Middle Eastern Journeys, Pt. 1
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The staff book group at Williamsburg Regional Library met today to discuss books with Middle Eastern and South Asian settings. Over a great potluck lunch of Mexican food (our meeting was originally scheduled for Cinco de Mayo but got postponed) our readers pulled out their usual variety of interesting choices.
Laurie from Youth Services had a book of Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s poems. 19 Varieties of Gazelle blends the personal with the political, with poems that describe on a personal level what it’s like to be a Palestinian or an Arab-American. There’s a great sense of family, of food, of the lives of regular people caught in the tides of political events in which they have no part. I had the opportunity to see Nye read her work years ago, and can attest to the power of her work, even for readers who don’t normally choose poetry.
Barbara from our Outreach Division makes a point of reading some of the authors her older patrons frequently request, so her choice was The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. This follow-up to the series starter The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax finds the sweet but sly grandmother called back by the CIA for another mission, this time in Turkey. With exotic settings, gentle humor, and cozy crime, this series has been drawing fans for years.
Lisa from Technical Services sampled two young adult novels this month. Karma, by Cathy Ostlere, is a novel in verse that follows young Canadian Maya as she travels to India with her Sikh father after her Hindu mother commits suicide. Unfortunately, they arrive on the day Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984. Her father disappears and Maya narrowly escapes a burning hotel and a train attack before waking up mute. Her doctor puts Maya in the care of her younger brother Sandeep, and as the two begin a journey in search for Maya’s father, they find romance. Maya rediscovers her voice as she seeks some compromise in the violent clash between the two halves of her heritage. It’s a big book, but it reads quickly because of the verse format and the many events in Ostlere’s bustling plot.
Lisa’s second book was Beneath My Mother’s Feet, by Amjed Qamar. It’s the story of a Pakistani girl whose comfortable world is torn apart when her father takes a workplace injury as an excuse to to become an invalid and her mother is forced to take a low-caste job cleaning houses. Her older brother runs away, reappearing only to steal occasionally from the family, and soon Nazia is forced into the housecleaning work as well. While this books is particularly hard on Pakistani men, Lisa liked its tough portrayal of the plight of women in an Islamic culture and the courage of Nazia as she tries to retain her dreams and help a servant boy.
My choice for the meeting was How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a graphic memoir by Sarah Glidden. The author mixes her personal experiences of a Birthright Israel bus tour with a history of Israel and its conflict with Arab neighbors since becoming a nation-state. Glidden’s emotional hand-wringing becomes a bit tiresome at times, and I find myself wanting to yell “It’s not about you,” but she is good at recreating the mixed experience of traveling with strangers who each bring their own conceptions, hang-ups, and quirks to the journey. This is a good primer for those unfamiliar with Israeli history.
I’ll return to our meeting with a second post next week, describing the choices of the rest of our readers.