A fresh perspective

30312547Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan (2017)

Opening line: “Something sharp pokes me in the rib.”

Amina is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, living in Milwaukee, WI, and she’s having a hard time finding her way in middle school. As anyone who has been to middle school knows, things always seem to shift if that first year after elementary, when you are trying to figure out your talents and who your friends are.

Amina’s best friend is Soojin, whose family is from South Korea. The girls have always bonded over their differences from their classmates, the ways substitute teachers struggle with their names and how other students turn up their noses at the contents of their lunchboxes. But Soojin and her family are about to become American citizens, and with that, they plan to change their names, adopting more “American-sounding” ones. Amina is surprised by how much this upsets her, and starts to feel left out when Soojin begins to befriend classmate Emily, a girl who has always hung around with the popular kids and has made fun of Amina and Soojin in the past. Things become even more tense when the one place Amina feels like she really fits, her family’s Islamic Community Center and mosque, is badly vandalized, and Amina questions where she belongs.

I loved this story. What’s so great about it is that it will open the eyes of many students who know nothing about Islam or the immigrant experience in a way that is totally accessible and that they will identify with. The whole time I was reading about the friendship dramas between Amina, Soojin, and Emily, I was brought back to my fifth grade year when I was certain I was going to lose my best friend to the popular girl. (In case you’re wondering, I didn’t, and said “popular girl” is now my best friend 18 years later.) Readers will recognize and connect to Amina’s story, while seeing a completely different (and much more accurate) picture of Islam that we see on the news.

A book for every middle grade shelf, 2.5 stars.

 

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Required Reading, please

51dw5mh9-zlNo god but God, by Reza Aslan (2005, updated 2011)

Opening line: “Midnight, and five hours to Marrakech. I have always had trouble sleeping on trains.”

I rarely blog about adult books, and I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about one of the books I’ve read for my mini-book club I have with my dear friend Mallory (check out her very impressive website), whose books have so far been entirely religious non-fiction. She and I met at church, and one of the things we both love about our church home is that it is wide open in terms of what you are “supposed to” believe. In fact, it regularly makes it known that there are no “supposed tos.” We decided a few years ago that we wanted to explore what other religions are all about, because although we both definitely identify as Christian, we weren’t sure why (despite growing up in church). And so we embarked on a journey, one that has led us through Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as touching on several others).

I think both of us would say this one has been one of our favorites. Early on, we wanted to learn more about Islam. With so much happening in the world that seems tied (correctly and incorrectly) to this massive religion (we’re talking 1.5 billion Muslims, guys), we felt the need to be able to speak to what we regularly felt was just blatant misconception. It took a few missteps (and several very dense books) to get us to this one, but, at least for me, this is just what I was looking for.

Author Reza Aslan provides an incredibly encompassing picture of the religion of Islam, starting with its inception  with the Prophet (well, actually well before that), and traveling all the way through its current reformation. Somehow, in less than 300 pages, the reader gets a broad tutorial in the basic beliefs, the widespread historical context, the varying sects, and the very contentious political implications of Islam in its current state. All while keeping me engaged. I think his skill lies in his position as a youngish Muslim who, while incredibly smart and well-researched, is personally connected and invested in the future of this religion. The text never comes across as preachy (he’s not trying to convert non-Muslims by any means), and while the majority of the text is framed as informational, he definitely has opinions on how Islam is represented (see: poorly). In fact, my first encounter with Reza Aslan (although I didn’t know it at the time) was in this ridiculous CNN interview in which he refuses to let the “journalists” talk shit about his religion. (I apologize for my sarcastic quotes. But, like Professor Aslan, I have a hard time when smart people ignore basic facts.)

In any case, I feel like this book should almost be required reading in this day and age. Like he tells us in his last chapter of his book, Islam is in the process of undergoing a major reformation, just as Christianity did those hundreds of years ago with good ol’ Martin Luther. It’s all over the place right now, both metaphorically and literally, and NO, THE VAST MAJORITY OF MUSLIMS DO NOT BELIEVE IN KILLING PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT BELIEFS. If we’re ever going to come to any sort of world peace (beauty contestant answer, I know), we have to actually learn something about one another. Let’s make it happen.

2.5 stars

A Rom-Com, of the intellectual and relatively depressing variety…

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)

Opening line: “To start with, look at all the books.”

It’s hard to deny my attraction to a book that begins this way. A coworker of mine several years ago told me that as a former English major, I should definitely read The Marriage Plot. She was right — it’s got the fixings to a novel I should love: literary references out the wazoo, multiple character perspectives, a sense of epic storytelling (crossing time periods and oceans), and a complicated romance.

Madeleine Hanna is an English major working on her thesis about the “marriage plot” of literature’s great novelists, like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontes. But while her intellectual mind is caught up in the romantic structure of the page, her real life romance is much more complicated, featuring two very different gentlemen. The first is Mitchell, who was “friend-zoned” freshmen year but still holds a torch for our heroine, while the second is Leonard, a mysterious biology student who intrigues and enchants Madeleine like no one has before. And while this might sound like the makings of a very common modern-day marriage plot, Eugenides does what he does best by complicating things with intense, intricately-crafted characters. Mitchell heads off to Europe and India after college with his roommate to figure out what the hell he’s doing with his life with or without Madeleine, while Madeleine and Leonard deal with Leonard’s apparent bipolar disorder, or as it was known in the 1980s when this tale is set, manic depression.

I liked this book. I wouldn’t stretch it to love, but, like I said before, what Jeffrey Eugenides does, he does well (see my review of his previous book Middlesex). I admire his character development, the vastness of his landscape, both in terms of time and place, and his way of piecing together stories in a way that adds depth and intrigue.

1.5 stars, edging to 2.

A New Nation

Nation, by Terry Pratchett (2008)

This semester I am taking a young adult literature class, which means my shelves are currently filled with YA books. Nation was the first book on the reading list. So read it, I did!

We meet Mau, who is setting off from Boy’s Island in the canoe he recently made. He is on his way home where everyone in the Nation will be there to greet him and celebrate his transition into Manhood. But on his journey, he is swept into the largest wave he’s ever seen and is thrown off course. When he finally arrives to his island home, all he is greeted by are smashed huts and lifeless bodies. His entire Nation has been destroyed by the giant wave.

After he tends to all the dead villagers in a comatose haze, by taking them out to sea where their spirits will turn into dolphins until they are called back to human form, he explores the rest of his Nation to find a huge ship, much bigger than any canoe he’s ever seen.

On the ship is Ermintrude, daughter to a prominent man who was made governor of colony halfway around the world. On her way out to meet her father, Ermintrude’s ship is caught by the wave and thrown onto the Nation. All of the crew perished, but Ermintrude, hiding in her cabin, survived the crash.

And here on the Nation, Ermintrude and Mau find each other. Through pantomime and drawing the sand, they learn to communicate. Soon, others from neighboring islands show up, hoping that the Nation fared better than their own, only to find a “ghost girl” and a boy/man as the chief.  But together, Mau, Daphne (Ermintrude’s new name for herself), and the others rebuild the Nation.

A combination of humorous interaction, spiritual reflection, and deep shared sadness, Nation is one of my new favorite books. A good start to the semester, I’d say.

Three stars.