Category Archives: India

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Memoirs of Traveling with Family #books

Travel memoirs are one of my favorite types of nonfiction. There’s one on this list for every mood. Some of these are literally laugh-out-loud funny; others may start you bawling before the end, or will at least bring a tear to your eye.

The list is in alphabetical order, of course.

cover imageFour Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2007)
Before Anthony Doerr became famous for the novel All the Light We Cannot See, he had to write the book. He writes about working on it (and about not working on it) in Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir about the author’s year in Rome with a studio to write in and an apartment to live in, covered by a stipend.
Literary and lyrical except for a few episodes of parenting panic and moments when he wonders “what was I thinking when I accepted the Rome Prize with newborn twins?”, this book about reading, writing, and the terrifying and wonderful experience of being a new parent and living for a year in the heart of Rome when you don’t speak much Italian will appeal to readers of literary memoirs.

cover image audiobookIncontinent on the Continent: My Mother, Her Walker, and Our Grand Tour of Italy (Audio) by Jane Christmas, read by Eileen Barrett (PostHypnotic Press, 2009)
Incontinent on the Continent is a serio-comic travelogue about a six-week trip through Italy that the author, an adult (in her 50s) takes with her aging mother in an attempt to repair their fragile relationship before it’s too late. The dream trip turns into somewhat of a nightmare as the author’s expectations and what her mother wants to do (and is physically capable of doing) don’t coincide; the weather won’t cooperate; and the hoped-for mother/daughter bonding doesn’t come easy. The book is funny, but cringe-worthy in a lot of places.
The audiobook narration is great and, since the author learned conversational Italian in preparation for the trip, the book includes frequent snippets in Italian.
Read AudioFile review of Incontinent on the Continent

cover imageAn Innocent, a Broad by Ann Leary (William Morrow, 2004)
Back in 1990, when her husband Dennis Leary was an unknown comedian, he was hoping for his big break on a weekend jaunt to London. He got his big break, but his pregnant wife’s waters break while she’s walking down a London street. Only 26 weeks along, Ann Leary is put on bed rest, and due to the premature birth of their son, the Learys don’t return home to the U.S. for five months.
If you’ve read either of the author’s novels (The Good House, Outtakes from a Marriage) you know Ann Leary has a caustic sense of humor that manages to be essentially kind, and she writes about her experience figuring out the English people, the National Health Service, and first-time parenthood with a graceful wit.

cover imageTaking the Kids to Italy by Roland Merullo (PFP Publishing, 2013)
Originally published in serial form, Taking the Kids to Italy is the author’s account of a disastrous family vacation with his wife, two very young daughters, and his mother (who has the patience of a saint, and is a tremendously good sport). The humor that the adults can see in retrospect doesn’t always manage to cover the despair that seeps into the narrative, but I found myself laughing despite myself. The author has also written a memoir about a wonderful family trip abroad – The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como (Simon & Schuster, 2009) – which would probably make a good companion read.

cover imageThree Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks and Micah Sparks (Grand Central, 2006)
It’s been years since I read this with a book club, but I do remember being surprised at how much I liked it. The bestselling author of tear-jerker novels such as The Notebook, Nicholas Sparks has actually experienced more than his share of tragedy in real life, and this book is a result of realizing your world can change in an instant. In Three Weeks with My Brother, he and his brother – both in their mid-thirties and the only surviving members of their family – share their experience of traveling around the world, hitting major global landmarks like Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal, and musing on fate and faith. (The Christian or spiritual aspect of the book is very low-key, if I remember correctly.)

cover imageTraveling While Married: How to Take a Trip with Your Spouse and Come Back Together by Mary-Lou Weisman (Workman, 2003)
This is a collection of humorous essays, illustrated with drawings by Edward Koren, that are laugh-out-loud funny. (Or maybe you have to be married?, I don’t know!) From the publisher: “This is the real skinny on what happens when Mars and Venus hit the road. With a sly wink, a comic nod, and just the right amount of optimism, Weisman shows us that despite the shortcomings of one’s beloved, harmonious travel is possible.”
Written by a wife, but her own foibles and failings are just as funny as her husband’s.

cover imageUntil I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living With Joy  by Susan Spencer-Wendel (HarperCollins, 2013)
When the author, a journalist, is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she has been in denial for some time, so her physical decline is steep and sharp after the diagnosis. If you choose to read this memoir, which she laboriously typed out first on an iPad and then on a phone, which was all she had the physical ability to manage, you will probably cry your way through it as I did, but you will marvel at the emotional strength she holds onto for the sake of her husband and three children. She decides to fill the year she has left with trips with family members – going with each child to a place of his/her choosing, and taking trips with her sister, her best friend, her husband.
While every page may not be beautifully written, the language she uses to tell the story of her final months spent making joyful memories for those she’ll be leaving behind is never sugarcoated and is very moving.

Nonfiction Friday badge with text listing different Dewey Decimal subjects, e.g. literature, religion, technologyThis post is linked up to Nonfiction Friday at Doing Dewey

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Audio) @HachetteAudio

cover image of Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere’d You Go, Bernadette, a first novel by Maria Semple, narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite, is a audiobook bargain at $14.98. It came highly recommended around the blogosphere, but at first the story seemed too self-consciously quirky and to hold back an annoying amount of information. I also thought the narrator’s voice for fifteen-year-old Bee (who tells a large portion of the story in her own words) would irritate me. (It seemed too babyish, and I kept thinking Bee was ten years old or so until something reminded me she was a teenager was planning to go to boarding school the next year.) The volume level from one character’s voice to another’s seemed to vary more widely than usual, too – screeches and yells bursting into my ear at high volume and then low conversational tones – so that I found myself adjusting the volume up and down.

But after an hour or so, I settled in and enjoyed Kathleen Wilhoite’s enthusiasm and liveliness. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is her first audiobook narration. It’s also the first one I’ve listened to where the narrator can actually sing. There is one scene in the story where Bee hears the song Holy Night sung at a concert and the author quotes a couple of verses and the chorus as Bee listens, rapt. Kathleen Wilhoite sings the whole thing beautifully, instead of reading the lyrics aloud as I’ve heard other narrators do. She even nails that impossibly high note while having to keep the volume restrained.

Along with Bee’s point of view, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a compilation of documents such as report cards, email correspondence, FBI files, magazine articles, and transcripts of recorded conversations, that slowly come together to form a complete picture of the missing Bernadette — who from one viewpoint is an artistic genius architect, from another a depressed agoraphobe, and from yet another, a crazy recluse and neglectful mother. The fragmented narrative structure can make the story seem to jump around a bit, as it shows readers the same event from several angles. Patience is required from the reader before all the bits of information begin to cohere.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette has a lot of references to Microsoft – where Bernadette’s husband works as a software developer/genius – and to Seattle, where Bee attends the progressive Gaylor Street School. Excerpts from Bee’s latest Gaylor Street School report card appear at the start of the book:

“Bee is a pure delight. Her love of learning is infectious, as are her kindness and humor.”

“Bee is unafraid to ask questions. Her goal is always deep understanding of a given topic.”

Bee’s excellent report card leads her to ask her parents if they remember their long-ago promise to give her whatever she wanted for a graduation gift if she gets perfect grades all the way through school. (“I do remember,” says Bernadette, weakly. “It was to ward off further talk of a pony.”) Bee excitedly requests a family trip to Antarctica. The mere idea practically sends agoraphobic Bernadette off the deep end. But, loving Bee, and wanting to honor her promise, Bernadette begins to plan for the trip, enlisting the help of a virtual personal assistant in India. Through the documents presented in the book, readers see Bernadette’s panic grow as the date for departure looms, and the once close-knit family begins to break apart under the strain.

If you liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a quirky quest story out of San Francisco about Google and books, you might also like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which has a quirky daughter on a quest to understand what happened to her quirky mother, with insider jokes about Microsoft and Seattle (minus the fantasy elements of MP24HB.) The humor in Where’d You Go, Bernadette also reminded me of the light/dark humor in The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, with its family dynamic of borderline-crazy parents and resourceful children.

For a chuckle, watch the book trailer of the author (a screenwriter for the TV show Arrested Development) as she tries to explain to booksellers, critics, fellow authors, and random people on the street what Where’d You Go, Bernadette is about.

Listen to an excerpt from Where’d You Go, Bernadette from Hachette Audio here.

Read the AudioFile review of Where’d You Go, Bernadette here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Semple, Maria
Wilhoite, Kathleen (narr.)
9.5 hours on 9 CDs
$14.98 US/$16.50 CAN

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook from the public library.

Other opinions on the audiobook edition of Where’d You Go, Bernadette (all excellent):
Care’s Online Book Club
A Library of One’s Own
That’s What She Read
You’ve Gotta Read This

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.


Trouble on the Vineyard: The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad (Audio) @MacmillanAudio

cover image of The Caretaker audiobookMost of this intriguing literary thriller, The Caretaker by A. X. Ahmad, takes place in the off-season on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and in the Boston and Cambridge area, where the author (now in Washington, DC) attended MIT, so there are many familiar references for readers familiar with Massachusetts, but also an added layer of difference – a slight foreignness – because the places are seen through the eyes of the main character, Ranjit Singh, a Sikh from India – ex-Indian military – who has been in the U.S. for under three years.

Ranjit (pronounced with the “a” as in “arm” and the “i” as in “it”, emphasis on the first syllable) and his family have struggled to start a new life in the U.S. after a career disgrace in the military. For the past six months on Martha’s Vineyard, Ranjit worked as an independent landscaper, but now winter is coming on, the tourists have left, and it looks as though he will be forced back to working in his wife’s uncle’s cramped Cambridge shop. So when the wife of a popular African-American senator he did landscaping for offers him a job keeping an eye on their expensive house during the off-season, he leaps at the chance to stay on the island.

When he lands a second caretaking job on the strength of the senator’s reference, things seem to be looking up for Ranjit, his unhappy wife Preetam, and his Americanized young daughter Shanti. The prejudice and suspicion that his dark skin, beard, and turban engendered in parts of Boston he has infrequently encountered on Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a longstanding colony of African-American elite and a tradition of what the author describes as “the island’s easy tolerance.”

From this somewhat hopeful beginning, the story covers a lot of ground in 10½ hours of audio (or just under 300 pages) including flashbacks to Ranjit’s time as an army captain on the Siachen Glacier – a high-altitude Himalayan battleground on the disputed border of India and Pakistan – and problems mount quickly for Ranjit, who hadn’t realized how expensive life on the island would be. (Now he understands why most of the foreign migrant workers leave in the winter.) Amid a rash of burglaries on the island, the senator’s house is broken into, but this break-in doesn’t fit the pattern. In the senator’s house, the thieves seemed to be looking for something in particular. When they don’t find it, they decide Ranjit must have it. Now they need to find Ranjit.

Sam Dastor, a British actor, narrates the audiobook; he was surprisingly hard to find information about. He was born in 1941 in Mumbai (known to the rest of the world as Bombay, at the time), and has played roles both of Indians and of Englishmen. This explains how he does the voices of the Indian characters in The Caretaker so convincingly, while the American accents seem a little less natural. The rest of the book is narrated with a British inflection that is very well suited to the story. The women’s voices (Ranjit’s wife and the senator’s wife) verge on the falsetto and, unfortunately, makes the American-inflected voice of Ranjit’s spirited nine-year-old daughter Shanti really grating in a way I couldn’t put my finger on, until I read the AudioFile review which called it “singsong” and that’s it, exactly. In the end, I decided, the excellence of the male voices (which make up the bulk of the story) and the rest of the narration, outweighed the shortcomings in the female voices, but I wouldn’t recommend The Caretaker to someone venturing into audiobooks for the first time.

I enjoyed The Caretaker as a thriller-style variation on the Indian-immigrant-to-America theme. The numerous Indian references are easy to understand from context or get explained. Even though, as in most thrillers, some of the plot points seem a little unbelievable and there are (inevitably?) a couple of sex-in-times-of-danger scenes, the author brings in issues of undocumented immigrants, international politics, personal ethics, race relations, Sikh religious beliefs, patriotism, and the delicate balance of individual initiative and subservience in military and public service – without slowing down the action of the book too much.

Over all, the book’s themes are dark and complex, and the distinctions between good characters and bad characters are, at times, murky, which would be why this book is billed as a “literary” thriller. (By the standards of the American thriller genre, the guy in the turban who looks like he might be Arabic is probably going to be the bad guy, not the main character.) It’s not literary enough to make this a personal favorite, but the author has made a successful leap into popular fiction and I would happily listen to The Caretaker‘s sequel, which I would bet is in the works.

Listen to an excerpt from The Caretaker from Macmillan Audio here.

Read the AudioFile Magazine review of The Caretaker here.

The Caretaker
Ahmad, A.X.
Dastor, Sam (narr.)
10.5 hours on 9 CDs
$39.99 US/$45.99 CAN

Sound Bytes badgeThis review is linked up to Sound Bytes, a weekly link-up of audiobook reviews at Devourer of Books.