August 16th, 2012

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Kashmira Sheth and Carl Pearce's The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule

The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule (Albert Whitman & Company, 2012), Kashmira Sheth's new children's novel with illustrations by Carl Pearce, was a serendipitous find on my library's web site listing new books.

The story is about young Ishan Mehra, who desperately wants a dog, but his mother is adamantly against having a dog in the house. Ishan tries making aloo parathas for breakfast to butter up his parents, but he makes a big mess of things and sets off the smoke alarm. His mother helps him with the dough that he made, though, and together they manage to make some edible parathas. What follows is a series of other misadventures where Ishan tries to do something nice that turns out horribly or simply does something that he doesn't quite understand as inappropriate. Along the way, he tries to conscript his older brother Sunil to help with convincing their mother to let them have a dog, despite the no-dogs-allowed rule, but Sunil is too much of a rule follower to be of much help.

The book is fun, and the illustrations are wonderful black-and-white drawings in a semi-realistic mode (like the cover) that capture well particular situations and especially the facial expressions of the characters.

Although the story deals with a fairly common experience in families in the United States--the young kids pleading for a dog--there are definitely aspects of Ishan's Indian Americanness that surface in his adventures, as when he encounters his neighbor Danny who deliberately mispronounces his name to antagonize him and when he goes with his parents to an Indian party with aunties and uncles everywhere. There are also little moments where Sheth inserts commentary about Indian American experiences such as Ishan's noting that his parents want him to practice speaking Hindi at least half an hour each day so that he doesn't forget the language.
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David Woo's The Eclipses

David Woo's poetry collection The Eclipses (BOA Editions, 2005), was part of my recent poetry haul where I visited about a dozen public library branches in town and just browsed their poetry collections. I find it fascinating that many public library systems, including the ones I visited, shelve the poetry books in the non-fiction sections! (For them, the world of books exists in two major categories: fiction or non-fiction.)

Woo's collection includes three sections of poems, and I found the first two more compelling in their subject matters of aging and death, respectively, than the final section's more open-ended series of poems. Woo's verse is very metaphor-heavy and also alludes to classical and biblical figures. I find it curious that his references are predominantly Western, even though he pursued Chinese studies for a master's degree.

The first section is very introspective and past-oriented, with the speaker of the poems examining contrasts between past and present, between the parents of his youth and the aging parents of his present. The insights he gleans from these comparisons are bittersweet, with some revealing things he never understood before such as the closing stanza of the opening poem "Eden":
the man and woman
who teach me now as they could not before
to prefer real hell to any imaginary paradise.
He refers to his parents and their choice to live in the desert landscape of Arizona, a place he fled as a young man but eventually returned to as he realized that though he "moved from city to temperate city," he "found no paradise" elsewhere.

The poems in this first section focus often on the parents and also on the grandparents and his siblings to some extent. The poems carve out a sense of the relationships between particular members of the family. In "Doorknob," for instance, the speaker watches as his brother replaces the front door's doorknob,
An old brass doorknob, scuffed from keys, from turning,
the half-dozen times she jostled it each time we left
the house, and the final twist my father made

running back from the car at her command.
While the brother is concerned with how flimsy the doorknob is and is thus replacing it with a sturdier, deadbolt version, the speaker himself contemplates the "pathos of scuff marks" on the knob and realizes that while he never acceded to his mother's request to check if the door was locked the way his father did, he only now understands the way his father looked back to the car from the door where he tested the knob yet again: "the uxorious gaze it would take me decades / to admire and, at last, to mourn." I had to look up the word "uxorious," which has a very specific meaning, "having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness of one's wife." The weight of that gaze, the particular quality it demonstrates of the father's view of his wife, folds into the other strands of narrative in the poem about the mother's infirmity and the contrast between her young self, commanding her husband to go back to the door to check its lock, and her older self, wheeled out to the sidewalk by that same husband.

Part two consists of a series of 14-line poems, perhaps sonnets though they lack a rigid rhyme scheme. These short poems all center on a discrete object, and their titles are brief words: The Eye, The Parrot, The Colors, The Images, The Names, The Dove, The Catfish, The Deer. Though the titles don't really suggest it, the poems in this section all revolve around the mother's death and deal with that sense of grief and loss that often surfaces in odd moments later. A few of the incredibly touching lines evoke memories of the most mundane moments, as in "The Images":
nothing woulds me more than a last memory
of my mother squinting into the sunlight
as we waited in the car, how I held my hand up
to shade her eyes, as she shielded me once
from the daze and dazzle of the world
by turning off the TV set.
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