Category Archives: Reading and Writing

Books you should read instead of the classics: An alternative To Be Read list

Recently, Lizzy of My Little Book Blog wrote about how she gave up on a To Be Read list chock full of classics and must-reads as decided by the Conglomeration of Literature Professors, which as we all know is a branch of the Illuminati.

(That was a joke. Hah.)

The post really resonated with me. I too have a TBR list in some dust-covered notebook that I’ve probably lost. It has a ton of familiar titles, all of which I have now forgotten.

I have, of course, read my share of classics. Jane Austin, the Bronte’s, Charles Dickens, several depressed Russians. My feelings on each vary widely. The only Charles Dickens I’ve ever read that I genuinely enjoyed was “A Tale of Two Cities.” Depressed Russians are great, but not for the books they’re most well-known for. “Crime and Punishment” is a great story but much too long. Leo Tolstoy has a book whose name I no longer recall but that was vastly more interesting than “War and Peace,” which is also too long. “Anna Karenina” is too long and has almost no likeable characters. “The Three Musketeers” is a fun romp, but “The Count of Monte Cristo” is too long and has too many characters. About a solid half of the book could be a separate story.

There’s a theme developing here. It’s not that I’m opposed to length in and of itself, or to multiple storylines. I think a large part of it is that language has changed and evolved and our expectations of what books should do has also evolved in ways that make these books seem less epic and more just long. Really, really long.

So instead, I would like to humbly offer a few alternatives to the classics that dominate our TBRs. Here’s a list of 10 books I think you should read:

The Travels of Ibn Battutah – edited by Tim Mackiintosh-Smith

On the road to Multan and ten miles distant from it is the river called Khusru Abad, a large river that cannot be crossed except by boat. At this point the goods of all who pass are subjected to a rigorous examination and their baggage searched. Their practice at the time of our arrival was to take a quarter of everything brought in by the merchants, and to exact a duty of seven dinars for every horse. When we set about the crossing of this river and the baggage was examined, the idea of having my baggage searched was very disagreeable to me, for though there was nothing much in it, it seemed a great deal in the eyes of the people, and I did not like having it looked into. By the grace of God Most High there arrived on the scene one of the principal officers on behalf of Qutb al-Mulk, the governor of Multan, who gave orders that I should not be subjected to examination or search.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marques

Many of those on the docks knew they were going to kill Santiago Nasar. Don Lázaro Aponte, a colonel from the academy making use of his good retirement, and town mayor for eleven years, waved to him with his fingers. “I had my own very real reasons for believing he wasn’t in any danger anymore,” he told me. Father Carmen Amador wasn’t worried either. “When I saw him safe and sound I thought it had all been a fib,” he told me. No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes all our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey – Leila Ahmed

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother’s paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnameably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather’s voice, and then the quiet, suppressed, chortling laughter of the women as its boom faded and he passed into the recesses of the inner hall. The order and aroma of another time, other ways, another order.

The Truth – Terry Pratchett

Shall I try again? he said. “Listen carefully. Drugs equal chemicals, but, and please do listen to this part, sheesh, chemicals do not equal drugs. Remember all that trouble with the calcium carbonate? When you paid the man five dollars?

“Made me feel good,” muttered Mr. Tulip.

“Calcium carbonate? said Mr. Pin. “Even for you, I mean…”

Alexander at the World’s End – Tom Holt

The City of Athens, you see, has for quite some time now used Scythian slaves as policemen. Sorry, you don’t know what that word means; it means men paid by the state to keep order and punish people who break the laws (or at least, that’s the theory). We had to use foreign slaves for the job because no self-respecting Greek, let alone Athenian, would dream of doing a job that involved exercising practically unlimited power over his fellow citizens. Quite right, too. Ask yourself; what kind of man would you get volunteering for a job like that? Men who want that kind of power are by definition the last people you’d allow to have it.

Full Moon – P.G. Wodehouse

The moment Tipton set eyes on E. Jimpson Morgatroyd he knew that he had picked a lemon in the garden of medicine. What he had hoped for was a sunny practitioner who would prod him in the ribs with his stethoscope, compliment him on his health, tell him an anecdote about a couple of Irishmen named pat and mike, give him some ointment for the spots, and send him away in a whirl of good fellowship. E Jimpson proved to be a gloomy man with sidewhiskers, who smelled of iodoform and had obviously been looking on the black side of things since he was a slip of a boy.

In the Eye of the Sun – Ahdaf Soueif

How wonderful to simply do things instead of wondering if they are worth doing or discussing whether to do them or being told not to do them or listening to somebody else describe doing them.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

 

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe. The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria. During a recitation by their poet master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem “Ode to a Small Lump of Green Putty I Found in My Armpit One Midsummer Morning,” four of his audience died of internal hemorrhaging, and the president of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been “disappointed” by the poem’s reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve-book epic entitled “My Favorite Bathtime Gurgles,” when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leaped straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.

What are your must-reads that don’t make the average TBR list? Let me know in the comments below!

Why YA literature leads the pack in Muslim representation: A guest post at Words Beneath the Wings

Last week, I had the privilege of being featured on “Words Beneath the Wings,” the blog of #RamadanReadathon founder Nadia. My post discusses why YA lit is always quick on the uptake when it comes to diversity and representation. Read it here:

WHY YA LITERATURE LEADS THE PACK IN MUSLIM REPRESENTATION – GUEST POST BY NADIA ELDEMERDASH

The nature of human nature: A review of “Last Man in Tower”

“Last Man in Tower” is a novel by Indian writer Aravind Adiga. The story is about the struggle between a real estate developer and the residents (eventually, resident) of the tower block he wants to tear down.

Via goodreads

I was intrigued by the book because its premise is very different from a lot of the “set in India” novels you usually get. Here, there are no arranged marriages, no slum dwellers, no epic Bollywood lifestyles. Instead, “Last Man in Tower” is a story about a universal issue, gentrification, and the impact it has on this one building and its middle-class dwellers.

The developer wants the land in order to build his dream project, and he offers to pay an exorbitant amount of money to the residents of the dilapidated Mumbai tower block so as to tempt them into selling him their flats. The catch: they have to accept the offer by a certain day, and they all have to sell before anyone can get the money.

At first, several residents resist, but the developer is able to convince all of them except for an old retired schoolteacher. And thus the conflict goes from developer vs. residents to everyone vs. teacher.

The teacher, by the way, has good standing in the building – he tutors some of the other residents’ children. But he’s also known for being very strict, so as each resident gives in, their opinion of him warps. Instead of being a lovable if curmudgeonly old man, he becomes a cruel, selfish man who gets a kick out of traumatizing their kids with his outdated teaching methods.

The story, ultimately, is a reflection on human nature. What motivates good people to do bad things? What motivates one person to stand against his neighbors, pitting his will against theirs? How far can you push someone before they crack?

Why is it so easy to turn people against each other?

I won’t tell you what happens, because even the Chronic Spoiler has her limits, but I highly recommend the book. “Last Man in Tower” is a novel that goes beyond its setting to address universal issues, and its one that I think anyone can enjoy and learn from.

A teeny tiny #RamadanReadathon reading list

It’s rather late, but Ramadan Kareem!

For those of you who are not familiar with Ramadan, it is the Muslim holy month where observers abstain from food, drink, and (ideally) bad behavior from sunrise to sunset, after which you are free to stuff your face till you explode. Islamic months are on a lunar calendar, so the timing of Ramadan changes every year. This year, it’ll extend through June.

Ramadan to me has always been a great opportunity to do some educational reading. Some of this is by nature religious – interpretations of the Qur’an, for example, or scholarly reflections on the nature of the Qur’an and its purpose. But some is broader, which is why I was so excited to hear about Ramadan Readathon, a reading challenge hosted by another Nadia. (Clearly, I’m predisposed to like this already).

The idea of Ramadan Readathon is to challenge participants to read books by Muslim authors as a way of supporting diverse, authentic voices. Nadia has compiled a TBR list of fiction and YA books on her blog, while Zoya, the other organizer, has a list of nonfiction, anthologies, and graphic novels. There are a lot of great titles on both these lists, including “Love, Inshallah,” Malala Yusafzai’s biography, S.K. Ali’s “Saints and Misfits,” and “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged.”

The point of a readathon, obviously, is to read as many books as possible, but for me, I wanted to set modest goals. Aside from the Qur’anic interpretation I’m working through, I’m also reading “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law” by Sadakat Kadri. Kadri is a legal historian and human rights lawyer, and in this book he examines the interpretations of shari’a and how it evolves through time and place. Shari’a is a controversial term – it refers to Islamic law, but it’s a much more flexible category than “law” implies. It’s subject to interpretations by scholars and jurists from different cultures and backgrounds, which means that shari’a in one country can look very different from shari’a in another.

I know very little about the shari’a and I’m really interested to get the historical perspective on it. Kadri’s book also promises a lot of fun personal anecdotes, which is always great. Watch this space for a post-Ramadan review!

I’m also looking forward to getting my hands on “The Other Half of Happiness,” the sequel to “Sofia Khan.” Two things that scare my about sequels: 1) the possibility that it won’t be as good as the first book, thus ruining the latter for me, and 2) that it will be good, but so different from what I had hoped that it impedes my enjoyment of it. But, as Scooby Doo’s Fred used to say, there’s only one way to find out.

Finally, a little self-plug: an article I wrote was included in an anthology about hijab, the Muslim head covering prescribed for women! I’m super excited to be featured in a book; it’s called “Mirror on the Veil,” and my chapter is titled “Adventures in Hair and Hijab.” I’ll be reviewing that here too. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think of my piece!

So that’s my very modest Ramadan TBR for this year. If I can read more, well and good, if not, I won’t beat myself up about it. Either way, I hope that it will be an enlightening and blessed month, for me and for all of you! Happy reading!

Perspective and proportion in the modern era

Life is what you make of it. Literally.

At least, that’s the thought that’s been running through my head of late. I’m currently reading three books at the same time: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, “Diaspora Politics” by Gabriel Sheffer (just a little light reading, you understand), and one of my all-time favorites, the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams.

Why yes, it is an interesting combination.

I honestly don’t know how I ended up with these three together, but the end result is that it is occurring to me that there are very few absolute truths in the world. Everything we know is tied up in the lives we live and the worlds we inhabit, which can be infinitely different from those of others. In the second Hitchhiker’s book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” (probably my favorite in the series), Adams really takes this concept home: we live in worlds that revolve around our own heads.

To show us this, Adams takes our hero (sort of), Zaphod Beeblebrox, the fugitive former President of the Galaxy, and puts him on the abandoned Frogstar World B, where he will be placed in the Total Perspective Vortex, the worst kind of torture in the universe. Here’s how it works: it shows you just how small and utterly insignificant you are to the functioning of the universe. Adams writes:

For when you are given just one momentary glimpse of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here”.”

…And into one end [Trin Tragula, the Vortex’s inventor] plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.

Of course, Beeblebrox survives the ordeal (I won’t tell you how, but rest assured: it is hilariously Improbable). But the point is that we live in worlds were we are the center of the universe. We are naturally selfish creatures, and it’s not entirely our fault. We don’t have insight into how other people think or live or experience the world. We say, “walk a mile in their shoes,” but it’s not just about the shoes; people walk at different speeds and in different directions.

So how is this related to religion and diasporas? Well, I haven’t gotten though the other two books yet, but already I’m seeing that a lot of what’s being described is basically “the world according to [fill in group/community/country here].” They are not observable facts or objective analyses. When it comes to religion, this might not be so surprising because the most basic factor in a religion, the god, is unobservable. Religion by nature relies on faith to one extent or the other – of course, such faith can appeal to logic, but the appeal must be limited because the object of faith cannot be seen or experienced in a tangible manner. But what is really quite interesting is just how subjective and narrow history can be. You’d think history would be pretty simple: it either happened or it didn’t. The problem is that these facts are not created in isolation nor are they interpreted in isolation.

As a writer, I believe firmly in facts. There are things that happened, and things that didn’t. There are things that exist, and things that don’t exist (or at least cannot be proven to exist by current methods available). There are things that are true, and things that false. Furthermore, each individual has the resources to confirm said facts in a way that was not possible even 30 years ago.

This is important. In an era where many would rather have us believe “alternative facts,” we need to mobilize social media to establish truth from falsehoods and fact from fiction. But this requires a level of personal responsibility from each of us, to be honest, to be accurate, and to own up to mistakes when they are inevitably made, as quickly as possible.

Not everyone will meet that responsibility. And there will always be subjectivity in reporting, whether it’s in journalism or history books or academic papers, because we’re all humans and we’re by nature subjective. But the act of seeking out truth, the act of aiming for objectivity and acknowledging when we are incapable of it, is crucial. We have to try. Our sense of proportion depends on it, because even if we are just microscopic dots on a microscopic dot, we’re not microscopic to each other.

This post was adapted from one that originally appeared on my personal blog, Nadia’s Writing, now defunct.

Never go with a guy to a second location: A review of Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

A good friend of mine recently recommended the book “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” by Ayisha Malik. It was a book that had been on my radar for a while, so I took this as a sign that this was the time to read it.

“Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” follows the trials of – you guessed it! – Sofia Khan, a Pakistani Muslim Londonite working a rather unfulfilling jobs as a book publicist. (A little self-insertion on the part of the author? You know where I stand on this).

Sofia inadvertently suggests writing a book on Muslim dating, such as it is, and gets roped into doing it herself. She gets an advance she can’t refuse, and signs up to an online dating site for people from the Indian subcontinent.

Meanwhile, Sofia’s preexisting love life presents recurring issues. A relationship on the cusp of marriage has recently broken down because of the boyfriend’s insistence that she live with his parents per South Asian custom. Sofia’s 30 years old, and she really liked this guy, and she struggles with the breakup even as she embarks on new dating adventures for “research.” It doesn’t help that these adventures are extremely disappointing. One man in particular is everything that is wrong with men as a group. He’s self-centered, noncommittal, aimless, looking to kill time with Sofia while he waffles through life. Unfortunately for our protagonist, he is also very charming (these types often are), and we spend a lot of very frustrating time with him.

While this is happening, we’re also introduced to Sofia’s family – traditional South Asian parents and her sister Maria, who is getting married – and her friends, each with their own romantic problems. Her coworkers also form a significant portion of her social circle, misconceptions of Islam and South Asian culture included, as well as aloof Irish neighbor Conall.

I thought this book was great! It was a refreshing departure from a lot of “Muslim narratives” out there, that tend to revolve around arranged marriages, government corruption, gender-based oppression, etc. This is just an average girl living an average life, and she happens to be a Muslim from a South Asian family. That obviously has it’s impact on the trajectory of the story, as it impacts the kinds of decisions Sofia and co. make and the way in which those decisions are implemented. But it’s not the crux of the story. Yes, it’s about Muslim romance, but the story doesn’t live or die on details like Sofia’s ex’s attachment to his parents or on her friend’s struggle with polygamy (a detail I personally found rather pointless in that it presented a very serious and controversial issue and then barely addressed it).

Ultimately, Sofia is a fun-loving, lighthearted working gal, faced with a life that becomes increasingly serious over the course of the novel: the book that needs to be written, the tension between her sister and her now-husband, pressure from her parents to just pick a guy already, etc. As these conflicts heighten, we see Sofia struggle to handle it all – her personality makes her, I think, averse to this level of seriousness. That nuance in the story’s development was something I really appreciated.

Overall, “Sofia Khan is Not Obliged” is a funny send-up of love, marriage, generational conflict, and the push and pull second generation kids are always balancing. It’s also a great example of the kind of Muslim representation that I personally would like to see more of. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to picking up the second installment, “The Other Half of Happiness.”

Have you read this book? Share your opinions in the comments!

If you write fiction, you’re probably self-inserting

If you’ve ever had the (mis)fortune to delve into the murky waters of fanfiction, you’ve likely come across a Mary Sue character: a young and beautiful women who is as close to perfect as possible and universally adored.

(Fun Fact: According to TV Tropes, the “Mary Sue” character first became a Thing in a Star Trek parody fanfic.)

The thing about Mary Sue (and her brother, Gary Stu) is that she is almost always an author self-insert. We wish we were perfect (and in a smolderingly romantic relationship with our favorite show/book’s main character), so we create this version of ourselves: beautiful, strong, kind, honest, talented – just all around amazing.

 

Which is fine. If you’ve ever written any kind of fiction at all, you’ve probably done the Mary Sue thing. Writing is, at it’s heart, an exercise in self-reflection, an attempt to understand oneself and one’s place in the world through the power of imagination. This, I believe, is a basic human instinct. When you dressed up as your mother in your long-gone (I assume, since you’re on the internet) preschool days, putting yourself in her shoes (literally), it was a kind of self-reflection. By pretending to be your mother, you entertain the idea that you will one day become your mother, a notion you will undoubtedly recoil from a mere 10 years later. But I digress. The point is, the urge to write a self-insert character is present in every writer.

It’s worth noting that not every self-insert character is automatically a Mary Sue. You might find yourself going in the opposite direction, highlighting and exaggerating the flaws you see in yourself as a form of self-flagellation, or perhaps as an attempt to reconcile yourself to those flaws. Perhaps you tend to insert yourself as a side character, someone in the background who’s main role lies in observation – kinda like you are in real life (which is not a bad thing, btw. More people should observe).

Or maybe you’re the narrator. Technically, all writers are the narrator of everything they write. Here, I mean this more literally. Your narrator is of  the all-seeing, all-knowing variety who does not merely recount the facts of the story but influences it’s path. Lemony Snicket, for example, laments the sad story of the Baudelaire siblings even as he commits to telling the reader every last harrowing detail. A form of grappling with control, or lack thereof, in Daniel Handler’s own life? I have no idea, but if I had to guess, that would be it.

Geez, what a downer.

Tom Holt’s “Alexander at the World’s End” has this kind of narrator.  Euxenus son of Eutychides is telling the story of his life in the court of Alexander the Great, after having lived a long life. He is now dying in a small outpost at the end of world and is telling this story to some unnamed young man, who stands in place of the reader. By reflecting on his life, Euxenus considers the myriad coincidences and random events that guided his life and led him to this, his final resting place, thousands of miles from his homeland. And perhaps, in a way, Holt is also considering the twists and turns his own life has taken. Or not. I don’t know, but speculating is fun.

How does one get their own talk show? Asking for a friend.

(Also, I highly, highly recommend “Alexander at the World’s End.” It is one of my favorite books of all time.)

One of my favorite authors in the world, Terry Pratchett, does this too, I think. If you look at some of his main characters – Sam Vimes, William de Worde, Moist Von Lipwig – they’re all provocateurs. They’re different people, of course, in different times and with different priorities, roles, and concerns, but they all have the same characteristic in common: they don’t accept the status quo, and it is ultimately that characteristic which drives their stories. Did Pratchett see himself this way? His books are very political in nature, especially for the fantasy genre, and draw deliberate parallels between Discworld and our world. If the pen is mightier than the sword, I would say that Pratchett wielded his pen in much the same way Vimes wields his badge or de Worde wields his printing press.

I want to end on this note: if you want to read a hilarious parody of a Mary Sue character, read George Macdonald Fraser’s “The Pyrates.” I read it a hundred years ago but I still remember it, and let me tell you, the only book I have ever laughed so hard at is “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Captain Ben Avery is literally the most perfect human man to every exist in the universe: women fall over themselves trying to get his attention, while he remains utterly indifferent. It’s not just Avery – every character is an exaggerated stereotype, all of which serves to take the story in the weirdest and wildest directions. (It also makes the plot a little hard to follow, but let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of thing you read for the plot). If you like insanity, you’ll like this.

Sexism ruins lives: A review of The Muse by Jessie Burton

Have you ever had this happen with a book, where you read the first, say, five chapters, and you think huh, this is pretty interesting. Then you come back to it the next day maybe, and you read a few more chapters, and suddenly the ante ups by 500 percent and you’re reading well into the night because you must find out what happens next.

That’s “The Muse” by British author Jessie Burton. The story is about Trinidadian Odelle Bastien, who works in London in the 1960s and wants to be a writer. She takes a typist job at an art gallery, where she meets Marjorie Quick, an upper level executive. Marjorie takes a liking to her for mysterious reasons (*coughs*), but the story doesn’t really take off until Odelle meets Lawrie Scott, a young man in possession of a very strange painting. Through Odelle, he brings this painting to Marjorie’s gallery, and, well, things take a major turn.

While Odelle is doing her thing, we catch up with Olive Schloss, an Austrian-British teenager living with her wealthy family in 1930s Spain. Olive’s father, Harold, is in the business of selling art to wealthy people all over Europe and North America, and he’s kind of jerk to his daughter. Harold believes firmly that only men can be true artists – women, he tells his daughter, don’t have the right temperament or whatever to pursue art professionally (and if this sounds familiar to you, well, I urge you to contemplate the state of the world today). Olive, not surprisingly, is very depressed by this attitude and loses her motivation to paint, until she meets Isaac and Teresa Robles, siblings who serve her family’s landlord. Well, mostly Isaac. He’s older and deeply involved with the unions and communist party in Spain, and he’s also tragically poor, which is always romantic.

So Olive paints and paints and paints, and it’s clear even to the unworldly Teresa that she has a special talent. But Olive knows that anything she produces will be dismissed by her sexist father, so she decides to pass off her paintings as Isaac’s, a scheme that he accepts for reasons.

But this is 1930s Spain, and conflict is brewing even in the countryside. Olive and her family have the privilege of neutrality – up until they don’t. The Spanish Civil War takes a while to reach their small town, but when it does the results are catastrophic. Isaac, and by extension Teresa, are targets of Nationalist supporters, and the Schloss family (yes, they’re Jewish), can’t help but feel trapped on a continent that seems to be unraveling before their eyes.

The nature of their escape and the fate of Lawrie’s painting, which is obviously Olive’s wrongly attributed to Isaac, is too much of a spoiler for even me to reveal here. I will say this, the beauty of Burton’s writing is that she gives you just enough to see a few feet ahead on the path, but not quite enough to show you the destination. By the time you’ve reached the inevitable conclusion, the story is effectively complete. All that remains are a few loose ends for Odelle and Marjorie to tie up. In that sense, it reminds me a lot of “The White Lie.”

Burton crafts the story incredibly well. Odelle speaks in Trinidadian English when with her countrywoman friend, but switches to a much more formal, British English when at work or speaking with other characters, a detail that many writers who don’t have that background could easily have missed. She also does not shy away from showing just how Harold’s sexism dooms Olive, and how in turn European fascism dooms them all (to varying degrees).

What she does shy away from is racism. I find it difficult to believe that Odelle faces very little racism in 1960s London. This is barely 30 years after the “Aryan race” was a thing, and yet the worst she gets is impolite waitresses and people “complimenting her” on her English. That’s how racists act now, 70 years after WWII and in a time when racism is much less socially acceptable. I’m also astonished at how willingly she jumps into an interracial relationship. At no point does Odelle ever consider the impact this could have on her, what she might face as a black woman in the company of a white man – and it would have been much worse than a few surprised looks and disapproving tuts. Again, this kind of attitude is much more reflective of race relations today than it is the 1960s. Particularly given the current climate, we need media that clearly says: Racism hurts. Racism ruins lives. Instead, racism in Burton’s world is little more than a mild inconvenience.

“The Muse” is an intense tale. It left me emotionally exhausted and wondering how different things could be if only there was a little less prejudice in the world.

Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?

Too much bride, not enough Bollywood – A review of “The Bollywood Bride”

I took advantage of the holiday sales to buy a bunch of books from Kobo, an online store that specializes in e-reading. One of the books I purchased was “The Bollywood Bride” by Sonali Dev.


I’m about to tell you all about this book, but I want to start by saying that I came in super enthusiastic about this book. I am not Indian, but I have had many Indian friends over the years and that’s given me the opportunity to learn a little about Indian culture. I’m not an expert, obviously, which was part of why I was excited to read this book – given that it targets a non-Indian audience, I figured I’d learn more about India and Indian-American culture through the story. I was also excited because Sonali Dev is Indian – she grew up in India, traveled the world, and now lives in Chicago. I always get pumped for women telling their own stories, especially women of color. Here, I figured, was a chance to read a story of Indian-America through the eyes of someone who is actually Indian-American.

Spoilerwood, a love story

Without giving too much away, “The Bollywood Bride” is about an actress, Ria Parkar, whose family lives in Chicago. Ria was a frequent visitor as a child, but since achieving stardom over the course of a decade she has avoided returning to the U.S. As it turns out, there is a tragic backstory behind all this – she was forced to abandon the love of her life because she fears that she has inherited a serious mental disorder from her mother, whom she has secretly put up in an asylum in England.

Ria returns to the U.S. under duress to attend her cousin’s wedding, only to be reunited with her long-lost love. He is still bitter about her leaving him, and although admittedly she was pretty cold about it, this was 10 years ago. Get over it dude.

It’s clear from the outset that Ria and her love, Vikram, will end up together in the end. It is also clear that whatever fears she has about her mental health will be assuaged so that the happy couple can dance off into the sunset in true Bollywood fashion.

This is where the story starts to lose me. Personally, I don’t see why Vikram is so obsessed with Ria, other than that she was his first love. Ria is, of course, beautiful per her description, and she is depicted as polite and loving. She also has some artistic ability and talent as an actress. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the selling point is here. She has a tragic backstory, but that’s not exactly a personality trait.

(For the record, Vikram is also a little too perfect – fiery, passionate, but also kind, intelligent, and altruistic. In that sense, they’re a perfect match.)

I also don’t understand why Ria doesn’t at least try to seek treatment, to see what she can do about the illness she is convinced has been passed down to her. Her fear that she will inevitably end up like her mother, violent fits of psychosis included, is a driving force behind the story – it is the reason she leaves Vikram and the reason she resists his attempts to reconcile. And yet she does nothing to actually address it.

To her credit, Dev addresses this point. When word gets out in Bollywood that Ria has an “insane” mother, psychologists call on her by way of the press to receive treatment. They are clearly trying to get their 15 minutes of fame on the back of this most personal part of her life. However, it begs the question: why doesn’t she get treatment? I think this part of the story would have been better served if Dev had spent some time addressing this point. What kind of social stigma exists in India for those seeking mental health treatment, and how would that have impacted someone famous like Ria? What options are available to her? Could she seek treatment outside the country in secret? It would have been more satisfying, in my view, to have Ria struggling with trying to treat herself (doing research online, taking supplements, doing yoga, praying, paying a doctor exorbitant amounts of money to pretend she has a liver problem or something) than having her simply accepting her “fate” and making herself and everyone around her (Vikram included) miserable in the process.

Fortunately for Ria (and for me, because if I want to be depressed I’ll watch the news), there is a happy ending. When the Indian tabloids reach her family in America, Vikram jumps on a plane to see her, first going to Mumbai and then to England, where Ria is visiting her mother for the first time in a decade. Vikram assures her that he loves her no matter what, and that he’ll stand by her as she seeks treatment (finally!).

In the end, “The Bollywood Bride” is a cozy love story, but ultimately not a great way to learn about Indian culture. There is the wedding taking place in the background, and Ria’s interactions with her aunt and uncle in America, so it could prove interesting and educational for someone totally new to Indian culture. Dev’s other books, which are also set in an Indian-American context, promise a more in-depth look into the culture, so I’m looking forward to picking up another one soon.