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Ashram Sweet Ashram - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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May 6th, 2009


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11:53 pm - Ashram Sweet Ashram
A couple years ago I was friended by rachelmanija for no good reason. I think maybe it was for my Heroes posts. But one day I clicked over to her profile and discovered she had written a BOOK! A book! A published author was reading my journal! I felt special. Anyway, we eventually became LJ friends, and then we met in L.A. and I slept on her floor. All of this is to say that I am about to review her book—a memoir—and I am kind of biased.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India, by Rachel Manija Brown—whew, that was a mouthful—is about a seven-year-old white girl whose parents take her to Ahmednagar, India to live in an ashram with disciples of Baba, a spiritual leader (deceased at the time) who claimed he was God (and Jesus and Krishna and Buddha and just about everyone else). She is the only foreign child there. At the ashram, she's surrounded by wackaloons whose explanation for everything is "Baba's will," and at school, she's surrounded by kids who throw rocks at her for being an outsider and teachers who beat her for not uncapping a pen.

It's a very funny book! I don't know why I didn't expect it to be so funny, but it came as a pleasant surprise. After reading the first chapter, I knew it was a book I'd have a hard time putting down. I know from reading her posts that she has a great sense of humor, so of course she can tell a funny yarn or seventeen about her wacky adventures in India. It was fun to see India from her outsider's perspective—especially since I kind of come from the same perspective when I visit. She mines a lot of laughs out of the strange mannerisms (the shake/nod), multipurpose euphemisms ("He is out of station"), and crazy drivers. Her tone is not mocking but bewildered. She was a very precocious, cynical child, which makes her an interesting tour guide.

I was reminded somewhat of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, as both are about a kid trying to fit in in a different culture. They also have a similar narrative structure. Fishes doesn't really have a strong narrative throughline, exactly; rather, each chapter is sort of a little short story describing a particular character or group of characters or relating a specific anecdote. I didn't mind because, as I said, the book is very funny and the stories are entertaining, but after about 200 pages, I began to get a little frustrated, wondering what the purpose of including each chapter was. How did they all fit together? Was this incident really important for her growth? Memoirs are weird because life isn't always narratively satisfying. I had to stop looking for a clear story and just appreciate it as a collection of interesting experiences that were a formative and memorable part of her childhood, whether or not their influences were clear and defined or not.

Not to say that there isn't a story. As you would expect, Rachel's relationship with her parents grows and develops over the course of the book. As does Rachel, of course. She becomes obsessed with Indian history and, while the people around her idolize Baba, she idolizes stalwart soldiers who stood their ground and fought and died for what they believed in. So she fancies herself a soldier. And the image of a little eight-year-old girl trying to survive her childhood by becoming a soldier is just too cute and adorable. And sad? Maybe a little sad.

I did enjoy, of course, learning all sorts of new things about my friend! Like, for instance, that she was born Manija Brown (everyone calls her "Mani" in the book), and she legally changed her name to Rachel later. (Of course, now I think she should legally change her name to Rachel Ninja Brown [tm telophase].) And she apparently has an AMAZING memory since she remembers every single book she ever read and exactly when she was reading it! Also, what everybody said when she was seven. Memoirs are weird. I mean, can you make up dialogue? (Dude! You're not allowed to lie to your own memoir! A— Are you?)

I recommend a lot of books, but I never bother to assist you in purchasing them. Until now! For, lo, Rachel Ninja Brown is offering her memoir at a special recession discount. Click for more details and a better description of her own book than I have provided. If we have not enticed you enough, I leave you with the dedication, which is one of the best dedications I've ever read:

If you're opening this book for the first time, it isn't dedicated to anyone yet.

But if you've already finished reading it and you've turned back to the beginning, feeling a little less lonely, a little less strange, or a little more cheered than you did when you began, then you will know: I wrote it for you.

Current Mood: thirstythirsty
Current Music: Chevelle - Long

(16 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

Comments:


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From:the_narration
Date:May 7th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
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And the image of a little eight-year-old girl trying to survive her childhood by becoming a soldier is just too cute and adorable. And sad? Maybe a little sad.
A little sad, yes. And also a little adorable. And possibly a little bit awesome, too.

Sounds like an interesting book. And I'm always short on reading material, so... ::places library hold::
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)
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Woo for libraries!

And you cannot ALWAYS be short on reading material! I give you so much! Hee.

A little sad, yes. And also a little adorable. And possibly a little bit awesome, too.
Heeee. She grows up to be Toph! Actually, she kind of already is Toph. In the book, I mean.
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From:hecubot
Date:May 7th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
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Pfft. I'm a published author and I read your journal.

This is what I get for buying you a chicken sandwich. Familiarity breeds contempt.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
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Hee! I think I probably have a lot of published authors reading my journal. I know a lot of cool people.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 8th, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
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Heh. Rachel does say that people say the book sounds like her.
(Deleted comment)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 10th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
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I think I remember that voicepost!
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From:miniglik
Date:May 7th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
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I like this post.

[User Picture]
From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
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Aw, this post likes you too.
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From:rachelmanija
Date:May 7th, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
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Wow, thank you so much! I'm so glad you liked it.

I have a mini-essay somewhere regarding my memory for conversations, but I (oh, the irony!) can't recall where. I didn't really recall them word for word. What I did was recreate them based on my memory of the general substance of the conversation, and my knowledge of how the people involved habitually spoke.

I do have a pretty good memory for dialogue, though. I was at a party once where someone challenged me about the conversations in Fishes, and I recited back to her, word for word and with her inflections, a few sentences from a story she'd told about five minutes previously.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome! Of course I liked it! I like you! And you sure did have a wacky childhood. I hope you get a couple more sales.

I appreciate your good memory. I smiled at your detail-filled message to me.

But besides the dialogue, how did you know what book you were reading when?? I can actually buy that more than dialogue in the sense that reading experiences can become strongly tied to where and when you read the book, but you were so young! I can barely remember anything that happened when I was seven. Not enough to write a book about it.
[User Picture]
From:rachelmanija
Date:May 7th, 2009 09:07 pm (UTC)
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I have always had a very good memory of which book I was reading when. I guess because books were (and are) so important to me. When I remember an event, I usually remember what book I was reading at the time.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
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Well, just so you know, I was reading your book at the AMWA conference. In my room with a roaring fire, out in the sun, while walking to lunch. Last year, I was reading Fables.

(I remember these things too, obviously.)
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From:soleta_nf
Date:May 7th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
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Wow. I will have to check this out! And maybe buy it! Thanks. :) I am reading a memoir now which is really sad, so it would be interesting to read one that is (partially) about sad things but discussed in a funny/lighter way. And I write memoir, so I'm on a memoir-reading kick to study different styles and such. Thanks for the review!

Memoirs are weird because life isn't always narratively satisfying.

Very true. I find the best memoir writing comes about when the person has already fully processed what has happened and can provide some distance and perspective (and, thus, some narrative satisfaction). I read one memoir where the author clearly hadn't worked through some of his issues, and it really bothered me - he needed some more revisions, or therapy, or something, before putting that out in the world!
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From:spectralbovine
Date:May 7th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
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Have you read any of the comic memoirs I posted about? I think you should read Fun Home; it's a really well done memoir.

I don't think my problems with the narrative were related to Rachel's not having processed what happened; in fact, the book exists because she processed it. I didn't mention that there are a few chapters set in the present that show how her present life and self relates to her old life and self. And she talks about writing the memoir in the book, so I think you'll appreciate it.
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From:soleta_nf
Date:May 8th, 2009 02:40 am (UTC)
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No, I haven't. I will check them out. Especially if I can get them through inter-library loan!

I didn't mean to comment on the book itself, but on the memoir genre as a whole. Sorry if it was random; my brain has been really scattered the last month (you'll know why if you've looked at my journal lately). Hopefully my head will come out of the fog in a week or two.

I didn't mention that there are a few chapters set in the present that show how her present life and self relates to her old life and self. And she talks about writing the memoir in the book, so I think you'll appreciate it.

That sounds really awesome. I will definitely add it to my list of memoirs to read soon!

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