The Week in Books #65

7/12 ✅

Books! I made it through three this week, one from Beirut, one from California and one by Vancouver’s punk icon Bif Naked. Let’s get to it.

1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. I had heard a lot about this book and how amazing it is, so was excited to find a copy at VV a while back. Did I love it? Not really, though the writing was beautiful and there were many powerful lines. It’s not narrative driven, and reads more like the stream of thoughts in a 72 year old woman’s head. She thinks of people she knew, memories from her own life (“snippets” as my Aunt calls them), and of the many, many books she has read over her 50 years as a bookstore worker and translator. As of the halfway point the only thing that had actually ‘happened’ was Aaliya’s family attempted to dump her elderly mother into her care and a bizarre scene unfolded where the mother screamed and screamed and Aaliya’s landlord came and chased them all away. Alameddine was very aware of the fact that readers may be impatient at this point when he wrote this page:

“If I am to think of what image you’ll retain from reading these paltry pages, I assume it will be my mother’s screaming, the frail body, the position of her hands, the skirl of terror. Am I right?” (Also how beautiful is the line about grey silk tissue glasses?!)

Around page 200 I almost quit but I hung in there and the final 50 pages or so depicted some actual events that captured my attention again and made Aaliya more endearing. Alameddine clearly loves literature and this book served as a love letter to all his favourite writers, it seems.

Aaliya Sohbi lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s “unnecessary appendage.” Every year, she translates a new favorite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read–by anyone. After overhearing her neighbors, “the three witches,” discussing her too-white hair, Aaliya accidentally dyes her hair too blue.

In this breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman’s late-life crisis, readers follow Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colorful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her aging body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.

A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the prodigiously gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a nuanced rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.

2. Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn. This won the Philip K. Dick award in 2018! This was an easy, fast-paced read about a dystopian future where civilization is reduced to a series of settlements along the Coast Road. Birth control is mandatory (via implant) and a household may only have a baby if they earn a banner that allows them permission to reproduce. It’s an interesting premise, for sure, though the plot mostly revolves around a suspicious death in a settlement near Enid’s home of Haven rather than diving deep into how a world of controlled reproduction would really feel. I enjoyed this one though.

A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn’t yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?

In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

3. I, Bificus by Bif Naked. I’ve been on a pretty mad fiction kick lately so it’s nice to get a memoir on the stack. Bif Naked is a Vancouver icon from the 90’s that I definitely listened to a lot as a teen. Her memoir is honest and readable, spanning from her birth in India to her adventures as a wild teenager, to the beginnings of her career and beyond. I have to admit I don’t read a lot of musician memoirs because, unpopular opinion here, I don’t really care about the inner workings of the music industry or what it’s like to tour and be in a band (chalk it up to the loser boyfriend I had as a teenager that put his band life before me, dragging me to all his shows, exploiting my photography for free promo materials and cheating on me on tour) but Bif was candid about her life pre-music and her many somewhat shocking experiences before her career as a woman in a male-dominated genre of music took off. It was a fun reminder of Canadian punk and grunge in the 90’s.

A small pile of new books this week, including: The Suicide of Claire Bishop, More Than Words, The Sellout, Tales of Burning Love, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Furiously Happy (I’ve already listened to the audiobook), and Educated by Tara Westover.

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