-political upheavals in Pakistan. While Noor dealt with the Bangladesh war of 1971, City of Spies takes for its pivot point the 1977 coup in Pakistan wherein the Prime Minister  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by General Zia ul-Haq.

Aliya Shah’s father, a diplomat with the United Nations in Europe, moved to his homeland Pakistan with his Dutch wife Irene (and their three children) as Prime Minister Bhutto appointed him head of the country water and power resources. Eleven-year-old Aliya is very conscious of being a “half-and-half”, and never more so than when attending the American School in Islamabad. As with all whose claim more than one ethnic or cultural affiliation, Aliya is hard-pressed to answer the question of where she’s from; she variously answers Austria (the country of her birth), Holland and Pakistan. Her identity is put to a brutal test everyday, for her school, in essence, is welcoming to those who are white, those with the last name Bhutto, or those, like Aliya, who can pass.

The business of passing is an exhausting one–Aliya has to remember to say “That’s cool!” and avoid using her parents British (rather than American) English, and things get very messy indeed if she’s spotted wearing a salwar-kameez, or if her Pakistani grandfather is visiting their home. Worse, Aliya must live with the overt contempt of her school mates for all things Pakistani, a contempt manifested most brutally in a game played on her school bus, where the older boys spit on the locals, adults and children alike. Points are awarded for every pedestrian or bicyclist hit, and extra points bequeathed if the bicyclist falls off. The Pakistani bus driver is powerless to stop the game, and Aliya is too scared of the much older boys.

And then, Aliya’s loyalties are put to an even more wrenching test when the beloved little son of their family retainer is killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the driver of the vehicle responsible just might be someone close to her family.

In Khan’s hands, the violence and tragedy in Aliya’s domestic surroundings read as a minor echo of the country’s tumultuous, bloody political landscapes. The Prime Minster, overthrown by the military, is accused of the murder of a political opponent, and is subsequently incarcerated. Newspapers are taken over by the government, the mail arrives already opened, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited by law, and Islamabad is crawling with spies. “No one knew what they were really doing since most of them were assumed to be spies, and as a rule didn’t advertise their work. But everyone knew they were there. They drove cars with yellow CD64 license plates, announcing their American-ness, only to be out-done by the yellow CD62 license plates of the Russians […] The CD64s and CD62s were at war with each other, a  Cold War, whatever that meant, and their playground seemed to be Islamabad.”

City of Spies recounts Aliya’s attempt to make sense of the events that shook and shaped her adolescence–and her country. At the close of the novel, thirty months have passed and Pakistan has spun into chaos–the Prime Minister has been hanged, and the devout General Zia has spearheaded the Islamization of Pakistan’s legal and political systems. As readers know, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death was but the first in a long line of murders in Pakistan’s political landscape–in the Bhutto family alone, for instance, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s son Murtaza was killed in a police encounter, his youngest child son Shahnawaz was poisoned, and finally, his daughter Benazir, who in turn became Prime Minister (and whom some suspected of complicity in her brother Murtaza’s murder), was shot in 2007.

The thirty months are described in minute, telling detail, and those familiar with South Asia will find much to agree and identify with– Aliya’s father, for instance, helps Aliya’s school assignment by delegating the matter to his secretary, who, in turn, assigns an office engineer to built a hand-powered electric generator for their science project. As always, Khan’s steady, clear prose is a treat–she doesn’t put a foot wrong, and is adept at conveying the senselessness of the political violence through Aliya’s uncomprehending eyes.

The ending, however, left me a tad grumpy. Khan provides a long (20 page) epilogue set in the present day, and then a post-script too, but the effect to me was that of opening a new chapter in Aliya’s life rather than providing a truly satisfying finish to the story. We learn that the adult Aliya finally understands events of those months (Khan, in a wise and generous writerly act, doesn’t withhold the information from her readers; many novelists could learn a thing or two from her.) However, while we perceive how the past influenced Aliya’s interests and her choice of profession, there’s a tantalizing absence with respect to Aliya’s character and personality as an adult. I invested enough in the child Aliya to want more than the knowledge that she’s now a truth-seeker filled with sorrow at the state of her country and her childhood city–hey, I’d have liked to get to know the adult Aliya as well. My problems with structure aside, this is a lovely book, imbued with tender melancholy, and I recommend it strongly.

California Bookstore Day 2015!

Saturday was California Bookstore Day, an event celebrating indie bookstores all over the state. Tragically, my city doesn’t feature an independent bookstore (there are comic stores, but you know it’s not the same), and so my son and I went to the bookstore in our neighbouring town. There were events and literary goodies galore, and we started off by buying this poster.

About that anatomically incorrect guy in his underwear and the dog in a diaper. My son loves the Captain Underpants books by Dav Pilkey. You say you haven’t heard of Captain Underpants and Professor Poopypants and Super Diaper Baby? Some people have all the luck.

So….I haven’t warmed to these books (understatement alert), but I also recognize that they aren’t written for me but for a kid who thinks “butt” is the funniest word ever, right next to “stinky” and “slug”. As a parent, I mostly stumble around deciding on a case-by-case basis as to where to Draw The Line, and in the matter of Dav Pilkey’s work, I figured I wouldn’t/oughtn’t prevent my son from reading age-appropriate if utterly tasteless humour. So we laid down $10 for this poster, which is now hanging in my son’s room, and then we bought the latest Geronimo Stilton Spacemice book because his birthday is coming up soon.

But I’d had a secret agenda for visiting the store as well: I’d had my eye on these literary tea towels all along. Literature! Tea! in a glorious towel union!

teatowels

The teal one reads “It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read–Lemony Snicket.” The yellow one says “People that like to read are always a little fucked up–Pat Conroy.” These are the “salty” towels–there’s another “sweet” set of two towels with different quotes featuring more family-friendly language.

But alas, I ended up not buying either set of towels. They were indeed brilliant as conversation pieces, but I didn’t think I’d get much traction from them when used for their intended purpose. I live with a seven-year-old who spreads jam around a twelve-foot radius every breakfast and often mistakes a tea towel for a dishrag, and these towels didn’t look like they’d survive such abuse. And I didn’t want to buy them just because they were cute (which they *totally* were). The notion of collecting stuff that is intended to be functional but ends up decorative confounds me–what’s the point, say, of dressing up a bed with those unyielding hand-embroidered pillows which must be removed each night? Moreover, I dislike collecting stuff that I don’t need or can’t use immediately. The prospect of having to take care of the said stuff, store and mentally catalogue it (and decide whom to bequeath it all upon my death) gives me the shivers. You know those homes with gracious glass-fronted display cases housing lovely objets d’art collected on world travels or crystal handed down by ancestors who bit bread (or had sex) with royalty? Well, that’s my nightmare residence. The only things I collect are books, hell yes! Indeed, it is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read…

I seem to have digressed from the topic of California Bookstore Day, which, in 2015, expanded to include independent bookstores all over the country. I hope you celebrated the weekend in your own bookish way! And check out @bookstoreday for pictures and tweets from the day.