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DUAL REVIEW:  Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

DUAL REVIEW: Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

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Dear Readers,

When Sunita was on daily deals duty during Jane’s vacation, she came up with this interesting looking book.

After miraculously surviving a serious illness, Katherine Rich found herself at an impasse in her career as a magazine editor. She spontaneously accepted a freelance writing assignment to go to India, where she found herself thunderstruck by the place and the language, and before she knew it she was on her way to Udaipur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, in order to learn Hindi. Rich documents her experiences—ranging from the bizarre to the frightening to the unexpectedly exhilarating—using Hindi as the lens through which she is given a new perspective not only on India, but on the radical way the country and the language itself were changing her. Fascinated by the process, she went on to interview linguistics experts around the world, reporting back from the frontlines of the science wars on what happens in the brain when we learn a new language. She brings both of these experiences together seamlessly in Dreaming in Hindi, a remarkably unique and thoughtful account of self-discovery.

I was intrigued at the thought of reading about an adult learning a second language and once I’d got a copy, I read it fairly quickly. Never having had the pleasure of visiting India, I emailed Sunita to ask her opinion on it and we agreed to do a dual review. Though we both found certain things about it to be interesting, ultimately the book didn’t live up to what we hoped for.

Jayne: Her actual experiences are interesting – usually, even more so when she can tie them into known language learning situations, academic approaches to language learning, plateaus and real life examples. There are times when she tries to bring in discussions and arguments in the 2L community when the narrative veers off course and flounders around. I found myself skimming these. Short and sweet worked but lengthy discourses that deviated too much from her life in India didn’t.

Sunita: I agree that the constant switches between her life and the academic research on second language acquisition didn’t work. Sometimes (often?) she would switch in the middle of a paragraph, and I felt as if she was trying to find an academic reason for each of her language-learning difficulties. At first it was interesting but it got wearying after a while.

Jayne: She was initially in India during a pivotal period of world events namely 9/11 which affected her start in India, her name at the deaf school she volunteered at – which the children invented as a plane flying into a tower – and the fall out of anti-Muslim/pro Hindu violence that erupted in chilling events there.

Her actual time spent in India is usually told straight forwardly but there are times when she builds up to some major reveal and then backs off and doesn’t deliver the promised goods until much later. She meets lots of people outside of her host family and the other scholars and teachers at the school but many of them bounce in and out of the frame and I wasted time trying to remember who they were when they reappeared chapters later with no reintroduction.

Sunita: That’s a really good point, and I think it’s something quite a few readers would have problems with. I was mostly able to keep them straight but I think familiarity with the names as well as familiarity withe the different roles the Indians played helped too. I can get lost when I’m reading a book set in a different culture, and I think that’s a potential problem here.

Jayne: Well, for me it wasn’t all about keeping the Indians straight as I had trouble remembering who some of the expats were too. Another thing that didn’t interest me as much as it did Rich is the time she spends when she veers off-road – so to speak – and delves into sign language. But her observations on how the Indians view her are fascinating. As an older, middle aged divorced woman she faces obstacles her younger and male colleagues simply don’t.

Sunita: Yes, I agree. She fits in well with the Western, expat residents, but to many of the Indians her decision to study Hindi, while flattering, doesn’t make sense given the roles assigned to women of her age. I also thought it was interesting that they couldn’t have cared less about her career. She isn’t in a role they recognize, i.e., doctor, professor, engineer, so they just ignore what she does.

Jayne: As for her second language learning as an adult, she seems to hit and reach all the issues, snags, roadblocks, highs and lows which are common for people attempting the same thing. For anyone thinking of tackling a second language as an adult, this is valuable insight into what they might face and need to be wary of and overcome.

Sunita: I mostly agree, although I think she commits the common fallacy of acting as if her difficulties are generalizable and understandable. Sometimes I just wanted to tell her, “you’re bad at it because you’re bad at it.” I thought it was interesting that Helaena, the much younger, apparently less committed student, was so much faster at picking up the script. I never really understood why Rich had so much trouble.

Jayne: Well, she certainly tries to come up with lots of academic reasons for it. I worried that this would turn into an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience of intense navel gazing or a “me v. them discussion” of the US and India. For the most part, I’d say it avoids these pitfalls but there are sections devoted to the sectarian violence going on – such as in Gujarat – that are told from her POV and during which she takes strong exception to anyone who sees things differently. But readers do NOTE – the violence is horrific as relayed by Rich, some events are described though not in minute detail and lots of it could be triggering.

Sunita: Yes, I agree. I can’t comment usefully on her accounts of the reactions to the Parliament attack and the 2002 Godhra riots because I can’t see them as an outsider (I’ve studied riots in Gujarat and India more generally for a long time and I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to people who were present and/or involved). Her view is necessarily an incomplete one, but that’s not a bad perspective, especially since the book is for a Western audience. The one thing that did strike me was that when horrific events occurred, she never talked about finding a Western paper, e.g., the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, or a UK paper like the Times. When I’ve been in India during crises I’ve always made it a point to find out how things are being portrayed by the non-Indian press, and most visitors I know have done that too. It was a strange lacuna for me.

Jayne: That’s a good point about which news sources she sought out or didn’t seek out.

The book teaches about learning a second language and immersing oneself in a different culture. but I think some of the impact of these things is diluted by too much time spent on academic theories and some boring travelogues which felt more like being told about someone’s vacation pictures instead of merely having to sit through seeing them without yawning too widely. The writing style was also unwieldy at times, often forcing me to reread a sentence when I’d lost track of it midway. It’s interesting yet it’s dull and it presents some ideas about language that are worthy of thinking more about but the negatives of the narrative ultimately weigh the whole down to a C+ for me.

Sunita: That’s a great way to put it, that it’s like being told about someone else’s photos. There was always this distance in her writing, and the people only came alive once in a while. The book was really about her, not the people around her, which I suppose is understandable in a memoir, but I would have like to have read about both. It was a C for me.

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REVIEW:  Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

REVIEW: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Dear Mr. Abercrombie,

Ronnie from Paranormal Haven recommended Half a King to me, and it since I have another friend who enjoys your adult fantasy novels, it seemed like a good idea to give this, your first YA fantasy novel, a try.

Half-a-KingHalf a King (book one in the Shattered Sea trilogy) takes place in a society inspired by that of the Vikings and begins with Yarvi, the second son of the King of Gettland, about to take a test that will strip him of his standing and make him a minister. Yarvi has a disability, a crooked hand, that limits his fighting ability, but he’s intelligent enough to make a good candidate for the ministry, an organization that advises the kings of the kingdoms around the Shattered Sea.

Before he can become a minister, though, Yarvi is informed by his uncle Odem that his father and brother are dead – killed at the hands of another king, Grom-gil-Gorm, who sent Yarvi’s father a message offering peace, but then killed him and his heir when they arrived to negotiate.

Yarvi is now the rightful king, but because of his disability, many in his ableist society see him as only half a man, half a king. Yarvi himself has internalized this view of himself (to a degree I found problematic—more on this later), and is intimidated by the thought of ascending to the throne and attempting to avenge his father and brother’s deaths as he must now do.

With his uncle Odem and his mother advising him, Yarvi soon becomes betrothed to his cousin Isriun. He also swears an oath to avenge the deaths of his father and brother, and then he and his uncle, as well as Hurik, his mother’s guard, sail to fight Grom-gil-Gorm’s people.

In the raid on their enemy’s kingdom, Hurik and Odem turn on Yarvi, revealing that they mean to kill him. Yarvi falls into the sea and is assumed drowned, but he comes ashore at Grom-gil-Gorm’s feet. Yarvi realizes that his uncle made up the peace offer from Grom-gil-Gorm in order to lure Yarvi’s father and brother to their deaths. To save his skin and survive to carry out his oath of vengeance on its true target, Yarvi pretends to be a cook’s boy and is sold into slavery.

Yarvi is purchased by a ship’s captain as an oar slave. On the ship, Yarvi presents himself as Yorv to his two oar mates and fellow slaves Jaud and Rulf. Together the three (as well as most of the crew) suffer hunger, cold, exhaustion and other privations. Yarvi bides his time, praying for an opportunity to escape and execute his revenge on his uncle. Eventually, though fraught with danger, such an opportunity does arrive….

Half a King has strengths that impressed me and weaknesses that frustrated me a great deal. I’ll start with what I liked.

My favorite part of the book was the middle section, in which Yarvi escapes slavery and finds a group of allies with whom he bonds. I don’t know why but while I don’t find hardship at all appealing to live through, I really enjoy books in which characters have to survive in difficult conditions and discover strength and endurance that they never knew they had. This part of the book had all that and I enjoyed it a great deal.

The characterizations didn’t always strike me as completely believable, but I don’t think they were entirely meant to. The book is written in a language that seems suitable to legends, and the characters are mostly suitable to legends too. I didn’t like all the characters equally, but they were almost all memorable and colorful.

The voice of the story is distinctive too—here’s a paragraph of description to show what I mean by that:

Yarvi’s stomach was in his sick-sour mouth as they crested one surging mountain of water, was sucked into his arse as they plunged into the foam-white valley beyond, pitching and yawing, deeper and deeper until they were surrounded by the towering sea on every side and he was sure they would be snatched into unknowable depths, drowned to a man.

Whatever one thinks of that style, whether one likes it or doesn’t like it (it took me a lot of getting used to), one can’t deny that it’s vivid and descriptive. It feels deliberate in its musicality, which isn’t the case with every book.

The plot goes in unexpected directions and toward the end of the book, there are a couple of big twists I didn’t see coming. Since I’m usually able to anticipate surprises this was something I enjoyed. When I say the twists are big, I mean that they are the kind of twists that cast the entire book in a new light. I could envision reading it again with a new understanding I didn’t have the first time, and enjoying it in a different way, if it weren’t for the frustrations I encountered.

Of these frustrations, the biggest was the way Yarvi’s disability was portrayed. Since Yarvi was born with his weak and crooked hand, he has had his entire lifetime to accept this fact. But unbelievably, he hasn’t. Throughout a good portion of the book, he wishes, over and over, for “Two good hands.” It is almost a refrain of his, and it didn’t take me long to get fed up with it.

I wanted Yarvi to get over his ableist self-pity and move on, find something active and interesting to do in the story besides whining and being victimized. He does, eventually, but it took a good chunk of the book to get there, and I gave serious consideration to quitting because of it.

Yarvi also spends most of the first third of the book with very little agency, either as the puppet of his uncle and his mother or as a slave. What all this added up to is that I didn’t like him that much until the middle section that I mentioned earlier. Then, just as that section was coming to a close and I was rooting for him, Yarvi made some questionable choices that made me view him with less liking than I’d felt in the middle, and that remained the case for much of the final third.

Without giving away the plot turns at the end of the book, the first of these twists confused me initially, and the second left me with some uncertainty about the direction of Yarvi’s character arc. Still, I think if hadn’t been for his attitude toward his disability, I would have liked Yarvi and the book more. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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