Seeing Like a Feminist – Nivedita Menon
If you buy one book this year, make it this one. Keep it by your bedside. Read bite-sized portions. I began to read this close on the heels of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s death and I found myself often on the verge of tears, other times choking back outrage. Nivedita’s writing isn’t fancy or witty or flowery. I don’t think you worry about those issues once you dig your teeth into it. There are so many more important issues that just need to be brought to the forefront. So much that we just didn’t know. So much lost time to make up for. Let me give you examples. Reading her book is like putting on x-ray spectacles and seeing the bones that lie under your skin, the underlying rules that make up our patriarchy. The structure that keeps society functioning in a certain way. One of the simplest examples she gives of society’s enforced order, is of a village girl called Moni who was beaten, tonsured and stripped naked for dressing and ‘behaving like a boy’. Is it a big enough deal to merit such a reaction? On the other hand, what would be the reaction if a male employee in a multinational corporation came to work in a saree and bindi? From here she goes on to talk about how social order is so fragile that simply dressing in a different way causes breakdown. I wish I could go on and on, but I want you, every single one of you who reads this blog, to order this book. I wouldn’t even request you so earnestly if I myself had written it. But this book shakes up the way we look at ourselves as women, social order, constructs and so on. Gentlemen, I’d request you to read it too. There is a certain privilege you avail of, as men in a patriarchal society. Should you take advantage of it or should you step back and do the right and fair thing and give the women in your life the equality they deserve? Inter-caste marriages, same sex marriages, property rights, violence, there is nothing Nivedita doesn’t cover. I want to go back and read the book over and over again to make sure I retain every bit. To ensure that I too, see like a feminist.
Again, if you’re buying a book this year, make it this one. If you’re giving a gift, make it this one.
The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
If you’ve read my blog for more than a year you’re sure to know that my biggest bug bear is badly behaved kids. My hand itches to smack them and then their parents. It makes no sense for me to bring up my kids so strictly if others are going to let theirs run wild, misbehave with mine and generally create a shittier future for them. Which is why when I read the blurb on this book I knew I was picking it up. It’s easy to associate with this Greek family settled in Australia, because the family dynamic is so familiar to us Indians. Large families with everyone interfering. That one shocking incident that sends reverberations through the entire group and leaves everyone feeling awkward. In this case, a badly behaved child is slapped right at the start and the rest of the book follows through on the consequences. Frankly I’d imagine it would end there, but you honestly can’t slap someone else’s kids and get away with it (much though I’d love to!) so.
I do feel the book could have been shorter by about 1/3rd but that’s about the only peeve I have.
The Vague Woman’s Handbook – Devapriya Roy
I enjoyed the book. Devapriya’s writing is good, but I once again got the feeling that it was largely autobiographical. The college setting, the newly weds, maybe not much else. But I do wish she’d just dropped all similarities with her own life and done something different. Which is not really criticism of the book, again, more a problem with my own expectations- because she’s a great writer and I have very high expectations of people who I feel write well. I am sure it will be much enjoyed by many – a lovely story, gentle pace. I particularly enjoyed the attention to the friendship with an older lady. I have in the last few years befriended ladies who are older and I know what age brings to a friendship. And for that touch alone, I highly recommend the book. Well that and the fact that the protagonist is as directionally challenged as I am – spin me around in front of my gate and leave me, and I’d be hard pressed to identify my own home.
I kissed a frog – Rupa Gulab
I’ve never read anything else of Rupa Gulab’s and I don’t appreciate short stories. So when this book ended up in my possession I was rather ho hum about it. Actually I didn’t realise they were short stories until I began reading. And for once I was drawn in and finished the entire book in one sitting. In spite of the stories being very desi and very contemporary (you know I don’t really enjoy that). In fact, for those very reasons maybe. I also like that her writing is crisp and witty. A relationship that continues, and fluidly changes shape when one of the partners changes their sex. A mother and daughter go from being family to friends. A love story where love truly must be blind to accept the extra 40 kgs. The second section is on friendship among women, something I feel not enough is written about (refer to the book above this one). Almost every book I’ve read has been about women related to each other. Friendships among women are rare, even rarer, are books about those friendships. The last section however, totally fell apart for me. It is a section on popular fairy tales with a contemporary twist. I feel like the first two sections were meant for adult readers/young readers, but the last bit very definitely for teenagers.
Cold Feet – Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan
With this book I feel Meenakshi has really come into her own. I read her blog and I know her slightly, and so with her last book there was a sense of – I know she can do better. And she has. Five women searching for love, dealing with it in their own way. It’s interesting how similar her book and Rupa Gulab’s are in certain ways. Maybe it’s because as journalists/writers we all move in somewhat the same social circle. I saw so many people I’d almost recognise, the situations were so easy to relate to and the characters, some gay, some straight, some not sure, were so .. people we know. Her writing is witty, contemporary and she isn’t doing that awful thing a lot of other authors are doing – trying too hard. It sounds patronising but if Meenakshi reads this, she’ll know it was meant in the nicest possible way. Her writing flows beautifully, conversations are not stilted, the progression is measured and the structure is great. Frankly I don’t think the blurb does the book justice and I wish it were marketed better. Every character is distinctive and perfectly formed and nobody comes across as a caricature – yet another issue I have with a lot of desi writing – apart from the fact that very few writers seem truly comfortable writing in English. So more power to her, I’d like to read more of her work and I’m hoping she goes from glory to glory.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday
Read this one in one sitting and loved it. The story is told through various documents – personal letters, emails, official documents, government memos and so on. I last read something like this in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and am slowly falling in love with this literary device. Dr Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist who is happy in his little academic cocoon and the height of ambition for him is his paper on caddis fly larva earning recognition. His marriage of 20 years holds no surprises and his wife believes that perfume can’t replace the merits of regular application of soap and water. Enter Harriet Chetworde-Talbot who represents a Sheikh in Yemen, with a request that is quite insane – salmon fishing in the Yemen. A whole lot of bureaucratic drama follows and the project kicks off.
And through these devices we get to know that Harriet’s fiance has been posted in Iran, Alfred’s wife is on a secondment to Germany and the Prime Minister of Britain is keen to distance himself from this crazy project that might just be egg on his face. The vein of dry humour that runs through this fairly peaceful story kept me smiling. I love how ‘British’ and formal most of the personal communication is, too. I don’t know if I’d ever write something so formal, boring and straitlaced, to my boyfriend in the army! My favourite part (spoiler alert) – referring the bereaved to a call centre in India! All in all, an easy read, a social and political commentary that is gentle, yet reveals more than it hides. Must read. Impossible to tell that this is a first book – so well held together, so beautifully crafted.
We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver
Kevin is a boy who goes on a rampage and kills about 10 of his classmates and a teacher. Nothing you haven’t heard before. Except, how often do you get to know the child and the family behind it? Do you assume they’re all trailer trash? I had no thoughts on this whatsoever, before I picked up the book. We have enough going on in India without trying to distract ourselves with US school shootouts.
I seem to be picking up books that use only communication as their device. This one is no different. Kevin’s mother Eva writes to her husband Franklin and from the early days of their courtship to the hours she spends visiting her son in jail, every bit is documented. Lionel Shriver is a brilliant writer and I was unwell for a couple of days so I actually put the book aside because I didn’t want to gloss over or miss any of the finely crafted points she makes. A simple one right in the beginning when she talks about testing for Down’s Syndrome, being an older mother. And how she wonders why kids are not tested for malice and spite and indifference, in the womb. Made me stop and wonder too, whether we’d like to do that. Now that we’re already down that slippery path where we test for abnormalities and ruthlessly discard a child with chances of muscular atrophy, would we keep a child who tested positive for violence? Would you pick that child over a paraplegic? So much to think about, so much realisation of the power we wield as parents. I plan to read this book again, simply to soak in the beauty of her words, the stark honesty of her arguments. Love.
Bringing up Bebe – Pamela Druckerman
This book, I believe, was written for me. To justify my thought process. Deep down I’m French – you guys just didn’t know it. I didn’t either, but now I do. Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist who moves to France when she gets married to a Britisher. Of course a baby arrives soon and she goes stark raving mad trying to have a dinner out with the child in tow. Reminds me of my first dinner out with the Brat and OA in Madras, a place called Bay Leaf that served Bong food. The 45 day old Brat screamed till he was purple in the face and the OA and I stood out holding him on the road side in turn, while the other gobbled down their food. I’ve never forgotten that and I swore I was not going to let it put me off eating out. We learnt to manage the Brat and had some lovely meals thereafter, at the Park, the Brat in a rocker at the pool side Aqua, and Bella Ciao and Benjarong among others. Often he’d fall asleep and we’d put him under the table and rock him with a foot and he’d sleep through our dinner without anyone even knowing there was a baby under the table!
Getting house help there was a nightmare because inspite of speaking basic my-aunt-has-the-pen-of-the gardener’s-wife type Tamil, I couldn’t figure out the names for vegetables and how to say sieve, stir or strain. So I got in a maid for the cleaning and would cook our meals myself. And that meant that the Brat who teethed early, just learnt to eat spinach raita and aloo posto if that is what I’d made. No ragi, no sabudana, no unidentifiable mashed and pureed food for him. Might explain why he loved calamari at age 2 when most other kids didn’t know what it was. Anyhow, I always wondered why we’d go to parties and find a delicious spread for the adults and simple pasta for the kids. My kids would love to eat the stew/biryani/whatever fancy food the adults were eating. But they’d be sat down earlier and fed some passably bland white food and sent off to play while we adults played gourmet. I on the other hand, never serve separate food for kids at our parties because I expect them to eat the salad, the cous cous, the whatever they’re being offered. Their parents probably hate me, but hey, my house, my rules.
Anyhow, I felt like I was weirdo, but then the Internet brings you closer to weirdos like yourself and that’s how I met BEV many years ago. It’s amazing how soul sistah we are in our parenting styles. We go over for dinner and the kids come with us, but we don’t hear or see them. They all know to stay in the nursery, share their toys, settle their disputes without violence and not come out until it is dinner time. Her daughter and the Bean get along like a house on fire and the Brat falls between her sons in age and plays with both. It’s amazing to see them quietly sit down for dinner, open up their napkins and have French Onion soup, or Hyderabadi dahi vada or something absolutely new, without a murmur. We have a rule – try everything once. And if they don’t like the food, too bad, they go home hungry. One uneaten meal won’t kill them.
So BEV lent me this book telling me it was about written for us, and it was. No noise at the fine dining restaurant, sleep on time, no throwing tantrums in public – that’s our kids for you. And I don’t mean this as some form of bragging, because I know a lot of people judge us for how strict we are with our kids. It just means they’re very welcome everywhere they go, they get to experience a variety of foods and situations and they’re learning to open their minds to everything. I realise this is more of a review of our parenting than the book, so I’ll try and drag myself back there.
The book talks about how French parents don’t let their kids take over their lives. So you don’t have them scribbling on your white sofa, screaming and demanding pish-pash for dinner or banging their glass full of water at a restaurant. A little pause before you pick up a screaming child, learning to taste new food, encouraging autonomy, simple manners like Good evening and good bye (remember we had a loooong post on that one?) and so on. If you expect your child to behave, he or she will. It’s just that simple. If you shrug off their misbehaviour with a smile, saying oh, he’s just a kid, well, he’ll just push all your buttons. It also talks about picking some battles and making do with the others. I realised what mine are – Screen time and manners. Other than that, I don’t stress if they don’t eat, I don’t care if they fall asleep on the floor at a wedding and I don’t mind (heck, even encourage them) if they miss a day of school to do something fun.
Anyway, this is not the book for parents who let kids take over their lives and ride rough shod over them. This is a book for parents who believe in having a life, who believe in manners, in treating kids like small sized humans and not imbeciles. Oh what the hell, it’s a book for all parents. Ones like me and BEV will feel like they’re in good company. The rest will have something to bitch about while their kids tear a friend’s house apart!
Author Druckerman does a fab job of understanding French Culture, the nuances that go in, and seeing where she’d draw a line to suit her own cultural expectations.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm (Parenting wisdom from around the world) – Mei-Ling Hopgood
Yet another expat mum in a strange country, trying to raise her kids to fit in. As luck would have it, I read this just after Bringing up Bebe. And it was a nice kick in the pants! There I was, all feeling proud of my parenting style when this book came in and told me, everyone has their own way.
Actually here too, Mei-Ling picks up what suits her from various cultures, while walking her own path. And I enjoyed the read. Funnily she too falls back on the French teaching their kids to eat healthy food (check). How the Eskimos practice attachment parenting and keep their kids warm (check), how the Chinese potty train early (check) and how Kenyans don’t use push chairs (check!). On all other counts, from Asians teaching their kids to excel and Japs let their kids fight, I was not on board, but hey, I don’t have to be!
For some reason this book held me less – perhaps because I disagreed with a lot of the practices and felt they were not suitable for us as a family and the times we live in. But it’s an eye opener to see how other cultures live, why they choose the practices they do and how we could adapt those to suit us. Definitely a good read.
The Whore’s Asylum – Katy Darby
If you know me, you know I love my period fiction. Set in 1887, Oxford, this one gives you a fabulous picture of London in those times. From the colleges to the gin-deaths and whores. Stephen Chapman is a medical student and shares rooms with Edward Fraser, a theologist. The story is told in Fraser’s words. Chapman is a kind hearted sort, who gets involved with unsavoury types. Put simply, he decides to research venereal diseases. He also falls in love with the wrong woman, Diana. She works with the ladies of the night and is a perfect fit for Chapman, if not socially acceptable. I cannot tell you more for fear of spoiling it for you but it is interesting to see how dedicated and interested physicians in those days had to go out of their way to research their science. And what criminal acts, hardship and social stigma it brought. From robbing graves for a cadaver to experiment on, to frequenting the seedier parts of town, these gentlemen did it all. The book drags its feet through dirty lanes and hostels and ailments and social commentary and medical research. All this seen through the lens of a man of God. A slow read but an interesting one.
The House at Riverton – Kate Morton
I was warned by the friend who lent it to me that I wouldn’t enjoy it. That she didn’t even care if I never returned it. Not an auspicious start to a story no doubt, but then I do love my historical romances and period fiction. Set not so far back, in 1924, this one is about a glittering London full of poetry, mazes in the gardens, follies and romances. A film maker who wishes to shoot at the house and tell its sorry tale and calls upon Grace Bradley, an old maidservant and as everyone knows – the househelp knows everything. A young poet shot himself at a party held in this house and from thereon it declined. Grace was an eyewitness to the event and is taken from her nursing home to help reconstruct the sequence of events. Her evolution from maidservant to respectable old lady in a nursing home show the movement of time.
I found the book slow moving and denouement a slight letdown. But it is an interesting study in social structure, hierarchy and relationships. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this book, but I’d borrow it for a slow day.
Mummy’s Legs – Kate Bingham
I’m seriously thinking of avoiding all books authored by anyone called Kate. I picked this one up because the blurb fooled me. A young girl helps her mother get a hold on her life when she finds out her husband is cheating on her. It’s supposed to be told through the girl’s eyes and I’m probably really slow because after a point I lost track of who the girl was, who the mother was and what her problem was. I blame it on being under the influence of drugs (had the flu for a couple of days) and very very sleepy – oh, and the book being pointless. Whatever, don’t go there, don’t read it, booooring.
The Lake of Dreams – Kim Edwards
I read Edward’s Memory Keeper’s Daughter and quite enjoyed it, which prompted me to pick this one up. I found the blurb a little deceptive once I read the book, but we’ll get to that later. Lucy Jarrett lives in a little house in Japan with her lover Yoshi and is woken up by an earthquake. Far away from all this, her mother suffers an accident in America. So leaving behind the cherry blossom and her village on the rim of a volcanic mountain, Lucy heads back to her small town around a lake called the Lake of Dreams by the Iroquois or the Native Indian original inhabitants.
I enjoyed the whole small town feel to the book. Everyone knows everyone, a few new stores have popped up and are doing interesting new things, the old familiars are shutting down. An old flame is back, divorced, one numbers requisite gorgeous child in tow. It checks all the boxes and you wonder if she’ll go back to him. After all, he speaks the language of her growing years, unlike the Japanese lover who smells of foreign lands. What I really liked was how her mother had a life and a love of her own. While my parents are thankfully still alive and together, her mother reminded me of my parents. Young, fit, a life of their own and they scrub up good! My mum owns more fashionably elegant items of clothing than I do and my father books his exotic holidays faster than the OA can figure out where the ‘compose mail’ button on the iPad is. What I felt sort of distant from though, was the sibling relationship portrayed in it. They were so formal, so distant – I couldn’t relate to it at all, and it just annoyed me very much.
All this while Lucy has come upon an ancient piece of embroidery and a connected piece of stained glass – something draws her to them. She begins to dig around church records and newspaper clippings to discover who the lady in the stained glass window is. While this is really what the story is supposed to be about, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in it. I was far more absorbed by the interpersonal relationships, the ebbs and tides of them and the family politics that played out. Again, I felt a little let down by the end but on the whole it was an absorbing read for the sheer fluidity of her language. I wish I could write like that.
Love Stories – Annie Zaidi
Disclaimer for those who don’t already know, Annie is a dear friend and an old classmate. But, you know me well enough to know I’d be deadly honest anyway. I loved the cover to begin with. Two smoldering matches. Tells you how much thought went into the book. The other thing that strikes you, a simple device, is that there are no names given to the characters in the 14 short stories. They don’t matter. There’s a he and a she and these are stories that play out across the world. Could be anyone, could be anywhere, their names don’t matter. And of course Annie’s trademark, keen observations – because what is a writer if not a keen observer of life? The plain shirt, the railway station clock, the five o’clock shadow. Annie notices it all. The language is simple. Not for her any flowery excess. Each one focuses on a different type of love. The man you’ve never met, the one whose voice you’ve never heard, the one who was a friend. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that. Only this time do you see the details pointed out. I pulled an all nighouter with this one – so will you.
Astray – Emma Donoghue
She is now my favourite writer, bar none. I don’t know how she does it – changes her voice and her tone and her ideas. I’m in awe of writers who can break free of a mould and do that. Who cannot be identified by blindly reading a page out of a book or a genre. So this one is a series of short stories inspired by news articles that cover a period of four centuries. Runaways, gold diggers, slaves, wives, immigrants, the theme is people on the move. I admire the way she picked the articles she did (she is a keen historian) and fleshed out characters, gave them a face and told their story. Sex crimes, Barnum’s circus, the woman who played the part of a widow and robbed a man’s life’s earnings, a cross dresser, the list is endless and mind boggling. This is a book that must be read to be believed. If there’s an Emma Donoghue temple, I might just become a praying woman.
I’ve Got Your Number – Sophie Kinsella
I don’t do chick-lit and this was an aberration. I find it boring, uninspiring and my own life is far more fun on a regular day anyway. But I break this rule for Kinsella’s writing. Light, frothy and a joy to read, her ditsy heroines remind me of my own haphazard existence. The story is simple – Poppy loses her engagement ring and finds a phone that does not belong to her. The right thing to do would be to give it back of course, but then where would the story go? Rich, magnetic Sam Roxton, owner of the phone would like it back, but Poppy’s having none of it. The story goes on from there. You already know how it will end, but you go along for the fun ride. A one time, borrow-from-your-friend-for-a-flight read.
An Almost Perfect Moon -Jamie Holland
I picked this up because someone compared it to Nick Hornby. Unfair comparison to say the least. This book is about 3 young men, and told from their perspective. One is about to get married, another is shifting into the country with his partner and the third is still searching for the perfect woman. Frankly I’m sick to death of adults who won’t just pull up their socks and get on with it. Whiny adults with first world problems and an inability to take life on the chin. But then that’s just me being intolerant as usual.
I found the story plodding, the plots unimaginative, the situations cliched. The usual harried new mum, the man who is never satisfied with the women he lands and so on. I don’t know why I dragged myself through it. Life is too short to finish books you don’t like, is my new mantra. So, this is a warning – don’t read this book.