Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review: The Blue Notebook (Levine)

Title: The Blue Notebook
Author: James A. Levine
Genre: YA, International setting
Pages: 206
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (the only reason it doesn't get a 5 is because it is so graphic!)
Challenges: YA, POC, Women Unbound
FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school library
Summary (from the inside flap): This is the story of Batuk, an Indian girl who is taken to Mumbai from the coutnryside and sold in to prostitution by her father; the blue notebook is her diary, in which she recalls her early childhood, records her life on the Common Street, and makes up beautiful and fantastic tales about a silver-eyed leopard and a poor boy who fells a giant with a single gold coin.

Review: This book is intense! I read Sold just a couple weeks ago and so thought I was prepared to read another book about child prostitution. Wrong! Where Sold is beautifully written, poignant, and interesting, The Blue Notebook is intense, detailed, and devastating. It is Sold on steroids. One book is not better than another, I think both are important to read.

James A. Levine is a British-born doctor who was doing research in Mumbai. He was interviewing homeless children on a street where children work as prostitutes when he saw a young girl writing in a notebook outside her "cage". He said that the image of a young prostitute engaged in the act of writing haunted him and he began to write. His novel "addresses the the devastating global issue of child prostitution and also delivers an inspiring message about the uplifting power of words and reading."

Be warned: nothing is left to the imagination in this book; there are detailed descriptions of sex between grown men and Batuk (who begins to work as a prostitute at age 9). While Batuk has sex with 10 or more men each day, she escapes through writing in her notebook. Her poetry, stories, and diary entries allow her to show her intelligence, her thoughtfulness, and how she deals with her "profession".

This book made me sad, angry, astonished, and repulsed all at once, but I had a difficult time putting it down. I found myself asking questions as I read: how can a society allow this to happen? How can parents sell their children into such an existence? Why do men choose to pay for sex with a child? How can some people be so cruel (I will not detail the cruelty experienced by Batuk and other characters)? And, how can so many people be so involved with the process of child prostitution? If, along the way, one person had said "no", Batuk (and others) could have been saved. I realize the answer to all of these questions is: extreme poverty. Until families can feed and educate their families, child prostitution and other forms of slavery will continue.

The author is donating all proceeds from the sale of this book in the US to the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

15 comments:

Stephanie said...

I have this book on my shelf, but I am kind of afraid to pick it up. Thanks for the powerful review!

Diane said...

I agree this was one terrific but shocking book! Great review Helen

Aths said...

I don't know if the book mentions this, or if you have read it anywhere, but I'll still say. There is a place in Mumbai called the "Red Light". As I was growing up, that term was almost a joke. School kids giggle thinking it's funny, but everyone knows not to ask their parents about that term. That was when I thought prostitutes took up that profession because they enjoyed sex! (Yeah, you won't believe the kind of wrong impressions that are cultivated and spread.)

So the Red Light is where prostitutes line up offering their services to those who pass by. It's gross, and there are several such places in many other areas in India. My dad and his 3 friends were once shopping in this area, when they took a shady road and were approached by a lady offering sex. They literally ran away from there. It's sad. It's not a secret either. And every time I wonder how this industry flourishes when the whole country knows the when and where of the story.

Thanks for this great review. It's going on my wishlist.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Stephanie--the book is difficult, but really good

Diane--shocking is a great word for it!

Aths--It's good to hear from someone who is Indian-American (and I'll explain why) who has seen this type of situation first hand. A friend of mine who is Indian-American was concerned about non-Indians writing about India and how child prostitution seems to be a favorite topic when there is so much wonderful stuff about India. What do you think about it?

Aths said...

Helen, I don't really have an issue with that, but there are plenty (very very high percent) of people who have an issue with that. (It's the same as African Americans complaining that Kathryn Stockett's book shouldn't be read since it was written by a "white".) People are very guarded about who they want telling a story. (They were berserk when there was a chance for Italian-born Sonia Gandhi to be the Indian Prime Minister.) So long as the author writes things as they are, I am fine. What I won't appreciate is fabricating stories that aren't true.

It's hilarious hearing people complaining that "foreign" authors focus on the nitty-gritty stories of India and not on the good. It's a popular sentiment, even when you watch movies. People weren't happy about 'Slumdog Millionaire' because it was primarily British. But nobody does a single thing against the sad things that happen. When the government does something, authors will move on to another topic and the topic can be closed. Everyone knows how to look sympathetic, but they are quick to wash their hands off anything distasteful to them. I think people should stop thinking within regional barriers and just open up to anyone willing to help them. Have you heard of the Australian mercenary, Graham Staines, who has been helping lepers for years in India? He was burnt alive in his car along with his 2 sons. I think this was way back in 2001 or so. An Indian mob did that, since they believed him to be converting people to Christianity. I doubt most of the culprits were even caught. Graham left behind his wife and daughter. Even the people who help us are not allowed to.

If people want to critique a book, they should look at the content and not at the person behind it. There are tons of books being released every month, that it is not surprising to see books very similar in plotlines. So if people are writing about India or any other country, so long as they are not disrespectful, I am only thankful to them.

I guess I ranted a little too much. :) But I've been very upset about how things are run that I had to say it. :) Meanwhile, starting September, I am thinking of starting a feature on books set in South Asia, esp books that aren't heard of much, and possibly focusing on some social issue. I am still tuning it out, but should decide in a few weeks.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Aths--thank you so much! I forgot to mention that my friend did like both Sold and the Blue Notebook. I agree that as long as the book is truthful and well done I don't mind too much who the author is. I like your idea of having a feature about South Asian authors/books; I for one would be super interested!

Aths said...

Oops, I hope I didn't sound like your friend was in the wrong. Now that I read my comment, it does look like that. My bad! I figured your friend would have read both books and possibly liked them. I was focusing on the narrow-minded set back home that I hear about everyday both through my family and friends and through the papers. At some point, you just get tired of arguing, because whatever they say sounds so lame.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Aths--No problem! I find it all so interesting how we all have different takes on issues, authors, covers, and books! What bothers me is not a problem for others and vice versa

Anjali Banerjee said...

I don't think I'm the friend--not sure. I believe anyone should write about anything at all - as long as the writer does it well and makes it authentic. I believe in "write what you can imagine" rather than "write what you know." I say this in my writing workshops as well.

As the author of eight published novels (including one in the pipeline) and a ninth under contract, I know that no matter what we write, from whatever perspective, we generally have to do research anyway. I had to do research for every book I've written, even MAYA RUNNING which is based on my own background growing up in Canada.

Although I was born in India, I didn't grow up there - so I guess I could be considered an "outsider." I'm aware of and deeply concerned about issues of social justice - slavery, women's rights and so on.

But it does seem to me that people outside a culture often write about that culture in *terms* of its problems, making the problem, in a subtle way, a *defining feature* of that culture - whether this is explicit or implied. You might look at some of Uma Krishnaswami's writings on this subject. She's an amazing author of many children's books.

We have slavery and poverty in America, as well, but we don't generally think, subconsciously, of these issues as defining features of "America" in the present day.

Of course the problems exist in every culture, and I believe that people within a culture often try very hard to solve those problems - as do people "outside" the culture (although I wonder about the concept of "inside" and "outside" in an increasingly globalized society).

But it does bother me just a bit that the books that have drawn the most *attention* are the ones written by authors outside Indian culture. I'm NOT saying the writers shouldn't write about those problems. But there are many, many Indians writing about really important issues, and their books may not be drawing as much attention.

I believe the only Indian to win the Newbery Award was Dhan Gopal Mukerji for GAYNECK: THE STORY OF A PIGEON in 1928. Correct me if I'm wrong. Just an observation.

Granted, things are changing rapidly. Mitali Perkins's book BAMBOO PEOPLE is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. She has been writing wonderful books for years.

Re: what we should write about.
My first novel, MAYA RUNNING was a "cultural angst" novel - it was fun to write and meaningful and very personal. But I now feel the need to branch out and explore other issues that move me. My latest children's novel, SEAGLASS SUMMER, is about a girl who wants to be a veterinarian and spends the summer working at her uncle's animal clinic on a Pacific Northwest island. She learns that there's a lot more to being a vet than she ever imagined.

She just happens to be Indian-American, and so is her uncle. Her heritage adds texture and depth to the story, but it's not central to the storyline. So it's also true that if we're of Indian heritage, we don't want to be restricted to writing only about... our Indian heritage. At least, I don't!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Anjali--So glad that you chimed in online! I agree that outsiders usually write about the problems of a country (in the case of India: child prostitution, widowhood, etc) and I wish that "native" people's books were more available to us. Maybe I just haven't looked hard enough. I'll add Bamboo People to my TBR list!

christa @ mental foodie said...

Enjoy reading the comments as well as the review!

I read this last year and thought it was very well done - though the ending was a little too ambiguous for me. While it was graphic, it was Batuk's innocence that made it even sadder.

I was lucky that Dr Levine gave a talk about the book and his experience in India at our local library. In case you don't know, Dr Levine is multi-talented! He designed the laptop-treadmill too, if you google his name, you'll find out more about it and his research on NEAT.

Anyway I digress. He did mention he is working on a 2nd book but can't share details. So I am curious what he'd write next!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Christa--the ending was ambiguous and really left me thinking for a while! Batuk's euphemisms for body parts really reminded me of her young age as well. Hearing Dr. Levine must have been so interesting!

Lynne said...

I enjoyed reading these comments, Helen. Interesting discussion. And I appreciate your thoughts on this book since it's one I'd like to read.

Oh, and Anjali's book about the little girl working in her uncle's animal clinic? I want to read that!

Helen's Book Blog said...

Lynne--This book is definitely worth reading! And, I've just bought Anjali's book; my daughter and I are going to read it upon our return from vacation

Lynne said...

I've written the title of Anjali's book down so I can get it next time I'm at the bookstore.

Have a great vacation.