A Woman is No Man

Rating:
Author: Etaf Rum
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

I have failed this book by waiting so long to write my review for it. I have been in a major book slump for months now. I’ve still been reading a decent number of books, but I haven’t really been excited about it or super motivated to read. I’ve been relying mostly on audiobooks to propel me through the drought, one of which was A Woman is No Man.

This was pretty high on my most anticipated list for 2019. I’m not really sure how it got on my radar, but I love all the diversity we’ve been getting lately and I was really excited to read it.

I originally gave this 4 stars, but with the time that has passed since then, it sticks out in my mind as more of a 3 star read. I really liked Isra’s story and found it really interesting and upsetting to read about the experience she had moving to America and trying to fit in with her new family. A Woman is No Man highlights the stories of Palestinians who have immigrated to America and the challenges they face in trying to maintain their culture while adapting to the vastly different American culture.

Isra grew up in Palestine, but was sent to America to marry Adam and live with his family. As expected, Isra struggles with the change at first, but mostly because she is extremely isolated. Though she lives in America, Adam’s family act as if they are still living in Palestine and do everything they can to hold on to their culture. Adam is seen as the provider for the family and his mother is very much the matriarch of the family. She is hard on Isra and the family doesn’t permit her to leave to house (because what would people think of a woman out on her own without her husband!).

Isra does start to adapt and works hard to please her husband. They are thrilled when she becomes pregnant, but place a huge amount of pressure on her to birth a boy and are immediately disappointed when she births a girl instead (Deya). I really liked Isra’s story and it’s her voice that really carried me through the book. She is extremely oppressed, with a violent husband and a threatening and overbearing mother-in-law. She becomes depressed and develops a very unhealthy relationship to her daughters. She loves Deya, but the pressure to produce a son is overwhelming and it infiltrates its way into her relationship with Deya and poisons it.

Isra’s story is the story of millions of women. She is told she is less than for being a woman and she is totally at the mercy of her husband’s family. It’s enraging to read her story, but also extremely truthful.

The other part of the book focuses on Deya, her daughter. We know from the beginning that Deya’s parents died when she was young and that she is being raised by her grandmother (Isra’s mother in law). I didn’t like Deya’s story as much, but it does provide insight into another part of the immigrant experience. Though Isra was unhappy, because she was marginalized she just accepted what she was told and never fought back against it. It was just accepted that this is the way things are. But Deya grew up in America and attended public school, so while her grandparents have tried to raise her as a good Palestinian girl, she has learned to question things. Her grandmother wants nothing more than to marry her off, but Deya wants to go to college and tries to rebel against her family.

I couldn’t relate as much with Deya though. I tried to understand why she struggled to disobey her grandparents and just went along with their attempts to marry her off, but I wanted her to take a bigger stand against them. I understood that Isra had no support outside of Adam’s family, she had no where to turn, but Deya would likely have had other support networks. But their family still mostly lived and worked entirely within the Palestinian community, so I guess it would be hard to break out of those cultural traditions. This is a minor criticism though because I am not the target audience for this book and have to acknowledge that my experience is different. Deya’s narrative probably means the world to someone who grew up in similar circumstances.

I also didn’t really like the end of the book. It reminded me a little bit of Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – not the tone of course – but that at the end the entire story just seemed to descend into this crazy soap opera. It seemed a little bit over the top and I wanted to hit Sarah for being so cryptic and not helpful. Like Deya is a teenager, help and support her in trying to figure things out instead of being like, “no, you have to do it yourself”. That’s stupid. There’s power in asking for help and it’s belittling to decide that another person is better off without your help. Let them make that decision on their own.

So overall I’m between a 3 and a 4, but I’ll leave it at 4 stars. Definitely some great themes and a very promising debut novel.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer

Rating:
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2018 (read Aug. 2019 on Audible)

Woo, this was a fun little novella! It was a mistake to buy this on Audible because I listened to it way too fast! Seriously, I flew through it in like 3 days. Great narrator though!

I’ve seen this book popping up in a few places, but I wasn’t sure if the premise was exactly as the name suggestions… it is. My Sister, the Serial Killer is set in Nigeria and is told from the point of view of Korede, a young nurse whose sister has a suspicious tendency to be forced to kill her boyfriends. Ayoola always has a reason, either he attacked her, or tried to rape her, or he just happened to be poisoned while they were out to dinner together. But she consistently looks to her straight laced sister to help her clean up the mess.

Korede is torn between her obligations and loyalty to her family, and her fear for the men of Lagos. Either way, she decides to keep quiet. But when Ayoola starts getting close with one of the doctor’s at her hospital, she can’t deny she is torn about what to do.

Despite the gruesome nature of the plotline, this was a fun little book. Honestly, I found Korede’s dilemma highly entertaining. The author infuses a lot of humour into the story and the juxtaposition of the humour against the dark storyline really compliment each other wonderfully. This is the kind of extremism that really highlights human nature. On one hand, Ayoola is clearly crazy and should be locked up, but on the other hand, you can’t help admire her guts. Korede totally enables her, but what other choice does she have unless she decides to turn her sister in. After the first time, she’s an accessory in the murders, so to turn on her sister would also be the end of her life too.

it’s a short book, but I liked it that way. It was tightly plotted and you have to admire an author who says what they need to say and then moves on. No superfluous writing in this one!

Born a Crime

Rating:
Author: Trevor Noah
Genres: Memoir, Non Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2016 (re-read Jul. 2019 on Audible)

I read Born a Crime several weeks ago as an Audiobook. I first read Born a Crime as an e-book with my Book Club in 2017 and absolutely loved it. But I was feeling like a re-read and decided to go with the audiobook this time since it’s narrator by Trevor Noah. Either way, you definitely can’t go wrong with this book, but I’d say the audiobook definitely has an edge over the e-book.

I wasn’t planning to write a review for this book because I thought I’d already written one, but when I went back and checked my goodreads, I’d only written a little blurb that was never posted to my blog, so I’ve decided to write a proper review since I love this book so much.

I recommend this book to people a lot. They always look at me kind of like “really? Trevor Noah? The comedian?”, but I totally stand by my recommendation because this book has so much going for it! It’s hilarious, interesting, and it damn matters. Sure there’s a lot of comedic memoirs out there, but Trevor Noah’s memoir is all about growing up ‘coloured’ in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa.

South Africa’s have been broken down into factions for many years: white, black, and coloured, which is everyone in between. In Trevor’s case, he was considered coloured because he was mixed race – his mom was a black South African and his dad a white Swiss. Trevor was literally “born a crime” and had the interesting experience in his childhood of never really being allowed to be seen with either of his parents. Whites and blacks weren’t allowed to date or marry, but Trevor’s mom wanted to have a baby anyways and largely kept their relationship a secret.

In post-apartheid South Africa (when Trevor was around 10 I believe), they could finally be seen together, but Trevor struggled for years with his identity. He had a decent relationship with his Dad, but they eventually drifted apart, so everyone else in Trevor’s life was black. He is pushed to identify as coloured and for a while tries to access all the different sides of his identity, but eventually comes to the conclusion that while he looks coloured, he is black.

Trevor crams a lot of hilarious stories into this short memoir and it is definitely one of the few books that had me laughing out loud throughout. Even when he gets serious about South African politics and all the shit his mother went through, he still infuses a lot of humour into the story, which makes it a joy to read. His childhood was fascinating, as were his formative years growing up and trying to make it in Johannesburg. If you’re looking for an account of how he became a successful comedian, you won’t find it in this book, but you will find a lot of anecdotes about South African culture and oppression.

But the real hero of this story is Trevor’s mom. I talked about her briefly in my first review, but she is really what made this book for me. It’s hard to believe a poor, coloured boy who was literally born a crime could become so successful, but after learning about his mom, I know exactly how it happened. She is an independent and headstrong woman who is not afraid to go after what she wants, even when the deck is stacked against her. She acts as a wonderful foil to Trevor’s childhood antics, but you can tell everything she does is grounded in a deep love for her children and a deep love for God.

Say what you want about religion. But I absolutely believe in the God that Trevor’s Mom believe’s in. She is a zealous woman, but her faith is inspiring. The final chapter of this book is pretty much the most insane thing I’ve ever read, but it can’t help but make you believe that Patricia Noah knows something that the rest of us don’t about faith and religion.

Ultimately, this is a series of stories from Trevor’s childhood and young adult life. Every story offers a different insight into South African culture, but they all weave together a story of a remarkable mother and son.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5
Author: Ocean Vuong
Genres: Poetry, LGBTQIA+
Pub date: Jun. 2019 (read July 2019 on Audible)
Narrator: Ocean Vuong

I was intrigued by this book, but it wasn’t super high up my TBR. However, I loved listening to the author’s voice in the audiobook sample, so I decided to read it. I’m so glad they got the author to narrate this one because I’m not sure anyone else could really have done it justice.

Initially I really liked it. The writing is poetic and it flowed really nicely. The author’s reading is emotional and I enjoyed listening to it, but I must admit, parts of the book were over my head and left me wondering how I should feel about it.

The book is crafted as a letter to the protagonist’s mother. It’s unclear to me whether this book is fiction or non-fiction, so I’d love some insight from other readers if you have it. It certainly read like non-fiction and I internalized it as such, but it could have been fiction.

Initially I liked that it was a letter from son to mother, Little Dog talks about the relationship he had with his mother and how it impacted him emotionally as he grew up. How their Vietnamese past influenced his childhood in America and shaped all of his relationships with his family members.

From there, Vuong moves on to the relationship Little Dog had with his friend Trevor and the struggle of being not only an immigrant, but a confused gay teenager. I found many parts of the story upsetting, but really appreciated their inclusion in the book and thought it brought a great depth to Vuong’s story. However, it did affect my reading of the book as a letter from son to mother. This format worked really well when confronting his childhood demons and the relationship with his family, but I thought the format had less meaning when it got into Little Dog’s exploration of coming to terms with his homosexuality. I don’t have the lived experience to really comment on its effectiveness, but personally I just found the ‘letter to mother’ format lost some of its potency in this part of the book. Just a comment on format, not content.

Mostly I’m left confused on how to rate the book though because parts of it were definitely over my head. I’ve been reading a lot more poetry lately (I used to never read it), but I definitely still struggle with the accessibility of poetry. I want to love it, but I think I just haven’t spent enough time reading poetry to really understand the nuance of it. I really enjoyed the writing, it was flowery, but not overwhelmingly so, but sometimes it’s just so overloaded with metaphors that I kind of missed out on the point. I really liked a lot of this book, but there were definitely some sections where I found myself tuning out.

Overall though, a very thoughtful book and debut for this young author, so well done! I would not be deterred from reading his stuff in the future.

Home Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2017 (read July 2019)

While Home Fire was already on my TBR, it was a bit of an impulse purchase on Audible for me because I liked the narrator (so important!). I’m not sure what I was expecting from it, but I ended up being really impressed by this book.

Home Fire tells the story of an immigrant family that struggles to overcome the heartbreak of the past and be accepted as immigrants in the current political climate in the UK. After the death of her parents, Isma is forced to put her dreams on hold to take care of her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. But now that the twins are grown, she decides to pursue greater education in America, where she meets Eamonn, son of Britain’s home secretary.

The narrative follows Isma, Eamonn, and each of the other family members in turn. Isma is detained at the airport on her way to America, thanks to the tight security standards of the home secretary and her status as the daughter of a known jihadi. She befriends Eamonn and is confused by her feelings for him knowing the impact of his father’s policies on her and her family. But when Eamonn returns to the UK and is introduced to the rest of Isma’s family, the lives of these two very different immigrant families becomes further entwined.

Home Fire was a lot more political than I was expecting and super relevant with what is happening under Donald Trump’s policies in America and in the UK, post Brexit. But it also had a lot of heart and despite it being a relatively short book, Shamsie writes some deep and nuanced characters. I liked that this examined both sides of immigration policies, looking at a really controversial topic like jihad and the far-reaching impacts. I definitely didn’t go into this expecting to feel empathy for someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS.

What made this such a strong read for me was the characters (I live for character driven stories, so no surprise there). Initially I was frustrated when the perspectives kept switching, because I wasn’t expecting it and wanted to return to earlier characters, but looking at this one family and their story from so many perspectives is what gave the book such depth. They had a richly imagined history and each character already felt like a fully formed individual by the time I first met them. They are all extremely flawed, but it’s really what made them so believable as individuals.

To add another level to the story, Home Fire is parroted as a “modern day Antigone”. Now I read Antigone in high school, but I’m pretty foggy on the details so I had to do a bit of googling to remind myself. It is pretty loosely related, but does raise some relevant points from this ancient play. To what level will our xenophobia and othering go so that we can’t even see those who are different as human anymore? Can we not grant someone their humanity even in death, having no empathy for the people the dead leave behind?

A thoughtful and cleverly written book. I sped through it as an audiobook.