Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Nineteen-fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Nothing About.  The anniversary of its commencement – is nearing.  If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians. That’s the simple way Laura Petrosian, a central character in Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, introduces the theme of this informative and evocative story.  Laura, a popular novelist, is by her own admission “obsessed and unstoppable” in her quest to know the details of her grandparents’ lives during the 1915 Armenian genocide. And so the novel itself begins with Elizabeth Endicott’s arrival in Allepo, Syria after her recent graduation from Mount Holyoke.  She’s part of a Boston Friends of Armenia group there to bring food and supplies to what our grandparents called “the starving Armenians.”  She soon meets Armen, an engineer, who’s lost his wife and baby and who soon joins the British Army to fight the Turks. Armen and Elizabeth correspond and fall in love and the novel veers to the present day when Laura Petrosian begins to learn of her grandparents’ past.

Elizabeth and Armen are complex characters whose lives make this little known time seem real and who make the reader realize that what happened in Armenia in 1915 is essential to our understanding of Turkey and the Middle East today. Mr. Bohjalian, himself an American novelist of Armenian descent, infuses this novel with a realism and heartfelt resonance informed and impassioned by his own connection and the stories he’s undoubtedly heard since childhood.

When Laura ponders, “my brother thinks trying to chronicle our grandparents’ story is a spectacular waste of literary capital and can only inflame tensions between Turks and Armenians. . . Everyone would be better off . . . if I just wrote another domestic comedy” the reader wonders if Bohjalian had such questioners.  And he deftly answers the query with, “But history does matter.  There is a line between the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Serbs and the Rwandans.  There are obviously more, but really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?  You get the point”.  And we do get the point because Bohjalian makes us care deeply about Armen and Elizabeth and a girl named Hatoun.

The novel helps us understand how the term “Young Turks” came into our vernacular as it was three young Turks led by Talet Pasha who initiated and staged the genocide and who were found guilty by a Turkish court of “the massacre and destruction of the Armenians.” That history is informative but Bohjalian takes it a step further by having Laura’s research find that “If you visit Ankara or Istanbul today, you will find streets and schools named for Talat Pasha” (and the other young Turks). “the nation that found Talat Pasha guilty of attempting to wipe out a race of people later named concourses after him.  How is that possible?  Because, to much of the nation – though, thankfully, not all – that genocide in the desert never happened.  Even now, labeling the slaughter of 1915 “genocide” can land a Turkish citizen in jail and get a Turkish Armenian journalist killed.”

I believe and hope that Bohjalian’s naming of the courageous and kind Turkish private Orhan in the book was homage to Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish author, who was arrested for stating the facts of the genocide.

Summing it Up: This epic, historical love story begs for discussion. Upon finishing it, readers will want to find others to talk with about Laura and Armen’s love, about Nevart, Hatoun, Dr. Akham and the other minor characters whose lives make this novel cinematic in scope and about what we should do to make sure this atrocity is never forgotten.  It also contains unexpected twists that book clubs will love to debate.

Footnote: I spoke with Mr. Bohjalian today when he appeared at a luncheon in Harbor Springs and he confirmed that the kind Turkish pirate Orhan is in fact named in tribute to author Orhan Pamuk.  If you have a chance visit the author website for upcoming appearances throughout the U. S. Bohjalian's presentation is fascinating and includes many photographs of sites in Lebanon and Turkey that he visited in the last year. 

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Grandma’s Pot Roast, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: July 17, 2012

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Kirkus Reviews:  (Beware, this review contains spoilers even at the beginning.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Readers, buy this book! Make a bookmark with the words: THIS IS NON FICTION in large letters and keep it as a reminder because you'll swear this is a novel.  Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo has brilliantly succeeded in making the story of "life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity" radiate with energy and emotion.  How a non-fiction writer could develop characters and capture dialogue while staying true to facts that illuminate the story of Annawadi, a self-developed slum of 3,000 people living on half an acre on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport, is a testament to Boo’s ability to embed herself, listen and then etch an indelible picture that makes the reader know, yes, really know, those residents. After more than three years of research with translators beside her, all of whom had constant fevers and infections from the filthy conditions, Boo captures the heart of the community.  She paints each resident with a palette that shows many transcending their surroundings.

Abdul, a Muslim teen, is trying to get his family out of the slum through his ability to find and resell recyclables and by his adherence to his motto:  avoid trouble.  But, in Annawadi, trouble comes unbidden when Fatima, the foul-mouthed, one-legged harridan, accuses Abdul of a crime he didn’t commit.

Asha, who’s turning forty, dreams of becoming Annawadi’s first female slum lord and gains success as an influence peddler.  Her daughter Manju is about to become the area’s first female college graduate if her other duties and a possible arranged marriage don’t derail it.  Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap metal thief, is a joyful mischief maker.  Boo makes the reader value Annawadi’s residents while they see daily reminders that they are of no worth to others. In a place where teens debate the best suicide methods and see death daily, Kalu’s friend Sunil, climbs to a roof top where “something he’s come to realize . . . looking out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.”

Boo reports the residents’ thoughts as in Abdul’s pondering: “Water and ice were made of the same thing.  He thought most people were made of the same thing too. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of.  He wanted to be better than what he was made of.  In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.”

Whatever you’ve read or thought about India today, this book will turn it upside down.  It will sadden you and it will make your heart sing with hope.  Most of all it will make you thankful that there are writers with Boo’s talent and tenacity who are willing to sacrifice to show the real Mumbai. Out of filth, Katherine Boo has created a magnificent ice sculpture of a book.

When Kirkus Reviews, arguably the toughest book critics in the business, call a book: “The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition,” you know you’re in good hands.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Nonfiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: February 7, 2012

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