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Archive for January 2017

Book Club: The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Mistress of Spices

Each year, Sirens chair Amy Tenbrink posts monthly reviews of new-to-her books from the annual Sirens reading list. You can find all of her Sirens Book Club reviews at the Sirens Goodreads Group. We invite you to read along and discuss!

As a daughter of the Midwest, I have a complicated relationship with the housewifely arts: namely, cooking, cleaning, and sewing. I practice all of these, in some fashion (though my cleaning is notably desultory), but none so well as to meet the expectations of my foremothers, for whom no speck of lint was too small to pick up, no embroidery too complicated to tackle, and Lord above, no cookie too perfect to try, try, try again. (It took me decades to realize that I don’t even really like cookies.)

But in the Midwest – and indeed, in many, many cultures around the world – those housewifely arts are, in fact, the highest possible form of female caretaking. You got a promotion at work? I baked you a cake! You have a solo in the church choir for Easter? I made you a new dress! How do I love you? Let me count the chores that I did this morning before you awoke…

For all that I struggle with the complexities of that caretaking, even now, when I’ve shed most of my upbringing for professional ambition, those deep-seated expectations turn up at the strangest times. When I want a challenge? I bake bread. When I feel the most like a failure? When my house is messy. What do I do while I watch TV? Cross-stitch. And I have the most unexpected soft spot for books about women who work magic with food…

I chose The Mistress of Spices, both for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge and for my book club, in large part because it is about a woman who works magic through a classic feminine art: in this case, spices. Tilo – short for Tilottama, or, in part, “sesame seed” – is already in the third act of her life, having spent her childhood as a seer and her youth as a pirate queen. Having grown disenchanted with piracy, Tilo makes her way to a remote island – and begs to be allowed to join the assembly of aspiring mistresses of spices: those Indian women who learn to work magic through correct application of the correct spices: ginger for courage and so on. Once they have learned enough, they sacrifice their youth, beauty and future relationships, and are sent around the world to help the Indian people. Tilo chooses Oakland.

Rather early on in the book, Tilo wakes up in her spice shop in Oakland, and the rules of her magic are clear: don’t leave the shop, don’t get to too close to your customers, don’t use the spices for yourself. And all is well, more or less. Tilo uses her skills to help immigrants struggling with a panoply of issues: racism, violence, arranged marriage, abuse. But then, one day, an American man walks into her store and she’s smitten – and despite her aged appearance, so is he. Suddenly, Tilo begins to learn that not all things are how you might intend and that, sometimes, the spices have a will of their own. Tilo’s intent clashes with the spices’ as she leaves the store for the first time, buys new clothes, worries about her customers, and begins seeing her American man.

In the end, I loved three things about The Mistress of Spices. First, as you would expect if you’ve read anything else by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the language is exquisite. Divakaruni’s craft, even in this, her first novel, is light years ahead of so many other authors: it has a poetry to it, the feel of a legend, and it’s a joy to read. Second, I loved that Divakaruni, an immigrant herself, addressed, unflinchingly, so many issues that face immigrant communities in America: racism, abuse, violence, trying to fit in, wondering if you should just go home – if you even know where home is anymore. Despite the pervasive magic in The Mistress of Spices, Tilo’s customers are real people, with real-world problems. Third, I loved that, to get to the climax of the book, Tilo had to battle her own magic. Despite her talent and her experience, the spices are sentient: rule enforcers, tricksters, who thwart Tilo in ways both obvious and quite subtle. So often, magic is the means to the end, something to be mastered and used, and it was a treat to read a book where a woman’s relationship with her power was very different, something to be coaxed, perhaps, or negotiated with.

And in the end, there was only one thing about The Mistress of Spices that I didn’t like as well: something I call the “Medea problem.” In the Greek Medea myth, Medea gives up everything – including being a princess – to help Jason of Argonaut fame steal the Golden Fleece from her father and run away with him. Later, she kills for him – and eventually, when he casts her aside, she kills their children. Which leads one to wonder: What kind of dude is so awesome that a woman would do all of that?

I’m predestined to be skeptical of a woman who’s willing to give up not only her business and her life as she knows it, but her magic and her immortality, for some guy. Must be some guy, right? And maybe that guy is out there, but Tilo’s American man isn’t that guy. He’s a restless former playboy who has made and spent millions: on houses, on cars, on girls. Falling in love with Tilo is, I suppose, meant to be his redemption, but it turns out that I don’t care about his redemption: I just want her to keep doing her, magic and all.

Is The Mistress of Spices worth a read? Absolutely. (Which is good, since it’s required for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge.) It’s a beautifully crafted folktale of an indomitable woman who battles her own magic to aid her people, and what’s not to like about that?

Amy
 


 
Amy Tenbrink spends her days handling content distribution and intellectual property transactions for an entertainment company. Her nights and weekends over the last twenty years have involved managing a wide variety of events, including theatrical productions, marching band shows, sporting events, and interdisciplinary conferences. Most recently, she has organized three Harry Potter conferences (The Witching Hour, in Salem, Massachusetts; Phoenix Rising, in the French Quarter of New Orleans; and Terminus, in downtown Chicago) and seven years of Sirens. Her experience includes all aspects of event planning, from logistics and marketing to legal consulting and budget management, and she holds degrees with honors from both the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and the Georgetown University Law Center. She likes nothing so much as monster girls, Weasleys, and a well-planned revolution.

 

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Sirens Newsletter – Volume 9, Issue 2 (January 2017)

In this issue:

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Happy New Year, Sirens! We hope you join us this year invigorated and resolute, with insightful, boundary-pushing, unabashed conversations on female and genderqueer identity in fantasy literature. If you need a place to get started, we recommend our Suggested Reading List and our 2017 Reading Challenge, a collection of titles that cover this year’s theme of women who work magic and fantasy literature in general.

 

SIRENS STUDIO

What if we were to tell you that our Sirens Studio faculty and workshop intensives would be live next month? Our Sirens Studio will take place on October 24–25, the Tuesday and Wednesday before the official start of the conference. Focused around two-hour, small-group workshop intensives on reading, writing, and career development, the Studio is a great way to do a deeper dive at a slower pace. We can tell you this right now: one current and three past Guests of Honor are among this year’s faculty.

 

SCHOLARSHIPS

As you know, Sirens awards scholarships each year to fans of color/non-white fans, exemplary programming presenters, and those with financial hardships. We’ll be doing a bigger push for scholarship donations in March, but please feel free to get a head start by donating here.

 

PROGRAMMING

We will be launching our programming series later this spring, but it never hurts to start brainstorming now. There will be a few changes to the submission process, including supplemental abstracts for panelists. Keep your eyes peeled for more information!

 

HOTEL REBRANDING

Important note! This year’s Sirens hotel, the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa, has completed their renovation for Spring 2017 and has been renamed the Hotel Talisa. We have updated the hotel page on our website with the change.

 

SIRENS BENEFIT ANTHOLOGY SEEKING SUBMISSIONS

Last year, a few of our attendees did the tremendous job of compiling, editing, and publishing Queens and Courtesans, a benefit anthology with all proceeds donated back to Sirens. This year, their anthology, Witches and Warriors, is currently seeking submissions, particularly across all areas of intersectional feminism. For more details, please visit the submission link.

 

AMY’S BOOK CLUB

The Mistress of Spices

Sirens co-founder Amy Tenbrink kicks off a new year of her book club with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices, which she considered “a beautifully crafted folktale of an indomitable woman who battles her own magic to aid her people: the Indian immigrants of modern-day Oakland.” Check out her review, coming tomorrow, on the blog and Goodreads.

 

READ ALONG WITH FAYE

All Our Pretty Songs

Communications staffer Faye Bi returns with her quest to complete the 2017 Reading Challenge! First up is Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs; she found the “modern Orpheus and Eurydice retelling fused with sex, drugs and rock and roll… ultimately about friendship and love, though not the way one might suspect.” Check out her review on the blog and Goodreads.

 


Questions? Concerns? Please email general queries to (help at sirensconference.org) and questions about programming to (programming at sirensconference.org).

 

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Read Along with Faye: All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

All Our Pretty Songs

Read Along with Faye is back for the 2017 Sirens Reading Challenge! Each month, Sirens communications staff member Faye Bi will review and discuss a book on her journey to read the requisite 25 books to complete the challenge. Titles will consist of this year’s Sirens theme of women who work magic. Light spoilers ahead. We invite you to join us and read along!

Happy January, dear Sirens. This month, I chose to read Sarah McCarry’s All Our Pretty Songs, which I knew very little about, but found quickly able to absorb the lush prose and evocative setting of the Pacific Northwest. Featuring an intentionally (I think) unnamed narrator, McCarry’s novel is a modern Orpheus and Eurydice retelling fused with sex, drugs and rock and roll—but is ultimately about friendship and love, though not the way one might suspect.

Our narrator has spent her whole life taking care of her best friend Aurora, whose rock star father à la Kurt Cobain died in a drug overdose. While the narrator believes herself unremarkable and tomboyish, Aurora is volatile as she is beautiful, the “it” party girl. We spend a lot of time learning the backstory of these two friends-practically-sisters. The unconventional family unit of Aurora, our narrator and their mothers (who have an incredible amount of painful baggage) was fascinating to read. When a talented musician named Jack enters their lives, he draws the attention of an otherworldly, skeleton-like music mogul named Minos who can grant him the success of his dreams. Our narrator falls in love with Jack; Aurora also attracts Minos’s attention—Minos who may also have had something to do with her father’s suicide.

One thing I can appreciate about All Our Pretty Songs is the way it blurs reality and metaphor. What is real, what is myth, and what is drug-induced hallucination? I confess I spent much of it lost in the prose, which was full of detail, oftentimes vague and occasionally meandering. I also confess this is a type of book I don’t connect personally with, having grown up as a goody-two-shoes with overbearing parents. I’m not sure that “scrappy, gritty YA” is something I can judge either, as I don’t know what’s authentic or what’s trying too hard, with its pulsing party scene (drinking, drugs, casual sex)—maybe this doesn’t even matter.

But the easy thing to appreciate about All Our Pretty Songs is the characterization. Our narrator’s relationship with Cass, her mother is superbly fraught and complicated. I can’t decide if the narrator’s friendship with Raoul is mutually flourishing or not, but he was so great I don’t even care. But most of all, ballsy narrator is ballsy in doing her best to rescue Jack and Aurora in this trance-y otherworldly underworld. (Spoiler, this is an Orpheus and Eurydice retelling; it doesn’t end happily). But this is easily one of the best passages:

I came here for my lover and the girl who is my sister, and they were mine before anyone else tried to take them from me, before this bony motherfucker showed up on my stoop and let loose all the old things better left at rest. Jack I will let go; Jack is on his own, now. But I will die before I leave Aurora down here.

That kind of sentiment deserves a fist pump don’t you think? And what’s great is that it seems to be a running theme in the other two books in the Metamorphoses series. Dirty Wings explores the story of Maia and Cass, Aurora and our narrator’s mothers, and I’ve heard extraordinary things about About A Girl. Time to get to it.

Next Month: Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin
 


 
Faye Bi works as a book publicist in New York City, and is a member of the Sirens communications team. She’s yet to read an immigrant story she hasn’t cried over, and is happiest planning nerdy parties, capping off a long run with brunch, and cycling along the East River.

 

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