This is a fascinating family history: the author, who was born an untouchable in India, writes primarily a biography of her uncle and her mother, focusing on their young lives. This family had hard lives, despite being better-educated than most people of their caste; even while working as college lecturers, they barely made enough to live on, lived in poor housing and dealt with a lot of family strife. Satyam, the oldest son, who gets most of the page time here, became a communist and spent most of his life fighting for that cause, while Manjula, the daughter of the family, collected several degrees before entering into an arranged marriage. They face a lot of struggles in their lives but never become the simple victims common in fiction; they are always moving forward, making their own decisions in life.
I’m a little surprised to see that many reviewers have struggled with this book; to me it seemed written in the standard style of popular nonfiction, straightforward but vivid. The story is presented from the perspectives of Satyam and Manjula, without spending much time filling readers in on the historical background or questioning the reliability of their memories (though interviews with others allow Gidla to fill in information they didn’t know at the time), but that’s standard for family memoirs. My biggest criticism is that it wraps up very abruptly at the end, briefly summarizing the next several decades; it was unclear to me why the author stopped where she did. The book is a good length overall, but I would have loved to read more about the author herself, especially after the glimpses of her life at the beginning and end. Definitely a book I would recommend to those interested in India, and in what life at the bottom is like from a firsthand perspective.
This is a great memoir and family saga, and an intense one. At the center of it is the author’s relationship with her troubled father, but in writing that story she weaves together many strands of personal and family history, going back to her great-great-grandmother in Mexico. A journalist by training, the author investigates many possibilities for her father’s afflictions; he has a drug problem for many years and suffers from bouts of what is probably drug-induced psychosis, but she also investigates the possibility that he is actually the victim of CIA mind-control experiments (declassified documents show that they’ve done experiments like this in the past, so it isn’t as crazy as it sounds), or that he has special spiritual powers (as a Mexican cousin believes).
Whatever the cause, there’s certainly a family history of trauma that echoes back through several generations. And so it’s a fascinating, vivid story, but also a dark one; whatever you find upsetting or scary, it’s probably in here. And there’s an overriding lack of safety that makes it a disturbing book, an effect probably heightened by the author’s staccato writing style. But it’s terribly compelling, full of incident and full of life. And full of a wide range of literary references; the author understands her life and her father’s through the prism of all sorts of literature, from Moby Dick to the Sword of Truth to the Popul Vuh. But I think what really stands out is the author’s ability to articulate and bring home not only her own experiences, but her mother’s, father’s, and grandmother’s. There’s no distance here; the reader is transported right into the experiences of the author and her family. In any event, it’s an excellent book, and one I highly recommend.
This is an important book that has the potential to change the way many people see the world. It’s about depression, but depression on a continuum that includes the sort of unhappiness that most people in the modern world experience – which makes it not just a book for people with depression but a book for anyone who cares about their own mental health. It’s essentially a research-based popular science book on what makes a good life.
It’s a fairly short book that’s packed with a lot of information, but essentially, it turns out the notion that depression arises spontaneously from biological malfunctions has never been proven and probably isn’t true, though it’s been pushed hard by the pharmaceutical industry. The theory that it’s caused by serotonin levels was a hypothesis that wasn’t actually borne out in research. And in fact, the utility of antidepressants hasn’t been proven either: at best they provide a small improvement for a small number of people (though they’re noticeably less effective than improving your sleep, for one), once you control for the placebo effect and people who would have gotten better regardless. But in the meanwhile, they have real, negative side effects.
Research actually links depression first to bad things happening to people, and second to a number of factors that could be summed up as “modern life” and that the author refers to as “lost connections.” There’s the fact that people are increasingly isolated from one another; the fact that many people find their work meaningless, have little to no control at work and get no recognition for doing a good job; the fact that people are constantly bombarded with the message that the way to a better life is through spending; and more. Living in a society with a large wealth disparity and being far removed from nature have also been proven to increase rates of depression. Some have criticized the book for not saying much that was new to them, but all of this was new to me. I’d always assumed people who said things like “we don’t have depression in our country” were like people who say nobody in their country is gay, that rates of depression and anxiety are uniform and the most developed societies were the lucky ones because people get treatment. But actually, people in traditional societies are less likely to have mental illnesses, and have better outcomes.
There’s too much information for me to summarize here, and I wouldn’t anyway because I think everyone should read this. That said, the book isn’t perfect. It’s sometimes also about anxiety, which tends to occur alongside depression, but sometimes not; the effectiveness of medication for anxiety isn’t discussed. It doesn’t discuss the impacts of physical health (diet, sleep, exercise, illness) on mental health, which seemed like an oversight. Its discussion of the positive impacts of spending time in nature is simplistic, perhaps because the author has done little of this in his life. It spends very little time, perhaps because it’s not the point of the book, on depression caused by specific events in people’s lives (there are a couple of short chapters labeled as discussing childhood trauma, though it’s pretty clear from the discussion itself that trauma in adulthood causes depression too).
My final concern doesn’t speak to the quality of the book, but to the effect it might have on someone who reads it at the wrong time. As the author acknowledges – having suffered from depression himself, and wanting for years to believe that medication was the answer – many of these problems are huge. About 100 pages are about solutions, so it’s hardly a hopeless book, but these solutions require real lifestyle changes, and some require political and social change. It’s all a lot more daunting than taking a pill, and I would be concerned about people with depression reading this and concluding that their situation is hopeless. Hari’s argument that depression shouldn’t be pathologized, but is instead a sign of a sick society, may be empowering to some, but I suspect there are many people out there who need the placebo and the hope that comes with it.
At any rate, this is a book that caused me to do a lot of thinking. It’s well-researched and comes with extensive citations, while also being very readable and compelling. With the caveat above, I would recommend it to anyone, and think that virtually everyone would get something out of it.
This is definitely an interesting book: the memoir of a transgender woman who made the transition in her early 40s, after marrying a woman who had no idea of her gender issues, having two kids, and building a career as an English professor in rural Maine. It seems to be pretty heavily fictionalized, which makes for entertaining reading, with lots of dialogue and some moments of comedy.
But for all that this is a memoir about the author’s personal journey, I found her emotions understated and inner world underexplored, and couldn’t help wondering if this book was published too soon – hitting the bookstores just over six months after the conclusion of its final chapter, and only a year after the author’s surgery. Once you factor in the time for editing, printing, marketing, the whole publishing process, she would barely have had time to process her feelings and experiences before writing about them for public consumption. So it’s no wonder she often felt a bit inaccessible to me.
I did enjoy reading this; Boylan can certainly tell a good story, and some of the self-contained chapters about colorful characters she meets along the way (the hitchhiking girls looking for a pit bull, the dysfunctional vending machine lover from the support group) are gold. I also enjoyed her portrayal of her relationship with Richard Russo, who struggles mightily with having his best friend suddenly turn into a woman – it’s rare to see a portrayal of adults actively engaging in and working on their friendship in this way, or even having friends important enough to them to make the effort. There’s a lot of raw emotion in these sections that must have taken courage on both their parts to put out for the world to see.
But while I can see the benefit of this book in increasing acceptance of transgender folks, I felt in a way that I understood what it means to be transgender less well after reading it – I didn’t really get from Boylan’s writing why gender was so important to her, what parts of herself she felt she couldn’t express as a man. What does being a woman mean to her? It would have been nice also to read more about the differences between being a man and being a woman: where she talks about this it’s all pretty obvious stuff (as a woman she feels more physically vulnerable, and clothes shopping is way harder). Was there anything she disliked about being a man, other than the fact that it didn’t match her sense of identity? Any unexpected advantages to being a woman? Did she actually start cooking more post-transition, or was it just mentioned more often? Did household roles change at all?
And then there’s her relationship with her wife, about whom Boylan writes a lot. “Grace” (not her real name) is blindsided by the whole transgender thing, and understandably heartbroken – whether they divorce or not, she’s losing her husband.
The other thing that troubled me about the book is the level of fictionalization. In her note at the end, the author admits that “certain moments in it have been gently altered – by compressing or inverting the time line, making various people taller or shorter, blithely skipping over unpleasantness, inventing dialogue, as necessary.” Particularly notable to me, after having read Tim Kreider’s essay about accompanying Boylan to her surgery, was the fact that nowhere in either of the accounts of that trip in this book was he ever mentioned, an omission that makes the journey seem lonelier and more intimate than it apparently was in real life. How many other friends were also present and unmentioned, and how many other changes did the author make?
At any rate, I did find this a worthwhile read, but of the books I’ve read about transgender issues so far, I think Becoming Nicole might be the better choice for readers on the outside looking for greater understanding.
This is an interesting, evocatively-written short book about the life of a young shepherd boy belonging to a nomadic people in Mongolia. Set in the 1940s, the book is based on the author’s own life – the boy has his name, and in the author’s note (which puts the book in context) he refers to the character as himself; reading this alongside a memoir with numerous fictionalized elements highlighted the existence of that grey intermediate zone between fiction and nonfiction. The author – who grew up in a yurt, was educated in Europe, then returned to Mongolia and became a tribal leader and shaman – has certainly had a fascinating life, though this book focuses on the narrow world of a child, consisting of his family, the sheep and his dog. The boy faces a number of losses in his young life that leave him questioning the divinity of the sky, which his people worship.
It’s an interesting book, and while there’s no overarching plot, its relatively short length and the variety of its episodes carry it along fine. The translation is fluid and readable, and the glossary, author’s note and translator’s note at the end are all helpful. The book didn’t strike any deep chord with me, but it did expand my mental map a little bit further, which is exactly what my world books challenge is intended to do. The author himself discusses this in the afterword:
“Humankind, which for me in the beginning meant my small tribe of Tuvan people, has grown larger and richer in my heart with the addition of other peoples. Now, the publication of The Blue Sky extends it for me even further by including the peoples of North America. I am mightily pleased, not least for these peoples themselves, whose world, in turn, will now include the mountain steppe of Central Asia, and whose awareness of humankind will embrace the nomadic people from that corner.”
I am nearing the end of my challenge to read a book primarily set in each country, and keeping track of my progress here! I have currently read books from 170 out of 201 countries, or 85% of the world.
For the countries I've read, I've linked to the books, their authors and my reviews. For the ones I haven't, an asterisk beside the country name links to a book I'm considering. Please let me know if you have any recommendations, particularly for countries from which I have not yet read a book!
The rules of my challenge are that 1) the books must be primarily set in the target country, i.e., more than half of the narrative takes place there, 2) they must be told at least in part from the point-of-view of a character from the country (I've made a few exceptions for memoirs/nonfiction by foreign authors who were immersed in the country and spend the entire book writing about its people), and 3) they must portray something of life and culture in the country, i.e. the setting needs to be more than a generic backdrop for a story that could just as easily be set somewhere else. The author does not necessarily need to be from the country, although I prefer it.
I wrote an FAQ for my challenge here but am also happy to talk about it!
North America and the Caribbean
20 out of 24 countries = 83%
Canada: The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro - review ★★★★
United States: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - review ★★★★★
Mexico: Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel - review ★★★
Belize: Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell - review ★★½
Costa Rica: Marcos Ramírez by Carlos Luis Fallas - review ★★★½
El Salvador: Camino de hormigas by Miguel Huezo Mixco - review ★★★
Nicaragua: The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli - review (unrated)
Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart by Cristina Henriquez - review ★★★½
Antigua & Barbuda: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid - review ★★★½
Bahamas: Thine Is The Kingdom by Garth Buckner - review ★★½
Barbados: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson - review ★★½
Cuba: The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano - review ★★
Dominica: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - review (unrated)
Dominican Republic: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez - review (unrated)
Grenada: The Ladies Are Upstairs by Merle Collins - review ★★★
Haiti: The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert - review ★★★★
Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy - review ★★½
Puerto Rico: The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré - review (unrated)
St. Lucia: Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer - review ★★
Trinidad & Tobago: Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge - review ★★★★
St. Kitts & Nevis *
St. Vincent & the Grenadines *
11 out of 12 countries = 92%
Argentina: The Peron Novel by Tomás Eloy Martínez - review (unrated)
Bolivia: Carmela by Amalia Decker Márquez - review ★★★½
Brazil: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles - review ★★★★★
Chile: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - review ★★★★★
Colombia: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez - review (unrated)
Ecuador: Huasipungo by Jorge Icaza - review ★★½
Guyana: The Small Fortune of Dorothea Q by Sharon Maas - review ★★★
Peru: The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa - review ★★★
Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia Mc Leod - review ★★★
Uruguay: The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis - review ★★★½
Venezuela: Eva Luna by Isabel Allende - review (unrated)
46 out of 54 countries = 85%
Algeria: The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek - review ★★★
Egypt: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz - review ★★★
Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim al-Koni - review (unrated)
Morocco: The Harem Within by Fatema Mernissi - review (unrated)
Tunisia: The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi - review ★★★★
Cape Verde: The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida - review★½
Gambia: Reading the Ceiling by Dayo Forster - review ★★½
Ghana: The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah - review ★★★★
Guinea: The Dark Child by Camara Laye - review ★★★½
Guinea-Bissau: The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila - review★★
Ivory Coast: Aya by Marguerite Abouet - review ★★★½
Liberia: The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper - review ★★★★½
Mali: Segu by Maryse Condé - review ★★
Nigeria: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - review ★★★★★
Senegal: God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène - review ★★★★
Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna - review ★★★½
Togo: The Village of Waiting by George Packer - review ★★★½
Burkina Faso *
Cameroon: Houseboy by Ferdinand Oyono - review ★★½
Central African Republic: Daba's Travels from Ouadda to Bangui by Makombo Bamboté - review ★★
Democratic Republic of the Congo: The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell - review ★★★★
Equatorial Guinea: Ekomo by María Nsue Angüe - review ★★★½
Gabon: Mema by Daniel M. Mengara - review ★★★½
Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou - review ★★★
Sao Tome & Principe: Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares - review ★★
Burundi: Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder - review ★★★
Djibouti: The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi - review (unrated)
Eritrea: My Fathers' Daughter by Hannah Pool - review ★★★½
Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste - review ★★★
Kenya: A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o - review (unrated)
Rwanda: Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga - review (unrated)
Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed - review ★★★
South Sudan: Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins - review ★★★★
Sudan: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih - review ★★½
Tanzania: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah review ★★
Uganda: Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - review ★★★★½
Angola: The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela - review ★★★
Botswana: Maru by Bessie Head - review ★★★
Lesotho: Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho M'Atsepo Nthunya - review ★★★½
Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo - review ★★★½
Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba - review ★★★½
Mauritius: The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah - review ★★
Mozambique: Neighbours by Lília Momplé - review ★★★½
Namibia: The Purple Violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas - review ★★★½
South Africa: Fiela's Child by Dalene Matthee - review ★★★★
Zambia: Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku - review ★★★★
Zimbabwe: Zenzele by J. Nozipo Maraire - review ★★★★
38 out of 49 countries = 78%
Austria: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig - review ★★★★
Belgium: The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst - review ★★★
Denmark: The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul - review ★★½
Finland: The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson - review ★★★½
France: Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac - review ★★
Germany: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll - review ★★★★
Greenland: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley - review ★★★★½
Iceland: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent - review ★★½
Ireland: The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien - review ★★★½
Italy: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - review ★★★★
Netherlands: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire - review ★★★½
Norway: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset - review ★★★★
Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago - review ★★★
Spain: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway - review ★★★★
Sweden: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman - review ★★★
Switzerland: Heidi by Johanna Spyri - review (unrated)
United Kingdom: South Riding by Winifred Holtby - review ★★★★½
San Marino *
Vatican City *
Albania: The Loser by Fatos Kongoli - review ★★★
Bosnia & Herzegovina: The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić - review ★★½
Bulgaria: Street Without a Name by Kapka Kassabova - review ★★★½
Croatia: Girl at War by Sara Nović - review ★★
Czech Republic: My Crazy Century by Ivan Klíma – review ★★
Estonia: Purge by Sofi Oksanen - review ★★★★
Greece: Tales from a Greek Island by Alexandros Papadiamantis - review ★★★
Hungary: Csardas by Diane Pearson - review ★★★★
Moldova: The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov - review ★★★½
Montenegro: The Dawning by Milka Bajic-Poderegin - review ★★★
Poland: House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk - review ★★½
Romania: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier - review ★★★½
Serbia: The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht - review ★★★★
Slovakia: Zoli by Colum McCann - review ★½
Slovenia: Forbidden Bread by Erica Johnson Debeljak - review ★★★½
Ukraine: Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles - review ★★★★
Russia and the Caucasus
Armenia: An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman - Ali and Nino by Kurban Said - review★★★½
Chechnya: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra - review ★★½
Georgia: Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol - review ★★½
Russia: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - review ★★★★★
14 out of 16 countries = 88%
Bahrain: Yummah by Sarah A. Al Shafei - review ★★
Cyprus: Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis - review ★★★★½
Iran: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani - review ★★★★
Iraq: Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi - review ★★★★
Israel: My Promised Land by Ari Shavit - review ★★
Kuwait: Small Kingdoms by Anastasia Hobbet - review ★★
Lebanon: Ports Of Call by Amin Maalouf - review ★★★★
Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria - review ★★
Palestine: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa - review ★★
Saudi Arabia: Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif - review ★★★½
Syria: Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami - review ★★★
Turkey: Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières - review ★★★★
United Arab Emirates: City of Gold by Jim Krane - review ★★½
Yemen: The Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj - review ★★
28 out of 31 countries = 90%
Afghanistan: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - review ★★★★★
Kazakhstan: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov - review★★★★½
Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov - review ★★★★
Tajikistan: Hurramabad by Andrei Volos - review ★★★½
Uzbekistan: Uzbekistan Speaks by Aibek - review ★★½
Bangladesh: A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam - review ★★★★
Bhutan: Tales in Colour by Kunzang Choden - review ★★★★
India: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - review ★★★★½
Maldives: Folk Tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias - review ★★★★
Nepal: Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay - review ★
Pakistan: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin - review ★★
Sri Lanka: Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera - review ★★★½
China: Miss Chopsticks by Xinran - review ★★★★
Japan: Out by Natsuo Kirino - review ★★★½
Mongolia: The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag - review ★★★½
North Korea: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - review ★★★★★
South Korea: Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller - review ★★★
Taiwan: A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Li-Hung Hsiao - review ★★★
Tibet: Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen - review ★★½
Cambodia: Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner - review ★★½
East Timor: The Crossing by Luís Cardoso - review ★
Indonesia: This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - review ★★★
Malaysia: Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan - review ★★★★★
Myanmar: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh - review ★★★★
Philippines: In the Country by Mia Alvar - review ★★★★½
Singapore: Following the Wrong God Home by Catherine Lim - review ★★★
Thailand: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj - review ★★★★
Vietnam: The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott - review ★★★½
Australia and the Pacific
13 out of 15 countries = 87%
Australia: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - review ★★★½
Fiji: The Sailmaker's Daughter by Stephanie Johnson - review ★★
Kiribati: A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble - review ★★★
Marshall Islands: Marshall Islands Legends and Stories by Daniel A. Kelin - review ★★★
Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng - review (unrated)
Nauru: Legends, traditions and tales of Nauru by Timothy Detudamo - review ★★
New Zealand: Potiki by Patricia Grace - review ★★★½
Papua New Guinea: The Gebusi by Bruce M. Knauft - review ★★★
Samoa: The Girl in the Moon Circle by Sia Figiel - review (unrated)
Solomon Islands: Solomon Time by Will Randall - review ★★★
Tahiti: Frangipani by Célestine Hitiura Vaite - review ★★★½
Tonga: Tales of the Tikongs by Epeli Hauʻofa - review ★★★½
Tuvalu: Where The Hell Is Tuvalu? by Philip Ells - review ★★½
This is a light, fun fantasy very much in line with its prequel, Sorcerer to the Crown. I’d forgotten most of that one, which was fine because this is a new story with a new set of protagonists, though with some overlap in characters. It begins with sisters Muna and Sakti, who wake up on a beach in Malaysia with no idea who they are – but who soon learn that they’ve been cursed. Muna makes her way to Regency England, but Sakti is stolen away to the Fairy Court, leaving Muna responsible for rescuing her.
It’s a quick, entertaining, and at times humorous read, though the plot meanders a bit in the first half and only really picks up in the second. In a neat trick, all of the most important characters in the book, heroes, villains, and mentors alike, are female – a nice touch in a genre where female characters are still noticeably in the minority, and done without lampshading, so that I only realized this at the end. There’s also some racial and cultural diversity; in another nice touch, Muna and Sakti are clearly Muslim, without the author making a big deal of it. And yes, there's a lesbian subplot, but it's so understated that if you're reading just for that, you may be disappointed.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for deep and complex characterization, this is not your book. This is fun escapist reading, an unambitious novel that sets out to entertain and then does exactly that. Early on I found myself wanting more depth, but by the end I was happy with what it was and wished I could find more books like this – books that are lighthearted and enjoyable without being stupid. I’d recommend it, though best to start with the first book to avoid being spoiled.
This is an interesting, though uneven, collection of stories about three generations of Hispanic women (and some of their friends) in California. It begins with the grandmother, Lupita, who works in a factory with her best friend and barely speaks English, and whose children are quickly leaving her behind. After setting up the stories of Lupita and her friends, it moves on to her children, and then quickly to the grandchildren, who dominate most of the book.
The first part, about Lupita and her friends, is quite strong, though the protagonists aren’t always the nicest people: they tend to use their husbands, dislike their kids, and obsessively remind the reader that fat people are fat. The rest of the book continues these trends, but in stories that I generally found less interesting. The children’s generation comes across as quite shallow, while several of the grandchildren’s stories didn’t ring true to me. After the first quarter of the collection, the only standouts for me were “Lovely Evelina,” about a transgender woman attending her 25-year high school reunion among people who only ever knew her as a boy, and perhaps “Sunday Dinner,” the last story, about Lupita’s old age. Meanwhile several stories feature Julia, the apparent author avatar of the collection, whose stories don’t really do much. There are also some continuity errors.
So while this isn’t a terrible collection, and I like the idea of telling a multigenerational tale through short stories, it’s also not one that stood out for me or that I’m inclined to recommend.
This book is celebrated for being the first novel from Madagascar translated into English (though it was written in French originally, not a large or unusual gap to jump). It is also the author’s first novel, and I would be interested to see what he does next, though I wasn’t thrilled with this one.
Beyond the Rice Fields is, ultimately, a novel about the mass purges and killings carried out by the Imerina queen in Madagascar in the mid-19th century, though it takes a long time to get there. First we follow our two protagonists – Tsito, a boy who is sold as a slave at a young age, and Fara, a girl whose family buys him for household help – through their childhoods and much of their adult lives. We read about their childhood games, their schooling, Tsito’s career as a craftsman, Fara’s triumph as a dancer and anticlimactic life afterwards, their local lord and his downfall, and their interactions with various other people around them, all of which goes on without much plot for more than half the book. It’s only in the last third – a point at which many readers are likely to have given up – that it becomes intense. And suddenly it’s a page-turner, albeit a dark and tragic one. If it had handled all the setup more quickly, my rating would be a solid 4 stars.
But then, plotting issues often aren’t entirely about plot, and here I suspect someone from the culture would have a much better experience with the book. Tsito’s and Fara’s personalities don’t quite seem compelling to me, but I don’t know the cultural background behind them. And their narrative voices actually are somewhat distinct, which is impressive, especially in translation. The book certainly feels textured and authentic in a way that an outsider can’t entirely appreciate. You can tell it was written for a native audience, though it’s still comprehensible to an outsider (and I love the Malagasy names and words sprinkled throughout. Speaking of which, the translator and publishers did a fantastic job with not only a glossary of both words and names, but a quick chronology of relevant monarchs). And looking back, I can see how some things were set up, but I also no doubt missed a lot by not knowing how this history was treated before.
At any rate, this is a decent book, a great choice if you are interested in Madagascar, but not one I’m likely to recommend to a casual reader.
This is an absolutely fantastic book: an engaging, readable, at times even exciting primer on the history of the Muslim world, and world history as Muslims understand it. The author, a former textbook developer, clearly knows his stuff, but his genius is in the ability to draw many historical elements together to turn world history into a cohesive narrative that makes sense and that you might actually want to read. The writing style is engaging, though in no way dumbed-down – and yet while not reading, I would occasionally find myself wondering what would happen next! There are elements of biography, when the book zooms in on the lives of important individuals, but it covers many centuries of history – from a brief chapter about what is today the Middle East before the birth of Islam, up through 9/11 – in a way that feels complete and connected and provides the context for readers without much prior knowledge of Muslim history to actually make sense of it. Wars and governments, social and religious history, culture and philosophy – it’s all discussed.
And aspects of Muslim and Middle Eastern history that I’m embarrassed to admit had never made a lot of sense to me finally did – it wasn’t until I read this book that I understood the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, for instance. In the western world I think we tend to be exposed to this material primarily through the news, where it’s presented as a quick summary without context that’s supposed to explain current events, but that doesn’t quite because we don’t know the background, the history, the emotional context.
So I would recommend this book to anyone, even if you don’t typically read history. I get my books at the library, but I’m going to have to buy a copy of this one to re-read or refer back to as needed. It really is that good.
This is a dry, academic biography of a fascinating, little-known but impressive civil rights activist. Born in 1910, Pauli Murray was a mixed-race woman who today would be considered a transgender man, but during her lifetime this was a secret kept from all but her closest friends. After growing up in the segregated South, she became an early nonviolent civil rights activist; became a lawyer despite being rejected by one school for her race and another for her sex; authored some of the foundational legal scholarship that Ruth Bader Ginsburg relied upon heavily in briefing the first successful women’s rights case before the Supreme Court; helped found NOW, though she later broke with the organization over its prioritizing professional white women’s issues; was way ahead of her time in writing about what today we call intersectionality, recognizing how race, gender, poverty, and other disadvantages compound one another; became a tenured professor when almost no black women achieved this status; and finally gave that up to attend seminary and become the first black female Episcopal priest. She was also an author, whose poetry was read at Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial service, and who wrote an excellent book, Proud Shoes, about her complicated family history.
It was an eventful life, to be sure, and Murray also suffered more than her share of setbacks. She struggled throughout most of her life to find decently paid employment, and never stayed at the same job more than five years. She struggled with her gender identity and sexuality (insisting that she wasn’t a lesbian because she was only attracted to feminine, heterosexual women). She struggled with mental health issues that sound a lot like bipolar, and was even involuntarily committed at one point, but this apparently cleared up after she finally had thyroid surgery. She had a complicated family situation, being orphaned young and raised separately from her siblings, then later in life becoming responsible for her elderly aunts – whose insistence that she return to North Carolina to visit required her to ride segregated buses, which at one point led to her arrest.
You would think no author could make this story boring, but Rosenberg kind of does. Now, it’s fair to say I wanted a narrative – the story of Pauli Murray – and Rosenberg gave me facts. Meticulously researched facts, no doubt about it, but still dry facts, with emotional content only occasionally referenced. There are a lot of names, dates and organizations in this book, a lot of details about Murray’s career, but no emotional core or throughline. Here’s an example:
Thacher Clarke, Murray’s young friend from Paul, Weiss, homed in on the problem of private employment discrimination when Murray sought her comment on Murray’s Fourteenth Amendment proposal. Thacher was by then married to the Reverend John Anderson, whom she had met in 1959 at the founding conference of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), an organization aimed at ending race discrimination in the church. By 1962, Thacher was a mother on unpaid leave from a job she had taken at the New York State Division of Human Rights. She agreed with Murray’s arguments in her Fourteenth Amendment memorandum, but her work at the Division of Human Rights persuaded her that the bigger problem was private employers. New York, along with more than a score of northern and western states, had passed a Fair Employment Practice law in the years since World War II. As of 1964, however, the state still allowed discrimination in employment on the basis of gender; indeed, only two states – Wisconsin and Hawaii – barred private businesses from discriminating against women. Anderson urged Murray to broaden her equal rights efforts to encompass sex discrimination in the private sector.
Eh, okay. I learned from this book, but it was a long slog. I’d love to see someone write a popular biography of Murray though – there is so much great material!
I picked this up because I’m confused by the whole concept of nonbinary gender identities (don’t most people vary in some way from the stereotypes of their gender?), and so I’m trying to read about it. This book taught me something about intersex, though nobody in it uses non-standard pronouns, but more than that it’s about the author’s sexcapades, a bit about her childhood, and a platform for half-developed arguments.
This short book is a collection of very short (typically 2-3 pages) personal essays, from the perspective of a queer activist who lives in San Francisco and has a lot of sex. And I mean a lot. Sex parties, S&M, exhibitionism, threesomes – if you want a bunch of descriptions of an adventurous sex life, some of them graphic, this is your book. Attending sex parties seems to have been the author’s primary after-work activity for a good chunk of her life, and that chunk gets a lot of focus here.
She starts talking about intersex about halfway through the book, where it turns out the author is not in fact intersex by the most common definition: someone born with ambiguous genitalia. She is physically a woman, though as a child she developed a minor, borderline version of a hormone disorder (Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia) that can cause intersex in girls, but she had hormone treatment that forestalled the most noticeable effects. As an adult and an activist, she was recruited into intersex activism, and reasoned that:
Here is a seemingly tailor-made issue for me: it’s about sex, it’s about breaking down boundaries, and it’s cutting edge – because who else do I know working on this issue?
So then she decides to start identifying as intersex and advocating for that group’s issues. Which I’m glad to have learned a bit about. Based on this book, intersex activism seems to be primarily focused around preventing doctors from performing medically unnecessary plastic surgery on the genitals of infants born intersex. Hillman’s opposition to this is based on first, her belief that people’s natural bodies and genitals are beautiful and that she feels cheated out of her natural body by the hormone treatment she received as a child, and second, the fact that many of her intersex friends lost feeling in their genitals, and/or the ability to experience orgasm, due to the surgery done to them as babies.
This is of course a terrible result, but I wanted to know more: how often do the surgeries go wrong in this way? (After all, lots of transgender people choose to have surgery on their genitals.) And I think the author, living in a queer enclave where having a threesome with her girlfriend and a transgender woman with a penis at a sex party is just your average Tuesday night, doesn’t recognize that for most people, there is significant value in being physically normal. Not everyone has either the opportunity or the desire to live a life like hers. And it’s easy for her to say – as an adult in her milieu, and having had childhood medical intervention – that she wishes she’d had her natural body. She might have felt very differently if she had in fact gone through puberty at age 6, grown body hair and had a maximum height of under five feet. Now even if the risks are low, it sounds like surgery should wait until the patient is old enough to weigh the risks and make an informed personal decision, but I don’t buy Hillman’s simple anti-medical-intervention stance.
Finally, while the writing is good and at first I felt it showed a generosity of spirit, at later points I questioned whether she was hiding pettiness behind a socially unassailable exterior. She uses one essay to settle scores with a woman who invited her to a party and then decided she didn’t want a date; another to insist that she made a thoughtless joke offending another conference attendee because “I simply just misunderstood” the situation, and not deliberately or just thoughtlessly; and she writes condescendingly about her parents, forever surprised when they understand her or do anything right.
At any rate, overall I did learn a bit from this book, which is well-written, short, and kept my attention pretty well for the most part. But it’s not one I would recommend.
The premise of this book was immediately interesting: lesbian Sri Lankan-American woman is married to a gay Indian-American man so both can keep their sexuality a secret, while dating on the side. It’s an entertaining story and makes for quick reading, but unfortunately it comes across as immature, at times problematic. The narrator, Lucky, spends the book feeling stuck in a lousy situation, but as she refuses to assert herself toward people who treat her terribly, while being terrible toward people who help and support her, I was increasingly less sympathetic.
Lucky (Lakshmi) is a 27-year-old freelance artist who, as the book opens, moves back in temporarily with her divorced mother to help care for her ailing grandmother. Living nearby is Nisha, an old flame from high school, who reaches out to reconnect with and cling to Lucky even as she’s entering her own arranged marriage. Lucky struggles with the conflict between her mother’s expectations and her own desire to present as butch, her feelings for Nisha and Nisha’s insistence on going forward with the wedding.
Unfortunately, for reasons that are never really explored, Lucky seems almost incapable of standing up for herself to the people she cares about, and thus spends most of the book feeling hemmed in and at the mercy of others. She’s doing her mom a favor by agreeing to stay and take care of her grandma free of charge while her mother works, yet passively submits to her mom’s controlling behavior and constant beratement for her appearance and choices. This despite the fact that there’s no apparent reason for Lucky to put up with this: She was born and raised in the U.S., where it’s 2012. She’s college-educated, financially independent and has her own home. She’s abandoned her parents’ Hindu faith. She feels no attachment to the local Sri Lankan community and secretly drinks her way through community events, while feeling at home in gay bars and among female rugby players. Why did Lucky take her mom’s side in the divorce (which left her mother an outcast herself in the immigrant community) when her mom treats her so badly? Why doesn’t she draw boundaries or distance herself when she isn’t getting anything she values out of the charade?
It’s the same story with Nisha, who reappears in Lucky’s life after eight years of virtual silence and yet feels entitled to demand friendship, sex, and emotional support, while engaged in an exhausting cycle of pulling Lucky close only to push her away. Lucky passively submits to this behavior too. But at the same time, she takes shameless advantage throughout the book of another woman who’s telegraphing her interest in Lucky with a neon sign: sleeping platonically in the woman’s bed, dragging her (and using her car for) a last-minute 30-hour road trip, etc.
Meanwhile, her complete disregard for the feelings or wellbeing of her husband turns – while the book doesn't seem to see it as a problem, let’s not beat around the bush here – into actual abuse at times. Here’s one scene between them, where Lucky is upset because her grandmother, who has been pushing her to have a baby, is in the hospital (it’s worth mentioning that her husband is a greeting card editor):
Kris sits down on the edge of the bed. “She’s going to be okay.”
I try to breathe out the concrete that’s filling me up.
“I’m sick of you being sick,” Kris says, so quietly that I can barely hear him. “Get well soon.”
I sit up and with all my strength, I push him down onto the bed and pin his arms above his head. I want to punch him, see the trickle of blood from his nose, feel my fist on his cheek. His skin would give way and then his muscles, ripping through, crack and shatter. I wrap one hand around his throat. I push my thumb and index finger into his arteries. He swallows. I push harder. His breathing slows.
WTF. And then there’s another incident, where he objects to spending their savings helping out with her grandmother’s hospital bills, and she responds with, “You don’t make these decisions. I could apply for a divorce. . . . And you’ll have to go back to India. How does that sound?” And then at the end, we’re clearly supposed to root for Lucky’s “empowering” choice to
But either way she shows an appalling lack of regard for a friend who supported her through the most difficult times in her life.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that this book is written with the assumption that because Lucky has all of these axes of oppression – woman, South Asian, lesbian – that she has the moral right to do whatever she wants, that she doesn’t have to consider others’ feelings. She shows a lack of empathy for others in general; perhaps we’re supposed to gather that so much suppression of her true self has left her incapable of caring for either herself or others. But then there are passages like this, about her art:
Only the pixie’s skin is colored so far – a dark almond that clashes sharply with the still-white background. The young man who ordered the drawing didn’t specify a skin color, but I know he meant for her to be pale. It’s my policy to default brown skin when the commissioner doesn’t specify.
Which seems like it belongs on a social justice blog, because it’s a clever commentary on the way American culture assumes white as a default. But I don’t buy it as a successful business plan, because you don’t build up the sort of following we’re told Lucky has by doing things you know your customers don’t want because they haven’t specified otherwise, to make an ideological point.
Overall, then, this isn’t a book I would recommend, even without getting into issues other reviewers have mentioned, such as the scatteredness of the plot, and the fact that despite the title, Lucky’s marriage is underexplored. Some reviewers seem inclined to be generous because it’s a South Asian LGBT book and there aren’t a lot of those – but I have read others, including one set in Sri Lanka. Hopefully someone else will write a better one.
Take my rating with a grain of salt: I’ve read this book, but haven’t really taken the time to put its advice into practice yet.
This book is a useful combination of popular science/psychology and self-help, looking at why our brains work the way they do and how to get better at putting big-picture goals ahead of short-term urges. There’s a fair amount of science and studies in it, explained in an accessible way, along with practical tips and strategies for everyday life.
There’s a lot of useful information here, in terms of both general information about human psychology and things that might help you make positive changes in your own life. And it’s actually enough information to justify a book, not just a magazine article stretched out to book length with lots of anecdotes (there are a few anecdotes sprinkled throughout, but they don’t dominate the pages).
The author suggests reading one chapter per week – the book’s genesis is in a ten-week college course – which I mostly did, but which didn’t ultimately help me much. Some of the topics resonated (like the one about why our brains trick us into turning to counterproductive behaviors like snacking or Internet surfing to relieve stress, even though these are actually among the least effective stress relievers), while others seemed less relevant to my life. Also, the “homework” from the first chapter is to meditate for five minutes every day, which I did not do (yes, yes, everyone recommends meditation to solve all ills, but actually doing it really sucks) and which perhaps set the tone for not doing the rest of the “assignments.”
At any rate, I think this is a good book to read if you want to make changes in your life. With the caveat that you should probably read it when you have the bandwidth to put some time and energy into making those changes, because while simply reading a book can make you more aware of some things, it probably isn’t going to break a bad habit or instill a good one all on its own. I do plan to come back to it at another time.
Also, yes, the author is Professor McGonigal. Har, har.
This is a vivid little book, as much a platform for the author’s musings on a variety of subjects as it is a travelogue. Grossman was a Jewish writer in the Soviet Union who had just had his masterwork confiscated by the authorities, when he traveled to Armenia to work on a “translation” of an Armenian novel. (He was actually cleaning up a literal translation into literary Russian, and did not in fact speak Armenian at all.) This short book is more essay collection than straight travel narrative; Grossman reflects on the landscape, on various people he meets and experiences he has, and on aspects of life in general that interest him.
At the beginning I enjoyed this book, appreciating the immediacy of Grossman’s writing and the thought-provoking subjects he touches on, but I found myself losing patience as I went on, and ultimately this book fell on the back burner.
Here’s an example of one of the passages that struck me, from a section in which Grossman wonders why the view of a beautiful lake doesn’t strike a chord of wonder within him:
For a particular scene to enter into a person and become part of their soul, it is evidently not enough that the scene be beautiful. The person also has to have something clear and beautiful present inside them. It is like a moment of shared love, of communion, of true meeting between a human being and the outer world.
The world was beautiful on that day. And Lake Sevan is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But there was nothing clear or good about me – and I had heard too many stories about the Minutka restaurant. After listening to the story of the lovesick princess, I asked, “But where’s the restaurant?”
. . . .
Or was it the thousands of paintings I had seen? Were they what poisoned my encounter with the high-altitude lake? We always think of the artist’s role as entirely positive; we think that a work of art, if it is anything more than a hack job, brings us closer to nature, that it deepens and enriches our being. We think that a work of art is some kind of key. But perhaps it is not? Perhaps, having already seen a hundred images of Lake Sevan, I thought that this hundred-and-first image was just one more routine product from a member of the Artists’ Union.
And here’s a passage that made me want to roll my eyes, thinking that the author puts altogether too much faith in his own feelings and perceptions:
But I repeat: there are many ways through which one can recognize that someone believes in God. It is not just a matter of words, but also of tones of voice, of the construction of sentences, of the look in a person’s eyes, in their gait, in their manner of eating and drinking. Believers can be sensed – and I did not sense any in Armenia.
What I did see were people carrying out rites. I saw pagans in whose good and kind hearts lived a god of kindness.
Why Grossman would think he could recognize Christianity from a person’s gait and syntax, of all things, especially cross-culturally, and why he is so confident in this ability that he can declare a country devoid of real Christians, I have no idea.
At any rate, this is a well-written little book that ranges over a wide variety of topics. Ultimately, I’d have liked it better if it had contained more about Armenia and less of the author’s pontification. But I did learn more about the country than I knew before, which was not much. (Judging from the selection of books shelved on Goodreads as “Armenia” – almost none of which are set there – I had the vague impression that the country had come into being only after the Armenian genocide. As it turns out, it is an ancient country with a long history and unique language.)
This is a generic work of historical fiction that has me questioning my past literary judgment – because I loved the author’s first novel, The Seamstress, to pieces, and thought it was a fantastic literary adventure, featuring two divergent but equally compelling storylines. That was nine years ago, though, and I did not find any of the wonder I remember seeing there in this eminently forgettable book.
Apparently inspired by the career of 1940’s Hollywood musical star Carmen Miranda, this book relates the story of two Brazilian girls who grow up on a sugar plantation, are enraptured by music, run away from home to make their way, and end up singing samba and finally making movies. It’s told from the first-person perspective of Dores, a hardscrabble orphan who befriends the privileged, self-absorbed Graça. Dores is the smart, practical one with a talent for songwriting, while Graça is the diva who captivates audiences.
The novel flows smoothly enough, with competent writing; it’s a quick read and long enough to live in for a little while. That said, it lacks rawness, vitality, momentum; we basically know what’s going to happen from the beginning, and then spend 450 pages following the course that’s been charted out from the start, without any real excitement or surprise, but with standard-issue philosophizing about life from a character supposed to be looking back on events from her 90s. Unfortunately, the first-person voice tends to obscure rather than reveal any personality Dores may have; it’s a generic voice for a generic character in a generic historical fiction story.
The other characters are pretty generic as well – Graça is the only one with much in the way of personality, while the supporting members of the band lack not only personalities but also lives and relationships of their own, to the point that how they feel about unexpectedly spending several years in a foreign country is never even mentioned. The two women’s antagonistic devotion to each other was never entirely convincing to me either; it largely felt like a result of the fact that the novel didn’t have room for distractions like developing their relationships with lovers or other friends, rather than anything organic.
So, unfortunately, the generic title and cover art turned out to be representative of the work as a whole – fine escapism if you want a nice long predictable novel, but nothing more than that. It isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing in the plot or characters or writing that stands out. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest music lover and don’t tend to love books about music; if you did love this, you’ll likely also enjoy The Gods of Tango, another Latin American LGBT music-focused novel (which also disappointed me). I am curious to listen to some samba, though.