Book Review: The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America by Onnesha Roychoudhuri

Back in 2019, I came across an essay, which later turned out to be an excerpt from her book, written by her. She inspired my reading list this year. It wasn’t until I read her essay, did I think about the authors I mainly read. And of course, it was mostly men.

The Marginalized Majority is a very hopeful book. Published in 2018, its chronicles the sentiment after the 2016 US elections as well as the normalization of behaviors which were considered despicable not 10 years ago. However, it is not a book that will keep you up all night doom-scrolling. No, quiet the opposite. This book will make you feel hopeful.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri talks quite extensively about the power of protest. Despite the disdain of the mass media towards the Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March protests in the last decade, she talks about how in fact these protests did help incrementally move society forward.

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to feel more hopeful, especially after living through 2020!

Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“To say that a moment is ‘very Barbara Pym’ is to say that it is a moment of self-observed, poignant acceptance of the modesty of one’s circumstances, of one’s peripheral position.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Excellent Women (page X)

I came across this book in 2018 via an article in the Guardian written in 2008 and decided to read it this year. This book took me quite a long time to finish. I am a slow-reader anyway, but this book took me very long indeed and in the beginning tried my patience a bit. However, I stuck with it and it turned out to be a very interesting and amusing read. It is one of the most poignant and nuanced books I’ve read in a long time.

Excellent Women starts off with new tenants moving into a vacant flat in the same house as 30-something, independent, unmarried and genteel, Mildred Lathbury. The Napiers are not your conventional 1950s married couple. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier is an ex-Navy officer. Soon after we are introduced to Julian Malory, vicar of the parish, and his sister Winifred Malory. We are also introduced to a colleague of Helena Napier, Everard Bone, who comes off as being rather arrogant.

A comedy-of-manners, Excellent Women is very witty. The book revolves primarily around Mildred, an excellent woman, the Napiers, the Malorys and Everard Bone.

“I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.”

Excellent Women, page 190

An excellent woman is someone who is sensible, has been rejected and is therefore unmarried. Alas, Mildred is labeled as an excellent woman by everyone around her for precisely, she suspects, these reasons. Mildred is a humble, down-to-earth person, who sometimes laments the fact that she is a spinster. Her spinsterhood, unfortunately, leaves her open to the condensation of the men, and sometimes women, around her.

I would recommend Excellent Women to anyone wanting to read more British women authors or wanting to amuse themselves by poking fun at the condescension of other people. The book is full of quotable witticisms, so definitely read it with a pencil nearby!

Book Review: Quicksand by Nella Larsen

I don’t remember what brought my attention to this book. Whatever it was, I am grateful for it. Nella Larsen was associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is loosely based on her life. Our protagonist Helga Crane, like Larsen, has mixed-race heritage. A daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father, Helga finds that she doesn’t really belong to either community.

I found Helga Crane’s life to be completely tragic, which made me feel quite sad for her. Throughout her search to belong somewhere, I was rooting for her, thinking the entire time that soon she will find fulfillment and happiness. But Helga Crane is not a pitiable character. She is in fact fierce, tenacious and resourceful. Every time she falls, she picks herself right back up again.

Her journey takes her from Naxos (based on the Tuskegee Institute) to Denmark, via Chicago and New York, back to the south. The book starts with a disillusioned and dissatisfied Helga, feeling herself to be a complete failure at Naxos and contemplating immediate departure. But first she must tie up loose ends, like breaking off her engagement to a fellow teacher and heading back to Chicago. Shunned by her uncle’s bigoted wife, Crane finds work with Mrs. Hayes-Rore who then helps her find work in New York. Helga’s life in Harlem starts out optimistically, but she soon feels out of place and disillusioned. As she begins contemplating leaving Harlem, she receives a letter from her uncle in Chicago with the address of her aunt in Denmark.

With the money left to her by her uncle, she books passage to Denmark, where she is greeted with enthusiasm by her aunt and uncle. Although in the beginning she really feels at home in Denmark, soon she realizes that she is simply viewed as an “exotic”. The old disillusionment and dissatisfaction resurfaces and she longs to come back to Harlem.

At the end of the book, we see Helga dissatisfied with her new family life in the south. Her search for belonging and contentment seems to have led nowhere. But perhaps there is still hope…

Book Review – Shrill:Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

“We live and then we stop living. We exist and then we stop existing. That means I only get one chance to do a good job. I want to do a good job.”

– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

On June 17, 2016, This American Life aired an episode titled Tell Me I’m Fat. Through that episode I learned about the writers Lindy West and Roxanne Gay, and since then they have been on my to-read list. Lindy West’s memoir really inspired me. At times it was really funny and at times I found myself in utter despair. Overall though it was very uplifting.

“The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life.”

– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

The book can be roughly divided up into three parts, or as West puts it, her three “little victories”. The first part deals with her experiences with fat-shaming and the “role-models” (or lack there of) who were available to her in her childhood. According to West, Ms. Piggy seemed to be the only semi-positive role-model. She also discusses that women are conditioned for “chasing perfection”, which is a scam because “There is no perfection.”

West’s second victory was when she stood up to comedians who tell rape jokes in their routines. She received a lot of backlash from that. She spoke out against the misogyny prevalent in comedy and ended up being “on the receiving end of a viral Internet hate mob”. She decided to read out loud the most vile comments in front of a camera, and posted the video online. After the video went viral, she received support from many people, including some comedians, with many of them realizing that rape-jokes are not okay.

Not only does Lindy West deal with fat-shaming and online trolls threatening her with rape, she faces harassment on Twitter by a man who stole her father’s identity. Reading about her experience with that was just heart-wrenching. She decided to write about it and after some time, the troll sends her an email apologizing to her. I remember listening to an episode on This American Life about this. That story was really uplifting.

The memoir ends on a positive note. Lindy West summarizes her three big wins, towards her goal in helping build a better world:

  1. fighting for fat people’s humanity
  2. putting an end to rape jokes in comedian routines
  3. dealing with and calling out trolls

Perhaps, there is still hope!

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

*** My reading list for this year has been exclusively women. Why? Because I realized that I mostly read men and wanted to read more women. So I picked up a few books from my to-read list, added to that some recommendation from friends and then finished off the list with some spur-of-the-moment purchases . For the days leading up to Christmas, my goal to write a short review of the books I have read this year. ***

When we traveled to Japan, shopping at convenience stores became something of a ritual. Before you turn your nose up, the coffee we drank at some of the convenience stores was some of the best I’ve had! The good memories of my travels prompted me to get this book on a whim and I am so glad that I did. Convenience Store Woman, is about Keiko, 36, who works at, as the title suggest, a convenience store. She has been working there since she started university, and that is the only job she has had up till now. Not only does this job give her a sense of purpose, she is also very good at it. She is, in my opinion, the perfect employee any organization would love to have. Her dedication knows no bounds. One example of this is when she “walks around the area” in order to “glean valuable information”, such as if a rival store is closing down, in order to help the store run more efficiently and smoothly.

She doesn’t quite fit in, but isn’t oblivious to that fact. In fact, her powers of observation help her get by. After carefully studying the “normal” people around her, she starts to emulate them in small ways. Enter well-meaning, but worried, family and friends. They wonder why at her age, she has never had a boyfriend and why she isn’t trying to get one. In order to stop their pestering, she decides to take-in a colleague from work, who basically just wants someone, who will take care of him.

“The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered”

– Japanese Proverb

As I was reading this book, this Japanese proverb came to mind. A friend of mine, who has worked and lived in Japan for a long time, mentioned it to me once. Keiko seems to have mastered a way to game this system of conformity. In order to avoid being “hammered in”, she just fakes her way through. She is indeed a clever protagonist!