A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi


Narratives on religion and the implications of shifting blame have been written time and time again. But what is extraordinary about Tahereh Mafi’s brainchild is the brandishing of a character, a 16 year old American girl of Iranian descent, whose integrity is questioned simply because she happened to exist in a time rife with terrorism and extremism. Before 9/11, Shirin led a relatively more peaceful life. But ever since the heinous incident set the world against those of Islamic faith, she too has been marked as the harbinger of all evil. She can’t set foot in public without having to hear racist slurs thrown her way, and for what? Choosing to display her religious inclination without fear?

Told from the point of view of a person of color, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is more than a YA romance. In all its honesty, it brings to us the extremely fickle nature of high school hierarchies. Even the hypocrisies that underlie societal behavior towards men and women of similar backgrounds is seen in the novel. It is apparent in the way Shirin and her brother, Navid are treated. While she is constantly battling remarks like, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?”, he receives no such flak for being a Muslim. That begets the question, are symbols of diversity what propel people into deepening cultural barriers. Simply because Shirin chooses to wear her hijab and be empowered by it, she seems to remind everyone of her “otherness”. Moreover, the interactions, that Tahereh Mafi puts to paper in this book, are appalling enough to make you wonder if people are so blinded by fear as to fuel a fascist society.

Some of the things I really appreciated about this book is the inclusion of Persian words and a passing mention to a learning disability. You don’t really find that a lot in books. I was really pleased to read about a family that hadn’t allowed modernization to scrape away at their roots and traditions. The author’s writing style is crisp and straight forward. Shirin’s voice appears to be blunt at first, but her increased attachment to Ocean thaws her resolve and by the end of the book, her personality changes a bit.

One of my biggest pet peeves with regards to stories is having a character make sacrifices on the behalf of another (for the betterment of another) and I was quite afraid that was going to happen in the book. While Ocean is an incredibly supportive and open-minded character, it was Shirin’s story that appealed to me more; her struggles and her opinions. All in all, I would definitely recommend reading this book for the sake of the themes it juggles with, not necessarily for the love story aspect of it.

★★★★

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Book Review — Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Inspired by Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire shows us the plight of a family embroiled in modern day politics and Islamophobia. Isma Pasha has been a second mother to her siblings after the demise of their parents. But her decision to move to America marks the beginning of the disintegration of their family. The twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, find their paths diverging as he gets roped into joining the Islamic State, while trying to follow in his father’s footsteps. Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, this novel brings up compelling truths about human vulnerabilities and manipulation.

This was one of those award winning books that I was slightly more hesitant to pick up, because it was apparent that it tackled a serious issue, one that wouldn’t allow for an “enjoyable” reading experience, in a matter of speaking. I couldn’t smile or laugh my way through the 260 pages that it took for the author to convey the story. Once I began reading it, my hesitation proved to have been not baseless. The writing style of the author just wasn’t for me and quite often, I found my attention diverted by the flowery language. A few portions of the book felt draggy and extremely slow. So while the book on the whole wasn’t one of my favorites, I cannot deny the power that the story in itself carries. It depicts to us the gradual process of breaking down someone’s mental faculties to such an extent that they become open to any kind of suggestion. And how easy it is then to channel their inner rage or turmoil into making them do questionable things.

The book is split into different sections, wherein the story is told from the point of view of different characters. I liked that about the novel. Since it is not written from first person perspective of these characters, I didn’t feel one with the book as I usually do in the case of books with such strong themes. But I was so astonished by Parvaiz’s decisions that it pained me to read about him. If I had to pick a part of the book that had been done well, I would choose the section about Parvaiz. What I would commend the author for is taking up such a prevalent topic and spinning a story around it in such a way that you cannot ignore what’s going on in the book. Overall, I would say that this is an integral read because of its premise, but I wasn’t a fan of the writing style.

What do you get out of this book? Insight into how young men and women get persuaded to join terrorist forces and how their families and loved ones get affected by their drastic choice.

Book Review — Jasmine Days by Benyamin

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Jasmine Days tells the story of Sameera as she gets accustomed to living in a Middle Eastern city with her father and relatives. This shift away from home and her new job as an RJ brings her closer to assimilating with people of different backgrounds. Her friendships take on new definition when the city gets torn apart by religious conflicts. In this contemporary fiction, the author draws up a raw and gritty picture of the effects of communal tension and violence.

 

This novel surpassed my expectations and grew on me rather quickly with its unusual style of narrative and the subject matter it dealt with. Politics and religion are not themes that make for an easy read, but Jasmine Days has the power to keep you hooked to its pages. The apprehensions of being an outsider, the inevitable culture shock and the patriarchal notions concerning gender roles are all aspects of the plot seen through Sameera’s perspective. The style of writing in this translated work is crisp and not flowery. Many disjointed events and instances are strung together to form the overall story. There are no chapters, only subheadings within broad sections.

In a way of recounting incidents that gave rise to the growing rivalry between communities, the novel draws your attention towards the Arab Spring. Themes of corruption, religious intolerance, women’s rights and protest culture are explored in this novel. It also addresses the topic of media transparency during conflicts; how people in power become gatekeepers of news. There are a lot of characters in this novel, only a couple of which take precedence over the others. Sameera has firm opinions about what’s right or wrong, she enjoys music and has never really considered what her religious identity might mean on a larger scale. Jasmine Days brings out the jarring truth about revolts; how innocent people have to bear the brunt of the actions of a few. I CANNOT STRESS THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS BOOK ENOUGH. Highly recommend reading it!!

What do you get out of it? A moving story about individuals caught in an uprising, not knowing if they are safe within their own homes.

Ratings – 4.25 out of 5 stars

Thank you Juggernaut for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review.

Book Review — Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

Just when Michael thought that they were done with the whole packing up and leaving, his parents announce otherwise. Now, he has to attend St. Clare’s Catholic School, which isn’t exactly the best place to be for an atheist like him. His presumptions of everyone being uptight and religious are flung out the window, when he gets initiated into a secret club called Heretics Anonymous. Even within the austere boundaries of this school, there exists a group of students who choose to have differing beliefs and aren’t ready to get brainwashed by the system. But when Michael takes it all a step too far, he jeopardizes everything he has worked to build.

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10 points for that cover!

What started out as a hilarious book soon turns into a bit of a serious read and rightly so. Michael’s wit and sarcasm will surely make you crack up at times. There’s such honesty in his thoughts. But underlying all that bravado you get the sense of boy flailing at his inability to stay rooted to a place, and therefore distraught by the constant disruption in his life. This is Katie Henry’s debut novel and I must admit that she has crafted a remarkable storyline. With everything that’s going on in our world, religious intolerance is something that has been cause for concern for a long time now. But do we ever stop to think how children perceive themselves through a religious angle, how do they fit into all this?

In this novel, it is very refreshing to see teenagers who are not only well informed about their choices but also standing up for their beliefs, however different they may be. When Michael joins Heretics Anonymous, he is met with a broad range of thought processes; those belonging to a Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan, a Catholic Christian and others that I hadn’t even heard about. The author’s writing complements the story, in that, you feel like you’ve been taken back to your school days. It’s not wordy or hard to digest. It has everything a high-school fiction usually does – drama, betrayal, romance (puppy love?), rebelling. But on top of all that, it has some mature viewpoints too!

Michael’s relation with his father is strained but I couldn’t help feeling bad for them both. In my opinion, they are both right on their part. I just wish that they’d talked it out sooner, because it would’ve prevented a lot of negativity. I didn’t personally connect with any of the characters, but that didn’t deter me from being invested in their story. In conclusion, I did enjoy reading this book, even though I couldn’t understand the hype. If you are the kind of person who gets easily offended by religious and spiritual diversity, maybe this book is not for you. But I hope that’s not true. I hope you can pick up a book like this in good faith and just have fun reading it.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? New perspective on religious identities and all the excitement of attending high-school.

Thank you HarperCollins for this eARC via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review — Dreamers by Snigdha Poonam

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Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers brings to light the struggles and aspirations of the Indian youth. In a society that is brimming with job seekers, the paucity of employment propels these young Indians into doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. Filled with political stances and the desire to break through the gateway of modernism, this book brings to us the stories of individuals who refuse to back down.

When I heard about this book, I had a slightly different picture in mind; one of a dramatized version of what the youth in India are upto, in order to achieve their dreams. As I began reading this book, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to finish it because of the overwhelmingly detailed content. But the more I read, the more I wanted to know about where India was headed, in terms of the mentality of its youth, their actions. The author’s writing style is commendable. She writes very eloquently, in a non-judgmental manner. Themes of religion, bigotry, woman empowerment, violence, technology and modernism are highlighted throughout this tome.

Something that irked me about this book was that I felt it was not really inclusive. In the sense that it doesn’t draw a fair picture of the youth of India. A majority of the stories were about men (I don’t have a problem with men and neither is this about feminism. So don’t misconstrue my words.) and then, none of the stories covered the southern states of India, or even the East. I agree that it must have been extremely difficult to seek out youngsters from different parts of India. But for equal representation, it would have been nice to know about individuals from different backgrounds. Some of the stories and morals that come to our attention when reading this book concerned me a great deal, because it unearthed the face of a highly intolerable and prejudiced future. While it’s important to be aware of that, it doesn’t color my opinion of everyone below the age of 25 years. This book has just equipped me with the affirmation that we are a fierce bunch, ready to do whatever it takes to fulfill our goals. All in all, I would recommend Dreamers to those who enjoy nonfiction and are interested in the subject matter.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? An indepth glance at some of the mindsets that are the future of our country.

Thank you Penguin India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review — Mothering a Muslim by Nazia Erum

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Mothering a Muslim by Nazia Erum is a nonfiction that explores the extent of Islamophobia in Indian society by bringing to light horrid instances of bullying and discrimination of Muslim children in schools. As a Muslim mother, Nazia gives voice to the woes of other Muslim women who are caught in the predicament of owning upto their religious identity or hiding it for fear of being considered to be extremists. She reaches out to children, teachers and parents alike, who have been impacted/ involved in the misleading stereotypes and negative bias associated with Muslims. Over the course of her book, the author draws from various sources the heartrending conclusion that even today, there’s a great deal of animosity surrounding religious communities and more often than not, innocent children are dragged into the aftermath of a verbal bloodbath.

This review will not be a comment on the superiority of any religion, rather it takes into consideration the effect that negative bias has on children. The author’s writing style is punctuated by her desire to get a point across to her readers. She writes in a very collected and matter-of-fact manner. It’s a short book, one that you can finish in less than half a day. Although Nazia incorporates the stories of many families in her narrative, on a molecular level, they are just that – individually recounted instances of bullying and prejudice. Sometimes I wished that they were more seamlessly embedded into a story format. But I understand why it’s important to point out facts pertaining to a prevalent issue in the way she has.

The people featured in this book come from all walks of life. The schools mentioned are a good mix of popular and less-heard-of institutions. All of what’s said in this book is very saddening. What bothers me the most is the fact that children, who don’t even understand the basics of politics and power play, get treated harshly by others; and that too on the basis of what they hear in their homes. Bullying is a very sensitive topic and we don’t get into the details as much, but it’s evident from the children’s inability to grasp the reality of their situation. All in all, it’s not a pleasant picture. But it’s one that must be acknowledged for sure, so that we as a society can come together and remedy the evils that threaten to disintegrate us. I would definitely recommend this book to others so that they can get an understanding of one side of the story.

Ratings – 3.5 out of 5 stars

What do you get out of it? – A disheartening glance at the complexities of having an Muslim identity in today’s world.

Thank you Juggernaut for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review — The Sacred Sword by Hindol Sengupta

Thank you Penguin Random House India for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

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Summary – The Sacred Sword chronicles the rise of Guru Gobind Singh, a Sikh warrior to be reckoned with. At the prime age of 9 years, Gobind Rai’s childhood came crashing down when his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was assassinated by the Mughals. In order to restore the Sikh faith in the minds of thousands of people, Gobind assumes the position of guru and begins to train villagers. He builds the Khalsa, a group of extraordinary warriors who mirror the values of Sikhism and fight to defend its honor. Despite all of his successes, the northern kings underestimate his power, plotting with Emperor Aurangzeb to defeat the guru. But they too learn by experience, what it is to cross Guru Gobind Singh. Hindol Sengupta’s novel merges history and fiction to create an empowering tale.

Review – Historical fiction is one of my all time favourite genres. I have never read anything by Hindol Sengupta, so this one was a pleasant surprise. Even though the author forewarns us that there’s a good mixture of fiction in the novel, I found myself rooted to the spot with all of the events I was learning about. I have never been exposed to stories about the Sikh community. And I felt like this book was great in conveying their values, mannerisms and other sensibilities. The fact that their sayings or proverbial phrases were even translated in English was a wonderful addition. You get to understand their religious texts and their perspective about God. Naturally, religion is a major theme in this novel. It poses quite a few questions about the clashing of two religions. In light of their outlook, you find yourself evaluating certain perspectives of yours. Further, the novel also explores elements like war, blind faith etc.

The writing style is refreshing and vivid. For a majority of the novel, I was so inspired by the portrayal of Guru Gobind Singh that I could almost imagine myself as a character in the story. Aurangzeb’s depiction did him no good. I wanted to punch him every time his narcissistic persona made an appearance. The battle scenarios were invigorating to say the least. All those who aren’t familiar with Hindi or Punjabi terms, fear not; there’s a sizable glossary at the end. While the story reflects Guru Gobind Singh’s expertise, we are not made privy to how he became so well versed. I would have liked to know about his upbringing and training. That would have made the story more realistic. Some of the poetry included is truly splendid. I really enjoyed reading The Sacred Sword because it was a worthy history lesson devoid of the monotony of textbooks. It is told from the point of view of Gobind and that makes it more special. If you enjoy historical fictions, PICK UP this novel.

What do you get out of it? Invaluable lessons about loyalty, bravery, the Sikh faith and the tyranny of the Mughals. Overall, a good update on Indian history.

Ratings – 4 out of 5 stars.

Digressing from Origins

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Omnipotent, named he, who
Meant to have begun it all.
Now struck a chord of curiosity
in disbelieving humans. Questioned
for the sake of clarity, when it was
His answers that blew apart despondence.
In this one entity, the world held importance.
In this one entity, the world saw tyranny.
Energy, form and faces unlike two. All
Possibilities they ventured to undo.
Why must definition hover over faith?
Blind faith, you say? Better it is to have some.
More than gratitude for this one,
What prevailed in the previous grows
Abundantly essential. Its a matter of estrangement
That brings us together. In this quest to seek answers
We forget those who urge us to think. We forget those
Whose questions we are here to solve.
– Meera