The Week in Books #57

9/12 ✅

Another week, another post about books. This week I got through three more of this stack and started on a fourth. I set my reading goal for the year at one book a week so I’m already getting ahead of myself haha.

1. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. This was a really enjoyable, quick novel about a young woman who takes a job as a creative writing instructor for women in a Punjabi community in England. What was supposed to be a way for the students to learn to read and write transforms into a space for sharing erotic stories, something that attracts negative attention from the traditional men in the community. There are some other threads about violence against women woven in that made things a bit more interesting, though the erotic stories on their own were pretty entertaining.

Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.

Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.

As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.

2. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I liked this story. It’s told by the protagonist in the form of a letter to the president of China and included lots of personality, politics and unexpected humour. This won the Booker prize in 2008 so going into it I anticipated it would be good and I wasn’t disappointed.

The white tiger of this novel is Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager whose great ambition leads him to the zenith of Indian business culture, the world of the Bangalore entrepreneur. On the occasion of the president of China’s impending trip to Bangalore, Balram writes a letter to him describing his transformation and his experience as driver and servant to a wealthy Indian family, which he thinks exemplifies the contradictions and complications of Indian society.

Recalling The Death of Vishnu and Bangkok 8 in ambition, scope, The White Tiger is narrative genius with a mischief and personality all its own. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international publishing sensation—and a startling, provocative debut.

3. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. This is a good primer for folks wanting to learn more about vegetarianism and factory farming. As with all books about the meat industry, it’s got some pretty hard to read sections about animal abuse and sadism on behalf of the workers that is incredibly disgusting. But true. I’ve been mostly vegetarian since I was a kid so none of this information is new to me, but it is nice to see thoroughly researched information compiled together in such a readable way. There was also a chapter on zoological diseases and a stark warning about the inevitability of a global pandemic stemming from humanity’s treatment of animals. Remember, this book is from 2009. It was a bit hard to read about how we really should have been more prepared for coronavirus given everything we know about viruses and factory farming (in this case a live animal market and an infected bat in Wuhan). Solid book.

A warning from 2009 about potential pandemics…

Like many young Americans, Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between enthusiastic carnivore and occasional vegetarian. As he became a husband, and then a father, the moral dimensions of eating became increasingly important to him. Faced with the prospect of being unable to explain why we eat some animals and not others, Foer set out to explore the origins of many eating traditions and the fictions involved with creating them.

Traveling to the darkest corners of our dining habits, Foer raises the unspoken question behind every fish we eat, every chicken we fry, and every burger we grill. Part memoir and part investigative report, Eating Animals is a book that, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, places Jonathan Safran Foer “at the table with our greatest philosophers.”

I picked up two second hand titles this week, both relatively new releases; Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin and The Finder by Will Ferguson.

This weekend I started on The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, and after that I just have two left on this stack, then on to the next!

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