Short blurb: An engaging exploration of the clash between generations (parent/child), culture (Indian/British/British-born Indian), tradition vs updatShort blurb: An engaging exploration of the clash between generations (parent/child), culture (Indian/British/British-born Indian), tradition vs updated ideas, expectation vs reality, and lies vs truth, told with fascinating ethnic details and a sobering murder mystery that sheds light on a dark practice and allows the women of the community to band together in support of each other.
Synopsis: This is Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third book, but the first available in the States. A fascinating woman in her own right (Ms. Jaswal was “born in Singapore and grew up in Japan, Russia, and the Philippines”), she won acclaim for her first two novels, and I was thrilled to read this pre-published version of her soon-to-be-released third.
The story centers around Nikki, a first-generation British-Indian woman in her early twenties. Seeking independence from her family’s expectations after dropping out of law school, she moved out of her parents’ house to a flat above the pub where she works. She recognizes her life isn’t going the way she wanted it to, but she’s not sure where her passion truly lies. While trying to figure it out, she has managed to become estranged from her father, who then passed away in India without a reconciliation, and she rarely speaks to her mother, who still keeps house for Nikki’s older sister, Mindi. Mindi has decided to go the traditional route and is seeking an arranged marriage, though she’s doing the searching herself. When Mindi asks Nikki to edit her personal ad, and then post it at the Sikh temple in Southall, the heart of the London Punjabi community, it sets off a chain reaction of events that brings surprising passions forth.
While posting Mindi’s personal ad, Nikki sees an ad for a creative writing teacher for the women of the community. Having always enjoyed writing herself, Nikki applies and is accepted for the position. Expecting to teach Punjabi women how to write their memoirs, Nikki is shocked to discover that her small class of proper Sikh widows may have broad imaginations, but they’ve never learned how to write! When Nikki leaves a bag of beginning writing materials unattended on her desk, her gag gift of erotic stories to be given to her sister is accidentally shared around her class. The women in the class turn out to have unplumbed depths of desire that they turn into erotic stories they share out loud weekly. The one widow who is able to write copies them down, and Nikki finds herself dreaming of turning the stories into a book to be shared secretly with the community.
Everything the women do in the class needs to be kept a secret, even from Kulwinder, the woman who coordinates the women’s activities, because of the Brotherhood, a group of young men who have decided it is their place to police the activities of the Punjabi community from their own moral standpoint. Threads of subplots entwine as the reader learns how and why Kulwinder’s daughter died, what her daughter’s death implies about another Punjabi girl’s death years earlier, and that the widow women’s gossip is more than rumors and lies. Just enough apart from the Sikh community to see patterns that don’t make sense, Nikki finds herself drawn in deeper as she begins to ask some pointed questions.
Despite being warned to stop both the classes and the questions, Nikki continues to delve into the world of cultural expectations and the tensions between families while continuing to collect the women’s erotic stories. When the stories are accidentally shared throughout the community, everything implodes, secrets are revealed, and lives are threatened. To Nikki’s surprise, it is the connections she has somewhat unwillingly formed with the women in her creative writing class that literally and figuratively save her life and set her on the path to her passion.
Personal notes: Diving this deeply into another culture was a fascinating experience. Everyone has a set of expectations placed upon them, whether by their families or their community or their teachers or their bosses, but having them be this steeped in the history of a country, in the history of immigrants and immigration, and in the continuation of cultural practices brings those expectations to a new level, and made me proud of Nikki for trying to push back in her own way to live her own life, even if she didn’t have a firm idea of what that life could, should, would be. Juxtaposing her decision with her sister’s (to have the arranged marriage) was a lovely illustration of how the next generation could also make a combination of expectation and updated values work.
In addition, the ethnic details gave me such a real sense of being there, in as much as I understood what those tastes, smells, textures, flavors, etc. were. I love reading details like that, so it really appealed to me to learn about clothing in this community and what it signified, food I had never heard of before, how the community functions in terms of hierarchy, how the Sikh temple functions in terms of serving the community, etc. It gave me such a complete encapsulation of a community I have no part of. This book would not have been the same without that level of detail, and yet at the same time, it was worked seamlessly into the book without becoming a laundry list of description. I can tell why Ms. Jaswal has been so lauded, and look forward to reading what she writes next....more
This review originally appeared on my book blog, WildlyRead .
Full disclosure: I sobbed during the last three chapters and epilogue of this book. It waThis review originally appeared on my book blog, WildlyRead .
Full disclosure: I sobbed during the last three chapters and epilogue of this book. It was totally worth it.
First, though, I’d like to give major credit to the translator, Simon Pare, who translated this book from its original German into English. That must have been no easy task, as it was a book originally written in German, set entirely in France, and then translated for an American audience. There are so many words in German that have no direct English translation, and to also come up with the correct evocative phrases to describe the French landscape – it’s a masterpiece. I’m always extra impressed when I am blown away by a work in translation, especially when it’s in part due to the language. In those rare cases, I can only imagine 1) how astounding the original prose must be, if I’m that impressed by the translated text, and 2) how hard the translator must have worked to keep the emotion behind the words and the lyrical rhythm the original text must have had. Well done, Mr. Pare.
As you read from the publisher description, M. Perdu runs a bookshop on a barge in Paris that he refers to as a literary apothecary. He “diagnoses” people’s inner ailments, and “prescribes” books as treatments. Any bookworm can tell you, this should be considered a sound medical practice. Unfortunately for M. Perdu, he cannot heal himself from his own internal wound that’s been festering for 20 years. When a woman suffering from heartbreak moves in across the hall from him, circumstances lead to the wound being lanced, and thus begins M. Perdu’s internal as well as external journey to do everything he can to squeeze all the poison out of it (if you’ll pardon the slightly gross medical metaphor).
‘Do we only decide in retrospect that we’ve been happy? Don’t we notice when we’re happy, or do we realise only much later that we were?’ – pg. 233
When I read a book, I underline passages, I dogear pages, and sometimes I even spill drops of tea or tears onto it. That book becomes a part of my life, sleeping beside me, patiently waiting for me to pick it up again when I’ve had to put it down. This book had to be extra patient, as reading it made my own emotions feel raw and exposed, and I could only stand to feel that way for short bursts of time. What I would normally finish in one or two sittings took me one to two weeks, but in reality, savoring it in that way was exactly what this book needed.
Pain, for example, he said: it reverses the polarity of the cells. It starts after only three days: arousal cells become pain cells , sensory cells become fear cells, coordination cells become pincushions. Eventually tenderness only causes hurt; every breeze, every musical vibration, every approaching shadow triggers fear. And pain feeds hungrily on every movement and every muscle, breeding millions of new pain receptors. your insides are completely transformed and replaced, but it is inevitable from the outside.
By the end you want no one ever to touch you again, Vijaya says. – pg. 244
There were passages that were so achingly beautiful, I had to put the book down for a minute and do some deep breathing. There were other passages that stirred up such sensory memories of old personal wounds that I was left gasping for breath after reading a sentence or paragraph. There were descriptions of the French countryside that made me yearn to get on the next plane to Provence, and I couldn’t help a fleeting thought to Johnny Depp’s “river rat” portrayal from the movie Chocolat when M. Perdu and his companions were navigating the river.
This book talks about food in relation to life and love, describing sensory pleasures that makes your mouth water involuntarily. The secret tango culture and meet-ups add a nice level of depth to the characters and the meandering plotline, which resembles the river the barge is on – heading on a specific course with a firm destination, but happy to dip off into various tributaries along the way.
Jordan’s daring impressed Perdu. Yet the novel still struck him as a kind of gazpacho that kept sloshing over the edge of the soup bowl. Its author was just as emotionally defenceless and unprotected; he was the positive print of Perdu’s negative.
Perdu wondered how it must feel to experience things so intensely and yet survive. – pg. 17
Unlike many books, The Little Paris Bookshop does not end at the end of the main character’s physical or emotional journey. I’d like to think this is a commentary on how one’s emotional journey is never truly over, but regardless of the reason, it was immensely satisfying to see M. Perdu past the the traditional moment of journey’s end. It’s not entirely a “happily ever after,” but it was complete, no loose ends were left, and it was gratifying to see how all the threads came together and then continued on.
One of the most intriguing currents throughout the book was the reoccurring mention of M. Perdu’s Great Encyclopedia of Small Emotions, which he writes mostly in his head until the right time to put it down on paper. It’s a great way of cataloguing large and small meaningful moments in life, and made me think of one of my favorite books, The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan.
‘I’d rather write an encyclopedia about common emotions,’ he admitted. ‘From A for “Anxiety about picking up hitchhikers” to E for “Early risers’ smugness” through to Z for “Zealous toe concealment, or the fear that the sight of your feet might destroy someone’s love for you”.’
And speaking of love, my last note on this book is about how pleased I was to read about love and relationships and comfort and friendship and camaraderie still being figured out, agonized over, and eventually found/developed/settled into in characters that weren’t in their 20s or even their 30s (most of them), but into their 40s, 50s, and beyond. As a 30-year-old myself, it was refreshing to read about people still struggling with those concepts.
As one friend put it, this is a book that will make you feel (again), and though it hurts, it’s also gentle, and will let you feel at your own pace. I highly recommend you pick it up....more
Finally, something other than rape, murder, and mayhem to come out of Sweden! This translation is absolutely delightful, bringing to mind favorites suFinally, something other than rape, murder, and mayhem to come out of Sweden! This translation is absolutely delightful, bringing to mind favorites such as The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer and 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. The story is sweet without being saccharine, the writing is breezy and easy to devour, and overall the story is a book lover's dream as it is chock full of literary references and life-as-related-to-books observations.
The basic premise is that Sara, from Sweden, began corresponding with Amy, from Broken Wheel, Iowa, when Sara bought a book from Amy online. They've been writing letters back and forth for a while when Amy invites Sara to visit her. As the bookstore where Sara works is getting ready to permanently close, she decides to go to Broken Wheel on a two-month tourist visa to meet her friend in person for the first time ever. Alas, she arrives too late. Sara enters Broken Wheel just as Sara's funeral is ending.
The residents of Broken Wheel - a dying farm community a few short miles down the road from a larger, more successful city, Hope, Iowa - do their best to make Sara welcome. They put her up in Amy's house, they feed her burgers from Amazing Grace (the one diner in town), and they assign newly-sober George to be her chauffeur when it becomes clear that Sara does not have a license. But Sara came to Broken Wheel to meet Amy, and isn't sure what to do with herself without Amy there to anchor her. As usual, Sara finds comfort in books, and they spark an idea as Sara grows to know the town and its inhabitants: Sara will open a bookstore on Broken Wheel's mostly-empty Main Street strip. Not that Sara has a work visa; she'll just be minding Amy's storefront, using Amy's books, in Amy's town.
As you might expect, the good people of Broken Wheel are both supportive and suspicious of their new resident. Sara's arrival is a catalyst for many individuals and the town itself, and soon her quiet yet infectious energy spreads far and wide. As the circle of influence grows, the more inter-connected the stories of the residents become, so that by the end, people as far away as Hope and beyond are brought to Broken Wheel while the residents band together to hold on to their dreams - and the one person responsible for influencing them. After all, Sara's tourist visa is only good for a couple of months. If only there was a way to get her to stay...like, say, a marriage, perhaps?
Reading this book was like talking with an old friend. The pace was measured, unhurried; the topics were life and love and loss and finding yourself; the books and authors and characters mentioned were familiar and comforting. Any and all book lovers should do themselves a favor by picking up this charming book....more
This is the third Ron Rash book that I've read, having fallen in love with him after reading Serena years ago, which was originally recommended by my good friend and fellow bookseller, Emily of As the Crowe Flies and Reads. For my extensive review of that book (and I DO recommend reading it before seeing the film), click here. For my review of the book of short stories of his that I read, Burning Bright, (which I also greatly enjoyed and recommend) click here.
Unfortunately, though Ron Rash is rightfully referred to at a "staggering talent," and though I did admire the two books I read previously, I did not see him live up to his potential in this latest novel. I'm warning you right now that this won't be a gushing review, so please move on if you're opposed to those types of things.
The book is told in somewhat alternating chapters narrated by Les, a sheriff nearing his retirement (literally weeks), and his sort-of-romantic interest, Becky, who is a local park ranger. I believe Mr. Rash was trying something new in this book by writing Becky's chapters in a type of poetic prose, with some of Becky's nature poems thrown in, while Les's chapters were written in more standard prose, though he was a man of few words. I do enjoy poetry, and thought Becky's poems were quite lovely and evocative of ee cummings, but I had difficulty settling into her chapters. They were few and far between, and mostly consumed with either flashbacks of the school shooting she experienced, her grandparents farm where she recuperated, or descriptions of the present-day North Carolina landscape. I didn't think they added much to story, and frankly, I wasn't that impressed by the plot anyway. What I enjoyed about Burning Bright was quick the slice-of-life views of Appalachian communities that the short story form supported. In Above the Waterfall, it was as if Mr. Rash took one of those stories and then dragged it out for 250 pages, which was frankly unnecessary. I also found Becky's sections difficult to follow. It was as if my brain kept trying to hold onto the words to make sense of them, and the meaning kept slipping away, just out of reach. Reading her chapters always pulled me out of the narrative, rather than forwarding the plot, which made reading the book overall more difficult than I wanted or needed it to be.
Back to the plot - Anyone who's read Elmore Leonard's books about Raylan or seen the show Justified will have a pretty decent working knowledge of the meth problem in rural towns. Mr. Rash adds nothing new to the scene. He doesn't give a particularly edgy accounting of that life nor does he push the boundaries of the heartache meth can cause and the affect it has on local communities. As a mystery aficionado, the mystery in this novel was very stale, with no gasping reveals and instead only a quiet resolution. In fact, as much as this sounds like a backhanded compliment, the best praise I can give is that this novel held really no surprises, much like the town's inhabitants, and so perhaps, in that mirroring, there lies a quiet literary genius. If so, I admit it was lost on me, and perhaps that's my shortcoming rather than the book's. I'm hoping Mr. Rash's next work will dive a little deeper into whatever story he's telling....more