Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, in exchange for an honest review.

Cambridge economics professor, Dr. Chandrasekhar aka “Charles,” is having a mid-life crisis. He has, once again, been forced to face the crushing disappointment and indignity of having been passed over for a Nobel Prize. This wouldn’t be so terrible, if in pursuit of his career, he hadn’t sacrificed personal happiness and developing relationships with his family. He is divorced from his wife Jean, who has remarried and moved from England to Colorado with their teenage daughter, Jasmine. Jasmine is acting out and getting into major trouble, including experimenting with drugs. Charles cannot relate to his older children. His son, Sunny, is a successful entrepreneur and is so consumed with his business, that he has little time for his family. After a major ideological disagreement, Charles has not spoken to his eldest daughter, Radha, in years and doesn’t even know where she is living.

After experiencing a major health scare, Charles takes a break from teaching at Cambridge and travels to the United States. He begins to reconnect with Jasmine, Jean, and Jean’s new husband. It’s an odd family dynamic, but not without love and concern. Charles begins to realize that he needs to change his outlook and to begin to focus on deepening his relationships, both to help himself and his children.

Balasubramanyam has a strong writer’s voice, which he uses effectively to set the tone of both the story and especially Charles. The opening chapters introduce us to Charles, who is quite a difficult person, someone who delights in both being a curmudgeon and destroying others. It’s humorous, even though the reader is keenly aware that Charles is a very unhappy person. It also sets us up for his transformation. Charles makes a lot of mistakes, but he is the perfect character to undergo a massive transformation and we root for him to succeed.

I really loved the relationship between Jasmine and Charles. Jasmine’s troubles are generally those of a confused and angry teenager, but we soon see that her acting out and experimentation is taking her down a dark path. Drug addition or perhaps consequences of spending time with unsavory people, are looming on her horizon. Charles is devastated that this is happening to his daughter and initially he feels quite helpless. However, he is struck with the idea that Jasmine can be sent to a monastery to live with a woman that he met at his yoga retreat. Charles shifts from being a very self-involved character, to someone who begins to think of others, starting with his beloved youngest daughter. Previous to his experience at the yoga retreat, Charles would never have suggested this for his daughter, but through his personal enlightenment, he can now help her. I was taken with the novel’s themes of balancing self-reliance with building relationships. You can’t help others without fixing yourself, but fixing yourself means little, if you can’t experience deep relationships with other people.

Generally, I found the story to be fast-paced, although it lost a little steam in the middle. I think it’s because although it was very important to the character arc for Charles to discover himself at the yoga retreat, this aspect was less interesting than that of his repairing the relationship with his family. I thought it was interesting that Charles is not necessarily enlightened after the yoga retreat. It helps him on his way, but it is only a stepping stone towards the bliss he finds from connecting with his family. I like that the book wraps on a hopeful note, yet not unrealistic or completely perfect. Charles and his family members, still have a lot to learn, but they have made great strides.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is an uplifting redemption story that begs readers to reflection on their own lives. Balasubramanyam is a talented writer and I recommend Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss.

See You in the Piazza

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Thank you to Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of Frances Mayes’ latest book, See You in the Piazza, in exchange for an honest review.

See You in the Piazza, follows renowned travel writer Frances Mayes, as she tours the different regions of Italy. Mayes and her husband are American, but they own a second home in Italy and have fallen in love with the country. Mayes and her husband set off on a series of trips to discover and report on the best restaurants and landmarks in each region. On certain segments of their journey, which spanned over a year, they were joined by friends and other family members. The result is a love letter to Italy.

Mayes has a gift for lush imagery, especially her sensory descriptions of food and wine. Do not read while hungry! Mayes and her husband are definitely foodies and experiencing Italian cuisine is a huge focus of their travels. Although they do not shy away from experiencing local dives, the bulk of their dining is done at amazing five-star restaurants. I love to eat and experience incredible cuisine, but I seriously don’t know how they manage so many intense meals. As someone who has not yet (emphasis on “yet”) visited Italy, I was surprised by the regional differences in food and the variety of ingredients that encompass Italian cuisine. For those who love to cook, Mayes has included many recipes from the restaurants featured in her book.

Admittedly, See You in the Piazza was a slow read for me. I read it in small chunks and it took a few months to complete. it is long and written as a travel diary, which did not captivate my interest. It jumps between Mayes’ masterful writing and the vibe of having a neighbor tell you every tedious aspect of their last vacation. I love travel writing and I know that Mayes’ is respected in her field, but despite her gorgeous descriptions, I not sure that her style speaks to me.

I read an advanced readers copy, but I imagine that the published version will likely include photographs and maps, which would greatly add to the enjoyment of the book.

See You in the Piazza is a great pick for those who adore Italy or who have an upcoming trip in the works. Mayes provides much inspiration for places to visit and experience. It definitely made me wish that I could just jump on a plane and head to Italy!

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Fredrik Backman’s memoir, Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a huge fan of Fredrik Backman and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review his latest book. Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is Backman’s first memoir, a departure from the novels for which he has garnered world-wide acclaim. He last few novels (Us Against You and Bear Town) were exceedingly bleak and dark. I loved them, but they left me with a heavy feeling. Generally, the tone of Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, is humorous and light-hearted. Backman has a hilarious style of self-deprecating humor and I often found myself giggling while reading.

The memoir comprised of short chapters, some less than a page, all written within the frame work of advice that Backman wishes to impart to his young son. There is one sweet chapter where he speak directly to his wife, whom he clearly adores and references throughout his book.

Although mostly humorous, there is a running current of Backman’s serious fears and dreams for his son. For example, in one chapter he mentions the importance of finding a sports team. It’s not that he cares that his son plays or watches sports, but Backman sees the way that sports has created bonds in his own life. He wants his child to be able to bond with friends and he sees sports as an easy entry point, but he also fears that his son might develop interests in which he does not know how to relate. He wants his son to know that he will be a supportive father, no matter what, but that he also fears that they won’t have things to bond over. The bonding is vital.

Backman writes about a time when he was shot during a robbery in a convenience store and how just a matter of inches could have left him dead or paralyzed. He speaks to the importance of those inches in everything in life, how something so small can change everything. This chapter was exceptionally poignant and along with the rest of the memoir, made me understand more of why Backman chooses certain subjects for his fiction works.

My step-children are Swedish and live with their mom in Stockholm, so I was interested in the tidbits on parenting in Sweden. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but most of Backman’s concerns and dealings with other parents, are similar to sentiments that are echoed by my parent friends in the United States.

There is a hilarious chapter on navigating Ikea, which also rings true for the Ikea shopping experience in the United States. Follow those arrows!

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Backman is a fabulous writer and someone whom I am always thrilled when he publishes a new work. I highly recommend all of Backman’s books!

Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.