Monthly Archives: March 2019

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum

A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum Title: A Woman Is No Man
Author: Etaf Rum
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 978-0062699763
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

So here’s the deal with this book: Either people have loved it or didn’t like it at all. I belong to the category of readers who loved it. What the book encompassed for me really was that sometimes you have no choice, no matter how hard you try.

While a part of me, vehemently opposes the idea, there’s a part of me that also agrees. I also believe that circumstances play a major role in deciding what you choose or vice-versa: You choose and your choices create those circumstances. Essentially, it is majorly about the deck of cards life hands you as well, but most people would not consider that.

A Woman Is No Man is a book that is also not easy to read. There will be a point in the book when you will question, challenge, and get angry at the characters for behaving the way they do, but I also think as a reader one must look at the larger context and picture, to be able to separate emotions from the text (sometimes) and look at things more objectively. After all, the story is about one large culture and how it looks at its women and treats them.

It might also seem like a book that you have read in the past, but what makes it different is the voice. Rum’s voice is hers alone and cannot be replicated at all. The book is a mother/daughter story. Through the mother Isra, and her daughter Deya we see the harsh reality of the Palestinian Muslim culture and how it remains unchanged over time, unless challenged, even in modern-day Brooklyn. Some that occurs in the past, and some in the present. There is a lot of domestic violence in the book – in the sense that it is even the focus. So if you think you cannot handle it, then perhaps this read isn’t for you just yet.

At the same time, I was also thinking of the book appealing to a white audience perhaps a lot more because of the content, context, and the uniqueness of culture. However, having said that I firmly believe that this story is universal, even if the so-called “uniqueness” is removed from it. Yes, at times I also felt that the characters were one-dimensional but to my mind, the plot is so good that it doesn’t matter. And yes, Isra might have been one-dimensional but there are a lot of times I could also see her burst through the pages with gumption, but those moments were very rare.

For a debut, Etaf Rum has hit this book out of the park. Fareeda for instance, who is Deya’s grandmother (paternal) is a character that has so many layers to her – that you want more of her and you get that as well. I cannot give away more at this time, but you have to read it to understand what I am talking about.

Having said this, the overall treatment of women in the book is a little hard to stomach. Isra’s mental and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and his family get to you. There were times I just couldn’t bear to turn the page. The book in a way also deals with what value women place on themselves to be able to take a stand. What I loved was the character of Deya (Isra’s daughter). How she views the world differently, and treat situations despite not knowing where she belongs – she wants to experience her Americanness but is bound by the culture of her parents and grandparents.

A Woman is No Man is a book that will definitely make you think about people, more so women who come from different cultures to the US of A in the hope of a better life, and what goes on behind closed doors. It is the kind of book that also grows on you, frustrates you as well (but naturally more so if your culture and point of view is different), will make you question the world around you (perhaps), and also help you find some solace in its pages.

 

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The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe

The Sakura Obsession Title: The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms
Author: Naoko Abe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9781524733575
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography,
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One should always get out of their comfort zone and try things they say. Different things. For me reading something which I wouldn’t otherwise is radical enough. I mean, this book intrigued me, and I just had to read it to know more. I am so glad I did. To experience a different culture (which of course I have through other reads), but also knowing about the Cherry Blossom and how it came to be saved was a brilliant experience.

The story starts in 1907, when Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram fell in love with the sakura or the cherry tree, as he was visiting Japan on his honeymoon. He was taken in with the tree to such an extent that he couldn’t help but bring back hundreds of cuttings back to England, where he literally grew them, creating a garden of cherry varieties. In fact, in 1926 when he learned that the cherry tree was extinct in Japan, he sent a cutting of his own through the Trans-Siberian express. Not only that, Ingram also ensured that cuttings were sent to other parts of the world, where it was conducive to grow the specimen.

This in short is what the book is about. However, there is so much more to it. Abe writes elegantly, and not only that – the research is spot on – with photographs, details, linking of other events, and personal perspectives. At times, I also felt that I was actually reading a historical novel, it is so well-written.

The Sakura Obsession is what it is because Abe understands Ingram’s motivations, his complex nature – the oddity and the gentleness and that’s what makes this book so unique and refreshing. The Sakura Obsession tells a story that most people aren’t aware of – of how it took one man to save blossoms people enjoy over the world and are in awe of. I am only too glad that I got out of my comfort zone and read this one.

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan

When Brooklyn Was Queer Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250169914
Genre: LGBT Nonfiction, Social and Cultural History
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had never read something like this before – yes cities and the queer culture did merge in books and I have read parts of it, but nothing like this book. I honestly also believe that every city’s culture needs to be talked about through the people who live on its margins, and maybe that’s why this book hit a nerve the way it did. When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan is the kind of book we all need to read, irrespective of orientation and labels.

The story begins in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and ends in the 1960s when Brooklyn’s queer identity declined, due to several factors. You have to read this book only because the way Ryan unearths how there was a systematic erasure of the queer history of Brooklyn. What must one remember then? Who decides that? What is at the core of people’s histories and more than anything else of places?

Not only this, this book is fantastic if you want to get to know people’s voices and lives – queer lives – right from the famous drag kings and queens of the 1800s, of a black lesbian named Mabel Hampton and how she worked as a dancer, of a WWII gay spy scandal and so much more between its pages.

Ryan’s writing is never just a dry documentation of facts. There is so much more to it. There is tenderness and empathy and above all it is a voice that strives to let people know more. Also, the nuances of gender identity, orientation, and sometimes even race are handled with such a sense of larger understanding of issues, that it makes you want to read more.

More than anything else it is about resistance and no matter what governments do or stand for, people will always continue to live the way they want to, which should be at the core of every identity battle. Ryan’s research is spot-on, so much so that you instantly feel that you are in that world, the minute you start reading the book. He shares letters, diary entries, and publication excerpts to support and validate his arguments of what was erased and how it was found.

What I loved the most was the beautiful prologue – a short one at that but so effective – a glimpse into the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers, and from thereon begins what it means to be “queer”.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is one of those rare books that makes you want to sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The past, present, and future merge seamlessly in this account of what history allows us and what it doesn’t. The small joys, sorrows, the sacrifices made, the lives that carry on regardless, and most of all what it means to be queer is what this remarkable book is about. Do not miss out on this read.

 

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

The Parisian by Isabella Hammad Title: The Parisian
Author: Isabella Hammad
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN: 9780802129437
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 576
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Hands down, The Parisian is one of the best books I’ve read this year and its only mid-March. But I can say this with utmost assurance. I do not normally read historical novels but The Parisian is an exception I am glad I made. It would have been a lost opportunity had I decided not to read this book. Plus this book is not only historical, but also psychological in nature, which makes you want to read it even more.

This is a debut and I couldn’t believe it. Hammad writes with such assurance and elegance, that no reader can believe that this is her first work. Anyhow, now to the plot. The book opens at the time of the First World War. Midhat Kamal, a young Palestinian from Nablus is forced by his autocratic father to study medicine in Montpellier, France. There, he stays at the home of a professor at the college, Docteur Molineu, who is extremely warm to him. While studying, Midhat falls head over heels in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeannette. And this is where all troubles begin.

When the war is over, he returns to Nablus and begins to rediscover his homeland, deciding to work for his family’s clothing business. He focuses then on the old, and forgets France, as though it was just something that occurred in a different lifetime. He marries someone he doesn’t even know, has children, and his life is pretty much on track, till something occurs and his world blows apart.

This is where the political and personal merge in the novel and from hereon are my favourite parts of the novel. Hammad’s writing is lucid, and yet complex. She doesn’t spoon-feed the reader. She throws crumbs – you have to follow it, and learn more about the time, the conflict, and some resolutions concerning the timeline in which the book is set.

The Parisian deals with so many issues that one time that sometimes it becomes difficult to follow everything at once, but if you persist and read back and forth, the book is a treasure. There is the question of personal identity,  cultural identity, again given the time it is set in the idea of politics and the self, family to be placed at the helm or not, and a nation on the brink of struggling for independence. Phew! There is needed a lot going on, but not once does Hammad stray from what she wants the reader to feel while reading the book. The element of suspense and intrigue also makes you want to turn the page sooner than you know.

The writing is indeed of top-form. Yes, there are a lot of colloquialisms  but that helps you learn something new and that worked for me. And all of this is told with such clarity and well-constructed prose that it is nothing short of joy to read this novel. The Parisian is a novel that questions, gives answers as well, makes you think beyond your comfort zone, and does all of this with great warmth and tenderness.

The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

The Dragonfly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Title: The Dragonfly Sea
Author: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494047
Genre: Coming of Age, Literary Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Books that manage to capture place, time, person, and at the same time keep the prose intact and tight are rare to come about. The Dragonfly Sea is one of them. It scores very high on each of these parameters and then some more. When I say more, I mean what the reader feels for the characters, which to me is primary. The Dragonfly Sea is the kind of book that will keep you enthralled, and make you wonder about the Kenyan landscape – but more than anything else it will leave you wanting more of Owuor’s writing.

The book opens on the island of Pate, off the coast of Kenya, where stubborn Ayaana lives with her mother, Munira. Ayaana has never known what it’s like to be with a father, till Muhidin, a sailor enters their lives and things start to change. There is so much happening in the book that for some time I had to just pause and take a breath. That’s the power of this book. It also reminded me of Homegoing but not so much. So, it is its own person so to say and I love that about it.

The Dragonfly Sea is a coming-of-age book that is unlike any other I have read. Maybe it is the setting, but mostly it is the way Owuor has written this book. This is the first time I am read something by her, and it won’t definitely be the last. Ayaana’s voice, her thoughts, and the way circumstances impact her thoughts are beautifully expressed throughout the book. Whether is a visitor with a murky past or from dragonflies to a tsunami or kidnappers, or even her journey to the Far East, every plot-line has a purpose to serve and even though the book stretches to five hundred and twelve pages, it is worth every sentence.

Owuor’s prose strikes you immediately, it almost jumps at you and you also have to reread some sentences to make sense of what’s going on. It might even take some time for the reader to get into the book, but once you get the hang of the plot and the sub-plots, there’s no stopping you. I loved how descriptions change as per place, which of course they will, but I guess just the deftness with which it is done is remarkable. All details are laid out, and that helps a lot. The emotions of characters are unpredictable and that helps steer the novel in various directions, which is needed for a saga such as this one.

The Dragonfly Sea is one of those books that has it all – adventure, compassion, the choices we make and how difficult they prove to be, and of course more than anything else the need for home – to what becomes home and where we feel at ease. It is the kind of book you want to come home to at the end of the day and not stop reading at all. A fantastic read that is not to be missed.