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.

Shannon reviews The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

I don’t know about any of you, but reading has proven a bit tricky for me during the pandemic. I kind of flit from book to book, hoping to settle on something that will be the perfect escape from what’s going on in the real world, and no one was more surprised than me to find that escape in a zombie novel. Many of my friends are turning to romance and cozy mysteries, and I’m glad those things work for them, but for me, comfort this fall came from one of the most enthralling series starters I’ve ever read.

The novel opens with Jenni, a frightened wife and mother, fighting to escape from her husband and two young children, all of whom have contracted a deadly virus that eventually turned them into zombies. Jenni has managed not to be bitten by any of them, but she’s not sure how long she can stay safe and she’s desperate for a way out. Fortunately, a woman she’s never seen before arrives in a truck and urges her to jump in. Seeing no better option, Jenni hitches her fate to the stranger’s, a risky move even in the best of times. Fortunately for Jenni, her savior turns out to be Katie, a prosecuting attorney who has narrowly escaped from being bitten by a group of zombies not far from Jenni’s home.

As time passes and the two women search in vain for a safe haven, it becomes clear to the reader that finding one another is the best thing that could have happened to these women. Jenni, a domestic abuse survivor, struggles to relate to most people since her abusive husband systematically chipped away at her self-worth for years. Still, she’s desperate for a fresh start, and she finds herself drawn to the competent Katie who is mourning the recent death of her wife. In Jenni’s mind, Katie is everything Jenni herself can never be: strong, resourceful and smart, just the kind of person guaranteed to take charge and ensure the safety of those around her.

Jenni’s assessment of Katie is pretty spot-on, but it soon becomes apparent there’s more to her than her strength and compassion. As the story goes on and circumstances grow ever more dire for our heroines, we learn exactly who both Katie and Jenni are on the inside, and how important each will be in the forming of a new society full of survivors.

On the surface, The First Days is one in a long list of novels about the zombie apocalypse, but as I read, I discovered a deeper story filled with complex characters who will do whatever is necessary to stay alive. This is a tale of self-discovery and survival, of changing morals and the strong need to forge connections in an ever-changing landscape. It’s dark without being overly gross, and the author deals with issues of race, sexual orientation, and mental health with an abundance of sensitivity, weaving these themes into her plot in a way that feels utterly effortless.

I know zombie books aren’t for everyone, but I was especially pleased to see a bisexual heroine so well-represented here. Katie is one of the novel’s driving forces, spurred on by her enduring love for the wife she’s so recently lost and desperate to find a way to live without her. Her friendship with Jenni is beautiful to behold, and I loved the way these two very different women balanced each other out. This is a true testament to the power of friendship and determination, and even if books about  zombies aren’t your usual cup of tea, I urge you to give this one a try.

Danika reviews Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo

Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution by e.E. Charlton-Trujllo

When I finished Fat Angie, I felt a bit conflicted about it. I liked the character and thought the language use was interesting, but it was so dark that I felt like I couldn’t find even a glimmer of hope. Despite the many strong elements of the novel–who can resist queer girls kissing to the theme song of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?–I finished it feeling exhausted by the emotional weight of Angie’s life. It felt like there was no area of her life the was spared from cruelty.

So when I picked up the sequel, I was wary. I wanted more from Angie’s story, but I couldn’t handle another storyline that felt so unrelentingly hopeless. I didn’t need her to have a fairy tale ending, but I wanted there to be some element of hope in her story. Luckily, Rebel Girl Revolution delivered that. Angie begins the book much the same as she started the last one. Her next year in high school is not looking much better than her last. Her main tormentor has started dating her best friend, and Angie is not buying her sudden change of character. She is seeing a better therapist, thankfully, and her relationship with her brother is slightly improved, but her mother is still The Worst, and Angie is still lonely and deeply grieving. When she defends herself from a football player attacking her, things go from bad to worse. We do see some of the progress that Angie has made, though, because instead of channeling that into self-loathing, she spontaneously reaches out to an estranged childhood friend, Jamboree, and they go on the road trip that Angie’s sister wanted to take her on.

This was just wanted I wanted from Angie’s story. It’s still difficult, and she is still in a lot of pain. She’s also angry, and she’s questioning a lot about her life, including the relationships she has. Everything is tangled, complicated, and so raw–but it feels worth it. Angie hasn’t given up. She’s gone on trip this with Jamboree, Zeke, and (oops) Darius, and all of them have multilayered relationships with each other. They fight, they mess up, they threaten to abandon each other on the side of the highway, and they have dance parties together.

Some of my favourite things to read about are complex relationships, whether romantic, familial, or friendships. I love stories that can communicate the depth of conflicting emotions you have about a person: the kind of people in your life who you can be the most angry at, but who are your most treasured connections. How toxic relationships can feel, at times, as if they’re the best things in your life, and how that can be the most dangerous part. Or the relationships that can be so much work, but that are nourishing, sustaining. Rebel Girl Revolution wrestles with the complicated connections that every character has with each other, in a way that feels very real.

Not only does Angie develop more connections, she also pushes herself to grow in the ways that matter to her. This trip is partly following her sister’s lead, but it’s also a chance for her to take control of who she wants to be. She throws herself, sometimes with intense fear, into new situations. Sometimes she gets spat back out. But sometimes, she shines. It suggests that there is a future for her, and that there are more options available to her than she imagined.

This isn’t a Disney movie ending. It’s not Angie all better, popular, or becoming prom queen. But it’s her making progress. It’s Angie feeling as if, sometimes, she’s doing okay. If you’re looking for YA that doesn’t shrink away from despair, pick up Fat Angie, for sure. But even if that seems too much for you, I definitely think this is worth the read (and I feel like it could work as a standalone?) I hope to see more from Angie in the future.

Trigger warnings: cutting, suicide ideation, parental abuse, violence, bullying/harassment, grief, PTSD, war flashbacks