Book Review: All The Things She Could Never Have

Home is not the place where you were born or where you grew up, nor family the people you were born to or grew up around; rather, home is the place that makes you feel that you belong, and family are the people who accept you as theirs

Representation matters. As people of difference, we have come to care so much about how we carry ourselves, the stories we tell because we know that we carry our communities over our shoulders. It will never be “Carla said” or “Tehmina does” but Mexicans believe and Pakistani do (regardless if we both have other nationalities as well). So we put on our best face and censor stories that would play into stereotypes, we say the right things for our audiences. Not Tehmina Khan in “All The Things She Could Never Have”. She is courageous enough to bring us stories close to our hearts and steeped in reality. Stories about our young lured by extremists, gender non-conforming girls rejected by family, and women looking for love who end up losing everything. Stories that need to be told. Stories we need to own. This is a short and beautiful collection that I wish more people picked up.

Book Review: Canícula

Canicula is a book that is hard to define. It is that unique. It feels like sitting in the living room with a grandma or an elderly aunt going through pictures of people you don’t know; of relatives and friends who passed away before you were born. In Canicula, Norma Cantu uses pictures to share snips and bits of a girl’s story growing up in the Southern border where Mexico meets Texas. Her family has lived in both sides of the border for generations. It is in English but it is peppered with Spanish words that reading it I wonder if a non-Spanish speaker, devoid of any background on Mexican culture would be able to understand it.

Like pictures pulled from a dusty shoe-box, the story does not follow chronologically nor has a center. It just exists as a collection of memories. I found the style very interesting. Mesmerizing. Creative and unique. I also found the traditions and culture depicted, nostalgic. It reminded me of my paternal grandmother and the conversations she would have, sitting in her porch, sipping a regular coke.

It is an interesting read. It is worth reading, if anything, for its unique style. However, if you like plot-driven stories or character development, stay away. This might no be for you.

 

Book Review: My Sister, The Serial Killer.. or What Would Liam Neeson Do.

We all feel we would do anything for our family. It’s ingrained in us. From Hollywood, to the books we read, to our mother’s command to take care of our siblings. There’s nothing like family, right? But what if your sister was a serial killer? What if your little sister called you after she had taken her boyfriend’s life (he attacked her, she said. It was self-defense, she said) ? Would you help her clean up the mess or would you ‘do the right thing’? Would you go full-on Liam Neeson and help her out of her situation?

This is exactly the situation that Korede sees herself into in “My Sister, The Serial killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Korede is a nurse with a bright future at St Peter’s hospital. Her younger sister, Ayoola is beautiful, charming and terribly self-centered. Ah… and before I forget, she continuously finds herself with a dead boyfriend on the floor, and a knife in her hand.

This is a funny, witty and very entertaining story about two co-dependent sisters and the violence and abuse women have to go through, not only in Lagos where the novel is set, but everywhere. It’s light and a true thriller. I can’t recommend it enough.

Book review: The Water Cure (or how to survive Toxic Masculinity)

Feminist dystopian novels are really popular right now. Maybe its Hulu and their amazing rendition of The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe it’s the #metoo movement. Maybe we, bookworms, are becoming woke and more responsible consumers of books. Maybe, it was just overdue.

For whatever it may be, recently, book sales for dystopian novels have been consistently good. From Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (published in 1985), to Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017) to Leni Zuma’s Red Clocks (2018) and Christina Dalcher’s Vox (2018). “The Water Cure” has received good reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian and The Washington Post. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. But consumers’ reviews have been mixed, at least in #bookstagram. I, personally, did not enjoy it. It is not that the book is gloomy (it is), dark and pessimistic (it is) or the uncertainty on whether it is actually a dystopian novel or a cultish one (I liked that). I didn’t dislike it because it was uncomfortable or slow. Pretty much like in The Vegetarian by Han Kang, I was expecting the end to make up for it all. It didn’t.

The Water Cure is the story of three sisters who live in an island with their parents, Mother and King. While the island is very close to the mainland, it has been cordoned-off to prevent toxins and toxic people (a.k.a men and women polluted by proximity to men) from coming to the island. These three sisters have been raised to control their emotions (which are exploited by men to harm women) and undergo a series of ritual to ensure purification from the toxins in the environment. Their parents are far from loving and nurturing but have the task of making foot-soldiers out of them and prepare them for survival in a world ruled by pollution and toxic masculinity. Suddenly, their dad, King, disappears and three men arrive on the island. Those two events end up placing their world upside down and testing their reediness for survival.

What worked for me in this book?

  • Toxic masculinity – mean are toxic both literally and because of their relation to power.
  • Is it a cult or a dystopia?
  • The disappearances which gives it an element of mystery
  • Purification rituals (and their parallel to self-care)
  • I can totally picture this book being a great movie. With dark lighting. (Cal Revely-Calder from The Guardian suggests maybe by Sophia Coppola? I agree).

What didn’t work?

  • It is not empowering nor does it have any strong female characters
  • it is devoid of plot
  • There is no consistency in switching points of view. Most of the book is told from one of the sister’s perspective.
  • Portrayal of pregnancy is not realistic

 

I think it would have worked perfectly as a short-story where it is more acceptable to have so many loose ends. As a novel, the style and plot-less direction stretched for too long and made for a dull and disturbing read.

 

 

Book got me thinkin’: ‘Sissy’ by Jacob Tobia and intersectional feminism

I have a confession to make.

[awkward silence]

I was afraid I might be trans-phobic. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t it want to be true. I mean, me? A firm believe in intersectional feminism? But, I couldn’t buy into the traditional trans narrative. It felt to me that (1) we are letting trans-women define what ‘women’ is for the rest of us, and (2) we were reducing what a woman is to clothes and make up. What I was hearing was: “I always wanted to wear dresses and play with barbies; I wore my mother’s make up behind her back, so I knew I was a girl… When I came of age, I took hormones, had THE surgery and now I am a woman.” Or “woman is not about vaginas and having babies”. Well, that is not the center of our identity, but surely, many many women (including some trans-women) do have vaginas. So, when the discourse around gender and feminism, in my opinion, should have been driven by shattering the shackles of gender-policing and gender-conforming, it was actually diluting our identity as women to… just the ‘feeling’ of being a woman. I felt that “I feel like a woman, thus I am a woman” did not take into account the fights and struggles that come with being a woman. I felt that trans-women were not owning their privilege; that privilege comes with society assigning them a gender that is indeed favored and dominant, even if it is against their own will. Plus, I felt that the whole transqueer narrative was ignoring trans-men. Media focuses on gay men to show its inclusiveness, while lesbian women continue to be used as sexual objects. Media was focusing on trans-women and their path, while the stories of trans-men were ignored; not glamorous enough to make headlines. So, patriarchy was still working against women and those considered by society to be women in denial of their identity.

“Sissy”, Jacob Tobia’s memoir about growing up queer and their struggle to become this powerful, glamorous, inspiring person, changed my mind. It opened my eyes. I don’t say this often, or ever, but it made me feel redeemed. It changed my life.

Tobia showed me that the media’s focus on the traditional narrative also hurts the whole movement. The traditional narrative may be true for part of the community, but it does not encompass the whole spirit. It is not only about trans-women and their journey, but the essence is gender non-conformity. Gender roles and gender-norms are patriarchal in nature and the spectrum of non-conformity is wide. It is wide enough for the stories of transwomen who are uber-feminine, trans-men who are androgynous and everything in between. The genderqueer community’s struggle to be free to define themselves, to be themselves in private and public, is not antagonistic to intersectional feminism; it is not about defining what makes a woman a woman, but in essence part of the same fight for equality and against the oppression of patriarchy. 

Tobias won me over when they recognized that when society considers you male, it comes with privilege. But it comes a very high cost. It comes at the cost of completely denying who you are, hiding yourself. It is true that women face an obvious disadvantage and discrimination, and that the gender-pay-gap is real, but we can go onto an interview being who we are (even if toned down). We don’t have to pretend to conform with a gender that we find oppressing. So, is it really privilege? I think the cost they pay greatly exceeds any possible benefits.

So, I am converted. It was truly an enlightening read that I cannot recommend enough.

 

Turtles All the Way Down: A let down (sort of)

I’m not a big fan of Young-Adult fiction or YA. To start with, I’m not a young adult so I’m not their target audience. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t great YAs out-there. I thought “Dream Country” by Shannon Gibney was a masterpiece and “Darius the Great Is Not Okay” by Adib Khorram was very cute. It just happens that “Turtles All The Way Down” by John Green is not among them.

This was my bookclub’s January pick. I should have known it would be a so-so read when even the member who proposed it (and had already read it) didn’t seem too enthusiastically about it. However, when she said John Green had Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior or OCD just like the main character, I was sold.

This is the story of Aza Holmes, a teenager who suffers from OCD. When a white-collar criminal (and dad of Aza’s love interest) disappears, Aza and her best friend, Daisy (stereotypical sassy Latina) try to solve the mystery and claim the handsome reward.

While the book delivers on its promise of a realistic portrayal of OCD, it fails in everything else. The plot is practically non-existent; most of the book the reader is stuck in Aza’s mind and they’re not even trying to solve the mystery. The characters are full of stereotypes and so cliché it’s almost offensive.

Overall, it was a ⭐️⭐️ read saved only by its very interesting and educational portrayal of OCD. Just that fact makes not regret reading.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I have soft spot for the Obamas. I have to admit it, but I’m not one to be particularly interested in the private life of celebrities and I wouldn’t expect Michelle to go on spilling secrets on foreign policy. What attracted me to this book is an interest in knowing how she managed to be a successful lawyer, a mom and then leave all her aspirations aside to support her husband. How was it that she left big law to be a politician’s wife? It felt like the anti-thesis of her personality. Well, in Becoming she bares it all. She comes across as so honest, so unapologetically her. She recounts her humble beginnings in Chicago and how her intelligence and parents’ support got her all the way to Harvard. She tells us how she fought against self-doubt and people’s perceptions of where she belonged.

You get to know a bit also about her romance with Obama, the difficulties they have encountered along the way and the sacrifices she had to make for her family. Like your mom, your grandma and possibly all women you know. Michelle’s feminism is so relatable. It’s all about you-can-do-it, and let’s shatter the glass ceiling while acknowledging that women are still forced to carry a heavier weight when it comes to family; to tame ambitious for the sake of others. I found the book incredibly inspirational.

Even if you don’t care about politics, or the Obamas or even race-relations in America, you will still find something in Michelle’s story to love. It is a ⭐️⭐️⭐️ I can’t recommend enough.

The Atom Station: A wild ride through Iceland

Every month, a group of friends and I choose a book from a different country or region and discuss it on Instagram. This month we settled on Iceland and Greenland. I’ve read only one book partly set in Greenland (“We, the Drowned” by Danish author Carsten Jensen – a marvelous book by-the-way) but nothing taking place in Iceland. I decided to pick up “Atom Station” by Halldor Laxness (who before researching Icelandic literature I must confess I had never heard about). This is one of his most controversial works which got him blacklisted once upon a time in his own country. It is a satire of the political class of Iceland shortly after the Second World War, for it was written in 1948.

This is the story of Ulga, a woman in her early twenties, native of a village in northern Iceland, who moves to Reykjavik to work as a maid in the house of the member of parliament for her district. She dreams of saving enough money to afford lessons to learn how to play the harmonium and play it at the church her father is building in her village. She is not very educated and somewhat naïve, but outspoken and determined. She will take offense from no one, not even her snobby employer. In the course of the story she will encounter all sort of strange characters; men who claim to be gods, an Atom poet, an anarchist music teacher, a snobby prostitute named Cleopatra, policemen who are thieves, and priests with strange beliefs. The story is a wild ride infused with dark humor and mockery of upper classes and religion. But overall, a feminist story. While many authors believe that women characters must be constrained by moral conventions of the time and show a subtle sense of empowerment, Laxness has gone full-on into creating a heroine like no other. She is determined not to be a damsel in distress no matter what life throws her way and emerges like a savior of her loved one. She is the knight in shiny armor rescuing HIM from the pire.

However, it is not an easy read. It may be because of its satirical elements, it’s unpredictability or maybe even the more-literal approach to translation. But, let me tell you something. Since I put it down I have been fighting the urge to re-read all over again. It is mesmerizing and a true work of art. Well, I guess they don’t hand out Nobels for nothing. Recommendation: read it, laugh and re-read it. Repeat as necessary.

The Librarian of Auschwitz

“While God’s plan is straight, the way of achieving it is not” – Antonio Iturbide, The Librarian of Auschwitz.

A few back a group of book enthusiasts who use #bookstagram on Instagram as a platform to share out common love of all things bookish (aka the Dallas Bookstagrammers) got together for a fun lunch. We were able to put faces to Instagram handles, make new friends and swap some books. From that meeting, a new book club was born. The book picked for its first meeting was “The Librarian of Auschwitz” by Antonio Iturbe. This is the story of a 14 year old girl who serves as the secret librarian of the kids ward in Auschwitz and it is mostly a tale of survival and coming of age. It is based on a true story and turned into a movie.

Now, I had a long list of reservations when it comes to this book: I don’t like YA, I am not big on historical fiction, I don’t like to read English translations of Spanish books, I don’t like war stories, I don’t like stories of genocide and I try to avoid reading white-male authors unless they have won a literary award. Basically, this book just needed to be a romance to be the anti-thesis of what I like to read. So.. as a compromise, I decided to listen to the audio-book on my commute to-from work, and I have a very long commute. It was more likely to entertain me that try to read it, where my mind will start translating it into Spanish and thinking on how I’d translate it myself.

What do I think you ask?

Well, I find the bits about life in the camp interesting and I think I have learned quite a bit I didn’t know about the family ward and the gas chambers. BUT:

  • The characters are one-dimensional, like a cartoon
  • It’s filled of cliché inspirational quotes I’ve heard a million times
  • It’s so predictable that I feel I could finish the narrator’s sentences
  • Zionism, not cool
  • I feel like I’m talk down to, like I’m a toddler. The narrator is 14 not 8, she could handle a more adult tone.
  • I don’t feel comfortable with typical stereotypes of Jewish and German characteristics

The audiobook narration is entertaining. I would have probably DNFed the book already. But the fake accents make me feel uneasy. Is it politically correct? I don’t know.

Have you read it or listened to it? Thoughts?

Hold on, I’m coming back.

So many books, so little time – Frank Zappa

Hey! I’m sorry. I abandoned you. I did. I stopped posting and never really quite found my voice in this blog. But the first step to recovery is recognizing you have erred. I’m gathering my thoughts and working on this blog and I’ll be back stronger than ever. Hang in there. February is Black History Month and I have great reads lined up.

Hold up. I’m coming.