Summer Reading, 2011

This summer has so far been chock full of great fiction and nonfiction, about crossing and/or understanding cultures. Here are some fun, provocative, informative, and inspiring books.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (2010, Riverhead Books) tells the fictional but real story of Kimberly and her mother, newly arrived in New York City from Hong Kong. We learn of the dual life of Kimberly who excels at school (after being humiliated by a teacher because of her limited English) and joins her mother at the garment factory after school. The daily struggle to understand the new worlds of school and work, wealth and abject poverty, immigrant Chinese and American White is made palpable through vivid detail and dialogue.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010, 2011, Crown) won numerous awards and was a New York Times best seller for good reason. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins University Hospital complaining of a “knot” in her stomach. She was eventually diagnosed with cancer and died shortly after. A standard enough tale for a poor Black woman in segregated Maryland of the 1950s. Except that her cells were taken without her knowledge or consent, and grown into cell lines now known as HeLa, and central to much medical research and drug testing. The disparity between the lofty achievements of the disembodied cells, the acclaim for the scientists who worked on them, and the persistent poverty and attendant challenges for the Lacks family is poignant and painful to read, not least because it’s all true.

Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel by Isabelle Allende (2010, HarperCollins) follows Zarité, a mulatto slave in pre-revolutionary Haiti, through revolution and onto pre-Civil War Louisiana. How did people understand their world? How did land and slave owners, medical people, artisans, slaves, free people of color, traders, military people and others interact? What was the relationship between men and women and among women, with complications of shades and class? What did they question and what did they take for granted? How did old ways take root and mutate in new soil? Allende’s imagination and description are powerful indeed.

Secret Daughter: A Novel is a first novel by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (2010, HarperCollins). It moves between an upper-middle class couple in America—she White, he Indian—their relationship, their adopted Indian daughter and her search for an integrated identity and an trials of the poor Indian family that surrendered a child for adoption. To move from the challenges of interracial family members in well-off California to the tribulations of struggling peasants who’ve moved to Bombay for the promise of upward mobility is a marvelous opportunity to understand our simultaneous connectedness and separation.

I reread J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007, Arthur A. Levine Books). Beyond a good romp into the world of magic, the final installment in the Potter series is an allegory for dealing with venal politicians and power without love. It takes courage to stand up to forces that would rule the world for their own sake, exile those who are not “pureblood” along with their supporters, and shed blood callously. Courage, friendship, and honor win the day but not without a fight and sacrifice. That the characters can cast spells and we just have to work with mortal bodies and in linear time doesn’t diminish the lessons.