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  • September 19, 2014 03:00:59 AM

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Impact of digital technology on culture. Books, travel and family tales.

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#SareesAndBooks 15: The Henna Artist

Alka Joshi is a debut novelist at 62. Women at any age are often made invisible, but brown women in their 60s are particularly not in the forefront of a literary revolution – although, there’s no reason for that not to happen. Patriarchy and societal structures often have ways to diminish some voices. Through her ... Read more#SareesAndBooks 15: The Henna...

Alka Joshi is a debut novelist at 62. Women at any age are often made invisible, but brown women in their 60s are particularly not in the forefront of a literary revolution – although, there’s no reason for that not to happen. Patriarchy and societal structures often have ways to diminish some voices. Through her work, Joshi defies that stereotype. The Henna Artist is a well-written book and shows me the India my mother was born into, newly independent, exuberant, and positive- in the 1950s. It’s also a book with a female protagonist who finds agency while retaining her softer energy in a man’s world, like the author.

The Henna Artist book review

I read the book a few weeks ago in February, and let it marinate in my head a while. It’s a cinematic book creating bright visuals of newly independent India, as you go through it. Joshi’s background as an all-round creative (ad agency) is reflected in the aesthetic of the book. Not surprisingly, it will be made into a production for the screen, starring Frida Pinto (who I want to rediscover).

Considering Joshi is American, it is not surprising that her book touches on caste in a light way, informing, yet holding back on the more grueling nature of what it could represent. This doesn’t make it perfect, but it still allows it the nuance that can’t be ignored. Like so many of the unspoken social rules around class, gender, and caste. In a way, it let’s the story unfold itself organically not forcing a theme for the sake of it. It lets the reader in on an English-speaking, world-traveling Indian world which perhaps represents Joshi’s own background better than the ways the west looked at Indians in the 1950s. That’s refreshing and I haven’t read many books focusing on the optimism of those times from a woman’s lens (both the author and her protagonist).

Joshi is planning this to be a trilogy with a couple more books coming up in the series. I am interested. She has a uniquely hopeful voice that I enjoyed even more in this morbid pandemic time. I like it when books are able to do that.

Maybe one day when I’m 60, I’ll also remember writing the book that’s in me forever. Sometimes you have to see (or read) it to believe it.


#SareesandBooks – Everything That I Never Told You

13/50: Everything That I Never Told You (Celeste Ng) As a new parent struggling in the middle of a pandemic, this was a tough book to read. Apparently, Celeste Ng wrote it four times before the final draft was published. Lo and behold, it really does work. Both her books dig deep into race, parenting, ... Read more#SareesandBooks – Everything That I Never Told...

13/50: Everything That I Never Told You (Celeste Ng)

As a new parent struggling in the middle of a pandemic, this was a tough book to read. Apparently, Celeste Ng wrote it four times before the final draft was published. Lo and behold, it really does work. Both her books dig deep into race, parenting, motherhood, guilt, and all else that happens in the lives of those living at the borders of what’s normalized. Parenting within a biracial marriage can feel daunting, but you also realize how similar it can feel to any family.

The tug of war between the individual and what a parenting unit becomes together is all too real. So is the inherent impact things have on small children or their ability to sense without specifics. It scared me. I don’t know if there’s ever a perfect way, but this past year, I’ve struggled with more self-doubt bringing up a human that all my senses are attuned to this weird fear of doing something wrong.

This is a beautifully written book whether or not you’re a parent. Ng is a master crafter of human emotions, and I can’t wait for her to write more and pick up books that make me question everything that I ever knew, or did not observe before. Brace yourself for a deeply touching midwestern saga that will find its way to creep into your heart.

Everything that I never told you

14/50: Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir (Padma Lakshmi)

I didn’t know much about Padma except her left-leaning Twitter persona, and Top Chef stardom. So, in many ways, this book was simply a journey into her life as a model, a TV host, and an American who’s also Indian. After a point in the book, it felt like a response to various tabloid stories, and Padma sharing her side of controversies.

I heard the audiobook format (in her voice), and for the life of me could not understand how Padma could mispronounce Rushdie’s (her ex-husband) name. While I am no one to judge someone else’s authenticity, as an Indian who had no idea about the author’s life or style, and was trying the very best to listen, I found the writing very vacuous. It has been written for the Western reader and tries to give India this colorful, spicy image.

Lakshmi constantly harps upon her Brahmin identity. Self-awareness in itself is not wrong, but she doesn’t seem to see her entitlement or privilege as off-putting. There’s also a severe lack of research in that she generalizes her personal Brahmin experience as the truth (especially when it relates to food). This came in conflict with her self-portrayed left-leaning liberal stance in the United States. I mean, imagine saying, oh but white people only eat fish from lake Walloon, anything else is beneath them. Isn’t that weird? That’s how she sounds. I’ve decided to stay open to books this year, so I finished it. It didn’t merit much thought and was openly casteist (here’s a great review).

On to more reading now 🙂


Our Color Gradients: the Vanishing Half

This whole past year, at work, we’ve immersed ourselves in learning about race, diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion. For a while now, I’ve exclusively read books from people of color. And while it may appear that my brown skin should automatically question privileges of whiteness, that’s not always the case. There’s enough within the black ... Read moreOur Color Gradients: the Vanishing...

This whole past year, at work, we’ve immersed ourselves in learning about race, diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion. For a while now, I’ve exclusively read books from people of color. And while it may appear that my brown skin should automatically question privileges of whiteness, that’s not always the case. There’s enough within the black and brown community that perpetuates colorism and keeps up the caste system that it institutionalizes. So, I am not perfect, just interested in learning more and making an effort.

The Vanishing Half Book review

Luckily, Brit Bennett is a writer who brings nuance, and exceptional storytelling to make these ideas a part of the narrative she weaves. It speaks to me not just as a learner, but as a parent and a human being, who has known what it is like to not belong. Her characters are not perfect, they struggle with all their might, just as reality would dictate. They also bring a refreshing color gradient to the non-linear narrative. There’s a lot that happens in the exacting boundaries of black and white and within all the 50 shades of black. 

It’s a wonderful story with so much substance packed into it, that it made me think about all of my own subconscious biases. I can’t quite articulate the purpose of literature. But assembling worlds that make me question my own reality, makes it a story worth savoring, over and over. 


Media Diet: A Poetic Start to 2021

I’m exhausted by the memes of 2021 being the evil twin of 2020. The year began with no promise of finding a nanny for my child, the continuation of a two-full time jobs life. And politically, while in my head I was hoping that there’s a peaceful transition to something boring, normal, and sane, it ... Read moreMedia Diet: A Poetic Start to...

I’m exhausted by the memes of 2021 being the evil twin of 2020. The year began with no promise of finding a nanny for my child, the continuation of a two-full time jobs life. And politically, while in my head I was hoping that there’s a peaceful transition to something boring, normal, and sane, it feels like 2021 won’t oblige. In testing times, what must a hue-man rely on, if not, savage poetry?

Here are the books that I opened 2021 with…

Some are always hungry

Some Are Always Hungry, Jihyun Yun

(book 12/52, Sarees and Books project)

When Yun wins the Pulitzer- and one day she will, I’m going to be out there grinning that I met her in many of our writing workshops in Ann Arbor, heard her read a poem on a Zoom meet up and instantly fell in love with her craft. This is a prize-winning collection of exemplary poetry.

It’s necessary that it is read (not heard) like books supposed to be handled. It’s magical in how it transports the reader to wartime Korea and then instantly to the vacuum in life as an immigrant. The words create a visceral emotion – through food, lust, war, a rawness – that’s sometimes gut-wrenching, sometimes depressing, and oftentimes the only way things can ever be truly felt. 

I haven’t read poetry so intently in such a long while that this made me fall deeper into the wormhole of modern poetry and how much catching up I need. If there’s one book of poetry you would like to gift yourself from a woman of color, this is a great pick. 

Caste, Isabel Wilkinson

This book was a really challenging read for me. It’s opened up way too many questions in my head. I’ve often said that race is called caste in India. But this book makes me understand how race in America is caste. There are also comparisons with Nazi Germany. There’s incredible, well-researched work on analogies, incidents, and robust data on each of these systems and why they’re connected.

It feels like a magnum opus of all that’s wrong with these systems from Manu Smriti, to Adolf Hitler, the conservative South, Jim Crow policies, all the way to the 2016 US elections and the disparities made clear with the country’s COVID exposure.

From an Indian standpoint, one large missing piece felt like one should not be talking about the Indian caste system without mentioning the impact of 200 years of British colonization. 

Contrary to what the book makes one believe, it is not always easy to identify an Indian Dalit, especially in urban settings. I can’t – if I do not speak the language from a specific state or am not aware of the last name meanings. They look Indian. No points for guessing what caste I belong to.

It is difficult to always sense the problems that I have never experienced. I am trying to now get this book. It may sound strange, but some people do “come out” as Dalits. I don’t think much about caste because I don’t suffer what Dalits and other such communities have long endured. It’s not easy to deal with one’s privilege when it goes unnoticed for long. 

In ways, both these books highlight what others tolerate and push me to think about being grateful for my present no matter how hard it may seem in the moment. It’s not to diminish sufferings from people of privilege (including me) but to acknowledge how our systems build so many unseen barriers for those at the margins that are artificially created only to supress.


Books I Read in 2020

Last year, I mainly heard audiobooks with a few paper books in between. Since it’s 2021 already, I thought of finishing up my 2020 list here on the blog. I’m feeling good about almost reading two books a month with a toddler in tow. 🙂  Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell: Easy, breezy YA fiction. Heard ... Read moreBooks I Read in...

Last year, I mainly heard audiobooks with a few paper books in between. Since it’s 2021 already, I thought of finishing up my 2020 list here on the blog. I’m feeling good about almost reading two books a month with a toddler in tow. 🙂 

Books I read in 2020

  1. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell: Easy, breezy YA fiction. Heard on long nights of baby watch when going back to sleep after a feed felt impossible. 
  2. Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens: Mystique, love, heartache, earthiness, delight. Easily one of my favorites for the year.
  3. Becoming, Michelle Obama: Her voice has so much poise and everything is relatable- her career ambitions, doubts around motherhood, and growing up in a close-knit family. I enjoyed reading about her growth into a leader on a world stage. 
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin: It’s embarrassing that I had not read Baldwin before. He is one of the foremost intellectuals who has broken down race for everyone, calling it out for what it is. There’s so much nuance and richness. It’s one of the most significant books I’ve read this year given what’s happening in the world around me post the murder of George Floyd.
  5. Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner: Will we ever learn to forgive and move forward the way we should? I enjoyed the symmetries and love in this book, no matter how long it took to finally find its place.
  6. The Mothers, Brit Bennett: I am ready to read her next book which I’ve bookmarked for a while. It’s hard to believe this is a debut, it’s so good! And again reminds me to read more authors of color. 
  7. Inheritance, Dani Shapiro: As a relatively new mother, this helps breaks down what it truly means to be a parent, and what true inheritance means in our lives. Intriguing read.
  8. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney: I find casualness about relationships unbearable. This book does not make me fall in love with it, but it ends on an incredibly profound note that redeems it, almost entirely.
  9. I, Lalla, Lalded, Ranjit Hoskote (translation): I am not sure why Hoskote didn’t include Lalla’s original in Kashmiri, and that somehow made this book less useful to me. Maybe non-Kashmiri readers have a different viewpoint.
  10. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Important book, but did not enjoy the writing, found it very monotonous. 
  11. City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert: Breezy, atmospheric and delicious. I enjoyed this a lot.
  12. Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows, Balli Jaswal: Loved it! More here
  13. How to be an Anti-Racist, Ibram Kendi: It’s ok. Challenging to some and seriously ok to others. Some parts are positively too pedantic for me. 
  14. The Trouble With Hating You, Sajani Patel: Transitional read (i.e. in between better books). More here.
  15. A Burning, Megha Majumdar: Lovely debut. More here.
  16. Ayesha at Last, Uzma Jallaludin: Enjoyed an easy-breezy romance. More here
  17. Aru Shah and the End of Time, Roshni Chokshi: It’s ok, will not read the rest of the series. YA fiction. More here.
  18. The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto: LOVED it. More here.
  19. The Bookshop of Yesterdays, Amy Meyerson: Maybe because I’d always like a bookshop setting for my life, I enjoyed it. I am not sure it’s a great book, but it’s a nice, feel-good book.
  20. White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo: Far better written than the Kendi book, and also very applicable to all of us representing any sort of minorities. The examples are too real.
  21. The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir, Neerja Mattoo: Neerja Mattoo taught my mother English in college in Srinagar, and I LOVED her book. Not only is it a selection/ translation of beautiful songs by fabulous women poets, it’s also just a great book providing so much context from a feminist perspective. 
  22. Nothing Like I Imagined (Except for Sometimes), Mindy Kaling: Easy, quick read. Funny or real in parts. More here.
  23. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy: Did not enjoy it. Poorly edited (or not at all). More here.

Currently reading: Caste (Isabel Wilkerson), A Promised Land (Barack Obama), The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai).


The Joy of Personal Rituals

I’ve written about rituals before. But I was reading the latest issue of Girls Night In when I chanced upon the book, Power of Ritual from Casper Kuile. I already have my January books set up, so I am not sure if I will read this immediately. But, I was excitedly thinking about ritual planning ... Read moreThe Joy of Personal...

I’ve written about rituals before. But I was reading the latest issue of Girls Night In when I chanced upon the book, Power of Ritual from Casper Kuile. I already have my January books set up, so I am not sure if I will read this immediately. But, I was excitedly thinking about ritual planning for the year instead of setting new year resolutions (that seem futile after 2020 anyway).

The joy of ritual

Rituals though are rooted culturally in our community settings.  It’s not uncommon to have rituals running thousands of years as a part of every significant occasion when growing up in an Indian community. However, individual rituals are often buried deep in community-oriented cultures and deserve their own place.

As a young girl, I rebelled against the notion of rituals that felt forced, and seldom coming from my perspective. As an adult, close to 40, I am looking at my son and thinking about any rituals that will become a part of us, together, and me personally. It’s easy to give up on rituals in a year like 2020, and it’s incredibly hard to have plans as the parent of a toddler. But that shouldn’t stop us from creating ideas and an appetite for a space to build them.

I decided to make my own monthly calendar. And I’ll find a way to review it each quarter and see what needs to fall off or be altered. Looking out of the window now with freezing rain, hail, light snow, whiteness all-around in the middle of a deeply isolating pandemic, on the first day of a new year, I choose to focus on hope.

No fancy rituals here, just the basics: reading (42 books from the Sarees and Books series I began to read South Asian women writers), walking (30 minutes each day), drawing (once a week), writing (once a week), skincare (every day), and a longish afternoon tea (weekend). What else can life need?


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