Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye

Every once in a great while, I find a book that is a balm for the soul. Simple and elegant, it shows me the wider world without forced drama. It is subtle. Powerful, but in the way a good soak in a hot bathtub is – soothing, strong, and rejuvenating. I hardly ever find stories like it, that just leave me at peace.

Habibi completely took me by surprise. My mother recommended it after she visited Israel in the fall, when I was asking how her impressions of the Middle East aligned with her preconceived notions, but I had forgotten about it. Now my in-laws are getting ready for their own trip to Israel next month, and the very strangeness that they would all be traveling there within a few months of each other, when none had ever been before, made me curious again.

Full disclosure: I love to travel, and have been fortunate enough to visit many countries, as well as to have had the opportunity to briefly lived abroad. When my mother asked me if I would like to come with her on this trip though, I said no. It’s hard to believe, now that she’s back safe and sound, that I didn’t jump at the opportunity, but my entire life has been saturated with the day-to-day tragedies of that region, and I just wasn’t brave enough to visit myself. One of my best friends is Jewish, and is hoping to have the opportunity to visit herself, and she told me, “Israel is not somewhere to go unless your heart really wants it.”

Having read Habibi, I could see how the heart might really want it. I loved Nye’s descriptions of the villages and cities, of the Dead Sea and the Bedouins, of the culture of precarious balance.

“With so much holiness bumping up against other holiness, doesn’t it seem strange Jerusalem would have had so much fighting?” Liyana said. (loc 763)

This novel has a real gentleness to it that isn’t often used when approaching the topic of conflict in Israel. Liyana and her family move from St Louis to her father’s hometown between Jerusalem and Ramallah just as she’s about to begin high school. The frustration in this culture shift is not over-played, and yet Liyana’s loneliness is tangible. The pace of the story – of a girl adjusting to a more conservative culture, to a new language, to a world far from  the neighborhood where she was born, where even the corner grocer knew her by name – is lilting; it almost reads like a diary in verse.

“Liyana, you must be patient. Cultural differences aren’t learned or understood immediately. Most importantly, you must abide by the guidelines where you are living. This is common sense. It will protect you. You know that phrase you always hated—When in Rome, do as the Romans do? You must remember, you are not in the United States.” As if he had to remind her. When she went to bed that night, she pressed her face into the puffy cotton pillow. It smelled very different from the pillows in their St. Louis house, which smelled more like fresh air, like a good loose breeze. This pillow smelled like long lonely years full of bleach. (loc 658)

As she begins to find her place in this new life, I couldn’t help but be sucked into her big, talkative, cheek-kissing family, the tentative friendships she builds with people outside of her Palestinian heritage, the new foods that she lovingly describes.

When you liked somebody, you wanted to trade the best things you knew about. You liked them not only for themselves, but for the parts of you that they brought out. (loc 2680)

I know I’ll still be nervous when our family travels there in a few weeks, but a part of me will also be longing to walk those same streets and see that part of world in a new, richer light.

Naomi Shihab Nye doesn’t appear to have a personal webpage, but plenty of interviews, quotes, letters and poems can be found on the internet.

The Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes

One of the things I’ve discovered about this project, even just these few weeks in, is that I so desperately need two manageable books a week, everything is fair game – that book my husband picked up on a whim at the used book store, the novel my friend’s cousin recommended, a list given to me by a friend who just became a middle school librarian…now that I’ve started asking, it seems like everyone has a book they love that I have to read, and that alone makes this worthwhile. So many well-loved stories crawling out of the woodwork! It’s literary Christmas!

The Ninth Ward is another recommendation from my mother; she was reviewing it for Audiophile magazine and told me the reader was so wonderful that she wasn’t sure if whether that had influenced her opinion on the story itself. Nevertheless, this book did win the Coretta Scott King award, and it’s about Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that significantly affected the first decade of the new millennium, so I decided to give it a try.

Having never been to New Orleans, I don’t believe I can fully appreciate the treasure that was lost when the levees broke, but as a citizen of the world, I can’t help but be drawn to the destruction that has and can be wreaked by nature. I’m fascinated by stories that illustrate how fragile we are as human beings. This unassuming novel does just that.

I think quiet before the storm means it isn’t really quiet. Maybe it means only now you can hear birds flying, forming a V overhead. Or that the air has sound. That it whistles, low and deep, as a storm approaches. Quiet before a storm maybe means folks are done hammering wood across their windows and placing sand sacks beside their front doors. Or maybe it means there’s loneliness. A weird loneliness that is, yet isn’t, real. (loc 1058-1061)

I felt I was walking the streets of Lanesha’s neighborhood with her, slowly being introduced into a world of subsistence living that rises above desperation and instead champions, at its darkest moment, a tenacious twelve-year-old girl.

I wasn’t sure you were going to be all right. The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. Your testing should’ve come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength. (loc 1381-1383)

This story was so well-paced, so captivating, it allowed me to get past the fact that I didn’t love the protagonist’s voice. I doubt it would have worked in a longer novel, or with less compelling material, but I was able to gloss over certain stylistic choices that were made with the dialogue. I don’t argue that it may be realistic, even an appropriate choice, but I suspect The Ninth Ward works better as an audio book in that respect – it’s wonderful to listen to a well-rendered dialect – but reading to myself, it feels…stiff. Unnatural.

My feelings partially come from the recent realization that television, movies, and the internet have largely done away with the subtler dialects in this country. The friends I have from Tennessee or Georgia or Boston or Texas may occasionally slip into local slang, but the cadence of language has largely become homogeneous. Consequently, I can believe the older characters, such as Lanesha’s adopted grandmother, might sound this way, I have a harder time believing children do.

That being said, Rhodes does a wonderful job taking a recent historic event and turning it into a carefully plotted and not at all unbelievable adventure. It’s sweet and sad and frightening, a story the reader can easily imagine playing out a hundred different ways. I particularly loved the development of one of the supporting characters – an odd, isolated neighbor boy who, under just the right circumstances, is able to bring to life that singular essence of friendships in childhood.

He lifts his head and wipes his eyes. He looks far-off. For a minute, I think he’s going to be his quiet old self, and pretend to disappear. Then, he says softly, “Fortitude.” “Strength to endure.”

“That’s right. We’re going to show fortitude.”

TaShon and I scoot closer, our arms and legs touching. I put my arms around him; he puts his arms around me. Neither of us moves. I know we are both thinking, murmuring in our minds, over and over again, “Fortitude. Fortitude. Fortitude.” (loc 1819-1823)

To find out more about Jewell Parker Rhodes, check out http://jewellparkerrhodes.com/

The Freedom Maze, Delia Sherman

Historical fiction is about as likely to find a place onto my bookshelf as a biography about a celebrity or politician, a treatise on war, anything written by Cesar Milan or a fashion magazine (which is to say, not likely At All – I have firm rules about the dryness and maturity of my reading selection). These sorts of books are, to me, the literary version of eating my vegetables – they’re good for me, and on occasion, the right chef can tempt my palate – but I would much rather be bathing in a caramel-coated candy wonderland of witty women and sheepishly well-meaning men. And maybe magic, depending on my mood.

That being said, I am a slave to John Scalzi’s taste, and I put The Freedom Maze on my kindle with the firm belief that I would always have something more entertaining to read. I mean, it’s history, and worse (for a born and bred Northerner, like myself), it’s about the South. How could I possibly find anything redeeming about it?

(In case you don’t know, in New England, we’re brought up with an embarrassingly ignorant sense of our own superiority over people living in The South or That Awful Los Angeles. I really didn’t question it until I moved to That Awful Los Angeles myself and found that it had much to redeem itself. Also, my grandfather’s from Tennessee, not to mention my father-in-law’s family, so it’s hard to completely toe the party line there either…)

Anyway, it really didn’t matter in the least, because I was never going to get around to reading it when I had so many other books to consider….but then I got a new kindle for Christmas, and I wanted to download just about everything I hadn’t read yet, and there was The Freedom Maze, a children’s book I should at least try to read before Black History Month, or at least Martin Luther King Jr Day…

Also, I remembered this excerpt from Sherman’s interview on Scalzi’s “The Big Idea:”

I’d been wanting to write something about a girl who wasn’t perky, who wasn’t resourceful, who wasn’t particularly outgoing, who was shy and reserved and not very worldly.  I’d been a girl like that, and I couldn’t be the only one in the world.  Surely the others would like to read a book where they got to have adventures, too.

And I thought, nobody wants to admit to being that girl – we all want to be the version of ourselves we imagine as we’re falling asleep at night – but in reality, many of us are timid, sheltered, and clueless about what to do if we ended up, without warning, on a plantation in 1860, mistaken for a slave.

Sophie began her third week in the past in a fog of misery. Everything that had been difficult when she’d thought she’d be going home soon got ten times harder as she lost hope. (loc 2546 kindle ed)

This book was a slow starter for me, what with my resistance to learning any more about US history than I absolutely had to cranked to eleven. It wasn’t until I was half-way through that the story finally began to get under my skin. I started to imagine what it might have been like to have read this book when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, learning, as Sherman eloquently put it to Scalzi, “….about how plantations were run and how slaves lived and the lengths men and women who believed themselves to be good Christians and honorable people went to, trying to justify owning other men and women.”

We still live, however much we may deny or ignore it, in a time when skin can denote certain privilege. The whole world has a complicated relationship with race, and with its history and struggles for equality, not just under the law, but in the hearts of all people.  I still remember the uncomfortable itch, while waiting at a train station in rural Japan, of how different I felt, of how people glanced at me out of the corner of their eye, or, in the case of some young children, blatantly examined me – tall, light-haired, blue eyed. It wasn’t  offensive, more an act of curiosity, but it gave me a previously unrealized accounting of how much I took for granted what I had always believed to be the ordinariness of the color of my skin.

Sherman’s book could be, for another child, the same life changing experience as Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment was for me when my teacher first introduced it in the seventh grade. (If you don’t know about this experiment, I recommend Googling Elliott’s work, although I think the reality won’t fully sink unless you’ve experienced it, with all its gut-wrenching, humiliating, humbling realizations.) It’s difficult to teach degradation if you haven’t experienced it, and it’s even harder to imagine that you might be the kind of person who could have owned slaves, or turned Jews over to the Nazis, or subjugated another civilization…unless you start to recognize that the tiniest power over another human being could be intoxicating, might keep you safe, may even go virtually unnoticed by you, the keeper of said power. It’s a slippery slope, but thanks to writers like Sherman, there are places to start regaining and teaching necessary perspective.

For more about Delia Sherman, check her out at: http://www.sff.net/people/kushnerSherman/Sherman/

For more book recommendations/interviews from John Scalzi, go to: http://whatever.scalzi.com/ and search for “The Big Idea”

The Shattering, Karen Healey

I haven’t noticed that I do this as much as an adult, but when I was a kid, and reading a completely engrossing book, I would often find myself, at the end of a chapter, with my face pressed against the pages. It was like I was trying to physically force the words into my body as fast and as hard as was humanly possible. Although I’m sure it’s happened many times since then, I can only clearly remember two occasions in recent history – the first time I read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and yesterday, when I read Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

This is another one of John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” recommended reads (whatever.scalzi.com), and it’s been on the kindle queue for at least two months. I’ve put off reading it because I knew it was a story about a girl whose older brother committed suicide – not exactly the light holiday reading I had been planning on. The protagonist, Keri, is an anxious child growing up to be an anxious woman dealing with a tragedy that she hasn’t figured out how to prepare for:

….it just seemed a good idea to be prepared. I hung a go-bag on my door in case of a fire or an earthquake and put a mini first-aid kit in my backpack, and I rehearsed possible disasters in my head, over and over, until I was sure I knew how to react.

I knew it sounded a little bit crazy, and I stopped telling anyone about it when Hemi Koroheke called me creepy and, with smug emphasis, neurotic, which was our Year Eight Word of the Day. But I did it anyway. I had plans for what eulogy to give if both my parents were hit by a car, how to escape or attract help if I were kidnapped, and how to survive if I were lost in the bush. It wasn’t as if I thought all these things were likely to happen. But I knew they could, and if they did, I wanted to be ready. In the end, it didn’t do me any good. Because I didn’t have a plan for what to do if my older brother put Dad’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toes. 

My mistake. (pg 2-3)

Seeing myself so clearly written across the page was disturbing. My older brother is alive and well, thank goodness, but I don’t know how many times I have done what Keri has – tried to beat back the absolute worst, most terrifying unknowns with careful planning.

Three years ago, at Christmas, I was shopping with my mother at Barnes and Noble. She was looking for a book for my sister-in-law, something with vampires, I believe, in the YA section. I was teaching preschool at the time and had wandered into the parenting section to browse. When my mother came to find me, I was reading the first chapter of a book called How to Raise Your Anxious Child, and I jokingly told her she should have read this before she had either of her children.

Honestly though, I was intrigued – others are out there, I thought, others with these hidden, irrational fears? Of course they are, because none of us are actually alone in our crazy. Each of our crazy is, if not universal, at least shared with some portion of the population. In The Shattering, Healey does a subtly wonderful job of taking my worst nightmare and turning it into a book I wanted to force into my skin.

This is a novel I wish had been written about fifteen years ago. I think I might have become a slightly different person if I had read it then – if I had been forcefully reminded that there’s no way to hold on so tight to the things you hope will never change. That there is no way to be good enough, polite enough, or strong enough to keep bad things from happening. The real story is in how you choose to handle the bad things when they inevitable come…

Check out Karen Healey’s blog and other books at karenhealey.com