Book Review: Before by Carmen Boullosa or growing up is scary

clac clac clac. Steps approaching. That feeling that someone – or something – is watching you from the darkness, hidden from view. But you can feel it, its presence slowly approaching, towering over you, overpowering. Fear. That copper taste in your mouth, and the world pauses. Fear. But is it your instinct for survival kicking in or are you a child frightened by shadows?

The world can be a scary place when you don’t have enough words to define it, understand it and thus tame it. Words encapsulate fear and distill it. Words capture fear and immobilize it. But children lack words; they gather them slowly, like pebbles. Fear recedes slowly, and growing up can be even scarier. When you are finally making sense of the world, puberty places everything on its head. More so for women, where puberty not only comes with painful and scary changes, but often with a loss of freedom. A restrictive set of rules that make no sense and are not applied consistently. What if it also came with an announced death?

Carmen Boullosa considers Before her debut novel, even if she had written a very violent story before which she felt was too rough to be a novel, too amateur to count. So Before is really the beginning. It was the beginning of a successful literary career. She had become known in poetry circles and small-time theater for her plays and poems. But there was a story that would not let her go. A story about herself, and her mother and a long-lost childhood. A mother herself, both to her babies and her partner’s little son, trying to make ends meet running a small theater, and writing poetry and dealing with what it means to mother when you lost your mother, with her fears and that story. That story that wanted so much to get out. That story that poked her every time her partner’s son ran to her bed chased by his fear. So she wrote it down, possibly to get rid of it. To let it rest. She didn’t think she would publish it. But she needed money and Octavio Paz was interested. Who said “no” to the only Mexican author to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Antes was born in 1989, and Before would not get to meet English-speaking readers until 2016. In Before, an unnamed girl recounts her life chased by shadows and eerie noises. Nightmares, emotional recollections and magical realism are all mingled together to create a story about coming-of-age as a woman in Mexico in the mid 1950s.

A ghost-story it is, a very Mexican and Catholic ghost story at that, but very different from its predecessors, Carlos Fuentes’ Aura and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. Being that the narrator is little girl, the narration is fractured; there is a lot of repetition and at the same time, the reader does not get the whole picture. The reader is forced to try to understand whatever this young girl is trying to convey with how limiting and restricting her fear is to her ability to paint a clear picture. Fear and how her imagination tries to make sense of what she perceives, draw shadows here and there with only a partial and confused picture surfacing.

Before is a woman-centered story about the nature of womanhood and the restrictions that Catholicism and patriarchal society place on women. It is story about how society punishes women who dare to dream otherwise, like Esther. In Before death is not only literal, but a signifier of a great change and how we make sense of that in this life. It is about women’s guilt over things they cannot control. About handling grief, and change and guilt and societal pressure. It is about erasing yourself not to feel, not to be demanded and restricted, not to dream to rise about all of it, and fail.

Comparing it to its predecessors, it is a more nuanced, more complex and more critical ghost story about the world that young women inhabit. It was true in Mexico of the 1950s, and it still very true today in some form or another. A masterpiece of feminist fiction.

Book Review: The Masker by Torrey Peters

We all have heard of Torrey Peters right now. Haven’t you? Gorgeous trans-woman writing stories centering trans-women for trans people. Racy, honest, raw writing that might make us, cis-het, folks uncomfortable, googling a whole lot and feeling like we were not in on the secret. And that is a good thing.

But before unconventional relationships between three woman trying to raise a baby together, there were other novellas, like The Masker, which Peters self-published and sold on her website (or you could get an e-book for free). A few weeks back, she announced that there was to be no more. She was working on revising her work, which would be published by Random House as an affordable paperback.

But while we wait for that to happen, let me tell you about the original, un-revised version of The Masker, a story like no other I have ever read before.

Krys is young and pretty. She has recently transitioned and goes to a famous conference in Vegas for transwomen and cross-dressers. She’s shy and feeling out of place and an older, confident and experienced transwoman wants to take her under her wing and protect her from all the pain that she had to go through when she transitioned. But Krys has a long-time fantasy of force-feminization and being objectified by a handsome guy, and there he is. Handsome and with a reputation for being a bad boy. He seems into her, so will Krys do the right thing?

Peters does a fantastic job at painting her characters with nuance. They are flawed, vulnerable, scarred by pain and life, at times self-serving, but always very real. It feels like an honest look into experiences that are very far from mainstream literature, being mostly centered on cis-het women or occasionally, on gay men. So honest that at times, it feels invasive. It feels voyeuristic. It is erotic and dark and, at the same time, speaks to moral dilemmas that come with trying to be sexually honest.

I can’t wait to see what revisions brings on. In the meantime, I will hold to my now out-of-stock paperback like the treasure it is.

Book Review: The Divorce by Cesar Aira

Though Cesar Aira is one of Argentina’s most prolific writers, his works have been extensively translated to English, and he has even been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he isn’t mainstream. And that is for a reason.

Aira’s writing is experimental, confusing, and norm-shattering. While authors like Anne Garreta and the rest of the crew at Oulipo are testing the boundaries of language and writing by placing restricting techniques, Aira has fled in the opposite direction: a total rejection of writing’s restrictive standards. Who said every story needs a plot or an ending? Character-development? What for? His characters enter and leave the scene as mere props for what he is ulterior message. Does this annoy you? It annoys a lot of readers, and fascinates others in-love with reinventing literary fiction.

At first, the Divorce seems to be the story of a middle-aged man who has recently gone through a divorce. He cannot stand to spend Christmas away from his kids so he leaves Rhode Island for his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He sets up into a nice routine of walks, coffee and good food with old friends. Then comes the turning point: while he is having dinner at local restaurant, a young man riding a bicycle ends up completed soaked, where did that water come from? Then, a variety or characters and interconnected stories shoot in all directions, like that red thread joining pictures on police blackboards we see in Hollywood movies.

Or more like a labyrinth designed by Borges and inspired by Dada. Not a coincidence. To set this novella, Aira chose the neighborhood of Palermo Soho, in Buenos Aires, where Borges spent his childhood. And we find one of the sub-plots to be a coming-of-age story, so maybe it is all connected? Aira’s masterful story-telling is creative and mind-bending like Borges’ but leaning into the absurd. While we may try to find meaning in every character or situation written by Borges, a touch of the metaphysical, Aira is not trying to re-create the works of the Master. Overthinking, over-analyzing and dissecting The Divorce is probably futile. It is about the ride, not where the story is trying to take us. And Aira never said it was supposed to be a soul-searching, educational ride, anyways. But, it will still be a wild one.

Top 5 books of July ‘21

1. The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s classic originally published in 1963 gets a new reprint by Modern Library. This reissue in hardcover came out July 6th and *disclaimer* I was fortunate to get a free copy from the publisher. Baldwin is a literary rock-star both for his fiction and non-fiction, and The Fire Next Time has inspired other explorations on race by media celebrities such as CNN’s Don Lemon’s This Is The Fire (2021) and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time. I felt that in The Fire Next Time, part memoir, part letter, part essay, Baldwin opened the doors to his soul and his mind like in no other work. We get to learn what made him take the particular road that took him to us, and how he envisions America moving forward towards a more egalitarian place for all.

2. So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano.

Patrick Modiano does it again. In So You Don’t Get Lost In The Neighborhood (2014), the Nobel Literature Laureate shows us why (though European / White biased) they don’t hand them over to just anyone. He is a master of a suspense thriller done right. No clichés, no lengthy descriptions of woman’s breasts, no gold-digger widows. An elderly man is woken up from his nap by a mysterious phone call claiming to be a Good Samaritan trying to return his lost notebook. Is he being blackmailed ? That phone call will lead him to reckon with an event in his childhood which he had forgotten all about.

3. How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

This essay collection was originally published in 2013, and Kiese Laymon painfully and expensively bought it back (along with his novel Long Division) from the publisher and reissued it revised and improved with 6 new essays in 2020. Laymon wrote the original essay collection shortly after his uncle died, and in this new edition shows his growth over those seven years. Laymon is unparalleled when it comes to stringing together beautiful sentences on painful subjects and does not shy to show himself to his readers as a Black man who has had his share of pain, has been terribly wronged by America and has wrong others in turn. Not for nothing he is one of the most celebrated American writers of our times. And he deserves all that.

4. Before by Carmen Boullosa

Part coming of age, part suspense-thriller and part ghost story, this novella packs a lot in just a few pages. Magical closets, mysterious and eerie noises that can make little girls disappear, peppered with autobiographical details and we have a spooky, addictive story of becoming a woman in Mexico City in the 1950s. Boullosa, with Before (1962) adds herself to the list of Latin American writers who are redefining horror in translation.

5. The Woman In The Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

I have lately been very lucky to have loved every novel by a Japanese female writer, and The Woman In The Purple Skirt (2021) was no exception. This is the story of a mysterious woman who everyone calls The Woman in the Purple Skirt. She seems to be an introvert, super quiet and living in her own world. The story is told from the POV of The Woman In the Yellow Cardigan who is super obsessed with her, literally stalking her and green envy oozing (metaphorically) from every pore of her body. It’s so voyeuristic, quirky and creative. Another thriller perfectly executed.

Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno García

This is the story of Casiopea Tun, an eighteen year old girl living with her mean and grumpy grandfather in a small town in Yucatán after the death of her dad. Her mom was grandpa’s favorite before she ran off and married a half-Maya journalist from Merida. Now, they are the undesirable poor relatives who he had to take in, and treats like servants. But one day, Casiopea wakes up the Mayan god of death and is pushed into an adventure that will change her life forever.

I tend to dislike YA, but I found this story cute and charming. I also liked how the author portrayed Mexican culture with such an accuracy, with all its flaws and quirkinesses. That you don’t learn doing research for a book or staying a few months in Merida; it only comes through opening your heart and really seeing us or being one of us.

This story didn’t need to be peppered in Spanish (it wasn’t) a-la American Dirt to feel real, to portray what it feels to be Mexican. And I loved that.

Book Review: Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Aura is a spooky and mysterious read where the reader feels trapped in a weird dream; what is real? What is not? Are we stuck in a time warp? And there is so much left in the air and open for interpretation, that nothing feels settled; there’s no closure. But then again, don’t we feel like that in dreams?

Fernando Montero, handsome young aspiring writer who makes ends meet by subbing in a private school sees an ad for a French speaking writer that offers him the opportunity to earn 4X his salary. But his employer is an old lady, stuck in bed, living in a damp house with no electricity and has some strange conditions. Her niece is gorgeous and money is good, so he takes it and moves in with them. From that point onwards, reality will cease to be clear-cut and his life will take a strange twist.

I particularly love how this book opens the door to exploring a time in Mexican history that a lot of foreigners ignore, and the legacy of French culture in Mexico. Also I think the author is trying to bring about a nostalgia of a time long lost when Mexico’s ties with Europe were closer; and draw a contrast between chaotic modernity and “cultured” past. It is a classist, Euro-centric view but the beauty of a ghost story and gothic setting is enough to hook any reader.

Book Review: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

If you loved Things We Lost In The Fire, odds are you’ll like this one as well. Enriquez repeats her successful formula with short haunting stories, most of them featuring teenagers or women in their early twenties layered with social commentary.

Again we encounter orphans living on the street, transgender prostitutes, vanishing women and San Muerte followers, plus new themes that form part of Latin American folklore like baby angels and dead relatives coming back to life. It is not magical realism but horror, but done so well it feels real. It took me back to being babysat by my great grandmother and hearing eerie tales of times long gone.

However, consensus seems to be that The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is not as good as Things We Lost In The Fire and I tend to agree. Though spooky and interesting, most stories lack that shock feeling that was present in Things We Lost In The Fire; that haunting that you can’t shake us. Having said that, the first story in this collection has been tattooed on my memory forever. Maybe reading it at 3am during a winter storm was not a great idea.

Latinas in Translation: Let’s get spooked!

Latin-American women are becoming very popular for horror or spooky stories. Last year it was all about Mexican Gothic, and this year The Dangers of Smoking in Bed; but the truth is that they’ve been writing great scary stories for almost 100 years.

María Luisa Bombal (Chile), wrote the first story of the genre of magical realism in 1935, “House of Mist”. Trying to fit it in those genre boxes that publishers and booksellers love so much, we’d say it’s a suspense thriller, part ghost story, part romance. A story that will carry its scent into far more popular novellas, such as Aura (1962) by Carlos Fuentes, and the Invention of Morel (1964) by Adolfo Bioy Casares. But far more than that (and unlike more celebrated works by Latin American male authors of the genre) is a feminist coming-of-age story, though our protagonist is not a girl but a young woman. As a young bride, neglected by her husband, and shackled by gender roles and loneliness, she creates her identity, her definition of womanhood and chases after this handsome young man who seems more of a shadow and a sexual fantasy than a real love interest. And it is eerie, spooky and has that Hitchcock feeling that will trap you from the start.

And then there’s Silvina Ocampo (Argentina), who, though lesser known than her husband Bioy Casares and his best friend Borges, wrote spooky, imaginative, creative and fantastical short stories (154 of them spanning more than 50 years, from 1937 to 1988) who influenced contemporary Argentinian writers such as Mariana Enriquez and Samantha Schweblin. One of her most popular collections of short stories translated to English Thus Were Their Faces (2015) and La Furia y Otros Cuentos (1959) in Spanish.

Fast forward to present day, Samantha Schweblin (Argentina), Mariana Enriquez (Argentina), Agustina Bazterrica (Argentina), Silvia Moreno García (Mexico) and Fernanda Melchor (Mexico) have followed on that tradition and made headlines around the globe.

While Mariana Enriquez has written more traditional horror that has that “real” feel and relatability of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural passed on from generation to generation; Samantha Schweblin and Agustina Bazterrica have created stories that muddle the borders between dystopian and horror.

In Kentukis / Little Eyes (2018) Schweblin explores loneliness, isolation and technological voyeurism in her tale of robotic animal companions who turn out to be more threatening than our tamagotchis.

Meanwhile, Bazterrica in Tender Is the Flesh (2017) manages to push a strong argument in favor of veganism with her dystopian of cannibalism. It’s disturbing, scary and not to be read on a full stomach.

Fernanda Melchor is a journalist and that has inspired her literature. Peppered with autobiographical details and real-life events as inspiration, the stories behind Hurricane Season and This Is Not Miami are scary because they feel so close to real. In Hurricane Season, a “witch” is murdered in a small village and the culprit could have been anyone for what witch is loved? Homophobia, strong language and graphic violence make this a suspense thriller that, though hard to swallow, keeps you glued to the pages right to the end.

Finally, possibly the most read Mexican author of last year, Silvia Moreno García, a woman of all genres. Though she writes in English, she deserves a spot in this post due to the impact she has had on the genre. But Moreno-García likes to dip her toes across all genres, from her Young Adult Fantasy Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019) to Historical Fantasy & Romance with The Beautiful Ones (2017), to Mystery Thriller with Untamed Shore (2020) and Velvet is The Night (2021). Mexican Gothic was a sensation for her combination of gothic and 1950s glamour, romance and horror but overall a protagonist like we’ve never seen before in this genre. Far away from Jennifer Love Hewit in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place (2018) or Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960), she’s a petite, brown, smart and confident Latina who doesn’t need your help. She’s here to save the day, and that she’ll do.

Book Review: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

This book was so cute, and deep, sad and to be honest, relatable. I loved Zhuang’s character and got really frustrated at how she put up with her insufferable boyfriend. But that’s me in my thirties knowing that I might have done the same in my early twenties. That I also once long ago thought that love needs work, you gotta put in the time, suck up your ego, sacrifice yourself to love and shape your partner into husband potential. Now I know love is a lot of things but never a chore. Love does not need martyrs. Love is a force that should elicit a reaction back with the same intensity or it consumes itself.

But this is not only a cute romance. It is a coming of age story about finding yourself, learning how to love and be free, about loneliness and cultural identity. About the West vs East discourse that is as old as time yet here it is. Still here with renewed force. I am very happy to have read this. The light yet profound read I needed while I go through my reading slump.

Book Review: How The Word Is Passed

Memory, for me, is often a home where the furniture has been rearranged one too many times.” – Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed.

This book is beautiful like a nursery rhyme sang by a loving parent. Like the smell of clean linen out of the dryer. Ok, I am no poet but Clint Smith definitely is and paraphrasing a very wise man: “he knows words. He has the best words.” And he really does. “How the Word Is Passed” is beautifully written and sad; you literally feel the weigh of atrocities committed in our land and far away like concrete being poured on your chest. And I can honestly say I have not read a book that is so life-changing for me, personally, since I read “Woman Race Class” by Angela Y. Davis years ago.

In this collection of essays, Smiths takes on a literary journey across America and Senegal and across time, from the foundation of America to today. From Louisiana to Virginia to New York to Texas, we hear the stories of enslaved Americans and their descendants and how history should remember them, hadn’t it been written by the oppressor.

Smith closes with a message of the importance of teaching history accurately, owning up to our darker actions. It made me reckon with how I learned history and all what was left unsaid but shouldn’t. And how do we move forward from here.

This is one of those books that I need everyone to read.