Book Review – Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Secret Daughter (William Morrow, 2010) is a book about adoption, cross-cultural marriage, and familial rifts. The “daughter” of the title is Asha, a baby girl born into an India where high dowry prices mean daughters are undesirable. Her father wishes to get rid of the baby girl, as he did with the daughter born previously. Instead, pretending the infant has died, her mother takes her to an orphanage in Mumbai.

The first part of the novel tells this story, juxtaposed against the story of Somer Whitman, a young American doctor, recently married to Krishnan Thakkar, a young Indian man, also a doctor and a recent immigrant to the United States. After a series of miscarriages, Somer learns she cannot bear children. You see where this is going, right?

As Kavita, Asha’s biological mother, mourns the loss of the daughter everyone else thinks is dead, her husband, Jasu, moves their family from their village to the slums of Mumbai. Meanwhile, Somer and Krishnan travel to India and adopt Asha, who is now a year old. Somer’s dislike and discomfort of India become abundantly clear as she struggles to learn how to be a mother while surrounded by her Indian in-laws.

I enjoyed this first part, the back and forth nature of these two mothers who both love Asha fiercely. Somer’s fears and discomfort in India and with her husband’s family seemed realistic and were dealt with gently as she also saw the advantages to raising a baby in the midst of a large family.

The pace of the novel accelerates and Asha’s childhood passes quickly. Kavita and Jasu struggle to move from life in the slums while they raise their long-desired song, Vijay. Somer and her family move to the suburbs where she struggles with the fact that she is the odd one out in her own nuclear family. It was astounding to me that anyone, even in a novel, could marry into and then adopt a child from, a culture and yet be so wilfully ignorant of it. We see over and over again how little interest Somer has in India or its culture but the reason behind that is never explored or explained. I do comprehend the fear that Somer would have, that if she fails as a parent, her daughter has another family she can go look for. But Somer is also married to an Indian man. As we witness arguments between Somer and a teenage Asha it’s easy to be sympathetic to Asha because she seems to be deliberately kept from her own culture. Krishnan becomes a weak and shadowy figure in these scenes and it is never explained why he accepts this situation.

The real problem of the novel though becomes clear in these arguments and that is that Secret Daughter is not a well-written novel. The characters are one-dimensional and speak in cliches, especially Asha. Somer is an overprotective mother. Krishnan works too much. Asha doesn’t know where she comes from. None of the characters lift behind these simple statements and become real people.

Asha reaches university and heads to India by herself, her first time returning to her country of birth. From here, you can guess what happens. Most of the rest of the novel falls into the category of “Asha gets in touch with her Indian roots.” She also, of course, is a brilliant journalism student doing a report on the Mumbai slums. (Gowda seems to think Asha asking a cute boy where he goes to school demonstrates her keen journalistic abilities.) At first Asha is shocked by the slums but in the end manages to put together a heart-warming article about mothers.

Look, I’ve never been to India so I don’t know what those slums are like. But I have been to slums. I’ve been to a garbage dump in Guatemala City that spreads as far as you can see in every direction. It’s full of people who somehow live there, amidst the waste of a society. The smell is unbelievable. Vultures circle overhead constantly. Children run barefoot over ground you wouldn’t want to walk on with boots. They have fleas and ticks and the people scavenge through filth to make a meager living. It’s a horrible place and it’s horrible that people live there. There’s nothing heartwarming about it. Yes, people are people and there are beautiful actions even in such places but when I read articles about the strength of the human spirit or the triumph of a mother’s love in such hells on Earth, I wonder if that’s just a way to make us, in developed nations, feel better. A way to assuage our first world guilt and say, “Look, it’s okay that those people have nothing and live in dehumanizing conditions. At least they have their mother’s love.” I was disappointed that the novel went that route and used the slums, which really exist, as a plot point to make Asha’s character look sensitive. For me, it only made her look ignorant and unlikeable.

Predictably, Asha decides to look for her birth parents. Again, her ignorance astounds as she is heartbroken to discover that her parents had a son after her that they kept. Really? I thought it was pretty common knowledge that there are more girls than boys available for adoption from countries like India and I thought most people knew the reason behind it. For someone who seems to have spent her adolescence complaining that she doesn’t know who she is, Asha certainly hasn’t done anything to educate herself. Even the laziest Google research you could do would have told Asha why she was a girl adopted from India. This also makes her seem like a shoddy journalist.

The novel ends about how you would expect. The happiest ending is reserved for Asha and her American family. Her biological Indian parents continue to struggle on but are supposed to be okay with it because at least Asha has a good life. Indomitability of the human spirit, right?

Want to read a strong, well-written book about India? Try A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

Whirlwind Weekend

If last weekend was quiet and reflective, this weekend was loud, busy, and fast.

Friday was a blur of work to ferry to Skytrain to…

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25,000 people packed into Holland Park in Surrey to see Mumford & Sons. It was pretty fun to be one of them. (I’d like to point out that 25,000 is almost the number of people who live on the Sunshine Coast.)

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As the sun set behind the stage, a full moon rose at the backs of the crowd. It was a beautiful night for an outdoor concert and Mumford & Sons did not disappoint.

The next morning was an early start back to the Coast. With, happily, time for a breakfast stop in Gibsons before I headed off to work.

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I like that you can see the reflection of Peter’s shirt in that picture.

Sunday night we finally relaxed and watched from our living room as the highest tide of the year came in.

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And then, sleep. Oh, beautiful sleep!

Sunday Paths

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Quiet long weekend around here. Peter was out of town. Fortunately, I had a small, furry friend to keep me company.

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While we might not be grown-up enough to have our own dog yet, we are happy to dog-sit for friends.

Sunday morning, with the dog, I finally took to the woods nearby and explored the trails. About ten minutes from our house there are kilometres of hiking and mountain biking trails, a labyrinth through the woods.

It’s rare for me to miss church without a reason like illness or travel but I did this week. I felt the need to be outside, to be quiet, to be alone. It was good. It was what I needed.

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I attached my trusty bear bell to the dog and we headed out. It was a cool, sunny day and we never saw a single other person. Exactly what I wanted.

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Nothing makes me feel small like a forest. Small, not in an insignificant manner, but in perspective. Staring up at the tree branches far above my head, I am reminded once more that my life is a moment in the world. I will live and die and the world continues.

And yet, my life has value. The woods and the trees and the ferns and the wildflowers are beautiful and precious to walk amongst but I am loved by the God who created them. Better than that, I am created in His image and He loves me. More than I know, really.

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Thinking of all this, I came across that strange Coast phenomenon known as “forest cars”. That’s when, for whatever reason, someone drives their car into the forest and abandons it.

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Peter insists it’s just a thing people do but I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

It’s always strange to come across one. The solid machinery of a car steadily rusted and eroded as the natural world takes it back.

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There’s something post-apocalyptic about it, as if the world has ended and the vestiges of human kind are slowly disappearing. As I peered in through what was once the driver’s window, I heard the steady drum of a woodpecker over head.

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Further along the path, I found this sign:

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This seemed helpful but unnecessary. What if the woodpecker moves to a different area? Not until I saw the next sign did I remember.

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Like I said, the forest here is filled with trails. I knew that and I’d seen a map covered in their odd and whimsical names but I didn’t expect them to be so well marked. They were.

Following a few signs, I found a looping path back to my own front door.

And that was Sunday.

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A Message to B.C. Voters

Do you like to complain about politics? Do you like to talk about the lies and disappointments brought on by our politicians? Do you live in British Columbia? Then you need to vote today. (If you are allowed to do so, obviously.)

If you vote, you can complain about how the winning party – who you didn’t vote for – isn’t doing a good job for the next few years.

If you vote, you can complain about how the winning party – who you did vote for – isn’t living up to their promises over the next few years.

If you don’t vote, you are throwing away your voice. An election is a legitimate time to make your opinions heard. At a party eight months later, saying, “I don’t vote because, blah, blah, blah, it’s hard.” Not legitimate and I will have no sympathy for you.

In all seriousness, those in my age demographic don’t vote enough and I don’t know why. I think many people take the ability to vote for granted and that is a grave mistake.

Follow the news for a few weeks. Over and over through history, including right this minute, people have fought and died for the right to drop that ballot in a box. Some of those people fought so that you can have that right. I am reminded of this even more as a woman because my right to vote does not date back as far as a man’s. Because I am a woman. I can vote today because women before me fought long and hard for that privilege. I choose to respect their sacrifices by using that privilege. This site has a great timeline of when various rights were achieved in Canada. Some of them are shockingly recent.

No, our system isn’t perfect and democracy doesn’t always work the way it should. But you know how you change and better things? You get involved in them. Today is your chance.

Any information you need to know about voting in today’s election can be found here, at the Elections B.C. website. If you aren’t a registered voter yet, go to the website, find out where your electoral station is and register to vote on the spot.

Side note: a common problem I heard about when I was in university was young people becoming disenfranchised. They would live in one city, going to school, but have a permanent address elsewhere. That made it difficult to vote in the place they actually lived and sometimes it was difficult to prove that they lived in their university town. If this describes your situation, find a friend, classmate, roommate, anybody who is already a registered voter. They are allowed to vouch for you at the station and you will be able to vote. I’ve done this for someone before and it’s super easy. There are no excuses.

Unless you’re a citizen of another country. Then, please carry on and enjoy your Tuesday.

Why I Hate “Beach Reads”

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A day off and a sunny afternoon. Sitting on my deck, plus 20 degree weather, a yummy berry smoothie. It occurred to me that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ News of a Kidnapping was kind of a dark read on such a beautiful day. Not that anyone should be surprised that a true story of kidnappings in Colombia might be depressing. That’s right up there with true facts of truth like if your name is the title of a Shakespearean tragedy, you’re going to die before the end of the play.

So I had this thought and I went back to reading. Because, yes, it was my day off but, no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to compromise my reading.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that life is too short to read bad books. Seeing as “bad” is a relative term when it comes to reading material, here’s my definition:

1. A poorly written book. It’s predictable. The language is repetitive. The plot is weak.

2. A book that tries to provoke you. Many amazing books make you think. They might challenge your assumptions or force you to view history from a new perspective (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe or All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque are examples that spring to my mind.) This is a good thing. My issue is books that are obviously trying to provoke you through their language, characters, and actions. It all seems to be the author saying, “Aren’t I daring? Aren’t you shocked?” (Read this book review to see more of what I mean.)

3.¬†A book that doesn’t challenge you. This might seem to be the opposite of my last point but I think a book that challenges you without provoking you is the mark of a good book. Crime and Punishment¬†is a classic example. Or try The Poisonwood Bible for a more modern read.

4. A book that’s about nothing. Obviously, a book is always about something. Even a picture book is about something. But is there substance? This is my problem with romance novels. What is the message? I think as Christians, we especially need to ask ourselves what are we reading. Many romance novels (to continue with that example) are basically pornography for women. And the so-called “Christian” versions aren’t exempt simply because they lack sex scenes.

Here’s my bottom line when it comes to reading: A good book makes your life better. It leaves you happier or smarter or more curious.

So why on earth have we decided that going on vacation is a time to read trash? I think this comes from the mistaken idea that a “good” book is a hard book to read. (See: War and Peace) Sometimes that’s true (See: War and Peace),¬†often times it’s not.

Starting in high school I would take difficult books along on vacation. This isn’t because I was such a brilliant kid, it was simply because I knew space was limited in my bag and a book that was harder to read would take me longer and thus, perhaps, last the whole trip. This is how I came to read Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, and, yes, Crime and Punishment. My last tropical vacation found me reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on an island in the Philippines. Not exactly a “beach read” but so much better.

The sun’s coming out, summer vacations are being planned. Let’s make this our best-read summer ever!

I took a look at my shelves to pick the books I would recommend for a solid vacation read:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

2. Theft by Peter Carey

3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Read my book review here.)

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

8. Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

9. Lost Horizon by James Hilton

10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

11. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

12. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

13. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

14. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

This is far from a complete list since it’s limited to books I already own. What would you add? What’s your favourite non-trashy vacation read?

Book Review – The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Primarily, when I think of G. K. Chesterton, I think of Orthodoxy. Then I remember that he also wrote the Father Brown mystery stories. After reading The Man Who Was Thursday I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Chesterton in the non-fiction world far more than I do in the fictive. This is unusual for me because I can love the writings of authors like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound while not agreeing with their real lives in the least.

I loved Orthodoxy. So I suppose I expected The Man Who Was Thursday to be a fiction that expressed similar sentiments. It is not.

It’s an old-fashioned story, from the style of writing to the action that occurs to the morality represented by various characters (particularly when it comes to the matter of keeping one’s “word”). This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, given its publication date of 1908.

Chesterton is a strong writer and, like all of his work I’ve read so far, The Man Who Was Thursday, contains some brilliant lines. Take this description, for example, of when a character discovers that he is not as alone as he thought he was:

“But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.”

This is a surreal novel. It’s set in London (and a little bit in France) and yet at the same time not set in our world at all. It becomes increasingly strange as the plot moves along. Many of the developments seem obvious, which surprised me coming from a decent mystery writer like Chesterton. I honestly couldn’t say whether or not that was intentional on his part.

Ultimately though, it was the ending that left a bad taste in my mouth. The primary action of the novel revolves around the mysterious authority of a man known as Sunday, the president of the Council of Anarchists. Sunday is described in vastly differing ways by the men who follow and chase him, each of whom holds him in a kind of horror. He is almost the exact definition of a “larger than life” character.

The conclusion doesn’t provide all the answers (nor would I ask it to because, in fact, the book is perhaps better as a philosophical exploration than an actual novel) but the answers it does give as to Sunday’s identity were repugnant to me. And surprising coming from the author of Orthodoxy. I found it less surprising that Chesterton said, of The Man Who Was Thursday,

“The book was called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare*. It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.”

(*My copy of the book did not have this subtitle.)

I enjoyed the steady rate of revelation in the novel and the description action, as well as the individual characters, the members of the Anarchists’ Council. From early on I wanted to know the conclusion that might solve the presnted mystery and I found the book easy to read for that reason.

I’m not sure of the wisdom of writing a book with a moral conclusion on the world (and on theology too) that the author himself doesn’t seem to quite agree with but if that it was what Chesterton aimed to do, then he made a decent job of it.

 

The Magic of Sunshine

If you live somewhere along the West Coast of North America right now, I’m willing to bet your favourite form of social media is full of happy statements. Mine is, at least, and it’s due quite wholly to the amazing weather we had this weekend/are still having right this minute. Sunshine can make a pretty big difference in everybody’s mood. It definitely elevated mine and made for a really nice weekend.

Friday

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A hot dog roast on the beach in front of our house. I love being able to run “upstairs” when we’ve forgotten something but also simply enjoying the waterfront, keeping our beers cold in the shallow waters.

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Followed by a walk along our beach.

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Sandy beach it is not. Every footstep is a crunch of shells and barnacles.

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Sunset and a heron.

Saturday

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The babies are coming out. We can all agree that if any of us had a pet baby goose we’d call it Ryan, right?

Pre-dinner row/attempted picnic.

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I like this guy.

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We passed under the pier to get to the neighbouring bay.

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We found this quiet little beach recently.

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Someone’s got the right idea.

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I love, love, love Arbutus trees.

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Peter and I have been so blessed here on the Coast. Someone at our church heard that we would love to have a little boat while we live on the water and so they brought over this rowboat.

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Sunday

Sunday was First Shorts Day of 2013. A perfect day for an afternoon sail.

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I didn’t take that many pictures on the boat because, well, we were sailing. It was splendid.

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Sunday was also a puppy visiting day.

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More on her soon!