The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

mku4phbfqqyltyv1lno9_sd3

I stumbled upon this novel while popping into a random bookshop. I often head to mystery first – where I was struck by the dramatic cover. The story unfolds through the eyes of Rachel Getty, a 20-something Canadian police officer, and her boss Esa Khattak, a practicing Muslim who heads up the newly formed Community Policing Section, which handles investigation22545465s of an especially sensitive cultural nature.

That’s how they’re roped into the prior life of Christopher Drayton, a man who fell to his deaths from the bluffs behind his house – but who may have been a Bosnian war criminal living under an assumed identity.

Drawing inspiration from some classic Agatha Christie works, the mystery in The Unquiet Dead is intriguing, although it’s not the meat of the story. Far, far more engaging is loyal (and sometimes tenious) relationship between Khattak and Getty. A calm, measured presence, Khattak is exactly the sort of character you would want investigating when something goes wrong.

His characterization reminded me a bit of another literary Canadian detective, Inspector Armand Gamache from Louise Penny’s novels. Where Penny’s mysteries are self-contained and more of the cozy variety, however, Khan’s The Unquiet Dead anchors itself in real-life horrors.

The backdrop for the mystery turns out to be the Bosnian Genocide, particularly the massacre at Srebrenica. These are the stories that really get the pages turning, and Khan realizes their power: she includes real quotes from victim accounts bookending each chapter, and dedicates several chapters to describing the horrors that some of the characters endured throughout the genocide.

What’s especially jarring about the accounts is the horrific realization of how recently these atrocities took place. I remember hearing about the Bosnian War when I was younger (although, like the character of Rachel Getty, I was about eight when the Srebrenica Massacre took place). The Unquiet Dead grapples with questions about global responsibility and justice – without ever offering any pat answers or delivering lectures.

Ausma Zehanat Khan boasts a Ph.D in International Human Rights law and a background in academia that no doubt helps to inform her unique (and especially global) perspective. She has some sequels in the works which will continue to feature this crime-fighting duo (and hopefully their friend Nate). I’m already excited to continue delving into this world.

Like Water for Chocolate

vegetables_blogimage

Like Water for Chocolate, a first novel by Laura Esquivel, starts with onions and a birth. Chopping onions, that bring about a wave of tears. This opening is apt, because the entirety of the novel weaves together food and emotions.

For me, this is actually a re-reading. My copy is a stolen one, taken from a beach house my family stayed in one spring, probably after I’d finished all the mystery novels I’d brought down with me. I’m not sure why I grabbed it. Maybe I gravitated toward the cheery cover, or perhaps the moderate size. Still, I’m glad I did. Because once I started reading, I was fully sucked in.

Like Water for Chocolate was my first intro to magical realism, now one of my favorite storytelling tools. Tita de la Graza, our passionate protagonist, finds her home in the kitchen of her family’s large Mexican ranch. Nurtured by the stove from a young age, she connects with flavors and food in a way that most people only dream of. She also wins the heart of Pedro Muzquiz, a boy from their neighborhood and is heartbroken when she is told by her mother that they can never wed, due to the family tradition of the youngest daughter having to stay home and take care of her mother as she ages.

Pedro, not baring the idea of being separate from Tita, marries her sister Rosura instead, turning the ranch into a hotbed of love, lust, jealously and heartache.

Tita’s haven is her kitchen and her artistry is in cooking, so the food she makes is imbued with the emotions she feels. Heartbroken, and her cake will make you sick. Lustful, and her meal causes one of her sisters to run away with a rebel.

Like_Water_for_Chocolate_(Book_Cover)No – the story is not particularly realistic. The emotions are sweeping and devastating in their fury, the love is steadfast and unchanging…and I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to make hundreds of partygoers sick just because you were sad when you made cake batter.

The rich emotions give the novel a timeless, mythic feeling.

Nonetheless, Esquivel uses these grand, almost operatic turns of phrase to tug at the reader’s heart. For don’t we all know that feeling?

I had been meaning to reread this book for years (tellingly, unlike so many others, this one has never been donated or lent away) and it’s the perfect fit for this project. The setting and culture, particularly the food, are undeniably impactful on the story, but overall it’s a story about love, longing and the confounding ties and responsibilities that come with family: universal feelings, to be sure.

 

In Defense of Fiction

photo-1452882628481-6a2da9481239

I’ve always made a beeline for the fiction section of bookstores. In particular, I’m fond of mysteries and fantasy, although anything goes.

In adulthood, I have had the privilege of drinking wine with some smart people, who, when asked what they’re reading, dutifully explain that they prefer nonfiction. Because if you’re going to be reading, why not learn something? Isn’t it sort of a waste of time, they ask (leaning in conspiratorially) to read made-up stories when they can use that time and effort to become more knowledgeable?

(For whatever it’s worth, I have yet to meet a child who espouses this view.)

Clearly no one should turn their nose up at good nonfiction. Nor do I want to knock anyone’s nightstand escape. There are some really wonderful non-fiction books out there and people should read what brings them joy. Real life offers a rich narrative and unexpected twists. Stranger than fiction, indeed.

However.

I hope we’re all still considering fiction as just as valid a choice. Fiction is, in a very real sense of the word, play. In the adult world, play is not something that we get to engage in as much as we want. Reading fiction, unlike the sort of playtime that comes from going dancing or a day on the slopes, is a private playtime that you engage in all by yourself. There’s no need to accommodate other people’s preferences.  It’s all about you.

Additionally, fiction is all about assuming another perspective on the world. It may be a world populated by purple flying gorillas, but that doesn’t detract from the remarkable exercise in empathy that fiction affords. No nonfiction novel could  capture every impression and conversation with perfect accuracy. In fact, I find that generally the more authoritative the text, the dryer it tends to be.

Because to get that color, that stream of consciousness, the rawness of immediate emotions: we have to delve into the realms of making shit up. And what fantastic depths they are: increasingly, research indicates that reading fiction might boost empathy, reduce anxiety, and help with decision making.

In life, you don’t often get to form the deep connections with people outside your social orbit that would allow you to feel their experiences in a way that a fictional narrative allows. It gives you permission to try on a different time, social class, perspective, race, gender, sexuality, body. You don’t have to worry about mirroring back their feelings or being respectful. You don’t have to worry that you’re ignorant (because we all are, sometimes) or feel out of place. You can slip in, undetected, and explore another person’s mind. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s not realistic – that’s not the point. The point is that you are giving your brain a remarkable chance to stretch. As with training your body, I believe that practicing this empathy pays off in real life.

There’s a fantastic talk by David Foster Wallace in which he describes how you have the power to make your mundane tasks into less frustrating experiences by seeing the richness of possibility within the people around you. Wallace once said that good fiction should make readers “become less alone inside”. He was on to something, both with his talk and with his belief.

When I was forwarded that talk several years ago, I enjoyed it…but it wasn’t a revelation to me. Not because I claim to share his genius, but because I already learned that secret in the fiction section of my local library.

If books have taught me anything, it’s that everyone is the protagonist in of their own story, and those stories are complex and layered. It’s not difficult for me to imagine why someone might have been short with me, or why the black Prius just cut me off in the highway. Within a few seconds, I can have a comprehensive backstory for these strangers. That kind of exercise seems pointless, but I don’t think it is. It adds depth to small interactions; I know that even if the backstory I imagine isn’t right, of course this person does have one.

It’s incredibly calming. Giving people the benefit of the doubt, allowing them to become full-fleshed out humans rather than irritants…I believe that’s one of the strongest foundations for day-to-day happiness and building trust in the world. I say this not to emphasize how zen I am, but rather to give credit where it is due. I wasn’t born like that, I learned it through reading. Without realizing it, the 13-year old walking home, laden with novels, was training herself to be patient and empathetic.

I fully believe that many of the adults traits I’m proud of were coaxed into being during the hours that I spent awake, after my bedtime, pouring over James and the Giant Peach. And that’s not something I think we should be turning our noses up at. 

 

Piku (India, Dramedy, 2015)

piku

I stumbled upon this movie because it was on a blog post about the best foreign films to watch on Netflix. Comedy was the selling point, since we needed something lighthearted to watch after a long day.

Piku is our titular character. She’s beautiful and clearly intelligent, but often irritable and frazzled. She shares her home with a stubbornly opinionated, mildly-hypochondriac father, Bhashkor. To say that her father is a bit of a character is putting it mildly. Bhashkor informs his daughter’s potential suitors that she is not a virgin, chases away maids with paranoid accusations of stealing, and calls Piku at work to discuss his bowel movements. He spends most of the film locked in a passionate battle with constipation, which was the source of many comedic moments. (We paused to laugh out loud several times during his rants.)

The general gist of the story is that a reluctant Piku agrees to accompany her father on a 40-something hour car ride to Kolkata, the location of their family home. Because her abrasive personality has alienated many of the cab drivers, Rana, the overworked owner of the company, agrees to drive them himself.

This film was a delight. Not much happens by the way of plot, so the interactions between the characters becomes the driving force. Luckily, the three stars (Deepika Padukone as the titular protagonist, Amitabh Bachchan as the fussy father and Irrfan Khan as the cabbie) do a wonderful job inhabiting their characters. The movie manages to never cross-over into suspension of belief – instead, you get the feeling that someone simply brought a camera along for the road trip. (And if you recognize the cabbie, it’s because he was in Jurassic World as the billionaire who foolishly funded a mutant dinosaur. But I digress.)

One thing we found particularly interesting was how easily the characters switched languages. They fluidly dropped English words in (seemingly, to my ears at least, at random). Additionally, it took us about halfway through the film to realize that the father and daughter would occasionally speak to each other in Bengali, which our cab driver, not from Bengal himself, didn’t understand. (Otherwise, the movie is in Hindi.)

Overall – highly recommend – it was a charming slice-of-life comedy.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – Anne Fadiman

I’ve passed this book before. It’s one of those intellectual best-sellers that sits on tables in the front of bookstores. I’ve picked it up, perused the pages, moved on. Somehow it really never held my attention. But after the enthusiastic recommendations of both a coworker and cousin, I finally picked it up. I’m so glad.

Anne Fadiman has a thoughtful tone that illustrates intense experiences without resorting to hyperbole, and reviews historical events without devolving into a textbook. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down focuses on the journey of the Lees, a Hmong family that is resettled in Merced as refugees. When one of their children is diagnosed with epilepsy, the miscommunication between them and their Western doctors leads to tragedy and heartache.

In between chapters about the Hmong’s struggle, Fadiman reviews the turbulent and often tragic history of the Hmong people. Fadiman does not spell out any overt conclusions; her tone remains nonjudgmental and descriptive instead of preaching.

Nonetheless, the historical context paints a picture of an independent people. Additionally, Fadiman demonstrates how the qualities that allowed the Hmong to thrive in hostile environments backfire when thrown into the context of the American medical system. On the other side, while the doctors operate with the best of intentions, their inability to communicate with the Lees cause much of their hard-work to be in vain.

The indisputable takeaway is that without mutual understanding, our best intentions may go to waste.

Anne Fadiman’s descriptive and well-wrought book was one of the highlights of my 2013 reading. Definitely recommend. One of the most thought-provoking and engaging pieces of non-fiction I’ve read.

A brief note on the applicability of this to the project: While I wish I was reflecting on a book written by Hmong people themselves, this is a book that was readily accessible to me and does fit in the scope of focusing on a different culture, one that I was not previously familiar with. Plus, to be perfectly frank with you, I’m trying to build up a little bit of a backlog while I work on finishing my next book / writing it up!