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Cheryl L Snell

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Shiva's Arms
by Cheryl L Snell   

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Books by Cheryl L Snell
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Category: 

Literary Fiction

Publisher:  Writer's Lair Books ISBN-10:  0615340814 Type: 
Pages: 

209

Copyright:  March 15, 2010 ISBN-13:  9780615340814
Fiction

Amazon
Amazon
Writer's Lair

a novel about cultural identity, reconciliation, and the meaning of home.

When Alice marries Ramesh, she is plunged into a battle of wills with her mother-in-law. A family secret is revealed that costs the old woman everything, and it is up to Alice to heal the rift between them, as Shiva’s Arms evolves into an exploration of freedom and duty, rootlessness and belonging, cultural identity and the meaning of home.    Excerpt
“Shame! This is your fault only!” Amma yelled, shaking her fist. “You goddess girl, you have weakened my family, my son’s caste lost, because of you!

“You’re the one! You won’t be satisfied until you’ve destroyed everything, smashed it to bits with your tiny bare feet!” Alice pointed Amma’s brown toes. Amma looked down and flexed them, the war suspended for a second until she ran to the kitchen. Pulse throbbing at her temples, Amma snatched a pair of pliers to her heaving chest, hiked up the hem of her sari and scurried upstairs.


Professional Reviews

Shiva's Arms: the reach of a novel
I admit, reading novels has been challenging for me over the years. However, when the novel straddles real life to the point of complete belief, leaving me thinking, "Yeah, this really can happen in real life," I am sucked in!

Being sucked in, not once, but thrice, was easy with Cheryl Snell's recount of the struggles and joys of living in a cross-cultural, interfaith and bicultural family in the novel, Shiva's Arms.

It doesn't hurt that I can personally relate to many of the joys and struggles faced by the characters:

- Being 'coached" by friends, family, and even my spouse in how to behave 'more Indian': what to say, not say, what to wear, what and how to cook particular foods, what to do or not do for particular festivals or occasions, etc. There are two examples I would like to share from the book:

(1) Alice sets a Shiva statue in the kitchen. Ram pulls it out, offended and disgusted, telling Alice 'it doesn't belong in the kitchen where it's impure.' Of course, Ram has no reason as to why this is so. These kinds of situations are a 'dime a dozen' in India; people being told to do this or not do that because 'it's our culture,' but not having any reason behind it or offering alternative solutions. This is a frustrating part for many foreigners (including Indians born and raised outside India) to Indian culture to 'get used to', if in fact, there is any 'getting used to it.' This increases the push-pull, clear like and confusing disdain at time for a foreign culture. (More below!)

(2) Another aspect of this cross-cultural coaching that is even more challenging, in my opinion is being coached on how to tell jokes to "Indians" or appreciating the humor in Indian's jokes. There are a few instances in the book where Alice tries to tell jokes, that turn out to be inappropriate for Indian crowds and Ram pulls her away very quickly. I can completely relate to these situations and I guess without them no cross-cultural narrative would be complete or completely believable!

- Feeling I am putting my spouse or his family 'between two worlds' when trying to bring friends together from the "American" side or the "Indian" side. I was moved and memories of similar episodes from my life flashed in my head when I read the recount of 'Alice's first home-cooked Indian dinner party for friends' starting on page 29.

- The wonder, excitement and overwhelming chaos that ensues at an Indian wedding (any wedding for that matter can be equally chaotic, but when an American is a bride or bridegroom at an Indian wedding, and it's a new experience, it's more overwhelming, confusing and exciting, especially if done abroad). What a better opening to the story and novel than this scene! It will immediately draw anyone in. I could feel for Alice when her mood shifted, especially because rather than being 'coached' through the episode, she was basically picked up and moved through the scene like a small girl retelling a story with her dolls. Alice was at the complete mercy of her new in-laws.

- The on-going acceptance or repulsion of being intertwined in another 'culture'. I have read, written and reflected on the idea of 'culture shock.' In many of the writings, the reader is led to believe that culture shock is a linear process, and once 'certain things' are learnt and adapted by the newcomer, the culture shock is overcome. I don't believe this is accurate. Even if we live in the same country our whole life, if we assume that, we would not change and grow. In different times of our lives we experience different things which compel us to like or be repelled by the same things. This is clearly shown in the book- Alice's push-pull love with Indian culture, always having a love for it, but sometimes being clearly repulsed. The two clear examples would be:

(1) When Amma comes to U.S. the first time, talks only in Tamil in the home (she doesn't know much, if any English) and turns the home into a 'tiny India', making it, I think a bit foreign to Alice, and Alice exclaims, "All right, fair's fair. I wanna show you guys some American culture now. There's a play I wanna take you to. Come on, now. Let's go." This scene reminds me vividly of some of my frustrations living in India, being over stimulated by the Indian culture and at times over-emphasizing some of my "American-ness" as I felt it was not really 'allowed' to do so. Or, it reminds me of how in America it is very possible and realistic that even in one's own home, it's possible to live a different culture inside the four walls of a home that is completely different from the outside world. I am sure immigrants from all backgrounds can relate to this. In such situations, stepping outside the house is like living in a foreign land! Of course, in the novel, we find out Alice gives birth soon after her almost 'psychotic break' at the play. It may seem over dramatic because it is a fast-paced novel after-all, but in some ways, to me such a scene seems completely possible.

(2) Near the end of the book, Alice comes to terms with her mother-in-law through nursing her back to health in this time; she has in-law staying in the home helping her. One of the 'tasks' given to the in-laws by Alice is to have Amma tell them stories, and they translate them from Tamil to English so she (Alice) can draw narrations to refresh Amma about her life's memories. In this exchange, Amma opens up and tells personal stories about her life she has not told anyone.

There are many, many more points I can highlight in the wonders of 'Shiva's Arms' and why I recommend anyone interested in cross-cultural family life, Indian culture, American culture, Hindu culture or any of the other subjects in the book to pick up this book devour it. I say 'devour' because reading this book is so engrossing, even at my third read I am engrossed as my first. It is also possible to read this book in less than a day because it is indeed so engrossing. So, unlike other novels that you may find it impossible to pass the first few pages or chapters, I really don't believe it would happen with this one! Looking for some really great summer-time reading? Pick up this book, go sit under a tree in the summer shade or by the lake or ocean and while soaking up the summer breezes, soak up the wonderful narratives in Shiva's Arms. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
-Jennifer Kumar


Shiva's Arms by Cheryl Snell
Anyone who frequents the fiction section of a good independent bookstore knows that there is something of a cottage industry of writers currently churning out fiction invested in capturing the lived experience of ex-pat Indians who have moved to America. One of the more distinctive elements of this sub-genre is its investment in detailing life in India as well as in America, most often in ways that include, often in great detail, the back stories of the characters before their decision to move away from their home land.

A recent addition to this stack of books is Cheryl Snell’s first novel, Shiva’s Arms. I know and admire Cheryl first and foremost as a poet, a fact that inevitably colored my reading of this book. Indeed I would encourage anyone who begins Shiva’s Arms to keep this fact in mind because I believe it influences the writing of this novel all the way down to its essence. Cheryl’s poetic eye is not just visible in the felicitous phrase, though the book is filled with such moments. A conversation in an Indian cab takes place in a dialect that sounds “like gravel in their mouths.” When a character unravels, we see that her eyes are “blue puddles in her slack face.” Food gets sopped up “in a baseball mitt” of bread. But to read Shiva’s Arms for its precise, poetic imagery is to skate along an iced over lake without any thought to the depths below.

The true challenge of Shiva’s Arms is to recognize that it is a very ambitious—indeed, innovative piece of writing. It is an experiment in what I would call a transversal novel. Shiva’s Arms takes shape somewhere between the sonnet craze that swept Shakespeare’s England four centuries ago and the cinematic techniques often identified as producing the Rashomon effect in twentieth century avant garde film.

First we must think about that now largely obsolete form—the sonnet sequence. Generally understood to have been popularized by Petrach with his love poems to Laura, the sonnet sequence flourished in the late sixteenth century in London. Shakespeare’s effort is a very late example, and perhaps for that reason, breaks new ground. For the first time, the poet is repeatedly identified with the speaker of the poems (think of all those puns on Will) and the beloved is not simply idealized (famously, her eyes are nothing like the sun) but also unfaithful. Nor is the narrative clear. When you read Shakespeare’s poems it is as if you are reading a novel in snap shots, but with this twist: as you read it dawns on you that somehow the poems are no longer in chronological order

While keeping that experience in mind, let us flash forward to the art house movie. Famously, Kurosawa made a film--Rashomon (1950) that retells a crime from four different perspectives, a device that highlights the complex and dynamic nature of reality. What the Rashomon effect illustrates is the truth that though reality is intersubjective (that is, reality is a collective formation), this “collective hallucination” (to use Freud’s term) is inevitably being made by individuals who are experiencing what is happening in ways that are always at once congruent and divergent.

What Cheryl has done in Shiva’s Arms is to present the story of an extended family in a novel that combines both of these techniques. The result can be described as a novel where each chapter operates as a kind of intense short poem, that is-- as a sonnet. The chapters do not, however, anchor the reader to one character. Rather, the reader is passed from character to character. We begin tied to the American Alice, but then pass on to her husband Ram, and then their child Sam. This primary pattern is however interrupted with detours into Ram’s mother Amma, and -- with increasing frequency as the book builds to its conclusion -- the shunned sister Nela. With each shift, a different perspective is showcased. In strategy, the result is reminiscent of some of our most celebrated modernist novels, books such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway come immediately to mind. But in those works, the effect encourages the reader to separate out the characters so that the reader gains a satisfying sense that people are unique, yet isolated, grounded but limited to their bodies.

The effect that Snell produces in Shiva’s Arms is striking because it works in reverse. People in families get caught up in each other so that the configurations shift and change. Suddenly the notion that we are limited to our physical bodies falls away. We meld in our struggles, mix and combine in ways that defeat the macro laws of physics both in terms of space and even time. In this, Snell’s work is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes' cult masterpiece Nightwood, though the overall mood is far more evocative of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.

For me the high points of Shiva’s Arms come when Snell renders the rapid blooming of a state of existential dread. The effect is positively unsettling in its intensity, most especially early in the novel after Alice’s marriage precipitates a psychological crisis. The concluding confrontation between Amma and Alice is even more impressive, coming as it does so effectively after the dramatic resolution of the dinner immediately preceding it. Fights in Shiva's Arms do not end with characters walling themselves off. Everything drives toward mixture, a fact highlighted by Ram when he observes that “we are all just chemistry labs.” This theme is made overt via the role food plays in this novel complete with recipes, a crowning touch. According to western cliché, cooking and food illustrate how each of us enjoys a unique and colorful heritage of goodness. True to its radical nature, Shiva’s Arms upends that idea and puts in place the notion that each of us is but an ingredient, a blend that makes up the bigger whole.

Shiva’s Arms is a satisfying novel that demands much from its reader. Its strengths are many but if I had to pick one on which to end I will stress that this is a book that provocatively challenges some of the most cherished presumptions propping up many well-known examples of Indian – American fiction, or indeed of multicultural literature generally speaking. Despite paying lip service to the idea that western notions of subjectivity are not universal, most writers working in the genre of the English novel continue to present nonwestern forms of consciousness via free-standing western characters. In stark contrast, Shiva’s Arms invites you to imagine characters that are interconnected parts of a larger whole. Such a radical insight can only come from a novelist of great talent and skill. With luck, future novels from Cheryl Snell will deepen this exploration. As a reader I certainly look forward to the adventure.
-Matthew Biberman


Shiva's Arms, by Cheryl Snell
If you’ve ever wondered about Indian culture, Hindu festivals, mixed marriages that span continents, or how people from a different background assimilate in America’s new world, Shiva’s Arms is surely the book for you.



A literary novel, Shiva’s Arms tell the tale of Ram, who marries the American Alice, of Ram’s mother, known as Amma, of his sister Nela, and of son Sam who grows from childhood to adulthood with a foot in each world. The story’s narrated through the eyes of each of the main characters, flickering sometimes between points of view, so the reader’s left vaguely unsettled, unsure, just as the narrators are.



There are beautiful scenes, of a wedding in India and Alice’s cultural mis-steps as she tries to fit in; of a festival of dolls with Barbies adding their color to tradition; of “painting” with chalk, sacred symbols that strangers scuff with shoes. And there are sad scenes too; Alice’s struggle against depression; her mother-in-law’s seeming cruelty; Nela’s wounded dance round relationships.



The characters in this novel are all very real. They see their own mistakes and navigate troubled waters of their own making. They analyze their motives and forget to notice love. But there’s healing for Indian and American errors, and samsara sagara (the drowning sea of domesticity) proves to offer shelter on beautiful shores.



Moving rapidly, from a time before Sam’s birth through to his high school graduation, the story spans continents and cultures, pleasures and pains. Ram drifts on the edge of understanding, ever-loving, ever-loyal. And Sam drifts on the edge of rebellion. A sudden coincidence brings all the relationships into turmoil and sharp focus, and a breathtaking dogged devotion leads to breathtaking delight.



There are Indian words and phrases, and foods, scattered through the tale, but I never felt the need to refer to the glossary till the end. Then I delighted in reading their full meanings. There are Indian recipes too though I’d struggle to find patience to make them. But most of all, there’s an Indian and American feel to the tale, a telling of something real from which all of us can learn, a blending of cultures that leaves them both unique and that heals the rift.



The author, a published poet, clearly knows what she’s writing about, and I loved learning from her and sharing her love of cultures and of words.
-Sheila Deeth




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Reader Reviews for "Shiva's Arms"

Reviewed by Cheryl Snell 11/7/2010
Cheryl Snell's Shiva's Arms (novel review)
by Matthew Biberman
November 6, 2010
Any one who frequents the fiction section of a good independent bookstore knows that there is something of a cottage industry of writers currently churning out fiction invested in capturing the lived experience of ex‐pat Indians who have moved to America. One of the more distinctive elements of this sub‐genre is its investment in detailing life in India as well as in America, most often in ways that include, often in great detail, the back stories of the
characters before their decision to move away from their home land.
A recent addition to this stack of books is Cheryl Snell’s first novel, Shiva’s Arms. I know and admire Cheryl first and foremost as a poet, a fact that inevitably colored my reading of this book. Indeed I would encourage anyone who begins Shiva’s Arms to keep this fact in mind because I believe it influences the writing of this novel all the way down to its essence. Cheryl’s poetic eye is not just visible in the felicitous phrase, though the book is filled with such
moments. A conversation in an Indian cab takes place in a dialect that sounds “like gravel in their mouths.” When a character unravels, we see that her eyes are “blue puddles in her slack face.” Food gets sopped up “in a baseball mitt” of bread. But to read Shiva’s Arms for its precise, poetic imagery is to skate along an iced over lake without any thought to the depths below.
The true challenge of Shiva’s Arms is to recognize that it is a very ambitious—indeed, innovative piece of writing. It is an experiment in what I would call a transversal novel. Shiva’s Arms takes shape somewhere between the sonnet craze that swept Shakespeare’s England four centuries ago and the cinematic techniques often identified as producing the Rashomon effect in twentieth century avant garde film.
First we must think about that now largely obsolete form—the sonnet sequence. Generally understood to have been popularized by Petrarch with his love poems to Laura, the sonnet sequence flourished in the late sixteenth century in London. Shakespeare’s effort is a very late example, and perhaps for that reason, breaks new ground. For the first time, the poet is repeatedly identified with the speaker of the poems (think of all those puns on Will) and the beloved is not simply idealized (famously, her eyes are nothing like the sun) but also unfaithful. Nor is the narrative clear. When you read Shakespeare’s poems it is as if you are reading a
novel in snap shots, but with this twist: as you read it dawns on you that somehow the poems are no longer in chronological order
While keeping that experience in mind, let us flash forward to the art house movie. Famously, Kurosawa made a film‐‐Rashomon (1950) that retells a crime from four different perspectives, a device that highlights the complex and dynamic nature of reality. What the Rashomon effect
highlights is the truth that though reality is intersubjective (that is, reality is a collective formation), this “collective hallucination” (to use Freud’s term) is inevitably being made by individuals who are experiencing what is happening in ways that are always at once congruent and divergent.
What Cheryl has done in Shiva’s Arms is to present the story of an extended family in a novel that combines both of these techniques. The result can be described as a novel where each chapter operates as a kind of intense short poem, that is‐‐ as a sonnet. The chapters do not,however, anchor the reader to one character. Rather, the reader is passed from character to character. We begin tied to the American Alice, but then pass on to her husband Ram, and then
their child Sam. This primary pattern is however interrupted with detours into Ram’s mother Amma, and ‐‐ with increasing frequency as the book builds to its conclusion ‐‐ the shunned sister Nela. With each shift, a different perspective is showcased. In strategy, the result is
reminiscent of some of our most celebrated modernist novels, books such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway come immediately to mind. But in those works, the effect encourages the reader to separate out the characters so that the readers gains a satisfying sense that people are unique, yet isolated, grounded but limited to their bodies.
The effect that Snell produces in Shiva’s Arms is striking because it works in reverse. People in families get caught up in each other so that the configurations shift and change. Suddenly the notion that we are limited to our physical bodies falls away. We meld in our struggles, mix and combine in ways that defeat the macro laws of physics both in terms of space and even time. In this, Snell’s work is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes cult masterpiece Nightwood, though the overall mood is far more evocative of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
For me the high points of Shiva’s Arms come when Snell renders the rapid blooming of a state of existential dread. The effect is positively unsettling in its intensity, most especially early in the novel after Alice’s marriage precipitates a psychological crisis. The concluding
confrontation between Amma and Alice is even more impressive, coming as it does so effectively after the dramatic resolution of the dinner immediately preceding it. Fights in Shiva Arms do not end with characters walling themselves off. Everything drives toward mixture, a
fact highlighted by Ram when he observes that “we are all just chemistry labs.” This theme is made overt via the role food plays in this novel complete with Recipes, a crowning touch.
According to western clichĂ©, cooking and food illustrate how each of us enjoys a unique and colorful heritage of goodness. True to its radical nature, Shiva’s Arms upends that idea and puts in place the notion that each of us is but an ingredient, a blend that makes up the bigger whole.
Shiva’s Arms is a satisfying novel that demands much from its reader. Its strengths are many but if I had to pick one on which to end I will stress that this is a book that provocatively challenges many of the most cherished presumptions propping up many well known examples
of Indian – American fiction, or indeed of multicultural literature generally speaking. Despite paying lip service to the idea that western notions of subjectivity are not universal, most writers working in the genre of the English novel continue to present nonwestern forms of
consciousness via free standing western characters. In stark contrast, Shiva’s Arms invites you to imagine characters that are interconnected parts of a larger whole. Such a radical insight can only come from a novelist of great talent and skillful execution. With luck, future novels from Cheryl Snell will deepen this exploration. As a reader I certainly look forward to the adventure.

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