Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Have in my Arms Both Ways

I Have in my Arms Both Ways – Adrienne Jansen

Partly because I’m not sure how to review this book and partly because I’m not feeling particularly verbose, I’ll keep this short. “I Have in my Arms Both Ways” is a collection of stories from 10 immigrant women living in New Zealand. Although it was put together in 1990, it’s not dated; their stories are still relevant because they are history. Each woman spends a long time reflecting on growing up in her home country before briefly addressing the challenges she has faced in New Zealand. The differences in the stories offer touching and sentimental expressions of childhood against the background of class struggles, warfare, or political upheaval. I particularly enjoyed reading this book at this time because it is so relevant to me. The struggles of trying to make a home in a country outside the one where you grew up seem to have some universal difficulties, including the interminably slow language-learning process and the inability to find the comfort foods you grew up with (it’s actually really reassuring to know that food and lack of what is familiar seems to be one of the biggest problems with migration in general – I’m not crazy for still missing macaroni and cheese!). I also loved this book because it was a strong but nonjudgmental reminder of how culture is so ingrained that we don’t notice it when we are living in it. The women tell their own stories, share their own beliefs, and comment on how it differs from the New Zealand culture they now try to call home. The difficulties of trying to adjust and adapt to a new culture while simultaneously trying to create a life are things that you would never think about in daily life, but show the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It may not be the most professional writing, but the occasional lapses in perfect English make these stories all the more personal, which is exactly what you would want when reading immigrants’ stories. This book was so good that instead of putting it back on the library shelves, I passed it straight on to another person.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

East of the Sun

East of the Sun – Julia Gregson

Viva Holloway, who, despite a lifetime of experiences, is barely an adult, hires herself out to chaperon three other people, barely adults either, on a voyage from England to India. Viva undertakes the journey with the mixed motivations of running away, finding home, and facing the past in order to move into the future, and doesn’t question the sensibility of chaperoning these three other young adults. It results in a little scuffle onboard, and rippling consequences once they all arrive in India. Though they all go their separate ways – one to get married, one to find a husband, one to find trouble, and one to find home – but they all remain connected by the relationships they built on the ship. Having spent her childhood in India, Viva finds herself on familiar yet unknown territory, but her charges are all new to the country. As they settle into their new lives, they find that they are able to build relationships and homes despite the uncertainties that come with a foreign language, land, and culture.

There were a couple things I really liked about “East of the Sun.” It had lots of quotable lines (I actually wrote some of them down), it covers the thrill of making home out of a foreign land, and of course the danger and romance needed to put it at that almost-fairy-tale level of real life that we all want to live in. It was a fun book, but it felt a little flat at times. Some of the descriptions were magical, but many were just descriptions. Similarly, the emotions the characters went through were relatable enough, but they didn’t come off quite as charged as I would imagine them. Despite the flat moments, though, it was still a good read. The normal lessons of learning to trust others, learning to let go, and learning to ask for help are emphasized because it happens in the context of a foreign country, but it also reminds us that even under the most normal circumstances, life always requires navigating uncertainty.

I could get really nitpicky about the details. Some of the sentences were awkwardly ordered and required a thorough reading instead of being glossed over in a quick reading. There were a few typos. And she wrote the weather wrong. According to her novel, it snows at Christmas in India, as it does in England, instead of being the hottest season of the year as it actually is in the southern hemisphere. Maybe my geography is bad – I know there are parts of India that actually stick up really far into the northern hemisphere and there are plenty of areas that get tons of snow, but surely it doesn’t snow everywhere in India at Christmas. But that’s being really nitpicky. It’s a romantic, nostalgic travel story that makes me want to go to India, and it’s entertaining enough to be fun and engaging throughout its almost 600-page entirety.