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21. The Holder of the World by Bharati Mukherjee

About the book (Library Journal via Amazon)
Exotic locales and historical-genealogical connections color this novel by the author of Jasmine. Beigh is a contemporary New England woman of Indian (that is, "Indian-Indian, not wah-wah Indian") heritage, who is in love with technocrat Venn from India. Beigh is obsessed with antiquities. The graduate work she was doing on the Puritans had led her to the discovery of one of her ancestors, a Hannah Easton, who traveled from her home in New England all the way to India with her trader husband. The author has woven together Hannah's story with Beigh's search for ancient jewels and legends. Mukherjee writes about all these unusual times and places with a style that is mesmerizing. Unfortunately, the dialog of bygone eras too frequently sounds contrived. Recommended for larger fiction collections.

My impressions
I thought the story of Hannah via Beigh's recounting was mostly compelling and interesting though I'm not sure how accurate it was. On the whole, I liked the book but what really bothered me was that there is this climax that the book is supposed to be building towards - this supposedly amazing destiny for Hannah - and then when it gets there, it feels....weird, anti-climatic and in parts, really depressing and rushed. I was also bothered by the character of the faithful local servant, Bhagmati. I felt she was so used and even though some of the choices seemed to be her own (like choosing to stay with Hannah, who lives in her former master's house for a time, and is kinder to her than the other white folk), mostly it feels like she's there to help Hannah. For example, she has a past job as an elephant tender and when, lo and behold, they later meet an elephant that crushes skulls, she's able to tell it to do something else and save them. Also, seriously, she has a shrine to her former master? The criticism that the dialogue sounds contrived didn't bother me too much since I was reading it as a story told by someone in the present-day.

22. Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

About the book (excerpt from review)
Outliers can be enjoyed for its bits of trivia, like why most pro hockey players were born in January, how many hours of practice it takes to master a skill, why the descendents of Jewish immigrant garment workers became the most powerful lawyers in New York, how a pilots' culture impacts their crash record, how a centuries-old culture of rice farming helps Asian kids master math. But there's more to it than that. Throughout all of these examples--and in more that delve into the social benefits of lighter skin color, and the reasons for school achievement gaps--Gladwell invites conversations about the complex ways privilege manifests in our culture. He leaves us pondering the gifts of our own history, and how the world could benefit if more of our kids were granted the opportunities to fulfill their remarkable potential.

My impressions
I'm a fan of Gladwell so I feel he's doing what he does best - writing in an engaging style and raising interesting points and most of them new or at least presented in a new way to me, though obviously not to everyone. I was especially taken by the ideas raised when talking about why (East) Asian kids are so good at math and how it relates to rice-growing.

The book was also thought-provoking in terms of getting me to think about how the ideas apply to me - what factors have helped me and my family, what am I good at, what have I invested 10 000 hours in (!!!), etc. All of which is kind of sobering for me. There are no firm lessons or practical solutions but Gladwell doesn't usually write those anyway. All in all, enjoyable and enlightening.

23. Dream Wheels by Richard Wagamese

About the book (from Random House website)
Joe Willie Wolfchild is on the verge of becoming a World Champion rodeo cowboy when a legendary bull cripples him. At the same time, in the same city, Claire Hartley is brutally assaulted and her 14-year-old son, Aiden, is critically injured during a burglary. The young Ojibway-Sioux man, the black single mother and her mulatto son find their lives irrevocably changed.

Joe Willie, a rodeo cowboy since he was a child, smolders in angry silence over a deformed left arm and a limp that make it impossible for him to compete. Claire, a victim of numerous bad relationships, withdraws from men and swears a bitter celibacy. Aiden gains notoriety among his criminal peers and slips into a self-destructive spiral of drugs and violence.

Eager to find a place for her son to channel his explosive energies, Claire brings Aiden to a rodeo camp run by the Wolfchild family, where he is drawn to bull riding and proves to be a stunning natural. But Joe Willie refuses to have anything to do with the camp, remaining an aloof, mysterious presence to Claire and the boy.

Birch Wolfchild, Joe Willie’s father, sees the potential for Aiden to become a champion and for his son to heal himself, if they can move beyond anger to forge a partnership. Claire’s and Joe Willie’s wounds bring them together in a surprising romance, and beneath it all is Birch Wolfchild’s tale of the changing of the life of the Indian cowboy.

Dream Wheels is a story about change. Moving from the Wild West Shows of the late 1880s to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas to a lush valley in the mountains, it tells the story of a people’s journey, a family’s vision, a man’s reawakening, a woman’s recovery, and a boy’s emergence to manhood.

My impressions
Content note: as seen in the above description, there are two potentially triggering events described early and graphically in the book (career-ending bull-riding injury; domestic assault and rape).

- This book was compelling enough even though I found it an annoying read at times. It's definitely not as good as the description above implies, unfortunately.
- The writing style was very much not following 'show, don't tell' and I felt I was almost being preached to on every other page or being given a lot of pills - sorry, insights - to swallow all the time.
- The characters also rang false so often, especially their dialogue, which would be 'profound' one moment and using vernacular unnaturally the next.
 - Surprisingly for me, the ambiguous ending was in the book's favour because even the conflict felt forced and I didn't feel as if everything would not right itself.
- I understand that there is a range in the strength of spiritual and cultural connection among present-day Indians (Native Americans) but this felt too 'mystical Indian' to me, especially juxtaposed with a book like The Absolutely True Story of a Part-time Indian. They sounded too perfect. I honestly felt that if one of the other characters - or really, the author speaking through the characters none too subtly - said anything again about how amazingly wonderful (insightful, enlightened, all-seeing...) the protagonists were, I would throw the book across the room.
- Plus you throw in the 'mystical' stuff that happens and it's too over-the-top for a book that's not trying to be fantastical. If there were less descriptions of how awesome and in tune everyone is, I think the more subtle spiritual aspects would have had more resonance and meaning. Instead, it's goes past the point of ridiculousness.
- Another positive thing I remember was the passage about how one of the characters, an Indian man, feels about his (lost) cultural and spiritual heritage and how it affects how he views his white wife. It was a metaphor involving the world as a big eraser smudging people's lives and how his wife helped him find the edges, the detail he needed. But then the author ruins that later by laying it on thickly about how she is one of those rare people who really get it, etc., etc.
- Gah, the book was kind of hilarious when it got so over the top. But it was frustrating too because it could've been so much better! It had so much potential! I think the author maybe got a little too ambitious because he started all these threads and not all of them amounted to much. For example, the female protagonist's son wants to be a cowboy and he's black and there are some almost throwaway lines about the great tradition of black cowboys and then nothing much more. Though I'm glad the author left the relationship between Joe Willie and Claire at a platonic stage.
- I don't really recommend this book but if you must read it, do so in small doses.


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January 2013

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