Some Muslim fiction

Some Muslim fiction I’ve read recently

Ayisha Malik, The Other Half of Happiness

I had a tough time with this one, partially because of my expectations. I think this was a real-world reminder of something I teach in my Popular Fiction class – that genre expectations are important and have a particular impact on how we read fiction! Because Sofia Khan is Not Obliged had ended so happily (although several friends scoffed at the “realism” of the ending, I had had no trouble accepting it) – I approached The Other Half of Happiness with the expectation that an HEA (Happily Ever After) was imminent. In other words, I approached The Other Half as a romance, instead of as contemporary fiction. Mistaaaaaaaaake.

I got a tremendously sinking feeling in my tummy for the first 50 pages, and I couldn’t deal with it for a bit, so I put it aside. When I came back to it again, I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions, swallowed hard, then went on Sofia’s journey with her. So I’m not far enough away from the story and my own dashed expectations to form an objective opinion of this second book yet.

Leila Aboulela, The Translator

I liked The Minaret, another novel of Aboulela’s, about a newly practising, “downwardly mobile” Sudanese emigrant to the UK, but wasn’t sure about the writing. So again, The Translator was a book I started, left off, and came back to after about a year. It follows the love affair between the widowed Sudanese translator Sammar, and the Scottish academic Rae Isles, who is an expert on Middle Eastern politics and the Muslim world.

I liked this a lot more than The Minaret, and I thought it maintained a nice balance between an “Islamic” message, and the integrity of the story.

Na’ima Robert, She Wore Red Trainers

This YA/NA novel is touted as a “halal” love story, and I like Na’ima Robert’s work elsewhere – I’ve written for SISTERS magazine, and From My Sisters’ Lips was one of the first compilations of Muslim women’s voices I ever read. I remember reading it standing up in the Borders in York. Funny story – a couple of years ago, I wrote an abstract about it, and when it came time to write the paper, I realized that I’d written it from memory, and that I didn’t actually have the book. I had to borrow it from a friend of a friend.

Funnier ending: a few months after that, I was cleaning up my bookshelves and I realized that I did in fact have it.

I was sort of reluctant to read Robert’s fiction, because I’d read From Somalia with love, another of her YA novels, and I remembered it being very heavy handed.

Anyway She Wore Red Trainers was much lighter in touch, and was a really quick read. The halal love story of Ali Jordan, a posh mixed race Hertfordshire boy, who has just come back to Islam after his mother’s death, and Londoner Amirah, who had a wild one week as a teenager and is now fully practicing. They’re both school leavers waiting for their A-level results.

Robert has said in interviews that she doesn’t want to glamorize sin, which I suppose accounts for why Ali and Amirah’s sinful pasts are glossed over in favour of their halal presents. Their struggles to be good are in fact a nice insight into contemporary Muslim lives, and not as overwrought, angsty or preachy as they might have been.

At one point, Ali’s younger brother says to Ali – you got the good school, the girls, you got to have fun – I just get the religious father without the fun. This sort of hit home with me – sin is fun, even if it is a hollow kind of fun, and religious, halal alternatives to haram fun are…hard to make appealing when your environment, the media, your friends, all model haram-ish behaviours as aspirational. The novel doesn’t shy away from that fact.

I’m on holiday! (Ish) Looking forward to catching up with some reading. I’m at 9 books for the month, so need to power through 3 more this week to hit my monthly target.

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dystopian futures, difficult reads: Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Some books you just shouldn’t re-read, because they were heartbreaking enough the first time.

Sometimes people ask me for tips on reading more. Sometimes I tell them to remember that reading isn’t always fun. I think if you go into reading regularly with this in mind, it’s easier to keep going when the pages are hard, when there is very little time, when the words themselves hurt.

Sometimes reading is fun. And sometimes it’s difficult. And like many difficult things, it is worth it, but it is also work.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a prime reminder of that to me, this Sunday. I assigned it to my students and so I had to re-read it myself. I remember it as being beautiful and terrible, and it is – I had forgotten just how terrible it was until I began re-reading it. From the first page, my heart was not my own, and the words made of it a twisted and painful lump, working it as relentlessly as time, as hope, as love.

That is all.

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March round-up

Hello April! I am definitely looking forward to you.

Overview

I struggled with reading this month, capping out at 12 books, which is about a book every 2.5 days. I’m not exactly sure why – there was plenty of stuff I was excited about reading, but also it did feel consciously like a chore this month. Last year in March I read 18 books, so I’m reluctant to say it’s a work cycle thing, although I have felt busier than usual at work this month.

Thanks to my January binge, though, I’m still ahead of where I was last year. By this time last year, I’d read 44 books – this year, I’m at 46. I’m not so concerned with numbers as with enjoyment, however.

Other Numbers

3 books by male authors

1 comic anthology

1 work of translation

3 books feat. Muslim sightings (this may be a new tag of mine heh “muslim sightings” as opposed to “muslim fiction”. my dorkiness is keen to see how i get on with this.)

Books of Note

I’ve already recapped most of the books of note I read this month here  and here – but here are a few others I haven’t mentioned:

Fresh Romance Vol I – a comic? Graphic novel? Set of short stories? I’m not sure how to categorize this, although Amazon tells me its an anthology of romance comics. It was interesting. I’m not sure if I’m just confused because I’m not used to this format, but I feel like these were snippets of stories and I should probably read the rest of the comics.

Herman Koch The Dinner a translation from the Dutch, this was written by an actor, and kept getting weirder and creepier as the pages crept by. Over the course of a dinner at a pretentious restaurant, two brothers and their wives talk/don’t talk about their criminal sons.

Hollie Overton Baby Doll This read like a retelling of Emma Donoghue’s Room, but with multiple perspectives in place of just the child’s one. Plus twins, which automatically ups creepy factor by roughly x3.

Other Things

  1. Please come back reading mojo – I’m halfway through a dystopian romance at the moment, and am really enjoying it, so hopefully April is already off to a good start!
  2. I am super excited for all the reading challenges happening around me – a lot of my friends have committed to a book a week, 50 books this year, 4 books by the end of May, etc and look well on their way to accomplishing their goals. Bonus: loads of book recommendations for meeeeeee.
  3. Love following publishers and pretty-photos-of-books people on IG. So pretty, but question: why do they all seem to have cosy white fluffy duvets (and equally cosy looking thick socks!) and tiny perfect flower buds lying around to style their flatlays with? I’m living my booklyfe wrong.
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Feminist Book Club: Sofia Khan is Not Obliged

Yesterday the feminist book club met up for the fourth month in a row, yay! This time at Rack and Brew in Gadong, to eat fries and soft shell crab kolomee, drink green tea and ginger bread lattes, and to discuss Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan is Not Obliged. I’ve talked about this book previously here, and it was great to hear what other people thought about it and remember parts I’d forgotten or hadn’t thought about!

Interesting fact: one book club member picked up the sequel, The Other Half of Happiness, in Singapore last week, while those of us who were relying on Amazon noted that both the .com and the .co.uk had the sequel coming out on April 6th for Kindle.

There were a lot of conversations going on yesterday, here are some of the ones I remember:

  1. Polygamy – its practice, issues of consent and cultural acceptability, how it’s been misunderstood/misappopriated/abused as a practice and ideology, the burgeoning Western interest in and acceptance of polyamory. How do we understand ideas of love, HEAs?
  2. Feminism in Bruneian classrooms! With a few teachers in our midst, it’s always fascinating to hear about how they approach the topic, the kind of kick-back they get, the resources they use (Trevor Noah included). Of particular interest, what kind of feminist role models work in the Bruneian context? The Nicki Minaj model is so linked to a particular kind of sexual revolution and freedom that it’s hard to get students to connect; Emma Watson was flagged up, Noor Tagouri —
  3. Conversely, local issues like domestic abuse, the local, cultural and religious valorization of motherhood and housewives (clause: at the expense of other choices) the insistence by local men and women that feminism isn’t needed in Brunei – signalling a societal/cultural reluctance and resistance to feminism as ideology, in part because of the perceived dissonance between —
  4. Feminism and (acceptable, normative) femininities – bra-burning, man-hating, books like The Power (which might be our July read!), strident femininities versus soft-spoken, tudong-wearing Muslimah femininity.
  5. A question came up – one member was slightly incredulous – do women generally really feel fearful when walking down streets, getting catcalled, etc? I can’t speak for others, but I certainly feel uneasy, and am made aware of the threat that exists. I don’t know if I’d say I’m fearful exactly, but I’m always always aware that there is potential for fear.
  6. Comedy as a vehicle for boundary pushing, esp in regards to the previous night’s Bruhaha event.
  7. Book wise – The Hole in the Wall. How did everybody picture it? Some did a semi-detached house, another did a food hatch in the wall, yet another said doorway with beaded strings hanging over it.
  8. The various male heroes in the novel – Naim, Imran, Abid, Conall – how they matched up with Bridget Jones heroes, and who was able to predict from the start that Conall was the Real Romantic Hero? (I didn’t! How how!)

These are only the conversations I remember and which I was able to listen in on – I’m sure others went on around me that I missed out on! (At one point one member and I were discussing Buzzfeed and local digital platform Muslyfe so I’m sure similar tangents were happening around us.)

Our chosen book for April is Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. Looking forward to it. I’ll close out this post with my favourite thing, a pie chart estimating how we spend our time during book club. Disclaimer: probably only about 50% accurate.

book club pie chart

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Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie meet Muslims: Helen Simonson and “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”

The cover on my Kindle version of Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is truly atrocious. So atrocious that I’m actually going to share a picture of it with you.

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Why so bland and anonymous?

Anyway, for comparison’s sake, I’m also going to share pictures of what versions of the cover actually exist below. I love ebooks, but I do hate what they’re doing to the art of cover art.

This book was a mad mad read. It’s set in present-day Britain, and in this small countryside village, Edgecombe St Mary, in the south of England. It’s about this retired British colonel widower who falls in love with the widowed Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Ali, and the fall-out.

Basically, you know how in Agatha Christie’s murders one of the characters is always a bluff old retired military colonel who bumbles about with a red face and tells stories about his time in India? This is like if Christie’s Colonel was transplanted to present-day England and then fell in love with a Muslim. (Others have also noted the Christie links.)

Major Pettigrew is basically one of Christie’s colonels. He lives alone, has family connections to India (his grandfather had a hand in Partition), oils and waxes his guns, believes in England. He’s quite touching, very likeable, but also you can see how his environment has shaped him.

Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge, and is yet still viewed as an outsider to the small English town, who persists in viewing her as foreign. So the novel is also sort of like, if one of those Enid Blyton boarding school books, suddenly had to deal with a Pakistani Muslim. So you know how in St Clare’s, I think, or Mallory Towers, there were these two token foreigners, Claudine and Carlotta? And Claudine was this French girl who was always using her feminine French wiles to get her way, and being a slippery French eel because she didn’t have a British sense of honour because she was French? And Carlotta was half-Spanish, and so of course she was always doing cartwheels spontaneously and her gypsy past was always alluded to, and she was always slapping people with her fiery eyes and her hot temper because she was half-Spanish? Because in Blyton’s world nationalities dictate personalities? This is sort of how the ladies society in Edgecombe St. Mary in the novel views Mrs. Ali.

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MPLS_v1

Why didn’t you give me these covers, Kindle? I AM mad though.

So the fall-out when the Major and Mrs. Ali fall in love is kind of amazing. This is a super fun, super mad novel, and exactly as satisfying as I, a Muslim, long time lover of Christie and Blyton, might have imagined.

The supporting cast is also fantastic. Major P’s son, Roger, is hilariously mercenary, and there’s a touching recurring theme of Major P wondering about his fitness as a father, and a brother.

There’s an American businessman who again, in his crassness, and Major P’s horrified reactions to his crassness, might have been drawn straight from Christie.

Mrs. Ali’s pious, guilt-stricken nephew Abdul Wahid is mostly hilarious for his interactions with Major P, who doesn’t quite know how to deal with this sour young man who reads the Qur’an, but is also oh so typically grumpy, disenfranchised, and convinced of his own correctness in the way of young men everywhere.

And Grace. Oh Grace. And Alice. The Major’s well-meaning and quite mad neighbours.

I actually had been looking at Simonson’s latest novel, The Summer Before The War, but saw this synopsis and had to read it. I remember seeing this everywhere in bookstores a few years ago, but never picked it up because it looked a little kitschy. So I’m very late to this party, but I’m so glad I came.

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getting back into the reading groove

I went on a tiny bit of an Amazon binge a few days ago. I’d been coming across reviews of NEW stuff that looked really awesome, and since I’ve still been struggling out of my reading rut, I decided to bite the bullet. So here’s some good stuff I’ve read recently:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I liked The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but found it ultimately forgettable. The premise of Exit West sounded great though! All around the world doors are opening, doors that are portals to other cities. This has a lot of ramifications for immigration, refugeeism, “nativism”. Exit West follows a young Middle-Eastern couple, Saeed and Nadia, who choose to leave their war-torn country for the unknown.

While the portal stuff is speculative, the deeper human story about migration, what we give up when we choose to leave our first home and families, what we gain, grounds the text.

It’s tender, elegiacal, quiet. Well worth a read.

Tom Sawyer Abroad by Mark Twain. I am a big fan of Twain, but I never re-read the Tom Sawyer Huck Finn stuff after school. I love the retelling of Adam and Eve, the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – those, to me, are quintessential Twain, so funny and so American. It’s so funny to me that Twain and Edith Wharton lived in the same time, sort of. Anyway, Tom Sawyer Abroad sees Tom set off on a hot-air balloon around the world, with Jim and Huck by his side. They infuriate him with their small-town narrow-mindedness and arguments, and they end up in the Sahara desert, and then in Egypt, and see the pyramids and “Mohammedans”. Jim is still a problematic figure.

As always with Twain, there’s a vein of heart, and Huck Finn is the perfect narrator for this story, he’s so cute and generous and big-hearted, you just want to cuddle him and say yes, yes, you’re right, different time zones don’t make sense Huck, here’s a corn cob and a lion burger.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. This was so good! There’s a Dragon in the village, but the Dragon is a wizard and he doesn’t kill girls, he just takes one every ten years and then he frees them. Because it’s bad but not that bad, the villagers turn a blind eye. This year, everyone expects him to take Kasia, who is beautiful and clever and good, but instead he takes Agnieszka…

This was such a fun fantasy! It reminded me of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and The Magicians, in that it was so much more about human relationships, and petty wizards, and flawed people, and people who rise above. Technically this is high fantasy, because it’s set in a secondary world, but it’s not epic and remote, and the world isn’t hard to get to grips with.

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs. The latest in the Mercy Thompson series, which is about shapeshifters and alliances etc etc. I just really enjoy this series, and I enjoyed this latest addition to it.

No pictures with this post right now, because these were all Kindled (I really need to up my book/Kindle styling/flatlay game!). Lined up I have Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Am excited! Have done 6 books so far this month, and finally feel like I’ve crested my reading slump and can see the Valley of Good Things to Read below!

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February round-up

February started out really slow, reading-wise. It’s a short month, and I spent a lot of time with a goblin, and I finished writing, editing and submitting two manuscripts and so my brain was fried, and then I got sick – the kind of sick where I couldn’t read or watch TV cause my head was pounding so hard whenever I was awake. So 10 days from the end of the month, I’d still only read 3 books, and I wasn’t feeling very motivated to read any more.

Normally I get myself out of these reading funks by switching books, which is why I’m definitely an advocate for having a ton of different kinds of reading material in your TBR pile. Reading slumps aren’t generally solved by worthy, serious epics. They’re solved by light, teasing reads which coax you into warming up those reading muscles so you can then jump into heavier, more difficult things. Reading slumps are solved by YA fiction, is what I’m saying.

Last February, I read 16 books. This February, I read 12. Which, considering I didn’t really get going until the 17th, isn’t too bad! 1 graphic novel, which also doubles as my first translated book for the year, 2 male authors, keeping female writing pretty high for the year.

Some recommended reads from February

Katherine Arden The Bear and the Nightingale -draws on Russian folklore and fairytales, and is frosty and edgy and deft.

Riad Sattouf The Arab of the Future 2 – a graphic memoir on growing up in Syria in the 1980s, darkly humorous, dark, relevant.

Meg Wolitzer The Ten Year Nap – on careers after motherhood. I’ve been a fan of Wolitzer since The Interestings – this wasn’t my favourite of her novels, but it was pretty good.

Neil Gaiman The View from the Cheap Seats – non-fiction, inspiring, expansive, generous.

ed. Manjula Martin Scratch: Writers, money and the art of making a living – for anyone who’s ever tried to reconcile making art and retirement savings.

Reading Count for the year so far: 34 books. If I keep this rate up (unlikely, to be honest), I’m looking at 204 books this year.

For now, I’m on holiday! Which means plenty of time to read only fun things, attempt to take good artsy pictures of books, and stuff my suitcase with a few more hard copies during layovers. Onward into March!

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