Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My April Reading ... Part One

After complaining last month that my positions in various hold queues at the library were dismally large, many books suddenly showed up. I now have the reverse problem this month: too much to read. I had to cram a bit before due dates, which was a less pleasant reading experience, but overall, it was a good reading month. I read mystery, witty, inspirational, multiracial, historical, medical, spiritual, and parenting books. The original books post got so long, I decided to split it up into two.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: Book by a male author

Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2014 Best Books post. The jacket cover copy calls this "arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional". Hmm...perhaps for a literary fiction book. However, the book read like genre romance to me, and the story was par for the course. That is not to say that it wasn't enjoyable—in fact, I liked it very much—but there was nothing revolutionary there. What was unique to the book was the humor—it was clever and uproariously funny while the delivery was low-key. I despise slapstick, in books and movies, so I always look for clever humor, and this had it in spades.

Unlike The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley, where you're supposed to feel sorry for Ian with his Asperger's and admire his wife Beth, Don and Rosie in this book require no such emotions. Don has high-functioning Asperger's but is such a capable, brilliant man, Rosie's such a capable, brilliant woman, and they're together because they admire/like/want each other, not because they need each other in a dependent way. As a result, as a reader, you relate to them head-on as people with strengths and foibles and moments of laughter, but not as characters requiring our emotional support. It was refreshing to read about intelligent, mature people behaving in an intelligent, mature way; the uproarious humor is only on the part of the reader; the characters are very much in earnest. And so endearing!

She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Romance by Na’ima bint Robert
Categories: romance, young-adult
Diversity: Author and characters are British-Muslims. Author has African roots. Book is a strong inspirational romance, a first for me. My only other inspy has been Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm, which has a significant Amish presence in the story; however, the religious aspect of it isn't the main message of the story. Here it is.

Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. I was part-way through the book, when I ran across this excellent review of the book. It made me want to continue with the book even more.

Robert's bio is really important, but more about that in a bit. This story is very much about the author and the two messages she wants to convey and the characters and plot she uses to outline that message; the story is less so about the organic growth and actualization of the characters. Robert wants to show what typical Muslim youths look like, even religious ones. On one hand, the deep religiosity of the message was uncomfortable for me; however, in all other ways, the story's told exactly the way it needs to be told to do the job.

Muslim youths are very much a product of their times. The characters here are British citizens and behave as all teenagers do: they dramatize their woes, every emotion is too much, their dreams and hopes for the future, their interest in the opposite sex, and so on. They're ordinary teens. Their religion adds stressors for good behavior, for being good Muslims, for following the tenets of Islam, and so on. In addition to this, they have modern familial stressors: the boy Ali's suffering through the loss of his mother and their home in the countryside and the move to the big, bad city; his father is a converted Muslim so his grandparents are Caucasian Christian; the girl Amirah lives in a broken home from which her mother's fourth husband has run off and she's managing all her five brothers and sisters; she is having to consider an arranged marriage to a Saudi national.

Robert's Muslim kids are just ordinary kids. This message is of supreme importance in today's times, where the western world demonizes Muslim youths. Nothing in the above paragraph cannot be said about teens of other religious backgrounds. And that is what my take on Robert's message is.

Robert has South African Zulu and Scottish roots and was born in England, grew up in Zimbabwe as a Christian, and converted to Islam in 1998 at the age of 21. She went to college in London and is now editor-in-chief of the UK-based Muslim women's magazine, SISTERS. She has published many children's books with Muslim themes. Her family name is Thando McLaren. She divides her time between England and Egypt.

Given how Roberts straddles the different cultural and religious spheres, I feel that she's keen on conveying what she perceives is the true portrait of Muslims for the world at large. Through her books, she seems to want to engage in a dialogue about the similarities of people, rather than their differences.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Categories: children's, nonfic, memoir, prose-poetry
Diversity: Features African-American people

Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. Woodson won the National Book Award for it. This has got to be the most gorgeous book I have read in ages. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it. The story is recounted entirely in flashback, je me souviens..., and the prose-poetry style works very well in evoking that mood.

Jaqueline spent a part of her childhood in segregated South Carolina and she puzzled over the separation between the two races. Her musing is not done in anger, or even in straight out deep hurt, but in a complex range of emotions of which a child's curiosity forms the biggest part. That aspect of the book made it heartbreaking for me—for a child to puzzle out why she's being discriminated against, why others think it is OK to do so, would it ever change, should it?

What's the thing, I ask her, that would make people
want to live together?
People have to want it, that's all.

In downtown Greenville
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

I liked Jacqueline's relationship with her grandfather the best. See here:

Summer is over, a kiss
of chill in the southern air. We see the dim orange
of my grandfather's cigarette, as he makes his way
down the darkening road. Hear his evening greetings
and the coughing that follows them.
Not enough breath left now
to sing so I sing for him, in my head
where only I can hear.

Moving to Brooklyn to live with her mother, after the freedom of living in a small town South Carolina and under the comforting blanket of her grandparents' love, was very difficult. Yet she endured and adjusted and made friends and found something to like in the "gray rocky" place as well.

Down south already feels like a long time ago
but the stories in my head
take me back there, set me down in Daddy's
[grandfather's] garden
where the sun is always shining.

And when they're heading back home after their summer with their grandparents...

Our suitcases sit at the foot of our bed, open
slowly filling with freshly washed summer clothes,
each blouse, each pair of shorts, each faded cotton dress
holding a story that we'll tell again and again
all winter long."

Ah, I could go on and on quoting from the book. Every page, every stanza, such beauty.