Note to Shelf: An ode to horror and Stephen King

For the longest time, I was averse to Stephen King, specifically because his books seemed to be everywhere.

Not seemed to be actually; they were and still are everywhere. In your local drugstore, the airport gift-shop, and at this point, even your street’s grocery store has a section for King.

I remember perusing the thriller and horror section of bookstores, and always being taken aback with the shelves dedicated to his works.

It angered me, for some reason. I kept thinking that if a writer has so many works out there, in so little time, they’re probably not that great. And for the love of god, why is he trusted with so many book reviews? Safe to say, I developed an aversion to this man without even reading anything he wrote. Tssk at 15-year-old Youmna wanting to seem cool.

For context, I am a huge fan of thrillers and horror stories—books or movies. For the latter, though, no Final Destination, Annabelle, or IT. Gore, dolls and clowns freak me out.

I have always been more of an Edgar Allan Poe girl. Yes, I understand how that confession may be confusing, seeing as I have just expressed my disgust towards gore, but Poe is an exception. Simply because alongside the gory details of his murder stories comes psychological trauma—something your girl here lives for.

But naturally, just as I fell for the Game of Thrones frenzy, I decided to pick up a copy of King’s famous work, The Shining, just so my negative opinion on the man could be founded on more than just sheer annoyance.

Let’s just say I got a well-deserved reality-check and schooling session when I found myself engrossed in the 500-page novel, eating it up word-for-word, only pausing for mandatory family dinners. Remember that “F.R.I.E.N.D.S” episode, when Rachel was reading the book, and lifted the potato squasher on Monica when she came home from work? That was pretty much how I was that summer, reading The Shining at 3 a.m. because I wanted to set the mood right.

When reading Stephen King, you are not just thrusted into his world of horrors and spirits. You are completely swallowed by it, in a way Edgar Allan Poe’s horror stories never managed to achieve. Some Poe readers will maybe agree with me when I say that although scary, his tales never shook me to the core, to the point where mundane tasks became terrifying.

King has that power.

The movie adaption of The Shining was child’s play compared to what I felt while reading the book. I was completely terrified by the last page, unable to get “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” out of my head.

Perhaps the reason King’s work is so captivating, yet terrifying, is because regardless of the supernatural aspect of certain stories, the monsters and fears come from real life—and let’s not forget his beautiful writing style, proving my initial judgment wrong.

King traps you in his world because he knows what humans fear most, and makes both the worst and best of it, by writing his stories and scaring the hell out of us.

In The Shining, Jack’s monster is alcoholism, and Danny and Wendy’s fears are based on Jack’s loss of control. As for me, I will never stay in another hotel ever again. 


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Note to Shelf: Reading ruts and mental health

Rut: a habit or pattern of behaviour that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change” – Merriam Webster.

Yeah, no kidding. It also always seems to come at an inconvenient time—like writing ruts when you need this article done by tomorrow at the latest, and inspiration doesn’t come to you until 5 a.m. the day of. Ruts that prevent you from getting your life together and organizing yourself, ending with you having a mental breakdown because the one thing preventing you from doing so is your own damn self.

All of these are manageable to me (HAH). Mostly because after the mental breakdown, a flow of uncontrollable tears and constant sobs, I actually get stuff done. But, if there is one thing I never seem to shake off for long periods of time, it’s reading ruts.

Every bookworm has them. Reading ruts can last from one month to an entire year. Some have them for years because life gets too tiring to trouble yourself with words on paper, and Netflix gets too exciting. Some just stop reading like they used to altogether, and boast about how they once hoarded arrays of novels, but now feel okay with just reading their morning newspaper and taking it easy. I don’t like those people. Yes, mum, I’m talking about you.

I personally loathe, and yes I’m using a strong here, loathe reading ruts simply because my life is hell when they happen. Now some might think I’m being too dramatic when I say this, but hear me out. Or read me out, in this case. Heh. 

Ever since I was a kid, while averse to novels mostly because my attention span was too short, I found solace in reading. From the ages of seven to 11, I would devour any French comic book I could get my hands on. From W.I.T.C.H mag (yes, I read it in French), to Titeuf, to Tom-Tom et Nana, I would eat up every word, and plead my mother to buy me the following volumes as soon as she could. It wasn’t much, but I was still reading.

When I was the same age as Harry was when he got his letter to Hogwarts, my sister dropped the first book of the Harry Potter series into my lap and told me to read it. That it would be a life-changing experience. And so began my love for books. Not just reading anymore, but books.

I was so accustomed to reading so much so fast that I didn’t understand why people were amazed by it. It was so natural to me. It was home, it was happiness, it was serenity. No movie, TV series or cartoon ever made me feel as whole as a good book.

This is why whenever I am in a reading rut, which has been happening quite often, my mental health begins to take a beating. I become irritated, sad and cranky. Because I feel like there is something I am supposed to be doing, but I can’t do it. I pick up a book, and the words mean nothing to me. I am unable to get past two chapters without throwing the novel across the room, and wishing I could just focus for one damn minute. The ruts get so dark, I find myself inclined to stop reading altogether.

That is until a good friend recommends a novel that gets you right back to it. That offers you the greatest of all gifts and makes you feel alive again—a novel you find yourself unable to put down, reading it over and over and over again. Back in the saddle, as they say, engrossed in a fictional world— where you always belonged. 


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Note from a Trusty Gryffindor’s Shelf

When I was a kid, my mom and I took turns reading bedtime stories together. Most have burned themselves into my memory: Max and Ruby: Bunny Cakes, Robert Munsch’s Purple, Green and Yellow, Ghost and Pete… The list goes on.

I still dream of the pink, sparkly cake Ruby made in the book; I think of Purple, Green and Yellow every time I use markers of those colours, and find Ghost and Pete’s rhymes stuck in my head obnoxiously often for someone who hasn’t read the book in more than a decade and a half. How many toes does a skeleton have? Ten! Sing it again!

But one book stands out among the rest. One shapes the person I am today, impacts where I choose to travel to, and found me repeatedly jabbing a needle dipped in ink into my left ankle two weekends ago––a line inside of a circle inside of a triangle.

(soft whimsical music playing)

Harry Potter. If you know me, you absolutely knew that was coming. Read on or don’t, I don’t care.

Unfortunately, I often seem to find myself surrounded by people who either are indifferent towards or actively hate Harry Potter. Please hold while I call their mothers to ask if they dropped them on their heads as infants. What kid doesn’t dream of an alternate universe in which the fantastic creatures of our imaginations actually… exist? Also, I don’t think I’ve ever actively hated anything as strongly as these people seem to hate Harry Potter, except maybe beets. What’s up with all the rage, muggles?

I don’t know about you, but I spent most of my childhood playing in an imaginary land my cousins and I created out of thin air. Don’t call a psychologist just yet, pals, because I had a pet dragon and you didn’t. No, I couldn’t see it. But to me, that didn’t mean it wasn’t there (shoutout to Albus Dumbledore). Sydney Buckbeak Bashyball the Third was very much alive to me––he was red, had yellow spikes down his spine, and could spit fire.

I distinctly remember spending hours reading the Harry Potter books from cover to cover as they were released. I went to the events Indigo would host on release dates, during which they kept the stores open until midnight. These books and films shaped my childhood, and, much like “Friends” and “Gilmore Girls,” they feel like home. Heck, I have a Marauder’s Map on my living room wall. Oh, and a poorly-drawn Deathly Hallows symbol on my ankle for the rest of my life.

So, be indifferent towards Harry Potter, if you will, but to actively hate it seems a little unnecessary, and it feels like dismissing magic as a whole. I can’t wrap my head around why anyone would want to do that.

And if you’re one of those people who has never read the books, meaning you’re basing your opinion entirely on the movies––do yourself a favour and read them. I am not ashamed to say that I have yet to find any book as enthralling as this series.

Mischief managed.


Photo by Matthew Coyte.


Read whatever you want to read.

I’ve always been passionate about reading, no matter what type of book it is––as long as it sparks my interest, I’ll read it. I feel that as long as I enjoy what I’m reading, that’s all that matters.

What I really hate though, and honestly don’t understand, is when elitist readers, a.k.a book snobs, tell me what I should and shouldn’t like to read.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been shamed by these book snobs for not liking The Catcher in the Rye, always being told “it’s a classic, how can you not like it” or “it’s a great novel, you must have terrible taste in books.”

All I have to say in response to that is: I like what I like, and that’s all there is to it. Anyways, who are you to judge me for what I like?

I read for myself, and no one else. If I feel like reading  Peppa Pig Goes Swimming, I will. I don’t care if it’s written for four-year-olds—I’m the one reading it, not you.

Literature is subjective, it completely depends on the reader’s taste and opinions, so it’s hard to justify why one book is better than another––and impossible to define one person’s taste as better than another.

Reading makes me happy, it’s my escape, and I love that I get to choose where I want to escape to. So, if someone wants to escape to Leo Tolstoy’s world of Anna Karenina, by all means, go for it and have fun. But the same goes for someone who wants to escape to the world of Peppa Pig.

No one should feel bad for liking to read a certain series or book; it’s the same as feeling bad for liking pineapple on pizza or liking K-pop. This is your life, do what makes you happy, read what you like to read.

Books are expensive enough as it is, so you don’t need to invest in a book that doesn’t interest you just because an elitist reader tells you that you should. Instead, buy that book you’ve been eyeing for the past couple of days, buy the latest release from your favourite author, basically; buy the book that will make you happy.

Just let people read what they like without shaming them. It’s so annoying to be told what to read and what to like.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Note to Shelf: Our Women on the Ground

Growing up in Lebanon, my sole sources of inspiration concerning the journalistic world were movies like Almost Famous and Runaway Bride.

Mostly because my proficiency in the Arabic language was not fluent enough to read a newspaper — that, and the fact that all news in Lebanon is politically affiliated with a party, and my parents always shielded me from that.

I was never interested in politics in general, but rather what politics inspires people to do — from wars, to art, to literature. I also didn’t see a future for me in journalism, because I didn’t have any female journalists to look up to in Lebanon. I erroneously thought female news anchors were a joke. In my opinion, they cared more about showcasing their newest plastic surgery fail and maintaining their perfectly blown hair, eventually making fools of themselves in political debates. At least that’s what I grew up watching — not knowing there was an entire world out there where female journalists were fearless, brave, and dying for their causes on battlegrounds.

In comes Zahra Hankir, a London-based British-Lebanese journalist, with a book that would school my judgmental, uneducated behind with Our Women on the Ground.

The book is a collection of essays written by not only women journalists, but Arab women, edited by Hankir with a foreword by the one and only Christiane Amanpour. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Amanpour, she’s been a badass journalist for the past three decades, and CNN’s chief international anchor. She’s also of Iranian origin.

To put it bluntly, as I always do, there is only one version of the Middle East everyone gets, be it from Hollywood, or good ol’ classic literature — and that is the repetitive narrative of thrill-seeking Western journalist demanding justice, who then gets kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, tortured or whatnot, released, and what do you know? A beautiful story about self-discovery is born.

And people wonder why I refused to watch the movie Beirut, but let’s not get into that again.

Sufficient to say, after growing up with countless Western testimonies about the Middle East, and its wonderful paradox, Our Women on the Ground was a breath of the freshest air.

Because I wasn’t reading about strangers judging, and depicting my land. I wasn’t rolling my eyes at how a Western man smelled the heavenly smell of man’oushe, while hiding from the incessant bombing. I wasn’t reading about a fabricated, fetishized (yes, fetishized) Middle East. I was reading about my people by my people. I was reading raw, unedited, unfiltered emotions. I was reading about all the women I wish I had met growing up — because I knew they existed. I just didn’t know where to look.

So you see, we Arabs are classified into two categories: the fun-loving, shisha-smoking belly dancers, and the Islamic suicide bombers. Both columns oppress their women. The exceptions in between always seem so eager to shed their Arab skin, that the world doesn’t have time to place them in either of those columns.

Our Women on the Ground is brilliant because it breaks those classifications completely. It does not fit in either one, and most of all, does not feed into the West’s demonization of the region. 



Note to shelf: An ode to Joan Didion

Though I tend to deny it, I am definitely a judge-a-book-by-its-cover kind of person.

I most often pick up a book because I am attracted to it’s matte cover, geometric typeface, muted colors and overall minimalistic design. As a serial consumer of nonfiction, and someone who is drawn to interesting and simplistic book covers, it was about time that I delved into one of Joan Didion’s heartfelt memoirs.

My personal library is full to the brim, quite literally, as there is no more room and my books are everywhere; stacked on my night table, under my bed, on the floor near my shelf, on my desk, and in my closet, to name a few places. It consists mostly of autobiographies, memoirs, nonfiction, and a few of the classics that I always say I will read but can never seem to get into. Fiction has never quite done it for me. I guess what I look for in a book is that human aspect. Didion did not let me down.

Some might say that I am all too predictable, in that I decided to first read her renowned 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Didion dances with death in the most matter-of-fact way. She is at once honest, raw, pessimistic, and truthful, offering her personal account of the impact of loss on her life. She records her thoughts, actions and mental state over the span of a year, as she deals with grief and mourning.

The writer’s life is often depicted in an unattainable and glamorous way, with many references to multiple flights from JFK to LAX and parties with famous musicians. Despite this, she manages to tackle topics that affect everyone, in a way that resonates with the reader and demonstrates that no amount of wealth can save one from the ramifications of loss.

Upon finishing the last few pages and closing the back cover of the book, I was left staggering at her eloquence and relatability. Didion left me with that “I wish I wrote that,” feeling that I am so rarely left with after reading a book.

However, I am not surprised that her work would feel me leaving this way. I first discovered Didion’s work through intensive research on the past editors of American Vogue, where Didion started her career. After stumbling upon her essay Self-Respect: It’s Source, It’s Power, I was immediately drawn to her history and her character, years before even picking up one of her novels. I aspire towards Didion’s level of journalistic and literary talent and yearn to possess a malleability that could bring my writing to anywhere from the glossy pages of Vogue, to the New York Times. At once personal and collective, her work reads like a personal memoir, but is journalistic at its core.

It is rare to find something that speaks to us on such a personal level, be it through friendships, romantic relationships, literature, or song. Didion’s words resonate with me in a way that no other person or thing has ever done before. From her heart wrenching account of life after her daughter’s passing in Blue Nights, to the exceptionally realistic helplessness you are left feeling after watching The Panic in Needle Park, Didion’s work remains raw, personal, and a perfect example of why words and writing hold such a significant place in the lives of many.

Her renowned quote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” truly lives up to its popularity, and most definitely resonates with me and my life. Words have been significant to me for as long as I could remember, both through good times and bad; I have finished an innumerable amount of novels, poetry books, and completed personal journals and notepads, filled with thoughts, quotes, personal essays, and short stories.

I, like Didion, and like many, have been telling myself stories in order to live. I have found comfort in her words, I have found familiarity in the echo of her voice as she recites passages from her works, be it in interviews or in the 2017 biographical documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Time and time again, her poignant use of language proves the many ways in which good writing can provide one with consolation. Without a doubt, Joan Didion is the one person I would choose to invite as my celebrity dinner guest, the one famous person I would like to meet, and ultimately, the one writer who continues to remind me of why I write.

Graphic by @sundaeghost


Note to Shelf: My Jane Austen Experience

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an alarmingly high number of readers have gone through at least one of Jane Austen’s novels. 

In fact, it is a moral imperative to read at least one of her books in your lifetime.

Austen is known as one of the most revolutionary writers of English literature, not only for being one of the few female authors of her time, but for exposing the many struggles women face in society. Despite all her stories ending in matrimony, she makes sure to focus on the importance of romance, understanding, and a person’s good nature in any relationship.

I honestly feel like a fraud writing about Jane Austen, when I’ve only read two of her novels, and gagged through the other four, but hey, it’s my column *kid shrug.*

I have been a book-devourer for the past 10 years, and have only read Northanger Abbey, and the ever-coveted Pride and Prejudice

How monstrous do I have to be to gag through Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion? I’ll tell you why: I started with her best-seller.

Reading Pride and Prejudice at 14 was a bit of a hassle — but then again, every book I read at that age was tough to get through. I wanted to improve my vocabulary by reading classics, and hone my English skills. Thing is, by doing so, I missed out on actually enjoying the story and characters, and ended up hating the novel.

Two years later, it was assigned as a reading  for a class, and by then I was actually excited to read it again — and it did not disappoint. From the obvious dream-boat that is Mr. Darcy, to the ever-so-popular, snarky, tenacious, and spirited Elizabeth Bennet, this book easily became one of my favourite classics to date. I find myself reading it over and over again every year, because nothing compares to the fluttering butterflies that Austen’s descriptive passages incite in me — from Darcy’s enamoured gazes, to his devoted and loving words.

Having enjoyed this novel so much the second time around, I decided to broaden my Jane Austen library and purchase all of her books. Unfortunately, none of them had the same effect. Northanger Abbey came pretty close, in spite of Austen’s blatant criticism of gothic literature, an unsurprisingly favourite genre of mine, but the other four were a nightmare.

Persuasion was too confusing, Mansfield Park a dreaded bore, I didn’t even make it past the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility, and Emma really infuriated me. 

As cliché and untruthful as this might sound, I think my downfall was starting at the top of the pyramid instead of working my way up. What do I mean by that? Pride and Prejudice is known for putting Austen on the map as one of the most renowned authors in English literature. This is why it is present in most school curriculums. Although it isn’t her last book, it is, in my opinion, her finest work. Some would disagree with me, claiming Pride and Prejudice to be overrated and basic. Perhaps they’re right, and I’m wrong, but again, it’s my column, so *hush.*

Word of advice to ye who chooseth to venture into the realm of Jane the Austen: maybe leave Mr. Darcy for last.


Photo by Laurence B.D.


Note to Shelf: The Downside of Reading

There are many benefits to reading; benefits that your family, teachers, and local librarians never fail to remind you of. You become well-informed and educated, you improve your vocabulary, and you may also become a better person.

Books make you empathetic and teach you to look beyond what meets the eye. Reading deconstructs this black and white mould one is forced into throughout their life. Moral standards are no longer as simple once you become impacted by the literary world.

However, in every reader’s life, there comes a point where we are plagued with what we call a Madame Bovary syndrome. To those foreign to the concept, it is the constant longing for perfect love, the one you have only read about in books. The Madame Bovary syndrome originated from Gustave Flaubert’s infamous novel, Madame Bovary; the story is about young Emma Bovary and her many lovers. Emma is in search of the perfect romance she spent her entire life reading and dreaming about.

I have come to realize that women, more than men, have a tendency to fall prey to this syndrome. Our demise begins with the false advertisement of Romeo and Juliet, a tale of forbidden love that leads to everyone’s death. Dying for love; quite a repetitive theme authors never fail to raise in their novels.

A great example would be The Great Gatsby; one of the novels that has caused the Bovary Syndrome to manifest in my own life. Jay Gatsby, the roaring 20s’ beacon of hope, the embodiment of the American Dream, is one of the many fictional men readers lust over.

Realistically in today’s day and age, Gatsby would be deemed either a stalker or a pussy. This man quite literally shaped his entire life around his lover’s wishes. His wealth, notoriety, and fictional persona were all ploys to get the attention of Daisy, his love interest. He eventually gets shot, an unsurprising consequence of his reckless and passionate feelings for Daisy.

To a green female reader, Gatsby represents everything she dreams of finding in a man. I would love to think we outgrow such romantic notions, somehow learning from Flaubert’s characters and becoming realists.

But most of us don’t. I certainly haven’t.

Granted, I have a more realistic notion of love now than I had at the age of 15, when everything was as passionate as Wuthering Heights, and everyone as chaste as Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

But that sliver of hope still remains; hope that urges me to write down heartfelt letters and send them out into the void. A kind of hope that makes me believe in grand gestures; flowers at my doorstep and candlelit dinners.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing I love more than my own independence. But sometimes, just for a split second, I wish to be swept off my feet and thrown into a Jane Austen romance.


Note to Shelf: Alaska Disenchanted

“So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”

It’s 2014, a 16-year-old Youmna reads these words for the first time, and her mind is blown.

Alaska Young, from Looking for Alaska, is played by the beautiful Kaya Scodelario in her mind, blowing out cigarette smoke, talking about the endless labyrinth of suffering, and wanting to die.

Alaska Young smells of vanilla, and cigarettes, with curves in all the right places. She’s carefree, she’s mysterious, she’s promiscuous. She’s a John Green fantasy Youmna wants to embody.

Fast-forward to 2019, a 21-year-old Youmna wants to kick her 16 year-old self in the face.

This summer, finding no solace in the myriad of new books I purchased at my local library, I decided to read John Green’s critically acclaimed novel, for the umpteenth time. I remember it as my favourite book during my formative high school years. That, and The Great Gatsby (more on that in next week’s column). Let’s just say, a lot of disillusionment happened during these past couple of months.

As I read through what I once believed to be an enigmatic novel, I slowly but surely felt my face form into a rictus at every word, every description, every one of Green’s attempts to paint Alaska as this ethereal creature men lust over and who women forever wish to be. What made my experience worse was recalling how I fell for it the first time, and remained under that spell – until now.

The problem with characters like Alaska Young is the romanticization of depression, toxic behaviour and, ultimately, suicide. One of Alaska’s most famous lines is: “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.” Spoiler alert, she receives a phone call while she’s drunk that stirs up hysteria, she hops into her car and ends up driving herself into a tree. Alaska ends up dead, and other characters in the book wonder if she killed herself on purpose.

In spite of it all, I ate up Green’s novel word for word. And I’m assuming a large number of teenage girls did as well. Witnessing the protagonist slowly falling in love with Alaska Young and idolizing this “hurricane” of a person has done wonders for my self-esteem, I’ll tell you that.

Green’s novels were quite prominent in my teenage years, and yet now I somehow wish they weren’t. Green did a great job at giving male misfits a voice in the world, but in the process, he felt the need to continue the broken-mysterious-woman narrative we are still trying to grow out of.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


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