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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 6: A Burning

Social climbers are not boils on the butt of our civilization. Well, I guess it depends on how the term really gets defined. But in a class and privilege based society (i.e. every place I know from India to the US), getting out of what one was born into, to a more aspirational place is ... Read more#Sareesandbooks 6: A...

Social climbers are not boils on the butt of our civilization. Well, I guess it depends on how the term really gets defined. But in a class and privilege based society (i.e. every place I know from India to the US), getting out of what one was born into, to a more aspirational place is not wrong. And it usually takes a lot more than hard work. It’s a bit of luck and the ability to identify an opening when it does present itself. In A Burning, all three of Megha Majumdar’s characters are ready for a break to be more, and their unapologetic need for this ambition is palpable.

a burning majumdarMajumdar presents three interconnected narratives retaining their own distinct voices while painting a wide canvas that at once feels cinematically broad, but also intensely personal in its nuanced moments. While keeping up with the more popular minority themes in recent times (there’s a hijra, a Muslim woman, a PT teacher in a girls’ school), she holds back from adding a background voice or judgment. She lets the characters find their own arc to take the story forward. And, while this is only her debut book (and extraordinary at that), she does so much better than Roy! Because, honestly, the very worst thing in a minority narrative is a nagging white savior. 

It took me a while to think about how I really feel about this book. It’s a solid read and a great debut. But I also ended up with a wishlist as I was thinking through more. I wish all the three characters had a little more heft. In that, they had more first-person conflicts. Jivan’s narrative had this weird monotony to it, which felt too plain, even with her dramatic story. Maybe this was intentional, but I missed a more raw feel and emotion in her voice. Lovely’s narrative was my favorite out of the three, but it felt like it had a haphazard and quick end. PT Sir had his moments but they were far and few in between. The novel could use some more emotional specificity.

Admittedly, I am comparing every emotional book to Jhumpa Lahiri in my head somehow. And while Majumdar is so good, she lacks what I am seeking emotionally in a character. Maybe I really need a Jhumpa before I can move ahead in this project. 🙂

p.s. thanks to Yamini for the reco, I am glad I read this!

 


#Sareesandbooks 5: Ayesha At Last

Just like the one I read before, Uzma Jalaluddin’s book also starts with the immigrant monkey-circle around arranged marriage. But, the difference is, she does it in a charming, humor-laced, Jane Austen way. Not as a crappy adaptation but as a living, questioning body of relationships and self-love from the Muslim community that is largely ... Read more#Sareesandbooks 5: Ayesha At...

Just like the one I read before, Uzma Jalaluddin’s book also starts with the immigrant monkey-circle around arranged marriage. But, the difference is, she does it in a charming, humor-laced, Jane Austen way. Not as a crappy adaptation but as a living, questioning body of relationships and self-love from the Muslim community that is largely associated with terrorism or fear in the West these days. Ayesha and Khalid’s Muslim bringing and varied interpretations of faith bring specificity while keeping it relevant to anyone trying to figure themselves out.  A coming of age story, to put it cinematically (yes, there’s a movie coming, can’t wait!).

Ayesha at last book review sarees and books

Uzma’s greatest strength as a storyteller is the authenticity with which her characters live their lives. Whether it is in having differing interpretations of Islam, wearing a hijab or a long beard, they’re comfortable in who they are, and do not wish to change to entertain someone else’s idea of what they should be like. The characters are not fighting a war with the world, they’re expressing themselves with confidence, and dignity. A hijab wearing Ayesha has a spunk like any woman questioning herself and trying to follow her heart. 

It’s the kind of story that makes you understand just why diverse narratives are critical for us as a community. This community, specifically is so demonized by a single (negative) western narrative that it’s refreshing to read a regular, thoughtful book about relationships. Conversations about traditions, culture, respect, multiple perspectives on faith make us rich and question our own subconscious biases. Uzma shares all this with a delightful peppering of romance, a Shakespeare quoting Nana, a paratha-expert-spy Nani, a working mom, a bratty cousin, an alcholic co-worker, an insensitive boss and various such nuanced fun characters.

[P.S. I heard the audiobook narrated by Roshni Shukla. Apart from murdering many Urdu words, she also just mispronounced her own last name. If English-speaking artists can learn fluent French as a part of their roles, how hard is it to learn Urdu/Hindi? It just feels a like a let down for a book that’s so specifically focused on diversity, and inclusiveness in stories and language.]

As a young girl, I read everything Jane Austen wrote, and I live for happy endings. I was hoping that I end this book with its conflicts on a happy note. And I did. But not only that, I left it with a feeling of wanting to read more, and again. What a wonderful, wonderful debut as a novelist!


#Sareesandbooks 4: The Trouble with Hating You

After reading a couple of serious books in the last few books including Arundhati Roy’s latest one, and Ibram Kendi, I was desperate to get a lighter break. I randomly chanced upon a quick, easy-breezy and a very spicy romance by Sajni Patel, set in the Gujarati community in Houston. I heard the audio version ... Read more#Sareesandbooks 4: The Trouble with Hating...

After reading a couple of serious books in the last few books including Arundhati Roy’s latest one, and Ibram Kendi, I was desperate to get a lighter break. I randomly chanced upon a quick, easy-breezy and a very spicy romance by Sajni Patel, set in the Gujarati community in Houston. I heard the audio version read by Soneela Nankani who mispronounced Mandir (temple) so often that it became a part of the narrative as well. 

The trouble with hating you book review

The book narrates the experience of the Indian-American community, and like many books set in the West, it starts with the one stereotype: arranged marriage. As if that’s all that can ever be said about Indians. There’s also the oft-repeated narrative of the successful career woman not wanting to marry. Both lead characters have really harsh backstories in order to clarify their motivations and behavior. However, there’s no heft in the way those backstories (truly tragic) are handled in the narrative. It feels like they’re added to make a point, or because it’s what the book should do, but there’s literally no impact or thoroughness, so it feels wasted. Emotionally, it feels threadbare. 

There’s too much superficial and formulaic storytelling that I simply wanted to run through the story instead of letting it sink in. It also plays into the stereotypical notions of the Indian immigrant experience dishing out over circulated, trite themes. She doesn’t fit the mold of a ‘good girl.’ He’s happy that she wears a high heel and still is shorter than him. We’re in 2020, say what?

Indian immigrant experience is not the same across the board. It is not to say that this isn’t valid, but I could not relate to it.  I also found the whole religious/ temple community angle fascinating. Growing up in urban India, the temple was not an epicenter of our community-life, even though I grew up in a religious household. It’s not like the Church community here in America. But I guess some immigrants have found that to be their centering force allowing them to feel understood by drawing out a parallel structure, that’s not always the case in India. Some of the ‘aunties’ and elders described are more conservative than people back home. And that’s probably quite real.

Having said that, it’s a Hindi movie equivalent of a masala movie where you’re not expected to spend too much mental energy. It’s a quick, and sexy romance with a happy ending that you will predict. I didn’t mind a quick break like this in-between some heavy reading. It’s also nice to read an Indian book with characters and themes I may not identify with but know. That in itself is a refreshing change. I’m tired of white people-only romances with diverse people as side-kicks for effect. I like Liya being central to the narrative.

This now makes me yearn for Jhumpa’s nuanced, subtle writing on immigrant life. 


#Sareesandbooks 3: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Thanks to everyone who recommended Arundhati Roy’s latest book to me. I have a zero-tolerance policy toward her non-fiction and political view-points. I don’t disagree with all of what she says, but I have significant concerns with her calling herself black for effect (when she’s not). Her views on Kashmir seem to hinge on the ... Read more#Sareesandbooks 3: The Ministry of Utmost...

Thanks to everyone who recommended Arundhati Roy’s latest book to me. I have a zero-tolerance policy toward her non-fiction and political view-points. I don’t disagree with all of what she says, but I have significant concerns with her calling herself black for effect (when she’s not). Her views on Kashmir seem to hinge on the fact that the Muslim majority is the minority (similar to other activists in India) and that’s inexcusable to me. So taking up a new fiction from her was a decision I had postponed for a while. Still, given how wonderfully she wrote her first book of fiction, I decided to give it a try. And sadly, in the words of a Twitter contact, it’s traumatizingly bad.

Sareesandbooks The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

I’ve described how I feel about Arundhati Roy’s personal viewpoints on anything substantial, but for once, I wanted to understand a speck of logic in her views. The book is a magnum opus and all over the place. Somewhere in an interview, she’s talked about how she doesn’t edit her work and doesn’t accept edits as well. In this case, it shows. The book has no structure. Various story arcs seem disjointed, and a monotonous narrative that hoops over logic and has no clarity. Real-life incidents and characters are interspersed in the narrative without a lot of work. Descriptions of real incidents and politicians feel like a poorly drafted script and many seem added for gimmicky effects. Many, many lines and episodes have no real relevance or purpose to the story.

I heard the audiobook in Roy’s own voice. There’s a lot of Hindi, Urdu, and Kashmiri thrown about in the book. The Kashmiri has many errors and she just reads it wrong. And it’s SO pretentious to add foreign languages that she doesn’t understand or bother to learn for a simple recording. With these languages and the anti-Indian state rhetoric, it’s intended to fit the narratives of fancy editors especially in the West, who do not understand the Indian or Kashmiri themes. Roy’s evoked the issues of all minorities in India and inconsistently mentioned the Kashmiri Muslims (99% of the Kashmiri population) as a minority debunking her entire thesis on otherhood. Kashmiri Pandits who were terrorized and forced to leave homes get two unsympathetic lines in her 400-page saga. She has also bought into the rhetoric (and a Muslim backed narrative) that Pandits left due to some government disclosure – which is a flat-out lie. I know because my family experienced that in real-life. 

Roy tries hard to fit in some fictionalized narrative to suit her real-life political leanings and agendas. Beyond the fact that she didn’t want people suing her or questioning her logic, I don’t see why this entire book is a novel or a piece of fiction. I am appalled that there are editors in the world and in India that shortlisted this book for any award, ever. 

What a far cry from her first piece of fiction! The most interesting lines in this book belonged to the authors she quotes, and not what she writes herself. There’s so much incongruence and such a pretentious narrative that I can’t find a single reason to like it. And that’s a tragedy for an author of her talent, who simply could not keep herself out of her story.

Phew, this was consuming. I’m ready for a lighter read next 🙂

[Note: I still need to talk about book 2 on the blog, that’s next week]

 


#Sareesandbooks 1: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

I began this week with a mad rush of amazing recommendations of authors new and old that I am eager to start reading. Allowing myself a constraint of the South Asian / Indian experience is thrilling in that I can hear my ideas, voice, and feeling represented in a natural way without needing explanations.  Thanks ... Read more#Sareesandbooks 1: Erotic Stories for Punjabi...

I began this week with a mad rush of amazing recommendations of authors new and old that I am eager to start reading. Allowing myself a constraint of the South Asian / Indian experience is thrilling in that I can hear my ideas, voice, and feeling represented in a natural way without needing explanations. 

Thanks to Tanvi for recommending the Erotic Stories of Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal. It’s been a while since I’ve read a page-turner in four quick days. This isn’t just because of the lack of finding good books, but baby duties which as a new mom have often left me crying with exhaustion or resentment toward the entire universe at times. This sarees and books project takes me back to myself in helping find the courage to re-examine all that I care about. And what better book than this Jaswal entry that made me question my own subconscious biases.

It is true that the more specific you write, the more generic it becomes. In writing about adult or mature women from their 30s and older, living in a close community in South Hall, London, Jaswal questions women everywhere. The invisibility of women (the invisible woman syndrome) above a certain age is well documented. Add to it widowhood seen suspiciously (or as raging bad luck) by everyone in a traditional community.  Finding love, articulating desire or passion at this age or within their context feels awkward to the 20-something protagonist, and either evokes surprise or revulsion in most others.

Erotic stories for punjabi widows

Is there ever a right age to stop loving life, address mental and physical desires, and give in to mere mortality? What if it wasn’t a king like Yayati but a widowed queen Kunti who talked about unfulfilled desires? Would this switch find acceptance? The truth is that even in the 21st century it isn’t a topic that we find easily accessible to our own thoughts. Jaswal made me question this cultural narrative deeply, but with easy, vibrant, and fun energy. Not ever will I think of aubergines lightly now :-). It’s time we normalize finding our desires at any age as women. Bonus points when it comes with extra helpings of chai. 

I heard this book as an audiobook in the voice of Meera Syal who is tremendous. Audio always adds a dimension, and in this case, a good one. It reminded me of Bend it like Beckham in a good way. My only pet peeve was that the 22-year-old Nikki sounded too good to be true. I mean, I do not know many 20-somethings with such empathy and understanding of human nature. But maybe I am comparing my own 20s which weren’t much to write home about (as this blog can testify :D). 

I also ended up finishing a couple more books in this past week or two: Between the World and Me which promised more than it delivered. And City of Girls, a magnum opus I’d love to see in a film. There’s so much great energy and spark in that narrative. It felt just right despite its humble ending. 

What other books should I be reading?


New Project: #SareesandBooks – 52 Weeks of Reading Indian Women

Slowly, but surely, the Saree project has found its 52 drapes (well within a year that I set myself as a deadline), and was even featured on my favorite Cup of Jo. It was an incredible moment for someone who’s almost always been the back of the house person. I guess motherhood has opened up ... Read moreNew Project: #SareesandBooks – 52 Weeks of Reading Indian...

Slowly, but surely, the Saree project has found its 52 drapes (well within a year that I set myself as a deadline), and was even featured on my favorite Cup of Jo. It was an incredible moment for someone who’s almost always been the back of the house person. I guess motherhood has opened up ways in which I view myself externally. And I’ve learned so many new drapes, while also being able to engage with so many bright women teaching me about textiles, and the happiness of handcrafted things. I’m never going back!

Instagram feels like the blogger of 2004. Public, open and yet personal (for me at least). But there’s nothing like the satisfying breath of a living blog post, and this will always be my first love. I hope to do a better job documenting on the blog, but I’ll surely cover all these on Instagram.

Talking about first loves, I am ready to begin another project, very much in the deep throes of my forever love for books, and lately with sarees. Growing up my love was exclusively reserved for books, and as a nerdy kid, people often decided to categorize me into one role. When the truth really is that you can be in love with a Banarasi weave or Jimmy Choo shoes, and be reading hundreds of books alongside it. 

For this project though, I am pushing myself to read women from the Indian (subcontinent) diaspora around the world. I grew up reading very many English authors, it’s time to get seeped into the worlds created by brown women, and see myself reflected in characters that look, feel and sound like me, even in different languages. The Indian subcontinent has dozens of languages. I can read in English, Hindi, Hindustani, Urdu (in Devanagari/Roman script), Marathi (with husband’s help), and Kashmiri (in Devanagari / Roman script). I intend to sift between all these to cross-train my brain. Hopefully, I can get back to the vernacular and reading that I’ve missed in years.

Sarees and books

Which authors/ books do you recommend? Please join me, if you can. Use the hashtag #sareesandbooks on Instagram for me to find you.


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