A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza

placeforusThe best fiction — or at least the fiction I like best — walks the difficult balance between depicting a sense of place and culture so vividly that the reader feels introduced into a world they’ve never visited before, while also touching chords that are universal so the reader can relate to something, or someone, in the story. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s new novel A Place for Us strikes this balance perfectly for me. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2018.

The novel tells the story of an Muslim family, Layla and Rafiq and their three children Hadia, Huda and Amar. Layla and Rafiq moved to the US from India shortly after their (arranged) marriage; all three of the children are US-born. This is a novel about an immigrant family growing up in American during the post-9/11 era (the children are all in school in 2001, and Amar gets into a fight with some boys at school who say his father looks like a terrorist, while the devout Rafiq tells his daughters to stop wearing hijab to school because it may expose them to greater prejudice). It’s a story about a family navigating the balance between preserving their traditional religion/culture and adapting to the culture of their new country. But most importantly it’s just a very vivid, moving, deeply felt family story, about the ways in which family members love, hurt, help and betray one another.

The world of a Muslim family in California in the early 2000s is obviously a foreign one to me, but the world of a devoutly religious family from a small, tight-knit faith community is, just as obviously, pretty familiar to me, and it was here I found the universality of this book, the parts I related to so deeply. The experience Layla and Rafiq have of trying to raise their three children with their community’s values, their hope that their children will be observant Muslims, their attempt to wrestle with the reality of those kids growing up and making their own choices that don’t always fit within the community they were raised in — well, let’s just say that as a Seventh-day Adventist parent of young adults, these struggles felt very poignant and relatable. The ending, particularly, was heart-wringing for me and it touched me deeply.

Another thing that deeply impressed me with this novel was when I read the author bio at the end and realized how young Fatima Mirza is — not yet thirty. It doesn’t surprise me that she could so effectively depict Hadia, Huda and Amar growing up in their dual world as children of immigrants — but she also explores Layla’s and Rafiq’s points of view with a depth and sensitivity I’d expect from an older author who has already raised children and seen them grow to maturity. For a writer as young as Mirza is to capture the parents’ perspective so vividly speaks of both immense skills as a writer and tremendous empathy and insight as a human being.

I read this book while on a trip to England, and for me, the books I read while travelling often carry echoes of the places where I read them, the trains and subway cars I sat in while turning the (real or virtual) pages. Reading this book reminds me of my first trip to England 30+ years ago, when one of the books I was reading became deeply entangled with my own feelings about someone I’d left behind back home. Reading A Place for Us while travelling around London has been the same kind of experience to me — a book that opens a door into another world, and finding the door contains a mirrored panel that reflects my own world back to me. I won’t forget this book soon, and I look forward to reading whatever Mirza writes next.

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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, by David Frum

trumpocracyI still remember how shocked I was when I learned that Barbara Frum’s son worked for George W. Bush. I think I had the vaguely unquestioned Canadian assumption that anyone who was a well-known voice on the CBC must be at least a centrist or slightly to the left of centre. The idea that the son of such a CBC icon could be working for what we all thought of then as a dangerously right-wing US administration (oh, those dear innocent days!) seemed wrong, somehow. Though as it turns out Barbara had some right wingish views herself and her daughter Linda is a Conservative member of Canada’s Senate, appointed by Stephen Harper, so clearly the whole family is fairly right-of-centre by Canadian standards.

But David Frum has his limits: he may be a US Republican, but he’s also one of the most prominent and outspoken never-Trumpers, and in his book Trumpocracy, he lays out exactly why he thinks Trump’s record of corruption is dangerous for American democracy. He doesn’t focus on every one of Trump’s abhorrent views (in fact, given his own politics, he probably agrees with a few of them, though he does question a lot) — but instead keeps the reader’s attention clearly on the issue of corruption. This includes Russian meddling in the US election, Trump’s strangely docile attitude to Vladimir Putin, the various ways in which Trump and his businesses are profiting from the presidency, and the efforts to suppress democracy and demonize the free press in the US. I would hope that because Frum has solid conservative credentials, some of Trump’s supporters might listen to these warnings coming from him when they wouldn’t listen to the “libtards” on the left. But the fact is that hardcore Trump supporters are so all-in for the man that anyone who criticizes him, no matter what their credentials or sources, is automatically dismissed. It’s a sad situation.

I found this book very informative and interesting (but then I agree with Frum’s anti-Trump bias, if not with a lot of the elements of his own politics). The only weakness is that no book can keep up with the minute-by-minute craziness of the Trump administration, and many of the points he makes seem almost outdated a few months after the book’s release (others seem sadly prescient). I kept wondering what David Frum would say about the latest Trump outrages — but of course for that, there’s always Twitter.

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The Last Black Unicorn, by Tiffany Haddish

blackunicornThis book was … hard to rate. I think it was probably good for what it was, just not the book for me. I don’t even know much about Tiffany Haddish and her work as a comedian and actor; I just read a profile of her that made her sound both hilarious and insightful, and then I noticed that her memoir was available as an e-book from my library so on a whim I put it on my waitlist. It’s one of the few books this year that I almost gave up on in the middle of reading it, but I did finish it. 

Tiffany Haddish is a very funny woman with a very interesting backstory — hard life, lots of courage and determination to become the success she is today. I don’t always like celebrity memoirs; the best ones, especially of comedians, capture the person’s voice and make you feel like you’re listening to them tell their story. I suspect this one did capture the feel of Haddish’s voice in her stand-up — it’s not well-written by any imaginable literary standard, but if it captures the flavour of the person who’s telling the story that’s OK for a celeb memoir, I think. My main problem was not the writing but … Hmm. How to say this without sounding like a prude? I admire Haddish for the hardships she has overcome, but some of the experiences in her past, especially in relationships with men, were told in a way that made me feel she was trying to get the audience/readers to laugh at experiences that were in no way funny, and including details that were WAY too graphic for me (OK I am a bit of a prude). I get that humour often comes from a dark place and it can be good to make the audience squirm a bit, but the tone of some of her stories felt “off” to me. But maybe it’s just not my style of humour.

I think the bottom line was: this isn’t a bad book; it just wasn’t the right book for me. Or I wasn’t the right reader for it.

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Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America, by Benjamin Woolley

savagekingdomI picked this book up while I was visiting Jamestown, Virginia earlier this year. Because Jamestown was settled a couple of years before the Cupids colony in Newfoundland that I’m writing about, I’m interested in anything I can learn about English colonization of North America at that time period. Savage Kingdom was an interesting, well-researched overview of the Jamestown experiment — both the politics behind it in England and the actual experience of the colonists on the ground in Virginia. While the Virginia experience was obviously very different from the Newfoundland experience in many ways, there are interesting parallels as well as contrasts.

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Inspired, by Rachel Held Evans

inspiredThis is one of those books I’ve been waiting awhile to read. Having followed Rachel Held Evans’s spiritual journey through her other books and her online writing, I knew that in writing a book about the Bible, she was grappling with many of the same issues that I’ve wrestled with when reading Scripture. When you’ve come from a literalist background that teaches that in order to take the Bible seriously you have to believe every word, and you’ve moved through a more critical perspective in which it’s difficult to accept everything in the Bible literally — how do you relate to it? If you’re still a deeply committed Christian — as Evans and I both are — how do you reconcile a more complicated view of Scripture with the need to be spiritually fed by your the sacred texts of your faith?

Inspired is Evans’s attempt to answer that question, or more accurately, perhaps, to share with us some of the answers she has found. It does not attack, head on, the more intellectual side of this question — what to believe about inspiration, which texts to read literally and which figuratively, the value of applying historical-critical method to the gospel stories. Rather, she looks at the heart of the various Biblical texts, dividing the book into sections that roughly parallel the divisions of Scripture itself (Torah, History, Writings/Wisdom, Prophets, Gospels, Epistles) and examines the meaning and lessons we can draw from reading these books in their historical context. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult passages and frequently returns to the theme that Scripture is not a single, infallible source of wisdom so much as a collection of diverse texts with which we are encouraged to wrestle throughout our spiritual journey.

As if to illustrate this point, I finished Inspired and was … inspired … to try to get back to more regular Bible reading (which has been a struggle for me since I read through the whole Bible in 2012). Picked up a devotional book based on the lectionary and found that today’s Old Testament reading was the lovely passage about Ehud killing the Moabite king Eglon by burying his dagger up to the hilt in Eglon’s massively fat belly. I wasn’t sure what lesson to take away from that.

The Bible. It’s awe-inspiring, challenging, and sometimes just plain weird. If you love it but also struggle with it, check out Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired — notes from a fellow struggler.

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The Humans, by Matt Haig

thehumansThis was a beautiful, beautiful book. I liked Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, but I loved this novel, which came highly recommended by a friend whose taste I trust. The main character of The Humans is an alien who, for complex reasons, is operating undercover as a human, living among humans and trying to figure out what makes them tick. The novel is funny, sad, poignant and suspenseful — and, much like How to Stop Time, it’s a reflection on what it means to be human. With all our flaws as a species, we know how to love — or at least we try. And for the sake of that, an alien might even be willing to give up perfection.

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Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, by Natalie Goldberg

wholethunderingworldI know Natalie Goldberg best as the author of Writing Down the Bones and other books on writing. In this memoir she talks about something different — how both she and her partner got cancer and went through treatment at the same time. I found it refreshing that someone as notoriously woo-woo as Natalie Goldberg was so clearly dedicated to getting standard medical treatment for her cancer. She details the ups and downs of her illness well, and also explores the stress that both women having cancer put on her relationship with her partner — though I felt the relationship aspect of the story was skimmed over a little lightly, and could have been explored more fully. 

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