This time last year I was exhausted. Exhausted from reading. Reading every tome, thread, tweet about the 2016 election. My brain was flooded with information, I twitched at every news alert, worried about missing something vital as the epic campaign unfolded.
I needed a break to cleanse my brain from the overload. I knew there was a solution to this problem, a way to detox. I needed to read some more but definitely not news.
I’ve always been an avid book reader and am in awe of authors who can take us to a different world, put our heads in a new environment, help us think about the world through new eyes and perspectives, but still inform us about our past, present and future. So, I would commit to reading books, but I needed to be disciplined, set a goal to follow.
Thus 52weeks52books52women.com was born. A simple concept, read and write about a book a week, by a woman author. It’s probably not a coincidence that I decided to focus on women authors. If there’s one thing that the 2016 campaign revealed it is that our attitude to women and the role they play in our society is still evolving.
You’ve probably read about the disproportionate attention paid to books by men in review pages and accolades, so that’s why I decided to focus on women authors. That was my only rule. You can see the full selection at the site, but here are some of my favorites that did everything I expect of a good book – enlighten, engage and entertain.
MUSLIMS, NOT A MONOLITH
Two of my favorite books of the year are set in my hometown of London and the protagonists are British Muslims.
In Home Fire Shamsie examines what it means to be a British-Muslim in contemporary London. It’s about two families, former neighbors, who follow different paths, one family’s patriarch slowly sheds the outward symbols of his muslim-ness to rise in the political establishment, the other family, orphaned and adrift struggle amongst themselves about the idea of identity and the bonds of family and the need to belong.
When the worlds of these two families collide the diversity of the hyphenated Brit experience is examined with a focus and compassion that is extraordinary. Shamsie has written a blisteringly great page turner with a shocking climax, but also a book that is a profound examination of how for some people, through the imperative of a world they cannot control, the personal is political and vice versa.
Sofia Khan is an ordinary working woman in the big city world of publishing. She is a Londoner, who loves her city, goes through all the trials and tribulations of office life, hangs with a gang of her besties. Oh, and she’s a hijabi. Ayisha Malik has written a self-described Muslim Bridget Jones Diary as Sofia, our protagonist, is charged with writing a book about Muslim dating. Malik has written a riotously funny book that has the added dimension of de-mystifying a group of people who are painted with a broad brush by our fast-paced, tunnel-vision news media.
Reading both these books will have you thinking about Muslims in London in a completely different way, and make you question the monotony of the depiction that we are usually subject to.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE A MOTHER?
Books about motherhood are, of course, a staple of fiction. But for me two books stood out this year for dealing with the complexities of being a mother and even addressing the fundamental issue of who is a mother?
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is an exquisite novel. It is written with a precision and attention to the particulars of a time that wasn’t that long ago, but seems so far away now, mid-90’s Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Elena Richardson has constructed the perfect life, in the perfect community, married to a lawyer, bringing up four teenagers, pillar of the community, she has lived by the rules and followed the predetermined path. Her world is turned upside down by the arrival of itinerant artist Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl. Mother and daughter move from place to place, staying 6 months maybe less, as soon as an art project is finished they move on. Pearl becomes a fixture in the Richardson house, drawn to the “normality” of suburban family life, while Elena’s daughters are drawn to the unconventional mothering of Mia.
Mrs. Richardson and Mia are soon embroiled in the case of two other mothers in town, the well to do, childless Linda McCullough who adopts a Chinese baby abandoned, in a moment of despair, by Pearl’s co-worker Bebe, but now she wants the baby back. Is a wealthy white couple who can provide all the creature comforts to a Chinese adoptee more qualified to be a mother than a poor restaurant worker who gave birth to her?
Ng’s book lifts the curtain on the perfect suburban life to expose the profound effect of motherhood can have on a woman and the extremes to which she will go to defend her version of it.
Lisa Ko’s debut novel The Leavers was a National Book Award finalist and it explores the question of sacrificial motherhood, this time focusing on an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Polly Guo who raises her American born son in New York’s Chinatown. One day, she doesn’t return home from her job in a nail salon and her son Deming is left unmoored, eventually adopted by a white, liberal couple in upstate New York. Polly’s story is not one of a martyr mother whose world falls apart when she loses her child. It’s about a woman who has ambition and aspirations, who has always hustled and who makes the best of every bad situation. What is her obligation to her son and what is her obligation to herself? Ko avoids sentimentality and in Polly Guo has created a vibrant and three dimensional woman who lights up the page.
LAW AND ORDER TEXAS STYLE
Any new work by Attica Locke is always a moment of celebration. Locke, is an accomplished TV producer and writer (Empire) and a talented novelist. In Bluebird, Bluebird her fourth book Locke once again tackles the combustible combination of race, politics, law and the American south.
Darren Mathews is a rare breed, a black Texas ranger, the elite of the elite in the state’s law enforcement cadre. When the murders of a local white woman and an out of town black lawyer hit the small East Texas town of Lark, it unleashes all the old wounds of history, race and power and opens some wounds in Mathews himself. Locke has drawn a wonderfully nuanced lead in this ranger and you should acquaint yourself with him before he hits your TV screens.
THE NEW INDIA
If your vision of India is stuck in the Kodachrome world of snake charmers and women carrying water pails on their heads, it’s time for an update. Prepare to have all your preconceptions upended.
Diksha Basu’s deft comedy of manners, The Windfall, is the marvelously entertaining tale of the Jha’s, a comfortably middle class couple who move on up and out to a neighborhood of the even more comfortably well off after an unexpected windfall. It’s a comical tale of the race to “keep up with the Jones’s” that despite its deceptive charm digs into the challenges that new found wealth brings to a marriage, a family and a neighborhood.
In her slim but powerful novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma, Ratika Kapur examines the clashes that ensue when economic development inevitably leads to a change in social mores in a society that really isn’t ready. It’s one of the most surprising books of the year.
What have I learned from taking on this project?
Our world is full of fantastic women authors – we need to amplify their voices.
In a world of warp speed news, contemporary fiction is the best corrective to all that ails you.
I’ve learned that when I slow down, put the phone away, and get lost in another world, everything feels just that little bit better.