Category Archives: Book Review

Alisha's World

AlishaAnyone who has ever tried to penetrate the world of children’s book publishing will tell you what a daunting task it is. A few fortunate ones, like Pooja Makhijani ( Mama’s Saris) and Uma Krishnaswami (Monsoon) make it to the mainstream, but there are scores more who bravely undertake the project, knowing their chances of breaking through are slim, with every likelihood of their book being consigned to a vast slush pile at the publisher’s desk.

Perhaps we immigrants are inspired by the challenges our children go through to assimilate into this new culture and want to share stories from the war zone. (It certainly isn’t to become the next J.K. Rowling.)

Sanjiv Sinha took a techie approach to the problem of finding a publisher.

A father of 2 daughters from Dallas, Texas, software professional Sinha recalls making up stories for his 4-year-old a few years ago. The stories touched on the common issues faced by desi children in the US – joining a preschool where no one looks like you, bringing lunch that invokes laughter from your classmates, and so on.

alisha's worldThe stories were the inspiration for Alisha’s World, a charming picture book revolving around the eponymous Alisha, perhaps a composite of Sinha’s kids Riya and Shibani, who the book is dedicated to. The book has 3 stories revolving around the third-grader Alisha and her experiences at school. Joining a new school at the start of the book, Alisha faces the typical cultural challenges of a second generation Indian American. She navigates them with the help of a loving family, understanding teachers, and good friends. The glossy book is illustrated beautifully by Archana Sreenivasan.

After exploring options of finding a US publisher or using an American self-publisher like Lulu or Amazon, the software professional eventually settled on outsourcing! Alisha’s World is illustrated and printed in India and sold in the US for $17.99.

The books have been a hit at local schools, where teachers have used them to teach valuable lessons on multiculturalism and diversity. To help things along, Sinha set up the Alisha’s World website, which features information about the book, fun games, and a way to purchase the book.  A Facebook page keeps fans updated on Alisha and her adventures.

The quality of the book notwithstanding, finding a mainstream audience has been difficult. Says Sinha, “I need to sell just 20,000 books per year to break even.” He is looking at the library and school market rather than individuals who, he admits, might be reluctant to dish out over 15 dollars for the 40-page book.

Sanjiv, Riya and Shibani

Sanjiv, Riya and Shibani

In the works is the second book of Alisha’s adventures. A typical story deals with Alisha’s request for a sleepover and her parents’ misgivings about this quintessential American ritual.

“I find this endeavor just so much more creatively satisfying than my day job,” laughs Sinha.

Book review: One Amazing Thing

one-amazing-thingI remember being blown away by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage. At that point in my life, it seemed to perfectly capture the cross-generational conflicts that were swirling around people my age. After that it became a ritual to grab a copy of her newest book at the library or bookstore.

But, eventually, her writing palled. Exposed to other diasporic writers whose craft was leaner and less florid, Divakaruni’s gushy style grew a little tiresome. I think I must have stopped reading after Unknown Errors of Our Lives (though I did read the Conch Bearer aloud to my child).

With One Amazing Thing, though, Divakaruni returns to a crisp, almost minimalist, style of writing that reminds one of all the reasons why she was so popular in the first place. It is a slim tome, barely 250 pages or so, and so absorbing that the words whiz by at warp speed, not even allowing one to pause to admire the literary style.

A motley group of would-be travelers waits for visa approvals at an Indian visa and passport office in an unknown city. When a massive earthquake strikes, they are thrown together in a struggle for survival. Quickly, roles are delineated; the leader, the caregiver, the rebel. After an abortive attempt at escape, the group realizes they are better off waiting for rescue. As water slowly seeps into their safe haven and  oxygen levels deplete, they decide to share the tale of one amazing thing in their lives to keep their minds off impending doom.

Not all the stories are equally compelling, but Divakaruni makes a capable attempt at creating the voices of a varied cast-there is an old white couple, a punk Chinese teenager and her grandmother, a black army vet, an Indian graduate student, Indian visa office bureaucrats, and an angry Muslim young man. The voices are credible and the stories interesting. As they tell their stories we get a glimpse into these diverse lives, only to witness the common thread that makes every human story recognizable and familiar.

With One Amazing Thing, Divakaruni gets her writing mojo back; fans will be delighted with the book and new readers will be appreciative.

This is an early review. The book arrives on the shelves in February 2010 and is available to pre-order at Amazon.

Book review – Six Suspects

six-suspects

The corrupt politician

The manipulative bureaucrat

Swiss bank accounts

The well-connected guruji and his numero-astrology

The item bomb and the casting couch

Crazy movie fans

Film shooting in Switzerland

Rigged award ceremonies

The oppressed Andaman tribal

Police brutality and corruption

The Mumbai underworld

Drug deals gone bad

The honest cop and his inevitable transfer

The khadi-clad activist

The intrepid journalist

The Bhopal gas disaster

The earnest documentary maker

Call centers

Dynastic rule

Mail order bride scams

The North Indian wedding and its excesses

Pakistani terrorists

Hellfire missiles

Construction sites rife with corruption and hazard

Prayag, Sangam and naked sadhus

Rajasthani forts and Rajput honor

The dumb Texan (who spawns his own set of clichés)
27 Indian stereotypes

1 incredulous reader

6 suspects

Six Suspects has been optioned by British producer Paul Raphael’s Starfield Productions and BBC Films.

Book review – Marrying Anita

One of the benefits of leading an interesting life is that you can get a book out of it. Anita Jain, who has had a long and varied career as a global journalist, turns her wry observation skills on herself. After failing at the New York dating scene, Anita decides to go back to India and “arrange” a marriage for herself, using the help of friends, family and online matrimonial sites.

She quickly settles into the Delhi party and clubbing scene but the suitable boy keeps eluding her. Many almost-Prince Charmings and more Ugly Ducklings later, her quest to connect is still alive as she bids the reader goodbye.

Though autobiographical, “Marrying Anita” is more interesting as a look at the changing social mores in urban India. The Delhi scene Anita describes is startling, with commitment phobic young men taking full advantage of the sexual liberation of career-minded women. The women are the aggressors, determined to separate themselves from the marital ambitions of the previous generation and yet there is a wistful need for connection. Anita herself rides an emotional roller-coaster, being attracted to the most unsuitable men and dismissing offhand any prospects that look even remotely likely. I was puzzled by her behavior at first, but it dawned on me that she perhaps was unconsciously sabotaging any possibility of a real relationship.

The book is a curious mixture of hopefulness and pathos. When Anita finally embarks on a somewhat serious relationship, she exhibits a combination of high expectations and neediness that all of us remember from our teenage years, and that seems out of place in an older, more experienced woman. She breaks it off for what it would seem to an older generation to be a trivial reason, then transfers her affection to a completely unobtainable object of desire, mooning over him like a lovesick puppy. “Marrying Anita” left me glad I was in a committed long-term relationship where there was no need to play games.

As for literary style, the book starts off well, with overtones of “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert’s lovely travelogue through life. But it soon veers off into self-indulgence, forsaking any sense of chronology or continuity. The chapters are like samplers; pick any one for a quick read. The prose is effortless, though it has a tendency to pretension sometimes (I still have to look up the meaning of “plangency”, but her tendency to occasionally use complex language could simply be the result of a long writing career).

Anita is surprisingly coy about her sexual adventures, a fact that could perhaps be explained in her acknowledgements where she thanks her parents for their “as-of-yet unconditional love and support.” This leads to the sense that she is holding back, which make the book feel incomplete.

Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed reading “Marrying Anita”. It gave me insight into a social world that is closed to me and descriptions of Delhi are funny and witty without condescending. Take it to the beach for a fun read.

Book review – The 3 mistakes of my life

By Vidya Pradhan

“Books like these,” huffed a friend, “expose the vacuum in entertaining Indian literature.” He was referring to One night @ the call centre, Chetan Bhagat’s second book, and it was in response to an assertion by the New York Times on the blurb that the author was ‘the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India's history'.

After a sensational debut with Five Point Someone, a lighthearted look at life at the Indian Institutes of Technology, Chetan Bhagat became an overnight celebrity with the Indian reading public (the book completed 190 weeks on the India Today bestseller list in January 2008).

The first print of One Night.. , published in 2005, was snapped up in less than 3 days. But critics lambasted this offering. I remember thinking it was a rather maudlin and sentimental effort, with undesirably heavy doses of spirituality weighing down what could have been a satirical look at call centers and what the sudden push to prosperity has done for the Indian middle class. Still, a movie based on the book (tentatively called “Hello”) is in the works.

The 3 mistakes of my life, his third book, is equally mawkish.

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Tested – One American school struggles to make the grade

By Vidya Pradhan

It has always been a puzzle why American schools cannot replicate the dominance and the reputation for excellence demonstrated by American universities. US students have always performed rather shamefully compared to students from other countries. In an international math assessment of 15 year olds in 2003, American students came 29th out of 34 places. The outrage reports like these have generated was the driving motivator for the No Child Left Behind(NCLB) act, President Bush’s accountability-laden education policy unveiled just a year after he took office. Linda Perlstein, who has been covering the education beat for the Washington Post for several years, decided to spend a year with an elementary school in Maryland to study the impact of NCLB on the school system. What emerges is a gripping tale of heroism, sacrifice and uncommon bravery on the part of the principal, teachers and staff of Tyler Elementary as they attempt to deal with the new standards and punitive threats that NCLB brings in its wake. Continue reading