Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham

This book is more of a mystery than I normally read but I enjoyed it as it also was an interesting study in personality and relationships.  Cathy is orphaned as a 12 year old and must move from her home in California to live with her grandmother (who she has only met once) in a small town in the Texas Panhandle.  At the request of Cathy's grandmother and her best friend, Mabel, Cathy is taken under the wing of the two most popular boys in the sixth grade, Trey Don (or TD) and John.  TD has been abandoned by both his parents and is cared for by his Aunt Mabel while John mostly fends for himself as his mother has died and her husband (who is not really his father) is an abusive alcoholic.  So the three youngsters bond with each other, creating their own little family.  It works well until they are about 16 when the boys are involved in an ugly incident they vow to cover up for their whole lives and Cathy and TD become a couple despite John's love for her (and frankly more stable personality).  The book follows the next 22 years in their lives as TD leaves Texas to ply both college and professional football and Cathy and John are left to pick up the pieces of their lives.  The final third of the book deals with TD's eventual return to Texas to reveal two major secrets and once again throw Cathy and John's now settled lives into turmoil.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

More Novels by Shobhan Bantwal

After reading her latest book, The Reluctant Matchmaker, I decided to go back and read more of Shobhan Bantwal's works.  The first I read is The Unexpected Son.  There are similarities - the protagonist is a woman of Indian descent living and working in New Jersey and torn between the patriarchal rules of her homeland and the more liberal American society.  However, in this case she's an older married woman who married and came to America to escape a shameful past.  As a teenager she fell in love with the wrong man (a rich womanizer on the other side of an cultural divide in her town), became pregnant, was dumped by the man and gave birth to a stillborn baby, or at least that's what she was told by her parents and brother.  When she meets the man who becomes her husband she doesn't tell him of her past as she really likes him and she fears it will scare him away.  Thirty years later the past comes back to haunt her in a very unexpected way and she must reveal everything to her husband. She then returns to India, not knowing whether her husband will forgive her, and must deal with her brother, mother (her father is no longer alive) and the mess of her past.  As with the other novel, this one comes to an expected and happy end after many twists and turns.  But Bantwal writes well and gives insight into her culture which makes the stories a pleasure to read.  I have a couple more of her books lined up so I'll see how they go.

I didn't enjoy The Full Moon Bride as much as the other two books I read by this author.  I think it was because I felt no sympathy for Soorya, the main character.  She was a successful junior environmental lawyer but had no experience with dating and felt ready to get married so she agreed to meet several men through traditional "bride viewings" arranged by her parents.  All the men reject her until she meets Roger who expresses interest in her.  However, Soorya is painfully insecure about her looks and thus believes he is only interested in her father's money.  So she strings him along and is so nasty it's hard to understand why he persists.  At the same time she also strings along Lou, a government lawyer who she meets through work.  He's a vulnerable widower and she, wittingly or not, takes advantage of that.  So, again it's hard to understand what he sees in her as she strings him along too.  For a woman inexperienced with men she manages to manipulate them until she finally gets them to say all the things her fragile ego needs to hear.  In typical Bantwal fashion this book has a happy ending but I can't say I was dying for Soorya to have one.

I liked The Sari Shop Widow though I think I'll take a break from Bantwal for now - her books are all starting to seem the same.  In this book Anjali is a thirty seven year old woman who has been widowed for 10 years when the story begins.  She's devoted the intervening years to transforming her parents' dusty sari shop into a fashionable boutique.  However, the store is now on the brink of bankruptcy due to competition and her father brings in his oldest brother from India to help out.  He's a dictatorial but successful businessman that puts Anjali and her mother on edge with his demands for home cooking, a clean home and other domestic service.  He also brings along his business partner, Rishi, an Anglo-Indian.  As usual the story revolves around the developing relationship between Anjali and Rishi - there are some bumps along the way but of course it all works out in the end.

The Dowry Bride is Bantwal's first novel and the only one I have read which is set entirely in India.  It deals with the touchy and still current issue of brides who are mistreated and killed when their families are not able to fulfill their dowry obligations.  Megha is a young girl whose family has fallen on difficult times so her parents marry her off to the first man who shows an interest and whose family does not demand an exorbitant dowry.  Once married she learns her mother in law, an obese, ugly tyrant of a woman, bribed the astrologer who arranged the marriage to lie about her husband's job, salary and the wealth of his family.  Moreover her mother in law is jealous of her good looks (though she originally made the match to improve the likelihood of having good looking grandchildren) and treats her worse than a servant.  She's verbally abusive and degrades her at every opportunity.  When, after a year, her parents have not yet paid her dowry and she has not conceived a grandchild, her overbearing mother in law and her weak and slimy husband plot to kill her.  She finds out about the plot and runs away with nothing but the clothes on her back.  She cannot return to her family who will bring her back to her husband and does not want to endanger her best friend so she finds shelter with her husband's cousin who has always been kind to her.  She soon learns he's been kind as he's been in love with her since the day they met.  Of course that attraction only makes things more dangerous.  However, in typical Bantwal fashion, after several dramatic twists and turns, including another murder attempt by her mother in law, Megha ends up with the man she loves and they're sure to live happily ever after.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

One of the better fiction books I've read coming out of the Wall Street meltdown.  This is the first novel for Alger who went to Harvard and has worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and as a lawyer at Wilmer, Cutler so that probably helps her get a lot of the details down (for example her descriptions of Upper East Side ladies who list "philanthropist" as their occupation, corrupt lawyers and greasy analysts).  The story starts with the apparent suicide of Morty who ran a successful investment fund which turns out to be a Ponzi scheme.  Then Alger carefully weaves together the fallout from the perspective of participants in the fraud, their family members, unwitting accomplices, those fingered to take the fall, and even the SEC investigators assigned to the case.  There are many characters which occasionally gets confusing but it's worth working through the confusion (sometimes you have to go back and re-read a bit to remember who someone was) to reach the resolution.  It's predictable in a way but the twists and turns made me question whether my guesses about some of the outcomes were accurate or not.  I won't say much more so I don't give a way the end...

Friday, August 10, 2012

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin

This is an interesting study of a family dealing with the death of their youngest son, a journalist kidnapped and killed in Iraq.  A year after his death the family gathers at their summer home in the Berkshires for a memorial.  The parents, David and Marilyn, are on the verge of separation, unable to cope with Leo's death.  The eldest sister, Clarissa, and her husband Nathaniel are coping with both the death and her inability to conceive.  Despite these troubles their relationship is one of the stronger ones. The next sister, Lily, is angry at the world and her family and pushes her long term boyfriend, Malcolm, away by insisting she needs to deal with the memorial on her own.  The youngest sister, Noelle, who was a promiscuous delinquent in high school and college has found her Jewish religion, together with her husband who was the fat troublemaking kid in Lily's highschool class.  They now live in Jerusalem with their four sons and return for the memorial full of religious superiority and refusing to eat anything prepared at the home though David and Marilyn have not only purchased kosher food but an entire kitchen's worth of new utensils and dishes.  Also joining the "party" are Leo's widow, Thisbe, and their three year old son.  She thinks only Lily knows about her new relationship and she's struggling to figure out how to share it with the others, especially her mother-in-law who she fears.  Not a lot really happens in the book but the interactions between these characters, their history with Leo, and their relationship with their grandmother, Gretchen, who's very wealthy and doles out money to those who she currently favours (which is constantly in flux) are fascinating to watch.  The characters are so realistic you almost feel like you're eavesdropping on conversations at the beach or on the subway.  I recommend this book if you're interested in people and family relationships but not if you're expecting a lot of action.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Last Rain by Edeet Ravel

I actually hated this book.  In fact I only finished it because I kept hoping it would get better.  The style was choppy - mostly written from the perspective of a 6 year old girl living on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s - but interspersed with descriptions of the founding of the kibbutz by her parents and others in the 1940s, fictional entries in a baby book kept by her mother when she was born, a diary of a kibbutznik in the 1920s and other random newspaper accounts and musings.  On top of that there were extensive footnotes (some of the footnotes had footnotes).  It made it difficult to read, and even harder to follow the story but that may be just because for all the storylines nothing really happened.  It was also a sad, if realistic, commentary on life in a socialist commune - children raised by others (some of them not so kind to say the least), the Lord of the Flies result when children are housed together and have limited access to their parents, endless meetings about trivial matters which are never resolved since by definition no one can be in charge, etc.  Maybe that would have made an interesting short magazine piece but I wouldn't bother reading this book.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

The first book of my new book club season was enjoyable though a little unusual.  First of all, it's a self described novel but I think it's better described as a series of inter-related short stories.  In fact, I found it less frustrating once I started viewing it this way as I no longer felt the need to turn back and remind myself who every character mentioned was.  It didn't usually matter.
The book is about a fictional housing community in Ahmedabad, India.  It is based on actual anti-Muslim riots which occurred in that city in 2002, following which many Jews left the old city where they'd lived for generations around the synagogue for fear of being confused with Muslims (apparently the Hindus used circumcision to identify their Muslim foes).  In the novel, many move to the Shalom India Housing Society which was intended to house only Jews but when only enough Jews could be found to fill Building A, Building B units were sold to other minorities like Christians and Parsis.
The book starts with a mythical (and somewhat humorous) chapter where Elijah the Prophet descends to earth on the eve of Passover and checks what each member of the Housing Society has left for him in the wine glass they've set aside for his visit.  This is our first introduction to the numerous characters. Apparently Elijah plays a special role in the Judaism of the Bene Israel Jews of India - unlike other Jews, they pray to him for special protection and blessings.
Each subsequent chapter delves further into the lives of someone in the building and is written from their perspective.  The characters face many issues - barrenness and unwanted pregnancy, intermarriage with both Hindus and Muslims, extra-marital affairs, interfering in-laws and the pull of the land of Israel.
The author provides insight into a lesser known Jewish community and creates interesting, sympathetic characters.  Unfortunately there are far too many of them which sometimes gets confusing and a little tedious.  But nonetheless I found it worth working my way through.  As an aside, there is an interesting afterward by an Indian Jew of Baghdadi origin which provides historical context about the handful of Jewish communities in India.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal

I just stumbled upon this book when I was browsing and I'm glad I did.  It was a really fun and easy read.  In the acknowledgments the author says her goal is to write books that read like a Bollywood film, and I think she's accomplished this goal nicely.
This one tells the story of Meena, the 31 year old daughter of immigrants to New Jersey from India whose somewhat conservative parents and aunts think she's running out of time to marry.  She is working in a relatively new job as a PR person for a software company owned by two Indian men and where about 80 percent of the workforce is also from India (many of them young men on temporary work visas who express interest in Meena but she has no interest in marrying someone to provide him with a green card).
About 8 months into her job she first meets one of the co-owners, Prajay, who is usually based out of Virginia.  And she meets him in grand style - as the barely five foot, 85 pound Meena quickly exits an elevator, she's literally bowled over by the 6 foot 8 Prajay resulting in a severely sprained ankle.  His care for her after the accident makes her fall in love with him.  But just as she thinks something might happen, he hires her as a personal consultant - to help him find a tall bride through personal adds.  That doesn't mean her family and co-workers don't suspect something else is going on.
Most of the book deals with Meena's unreturned love, Prajay's ignorance of her feelings and Meena's disastrous efforts to find other men instead.  But, in true Bollywood style, the story reaches a predictable yet happy ending.
Bantwal's writing is fluid, humorous and engaging.   I'm definitely going to seek out her other books.