Monday, April 28, 2014

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Main character:  almost-17 year old Dimple Lala
Location: New Jersey, Manhattan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA fiction, children of immigrants

Dimple Lala is a high school student, a first-generation Indian American who is trying so hard to be American that she is in danger of leaving the Indian behind.  Her best friend, Gwyn, is a golden goddess, a blonde and beautiful all-American girl, and Dimple wants to be more like her.  Gwyn, on the other hand, wants to be more like Dimple--a girl with two parents who love her and each other and who has a wonderfully exotic cultural heritage.

When Dimple's parents want her to meet the son of a family friend, Dimple is predisposed to not like him--she wants to choose someone of her own to fall in love with, not have her parents arrange her life for her.  The first meeting with Karsh does not go well, but as she encounters him in different situations and learns more about him she finds herself drawn to him.  The trouble is Gwyn is also attracted to Karsh and who could possibly see Dimple when Gwyn is in the room (or so Dimple thinks.)

In the beginning of the book, Dimple is really very self-centered.  Her parents don't understand her, they don't understand her photography, they embarrass her.  As we progress though the summer, however, she comes to learn to look outside herself.  She hears stories about her parents from Karsh's mother--about how her mother was a dancer who was good enough to make a career of it but who gave it up to be a wife and mother, about how her father was a simple country boy who was absolutely floored by the beautiful dancer--and about Gwyn's unhappy and neglected childhood when Gwyn tells Karsh.  These were stories Dimple never heard before, but then again she never asked.

Dimple's own passion is her photography and that is a metaphor for her journey during this summer.  At first she only works with black-and-white film, just like she sees everything in black or white.  A cousin who has come from India to go to college in New York gives her a large supply of color film to work with.  This cousin also opens Dimple's eyes to a world beyond her suburban New Jersey life--a world that includes many Indians/Indian Americans/South Asians who are also trying to understand themselves and their place in the world.

This book was originally published in 2003, and is being republished in paperback in anticipation of the sequel coming out in a few months.  At first, not realizing that it was a reprint, I was a little off kilter because of some of the the 11 year old details.  For one thing, Dimple works with film rather than digital pictures.  It really is necessary for her to work with film--being in the darkroom and developing and printing her own pictures is the one place Dimple can really be herself.  In developing pictures, she reveals things; uploading a digital picture and editing with Photoshop would allow too much to be altered or hidden and would destroy the metaphor. 

I really loved the use of language in this book.  The parents have a way of creating rhyming phrases that suggest a musical lilt, and Gwyn's misuse of language is playful, like a secret code all her own.  The ending may be a little too perfect, too fairytale-like, but it feels right.

I read this book as an e-book from NetGalley.  This republication Born Confused is scheduled to be released April 29, 2014.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Main characters: Anana (aka Alice), Bart, Doug
Location: Manhattan and Oxford, England
Time period: Near future
Genre:  Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction

I found this book utterly delightful.  Not just for the thriller plotline and characters, but for the clever thesis, examination of language and communication, speculation on over-dependence on computers, and references to other works.  (I am such a sucker for clever things.)

Ana is worried about her father, Doug, who missed a dinner date with her.  As she tries to locate him, she discovers that he has seemingly disappeared without a trace from his office, where he is the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, which is about to release the massive 3rd edition.  Bart, a co-worker of Doug's, tries to downplay Ana's fears but soon even he has to admit that something is wrong.

That simple setup does nothing to prepare you for the rabbit hole that this story plunges into.  In a near future where most Americans are literally addicted to their smart phones, a corporation is attempting to monetize language by buying up the copyrights to all the printed dictionaries, then destroying the printed copies so that people are forced to use the only online dictionary--The Word Exchange--where they are charged per word lookup.  Next, a game encourages people to make up their own words.  Soon, whispers of a word flu begin to leak out and a virus attacks both computers and human brains, threatening to destroy language entirely.

The delight begins with the table of contents, where you see that the chapters are named in alphabetical order.  The chapter titles are then matched with definitions that recall those of Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer.  For example, empanada is defined as "a source of considerable digestive discomfort."  Compare that to Johnson's definition of oats: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Samuel Johnson's dictionary is a running theme in this novel, even down to Doug and Ana's surname of Johnson.  Another literary work that is referenced is is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Doug's fondness for nicknames leads him to refer to Ana as Alice, and there is a reference to the poem, Jabberwocky, which is filled with made up words.  And who can forget Humpty Dumpty's assertion that "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Though not referenced this work, I was also reminded of another science fiction book I recently read--Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which also has a running theme of a virus that affects both computers and minds.

I wonder what Grant and Martha from A Way with Words will think of The Word Exchange.

I read this as an e-ARC from NetGalley.  The Word Exchange is scheduled for release on April 8.