#CBR10 Review #52

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi

Before the review, a disclaimer: I decided that a triple Cannonball or greater would not be feasible or even fun with my current workload. I’m working a few jobs and trying to shoehorn research in (on my own time and dime, because adjunct faculty do not get time built into our jobs), all while trying to hold a few church offices. Last year, I had a really hard time reviewing enough books and I have barely made my reading goals the last two years in a row. I thought a slower pace would suit me best, because the whole point of Cannonball Read is to read and fight cancer. So, I find that I am in fact on pace to make my double Cannonball since I reached the halfway point in advance and with a fairly long book!

I’ve heard plenty about Nadia Hashimi’s The Pearl That Broke Its Shell and decided to give it a try to see if it would fit my syllabus for my global literature course. And I’ve come to a decision, which I’ll be more than happy to unpack in my review.

This is the story of Rahima, a young girl in 2007 Afghanistan. She is from a rural area and struggles even to be allowed to go to school with her sisters. Her father is a drug addict, and her mother is in disgrace for only bearing daughters. Thus, Rahima becomes a bacha posh, that is, a girl who poses as a boy, in order to help the family around the house. Her story intersects with her great-great grandmother Shekiba, who was desperate to keep her family land safe from her greedy extended relatives, but suffered many twists of fate. The stories do kind of intersect at some point as Rahima’s life takes perilous turns.

As I noted in my Goodreads review, this book was a mixed bag for me and merited a solid three stars. On the one hand, Nadia Hashimi writes with incredible care of her characters and brings a very different world alive. On the other hand, I’m starting to feel as if we’re getting the “single story” of Afghanistan and other nations who have been troubled by extremist Islam and patriarchal societies where women are property and nothing more. To be clear, THIS STILL HAPPENS AND IT IS BAD. Yet where are the stories of the Saudi women piloting planes and being the change they wish to see? Most stories of Arab and Muslim women that are being accessed to English-speaking readers are of abuse and torture and escape, and I worry that this is presenting a perpetual victim-image to the mind of a Western woman, who treats an Arab or Muslim woman as if she is an object of pity and suffering instead of a person in her own right. I think it’s a real problem to still be telling imbalanced stories without a real sense of nuance or resolution to make better life for women that does not involve them fleeing their homes, Not Without My Daughter-style. I realize that this is not my lane, as a white woman. I’m just concerned about representation and I don’t know what the best depiction should be for Afghan women.

Also, the story of Rahima being made a bacha posh is interesting, but I had already read and reviewed Jenny Nordberg’s excellent journalistic account in The Underground Girls of Kabul, so this did not feel new or original. The writing is workmanlike—not bad, but not outstanding in a way that seeped in my bones like Homegoing.

I’m glad I read this book, but I am hoping it can springboard different stories of Afghan women and not just tell the ones we smug Westerners keep expecting to hear and pat ourselves on the back because “we aren’t like them.” This is (one way) how The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a reality.

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#CBR10 Review #51

The Shadow of the Hummingbird by Athol Fugard

I’m developing a “new global literature” online course, which means lots of lovely reading! For each of the literature courses I have developed, I like to implement a variety of genres. Further, since this is global literature, I need to think about several nations or regions being represented that are not European or Western in focus. Finally, since this is “new” global literature, I decided that everything needed to be published after 9/11, as a starting point to thinking about how globalization changed. This is all a very long preamble to my review, but that’s the reason I read a play by South African playwright, Athol Fugard.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird follows an old man and his grandson over a two-day window of time. The old man is trying to keep his grandson’s innocence alive, even though he and his son had a falling-out over philosophical differences. He ties in Plato’s tale of the cave with the hummingbird shadows he sees on his living room walls as a way to plead with his son over intellectual curiosity and imagination. The play is brief, but packed with lots of dialogue and monologues, with rich ideas being thrown back and forth.

I would bet this play presents great on stage. I have not yet been able to track down a televised presentation, but I may have to deep-dive. Either way, I think this is a great play for college students to read. It’s a short read, it involves a common story, and it breaks down a family relationship with a small cast that really allows you to dig deep with the characters and their motivations. I’ll definitely be looking at Fugard’s body of work as a larger whole.

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#CBR10 Review #50

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

The Chancellor has June’s book club pick for our friend group, and he chose Future Home of the Living God, much to my enormous delight. I read and reviewed this about seven months ago for CBR 9, so I am going to plunk that link right here and just talk about my response for this re-read. Because I loved it even more than the first time I read it. I think we’re going to have a rollicking discussion this month, because a few of us loved it, and The Chancellor DID NOT.

This time around, the theme of uncertainty really came alive. Cedar does not know what is happening. The news is full of rumor, falsehood, and heresay (sound familiar?). She does not know whom to trust or to turn. The novel is her first-person diary to her unborn child, because she wants to remember the world and so that her child can remember her, whatever the circumstances may be. But Cedar is thrust into a lot of unknowns, and the world-building reflects this idea. I personally really liked that, because Cedar does not know how her own story ends and neither do we. We are living in a dark and scary world at the moment (and reading about the G-7 yesterday filled my stomach with rocks), and we don’t know how this particular story is going to end. Erdrich is very deliberate in ending on an unfinished note, because she wants to remind us that our own stories are being written as we write them, and we can’t know until much later how everything turns out. (there is a very sad interpretation as to why the story ends the way it does, but I won’t discuss it, for fear of spoiling things)

Another thing I liked was the concept of faith or losing one’s faith. Cedar is a newish Catholic, and she’s grappling with the idea of being abandoned by God. This is something that Elie Wiesel tackles proficiently in Night, and something that all people of faith wrestle with when terrible things happen in life. Cedar’s own spiritual struggles and reliance upon writers like Hildegard von Bingen were poignant and powerful.

The book has drawn a lot of comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale on Goodreads. I can kind of see it (I myself made a few comparisons to Children of Men), but I do think that Erdrich tackles issues of race in a way that Atwood does not conceive of.

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#CBR10 Review #49

Arena by Holly Jennings

I had never heard of Holly Jennings or Arena before my library book club assigned it, but that’s the beauty of reading new books and authors you never knew existed. I am also not a video gamer at all, so the content is unfamiliar. Sometimes, I learn a lot, and other times, I learn to gut through a book in order to finish and be able to discuss it with other people. This book, I am afraid, falls into the latter category for me.

Kali Ling is an interactive gamer for a tournament. She’s part of a team which must capture the other team’s tower and take out the other team (cyber killing them) in order to win the match. They lose their first match and get thrown into a Losers Bracket, endangering their management and sponsorships. And then, tragedy strikes the team. Kali is thrust into a world of self-reflection and doubt, even as her team must regroup and she must come to terms with the time she spends in a virtual reality.

Honestly, I spent a great deal of this book being bored. Kali is not a compelling protagonist for a great deal of the book. Rooke is interesting, but he’s there as a plot device for most of the book, which: boo. We don’t spend a lot of actual time in the Arena. And so much of the plot/conflict feels recycled from other books. I do think there is a compelling and empowering message about truth and learning how to be mindful, which is why this escaped a two-star rating. The book does pick up speed as it continues, and the team’s interactions do become more fleshed out. But I don’t know if I would have finished the book if it was not a book club read. I also had Questions about cultural appropriation, and I’m not sure if the author is the right person to write this particular story and character.

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#CBR10 Review #48

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I’m a sucker for new books, but I don’t often read them, because of time limits, my library tower (graduated from stack), and my enormous TBR list in general. My sister recommended Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and I saw it available at my library and put it in my basket on a whim (yes, I have officially gotten greedy to the point of getting basketfuls of books from the library—it’s a new first for me!). It was a great book to read on the airplane from my Florida vacation, and an interesting summer read in general. I have not read A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is Egan’s most famous novel, but after reading this, I need to bump it up on my TBR.

This novel takes place in a few separate timelines and with three major protagonists: Eddie Kerrigan, a down-on-his-luck family man who turns to odd jobs for mob bosses; Dexter Styles, for whom Eddie works; and Anna Kerrigan, our main protagonist and Eddie’s daughter who works in a factory during World War II and aspires to do something more ambitious with her life, while searching for the reason her father suddenly disappeared five years earlier. The three stories weave in and out of each other, which can make timing and sequence difficult to follow, but it does have a real noir sense about it, particularly in the relationship between Eddie and Dexter.

There was one plot point that had me fairly worried, but Egan did a great job with the resolution. She writes a complex narrative with interesting characters and a well-researched setting that was engrossing and also felt original. I am being deliberately vague about this book, so that you can experience it fresh, as I did. I think as little information as possible is the best way to approach this book. The plot structure is a little messy, but it’s an enjoyable read, all the same.

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#CBR10 Review #47

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

I greatly enjoy Jason Reynolds’ voice in young adult literature. I think his works are necessary to adding diverse literature for young adult readers, and I have liked his novels to this point. Since I read and LOVED All American Boys  and Long Way Down, I think I may have a hard time going back to his first books (case in point: The Boy in the Black Suit was just okay). So I had that in mind when I read When I Was the Greatest, which is apparently trending at my library.

Ali is fifteen and lives in a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood (the infamous setting of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). Ali’s younger sister Jazz is an outgoing and charismatic young woman. His neighbors are too brothers, nicknamed Needles and Noodles. Ali’s mom is a caring but overworked woman, and his dad floats in and out of the picture after time in prison. Needles has a syndrome (we find out what, in the novel). Noodles therefore tries to care for him in the best way possible. But sometimes, fear and bravery live side-by-side, as all three young men are about to find out.

This book was a mixed bag for me. The plotting is a bit slow and predictable. The conflict takes quite a while to unfold, and when it does, the resolution feels both convenient and understated. That said, this is a novel appropriate for younger teens, and Reynolds knows it well. The characterization of the teens is fantastic, and that’s where the novel shines. Ali is an interesting protagonist, and he paints a picture of the neighborhood for his audience with a vivid brush. This is not Reynolds’ best novel, but some of his real strengths as a writer emerge in this novel.

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CBR10 Review #46

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

I was trawling the library’s New Books shelves (as you do when the school year is over, and you can easily read a stack of books in a few weeks), and R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War caught my eye. I am trying to read more work by women of color, and science fiction/fantasy is not always the easiest to come by. I decided that this book held an intriguing premise, and I was curious to see how it would pan out. I read this book over my Florida vacation (complete with a Sunday morning where my nephew and niece screamed at each other over a 7 am Lego fight), so there are already some parts that are fading in my mind. I don’t think that’s an entirely good sign.

Rin is an orphan and living with foster parents, who are merchants by day and opium smugglers on the side. Education is her only chance to leave her rural town and make something of herself. To win a full scholarship to the greatest military academy in China, she must sit the national exam and ace it, which she does. At school, she is made fun of for her looks, accent, and naïveté. Yet she perseveres, with the help of odd Lore master Jiang. She makes a pledge to be his mentee, and then war comes to tear the land apart. Rin is fated to be a major cog in the war, but she has to realize that her great power comes with enormous consequences that could separate her from her humanity. And, as the book blurb gravely notes, it may already be too late.

Guys, I’m going to be real with you on this one. I loved the first half of this book and HATED the second half. I’m really disappointed about it, too. The school stuff was interesting and engaging: Kuang is frank about race and gender, and Rin was an engaging student to follow. As a teacher, I always find school novels interesting and entertaining (because I’m a nerd, I guess). So it was a shocking shift to get kick-dropped into a brutally violent war narrative in the second half. Like, it’s GRIM. I think there’s a purpose for talking frankly about violence to innocent people and civilians during times of political upheaval, but this book was dark and the descriptions veered into the gratuitous, in my opinion. I’m giving it three stars, because the first half was so interesting, and the second half so unbearable. Your own mileage may vary, but I do feel responsible for adding a trigger warning to the second half.

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