Monster Portraits

Monster Portraits

Relentlessly original and brilliantly hybrid, Monster Portraits investigates the concept of the monstrous through a mesmerizing combination of words and images. An uncanny autobiography of otherness, it offers the record of a writer in the realms of the fantastic shot through with the memories of a pair of mixed-race children growing up Somali-American in the 1980s. Operat...

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Title:Monster Portraits
Author:Sofia Samatar
Rating:
Edition Language:English

Monster Portraits Reviews

  • enricocioni

    Sofia Samatar’s idea was to “tell our lives through monsters, as the ancient Egyptians told the year through the myth of Osiris”, to which her brother Del replied, “Sounds dope”. Sofia therefore does some research (“Most monsters, I read, have a horror of the camera, but will allow their portraits to be drawn by hand”), packs her bags full of pens (not knowing “what writing utensils were used in the monstrous regions”), drives to the station, and boards the train (careful to enter the car “marke

    Sofia Samatar’s idea was to “tell our lives through monsters, as the ancient Egyptians told the year through the myth of Osiris”, to which her brother Del replied, “Sounds dope”. Sofia therefore does some research (“Most monsters, I read, have a horror of the camera, but will allow their portraits to be drawn by hand”), packs her bags full of pens (not knowing “what writing utensils were used in the monstrous regions”), drives to the station, and boards the train (careful to enter the car “marked with a diagram representing a human or a starfish”) that will take her deep into the monstrous regions—places like Carvay, Fanderlee, Snimron, Muramanae.

    Sometimes she interviews monsters over drinks (“her fingers clicked crustacean-like against her cup”), sometimes she bravely crashes their weddings (“you will be presented with balls of scented wax. Press these into your ears to protect them from the hymns”), sometimes she observes them from a safe distance (“From my balcony, I watch them devouring their breakfasts of locusts and honey and shitting in the canal”). But almost from the very start of her journey Sofia begins to question the line that separates her (and her brother) from her subjects. If to be a monster means to be an assemblage of incongruous parts, does that mean that the Samatars—mixed-race Somali-Americans—are also monsters? What about being a woman, is that monstrous? What about being someone who thinks and writes for a living? Does Samatar’s profession make her like the blue-skinned scribes that sit atop the tallest pillars in the monster cities she visits, able to see everything but never acting on what they see, only ever writing about it? Her field notes become short, erudite essays, shot through with quotes and references to a broad range of authors, living and deceased, as well as memories of her and her brother’s childhood in the nineteen-eighties.

    For my full review, including thoughts my childhood obsession with monsters and monster catalogues, head over to my blog, Strange Bookfellows:

  • Minggu Legi

    WOW!

  • M.

    Sofia Samatar continues to be a genius -- this is in part, reworking / updating of Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings, in part a highly idiosyncratic, somewhat collaborative memoir, in part a collection of obliquely linked stories; definitely a conceptual project. Unnervingly gorgeous writing. Vibrant illustrations.

  • Miriam

    Actual review, finally:

    And author photo:

    [Edit: I totally failed to post updates the second time, too. Third time's the charm!]

    I'm going to reread this immediately. It will probably get 5 stars the second time.

    I'll try to post updates and mark quotes this time.

    While you wait (haha) go read her story in Long Hidden.

  • Anne

    This book was unlike anything I’ve ever read before and I thoroughly enjoyed every magical minute of it. It is poetry, part personal essay, part research, part myth making, and part myth unraveling—complemented by the most imaginative and detailed illustrations. It’s truly a treasure of a book that explores vital questions and social issues. Honestly, it’s so rich that it’s impossible to describe. Just read it!

  • Miriam

    Everything I've read by Samatar has been excellent, but this is amazing. I've read it three times in three months and liked it more each time, and gotten new things out of it.

    Now I guess I'll go read all her other writing, and also all the writing mentioned here. Including the people Anne Boyer, Bhanu Kapil, Eduardo Corral) who gave Advance Praise, because obviously they have great taste. Apologies if I have omitted anything.

    Everything I've read by Samatar has been excellent, but this is amazing. I've read it three times in three months and liked it more each time, and gotten new things out of it.

    Now I guess I'll go read all her other writing, and also all the writing mentioned here. Including the people Anne Boyer, Bhanu Kapil, Eduardo Corral) who gave Advance Praise, because obviously they have great taste. Apologies if I have omitted anything.

    Thomas Talbot Waterman, Selected Readings in Anthropology UCB 1919

    Deborah Higgs Strickland, "The Future is Necessarily Monstrous"

    's translation of the Odyssey

    "a zone of incandescence"

  • Edward Rathke

    The art in this bestiary was amazing and I think I would have preferred it, often, without the text.

    Samatar is a very skilled writer, but while the sentences were stellar, the content of the text as a whole was just all right. Some of the monster portraits were great, but I think they too often drifted into metanarratives that I found much less interesting. Such as, how the writing of the book became part of the book. Process and product marrying and, ultimately, be coming less potent.

    It's pos

    The art in this bestiary was amazing and I think I would have preferred it, often, without the text.

    Samatar is a very skilled writer, but while the sentences were stellar, the content of the text as a whole was just all right. Some of the monster portraits were great, but I think they too often drifted into metanarratives that I found much less interesting. Such as, how the writing of the book became part of the book. Process and product marrying and, ultimately, be coming less potent.

    It's possible that the issue is the divide in the book itself. Some of the portraits being very meta and others being more focused on the monster and experience of encountering the monsters. Because I preferred one take and not the other, the gap became more and more pronounced as I went along.

    Anyrate, great artwork and some good stories mixed with some duds to mostly make a few shallow points, I think, about race and culture and gender. I think these points could have been done more justice with increased focus on the metanarrative.

    So I guess that's the problem for me. Even what I didn't like could have been improved had it been the entirety of the text.

  • Sienna

    , and the admission that I probably need to read it another 2-3 times (alongside some of the reference material) to properly understand its genius.

    When I read Sofia Samatar, I'm expecting the kind of prose I got from

    : so thick and luscious you can hardly breathe. It's absolutely divine, but not very accessible. So reading Monster Portraits and finding that each bite of fiction was, at least on the surface, very accessible indeed was a pleasant surprise!

    I think short

    , and the admission that I probably need to read it another 2-3 times (alongside some of the reference material) to properly understand its genius.

    When I read Sofia Samatar, I'm expecting the kind of prose I got from

    : so thick and luscious you can hardly breathe. It's absolutely divine, but not very accessible. So reading Monster Portraits and finding that each bite of fiction was, at least on the surface, very accessible indeed was a pleasant surprise!

    I think short stories/prose poems are interesting because you don't need to explain yourself--and in fact it is sometimes harmful to the integrity of the story to try. They're little glimpses into strange worlds and lives, and it's okay if you don't get what's going on, as long as you feel something. I got that sense a lot with Monster Portraits, whose vignettes are strung loosely together with the underlying story of "my brother and I went to study monsters, here are our field notes". I didn't get the sense of any strong plot from the stories themselves; instead I got flashes of colour and smell and motion. The illustrations, obviously, helped with that. It was a wholly sensory experience, and I'd highly recommend it.

    I think my favourite was the Miuliu, for two reasons: one, the illustration was so calm and sweethearted. Two, this was where I finally felt I'd breached the surface of the narrative and touched upon the critique of 'monstrousness' that it is. While it invokes all the sensory experiences I mentioned before, Monster Portraits is a meditation, a collection of little philosophical musings on what we ascribe the quality of monstrousness to, and why. It took me some time to settle into that kind of critical mindset, but once I was there, I was stuck there.

    It's lingered ever since--like that suckerpunch of a last line.

  • Bogi Takács

    This was great, but so short! I would have liked to keep on reading! Also, I spy some oblique Renee Gladman references, waaaaaahhhhhhhhh *outpouring of emotions*

    I have a bunch of short books to review, so I will probably put some of them together - I just wanted to quickly update my Goodreads so that I don't forget what's in my own queue. :)

    Source of the book: Lawrence Public Library

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