I’m about to start university again, so I’m thanking past me for writing a lot of book reviews. Will they be enough to get me through the semester? Only time will tell. However, this is a very good book and you should definitely read my review thx. Continue reading “A Girl Like that: Diverse but how gritty is too gritty?”
America for Beginners is, I think, the best book I have read this year. It is about the many forms of loneliness. It is about things which hurt. It is about forgiving people. It is about being a stranger in a strange land, and being a stranger in a familiar land, and what to do when you are both at once. It is about characters who ask questions which hurt.
• Welcome to the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company•
• One fixed itinerary, one fixed price•
• All levels catered for•
• No refunds•
Recently widowed Pival Sengupta has never travelled alone before and her first trip to this strange country masks a secret agenda: to find out the truth about her long-estranged son.
Satya, her guileless and resourceful tour guide, has been in America for less than a year – and has never actually left the five boroughs of New York.
An aspiring/failing actress, Rebecca signed up for the role of Pival’s modesty companion; it might not be her big break but surely it’ll break her out of the rut she’s stuck in.
As their preconceptions about each other and about America are challenged, with a little beginner’s luck, these unlikely companions might learn how to live again.
A big-hearted, hilarious tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, reminding us that there is no roadmap to life. (blurb, as always, from goodreads)
Pival is asking: Who am I when I am without the context of my family and my home?
Rachel is asking: Who am I if I am not what I have always dreamed of becoming?
Satya is asking: Who am I as I become a person my friends would not recognise?
These are all questions of identity, something that the human race is “desperately curious” about when we manage to pay attention to other people in their relentless existence. Identity is something that is fraught for me, as it is to a lesser or greater extent, to all people. I have never been to America; I know it only throught the fragments I have collected from books and movies and friends. But I know India, and I know what it is to belong in India and love it wildly and also be from somewhere else, and find that these facts are, to some extent, irreconcilable. Leah Franqui knows about the layers of identity and belonging too, and manages them magnificently in her novel.
I am sick of ‘immigrant narrative’ stories, written by middle class immigrants from some country that was once a colony, with families that cling hard to tradition because it is all that anchors them in a new land, and children who rebel wildly, wanting to redefine their parent’s parameters of success. These novels are important, but America for Beginners is not one of them. For one thing, Pival, the main character, is not an immigrant. She is a visitor. Rebecca is not an immigant either: she has never needed to question her belonging in America. And while Satya is an immigrant, he is not educated (whatever that means), he is not a doctor or lawyer. He has gathered the crumbs that America has left in its greasy corners and hoards them carefully.
America for Beginners is not a novel of simplistic identity. I appreciated Franqui’s examination of what it means to be Bengali, and how a border has fractured that identity. The interaction of religion worked very well too: Rebecca is Jewish, Pival and Satya are Hindu, but there are Muslims in the story too. The complexities of sexuality, and what Rahi’s upbringing did to his understanding of who and how he loved, was painful, but so well done (and I thought that the lens of Jake, his lover, made that so much better). The way that language dictates identity in context, the difference between North Indian and Bengali food: wherever Franqui writes, she adds nuance. I appreciated, for instance, Satya’s thought that
“Sideways had been the only way to approach anything.”
when he has washed ashore in the land of the brash and direct, prices, like other things, fixed and inflexible It is exquisite. As someone who has spent most of her life in India, I find that immigrant stories do not satisfy me, because I do not share any of that experience. But this felt like it really reflected my understanding of a country I can sometimes call my own.
Leah Franqui is the best kind of writer. She uses frequent figurative language. Her prose is beautiful without being vain, which is honestly so hard to do (it’s something I struggle with so much in my own writing!). All of the sentences make sense, the writing is never distracting, but it does evoke that sense of awareness that good writing does, where it makes you want to notice things in new and surprising ways.
“Everything was fine, everything was great, everything was so light it could crush you.”
“Pival wondered if that’s how ghosts were made, angry spirits whose bodies had been destroyed by time rather than fire.”
“The dirty fading glory of Kolkata crumbling under the weight of modern life.”
Franqui writes gracefully, using third person past tense, the best way to deal with multiple perspectives. The shifting from person to person never feels wrong, which it has in essentially every other novel like this I have read. Only once does she end a chapter with an opening door and an expansive unknown. Usually, I find this a cheap trick; but the use was so restrained as to be all the more compelling for it. The writing has moments of humour, too, like
“The man could find rice in a pasta store.”
I cannot recommend this novel enough, and I could write much more about it, but I have already stayed up late for this book once. I plan to buy it (I got it from the library) and reread it, and cherish it in every way. Being Indian is complex, and so is travelling, and so is death. America for Beginners is a book that deals tragedy as liberally as comedy, and it ended in the best way: with a river as dense as America, characters who were able to move on, but not without me caring a whole lot more in the process of their doing so.
[tiny disclaimer: one of the reasons I picked this up is that I had a Skype conversation with the author a few years ago for unrelated reasons, and she was amazing to talk to and I thought that she was fantastically cool and so I vaguely followed her online since then and she is kinda #goals to be honest and so smart and funny and I love that she sews her own clothes (and probably a mess on the inside just like all other human beings, but wow I would like to be her friend), so you could say that I’m a bit of a fangirl. But even if you know nothing about Leah Franqui, her writing speaks for itself.]
What is the best book you have read this year? and if you’ve been to America, or even if you just know it from books, what advice would you give to beginners there?
Hi Virtually readers! As you may have noticed, I’ve been incredibly busy since starting university and I’m learning how to squeeze blogging around the edges of everything I’m doing. One thing that involves is preparing posts ahead of time, and another part (which I’m doing today) is writing fast, fun posts. So, seeing as I’m currently in the middle of several books, here’s some of my thoughts on them! (covers link to goodreads bc who has the time to make blurbs? NOT ME ANYWAY)
Some of you may remember that a few weeks ago, I resolved not to read fiction for Lent. Three and a half weeks later, I’ve read seven books (way fewer than normal), but mostly enjoyed them. I thought I would share my reviews for two of the books I read: Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post Feminism, an academic book about a study of girl’s challenges in school with the idea that sexism no longer exists; and When Breath Become Air, a very famous memoir from a neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer. These aren’t quite like my normal reviews, more like my personal reactions; regardless, I hope you enjoy this!
1.When Breath Becomes Air
This book feels unfinished.
It should feel unfinished, because the author died.
It doesn’t work up to any conclusion, in particular, and numerous ideas of responsibility and death and life and love are used, but not quite completed.
But that feels right.
It’s the kind of book that I thought my mother would like, and she read it a few weeks ago, and now I’ve read it.
It made me weep; not anything, particularly, that Paul had written, but Lucy’s epilogue, her raw grief, her exquisite grief sodden writing a perfect, tragic accompaniment to Paul’s crisp, introspective missives. And the introduction. I read it again, after I had finished; Varghese reminded us of who Paul could have been; who he already was. Of who we can be; of who we already are.
“We know what we are, but not what we may be,” declares Ophelia, in Hamlet.
Paul knew who he was, and he knew the thousand tangible possibilities for who he could become (which would undoubtedly involve more over-achieving; seriously, a degree at Oxford and Harvard and he would have done a nice tour of the elite institutions of the English-speaking world. But it was not to be.)
Cancer is unfair, and I haven’t really been personally struck by it; but Paul is honest, and tragic, and aware; and so, despite the sorrow, this is a story tainted with life rather than death.
Perhaps death makes us more aware of life; at any rate, Paul, in his honesty, reminds us that time matters.
Would I have liked it if he quoted less extensively from the Western canon, most of which I hadn’t read? Yes. Would I have preferred to know more about how he dealt with his identity as an Indian American, as a man of faith? Yes.
But this is an unfinished book, and it is filled with truth, not truth that can be expressed in a single aphoristic quote, but a truth that can still resonate with someone less than half his age, who has no interest in medicine.
His writing is wonderful. Read it; think, cry, know that you are alive.
2. Smart Girls: Success, School, and the Myth of Post Feminism
I read this book when I needed it. That’s always the best way to read a book, because it’s personal, and relevant and it feels so much more important.
I needed it for two reasons: First, I was in the midst of writing a paper for my own research project, which is entirely different from Pomerantz and Raby’s study, but the methodology is fairly similar, and reading this definitely helps me know how to put my own research together. But the other reason, and probably much more interesting to whoever is perusing this review, is that it came at a time when I was contemplating the cost of my own label of a “smart girl”: what it has cost me, what it has bought me.
I’m definitely not a “supergirl”, as the first chapter explains (because I’m not popular). But being intelligent is absolutely part of my identity; I see myself as capable, and I consider academic achievement important, and like all of the girls in this book, I struggle with insidious sexism. Probably the biggest indicator that I am a “smart girl” is that I read this book–an academic book published by a university press–for fun. Yes, really, though admittedly I did not read the last 40% of the book, which was notes and citations.)
And what does it mean to me to be a smart girl? It means that people ask to look at my homework; assume that I will do well on things automatically, without working (though I definitely work hard). It means that I cry over calculus, and feel frustrated when I get things wrong, like a normal person. I hold myself to a standard of perfection; and I work everyday, not just at schoolwork, but at forgiving myself for making mistakes. It means that I report it, most of the time, when people cheat on tests; and I am not popular, though I am comfortable with myself, and I still don’t know whether those two things are linked. And now I’m about to graduate high school, and face what it means to be an intelligent woman in the world beyond a small high school. And I’m so ready, and so scared.
This book doesn’t perfectly reflect my experience. But it does remind me that I’m not alone, and that the legacy of the feminist movement (seen by so many to be over; that equality has been achieved) is borne by the young woman of today. It reminds me that I am privileged, and that I am naturally existed, and that my familial support is one of my many resources. It reminds me that there are many self contradictory aspects to education, and that yeah, my gender has something to do with it, and that education is a battleground, and that sexism exists, and is felt in many ways.
It reminded me to embrace and challenge the stereotype of smart girls, and not to forget how lucky I am. (Yes, thanks Doctor Seuss.)
It’s also well researched and clearly explained and fascinating; if you’re up for an academic book (which, let’s be real, you probably aren’t) I recommend this one.
Okay, so these reviews weren’t quite as mini as I hoped…. But tell me about your thoughts on nonficition! And have you ever read an “academic” book, and found yourself really enjoying it?
Hi Virtually Readers! I know that tomorrow is Christmas, but I felt like posting anyway. Now, this isn’t *really* holiday themed, but I figure that the story of Christmas is about equality—God coming to be at the same level of humans. But even if you don’t celebrate, you probably want to read the Spinster trilogy by Holly Bourne. It’s a really intense, wonderful series of books about a group of feminists and their struggles and triumphs in love and life. While definitely not for younger readers, this series (though I have to admit that I haven’t read …And a Happy New Year? Yet—hopefully soon) is empowering and delightful for anybody who believes in feminism. Why should you read it? Here are some reasons.
-Holly Bourne gets it
I know, a lot of authors *get* it. But while I am very different to the girls in these books, I just felt totally understood by Bourne’s portrayal of how it is to be a teenage girl—the mix of emotions, the friendships, the balance of school and fun. One part which felt particularly relevant was where Lottie is harassed by guys on the street. I live in a pretty sexist country, and I totally empathized with the mix of feelings that Lottie had, based on my own experience.
“Do you ever worry you’re being a teenager wrong?” -Am I Normal Yet?
“I didn’t trust me to work it out. I just messed everything up, like I had now.”- How Hard Can Love Be?
Laughing is important. There are lots of hilarious moments in these stories, which will definitely entertain you.
“Do you think it’s all part of inequality’s plan? To mess us about lovewise so we’re too busy waiting for text messages to burn our bras and run for Prime Minister?”- Am I Normal Yet?
“Children were so ungrateful in real life. In stories, if you do a good deed for a kid, they’re all beamy, covered in chimney smoke, and say stuff like “Why, thank you Mister Scrooge, God bless ya”. But in real life they just whinged and nothing you did was ever enough.”
If you ever get sick of American books, this is for you. The characters use lots of British slang and Amber actually visits America in How Hard Can Love Be, and basically makes fun of every contemporary YA stereotype ever, and critques the university system and Barack Obama. Also A-Levels and ‘college’ and all that.
-There is so much friendship
Friendship is pretty dang important, and these books are all about friendship. The three girls form a Spinster Club to support each other and talk about feminist issues, and I just love how their relationship was portrayed.
-Feminism is discussed in a realistic, honest way
There are so few explicitly feminist novels, and I really loved that all three of these books, especially What’s a Girl Gotta Do?, talked about women’s rights and inequality and making a change, and how to make a change. But at the same time, the story showed the double standards are inevitable, and judgment will happen, and no one is perfect, and it felt very realistic. I just loved this, because I talk about feminism all the time. Take an example from a few days ago. I was at a party, and talking about the Thinking Out Loud music video. I said something along the lines of “It really annoys me how to be considered attractive the woman has to wear a really revealing dress and jump around dancing while the man just stands there wearing a nice suit.” The guy next to me was like “Gosh Shanti, I think you’re overanalyzing it”—but I wasn’t, because sexism is just that insidious, and Holly Bourne shows how all these tiny things add up and up and up (like a pyramid).
“Fighting any harm is worthy. […] I realized that it takes a great deal more courage to fight for yourself than to fight for others. To confront your own pain, rather than everyone else’s.” -What’s a Girl Gotta Do?
“ ‘Feminism? There’s a test for that?” Would I pass? I quickly scanned my thoughts and feelings to check them for feminismness. The pay gaph makes me cross, and yet I wear make-up.”- Am I Normal Yet?
-The writing is really dialogue based
The writing is really engaging, snappy, and fits in with the characters. The dialogue feels really true to life and that makes these books enjoyable to read.
“ ‘You need to learn that every time you get to speak, doesn’t mean you get to monologue.’
‘But I’m so very good at it,’ I wailed.” -What’s a Girl Gotta Do?
-Nuances and complexities.
With all the issues that The Spinster Club deals with—feminism, mental helath issues, friendship, family, growing up, the media—there are shades and levels of complexity which make them so much richer, and just like real life. Nothing is simple, and these stories reflect that.
-They’re all out now!
You don’t have to wait for the rest of the books to come out.
What’s your favourite feminist book? Are you going to read these ones? Tell me in the comments! Also, have an amazing Christmas, even if the day isn’t a particularly special one for you.