The Blogger Aesthetic Award

blogger-aesthetic-500px2

I was tagged by my friend Rachel at pace, amore, libre for the Blogger Aesthetic Award!  Tag created by Liam at Hey Ashers!.

The Rules:

  • Collect any number of images that you feel represent you as a person—your personality, aspirations, favorite things, anything at all that makes you you.
  • Put your chosen images together into a collage of whatever size and shape you find pleasing.
  • Share your masterpiece with everyone, in all the places.
  • Maybe nominate other bloggers as a way to tell them, “Hey, you, I think you’re awesome, and we should celebrate that awesomeness.”
  • Share these rules (and maybe the below tips, if you’re feeling helpful).
  • Tips:

 

Okay.  Before you scroll down further there is something you should know about me: I am very much all about about The Aesthetic™.  I am dedicated and obsessive when it comes to The Aesthetic™.  I have spent a very long time cultivating My Aesthetic™.

You may now proceed to the gigantic 24-image graphic below.

So, because I clearly have nothing better to do, allow me to explain the various aspects of My Aesthetic™:

First up, cats and books! Then we’ve got houses with bright open spaces and lovely views, giving off kind of a suburban feel.  Then Hamilton, which I have yet to see on Broadway but which has become one of my most beloved interests nonetheless.

Then autumn.  Autumn is the season of my heart, my soul.  I love everything about autumn; the wardrobe of coats, woolly socks, oversized sweaters, and boots, cinnamon-spiced everything, dreary skies, apple pies, curling up with hot chocolate, Halloween, falling leaves, pumpkins, candles, apple cider, apple orchards, pine cones…I’ll stop, but I think you get the point.  Autumn.  I love it.

Moving on to travel, which encompasses many things all at once.  Trains, which I am obsessed with.  It was always my dream to take a trip on the Orient Express, and I legit mourned when they discontinued it.  One of these days, though, I’m going to travel in a fancy train just like the one in that picture, and my view will be spectacular.

Then there’s my Americana Travel Aesthetic, consisting of wide-open roads, empty grocery stores at night, bright neon lights on semi-abandoned buildings, shitty motels, random highway diners, and other various trappings of weird American history and folklore.

From there you’ve got the ocean, cities on the ocean, homes on the ocean, walking along the ocean, road trips to the ocean.  Anything to do with the ocean, really.

And last but not least: my vaguely Arab/North African aesthetic, conveyed, of course, using a desert, a lady leading a camel, traditional North African courtyards, and figs (the fruit of my childhood when I couldn’t find mangoes).

This took me an obscenely long time, which does not surprise me at all.

Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

28458598Title: WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI
Author: Sandhya Menon
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Simon Pulse
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is one of the cutest books I’ve ever read! From the very first chapter I was captivated, drawn into Dimple’s world, sympathizing with her frustrations. I could not put the book down. It’s such a sweet little romance story, and a really awesome book for teens!

I was so drawn to Dimple, who is such a vibrant, fleshed-out character. She’s serious and studious and determined, fierce and ferocious and independent. Her ultimate goal is to become a web developer, and she most definitely does not want to get married. Despite this, her parents set her up with Rishi, who, unlike Dimple, is more traditional and appreciates the romance of arranged marriages. Both sets of parents agree that their kids will head to Insomnia Con, an app development camp/competition, to get to know each other.

One problem: Dimple has no idea she’s being set up.

This leads to an absolutely hilarious introduction between Dimple and Rishi. He jokingly calls her “future wife” and she throws her iced coffee at him. Soon enough, though, the two become friends, and soon enough, their friendship turns into something more. Dimple and Rishi are super different, but both are realistic characters. The story is told in their alternating POVs, and each character has a clear, distinct voice. Their romance was sweet and fluffy, at times bordering on cheesy, but I still liked it. Both of their parents ended up being so supportive and understanding of their ambitions, which was a nice change of pace from how Indian parents are presented. Also, Menon’s writing is excellent! With her descriptive and evocative sentences, San Francisco becomes a character in its own right; I could picture the hills, the fog, the dips in weather.

I also liked the nuanced perspectives offered on the characters’ cultural expectations, and arranged marriages in particular. I’m not Indian, but I also come from a culture of arranged marriages, which younger me always viewed quite negatively. Now that I’m older, I have a much more layered view of this tradition, and I appreciated that in this book it wasn’t simply dismissed as old world nonsense. Dimple and Rishi do, in fact, get along, just as their parents predicted! The set up begets real love, which often happens in arranged marriages. I liked that Rishi and Dimple each had their own understandings of their culture and their relationship to it; their discussions about their culture really hit home for me.

This book is so utterly happy and adorable and I just loved it so much!

Top 5 Wednesday: Favorite Unlikable Protagonist

I haven’t done Top 5 Wednesday in a while, but this prompt pulled me in.  I love unlikable protagonists (I’m writing one right now)! There’s something so intriguing and compelling about a character who is fundamentally unlikable.  Despite that, I found this list quite difficult to amass! I guess either I’m just not aware of which protagonists people find unlikable or I just don’t notice unlikable protagonists.

Anyway, here we go:

136251Severus Snape (Harry Potter): I had to start out with the apex of unlikable characters, didn’t I? Snape is a horrible person.  Abusive, borderline racist, selfish, bitter, just an all-around terrible person.  I wouldn’t even want to be in the same room with him, let alone be his friend.  And yet Snape is undeniably fascinating: he has spent nearly all of his life regretting and attempting to atone for getting the love of his life killed.  None of his intentions were honorable – he thought he was getting another family killed, and even when he realized it was Lily he didn’t give a damn about her husband and infant son dying.  He just wanted to save her, and whether his feelings for Lily were love or obsession is, I think, irrelevant.  Lily died anyway, and Snape switched sides to atone.  He also – and this is just my personal headcanon here – isolated himself and did everything he could to make other people hate him, because he believed he deserved it.  He kept fighting not necessarily because he believed in the cause, but because he felt he owed it to Lily.  Like I said, fundamentally not a good person, and that’s not even getting into how horrible of a teacher he was (he was Neville’s worst fear for God’s sake!).  But so, so multi-layered, complex, and fascinating.

20821111Adelina Amouteru (The Young Elites): Adelina grew up with her sister and abusive stepfather.  With a parent like that, it is no surprise that Adelina is reserved, wary, and bitter.  However, as her powers begin to manifest and the friends she thought she had abandoned her, Adelina swerves sharply into villain territory.  She sets out to get revenge, abandoning any and all morality in the process.  She wants revenge and she wants power, and she will do anything she can to get it, even as she struggles not to lose her mind.  Being in Adelina’s head is one hell of a  trip; the girl is half insane at this point.  She’s such a compelling, dynamic character.  I’m excited to read the final book in this series!

6296885Isyllt Iskaldur (The Necromancer Chronicles): I don’t know if Isyllt would be considered widely unlikable by everyone, but I find her an unusual female character. She reminds me a bit of a noir detective.  She’s taciturn, pragmatic, and no-nonsense.  After spending her teens in the streets, Isyllt was taken in by the King (sort of) and turned into a kind of spy/necromancer/magician (in other words, she’s super cool).  She’s kind of closed off in a way that female characters usually aren’t, which makes her super intriguing.

 

26228034Nassun (The Obelisk Gate): Essun’s daughter Nassun is not necessarily unlikable, but pitiable.  After experiencing the unimaginable trauma of witnessing her father murder her brother, and then being kidnapped by him as he struggles not to kill her for simply being who she is, Nassun transforms from an ordinary young girl to an unbelievably cold, cynical young woman.  By the end of the book she has veered into such strange, nihilistic territory that being in her head becomes pretty uncomfortable.

 

7762777Petyr Baelish (A Song of Ice and Fire): This is kind of cheating, since I don’t know that I would call Petyr a protagonist, necessarily, but whether we like it or not he is essentially the lynch pin of the entire series.  He set most of the events in the series in motion.  Some thing he did just to create chaos, to see what would happen, in true chaotic neutral form.  Petyr is sneaky and subtle and brilliant (forget TV show Petyr, I’m talking about book Petyr, who is a fundamentally different person).  He’s one hell of a strategist and he’s incredibly ambitious, but like Snape, he is also caught up in a past romance which pushes him from “ambiguously motivated” to “supremely creepy” territory. Despite that, the dynamic Petyr has with Sansa Stark, his lost love’s daughter, is the most fascinating in the entire series.  The pair of a somewhat disturbing dynamic, but I love it all the same, just as I am fascinated with Petyr Baelish.

Book Review: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

33656191Title: THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE
Author: Zoe Whittall
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 356
Publisher: Anansi Press Inc.
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

Books like this are why I generally stay far away from “literary” novels, even award-winning ones like this one. The dialogue is awful, the overall tone is incredibly pretentious, and the novel is shooting for some kind of meaningful human experience type theme but fails spectacularly.

The premise of the novel is an intriguing one: a well-respected white man in a tight-knit wealthy community is accused of rape. The novel deals with the fallout of this accusation along with its effects on the accused George’s wife Joan, his children Sadie and Andrew, and the community. I love stories like this, which is why I was drawn to the novel. While it was a compelling read (in the sense that it was a page-turner), it wasn’t very good.

First and main issue: the dialogue. How is it that I’ve literally read obscure high fantasy works with dialogue more realistic than the one in this book? The dialogue is awful. Unrealistic is too weak a word. It’s stilted and robotic and like nothing any actual human person would ever say. Worse, at times I felt like I was being preached at, like the author was using her characters to have highfalutin intellectual debates on morality and the law. It felt like I was reading the rough draft of someone’s undergraduate thesis. I cannot count the number of times I rolled my eyes at the words coming out of these characters’ mouths. It was wildly banal and unsophisticated, like the author just wanted to cram every timely and controversial issue into the novel. Unfortunately, none of the thorny topics she brings up are ever really discussed properly or given the depth and breadth they deserve. And this is all in the dialogue, which means nearly every time a character spoke I was jarred out of reality. This was seriously a huge problem, and I don’t understand how an editor let slip this horrifically wooden dialogue.

Second issue: the characters. The author kept telling us things about them and their personalities but didn’t really show us anything. For example, we were told multiple times that Joan, the wife of the accused, is a strong, controlling leader, but I don’t think I saw a single example of this in the entire book. I couldn’t get a handle on any of them, which is a problem when you have a novel built on the notion of an accusation shattering a tight-knit community. I saw no evidence of any sort of community here. I mean, for God’s sake, one of the girls bringing forth accusations is the sister of Sadie’s best friend! Where is the confrontation between this girl’s parents and Joan? Where is the outrage? In fact, where are the family’s friends in this supposedly small, tight-knit community?

We’re constantly told things happening but are never shown these things, which means a lot of the payoff you would expect with a plotline like this is gone. Case in point: when Joan finds out about something from her husband’s past that all but proves he is guilty, I kept waiting for the explosive confrontation between her and George, but instead…nothing. The scene where Joan tells him she knows, George is literally unable to speak due to an injury, which leads to the whole thing being wildly anti-climactic.

Another issue I had is regarding Andrew, George’s son, who is gay. Apparently, when Andrew was seventeen he was involved in a sexual relationship with his twenty-something coach. I’m not quite sure what the author was getting at here. I think the intention was to show that Andrew is in fact more damaged by this relationship than he or anyone realizes, but in this particular case a little telling may have helped. Or perhaps it’s meant to be intentionally ambiguous? Whatever the case, the way this relationship is implied to be somehow less morally repugnant because it’s between two gay men rubbed me the wrong way and made me think of how queer relationships are always inherently sexualized. Something else that got under my skin was the frequent discussions of how many teens have highly sexual lives and in fact pursue adults and not the other way around – what didn’t get nearly enough emphasis was that adults are supposed to have impulse control and turn children away. Like, Andrews’s coach talks about how Andrew pursued him and that’s why he gave in, but like…as an adult you’re supposed to be the responsible one in this situation. That’s kind of the whole point, you know, that children aren’t good at making decisions.

One thing the book has going for it is its realistic ending. It is reflective of how actual sexual assault cases normally work out in real life.

I wanted more from this book. There was so much potential, with such a powerful topic, but ultimately it was a let down. This book is truly an example of “great concept, terrible execution.” There is so much missing from what really should have been a hard-hitting novel. Instead it’s bland and lukewarm and left me cold and uninterested.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

greatcomet

From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.  The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812.  Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.

All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights.  One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha.  Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family.  Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.

The performance is absolutely wild.  Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave.  The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel.  This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers.  There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!

The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic.  They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant.  The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene.  I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity.  Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.

Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness.  Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected.  He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing.  The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre.  Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.

Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown.  The similarities are glaring.  Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging.  And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles.  I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects.  I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.

It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances.  The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair.  It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs.  It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.

Book Review: A Trade Like Any Other by Karin van Nieuwkerk

560791Title: A TRADE LIKE ANY OTHER: FEMALE SINGERS AND DANCERS IN EGYPT
Author: Karin van Nieuwkerk
Release Date: 1995
Pages: 240
Publisher: University of Texas Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book is an excellent, detailed overview on the trade of bellydancing in Egypt. This topic is not as frequently covered as I would hope, but Nieuwkerk makes up for that by bringing together historical, social, and anthropological elements to provide a broad picture of the trade in Egypt.

The first two chapters provide historical overviews on female entertainment in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries, which for me was the most fascinating part of the book. The following chapters all rely heavily on one-on-one interviews with living dancers. Nieuwkerk delves into the life stories of these dancers as well as their views on their own profession. She also branches out to interview non-performers on their opinions about the entertainment profession and female entertainers in particular in order to come to a conclusion about the profession’s respectability.

The book’s strength is in its broad yet personal scope. Though Nieuwkerk delves into nearly every angle of the entertainment profession that you can imagine, her work still retains a personal touch due to the multitude of interviews she conducted with dancers. She provides many examples of direct quotes from her interviews which lend the whole book a very authentic feel. Though her examination of bellydancing Nieuwkerk inevitably touches on various facets of Egyptian culture.

Nieuwkerk is incredibly thorough; though I just finished the book, I’m excited to go through all the endnotes of the book to seek out the resources Nieuwkerk consulted. I would highly recommend this volume for a concise yet detailed overview of bellydancing in Egypt.

Book Review: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

206228Title: DISTANT VIEW OF A MINARET
Author: Alifa Rifaat
Release Date: 1983
Pages: 116
Publisher: Heinemann Educational Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Reviewing short story collections is always difficult, even when it’s a collection by a single author, because content and quality can vary so much between stories. Reviewing this particular collection was even more…not difficult, exactly, but perhaps unusual, because this is a work in translation. As a reader I tend to shy away from translated works because they almost always don’t cross over naturally; the words seem stiff and distant and I have no way of knowing whether this is the fault of the translator or a different style of writing.

The case of this book was a little different, since it has been translated from its original Arabic, a language I am fluent in. The stories are all about Egyptians, and so I came into this book with familiarity and understanding. I wonder, though, if I may have enjoyed this more had I read it in the original Arabic.

Anyway, the stories in this collection are less stories than vignettes, most of them depressing and hopeless. Rifaat writes about miserable women and awful men. While her stories ring true, it became wearying to read one vignette after another about a woman who hates her life. Since these vignettes were so short, it was also difficult to really identify with any of the characters, since there was so little time to get to know them.

My favorite story in the collection was – surprise, surprise – the only story with a speculative element. In “My World of the Unknown” a woman seemingly begins a love affair with a female djinn who is in the guise of a snake. It’s a very strange story without a conclusive ending, but I liked its plot and its potential.

All the other stories were very realistic and down-to-earth. It seems like a book that was written by an Egyptian for other Egyptians, though, as I’m not really sure how accessible these stories are to non-Egyptians (or non-Arabs in general). They are raw and gritty and personal in a very culturally specific way, and I can see the casual Western reader feeling off-put and alienated by their content.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the stories in this book, but I did enjoy reading it, if only for the familiarity. I always enjoy reading books set in Egypt or about Egypt, but I probably wouldn’t have finished a book like this otherwise.