Category Archives: 2021 Women Writers Reading Project

Read 213 of 2021. Intimate City by Manjima Bhattacharjya

Intimate City by Manjima Bhattacharjya

Title: Intimate City
Author: Manjima Bhattacharjya Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 978-9390514311
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Welfare, Feminist Writing
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

This is a book that should be read by everyone. It is not only about sexual choices and rights exercised by women, but also about how technology enables that or sometimes not. Intimate City is a fascinating read about the business of pleasure and how that is coupled with the autonomy of the body, in relation to how the Internet has redeveloped intimacies in the times we live.

Intimate City looks at feminism and its understanding in the space of sex work, choice, and agency, all of this playing out in the city of Mumbai. I think Mumbai and its nuances plays out beautifully as another character altogether in this very reflective and profound non-fiction narrative of how sexual commerce comes full circle (well, almost does).

Manjima through her incisive and very detailed writing also looks at patriarchy and the role it plays throughout in the lives of not only sex workers, but also bar dancers, massage boys, and escort girls as service providers. It was for me very interesting as a queer man to see sex politics play out in this industry – with reference to how sexual commerce is viewed by the world at large, about whether it can ever be seen as a “regular” job, and how it all operates offline vs. online.

Intimate City, for some may not be revealing or earth-shattering in a sense. We think we might know it all, till we read something like this, and that’s all it takes perhaps to demolish our preconceived notions about who is paying for sex, and who is getting paid. I repeat, it is definitely a book that is a must-read for all.

Read 212 of 2021. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Title: Matrix
Author: Lauren Groff
Publisher: Hutchison Heinemann
ISBN: 978-1785151910
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I am not a fan of historical fiction at all. I mean sure I have liked some books over the years, but I do not dig the genre per se. So, I was initially quite hesitant to read Matrix. A book set in the 12th century wasn’t for me. Till I read a couple of reviews, and was intrigued by the plot as I read more and more. After finishing the book, it is now safe to say that I am a fan of the way Groff has written this piece of work. Of how even a book set in the 12th century could feel so relevant and timely.

Matrix is a novel that is not only bold (well, in a sense and more), but also displays great sensitivity when needed, is driven by characters that are unique and yet relatable, and more than anything it is a novel that isn’t preachy at all, given how easily it could have taken that road.

Like I said, the book is set in the 12th century and is about Marie – a poet, a free-thinker, someone who yearns for the love of her queen, and it is that very queen – Eleanor of Aquitaine who has her ejected from court, sent to be prioress at a remote royal abbey in England. From thereon, everything begins.

Matrix is a reimagining of Marie de France, no holds barred. Groff speaks less of her lais but when she does it is with great affection and joy. At the same time, her love for her long-time help Cecily and Queen Eleanor is devoted. I think those parts moved me the most. I could sense the longing Groff transfers to Marie, the yearning with which each thought is processed by the prioress – and how ultimately in all of this, she makes the abbey her home and is determined to resurrect its rundown status.

It took me about two chapters to get into the book, but when I did, I was hooked. Marie’s mother’s side of the family had me wanting to know more about them. The crusaders, the tales, the passing down of stories connected to a large extent with me. I loved the routine of the abbey. In fact, I found myself looking forward to those descriptions that Groff brings to fore with so much talent and nuance. I can only imagine the kind of research that must have happened in the writing of Matrix.

What I also enjoyed a lot was the absence of male characters, or when they appeared they took a back seat. The writing focuses on the women and rightly so. The sisterhood that is built from scratch had me cheering for them at the turn of every page. Every decision that Marie makes isn’t perfect. Groff lays out the flaws of characters that somehow makes them more endearing to the reader. Marie’s visions are beautifully explained through the prose. A feat if you ask me.

Matrix is a book about women who do not find a place anywhere in the world and how they come to live together in the abbey. The way Groff works with history – more to reimagine it is a splendid task. I loved how Marie offers herself to the Queen without any expectation (well, there is some at some points), bares her soul, and how she refuses to be trapped anywhere under any circumstances. It is all about things happening on her terms, which bring out the true warrior woman element.

Matrix is a medieval romance, it is political novel, it is a story of friendship, of sisterhoods even in disagreement, of a queer abbey, and of a spirit that is grand and not afraid to show it. You have to read Matrix to appreciate and feel the joy.

Read 211 of 2021. Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams

Commute - An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame by Erin Williams

Title: Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of Female Shame
Author: Erin Williams
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
ISBN: 978-1419736742
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

We go through life hiding all the shame, and not acknowledging our innermost thoughts, what we really think and what we would really want to do. Erin Williams not only bares her soul through her art, but in the process also helps others internalise the trauma and talk about it, well to some extent.

Commute is a book that is about so many things – it is about Williams’ daily commute to and from work, it is about her sexual encounters – past and present, about her past relationships (the guilt associated with some and the idea of them not working out), about men always taking space (whether on the train or in life), making women second-guess, gas-lighting, and asserting their right on women’s bodies.

Williams does this with a touch of humour but doesn’t ignore the intensity and seriousness of it all. Commuting is so local, global, and more than anything personal. Each individual’s journey is so unique, and we see that through Williams’ journey – regardless of the places, and what’s happening, we are constantly observing – what others read, what other commuters are doing, and in that we also tend to drift. What is it like travelling in a female body? I will never know. I can only learn and empathise and that’s what I did from this book.

Commute is mostly told through feedback, reminiscent of childhood and teenage years. Commute makes the male gaze visible in 300 pages or less. It is a graphic memoir that was needed to be told and a most essential addition to the list. Read it on the train, perhaps.  

Books and Authors mentioned in Commute

  • James Patterson
  • Anne Carson
  • Kierkegaard
  • Fear and Trembling
  • Eve Ensler
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
  • Slant Six by Erin Belieu
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  • Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Gift by Barbara Browning
  • Mary Roach
  • Natalie Shapero
  • After Claude by Iris Owens
  • Valleyspeak by Cait Weiss Orcutt
  • Clive Cussler
  • Anne Rice
  • Dostoevsky
  • Freud
  • Keats

Read 210 of 2021. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois

Title: The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois Author: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Publisher: Harper ISBN: 978-0062942937 Genre: Literary Fiction, African American Literary Fiction, African American Women’s Fiction
Pages: 816
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I will always be grateful to Oprah’s Book Club for introducing me to the debut novel of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The minute I saw it being picked by Oprah for her book club, I knew I had to read it. A multigenerational saga, with African American history at its core is something I wouldn’t want to miss reading. What I didn’t realize was how attached I would become to the characters, how I would root for some and become their cheerleader, how I would hate some with a vengeance, how I would fall in love with the language, and more than anything else, how I would find parts of myself in this novel.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is more than just a story told through the lens of an African American family. It is so much more than that. It is not just about African history intertwined with contemporary living, but so much more. Jeffers lays it all out, bares her soul, to make us – the readers see what it was and what it still is. This is most marvellously done through the songs and writing of W.E.B Du Bois who is at the center of this magnificent epic.

Ailey Garfield is a headstrong, vulnerable, emotional, and highly intelligent women coming from a long line of women of the Garfield family. This is her story. This is the story of the women of the Garfield family – her mother, her maternal grandmother, great-grandmothers, her sisters, and her ancestors tracing way back to how they became slaves and what happened. It is the story of so many generations and somehow the story sadly is still the same, the one of fight – the one of voicing what is right, the one of standing up against wrong, and yet at the heart of it all there is love. A whole lot of love, that shines through the writing.

Ms. Jeffers’ voice shifts beautifully between times, between the past, the present, and beyond. The narration shifts swiftly to communicate the timbre of the times, the tone, of how it was, and in all of this never losing sight of the family and its struggle.

What I loved the most about the book is how emotional it gets you, and yet all you want to do is turn the pages. And yet there were times I wanted to just keep it down, which I did, and make sense of all the writing and the emotion. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is personal, it is political, it is devoid of the constrict of time (though it may not seem that way), and above all it is kind. It is a kind novel. It still preaches that over and over again, no matter what. Ms. Jeffers’ takes on topics that are so difficult and yet have to be talked about – the demonic nature of child abuse, the way relationships can get so messy, about slavery and colorism, about what it feels like to be the only black student and a teacher on campus, about black women who lead the novel and life, of how Ailey confronts tough situations as she goes along life, with help from her family and friends and about history that must not be whitewashed or forgotten. History that runs through the veins of every marginalised folk, in this case the African American people. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois is compelling, gorgeous, stunning, and a read that has to be mandatory for all. Please read it.

Read 209 of 2021. The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose

The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose

Title: The Illuminated
Author: Anindita Ghose
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN: 978-9354227257
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of The Illuminated when I first started reading it. I read a couple of pages and for some reason didn’t get back to it. It didn’t call out to me then. I had received an ARC and thought I would read it eventually before the finished copy was out in the market. However, when the finished copy was sent to me, I thought let’s do this. Let us read The Illuminated and so I did. Dear reader, I was in for a roller-coaster ride, a ride that was calm, in its own manner quite tumultuous, deceptively simple, with no twists and turns, and the kind you have to surrender to completely.

Relationships are messy, but that’s how they are. I guess because humans who are in those relationships are complex themselves. Each carrying their own burden, trying very hard to make sense of the world. Shashi and Tara, the mother and daughter at the center of this novel are quite the same. Each trying to make their way in the world, after the death of the center of their lives – the husband and the father. Anindita throws her characters in unfamiliar waters, and it is up to them to sink or swim. Being who they are, they swim. Sometimes in the opposite direction, so as not to cross each other – but what comes of it ultimately is what you will know after reading the book.

The Illuminated is about women – women from different spheres, class, sensibilities, and more than anything women who lead such complicated inner lives – that are brought to fore. From affairs of the heart to desires of the body to how one feels in a marriage, to living in a country where an organisation decides how you should be in the world, Ghose gives us a view (albeit a minor one) into a world unknown to those who live outside of it.

I was mostly reminded of Anita Desai’s writing as I made my way through the book. Initially I thought I could hear Jhumpa Lahiri’s voice, but I was mistaken. It is just Ghose’s own tone that finally makes the book what it is. The themes of loneliness, liberty, of always overlooking one’s shoulder as a woman in modern India, and more than anything longing is constant throughout the book.

The title The Illuminated is self-explanatory. It is of the illumination, of the precise moment of epiphany that Shashi and Tara come to feel is the crux of the book. Of seeing the light that maybe was always there but just got hidden for a long time by the sun. The metaphors do not get in the way of the reading at all. They are subtle, and you get it if you get it.

Anindita’s writing is detailed. I particularly loved Shashi’s parts – the slowness, the sudden change in the tapestry of her life, the choices she then makes, and the determination with which she propels ahead is told skilfully and with most empathy by the writer. It took me a while to get used to Tara. Somehow, I just couldn’t relate to her. There were times I wished I would read more of Shashi and less of Tara, but I also understand that we need Tara’s perspective as readers because that’s where the balancing act happens. At the same time, the parallel but most significant part of the story is also the organisation MSS – that seems to have taken over the responsibility of showing women their place in the society – and how Shashi and Tara navigate their lives around it.

The writing took me some time to get used to, but like I said Anindita’s voice is unique and lures you in after a point. The Illuminated is a nuanced, sometimes faltering, sometimes finding its way and getting there, and sometimes just knowing what it wants to say debut book that stands on its own. I am looking forward to what comes next from Ms. Ghose.