Category Archives: Books

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is anything but an “Infidel”

By Alexandra Wells
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Fair use image provided by author's website.

Having all your life’s decisions made by the male head of a family is unimaginable to many Western women. However, this is the way that some Muslim women in the Middle East are raised, it is then “normal.” One woman who grew up in this climate is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who tells a unique tale in her memoir, “Infidel.”

Ali explains herself as a woman who went from quietly submitting her will in Saudi Arabia to loudly announcing her thoughts in Dutch politics. She opens with a scene of herself at age 5, sitting on a grass mat in Somalia with her grandmother, and reciting her ancestry, “I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.” As she falters for a second, her grandmother quickly speaks up to the nervous Ali, telling her, “If you dishonor him you will be forsaken. You will be nothing…”

The autobiography is extremely touching, a gripping read that is hard to put down. Ali uses descriptive prose to describe dire situations: her escape of an arranged marriage, the numerous death threats she received after her co-production of a controversial film and her atrocious beatings and female mutilation as a child. She manages to step back from the situation at hand and discuss the roots of her problems.

Many times when people are physically and emotionally downtrodden, they choose to curl up and ignore the outside world. In Ali’s case, she did the exact opposite and decided to help bring freedom to other oppressed women around the globe. Her political and religious positions are extremely liberal, especially for a female coming from a Muslim background, and for this she has suffered but not given up.

Her father disowned her when she chose to stay in the Netherlands and earn her degree in political science. Fundamental Islamists sent her death threats and tried to tarnish her public image. Ali however, has remained stalwartly committed to her cause of women’s rights, her voice bold. Her current method of reforming free speech for women in Muslim countries is through her election to the Netherlands’ House of Parliament, where she serves as a Representative.

She does not try to make herself out to be innocent or angelic and she recognizes that she had to be selfish in order to make it to where she is today. A sense of regret in hurting her strict Muslim family comes through during her recollection of childhood, but she does not waiver in her decision to fight religious injustice, which directed primarily towards women. She is truly resilient, springing back into action when it looks as if all the doors in her life are closed to her.

Seeing Ali’s thoughts turn from basic religious submission to questioning the dogma is an out of the ordinary change, but the true transformation in her life comes about when she begins to turn her thoughts into actions. Her deep sense of right and wrong, coupled with a curiosity and intelligence, allow Ali to learn from her life lessons rather becoming bitter and resentful. Sheer courage emanates from her pages, as she concludes her book saying, “Even with bodyguards and death threats I feel privileged to be alive and free.”

Even a Princess can kick ass

By Lauren Linhard
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess and she met a handsome Prince. When danger came to the kingdom, the daring Prince saved the fair Princess. They fell deeply in love and got married. And they all lived happily ever after…or not.

Ever wonder what really happened after the happy couple rode into the sunset? Or better yet, what dirty secrets did the Disney Princess stories leave out? Maybe The Little Mermaid lost more than her voice. Maybe her beloved prince wasn’t such a nice guy. And maybe Princesses were meant to kick ass.

In the spirit of adventure, friendship and (of course) girl power, Jim C. Hines has written “The Mermaid’s Madness,” a twist on the old Disney classic. The true story of “The Little Mermaid” is told through the eyes of fellow princesses Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. The tale begins after the movie has ended, but instead of a marriage, Ariel, referred to in the book as Lirea, has killed her Prince. Angry and confused, she begins to hear voices. Returning to the sea, she gathers the tribes of Merfolk and declares war on the humans.

Hines certainly gets points for his alternative depiction of the Princesses. Magical powers like singing or talking to animals, which were originally considered feminine, save the day. The gifts that the fairies bestowed on Sleeping Beauty make her undefeatable (not to mention that she is a martial arts expert). Snow White is a powerful sorceress, drawing strength from the magic mirror. And Cinderella, now married to the Prince of Lorindar, controls the sharks and sea-creatures for protection. Basically they are the Charlie’s Angels of fairytales. Rather than the type of Princess every little girl wants to grow-up to be, we have the strong Queens that women want to be.

While “The Mermaid’s Madness” is fun to read, it’s not exceptionally well written. The themes of the book are adult oriented, but the writing style seems geared toward teenagers. The sentences stay relatively simple throughout, as does the dialogue. Though a lot of the conversation is witty and amusing, it can also become repetitive. Each character has a main motivation, which they constantly talk about. You could play a drinking game with the number of times Morveren (Ursella in the movie) mentions saving her granddaughter.

However, what Hines lacks in writing skill he makes up for in creativity. Developing an entire culture for the Merfolk, he describes the royal hierarchy, mating habits, migration seasons and sea magic. Expanding into the fairy world, he adds Captain Hephyra to the mix. The fairy’s tree was cut down to make the Queen’s vessel, forever bonding Hephyra to the ship.  Strong and sultry, she can sense the passionate desires of others, which causes a bit of a stir. The ship is truly fascinating because it is created of a still-living tree. To keep it thriving, the crew stores fertilizer in the lower decks. All these little magical details create an intriguing fantasy world.

Bourdain: amusing or insulting?

By Emma Wojtowicz
ArtsPost Staff Writer

Whether you are a culinary enthusiast who can prepare a six-course French meal or a cooking neophyte who does not know how to boil water you have the ability to read, appreciate and enjoy “Kitchen Confidential: Adventure in the Culinary Underberlly” by Anthony Bourdain.

Dressed in white, Bourdain stands confidently and somewhat smugly clutching a sword on the cover of his book. He looks formidable; the book reveals that his cover appearance is justifiable. Bourdain’s narrative divulges his experiences and knowledge gained from working in the restaurant business in Manhattan.

Prior to traveling and eating his way around the world for his cultural culinary show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, Bourdain worked his way through restaurants and kitchens in New York City. Bourdain shares anecdotes about his different jobs and colleagues; he gives cooking and dining advice based on his experiences behind-the-scenes; and he makes your jaw drop from his outlandish tales, secrets and opinions. His witty, honest, in-your-face writing style makes you feel like an insider to the culinary world. Bourdain does not hold back embarrassing stories or gloat about his accomplishments, but he shares his career’s highs and lows with a “this is how it is” kind of attitude.

Bourdain organizes his book like a meal: appetizer, first course, second course, third course, dessert and coffee and cigarette. The book is a hodge-podge of stories, observations, lessons, advice, cooking tips and insight into the business of food.

Bourdain tells stories about specific people and restaurants that impacted his life and shaped his career. His mentor, nick-named Bigfoot, gave Bourdain a job and showed him the way to run a business. “Bigfoot inspires a strange and consuming loyalty. I try, in my kitchen, to be just like him,” Bourdain says about his mentor. “I want my cooks to think that, like Bigfoot, when I look into their eyes, I see right into their very souls.” Bourdain explains how the restaurant world works and who the people are that run it – thoroughly.

Cooking advice intertwines with details of Bourdain’s experiences. He explains what the essential items and ingredients are for the average, professional chef, some of which include: a chef’s knife, non-stick sauté pan, heavy-weight pots and pans, butter, shallots, roasted garlic. He gives advice on how to obtain some items. “If you have a few extra bucks, read the back of the paper for notices of restaurants auctions,” Bourdain recommends. “Restaurants go out of business all the time and have to sell off their equipment quickly and cheaply…” Bourdain is not condescending, nor does he have an all-knowing attitude; he is practical and honestly shares his advice, including his do’s and don’ts for eating in restaurants—don’t eat fish on Mondays, don’t order hollandaise sauce and do eat the bread, but understand it has been recycled from someone else’s table. Bourdain justifies his advice and includes more things to watch out for, but you will need to read the book to learn how to dine like an expert.

Bourdain is not shy, and he does not care if his opinions, language or stories offend anyone. “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food,” Bourdain says, clearly not caring if he offends those who fall into the vegetarian or more stringent categories. He goes on to say, “Amoebas are transferred most easily through the handling of raw, uncooked vegetables, particularly during the washing of salad greens and leafy produce. So think about that the next time you want to exchange deep tongue kisses with a vegetarian.” You either laughed out loud or closed the book in disgust, but that is Bourdain and his writing style/sense of humor.

Bourdain wrote this book before he joined what he calls “the celebrity chef culture.” He admits that the culinary world is different now because chefs have the potential to make money and achieve stardom. Instead, his book tells how it was in the ’80s and ’90s when chefs went from job to job working 14-plus hour days hoping and waiting for the opportunity to run their own kitchen. Bourdain’s narrative appeals to people who know what its like to work hard for love and survival.

Wao fails to Wow

If a book wins a Pulitzer, it has to be good, right?

But what if it’s not?  Or even worse, what if it might be, but you can’t tell?

Oscar Wao, the hyper-nerd protagonist of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, leads us through the novel with obscure sci-fi references that only someone as in-tune with the fantasy world as Oscar would understand.  His existence is full of heartbreak and isolation, all as a result of his supposedly cursed Dominican family.  Through his romantic misadventures, Oscar reveals himself to be a chronically depressed and uninspiring character in all ways, except for his complete devotion to the search for love.

A fast paced novel littered with historical references to the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, its educational value adds to the novels relevance.  The recent surge of Latino culture in the United States, and the growing tension surrounding the inclusion Latino immigrants in American society, makes Oscar’s American identity and experience an important equalizer; all ethnicities have nerds, and Oscar may be the nerdiest of them all.

Yet for all of Oscar’s “American-ness” (he binges on Snickers bars and consumes comic books- oh, sorry, “graphic novels”-on a super-sized scale) he is quintessentially not Dominican, as the novel points out time and time again.  He has no game with the ladies, is not svelte, has kinky, curly hair, can’t dance, and breaks the Dominican stereotype in every way with his unbounded geekiness.  Despite his affinity for the island, he is consistently treated as an outcast, even among his family members.

Tragically out of place, Oscar tries to chart his own uniquely dweeby path through the muddy waters of adolescence and early adulthood.  Struggling with his own inner demons, the reader struggles with why they should invest emotionally in this emotionally unstable character.  He references Star Trek, makes models of StarTrek spaceships, and alienates the portion of his readers who don’t understand the appeal of such hobbies.  The “nerd as the tragic hero” plot line is stale and demeaning.  The reader yearns for Oscar to break out of his shell, embrace the interesting aspects of his personality, and achieve his full romantic potential.

So we get it.  He’s an outcast, he’s lonely, and he’s desperate for love.  But what about this story is so new, insightful, or inspirational that it deserves a Pulitzer?  It is compellingly told, yet we never get a “this is why we care” moment.  Perhaps that’s the point.  Every high school English teacher says a good novel raises more questions than it answers, but do we really care about the questions The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is asking?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007.

Life after death: on earth and in heaven

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Cover of "Lovely Bones."

In “The Lovely Bones,” Anna Sebold constructs a gripping story about a young girl murdered in the suburbs in 1973 and what she experiences after having left the world she knew. It is: “The story of a life and everything that came after” according to the tagline.

Susie Salmon, age 14 forever, is a bright and insightful girl in her afterlife, much like she was before she was killed.  She watches as her family struggles with the grief, sadness and rage in the aftermath of her death and the evolution of a new family without her. This process guides the book and makes for compelling storytelling as we wonder if the Salmon family will be able to move on, and if they will be together when they do.

Susie moves frequently from watching her father: a man nearly destroyed by her death; her sister: struggling to find an identity other than the sister of a murdered girl; her mother: driven to distraction and self-revelation; and her killer Len Harvey: a man tortured by bloody desire.  Susie also watches fellow students and other family members as well as the detective on her case. She bounces between them, a wandering soul, and we are curious no matter what she is looking at.

Sebold uses the curiosity of the reader about the afterlife and about the solution to a murder to keep us interested and drawn to the story.  Her images of the in-between, the place Susie goes to after she dies, is both intriguing and comforting to the reader with its colors, familiarity and dogs. You have to have dogs in heaven.

Surprisingly, Sebold has not given heaven any religious connotation.  It is more spiritual in the sense that Susie feels there is a different, bigger heaven than where she is, but she can’t go there yet.  Heaven is more of a place where you have the simple joys that may have eluded you in life. For example Susie has a gazebo in the yard, and she lives in a duplex, things she coveted in life, and a place where you can think about your life, and the world, and the world without you in it.

The murder mystery continues loosely throughout the book, but we are left wanting there to be quicker progress, aching for closure.  In that, Sebold has made us feel what the Salmon family feels: frustration, confusion and anger.  This is heightened by the fact that we see Len Harvey along with Susie, something the Salmons cannot do.

Susie struggles with her inability to help her family and the police catch her killer.  We feel Susie’s detached frustration and when it melts into acceptance that life will continue, we are left relieved and upset.  Our societal conditioning makes us want a perfect ending, and what we get is just as good.

The story orbits around the Salmon family and their relationships and experiences following Susie’s death.  We watch as each deals with loss differently; from grandmother to baby brother, all of their lives are changed forever.  As the years pass, we see them grow both together and apart, lean on each other and push each other away.  In the end, the best way to describe the Salmon family is broken with bandages.

Sebold has woven a story of both fantasy and reality.  Her conception of heaven and her depiction of life, both in heaven and on earth, after death keep us riveted and wanting more.  We could read about the Salmon family’s problems and joys forever; we could read about Susie’s thoughts and experiences in heaven forever.

“The Lovely Bones” is the second work Sebold has published.  She has also written “Lucky,” a memoir about her own rape and her life afterward, and the less well received “The Almost Moon,” about a woman who murders her mother and the 24 hours that come after.

The novel has recently been turned into a movie, directed by “The Lord of the Rings” Peter Jackson. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Susie, and Mark Walburg and Rachel Weisz as her parents.

“The Lovely Bones,” 400 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $7.99/$9.99