Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :


The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!



Letter to a New Mother on Raising a Feminist Daughter!

frontAs a mother of two daughters, I’ve often wondered if I have equipped them well in a world that is largely sexist and unfair. Have I empowered them to expect equal opportunities and equal respect as men or have I unconsciously passed on gender biases that have existed through generations and are reinforced by society and media? I recently read Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a guide to new parents presented in a simple and succinct manner on raising our daughters to become strong women. This book which can be read under an hour made me examine my own thoughts on feminism and introspect in retrospect about my children’s upbringing.

The book had its genesis in a letter Adichie wrote to her friend Ijeawele who had reached out to her on advice on raising her newborn baby girl. The epistolary style along with personal stories and anecdotes makes it heartfelt and intimate and the familiar and conversational tone establishes an instant connection between Adichie and her reader. In fact the book is astonishing in its simplicity. One would expect an essay on the history or theory of feminism or something profound based on the title but Adichie stays away from dogmatism and the use of academic jargon and makes the tenets of feminism accessible to a layman ( or laywoman as the case may be). This work could be considered a companion piece to Adichie’s essay How We should all be Feminists that resulted from one of her popular Ted Talks.

The book is written from a Nigerian woman’s perspective and there are many interesting references to Igbo culture in particular but the themes are universal. As a woman born and raised in India, I could identify with almost everything she writes about. For, sadly, misogyny knows no borders. There are nuggets of wisdom about marriage, gender roles, body image, body shaming, romance, boundaries and consent. She also highlights the importance of inculcating reading habits and taking pride in cultural upbringing while rejecting the bad but imbibing the good parts of our traditions. Much as I enjoyed this quick read, I personally prefer Adichie’s novels. Nevertheless it lead to an interesting discussion in my book club of women ranging in age from the thirties to the seventies.

The back of the book cover!

Adichie begins by  writing about two feminist tools. “I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only”. Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.” The second tool follows in the form of a question. ‘Can you reverse X and get the same result? If a woman chooses to forgive her husband for infidelity, would the reverse work too?

Many points raised by Adichie resonated deeply with me. She urges us to raise our girls in such a way that they don’t view marriage as an achievement. In a heterosexual relationship there is an automatic imbalance when the institution of marriage matters more to one person than the other. A woman is more invested in the relationship when society conditions her to view it as the be all and end all of life. When marriage is made to be the primary goal of a girl’s life, all her other accomplishments pale in comparison.

The mother should be a fulfilled person with a full life apart from husband and kids. Housework and child rearing should be shared responsibilities. She counsels her friend to reject the language of help.“ Chudi is not “helping” you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should. When we say fathers are “helping,” we are suggesting that child care is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture. It is not.” The use of language is very important and reveals our prejudices. We must get rid of redundant words like ‘lady mechanic’ from our vocabularies.

She cautions her friend to beware of the concept of ‘feminism lite’ or  ‘the idea of conditional female equality’. Some men and women believe that women are naturally subordinate to men but men should treat them with respect. Do we then have to depend on male benevolence to be treated well? Again, the language we use is significant. Many women without paying attention to their choice of words speak of their husbands ‘allowing’ them to do things. But as Adichie wisely points out being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not.

She advices her friend to let her daughter play with toys traditionally considered as toys for boys. I am reminded of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s famous lines from her groundbreaking feminist text, The Second Sex, that one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman. She posited that a woman is a cultural and social construct as opposed to a biological one. Are traits like being obedient, childlike and timid imposed on women rather than being innate qualities? There is no denying that there has been a historical subjugation of women by patriarchal structures which by ascribing traits to women have kept them from achieving their full potential. An angry or powerful woman who doesn’t exhibit ‘feminine’ traits is frowned upon. Adichie points out the ingrained double standards : “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women.” 

From a young age girls are taught to be compliant and accommodate to others sacrificing their own sense of self in the process. Adichie exhorts us to reject the concept of likeability.  “We have the world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likable.” She emphasizes that a girl is not just an object to be liked or disliked, she is also a subject who can like or dislike.

Women do not need to be revered or worshipped. It is patronizing. They need to be treated as equals. This point struck a chord with me as in Indian society many men put their mothers and sisters on a pedestal thinking them to be flawless and beyond reproach but the same men mistreat their girlfriends and wives. How could they exhibit such extremes in their attitudes and behaviors? True respect for women comes from treating them as fellow humans. We don’t want to be treated as a doormat or as a Goddess but as an equal human being with warts and all.

Adichie brings up the uncomfortable topic of changing our maiden names after marriage. There are many women who consider themselves feminists but still resort to the practice for convenience. There is no easy solution to this problem as it is much simpler if the whole family has the same last name. Even our maiden names reflect patriarchy and Adichie admits that friends have called her out for it but she argues that it’s the name you’ve always had and identifed with. Imagine how long and multi-hyphenated last names would become if future generations were to honor their patriarchal and matriarchal ancestries! As a woman with four last names floating around ( it’s a complicated story for another day! ), I  personally look forward to the day when we would do away with last names and stick to mononyms.

If I were to pick a favorite quote from the whole book, it would be:  “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It’s misogynistic to suggest that.” Why do we have to apologize for being feminine? I personally don’t just embrace my femininity, I revel in it. To me feminism is about recognizing the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes and working in such a way that those differences complement each other in an equal and fair manner. It is true that we are conditioned into gender roles from a young age. My girls played with legos, blocks and trains along with dolls. But I have to admit that I didn’t stay away from pink in dressing them up or refrain from calling them ‘princess’ as Adichie suggests. To me it’s not about the colors I dress them up in. On the contrary, I believe that it’s not empowering at all when little girls are dressed as boys for then the subliminal message they receive would be that it’s better to be a boy.

I was ecstatic the day my first daughter was born. I was equally ecstatic the day my second daughter was born. So many people all over the world wish and pray for boys. I felt that my girls entered the world with parents who were elated to welcome them. So they got the best feminist start to their lives as they were valued. And that carries a lot more weight than the color of their layette. The best way to teach is by example. Let’s raise our daughters to be self-reliant and financially independent adults proud to be women. Let’s lead a life dedicated to equality for all so they may be able to emulate us and consequently, lead a life better than the one we lead. And let’s also raise our sons to be feminists!

Feminism has become the new  F word and provokes strong reactions. Many women who consider themselves feminists wonder if they fit into what is defined as feminism as the common perception seems to be that feminists are angry misandrists. One woman I met in my academic circle told me that to be a true feminist you can’t be married. Another one went as far as to say that you can’t be a feminist in a heterosexual relationship as there is an inherent imbalance of power. Adichie who has herself faced criticism for saying that women’s issues are different from trans women’s issues has also been taken to task for writing this book from a cisheteronormative point of view. She defends her position by saying she writes best about what she identifies with. Besides feminism is always contextual as she points out. There is no rule set in stone. And according to me, if we exclude women who feel empowered in their personal choices from embracing the label if they don’t fit some narrow definition, then we are in fact doing a disservice to the movement and not letting it grow.

What are you thoughts on feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist? And if you have children, do you think you are raising them to be feminists? I personally look forward to the day when such a discussion will no longer be necessary.