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Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (thoughts)

September 19, 2014

Talking to the Dead

Carl throws the best challenges, and the ninth edition of R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, which reminds us all to devote our autumnal reading towards scaring ourselves silly, is currently running. I haven’t officially signed up yet, as the move soaked up all of my free time, but when I approached my unpacked books yesterday, looking for a good one to start, I had it in the back of my mind. And when my eye fell on Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore, I knew it’d be perfect.

I’d read two Dunmore’s novels before this, and both were perfect examples of their form: gothic (A Spell of Winter) and ghost (The Greatcoat). I bought this one from Better World Books on the strength of my love for those novels, and I didn’t even bother reading the publisher blurb first. All I knew before I began reading was that it had an exquisite cover and someone from Washington Post found it terrifying.

The prologue/s opening sentence confirmed its RIP worthiness:

The newer graves lie full in the sun, beyond the shadow of the church and yew tree.

I was soon lost in Dunmore’s writing-lush yet precise, and the powerful voice of her (perhaps unreliable) narrator, Nina. After the prologue, the story opens with Nina arriving at her older sister Isabel’s house, to help her with her first baby. It was a difficult birth, and there’s a subtle sense of uneasiness about the house, centered around Isabel, that heightens as the book continues. Faced with her new nephew, Nina begins to remember her own younger brother, who died in infancy of crib death, and the childhood games she and Isabel used to play. This is certainly not a horror novel, but Dunmore is a master at the kind of psychological creepiness that gets under your skin, until you find yourself holding your breath as you turn the page, in fear of what might happen next. Both Nina and Isabel are strange women, uncanny in different ways, and the very strength of their relationship feels eerie.

The book is also luscious: Nina loves to cook and eat and the way she talks about food will have you longing to sit at her table.

They are not the right apples, but I won’t get better in the tail end of the season, before the new apples come in. They must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap round in ring after ring, hooping inward, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice, and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once.

I ended up staying up late last night to finish it: every time I kept thinking ‘just one more chapter’ until suddenly it was over. This was an incredibly written, perfectly satisfying novel: it has gothic and dark fairy tale veins running through it, but at its heart are Nina and Isabel and how powerfully real they feel. It confirms Dunmore as one of my favourite authors, and I can’t recommend Talking to the Dead highly enough.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: is it possible to discuss an eerie sisterly relationship without hearing echoes of “Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”? If you haven’t read this novella yet, you need to.
  • The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi: can’t get enough of creepy children? Here’s a story all about a strange little girl who meets an even stranger one.
  • Disquiet by Julia Leigh: a strange little book, once again centered around an off kilter family in an isolated home, featuring a woman who’s just given birth. It’s much weirder, and leaves much more to the reader’s imagination, than Talking to the Dead.
  • True Murder by Yaba Badoe: this is another gothic novel, although centered around children instead of adults, that includes dark past deeds. It’s set in a boarding school and lives up to all it promises.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: more sisters, more suspense, more R.I.P. fabulousness.


September 16, 2014

Three weeks ago today, I found an apartment I loved and received approval on my application.

Two weeks ago today, I flew home to Texas to begin packing.

One week ago today, I watched movers load up all of the boxes and my furniture into a moving truck.

Today, I’m sitting in my new apartment, almost done settling in.

Tuesdays must be good days for me.

(My internet is supposed to be hooked up tomorrow, after which I will share photos and get back into regular posting.)

Beginning the Next Chapter

September 4, 2014


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Hello everyone! I promise I plan to get back to blogging eventually, but it will have to wait for a bit longer, because in exactly ten days I’ll be moving into my very own apartment. :D After a year and a half of dreaming of moving north, I can’t quite believe it’s all happening so quickly (I just got home from apartment hunting late Tuesday night and will be heading off in a big truck next Wednesday), or that I found a little place that is almost exactly as I imagined it in my daydreams, but I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. I feel so deeply fortunate, to have a family that will do anything to help me change my life, and friends who might as well be family offering oodles of support as well: thanks to all of them I’ll soon be calling the Great Lakes region of New York home. There shall be snow! And woods! And falling leaves! And chickadees!

Gratitude doesn’t begin to describe my feelings towards my family & friends for making this possible.  And of course there’s nothing better about good news than sharing it, particularly with all of you: while I haven’t been around as much in the past year, I still think of the book blogging community as home. I’ll definitely be sharing photos and stories once I’m settled, but in the meantime, I’ve got to pack up my life and take care of all those incidental bureaucratic necessities, not to mention drive across the country with my mother and a certain little dog. And that’s just the beginning of this grand new adventure!

Under the Weather

July 29, 2014

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Some type of cold aspiring to impress its bubonic plague cousin has interfered with my plans to jump back into blogging. I’ve spent most of the past four days horizontal, in the vain hope that if I stay still enough and quiet enough, the coughing and congestion and malaise would get bored and leave me alone. At least the earache has given up, leaving mere tinnitus in its place. Y’all, this thing has me fondly recalling my last bout with the flu. Who knew colds could be so vicious?

Once I feel better I’ll respond to comments & tell you about more books. Until then, at least the internet is full of cute puppy pictures.

The Sharing Knife Quartet by Lois McMaster Bujold (thoughts)

July 23, 2014

The Sharing Knife
Forgive me for being rusty.

Back in April, I took a drop spindle class at my local yarn store. I ended up being the only student, and towards the end of the first lesson, my teacher casually mentioned that the heroine of one of her favourite fantasy books spins to pass time. Of course my ears perked right up (fantasy? textile arts? together?), and when I got home I checked my library’s website for The Sharing Knife. It turned out to be a quartet of books, all available in electronic versions, so I averted by eyes from the truly unfortunate covers (an advantage of ereaders), downloaded the first one (Beguilement) and began reading.

I will admit, the opening had me skeptical. A young, small, cute woman named Fawn is on her way to make her fortune in the city, having run away from home. Unfortunately, she meets some trouble on the road, and is rescued from an almost-rape by Dag, a tall, powerful older man who is the loner type. There’s instant chemistry between them. At this point, all of my alarm bells were going off, but I was too comfortable to get up & get another book so I stuck with it a bit longer. And thank God I did: Bujold is definitely a feminist and from that unpromising beginning crafts the story of a relationship that empowers both sides (including Fawn’s sexual empowerment, which is handled with grace and skill), while being set in a fabulous fantasy world inspired by the 19th century US Great Lakes frontier (but without guns). Over the four books, everything from ethnic identity & traditions to culture clashes to patriarchy to individual growth and more turns up. And the story telling is so good: I couldn’t turn the pages quickly enough (thank goodness I could download the next book instantly each time).

A little taste of the world: there are two main ethnic groups. The Lakewalkers are modeled more on Great Lakes area Native Americans (and yes, I realise that there are lots of different tribes, all with their own culture; I apologise for the generalisation): they’ve been living in the area since time immemorial, are traditionally itinerant, moving with the seasons, have community-based ideas of wealth and property, and are matriarchal. They also have this incredibly cohesive cultural tradition all based around one idea: they need to find and destroy any malices that appear. These malices are all that’s left of a technologically and magically advanced culture that existed centuries ago and suddenly collapsed: the Lakewalkers are descended from the survivors, and as such feel guilt for the malices’ existence & obliged to destroy them. Malices appear out of the ground and slowly become bigger and stronger as they feed on life forces around them (plants, animals, humans…anything that’s available): they also morph into different stages, almost like sped up evolution, based on what they’re consuming. If they’re found when they’re young, they’re relatively easy to kill, but if they manage to stay hidden through several ‘molts,’ it becomes more of a challenge. So bands of Lakewalkers patrol all over, but the Lakewalkers are few and so feel constantly harried trying to keep up: young Lakewalkers travel around to different camps, serving in the patrols, with more populous camps sending more patrollers to the sparsely populated areas that also happen to have more malices. There are so many implications of this, and Bujold explores them beautifully: I especially was fascinated by the way this makes having children a key Lakewalker duty and how that plays out in a matriarchal instead of patriarchal society. Either way, only a sharing knife can kill a malice: I won’t tell you how they’re made, as Bujold reveals that at a perfect pace in the first book, but I will say that they are sacred, surrounded by rituals, and essential to Lakewalker culture. Oh, and the Lakewalkers are telepathic: they’re able to read the emotions of everyone around them & keep in touch with each other that way. It’s not exactly like speaking on a telephone, though, and some are born with stronger abilities than others. There’s also a bit of telekinetic ability going on, with Lakewalkers able to connect with both objects and, sometimes, influence others’ thoughts and actions. They can also heal via the mind. They are very insular, holding themselves aloof from the Farmers, whom they often consider inferior.

Farmers are essentially settlers, so the European immigrant equivalent, although in this instance they’re invited on to the land & aren’t trying to kill off the Lakewalkers. Farmers have no telepathic or telekinetic abilities (which means they can’t block Lakewalkers from reading their minds or even controlling them), and many think that malices are bedtime stories. They farm and build towns and create new technology, and they have the patriarchal and individual wealth/property traditions of Europe (younger sons have to go find their fortunes, daughters marry into other families, etc.). In a fun twist, they’re the ones who have nature names, not the Lakewalkers. ;) They are generally horrified by Lakewalkers, considering them cannibals and mind controllers and generally eerie, but once again they almost never talk to them. So stories get passed around instead. While the Farmers lack psychic/magical abilities, they also have far more advanced technology and more comfortable lives than the Lakewalkers, who devote all of the energy to the malice threat.

Due to this lack of general communication, Fawn and Dag’s relationship not only serves as a fabulous romance, but also as a way to explore culture clash. Dag has served on patrols for an unusually long time and has had far more contact with Farmers than most Lakewalkers. Even before he finds a more personal reason to connect with their culture, he’s decided that Lakewalkers should try cooperating with Farmers to make malice hunting easier. After all, malices are most likely to appear on Farmer land, and if Farmers recognised the signs and could alert the Lakewalkers earlier, it would save trouble later. But Lakewalker tradition is all about secrecy & pride & being a ‘chosen people,’ so Dag’s swimming upstream with his arguments.

Oh wow: I’m at one thousand words! I could talk about these books for hours (in fact, does anyone want to do a book club-type read a long/discussion via e-mail? I’d happily reread these: just leave a comment and I’ll set something up), but I’m likely running on too long. I’ll just mention one more thing I adored: while there are dramatic malice battles, I loved how much everyday life Bujold includes. Fawn does typical Farmer tasks, from canning and cooking to spinning and knitting, and even in stressful situations will do things like tidy another woman’s pantry so she won’t feel hopeless on coming up & seeing so many smashed jars. The first two books focus on Farmer and then Lakewalker culture, while the last two have more of a quest feel: in fact, the third book is all about a river journey on a barge down their Mississippi-equivalent! Who can resist a river trip (says the fan of Three Men in a Boat…)? There’s just so much readerly FUN: I kept finding myself squealing with excitement.

These books are both comfort reads and thought-provoking ones, and they quickly launched Bujold into the ranks of my favourite authors. I’ve now read all of her other four fantasy books and am almost through with her first sci fi book; she’s actually known for that sci-fi series rather than her fantasy. I’m not a sci-fi reader, although I realise my inheritant flinching at words like space ships and aliens is just as silly a prejudice as those who flinch at words like magic and gods and thus don’t read fantasy. The fact that I voluntarily began reading a space series with the eyebrow-raising name of the Vorkosigan Saga, and am in fact enjoying every moment of this first book, should tell you how much I love and trust Bujold at this point. I’m even willing to follow her to the edge of the galaxy. ;)

If you’re a thoughtful reader looking for an engaging summer read, or a feminist who enjoys romance, or a fantasy buff tired of medieval Europe inspired setting, I can’t recommend these books highly enough! You will have to overlook the covers (I seriously considered leaving this post image-free), which seem to get worse for each book, but I suspect that you’ll soon find yourself so hooked you won’t care. Even if you don’t usually read fantasy or romance, these books might change your mind. It seems a shame to miss out on such great reads because of a kneejerk reactions to different genres: I almost didn’t use the word ‘romance’ in my post so as not to alienate potential readers. But that seemed to be feeding into the idea that the only way for genre books to be taken seriously is to call them ‘literary’ instead. These are fantasy books, romance books, and full of literary merit. I am so glad to have discovered them and such a wonderful new-to-me author. I’m just surprised she’s not a blogosphere darling already.

Hello Again

July 17, 2014

Floral Couch
Oh dear. I always feel so embarrassed about my blogging breaks, which for the past two years have seemed just about endless, that I’ve put off returning to blogging this time for just that reason. But I miss you. I miss gushing about books out loud instead of just in my head. I miss all of the learning and laughter and challenging perspectives and vitality of this community that have helped me grow into a better woman than I’d otherwise be. So here I am.

I believe this time a return is sustainable, as I’m typing this on a desktop mac instead of my old laptop. A separate screen and wireless keyboard allows for a much more ergonomic set up, and the newest Apple operating system includes all kinds of useful accessibility features, even a dictation program.

As for me, I’m still living in Texas for now, still hoping to move to upstate New York within the next few months. At first I was terribly upset to have missed my ideal May deadline, but eventually I tired of those feelings and decided to embrace the good things of summer. I’ve been creating homemade popsicles, wearing breezy clothes, enjoying the long summer twilights, learning to distinguish birds by their songs, gorging on local peaches, and spending a lot of quality time with my family. The weather has kindly colluded in my enjoyment by staying overcast much of the time and limiting itself primarily to highs in the nineties instead of hundreds.

Of course, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading, both in print and via audiobook, which are the perfect accompaniments to the knitting I now find myself addicted to. The same weekend I brought home the new computer, I also found a little couch whose botanical pattern has tempted me to rename my blog as A Floral Sofa. The subsequent room rearrangement turned out to be perfect for summer, and I spend many a happy hour knitting and reading while watching out the window, as geckoes and birds go about their business. It’s funny how such a fairly small thing can impact daily life so much, but my couch (which only cost fifty dollars plus a couple of backbreaking sweaty hours getting it inside) has done so.

My new computer has done so too, and now that I’ve conquered by feeling of shyness, I look forward to catching up with all of your lives as well, happy in the knowledge that I can read blogs to my heart’s content without destroying my hands. And oh I have so many books to tell you about. I cannot wait to begin.

Bookish Notes: Feast and Famine

March 12, 2014

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Ordinarily, I have endless hours to devote to reading, which is of deep consolation in a life circumscribed by illness. But this past week was different: since Saturday, I’ve had my niece to stay with me. She turned eight last month, and it turns out that eight is a delicious age: we spent several happy days together, getting up to mischief, having silly and not-so-silly talks, and making things all the while. Every day, I felt so lucky to be able to spend so much time with her, even though I was exhausted by seven in the evening. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but it did make those endless hours of potential reading shrink to almost a vanishing point. I woke up before her each morning, so I was able to sneak in a couple of reading sessions then, and progressed a bit further in both of the nonfiction books I mentioned last week. But it wasn’t until yesterday, when her grandmother picked her up and took her to the zoo that I had vistas of reading time stretched out before me. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself!

Eventually, I decided to pick up a novel. I considered checking to see which library books were due soon and reading one of those, but I was unwilling to give arbitrary dates such tyrannical power. After all, I can always check the book out again, which is one of the wonders of the library. Instead, I chose to reacquaint myself with two of my favourite high school companions: Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I realised it would be a treat to reread their books in order this year, so rather than go straight to Gaudy Night, I pulled Strong Poison off the shelf. On page forty-one, when they have their first conversation, I was once again in love: their banter is simply irresistable. I’ve always been a banterer myself, although I’m not nearly as capable of literary illusions as those two. As the story progressed, I remembered why Sayers is one of my favourite authors: she’s so damn smart. Not only in her plotting and deft ability to convey emotions, but her observations of society are quite clear eyed as well. For instance, as Wimsey attempts to discover the murderer, he relies on the ability of women to unobtrusively squirm their way into places he’d never go. In an era of ‘surplus’ women, Sayers shows their usefulness and latent abilities to good effect. There are a lot of fun scenes too, from Wimsey’s tour of London Bohemia to a pseudo-seance. Ultimately, I was enchanted, and as I finished it this morning I thought with a thrill that now I can reread the next one.

As today I didn’t have any niece-related responsibilities, I indulged myself with several hours of reading which let me finish both of my nonfiction books, as well as a slim third one. My reading seems to go like that: some days I have a positive avalance of completed reads, while for days before I begin to worry I’ll never finish a book again. Word on the Street kept up its interest to the end, though I must admit that half of a book devoted to whether we should teach Black English in schools or not felt a trifle unbalanced, as the first half had a more general range. I’m sure it was more topical at the time, but perhaps I just live in the wrong part of the country, I’ve never heard of such a debate. Regardless, I enjoyed his linguistic analysis, as he compares it to Caribbean creoles and other, white English dialects (it turns out Black English was influenced most by Scots-Irish dialects as well as other English ones like Cornwall, from regions where lower class immigrants hailed, as these were who the slaves had contact with), and I found his later take on the reasons for lower performance by black students touching and thought-provoking, but it almost felt like I was reading two books squished into one, and he occasionally sounded a bit strident in his arguments. I believe I’ve now read all of his books (this was his debut), but some of them were so long ago that a reread might be in order. If you enjoy the English language (and if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be reading my blog), do treat yourself to some John McWhorter!

As I was going to the library later, I had just enough time to finish a short book that was due today: The Place of Tolerance in Islam. It had an intriguing format: Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim scholar wrote the titular essay, the several scholars replied to that essay in their own short pieces, and then Abou El Fadl wrote a response to these essays. As a former debater, I of course loved this (and his casual reference to ad hominem attacks), and I wish I saw it more frequently in nonfiction. Usually, I end up having to do this on my own, reading several books on a topic from different points of view, so it was nice to have it all in one place. This was published by Beacon Press too, one of my favourites. I’m glad I read it, but I do wish it was meatier. Luckily, Abou El Fadl has written a book expanding on his views, that I read last year and found simply fascinating. I plan to look up several of the writers to see if they’ve written their own books too.

Oh dear. I can feel myself switching from a reading journal, informal essay-like approach to miniature reviews, which is not what I wanted to do at all. It’s such a challenge to capture a snapshot in time, isn’t it? I just finished Dancing Goddesses before writing this post, and it left me in a bit of a pastoral daydream. Not because Barber romanticises farming in the various periods, quite the opposite (she doesn’t shy away from pointing out how traditions oppress women) but simply because her descriptions are so evocative. She has an incredible ability to take the folklore and superstitutions and rituals seriously, and to present them in a way that makes the reader take them seriously too. In her conclusion she writes that by looking at the big picture of the lives of these farmers, things that seem odd on their own suddenly work together to make a narrative structure out of the agricultural year. Barber managed to bring that narrative to life for me, and as she looks at a way of life that’s commonly presented in fantasy novels, I have a new viewpoint to explore that genre from too. The book was such a gift, and I’ve already put another of her titles, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years on hold.

Now it’s time for me to begin another novel, and I’m not sure which one to pick up. I have so many tempting books on my shelves! All of McWhorter’s discussions of Caribbean creoles and dialects though has me leaning towards The True History of Paradise by Margaret Cezair-Thompson. I do adore Caribbean lit, and I also adore when my books bleed into each other.

P.S.: An Unnecessary Woman was as good at the end as it was at the beginning; I believe it’s now on my list of favourite books of all time.

Bookish Notes: A Surfeit of Pleasures (including An Unnecessary Woman, The Dancing Goddesses, The Word on the Street, Anne of Green Gables, & The Queen of America)

March 6, 2014

Oh guys. It’s clear to me by how sporadic my blogging has been over the past year and a half that my old approach is no longer working. I find myself missing blogging but also feeling overwhelmed by it: I don’t even like to read the blogs I subscribe to unless I have the time, energy, lack of pain to comment on them. This is silly. Writing that down made it clear just how silly it is, and I shall return to reading your blogs, even if I can’t comment, forthwith.

As for my own blog, my beloved, if slightly shabby striped armchair, I envision this space as a kind of reading journal. I have in mind things like Nick Hornby’s lovely columns, but I don’t know how to bridge the gap from where I am now to where I want to be. This is especially challenging as I am not, in fact, Nick Hornby. There will likely be bumbling involved, as I sort things out, but at least it will be better than nothing. Books are so much more fun when they’re talked about!
This morning, I began An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine. Despite reading and adoring both The Hakawati and I, the Divine, and despite one of the most enticing covers I’ve seen in quite awhile, I was unprepared to fall instantly in love. But that is exactly what happened. I love reading essays by older, reflective, bookish women, and this novel is narrated by just such a woman. I’m fussy about male authors writing female characters, so you can believe me when I say that Aaliya Saleh is utterly convincing. I find myself wishing she’d written more books, her style is so perfect, before remembering that this is in fact a novel. I love the kind of novelists that allow me to suspend my disbelief without the slightest effort on my part. I’m thrilled he set this in Beirut too: it feels like a love song to the city, and I do love a book with a strong sense of place. I’ve now used love four times in one paragraph, which is probably excessive, but that’s what certain books do to readers, isn’t it? I’m one hundred pages in and will pick it back up as soon as I’ve published this post, although a quote on the cover about heartbreak as me a bit nervous. He did break my heart in both of the other novels I suppose, but in the best sense. When an author is as talented as Alameddine is, I can forgive him for a streak of tragedy.

As always, I am a polygamous reader. I’m in the middle of two completely satisfying nonfiction books too: the first is The Dancing Goddesses by E. J. W. Barber, all about folklore and language and women and Central/Eastern Europe, so is clearly my type of history. In December, I became mildly addicted to British historical farm series, available on youtube, in which historians spend a year living and working on a farm following the methods of whatever period they’re looking at. My favourites are the medieval ones (Tales from the Green Valley and The Tudor Monastery Farm), and this book reminds me a bit of them, especially a terribly enthusiastic folklore professor who seems to visit at least once in each series to lead everyone in reenactments of old traditions and customs. The midsummer bonfire of the Tudor series was particularly notable, if only for watching them try to get a burning cartwheel to roll down a hill!

The other is The Word on the Street by John McWhorter, a fun and thoughtful linguistics essay collection that just convinced me it’s time to start performing Shakespeare in modern English translations. I’m one of those who believe a translation should sound close to the author’s original intention anyway, so even if it’s a translation of a classic, it should only read as stilted or archaic if that’s how it would have sounded to the author’s contemporaries. So in a certain sense McWhorter was already preaching to the choir, although I thought he overly exaggerated a bit to get his point across. The other essays, in which he explains why constructions such as “You and me should go to the bookstore” are actually rooted in English structure (while the rules against them come from an 18th century academic intent on making English more like Latin), and in defense of non-standard dialects as legitimate in their own right, have been equally fascinating.

And then there are the audiobooks. This year, I began listening to two audiobooks at once: a children’s book for bedtime and whatever caught my fancy for the rest of the time (chores, knitting, cooking, walking, etc.). This new policy has resulted in far fewer terrible dreams, which is quite a relief, and I’d be thrilled to hear any audiobook suggestions you’d consider sage for a nightmare-prone seven-year-old (yes, that’s how cautious I need to be). I’ve become particularly drawn to modern authors inspired by classic children’s lit, both parodies like The Willoughbies and The Mysterious Howling and more straightforward books like The Penderwicks (whose sequel I just picked up on CD from my library this week). Right now I’m listening to Anne of Green Gables, and rereading it (again) as made me realise just how much Anne influenced my worldview. I believe I finally have any answer to that tricky question: what book has changed your life? I must admit I don’t care hugely for the narrator, who pronounces certain words in an oddly Southern tone of voice for a Canadian novel, but I love Anne so much I can overlook that. My other audiobook is The Queen of America: it was slow going for the first couple of hours, but I’ve loved all of Luis Alberto Urrea’s novels, and it’s almost eighteen hours long, so I stuck with it and now it’s amply rewarding me. The narrator is fabulous too!

In other words, I’m in reader bliss at the moment. There’s not a bad one in the bunch: just a lot of soul satisfying, intellectually stimulating, endlessly comforting and entertaining books, the kind that make me so grateful I’m a bookworm.

I’m hoping to do a post like this twice a week but no promises yet. I’m not sure if the format (which desperately needs a more elegant title solution: any ideas?) will be as helpful to readers as my more straightforward book review style posts, and I might alternate between the two, depending on my mood, however I hope this new approach will get me back in the blogging habit and avoid the dreaded paralysis induced by an every growing review backlog. Time will tell, I suppose.

Literature as a Whole

February 15, 2014

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Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.

-Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed (thoughts)

January 15, 2014

Love in a Headscarf
Love in a Headscarf by Shelina Zahra Janmohamed came up in my search for ‘Beacon Press’ in the library’s catalogue. As it was an ebook, I could check it out right away, but I wasn’t sure. The cover and title didn’t make it seem like a me book. However, my interest in reading more diverse nonfiction, my enjoyment of the movie Arranged, and my trust in Beacon Press made me decide to give it a go. And I’m so glad I did!

Janmohamed is a British South Asian Muslim (how’s that for a mouthful?): she’s a professional, feminist, independent woman with deep affection for her culture and family, and a religion that’s woven into her everyday life. As the rest of her life slotted into place, though, her search for a husband wasn’t quite so easy: despite using the traditional matchmaking process of her community, it took her a decade to find the right one. This is a memoir of her experience on that search, but as it spans her from age 19 to 29, it’s also a middle class coming of age story as Janmohamed searches for her true identity amongst competing philosophies and traditions.

I love the common sense tone of the book, with a lot of wry humour, but most of all I loved how Janmohamed talks about Islam. She references the Q’aran frequently, and explains how important her beliefs are to her, and how her relationship with God grows during these years, without ever sounding preachy. Her feminism leads to her frank acknowledgement of the sexism she encounters, but she also consistently looks at how Q’aranic ideals of equality have been twisted by different cultures. As someone interested in progressive Christianity, but who shies away from a lot of what Christianity has stood for, I found a marvelous example in Janmohamed.

It was also simply fascinating to see how the search for a spouse changes when you know from the very first meeting that the man is interested in marriage and has the approval of your family and community. In some ways, that made things different, as there’s not as much need to play coy, and people can talk about a possible future right away. And yet, in Janmohamed’s frustration at how various men behaved, in her community’s urging of her to ‘not be too picky,’ and in her and friends’ increasing dismay as the years go on and the pool of available men inexplicably shrinks, I found more similarities than differences. As an aspiring spinster, none of this affects me personally, but that just made following along that much more fun!

I really loved reading this, in case you can’t tell: it was on the lighter side but still intelligent and intriguing. Don’t judge it on the cover and title! So often it’s easy to read scholarly books about religion, but to see it lived seems less frequent. Especially by a woman! Even those who aren’t religious themselves will likely enjoy this peek into another culture, and of course readers who love memoirs should definitely get to this.

My only real quibble is that for all of her feminism, and a few brief discussions of racism, Janmohamed seems curiously oblivious to homosexuality. Especially as one of her reasons to get married is her religious belief that men and women were made for each other, I would have liked to see her at least touch on love outside the hetero-normative range. I’m also curious about what liberal Muslims have to say on the topic.

That aside, Love in a Headscarf is a smart, moving, funny work that makes culture blending look joyful (and deserves a better cover and title!): in her reconciliation of her progressive, liberal views with the best aspects of her traditions and culture, Janmohamed sets an example for us all. I only wish she’d written more books, and I definitely see myself returning to this one in the future!

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Data: a Love Story by Amy Webb : another memoir about the search for a husband by a 21st century feminist, although where Janmohamed is driven by Islam, Webb is driven by math and algorithms. I found parts of this eyebrow-raising and cringe-inducing, but I also found it a funny, enjoyable read.
  • The Great Theft by Khaled Abou El Fadl : if you’re interested in what the Q’aran teaches vs what some extremists preach, Fadl lays it out beautifully in this book (which could also benefit from a better title). Readable, fascinating, and one of my favourite books from last year (so of course I didn’t blog about it. sigh).
  • The Translator by Leila Aboulela : I love the way Aboulela writes beautiful novels about love and Muslim women in the West. I think this would make a fabulous duet for those who enjoy matching fiction and nonfiction reads.

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