192: Balli Kaur Jaswal’s EROTIC STORIES FOR PUNJABI WIDOWS - August 2021 Book Club
For our Unabridged Book Club pick for August of 2021, we're discussing Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Amazon | Bookshop.org). We talk about our overall impressions, what worked for us, some quotations, and then we pair this one with other books we think readers who loved this would enjoy including Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (Amazon | Bookshop.org), Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi (Amazon | Bookshop.org), and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians (Amazon | Bookshop.org).
Book Club Pick
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Sara said, "So my Bookish Check-in is going to be very short today because I just read the first few pages of this book, but I am so excited. It's one of my most anticipated reads for 2021. I just started reading Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising (Amazon | Bookshop.org), and it's no secret on the podcast that she is one of my go-to authors. I have loved everything of hers I've read. This one is set in the 80s at a party with famous people, and so all of that is right up my alley. But again, like I said it is I'm very, very early on in the book, but it has already just grabbed me. I cannot wait to find out how this story unfurls, and I have seen it all over Instagram. I think that it's going to be one of the best books of the year. So I'm excited to just dig in and read the whole thing."
Ashley said, "So one of the things I'm reading right now—I'm actually listening to this thanks to Libro.fm—is On Juneteenth (Amazon | Bookshop.org) by Annette Gordon-Reed. This is a memoir, and it functions moving through a series of essays. She is exploring the history of Juneteenth and our country's pathway toward its celebration. Gordon-Reed herself is from Texas, where the holiday originated and where the end of slavery occurred. So on Juneteenth, and in 1865, Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, and so that happened in Texas.
"I love that right at the beginning, she talks about how, at first, she actually felt a little bit territorial about the holiday and how like a lot of Texans, she had this ownership over it as a Texan event, and then came to understand how important it was for national history and for the reworking of our understandings of the foundation of our country. So it is just absolutely fascinating. I have just listened to the first part of it, and so I still have quite a ways to go. But I've already learned a lot. I love her exploration of the history of Texas and the myths and legends and kind of folklore surrounding what is and is not promoted in the image of Texas and then the image of the American West. I just find all of that really fascinating. This is a great one also to listen to on audio. It is fascinating to hear it read, and I just can't wait to get back to it. I think that she does a great job to of showing the connections between her own life and her life experiences and then the broader cultural framework. So again, that is Annette Gordon-Reed's On Juneteenth, and I am loving it."
Jen said, "So I am reading Julia Quinn's It’s in His Kiss (Amazon | Bookshop.org). This is the seventh Bridgerton novel. I have been placing these on hold at the library and just sort of reading them casually. I got Bridgerton fever back when the adaptation was out, and I had read the first two books already but had not read the others. So each of the Bridgerton books focuses on a different one of the siblings, and every sibling—they're named alphabetically, so the oldest sibling is Anthony, the second sibling is Benedict, and they go in order through the alphabet, which is just a funny thing. And this one focuses on Hyacinth, who is 22. She's the youngest daughter, and she was actually born after the death of their father, which was a huge tragedy for the family. He was a wonderful man, and so she has grown up knowing that she's the only Bridgerton who didn't know their father at all. But it's this huge loving family. Hyacinth is pretty eccentric for the time. So she's 22, which at that point, she's almost off the shelf. She should have been married by then, and her family sort of trying to push her to get married, but they've also sort of given up hope. She is extremely outspoken. She has absolutely no filter, which in British society at the time is not acceptable. One thing that she does is, every Tuesday, she goes and reads to Lady Danbury, who is an elderly lady who also has no filter, but is very well respected because she married into . . . it's not royalty, but like the upper echelons of British society.
"Lady Danbury's grandson is Gareth St. Claire, and he is the male protagonist of the story. He was the younger brother. There were two brothers, and that was it. He was the younger brother, and his father basically hates him. Gareth finds out early in the book that his dad hates him because he does not think that he's actually his son. He thinks his wife had an affair, and basically he took care of him because that was the respectable thing to do. He is really, really horrible to Gareth. So Gareth had basically cut off all relationship with his dad, and then Gareth's older brother died, and Gareth unexpectedly became the heir, which of course makes his father angry because he essentially hates his son.
"So it's a romance. So you know that Gareth and Hyacinth eventually are going to end up together, but I really like these books because I like that sense of family. I've talked before about how nice it can be to see characters from previous books returning, and so you see some of Hyacinth's siblings coming back at this point, and Lady Bridgerton is a well-known character in the series. It's a great historical romance. I'm enjoying it so far."
Book Club Discussion of Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
After a brief summary, Ashley, Jen, and Sara share their overall impressions of Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (Amazon | Bookshop.org). Ashley began, "So I was really interested, as I got into it, to see how the story evolved. I did not expect some of what we will definitely dig into. But as you laid out in this summary, Jen, there is a lot going on, and different threads of the story that come together. I was interested to see how the erotic part came along. Since it's in the title, I wanted to know what that was going to mean, and then when the writing class starts, I did not expect it to actually turn into erotic stories, to be honest. That was really fascinating. So yeah, I really enjoyed it. I think that Jaswal does a great job of exploring the cultural attitudes that affect individual lives and the ways that those can be positive but can also be negative. I think that she does a great job of it, of looking at what it means to be an immigrant and what it means to be the child of an immigrant and how those things can create these cultural conflicts that are really hard to navigate. So I thought all of that was really fascinating, and then I love the part that celebrated sex, and like I said, I didn't expect that of this story. I was quite shocked, honestly, when when they got into them because once the writing class started, and it was going to be a literacy class, and it was clear that they didn't know how to read and write, I did not expect it to come around to where it did. What an interesting surprise and something that I thought was really beautiful to show that people are complex, and that what we see on face value is not all that there is to these widows who we see so much as a group and sort of as a stereotype and to really see something deep about them, I thought was really fascinating."
Sara shared, "I agree with a lot of what Ashley said . . . well, all of what Ashley said. I thought that it was definitely not what I thought it was going to be. I had a guess in my mind because of the title: I had a certain expectation about what what the book would involve, and I did not anticipate the mystery that was in the book. I also was surprised at the way that the erotic stories part unfurled, but I really thought the relationship that the women grew to have together was really beautiful, and I love books that center on female relationships and supporting each other. I thought that that was really interesting, the way that that all came together."
Jen said, "I could just say ditto, but I will add a little bit. So, I really enjoyed it. For some reason, based on what I'd seen on bookstagram. I was anticipating that this would—despite the title—be really solemn literary fiction, and I love literary fiction, but sometimes it's a little more work to read it. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading and did not want to put it down. I thought it was very readable. I thought it was such great storytelling, and because of all those genres and the way they're blended together, there was a lot of forward propulsion through the narrative. I wanted to find out what was going to happen next. I like the alternation between Nikki's point of view and Kulwinder's point of view: I thought that worked really well. . . . I was looking just as background for the podcast, I watched an interview with the author, and she was talking about how much she loves small communities and wanted to celebrate that, but also that she wanted to highlight the shame and taboos and censorship that small communities can like they keep propagating that within the community. I thought this book did that really well. I love when I hear an author's intention and it matches my impression of the book because I did get that sense that, wow, this community has some strengths, but it also explores that element of control that some groups are trying to exert on other groups. So I loved it. Again, I did not want to put it down. I felt like it was such a great such great storytelling."
Sara chose Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians (Amazon | Bookshop.org). She said, "I think the main connection I see with this book and Crazy Rich Asians is that there is a theme of these expectations of children and marrying correctly and marrying people of the same class and the same social stature. I thought that I saw that in Crazy Rich Asians, and you could see that in Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, about how those expectations really impact the adult children with a pressure of being applied to and how it ultimately plays out in their lives. So if you liked that part of Erotic Stories, then you would like Crazy Rich Asians because it has a lot of the same family dynamics."
Ashley said, "So there were several that came to mind for me, but one that I chose, I chose because of the connection to writing and the importance of writing and personal expression as a way to grow and to recognize who you are. I think we really see that with the widows here, as a community, they bond together through their writing and also individually, and they empower themselves through their writing, and then they empower others. So we see the readers around their community who are reading these scandalous stories being empowered, and I mean invigorated by the storytelling.
"So I thought all that was really rich in this book, and so because of that, I chose Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X (Amazon | Bookshop.org). This one is very different. It is young adult, and it is not at all about eroticism. Or even, you know, adult relationships like marriage or the death of a spouse. I mean, you don't see any of that here because she is a teenager. I think what we see in the story is that Xiomara . . . for one thing, she has a lot of conflict with her mom because she in a lot of ways is . . . I mean, she's the child of an immigrant. So there is similarly, even though it's different cultures that are being examined, you're still seeing the way that the child of the immigrant is exposed to a different culture early on, and then the immigrant parent who is already a fully formed adult, of course, is holding on to a lot of their cultural heritage. So sometimes those things clash. So that's explored really well in this story, and so that's a strong connection. But then the other part is that Xiomara is a writer, and she gets into about poetry class and becomes a slam poet. That process of her learning to share her writing, so to write for the sake of writing, but also to be able to share it with others and then seeing the impact of that on other people. I felt like that part, that thread is very similar to the way that these stories empower the writers, the community of writers, and also the larger community of readers. So I think that that makes it work together, and it is a great book. So I think it's a very fast and compelling read."
Jen said, "So we were talking about this before we started recording, and this is a little on the nose, but I wanted to pick Sandhya Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi (Amazon | Bookshop.org). So the book Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows actually opens on a conflict between Nikki and her sister Mindy because Mindy has decided that she is ready to settle down: she's ready to get married. She is going to seek an arranged marriage, and Nikki does not at all respect that choice. She is very upset with her sister's decision to do that; she doesn't get it at all. She celebrates having options and dating around and not feeling pressure to get married right away. I think I talked about nuance earlier, and I think that's one thing that she does really well is she presents those two options with such nuance despite the fact that we see the story through Nikki's point of view. Even though Nikki doesn't want to do it herself, she comes to understand why Mindy is making that decision for herself. When Dimple Met Rishi, I thought, did a similar thing very well. So again, this is a YA book, so it is not erotic, and I do think it is quite quite different in its focus, but Dimple and Rishi have graduated from high school at the beginning of the book, and Dimple's parents are ready to have her be engaged. They support her going to college, but they want her future to be assured, and Dimple is very resistant to the idea of an arranged marriage. Rishi, by contrast, is eager to have an arranged marriage. He is the older son; he feels as if it is his responsibility to uphold that cultural practice, and that conflict between the two, I think, is presented in a similarly nuanced way, where you begin with two characters who do not at all understand the other's inclinations, and eventually through the book that conflict is explored really thoughtfully. So I think Sandhya Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi, where she—despite all of its differences from this book, it's also about characters who have immigrated, their parents have emigrated from India, so you get that same sort of conflict between the second generation and their parents, and that treatment of arranged marriage I think is quite similar."
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