Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami

Drawing from her own experiences as a Moroccan immigrant living in the States, in Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America Laila Lalami presents us with an impassioned and thoughtful social commentary. With piercing clarity, she touches upon Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism. She reflects on the many flaws and conditions of citizenship, specifically American citizenship, and on the many ways, it fails people. I truly appreciated the way she discusses topical and oh so important social issues, and the lucidity of her arguments: from discussing the way citizenship is equated with whiteness, white privilege and white fragility, racial profiling, borders, racist rhetorics and the vilification of immigrants, inhumane legislations, the notion of ‘assimilation’, belonging, etc. Throughout this collection of essays, Lalami raises many thought-provoking points and makes many illuminating observations. While Lalami does discuss other people’s experiences, often providing statistics or citing specific incidents/events, her own personal experiences inform much of her writing, which makes it all the more affecting. I admired the way she would attempt to relate to the kind of people I personally would write off as c*nts while also fully acknowledging how frustrating a position she is often made to be in (that of educating bigoted people).
While she does write about subjects that are ‘American’ specific, such as applying for citizenship in America, the issues underlying her essays should not concern exclusively an American readership. Although I did gain insight into processes I am not familiar with, throughout this collection Lalami delves into topics that will undoubtedly resonate with many readers outside of the States.

My only quibble is that some of her essays could have integrated a more intersectional approach. For instance, while Lalami does include ‘asides’ discussing gender inequality and #metoo, she barely acknowledges lgbtq+ related issues.
Curiously enough this is another case where I find myself liking the non-fictional work of an author whose fiction I low-key did not get on with…I would definitely recommend this one and I am determined to read (and hopefully like) Lalami’s The Moor’s Account.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf by Malika Moustadraf

Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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Less by Andrew Sean Greer — book review

I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to find Less to be a bit less than expected.
Although it had its moments, for the most part I found myself annoyed by its employment of satire. Not only does Greer lampoon the literary world but almost every scene ends up being satirical of someone or something.

One of the things that distanced me from the story and our main character was the narrating style. Although for the most part it is narrated in 3rd person, we soon discover that the story is actually being narrated by an omniscient narrator. Which might have worked if the narrator didn’t turn out to be (view spoiler). I would felt much more connected to Less if the story had been told directly through his pov or in a way that allowed us to glimpse his feelings and thoughts.
The story as such consists in a series of mini misadventures, where Less travels from country to country (trying to ignore his age, career, and love life) misunderstands, time and again, everybody around him.
The countries themselves blend together and combine into an irrelevant landscapes that only once succeeds in stirring some emotion in Less (and after this moment of being affect by his surroundings follows a silly joke). There are many instances were emotional depth was lost to satire. I wasn’t interested in the characters or in our protagonist’s self-discovery…in spite of its short length this novel bored me.
The novel’s self-awareness didn’t stop me from wanting to criticise it. Less is writing a book about a middle-aged white American, a Flâneur of sorts. Less himself mirrors his main character’s arc as his wanderings apparently provide him with some insight into himself and his life. Sadly I didn’t see this growth. What I read was other characters telling him to get over himself since as a he doesn’t have huge money problems, and most importantly, he is a white American man which means that he should not complain. This kind of thinking is very superficial and limited. Not only it pushes aside one’s feelings but one’s mental health (is Less not allowed to feel lonely and depressed?!).

The metafictional aspect of this novel wasn’t as innovative as the narrative would have you think… All in all, I thought that this novel did nothing new but perhaps it will resonate with other readers.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Other Americans : Book Review

The Other Americans
by Laila Lalami
★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded down)

I’m really disappointed by this book. It tells a predictable and unevenly paced story which focuses on flat stereotypes whose different point of views merge into one indistinguishable passive voice.
Not a bad novel but…far from good.
If you haven’t read novels similar to this one you might be able to look past its cliches and its poorly orchestrated narrative.

Initially I thought that this book was doing something similar to Everything Here Is Beautiful where chapters alternated between ‘connected’ characters (in that case they were all close to the same person) but here we get chapters from the victim (in one chapter he is young, another one takes place weeks before his death), his wife, Maryam, (again, there is one from her early days in America and then the other ones take place in the present), his younger daughter, Nora, and his older daughter, (who gets 1 single chapter in 2nd perspective, and yes, that was awful), as well as people outside of the family.
All of these other characters added little to the narrative. If anything they showed Lalami’s writing weaknesses since they are all told in the same way. They are meant to make us see how different these characters are from each other, but really, they just provide us with a quick and unsubtle info-dump of their lives until now (a whole history dumbed down and rammed with a paragraph or two) and had no impact (emotional or otherwise) to the main story. In fact, they water down what could have been a poignant story of a fraught family history. If I were to cut half of these chapters, the story wouldn’t suffer one bit.
These ‘extra’ character all used the same language and thought patterns.
There were these painful attempts to make us see through the eyes of Anderson, an elderly man (and we can tell his age only because he sees a woman and thinks ‘little lady’), A.J., the son of this man, Efraín, the man who witnessed the hit and run, Coleman, the detective who is investigating it, and Jeremy, an Iraqi War veteran…seeing through their perspective added 0 layers to their characters. Not having their point of view wouldn’t alter the way we perceive them, quite the opposite instead. I would have found them more believable without reading from their povs.
I often forgot who was narrating the story because they sounded so much alike one another. Which isn’t great given that they should have very little in common. It was only if they actually stated their political views or profession on the page that I would know whose point of view I was reading from.
The story tries hard to be this tapestry of different accounts and perspectives but ends up being a poorly written monologue which wasn’t sure wherever it should sound like a series of ‘confessions’ (which I personally think would have worked) in which each character gives their view on the victim and or his family or if they were just random snippets of different types of people. Maybe if it had been all written from the third point of view it would have worked, and I wouldn’t have found their voices so jarringly similar.
At times it seemed that these extra characters were merely there to offer a bigger picture of Driss’s death, that they would only talk about things relating to him and or the events after his hit and run but that wasn’t always clear. We were given all this information about these characters which suggested that their chapters would add something to the overall narrative…but that wasn’t the case either. They are quite clearly ‘not the focus’ and yet so many pages are wasted on them. Their chapters don’t add anything to the story or to their characters. It didn’t make us understand them more or any such thing.
There was also this tendency to describe a scene from different point of views (first we would see it from Nora, then Jeremy, then Coleman) which was used like some sort of cheap ‘party trick’. Maybe it would have worked if these characters didn’t sound so much like the same person.
In order to move their narrative from the info dumping to the ‘now’, the characters use ‘anyways’ and ‘of course’ which got repetitive, fast. Surely there is a less obvious way to move the story along than saying ‘anyways’?
The narrative seems to be wavering, not knowing what it’s trying to be, trying—and failing—to capture a certain time, place or community. There were occasional phrases that stood out (in a good way) especially at the start of the novel but these were far too few.

The story takes itself too seriously, and by trying to tackle too many different themes and issues, it ends up spreading itself way way way too thin. If you are looking for a superficial and stereotypical portrayal of xenophobia, ptsd, racism, sexism, look no further.
I was hoping to read an engaging and thought-provoking story of a grief, loneliness, and estrangement (from one’s country or one’s parents). Where is the feeling of dislocation? The oppressing sense of being viewed as ‘other’? These things were barely there. Guilt, fear and anxiety are depicted in such a one-dimensional way.
This novel isn’t a family saga or a mystery….it tries to be topical but in such a blatant and contrived manner that I found myself laughing out loud or rolling my eyes at moments that should have had some emotional impact.
There is this detective who is there just to show us readers what it means to be a woman. When someone tells her that she did a good job on a case she is about to close, she replies by saying:

“Stroke of luck,” I said, and immediately regretted the modesty in my voice. Humility had been drilled in me, as it was in most of the women I knew, and I found it hard to get rid of it, even though it was frequently mistaken for inability.”

What kind of person would immediately view their own response as ‘patriarchy’s fault’? There were many other instances which sounded like they belong on twitter.
The story…it tries. I will give it that. But it is also >so inconsistent. The pacing is all over the place, the switching from past to present is muddled, and it just seems not to know where it’s headed.
At the start Nora says that at a teacher made her realise that she has Synesthesia:

“She gave a name to how I saw the world. Synesthesia. And with that word came the realization that there was nothing wrong with me, that I shared this way of experiencing sound with many others, some of them musicians.”

Is this touched upon again? No.
Does Nora seems to view her surroundings differently from the other characters? No.
Why then throw the word ‘synesthesia’ in the mix? It is an actual condition not something that you should mention once in order to establish that your character is different.
The characters seem unable to make any valid argument or intelligible statement but behave like sketches of inane people.
There is one scene in which Nora discovers that Jeremy served in Iraq and is repulsed by this. The two part on unfriendly terms, and one would think that Jeremy would try to get Nora to see why he felt that he had to join (he wanted to get away from his alcoholic father, his prospect-less future) but no. That is the type of conversation two adults would have. These two don’t say anything to one another until Nora suddenly decides that…she doesn’t mind? I don’t even know! Her initial reaction is so strong that she is unable to look at him…and the day after she is just okay with it? She doesn’t articulate why she is able to overcome her initial reaction. Later on she has the cheesy realisation that: ‘he has blood on his hands’.

These characters do not sound, behave, or think like real people. They are posterboys for certain issues or personalities.
We have Nora, the classic ‘I’m different’, ‘I’m not like other people’, ‘I’m the black sheep of the family’, ‘I’m creative’, who is immensely dislikable in spite of the many attempts to make her into some sort of just and compassionate person. Her sister, whose life is predictably ‘not as perfect as it seems’ (her chapter was cringe-worthy and seems like some sort creative writing assignment). Their mother…she makes these obvious comments such as ‘I wish my daughters stopped fighting with one another’ and ‘these Americans’.
The extras are just as flat. We have the bad guy, a white racists, xenophobic, sexist, rude, who feels no guilt or remorse whatsoever, and Lalami tries to give us his ‘side’ of the story through laughable statements like: “Do you know what it does to a boy when a girl laughs at him? ”
Jeremy was awful. He was just there to be Nora’s love interest. We get a quick info-dump in which he tells us about his alcoholic dad and that he used to be made fun for being fat. And then his chapters are centred on his obsession with Nora. She is the girl for him. She is not like other women. You see, while he could brag about sleeping with other women, he could never speak like that of Nora. Nora was nice to him (once) years before.And Nora makes him realise that using offensive terms like ‘raghead’ isn’t nice. So…it must be love?
I could go on and on about how stereotypical these characters are. I read a review that said that you can tell exactly what has happened and what will happen to each character within the first few chapters and I agree 100%.
At times it seemed that Lalami forgot about her own characters…why add them to the mix to begin with?

If I were you I would skip reading this and read Elif Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient Insanities.

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