BOOK REVIEW: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met Rishi
Sandhya Menon
Simon Pulse
2017
380 pages
★★★★☆

By the time I was in middle school, my parents trusted me enough to leave me home alone during the summers. I strictly played The Sims Makin’ Magic, listened to one album on repeat over our old sound system, and read every pink-covered young reader romance book I could get my hands on. I finished about a book a day. All these books were essentially the same: Girl with bratty friends meets boy, complication arises, girl ends up with boy. Switch out “bratty friends” with “bratty rivals and traditionalist mom”, add in a few extra doses of wokeness and feminism, and you’re on your way to understanding why I was a sucker for When Dimple Met Rishi.

A Brief Summary…

Dimple Shah and her mother have different ideas about what an Indian-American daughter’s role should be after high school, but that doesn’t stop Dimple from pursuing her dreams as a coder at Stanford and applying to SFSU’s Insomnia Con, a summer program for coders to show off their web development skills by creating a groundbreaking app. Dimple is singularly focused on the prize: her hero, Jenny Lindt, critiquing her finished product. But when a fellow participant approaches her with the line “Hello, future wife”, she realizes her parents miiiight have only said yes to this convention because her Ideal Indian Husband – or rather, arranged marriage partner?! – would be there trying to woo her the whole time.

Lucky for Rishi Patel (aforementioned I.I.H.), he didn’t know Dimple was going into the conference not even knowing about his and her parents’ prearrangement. When Dimple and Rishi get partnered up for the entire Con, Dimple thinks she’s going to explode. What ensues is a slow burn romance that crops up right under the characters’ noses, until… well, enter “complication arises” here.

This is a novel with a heartwarmingly typical romance cycle (and might I say… delightfully cheesy at times?), a new and techy setting, and intriguing characters with conflicting desires that make their decisions at the end of the summer lessons for us readers.

Props to When Dimple Met Rishi for showcasing Indian traditions, while also giving us two Indian-American kids navigating two cultures… and how different that can look and feel for each person.

Some Love

I listened to this book, enraptured, for days; so yes, I liked it. To me, this novel is that fun love story that every teen girl is writing in her bedroom closet at night; A guilty pleasure, what we all have to be able to imagine for ourselves to sleep during the lonely midnight hours as lovesick teens.

It was also well narrated – to be honest, the print in the physical copy was small, and I’m so bad at reading words in other languages that the dual-narrated performance by Indian Americans really enhanced the experience for me. (And, you know, let me listen on my way to work and when my eyes are tired. Oh how I love audiobooks.)

Favorite Scenes (Possible spoilers??? IDK. Nothing too big though)
  1. When Rishi ends up at a party full of art majors and is in a quick-draw competition. Okay, to be honest, I absolutely loved. every. passage. about Rishi’s comic book art, but this one was tops.
  2. This woke AF quote from page 347:

    “And I’m going to have to have a talk with the organizers about conflicts of interest. If your parents donated the new computer science wing? … You shouldn’t even be allowed to participate…. I wish I could say stuff like that’s a one-off, but it’s not. You’re going to see a lot of it. People getting ahead unfairly because of the category into which they were born: male or white or straight or rich. I’m in a few of those categories myself, which is why I make it a point to reach our and help those who aren’t, those who might not necessarily be seen if I didn’t make the effort. We need to shake this field up, you know? We need more people with different points of view and experiences and thought processes so we can keep innovating and moving ahead.”

Those two elements of the book, along with Dimple’s feistiness, is what really sealed this book as a higher-than-3-star-rating for me.

Could Be Better…? A Few Notes

Pacing. Since the novel is narrated by both Dimple and Rishi, there is a lot of time spent pondering one moment in each narrator’s perspective. This would be fine and continually interesting if only the most pivotal moments were narrated like this, ie: Dimple and Rishi’s first meeting; however, I felt that I spent too much of the story being pulled back at the narrator change when I just wanted to know what would happen next.

Speaking of pacing… the end of the book was a total departure from this type of narration. And that switch kind of annoyed me. Like, you’re going to make me muddle through every moment twice when they’re falling in love, but not when things get dicey?! In fact, the final chapters have such large gaps in time that it’s jarring when compared to the slow plod of the rest of the novel. It didn’t really work for me.

Where’s the coding talk? This premise was so exciting to me because I thought “yes! A romance book that is going to get girls interested in coding! OMG I WILL LEARN SO MUCH”. As it played out, I didn’t learn anything about coding that I didn’t already know from reading this book. In fact, I learned more about art school than coding. There was just so much potential that I felt was not carried through on… Yes, Dimple is a coder, and a geeky glasses sort of girl, but she never really goes into how to code or what she loves about it in a procedural way. I wanted much more of that.

Because of the Hype…

Because of all the internet hype, I had really high expectations for this book. For me, this book’s being published and widely advertised and consumed is the triumph – the book itself is no “wow”. It’s good, but not earth-shattering. This is not to minimize #ownvoices at in any way – all genres and authors need good-but-not-earth-shattering books, and with When Dimple Met Rishi, we’re upping our count of good, popular books written by Indian Americans by one.

Bottom Line

Had this book been available to me in middle school, I would have devoured it and been made the better for not reading another book about another blonde girl on Cape Cod for the summer. But if I’d been told more about coding from a character who adored it, I may have been more inclined to grow from this book.

What did you think of When Dimple Met Rishi?

BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I just finished Station Eleven by Canadian writer Emily St. John Mandel, and after reading it, I think I need a reading break.

This is not to say that the book was so bad that I need to stop reading, nor was it so good that everything else would pale in comparison. Station Eleven is an intricate book, one that needs to be read slowly in order to fully appreciate all of the connections in the plot and poetics of the writing. I just need some time to decompress.

The storylines in Station Eleven follow a Hollywood actor’s rise and demise in the present time, and a group of Shakespeare-and-symphony performing survivors in a post-pandemic futuristic world. Strange combination? I know. If I had read that last sentence before reading the book, I wouldn’t be convinced. But the way these storylines meld together – how the pop culture of the past has an impact on the post-pandemic future, the connections between the characters with a 20-year gap between the timelines – it just works. Who knew Hollywood could be a perfectly sad and beautiful foil for a dystopia?!

But it’s perfection. Station Eleven is surprisingly beautiful and haunting, and really poignant. It brings to your attention the incomprehensible intricacies of our modern way of life, and what we do and should treasure. If you’ve been a consumer of dystopian fiction in YA, this is the perfect first step into the more complex possibilities of well-written adult literature… following intriguing characters in a world you’ll love.

So, if I claim to have loved and highly recommend the book so much, why do I claim that I need a break?

I finished the second half of this book in one day – the connections were growing and just getting too good to put down-! – but… because I focused all of my energy on chasing plot, I was missing the beauty of the book. The poetry of the writing. The real-world implications I wanted to linger upon. See, with books like these, I have to constantly remind myself to slow down. Savor it. And I’m not sure I did enough of it. In fact, I’m feeling pretty melancholy about having finished it so fast.

So… perhaps what I need isn’t a reading break. I could easily go back and start reading Station Eleven again from the beginning. By choice. In fact, I may be doing just that before I move onto another book.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Dry by Jane Harper

This is a beautiful book. I say that for a couple of reasons.

One, I love reading books that seem familiar, linguistically speaking. Though I also like literature that is more “high brow”, or rather, complicated or formal, I love love love literature that is written like the common man speaks. This is how “The Dry” was written, and it made the reading pleasurable.

Two, as a person raised in a small town, I love a good book that exposes the idiosyncrasies of small towns (I could definitely write a whole separate post for my thoughts on best small town books I’ve read). In “The Dry”, Jane Harper sets up the town of Kiewarra as a realistic place (narrowly avoiding some cliches, as is custom in writing about small towns), but then artfully teases out the true colors of the town, and the effect it can have on its residents. Namely, the traps a small town community sets for its less suspecting or less malicious residents. And Harper, she evokes them in an honest way that doesn’t seem contrived, unlike the Hallmark movies you’ve been stuck watching at your parents’ house (or is that just my small town roots showing?).

Three, I loved “The Dry” because it’s a satisfying mystery. As you wade deeper into the book, you collect more questions, more possibilities, and more ways that these storylines could all be played out. Harper’s writing keeps you in suspense, and I love how engaged that edge-of-your-seat, leading language makes a reader. I literally couldn’t put the book down after I got done with work today, and spent maybe three solid hours reading the last half of the book. Yes, it’s that engaging.

Last but not least, I was curious about what I’d find in a book about an Australian small town. After reading, I realized that there must be something similar about all small communities, because the truths I found in the book were core truths I also felt deeply when I was growing up.

Above all, this book yanks you in, keeps you in its pull, and doesn’t let go – much like small communities themselves. This is Jane Harper’s first novel, but I love her already. Please write more books, Jane!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

This week my 6th grade students and I finished our read aloud book: Ghost by Jason Reynolds. I found the book on Amazon, and, seeing that it was a National Book Award finalist, I bought it. I then proceeded to do the thing teachers know they never should: start reading something with a class that you haven’t pre-screened. (I hate reading things first, though, because it just takes the excitement out of it!) Thank goodness there wasn’t anything too jarring lurking in the pages.

Ghost also caught my attention as a book because it has a cast of all black characters, and is written by a black author. I teach at a really diverse school, and as a white woman, feel like I need to infuse my curriculum with perspectives other than my own at every turn, so my kids can easily see people who look like them in what we learn.

Now for some summary: Ghost follows the story of a kid whose world was rocked by a violent episode with his alcoholic father. His dad now in jail, Ghost lives with his mom, gets bullied at school, stands up for himself only to get suspended… he’s just “got a lot of scream inside”, as his character narrates. The things that keep him going are sunflower seeds from Mr. Charles’ store, his book of World Records, and big dreams of playing basketball with the guys at the neighborhood courts.

Then Ghost walks by a track practice. His sense of competition gets the better of him, and he crashes the practice and runs a sprint next to one of the fastest kids on the team – and, he holds his own. The coach sees it go down, and wants Ghost to be on the team. But can Ghost get around that “scream” inside of him… and stop running from his problems instead of confronting them?

This is a book that hooked my students from the first day, when we hear about this normal kid’s big problem – his dad. It keeps kids hooked because, chapter after chapter, Ghost keeps making bad decision after bad decision – and it seems like he’s running out of people to save him. Yet, at the same time, his resolve to become a team member on the new track team seems to be pulling him in a different direction. We can’t help but love Ghost, and therefore be frustrated by him all the more.

I had a lot of students see bits of themselves in Ghost’s character, especially since he’s the type of anti-hero we don’t often read about in classrooms. But Ghost’s story bas been teaching my kids a lot. It teaches about bullying and its effects on the psyche, it teaches about the gaps privilege create, it teaches about perspective and it teaches about letting other people in. It teaches about addiction, and how its various forms can destroy lives and families. It teaches about taking responsibility for your actions, and overcoming adversity that has irrevocably changed the course of your life.

The sensitive issues in the book require you to have a good relationship with – or at least know a little about the lives of – your students going into the reading of Ghost. I had one student talk to me after class on the first day with this book, and tell me that maybe she’d like to sit outside during the read aloud – the situation with Ghost’s dad was too similar to one she’d personally experienced, and was striking a chord. I welcomed her to do so, if she felt that was what she needed, but also gave her a heads-up that the next chapter would only be about “track stuff”, so if she wanted to sit in just one more day, I’d like her to try that if she could. In the end, the book hooked her and she never did leave the room. In addition, the book has a pretty heavy moment near the end of the book, in which (spoiler alert!!!) Coach tells a story about his own dad chipping Coach’s tooth with a punch to the face, selling his Olympic gold medal for drug money, and dying of overdose (told more tastefully than my retelling here). My students were all very respectful of that moment in the book, but were also shocked, and full of questions, and so we set aside the curriculum and took the rest of the period to talk about this stuff – what addiction is, how it can change the way a person’s brain works and change the type of person they are, and how it’s hard to get help sometimes. And, of course, to process why people might do it in the first place, and how it can affect loved ones. The kids really handled this well, I can’t stress that enough. If it hadn’t I wouldn’t be writing this glowing review of the read aloud experience. And I know, many people could argue that these topics could be too much for 6th graders’ sensibilities, but with a guided conversation based on facts (and not judging the decisions of any characters in the book), it was an experience that they could learn from. This was an especially important day for us, as I know some kids have situations similar to these going on at home, and I sought to lead the conversation toward understanding and empathy, not condemnation of people going down the wrong path. But I think that’s a general understanding that this book generates so naturally – an affection for Ghost, who himself is a flawed character, many of these flaws set upon him by the decisions of others, and by his own loneliness. And kids get that, and root for Ghost anyway.

Our last day, when we finished reading, we took the rest of the period to analyze that last chapter of Ghost, the one where all of those themes I listed above came to fruition, as the conflicts came to a close. After taking the time to discuss the nuances we’d read, and the conclusions they could bring to us, both mine and my students’ appreciation of the book deepened. I’m not sure if they’ve ever analyzed a book before, but talking about this stuff as a class really brought out a serious side to my kids, and they left the room that day better for reading the book.

Plus, the overwhelming majority of them rated it a 10/10, which is pretty spectacular when I think about how defiant those kids are becoming… Sixth grade, am I right?

And the best part about the book? It’s the first in a series, the second of which is set to come out in August 2017… and get this, it’s called Patina, which is the name of Ghost’s fellow “newbie” teammate on the track team. If you’ve read Ghost, you know how exciting this is – and, my theory is, Jason Reynolds is going to make 4 books total, each in a different newbie’s perspective, based on the secrets each kid is carrying with him/her, just like Ghost (Again, makes sense it you’ve read the book). I can’t wait to read Patina! (And neither can my kids – “can we have a book club in the summer? Or next year?” YES!)

BOOK REVIEW: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

This wisp of a novel is not for the faint of heart. Set in South Korea in what must be modern (ish) times, Han Kang’s novel is at once grotesque and beautiful, jarring and soothing, and a provocateur of the status quo. Let me break down my thoughts by section.

1: The Vegetarian

This section is told in the first person by the main character’s husband. We soon realize that, as far as husbands go, this one is machismo, an awful kind of insensitive, and very traditional. This section is an excellent window into South Korean culture, as the story winds its way through topics of family, marriage, food, and social expectations. Last year, I taught a Multicultural Literature class for grades 11 and 12, and this section would be something I’d consider adding to that curriculum.

It was also in this section that I began to notice that the “vegetarianism” the main character is converting to (and what her family is so dreadfully concerned about) could, in fact, be a code word, standing in for “liberated woman”. Consider her husband’s indignancy to it, her father’s violence, and the disappointment and revulsion all characters voice at the main character’s lack of obedience both to direct orders from her husband and father, and to societal norms.

2: Mongolian Mark

This section is like a trippy, art-driven sex dream, told from the perspective of the main character’s brother-in-law, who is an artist. Think Yoko Ono and Yayoi Kusama combined. Not to give anything away, but this section, if I’m using my feminist lens correctly, examines the use of women as objects for art and pleasure, and assuming we know what they want, even without explicit permission.

3: Flaming Trees

I was a little bit bored with this chapter. Like the slow Book 3 of 1Q84, Flaming Trees focused heavily on scenes from a hospital, which, in comparison to the scandal and beauty of the previous chapter, felt a little too dry. This chapter is told from the perspective of the main character’s sister, and nicely adds context from when the girls were younger, namely times when the older sister failed to stand up for the younger main character. The feminist lens here guides readers examine the issue of women not standing up for other women when it counts – perhaps because of the oppressive expectations women all endure at all times. Because of the memories moving with the present, this part also felt quite fragmented to me. But perhaps it was just my reading of it.

All in all, I’d call this an edgy book for advocates of women everywhere. The book is not really about going vegetarian at all. It is, however, the perfect premise for examining the treatment of women in so many different contexts and perspectives, and is a cautionary tale of how much we can take before we break. At least I think so.

BOOK REVIEW: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Finishing a 1157 page book was never on my to-do list. I mean, sure, I’ve wanted to read Anna Karenina, as all English majors’ souls surely require of them, but the Modern Library Classics edition I bought at my university’s bookstore is a mere 923 pages. And to be honest, I abandoned Tolstoy after 155 pages of forgetting which name belonged to which character. However, Haruki Murakami’s masterpiece (yes, I said it, masterpiece!), 1Q84, grabbed my attention from the beginning and held it hostage for the entire month it took me to finish it.

Published in 2011 and translated from its original Japanese, I found 1Q84 on Overdrive and recognized the name as a recommendation from two trusted literary friends – one a study abroad friend who is now in the publishing business, and the second, Hippy Max, a high school friend of my partner’s whose taste in books is both edgy and classic. I had to test it out. Luckily, I since I had checked it out as an ebook, I had no idea how long it really was until I was hooked on the story… which was probably for the better. I would have been too intimidated otherwise. Only after reading all of Book 1 (clocking in at a hefty 387 pages) did I purchase the hard copy of the book (more on why I buy books here), waiting to pull the trigger because I was just too intimidated.

Plot in Review:

This two-inch novel is part mystery, part morality barometer, and part fantasy. The mystery part becomes abundantly clear in Book One, where we meet the first of our two narrators, Aomame (yes, that’s the Japanese word for “green peas”), on a bizarre cab ride before beginning a very mysterious mission. One of the many things Murakami does so well in his novel is setting up over 1,000 pages of page-turning intrigue, a journey for the reader to embark upon alongside the characters in which we are just one step ahead of them in terms of understanding their world and their purpose there.

Book One is amazing – it packs a punch with a mysterious cab ride, and steamy memories of a baby watching his mother bearing her breasts to a man that is not the baby’s father, and a lesbian love scene. You’re intrigued now, right? Even if you’re a prude like me, these topics are written in an artful manner, one that is more likely to prompt you to ask questions than to be turned off by the nature of the scenes. They exist as clues, not just for shock value (although that always helps when you’re just getting into a book, right?).

Another driving force behind this narration is that 1Q84 is told from multiple perspectives. Books like this can annoy me if I feel they’re moving too slowly, but Murakami nails it. Moving between two characters who, at the beginning, appear to have no connection to each other whatsoever, upholds the “reader as detective” element. It’s not until Book 3 that the circles these characters run really start to get close enough to overlap with that sticky potential to bore.

In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll just mention that Book Two is where the fantasy element really kicks in. At first I was a little turned off by this switch, but a few chapters in I realized just how much better the book had suddenly become. There are suddenly so many new pieces to the puzzle… and we realize that things are so much more complicated than we first thought.

Book Three, like I alluded to earlier, is the only section with the potential to bore. It has an added bonus of a new narrator (a totally despicable narrator, which adds its own element of fun), but the pace of the novel really begins to slow. True, the pace reflects what the characters are going through in that section (which, you know, is artistic and stuff), but I found myself wanting to give up 900 pages in. Luckily, my students talked me down from it!

Good books, in my opinion, let you get so wrapped up in the world of the book that you seek to keep reading as an utter escape, or to find out if the clues you’ve been gathering will pan out the way you think. This book did both of those things for me, so I’d classify it as a great, recommendation-worthy book. Age rec: Great for college students and up, or perhaps a mature high school student. Also, if anyone claims to be “only into the classic canon” (cough my bougie partner cough), you need to convince them to read this (and also get their head out of canon-think). Am I saying that this book the Anna Karenina of our generation? I think maybe.

So what’s next for me, now that I’ve conquered the longest book of my life? Infinite Jest? A Brief History of Seven Killings? Or am I finally ready for my next (and perhaps final) round with Anna Karenina? I guess we’ll both have to wait and see….