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Book Bag


By Uzma Aslam Khan

Clockroot Books


Uzma Aslam Khan, who teaches fiction writing at Hampshire College in Amherst, is an English language novelist from Pakistan whose first three novels have won acclaim in Asia. In her work, now receiving growing recognition in Great Britain and the United States, Khan has examined life in her native country and the challenges faced by Pakistanis with connections to the Western world. Though she grew up primarily in Pakistan, Khan has also lived in Britain, and she attended college in the U.S.

In her newest novel, “Thinner Than Skin,” she centers her narrative on Nadir, a young Pakistani photographer living in San Francisco, and his girlfriend, Farhana, a Pakistani-German woman who has never seen her home country. Nadir decides to return to Pakistan to shoot images that he hopes will jump-start his career. Farhana, wanting in part to test the strength of her relationship with Nadir, insists he take her with him.

Joined by two friends, the couple head to the Kaghan Valley in northern Pakistan, near the Chinese border, to view a wonderland of glaciers and high-mountain valleys — a historic crossroads where Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chinese, Afghans and nomadic people come to trade. But the idyllic setting is fraught with danger: Militants are trying to recruit young men in the area, and various government authorities are strong-arming their way through the valley, searching for an alleged bombing suspect.

The story is also told from the viewpoint of Maryam, a woman of a local ethnic group, the Gujjars, who are harassed by government agents who interfere with their livestock raising and ignore illegal logging in the area. As Maryam’s path crosses that of Farhana and Nadir, their lives will all turn in unexpected ways.

“Thinner Than Skin,” which has been long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, is a novel of love, identity and geopolitical turmoil, one in which the wild beauty of the mountainous region becomes almost a character itself. As one reviewer puts it, “ ‘Thinner Than Skin’ is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers.”


By Cincy Zurchin, James Ballard and Thad Lacinak


“The Whale Done! School” is the third in a series of books that aim to improve personal relationships by adapting a model that trainers at SeaWorld in San Diego have used to work with killer whales. The premise, essentially, is that if feared predators like killer whales can be successfully trained with positive reinforcement, a similar model can be used for a whole range of human interactions.

The new volume in the series, co-authored by Amherst consultant and former teacher James Ballard, examines ways to improve children’s educational performance and behavior through positive means: building trust, focusing on what students do right, and redirecting negative behavior.

The book is based on the real-life experiences of another co-author, Cindy Zurchin, a veteran educator and currently the assistant superintendent of a Pittsburgh-area school district. In a stint in another Pittsburgh primary school, according to the book’s introduction, Zurchin took the lead in turning around poor performance — rising student absenteeism and suspensions, declining test scores — by having teachers adapt the “Whale Done!” principles.

The setting in “The Whale Done! School” is fictitious and depicts an elementary school and town seemingly at the abyss: some students have lice in their hair and are physically mistreated by angry parents, right in the classroom; community members are up in arms about the school being merged with another; and teachers spend half their time breaking up student fights.

But by book’s end, teachers have learned to reward children for positive behavior and have created a healthier environment, reaching out to families and turning student performance around. School principal Maggie Carlson feels her eyes glistening: “There it is,” she thought. “Second generation Whale Done!”

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