Book Review: Young Donald by Michael Bennett

With less than 90 days for the Presidential Election in the US, protests in the streets calling for justice, equality and dignity for all and end to police brutality, reforming ICE and a better address to our this global pandemic; Young Donald is a book that is relevant. Not only is it a satire highlighting the worse traits of POTUS, but when times are so dire, we need to laugh it off.

In Young Donald, Michael Bennett imagines how Donald Trump would have been in a military high school in New Jersey, the days before the glist and the fame came to him. The days before record-breaking reality shows and NTY Best Seller lists. He is just a boy trying to stay afloat and be loved or envied (or both) by all. He is trying to get his dad’s approval and be ready to take over the family’s real estate business turning it into an empire. He is like any boy, but he is also Donald Trump. A pathological liar with no one’s interest at heart but himself, and a inflated (and unrealistic) sense of self-confidence. When his roommate and best friend is found dead one night at school, a fight for preserving his self-interest will ensue. Was it an accident? Did he kill himself? or was he the subject of an international conspiracy?

This book is so funny. It is really a lighthearted satire not suited for any MAGA fans. If you are a Democrat, a liberal or maybe a conservative who is disillusioned with Trump, you will surely find it entertaining. Bennett uses all the typical phrases and excuses, his addition to offensive nicknames and racist views of POTUS and reflects them in his young self. You will also find the terrible stereotypes that POTUS holds dear repeated, and offensive references to Asians, Jews, Catholics, Italians and even New Jersey residents. It is not the author pushing these harmful stereotypes, like that of the Asian model minority or Chinese belonging to triads, but a story narrated by Donald Trump could not have been written otherwise. A man who has made China his focus, could not find a rival any other than a Hong-Kong student, more cunning and yet more decent than himself.

So, this is a story that uses racial stereotypes to poke fun of racism in America. I find it also very telling those who are not there: Black, Indigenous and Latinxs are no where to be mentioned. And that exclusion, I feel talks to the erasure of these communities from representation in upper class circles, like Young Donald’s military academy. But don’t come to it expecting literary fiction or a treatise á la Ibram X. Kendi. It is just a light story for laughs, in this time when we need it most.

Book Review: Girl Gurl Grrrl by Kenya Hunt

I recently read Kenya Hunt’s essay collection “Girl Gurl Grrrl”. While most of the essays are penned by her, there are some interesting collaborations with other Black writers. Fans of Queenie will be delighted to learn about how this great bestseller personally influenced Candice Carty-Williams personality post-publishing.


My particular favorites were Girl, Notes on Woke, Motherhood and Skinfolk. Though written for Black women, as a BIPOC I could definitely relate to some of the sentiments expressed there and her experience as a person of color in a racialized America, and I feel that I learned a valuable lesson on reclaiming language that speaks to my identity, rather than trying to adapt white-sponsored “woke” terminology.

The book will be out in December, 2020. And it makes an interesting addition to our antiracist stacks.

Book review: Earth-eater by Dolores Reyes

Last night I devoured in one sitting this beautiful novella: “Earth-Eater / Come Tierra” by Argentinian author Dolores Reyes. It was a captivating, beautifully written story I couldn’t put down.

In this story we meet a young woman (possibly 13) who emotionally wrecked by her mother’s death and her dad’s flight stuffs her mouth with earth from her mom’s grave only to discover it gives her visions of her mom’s death, letting her witness it as if she were there. All through the following years she’ll be able to witness the last minutes of life or current state of people who are dead or missing. Will she fight that terrifying gift or harness it for good? Is she haunted by the dead?

This is a story of grief, poverty, social inequality and violence, mainly violence exerted against women wrapped in a breath-taking thriller I cannot recommend enough. This is only Reyes’ debut novel, so what has she in store for us for the future?

CW: sexual assault, domestic violence, murder, sexually explicit.

Book Review: A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib

This is the story of two sisters, Rose and Gameela, living in an upper class neighborhood in Cairo. Rose is an archeologist, and her religion is not something that she ponders about. Her family is pretty secular and no one wears the hijab. When Gameela starts wearing a headscarf and taking a strict position in religion, tension with her family starts and particularly with Rose. Things just get worse when Rose decides to marry an American journalist, and the sisters stop talking all together. But Gameela is killed in a terrorist attack and Rose is determined to find out what happened. Was her sister a fundamentalist?

This novel explores so many different themes: colonialism, classism, role of religion in ethics and moral, identity and politics. I particularly loved how the author showed religion affiliation as fluid; like a wave, sometimes we let it put as in a straitjacket and take over our daily lives, give meaning to our day to day and sometimes we use it as a moral compass but set rituals aside. Sometimes it defines us and sometimes it is hidden in our hearts. And like a wave, it keeps taking us up and down through our lives.

I loved this book so much I’ll be looking for her debut novel to start soon.

Understanding Borges: Funes The Memorious

In this day and age, insomnia is a common affliction. Though it has serious consequences for our body and mental health, we are quick to brush it off as an opportunity to catch up with a book or binge on Netflix without having to compromise with other household members. But I remember being insomniac as a kid. It wasn’t fun. I used to lay in bed in the dark, just trying to control the flood of crazy thoughts running through my mind. Hearing all sort of strange sounds and seeing monsters where there were only shadows.

Funes, like Borges himself, has insomnia. But rather than having an acute sense of hearing and perception as a result of insomnia, it is his acute perception that drives him not to sleep. He doesn’t want to miss a thing. See, Funes has a gift. He can remember everything. EVERYTHING just by seeing it once. Or even thinking it once. He has mastered Latin by reading a dictionary. He was a perceptive teen, but the accident exacerbated it. A young (but fictitious) Borges visits him and thus, this story about insomnia unfolds. Like all stories written by Borges, this story is about much more than insomnia or supernatural powers.

John Stewart (most likely NOT the guy from the Daily Show) wrote an interesting scholarly article on it titled “Borges Refutation of Nominalism in Funes El Memorioso” for Variaciones Borges 2/96. Interested? Click here.

Book talk: Between sissies and feminazis, there’s a truth waiting to be told…

Often in feminist writing, women express bitterness, rage and anger about male oppressors because it is one step that helps them to cease believing in romanticized versions of sex-role partners that deny woman’s humanity. Unfortunately, our over-emphasis on the male as oppressor often obscures the fact that men too are victimized. To be an oppressor is dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim. Patriarchy forces fathers to act as monsters, encourages husbands and lovers to be rapists in disguise; it teaches our blood brothers to feel ashamed that they care for us, and denies all men the emotional life that would act as a humanizing, self-affirming force in their lives. – bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

 

A concept which such a simple definition as feminism continues to rally people around the world and pit people against each other. You would think that everyone would agree that women and men should be equal? But the critics have branded all feminist as angry “feminazis” (and lesbian) who hate men; Amazons who want to see men enslaved.

Women are angry, and rightly so. At best, we’ll get .70 cents for every dollar an equally-qualified man makes for doing the same task; we get harassed. We are afraid of how our interactions with men will be understood and how that affects our safety. We get called on for wearing too many clothes (Muslim! prude! grandma!) or not wearing enough (slut!). Being blamed as “unnatural” if choosing career over family. Being told again and again by the media that Prince Charming is waiting (but not too long, there is such thing as too old or too fat to marry) to sweep us up our feet, and forcing unrealistic romantic expectations.

Men, get defensive, as it happens when someone is trying to strip you from your privilege. But, there’s a gap: women should be angry and men are victims too. Both women and men on both sides of the argument fail to realize that patriarchy makes men victims as well. Like all power, the power that men have over women (which has been bestowed upon them by society and not nature) corrupts. It has corrupted their humanity. It has the ability to turn them into monsters, because they know they will be left off the hook. It has deprived them of the ability to be balanced. Because men who care about women are sissies. Men who cry are sissies. Men who don’t like sports are surely feminine, and in a world that looks-down on women, that is possibly the worst thing you can be. Men cannot step outside of their role without possibly subjecting themselves to violence. Men have to be tough, they need to show force. They need to be dominant. They need to be territorial. And, they need to be self-sufficient. They will carry the economic burden of the entire household on their shoulders. Men cannot be free to love what/who they actually want to love. Roll in the grass with puppies or giggle like teenagers. They have a world to rule. Woman to keep in check lest they become corrupted.

Wouldn’t it be better if we would shed off these constraining gender roles and embrace who we really are? Love each other as we are, no competition. There’s no race to the top. I’ll give you a hand, if you have my back. That’s feminism.

Book Constructivism 101: Are books to be revered, built on or shelved?

#Bookstagram has been called on featuring, constantly and relentlessly, books as props. The Guardian and Vulture both published articles mocking and looking-down on the platform’s aesthetic obsession, from bookshelves organized by color or shelved spine-in to ‘throwing yourself on a pile of open books’ – coincidentally, Hillary Kelly’s headline for Vulture. As she points out, ‘books have always been art objects as well as social indicators’.

More recently, the New York Post caused controversy when it tweeted that “Bella and Gigi Hadid make books the new hot accessory of 2019” after they were spotted with copies of The Outsider by Stephen King, and the Stranger by Albert Camus respectively.

But both sides of this argument have existed and angered book-lovers way before social media. I recently read “The Spirit of Science Fiction” by Roberto Bolano. This is the story of two young Chilean writers who move to Mexico City. They are both very different, one loves poetry but works in journalism to pay his bills; and the other spends his time writing quirky fan mail to science fiction authors.

At one point, the science-fiction-obsessed author-to-be builds a table with science-fiction books borrowed (or stolen) from the local library. Some of his friends congratulate him, awed at his ability to create a fully functioning table while keeping the books clean and in good conditions. Some others, were enraged. Now bare with me while I clumsily translate you a passage of this novel:

The reason was the table built with science fiction books. Jan had shown it to her with the healthy pride of a fan of Chippendale and Angelica, after having studied it, both in awe and offended, determined that such action could not be considered as anything else other than a slap to literature in general, and science fiction in particular.

<< Books must be in shelves, ordered with care, ready to be read or consulted>>

 

So, no wonder 40 years later we are still torn, both in awe and offended, at the artistic use of books by social media users around the Globe. What would Bolano say?

Should we sacrifice political correctness for the sake of art?

I recently finished “Murdering Whores” a short story collection by Roberto Bolaño. I think he is a masterful narrator, his prose is smooth and informal, like having a chat with a close friend; his use of language (and his ability to switch back and forward between Spanish regional dialects) is astonishing. But, plot-wise… his stories can seem quite mundane. Rarely does he make use of Latin-American writers magic wand: magical realism, but when he does, he excels. There is only one story in this collection which magical realism characteristics: Buba. This is the story of three professional soccer players in Barcelona: a Chilean, an African and a Spanish. They start off the season in mediocrity until Buba, the African player, involves them in a black-magic ritual. Then, they become superstars and cannot fail. I loved this story, but felt guilty for loving it.

Is the idea of an African soccer player engaging in black magic reinforcing negative stereotypes or am I being over-sensitive? At one point, the Chilean and Spanish players ask a Brazilian singer about black magic. It could only have been worse if the singer was Haitian. What does it say about the association between African communities (including communities in Latin America with a strong African influence) and black magic? Is it hurtful to portray Africans in this way? Or do all stories deserve to be told? If we focus only in representation (especially representation of people of difference), are we casting aside really good stories? Are we sacrificing art for the sake of political correctness?

There are so many stories by masterful storytellers that we all hate to love. For example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of my melancholy whores”, a story about an old man wishing to spend his birthday by sleeping with an underage virgin – for money. He turns this despicable idea into a beautiful love story.

So, I guess we are destined to hate loving questionable stories, for the sake of art.

Book Quotes: Naamah

I’ve been thinking”, she says, “about what makes a woman”.

“You have?”

“I don’t want it to depend on being a mother, even if it has for me. I don’t want it to depend on genitals. I think very little of a man’s genitals. But with my uterus comes my period. It’s not how my life is marked, how I experience this monthly reminder that I am this body and not another – and monthly is so often. But there are choices I make, and others make, because of it. How we deal with how much it hurts, if we decide to speak it. How we deal with the blood.”

“But I think we could be women without these choices”.

I found so many remarkable quotes in Naamah by Sarah Blake I wanted to share them with you:

  • Anything that comes from blackness is a creation. Nothing can be born of light because light is already. But from me can come all things. From me can come a world the links of which you cannot fathom because when you came out of blackness you had not the power to fathom it. Blame me not for your limitations, Naamah, but take with you what I offer.

 

  • “If there’s anything I wish for you, it’s that you have a family and all the joy you can possibly have in life. To not overthink it. Because no matter what our lives could have been every version would have been filled with shit we’d had to deal with.”

 

  • “No one’s body was her but her own. But after growing Japheth, after seeing the shape of his head through her skin, she felt deeply that his body was her own.”

Book Review: The Bird King

The real struggle on this earth is not between those who want peace and those who want war. It’s between those who want peace and those who want justice. If justice is what you want then you may often be right, but you will rarely be happy.

“The Bird King’ is G Willow Wilson’s second novel, after “Alif the Unseen”. It has many things in common, such as the fact that it is a fantasy novel where love plays an important part, it has jinns as characters and it refers old manuscripts. But the story is entirely different. This time, G Willow Wilson takes us back to Islamic Spain, to the last days of Granada. Fatima is the Sultan’s concubine, born and raised in Granada, and longing for freedom. Her best friend is Hassan, the mapmaker, who has a very special power: he can map places he’s never been and bent reality. When the Spanish Inquisition arrives and it becomes obvious to Fatima that they intend to try Hassan for sorcery, Fatima takes Hassan away. With the help of Vivram the Vampire, a jinn (who was also a character in ‘Alif the Unseen’), they manage to escape Granada and go on an adventure that will transcend reality.

This novel takes place in the Middle Ages, and like the medieval romances, the main characters share platonic love. Hassan is gay, so it would never develop into a passionate relationship, but their love gives them purpose. However, this is a feminist story with a strong female lead, and Fatima is no damsel in distress. On the contrary, she is continuously, selflessly putting herself in danger to keep Hassan (and the rest of the crew that ends up tagging along) safe. There are some pretty powerful feminist messages in this story. For example, on the power of women’s anger:

‘You were taught to waste your anger,’ Vikram tells Fatima. ‘It’s convenient for girls to be angry about nothing. Girls who are angry about something are dangerous’

Also, at another point in the novel the Sultan of Granada tells Fatima:

‘You’re always so angry’, he said. ‘I don’t understand. You have pretty clothes, entertainment, foods when others go hungry. You have the love of a sultan. What else could you possibly want?’. Fatima licked the dry taut line of her lips. ‘To be sultan’, she said.

The novel has so many different layers of meaning and moral messages that I felt like I need to read it three or four times to understand it. One of the themes is freedom. Fatima was born pampered and lived in a so-to-speak golden cage, for it was no free. She had everything anyone could want except what she really needed: freedom and love. This story is her quest for freedom and love and the price one must pay to have both.

Another theme is the relation between Muslim and Christians and the perceived clash of civilizations. The central theme of the novel calls for understanding that we are dealing with two sides of the same coin:

If Luz was right, she would be punished for failing to acknowledge that God had a son; if the imam who grumbled from the minbar in the royal mosque was right, she would be punished for even considering such a proposition. Belief never seemed to enter into anything: it was simply a matter of selecting the correct system of enticements.

This an important message in today’s world, polarized between Islamophobia and anti-Western sentiment and terrorism. One of the arguments presented is that if each community believes that the other one is wrong, then we must have space to share God with those who God made, even if we believe them to be askew.

While this is not as fast paced and page-turner as ‘Alif the Unseen’, is a beautiful deep work that shares some truths that need to be told. I cannot recommend it enough.