The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully written book — a kind of delayed coming-of-age story about a naive young women from a privileged class. Shalini grows up in Bangalore with a successful businessman for a father and a manipulative depressive for a mother. After her mother dies during Shalini’s last year of college, she seeks to combat the ennui of a life without purpose by searching for a dimly remembered Kashmiri merchant — a frequent childhood visitor to her home.

As her search takes her deep into the Kashmiri conflict of the early 2000s, a parallel narrative unfolds the details of her childhood. Strong themes of cowardice and courage, misplaced love, friendship, injustice, and the impact of depression on a family weave through the story.

The writing is outstanding with deeply drawn characters and profound reflective insight dappled with (sometimes scathing) social commentary. While this ticks all my boxes, I did find the overall experience to be somewhat depressing, primarily because I didn’t like the main character. She is privileged and guilt-ridden but spends most of the book being too cowardly (her words) to really do anything about the injustice she sees. The story is her “memoir” — six years after the events — to go public about what happened. To me it felt more about her attempt to expiate guilt rather than actually draw attention to things that happened. If the purpose was to highlight atrocities that had been kept under wraps, there was far too much middle-class angst taking center stage; and if the story was about her own development, I wish she had managed to develop a little further.

Having said that, I read the whole quickly, completely immersed in a masterfully depicted world.

A few quotes:
“His whole lanky body seemed to be one nervous tic: his knees bounced, his shoulders shook, his toes curled. But his hand, I noticed, rested quietly on the bulky, complicated-looking camera beside him, as if it were an infant that drew comfort from his touch.”

“I glanced at my mother, but she was unreachable now, offering no clue. It was the single most devastating habit she had, to withdraw, to take back the thrilling gift of her joy as casually as she bestowed it.”

“Was this what made her tilt her chin back and gaze down at you with contempt and say those unfeeling things? This terrible, ungovernable anger, which threatened to sizzle a hole through her veins unless she turned around and poured it into somebody else?”

“She was smiling, but I could sense the loneliness that lay behind her smile, and I could hear, too, the entreaty in her voice, for a woman’s understanding, a woman’s sympathy. And to my lasting shame, I denied her both.”

“I had not expected to like college. I wasn’t sure why. But from the minute my parents drove away, my mother’s hair snapping in the wind, I was armored, prepared to dismiss each of my lecturers, my fellow students, to look down on all of it. I suppose it was, like so many other things, a trick I’d learned from my mother. To keep approval in reserve, to lead with mockery and distrust, for to reveal affection was to reveal weakness.”

“A manic, holy gleam in my eye, as in the eyes of hose ragged, hippie Westerners I sometimes saw around Bangalore, with bare feet and billowy clothes, matted blond dreadlocks, consecrated by their first exposure to yoga and the poor? Prayer beads around my wrist, a curly Om tattooed on my shoulder, and a cache of photos in which I smiled next to a pair of gaunt village women, to whom I would later casually refer, at dinner parties or in bed with new lovers I wished to impress? They have so little, you know, but that just means they’re more connected to the things that really matter.”

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

A compelling story combining a fictionalized history of Sarah Grimke — one the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers — and a “thickly imagined” story about Hetty — the slave girl given to Sarah on her 11th birthday.

The interwoven stories are told in alternating chapters by the two first person narrators. The time period: 1804 – 1838. Sarah’s story takes us from the North Carolina plantation to Quaker country to public abolition speaking tours around the country. She and her sister, Nina, were the authors (along with Nina’s husband, the famous abolitionist Theodore Weld) of the pamphlet American Slavery as It Is which influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Hetty’s story — created from the barest of historical documents — tells a story full of the horrors of slavery, including a potential slave revolt (and harsh retribution) populated by figures drawn from historical rumor. Woven through the stories are the interactions between the two women. I loved this summary from Hetty when the two were around 18 and had a kind of friendship:

“People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing. That day, our hearts were pure as they ever would get.”

In all honesty, I didn’t love this book. The writing is good and the story compelling, but I didn’t find any new insights. Hetty’s story smacked of modern sensibilities applied to a horrible situation that has already been described (and often better) many, many times. The Grimke story was more interesting as it was new to me — and the emotional tone was probably pretty accurate given the times and the lack of opportunity for women — but it took a long time and a lot of hand-wringing before anything could really happen.

I want to read books that have new insights or teach me about a period of history or new (to me) cultures. I’d like to move away from noxious concepts such as slavery and the idea that women are incapable of contributing outside the domestic sphere — these concepts are old (and well-documented) news.

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 /5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A satirical and somewhat surreal modern day Mouse That Roared taking place in an unnamed desert refugee camp in a place where Americans are simultaneously active in both destruction and Aid. A US pilot crash lands in the desert outside the very camp he was meant to bomb. He is rescued by 15-year old Momo — a singular character — crafty, entrepreneurial, and utterly focussed on finding his brother “Bro Ali” who disappeared into the mysterious Hangar at the center of camp and never returned. The narrative cycles between the first person perspectives of these two and Momo’s dog Mutt. Yes — the dog is one of the narrators and is by far the most erudite of the three, serving as a more abstract philosophic commentary on the action and The Way Things Are. Only Mutt sees the red birds who suddenly appear off in the corners as a bit of emphasis on events.

Other characters represent types: Doctor cares only about saving the Desert and not too much about the humans. An American aid worker — nicknamed Lady Flowerbody — wants to save the world — as long as she has a sufficient supply of Perrier. She is pursuing a PhD on the topic of the Teenage Muslim mind. Momo goes along with it — he has been studied many times for studies like ‘Growing Pains in Conflict Zone,’ ‘Tribal Cultures get IT,’ and even ‘Reiki for War Survivors.’

The writing is beautiful. At heart are themes on the importance of being loved and not forgotten, at living a life of significance, and the deep and individual horrors of war and craziness of America’s policy. This quote kind of sums it up — as the pilot thinks of his own American role juxtaposed with that of Lady Flowerbody he says: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? Who would host exhibitions in the picture galleries of Berlin, who would have fundraising balls in London? Where would all the students on their gap years go? If I stop wearing this uniform and quit my job, the world’s sympathy machine will grind to a halt.”

I loved the writing and the story was intriguing, hovering at the border of reality. The satire was apt although by nature left out any positive attribute about Americans and American aid. The tone was not depressing, although the subject matter and conclusion certainly was if you settle back from the tone and examine what lies underneath.

Other great quotes:

“For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen.”

“They had trained themselves to be brave, they were ready to lay down their lives for their God and country but they didn’t know that bravery comes with a high noise levels and then an abrupt silence that lasts forever. You can’t be brave when you are dead. And then promptly forgotten.”

“She has the air of a permanent do-gooder who will just leave when they stop feeling good about doing good.”

“Making some moolah and thanking our creator is the only ideology that works here.”

“I can tell you that if he is a spy he is not very good at it. He is the kind of spy who wishes that they owned a cafe and ran a book club.”

“When my folks don’t have a real explanation, they blame it on war. As if before the war we were all a brotherhood and didn’t throw our trash into our neighbor’s yard. As if war gave us bad breath and crude manners. “

“Three parallel wrinkles on her forehead speak of an intelligent mind. The ones who came before her never smelt this nice. And they stopped coming anyway when the Hangar shut down. It was simple, they bombed us and then sent us well-educated people to look into our mental health needs.”

“Sad mothers are made of compulsive, reckless optimism.”

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6th, 2019.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A beautifully written novel that captures the heart and complexity of life in rural Afghanistan. 21-year old Parveen is an Afghani American whose parents escaped the country in 1998. Inspired by the best-selling memoir “Mother Afghanistan” by Dr. Gideon Crane, Parveen decides she wants to “help.” She arranges through Crane’s Foundation to visit the village featured in the book and in which a state of the art clinic for women’s health has been built. An anthropology student, Parveen plans to investigate the “structural reasons and power dynamics” that explain why so many Afghani women are dying. However, once established in the village, she is repeatedly surprised by how very different reality is from that described in the book.

The narrative is equal parts external description — the stunning landscape, the people, the events — and internal evolution as she learns more about her privileged status as an American and how very abstract her interests are compared to the reality of what is needed.

Well-developed characters represent a variety of factions and opinions — Berkeley Anthropology Professor Bannerjee, with whom Parveen corresponds, maintains a liberal, but abstract and condescending view of the Afghani people; Lt Col Trotter, representing the US military, believes in the military goals to help the Afghan people and yet faces ever increasing resistance from the locals; Afghani Aziz interprets for the US military, desperate to keep his job and simultaneously keep things from blowing up. All treat the truth as something to be manipulated — Trotter explains that “war was about controlling the story as much as the territory”; Aziz does not interpret exactly but manipulates statements to be more acceptable to the other; Banerjee thinks nothing of betraying Parveen for the “greater good”; and Crane invented half of his “memoir” in order to sell books and inspire donations.

The writing is beautiful and well put together. The memoir style allows multiple layers to be exposed simultaneously — observations of the village and its inhabitants are simultaneously overlaid with anthropological commentary and Parveen’s exposition on her own growing awareness. I particularly appreciated the insightful and multi-faceted commentary about Americans on the global stage — motivations, approaches, and the sad contrast between laudable aims and failing implementations.

Overall, while I did not find this book uplifting or inspiring I did find it deeply educating. Highly recommended.

Good quotes:
“It bothers you Americans that the world is the way it is, doesn’t it?”

“The first time he’d met Dr. Gideon, he said, he also had to give his story. Americans collected and offered them like they were business cards.”

“In moments of clarity she understood that the village was a backdrop against which Americans played out their fantasies of benevolence or self-transformation or, more recently, control. She was as guilty of this as Trotter or Crane. She’d come to play at being an anthropologist, and play was all it had been, because at some point, without much thought, she’d set all her anthropological work aside.”

“The urge to intervene, a high of its own, was a hard habit to break. Salvation could become an addiction, too.”

“Fiction disguised as nonfiction in the service of justice had a long and noble history. Abolitionists had invented or amplified escape slave narratives to dramatize their cause…”

And yet she read on, recognizing that the muscle of moral superiority can be a pleasurable one to exercise. Perhaps Crane, in making this warty presentation of himself, understood that too.”

“It was her first awareness that perhaps there is no self, no core, unshaped by others. From the moment we’re conscious that we’re being viewed, we’re being molded.”

“ ‘What I am here to learn is why so many women in Afghanistan are dying. Without understanding the structural reasons, without tackling the power dynamics that prevent women from having a voice, let alone proper health care, nothing will change.’ She was feeling proud of this declamation and the doctor nodded, as if she were agreeing, then said, ‘At the end of a labor, Parveen, a woman lives, or she dies. That is all that concerns me.’ ”

“To be female here was to grasp at scraps of information and sew them into the shape you imagined reality to be. Into fictions, patterned on distortions and inventions. The women needed an accurate understanding of the peril in which they lived — and the reasons for it.”

“She had, within sight, something fundamental, and also painful. which was that to be an adult was to have to make decisions and take actions that might be wrong. That might cause harm. To live was to bruise, the doctor seemed to be saying: there was no other way. Unlike Professor Banerjee or Gideon Crane, Dr. Yasmeen projected no certainty about the right path to take, the one that would avoid error and hurt; indeed, she seemed skeptical there was such a path. She didn’t think that all the answers could be had, much less claim to have them herself.”

“The digitized faces, fingerprints, and irises of men who’d never left these mountains would live perpetually in a DC suburb. Eternal life of another kind.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 27th, 2019.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J Lockington (YA)

A coming-of-age story for 11-year old Makeda. Opening on the road as she and her family are relocating West for her father’s new job as Principal Cellist in the New Mexico Symphony, we quickly learn that she is a black girl adopted into a white family shortly after birth. She both wonders about her birth mother and struggles with ongoing (and annoying) reactions of those around to her. People are constantly commenting on “how white she talks” and persisting with queries about where “she is really from” (even though the answer is simply “Atlanta.”)

Told with a mixture of prose, poetry, and tumblr posts with her best friend back in Baltimore (also a black adoptee in a white family), we get an up close and personal look at one young girl’s transracial adoption experience.

The writing is very good and the details of Makeda’s thoughts and feelings are incredibly perceptive and well-expressed. It’s important to remember that the book is completely focussed on Makeda — her perceptions, her memories, her hopes, and her experiences from her perspective. As an older white person (not the target demographic here), I cringed at the description of her mother — the absolute stereotype of a guilt-ridden white liberal. When it becomes clear that her mother is mentally ill — she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in the book — her whiteness and mental illness kind of blend together. Makeda’s experiences at her new school and a girl scout troop were also blatantly racist, without any compensating non-racist encounters which I found disappointing.

On the whole I found this worth reading — it felt authentic and certainly broadened my perspectives in a number of ways. I wish there had been a slightly more hopeful path at the end, but of course that is not the whole story.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 30th, 2019.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

I loved this book — far more than I expected to. It’s an intimate story about the intra- and inter-personal dynamics of an Indian-American, Muslim family living in Northern California. It opens at the wedding of the eldest daughter to a man she has picked for herself. In attendance, her brother is clearly estranged from the family. From there the narrative is subsumed by a sea of unordered memory snapshots that help establish how the family arrived at this place. I liked the collection of non-linear memories — far from being confusing, it felt the way memories of life always feel — holistic and relevant to the current thought or moment.

The prose is beautiful and the self awareness of the characters and relationships between them are complex, subtle, and both well observed and absorbing. While I’m not religious and generally don’t enjoy reading religious novels (and really have very little exposure to the Muslim religion in particular), I found the descriptions of the role of Islam in each of their lives to be pure poetry. I appreciated the thoughtful descriptions of the different characters’ choices with respect to their religion — what restrictions they perceived, what remained important to them, and how their choices changed the relationships they had with each other and the community. The multi-perspective insights were incredibly valuable to me.

The deep connection I felt to the characters and the poignancy of their thoughts and actions brought me to tears several times. The novel was an honest portrait of an actual family — it’s rare that a set of characters feels this real to me. If this continues to be the quality of book from SJP for Hogarth (this is the first book from that imprint), I will be a huge and loyal fan 🙂

One note: For some reason, the opening pages of this book just didn’t do it for me. I kept starting it and putting it back down. There was nothing wrong or poorly done with the opening, it simply didn’t grab my interest. If you have the same initial reaction, please keep reading! It doesn’t take long before you’ll be swept in.

Some great quotes:

“It was a strange time in their lives: the children like paper boats they were releasing into the water and watching float away.”

“Asfoos was the word in Urdu. There was no equivalent in English. It was a specific kind of regret — not wishing he had acted differently, but a helpless sadness at the situation as it was, a sense that it could not have been a different way.”

“It was an absurd expectation placed on women: that they agree to marriage without appearing as though they wanted it. That they at least display innocence.”

“Loving Amira was not just loving a young woman. It was loving a whole world. She was of the same world he had been born into but had only ever felt himself outside of, and sitting by her was the closest he came to feeling harmony with his own home.”

“Right and wrong, halal and haram — it was her father’s only way of experiencing the world.”