An Unnecessary Woman is a challenging read, not least of all because its first person stream of consciousness can be overwhelming at times. But the challenge is worthwhile if you, like the narrator Aaliyah Sobhi, are a lover of arts and literature.
Aaliyah loves books not in the way that normal people do, as enjoyment or indulgence. For the 72-year-old Lebanese semi-recluse, literature is a driving force, even a religion. She is without husband, without children and essentially without family. She considers herself unnecessary to the world, at times referring to herself as a "speck" or a "mote of dust."
But Aaliyah has a secret — over the course of 50 years after her impotent husband left her, she worked at a bookstore, feeding her love for literature. One day, she decided to try her hand at translation, turning English versions of her favorite novels into her native Arabic. Every year, she translates an entire novel into Arabic, then places the manuscript in a sealed box, never to be seen.
This is a book about literature, peppered with Aaliyah's favorite quotes from poetry and novels. It is also about Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, which has been home to beauty and wartime destruction. But mostly this is a book about Aaliyah, who has borne witness to the transformation of her beloved city and given it context in the world of her mind through literature.
As a narrator, Aaliyah is not particularly lovable. She is opinionated, anti-social and thinks herself superior. The book is a journal of sorts, but once that is clearly meant to be read. She addresses the reader often. That format provides unfiltered access to a mind that is rich with knowledge but wandering, at once hardened and softened by a lifetime of wins and losses. An Unnecessary Woman is unexpectedly raw, yet it is also insightful and often quite lovely. In it, Aaliyah lays herself open, quite like a book. It is a fitting narrative for such a person.
In An Unnecessary Woman, Alameddine creates a character somewhat overwhelming in her complexity. She's reclusive but astute, well-read but obscure, cynical but loving, and, in all, hard to handle in long stretches. For me, this was a book best handled in chunks, often over a 20-minute lunch break. These lemon cookies are tart and delightfully pillowy, touched with powdered sugar in bite-sized portions.
Makes about 2 dozen little cookies
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, softened
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup honey (vegan option: agave nectar)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar (optional)
In a large bowl, combine butter, lemon zest and juice, sugar, honey and vanilla extract. Using an electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat mixture until combined well. It may look lumpy or curdled, which is fine.
In a medium bowl, lightly mix the flour, baking soda and salt together. Add this to the wet mixture in thirds, making sure each addition is well-mixed using an electric mixer before adding the next. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 35ºF.
Remove dough from the fridge and form tablespoon-sized balls. Place two inches apart on cool unlined, ungreased baking sheets (this will prevent the butter from melting before hitting the oven). Bake for 5 to 7 minutes. The batch I cooked for 6 minutes turned out perfectly for me.
After taking the sheets out of the oven, allow the cookies to set for a minute before transferring to cooling racks to cool completely. Then, if desired, toss in powdered sugar and enjoy!
Recipe via Back to Her Roots