If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

…a big fat nope from me.

DISCLAIMER: Like with any other negative review that I write I feel the need to remind ppl that my opinions/thoughts/impressions of a book are entirely subjective (mind-blowing i know) and that if you are interested/curious about said book you should definitely check out more positive reviews.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English implements many trendy literary devices. The two central characters remain unnamed and are referred to as the ‘boy/man from Shobrakheit’ and the ‘American girl’, there is a lack of quotations marks (although, although most dialogues appear in italics), and the narrative is structured in a supposedly experimental way so that when the pov switches between ‘him’ and ‘her’ we get a question that is somewhat related to the content of their chapter. As you can tell from my tone I was not a fan of these devices. They can work but here the sheer combination of all of them struck me as deeply affected and not even that innovative. The story, in broad strokes, could be summarized as: an alienated millennial Egyptian American woman goes to Cairo in an attempt at reinvention. Her shaved head and ‘western ways’ however make her feel like an outsider. She questions the way she is perceived in America, and how being in Cairo challenges her long-held identity and beliefs. We are never given too many specifics about her stay but the author does give us an impression of the ‘mood’ permeating her days in Cairo. Her navel-gazing does provide the occasional pearl of wisdom, but more often than not we are given the usual platitudes about belonging and its opposites. While the author does succeed in articulating her struggles with her dual heritage and her efforts and frustration to ‘master’ Arabic, I found her speculations to be, more often than not, all-flash and not substance. There are attempts at being edgy which come across as somewhat cringey and fairly prosaic.
‘His’ chapters are far worse. The man is a talking, breathing, living red flag. His traumatic experiences and drug addiction do not make him a nuanced character. While I appreciated that ‘she’ understands that his upbringing informs his misogynistic beliefs, which leads him to objectify women and much worse, I could not understand why she remains with him. She tells us that the man in question is a multifaceted individual, but we never see these ‘facets’ on the page. His sections, if anything, only show us his ‘vices’. His exaggeratedly perverted point of view also struck me as not entirely believable. He often refers to ‘her’ lips as genital-like or sees her lips and wonders what color her labia will be. The man is incredibly possessive, sexist, offensive, you name it…this results in a rather one-note cartoonish character. Their chemistry wasn’t there and their arguments left me feeling quite unmoved. The ending of their ‘troubled’ relationship feels rather anticlimactic. Maybe if the author had spent less time pursuing metaphysical questions and dedicated more time to fleshing out the voices of her two central characters I would have ‘felt’ more but since we get a recap of a relationship more than the actual relationship itself, I just could not bring myself to care. The occasional vulgar language was not thought-provoking or subversive and the author’s experimental structure and style were fairly banal. It’s a pity as I found the subject matter interesting (languages, identity, dual-heritage, cultural dissonance, etc..). I did not care for the way the author discusses queerness. She allows (as far as i remember of course) a page to the matter. The girl says she’s queer, but the context in which she says this is weird as she seems to equate her shaved head and desire to move in queer spaces as being queer. I would have liked for the author to spend more page time on this subject. That then we have the ‘lesbian’ character in love with ‘her’ frustrated me somewhat as she only seems to be mentioned to emphasize ‘her’ desirability and to fuel ‘his’ jealousy. That ‘she’ only shows interest/pursues a relationship with toxic men was a bit tiring. Maybe if the author had spent more time articulating the motivations/feelings that lead ‘her’ to self-sabotage, like Zaina Arafat does in You Exist Too Much, maybe then I would have those relationships more realistic.
There is also a mini-rant against cancel culture and its brevity does it a disservice as the author delivers a rather surface-level and rushed commentary on the dangers of this ‘practice’.

SPOILERS
Here comes the cherry on the poorly baked cake. When the climax happens, we are taken out of the novel and into a writing workshop of some sort. The people there are discussing the novel, while the author remains silent. We learn that the novel is based on her experiences and the people who have also just finished it give their various opinions. Many of them are celebrating her achievement and giving her some truly fantastic feedback. The few dissident voices point out all of the book’s flaws (the experimental style, the ending, the use of dual perspectives to tell what should have been just ‘her’ story) but it just so happens that said ppl are shitty so their critique is made moot. This supposedly self-aware wannabe meta chapter pissed me off. It seemed a preemptive attempt at rebutting any criticism, and in this way, it reminded me of a certain passage from Mona Awad’s Bunny, where we have awful people give some valid criticism to the narrator’s book which happens to be stylistically and thematically similar to Bunny. I am all for autofiction, and some of my favourite books are inspired by the author’s own experiences (the idiot, you exist too much, caucasia) but here I question the author’s choice to add the pov of the man she was in an abusive relationship with. The people in the workshop argue that this is an empowering move and that she has the right to tell her own story etc etc, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I found the way she chooses to portray him and his inner monologue during ‘his’ chapters to be at best lazy, at worst, of poor taste. The florid metaphors that dominate his pov ultimately amount to a caricature of a man (“her water breasts slipping to the sides of her rib cage like raw eggs”). I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this to the jaw-dropping finale episode of I May Destroy You or the section in Wayétu Moore’s memoir where she convincingly captures her mother’s perspective.
I dunno, I felt this last section was smugly self-congratulatory and for no reason tbh. Nothing really stood about this ‘novel’: the structure was uninspired, the prose was mannered, and the characters were flimsy at best. The issues and themes had potential, and as I said, the author does on occasion proffer some keenly observed passages on American and Egyptian social mores, on cultural and linguistic barriers, on occupying a female body in contemporary Cairo, on being ‘othered’, on the ‘desirability’ of whiteness (for example she notes how in america her mother has recently ‘reinvented’ herself as white), on the privileges that come with being America (by emphasizing the opportunities that are available to ‘her’ and not ‘him’), and on the dangers of self-victimization (with ‘him’ trying to gaslight ‘her’ for his emotionally abusive behaviour by painting himself as a victim).

I’m sure other readers will be able to appreciate this more than I was. Sadly, I was not a fan of the overall tone of the novel nor did I like how the author portrays her story’s only lesbian character. Lastly, that meta chapter pissed me off. I didn’t think it was half as clever as it wanted to be, and it had the same energy as those successful authors who bemoan their book’s few negative reviews on Twitter.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Ru by Kim Thúy

I was born in the shadow of skies adorned with fireworks, decorated with garlands of light, shot through with rockets and missiles. The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost. My life’s duty was to prolong that of my mother.

Ru is a short read that blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (autofiction..i guess?) and is comprised of very short chapters, most of them consisting of a couple of short paragraphs. These chapters, which often barely last a page, capture an instant or impression experienced by our Vietnamese-Canadian narrator. The feelings, thoughts, images, and anecdotes, that appear on these pages have a snapshot quality, both because the author is able to capture these in a concise yet hauntingly evocative prose. The narrator is now married with two children, one of whom is neurodivergent. While we do gain an understanding of her life in the present, the narrative is mainly preoccupied with her past. The narrator’s recollections of her ‘disrupted’ childhood are unsparingly unsentimental. She remembers her experiences at a refugee camp in Malaysia, the difficulties of trying to assimilate into a culture that sees you as ‘other’, her early years in Vietnam, her beloved Uncle Two, while also reflecting on the limitations of language and of memory, on history and alternate histories, on trauma, and on cultural dissonance.

The vignettes her reminiscences present to us have a fragmented quality, so that much of the narrator’s personal life and past remains shrouded in ambiguity. There is also an aloofness to her narration that made much of what she was recounting feel remote, intentionally so I believe. By distancing herself from her past the narrator is able to approach it with, curiously enough, far more clarity. There is a neutrality to her inner monologue that could easily lead one to believe that she too is like us merely a ‘witness’ as opposed to the person to who these things have happened to. I liked the stark imagery, the narrator’s cool tone, and the ideas and issues weaving her ‘retrospective’.
If you like proses that are so sharp you are liable to cut yourself or have a preference for non-linear narratives composed of a character’s past and present impressions (be it autofiction such as All Men Want to Know and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, or literary fiction like as Ghost Forest) you should definitely add Ru to your tbr pile.

While I understood that many of the things the narrator divulges to ‘us’ are meant to elicit feelings of discomfort and unease, the way she sees her son’s autism gave me pause (she is “waging war against autism, even if I know already that it’s invincible”). While I understand too well that many countries still have a negative view of autism here it struck me that the narrator was creating an unfortunate parallel between her son’s autism and the Vietnam war that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure other readers will not be as ‘bothered’ by this but to be perfectly honest this aspect of the narrative detracted from my overall reading experience. Nevertheless I will definitely read more by Thúy.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Candid and humorously absurd Afterparties is a collection of short stories that focuses on the experiences of Cambodian-Americans in California. In spite of the occasional Shameless-like scenario, these stories remain grounded in realism, almost to the point of reading like a slice of life. Vo’s stories can also be read as frank vignettes capturing the everyday lives of his characters. Nothing truly of note happens in his narratives, yet, the, often funny, interactions between his various characters combined with his irreverent social commentary (on race, sexuality, immigration, america) are bound to keep readers turning pages.

Much about Vo’s tone and scenarios brought to mind Bryan Washington. Like Washington, Vo presents his readers with an unfiltered portrayals of America, queer culture, and millennials, and many of these stories revolve around characters who like to party or are leading rather directionless lives. All of the stories also hone in on generational differences, specifically between young Cambodian-Americans and their parents and grandparents. In addition to racism and homophobia, many of Vo’s characters feel burdened by the pressure to succeed in life or to lead a certain type of lifestyle and by their relatives’ experiences and memories of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

While I recognise that this collection has many good qualities, I didn’t exactly love any of these stories. At times the banter between the younger characters struck me as slightly exaggerated and the humor at times struck me as being of the armpit-fart variety (ie not to my taste). Still, I was saddened to learn that the author has passed away and that this will be likely his only release.
If this collection is on your radar I encourage you to read more positive reviews, such as the one penned by Sarah.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”

Ocean Vuong’s strikingly lyrical debut novel is a work of transient beauty. Within On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous there are many arresting passages that are, quite frankly, beautiful. At times this beauty derives from Vuong’s subject matter, at times it is wholly due to his language. And, at first, when I came across these passages, well, I was in awe. The more I read, however, the more I found that however beautiful Vuong’s prose could be, many of these insights and descriptions failed to leave a long-lasting impression on me. I would forge onwards and find myself confronted with more beautiful words, often very reminiscent of his earlier ones. And once I became aware of this I found myself scrutinising Vuong’s poetical storytelling more closely, and, alas, I found it wanting. His writing occasionally seems affected, as if desperately striving to be beautiful. There were also many passages and phrases that seemed to veer into purple prose territory so that we have swollen metaphors and contrived adages that end up devaluing Vuong’s earlier unmannered yet exquisite uses of the English language.

The first half seems to promise a mother-son narrative, in which Vuong explores the way in which grief, generational differences, inherited trauma, cultural and language barriers, shape and affect the relationship between his narrator, nicknamed Little Dog, and his mother. The narrator often wonders about his mother’s own fraught identity (born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and an unknown white American father) and their shared experiences due to this. While some of the childhood episodes he recounts feature his mother being abusive towards him—hitting him repeatedly, being verbally abusive, at times even kicking him out of the house—he doesn’t reduce her to the role of abuser. By revealing her own traumatic history he contextualises many of her angry outbursts towards him. This first half was probably my favourite. Little Dog is writing to his mother, even if he knows that she will not be able to read his words. His style has this almost intimate and confessional quality to it, one that seems to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography (autofiction perhaps?). Vuong’s exacting portrayal of Little Dog’s childhood is certainly poignant. He’s an exceptional observer who can convey poetically the depth and different shades of Little Dog’s loneliness, yearning, sorrow, and otherness.
The second half brought to mind Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me, as the narrative seems to switch gears so that no longer we are reading about a mother-son relationship but a Little Dog’s young & ‘doomed’ first love who he meets during the summer when he works in a tobacco field. Here the story seemed less focused, and we get quite a few sections that seem to have little relevance to Little Dog’s story. Here the language struck me as less effective, more hackneyed, especially when it came to love and sex. Vuong’s depiction of addiction seemed to me somewhat cinematic.

Ultimately, it seemed to me that much of the beauty to be found within these pages is, like the title itself suggests, ‘brief’. While Vuong’s prose could be incisive, emotionally resonant, and, quite frankly, dazzling, it could also be repetitive, sacrificing meaning to showy displays of language that try hard to impress their gorgeousness on us, and yet, more often than not, these beautiful and lyrical turn of phrases are of little substance.
The shifts in tone and subject matter were almost jarring and made me feel less engaged by Little Dog’s story. There are some forced comparisons, such as many unnecessary pages spent on Tiger Woods’ ‘complicated’ ancestry. But, despite the issues, I had with this novel I can’t deny that at its best, it truly is a work of beauty. Given this novel’s success, it is also safe to say that you should not let my mixed impression of it deter you from giving this a shot (if anything else, it’s very short). I will definitely read whatever Vuong writes next as he’s certainly talented.

my rating: ★★★¼

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LIE WITH ME: BOOK REVIEW

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Non mentirmi (Lie with me)
 by Philippe Besson
★★★✰✰ 3.5 of 5 stars

Initially, I was torn between reading the English and the Italian translations of « Arrête avec tes mensonges ». I settled for the Italian because —to my mind at least— it seems closer to the original French language (at least they are both Romance languages ). Anyhow, I found this a very personal and intimate portrayal of first love. Besson’s elegant prose could occasionally become too impressionistic for my liking but the latter part of this autobiographical work was deeply moving.
Besson’s examination of his own first love depicts a really distinctive picture. With a few carefully chosen words he singles out the loneliness, contrition, and jealousy experienced by his teenage-self. The few sex scenes included in his otherwise delicate and poignant remembrance have an almost jarring effect.
Sometimes Besson could get lost in his own language. There are moments that border close to being stream of consciousness…which do not always ‘work’.
Overall, I enjoyed this. The latter part of this short ‘memoir’ had a lot of beautiful and painful moments.
If you don’t mind reading of the somewhat abstract meanderings of one’s mind, « Arrête avec tes mensonges » might be your perfect cup of tea.

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