Posts Tagged Book Reviews
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 19,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Jeannette Walls is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com and lives in New York and Long Island and is married to writer, John Taylor. But it would be hard to believe where her roots are, her nearly homeless existence, her entirely dysfunctional family, and her wandering parents who embraced life and inculcated love for learning but never learned about living like regular folks. This is Walls’ memoir and the best and succinct way to understand this incredible book is as described by New York Newsday. “Some people are born storytellers. Some lives are worth telling. The best memoirs happen when these two conditions converge. In “The Glass Castle”, they have”.
It is rarely that two highly dysfunctional individuals come together and spend an entire lifetime together. It is rarer that that they become parents and raise the children in so very dysfunctional an environment and still escape intervention by child protective services during the entire duration of the children growing up. It is perhaps rarer still that the children become self sufficient and pull themselves out of the mess and tell the powerfully story.
Rex Walls dreamed big dreams, had a childlike curiosity about life, was highly intelligent, and loved his family. In the absence of his drinking addiction, he might have been an entrepreneur with some cool patents to his name and a huge big GlassCastle for his family. But he had a drinking addiction, most likely suffered sexual abuse in his youth, could not hold down a job, and could not budget or manage finances. He moved his family from one small town to another, “skedaddling” from place to place to escape from child protection services, creditors and so on. Like her husband, Rose Mary Walls was also a free spirit. She loved to paint and although trained as a teacher, she hated it because she felt her true calling was to be an artist. Often after she received money from her land that was leased by an oil company, she splurged it away in a few days and then fed popcorn for dinner to her children; sometimes there were no dinners at all and they were left to forage for themselves, and sometimes as infants, while cooking their own food, the kids set themselves on fire; their mother encouraged independence and self-sufficiency.
Rex and Rose Mary fought, Rex tried to kill Rose Mary with his car, Rose Mary screamed and fought with Rex when she found her children snacking on margarine because that is all they found to eat; but they always kissed and made up. Together, they created a family that was neither well provided for, nor well fed, nor well housed. While they lived dirt poor and almost homeless at times, they did not care to find out about and use their million plus dollars of inheritance and in another instance, let their inherited home in Phoenix crumble due to termites, and eventually to be looted. Despite the fact that a rifraf wandered into their home and was inappropriately touching their daughter, before she yelled, “pervert” and he ran away, they insisted on leaving their doors and windows wide open for air to come through.
After years of wandering through the West Coast and mid-West, they ended up on the East Coast, in the little town of Welch, in West Virginia. After the grandma tried to sexually molest one kid and after the kids were left in cold basement in icy cold winter, the parents managed to scrape together a small fund and bought a house for $1000 on a small hill. The house stood on stilts, was moldy and stove gave out shocks when it rained, the stairs cracked, and eventually a hole in the back wall served as the entrance. Jeannette’s brother Brian slept under an inflatable raft, because it poured in the room when it rained, her sister Maureen, mostly ate at her friends’ homes, and elder sister Lori found her dreams dash, even as the children pushed and cajoled and coaxed the father to stop drinking and mother to start working.
This is a story of unimaginable hardships and of incredible tenacity; a story with a bad beginning, sad middle, and a good ending. What can be more inspirational? Although Jeannette Walls’ parents never learned to live inside a proper home, within a budget, and without addiction or clutter, the children supported one another to make life better and normal, one which has boundaries of appropriateness. Jeannette Walls’ story powerfully tells us that neither our lives nor livelihood need to be determined by challenges, no matter how grave they may be. It is a touching story, beautifully told. I could not put the book down. According to “People” review, Walls has joined the company of writers such as Mary Karr and Frank McCourt who have been able to transform their sad memories into fine art”.
The Piano Teacher is a story of British, American and other expats in Hong Kong and the local wealthy Chinese who were all caught in a tremendous struggle for survival, during the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s.
In March 1939, Japan dropped bombs on Hong Kong territory, destroying a bridge and a train station. Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began in December, 1941, after 18 days of fierce fighting against imposing Japanese forces who invaded the territory. The occupation lasted for 3 years and 8 months, when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War.
All the characters are caught in a complicated struggle for survival during extremely brutal Japanese administration during the occupation. There is a constant tug between integrity and submission, for the sake of survival. The story is interesting and is placed in a historical context that is important and yet not a lot is written about it. There are times when the author gives interesting insights into the characters.
Some aspects of the story emerge with clarity and are interesting. For instance, during 1940s and 1950s, the extent to which stereotypes and prejudices played a role, in an outwardly diverse place like Hong Kong, is interesting. “The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course. Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors, and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses. There were English businessmen and American bankers. White Russian Aristocrats, and Peruvian entrepreneurs – all peculiarly well traveled and sophisticated – and of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China”. Similarly when occupiers came, they divided the immigrant population by race and accordingly assigned living quarters and other privileges. Author has done good research to convey the brutality of the occupiers and their impact on innocent people.
But unfortunately, there are many limitations. The book meanders and the real plot begins only after a reader sticks through slow moving and boring beginning. There is too much of vague dialogue that seems to be going nowhere, there are portions of the book that do not flow well. The characters are not well developed and they lack depth. There isn’t a single character that a reader can identify with, root for, and turn the pages to see the character survive the occupation. This is a huge limitation in the book. The occupiers are clearly bad, brutal, and loose in the end. That part of the story is very clear and well developed. Almost any reasonably well told story would have had survivors that a reader is rooting for and is eager to see them come through this horrific ordeal. Character’s humanness and limitations would only make them more real, not distant. But characters in the book feel too distant. As a reader, you feel no empathy, no dislike, no hope, nothing for them. Then there is the piano teacher. The book has her title but she has no role whatsoever. The story could have been told without her presence.
The story just does not grip you in anyway whatsoever. You flip the pages and it matters little how it will end. It is extremely disappointing. This is a story with an exciting plot and tremendous promise that simply failed to live up to its potential.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver (quoted at beginning of Part Five).
If Cheryl Strayed is any inspiration, you will do much. “We aren’t poor, because we’re rich in love”, her mother said, while Strayed and her siblings were growing up. Her mother with many faults (and who isn’t), was kindhearted, forgiving, generous, naïve, and an undying optimist (when you read the book, you will see there is a pun in here, alluding to one of life’s strange ironies). One day life threw a curve ball and her family went bankrupt, at least, in love. Strayed’s memoir is a brutally honest, funny, sad, and absolutely magnificently written account of her journey through her 1,100 mile walk on the Pacific Crest Trail, through her denial and her anger, and her acceptance of things as they are, that led her to love. Wild, chosen by Oprah as her first Book Club 2.0 selection, was also chosen by Huffington Post in August 2013, as one of “40 books to read.
In a desperate attempt to reclaim her life run amok with her zany behaviors, in one swell swoop, so characteristic of teens and early adults, Strayed traded the material world of possessions and comfort for life in the nature, in the wild, and in favor of her backpack, Monster, so heavy that she had to perch on a chair to lift it. At the age of 22, she began the journey at Mohave in the Sierras, in her boots so tight that her toe nails popped off. On the long journey, she held together her fraying sandals with tape, got new boots shipped by REI at next pickup location, almost stepped on the rattle snakes, came face to face with a bear and a fox, ran into the crew about to blow off the mountain she was walking on, woke up from her sleep once covered with black ants and at another time found frogs jumping over her in droves.
She walked on during days of merciless heat and on bone chilling nights, got lost and then found, ran out of money and got invited for meals by kind strangers. Strayed hiked on from Mohave desert through Tehachapi Mountains to Kennedy Meadows in the high Sierras, through Forester Pass, at 13,160 feet, the highest point on the PCT, through Sierra City (a town that was wiped out by an avalanche in 1852) and other scenic villages. She kept walking through Northern California, where the High Sierra Nevada yield to the Southern Cascade Range, through Lassen Peak, through extremely dry Hat Creek Rim, to Mount Shasta to Oregon’s Cascade Range, through Mount McLoughlin to Mount Thielsen to Mount Mazama. At one time, Mount Mazama had stood at 12,000 feet tall and was then hit by the crater and became Crater Lake, a site of incredible beauty, its waters so pure and deep that apparently it absorbs every color of visible light except blue, and reflects pure blue back, into the world. Srayed continued walking through the Three Sisters to Mount Washington to Three Fingered Jack to Mount Jefferson and to Mount Hood (Oregon’s largest and most active volcano), finally ending her journey at the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River, on the Canadian border, in the state of Washington. Yes, she did a solo two month hike and walked One Thousand and One Hundred miles! It is an incredible story of physical agony and persistence, of humanity filled with kindness, and one where only luck can help you, if in the wild, you are faced with people, with evil intentions.
Throughout her journey, Strayed also reflects on her inner struggles, her deep loss, her heart wrenching grieving, her egregious behaviors that jeopardized her safety and put her marriage at risk. In the wild, she hollers, sobs, curses God, ruminates and reads. Some of her ruminations are gut-wrenching. She regrets the “small things that stung now”, where in arrogant superiority, characteristic of a teen, she had “scorned her mother’s kindness”, how she hurt her kind and infinitely forgiving husband, she yearned to talk to her siblings, yearned for a family, “to be folded into something that was safe from destruction”. Her enormous physical accomplishment pales in comparison to the place where her self healing and spiritual journey led her. About her mom she says, “the truth was, she’d been a spectacular mom”, one who gave her “all-encompassing love”, and “considered that love her greatest achievement”. She was able to forgive her step father Eddie, who was there in the most significant ways, when it mattered.
At the end of her long journey, Strayed feels very present to her life, “like all lives, mysterious, irrevocable, and sacred.” (Indeed – what a profound description of life which can be seen in the rearview mirror, but can only be lived forward). Strayed is filled with gratitude, as she accepts her life, without feeling the need to recapture it. “Something inside of me released”, she says. I, highly recommend this book. You will laugh, you will cry, you will reflect, you will regret, you will accept, and most of all you will enjoy her beautiful writing. (Personally, it also reminded me of the month I spent with 4 of my fellow climbers/hikers in the Himalayan mountains, carrying our own monster packs with tents, mats, food, stove, crampons, rope, ice ax and blistered feet, and fully bathed only after the span of almost 27 days. Some day I too might write my story).
Broom Cytisus, Fuchsia, Freesia, Elder, Dogwoood Cornus, and fragrant Citrus Sinesis would be my flowers of choice, if I were to get married again. But that is only based on Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers and you would have to read “The Language of Flowers” to decipher what that means. Flowers, like words, carry meanings. Diffenbaugh describes elsewhere about the origin of the language of flowers. “The Victorian language of flowers began with the publication of Le Language des Fleurs, written by Charlotte de Latour and printed in Paris in 1819. To create the book–which was a list of flowers and their meanings–de Latour gathered references to flower symbolism through poetry, ancient mythology and even medicine. The book spawned the science known as floriography, and between 1830 and 1880, hundreds of similar floral dictionaries were printed in Europe and America.”
The Language of Flowers is a (red carnation) heart breaking story of a young girl, Victoria, who has been so unloved, that she constantly makes a choice to be unlovable. Trapped in the foster care system, she chooses not connect or engage with her foster parents, is constantly rejected or given back, and by the time she turns eighteen, she has lived in almost 40 group homes and foster homes. At age eighteen, she is emancipated. Emancipation translates into being dropped out of the system, into nothingness, without money, means to live, support system, or resources. During her time in the foster care system, she had met a woman, Elizabeth, who was a loving and kind foster mother. When Victoria cut down her beautiful cactus and presented Elizabeth with the spindly needles, Elizabeth taught her the meaning of cactus, “ardent love”. When Victoria described that she presumed that cactus represented “hate” and that she hated the world in general, Elizabeth told her, what she was looking for was common thistle.
While all through her childhood, Victoria was deemed unlearnable and unlovable, while words escape her and she chooses to mostly disengage from the world, she finds comfort and solace in the language of flowers. She manages to find work with a florist, and when a man asks her for flowers for his sulky grand-daughter, Victoria suggests white roses and lily of the valley, saying that these represent “return to happiness”. Pleased with the interpretation and the effects the flowers create, he returns a few days later, looking for flowers for his wife, who is lacking the earlier passion and zest she had for life. Victoria gives him a bouquet of tendrils of periwinkle that stand for “tender recollections”, tightly wrapped around the base of the mums, representing “truth”. “The effect was like fireworks, dizzying and grand”. Victoria’s clientele grows.
Will she find her kind foster mother Elizabeth and the appropriate flowers to do right by her and seek her forgiveness, and make amends? Victoria also meets a kind loving man and has a baby. How can she be a mother and nurture another being with love and patience, when she cannot connect with the world? Thus far, Victoria has found a niche, but still mostly exists on the periphery of the society, unable to connect fully. I wish there were flowers for self-expression. Honest self-expression is my passion and I would choose these for myself. Self-expression would also set Victoria free, and I would choose them for Victoria. Diffenbaugh says elsewhere, “the truth is that love—like moss—is self-contained. It draws neither from our past nor our future; it is separate even from those we love. It projects out but stays whole within itself and does not attach. When we look at love this way it is possible to see that we are all capable of loving our children, deeply and completely, regardless of our past or our circumstances.” Will Victoria get to that truth? Will she find the language for “reconciliation” with her past and open the door for future happiness and deep “maternal love” that may not be perfect but it may be deep love that grows, free from anything holding it back?
“War is hell”. Most of us know this however, from a certain safe distance, except those who are in it; in the physical hellishness of war. Towards the end of the book the author discusses another book “Black Hearts” by Jim Frederick, an account of one platoon’s descent into madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. Diaz says, he writes a factual and fair account of “lonely outposts, insurgent safe-houses, cold canals, farm fields crisscrossed by enemy fire, and streets as dangerous as they were dusty”. This is the physical hellishness of war that despite being gruesome, is, for most of us, at a certain geographical safe distance.
But in this book, Minefields of the Heart, Diaz writes about the heart wrenching mental anguish that obliterates the distance between those serving in the war and their loved ones, seemingly living ordinary lives, among other ordinary people. For the loved ones of those serving in a war, war is not just hell but it is a hell with a power to bring back wonderful memories (of a child drumming to a different beat, of a hug, of a kiss, of a stroll), yet with no ability to influence the future course of outcome. Though this is a story of the author and her son and family, in many ways it also celebrates the bravery of all of our young men and women who serve in the war and the resilience of their loved ones. Diaz writes the story of the hell that she as a mother and her family lived in for four years, when her son Roman, who became Sergeant Roman Diaz, served on the tour of duty in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. It is so clearly written from a mother’s heart that I cried at almost every page, even though my son had only mentioned once, his desire to join the army. As a mother, I felt Diaz’s pain, her anguish, her worry. But as a critic, I also appreciate the candor, an honest account of things as they were. I also enjoyed her sweet sense of humor and the letters from SpongeBob (Roman’s favorite tortoise). The account of her family and friends was heart warming, to think that there is a village that supports each of our sons and daughters who serve in the war.
The beautiful human portrait of Roman Diaz that emerged was sweet. It is an honor to know such a fine young man behind the uniform and also a reminder that behind each uniform there is a family, perhaps a wife, a mother, a husband, a sister, a child. They are in service as well, waking up at nights, answering the door bell with a deep sense of dread, glued to the TV for news; in the absence of their loved ones, only half celebrating the holidays. When their loved ones do not return, their hell lasts, in some ways, forever. When their loved ones do return with trauma and other injuries, their hell also lasts in some ways, for a long long time. Wars impact families, relationships, the very fabric of our society, on a scale so large, create craters of anguish so deep, that very little might justify being engaged in one and that little ought to be immensely carefully considered.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – Book Review
I saw some good reviews, when my book club picked this book. But I am less than thrilled. I believe, a good story line with potential, has been marred by sloppy research, characters lacking depth and complexity, superfluous relationships, and misrepresentation of science. Here is the review.
STOP —– STOP —– STOP —– STOP —–STOP —– STOP Spoiler Alert…………… below.
There was no complexity and depth in the characters and in there is no depth in most of the relationships. Marina Singh, previously a medical doctor, successful research scientist, supposedly hand picked to go in search of a lost colleague, in the Amazon forest (really?), seems amazingly naive and annoyingly obsequious in accepting assignments and requests that she clearly is unhappy about. Doctor Swenson, dedicated to science, who everyone looks up to, in awe, is easily forgiven her constant moralizing and put-downs, her abduction of a child, turning innocent people of the tribe into research experiments by exposing them to malaria carrying mosquitoes, all in the name of science! Again, really! Many of the relationships are equally superfluous, including that between Singh and Mr. Fox, between Swenson and Dr. Rapp, between Rapp and his students (one of whom caught malaria and was simply dropped so Dr. Rapp can continue his research), between Anders and little child (Anders wanted the world to save the child and it only took a few seconds, for him to offer the child for a trade), and between Anders and his wife Karen (Karen seems to emerge as the ONLY person, besides Easter, with honest and unconditional love for another).
I have more stupid questions about the plots and the sub plots! Although Singh is obsequious and accepts every unwanted assignment (going to the Amazon, overstaying, getting her hair braided, doing surgery in the most unsterile environment, without even attempting to turn the baby as her instinct told her to do, more overstaying, agreeing to lie about the purpose of the research), and yet she is successful in her findings, in her competence as a medical doctor, a profession she had quit, in wrestling and cutting through an anaconda, in tracing a lost individual, through navigation in the unknown waters of the Amazon, and more. Singh refuses help of other competent adults and looses the child! She is successful in finding someone based on one woman’s ramblings about having spotted someone, and then she trades in a child for it all! Really? And why was Singh eating the bark anyway? Why was there a random Australian couple simply there to guard the gates and restrict access to other members of the pharmaceutical company from one of its own researchers, while being on the payroll of the same pharmaceutical company? I have more stupid questions, but what’s point?
Let’s talk a bit about science. This is a story of a lost tribe with an ability to have tons of babies, who are also immune to malaria, and yet they do not experience population explosion! A run-away scientist conducts brutal experiments on native people, allowing them to catch malaria. How is she going to document this work for the said pharma company? And without prior permission from the FDA, and without complete documentation, there is no possibility of any drugs being authorized for use. In the story, a tribal woman gets her body cut open, on a dirty floor, next to sneezing babies and elderly on a hammock, and yet does not die of infection, even without antibiotics! We in the West, with our obsession to cleanliness, must seem like hypochondriacs, in comparison. The devoted scientist, after years of research on fertility medicine, in her “old” age, decides to try the fertility medicine on herself, then equally on a whim, gives up, because it did not work effectively on her (what kind of scientist relies on “one” sole sample), and because, she has a sudden change of heart, and does not wish to unleash the misery of childbearing on the world (who is she to decide, what constitutes misery, having children or not being able to have them)? This book is published in 2011. By this time, the medical community (including the Gates Foundation) is very much interested in finding cure for malaria and many other third world diseases. Obviously the sloppy research by the author, on which the book is based, concludes, on the assumption that the world will have no interest in a cure for malaria and something devious needs to be done, to achieve this laudable goal.
“State of Wonder” has a good story line, it is reasonably engaging, and had a potential to be an excellent book. But sloppy research has killed it. There are some good questions posed, how does one extract whatever raw materials one requires for scientific inquiry without destroying the habitat; how do the big pharma companies find cures based on herbal medicine and ancient wisdom and market those while preserving the life and livelihood of the indigenous people where it originates, how do pharma companies protect their preliminary findings and keep their research under wraps, until it is absolutely ready to share the findings? Sadly, the author does not linger too much on these interesting, real, and though-provoking concerns but rushes in to provide half-baked solutions, including a run-away scientist doing research for years in an obscure place, not answerable to anyone including the company CEO, while keeping the expense account current.
Blood, Bones, and Butter is an honest memoir written by a woman with a turbulent, exhilarating, at time overwhelming, and at times intensely fulfilling life. In part, it is a memoir of a daughter who adored her mother, looked up to her father and holds deeply moving memories of her childhood. Memoir of a daughter who suddenly finds her family of 5 siblings and parents held in high esteem, splintered, as she is left to pick up the pieces and at times, survive on her own. A memoir of a daughter who cannot quite pinpoint the reason of her deep discontent with her mother, but one who will nevertheless not talk with her mother for over 20 years. In part, it is a story of a lost teenage girl, who dabbles in drugs, gets caught stealing, seems unsure of her sexual orientation, briefly has a lesbian relationship with a woman she lives with, and just as swiftly marries a man, but continues to live separately, despite giving birth to two sons, and never fully commits to the relationship or has the chemistry required in as fully committed relationship. This is a story of someone who cannot find purpose in life, who after dabbling in waitressing and support cook roles, realizes that it does not fully tap her potential. Hamilton goes back to school to get a graduate degree in literature, but realizes that despite her brilliant mind and her quick grasp of the literature, in academia, she neither found her passion, nor an avenue for honest self-expression. Hamilton could not tolerate intellectual snobbism and lack of integrity existing among her academic, polite, and “politically correct” academic cohorts, and she “starved for opinionated opinion”.
It is a story of a deeply committed “foodie”, who seems to find her passion and calling in food, the preparation of food, in food as a source of nurturing and sustaining of life, food as it relates to specific hunger, food that satisfies specific need in a specific way, at a specific time. Hamilton not only loves to cook, but appreciates “the difference between a root and rhizome”, and one day holds the key to her own restaurant, “Prune” in Manhattan, New York. No, it did not happen that easily. She cleaned up dog poop, steaming cockroaches, slogged in extreme heat under 10 burners, and went into labor with unresolved crisis of her top chef leaving the job for better prospects elsewhere. But in this challenging life, she found her calling and her passion, and her self-identity and self-expression. This is a story of a woman who starved for family and adored her 87 year old mother-in-law, Alda. As her own family grew with two wonderful children, her chemistry with her own husband reached new lows, and simultaneously she also folded herself into her Italian husband’s family. This is a story of someone who realizes that in the end it is about “clan and bloodline” and “no amount of birthing sons, and cooking dinners and raking the leaves or planting the gardens or paying for the plane tickets” to visit her adopted family, is going to change that small truth. It is a story of a person sharing deep insights, who in the end, learns to let go. Hamilton seems to let go of discontent with her mother, let go of her discontent with her husband, accept the deep love and connection she has with her husband’s mother Alda and his family, as she also learns to go of the “pressing need to be declared as a member of the family”. She is happy to be a “well-cared for and very welcomed guest” of the family. This is a moving and honest memoir of someone who fought against fate, struggled with her identity, yearned for family love, and followed her passion with ruthlessness and with abundant love. It is a story of someone who seems to also make peace with life in the end and yet shares about the struggles and challenges with depth and integrity.
The Butterfly Mosque is a memoir of Wilson’s experience after her conversion to Islam, in the post 9/11 world. She traveled to Egypt and met Omar, who shared her Islamic faith and also shared her love for education. In Egypt, amidst the tremendous love and support of her new family, Wilson navigates many evolving concepts of religion, cross-cultural challenges, deeply entrenched prejudices, misinformation, role of women, as well as easy acceptance and overcoming of differences when for their families, Wilson and Omar’s love transcends the cultural chasm. Wilson says, “they agreed to love one another for no other reason than that we had asked them to”.
But beyond immediate families, Wilson found that her Egyptian acquaintances were much more forgiving of her strangeness and were protective of her, even when they did not agree than her American acquaintances were of Omar’s differences. She found that Westerners were often misinformed, not open to acquiring new information, and did not often respect local cultural boundaries. And in turn, this bias was hard on people on both sides of the chasm because they did not appreciate the lesser individuals that they became around others.
Wilson also explores the essence of Islamic preaching, specifically as it relates to women. Wilson finds Islam in its “purely textual form”, to be on her side. Quran treated women with respect as many examples of references to historical women like Khadija, Maryam and Asi attests to it. Wilson also found evenhandedness in bulk of Shari’a law. However, she found that often the fundamentalists “corrupted the faith in their supposed piety and unstinting legalism” and drowned out the voices from the moderates. Fundamentalists also did not like the converts and often isolated them. It did not help that the West often criticized both representations and did not differentiate between the extremists and the moderates and also often did not look kindly upon the converts.
Through her journey of navigating through the cross cultural differences in dating, how one relates to families, how families support individuals, role of religion in daily life etc., Wilson also discovers some fundamental truths, with “potential to change the world”. For instance, she opines that Islam is an abstract religion that demands quiet belief without much celebration and moderate Muslims who achieve this understanding can inspire doubt in extremists and this is no small thing. Another time she says, sometimes one must operate purely on faith and sometimes doing the right thing means to defend people who may not understand you or who may even fear you.
Wilson’s story is certainly not a straight path to a certain goal but rather it traverses back and forth as she discovers meanness in people on both sides of the divide and as she also discovers goodness in people on both sides when love supersedes differences. This is a story of Wilson’s personal transformation and I am ending with a littler verse from Rumi that she quotes in her book and it also captures how this journey influences her identity.
He gave me a bowl and I saw then with great insight
Oh Shams and sunlight both, come to my aid
For I am divided from myself, and yet myself
“The Muslim Next Door” by Sumbul Ali-Karamali – Book Review (Understanding Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Islam)
This book should be a must read in today’s environment where consistently Islam is pitted against the rest and it should be a must read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Out of the many books that I constantly read, if I were to pick one book from which I have learned a very great deal and where my perspective has been shifted and enhanced, and become broader, than it is from this book.
Qur’an, like any other book of religious preaching, must be understood and interpreted in the historical context in which it was written. Yet, I was surprised and taken aback by how much misunderstood and wrongly vilified are the teachings of Islam today. There is a lot of information shared in the book. I will first mention some factual information about Islamic practices, then discuss the necessity of understanding and interpreting Qu’ran and the Prophet in historical context, and then discuss the many inaccuracies so widely promulgated, in so many ways, that not only does grave disservice to the teachings of Islam (that I now feel blessed to have a broadened perspective on) but is divisive and therefore does grave harm to humanity as a whole.
First, about understanding of simple Islamic practices, the book is a treasure trove of information. For instance, Ali-Karamali explains that frequent prayer in Islam is to serve as frequent reminder of God; the month of Ramadan is celebration of when God first revealed Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad; the special night of the month, the Night of Power (Lilat al-Qadr), usually falling on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan commemorates the evening the Prophet received the first revelation from God; and prayers on that night are supposed to reach God with more strength and clarity. Eid ul-Fitr falls on the first day of the month of Shawwal and moon must be sighted the night before to determine whether the following day is Eid (hence the popular phrase Eid ka chaand). She explains about religious dictates on dietary restrictions, restrictions on gambling, on giving or taking interest, on loans etc.
Historically, Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad around the year 600 AD. Islam considers Noah, Moses, and Jesus as prophets and reveres them and sees Islam as an extension of Judeo Christian traditions and some of the teachings. Muslims are entreated to treat Jews and Christians with respect in Qu’ran, as indicated in the verse “And do not argue with the Followers of Earlier Revelation, otherwise than in a most kindly manner….”. Further, Qur’an is written in Arabic language, which is extremely context dependent, poetical, metaphoric language – but it is not easy to accurately understand and interpret. God is omniscient, omnipresent, and too grand an entity for humans to comprehend and should not be depicted or represented in any way except through “One God’s” words and teachings brought by Prophet Muhammad, who is only a messenger, not to be prayed to, as a God . Qur’an preaches monotheism (more about that below). Sharia constitutes the set of guidelines of the Islamic Law, derived from the Qu’ran but it is interpreted differently and not everyone agrees on what they are. Two largest groups of Muslims are Sunni and Shi’a, separated from an argument regarding who was entitled to wield the religious authority, after the Prophet’s death. Those who chose Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, later became known as Shi’as. The group that chose the Prophet’s friend Abu Bakr as their leader, became known as Sunnis, and they constitute about 90% of Muslims in the world.
One side note regarding monotheism. While Ali-Karamali rectifies misconceptions about Islam and points out the peacefulness inherent in the Qur’an and point out its many similarities with Judaism and Christianity with the focus on monotheism “One God”, it needs to be pointed out that there are others who adhere to polytheistic faith. At one point, she informs, Prophet Muhammad’s new religion threatened the Meccan polytheistic religion that was symbolized by the Ka’ba which had become populated with idols. The Qur’an had “named the Ka’ba as the direction that Muslims should face while praying and had also designated it as the Muslim place of pilgrimage. It was a powerful symbol, and part of Muhammad’s duty was to restore the Ka’ba to its rightful role”. It made me question, “Rightful” as determined by whom? The belief in monotheism may not be only morally justifiable or “rightful” one and there are close to one billion people in the world today who practice Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. and believe in Polytheism. While it is a whole different subject, polytheistic belief is linked to the notion that the divine resides everywhere and is manifested in various forms and various places and hence many diverse idols can serve as reminders and evoke the sense of righteousness, the same function that frequent prayers serve in Islam.
Leaving aside that side note, the biggest contribution of the book is in lucidly explaining the verses and information from Qur’an and information about Prophet Muhammad. It sheds light on how enormously forward-thinking, generous, and kind-hearted a person the Prophet was and how Qur’an has been misquoted or taken out of context. Islam and the holy book Qur’an has been frequently criticized and portrayed in the media to be violent. However, there are 47 fighting verses, and out of a total of 6000 verses covering various other subjects, there are 114 verses urging peace. For instance, a fighting verse says “do not take Jews and Christians for your allies”, but then it frequently urges peace with verses like “I do not worship that which you worship and neither do you worship that which I worship… Unto you, your religion, and unto me, my religion” and “If anyone slays a human being, it shall be as though he had slain all mankind,; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as through he had saved the lives of all mankind”. Given the historical context of the time, fighting was sometimes the only way to prevent cruelty, a verse in Qur’an says “How could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and of the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying, “O our Sustainer!” Lead us to freedom out of this land whose people are oppressors”. And yet it urges peace again and again and again. Another verse says “And slay them wherever you may come upon them, and drive them away from wherever they drove you away” but the immediate verse after that says, “but do not attack them if they do not attack you first. Allah loves not the aggressor”. Qur’an insists on peace whenever possible, as in the verse, “Fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression – for verily, God does not love aggressors” and although a verse says “Slay the infidels wherever you find them”, it also says “but if they desist, all hostility shall cease” and “Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them”. Given the historical context, I am surprised that there is even one verse urging peace. At the time in history, any leader trying to protect the followers, also urged them to fight for righteousness, as in Hinduism, Lord Krishna, like the Prophet Muhammad, preached the importance of doing this duty. But how awesome that during extremely violent times, there were also peaceful Masihas! How wrong it would be to distort their preachings and quote them out of context.
Prophet Muhammad lived in a violent society, and served as a political leader of over 10,000 people. As a leader, he sought to bring stability and peace to the people. In an environment of lawlessness, bloodshed, and tribal warfare, he sought to bring about the rule of law and specified in detail the pious and peaceful behaviors, revealed to him by God. One needs to appreciate how hugely difficult this task would be in a climate where men often beat their wives, often proclaimed them to be not their wives and yet not free to marry again, where women were beaten, and female infanticide was common. Prophet Muhammad himself is strongly criticized for having numerous wives, although polygamy was a common practice in many parts of the world and often rulers married for political alliances, including Hindu kings who frequently took many wives; and all royal alliances in England and Europe were for political reasons. The prophet himself was married to his first wife Khadija, whom he married at the age of 24 and remained married for almost 25 years. This was a time when men often died in wars and were scarce and many women and children were left orphans, without any means to provide for themselves and to take a wife was to provide for her. Almost in his fifties, when the Prophet was emerging as a religious and political leader, and after his first wife Khadija passed away, he then took 9 other wives, 8 of whom were widows and some of those marriages were in order to form political alliances. The Qur’an officially allows a man to take up to four wives and urges a man to treat them with equal fairness and it further says “and it will not be within your power to treat your wives with equal fairness, however much you may desire it”, which could be interpreted to mean that men better not take more wives than one.
This was a time when women would understandably not prefer to be divorced. And yet forward-thinking Qur’an makes allowances whereby not only men can obtain divorce, but also women. Men retained the previously existing unilateral right to divorce but were required to follow certain procedures including saying talaq (I divorce thee) three times at separate intervals, allowing for changing the mind. Wife could keep her dowry if her husband divorced her and she received automatic custody of small children and received the right to maintenance payments. A wife can also divorce her husband if any of the two predetermined conditions entered during the signing of the marriage contract were violated or by applying for a judicial divorce. It is amazing how forward thinking this was – when hardly any women would actually want a divorce, except under absolutely unbearable conditions. Keeping in mind the historical context, when men were allowed to beat their wives according to Christianity, and where women did not get any property under the English law, for instance, the Bennett sisters tended to loose their dad’s estate in England, in Jane Eyre’s Price and Prejudice, the Qu’ran gave women a right to inherit property, to keep property upon marriage, right to not be forced into marriage, and right to testify in court. It is often cited in the media that under the Islamic law, one man’s testimony was equal to two women’s. However, understanding this in the historical context when women needed the support of other women in the court, this was the most perfect arrangement. It is indeed sad that some countries continue to practice some of the laws that made such perfect sense at the time and may not be useful now.
Severe punishment by stoning for adultery and by amputation for theft is cited as further examples of violence preached and practiced by Islam. It was therefore, very illuminating to learn that the punishment is so highly circumscribed with restrictions and conditions, that it would be practically impossible to fulfill, and therefore only meant to highlight the moral severity of the crime. For instance, amputation is to be applied for theft only “in a world where hunger and want no longer existed” and moreover if the person committing any crime ever repents then he or she is to be pardoned, with the emphasis that forgiveness and waiver of the punishment is always the best course. In Old Testament, death penalty was the recommended punishment for stubborn and rebellious children, which was never meant to be carried out, and in England, as late as nineteenth century, some 200 crimes were punishable by death. Adultery is also incredibly difficult to prove under Islamic law and if even by some freak coincidence it is proven, the mitigating factors severely limit the application of its punishment. The prosecution must produce four reliable eyewitnesses who have seen the act of sexual intercourse itself. Further, falsely accusing someone of illicit sexual relations is itself a serious crime, and if one witness retracts his accusation, all four witnesses are liable for the penalty for false accusation. Again it is so carefully worded as to prevent the penalty from taking place. Only Yemen and Saudi Arabia try to apply classical Islamic law and some countries like Libya, Pakistan and Sudan have inserted Islamic provisions into their codes. But Qur’an after all was written at a different time in history and forward thinking as it was, the Islamic Law derived from it, cannot be meant to be applied literally today.
Islam is consistently portrayed as being violent and equated with Taliban etc. despite the fact that there are over 1.5 billion peaceful practitioners of Islam. While most countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and groups like Hizbullah condemned 9/11 attacks, the media rarely focused on that kind of coverage. Media often omits peaceful progress in the Islamic countries and also often omits Muslim identities when the victims of violence are Muslim. On the other hand, Islam and Muslim are frequently associated with terror and hate, as in references to “Islamic terrorists”, “Muslim fundamentalists” and so on. As the world becomes more divided on this issue, Muslims are frequently targets of aggression. For instance, villages after villages of Bosnian Muslims were massacred in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia; ethnic cleansing is ongoing by Russia in Chechnya; also in 2002, in the Indian state of Gujrat, over 2000 Muslims were murdered in ethnic cleansing campaign, where the government willfully neglected to intervene; and then there was the horrific massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. Also frequently repeated are statements that encourage the lazy mentality as in “Muslims will always fight”, Muslims and Jews have been ancient enemies, Hindus and Muslims have old hatred” etc. But in fact, contrary is also true. Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully together for long period of time in India; Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in a multicultural, multireligious society for 800 years in Europe, before the Spanish inquisition in Spain; Albania with 70% Muslim population refused to give up their Jewish citizens to the Germans; and many Jews and Palestinians are working toward peace today.
Ali-Karamali asserts what should be obvious, that the Muslim mind is not a single, solid, tangible object filled with hate and bigotry but that Muslims constitute a thriving, growing, dynamic, multi-faceted population that has historically made many contributions to the advancement of knowledge in science, mathematics, art, and poetry. Majority of Muslims today believe strictly in the spirit of Islam, of peace, tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion.