Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows—The Impact of Parents

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

by Bailli Kaur Jaswal

Published 2017

Read May 2020

Jaswal gives us a novel that provides some insight into the culture of Southall, a Punjabi Sikh neighborhood of London and the challenges London-born daughters of Indian immigrants face as they mature into adulthood.  When Reese Witherspoon added it to her book club list in 2018 she indicated it was “a mystery, a romance, a family drama….and yes it’s 🔥 🔥 🔥!”

Nikki is a modern young woman, born of parents who emigrated from India.  She no longer lives with her widowed mother and sister in London, but rather lives in an apartment above the bar in which she works, the small apartment being part of her salary.  She quit law school before her father died, which disappointed him greatly, but Nikki was uninspired by the law.  A couple of years later she remains unsure what does inspire her but she is certain she is not interested in marriage soon.  Her sister, a nurse, is interested in an arranged marriage despite having a job that can support her outside a traditional marriage situation.   She sends Nikki to a Punjabi Sikh temple in Southall to post an advertisement about her to attract a potential mate.   While there Nikki manages to land a job teaching a writing class at the Sikh Community Association in Southall. 

Nikki assumes she will be teaching creative writing but quickly learns that her students, Pujabi widows, aren’t all literate.  One of the widows can read and write well and discovers a book of erotic stories that Nikki has purchased for her sister as a joke.  When this widow reads aloud from it while Nikki is out of the room, the other women become eager to tell erotic stories as well. 

In between the women’s erotic stories which are recounted in this book, we follow Nikki’s budding romance with a Sikh young man who also seems interested in pursuing a non-traditional route to love and marriage, a mystery around the death of the coordinator of women’s classes at the Sikh Community Association, the progress of Nikki’s sister’s plans towards marriage, and we are provided dark glimpses of a “brotherhood” of young Sikh men in the community who have become self-proclaimed enforcers of appropriate behavior of women.  Some, but not all, of these threads are carried to some conclusion while others are left dangling leaving the reader to wonder their real purpose in the book.

The book is entertaining and engaging.  We get a small look inside a traditional Sikh community co-existing with a modern city.  But some of the themes are quite universal beyond that specific culture, in particular the question of parental expectations of their children.  Fortunately the main character learns her father had accepted his daughter’s life choice before he died (she learns this from her mother).  The murder mystery is solved which relieves the family of the victim (a young Sikh woman whose reputation has been tarnished inappropriately) of some guilt.  But both of these aspects drilled home to this reader the impact parents’ expectations can have and challenged this reader to consider her own expectations of her adult children and whether they are appropriate or helpful.  Thus this reader was more impacted by this book than she expected to be.

Dear Life–Amazing Stories from Alice Munro

Dear Life

By Alice Munro

Published 2012

Read April 2020

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013.  The prize motivation was “master of the contemporary short story”.  This reader thoroughly agrees with this Nobel Prize website ( quote about Munro:   â€śThese [stories]often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages.”  It is quite astonishing that in 20-30 pages we can gain deep understanding of the narrator or protangonist and pertinent characters—past and present—and the conflict(s) they are confronting in this story.   The timeline of the story often shifts numerous times, but seamlessly and naturally.  Her skill in using this structure, in part, allows for so much of the pertinent past to inform the reader regarding the present situation.  Often a pivotal moment or event is included in an amazingly delicate way. 

The story Train provides beautiful examples of these skills.  A soldier is returning to his hometown after the war via train.  However, he jumps off the train before it reaches the station for some undisclosed reason. He encounters a woman with a cow in a run-down house and small farm and somehow ends up first doing a few chores for a meal which eventually turns into living there for a number of years while he fixes up the place and does odd jobs in town as well.  The woman develops a medical problem, which the reader eventually assumes is breast cancer; the protagonist drives her to Toronto for treatment.  After the woman, while in her hospital bed, reveals both a disturbing secret from her past and that she plans to bequeath him the farm in her will, he goes for a walk.  On this walk he wanders into doing a favor for a man which results in our protagonist eventually becoming a super for the hotel/apartment building owned by the man.  One day a woman comes in looking for her daughter.  The protagonist never meets or even sees her but knows who it is by her voice.  The author concisely provides the backstory of their past as well as a discrete phrase that may explain why he chooses to leave this job, get on a train, and get off in a new town to find work. 

Astonishing is the word this reader kept saying while reading this collection of ten short stories and a set of three stories the author indicates are definitely autobiographical.  These autobiographical stories provide wonderfully described glimpses of major maturation points in the author’s life. 

In Eye, we learn that the narrator (the author) had her mother to herself for a number of years but a little brother and little sister suddenly arrive in quick succession.  “It was with my brother’s coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me, that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.”  In this story as well the narrator is taken to see the body of her nanny who was hit and killed by a car while she was walking.  “Yet for a long time when I did think of her, I never questioned what I believed had been shown to me.  Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had it in my mind that such a thing [the corpse winking at her] had happened.  I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real it spite of that.  Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.” The story Night describes a poignant moment between daughter and father in which he gives her straightforward but actionable advice “People have thoughts they’d sooner not have.  It happens in life.”  This allows the narrator to deal with a troubling thought and move on.  When the narrator is describing this scene to us now she is able to see into the character of the man who was her father more deeply than she could understand when the scene happened.  She can now imagine what he might have been confronting that morning in their lives which would become progressively more difficult. Then the author snaps us back:   “Never mind.  From then on I could sleep.” 

This reader now faces losing the library e-book copy for the second time as the check-out period expires, but this reader is not quite ready to lose this book.  A purchase is likely about to occur, as well as further exploration of this author. 

The Overstory: You Will Never View Trees the Same Way Again

The Overstory

By Richard Powers

Published 2018

Read March 2020

The Overstory has received much attention and some critics wonder why.  This reader does and doesn’t agree with that question.  While at times Powers can seem to beat his drum a little loudly, the novel is a great read for those who appreciate often delicious writing, multiple complex characters, several interpenetrating plot lines, and endings that aren’t tidied up with a bow.  This book certainly offers all of that.  

Powers begins the novel with individual chapters devoted to each of  nine characters.  These chapters are essentially short stories each providing a story about a character that will be either revisited in the rest of the novel or who will become firmly connected with the others characters being similarly introduced.  This reader found the first such chapter to be absolutely beautifully written. 

In this  first chapter introducing Nicholas Hoel, we learn about several generations of his family.  Newly emigrated from Norway, Jorgen Hoel meets and marries Irish Vi Powys in Brooklyn and they move to Iowa.  They bring with them chestnuts which Jorgen plants into the Iowan soil.  The trees and the family take root.  In twenty-three pages we learn the story of the family and the chestnut trees they plant.  Jorgen’s son John takes over the farm when his father dies and decides to photograph the chestnut tree with his newly acquired Kodak Brownie camera.    He takes a picture once a month until he dies and his son continues the task.  That Hoel tells his son:  “Listen.  I made a promise, and I kept it.  You don’t owe nobody.  Leave that damn thing be.”  “He might as well command the giant chestnut itself to stop spreading.”  Thus a set of over 1000 pictures of this maturing chesnut tree is the first artwork produced by this farming family.  We meet Nicholas Hoel, a descendant of Jorgen, who goes to art school instead of becoming a farmer, and who will be an important character in this novel.  We also learn about the blight that took out every Chestnut tree in the US.    Powers thoroughly engaged this reader through his concise and beautifully told story covering multiple generations of a family and the maturation of the chesnut tree.

One complaint this reader has heard about the book is that it takes 153 pages to get all the characters introduced before the “real story” starts.  This reader enjoyed each and every one of those 153 pages as interesting characters emerged from individual short stories about them which sets them up for engagement with one of the several stories in the novel:  1)  activists desperately trying to prevent the cutting of centuries old trees in the northwest; 2) a boy who becomes CEO of a videogame company that captures the minds of players world-wide; 3) a couple whose relationship evolves over the course of a couple decades in ways they would never have predicted; 4) a budding scientist whose original and startling publication about interactions between trees is initially heralded and subsequently scorned sending her into a sort of exile from the world. 

The only significant complaint this reader has about the novel is that after the initial set of chapters/short stories introducing the various characters, the book consists of only three chapter, the first being about 200 pages long and the second 119 pages long.  In these chapters, all four of the major stories are progressed.  This reader prefers shorter chapters that make it easier for readers who aren’t able to simply read through 200 pages in one sitting and who like to revisit parts of the book. The lack of delineation within these long stretches makes the latter action very difficult.

Powers can be a bit heavy-handed in trying to drive his points, but this reader appreciates his approach of using a story (or multiple stories) to engage people into learning new perspectives, learning about new cultures, and learning about new science findings. Regarding science and technology, which Powers often includes in his various novels, his character Patricia Westerford is likely based on real-life ecologist Suzanne Simard and the book she writes is likely a fictional portrayal of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohleben.   He uses his characters Ray and Dorothy to drive the case for books and reading.  Both characters are avid readers but Ray (a patent attorney) reads only non-fiction while Dorothy reads only fiction.  They try over their years together to convince the other of the value of their preferred reading material type.  After a tragic even, they start reading both types together—-long novels and a book useful for identifying and learning about trees—and each comes to appreciate the usefulness of both kinds of books. 

For whatever flaws readers will find in this book, and, given its length, breadth, and structure, many critiques are possible, Power’s The Overstory has much to be appreciated and enjoyed.   It gives us new perspectives to consider.  Likely its readers will consider trees very differently than they did prior to reading this book. 

The Friend: Grief, A Dog, and Writing

The Friend

By Sigrid Nunez

Published 2018

Read March 2020

This rather short (225 pages) book is a number of things.  We learn in the first chapter that the narrator has lost to suicide her long-time friend and mentor.  Much of the book is sets of reflections on their relationship and her grief.  She explores the course of grief following a suicide – disbelief, anger, despair, and unending pain.  Another thing the book has is the story of the narrator temporarily housing the friend’s Great Dane dog.  The narrator is a cat person and lives in a building that does not allow dogs.    She convinces the superintendent of the building that the dog won’t be staying, but she never actually makes any moves to accomplish that. She realizes the dog is undergoing great grief as well.  So the dog becomes another friend as they grieve and learn to carry on in the face of their grief.

Intermixed among the narrator’s reflections on grief and discussion of the dog are two other sets of reflections:  one about how the narrator views the calling of writing (yes a calling not a chosen profession for profit) and a second about her job as a writing instructor.  Her views regarding the calling/profession aspect of writing and the writers in each category are often amazingly blunt.  Yet while she seeks to write because that’s what she must do, she also needs to teach to make the rent. And feed the dog.

This is a brilliant piece of writing by an author that has herself remained out of the limelight and says she has sought quiet places to be alone to write.  Fortunately her genius has been recognized in this book which was the winner of the National Book Award in 2018.  That recognition will likely incite this reader and others to read her previous novels and other works.  This reader looks forward to that exploration. 

The Dutch House: Was it Ever a Home?

The Dutch House

By Ann Patchett

Published 2019

Read March 2020

Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebech in 1922 built a unique house on 200 acres of farmland on the outskirts of Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia , using their fortune made in wholesale distribution of cigarettes in WWI.  Over time their fortunes change and they slowly sell of acreage to pay debts and upkeep.  Mr. Van Hoebech dies in 1940; his wife passes in 1945.  The house and contents went back to the bank but Fluffy, the daughter of the cook and driver for the Van Hoebechs, continued living in the apartment over the garage, commissioned to watch over the house. 

Enter Cyril Conroy, a soldier in WWII who has lived peacefully with his wife and two small children in a small apartment on a nearby military base.  Cyril is beginning to make investments in real estate.  A deal gone really well allows him to buy the Dutch House, as it is always known, in 1946 and he moves his wife and children to the house.  They hire Fluffy to be a nanny and helper to Mrs. Conroy. 

We learn this background from our narrator and son of Cyril, Danny, who provides his family’s long story with this house. 

We learn that the Cyril bought the house without any input from his wife.  She finds the change from a small apartment on base to this large home complete with hired help disorienting.  The Conroy couple change nothing in the house, keeping in place all the furnishings and possessions left by the Van Hoebechs.  The only addition made is the portrait of daughter Maeve which is hung across the room from the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoebech and was painted when she was about ten years old because the original subject, her mother, refused to sit for a portrait.

We learn that Danny and Maeve’s mother left them after about a year in the house, when Danny is three and Maeve is ten, and never returned.  The abandonment nearly literally kills Maeve who developed type-I diabetes and ends up in a coma.  Danny’s memories of his mother are sparse given his young age when his mother left. 

Cyril eventually marries Andrea who moves into the Dutch House with her two daughters.  In fairly short order, and with no obvious objection of Cyril (at least heard by Danny) Andrea effectively displaces Maeve, who has just started college, from the household.  When Cyril dies of a heart attack, Andrea sends Danny to live with his sister who has just graduated from college and has a small apartment funded by her new job. 

Danny’s narration tells how he and Maeve react to this predicament and over the years and decades live their lives.  Danny joins Maeve’s habit of regularly looking at the house from a vantage point across the street from the house in Maeve’s parked car.

The narration weaves back and forth in time slowly dispensing Danny and Maeve’s story pre- and post-Andrea.  Since the narration is only from Danny’s perspective that’s the only view on this history that we are allowed by the narrator. 

Their story is an interesting one.  Maeve wages war on Andrea by seeking to drain an education fund set up by Cyril—for Danny and Andrea’s two daughters but not Maeve.  All of Maeve’s feelings about this situation can’t be revealed to us but Patchett gives the reader a chance to ponder them—especially as Danny and one of the daughters attend Medical School, but Cyril provides for no further funds for education for Maeve.  We can only imagine he didn’t think it necessary as she already had more education than most young women her age. 

Danny can’t remember his mother, but he can readily describe his close relationship with Maeve who played a motherly role for Danny after their mother leaves.  Their relationship deepens after Danny is sent to live with her.  We also learn this relationship is tested when Danny and Maeve’s mother comes back into the scene. 

Since Danny’s mother left him at age three, he has limited ability to understand the motivation for that event.  This incomplete picture of the circumstances provides the reader an opportunity to consider why a mother would abandon her children and how the time period of the story could influence the situation. 

In contrast, Danny has a very special bond with his father for the few years they had together.  Cyril took Danny with him on Saturdays when he collected rent from his tenants.  Danny develops his desire to follow in his father’s footsteps from these times together.  Danny is aware that Maeve’s relationship with her father is much more limited and includes the stark direction “move on” during Maeve’s grave illness following her mother’s departure.

The descriptions Patchett provides of house known as The Dutch House through Danny give us a vivid sense of how extraordinary it was.  It’s then quite believable that Andrea could be very driven to live in that house which she occupies until her death.  It’s quite believable that Maeve and Danny could spend many hours looking at the house from across the street.  It evoked in this reader the memories of a special house in the reader’s own past and how strong the memory of the essence of that house remains to this day.  They say “home is where the heart is”.  For Danny and Maeve, that home was irreparably disrupted and The Dutch House describes their long journey dealing with their personal catastrophes.  Are they able to “move on” as Cyril instructed Maeve?   You will need to read The Dutch House to learn the answer.