Tag Archives: immigration

The Beauty and Cruelty in Displacement

goodindiangirlsI first stumbled upon Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s short story collection Good Indian Girls on the First Floor at the Main Library. I am a short story junky, and I needed my next fix. The title, and the cover, featuring three sets of penetrating eyes grabbed me. So I took it home.

After reading the first story, (which reminded me of the best aspects of Flannery O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), I knew I was dealing with an author who knows how to put a sentence together for maximum impact. Sidhu’s prose is never like punch in the gut or a kick in the teeth–it’s more like a scalpel carving out your heart.

I loved the collection so much, and admired his writing so much, that I filled out the contact form on his website and asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. I just had to know how he managed to write those killer sentences.*

And so, it was with great pleasure that I had the chance to read an advanced copy of his novel before its publication date in mid-March.

deepsinghbluecoverDeep Singh Blue tells the story of an immigrant Punjabi family living in rural California in the 1980s. The action centers around the teenage Deep Singh, who has already begun taking college courses and finds himself in an affair with a married woman in her twenties.

His life at home is not without complications, either. His brother, who has been showing ever-more disturbing behavior, has just told Deep to die after not speaking for over a year. His father moves the family every time they begin to get settled and make friends. His mother refuses to acknowledge her older son’s oddities and is always playing matchmaker for both boys, in hopes a marriage will solve their problems.

With a starting point that off balance, things only get worse for Deep. The reader is compelled to read on as each pillar of the teen’s life slowly crumbles and turns to dust. The catastrophes that befall Deep aren’t huge at first, but build to a wrenching crescendo at the end.

And all the while, Sidhu’s sentences are there, the scalpel cutting out your organs.

This is a novel about the immigrant experience, but it’s completely without nostalgia or sentimentality. It’s a beautiful portrait of displacement and the things we find in displacement’s wake, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Reserve Deep Singh Blue or Good Indian Girls here.


*Here’s his answer, by the way: “At university, I studied with the avant-garde French novelist Monique Wittig, who placed enormous significance on working at the sentence level. She taught me a great deal, though usually very quietly. She would look at a whole page, then very softly bring the point of her finger down on a single word, and say, that in her opinion, this one word needed to be “suppressed.” She would, invariably, pick the one word that would have ramifications throughout the text, and it would be a lesson I could apply to the rest of my work. Those tiny “suppressions” of hers were incredibly important for me—they were like small bombs that went off in my mind, which sent shudders throughout all my work—and they helped teach me how to write powerful and taut sentences.”


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Browse versus Recommendation, the Showdown

I have long been a vocal advocate for the browse. I like to get up there in the stacks and look around and just see what I find. I always find something good. I never went up to the stacks and came back empty handed. I may have returned with a book on the social life of crows when I went up there to find something on film, but that’s the beauty of it.

Recently though, I got a great example of how a good recommendation can be equally satisfying. It started with 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.

It’s a title that is hard to resist. I came across it in the stacks and raced through it in a few days. Joel Chasnoff’s story chronicles the ups and downs during his search for martial glory and meaning during his enlistment in the Israeli Defense Forces. What is it like serving in a foreign military and living as a new immigrant? With all the potential themes to address, nationalism and patriotism, identity and Judaism, it seems like the book is a can’t miss, especially when some of it takes place along a tense border with Lebanon.  After reading the book I felt I knew Israeli society a smidge better than when I started. And I enjoyed the ride, following Chasnoff along the ups and downs, and more downs, and down again, of his story. As a former soldier myself, some of his story really resonated, while other parts were somewhat wince inducing. But above all, Chasnoff’s honesty will earn a reader’s respect.

I was talking the book over with a librarian and he hit me with this recommendation, Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen Soldier in Israel, by Haim Watzman. The book is a tour de force. I have never used the phrase tour de force, and I don’t plan on making it a habit, but there are few ways to succinctly describe this book’s intense ability to draw the reader into Haim Watzman’s world.  The narrative switches seamlessly through the engrossing details of the daily routine of reservist soldiers on deployments through Watzman’s own complex reflections on the policies and politics behind his adopted country’s actions in the occupied territories.  Watzman doesn’t agree with everything he has to see or do, but neither does he completely agree with his country’s critics. Wherever you stand on these complex issues, you will respect Watzman’s honesty and his poignant thoughtfulness. Personally, it brought home to me how thoroughly human these problems are. Whatever governments and groups may do or say, on the ground real people are dealing with it, on both sides. After reading Watzman’s book I feel much better introduced to the complexities of life in Israel. The book is a must read.

A book found on a browsing expedition leads to a conversation which leads to an incredible recommendation.  What’s going to be next? Will browsing get completely upstaged? I hope not. But I certainly do have a healthy appreciation for the recommendation.



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