Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki – Book

Roopa Farooki, in Bitter Sweets, writes about an Indian/Pakistani family living between two worlds –one foot in the traditions of the old world – one foot in the modern world of air travel and non-traditional relationships. The traditions explored here are those surrounding marriage.
Henna is from a family with ambitions to marry up. Henna’s gifts are beauty and youth (she is only 13) and the ambition to be a Bollywood star. It’s her ambition that makes her go along with her father’s plan to marry her to Ricky/Rashid Karim, an English-educated son of a well-to-do Pakistani family. Rashid realizes he has been duped on his wedding night but he stays with the marriage and waits until Henna is old enough to have a sexual relationship. They have one child, Shona.
Shona marries Parvez Khan and they go to live in her father’s beloved England. Shona, in this one way her mother’s daughter, keeps a secret of her own throughout her marriage. In the end everyone’s secrets are revealed and disaster almost results from all these secrets. It escapes being a “French hotel” type of comedy because the characters seem so real and we care about what happens to them.
I just love India (and apparently Pakistani) books and this was no exception. It is not because they all tell the same story, because they don’t. There is just something about the culture that is so recognizable and yet foreign at the same time, and then there is often a certain light-heartedness even in the face of some pretty awful events, which tells us a lot about the spirit of the people.
Although there have been a number of books from the Indian culture with the words bitter and sweet in the title, this title is quite appropriate because Shona and her husband live above a sweets shop in the early days of their marriage.
The only way you will know if you enjoy books by Indian (and Pakistani) authors is to read a few. One of my blogs from 2010 includes a list of books from India.
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Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Billy Clegg – Book

Billy Clegg’s Memoir, Portrait of an Addict As A Young Man is classified as nonfiction. If you read the book you will see that Billy Clegg is very lucky to be alive. He takes us into the world of his addiction to crack cocaine and we spiral down, down, down with him.
Crack cocaine combined with vodka becomes Billy’s invitation to both heaven and hell. He flirts with his addiction at first. He is in a committed relationship, he owns his own successful publishing agency, he lives on Fifth Avenue and wears designer clothes. Perhaps fear of success is at work here and certain childhood issues are explored. But in the end we go with Billy on the toot to end all toots and we stay in lovely hotel rooms which are only safe harbors for smoking, drinking and sex (not with his partner). We spend $70,000 on drugs, hotel rooms and vodka. We live in a weird world of cryptic cab drivers and possible DEA cops who Billy describes as the JC Penneys but who seem a bit like the Smiths in Matrix.
We stand by as Billy trashes everything in his life that should have value for a high that requires more and more frequent drug use and ever increasing quantities of drugs and alcohol. It seems as it his excesses of paranoia are really wishes for rescue, but, of course, he protects his outlaw state zealously and will accept help from no one, until the money is gone and he is at the edge of death.
Things turn out well for Billy Clegg, although we realize he is really fortunate that the people who were in his life before he ruined it really loved him. This book takes you along to somewhere you don’t ever really want to go. After the excesses of his addiction it will be very difficult to believe that any kind of salvageable life emerged from this heart-wrenching experience, and, although in this case it did, I don’t think you’ll have any desire to become a crack addict. If you do get help, please.

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Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay – Book

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is another Holocaust book. It is always difficult to read about the Holocaust, but every book I have ever read on the subject has been profound and thought-provoking. Sarah’s Key is no exception, in fact this story has been made as a film which is due to come to theaters soon.
We keep learning new things about the Holocaust and this time we learn about a particular and typically horrifying event in Paris after the occupation by the Germans. The Germans ordered the French to round up all the Jews in Paris. They were most interested in the Jewish men and Parisian Jews knew this. They started sending their men into hiding.  So on July 16, 1942 when the French policemen went to “round up” the Jews they found mostly women and children, although many men were captured and some of the men joined their families as soon as they heard about the arrests. These Jewish people where held in the Velodrome d’Hiver, 10,000 of them, for several days without food, water or any sanitation before they were bused to trains which took them to temporary concentration camps on the outskirts of Paris. The French separated the mothers and the children (4,000 French Jewish children) (even the toddlers and babies) and held them alone in the camps outside Paris with only the older children to care for the younger ones. The parents were sent to Auschwitz and gassed. The children who didn’t die were eventually also sent on the Auschwitz where they were also gassed. What happened to the adults was bad enough, but what happened to the children is unimaginable. The Velodrome was demolished in 1958 but there is an historical marker at the site.
As with many good novels, Sarah’s Key is a fiction story based on facts. The story begins in modern France when an American journalist is assigned by an ex-pat periodical to cover the 60th Anniversary of the events at the “Vel d’Hiv”. Her husband is French and, as she pursues the story, she discovers a connection between her husband’s family and Sarah’s family which sends seismic waves through her family and Sarah’s family. I cannot tell you where the key comes in because it would be a spoiler. The book is well worth reading and you can find out for yourself, or go see the movie.
Here is part of what President Jacques Chirac said in this 1995 address:
“These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was supported by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demand of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning and assembled at police stations.  . . . France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”
We always have to ask ourselves what we would have done. Would we have been any braver, and stronger against such a demented foe?  I don’t believe we should smugly assume that we would have done any better. Maybe these examples of man’s failures of courage will help us all do better in the future.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford – Book

This is Jamie Ford’s first novel. Jamie Ford does not sound like a Chinese name, but Jamie’s ancestor came to the West Coast of America from China. His great-grandfather adopted the name Ford because he wanted to embrace his new country. This book is inspired by real events. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is called the Panama Hotel, which has a prominent place in the title and in the story, and which is a real place in Seattle, Washington.
The story swings back and forth between 1986 and the years of World War II which immediately followed the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Henry Lee tells the story, both as an old man and a boy of twelve. He befriends and is befriended by a Japanese girl his age named Keiko Okabe. Keiko’s family is rounded up with all of the other Japanese families living in Seattle and all along the West Coast of the United States to be sent to internment camps so that America will not have to worry about Japanese spies during the war years. I sincerely doubt that any of these people were spies but we will never know that.
Henry misses Keiko terribly and he visits her several times at the camps. In fact he decides he is in love with her. Henry and Keiko have some other friends, two African American jazz players named Sheldon Thomas and Oscar Holden who also have a place in their young romance.
Although this is not the best book I have ever read on this subject, with the honors going perhaps to Snow Falling On Cedars, the book does  point out the familial culture shock between first generation and second generation immigrants. The book also deals with the issues of diversity in America, although set in the 1940’s instead of the present. A lot of Chinese and Japanese books written about immigration include bitter and sweet in the title and stress what was lost and what was gained by coming to America.
Henry has enough character that we care about what happens to him and we get somewhat caught up in his romance with Keiko, although there is a twist here that I won’t tell you about. In the basement of the Panama Hotel, both in the book and in real life, the belongings of thirty seven Japanese families were found after the war when someone bought the hotel. Today some of these items can be viewed in the refurbished Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – Book

Sometimes, when everyone tells me a book is great, perversely I put off reading it. This book was on every list and was recommended by friends who also love to read and I did put it off, but that was a good thing because I got to enjoy it this summer. And you know what, they were all right – this is a wonderful story.

I don’t know if any part of this particular story is true but it could be. It is the story of an American family – Dennis (Denny), employed by a BMW parts store in Seattle but also a race car driver and a driving teacher, his wife Eve, their daughter Zoe and Enzo their dog (the star of the book). Enzo tells his family’s story and he is an excellent narrator, always loyal to his family and honest about his faults and theirs. We get the impression (I wonder how) that he is on the last stage of his reincarnation from dog to man. He knows that after he dies he will come back as a male person with a voice and opposable thumbs. I think he‘s ready.

Enzo starts many of the chapters in this book by quoting his master’s rules for the “art of racing.” Denny is particularly good at racing in the rain which not every driver is. How do you drive in the rain? “Very gently. Like there are eggshells on your pedals,” Denny always says, “and you don’t want to break them. That’s how you drive in the rain.”

Denny has so much sorrow suddenly piled into the middle of his life that we would not fault him if he just gave up. He does make mistakes, a couple of doozies, but in the crunch, at the last lap, when the flag is ready to fall, he pulls out a win.

“Ideally, a driver is a master of all that is around him, Denny says. Ideally a driver controls the car so completely that he corrects a spin before it happens, he anticipates all possibilities. But we don’t live in an ideal world. In our world, surprises sometimes happen, mistakes happen, incidents with other drivers happen, and a driver must react.”

“When a driver reacts, Denny says, it’s important to remember that a car is only as good as its tires. If the tires lose traction nothing else matters. Horsepower, torque, braking, all is moot when a skid is initiated. Until speed is scrubbed by good, old-fashioned friction and the tires regain traction the driver is at the mercy of momentum. And momentum is a powerful force of nature.”

So now I will add my voice to those who say this is a very human book told by a very sweet dog and that you too will be a winner if you read it.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – Book

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, is a little gem. It is like an exquisite foreign film or a little jewel of a painting. It is weak on story, strong on character, intellect, and philosophy.

We have Madame Renee Michel, a concierge at what we would call an exclusive apartment building,  but  which in Paris is called an hotel particuleur.  (There are accents marks scattered all over these French words, but I don’t know how to type them in Word). Renee is 54 years old and has been hiding out for 27 years. She committed no crime. She is hiding her intelligence and her personality because she feels they are at odds with her “position” in life, which is probably true.
Our other focus is Paloma Rosen, 12 years old, going on 13, also very intelligent. She finds the lives of those around her stilted, boring, and meaningless. She plans to commit suicide when she is 13. Since she loves all things Japanese, like manga (comic books) and haiku, she contemplates seppuku, but decides it is too messy and starts hoarding pills from her mother’s collection.
There are eight apartments in this building occupied by rich families, but we have difficulty telling them apart except for a few standouts like Olympe Saint-Nice who wants to be a veterinarian and the wonderful Manuela Lopes, a cleaning lady and a master baker, who has been Renee’s only friend.
A tenant dies, one of Renee’s least favorite, an arrogant, snooty food critic.
His place is taken by someone who changes the order of things. All of the hidden, unappreciated people (like Renee, Paloma and Manuela) become the ones the new owner finds most intriguing. This Japanese (yes, Japanese) gentleman sees right past the normal hierarchy and pulls the lovely wallflowers out of hiding. Ironic — and satisfying.
Is there more to life than the plodding ingestion of tasks, duty, social obligations and cultural rules? That is the point of this story.
When I read the ending I involuntarily called the author the “b-word”. But, upon calmer reflection, I guess the book couldn’t end any other way (although I can think of a much more hopeful ending, I don’t think it would have fulfilled the author’s idea of “the camellia on the moss” or the value of life’s beautiful transformative moments.)
Read the book, it’s the only way you’ll see who you agree with. If you don’t like little foreign film masterpieces, the book might not be your “cup of tea”.
And, if you think I have covered everything, you will find that I have barely scratched the surface. There is so much more.