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No Shame, Only Romance: Recommendation of Wrong to Need You

Every time I’m in a new city, I make it a point to visit at least one local bookstore. If I’m lucky, I get to check out a few independent stores, like The Ripped Bodice right outside of Los Angeles or Rhino Booksellers in Nashville. And if I’m there for a few days, I will always, without fail, end up at a Barnes & Noble.

Something that I’ve noticed at nearly every single Barnes & Noble location that I’ve visited is that a certain section is consistently empty. Fiction is always bumping, Starbucks is very nearly packed to the brim with people stealing wifi and sometimes drinking overpriced beverages, and even the graphic novels have a steady stream of visitors thanks to our superhero-saturated culture. But the one section that I rarely ever see readers in is the romance section.

bell hooks tells us in Communion: The Female Search for Love that patriarchal culture teaches women from a young age that they are the arbiters of emotional understanding and love in the world, but also that emotional intelligence and love are useless and shameful. This catch-22 means that women, in general, are likely to feel deeply ashamed of anything related to emotion. I see this at work in Barnes & Noble. Despite the fact that romance is a billion-dollar industry and made up at least one-third of the U.S. fiction market in 2015, people are not buying these books in public. 82% of romance readers are women, but I don’t see women buying these intensely emotional books at the store, and it’s a sign that the patriarchy is alive and well.

I used to be one of these people. I didn’t want to pick up a book with a muscular, naked torso on the front. I wanted to be seen as a “serious” reader, unwittingly buying into both the patriarchy and the incorrect notion that romance novels can’t be well-written. But I’m delighted to report that I have changed, thanks to Alisha Rai and her stupendous Wrong to Need You. This volume is the second in Rai’s Forbidden Heart’s trilogy, and is an outstanding testament to the idea that emotions are not useless – they are important, they are well-crafted, and we should all shamelessly flock to the books that tout them as essential to our culture.

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Family Drama is the BEST Drama (to read)

There’s a reason that soap operas like General Hospital and Days of Our Lives have been on TV for decades. It’s that people loooove drama. Specifically, we love drama that can’t be easily tied up in a season or in a movie, but that comes back to bite you in the ass when you’re least expecting it. We all have this kind of unresolved drama in our lives, often in the form of our family members, and it’s not fun to live through, but it is hella fun to watch.

Alisha Rai provides a decadent, sensational story in her Forbidden Hearts trilogy, in which she zooms in on a fictional town in upstate New York known for its Montague-Capulet levels of drama between two families, the Chandlers and the Kanes. Wrong to Need You focuses on Jackson Kane and his recently-departed brother’s wife Sadia Ahmed. Years ago, they were the closest of friends, but after being accused of a crime that he says he didn’t commit, Jackson fled, and Sadia married his older brother. Now that Jackson is back in town, he and Sadia have to navigate not only their intense (and now lust-filled) connection, but a town that can’t forgive the sins of the past.

Oh yes, y’all. Rai weaves a story rife with family politics which only amp up the emotional intrigue and romantic longing between Sadia and Jackson on every page. From the very first pages of this unforgettable story, I got major Cat on a Hot Tin Roof vibes. Each interaction between each character, even if it only lasts for a few minutes, breathes with tension because the drama goes back for years. I don’t know how Rai manages to infuse a past history that you haven’t read into the present, but she does it. Because I’m committed to writing mostly spoiler-free recommendations, trust me when I say that the drama is so worth it. (Sex. I’m talking about some really good sex after some epic drama.)

Characters that Make You Feel All the Feels

You can’t have a good story without characters that make you feel, and luckily for us, Rai gifts us two extremely sympathetic protagonists who just need some love in their lives. I loved getting to know Sadia and Jackson on an intimate level, mainly because Rai writes them outside of any stereotypes or tropes. Jackson is a muscle-laden, broody man, worthy of any romance book cover, but he broods mainly because he’s just always been quiet and kept to himself. Sadia is in full command of her bisexuality and her identity as a Muslim woman, confirming the fact that just because a character is marginalized doesn’t mean her story needs to be about oppression, and struggles instead with being a new widow and a single mom to boot.

Also, the character subplots in this book are incredible. Many contemporary stories forget that protagonists have parents or siblings, and instead focus on the families that we choose in life. That’s fine, but I really enjoyed delving into Jackson’s complicated relationship with his mother and Sadia’s competitive but loving bonds with her four (!) sisters. I haven’t often encountered books that make me want to know more about the secondary characters, but Wrong to Need You is so beautifully textured and realistic that I want more time with every character.

THE SEX IS REALLY GOOD

If you imagined me screaming that caption and then running away to hide behind the couch, you imagined correctly. Because I am both the product of the patriarchy and the biggest nerd you can imagine, I have a difficult time writing openly about sex. But Alisha Rai inspires me to try, to be shameless in my writing about her writing, so I’m going to try.

The sex scenes are just very, very good. I’ve read my fair share of romances, and they’re not always good. Some are PWP, which in Internet Land means “Porn Without Plot.” These types of stories function purely to satisfy the reader, and sometimes they get the job done. Rai’s writing destroys the idea of PWP and leaves it whimpering in the corner because her plot and her characters are transcendent, and her sex scenes work because her plot and characters are so good.

Nothing about Alisha Rai’s writing is standard. She evokes passion and emotion into every scene, whether it’s sexual or not. So when you get to the sexual encounters between Jackson and Sadia, be it a kiss or some hardcore grinding in an alley, it’s a sensory, evocative, and completely consensual experience every single time.

My Verdict:

Friends, come over to the light side. Come over to the aisle of Barnes & Noble where glorious, muscular torsos are on full display. Wrong to Need You is a jewel of the romance genre, and of fiction in general. Rai creates a page-turning plot full of juicy family drama, riveting characters that pull you into their textured lives, and sex that makes 50 Shades of Grey feel like 50 Shades of Meh. What else could you want?

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

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There’s A New MJ in Town: Review of This Will Be My Undoing

Reading is highly subjective. We all know this. So for me, the stories that I love most are those that allow the ordinary, everyday experiences of human life to commune with the divine. Writers whose stories oscillate easily between micro and macro, and who center their characters, real or fictional, with feet firmly rooted in history and the present-day are the ones I return to again and again. In her first essay collection This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins intricately unfolds formative moments in her life and grapples with the decidedly non-monolithic concept of a “black woman,” and is the most extraordinary voice I’ve come across in a long time.

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An Education for EVERYONE

Near the end of her first piece titled “Monkeys Like You,” Jerkins tells us that this collection of ten personal essays is for everyone. “It is meant for all women, and men, and those who do not adhere to the gender binary.”

I know what you’re thinking. A lot of authors say this. Every modern artist creating today wants their work to be consumed and appreciated by as many people as possible. They try and craft an experience that is marketable to every audience.  But from what I’ve read and seen, very few artists are actually able to do this, because the artists want to be marketable, they also want to be unique, and their endeavors to be unique often box their art into niches that can only be accessed and enjoyed by a select few. But like I told you in the title, there’s a new virtuoso in town, because Morgan Jerkins is one of those artists.

This collection is obviously about an experience of being black and female in America. Jerkins says so in the title. Each essay is a personal endeavor into deeply intimate moments of Jerkins’ life, from being called a monkey after trying out for her elementary school cheerleading team to her stepfather’s death, and each one incorporates Jerkins’ black and female identities and their shaping of those experiences. But her prose is so elegantly consumable that she transcends any barriers of understanding that might exist between her words and the reader.

There are no throwaway sentences in this book. Each word is precisely chosen and weaved into a narrative that is both a history lesson as well as a portrait of an artist as a young woman. Jerkins is a writer reminiscent of bell hooks, whose intellect shines on the page. She pores over and pours into her ideas with a depth of a woman three times her age (she graduated from Princeton in 2014), but her stories remain accessible and grounded in a language that anyone can read and enjoy.

A Journey through Time and Space

It’s challenging to write about this essay collection without giving away all of the interesting bits of Jerkins’ work (which is honestly all of it). She writes a beautiful letter to Michelle Obama in “A Lotus for Michelle” and thanks her for giving her an “actual image of black ascendancy,” all while enduring years of ridicule rooted in racism against black female bodies. She unapologetically embraces her own body and hair in “The Stranger at the Carnival,” and delves into the historical implications of language surrounding black hair, with loaded words like “kinky” and “nappy.” She exquisitely navigates the black identity politics of inhabiting the physical space of Harlem after growing up in white-centric New Jersey in “Human, Not Black.” And while these are all topically fascinating, it’s Jerkins’ abilities as a true artisan of language that makes her stories extraordinary.

Jerkins’ writing undulates inward and outward constantly, from her own microcosmic existence as a black woman just trying to emotionally and physically survive to the macrocosmic, centuries-long trajectory that led her mind, body, and spirit to this time. The historical oppression of her ancestors and the modern-day ramifications of that oppression exist side by side on the page, but it’s never burdensome for the reader, because Jerkins doesn’t allow it to be. She dexterously moves between time and space in her storytelling, and conveys a wisdom that is both educational and inspiring.

In “How to Survive: A Manifesto on Paranoia and Peace,” Morgan Jerkins creates a step-by-step guide for black women on how to maneuver through this world while preserving their mind and spirit. At one point, she reminds them that they are not alone, and that there is always someone out there rooting for them. She says, “There is a cosmic wavelength of our universal spirit” that binds black women together. Jerkins taps into that wavelength with every word of her outstanding essays.

My Verdict:

Every great genius has her beginning, that moment of introduction when everyone else looks up and says, “Whoa. We’ve never seen this before.” This Will Be My Undoing is Morgan Jerkins’ beginning, and you owe it to yourself as a citizen of this world to read her words.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

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All You Need Is Self-Love – Review of Communion: The Female Search For Love

It physically pains me to say this, but I used to hate feminists.

I can distinctly recall talking on the phone with my sister while at college one afternoon. I remember rolling my eyes at the word “feminist” – like, why weren’t we all just equalists? Or humanists? What was the point in dividing people further with words like feminist?

Yeah, I used to be that person. Not in an overt way, but I used to think that we were past the point of fighting for basic rights, and for dignity and equal treatment under the law and in the eyes of our fellow humans. I didn’t think the feminist struggle was relevant anymore. I leaned away from the idea that I was inherently set up to fail in comparison to my male peers. After taking a slew of gender studies courses at UVA, I began to understand the systemic barriers, both social and political, that society has constructed over the past centuries. I will be forever grateful to those classes and those teachers, because without them, I don’t know if I would have ever realized that our fight to dismantle gendered norms and systems is far from over.

Thankfully, I have seen the light. But I’m troubled by the fact that I existed for 20 years on this planet and didn’t have this knowledge. I don’t want the next generation of children, whether they’re mine or not, to not have this knowledge. So, it is one of my many goals to share what I have learned with everyone I meet, especially young people. And now, having read Communion: The Female Search for Love by bell hooks, I feel better equipped to do just that.

 

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Written as the conclusion to a trilogy all about the act of love, Communion chronicles hooks’ journey through the inception of the feminist movement in the United States and seeks to expand how feminism directly impacted the way men and women think and act about love. As is obvious by the subtitle, hooks focuses specifically on the way women perceive and react to love, and how our patriarchal culture subverts women from even being the caregivers and nurturers that they are “supposed” to be.

I am not exaggerating when I say that Communion offers extraordinary insight on every single page, and I could write for days about what I have learned from hooks and the wisdom she has accrued throughout her life. But, for your sake and for my own, I’ll stick to talking about the things that really shook me to my core, and transported me back to the good ol’ days of having my mind blown in gender studies.

Men Were All For Feminism – Until They Got to the Bedroom

hooks unleashes her wisdom carefully and precisely throughout her book. You learn about her upbringing with different types of male figures, and also about her romantic relationships with men when she grows older. She details the different strengths and weaknesses of those sexual relationships, and lets loose a cold, hard truth about even the most progressive male partners in that era of female revolution: men, for the most part, did NOT like hearing no in the bedroom. They could deal with women climbing the ranks professionally and demanding equal pay, but as soon a woman expressed a desire to, I don’t know, actually have ownership over her sexuality and her body, men were no longer on board with the whole feminism thing. After revealing this insight, hooks begins repeating her manifesto of “There is no love without justice” – meaning that if you’re not able to make sexual choices, as well as all other choices, freely and without interference from your partner, you are not in a loving relationship.

Growing Together = The Whole Freaking Point of Love

I have to admit, there is a LOT to unpack in this volume. Each chapter is its own spiral of ideas, and while hooks is making excellent and interesting points on every page, it can be easy to get lost along the various twists and turns of her story. I found myself wondering several times through my reading of Communion: “When is she going to tell me what love is?” And friends, you have to be patient, because hooks’ answer is not in boldfaced letters, or the title of a chapter, or even the title of a section within a chapter. hooks’ understanding of a truly loving relationship is one in which “mutual growth and development [are] the primary agenda.”

This isn’t necessarily the most earth-shattering revelation. Romantic or otherwise, I think that most people become aware, at some point in their lives, that the best relationships in our lives are the ones in which we grow and the other person grows too as a result of being together. But in the case of Communion, hooks discloses this in context of the patriarchal society in which we live. The patriarchy assigns the dominion of love and caregiving to women, but then doesn’t actively value those ideals, so women don’t even know how to be the caregivers we’re “supposed” to be. hooks is positive that women want to love and be loved, but because the patriarchy doesn’t take those things seriously, women don’t know how to go about doing those things in a healthy and adequate way. There is no handbook for women on how to fulfill these patriarchal expectations, and men certainly aren’t trained to be emotional paragons either. So hooks’ main question is not the definition of love, as I thought it would be. Her main question is: how can women learn to love?

Women Have to Love Themselves and Each Other

 hooks says it best in the middle of Communion: “Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.” And I think we all can agree with that idea pretty easily, especially with phrases like “self care” being thrown around all the time. But agreeing with the idea isn’t the issue for hooks. We have to implement and practice this self love daily, and constantly, because guess what? We still live in a deeply problematic patriarchy, where female self-care is still seen by some as an indulgence rather than as a necessity. hooks actually uses the words “constant vigilance” when describing the degree to which women have to watch them and the way in which they speak and act about their bodies and spirits and minds. Professor Moody would be proud.

Female self-love doesn’t end with the self. The book is called Communion for a reason, because hooks asserts that women who truly love themselves also surround themselves with others who are doing the same thing. She doesn’t deny the value of romantic relationships with other women, or heterosexual ones for that matter, but hooks is clear that a circle of love where you “come together and share your gifts” is the only way in which to experience life, and ultimately, fight back against that damn patriarchy.

My Verdict:

Y’all, read this book. Thanks to the depth and intricacy of hooks’ argument, Communion is like Game of Thrones for anyone who is interested in understanding patriarchy, the role of women and men in the feminist movement, and how we can use feminism to better our country and ourselves.

 

Cover photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

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Brown People Can Have Sex Too! A Review of The Bollywood Bride

I adore romance. And when I say adore, I really mean “I unabashedly live for all romantic storylines and romantic chemistry and romantic everything.” This obsession is not surprising. I grew up on a healthy diet of Hollywood’s romantic comedies, both classic and new, and a bombardment of Bollywood melodrama from the 90’s. From Tom Hanks’ heart-eyes at Meg Ryan at the airport in Sleepless in Seattle, to Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol’s sultry waltz in that rain-drenched gazebo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I go absolutely gaga for all kinds of love stories. Believe me when I say that from a very young age up until I met my husband, I had always imagined myself meeting the love of my life against a gorgeous backdrop and a soundtrack sung either by Savage Garden or Sonu Nigam.

So just imagine my pure rapture when I stumbled onto The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev. A Persuasion-esque love affair for the ages, The Bollywood Bride contains absolutely everything an avid reader AND a romance fanatic could want. The story follows Ria Parkar, a Bollywood film starlet who, after years away from her family, gets sucked back into the pain of her non-public life when her cousin Nikhil decides to get married in Chicago. And the great source of this epic pain? Among other things, a slighted, long-lost lover by the name of Vikram.

The best novels about love aren’t just about love – they’re about the messy, heartbreaking, and often painful lives of the people who happen to fall in love. And from the first page of The Bollywood Bride, Dev’s alluring, vibrant language coupled with her ability to construct such authentic and complex characters seduced me out of my own world and into Ria’s.

Dev channels Jane Austen with her uncanny skill to adapt the Indian immigrant community in America in an authentic and consumable way. She immediately thrusts Ria back into a world of wedding prep and preening, yet loving, Indian aunties who all color-coordinate their saris. And as someone who has grown up surrounded by uncles and aunties who have somehow become family through our shared Indian-American experience, I can tell you that I have never seen my community described in such a real and hilarious way.

You also get a happy yet completely unexpected taste of Charlotte Bronte in this novel as Dev deftly unwraps the secrets of Ria’s past, and how those secrets caused her to break Vikram’s heart prior to the events of this novel. The story is steeped in secrets and secret-keeping, which only heightens the tension between Ria and Vikram, as they simultaneously explore and avoid the nostalgia of their childhood together and the realization that their love for one another hasn’t disappeared, but evolved.

But the most tantalizing aspect of this novel was one that I did not see coming at all. I was drawn to The Bollywood Bride mainly because it was a romance novel written by an Indian woman about two Indian/Indian-American characters. Yay. And I expected there to be sex, because it was a romance novel, and that’s what the genre usually entails. But as I approached the final consummation of Ria and Vikram’s physical and emotional journey, i.e. their first round of really enjoyable and completely worth-the-wait sex, I realized that I had never before encountered such a raw and uninhibited depiction of Indian intimacy in fiction. And in that moment I realized: BROWN PEOPLE CAN HAVE SEX TOO.

One fact about Bollywood movies that you might not know is that they never ever show two characters having sex. Like, in a bed together. They rarely show two characters entering into a bedroom, or even making out on screen. The best you get is like a really seductive dance in the rain with extremely suggestive song lyrics. I could get into the traditionalism and conservative values and why there’s no onscreen lovemaking, but the point I’m trying to make is that realistic Indian intimacy is all but invisible in Bollywood cinema. And since #HollywoodSoWhite, there’s no Indian intimacy in films over here either.

So the fact that Dev gifts us with two unmarried Indian/Indian-Americans having delicious, well-deserved, tantalizing but not gratuitous sex is freaking groundbreaking. Instead of shying away from human sexuality, or neutering it by cutting away to a more G-rated scene, Dev revels in it, and gives her characters a sexual agency that I have only ever seen given to non-Indian characters. And for that, I am eternally grateful to Ms. Dev, and to her beautiful novel.

My verdict:

Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride is an unadulterated delight. She crafts a narrative that whispers secrets on every page. She details a deeply authentic depiction of the Indian immigrant experience. And best of all, Dev opens up readers to the sexual side of Indian romance. Go read this book, and be prepared to frantically fan yourself on every single page.