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Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Comedy (page 1 of 7)

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal

If the title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows doesn’t catch your eye, I don’t know how to help you. Knowing nothing else about this book, I knew I had to read it. Somehow, the title raises a bunch of questions, but at the same time it does exactly what it says on the tin. Brilliant!

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If I had to sum up the thesis of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, I’d say it’s: every woman has a hidden life, and every community has things they don’t talk about. Sometimes, those secrets collide.

Nikki is a twenty-something woman living in London, straddling the worlds of her immigrant parents and her modern contemporaries. She’s a bit directionless (as twenty-somethings tend to be), having dropped out of law school to ‘find her passion’. That search has taken her to a small apartment above a pub where she works a few nights each week, much to her family’s chagrin.

Nikki’s sister has chosen a different path: a respectable profession (nursing) and entering into the marriage market. She asks Nikki to post an ad on a Southall temple message board for young people seeking arranged marriages, and there Nikki finds an intriguing ad of her own. The Sikh Community Association is seeking a creative writing teacher to teach story writing to women – and Nikki, out of curiosity more than anything, takes the job.

But this is Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, so I’m sure you can guess that the storytelling workshop doesn’t work out exactly the way Nikki expects. The proper Sikh widows who attend the class are barely literate, and they’re expecting to learn the English alphabet and grammar, not narrative perspective and literary style. They soon discover, thanks to a gag gift they discover on Nikki’s desk, the world of erotic stories, and realise they’d have a lot more fun telling their own than learning their ABCs.

The erotic stories these Punjabi widows tell aren’t just wink-wink euphemistically sexy – they’re straight up spicy. It turns out these women are hiding a lot under their white dupattas. As the women delve deeper into their fantasies and the radical act of openly communicating their desires, Nikki grows concerned about the community’s reaction to her classes – specifically the Brotherhood, the young men who style themselves as the ‘moral police’.

The title of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows might mislead some readers (it misled me, I’m not too proud to admit it) into thinking this is purely a comedic novel, an older-women-behaving-badly romp with lots of literal lols. It’s definitely entertaining, but it’s also meaningful, and there’s a lot of depth to it if you’re reading it as a feminist text. It’s a book about how women experience and express desire in cultures that are policed by men. It’s about sexuality as a source of confidence, both in and out of the bedroom. And it’s about the power to determine one’s own life, and pursue one’s own happiness.

I particularly appreciated the diversity of the arranged marriages depicted in Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows – both how they happen, and how they turn out. For a long time, the dominant Anglo narrative about arranged marriages was that they were universally awful (especially for women), and shackled two people together for life, site unseen, simply because their parents said so. Then, as far as I can see, there was a bit of an over-correction, and we had a run of stories about modern arranged marriages that worked perfectly because the couple fell in love for real. In Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, there are both very traditional arranged marriages and more contemporary and flexible arranged marriages, ones that work well and ones that don’t. More diversity in our perspective and understanding can only be a good thing, and this book definitely contributes to that.

Reese Witherspoon picked Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows for her reading list in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. As she said, it’s “a mystery, a romance, a family drama… and yes it’s 🔥 🔥 🔥!” – total Reese catnip.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows:

  • “too raunchy to be interesting” – M. Edwards
  • “just silly. misleading title to entice buying.” – KAVANJIT SINGH
  • “The book had romance and murder! Would recommend” – sam
  • “The so called “Erotic Stories” didn’t blow my skirt up.” – I Can Tell

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

Every David Sedaris book is like a treat for me. I hoard them like chocolates in a secret corner of the fridge, and pull them out when I need something sinful and delicious. My latest indulgence is Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, his collection of narrative essays from 2013.

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It won’t come as any surprise to fellow fans of Sedaris that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls contains very little about the titular diabetes, or owls. The title was taken from a conversation he had with a reader at a book signing, who asked him to inscribe one of his books with something along the lines of ‘explore your inner feelings’. Sedaris said: “I never write what people ask me, so I said ‘I’ll keep the word explore’, and I wrote ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls,’.” There you have it.

The essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls aren’t closely tied to a particular theme or servicing any overarching narrative. Rather, there’s a few threads that loosely connect a few of them, more like a mind map than a straight line through a story.

Sedaris’s voice remains as singular as ever, though – curious, awkward, wry, self-deprecating, at times angry, mostly baffled. He waxes rhapsodic about his relationship with his French orthodontist, he overcomes his fear to hand-feed a kookaburra at a regional Australian cafe, he grumbles about the futile but irresistible task of cleaning rubbish from the English countryside, and he wonders what exactly it is about him that gives a taxidermy shop attendant the (correct) impression that he’d like to see human remains they keep out the back.

A couple of motifs appear multiple times throughout. Many of the essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls were written or set during the early Obama years, for instance, so quite a few of them reference the 2008 election and the world’s fascination with the American political side-show. Sedaris’s father is also a recurring character, at times an menacing presence in the family home and at others an object of fun. Any other writer might struggle to communicate to the reader that a man who rarely wears pants inside the house can intimidate a child, but Sedaris isn’t just any writer. Without ever explaining it explicitly, Sedaris impresses upon us his lifelong struggle to satisfy his father – only to delightfully resolve the tension by finally conceding to his father’s demands that he get a colonoscopy, which makes the old man happy.

My love for Sedaris is so great that even the cruelest subject matter doesn’t put me off his writing. In Loggerheads, he describes a disastrous childhood experiment keeping captured baby sea turtles in a bedroom aquarium, despite knowing nothing about them (not even what they ate). The sea turtles met an unfortunate end, which would be enough to put me off any other essayist, but Sedaris has engendered enough goodwill that I can forgive it.

In that vein, delicate readers might be put out by some of what I’d diplomatically refer to as some cultural insensitivity in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – in the chapter about examining a taxidermied Congolese Pygmy for instance, or the one about food and hygiene habits in China. It’s dicey ground, but I like to assume the best of intentions in Sedaris and I hope that other readers can do the same.

Really, the slightly sour note in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a layout issue more than anything else. Sedaris includes comedic fictional monologues throughout the collection, which he explains in the foreword, but they’re not flagged as such in text. So, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls led to frequent experiences of whiplash, realising that Sedaris was writing in character and not, in fact, relating a story about being a teenage girl who gets ripped off on a school trip to England or a woman who is duped by her gay son into wearing a Big Proud Dyke t-shirt to a conservative rally. These stories are funny, and no doubt fun for Sedaris to write, but I could’ve done without them – or at least would have preferred they be signposted a bit better.

All told, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was another wicked delight, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next treat from Sedaris.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls:

  • “A turd left floating in a toilet is far funnier than one mans take on politics in the US.” – amlphx
  • “As a resident of the south who got to go to one of his book signings it now makes me re-evaluate whether or not he actually wanted to be there or secretly was hating our guts cause we might be conservative.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you really want to read about the taxidermist who used a human head as his subject, for example, or about his sisters’ reactions to some pervert exposing himself? In two words, this book is childish trash.” – Spot
  • “Too mean-spirited and kind of snobby and elitist – like this guy has the monopoly on good taste. Get over yourself.” – Anonymous
  • “Reading this was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering a lobster and having the waiter lift the lid of the serving dish to reveal a dead rat. I tried three time to read this mound of steaming crap.” – Tom Hemeon

Heartburn – Nora Ephron

The blurb for Heartburn poses an interesting question: “Is it possible to write a side-splitting novel about the breakup of the perfect marriage?” It would appear that the answer is yes – as long as you’re queen of the ’90s rom-com, Nora Ephron.

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Heartburn is an autobiographical novel about heartbreak, food, marriage, sex, pregnancy, Judaism, therapy, and anger – and it’s only 178 pages long. Ephron based the novel on her marriage to and divorce from her second husband, Carl Berstein. You can thank your lucky stars every day that you’re not Carl – he fucked around, and Ephron made sure that he found out.

If I had to sum up the vibe, I’d say Heartburn is like Julie & Julia meets Olivia Rodrigo’s Get Him Back. The main character, Rachel (Ephron’s avatar), is a Jewish food writer from New York, transplanted to Washington D.C. to support her husband’s career as a political journalist. When the story starts, they have one child and another on the way – and that’s the moment he chooses to kick off an affair, with glamorous socialite Thelma Rice.

Rachel’s first response is to spread a rumour on the Washington grapevine that Thelma has a venereal disease. Good for her!

Her second, once it becomes clear that her husband has no intention of wrapping up the affair and getting on with their lives together, is to take the kid and the bun in the oven and run back to New York. She goes back to group therapy, she reflects on her favourite recipes, she flirts with the idea of finding a new lover. Her behaviour is a little unhinged but, honestly, who could blame her?

Reading Heartburn, I instantly recognised some iconic Ephron lines that made their way into her film (one of my favourites) When Harry Met Sally. “Pesto is the quiche of the seventies,” for instance, and “What did she look like? / Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.” I respect that Ephron clearly knew when she’d struck gold and had no compunction about recycling content.

It’s impossible to separate Heartburn from Ephron’s real-life experience of being cheated on while heavily pregnant – and she wouldn’t want us to. It’s an explicit act of literary revenge, catharsis through thinly-veiled fiction. The fact that she doesn’t try to hide it or deny it is what makes it work.

One of the things I’m proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that’s not fiction, I don’t know what is.

Nora Ephron on Heartburn

As good as Heartburn is, though, I can concede that Ephron’s novels weren’t her strongest work. Her comedy and insight into the human condition translates best on the big screen, in classic screenplays like the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally (and, indeed, the adaptation of Heartburn itself). Ephron didn’t write another novel after Heartburn, and while nothing she could have written could have possibly been bad, I’m glad she directed her energies to where they were most needed and appreciated.

This is definitely the best novel to buy for your bestie who’s going through a bad break-up; either they’ll find it hilariously relatable, or it will simply remind them that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and, someday, they’ll look back on it all and laugh.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Heartburn:

  • “This book is TERRIBLE! The main character rolls around in self pity while trying to cook the weirdest things.” – Big Mama
  • “I read about 50 pages before deciding to put myself out of this books misery.” – R. Peterson
  • “Waste of time. All about her divorce, a real downer.” – Swissneva
  • “Lots of whining, with recipes.” T. B.
  • “Back then it was like ‘wow’ she really wrote this? Reading it now, it is embarrassing and not politically correct. The book doesn’t hold up over the years. Kind of like Nora Ephron’s neck.” J. C.

If The Shoe Fits – Julie Murphy

Millennial readers occupy a strange middle ground, where they’re old enough to see the problems in the Disney stories of their youth, but young enough to feel the nostalgic pull of magical romances and whimsical stories. That’s how the Meant To Be series came about – books that reimagine classic Disney stories for a newly adult audience. The first book in the series is If The Shoe Fits, an escapist rom-com styled after Cinderella.

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In this version of the fairytale love story, Cindy is a recent fashion grad and a shoe aficionado. Adrift after barely scraping through her last year of study, and her father’s death, she moves from New York to Los Angeles to live with her step-family.

Now, in In The Shoe Fits, the step-mother and -sisters aren’t evil – they’re just very LA. Erica is an executive producer of the blockbuster hit reality TV show Before Midnight, and her two daughters are budding Instagram influencers. Murphy managed to depict the natural discordance of a blended family without making the bonus members irredeemable villains. Maybe it departs a bit too much from the original story for some folks, but I loved it.

Anyway, Cindy moves to LA with the intention of nannying for her step-mother’s youngest children, but stumbles into a spot on Before Midnight instead. It’s basically The Bachelor, with a few fairytale-themed twists. Cindy’s not expecting to find love – when does the plus-sized contestant ever get the prince? – but she’s hoping to at least jump-start her fashion career.

Ah, yes, the prince: Henry, heir to a crumbling fashion empire (conveniently enough), and appearing on Before Midnight as a last-ditch effort to revitalise his mothers flagging brand. He’s not expecting to find love on the show either, but strangely enough, he and Cindy share a special connection – one that’s going to cause a lot of problems for the reality show’s narrative.

It’s a nice love story, yes, but I found the relationships between the contestants, and with their producers, the most interesting part of If The Shoe Fits. It was really wonderful to read a romance novel with more going on than pining and miscommunication. Plus, the representation – a plus-sized heroine, queer characters – gets a big tick.

Murphy also reimagines the “happily ever after” for If The Shoe Fits, serving up an ending that allows the heroine a lot more self-determination and agency. Snaps for that!

On the downside, though, If The Shoe Fits is a closed door romance (boo!), with nary more than a passionate kiss and a few butterflies – no doubt to satisfy the puritanical standards of the Disney overlords. I also found it a little hard to follow at times; some of the scenes flew by so quickly, I had to double back to make sure I caught everything before forging on.

All told, it’s a sweet romance with a nostalgic vibe, probably a good pick for fans of UnReal (I’m guessing, I only ever saw half of the pilot episode) and people with fond memories of watching Disney’s Cinderella as a kid. If you get a kick out of hate-watching The Bachelor and critiquing the patriarchal messaging, you’ll probably enjoy it, too. If The Shoe Fits is a promising start to the Meant To Be series, and I’m looking forward to checking out the next installments (By The Book by Jasmine Guillory is already out, and Kiss The Girl by Zoraida Córdova is coming soon).

My favourite Amazon reviews of If The Shoe Fits:

  • “felt like if a hallmark movie was written with an agenda, that was more important than the romance” – NeverAgain
  • “I liked that the beauty queen/skinny girl did not win.” – Jennifer
  • “IT ISN’T A MODERN DAY CINDERELLA! It’s a bad rip off of a season of The Bachelor.” – Terri Hansen

When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris

I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”

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Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.

There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.

My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.

(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)

The final story in When You Are Engulfed In FlamesThe Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.

My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).

Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:

My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

  • “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
  • “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
  • “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux
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