Review – A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

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Review – A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

This is not my first but second venture into Palestinian-American literature, as I just last year read Laila Halaby’s novel West of the Jordan for a graduate seminar, which I highly recommend and which deals with some of the same themes as this book. This novel is a multi-generational saga that details the struggles of a Palestinian-American family living in Brooklyn trying to adapt and sustain old traditions in a foreign land. The book is primarily focused on the women of the family and the particular limitations, expectations, and roles that these women must play in a culture that by American standards (whatever that term actually constitutes) would be considered patriarchal. The book follows the lives of three women: there is Isra, a young, passive girl who marries into a Palestinian-American family at the beginning of the book and afterwards immigrates to the United States; Deya, Isra’s cynical, disillusioned daughter; and Fareeda, Isra’s mother-in-law and the traditionalist matriarch of the family, who exerts a lot of energy to ensure that the old ways of doing things in Palestine continue in the family’s new home.

I want to acknowledge that I know very little about Palestine, the Middle East, Islam, or what exactly is or isn’t considered “Arab,” however as an outsider looking in, and as someone that wants to be as culturally relative as possible, I tried my hardest to sympathize with the character of Fareeda, who I feel was oftentimes positioned as the antagonist of this book. Wanting to marry off her teenage granddaughters to the sons of good families, though she faces a lot of protest throughout the novel for trying to do this, she is merely doing what she knows is the normal thing to do in their culture. I was skimming Rum’s Twitter feed and there was a particular tweet acknowledging and responding to an accusation that the novel was reinforcing negative stereotypes about women in Arab countries, and there were many instances while I was reading this book when I had to stop and think about how universal this experience might be in Palestine, Palestinian-American communities, and other Muslim countries. Is this indeed a commonplace experience, or is this possibly just the experience of a particularly conservative Palestinian family, an exception and not the norm? Regardless, this is a powerful story and one that needs to be told, especially in the United States where we as Americans, who oftentimes consider ourselves to be more progressive than the majority of other countries, feel that we have come a long way and no longer need a committed gender equality movement. We must continue to remember that even within our own borders, we must strive to actively value and appreciate all of our women.

Rum, Etaf. A Woman is No Man. HarperCollins, 2019.

Review – Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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Review – Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

It is hard for me to explain my feelings about this book. I enjoyed this book as a comprehensive whole and I can easily see why it has attracted the amount of buzz that it has. I heard that it is being adapted into a movie, with the lovely Constance Wu of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off the Boat fame set to play Ruth Young, the protagonist. However, there are aspects of this novel that I didn’t like and I find my criticism for some reason hard to put into words, because I recognize that this novel is a well-crafted piece of art and one that you can tell the author put a lot of themselves into. I did like it! The book was hard to put down and the plot was character-driven, yet for some reason there was still something a little unsettling to me.

I will attempt to explain what I mean. The style of this book, or the author’s voice, felt strangely familiar to me, as if I had read a different book from the same author. This is Khong’s debut novel, so this can’t be the case, but I want to say, and I have heard this explanation somewhere, but I feel that Khong is employing what I have heard called the “MFA style.” This observation opens up a whole other can of worms that I don’t really want to get into, as the notion of the existence of an “MFA style” seems hard to objectively prove. This article provides more commentary on the subject: How Has the MFA Changed the Contemporary Novel? But having read writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Viet Thanh Nguyen (who actually does not hold an MFA) it almost seemed to me like Khong was writing her novel in a way to fit this notion of “successful” contemporary literary fiction.

The novel aims to be humorous, and one technique that Khong often employs is one of collage:  she takes the mundane subject matter of American suburban life and juxtaposes things that don’t normally go together. For example, in one scene of the novel, Ruth is bored at home and engages in some frivolous internet searches:

 

“I type into the search engine How long to starve to death? and am somewhat heartened by the answer, which is anywhere from three weeks to seventy days. I eat what’s left in the jelly jar.” (58)

 

Alongside jelly jars, internet searches, and a seemingly absurd question about death and sustenance, the pages of this book are filled with this kind of existential humor, where the bigger questions of life are often found in everyday objects and situations. After this scene, on the very next page we see this technique again, when Ruth goes to her old high school’s track to run and hoping to find a “wandering canary.” She then encounters  her former gym teacher, who is looking for a lost earring:

 

“I get on all fours to join her, but the track is very big, and the earring is very lost. The girls’ track team descends the bleachers in tiny shorts and ponytails.

‘It’s green,’ she tells them. ‘It’s jade.’

They drop to the sand.  It’s a good twenty minutes before one of the girls finds it and holds it up. It’s no bigger than a popcorn kernel.

I run six laps, a mile and a half. The high school girls run like beautiful ostriches past me.”

 

I guess maybe we should praise Khong, as it is really difficult to make boring things sound interesting, however you begin to wonder what the point of these scenes are. Like I said there are a lot of little quirky vignettes like this that don’t really end up going anywhere. We get it, she feels the ennui of suburban life. It feels very style over substance to me, though I could be wrong. With that said it is a great story, and the reader begins to empathize with Ruth as the novel progresses, as she clearly has a lot on her plate: having recently moved back in with her parents in Rialto, she is simultaneously dealing with a bad breakup and a father who is succumbing to Alzheimers. This book was a solid first effort, and I’m hoping that Khong continues to develop as an author and follows this work up with something more mature, and something with a little more substance.

 

Khong, Rachel. Goodbye, Vitamin. Picador, 2017.

 

 

Review – Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

 

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Review – Hollywood by Charles Bukowski

I unashamedly love the works of Charles Bukowski, despite the poor critical reception that his works have drawn and continue to receive. As a semi-autobiographical account of Bukowski’s involvement in the making of the film Barfly, Hollywood is different from his earlier novels that I have read (Post Office and Factotum) in the sense that Bukowski’s alter ego in the novel, Henry Chinaski, is not depicted as an impoverished drunk, but as an older, semi-famous writer. His womanizing days are also over, as he is in a functioning relationship with a woman named Sarah, a fictional pseudonym for Bukowski’s partner in his later years, Linda Lee Bukowski. While the book contains plenty of heavy drinking and Bukowski’s usual tone of dark, lovable fatalism, throughout the novel there are moments when Chinaski looks back on his days of being wild with nostalgic longing. While on set, and watching the filming of a bar fight scene, Chinaski laments the passing of his more boisterous youth:

“I watched and I have to tell you that I grew weak watching that old dream. I wanted to be one of them, going at it again. Stupid or not, I felt like punching the alley wall. Born to die.” (187)

Out of all of the reminiscing, the most poignant moment for me was when during filming, Chinaski recollects the memory of Jane, his late partner who he bases Francine Bowers’ (Faye Dunaway) character on, and he muses about how movies and actors cannot fully evoke the feelings and emotions that screenplays are inspired by:

“I remembered Jane going up that same hill while I was carrying the large sack of bottles. Only when she had screamed “I want some corn!” it had been as if she wanted the whole world back, the world that she had somehow missed out on or the world that had somehow passed her by. The corn was to be her victory, her reward, her revenge, her song” (171).

There are only a few observations at this level of depth to be found, and though the novel is light and comical it is never boring. As Bukowski’s fifth published novel, we see the work of an author still interested in the improvement of their craft. For anyone who loves the pop culture of the eighties, the novel is a delight as it depicts and celebrates a number of film stars and celebrities of that era. Robert Ebert, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Faye Dunaway, Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, Dennis Hopper among others all make appearances in the novel. It would be interesting to question some of these figures that are still alive about whether or not these interactions took place in the way that Bukowski remembers them, if they even took place at all. This novel also provides substantial commentary on the role of authorship, authorial intention, metafiction, the creative process, and the bureaucracy that was and still is Hollywood. I highly enjoyed this book and recommend it, preferably accompanied with some beer and a shot of whiskey.

Bukowski, Charles. Hollywood. HarperCollins, 1989.