Jeanne E. Fredriksen | Dec 14, 2020
This year—destructive, unrelenting, heartbreaking —has affected everyone differently. From early in the crisis, I’ve repeatedly heard that many people have struggled with the inability to focus, which includes reading. To combat that during the Stay-At-Home and Phases orders, I sought books that would buoy me, make me laugh, and/or educate me. My hope is that by sharing these titles, you, too, will find something to embrace, devour, and love. Books are listed in author-alpha order, and I believe there’s something for everyone.
Hungry Town Row is a place where 13 interconnected young adult short stories are set in and around mom ‘n pop eateries featuring cuisines from around the world. Recurring characters populate the stories as they experience family, love, and magic plus delicious food made with heart. Sangu Mandanna, Sandhya Menon, and S. K. Ali team up with ten other #ownvoices YA writers to produce mouthwatering stories.
After having devoured Soniah Kamal’s brilliant novel Unmarriagable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan last year in one sitting, I craved other contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. Dev’s Austen-centric trilogy, “The Rajes,” tells the stories of thirty-something cousins. Trisha in PP&OF (#1) is an uncompromising neurosurgeon of renown in the Bay Area, and Ashna in RFP (#2) is a chef desperately trying to keep her self-confidence and late father’s restaurant afloat. Filled with love (and food) and angsty romance (and food), both are delightful, fun reads with plenty of depth and intriguing backstories. Incense and Sensibility (#3) is due to come out July 2021.
Laskar’s stunning debut novel, based on an incident that occurred at her own home, never discusses racism. However, the incidents in the protagonist’s short life offer abundant fuel for discussions that society must undertake. This story of the unacceptable, unforgivable treatment persons of color—especially women—are forced to endure even now in the twenty-first century is powerful reading.
Told by three connected characters—a young woman determined to move her family out of the slums, an endearing hijra who dreams of becoming a Bollywood heroine, and a frustrated PT teacher—Majumdar’s remarkable debut novel begins with the firebombing of a crowded train. From there it handily confronts social media and mob mentality, manipulation of the truth, and destructive paths to supposed greatness.
Menon’s fun final entry to the award-winning “Dimpleverse” trilogy combines the entertaining “opposites attract” and “fake dating” tropes with hyperlocal environmental issues. As always, her characters earn their happy ending while experiencing the victories and failures required to shoulder responsibility as they mature into adulthood.
Getting back to food, there’s nothing more comforting than a cookbook that brings the love of sharing food onto its pages. Mohanraj’s is a volume of family history plus tips and hints about where to purchase hard-to-find ingredients, what to substitute in a pinch, and options for preparing the snacks, entrées, sides, beverages, and desserts. Kitchen-tested, family-approved recipes left me drooling and eager to start cooking something new.
In a span of three years, Premji was diagnosed with three late-stage cancers. Inspired by a bracelet given to her that reads, “Once you choose hope, anything is possible,” she embraced the concept. Choosing hope strengthened her resolve during countless chemo sessions, hospital stays, and the long wait to have stem cell transplantation. Premji’s an inspiration not only to other cancer patients and survivors but also to the rest of us – reminding us to stop, breathe, and embrace life.
Shah’s compilation offers twenty-five of her essays chronicled by the year written (1999-2019) and is an exploration of the sharp corners of the hypervisibility and invisibility she bore—identity, race, acceptance, foreignness in her own country. The result is Shah’s inspiring autobiographical search for identity in her birth country, a country that prides itself on its diversity yet persists in designating “Other” to strip away one’s non-white distinctiveness.
Umrigar’s second children’s book this year updates the story of her Parsi ancestors’ journey from Persia to India, where they sought a new home. Kindness, goodness, and diversity between citizens and immigrants alike is the theme that makes it so appropriate for today. Despite being tagged for ages 4-8, the book can be enjoyed by all ages. Gorgeous illustrations grace every page.
Zakaria dives deep into social, economic, and political lessons we should have learned from previous epidemics/pandemics (but didn’t); how human impact (earth, sky, sea) furthers the chance of larger events; and how politics (worldwide) plays a role in prevention and mitigation. Zakaria’s bottom line is that there is much to do at all levels to understand and prepare, but yes, it can and should be done.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. She always wears a mask in public settings, avoids crowds, believes in social distancing, and washes her hands.