You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

I’ve been an avid Mitali Perkins reader for over a dozen years now, and it never fails to thrill me when she has a new book out. And what a book she’s written in You Bring the Distant Near! (Don’t take my word for it–the book was nominated for the National Book Award this year.)  Perkins crafts positive, uplifting, yet realistic stories that immerse the reader in carefully-detailed worlds of her creation; YBtDN is all that and more. When was the last time you read a novel with a black Bengali mixed race family? Never, I bet.

Discontented, prejudiced, fearful Ranee Das moves from London with her two teen daughters in tow to join her engineer husband, who’s moved to New York for a new job. Seventeen-year-old Tara is a born star, adapting to life in seventies America by modeling herself after Marcia Brady (of The Brady Bunch), while fifteen-year-old Sonia is the girl who can’t stop reading, who gets straight As in the gifted program, and who wears oversized T-shirts with feminist slogans. You go, Sonia! Ranee is the kind of person who believes her girls should only hang out with kids from “good families” (aka Bengali or white folks), who’s mad at her husband for sending money home to his ailing mother, and who zealously guards her girls’ “reputation”. But the sisters have each other’s backs; Sonia wrangles Tara a drama audition at school, while Tara coaxes their mother to let Sonia visit the library sans chaperonage. Gradually, Ranee (and Sonia and Tara) learn to reconcile their cultural inheritances (they’re Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh)  with the demands of America–specifically New York, which insists on erasing boundaries while creating new, dangerous yet rewarding spaces.

Just when Ranee is able to relax  and let go of her hang-ups (she clings on to racial prejudice though), tragedy strikes, and the Das women find themselves bargaining from a position of powerlessness. But America in the late 1970 provides room to experiment and grow, and soon, the girls strike their own paths, even if it’s far from what their parents ever imagined. Tara wants to act, and Sonia to write, even though “good Bengali daughters have three options after high school: go to college and study engineering, go to college and study medicine, or if they’re pretty but terrible in school [..], marry an engineer or a doctor.” And as though specializing in the creative arts wasn’t enough, Sonia goes on to adopt Christianity–and to fall in love with a black boy from Louisiana.

We’re just halfway into the novel, and there’s already so much to unpack about race, feminism, immigration, and Bengali history and culture. The next generation brings yet more elements to the mix–Sonia’s biracial daughter feels she’s not black enough for some, and not Bengali enough for others, while Tara’s daughter Anu, transported from contemporary Mumbai to attend high school with her cousin, undergoes severe culture shock. Meanwhile Ranee, who’s always maintained a certain distance from her adopted country, decides after 9/11 to immerse herself in the American experience–with, um, unexpected results.

These five women thus forge unique ways to work, pray, love and to be, and oh, I’m so enchanted with the clear-eyed hopefulness that Perkins brings to this vision of the choices available to women of color in America. Although marketed as a YA novel, YBtDN would work beautifully for middle grades as well–I can totally see a 13-year-old South Asian girl from New Jersey read this book and realize that she, too, can negotiate with parental expectations and the weight of tradition to open up her options. This is the novel you didn’t know you needed till you’ve read it.  And I have to mention that the (many) men in this novel are SO NICE. They are respectful and non-stalkerish and endlessly patient and kind and hot and funny and never mistake aggression for masculinity…

Is YBtDN’s happy vision of a society where class, race and religious divisions are rendered insignificant in the face of love and good intentions realistic? I don’t know, but how I’d like to believe it’s so–that all of us can learn from our diverse communities to be the best version of ourselves. Here’s to the cast of YBtDN–may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.

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Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Kabir the Weaver-Poet by Jaya Madhavan

Like most Indian school children, I studied about Kabir the Saint; like all school children, I banished him from my brain post-exams. If prodded (at knife-point), I might have remembered him as the one who said it didn’t matter whether you were Hindu or Muslim, and cited the legend about mourners squabbling over religious dibs at his funeral (cremate or inter?) only to find that Kabir’s body had been magically replaced by easy-to-apportion flowers.

So really, I didn’t know anything about Kabir, until the folks at Tulika Books asked if I’d be interested in this book review.  Jaya Madhavan’s Kabir the Weaver-Poet has now rooted Kabir in my mind as a gadfly who delighted in offending fundamentalists of all stripes, a religious poet whose work showcases an earthy, entertaining wit, a mystic as much as a logician, and a non-conformist who really didn’t give a damn about public opinion.  He might be a saint, but he was quite the dude.

So, who was Kabir? Born circa the fourteenth century, he is generally regarded as “the first Indian saint to have harmonised Hinduism and Islam by preaching a universal path which both Hindus and Muslims could tread together.” Of unknown parentage, he was brought up in a Muslim household, and was a weaver by profession, which of course seems peculiarly apt given his predilection for amalgamating contradictory religious dogmas. His poetry exhorts people to discover God through simplicity and goodness while shunning the accoutrements  of organized religion; the latter earned him powerful enemies amongst the establishment, with nasty consequences. This story could unfold today, and not much would be different. Gulp.

Kabir… is aimed at the 12 years plus group, and Madhavan uses several interesting devices to hold her readers’ attention,  such as a story paced over twenty-four hours, an abundance of weaving metaphors, and multiple narrators including anthropomorphic weaving equipment–a thread, loom, spindle etc.  chat with each other about Kabir. And thankfully, the author’s account of this saint’s life is no hagiography.  Madhavan offers inventive factual explanations for miracles attributed to Kabir without diminishing his persona, and her rueful, animated narrative makes you wonder why Kabir courts trouble as he does (he advocates for vegetarianism at a market meat-stall), even as you admire his steadfastness. And Kabir’s poetry adds further zing to the story. “Take ten cows, differently colored, yet the milk is the same,” he says, thus offending Pundits and Mullahs in equal measure.

I felt a sense of impending doom along the narrative (the first chapter warns that Kabir might be in for a sticky end), and the last section, which features a vicious outbreak of communal violence, will disturb younger readers. But the essential truth of Kabir’s arguments shines forth for readers of all ages, as does the joy this man found in his eschewal of all that was narrow-minded and ugly. Madhavan’s portrayal ultimately had me remarking on Kabir’s sanity rather than his saintliness, and that’s perhaps the best compliment I could pay this beautifully-imagined account of one’s man campaign to change the world. And you know what? He did.*

END

*According to Wiki, Kabir’s “…writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement…Apart from having an important influence on Sikhism, Kabir’s legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir Panth (“Path of Kabir”), a religious community [whose] members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9,600,000.”

Kabir’s influence is felt in popular culture even today. Check out The Kabir Project, which describes contemporary film and music themed around Kabir’s philosophy. The films look absolutely fascinating; won’t someone send me a Region 1 DVD?

This review is part of the Kabir blogfest, organized by Tulika in association with the Kabir Project.  “You can also blog about Kabir, write about how you have been touched by his poetry or the stories around his life or write about how you have responded to him.” Please, do.

Giveaway and review: The Geometry of God

I’ve just read one of my best novels  of 2010– Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God.  If you are interested religion, Islam, philosophy, feminism, evolution, Pakistan, religious fundamentalism,  erotica, or just in some fantastically intelligent and beautiful writing, READ THIS BOOK.

I have two copies of this book, and much as I love it, need only one. So I’m giving away the spare.  (Giveaway details after the review.)

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geometry

Given that most books with the slightest connection to Islam feature covers with veiled women baring their kohl-lined eyes for the curious outsider’s gaze, The Geometry of God’s black-and-white jacket depicting an animal skeleton is probably fair warning that Uzma Aslam Khan’s Pakistan is going to get in the way of the sensationalized portrayals of the country so beloved by mainstream (Western) media. In her third book, Aslam gives us a female paleontologist, charged writing about the erotic, and a profound inquiry into the often-vexing relationship between faith and reason. Add to these riches the voice of a blind child “taste-testing” words, and The Geometry of God becomes that rare creature, a novel where the urgency of the message is matched by the verve of the narrative.

Eight-year old Amal, accompanying her paleontologist grandfather Zahoor on a dig, finds the fossilized ear bone of a dog-whale—a discovery that revolutionizes theories about mammalian evolution in the region. On the same day, Amal’s younger sister Mehwish goes blind. Each event has profound consequences for both siblings. Amal, who grows up to be a paleontologist, takes up the task of interpreting the visual world for her sister. Mehwish, simultaneously limited and liberated by her blindness, develops a unique relationship with the physical world, even as the siblings befriend Noman, the son of a creationist politician.

The intelligent, well-educated Noman is charged by his father to use the Quran to logically “prove” scientific laws false. Bound by family duty, Noman overcomes the demands of his conscience and his intellect to author revisionist texts that successfully remove all references to Newton, Archimedes and Einstein. But the fundamentalists seek to energize their political campaign by targeting living rather than dead scientists, and no-one suits their purpose better than Amal’s flamboyant, outspoken grandfather. Noman, designated to be the architect of Zahoor’s denouncement, must decide where his loyalties lie.

The Geometry of God is all about angles, planes and perspectives. At the literary level, Khan shows us the same event through the eyes of different characters, demonstrating the inadequacy of a unilateral vision. At the thematic level, the central preoccupation of this text is questioning how we know what we know–about the physical world, about ourselves, and especially about God. While religious fundamentalists believe in a single interpretation, Khan describes two approaches to God–first, through khayal, thought which comes from intellect and zauq, an experience of joy achieved through the senses. Khan’s work is in fact a perfect synthesis of both approaches; we understand her universe as much through the sensuous in her writing as by her thoughtful description and analyses.

So, to sum up, this novel concerns itself with epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, logic… yes, Khan’s canvas is philosophy itself.  The novel’s themes are further revealed in the author’s playful, luminous use of language. Mehwish “sees” words sideways so as to reveal hidden meanings; paleontology hence becomes “pale into logic”, dog-whale “dog-wail”, perilous “peri less”, commander “come under”, and promiscuous “promise kiss”. Despite the obvious temptation, there is no gimmickry; in fact, the author’s intelligence, imprinted on every page like a watermark, blooms into full color when delving into Mehwish’s strange and lovely inner world.

“I have questions in my head like Amal in traffic lines are crooked cars are over taking left and right. It is as noisy as the silence when she leaves me in a place I do not know.”

The Geometry of God is set in the seventies and eighties—an era when the CIA was pumping millions into the country to combat Russians in Afghanistan, and when the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq was gaining power on a platform of Islamic orthodoxy. The book may be (and probably will be) read by many as a primer to the growth of fundamentalism in the region; to my mind, however, that is the least of what this gorgeous, complex stunner of a novel offers.

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This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine as well as The Asian Review of Books.

If you’d like a copy, please  leave a comment here or email me, and I’ll randomly pick one person by the end of the month. I’ll ship to anywhere in Canada or in the US. I would really really appreciate it if the winner would review this book too–work like this invariably never gets the audience it deserves.

The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan

Clockroot  Books, 2009

Genre: Literary Fiction

UPDATE: WINNER!!!!

The winner was chosen from the comments/email replies to my post. I sorted all the responses by date received and Ms. Internet picked a number. The winner is J.T.Oldfield!

I’ve emailed the winner; if I don’t hear back by the end of the week, I’ll pick another person. Thanks to all those who showed an interest in this book; I hope you will be able to get hold of a copy elsewhere.

  • Paperback: 386 pages

Devil’s Kiss by Sarwat Chadda

Bilquis SanGreal is fifteen, female and a modern-day Knight Templar, fighting the Unholy in between avoiding detention and the mean girls clique, and feeling like, you know, that no-one *really* understands her.  

Holy crap, what a hook. It’s been a long time since I fell so hard for a book soley for its premise (and a wicked cool  cover). 

Devils Kiss

Bilquis’s father Arthur is the Master of the modern-day Knights Templar, a group who fight the Unholy to protect humanity against evil, for no reward or recognition.  Bilquis (who goes by Billi) has had a pretty miserable life thus far. Her mother was murdered by ghouls when she was five, and, she was co-opted into the Templars by her father when she was ten. Since then, she’s been studying fighting techniques, ancient Latin and Greek and the occult arts along with regualr schoolwork, and now she’s now an active member of the Templars, banishing the undead back to their  realm. Then comes the biggest danger of them along…adolesense. And Billi must figure out whether she wants to be a Templar or whether she’d rather hang out with cute tattooed boys in malls–and what she’s willing to sacrifice in either case. 

Flipness aside, Billi’s dawning sexuality is at the heart of this novel, for it is key to the Templars’ fight against the Unholy. Chadda foreshadows the dangers of  sexual desire in an episode where one of Billi’s chief tormentors at school is revealed to be pregnant, whereby her social position is destroyed immediately. Billi struggles to contain her own desires, which are fraught with potentially dire consequences, for they cloud her judgement at the most critical of times. But Chadda also shows that salvation–for Billi, for the Templars, and for the entire human race, ultimately lies in love. Whether sexual or romantic or maternal, love is indeed dangerous precisely because of the immense potentialities it contains.     

There’ so much to like about this book. Bilquis is half Muslim (her mom is Pakistani, her dad (white) British)–a much-needed dash of diversity in the mostly monochromatic world of YA paranormal fiction.  And although much of the conflict is framed in the language of Christianity, Chadda doesn’t exalt (any) religion–the Templars are mostly happy to use anything that helps them in the fight between good and evil.  One of the Knights works with a Sufi mystic to hone his occult powers. The Templars’ wards against evil include a (Jewish) mezuzah. Vedic (Hindu) astrological charts are consulted to figure out the best time to go to battle. And Billi’s father “had told her that believing in God isn’t the same as believing in religion. …the prayers, the exorcism rites and the crucifixes worked in their fight, so Billi had learned them in the same way she learned the sword.” All this makes me…happy. 

Devil’s Kiss is one of those novels that begs for translation into film or a game–lots of swords and axes, rooftop and catacomb fights, and last-minute swoop’nsaves.  And just like those films, the action gets a bit repetitive at times, and  comes at the cost of character development (more on that later). But first, props to Chadda for never making the violence cool; in fact, the first scene sets out how the Templars’ work makes Billi “sick and hollow”. And it’s not just the wicked who die, but the innocent too, right down to little babies. While the idea of being a bad-ass killer is indeed seductive, speaking directly to the sense of powerlessness that many teens struggle with, Chadda is careful to show the devastating toll the violence takes on Billi’s emotional life. Much as you may admire Bilquis, you don’t want to be her.  

I’d love to have praised this book without reservations, but it was not to be–none of the characters, not even Bilquis, were fleshed out to my satisfaction. Yep, I get that she’s angry she has so little control over her life. But all of her actions are predicated around this rather obvious fact and not much more, with the result Billi’s a two-dimensional creature, with sulks and sword-weilding skills and little else. Chadda just doesn’t give us enough about her to like her, let alone make that vital leap into empathy. And once you get past the Knight Templar job description, Biquis is an ordinary teen with ordinary woes, and Chadda has little that’s new or exciting to say about the latter. 

Plot holes further undermine Billi’s character development.  I can’t discuss most them without awful spoilers, but here’s a big gaping chasm: Billi’s  been trained to kill the undead, to battle unarmed with werewolves and dark angels, and she’s overpowered by three untrained yobs on a London train? Worse, the entire episode is a weak contrivance to introduce another character–a handsome guy steps in and saves her.  Devil’s Kiss can seem formulaic at times, and some plot turns are so close to the Harry Potter series that I was surprised the editors didn’t remark on it. 

In sum, I’d say Devil’s Kiss more than delivers on premise, and would make a great game. But the execution is rushed, and I think the book might not quite satisfy those (like me) who like their stories driven by character rather than action setpieces. Is it wrong to wish that Phillip Pullman had written this book?

Devils’ Kiss by Sarwat Chadda 

(Hyperion Book CH (September 1, 2009)

Genre: YA

The sequel to Devil’s Kiss, titled Dark Goddess, will be out July 2010. Will I read it? Heck, yes!

Devil’s Kiss is one of my books for the POC Reading Challenge, which encourages us to read more books by people of color. Please visit them at POC Reading Challenge.

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You may have noticed some changes in the blog’s appearance. The font was way too small for my poor old eyes, so I’ve gone with a theme that provided more readable text. The books on the header are from my bookshelf. I also thought I’d provide some details about the book  reviewed at the end of each post.  And I’m trying to post more regularly, aiming for two a week. Let’s see how that  pans out…