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.

Movie Review – What About Me (1993) directed by Rachel Amodeo

Movie Review – What About Me (1993) directed by Rachel Amodeo

What About Me is a small slice of a forgotten New York! An obscure, black-and-white film that is culturally, socially, and historically significant, what more could you want?  I find myself strangely nostalgic for the East Village in the early nineties. I previously read Don DeLillo’s Mao II, which spends time describing the gruesome homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park, so the footage in this movie is a treat because it preserves a world and a culture that no longer exists.

The beginning of the movie is a little surreal, as you see a young girl come out of a house to go on a bike ride, she then rides past a cemetery and falls from a cliff to her death. Next, the girl has a conversation with God, and is reincarnated as Lisa Napolitano. Lisa loses her parents, goes to live with her aunt in the East Village, loses her aunt, and then is raped by the building landlord, who evicts her from the apartment a day later. The rest of the movie is concerned with Lisa trying to survive on the streets.

The film has a spontaneity and an aesthetic that feels much older, almost like a silent film. I am still mulling over the significance of Lisa’s previous life and reincarnation, though it doesn’t have much of an impact on the general plot. I believe the structure of the movie (and the movie’s biggest strength) is to allow for vignettes. A punk Casanova named Tom is shown picking up a girl at a bar, and later introduces Lisa to crack cocaine. Lisa is invited to stay at the house of a woman who turns out to be a dominatrix. Gangsters enact revenge on a man coming out of an apartment building. These scenes blend into the story well, without taking the film too far astray. Many counter-culture icons make cameos in the film, with Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, and Gregory Corso among them.

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Tompkins Square Park, February 2018

Having spoken with an old friend of mine, who has been driving cabs in the city since the seventies, he said when going into Alphabet City, the names of the avenues indicated the degree safety. Avenue A meant that you were “alright,” Avenue B meant “be careful,” Avenue C meant “critical,” and Avenue D meant that you were “dead.” On February 2nd of this year, I ventured into the park on a cold but sunny day, to see if there were any remnants of the old scene. It honestly looked to me like any other Manhattan park. I imagine I’m very much romanticizing a world that I know nothing about, which is why more people need to see this film.

Watch the movie on Fandor here.

Review – Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

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Review – Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China by Alec Ash

Alec Ash tells the stories of five Chinese millennials from various regions of the mainland, all born 1985 and after. Ash uses PG humor and great eloquence to recount their formidable experiences. Of the five characters my favorite was Fred, the intellectual daughter of a Hainan government official, who studies political science at Peking University and continues her education in the United States. Her road to political sophistication and her concern for the future of China and its government was refreshing to read.

Though I live in China and am already familiar with a lot of the content that Ash touches on, his book works somewhat as a primer to Chinese history and culture, and for this reason more people in the West need to read it. It paints a vivid picture of what life is like for the modern Chinese youth, and this serves to break up generalizations. After reading this book one will definitely come away having learned something, it is light but by no means without substance. I strongly recommend this book.

Ash, Alec. Wish Lanterns: Young Lives in New China. Arcade, 2016. Kindle.

Review – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

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Review – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Before I read this book, I expected Jay McInerney to write in a similar way to Bret Easton Ellis, as many critics consider the two authors to be in the same ideological camp. I have only read Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero, which I know is not wholly representative of his oeuvre, yet I can draw conclusions about Ellis’ usual themes. I believe Frank Ocean summarized the experience well in the song “Novacane,” his characters have pushed the envelope of experience so far that self-destructive behavior is the only thing that has any power to make them feel emotion.

This was not the case in this book, as I found Jay McInerney’s protagonist to be not so far gone. Though he is prone to self-destructive behavior, there is still oftentimes a self-awareness that his frequent cocaine use and late nights are not healthy. I found the second-person point of view to be a little gimmicky, ultimately because I don’t think it added much to the effect of the novel. Had he used the first person I think the book would have read mostly the same. However, I did feel able to identify with the main character, I was also once a white, twenty-four year old male, living in New York City, an aspiring writer, struggling with a job that I had no passion for, and engaging in self-destructive behavior. The novel was very relatable, and McInerney writes about the city in a recognizable way, despite it taking place in the eighties. I recommend this book as a quick, light read!

McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City. Vintage, 1984.

Review – Mao II by Don DeLillo

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Review – Mao II by  Don DeLillo

This book explores a variety of themes, among them being Maoism, the phenomenon of the reclusive author, and the idea that the growing population of people in the world, collectively, are starting to have a large effect on how we as a society see individual identity. The book starts with Bill Gray, a reclusive author living in upstate New York, his assistant, Scott, who plays a large part in keeping Bill isolated in their shared house, and their relationship with Karen, a 24-year old convert to the Unification Church. The novel moves forward when Brita, a photographer, takes pictures of Bill, and carries to Bill a message from Bill’s old publisher. After hearing the message, Bill leaves and heads to London, where he plans to take part in a press conference, to help secure the release of a hostage being held by a terrorist group in Lebanon. Mao II is often categorized as a postmodern novel, and the denouement is where we see the trueness of this description. The press conference doesn’t happen, and it keeps getting postponed until it doesn’t happen at all. It seems that the terrorists win. 

I live in Southern China and find the undercurrent of Maoism in the book to be relevant today, even though the book was written over twenty years ago. The novel has multiple settings: the United States, London, and Cyprus, and this feature along with the Chinese influence gives the book a very worldly feel. We see Mao’s idea of the “People’s War” present when the book deals with terrorism, terrorists are resisting society at large both violently and ideologically, they aim not only to subvert the social order, but to change the culture at large. The iconic image of Mao Zedong hanging in Tiananmen Square is less about Mao’s personal identity, but more about the identity of China as a whole. DeLillo highlights that terror and art are in some kind of binary struggle, where writers, in modern society, are less important when it comes to shaping human consciousness. There is a scene in the book also where Karen is watching the funeral of Ruhollah Khomeini and the shit show that proceeds. Khomeini’s image, and dead corpse, definitively represent modern Iran, and people violate it and touch it because they want to be one with it. The scenes where the hostage in Lebanon, slowly losing his sanity in captivity, also reminded me of China’s transformation during the Cultural Revolution.

I read somewhere that DeLillo took inspiration for Bill Gray from the life of J.D. Salinger. The author, in his recluse, becomes larger than life, and the mystery surrounding such an author gives hope to the masses. It is apparent in the book that Scott is holding Bill hostage in the house, as Scott knows that this effect is a force of good in the world (one that can fight against the terrorists). One also gets the idea that Scott does this because he wants to keep his idea of Bill pure in his own mind, even though this is done against Bill’s will. DeLillo, though he is dealing with a lot of material in this novel, writes with insight and with an imagination that is unmatched. Another segment in the book deals with Karen and her interactions with the homeless denizens of Tompkins Square Park in the early nineties. His description of the camp is nightmarish, hellish, and brutally honest. I highly recommend this book, the only other book from DeLillo that I have read is White Noise, but I can say I like this book a lot more.

DeLillo, Don. Mao II. Penguin, 1992. Kindle.

Review – Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

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Review – Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

The novel is about the coming of age of adolescent Joel Harrison Knox, a precocious, timid boy, who after the death of his mother moves to a remote Southern town called Noon City, to live with his father who is supposedly taking him in. Joel arrives at the estate of Skully’s Landing, where the reader meets an array of “grotesque” characters, and in the end, his father. Joel has to confront the fact that his father does not turn out to be the man he thought he was.

I am a big fan of Carson McCullers and it is easy to see that she is one of Capote’s influences. Capote however is able to take up McCullers’ mantle and give it a modern sheen: while McCullers uses her ‘freakish’ characters to explore human loneliness, Capote tackles this motif but adds more sincerity. Joel in the end, despite not finding the father he was searching for, does feel accepted by his new community. On the very last page of the book when Joel discovers that it is actually Cousin Randolph in the window, dressed as the old woman, this realization finalizes his sense of belonging.

This novel is just another reminder of the talent that Truman Capote was, even though this was his first novel, he writes with great command. I recommend this book.

Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. Vintage, 1975. Kindle.

Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Review – The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I have been a fan of Angela Carter since 2011, when a college professor assigned her short story “The Erl-King” for a critical theory class, and since then I have gone on to read a few other stories from Carter’s famous collection, The Bloody Chamber. The way Carter is able to write about the erotic, instinctual side of human nature is something that I hold in great admiration. I also find that she had a great ear for language, as her sentences flow with a folky, feminine rhythm, a quality that is reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf, and her own rich, elegant, ornamented prose. 

This novel tells the coming of age story of fourteen-year-old Melanie, whose childhood comes to an end after her parents die in a fatal accident. She is sent to London with her younger siblings, Jonathan and Victoria, to live with Uncle Philip, a controlling, tyrannic toyshop proprietor who puts on strange puppet shows for the family. The other occupants of the house include Philip’s wife Margaret, who is friendly but mute, and her younger brothers, the dirty Finn and cordial Francie. Carter’s characterizations excel, as Philip’s totalitarianism depresses the other characters to an observable effect. Jonathan engrosses himself in building model ships, and Victoria, only a baby, is spoiled by Margaret, and thus unaware of the growing tension in the house. Finn is full of life, hopelessly filthy, and shown to be interested in Melanie romantically. Melanie is suspicious of Finn’s intentions, and her loneliness is worthy of note, as we see that her inability to trust the other people of the house distorts the reader’s perception of who is “moral,” or “likable,” and at times this is jarring for one’s summation of the circumstances presented. At the end of the novel, Philip one day steps unexpectedly out of the house, and Melanie and company indulge in a carefree, defiant, Saturnalia-like afternoon. Francie and Margaret are revealed to be incestuous, and Finn unexpectedly washes himself.  

The only word I have for this book is “weird,”and despite the seemingly juvenile front cover, it is very much an adult book, and also a challenging read. There is certainly a method in Carter’s madness, as she acknowledges a side of humanity that most people would not like to think about, so much that I think the book could possibly qualify as horror. Sex also bleeds throughout the narrative. I did think however that Philip was written to be somewhat of straw man: though I understand that Carter was a feminist, I would have liked to see a more balanced take on his character. This is just personal preference however, and not a technical flaw. I absolutely enjoyed this book. 

Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. Virago Modern Classics, 1992. Print.

Double Review – ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

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Double Review – ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ by George Orwell

Why I have come to Orwell so late in life, I don’t know, but perhaps later is better than never. I have noticed that Orwell’s popularity, while not undeserved, is mainly derived from teenagers, or young college people, in their first throes of literary sophistication. Oftentimes it is easy to compare the societies depicted in these books to America at large, and this is done with a kind of underdeveloped agenda. Maybe this has prevented me from coming to the novels sooner, regardless, I have always been curious as to why the books are so popular. I finally came across two copies at my work and decided to give Orwell a whirl, and when you consider the books away from the annoying fan base, they actually are worth the time to read.

Animal Farm is a short book, an allegory meant to shed light on the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Republic under Stalin. Similar to the way South Park is able to critique society using children in a small Colorado town, Orwell is able to simulate Russia’s history using animals on an English farm. The animals rebel against the alcoholic farmer Jones, who is unable to competently manage his farm, and the pigs, who seem to represent the intellectual class, assume leadership. We see that the pigs are clever and they use different strategies to trick the other animals into losing their freedoms. By the end of the book, we see that the the pigs have become just like their former master Jones. The book isn’t a work of genius, however it is a refreshing analogy, as it makes one question the role of government and law makers.

Benjamin is an interesting character, as he seems to be intelligent, critical, and aware of all the injustices that the pigs commit, yet he does nothing, simply because he is jaded and cynical. Orwell seems to be commenting on the phenomenon of apathy, and the idea that social change doesn’t happen sadly because people have no desire to instigate it. I also thought the ending of the book to be profound, as we see the pigs cheating at poker during a meeting with the neighboring farmers, and this scene made me wonder whether or not the pigs would be able to maintain power had the story continued.

If Animal Farm is the perfected minor work, then 1984 is the ambitious, flawed epic. At the end of Animal Farm, I was sad to see that no justice was served against the pigs. However, by the time I finished 1984, I was not expecting any justice, and both works are quite realistic and sobering in this regard. Orwell shows that love, in the sense that we think about love in our “free world,” cannot exist unless it fits within the confines of the state. The relationship between Julia and Winston revolves much around their distaste for Big Brother. Identity is also a theme that is examined, and the anonymous nature of the state is a postmodern motif: it is one that incites paranoia, by clouding the identity of the powers that be. Wilson and Julia attempt to rebel and mete out an identity separate from the realm of Big Brother, yet they have no idea how to go about doing so. When Winston finally goes through his transformation, he is tortured, beaten, starved, and stripped of identity. Once he is brought down to his lowest point, he is then nurtured back to health on the generosity of the state. He is reinvented and thus his allegiance begins. One thinks about omnipotence, that the state is transcending, the state is everything.  I recommend both books.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Signet, 1961. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. Signet, 1961. Print.