The right book at the right time: a mid-month check-in

Closer to the 2/3rd point, really, but who’s counting?

At the 2/3rd point of the month, then, I’ve read 15 books. It’s been a good crop this month. Some stand-outs include:

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton – Strout has been a bit of a hit or miss for me. I loved The Burgess Boys, but was never able to finish the Pulitzer winning Olive Kitteridge. Partially because it was painful in how precisely it cut to the emotional nerve, but also because it was a little slow. My Name is Lucy Barton, a short narrative about the eponymous Lucy and the few days she spends with her mother while she is in the hospital – memory, dysfunction and a sort of bewilderment with the hardness of the world, but also love.

Rainbow Rowell’s Kindred Spiritsanother story about nerds and outcasts from Rowell – two teenagers stand in a Star Wars line. Rowell’s trademark readability, nerd-friendliness, compassion.

Mary Oliver’s Upstream and Why I Wake Earlythe former a curmudgeonly sort of passionate love letter/memoir to nature as temple, church and muse, and the latter a collection of poetry through the natural world. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, it’s so filled with a delight in the world that is forgetful of self.

Nalini Singh’s Silver Silencethe latest in her Psy-Changeling romance series which I am a big fan of. This one…featuring shapeshifting bears!

and the discovery of Mary Balogh!

But really I want to flag up Omar Saif Ghobash’s Letters to a Young Muslim. A few friends have mentioned this year that certain books come to us at exactly the right time – any earlier, and we wouldn’t have appreciated them in the same way, or been ready for them. That’s exactly how I feel about this collection of letters that Ghobash writes to his son, a pilgrimage through his own childhood and relationship with Islam. Even two years ago, I wouldn’t have been – in the right headspace for this. I was reluctant to even read it now, thinking it would be repetitive or preachy – but it isn’t. It sits nicely between being too pro-ijtihad-y and too fiqh-y.

The takeaway for me was the deep, deep necessity of not abdicating intellectual, emotional, spiritual responsibility to the care of others, or to signs from the universe in the guise of “listening to Allah.” We must, must continue to strive and work for our own answers, and take ownership of our own choices and decisions. During difficult times in my life, I have often prayed for signs of some kind, desperate to be told what to do. When these have not been forthcoming, I have been content to go where the wind takes me in lieu of taking the reins and thinking through decisions whole-heartedly, whole-headedly.  Trusting to circumstance instead of taking a deep breath and making a decision. My own decision, my own accountability, my own acceptance of the outcome.

There is seeking advice, and there is redha and tawwakkal, of course – but in every person’s life, there is a moment when you must say, this is the decision I will make. The capacity to think rationally, and to be morally courageous enough to step forward and accept the outcome, whatever it may be…this must be the true goal in an uncertain life. What is the right thing to do? is a difficult question to answer sometimes – but always waiting for someone else to answer it for you is not the way forward, and is not always the way to God. Take a breath, say a prayer, and take that step.

Some moments in the book:

  • I also realized that intense repentance and compensating for sins with greater piety could be just as destructive as the original errors […] I want you and your generation to know that repentance should not be self-torture. Regret should not overwhelm you and force you into another form of intensity. Intensity distorts reality. And Islam in its essence is against the distortion of intensity.
  • Who has the right to talk about Islam? You will discover lots of people telling you what to do and when to do it. I want you to be polite, but demand respect for your mind and independence of will. If what someone tells you sounds convincing, ask more questions. In today’s world, take more than a step back. There are many things to consider. Stay strong and do not hand your fate to others.
  • If we are to work on combating this type of distortion of Islam, then we need to spend the time also working out in words, both spoken and written, the philosophical and theological arguments for a wholesome Islam. We need to fill the world of Islam with works of literary fiction that allow us to empathize with one another, and give words to our feelings.
  • Growing up, before Facebook, the advice I would often hear was to “be yourself”. This advice is powerful but empty at the same time. Had I known what “myself” was, it would have been easier to be it. The advice may be better expressed: find yourself, look for yourself, discover yourself, shape yourself, fill the gaps of yourself, draw clearer lines around the areas of yourself that you recognize, discipline yourself, and test yourself.
  • It may be true that the greatest sacrifice that a person can make is to give his life for a cause. But it is not the most difficult sacrifice a person can make. The more difficult and perhaps more valuable sacrifice a person can make is to face the complexity of modern life and live life to its fullest–morally, spiritually and socially.
  • This is perhaps the key weakness that we need to tackle. Do our Islamic role models lock us out of the modern world, or can they allow us into the modern world?
  • There is one unfortunate model that has survived through the centuries: the warrior. When I think back to the lessons we would receive in our Islamic history classes, I remember very clearly the lists of battles that we would have to memorize […if] you want to be true to your Muslim heritage, then you need to explore its history properly. You and your generation need to study it and realize that Islam was never a one-dimensional army of fanatical recruits for war, as we are told by those who seem to speak the loudest. Islam was a vibrant, exciting, intellectually adventurous, and logically rigorous religion. It was a religion of life and growth. It was a religion of worship and the world.
  • Freedom is a good that is preserved and defended because it places individual responsibility at the heart of society. Freedom is not presented as a gift to self-destruct of to engage in immoral acts out of principle. Freedom is a gift to use your will and perception to impose a moral structure on yourself. Without the freedom to choose our path, we are morally crippled.
  • There is no knowledge that is wrong. Only knowledge that is difficult, troubling, enlightening, liberating and intoxicating.
  • If this basic respect that any human being deserves became more widespread, then perhaps we would not witness the awful cases of sexual harassment that we have heard of in the Muslim world. If we were true to our moral code of respect for the inviolability of women’s dignity, then we would not violate their dignity when they are strangers to us.
  • […] in constructing my father, I was constructing myself. In imagining my father’s life and behavior, I was also imagining what kind of model I wanted to follow for myself. I remember clearly thinking of this process as bootstrapping a father role model out of my imagination and a few threadbare facts.

It was exactly the book I needed to read this Ramadhan. The friend who lent her copy to me, J, says that If Oceans Were Ink is a good accompaniment to this one, but in the meantime, she passed me Balli Kaur Kaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows. Ramadhan reads, eh.

Three books to go to hit my June goal of 18!

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