Archive for December, 2007

How does an author make us feel connected to a narrator who has Asperger’s Syndrome–who can’t understand others’ emotions, who can’t deal with anything out of his ordinary routine, who, as a part of his compulsive behavior, will eat red food, but hates the colors yellow and brown, and finally, who screams when touched?


It happens in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old English boy who finds his neighbor’s dog dead, stabbed through with a pitch fork. As he loves to solve puzzles and has incredible powers of recall, Christopher decides to use the methods of his hero, Sherlock Holmes, to solve the murder mystery. His wonderful teacher suggests that he write a book. Without understanding what he is doing, Christopher uncovers family secrets and emotional turmoil as well. He must be brave as well as analytical. 


Reading this book is very similar to reading about a culture different from your own. It will result in compassion and a better understanding of people who are ‘different’ from you. (Maybe you could get your English teacher to agree to let you read this as a ‘multicultural’ book!) You will sympathize with Christopher’s parents, who love him, but must not touch him, except in a fingertip ritual that lets him know they care. The narrator’s love of numbers is simple fun for those of us ‘math-anxiety’ folks (the chapter headings are prime numbers only). For people who love math, there is an appendix of math problems. The novel is an interesting use of point-of-view and its author, Mark Haddon, has done a great job of using a narrator who, while he can’t achieve emotional insights himself, leads the reader to them.

December 4, 2007

Life of Pi

Here’s another story that begins in India, but marches to a very different drummer. The main character, ‘Pi’ Patel is named after a swimming pool in Paris. His father, a zoo keeper, decides to immigrate to Canada, and sells the animals. Most of these stay in India, but a few are destined to cross the ocean and live in distant zoos. During the Pacific crossing, the ship capsizes and Pi is thrown overboard into a 26-foot-long lifeboat. Though his family all die, Pi finds himself floating with Richard Parker—a 450 pound Bengali tiger from his father’s zoo—as well as a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. The most rudimentary knowledge of the animal kingdom will tell you which of the animals survives. But Pi tells the reader that this is a story with a happy ending, so the reader wonders–how will Pi survive with Richard Parker onboard?


Pi does survive with the tiger—for 227 days. And, yes, the journey is an epic one. Pi uses all his knowledge of the animal kingdom as he realizes that the tiger’s survival is necessary to his own. He expounds on faith and his understanding of Christianity and Islam as well as his native Hinduism. He makes an argument for the environmental value of zoos. Both his ill-fated meeting with another castaway and his salvation on a mystical island may be unbelievable, but who cares? The story is so weird and intriguing on so many levels, that the reader will follow Pi’s faith in the universe anywhere it takes him.

Add comment December 4, 2007

This book of short stories concerns Indians who are new to the United States or are first-generation Americans. They deal with their sense of foreignness while coping with the problems that people endure all over the world—infidelity, betrayal, loss of cultural roots, stillborn babies and more. A good choice when the teacher asks you to read a “multicultural book,” this collection of short works is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

December 4, 2007

Here we have another good book about India and the residual effects of colonialism. The novel is set Kalimpong, a Himalayan town that is on the border with Nepal. It’s the mid-1980s and a judge, who had been educated in Cambridge (that’s England, not Massachusetts) at the time when India was struggling for its independence, retires to a dilapidated (though once grand) house in the hope of cutting himself off from the outside world. But the outside world enters, both in the form of his orphaned granddaughter and in the Nepalese movement for an independent state. Jemubhai Popatal reflects on his upbringing and education, and his Anglo-centrism, which has distorted his life. The current political situation endangers Popatal and wrecks his granddaughter’s romance with her Nepalese tutor. In the meanwhile, the cook’s son, Biju, has fled to the United States in search of a better life; but he is an illegal alien in New York, and his life there is a continued struggle. 


The novel alternates between life in Kalimpong and Biju’s life in New York. Loss of cultural roots is a theme we see in many of our “multicultural” choices for outside reading, and it is beautifully explored in Inheritance of Loss, both through the Anglo-centric judge who returns to India after being educated in England and for Biju, lost in New York. The author, Kiran Desai, takes on the big question of whether anyone can ever “go home again,” and her answer is worth the reader’s journey.

December 4, 2007

I sometimes read in cycles and right now, I’m interested in books that deal with cultures that I think of as ‘eastern’ as opposed to ‘western.’ In seeking these books, I’ve found several enjoyable novels (as well as solid works of fiction) that have Indian or Indian-America characters. The Namesake is the story of the Ganguli family. In the mid-1960s, after an arranged marriage, Ashoke and Ashima leave Calcutta to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ashoke is a doctoral student at MIT and will become a professor. When the couple’s first child is born, they don’t know what to name him. They await a letter from Ashima’s grandmother which will assign the name, but it never arrives. Needing a name for the birth certificate, the parents christen the child Gogol, a pet name (one supposed to be used by family members only) that his father chooses.


Gogol is named after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol because Ashoke believes that reading the story “The Overcoat” by this favorite author, saved him when he was in a train wreck and most of the passengers died. However, until he goes to college, Gogol doesn’t know why he is so named. He only knows that he hates the strange name. It comes to represent the burden of being the son of immigrant parents who are holding on to their traditional ways, who associate with other ex-patriot Bengalis, and who visit Calcutta as often as possible, weeping when they must leave their extended families.


The Namesake artfully details the difficulties of the immigrant experience as well as those of the first American-born generation. As Gogol (who legally changes his name to Nikhil) becomes a man, he tries to leave his Indian past. For a time, he has a wealthy girlfriend from Manhattan whose family and life seem to be ideally American (although in reality, most Americans wouldn’t recognized the cultural milieu that includes fine dining, foreign films and awareness of artistic movements). Though there are times when the book moves in fits and starts, the progress is always forward and plot structure shouldn’t confuse students. (I mention this because some of the books I’ve recommended move back and forth through time and have really confused the people I thought would like them most!) This is a good story about self-acceptance that any reader could relate to.

December 4, 2007


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