women

Book Review of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

espwI can’t remember where I read something positive about this book, but when it came time to binge on audiobooks over the school holidays, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows popped up on my list. And it was delightful.

Much of the story surrounds Nikki – a thoroughly modern Punjabi woman living in London who is largely sceptical and disregarding of many traditional elements of her culture, which she sees as behind the times and irrelevant to her own life. After dropping out of her law degree, she takes a job teaching what’s she thinks will be creative writing to women at the local temple … but it turns out few are able to read and write in English. Nikki resigns herself to the idea of teaching basic literacy to the older women – mainly widows – until serendipitously the women are accidentally presented with a book of erotic stories mixed in with the basic texts she bought for them.

This leads to the sharing of unexpected longings, experiences and desires. Nikki is forced to rethink all of her ideas about the lives of traditional Indian women. While shy and reserved, many possess deep wells of feeling and sexuality she never expected. Eventually the whole class comes to embrace the idea of documenting erotic stories and the women of the local community become quietly fascinated too.

But behind all this is the darker side that was responsible for many of Nikki’s preconceived ideas. There are definitely pockets of the community stuck in incredibly traditional and conservative thinking – and who will bully mentally and physically any woman who looks to step outside her place. In places, the story takes a sinister undertone when exploring this.

But ultimately this is a heartwarming story of self-discovery and liberation for many of the characters. I challenge you not to enjoy this.

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Book Review of The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

sophie-stark-e1448060209378One of the real luxuries of holidays is to throw all serious reading aside and pull out a book of relaxing fiction. 

First I started with a Lianne Moriarty, but that turned out to be too light. I settled instead for Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, a book that had been on my to-do list for a while. I ungraciously pounced on it when a friend revealed a whole bag full of second-hand book goodies she’d managed to pick up .. and she much more graciously allowed me to take this, offering that she had plenty more to keep her going.

So the story of film-director Sophie Stark… it’s quietly intriguing and cleverly crafted. Told in sections by the people closest to her – and not entirely chronologically, they each paint a picture of that tortured artist trope – a woman trying to communicate with the world via film and through appropriating the powerful stories of those in her lives. Equal parts genius and destructive, Sophie is a vivid figure who none – including the reader – are likely to forget. 

I absorbed this with a quiet fascination over about three days. It’s a book with few likeable characters and some clever storytelling. Although trite in places, it’s the kind of book you wished you’d come up with the concept for yourself. Worth picking up

Book Review of The Female Persuasion

Female persuasionI’m still pondering this eleventh novel by heavenly novelist, Meg Wolitzer. From Wolitzer I can normally expect a kind of fast-paced tour-de-force of the human condition…. Often with very young characters coming into adulthood. The Female Persuasion feels more grown up, more of a thinker, but certainly it lacked the obsessive must-read quality many of her other novels have been characterised by.

In a well-timed move, The Female Persuasion looks at women – their relationships with each other, and beyond this, the women’s movement. At the centre of the novel is Faith Frank, a 60-year-old iconic feminist known for her sexy high boots – a women who has meant a lot to the movement over the years, but is approaching the point of irrelevance. The main character, Greer Kadetsky, meets her at a talk as a Freshman at Ryland University, where her feminism is just awakening after being sexually harassed by an older classmate. Greer’s best friend Zee introduces her to Frank’s work and legacy, but when Frank and Greer make a connection during the event, it is Greer who eventually goes on to work in Faith’s new organisation, sponsored by big business. Zee is left somewhat behind to forge a new meaning in her life, shut out by Greer from access to Faith and as such, the feminist world she longs to live in.

All the women struggle with definitions of feminism here – Zee must find a new way of making a difference without being an activist. In the end, she is the most balanced of the three. Frank’s big business backers radically change her practices as she finds she need to make compromises to keep the money rolling in. Greer’s naivety leads to an inevitable clash with Frank, although doesn’t stop her from having to re-evaluate herself and her attitude to feminism throughout the text – especially in regards to Zee and to her long-time boyfriend Cory whose life is derailed by an unexpected death.

The story is definitely a journey, particularly for Greer who steps into the spotlight of the new feminism at the end of the novel. Finely crafted and thought-provoking, an interesting change of pace from this author.

Book Review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanorThis book wasn’t quite what I expected – although good nonetheless.

Eleanor Oliphant is conservative – both in her appearance and thinking.  She doesn’t engage well with others, and lives on her own with a plant she is reasonably fond of.  She’s also fond of vodka and Tesco’s.  She doesn’t enjoy her job.  She doesn’t have any hobbies or any family with the exception of an absent mother she speaks to weekly on the phone.  Somehow though, the new IT technician at her work – Raymond – manages to make himself a part of her life when they witness an elderly man collapse on the street one day and rush to his assistance.

From here, I was expecting a heart-warming story of a quiet, shy individual finding herself and transforming her life, learning that she can form relationships and have a pathway to  happiness.  And there is plenty of that – and plenty of moments where you marvel at how life can change dramatically in such a short period of time.

But this was actually much more serious that than, delving into the reasons for reclusive Eleanor’s quiet lifestyle and rigid thought patterns.  Eleanor has a tragic backstory that gradually unravels as the narration continues.  This is unusual in a book that has a generally light feel.

The real genius of this fairly engaging novel is not just in the careful portrayal of Eleanor’s journey, but also in the colourful characters she encounters along the way.  The minor characters are beautifully detailed and quirky.  There’s something real in the beauty of this, and in the transcendence of everyday lives.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is getting a lot of attention right now.  It’s definitely not one of the stand-outs of the year for me, but worth a look nonetheless.

 

Raving Book Review of The Power

the power.jpgThis book has been sitting on my bedside table for months… and I have been making my way through the pile with the sneaking suspicion that this would be amazing.

It was.  This is the best book I have read this year.

The Power imagines a world where women begin to demonstrate a capacity to cause pain via electric shock via touch.  First a few teenage girls cause pain and injury to those around them, but gradually they discover a capacity to wake the power up in each other.  Some have tremendous capacity, some learn ways to control, master, use and abuse it.

It causes a dramatic shift in the power structure of society on all levels – politics, religion, and the armed forces.

The narrative follows a few select characters witnessing and in fact shaping events that create an entirely new society – one based on female domination and complete subjugation of men.  No longer the weaker sex, I would argue that women do to men all that they have been subjected to across history – and more.

It’s a frightening but completely absorbing vision that asks us to acknowledge the transformative nature of power and how absolutely it can corrupt everyone.

The ending of the story is brilliant, as is framed equally as cleverly as a work of historical research looking back at the events that framed their civilisation by a tentative male author, and an understanding female critical friend – and even in this relationship is the dynamic of men and women explored.

This is everything – smart, well-paced and incredibly readable.  This is worthy of the award it received and the acclaim it is starting to get.

Book Review of Little Fires Everywhere

little-fires-everywhere“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control…”

This statement could be applied to all the female characters in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The novel starts with a real fire, and goes back to explain how it all came about. How those very real flames were the result of so much passion – and so much pressure to suppress it.

All this is sparked (see the fire pun there?) is the town of Shaker Heights by the arrival of Mia, a single mother and photographer, and her daughter Pearl. Shaker Heights is one of those picture-perfect towns with strong ideas about what is expected of residents. The type of town you think of when you hear that song ‘Little Boxes’, which is the theme to the brilliantly subversive show ‘Weeds’.

Mia and Pearl live quite differently – with minimal possessions. Their life revolves around Mia’s work – working just enough to survive and be able to practice her craft. This gives them a very different perspective to their neighbours – much to the chagrin of the Richardson family who they rent from.

And yet despite their differences, they lives of these two families become inexplicably entwined with each other’s. Pearl befriends the children – and has quite different relationships with each. These shape and change her character in ways that Mia is not quite ready for. So, when Mrs Richardson offers her a cleaning job, Mia takes it to enter into this part of her daughter’s world – only to find her own connections, especially with the two Richardson girls.

Behind all these lies the secret to Pearl’s conception, a secret which Mrs Richardson take upon herself to unravel. And she’s a journalist. While she works only for the local paper, she has some knowledge of how to uncover what is hidden. And she is very motivated to know more about these people who have somehow ingratiated themselves into her world. It is this undertaking that in some ways, sets the rest of the novel in motion.

There’s also quite an interesting sub-plot about an abandoned baby that is thought-provoking too.

I listened to this on audio and really quite enjoyed it. It’s like kind of young adult fiction that sits right on the cusp of more adult-level concepts. I’ve heard a lot of good reports about Celeste Ng, and I will no doubt read more.

Book Review of Big Little Lies

BLLI avoided reading this incredibly popular book for quite some time, assuming it might be pretty average chick lit written only for mass appeal.  But I have to admit, I listened to this on audio and was completely spellbound.  I listened to it every moment I could and towards the end actually found myself sitting and doing nothing just so I could listen.

There are probably two reasons for Liane Moriarty’s success with this novel.  The first is with clever storytelling.  The blurb will tell you the book focusses around a death at a school trivia night, and this is true – but there is plenty  of drama in the lead up to this, and Moriarty cleverly capitalises on this by revealing just a little bit of detail at a time. the story of the months before the trivia night is interspersed with the interviews and investigations after the fact.  Every little tidbit gets your brain going – who died and how?

Secondly, there are actually some incredibly serious issues at play here – the foremost of which is violence against women.  You’ve probably heard about this already.  And also the difficulties of class, family and divorce.   So no, not as light as I thought it was.  And more importantly, Moriarty seems to actually have something to say about all of these issues.  All are dealt with in complex ways, and believable ones.  The characters in this novel could have been incredibly two-dimensional, but they’re not.  There is a kernel of emotional truth in all the choices that they make.

I’m glad I finally got to Big Little Lies.  If you haven’t yet, I would definitely recommend it.