Monday, August 31, 2020

BOOKS! (Unashamed + Confessions)

It's the last day of August, and I'm just in time for my monthly review! Today's picks are a fat-positive memoir that I almost decided not to write about because it hit too close to home, and a Japanese thriller/mystery novel that I found at a Book Warehouse in Kentucky. Let's get to it!

Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim by Leah Vernon

I mentioned in my last review that I read certain books for very personal reasons and don't review them on the blog, and this memoir was going to be one of them. But then, I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled to tell y'all about it! I can't remember how I heard about Leah Vernon; maybe it was from one of the body image/fat liberation books that I've read within the past year, or a fat-positive social media count I follow. Truly, I wish I remembered. In any case, once I looked up Leah Vernon, saw that she was from Detroit, and realized that she'd written a book about her life? As in, I'd get to read a book written by a Detroiter, learn about her experience with fatness and being a plus-sized hijabi model, and learn about Black Muslims in the area that I'm from? Oh, I was all in! 

Leah Vernon wears many hats, but she has always been a writer. Eventually, writing branched into fashion blogging. Fashion blogging branched into modeling. And all of these passions merged to a create a social media platform that has Leah writing, modeling, public speaking, and creating whatever content she wants. Unashamed recounts the parts of her life that led up to the vibrant, smiley, audacious representation of Leah that her followers connect with today. From growing up as a fat girl with her mom and four siblings in their Muslim community in Detroit, to her ill-fated marriage, to getting booked for modeling gigs that took her to London and Paris, it's all there.

I am so impressed by how vulnerable and candid Leah is with the stories she tells. Of course, one would automatically expect some degree of openness from a memoir, but Leah takes it to a level that I wasn't expecting. Even the way she writes about her mom's trauma and disastrous relationships with men stunned me. Like, Girl, does your mom know you're telling her business like this? You're telling your business and her business too? But whether writing about her mom or herself, Leah's revelations don't read as exploitative. Rather, they contextualize some of the hurt and mental illness that both women have in common, as well as the interpersonal patterns that Leah has tried to overcome. Her mom converted the family to Islam when Leah was a child, so even in the religious aspect Leah's mom's influence is undeniable. Speaking of Islam, Leah is also deeply contemplative about the ways her personal style, visibility, passion for expressing herself, and desire for fun and physical intimacy have clashed with what people tell her is expected of a so-called "good Muslim girl". To this day she remains true to her faith, but whereas she's decide to keep some aspects of the culture (like covering her head), others she refuses to entertain anymore (like not being sexual, or trying to hide her body shape in order to appear "modest").

Besides the honesty and humor that Leah displays, part of what endears me to this memoir is the multitude of similarities I see between Leah and myself. The at-best awkward and at-worst antagonistic relationship that her father had with her? Too many of their interactions took me right back to my younger years of visitation with my dad. Leah's admitted perfectionist and overachieving tendencies that she employed to make herself feel secure? I got those too! Like Leah, I too grew up as a fat girl in the early 2000s, hating and harming myself, with few relatable fat role models and a desperate desire to change myself. And of course, she and I both love to write! I am so glad that she chose to channel her writing prowess into creating this memoir, even if it's still relatively early in her career. I'm looking forward to the stories she'll have to tell in the future. If you are seeking fat-positive books by Black women, are from Detroit or appreciate Detroiters, are interested in plus-sized fashion and modeling, have ever had your heart broken, are interested in the perspectives of Muslim women, or simply enjoy reading memoirs because you're curious and nosy like me, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"All of my silent worries drifted away like smoke" (46).

"My eyes scanned over it, in search for the fuck you, you're very ugly, and never apply for anything remotely like this ever again in your life. Instead, they used phrases like 'our client loves you' and 'we're pleased' and 'are you available Tuesday?'" (195). 

"This ideology that you have to become this new person with these brand-new ideas and have a new, carved-out body to be who you were truly meant to be. To live your best damn life. To get that perfect dude. To land that perfect job. That drastically changing yourself is the key to life's locked successes. This very ideology is what continues to keep us mentally confined... I am the same person that I've always been. My weight may fluctuate and my face may change due to age, but I am not a new person. And no matter what we do externally, we will always remain the same at our core. I am not a new person, but I am an evolved person" (219-220).

Confessions by Kanae Minato
(Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

I can't believe I'm reviewing yet another thriller for the second month in a row (last month it was The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani), but here I am! Thrillers aren't usually my thing, but I was swayed by the fact that this is a Japanese novel. And then when I saw that it was about a teacher exacting revenge against her students ('3-nen A-gumi' vibes, anyone?), the darkness of that concept sealed the deal for me. For best results, the most "Ah-ha!" moments, and maximum "What the heck am I reading?" sensations, it's best to go into this book knowing as little as possible. Even so, I will give you the bare bones of what happens. 

Confessions opens with single mom and middle school science teacher Yuuko Moriguchi addressing her homeroom class on the last day of the school year before spring break. (Japanese school years end in March and new ones start in April.) She is leaving the teaching profession after the recent death of her four-year-old daughter Manami, who presumably drowned in the school's pool. However, Moriguchi reveals that her daughter was actually killed by two of the male students in this very homeroom class, initially referring to them as "A" and "B". A came up with the murderous plot and B was his accomplice, that's all I'll say. After identifying the two perpetrators without explicitly naming them (we do learn their names but for this review I'll still call them A and B), Moriguchi announces the revenge that she's already started enacting against the boys without them noticing, and then dismisses class. Her now-former students are in a tailspin regarding the information they've just received.

This 234-page novel only has six chapters, with each one offering a different character's account of what happened and why. Each chapter provides some explanations, while at the same time planting more confusion and distress. Chapter one ("The Saint") is Moriguchi's monologue to the class. Chapter two ("The Martyr") is a letter that a female student writes informing Moriguchi of the fallout at school over the months following Moriguchi's departure. Chapter three ("The Benevolent One") has B's older sister reading entries from their mother's diary. Chapter four ("The Seeker") contains B's version of events. Chapter five ("The Believer") contains A's version of events. And chapter six ("The Evangelist”) is another monologue from Moriguchi, this time lambasting A over the phone in a final display of the true extent of her revenge plan. 

That last page. That very last page! My goodness! It reminded me of Fuminori Nakamura's The Gun, where a consistent slow burn is followed by a violently explosive ending. (I'm using "explosive" as both a pun and a clue to how Confessions ends.) Except Confessions was anything but slow for me! Mysterious yet unabashed murder and revenge plots, the dark recesses of the human mind, and youth criminality in 2000s-era Japan? Are you kidding me? I was enthralled the entire time! This story was turned into a movie in 2010, which was absolutely fitting because it's so intensely dramatic. (I haven't seen that movie, but I have seen a 2017 J-drama called 'REVERSE', which is apparently based on a different book that Kanae Minato wrote.) Once we learn what Moriguchi has been up to since she left the school, the end of the novel has the gut-punching finality of a Greek tragedy. Because even though Moriguchi orchestrates the events that cause A to lose what he loves most, A's impulsivity and character flaws are what actually solidify his fate. If he hadn't been so arrogant and self-righteous, if he hadn't been so determined to cause mass murder in order to gain the attention he desperately seeks, if the very last decision he makes at the end of the novel had been the opposite one, then there might have been hope for him. But there's no redemption for A, and when he goes low, Moriguchi finds a way to go even lower in order to avenge her daughter. If you don't mind reading dark or disturbing subject matter and are in the mood to go on a bewildering ride, then read this book!

Favorite quotes: 

"I'm not really sure how you feel about this, but I've been thinking about what it takes to admit you can't do something when you really can't do it. I know you don't like kids to give up when they haven't tried—I know that's wrong—but I think you also have to be really brave to admit you can't do something when you really just can't" (86). 

"The world you live in is much bigger than that. If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven" (161).

"Are you a complete idiot? You use that word about everyone and everything in your love letter, but what do you think that makes you? What have you ever really created? What have you ever done for any of those people you looked down on? Any of your 'idiots'?" (225).

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