Book Review: Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga, by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Available in bookstores nationwide.

What happens to women who have devoted themselves to their husbands and children cv_heavenly_hiranis_school_of_laughing_yogawhen those they have built their lives around no longer need them? This is the difficult, emotional question at the heart of Sarah-Kate Lynch’s latest novel Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

The answer, at least for our protagonist Annie, comes in a vibrant and unexpected package.

Annie is about to hit rock bottom – and with good reason. She almost never hears from her son Ben and her overindulged daughter Daisy only gets in touch when she wants to make a withdrawal from the bank of mum. Annie’s own gentle and loving mother has just passed away after a short battle with dementia and her husband Hugh has become more like a flatmate than a husband – he’s there but does he actually “see” her anymore? Just as Annie teeters on the brink of despair and depression, the disappearance of her beloved canine companion Bertie tips her over the edge.

When Hugh presents Annie with tickets to accompany him on a work trip to India, she cannot think of anything worse than a holiday in smelly, dirty, crowded, humid Mumbai. She has no intention of venturing past the gates of the hotel and every intention of staying in her air conditioned room ordering from room service. But fate has other plans and through a friendly waiter named Valren she is introduced to Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga.

It’s unlike any Yoga class you have ever heard of: held on the sands of Chowpatty Beach as the sun comes up on the frenetically paced city, the forced laughter exercises soon induce genuine mirth and joy. Despite her myriad of initial misgivings, Annie is drawn back each day to the embrace of this circle of men and women and their kind-hearted leader Heavenly Hirani. It also sparks off a chain reaction within Annie, and as she begins to explore the treasures of Mumbai aided by her devoted, unintentionally comical (and very wise) personal taxi driver Pinto, she learns all manner of things about herself.

This is Sarah-Kate Lynch at her funny, clever and insightful best. At times I wanted to shake her character of Annie as she curled up inside her timid shell, but by the end I wanted to hug her tight for the brave and honest transformation and self-discovery she had gone through, staring down empty nest syndrome and firmly kicking its butt. It’s a story younger women will connect with, perhaps having seen Annie’s dilemmas reflected in their own mums, while older readers will nod their heads sagely and with a wry smile think “yep, been there, done that, lived to tell the tale.”

And no matter what age you are, you’ll be captivated by the crazy, colourful, chaotic city of Mumbai brought vividly to life on the page by Sarah-Kate’s gorgeous descriptions. Like Annie (and the author), I have never had any desire to visit India but all that changed reading this novel – maybe Sarah-Kate needs to start charging the Indian ministry of tourism commission!

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga is tender, big hearted story about a woman rediscovering herself and her place in the world, infused with all the wit and warmth we have come to know and love Sarah-Kate Lynch for.

Reviewed by Kelly Bold

Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga
by Sarah-Kate Lynch
Published by Black Swan NZ
ISBN 9781775537052

John Marsden, Reza Aslan and Sarah-Kate Lynch begin a very full Sunday at the Auckland Writer’s Festival

What a day! Starting with John Marsden at 10 am and ending with a waiata from Patricia Grace’s whanau at 6:30pm. Such was the final day of the Auckland Writers Festival 2014 for me.

John Marsden (right) writes for children and young adults. Marsden_ JohnAs an English teacher, he was aware that kids were not reading enough and when he tried to find books to recommend to year nine kids, all he could find was the Flowers In The Attic series, which he described as awful and the equivalent of Twilight in its time! Whoops, my teenage persona was addicted to that series penned by Virginia Andrews. John decided that it couldn’t be that hard to write books, he was after all an English teacher at an isolated boarding school and lived in close proximity to teenagers most of the year. His first book was So Much To Tell You, which he tried out on his students and they (of course) liked it − one girl was moved to tears. That connection between reader and writer inspired him to continue.

While writing Tomorrow When The War Began he knew it was going to be really big. He just had a gut feeling. His editor was similarly optimistic, but the first reviews were awful. Really awful. But his belief in the book has been repaid over and over again. He wrote the book to show that teenagers (at least the ones he knew) were compassionate with a heroic spirit, and not the hopeless, negative, uninterested, drug-addled losers that they were portrayed to be in the media.

John Marsden gave a few insights into the type of writer he is. For example, he is never comfortable reading his work aloud, as he always feel he could have done better, and he thinks all of the best books have a change in status for their characters.


John Marsden signs in the Aotea Centre

Next up was The Politics of Prophets with Professor Reza Aslan. Describing his mother as a sometime Muslim and his father as an atheist, this emigrant Iranian grew up in the USA and became an evangelical Christian in his early life. He became a preacher, and eventually studied religion formally at University.

Aslan_RezaAslan (left) reminded the audience that in fact neither Jesus nor Mohammed actually created religion, they were simply prophets that reformed existing religions. He describes religion as storytelling, more about identity than practices. It’s how you see yourself in the world. He described the human desire for puritanism as an attempt to purify a faith and return it to an imaginary past. All scripture is simply words on a page and requires interpretation to have meaning − scripture is infinitely malleable. He used the example of slaves and slave owners using the same bible and even the same verses to justify their opposing positions.

He reminded the audience that religion was once synonymous with citizenship, which is now more aligned on a geographical basis. Religion provided identity: a club membership, if you will. It’s the way we identify the differences and similarities between people we encounter. Shared religious sayings and metaphors deepen relationships and offer an immediacy of intimacy between people, and exclude those who don’t understand them.

Aslan dismissed questions about religious violence – in his mind the worst examples of violence are secular (eg fascism, Marxism, etc) and he concluded “The fact of the matter is that we will kill each other for any reason.” Sobering stuff.

Now for something so different, but with an equally exuberant presentation…Sarah-Kate Lynch in conversation with Petra Bagust about her latest book, Screw You, Dolores. It is a nonfiction book about her life and about happiness and, I guess, how to find it.

When Lynch (right) writes any book she aims to pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmlamuse and make people feel good: she prefers the happily-ever-after stories to the dark and gloomy novels.

The title comes from a lovely story that Lynch tells of a younger version of herself in Los Angles buying the staples of life – beer, cigarettes and Pringles – when a checkout operator, with a name badge that identified her as Dolores, in a rather shrill voice (well it was when relayed to the audience!) shrieked, “Don’t put your items on the conveyor belt until the customer before you has finished.” The young Lynch obediently scooped her selection up back into her arms. I am certain the Sarah-Kate Lynch in the room today would not have. But I digress − back in the grocery store, the whole scene was repeated a few seconds later − this time directed at the man behind Sarah-Kate. His response was to simply walk out of the store leaving his groceries on the belt, but before leaving he said three brief words, “Screw you, Dolores!” Lynch realised that was not only a great line, but a lesson for life happiness. Screw You, Dolores is an idea and method about how to feel better.

Sarah-Kate is witty and funny, but surprisingly shy. She is adamant about one thing though and that is that we need to buy NZ books, to support NZ writers. Petra Bagust referred to this book as a “A $30 investment in happiness”, and you know, she is probably right.

Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler
Editors note: I have split this post in two, due to length. The second post will be up shortly! 

New Zealand Listener Gala Opening Night: True Stories Told Live – Truth and Lies

True Stories Told Live: Truth and LiesAWF_2014_Get-The-Full-Story

There was a great buzz at the Aotea Centre on Thursday night for the gala festival event,
in which eight writers were invited to speak on the theme of truth and lies for seven minutes, with neither scripts nor props.

Auckland Writers Festival director Anne O’Brien introduced the evening with the rather startling assertion that artists have 229% more sex than average (truth? or damned lies and statistics?), before Carol Hirschfeld (left) stepped in with her newscaster’s air of unflappable calm to MC the evening.

pp_inua_ellamsFirst up was Nigerian British poet and performer Inua Ellams (left). Obviously supremely confident in front of an audience, he took to centre stage (rather than hiding behind the podium) to tell us a story of a long-ago breakup. “If all breakups were this beautiful”, he said, “I’d break up every day.” He painted a vivid picture of a Cambridge dorm room, a beautiful girl, and the sun coming out to illuminate a tear on her cheek. He helped heal the pain of heartbreak with poetry: “poetry helps me rediscover who I am”.

Ellams finished with that famous quote from Keats: ” ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Ellams was followed by celebrated photographer Marti Friedlander, hailed by Hirschfeld as a national treasure. She started with one minute’s silence for the abducted Nigerian girls − an uncomfortable truth if ever there were one − before lightening the mood by remarking that, in marriage, lies are often preferable. Charmingly, Friedlander confessed “I’ve told some fantastic lies in my time and I’m pleased to have told them.”

Next up was American novelist AM Homes (right), homes_amwho, it turned out, had lied when she agreed to do a scriptless event, instead taking to the podium to read us an extract from her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. Nobody minded: she’s a superb storyteller, and gripped us all with a tale of her own beginnings. A lawyer heralded her birth: “your bundle has arrived, and it’s wrapped in pink ribbons.” She compared the discovery of bits of data about her birth parents to being a recovering amnesiac. Homes recalls the strangeness of meeting her birth father and recognising her body on him, “the departments of ass”. She left me with a desire to read her books.

The fourth writer/performer was explorer and historian Huw Lewis-Jones, standing in for Lawrence Hill, who had been prevented by illness from attending. Lewis-Jones strode barefoot onto the stage and structured his talk around his lack of shoes. He invited us to consider their absence: Was it to better appreciate the carpet? To use shoelessness as a prop? To illustrate the way his journeys follow in the footsteps of great explorers? Eventually he hinted he was following the advice of a kuia, who had told him to take off his shoes for his talk in order to better connect to the earth − and so as to not walk mud into the building.

Irvine WelshBritish Lewis-Jones was followed by Scottish Irvine Welsh (left), author of Trainspotting. After commenting on the zombification of jet leg “(just like taking drugs, only without the fun part”), he launched into a rollicking yarn about a devilish cat. This cat, a giant, pit-bull-like tom (who I thought must have been like Greebo from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), “kidnapped my wife” by trapping her in a bathroom. It then emigrated to Illinois with its owners, where it took on not only the neighbourhood cats but also a coyote! Welsh made us laugh and I was sorry to see him leave the stage.

Next up was Kiwi columnist and novelist Sarah-Kate Lynch (right) , spicing things up in a black pp_sarah-kate-lynchsmltutu. She spoke feelingly about the terror being asked to go scriptless, and the way her seven minutes on stage had taken up hundreds of hours of worrying. Lynch promised to tell us the story of buying pyjamas for her dead father, but instead ended up talking about an anxiety dream she had had before the festival, in which she was delivering her seven-minute talk to us naked, and (in the dream) needed to bend down and pick up her lucky pen. I hope she is able to enjoy the feeling of relief that it’s now all over.

After Lynch we had a complete change of pace with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi, who somehow managed to come across as very private and shy while also being an excellent public speaker, creating a sense of intimacy in the huge Aotea Centre theatre. She spoke movingly about her absent father, who went away on business for a fortnight and was still gone twelve years later. Rashidi said her friends call her “slippery”, and told the story of slipping out of a writers’ retreat after being aggressively love-bombed by an ultra-successful bright young thing.

bulldozerThe final writer to grace the stage was the inimitable Alexander McCall-Smith, author of one of my favourite series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He began with the grandiloquent claim to be the only writer present telling the truth, and proceeded to spin a tall tale about a trip Montalcino. He claimed that, in the absence of hire cars available, he instead hired a bulldozer in which to pootle about the Tuscan countryside: “the advantage of which is that you can remove the bits you don’t like”. I think it was the way he collapsed into laughter at this point which was my first clue that his claim to truth was itself a lie. His wonderful good humour was infectious and got the whole audience chuckling.

After Hirschfeld had summed up the writers’ performances, a short memoriam film was shown to mark the passing of many authors over the past twelve months. Then all writers returned to the stage and we were invited to meet them at the book signing table afterwards. One thing’s for certain: the festival’s off to a rollicking great start!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage