Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Danika reviews The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been by Tess Sharpe

Nora was raised by her con artist mother to be many girls: whoever their mark needed her to be. When her mother falls for the criminal, abusive man she was supposed to be conning, though, Nora made a risky escape. Now, she’s been trying to live a normal life. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have that option anymore: she, her ex-boyfriend, and her girlfriend have been taken hostage by bank robbers.

I was immediately hooked by this premise. First of all, there is the awkward social situation of Nora, Wes, and Iris being trapped together: Wes walked in on them kissing and is not impressed that they’ve been keeping this a secret–they’re all supposed to be friends. Add a potentially deadly hostage situation, and you’ve got a guarantee of tension and drama. All I really needed was for this bisexual heist/con YA novel to live up to its premise, and did it ever.

When picking up a YA thriller, I wasn’t sure what to expect: some of the darkest books I’ve read have been YA, while others keep the blood off the page. This book definitely does not shy away from violence. In fact, there is a long list of serious trigger warnings attached to this. It also hits the ground running and never lets up: the bank robbery takes place on the second page of this novel. Nora is trying to find their way out of this situation, but she hasn’t told Iris about her past.

Interspersed with this tension are the stories of who Nora used to be. They don’t feel out of place or slow down the action, though: they are always relevant to what is currently happening, and the hints we get of her backstory makes me just as eager to find out about her past as reading about the hostage situation. Nora is an amalgamation of all the roles she’s had to play as a child: she doesn’t know how to be herself, and she’s not sure who she “really” is.

I also loved the supporting characters, who have been forged into this chosen family through their own trauma. Nora lives with her older sister, who she met later in life. Lee escaped from their mother, and she comes back to help Nora escape, too, when Nora is ready. Lee is also queer, though it’s not specified whether she’s bi or a lesbian. She is a badass private investigator who will do anything to protect Nora, including playing hostage negotiator.

Wes is Nora’s ex, but he’s also her closest friend, and the only one who knows her whole story. Wes is abused by his father, the mayor, and he spends most of his time with Nora and Lee. They bond over their shared experiences, and once Nora confronts his father with her own scheme to stop the violence, Wes realizes what she’s been hiding–she didn’t give that information away freely.

Nora’s girlfriend is an intensely memorable character. She loves vintage fashion, wants to be an arson investigator, and is fearless enough that she’s been banned from dares in truth or dare. She can hold her own against Nora, and they clearly adore each other–through Iris is angry that she’s been hiding things from her. She also has endometriosis, which I don’t think I’ve seen represented in a book before. A note in the back of the book explains that this is own voices representation and gives some resources.

I was completely absorbed into this story. It’s fast-paced thriller about misogyny, power, and abuse. Though Nora’s life is exceptional, she points out that misogyny and being threatened by men as a young woman is not unusual, and that it’s something she learned outside of her con artist upbringing. In fact, all of the main characters have been abused by someone with power over them. I also appreciated that therapy is openly discussed: Nora still is working through the trauma she’s gone through, but she’s made progress through therapy, and it’s how she’s able to open up–even a little.

This is one of my favourite reads in a long time. It’s one of those rare books that I was counting down the time until I would be able to read it again, and I stayed up to finish it. It’s hard to enthusiastically recommend a book that is so much about child abuse, but if you are a fan of thrillers that don’t shy away from darkness and violence, you won’t regret picking this up.

Trigger warnings: child abuse, violence, gore, murder, rape, child sexual abuse

Danika reviews Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos

This book was a real rollercoaster of a read: I was intrigued by the beginning, felt the middle dragged, and then I was completely on board again by the end. It’s about Caroline, whose best friend, Madison, has just gone missing. Caroline hasn’t been having a great time even before this. Her mother sent her to a conversion camp (where Caroline then set the place on fire and escaped). Her father doesn’t believe in anxiety or depression, and would try to swap out her medication for a juice cleanse if her knew about it. The only light in her life was Willa, her girlfriend, who she’d see by driving across the border into West Virginia and hanging out at a seedy bar with a fake ID. But Willa broke up with her and moved away. And now her best friend has disappeared. Caroline has reasons to not trust the police, so she’s determined to find Madison herself.

This is, unsurprisingly, a dark book. It begins with the lines “Everything started with the body at the edge of the lake. I know that now.” On top of Caroline’s abusive family, there’s another unnamed narrator who has gone through her own horrors: she’s living in poverty, and has seen two of her mother’s boyfriends overdose. (Unlike Caroline, who goes to a prestigious private school.)

I recommended this book on All the Books, where I have recently become a cohost. I read a few reviews in preparation, and I found out that a lot of readers didn’t like the main character. They felt she was mean, and “unlikable.” Personally, when I hear someone say a book has an “unlikable” female main character, I head straight for it. Usually, it just means they’re flawed. In Caroline’s case, I think it’s because she’s angry, and rightfully so. Do I agree with all her decisions? No, but I understand them, and I can even respect them. She is a survivor. She hasn’t had a safe environment to grow up in. So she’s always got an exit plan, and she’s not afraid of using it, even if it’s “mean.” The one who tempers this is Willa. She was clearly Caroline’s anchor: she describes her as “Willa was quiet strength, endless optimism, the girl everyone told their secrets to because they knew they’d be safe with her.” She is unmoored without her, and prior to Madison’s disappearance, her entire focus was getting through the days until graduation and then her 18th birthday, when she could finally escape for good.

There are a few other characters here: two friends who help Caroline in her search for Madison. Both are possible love interests, putting this in the bisexual character with a male and female love interest category–sort of. Because Caroline has very little space to consider either of them as romantic interests, and is still very much in love with Willa. Also: what is with the bi love triangles where the guy is just a total asshole (and the girl is very sweet and on every possible level a better choice)? I couldn’t stand Jake, who says that some people are “puddles” (and Caroline, of course, is the ocean), and is judgmental of anyone who isn’t rich, and who asks Caroline, “Why do you like girls?”

As I said, I had an up and down experience reading this. I found it difficult to get into the writing style: things seemed to keep happening abruptly, and I felt like I had missed a paragraph or a page. It’s also weird that men being framed for rape/statutory rape is an ongoing motif. Considering how much this book has to do with misogyny and which women are considered victims (and worth seeking justice for), I found that a very strange choice. I should also note that because it’s a very dark book, there are trigger warnings for murder and violence, and there’s also smoking and drug use by the teen characters. For me, the ending made me glad I stuck with it, though I can also understand why it lost some people. If you’re interested in reading about an angry, flawed character who finds herself discovering a system that considers poor and racialized victims “throwaway girls,” check this one out. If you’ve already read it, or don’t care about spoilers, here’s what I think about the ending.

It was interesting, at this point in time, to read a thriller that is so skeptical of the justice system and the police. (Caroline was “rescued” by the police while running from conversion camp, who then delivered her back to her abusive mother.) [Spoilers, highlight to read] Because of that, the murderer made perfect sense. And although it’s an exaggeration, the idea of men with power weaponizing it against women, especially poor and racialized women, is not. Caroline, already angry at the world, is consumed with rage to learn that Willa has died–and that she was trying to reach out to her. She had the opportunity to save her, and didn’t realize it, didn’t put it together. It’s sickening, but it’s an interesting story choice. She is overly harsh with Madison, of course, but Madison’s choices did lead to her girlfriend’s brutal murder, so I think that’s understandable. The moment that really turned the book around for me, though, is that she shot him herself. Many stories take that moment, where the hero has a gun pointing at the villain, and have them walk away. That’s a valid choice in some stories, but not in this one. Caroline doesn’t trust the justice system. She is facing the man who killed the love of her life, and many other women. There is no reason she wouldn’t pull the trigger. But I was impressed with this YA novel following through on it. And honestly, I cheered for her attending his funeral just to spit on his grave. She may not be “nice,” but her choices made sense, and I didn’t blame her for them. I think they made for a better story, and I wish we had more stories about women’s anger. [end spoilers]