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 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.

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: Big Girl Small Town

This debut novel by Northern Irish author, Michelle Galen, has been well loved in the UK and praised for its humor, especially with the Troubles as a background, not a humorous subject at all.

I have to confess that I missed the humor, maybe it is because I don’t get the characteristic dark British humor. But I did find Majella O’Neil, the unique and quirky protagonist, a very lovable character. She’s an introvert, not a people’s person and brilliant, though her tough life diminished her chances of success. She’s real and unapologetically herself, awkward and funny. Like a Seinfeld character. And this novel is kind of a Seinfeld episode: just normal life happening with funny characters popping in here and there. There’s not much of a plot, but character development makes up for it. Though I had no idea where the author was going with this story, I felt that rush to read it all the way to the end. It is a charming book that captures the essence of a life in a small town with limited prospects. Like a Northern Irish Schitt’s Creek.

I was particularly a fan of the way that the author transliterated the accent, which makes it the kind of novel you want to read aloud. Or even better, listen to the audiobook. I heard a little sample and it sounds like it might even be better than in print. If you are looking for a light, fun read, this might be something you should consider.

Book Review: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

This is by far my favorite book by Valeria Luiselli. I could justify it by its unique structure or how I loved that it is centered around two artists from my home State (Gilberto Owen and Jose Limon) and completely changed the way I have known them and thought about them until now, from unidimensional, boring, black and white to human, flawed, funny and in technicolor. Or it could be because she is a master at making us feel her characters, get in their head and see the world through their eyes even if we do not normally agree with their ideas.

Possibly, it is because in this book she reminds me being in my twenties, fighting loneliness and making stupid mistakes just because I could. But I think you should find your own reasons for loving it, which you will if you give it a chance.

Book Review: A Measure of Belonging

Whatever threat or violence awaits this nation in the years ahead, none of it lurks there because we permit diversity and difference to enter here. It lurks because we permit disparity and indifference, because we seek not to correct desperation and injustice but to insulate ourselves from them.” – Jaswinder Bolina, A Measure of Belonging.

I had high hopes for a collection of essays written by writers of colors with connections to the South edited by Cinelle Barnes, and featuring favorites such as Toni Jensen and Natalia Sylvester. It didn’t disappoint. I was hooked to every single one and felt the need to devour it in one sitting. As a Latina with an accent, I felt seen. As a Muslim, I felt seen. And as someone who has to hear “but where are you REALLY from ?” incessantly, I felt represented. I saw my pain and fears and complaints about being “othered” in theirs; but I also saw in them hopes that we can make a place for ourselves. That we can break the myth of the South as exclusively white and culturally homogeneous. That we can reclaim the South for us: Black, Indigenous and Latinxs, who’ve here long before this was the land of sweet tea and BBQ. Hope that one day we don’t have to justify our existence in the South, that we just are… a rainbow of colors, beliefs, cultures and cuisines; and no one remembers what a confederate flag looks like. I have a dream, don’t we all?

Book Review: Congo, Inc by In Koli Jean Bofane

I recently realized that I had yet to read an author from the Democratic Republic of Congo, so I picked up In Koli Jean Bonafe’s Congo, Inc. It was a pretty intense, sad, violent yet hilarious short read (around 200 pages). While it shares some themes and similarities with Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses (set in Congo-Brazzaville), this has a much darker tone, even if they are both satires of corruption and colonialism that will make you laugh at times.

Here we have the story of Isookanga, a Pygmy from the deep forest of Congo who dreams about being a big-time trader and reaping the benefits of globalization. He looks up to Snoop Dog and plays a violent online game on the exploitation of national resources by corporations, corrupt governments, energy companies and arms dealers through the most despicable means. He leaves for Kinshasa where he meets his Chinese mentor (a victim of globalization and corporate greed). Together, they try to navigate corruption, police brutality and underage street gangs in a very brutal environment.

After reading Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu and Cockroaches, Congo Inc helped me put the Rwandan genocide into a much broader perspective, how it engulfed and affected both Congos, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

This story doesn’t lack villains: Tutsi warlords, corrupt UN officials and power-hungry politicians, all benefiting from the chaos. And, as in all wars, the greatest victims are women and children. But these women, though subjected to worst possible abuses and sexual violence, they manage to be strong, smart, vengeful. Survivors making the best play with the terrible cards patriarchy has dealt them.

One would need a semester to go into details into all the themes explored on this book, but suffice it to say that the author does a fantastic job at portraying the horrible effects of colonialism, western intervention, globalization, ecological devastation, war, corruption and police brutality. I particularly loved who he portrayed useless white guilt and bigotry, paternalistic white savior attitude that solves nothing.

CW: rape, sexual violence, mass murder, graphic violence, graphic sexual scenes, pedophilia, abuse of minors, policy brutality.

Book Review: I am Ariel Sharon by Yara El-Ghadban

In this beautifully and poetically written work of fiction, El-Ghadban takes us inside the mind of Ariel Sharon, the controversial Israeli statement who plunged into a comma in 2006.

Like Greek furies, a series of women guide him through his past life, his victories and defeats, his passions and hatred. They are women he loved and women he didn’t get to know closely, but his life as a military man and warrior might have touched and wronged.

What I loved most is the beauty of the language, purely literary and lyrical. And I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about his life, though fictionalized, as one of the leading figures of the twentieth century.

Book Review: We Are All Equally Far From Love by Adania Shibli

In “We Are All Equally Far From Love”, Adania Shibli takes us through the despairs of broken hearts and the emotional (and sometimes physical violence) of separation.

This is not a story about war or genocide against Palestinians. This is not war/trauma porn. Rather, in these interconnected short stories, Shibli walks us on how women in Occupied Palestine try to go on with their normal lives; fall in and out of love, write love letters and dream of a future that does not only include preparing dinner for a husband and a few kids. She gives voice to teenagers who try to rebel within the boundaries of patriarchy, middle-aged women soured by disappointments and young women fighting domestic violence. They are all survivors in their own way.

What I liked most about this book was how it was so beautifully written. Especially how there is a poem stitching all these stories together and giving the reader a preview of what’s to come.

It is a beautiful work of art I cannot recommend enough.