Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fiction Review: The Space Between Us

The Space Between Us
by Thrity Umrigar (Harper Perennial) is an engaging novel where the setting is as rich and complex as the characters. I recently read it for one of my book groups, and everyone loved it (an unusual circumstance!).

The central theme of the novel is the relationship between the two main characters: Sera, an upper-middle-class Parsi woman in Bombay, and Bhima, who has been Sera’s servant for decades. The two women have a complex relationship, set against the backdrop of the strict class divisions of India. In some ways, they are close. Bhima knows more about Sera than anyone else and has helped her through some very difficult times. In return, Sera has loved and supported Bhima’s granddaughter (whom Bhima has raised), Maya, even paying for her tuition to attend college.

In other ways, though, their lives are starkly divided by their classes. Bhima lives in one of the Bombay slums made famous by the recent movie Slumdog Millionaire in horrifying conditions, sharing a communal bathroom and struggling to raise Maya so that she can have a better life than Bhima herself. She commutes daily from her tiny shack in the slums to Sera’s comfortable apartment.

Here, Bhima and Sera share their morning tea together, as they do every day:

"They are sitting in the dining room, sipping tea, Sera out of the blue-gray mug Dinaz bought for her from Cottage Industries, Bhima out of the stainless steel glass that is kept aside for her in the Dubash household. As usual, Sera sits on a chair at the table while Bhima squats on her haunches on the floor nearby. When Dinaz was younger, she used to prod her mother about the injustice of Bhima not being allowed to sit on the couch or a chair and having to use her own separate utensils, instead of the ones the rest of the family used. “You tell all your friends that Bhima is like a family member, that you couldn’t live without her,” the teenage Dinaz would rail. “And yet she’s not good enough to sit at the table with us. And you and Daddy are always talking about those high-caste Hindus burning Harijans and how wrong that is. But in your own house, you have these caste differences, too. What hypocrisy, Mummy.”

“Now Dinaz,” Sera would say mildly. “I think there’s a slight difference between burning a Harijan and not allowing Bhima to use our glasses.” "

One of the members of our book group grew up in India, in a household similar to Sera’s, and she told us that Umrigar’s depiction of daily life and of the intricate relationship between Sera and Bhima was very true to what she knew growing up. We had some wonderful discussions about the intricacies of India’s culture and classes as portrayed in the book, but this novel is so much more than a fascinating look at a different culture.

The Space Between Us delves into the history of each woman – her family, her husband, her children – in a way that makes you feel a part of their lives, despite the cultural differences. They’ve each known both joy and tragedy in their lives, and the reader can relate to these universal human experiences.

321 pages, Harper Perennial

Recorded Books

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


Or get this audiobook from Libro.fm and support local bookstores.


You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!


It's Monday, 4/20! What Are You Reading?

OK, so it's actually Tuesday already, but yesterday was a little hectic.

Last week I read:
  • I finished Skin Hunger (Book 1 in the new Resurrection of Magic series for teens) by Kathleen Duey. Wow, what an amazing book. My 14-year old son is reading it now.
  • I read a wonderful memoir, I Sleep at Red Lights by Bruce Stockler. He's the father of triplets (plus another young son), and his memoir is funny and heart-warming.
  • I've started another kids' book, a middle-grade time travel adventure, Gate of Days by Guillaume Prevost. I loved the first book in the series, The Book of Time.
Between sick days and going out of town, I haven't posted as many reviews as I'd like in the past few weeks, but I've had plenty of reading time and I plan to catch up this week, so look for new reviews both here and at my kids' book blog, Great Books for Kids and Teens.

What are YOU reading this week?

Monday, April 13, 2009

It's Monday, 4/13! What Are You Reading?

Well, I never did pick up that mediocre memoir again last week, The Women Who Raised Me by Victoria Rowell. I realized on Wednesday that I wouldn't be able to attend the book group on it anyway and was relieved to set it aside since I wasn't really enjoying it. It's very rare for me to not finish a book!

What I did read last week:
  • The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar for my other book group. I loved this novel set in India, and so did everyone else in the book group. I've already passed it along to my mom. Full review to come later this week!
  • Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey, the first book in a new middle-grade/teen fantasy series, A Resurrection of Magic. I'm almost finished with this book, and it's been great! My son is waiting to read it next. I'll review it soon on my Kids' Book Blog.
So, that's it for this week - two excellent novels. I have no idea what I'll start next - the piles on my bookshelf are towering!

What are YOU reading this week?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

NPR Show on Liberia

For anyone who's read The House at Sugar Beach or who is interested in Liberia after reading my review of this fantastic memoir, Fresh Air on NPR is featuring an interview with Liberia's President, the first democratically elected president in Africa, Ellen Johnson. I'm listening live right now! You can use the above link to listen to the recorded interview.

Monday, April 06, 2009

It's Monday, 4/6! What Are You Reading?

Not much time to blog today. I realized this morning that I have a book group meeting TOMORROW that I had overlooked on my calendar, so I'm rushing to read the book, which I hadn't even started until today! I have another book group on Wednesday (they don't usually fall on the same week), so I've set that book aside for now. So, here's what I'm reading:
  • I finished The House At Sugar Beach and posted a review - excellent memoir!
  • I started another memoir for my Wednesday book group, The Women Who Raised Me by Victoria Rowell. I'm about a third of the way through it and disappointed so far, maybe because I just finished such a wonderful memoir before it?
  • I set that one aside today and started The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar for my Tuesday book group. I'm loving it so far! It's a well-written novel about two women in India: one who's in the upper class and her servant who's worked for her family for decades. I was hooked right from the first pages.
  • At bedtime, we're listening to the audio version of Scat by Carl Hiaasen with the kids. We're all big fans of Hiaasen's humorous environmental mysteries.
Better get back to my book!

What are YOU reading this week?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Memoir Review: The House At Sugar Beach

There are books that you read purely for fun and entertainment, and there are books that actually enrich your life. The House At Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper was definitely in the latter category for me. I finished the book last night and hungrily read every word of the Author’s Note, Acknowledgements, and Author’s Bio because I just didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to Helene and her amazing family yet.

The House At Sugar Beach is actually two stories, interwoven. It’s the story of a girl’s childhood and evolution to adulthood, but it’s also the story of a country with a unique and fascinating past and a horrifying present.

Helene spent her first fourteen years living an idyllic and familiar kind of childhood at her family’s home in and near Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa. Helene’s story is a classic coming-of-age story, filled with normal childhood joys and fears, in a close, loving extended family. Some of Helene’s memories are ones every girl can relate to: days at the beach with her sisters, reading Nancy Drew books at night with a flashlight, and the typical adolescent angst surrounding her first crush.

Other memories are uniquely Liberian, like being afraid of rogues (robbers who come to your house at night) and neegees (mythical beings that can grab kids and pull them under the water while they’re swimming). Here she describes a local game her cousin taught her to play:

Tello was teaching me how to play knock-foot, a girls’ game where players hop on one foot and kick toward their opponents with the other foot. Knock-foot involved intricate maneuvers that need rhythm and balance. The Country People had thought it up. Knock-foot is sort of like rock, paper, scissors with feet. A good knock-foot session between two girls who know what they’re doing looks like dancing, with each girl bobbing, kicking, and clapping to a precise beat.

Liberia itself is like an extra character in the book, its unique history a backdrop to everything that happens in Helene’s life. Liberia, Africa’s first independent country, was established in the 1820’s by groups of free blacks from the United States. I was fascinated by this piece of history that I had never learned about in any of my Social Studies classes: in 1820, the American Colonization Society sent ships of freed black Americans back to Africa to establish a colony (which later became an independent state).

Helene describes how her distant ancestors continue to have a significant effect on her own life in the 20th century:

The chain started by those two men would eventually separate me from most black people in America, at the same time separating me from most black people in Africa. Their names were Elijah Johnson and Randolph Cooper. They were my great-great-great-great grandfathers. At the turn of the nineteenth century in pre-Civil War America, they both belonged to that nebulous class of freed-blacks-once-removed from southern plantations.

When presented the choice between America and Africa, they chose Africa. Because of that choice, I would not grow up, 150 years later, as an American black girl, weighed down by racial stereotypes of welfare queens. Nor would I have to deal with the burdens of a sub-Saharan African girl, with a life expectancy of about 40 years, yanked out of school at the age of eleven so I could fetch water and cook over a coal pot and bear babies barely younger than myself.

Instead, those two men handed down to me a one-in-a-million lottery ticket: birth into what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa’s first independent country, Liberia.

I must admit I had never heard of Liberia’s history before, and its uniqueness captivated me. Later, when Helene is a teenager, 150-year old class struggles between native Liberians and the American descendants finally erupt, as the country provides another kind of backdrop for Helene’s story, that of a nation torn apart by war and violence.

Helene’s story – and Liberia’s – was enthralling from start to finish. Her memoir was entertaining, educational, and enriching. You can’t ask for more than that from a book, can you?