Reading Resolution: “The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories” by Osama Alomar

6. A book written in the Middle East: The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar

List Progress: 25/25!!!

So for a random find on the library shelf, this ended up being a pretty pleasant read, but if I’m being honest about what drew my eye to 2017’s The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories by Osama Alomar, it’s that it was short and I wanted to finish my reading list. But “short” would turn out to be a more central idea for this book than I would have thought. Alomar, a Syrian writer, is well-known for working in the “very short story” medium, flash-fiction that is less structured than poetry, and varies (at least in this book) from a few pages, to no more than a single paragraph. At the collection’s bests, this is just enough space to paint a vivid image that speaks volumes beyond the wordcount. At its worsts, the stories become tossed off thoughts that sound like an overworked sermon trying to force a parable.

Originally written in Arabic, The Teeth of the Comb was translated into English by CJ Collins and Osama Alomar himself, which feels like an important aspect when dealing with such concise work that could easily be shifted through word choice. Some of my favorite pieces in this collection are the very, very short ones that are simply one line of set-up, one line of imagery, and one line of conclusion; those are where Alomar really shines. The stories on the longer end of the spectrum can easily overwork their imagery or metaphors, occasionally speaking about big flowery concepts in a way that feels like a parody of overly dramatic poetry. But by their very nature, you don’t have to dwell on the rougher ones for too long and can move on to the next. This book was perfect for reading on the train, where I could snap off a few without feeling like I had to move as slowly as working through poetry.

I don’t know if the ratio of good to bad was enough to send me seeking out more of Alomar’s work, but as a single volume, I’m glad I spent the time on it, and it felt like a solid way to round out 2018. Here’s to a bright new year of reading!

Would I Recommend It: Yes

Reading Resolution: “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley

14. A play: Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley

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List Progress: 24/25

Trigger warning for child abuse.

As I’ve been working more and more as a playwright over the last year, I feel like my perspective towards reading plays has changed. I no longer read them the same way as I would novels, but spend more of my time wondering how it would appear on stage, what an actor could bring to the table and how the pacing would work to see it all in one sitting. This especially comes to mind with this show, Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley. The script is strong, but I would say this is absolutely an actor’s play, the script forming the bones for a strong performance to be built around. Because if you didn’t have strong actors in these four roles, this play could be a slog to sit through.

Almost all of Doubt is private conversations, interspersed with the occasional sermon delivered to the audience. Set in 1964 Brooklyn, the play takes place at a strict traditional Catholic school. The principal, a very, very traditionalist nun, comes to suspect that the more liberal-minded and approachable priest has started molesting one of the boys, the school’s first ever black student. A younger nun who is caught between the two and the boy’s mother round out the entire cast, and each role is incredibly rich and leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Interpretation, and the titular “doubt”, are the main themes of the play as a whole, navigating an emotionally fraught situation with complications from all sides and no clear answers. At one point the younger nun asks the priest why he uses made up stories as parables in his sermons, rather than drawing truth and meaning from real events. He answers that fiction can have a more clear meaning and message, since real life is so rarely narratively satisfying and conclusive. And for a show with so many question marks, Doubt is very satisfying. I would love to see it on stage at some point, though I hesitate about the 2008 film adaptation, as the sparseness of the script works so well and could be cluttered with a full movie context. But I am intrigued to see and try and keep wondering, which means this play very much succeeded for me.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.

Reading Resolution: “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas

20. A book we read in high school/college and hated:
 The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

List Progress: 23/25

I was originally going to do Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen for this slot, as I had a class in high school where I was very annoyed with the teacher. But while browsing the Classics shelf in my local library, my eyes fell upon this book and I felt a rush of pure literary rage from my adolescent self. It was eighth grade, I was homeschooled for the only year of my academic career, and my mother’s favorite book was The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

I loathed it.

More specifically, I loathed all four of the protagonists and sided completely with the villain, to my mom’s dismay. But with fourteen years, a lot of maturity, and some more nuanced understandings of feminism, classism and character development under my belt, it is time for me to dive back in.

Let me start off: I still hate D’Artagnan, Athos and Porthos as people (I have a grudging fondness for Aramis). They are pretentious, misogynistic, violent, incompetent, hot-headed jerks who follow codes of honor and law when it suits them, and make the lives of all around them more difficult. They are terrible, terrible men (and given how clearly this is conveyed at points, there feels like a strong element of satire here from Dumas). But I have grown enough as a reader in the intervening years to be able to acknowledge that they can be interesting characters.

I had a lot more fun than I expected with The Three Musketeers, because above all it is a quick-moving action story with a lot of races against various clocks and court intrigues. When the book treats the Musketeers as pieces on a game board, moving them quickly around as tools of the plot, I can get caught up in the fun of the chase. It is when the narrative tries to make me care about the “nobility” of Athos or the heartbreak of D’Artagnan that it loses me and I start cheering for Milady.

Milady de Winter is the best part of The Three Musketeers and I will challenge anyone who disagrees with me to a duel. She’s a cunning, devious villain who can get her way out of almost any snare, and the narrative clearly finds her the most interesting as well. Near the end of the novel, there are over six chapters where none of the protagonists appear and the plot focuses entirely on Milady getting out of prison. It is great and I literally groaned when the “main” plot resumed.

I had fun reading The Three Musketeers, which was not what I expected. I don’t think it was mind blowing or vital to read, but there were a lot of points where it was fun. If you’re willing to read over 600 pages for some fun, I’d say give it a try, but there are probably better places to get that experience. And Milady de Winter 4 Life!

Would I Recommend It: Ehhhh, a soft yes.

Come see my 10-Minute Play, “December 26th”, at Monday Night PlayGround, Dec 17th!

I am thrilled to announce that, for the third month in a row, my short play has been chosen for a staged reading with PlayGround SF! Join us on Dec 17th at Berkeley Rep to see six shows based on the prompt “Holiday Miracles”. My piece is titled “December 26th” and follows a family waiting and waiting and waiting for their own holiday miracle.

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Purchase tickets here and join us for a great night of theater!

My 10-Minute Play “Hiiiii” to be performed at Monday Night PlayGround, Nov 26th!

For the second month in a row, you can come see a 10-minute short play with PlayGround! This month’s theme is “Fall Down, Get Up” and I cannot wait to see what the other selected writers have come up with.

My comedy titled “Hiiiii” follows a woman trying to return to work after a traumatic event, and her well-meaning but smothering co-workers doing their best to “support” her. You can purchase tickets here and come see the show at Berkeley Repertory on November 26th, 8pm.

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“The Most Just” announced for the October People’s Choice Award at PlayGround!

I am thrilled to announce that my short play, “The Most Just”, has been announced as the People’s Choice Awards from the October Monday Night PlayGround.

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Thank you to everyone who came out to see the show and support my work. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can read the first two pages on PlayGround’s website.

Reading Resolution: “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera

7. A book written in Australia/Oceania
: The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

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List Progress: 22/25

So let’s talk about Chosen One narratives. Characters who are destined to do incredible things and whose fates are written in the stars. A lot of times this trope can be a lazy shortcut to justify why a character has to be involved in a conflict; the writer doesn’t have to properly motivate them to fight the good fight, they just Have To. I don’t generally mind it as much as some critics do, but I can see where the argument comes from. But I also think books like Witi Ihimaera’s 1987 novel The Whale Rider show that it can be done well.

The Whale Rider tells the story of Kahu, a young girl who is the eldest great-grandchild of her Maori tribe’s chieftain, Koro Apirana, and if she had been born a boy, she would have been considered destined to be the tribal leader of her generation. The story is told by her uncle Rawiri, a young man seeing the Maori way of life change around him and his niece fight for the love of the great-grandfather that she adores. Kahu seems attuned from birth towards the traditional Maori ways of life, and may have inherited the ability from her namesake ancestor to speak to whales.

I saw the 2002 movie adaptation as a teenager and remember really enjoying it, though I can now see that the film shifted the perspective to make it more from Kahu’s point of view, whereas Rawiri feels like the more fleshed out and real character in the novel. He lives away from Kahu for years at a time and comments on how life differs in the big cities of Australia and Papua New Guinea from the small New Zealand village that he grew up in. Kahu seems so absolute in her beliefs and convictions that it is Rawiri who feels more human with his doubts and questions. Kahu feels larger than life, and I agree with Ihimaera’s decision to let the narrator marvel at her from the sidelines like the reader rather than position the book through her eyes. It makes the Chosen One trope of her life sit a lot more comfortably, if it does rob Kahu of some detail.

I know very little about Maori culture, but Ihimaera weaves it in very smoothly as a natural part of the plot, educating without info-dumping. The parts about Maori culinary culture in particular were really interesting and inspired some trips down the wiki rabbit hole. All in all, I’m really glad I read this one and I will be interested to go back and watch the movie sometime soon.

Would I Recommend It: Yes.