The UnGlam Fam

I now blog at www.constantcircus.wordpress.com!


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Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

I think I have read my Book of the Year. A random pick-up from the library the other day yielded a read so powerful, so moving, so poignant and yet so entertaining that I am humbly in awe.

ImageKatherine Boo is an investigative journalist who spent years recording the lives of people existing at the edges of society in one of Mumbai’s largest slums, Annawadi. For Indians like me, who had grown up staring poverty in the face every single day without ever having to live through it, this book is a jolt from an uncomfortable part of our past. Written as thoroughly engaging narrative non-fiction, the book weaves through the lives of 3 main characters — waste trader Abdul, trash scavenger Sunil, first girl college graduate Manju — and their families, as they barely survive within a subculture of abject neglect and lack. More than once, I had to lay down the book to literally stare at where I am and how a 100th of it would look to the eyes of an Annawadian. A 60 sq. ft. living space shared by 11 people? Unimaginable. Bathing in a sewage lake because that’s the only water available? How? Passing a dying man on the street and leaving him there because of mortal danger to your own life by proxy? Unbearable truth.

A non-Indian reading this book may not be as affected by the truth in its pages because, honestly, the rot in the Indian system is so fantastical that it would be unimaginably alien to someone who hasn’t lived through it. One can expect to be shocked, dismayed, infuriated, exasperated at the seemingly mythical proportions of injustice that a majority of Indians have to endure on a daily basis, but no one can nonchalantly walk away from it. I read the whole book with a sickening pit in my belly, the pain of which wasn’t enough for me to be able to put this one down. Read at your own risk.

There were a few lines in the book that I’m reproducing here because I just can’t not. These tore me up.

“Some called him garbage, and left it at that.”

“…with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.”

“Scavengers slept on top of their garbage bags to prevent other scavengers from stealing them.”

Boo has won a Pulitzer for her work. I’m thinking she deserved it.


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Of bakeries and vagaries.

More additions to the Reading Challenges this week. Quite unexpectedly so.

Tigers In Red Weather

What a thing it must be to be a debut novelist like Liza Klaussmann is and manage to write a novel like this. It’s hard enough sorting out your own thoughts; to be able to burrow into another person’s head and to be able to express their individual voice on paper is a craft only a few writers are able to master. To be able to do that successfully in your first attempt is pure genius.

Nick (we never know her full name, and I can hardly believe a girl would have such an androgynous name way back in the ’40s) and Helena are cousins growing up during WWII. Just after the war ends their lives take them away from each other’s innocent confidences into a confusing grown up world of pretentious¬† marriages, duplicitous friendships, creepy children they can’t abandon. You are sucked into a time of world shortages and personal excesses. It’s an era unhindered by political correctness egged on by entirely too much alcohol.

The only problem I encountered was in trying to picture the character of Nick — a woman with it, a woman no one can refuse. Personally, I’ve never met a person like that in my life, but that didn’t take away anything from the intensity of this novel. I enjoyed this one immensely.

Union Street Bakery

This one isn’t exactly a culinary novel, but I figure with its name it can qualify as “food related” so I’m counting it for my challenge.

Daisy McCrae is a 30something woman who in losing her high-profile job in the financial sector has lost her identity. To tide over, she returns to manage her adoptive parents’ bakery and basically never stops whining about it until the very end. Her loving family isn’t good enough for her, nor is the fact that her ex-fiance comes back for her even after she ditched him a while ago. Peppered into the main story are mini stories about ghosts of slaves, family ancestry and an unrepentant birth mother, all of which contribute to the pace of the novel without contributing much else.

The novel is a light read, but the main character was so full of herself that the overall tone became too poor-me for my taste. Amazon gives it 4.5 stars, I’d pass it for 2.


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Book Review: Black Irish by Stephan Talty.

At the beginning of the year I joined a couple of reading challenges to document the books I read as I go along. I’ve been reading many more than I write about but today I finished one that finally fits one of the challenges. I don’t know about you but when I visit the library I don’t choose books with any set criteria in mind; whatever looks good comes home with me, be it fiction or non, YA or adult. Some go back half-read, unfortunately, but this time around I got lucky.

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Black Irish¬†by Stephan Talty is a novel that’s disturbing on so many levels that I couldn’t stop reading. Weird, but it’s the first time in many readings that I’ve actually read by the light of a clip-on lamp while the house slept, and then had trouble falling asleep because of the images in my head. Seriously.

There’s a female detective lead tracking down an especially malicious serial killer. Secret cults have deadly secrets to hide. References to Irish history and rogue rebels rope you in with centuries-old agendas and vendettas. Chapter endings leave you dangling and eager to get to the revelations on the next page. In short, reading this delicious thriller reinforced my belief that electronic media can never compare to a good story expertly told within the pages of a physical entity. Even though I’m not an aficionado of the mystery/thrilled genre, given a choice I’d rather spend a lazy evening riding along in a cop car solving mysteries than going shopping with the fashionistas.


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Of Quinoa Salad and Kale Chips.

Being a vegetarian I was under the impression that I automatically made and served mostly healthy meals to my family. We Indians have a tendency to be a bit supremacist about food matters. I can’t remember the countless times I’ve heard phrases like, “Oh, but we use turmeric in our cooking, you know, and that’s a natural antiseptic!” or “these Westerners eat so much refined grain; our roti isn’t constipating at least!” or some such. So. Not. True. Knowing about food as I do now, I’m fairly sure Indian cuisine is one of the most high-carb, high-fat cuisine there is. Delicious, yes no doubt, but not as foolproof as Indians would have you believe. Trust me, I’m one of them (you).

In an attempt to branch out of foods I’ve grown up on, I decided to give quinoa and kale a try. My ever resourceful neighbor E, a quinoa veteran, dropped off a cup of the good stuff for me to try before I went out and bought a big bag for myself. Googling recipes brought forth a large variety, but a recurrent theme of simplicity tied them together. Rather than assembling the ingredients called for, I just threw whatever I had in my fridge (including prepared italian salad dressing) to come up with this light, slightly sweet, nutty quinoa salad with kidney beans, broccoli, onion, cilantro and tomato. I’m not a convert yet but definitely eager to try this WonderGrain with a few tried-and-true Indian flavor combinations.

Kale is a relatively new addition to my cooking repertoire. This variety of greens (as opposed to collards, chard, etc.) isn’t known in the East. I didn’t know of it, at any rate, but with all the recipes we have for cooking with greens in India, it shouldn’t be too hard to incorporate into traditional Indian dishes like saag. This time however kale made an appearance on my plate in the form of chips and, in smaller amounts, as a raw salad veggie. With all the blogosphere brouhaha over these chips, though, I have to say I absolutely preferred kale in its raw avatar. I don’t care who says this but kale chips are NOT regular potato chips. Na ah. I wouldn’t snack on green chips when I’m in the mood for good ole Lays, and I will sure as hell not choose these over chips with my burger!

Kale chips with Tzatziki

Kale chips with Tzatziki

PS: In the book roundup, I got halfway through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and no more. This is the first Tudor novel that I have ever returned unread to the library. I have gotten through Alison Weir in the past (Tudor non-fiction, for the uninitiated) but Ms Mantel’s had me. Maybe it was the back to back overdose with Bringing Up the Bodies or a simple case of dead ringer fiction, but in my opinion there are better novels out there for those wishing to get engrossed in a read rather than waiting to get it over with.


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Santiago & Mantel

I read two books last week, well, one and a half — Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago (one) and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (half, I’m still halfheartedly at it but in constant danger of never finishing). If I renew a library book 2 times without having a valid reason for the delay, like travel or sickness, um then it’s probably a gone case. It’s like trying to be 25 when you clearly are not (not that I’ve ever done this). I haven’t returned it yet even though I can hardly bring myself to read it because I refuse to admit that there is a Tudor novel out there that does not have me captivated enough to finish in an evening.

I’m usually principally against an award winning book. I’m not sure if they really are good books or just lucky enough to be victims of “celebrity mob mentality”. I think one critic who may or may not have gotten the premise/story of the book completely praises it enough to hide her own embarrassment and the literary world follows along. The actual wonderful books don’t win awards, they win an audience. All IMO, of course.

This Hilary Mantel novel is just riding on the award wagon of Wolf Hall, I think (which by the way another of my friends who’s reading for her book club can’t get into either). The first 50 pages or so of Bring Up The Bodies are fantastically slow paced and filled with historical throwbacks that a Tudor newbie will find very hard to follow. By the middle of the book the pace picks up a bit but even so I found no personal investment in the characters or their stories. Unless you read to impress someone or have recklessly signed up for a book club you’re regretting or, like me, are hell bent on proving no Tudor novel is beyond you, I’d give this one a pass.

Esmeralda Santiago, on the other hand, is more my kind of author. Honest, engaging writing that tells a simple story without unnecessary insinuations is what thrills me. If I’m going to use all my brain power for casual reading then I may as well tackle the classics. Almost a Woman follows Santiago’s life from When I was Puerto Rican to her adulthood. It’s a brutally honest look into what it’s like being a poor minority young girl in a big city, trying to bridge the gap between who she is and who she wants to be. Dreams that she dreams within a closed, hispanic household and that she needs to fulfill amidst the blancos of the outer world. I think anyone who’s experienced life within two cultures, and all that it involves, will identify with this memoir.


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When I Was Puerto Rican

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Esmeralda Santiago — author, actress and a transplanted Puerto Rican. Although she moved to America in the early ’60s, her Puerto Rican roots define the person she’s become today. This fact comes across so powerfully in her memoir of her early life that it’s hard to doubt that we can ever leave our origins behind, no matter where in the world we end up “growing up”.

We were in Puerto Rico on a 4-day vacation this last Christmas, so having seen the terrain first hand made this book click for me right away. We often notice on our trips to South-central America (Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico) how many impoverished countries look exactly the same irrespective of geographic location. From a North American perspective the people, the architecture, the general bustle of life in a dusty, tropical country might feel exotic, but to me it just harkens back to “home”. India. When you get off the plane, you’re greeted by the same scent of the earth (because dust is everywhere), the same color of sky (fuzzy blue, tinged with orange), the same foliage (trees with broad leaves, bougainvillea), and people whose main occupation is not to bark important matters into their high-end mobile phones but to keep their families fed. Living in America it’s so easy to believe in the “me and mine first” concept of family that one tends to forget that most of the world doesn’t live that way. In Puerto Rico, as in India, friends will drop by to chat without calling first and no one thinks it rude, groups of women stand around trading gossip while buying fruit from a roadside stand, old men sit around tables sipping tea and smoking pipes, watching the world that hasn’t excluded them from its ranks go by.

When I was Puerto Rican is written in so fluid a language that I was immersed in not only the story of the author and her family, but also in the setting of a place that is poor but vibrant, stark in its contrasts between the lush and the dilapidated. It’s a memoir I thoroughly enjoyed reading, so much so that I have her other books on hold at the libe already. Bravo, senora Santiago!


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A Bookish Week.

It has been so incredibly foggy and miserable this past few days that all I’ve wanted to do was not get out of bed and read, read, read. If only someone would replenish the coffee, parent the kids, stretch my limbs from time to time and do the laundry! Even with this last wish being inexplicably not granted I’ve managed to read my library loans at the pace I’d wanted to. I picked up R.L. Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, along with Molly Ringwald’s When It Happens To You, at the last libe trip. Although neither of them met any of my reading challenges criteria, I’m glad I chanced upon them, especially the latter.

Dr. Jekyll is a classic that’s been on my classics list for a while, and I grabbed this novelette when I got the chance. It’s a tiny, short novel, and my copy, petite by all standards, nevertheless filled more than half its pages with introductions, prologues, epilogues and various other discussions, that I didn’t actually read. Also, since the story itself isn’t anything new, the shock value of the book is lost on modern readers (even though I hadn’t known that the characters really were two separate people rather than a personality split scenario, as I’d always thought). Since I’m obviously born in this century, the beauty of the writing for me lay in the wordplay, characterization, setting and ethos of the novel. The evil exuding from Mr. Hyde that Stevenson had in mind to portray had to be gotten across through mere words in an era when the luxury of actual visual imagery was absent. Therein lies the brilliance of the writer. I found, however, that the extent of cruelty exhibited by My. Hyde that makes him so repulsive to an upstanding Victorian person (the crux of the story), is so pedestrian in today’s world that he really didn’t appear all that evil to me. So, yeah, an interesting read overall.

When It Happens To You, on the other hand, is an impressive debut from Molly Ringwald. A veteran of the film industry, apparently, Ringwald’s “novel in stories” hit many right spots with me. Pacing, superb. Characters, varied but interesting. Theme, mundane elevated excellence. The novel is written as a series of short stories with an overlapping cast of characters who duck in and out of each other’s narratives. It was kind of fun to try to guess who was who depending on the story and the person narrating it, and to figure out their relationship to each other. The characters are as dysfunctional as their families, and Ringwald manages to bring real life to life. The writing did strike me as a bit amateurish in places (a writer’s basic “show, don’t tell” rule was pretty loosely followed), but the premise of the stories carried me through to the end. I’d give it a 7 on a recommendation scale of 1 to 10, so if you happen upon it at the libe, read it.