24 Nov 2012

Role Models - Fascinating Fictional Females

I'm not sure if I'd call myself a feminist - I'm not that into the whole women-against-men rhetorics to be honest but I'm happy to confess that I love nothing more than a book with a strong female protagonist. Like Katniss Everdeen or Scarlett O'Hara. I like my women, like I like my G&T - strong and unapologetic. 
And with no further ado, here's my list of books that features strong, sassy females who make for great (albeit fictional) role models and mentors: 

"Rules of Civility" by Amor Towles

"The Best of Everything" by Rona Jaffe

"Gone With The Wind" by Margaret Mitchell

"A Vision of Loveliness" by Louise Levene

"The Stars in the Bright Sky" by Alan Warner

"The Summer Without Men" by Siri Hustvedt

18 Nov 2012

About the English Upper Class

We all have topic that we are especially fond of reading about and one of my favourite topics is the English upper classe. Why, you ask? I have no idea - but I have an odd attraction to reading about these wellie-wearing, tweed-clad, labrador-petting people. If you share my fascination, you're likely to enjoy these novels: 

"Snobs" by Julian Fellowes

"Past Imperfect" by Julian Fellowes

"The Shooting Party" by Isabel Colegate

"My Last Duchess" by Daisy Goodwin

"Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

"Palladian" by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that Elizabeth Taylor)

"The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford

17 Nov 2012

"Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers" by Stephanie Wellen Levine

Ever read a book that had you gripping it tightly with anticipation? That was so full of emotions, actions, excitement that whenever you weren't reading the book, you were thinking about the book? A book that left you wanting more and made you yearn for a sequel? 

I read a book like that recently and much to your surprise, it was a non-fiction book. Probably the most gripping non-fiction I have ever read and definitely one of the best books I have read in 2012. "Mystics, Mavericks and Merrymakers: A Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls" by Stephanie Wellen Levine is a master piece in its genre. Having studied psychology, I have read a good number of similar books and this one stands out because it is written with passion, with a true interest and love by an author who can write. Levine is more than just a researcher, writing an academic text, she is an author chronicling lives. 

The lives she chronicles are those of Hasidic, Lubavitch teenage girls who live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in a tight-knit, highly orthodox Jewish community. Everything in their lives is centered around the Jewish, Hasidic faith. They go to the Bais Rivka high school, a girls only school where they are required to very kosher clothes - no pants but long skirts and shirts covering their elbows. They obey the kosher food rules and have pizza at a local Hasidic pizzeria, where although both girls and boys come there, they talk only to other girls. A good Hasidic girl does not interact with males outside of her immediate family. 
They have hopes and dreams, the listen to music and watch movies (albeit only approved, Jewish music and movies) and they love shopping. However, in all of this their focus is on their God and while other, "normal" teenage girls might discuss hot boys and dating, these girls are more likely to discuss whether the Rebbe, a central religious leader, is the Messiah. Dating is not an issue for these girls because a majority of them will meet their future husband through a matchmaker and will marry him in a traditional, gender-segregated Lubavitch ceremony after as little as three dates. Falling in love is not a goal, growing to love your spouse is. 

This might make it sound like all of these girls are alike but nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Levine introduces her reader to the a group of girls as individual as they come. There is the rebel who reads Satre and Freud, a rebel who works as a waitress in a strip club to fund her rent and college tuition. There's the academic, high-achieving golden girl who wants to train as a doctor and raise a traditional Lubavitch family at the same time. There's the normal girl whose frustrated mother sometimes takes her anger out in violence against her children. There's the highly religious girl who sometimes, secretly wishes she was a boy so that she could study the Torah instead of doing womanly chores such as cooking and cleaning. There's the girl whose faith is so unwavering that she wants to leave the safety of the community to spread the word about Lubavitch in faraway places where she and her husband will be the only Lubavitchers. 
It is a stunning insight into their lives. A fascinating, easily readable, tale of the strength of young women. Of their resourcefulness and intelligence and big hearts. Reading this inspired me and left me full of hope and love for the young women of today who have so many expectations forced upon them from media and society and yet manage to emerge as strong women. 

Read it if: You find teenage girls and their hopes and dream interesting. You want insight into a very different culture, thriving in the midst of New York. You want something to juxtapose the vacuousness of shows such as Gossip Girl and 90210, something with a bit more bite and a bit more value. 

15 Nov 2012

In the Style Of Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors and many are the times where I have lamented that fact that she didn't write more books. If it was up to me, she would have written ten times as many books! Alas, she didn't so for years I have been on the hunt for books that remind me of her style and where the characters have the same sense of humour, a similar innocence and spirit and the same capacity for reflection.

This is what I have found - if you like books by Jane Austen, you will also like:

"I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith

"The Nonesuch" by Georgette Heyer

"Jane Eyre" by Jane Eyre

"Regency Buck" by Georgette Heyer

"Old Friends and New Fancies" by Sybil Brinton

"Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace Thackeray

12 Nov 2012

"The Lonely Polygamist" by Barry Udall

Sometimes a man wants to come to home from a hard day's work to a little peace and quiet. I imagine. Golden Richards does not have that luxury, ever. With three households, four wives and a large number of children, peace is a highly rated commodity last seen three marriages and a large number of children ago. Mayhem, chaos, screaming and living room races are the order of the day, yet in the midst of all of this life, Golden Richards is a lonely man. A lonely polygamist. 

If you have read "The 19th Wife" by David Ebershoff or "The Chosen One" by Carol Lynch Williams you might have a pretty bad perception of polygamists and mormons. And polygamist mormons. If you want a different take on things, you need to read "The Lonely Polygamist" by Barry Udall where the focus is not on the children of polygamist families as in the two other books but on the husband, the one who is often blamed as the bad guy. 

There is nothing bad about Golden. Nothing at all. He is a good, lovely, loveable man but he is also completely incompetent when it comes to decision-making. As the captain of the family, he is useless. Thankfully he has four wives to lean one, although they all wish that he would lean a little less and lead a little more... But seeing as he doesn't, they run the family, deciding how, what, when and where at the weekly Summit of the Wives. If it wasn't for the fact that it is Golden's construction company that brings in the money to fund food and soon to be hand-me-down clothes for the many children, they would do just fine without him. And most of the time they have to because Golden's business means that he has to drive far to work on projects - to their knowledge, he is building a care home for the elderly in the Nevada desert. In reality he is building a brothel. And this is just one of the many worries, that Golden struggles with and that make him so terribly lonely. 

Golden has a constant feeling that he is not doing well enough. He is struggling to finance the lifestyle with the three households and the many many children, he is struggling to live up to the expectations from the church's Elders, he is struggling to get along with his manager, he is struggling not to lust after his manager's wife and he is struggling to reconcile with his past. His life is a house of cards and a tornado is fast approaching. 
So caught up is he in his own trouble that he doesn't notice that of others. His wife Rose-of-Sharon is growing more and more depressed, their son Rusty is being swept away in a current of hormones and his difficulties finding his feet as a teenager is being interpreted as lack of good behaviour. Trish, the most recent wife, is finding it hard to adjust to life as a fourth wife and having to share her husband with other women. The tension builds and builds around the hapless Golden who entirely fails to notice anything but his own troubles. 

It is a stunning book. I read and read and ready and couldn't stop - I was entirely caught up in the lives of the people in this polygamist family. Trish really struck a chord with me as she beat her doubts and emotions into submission to give herself room to live up to expectations.

The way that Udall portrays the polygamist lifestyle somewhat underplays the difficulties and frustrations that it holds and it does come across as slightly more idyllic than I imagine it really is. This is forgivable though because it is necessary to tell the story. It is a love story but it is not about falling in love, it is not about loving because of - it is about loving despite!
It is a about the love not between a man and a woman but the love that binds a family together even though they don't necessarily agree. And as such it is beautiful and enjoyable. As such it also has a strong message: that the love portrayed in countless romantic movies and book is not the only form of love and that we can be happy even though our lives do not conform to the general idea about the perfect life. 

Read it if: You're not afraid to confront your own prejudices. You want to challenge your own perceptions of what the right way of living is.