This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, 2010, * * * *

Secret Daughter is an unflinching yet compassionate story of mothers and daughters in a story that moves between two worlds and two families -- one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, India and the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite diverging cultural identities in Northern California. The main characters are two mothers: Kavita Merchant, the impoverished villager who knows too well what happens to unwanted girls, and Somer Whitman, the American pediatrician who marries a fellow physician born in India.  Somer's infertility leads her and her husband, Krishnan Thakkar, to adopt Kavita's baby, Asha, from the Indian orphanage where Kavita had surrendered her. Gowda describes the cultural fears and shocks confronting a Western woman in India, followed by the insecurities attending Somer back home as she strives to mother a child who looks like Krishnan, but not her.  The story alternates viewpoints between Kavita and Somer, with occasional chapters told through the eyes of their husbands.  Later, a teenage Asha takes over much of the narrative as she journeys to India to meet Krishnan's family and search for her identity -- unaware that her birth mother never stopped wondering about the daughter she gave up. The sounds, scents and sights of India are vividly drawn, pulling you deeply into a culture that many have only glimpsed in movies like Slumdog Millionaire.  Two worlds collide, then meld, in a story that intimately considers how we all are shaped, through fate or free will, nurture or nature, by the astounding power of family love.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, 2010, * * * *

From the 1936 Olympics to WWII and Japan's most brutal POW camps, Hillenbrand's heart-wrenching new book is thousands of miles and a world away from the racing circuity of her bestselling book Seabiscuit.  The hero of this book is Louie Zamperini, a young Italian-American from Torrance, California. He was expected to be the first person to run a four-minute mile and after an astonishing but losing race at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was hoping for gold in the 1940 games. The war ended those dreams forever when,  as an Army Air Corps bombardier,  his B-24 crashed into the Pacific in May 1943.  After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft with is pal and pilot, Rusell Allen "Phil" Phillips, they were captured by the Japanese.  In the 'theater of cruelty' that was the Japanese POW camp network, Louie landed in the cruelst theaters of all: Omori and Naoetsu, under the control. of Corporal Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a pathologically brutal sadist, know as "the Bird."  By war's end Louie was near death when the camp was liberated in August 1945 but he was not free.  Haunted by his dreams, he was obsessed with vengenance, and drank to forget.  Untimately Louise had a defiant and unbreakable spirit and with the help of his wife, Cynthia Applewhite, he builds a new life.  In one of several sections where Hillenbrand steps back for a larger view, she writes movingly of the thousands of postwar Pacific PTSD sufferers who got no help for their as yet unrecognized illness.  It is impossible to condense the rich, grandular detail of the narrative of the atrocities comm itted against American POWs in Japan and the courage of Louie and his fellow POWs.  Hillenbrand's triumph is that in telling Louie's story she tells the stories of thousands whose suffering has been mostly forgotten and restores to our collective memory the tale of heroism, cruelty, life, death, joy, suffering remorselessness and redemption.

Stoner by John Williams, 1965, * * * * *

Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles...its hero being an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies.  Yet the novel is utterly riveting because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty.  You care about the characters whether you want to or not.  It is a novel of academia, unfulfilled hope, and a life not completely led.  It is basically a simple novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher but,  for some reason,  is fascinating. Its hero, William Stoner, is the son of hard-wroking, dirt-poor farmers from whom he inherits a taciturn stoicism born of sheer adversity.  Stoner enters the university in 1910 to study agriculture but his life change irrevocably when he comes upon literature in a sophomore survey course.  His future mentor humiliates him by asking him to explain Shakespare's Sonnet 73, a poem about love and loss that foreshadows his own future. Only two passions matter in Stoner's life, love and learning, and in a sense he fails at both. Stoner's deeply ingrained reticence is a keystone of the novel.  This is the story of an ordinary man, seemingly thwarted at every turn, but also of the knotty integrity he preserves and the deep inner life behind the impassive facade. Caught in an empty shell of a marriage, though too stoical to end it, he bonds deeply with his young daughter until his resentful wife evicts him from his daughter's life.  Stoner responds with a helpless sense of resignation but in his 40s begins an affair with a talented scholar half his age, which leads to an interlude of unlooked-for happiness.  Though the affair is broken up by Stoner's academic nemesis, who threatens scandal, it offers a hint of paradise that hovers dreamily over the rest of the novel.  Few stories this sad could be so secretly triumphant, or exhilarating.  Williams brings to Stoner's fate a quality of attention, a rare empathy, that shows us why this unassuming life was worth living.