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!

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.

Miracle Creek

Rating: ⭐
Author: Angie Kim
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pub. date: Apr. 2019 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I heard really good things about Miracle Creek, which is what inspired me to pick it up, but I was still totally blown away by this book! I like mystery/thrillers,but they don’t normally stand out in the way a good literary fiction or historical fiction book does. Miracle Creek was everything I didn’t know I was looking for in a mystery novel.

What makes this such a great read is that the author weaves so much nuance into the rest of her story. It’s primarily about solving a crime, but there’s so much else going on and the characters are incredibly well developed and have a huge amount of depth. Kim tackles everything from alternative medicine, to parenting less-abled children, to cultural diaspora, to the challenges of simply growing up.

Miracle Creek is primarily about the Yoo family. Pak, Young, and their daughter Mary, moved to the United States from Seoul, Korea. Each character faces their own challenges in moving to America and their new routines start to create a distance between each of the family members. Pak decides to start up a new business called Miracle Submarine, which is all about the healing powers of hyperbaric pressure chambers, or HBOT. HBOT is a pressurized chamber that allows the patients to breathe in pure oxygen, which is touted as having all kind of medical benefits. However, the benefits are not totally proven and it is a controversial practice.

Pak, Young, and Mary’s lives, as well as the lives of their friends, are totally torn apart when one evening, someone lights a cigarette outside the chamber and blows it up, killing two of the patients inside. The rest of the book is a courtroom drama, investigating who was responsible for the explosion and what exactly happened to lead up to that moment.

The courtroom drama is the focus of the novel, but everything else that happens outside the courtroom is really what makes this read so thrilling. We get to experience the trial from a number of different perspectives. We are never really sure who actually committed the crime, with new evidence continuously keeping you guessing. But the decision to tell this story through multiple perspectives is super effective. Kim humanizes every single one of her characters, making it easy to empathize with them, even when some of their actions shock you.

Outside of the courtroom, she explores so many different conflicts that each character is facing. I loved that I got to explore what it was like for Young living within the confines of a traditional Korean marriage and the impact that moving to America had on her family. I sympathized with Pak being a goose father and the perceived loss of his wisdom when he could no longer communicate himself eloquently. I was captivated by Elizabeth and the other autism moms – the level of responsibility that was thrust upon them and the continued heartbreak every day as they had to watch their children be only a fraction of who they knew they could be. The conflict they felt about HBOT and all the treatments they put their children through and whether it was really worth it and who they were doing it for? I felt bad for Janine as she struggled in her relationship with Matt and the fetishization of Asian women and her indignation that being attracted to Asian women could even be considered a “fetish”, like it was something dirty.

Every single character in this book is so nuanced. I constantly marveled at the author for how she played with so many different social issues and commentaries, all while maintaining an equally thrilling courtroom drama. I loved how she played with regret and “what if’s. How things could have been so dramatically different had one character taken a slightly different action. I wasn’t particularly surprised with the solving of the crime, but I was impressed with how Kim decided to end her novel. In the same way that the story was filled with moments of frustration, bitterness, and anger at the hand that had been dealt to each character, the ending carried on the same theme of cold, hard reality. It reminded me at times of a Greek tragedy in that you saw how easily things could have been different, but the characters, blind to their own shortcomings and missing information, barrel into the unknown, only increasing their mistakes. This book had a lot of irony and that’s what really sticks with you. It get’s under your skin and you get caught up in the what ifs.

I can’t believe this is a debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Angie Kim writes next. Highly recommend this thoughtful and thrilling book!