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Posts Tagged ‘families’

sept 11 memorial reflection

Periodically, I get to interview authors for Shelf Awareness (best freelance gig in the world, no question). Earlier this spring, I spoke to NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani about her memoir, Here We Are. It comes out next week, so I wanted to share part of our conversation with you. Here are some excerpts from my review:

On the surface, Aarti Shahani’s parents had a classic immigrant narrative: hungry for more job opportunities and education for their children, they came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They lived in a vibrant, diverse community in Queens, where Aarti’s mother became a community activist. Her father and uncle ran a small electronics shop in midtown Manhattan. But the reality–from start to finish–is much more complicated.

The Shahanis came to the U.S. from their native India (via Morocco) to escape a dysfunctional family dynamic. Their apartment building in Flushing was crowded and cockroach-infested. And when Aarti’s father and uncle were accused of selling electronics to a notorious Colombian drug cartel, their whole family spent years tangled in the U.S. legal system. Both men served time at the notorious Rikers Island prison; Aarti’s uncle Ratan was eventually deported, never to be allowed to return.

Shahani pulls no punches in detailing the government’s treatment of immigrants accused or convicted of even minor crimes, particularly those with a green card as well as those with non-permanent immigration status. She details the hopelessness of legal battles, the violence endemic to Rikers and other prisons, and the mixture of emotions when her father, Namdev, was finally released.

Here We Are is a searing exposé of the U.S. criminal justice system and its glaring flaws, and a love letter from an impetuous, outspoken daughter to her soft-spoken, hardworking father. It goes beyond the scripted immigrant narrative to highlight the Shahanis in their complicated humanity, and it makes an insistent case for readers to do the same. It is at once a statement from Aarti to her dad–we will keep fighting for you until the end–and a declaration by millions of immigrants: we are part of this country, and we are not going anywhere.

Clear-eyed and compulsively readable, shot through with compassion, humor and heart, Here We Are is a quintessential immigrant story and an urgent call for change.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation, which was rambling, thought-provoking and delightful:

KNG: The narrative of Here We Are has been central to your life and your family’s life. How did you decide to put it into a book?

AS: This book has been inside me for more than half my life. For many years, I chose not to write about it at all. I wanted to see: What does my life look like when I’m not being my parents’ daughter?

I also needed some space from the story to have perspective. And the more the most profound facts about my family’s life got buried, the more I wanted to dig them up. This happens to all of us: you run as fast as you can away from something, and the faster you run, the clearer the signs are that it’s always with you. I decided I didn’t want to run away from this story any more.

There are many parallels between your family’s story (set in the early 2000s) and the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. Can you talk about that?

There’s a shift in this country, which is my country, where according to some, people like us are not supposed to exist. We don’t have a place here. The shift toward closing borders and attacking the foreigner has been steady and incremental over the years. The things you see now are shocking and terrible, but I can’t say they’re surprising. The continuity–the things I see on the news today–remind me of what my family went through.

The last couple of years in the U.S. remind me a lot of post-9/11 America: the willingness to pounce on “the foreigner.” We forget that there was real political alignment on this issue after 9/11. The sense that we were responding to a national security threat made a lot of people blind. But this country has a long history of being open to outsiders. That needs to be resuscitated immediately, and I think immigrants have to take the lead on it.

You talk frankly about the challenges of navigating the immigration system, both in the courtroom and at home.

Yes. That’s part of wanting to document my family’s story: there are some very uncomfortable facts in it. I think it’s important for people to know the corners that were cut, the things that had to happen, for us to make it in this country. We need to think about that as we continue to debate immigration issues. If your bar to entry for this country is perfection, no one gets in. I think I’m quite honest about who we are. I hope that makes it okay for immigrants to not have to be perfect, and still get to be here.

There are moments of real warmth and humor amid the struggle.

Tragedy can be hilarious. Very funny things can happen when you’re living really painful moments. This is not a screed about America. This is a family story you’re going to relate to. We’re funny and weird, and we get on each other’s nerves, just like your family. I really wanted to give people an immigrant family that’s not role-playing for America. I’m showing you those scripted moments. But you also get to see behind the scenes.

I wrote this book to let people into my family. Some people would say that we’re not an American family. I would contend that we are, and this is the story of fighting to be that. It feels like a fruitful time to share my family’s story: I think more people are willing to listen.

You can check out the full review and interview at Shelf Awareness

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book culture shop interior nyc

(Photo of Book Culture in NYC)

The Last Word, Lisa Lutz
The Spellmans, a wacky family of PIs who love to spy on one another, are back for a sixth adventure. Isabel Spellman is struggling with her employees (read: parents) after her hostile takeover of the family business, while trying to solve a few cases and avoid her three-year-old tyrant of a niece. Fun to see the crew of familiar characters, but I didn’t love this book. Most of the characters were drifting, and I want Izzy to do some real growing up already.

Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Beth and Jennifer email each other constantly at work – even though they know their company’s security officer is reading their email. Lincoln, the security officer, reads their flagged messages and then finds himself falling in love with Beth, who doesn’t know he exists. How can he ever hope to meet her for real? A sweet, funny love story and a fun twist on You’ve Got Mail, with plenty of late ’90s/Y2K cultural references.

A Brief History of Montmaray, Michelle Cooper
Sophia, princess of Montmaray (a fictional sovereign island in the Bay of Biscay), receives a diary for her 16th birthday in 1936. She chronicles daily life with her oddball family on their windswept island, which takes a dark turn when two Nazi officers land on their shores. Sophie is naive and sometimes wishy-washy, but I liked her and her family enough to be interested in the sequel.

How to Be Alone, Tanya Davis, illus. Andrea Dorfman
A lovely print evocation of Davis’ video poem – a paean to the pleasures of solitude and a call to pay attention not just to oneself, but to the world. Whimsical, colorful watercolor illustrations add to the charm. (I feel guilty calling it a real book since it’s one poem, but I am reviewing it for Shelf Awareness! Out Oct. 8.)

The View from Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman
Since her husband died, Gwen has lived with her divorced sister, Margot, in the titular NYC penthouse while both of them figure out how to move on. They take in a cupcake-baking roommate, Anthony, and things get wacky when Margot’s white-collar-criminal ex (on parole for good behavior) moves in downstairs. A warm, witty novel about sisterhood, unexpected joy, and opening oneself to love again. My first Lipman book, and now I want to read her others.

When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman
Addie is a blog-friend, a voice of wisdom and grace in my Internet life. And her memoir – about her experience growing up in a particular evangelical subculture – is lovely. She acquires a lot of baggage (much of it related to boys and her own self-worth), rebels passionately against it, spirals downward and eventually begins to heal. So many of her experiences were also mine; I laughed and grimaced and welled up in recognition. Beautiful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 15).

Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers
A mystery set in Oxford, with a pair of detectives I love, equals perfection. When Harriet Vane, mystery writer and amateur sleuth, returns to her old Oxford college, a series of poison-pen letters and other pranks begin to disturb the community. She returns to track down the perpetrator, while working on a novel and trying to sort out her feelings for Lord Peter Wimsey, gentleman detective. Brilliantly plotted; full of erudite quotes, musings on love and the intellect, and descriptions of my favorite city. I read this nine years ago, during my first semester in Oxford, and returning to it (for my book club) was pure pleasure.

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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Mar 2013 019

Together Tea, Marjan Kamali
Darya, an Iranian immigrant to the U.S., loves mathematics so much that she makes spreadsheets and graphs for each of her daughter’s potential suitors. But Mina – 25, single, unhappy in business school and longing to become an artist – wants her mother to stop the matchmaking. When the two women travel back to Iran for the first time in 15 years, they gain a new perspective on their homeland, their adopted country, and each other. Light, funny and also moving – a wonderful mother-daughter story. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 21).

The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
An evocative, heartbreaking story of Tom, a WWI vet who becomes a lighthouse keeper, and takes his new bride Isabel to a posting off the western coast of Australia. After they lose their third baby, a boat washes up on shore with a dead man and a live baby girl in it. They bury the man and begin raising the child as their own. But Tom’s conscience plagues him: what about the baby’s mother? After four years, he makes a fateful decision. Beautifully written, but deeply sad.

Al Capone Does My Shirts, Gennifer Choldenko
It’s 1935 and Moose Flanagan, age 12, has just moved with his family to Alcatraz, where his father works as a prison guard. As if that weren’t enough, Moose has to adjust to a new school, watch out for his severely autistic sister Natalie, and steer clear of Piper, the warden’s bold, troublemaking daughter. I loved Moose’s honest (sometimes snarky) voice, and his deep affection for Natalie (though he gets frustrated with her at times, like any brother). A fascinating sliver of history in a highly unusual setting. I’ll be reading the sequel.

Espresso Tales, Alexander McCall Smith
The sequel to 44 Scotland Street, which I also enjoyed, takes us back to that building in Edinburgh and its quirky tenants. Pat is taking charge of her life; her widowed neighbor Domenica tries matchmaking with mixed results; and six-year-old Bertie and his father, Stuart, band together to stand up to Bertie’s overbearing mother, Irene. Meandering and whimsical; gently philosophical at times, gently absurdist at others. Fun.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne
Bruno, age nine, is not happy about his family’s sudden move from Berlin to a house in the middle of nowhere, next to a camp he knows only as “Out-With.” He’s bored at first, but goes exploring and meets the titular boy, Shmuel, who lives on the other side of a long wire fence. Bruno and Shmuel become friends, though Bruno has no idea what life is like on Shmuel’s side of the fence. A moving story, though I found Bruno overly naive at times.

Kissed a Sad Goodbye, Deborah Crombie
The sixth mystery featuring detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James finds them investigating a murder on London’s Isle of Dogs. Duncan is also trying to navigate his new relationship with Kit, the 11-year-old son he only recently met. Lots of personal issues; also some fascinating London history, with flashbacks to World War II, and a peek into the tea industry (the victim’s family owns a tea company).

Jane of Lantern Hill, L.M. Montgomery
I love Jane Stuart – dreamy and thoughtful, yet spunky and capable. And I love the story of how she goes to spend a summer on Prince Edward Island with the father she’s never met – and it changes her whole world. Beautiful descriptions, colorful supporting characters, and a wonderful portrait of both inner and outer renewal. The perfect book for these weeks between winter and spring.

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, Theresa Levitt
Augustin Fresnel, French physicist and engineer, shocked the scientific community with his experiments on light and its wavelike behavior. He then invented a lighthouse lens that produced beams far brighter than the reflector system then in place. Levitt traces the development of his work, its adoption by the French and English (and eventually the Americans), and the prominence of lighthouses in several wars. Overly detailed at times, but interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 3).

This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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I am on a serious mystery kick lately, from the Spellmans to Tommy & Tuppence to Chet and Bernie. As I was finishing up those series, I scored a find at the Brattle for $1: The Family Vault, the first in Charlotte MacLeod’s mystery series featuring Sarah Kelling. Corrie, a friend and blog reader, had recommended the series a while back, so I bought the book. Bet you can guess how I liked it:

charlotte macleod sarah kelling books mysteries

Sarah’s first five adventures

The series is set in Boston (ca. late 1970s-early 1980s), among the upper-crust society of Beacon Hill (one of the city’s most historic and beautiful neighborhoods). Sarah, a Kelling by birth and by marriage (she married her fifth cousin once removed), is part of a large, eccentric family with plenty of wacky characters and skeletons in their (lavish) closets. Max Bittersohn, art detective, shows up in the first book, and when Sarah is widowed, their relationship takes a number of delightful turns.

The first book begins with the discovery of a burlesque dancer’s corpse in the family vault (hence the title), and the crazy plots go on from there. Every book deals with either theft or murder (usually both), though MacLeod spares readers the gory details in favor of Sarah’s and Max’s attempts to figure out whodunit. Meanwhile, Sarah plays the straight woman to her blustering cousins, suave uncles, busybody aunts and a rotating cast of boarders (after she turns her home into a rooming house). So far, I’ve laughed out loud at least once during every book. Sarah’s relations are the kind of rich folks you’d see on a TV show, but most of them are a little tough to live with, which provides the potential for lots of comedy.

Great literature these books are not, but the writing is pretty good and I always love following Sarah and Max as they track down thieves and murderers, while enjoying a little romance (and witty repartee) on the side. Great for bedtime reading or those lunchtimes when my brain needs a break.

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families of four

I grew up with one sister. We’re 17 months apart, so I can’t remember when she wasn’t around. She’s an outgoing, tall, blonde businesswoman who always beats the boys at whatever sport she’s playing. I’m a quieter, petite brunette who prefers books and knitting to golf and pickup basketball.

We’re not quite opposites – we both love dogs, our parents, Tex-Mex food, chick flicks, the Midland High Bulldogs, Christmas music, country music, chocolate, board games, our dear Christian college, and each other. I can’t imagine my life without her.

I never wanted any more siblings – one was just fine with me, and our friends filled in the gaps pretty well. But I’ve recently noticed how often children’s literature features families with four children. There are the four March sisters, of course; the four Ingalls sisters; and (I’ve recently discovered) the four Penderwick sisters. On the coed side, the list grows long: the Melendys (of The Saturdays and sequels); the Moffats; the Murrys of A Wrinkle in Time and sequels; the Austins (of Meet the Austins and sequels); the Pevensies (of the Chronicles of Narnia). The Boxcar Children; the Logans (of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and sequels); the Tillermans (of Homecoming and sequels).

(Several series also feature groups of four girlfriends – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, The Miracle Girls. But that’s a post for a different day.)

I wonder if authors often write about four children because it’s an even, manageable number. It’s easy to keep four characters straight, but harder if you throw in, say, six (like Anne Shirley Blythe’s children) or eight (like the Pike clan in The Baby-Sitters Club books). Four divides easily into two pairs, of course; it’s also big enough to feel like a “large” family, but small enough that no one gets lost in the shuffle. And – most importantly, I think – it allows the author to develop four distinctive character types.

It amazes me how many combinations of character types are possible with four characters. Of course, the oldest child is generally the responsible one, either by force of personality or circumstance. There’s at least one character everyone loves and/or spoils (often the baby, but not always). One of the “middle” children usually feels alone, rebellious or unloved, like Jo March, Laura Ingalls or Edmund Pevensie. (Occasionally, the oldest child is the rebellious one – like Meg Murry.) But not one of these families is exactly like another. They all start out with four children, then go all kinds of different places.

I often see myself in these oldest siblings, who take care of everyone and get good grades, who follow the rules and try to keep things tidy. But sometimes I see myself, too, in the quirky second child – Jo March with her scribbling in the attic, Vicky Austin with her feelings of awkwardness and deep desire to belong, Laura Ingalls with her stubbornness. I know birth order has a profound effect on family dynamics, real or fictional, but although I am a classic first child (see above), I often identify deeply with these “middle” children (many of whom, it should be no surprise, want to be writers).

What do you think about fictional family dynamics? Which sibling do you tend to identify with in fictional families? Is it similar or different to your real-life birth order? (And if you’re an only child, do you think I’ve got the wrong theory altogether?)

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