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 review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michealides

Alicia, who adored her husband with all her might, shot him in the face five times and never spoke again. She was committed to a mental institution, The Grove, and stayed there for years. Theo, a psychotherapist, has always been fascinated with the crime, but mostly, by her silence. When the opportunity comes to work at The Grove, he jumps at it. Through sheer obstinacy, he will convince his supervisor and peers to let them treat her. Then, the dance begins. But curing Alicia will make him confront his own history of mental illness and troubled past.

This is a riveting tale. A book that will keep you up into the night. The way that the author narrates the story is a key to its success. The story alternates between Alicia’s diary, and Theo’s telling of his treatment of Alicia, as well as his childhood traumas and marital conflicts. So, the book goes back and forward between a distant past, the days before the murders and present day, years after Alicia’s silence started. This keeps the reader both entertained, and in suspense of what the end will bring.

The author draws hints here and there to keep the reader speculating on what could have led to Alicia’s violent outburst and silence, keeping you on your toes.

It is light summer read, and a great book to take with you to the pool and unplug.

Book Review: The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.

Ted Bundy was executed in Florida more than 30 years ago, and yet we are still talking about him. We are still reading books and watching films on the horrors he instilled in America in the 1970s. This week, a trial opened for a man who was obsessed with Bundy and abducted, raped and killed a Chinese student in Illinois in imitation of Bundy’s M.O.

This year Netflix showed two great shows on Ted Bundy, “Conversations with a killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes” based on Hayes Aynesworth’s book of the same name (and tapes, naturally); and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”, a movie featuring Zac Effron based on Elizabeth Kendall’s book “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” (out of print since 1981 and currently sold in Amazon for $1,299). Spoiler, the title of the movie comes from Judge Cowart’s last words at Bundy’s trial for the Chi Omega massacre.

However, Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me is probably the most famous book ever written on Ted Bundy. Ann was a police officer and crime reporter who happened to be a close friend of Bundy. She happened to volunteer at a crisis/suicide hotline at the same time as Bundy, when he was still in school in Washington and stayed friends with him for years to come.

The book has two sides to it. On one hand, Rule walks us through Ted’s life as she came to know it through him and discusses him as a friend, the polite and charming persona that his friends and family knew and loved.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

She tries to counter the horrific information in the case files and filtered to the media, with his humanity. On the other side, the book is a recounting of the murders and Bundy’s life from 1974 onwards. This information she came to know through her contacts with the police and all details provided come from the case files. However, her gift resides in bringing those details alive with her storytelling.

Victoria Beale, in “Too close to Ted Bundy” published by the New Yorker in October 10, 2015 sums up the conflict between both sides adeptly, when she explains that the author’s friendship with Bundy makes the moral aspect of the book questionable. Can she really be objective? I can tell you that she at least tries. However, at some point, it seems like she is trying to apologize to the reader for her proximity, paint a sympathetic picture of herself for benefiting (this book took her from rags to riches) from Ted Bundy’s massacres. And sometimes, self-pity wants to make you skip a few pages.

Before she wrote this book, she used to write sensationalist stories for a true-crime magazine. That shows in the book from time to time, when the description of the lives of the victims prior to their death seems over-dramatic, over-idealized.

Nevertheless, she does a really good job in putting the evidence into perspective. In trying to paint an objective picture of the legal cases against Bundy. Yes, the murders were horrific, but the evidence against Bundy was (in a world before DNA testing) mostly circumstantial. She walks the reader expertly through the evidence to show that Bundy’s convictions were more of a case of self-sabotage than the works of expert prosecutors. Even some of the evidence admitted at that time as ‘scientific’ is considered bogus today, like matching hair strands and forensic dentistry.

Finally, since the book was published in 1980, some of the murders attributed to Ted Bundy (but for which he was never charged), such as those of Katherine Devine and Brenda Baker, turned out to be the work of another serial killer. This was only recently discovered through DNA testing.

Notwithstanding its flaws, it is a very captivating read that will have you turning pages deep into the night. It cannot be put down.

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 Review: ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’ by Roberto Bolaño or the spirit of Mexico City?

… cuya sonrisa sigue siendo para mí la sonrisa terminal de ese otro México que a veces aparecía entre los pliegues de cualquier amanecida, mitad ganas rabiosas de vivir, mitad piedra de sacrificios

I only recently came to learn about Roberto Bolaño. For me, Mexico City speaks in the voice of Carlos Fuentes. He is Mexico City. But, Roberto Bolaño and Carlos Fuentes do have that in common; their ability to recreate a timeless Mexico City. To mimic its speech. To speak for the young, the restless and thirsty for love and success. To speak for aspiring writers. This particular quote reminded me of Fuentes. Mexico’s identity and longing for a pre-hispanic past was his signature. Other than in these few words, Bolaño sounds nothing like Fuentes. Fuentes is a master storyteller, known for space-time jumps and multiple narrators, for magical realism. But there is a logic, a sequence if you care to find it. There is a continuum. For Bolaño, nothing of that sort matters. The story is a feeling. It has a point, but not a sequence. It is not how it happens, but what happens. At least, that is how ‘The Spirit of Science Fiction’ goes.

This is the story of two aspiring writers, Jan and Remo. Young Chileans who moved to Mexico City. Jan is a fan of science fiction and spends his portion of the novel writing strange letters to Sci-Fi writers. I am not a fan of Sci-Fi so all references went over my head. But the letters are self-centered, full of crazy ideas and more like ramblings of a possibly brilliant ego-maniac.

Remo, is a poet. Nevertheless, a guy with his feet well grounded. He works as a journalist for two different (and not prestigious at all) papers trying to make ends meet while he makes it big. He doesn’t write much all through the novel, but critiques other poets’ work. How good of a writer is he? We will never know. This books is more about him and how he takes on Mexico City. His adventures with love.

Bolaño takes us through a very different Mexico City. While Fuentes focuses on high class living and brothels, the Mexico City of Bolaño is one of young adventurers with very little money. Of cheap coffee shops and Chinese take out, of public bathhouses and endless roads.

I don’t know if Bolaño’s brilliance translates. For me, the beauty is in the language, the narrative, his command of Mexican Spanish and pop culture references that might be lost to those foreign to the city. I found beauty in nostalgia for a time and place long lost to time, and yet, timeless.

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.”

Naamah or how does it feel to be a woman on Noah’s Ark

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

In Naamah, Sarah Blake creates a lyrical and magical (more than it already was) retelling of one of the most beloved Bible stories. But Naamah is, above all perhaps, a feminist retelling so it centers around Noah’s wife of that same name (according to some traditions). Noah is the messenger and it is his mission to repopulate the world after the terrible flood, but he was a member of a patriarchal society and there was a lot of work to be done in that year they were to spend on the ark. So, it was to be expected that Naamah, his wife, would have a big role to play, and honestly, do most of the heavy work once the ark sailed. God didn’t chose to talk to her, to comfort her, to clear any doubts, so how did she feel with this grave mission that was not hers and yet it would only succeed if she did her part? What does it feel like to be trapped in an ark with smelly animals and your close family members for one year? Imagine a thanksgiving dinner in a barn that last a year?! What about your love ones that you had to leave behind knowing they would drown ‘cause God didn’t consider them worthy ? What would happen to all those dead bodies, of animals and humans alike? Isn’t it depressing when it doesn’t stop raining for 40 days and you can’t really even chill at the deck? How do you care for the animals being mindful of the food chain when you only have a few of each kind and they need to survive?

The reality of what has happened and it it means shocks, disgusts, frustrates and depresses Naamah. The world has been destroyed, all of her loved ones are gone and no one has been saved except for her immediate family: her three sons and their wives. God spoke to Noah, loves Noah… but is she saved for her own merits or because of her relationship with Noah? If she only saved because there is a lot of work to be done and it cannot be expected that Noah will be able to do it all alone? Naamah is bisexual, does that mean that she would otherwise be considered unworthy? Is she really better that all others who perished?

She’s stuck in an Ark, taking care of her family and animals (which is not an easy task) and dealing with the trauma of the destruction of the world and mourning her dead lover. Mentally, she’s struggling. She hold a grudge against God for all that happened. She is struggling with her faith. She questions God openly in private.

But the book is not only about that and the boiling frustration, depression and disgust that Naamah feels confronting her reality at the ark. It is also about what makes a woman and how it feels to be a woman, and if she sees herself as a woman.

“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”.

At one point, Naamah confesses that we doesn’t want to be a man or a woman, she want’s to be something all together different.

The book is very descriptive when it comes to what it feels to be a woman, biologically speaking, especially, motherhood. As a mother, I find myself reflected in Naamah’s feelings on motherhood:

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.

The book is also very descriptive when it comes to sex, both with men and women, but in a non-sexualized way, more like an anatomy lesson, a lesson on feelings and physical experience. It also touches on abortion, pregnancy, emotional connection between women and accepting God’s will.

It excels as a feminist retelling bringing to life the voice of women who were not mentioned in the scriptures. Even if Naamah is going through some anxiety and frustration, the novel is not a heavy read and continues to entertain through its use of magical realism. It could not recommend this book enough.

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.

 

 

Book Quotes: The Bird King

G Willow Wilson’s latest novel has so many great quotes I wanted to share them with you.

  • “The palace was her home and home was not a matter of loving or hating; to leave it was to do violence to the past”.
  • “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 forces you see are working against you, but some you do not see are working on your behalf”.
  • “‘Maybe they don’t hate us for our freedoms’, she muttered. ‘Maybe they hate us because we’ve been harrying their lands for decades'”.
  • “Perhaps he could see only what he had been taught to see”.
  • “But I’ve come to realize that I must share God with the things that God has set askew”.
  • “‘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.