In one word: Hopeful
Cannonball Read Bingo Square: Cozy
For a few consecutive months, I challenged my work book club to pick its book based on the heritage month (she says, realizing how smug she sounds) and thus, I read this book in April for Arab American Heritage Month. I was wholly unfamiliar with the author but excited to give something international a try. After selecting it for the club, I realized that my public library didn’t have a copy so I put one on order (thanks, Schaumburg library!). Having read it, I can say that I’m glad I’m the reason my public library has a copy, and I hope other people will pick up this book. This book left me feeling hopeful for my own capacity for growth and change.
Initially, I had an eyebrow raised about the 72-year-old female Beuruti written by a man. It’s not that I don’t think men can write female characters, but this entire novel centered on Aaliya, a reclusive woman facing a late-life crisis as she tries to rectify her ever-evolving self, her past, and the literature she holds dear. She quotes books as if they were scripture because, to her, they are. This novel is deeply emotional, and the whole novel hinges on her character. Overall, I applaud Alameddine: he wrote her very believably with a wistful blend of solitude and humor, a woman who despite staying in the shadows, has more to give.
So what has Aaliya been doing with her life? Once married, once employed that is all in the past. But her present is filled with literary translations. At the age of 14 she began her first translation, taking a book she loved and translating it into Arabic. Since she was 22, she started a new translation every January first. She is singularly committed to this task, her devotion, and the blank page. Her translations are like a form of private prayer; she has never shared this work with anyone. Each completed text goes into a box, and then it’s on to another translation. The fact that she didn’t do this to share stunned me. I’m always wondering what I’m writing for, who I’m writing for, and if it even matters if no one is reading it. What are we if not the output of our productivity? That’s a question I struggle with daily, and this book had me confront that head-on.
There were many things about her life that are utterly at odds with my existence as an American of moderate means, for example, her experiences in modern times with unreliable electricity and running water. One passage struck me where she ponders the difficulty of unreliable trains and phones and living through bombings. “When things turn out as you’d expect more often than not, do you feel more in control of your own destiny? Do you take more responsibility for your own life? If that’s the case, why do Americans always behave as if they’re victims?” Touche.
To my almost 40 self, this book gives me hope for all that’s left ahead in my own life as, despite everything, Aaliya was able to find a purpose and connection with her fellow humankind. If I don’t quite have you convinced, these are a few passages that stuck with me that give a sense of his writing. This novel is light and fluid in a way that makes you forget that you aren’t reading a memoir. The authenticity really leaps off the page.
Literary Criticism “There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Enough. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.”
Human Connection: “There are two kinds of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t.”
Humor: “I’ll try to be gentle here. Yes, you need a manicure. I can’t think of anyone who needs one more, maybe Russian wrestlers or East German swimmers.”