Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

I started Sula by Toni Morrison expecting beauty: beautiful language, a great story and some food for thought. But I was not prepared to be completed taken over, intoxicated. I felt the dialogue and catchy phrases playing in my head again and again, when I was sleeping, washing the dishes, singing lullabies.

“You’ve been gone too long, Sula.
Not too long but maybe too far”.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself”.

“O Lord, Sula. Girl, girl, girlgirlgirl”.

Sula was hard to love. Selfish. Tough. Mysterious. And yet, like all women at the Bottom, I secretly envied her. Resented that she got to live her life like she wanted. Answering only to herself. Showing the middle finger to patriarchal gender roles, suffocating social standards and just carried on. It wasn’t perfect. It probably wasn’t happy. But it was all hers.

For a much better review do check out @lex_withthe_text post.

Book Review: The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei

The Membranes” by Chi Ta-Wei (Taiwan, 1995) is a mind-blowing book. Described as queer speculative fiction, is the dystopian story of Momo. She’s a skin-treatment technician in the XXII century, when after devastating the environment, humanity has moved to the bottom of the sea. She is estranged from her mother, a successful executive at a global publisher (we are all into ebooks then btw), and misses her childhood friend, Andy, who was an android (sort of a humanoid robot).

There are lots to think about in this book on gender. If your parents raised you as a girl though it was not your assigned gender at birth and then submitted you to gender reassignment surgery before you’re even conscious about it, thus you never had a chance to create your own gender identity, are you still transgender? Isn’t it the same otherwise? When we never had the chance to create our own gender identity and something other than cis has never been an option? Is it also violence having gender imposed on us ? How much our gender identity is conscious?

And who are you as a person? Is that the sum of your body parts or is it solely how you see yourself? What makes us “us”?

I also found it incredibly interesting (and loved it) how the normative sexual/romantic relationships are queer. Being in a heterosexual relationship is an statistical rarity. There’s only one male character with a super minor role and he’s basically a hedonistic creep. I loved that particularly since the author is male. This is a world where women are the dominant force, the “default option”. Isn’t that something?

Half of the book goes pretty slowly as the reader is stuck in Momo’s mind, and lives through her loneliness and anxiety. But then there’s a major plot twist and everything is turned on it’s head. It’s just pretty amazing for a lack of a better word.

I have NEVER read anything like it, and I sure hope that @columbiauniversitypress translates more of his work because I don’t think I can get enough of his mind-bending fiction.

Book Review: The House of Paper

“One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on the first street corner, she was knocked down by a car”.

I love powerful opening sentences and this one certain packs a punch. Bluma Lennon, a lecturer of Latin American literature at Cambridge dies after being ran over while reading and walking (guilty! I used to that so often in my 20s). Months later a package arrives from Uruguay with a book covered in cement. Lennon’s replacement, an Argentinian lecturer himself looking to replace her, travels to Uruguay to return it to its sender and comes across a very mysterious story.

It is a very charming book, appealing to book lovers. It talks about book collectors, avid readers, organizing shelves, dog earring books or bookmarking, writing on the margins or journaling; reading for escaping or for learning; book-buying obsession and book buying bans. In a world pre-bookstagram, it seems to cover all bases, even discussing the controversial practice of using books as props, to build furniture and even pairing books with music. Don’t expect much plot-wise or character development (I thought everyone was pretty bland) but it doesn’t make one wonder about how far we are to take this book obsession of ours.

Book Review: Territory of Light

Initially published in monthly chapters over the course of a year, this short novel allows us to glance into the life of a separated mother of a two year old just as she moves into a new apartment and starts her live alone with her toddler, over the span of one year.

I have never read a novel before centering around an apartment, but I loved how the author used it to portray different things; new beginnings (and getting used to them), loneliness, scarcity and emptiness. The apartment is the territory where she now finds herself, like a newcomer who has to discover everything from scratch. And the light is not a warming, hugging kind of light, but a spotlight that puts you under scrutiny, and at the same time, does not allow you to hide all those uncomfortable details in your life you’d wish to ignore. As a mom to a toddler, as a woman, she is always judged for her choices, she is always watched (by her toddler and ex-husband) and cannot really find some quiet corner in the shade to unwind. This is a beautifully written, lyrical book with lots of layers of meaning and things to ponder about. I feel like if I started it again today, I would encounter so many messages I initially missed.

I truly loved this book and will be looking for more works by her.

Book Review: Las Biuty Queens

I love short story collections where the stories are interconnected and the reader has plenty of opportunities to get to know the characters in different settings. In Las Biuty Queen, Monalisa tells us of life for a group of Latinx trans women in New York City, trying to make ends meet by picking up clients in bars or the streets during the early hours of the morning; dreaming about finding love and winning beauty pageants. In and out of jail, persecuted by police and hiding from ICE. Beat by addiction and mental illness. Reminiscing about hard life back home, struggling with bullying, poverty and the uneven burden that patriarchy places on those who society deems as men, demanding self-sacrifice, bravado and toxic masculinity. Life is tough and their prospects scarce but at least they got each other. It sounds like a dark book, but Monalisa manages to make it feel lighthearted, funny and charming. He/she draws these characters based on his/her personal experience and those of his/her friends, inserting him/herself into these stories. He/she thus shows us vignettes of quotidianity full of feeling, resilience and hope.

I enjoyed this heartfelt collection where trauma and gender are not directly addressed, a sort of Sex and the City with far more endearing characters. Now excuse me while I try to find everything he has ever written. Monalisa has inserted him/herself into my list of authors to watch.

Book Review: The Earth Keeper

“This happened a long time ago. I was not there. My father was there when he was a boy. He told me of it. And I was there.

This short work of non-fiction is like a prayer to Earth, an ode to its beauty. A heartfelt apology.

Momaday shares in little snippets stories of his ancestors, prayers to the earth and lyrical descriptions of earthly wonders. Regardless of religious background, those prayers seem perfectly composed, needed and they beg for all of us to utter them. To thank earth or divinity for our blessings, for sharing beauty with all of us. And asking for forgiveness for our selfish destruction of the environment; for our blindness.

Book Review: The Hearing Trumpet

Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (soon to be re-printed by @nytbooks) is a wild novella, packing a lot of action in mere 150 pages. It refuses to be boxed into one genre; it’s fantasy, thriller, crime-novel, science-fiction and dystopia all in one.

Does it come as a surprise that this Surrealist artist gives us a tale way ahead of its time? Being written in the 60s, it lacks the lingo to describe queer identities in its full range, but that doesn’t mean we won’t find such characters among the quirky ladies of this retirement home.

It’s hard to define but this is a story about feminism, empowerment in your later days, a satire on organized religion (Catholicism in particular) and a very funny one at that.

I truly enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to reading more by her.

Book Review: The Passport of Mallam Ilia

I picked up this short novella – roughly 80 pages – intrigued by its title and the fact that the author was highlighted by the NYT Book Review last year (though another work). I thought it was very fitted that the book was passport-sized and a vintage edition.

The Passport of Mallam Ilia (Nigeria, 1960) is the story of a respectable man from North Nigeria in the early 1900s, as he chases a terrible villain around the Globe, a country-man who killed his wife.

I would describe this work of historical fiction as testosterone-filled, Mission-Impossible-like, colonialism-apologist sexist work of fiction. Women are sexual objects to win as prizes and then discard. I found the plot awfully predictable and in general, find action scenes boring. The chase took the entire story. I also found it particular that the British colonizers were the good guys, and a devout Muslim would join them to kill fellow Nigerians, no matter how despotic their rules were. But same thing happened in Mexico when the Spanish arrived so… maybe that is the way it goes. But I prefer Achebe, where the white settlers are not saviors.

Nevertheless, he has other works that look interesting, so I don’t completely rule out reading him again in the future. Rating: For action thriller junkies only

Book Review: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

What a ride was The Yacoubian by Alaa Al Aswany! Though it was published 15 years ago (or so), I feel it still speaks to the problems and soul of Egypt today. But I’m not Egyptian, so what do I know?

It’s silly, but I was so thrilled when one of the characters – a bad*as woman who makes the best of the crappy hand that patriarchy has thrown at her btw – lives in the same neighborhood I did in Alexandria (though not my favorite neighborhood in town, I must confess). I felt a connection to the place and the stories.

The book opens with shock; I was surprised by the coarse language and disgusted by women objectification. I thought: “oh no! Another dirty old man chasing teens and we are supposed to like him”. But this is what Alaa Al Aswany does so well in The Yacoubian Building, shock us, make us cringe and yet keep us glued to the pages, cheering for a character no matter who despicable he or she might be. Let me tell you, they are all flawed and terrible but you get the feeling that it has been corruption, poverty or moral policing and repression that have drove them there. Could those characters exist anywhere else? Could they have thrived if Egypt were a democracy? So like Busayna explains.. it is Egypt that has made them and drove them away.

If you like a novel with a diverse set of flawed and terrible (yet lovable) characters, lots of action and all based or inspired by true events, this is one to consider.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction depicting Egyptian society as it is, not as we, looking through our Western lenses, would like it to be. Though I stand strong against Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, and Terrorism (particularly in the name of my faith) I still believe that this book opens the door to needed conversations around these subjects.

CW: rape, sexual assault, violence, terrorism, homophobia, anti-semitism, objectification of women, graphic sex, vulgarity.

Book Pairings: Xala & His Only Wife

If you liked His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie, I have a #bookrecommendation for you: Xala by Sembène Ousmane (Senegal, 1974).

This is the story of a prominent businessman with two wives and 11 kids, who in his 60s decides to marry a 19 year old. On his wedding day to his young third wife, he is stricken with Xala (impotence). The ripple effects will be felt in all aspects of his life.

This story is funny, witty and very entertaining. Meant to be a satire on post-colonial Senegal, it ends up saying a lot about capitalism, political corruption, and polygamy.

It is one of those books that once you finish it, you feel compelled to read it again from the beginning to see what clues you missed pointing at that ending that I didn’t see coming.