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Book Shelf, Book reviews, Indian, Indio-American literature >> Books and Publications >> Bookshelf

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From the BookShelf Archives of GaramChai:

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What’s Up America?
By Diane Asitimbay

The book of about 200 pages has twenty chapters with topics ranging from Americans' fascination with pets in "Pets as Partners," to a food chapter entitled "Eat Now, Pay Later," where the author delves into the paradox of why so many Americans are on diets but still overweight. Simple graphics illustrate various cultural points in the book. The author picks out and engages in the nuances of American behavior that Americans themselves rarely notice, but which foreigners can easily distinguish. For instance, in the chapter on Growing up and Growing Old, the author describes an anecdote of how a typical American mom teaches assertiveness to her four-year-old child at an Ice-cream parlor where the kid confronts a bewildering array of choices of flavors, sprinklers and cones. The impatient mom gives the kid a few seconds to 'choose' before deciding herself! Perhaps a lesson for the kid to be assertive next time? The writing style is simple and readable, even for non-native English speakers.

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A book like What's up America will make for an interesting read for first-time visitors to the US. A comprehensive and carefully researched book, this is a sure substitute to learning Americanese by watching CNN or Hollywood flicks. The author's experience with different cultures and her deep understanding of her own culture makes for fascinating reading for both international visitors and Americans.

Even in a world that is getting flatter by the day (apologies Tom Friedman), fascination over American culture continues, and books of this genera continue to be in vogue. For those curious about Americans, What's Up America? Will be a good read.

About the Author: Diane Asitimbay holds a degree in international relations and has taught international students for more than 15 years. She has lived in Europe and Latin America and is bilingual in Spanish. As the author of numerous articles on cultural issues, she has long advocated the need for cross-cultural awareness.

GaramChai's Book of the Month for September

Editorial Reviews

Anita Desai has long proved herself one of the most accomplished and admired chroniclers of
middle-class India. Her 1999 novel, Fasting, Feasting, is the tale of plain and lumpish Uma and the
cherished, late-born Arun, daughter and son of strict and conventional parents. So united are her
parents in Uma's mind that she conflates their names. "MamaPapa themselves rarely spoke of a time
when they were not one. The few anecdotes they related separately acquired great significance
because of their rarity, their singularity." Throughout, Desai perfectly matches form and content:
details are few, the focus narrow, emotions and needs given no place. Uma, as daughter and female,
expects nothing; Arun, as son and male, is lost under the weight of expectation. Now in her 40s,
Uma is at home. Attempts at arranged marriages having ended in humiliation and disaster, and she is
at MamaPapa's beck and call, with only her collection of bracelets and old Christmas cards for

Uma flounces off, her grey hair frazzled, her myopic eyes glaring behind her spectacles,
muttering under her breath. The parents, momentarily agitated upon their swing by the
sudden invasion of ideas--sweets, parcel, letter, sweets--settle back to their slow,
rhythmic swinging. They look out upon the shimmering heat of the afternoon as if the
tray with tea, with sweets, with fritters, will materialise and come swimming out of
it--to their rescue. With increasing impatience, they swing and swing.

Arun, in college in Massachusetts, is none too happily spending the summer with the Pattons in the
suburbs: their refrigerator and freezer is packed with meat that no one eats, and Mrs. Patton is
desperate to be a vegetarian, like Arun. But what he most wants is to be ignored, invisible. "Her
words make Arun wince. Will she never learn to leave well alone? She does not seem to have his
mother's well-developed instincts for survival through evasion. After a bit of pushing about slices of
tomatoes and leaves of lettuce--in his time in America he has developed a hearty abhorrence for the
raw foods everyone here thinks the natural diet of a vegetarian--he dares to glance at Mr. Patton."

Desai's counterpointing of India and America is a little forced, but her focus on the daily round,
whether in the Ganges or in New England, finely delineates the unspoken dramas in both cultures.
And her characters, capable of their own small rebellions, give Fasting, Feasting its sharp bite.
--Ruth Petrie

GaramChai's Book of the Month for August


Book Title: India: From Midnight to the Millennium

Author: Shashi Taroor

Amazon Review:

Author Shashi Tharoor has spent half of his life outside of India, yet his position as a "NRI"
(Non-resident Indian) has given him the distance and perspective necessary to produce India:
From Midnight to the Millennium, an in-depth critique of the country's first fifty years of
independence. Tharoor, currently executive assistant to the secretary general of the United Nations,
is known for both his fiction (The Great Indian Novel, Show Business) and his journalism; in this
effort, he blends fine prose with a reporter's talent for analysis, resulting in a skillful examination of
some of the greatest challenges India has faced over the past five decades, as well as what lies
ahead for the nation.

In chapters devoted to such diverse topics as caste, the free-for-all nature of Indian democracy, the
troubled legacy of Indira Gandhi, and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Tharoor both
explicates the history of India since independence and attempts to define what makes India one
country and Indians of various ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds one nationality. He is
forthright in his discussion of the sectarian violence that has ripped through the country, the
corruption that is rife throughout the ranks of the Indian civil service, and the difficulties that face a
nation in which 48 percent of the population remains illiterate. Yet Shashi Tharoor writes of these
problems with a sense of optimism about the future, confident in the ability of his countrymen to find
solutions within a democratic political system. --This text refers to the hardcover edition of this

Book Title: Zen Attitude

Author: Sujata Massey

Amazon Review:

Rei Shimura's life is moving toward her own Zen Attitude -- calm, composed, happy in life
and love - the perfect balance. But nothing can be simple for Rei - yet. This second novel
from Sujata Massey follows her highly successful "The Salaryman's Wife," which
introduced readers to this young woman trying to make her own way in a culture that sees
her almost as a failure - she's still single at age 27, and she's only half Japanese. That's
why the success of her antiques business is so important, and why anything that threatens
the success of this venture threatens her own stability - and as readers of the first book
know, Rei tends to be rather volatile. So when that threat includes murder, well, Rei does
whatever it takes to center her life again.

Once again Ms. Massey's characterization is superb - we're treated to a female judo
champion, the hierarchy of a Buddhist temple priesthood, other antique dealers, even Rei's
boyfriend's wild Scottish brother. ! ! The subplots are intriguing, seamlessly tied together to
create a denouement that is hinted at, yet should remain a surprise for most readers.

The little touches are what make Ms. Massey's work so delightful. Scenes describing
caged canaries in the police station, services at an ancient temple and a festival celebrating
folk tales are interspersed with murder, high stakes antiques for sale and Rei's doubts
about the future of her life in Japan. Indeed, Rei Shimura can be extremely exasperating -
you may either love her or hate her. To Sujata Massey's credit, you will want to read more
about her. .


Book Title: Love,Stars,and All That

Author: Kirin Narayan

Amazon Review:

Narayan, an assistant professor of anthropology, gives us a wry, charming look at academia and cross-cultural romance. Gita is a 23-year-old Indian graduate student at Berkeley. She is analytical, studious, and an almost classic innocent abroad as she searches for the perfect mate that her beloved Saroj aunty's astronumerologist predicted would appear in Chaitra 2040 (i.e., March 1984). The whimsical Gita breaks out of her scholarly routine as the date approaches, meeting men--all the wrong men--while making friends, surviving on a graduate stipend, and writing a book, all the while exploring the crossroads of cultures and the parameters of the human heart. Rather than appear young, indecisive, and unfocused, Gita claims to be working on "the intellectual paradigms underlying colonial folk-narrative collections on the Indian subcontinent"--an announcement greeted with serious appreciation by the professorial types Narayan so loves to lampoon. Further, Gita--a non-drinker schooled at the strictest of convents--dares not risk looking foolish and so finds herself, a shy virgin, inadvertently tipsy and enmeshed in a pseudointellectual discussion comparing sexual slang in Indian vs. American English.

GaramChai's Book of the Month for May

Book Title: Monkfish Moon

Author: Romesh Gunesekera

Amazon Review:

Nine stories, each intricately tuned and carefully turned. Gunesekera's language has a simple
surface--he excels in the pithy sentence serving the apparently practical purpose. But the simplicity is deceptive, his observation as close as the stare of a voyeur.

GaramChai's Book of the Month for April,2000



Book Title: Arranged Marriage : Stories

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Amazon Review:"Divakaruni is not only an award-winning poet, she's also a virtuoso short story writer. In this consummate and deeply affecting collection, she explores the vast differences between women's
lives in India, the country of her birth, and in the U.S., her country of choice. As the title suggests,
these are stories about arranged marriages orchestrated by parents far more concerned with status
and skin color than with their daughters' happiness..."


GaramChai 's Book of the Month for March




Book Title: Love and Longing in Bombay : Stories

Author: Vikram Chandra

Amazon Review:

Welcome to the Fisherman's Rest, a little bar off the Sasoon Dock in Bombay where Mr.
Subramaniam spins his tales for a select audience. This is the setting for Vikram Chandra's collection
of seven short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay, and Subramaniam is Chandra's
Scheherezade. In these stories, Chandra has covered the gamut of genres: there is a ghost story, a
love story, a murder mystery, and a crime story, each tale joined to the others by the voice of the
elusive narrator. In "Shakti," a discussion about real estate leads to the story of a soldier who must
exorcise a ghostly child from his family home. In the final story, "Shanti," a young woman's despair
about the state of the country becomes a springboard for a tale of love and hope.

Love and Longing in Bombay is a mesmerizing collection, filled with fully rounded characters and
stories that resonate long after the book is back on the shelf. Chandra's prose is luminous, his tales
satisfying. Scheherezade would be impressed...




Book Title: The Mistress of Spices

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Amazon Review:

In the world created by first-time novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, there is a spice to cure every human ailment, and her heroine, Tilo, is in fact The Mistress of Spices. Tilo (short for Tilottama) comes by her curative powers in a magically roundabout way. Born in India, she ends up on a remote island courtesy of pirates and sea snakes. Here she encounters an ancient woman who instructs her in the power of spice. Her education complete, Tilo heads for Oakland, California, to practice her healing arts. She diagnoses the ills of the various people who come to her spice shop, and cures them, too, until one day she discovers that magic is a double-edged sword.

In chapters named for spices, we follow Tilo's adventures from her birth to the moment she must decide whether to ply her special powers alone or share her life with another. Divakaruni has created a memorable heroine in The Mistress of Spices.



Book Title: Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

Author: Kiran Desai

Amazon Review:

The Atlantic Monthly, Phoebe-Lou Adams
Ms. Desai's giddily irreverent novel concerns Sampath, a young Hindu with no ambition for anything but quiet solitude in a cool spot. His town is hot and crowded. His father is financially ambitious. His mother is daft about food, and his grandmother is daft about health. Sampath finds a deserted orchard and settles in a guava tree, where he inadvertently becomes the local holy hermit. In crackling, witty, sharply visual prose, Ms. Desai mocks pious enthusiasm, official incompetence, domestic...



Book Title: An Equal Music

Author: Vikram Seth

Amazon Review:

The violinist hero of Vikram Seth's third novel would very much like to be hearing secret harmonies.
Instead, living in London 10 years after a key disaster, Michael Holme is easily irritated by his
beautiful young (and even French!) girlfriend and by his colleagues in the Maggiore Quartet. In
short, he's fed up with playing second fiddle in life and art. Yet a chance encounter with Julia, the
pianist he had loved and lost in Vienna, brings Michael sudden bliss. Her situation, however-and
the secret that may end her career-threatens to undo the lovers.

An Equal Music is a fraction of the size of Seth's A Suitable Boy, but is still deliciously expansive.
In under 400 pages, the author offers up exquisite complexities, personal and lyrical, while deftly
fielding any fears that he's composed a Harlequin for highbrows. During one emotional crescendo,
Michael tells Julia, "I don't know how I've lived without you all these years," only to realize, "how
feeble and trite my words sound to me, as if they have been plucked out of some housewife
fantasy." In addition to the pitch of its love story, one of the book's joys lies in Seth's creation of
musical extremes. As the Maggiore rehearses, moving from sniping and impatience to perfection, the
author expertly notates the joys of collaboration, trust, and creation. "It's the weirdest thing, a
quartet," one member remarks. "I don't know what to compare it to. A marriage? a firm? a platoon
under fire? a self-regarding, self-destructive priesthood? It has so many different tensions mixed in
with its pleasures."

An Equal Music is a novel in which the length of Schubert's Trout Quintet matters deeply, the
discovery of a little-known Beethoven opus is a miracle, and each instrument has its own being. Just
as Michael can't hope to possess Julia, he cannot even dream of owning his beloved Tononi, the
violin he has long had only on loan. And it goes without saying that Vikram Seth knows how to tell a
tale, keeping us guessing about everything from what the Quartet's four-minute encore will be to
what really occasioned Julia's departure from Michael's life. (Or was it in fact Michael who
abandoned Julia?) As this love story ranges from London to Michael's birthplace in the north of
England to Vienna to Venice, few readers will remain deaf to its appeals.

-Kerry Fried



Book Title: Anita and Me

Author: Meera Syal

From Kirkus Reviews:
Nine-year-old Meena Kumar's cheeky narrative of her life as the only Punjabi girl in a small English
village unfolds through wonderfully evocative description. Tollington, a once-thriving Midlands
mining village, is, in the early '70s, on the decline. When the mines shut down, the men are idled
while the town's suddenly assertive women form the Ballbearings Committee, a name to designate
their employment at the local factory (among other things). A highway threatens to take away part of
the village, the grammar school is closing down, skinheads are beginning to loiter in the kiddie park,
and suburban sprawl is inching closer. These ominous changes form the background of the inventive
Meena's life. She is alternately amused and embarrassed by her family and idolizes the roughest,
brassiest girl in town, Anita Rutter. Meena is, much to her parents' chagrin, no angel: She lies,
commits minor thefts, and has the bad habit of making vulgar remarks when her prim and proper
aunties are around. Each small incident that Meena tells about leads to an arsenal of vividly
described related anecdotes before the linear narrative is finally regained, a process that forms an
endearing, richly three- dimensional picture of Meena and her family. Meanwhile, the story of the
girl's relationship with Anita nicely illuminates the difficult, unspoken politics of childhood friendship.
The two girls lead a gang, bully others, and engage in exuberant antics even though, in an
increasingly poor and tense England, there is always an ominous undercurrent to events. Anita's
black poodle is named ``Nigger,'' a local Indian bank manager is the victim of a racial attack, and
Meena's secret love becomes a boot-stomping skinhead. Meena's loss of innocence, and her
recognition of her heritage, coincides with her realization that her seemingly harmonious village also
harbors violence, hatred, and fear. Syal handles all of this with an expert hand. Far from just another
coming-of-age saga, Syal's impressive debut offers a charming yet troubling evocation of recent
times. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.



Book Title: The Inscrutable Americans  

Author: Anurag Mathur

Our Comments: An extremely hilarious account of the trials and tribulations of an Indian student in the US. Most of us Indians would be able to relate to many of the incidents cited in the book.A must read especially for those of us studying in America.





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