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Reading Notes May 2021

Reading Notes May 2021

Mary Cassatt: The Reader

1. What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

A lovely middle grade novel about a boy in Nepal, a foundling whose adoptive father is head of the royal elephant stable. Nandu was found in the jungle being watched over by wild dogs; he says that his father is the stable head and his mother is the elephant Devi Kali.

The king is closing the stable after an unsuccessful tiger hunt and transferring the elephants to a different stable. Nandu and his friend Rita come up with a plan to save the stable. Also, Nandu is sent to school where he meets an American Jesuit priest who is a naturalist and who takes Nandu under his wing as an assistant naturalist. And Nandu helps to capture the bandit Maroons who have been stealing from the poor and who seriously wound one of his friends.

I really liked the deliberate parallels with Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which Nandu finds in the library at the school and with which he identifies greatly.

2. The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Parvana lives in Kabul under the rule of the Taliban. Her family live in one small room and her mother and sister never leave the house because they would have to go with a male relative. Parvana’s father lost one of his legs and she accompanies him to the market where he reads and writes letters for people and sells some of their household goods. They were once well off, her mother was a teacher, but their houswas bombed and then their new house was bombed. They’ve lost almost everything, including her older brother Hossain. Then when Parvana’s father is arrested by the Taliban she must find a way to feed her family. Her mother cuts off her hair and she dresses as a boy. 

This is the first book in a series. It was very short, just 150 pages, and ends with Parvana’s family separated

3. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The first of the Ibis Trilogy. Set in India in the 1830s the novel centers around the opium trade. The first character we meet and the one who seems to draw all the others together is Deeti, an Indian woman whose husband was a soldier in the British army. Wounded in battle, he is now an opium addict. He works in an opium factory, packing opium to be sent to China. Deeti grows the poppies from which the opium is made– she has no choice, the British are forcing a monoculture which is ruining the local economy and driving the farmers deeper into poverty and dependence. When Deeti’s husband dies she is driven to despair at her dependence on his loathesome family and decides to commit suicide. But she is rescued by Kalua, a driver who she had rescued years before, and together they set off on an adventure which eventually leads them to emigration to Mauritius on the Ibis. The story follows many different people who sail with them on the Ibis— a lovely storytelling device introduces each new person by telling the reader how some day in the future Deeti will memorialize them on the wall of her shrine— but we never see this shrine in the book. There is Paulette, an orphaned French girl, daughter of an eccentric naturalist. There is her friend Jodu, whose mother nursed Paulette as a baby and who Paulette sees as a brother. There is Neel, a Raja who has been found guilty of forgery and is being transported as a criminal and the Chinese opium addict Ah Fatt who is his fellow prisoner. Zachary, an American who rose from carpenter to second mate of the Ibis and acting captain when the first mate deserted and the captain took ill and died. And Serang Ali, the leader of the lascars who sail the ship. And various Englishmen and Indian characters. The book changes point of view often and the language can be hard to follow. There is violence and sexual violence and cruelty and degradation. So it’s not a story for the faint of heart. But there is also friendship and the way the immigrants of the Ibis become a new family. I’m looking forward to the next book of the trilogy.

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