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Top 5 Wednesday: Books I’m Thankful For

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I haven’t done Top 5 anything in a while, but I thought I could give this week’s Top 5 Wednesday a shot! The topic is Top 5 Books You Are Thankful For.  It ended up being…a little demoralizing.  Let me explain. When I first saw the topic, my mind immediately jumped to books with f/f pairings, just because this has been on my mind lately.  In particular, YA books with f/f pairings. But as I went through my list of books read this year, I realized that none of the books I’ve read this year feature any prominent f/f pairings.  There is a thread on Twitter that recently talked about how few f/f books there are in YA and in fantasy, particularly compared to m/m, and f/f books tends to be sidelined as “special interest” or something.  All of which is to say: please, please, recommend f/f books to me! Preferably fantasy, but I will take contemporary as well! Give me recs guys!!!

Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into an essay on the state of the YA market. Despite the aforementioned blow, I did manage to find five books I am thankful for, and for various reasons! In no particular order:

20764879A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: Aside from being a spectacularly written book with incredible tension and a romance that makes me giggle (a rare thing), A Gathering of Shadows also features Lila Bard, an absolute tour de force of a character. So often women with magic are reluctant to use their powers or stumble into them. Not so with Lila.  Lila actively seeks out her power. She is not frightened by her abilities; she is impressed by them. She wants to be the most powerful of them all, so she trains as hard as she can, even when others tell her not to. She takes ridiculous risks and she’s full of herself and she’s not frightened of anything. She is an absolutely incredible woman, an incredibly written female character, and I am so thankful she exists.


31123249Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali: This was one of my favorite books of the year.  Ali writes about Muslim community with such grace, such love, such complexity! In Ali’s book, Muslims were real and human, lovable and flawed, loving and cruel.  Ali wrote about a niqabi who also happens to be an outspoken badass – talk about flipping the stereotype of oppressed Muslim women right on its head! The narrator is witty and engaging, and the writing is high-quality. I am thankful this book exists because it is such a great example of diversity in literature done right.


33574143The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Probably one of the stranger books I’ve read this year, but also one of my favorites! It’s a novel of manners a la Jane Austen with a touch of magic (telekinesis, to be specific). At its heart, it’s a romance. However, what drew me to it was the elegant writing, the prettily crafted world, and the compelling main characters.  The moment I finished this book I was inspired to write a novel of manners of my own (Egyptian inspired, in my case). So, I am thankful this book exists, because without it, I wouldn’t have my current WIP, which is one of my favorite projects that I’m working on.


29396738Monstress by Marjorie Liu: This one’s a little different, since it’s a graphic novel. I don’t normally read those, but I was drawn to Monstress.  Let me quote the Goodreads summary at you so you understand why: “Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.” I mean. Need I even say more? This book is absolutely wild, so freaking original, with that overwhelming epicness that so many fantasy books strive for but don’t achieve. I am thankful that something this original exists.


16235Sister of my Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Not only am I partial to f/f relationships, I am super fond of friendships between women. Sister of my Heart features one of the most beautiful, intimate, and enduring friendships between two women that I’ve ever seen.  Two girls, Anju and Sudha, from different worlds, grow up together, close as sisters, and their love for each other goes beyond anything.  There were so many beautiful scenes in this book, but the one that I remember most clearly is Anju watching Sudha look at the moon. Sudha is topless, but her hair is covering her chest, and Anju is thinking she is beautiful.  There were of course flaws in this book, and I’m sure if I went back and looked with a more critical eye I would find them. But I don’t want to. As much as I want to go back and reread this book I’m afraid reading it now, with my more critical eye, might ruin it for me. So I am simply thankful this book has given me such a beautiful and powerful female friendship to think about.

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Stage Corner: Come From Away

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On September 11th, 2001, when the planes crashed into the twin towers, U.S. airspace was completely shut down.  This meant that 38 planes with 7000 coming into the northeast needed to be diverted: they ended up in Gander, Newfoundland, a small town with a population of less than 7000 people.  As the planes touched down, everyone in Gander needed to scramble and assemble to deal with this influx of temporary refugees that has unexpectedly landed on their doorstep.

It’s a strange concept for a musical, and certainly not one you would anticipate being this hilarious, energetic, and heartwarming.  Come From Away manages to create a stunning balance between the tragedy of 9/11 and the hilarity of this wacky situation.  The sung-and-spoken soundtrack moves from energetic Irish folk inspired music that makes you want to get up and dance to quiet, contemplative pieces.  Yet it is never abrupt or jarring.

Gander welcomed the refugees with open arms, even as they scrambled to find food, clothing, blankets, and shelter.  Small, memorable details are based off interviews with the actual passengers who were stranded in the small Canadian town for four days.  These details lends the show a touching intimacy and authenticity, along with an urgency that makes this compact 1hr40min show seem even shorter.

Come From Away also doesn’t shy away from the realities of 9/11 for people of Middle Eastern origin.  One of the characters is an Egyptian man who is immediately a target of extreme suspicion.  This culminated in a humiliating strip-search when a flight attendant refused to board the plane with him.  I liked the light touch here – the show didn’t gloss over it, but neither did they bang us over the head with it.

There’s a lot packed into this short show.  People die, fall in love, and break up, a female pilot tells her story, a rare Bonobo chimpanzee gives birth and loses her baby, and there’s even time to incorporate the reunion of Gander and their passengers ten years later! It is an incredible feat: a testament to human compassion, a reminder of human prejudice, and a subtle nod to the current refugee situation.  It’s great, hilarious, heartwarming fun!

(Also, I saw this with my friend, and upon exiting, her first words were: “I loved that.  Not as much as that show that was on steroids, but still a lot!” She means Great Comet! I didn’t even hint for her to say that. I’m so proud!)

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Stage Corner: The Siege

Mustafa-e1505909303905-660x330The Siege is a theatrical retelling of  2002 siege of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, during the height of the second intifada.  The Siege was developed by  The Freedom Theatre, and here is a description from their website:

April 2002. Spring in Bethlehem. A group of armed men seek sanctuary in one of the world’s holiest sites as the Israeli army closes in with helicopters, tanks and snipers. Along with the fighters are some 200 priests, nuns and civilians. The siege lasts for 39 days, paralysing the center of Bethlehem and keeping tens of thousands under curfew. Inside the Church of Nativity the besieged are hungry and weakening. The smell of unwashed bodies and broken lavatories is mixed with the stench from the suppurating wounds of the injured. Two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.

Palestine is rather personal to me.  I am not Palestinian, but I am Egyptian, which means that, like many Arab children, I grew up immersed in the struggle through friends, family, and the media.  So, walking in, I was prepared for it to be gutting.  It did not disappoint.

The staging is simple but eerily effective: in the center of the stage is a single free-standing set wall, with a doorway attached to it.  Fawanees (lanterns) dangle from the ceiling, a ratty carpet coats the floor, and heavenly light is cast upon the church, ensconcing it in otherworldly smoke.  It’s not an immersive show, but you do feel immersed.  The show begins with a man playing a tour guide, breaking the fourth wall as he takes the audience on a tour through the church.  (This is in English, though the rest of the show is in Arabic with supertitles, which makes everything more hyper-focused.)  Then, lightning fast, the scene switches to the siege, and cacophonous gunshots and explosions can be heard all around as six young men, one bleeding profusely, rush into the church for safety.

The cast is made up entirely of six men, soldiers who have gotten trapped in the church as the Israeli army surrounds them.  Though the show is quite short and fast-paced, each of these characters manages to establish some facet of their personality through incisive dialogue.  Some of these men are wholly committed to the cause, some are willing to die for it, some are more hesitant, some are willing to eat cats to survive, some would rather die than eat cats to survive.  Though they are shown grappling with tanks and gunfire, they also sing, make jokes, talk about their favorite foods and their family members and fiances.

They are also not afraid to get political (or I should say, the show is not afraid to get political), and I can see why pro-Israel factions were angered by this (The Public Theater cancelled this show twice).  The cast discusses the Israeli/Western propaganda machine that turns reality upside down, turning the oppressed Palestinians into the oppressors, while ignoring Israel’s occupation and continuing war crimes.  They talk about the pointlessness of negotiations with an international community that has already deemed them nothing more than terrorists while all they want is simply to survive and live in their land, which stolen from them by a violent invading regime.

In the after-show panel, the director said that her goal was to humanize men who had been explicitly demonized in the media for doing nothing more than defending their own land.  She also stressed the importance of critical thinking and independent research.  Her panel members impressed upon us the need to look beyond American media sources.  Honestly, for me, it was just incredible to finally be in a space where I didn’t feel like I was being gaslighted about Israel’s crimes.  Once, in a graduate classroom, I had to listen to a classmate deem harsh criticism of Israel as “hate speech” and have an entire class of graduate students nod in agreement.  It was…cathartic to finally see the reality of Israel and Palestine reflected in an American space.

One of my absolute favorite moments in the show, one of the most beautiful and most humanizing, was when two of the characters are praying.  The Palestinian Freedom Fighters are made up of both Muslims and Christians, and in one scene the audience is witness to one of the Muslim men kneeling on his prayer rug while the Christian man is praying with his priest.  They are right beside one another: it is a heart-warming juxtaposition.  Often, in the media’s haste to demonize Muslims, the occupation of Palestine is characterized as a “Muslims vs Jews” struggle, while Palestinian Christians are sidelined.  It is helpful to remember that there are many Palestinian Christians engaged in this struggle, and that the fighting has little do with religion.

The after-show panel ended by discussing the intersection of politics and performance.  Art like this isn’t just there to give people hope, but also to change hearts and minds, to give people (in this case, Americans) a different reality outside their propaganda bubble.  I certainly hope this show manages to change some minds, and that it continues to tour even in the face of opposition.