Cristina's Library

Joie de livres

Tag: california

10 countries. 33 cities.

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve is always a time for reflection. As I get ready for tonight’s festivities, I look back on 2014 and feel only gratitude, joy, and, truthfully, a shred of disbelief – in 12 months, I visited 10 countries and 33 cities on 2 continents.


Florence, Italy – one of my favourite places

I crossed the English Channel from the White Cliffs of Dover to Calais, France. I toured these gorgeous bodies of water: Lake Lucerne in Switzerland on a foggy, rainy, summer evening (all the more magical), the river Seine in Paris (for the third time), the Rhine River Valley in Germany, Miami’s South Beach, and the Amstel river in Amsterdam. I swam in the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean seas in southern Italy and the Amalfi Coast, and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.


Cappuccino at my favourite café, Bar Le Logge

As I wrote back in September upon my return, I sampled delicacies from different places, danced all night, read by rivers, boarded boats and trains and tiny little cars on tiny little roads, went to the tops of mountains and bobsledded down them, traversed valleys, strolled cities and small, cobblestone alleys, drank cappuccinos, drank (a lot of) fantastic wine, discussed current affairs with people from around the world, sat on cafe patios, read books that made a difference in my life, made lasting friendships, expanded my knowledge, lived and thrived in the countryside, counted stars, learned, embraced. And I did it all with complete strangers, or completely alone.


Me in Venice, Italy – a city whose inimitable charm is only discovered through exploration

I had the immense pleasure of visiting four of the most beautiful, celebrated, and renowned wine regions in the world – Napa Valley, California, USA; Chianti, Tuscany, Italy; Niagara, Ontario, Canada; and the Rhine River Valley, Germany. Each experience is special, for entirely different reasons. I toured California from north to south throughout (a much less-crowded) January with my love; lived in Chianti for two months at a writing residence, where I finished a future manuscript, with international artists that I am fortunate to call my friends (Tommy Graham, Ellen and Patrick Coffey, Kristin Man, and Alli Rath); regularly visit the breathtaking Niagara region; and spent a couple of memorable Riesling-and-bier-filled days in Germany. For more pictures of my summer vacation, check out my September post here.

Each place is saturated in my memory. They are vivid and colourful and inspiring and alive. I feel so privileged to not only have truly experienced life, but to have participated in the art of fine living. I’m thankful for everything.

I wish you all a very healthy, happy, prosperous new year.

Here’s to more adventure in 2015!


Secret Daughter

“Sometimes, as she has well learned in life, one’s actions must precede the emotions one hopes to feel”

Secret Daughter, the stunning debut novel from Toronto-born author Shilpi Somaya Gowda, is captivating, emotional, and rich in detail. The beautiful prose, intricate storylines, and riveting characters drew me in by the first chapter. I loved this book from beginning to end.

The novel begins in Dahanu, India in the midst of the monsoon season, when Kavita Merchant gives birth to a baby girl–without the aid of a midwife. Out of fear of her husband’s reaction, and that of the society in which she lives, Kavita leaves the newborn at an orphanage in Bombay in order to save her from the merciless hands of a culture that abhors female births. The novel spans 2 decades, stringing together the story of Kavita, her husband, Jasu, the girl, Usha, and American doctors, Somer and Krishnan — Usha’s adoptive parents.

Usha, we learn, means “hope” — Gowda plays with this concept throughout the book; her characters pray for it, question it, turn away from it, lose it, find it, and, ultimately, believe in it. We learn, at the onset, that Kavita gave birth to a daugther before; however, she was given up, quickly and brutally, to her husband. Gowda describes her anguish in heart-wrenching detail:

“Kavita spent the next two days curled up on the woven straw mat on the floor of the hut. She did not dare ask what had happened to her baby. Whether she was drowned, suffocated, or simply left to starve, Kavita hoped only that death came quickly, mercifully. In the end, her tiny body would have been buried, her spirit not even granted the release of cremation. Like so many baby girls, her first-born would be returned to the earth long before her time.”

Reading through Kavita’s personal trajectory from an accepting, acquiescent wife to a strong woman willing to risk her life in order to save her daughter’s was eye-opening. Determined for this daughter to live, she stands up to Jasu, her initially domineering, frightening husband, demanding space and time. And, concealed from him, she hands her child over to the orphanage and walks away, the devastating sound of her shrill screams resounding in Kavita’s ears for the rest of her life. Jasu and Kavita struggle for much of their life, after their son (they finally have one) is born, moving from the slums to Bombay in pursuit of bigger dreams, only to have them shattered upon arrival, and year after year.

Meanwhile, in California, Asha — as she is called — grows up in a normal American household, wondering why her eyebrows are so bushy and why she and her adoptive mother, Somer, seem so far apart, while she and her father, Krishnan, understand each other on a completely different level. Both physicians, Somer is a California blonde and Krishnan is Indian; having fallen in love in med school, they married, and, sadly, discovered that Somer could not have children. Scared that Asha will distance herself from her, and insecure about her ability as a mother, Somer is reluctant to engage in any conversations with Asha about her past or her heritage. Throughout the novel, she consistently denies the part of her family that is Indian, creating discord between herself, her husand and her daughter. By the time that Asha is twenty years old, she has not been to India since the time she was in the orphanage. Deeply curious about her past, Asha decides, in the summer before college, to go to India. She wins a journalism scholarship, hoping to visit her father’s family, learn about who she is, and, lastly, contact her biological parents.

None of the characters in Secret Daughter are one-sided; they are full of good qualities and full of flaws. This is the mark of a well-written novel. There is a great, many-layered complexity in the relationships between parent and child, husband and wife. For example, Jasu seems, initially, terrifying; by the end of the novel, we actually sympathize with him, as readers. The novel begins and ends with his devotion to finding the truth in order to bring peace back to his and Kavita’s life. In closing, Kavita describes her marriage:

Yes, he has made mistakes and poor decisions along the way, but her husband has grown to be a good man. They have grown together, toward one another, two trees leaning on each other as they age.

Gowda presents a powerful, touching story about self-identity, marriage, the definition and importance of family, and indirectly, India. The novel does a wonderful job of conveying the contrast between “the two Indias”, describing, in great detail, Indian lifestyle, traditions, language, advantages, and disadvantages, truths and myths, and, of course, FOOD (I am dying to go to a good Indian restaurant in Toronto, after reading this — any suggestions?) I felt extremely heartbroken and shocked towards some of the issues Gowda hints at in the novel: bride-burning, sex-selective abortion, drug culture, and rampant poverty. I cannot believe the tragic suffering that women in many parts of the world, at the hands of a patriarchal society with an archaic mentality, continue to endure. I was compelled to do some more research on these topics — you can find some useful information here.

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and zipped right through it. I only wish Kavita’s son had more of a voice; though he gives his parents money, it is only for the social stigma he feels without it — he is the only character that seems to be purely selfish. However, it neatly came together at the end, and was completely unpredictable — in fact, it had a very different ending than the one I had envisioned. And it was better that way.