Monday 22 March 2010

Once Upon a Time IV

This is the first challenge I officially join this year, and I've been really looking forward to it.
I'm not reading as much these days as I used to, but I'll try my best to do Quest the Second, which means reading a book for each category: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore and Mythology.
My pool of possibilities is not very exciting as they are books I've been listing more than once and never actually read them. Let's see how I get on this on this time.

Fantasy: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud. (This one has been on my shelf for aaages, it's unbelievable).
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (A reread, of sorts. I have read this three times in the Italian translation, but never in English).

Fairy Tales: The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. (I promise I'll read it this time!)
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (again, yes).

Folklore: Wonder tales of Ancient Wales
The Dreaming place
by Charles de Lint.

Mythology: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

That's it. I can't wait to start reading them!

Saturday 20 March 2010

Does My Head Look Big In This? - Randa Abdel-Fattah

"What's the big deal? It's a piece of material."
My mother snorts. "Since when do people see it as a mere piece of material? You and I both know that's a tad optimistic, ya Amal."
"So what? I can deal with all the crap...I want to try...and I want that identity. You know, that symbol of my faith. I want to know what it means to be strong enough to walk around with it on and stick up for my right to wear it."

So that's why sixteen-year old Amal decides to go full-time. That means wearing the hijab anytime a man who's not part of the family is around. Outside her house, at the mall, at the cafè, but especially in school. Not a decision to be taken lightly, when you're an Australian-born -Palestinian-Muslim student in a posh non-Muslim school. It takes guts, but Amal is dead serious and won't listen to anyone telling her it's a crazy idea.

I really enjoyed reading this. My first thought was that it should be given to anyone who's ever wondered what a girl who wears the veil thinks and feels. What are the reasons behind her custom. Whether she was forced to wear it or she's proud of it. It answers all these questions and more, in a straight-forward way. But this is not simply a book with a message.
It's mainly a very funny, witty and engrossing read. Its main character Yamal is a strong-minded and extremely smart girl who sticks up for her traditions and culture, while being a normal teenager with everyday teenage problems like zits, boy crushes, bitchy queen bees and best friends with weight complexes. It's hard not to like her.
Then there're a myriad of secondary characters: Amal's classmates, her Muslim friends, her family, her grumpy Greek neighbour. They all make this book a pleasure to read. I especially loved Amal's relationship with Mrs Vaselli, the Greek neighbour. It has a bumpy start, but it gets warmer and heartfelt and bittersweet.

One underlining theme of the book was the different ways in which human beings can experience immigration. Some will try to forget their past and blend in with the locals, in the hope of being accepted as equals. Others will cling on their cultures, and stick together, so not to feel too far away from home, and to remember who they are. Others will never truly feel at home and will end regretting the journey all their lives.
And then there's the second generation, the kids like Amal, who are born in a country, but for many people, they will never belong because their parents came from somewhere else.
To Amal she is a real Australian and is entitled to the same rights as any other Australian citizen, but at the same time she's also a Muslim whose parents happened to be born in Palestine. Just like her friend Eileen whose parents are Japanese.
Although Amal is proud of her heritage and will always defend it against its detractors, you can definitely sympatise with her when she's constantly asked to respond for terrorists actions done in the name of her religion. Wearing the hijab makes it even harder, because it exposes her immediately to the public and it seems to give people the right to associate her with murderous acts committed by complete strangers. And while Amal can't tolerate to always having to defend herself, the author is also showing that is just ignorance and the media depiction of terrorists as simply Muslim which causes confusion and misunderstandings among people. When Amal decides to respond, she's always spot on: it's not about religion. Just like it wasn't about religion in Northern Ireland. It's about politics. It seems like a very easy thing to grasp when she says it, and yet, TV and newspapers makes it a lot harder to tell the difference.

Another aspect that it brilliantly dealt with is the treatment of women in Islam. Most of non-muslim would think that Islam would be suppressive of women's rights. While Amal has being brought up to stand up for herself, to believe in education as a means to achieve independence, and to protest when she's called a "chick" by her male friends.
When her Muslim friend is pushed by her mother to find a suitable husband so that she can leave school and be a good wife, Amal is appalled that her friend's mother considers this part of being a good Muslim. To her it's just part of a tradition, not of her religion.
While I don't know enough about Islam to say if this it true or not, I appreciate the author's efforts to show that not every Muslim thinks the same, and that there can be multiple interpretations of the same religion.

One thing that I had a bit of a problem, though, was with Amal's decision to avoid any physical contact with the opposite sex before marriage. I understand that it's part of her religion of which I know little about. But I do feel that it's very similar to the Christian idea of virginity as the highest form of purity and the idea of sex as sinful and impure. I strongly oppose this view , I believe it's unhealthy and unnatural. In the same way I shudder at the thought of virginity pacts and rings, I can't bring myself to warm up to Amal's idea of refusing any kind of promiscuity until she finds the right one with whom she will spend the rest of her life. I see it as a very unrealistic expectation which is bound to bring her disappointment. I know many won't agree and will tell me I should respect her right to choose not to have sex until marriage. I do respect it, but I don't agree with it, and I can't shut up about it.

Anyway, I'm really happy I read this, it has definitely open up my mind about many issues, and it has given me a rare insight in the mind of a teenage Muslim in a way both entertaining and satisfying. You shouldn't miss it.

Other views:
Reading in color
Books love me
Adventures in reading
Bookshelves of doom
What Kate is reading
Becky's Book reviews
I was a teenage book geek

Please let me know if I missed yours.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Ahhh look!

I hadn't realised but the new cover for Magic Under Glass has been revealed!

I know I'm stuck with this anyway,

which is alright, but the US cover has much more meaning now. I wish I could just have it in my hands now and read it. Knowing that it exists only because lots and lots of bloggers showed their outraged to the publisher. It's not just more accurate and fair, it's also a lot prettier than the old one, I think.

Monday 8 March 2010

Of Bees and Mist - Erick Setiawan

Why isn't this huge?
I haven't heard much about this gem of a pageturner around the blogs, but as soon as I saw it in the shop I knew I wanted to read it. The tag line reads: "Three strong women. Two feuding families. A singular story of enchantment". I didn't need more encouragement than that.
I was immediately hooked. The story was so easy to fall into although at first I was baffled by the use of supernatural elements, which I didn't know how to interpret. As soon as I got the hang of them, and managed to give them some kind of meaning, I dropped all my doubts and let my self be swept away by the story, the characters and the atmospheres.

Of Bees and Mist could be called a family saga, as it reminded me of how I felt when I first read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. It has also many elements of fairy tales, but I think it is ultimately a story of powerful and extremes emotions. Love, Pain, Jealousy, Loss, Betrayal, Forgiveness. It's a story of relationships, of strong friendship and strong hate. There's not a lot of mild feelings going on here.
Like The Thirteen Tale it avoids carefully to be set in any particular time. It also doesn't give you any name for the country is placed in, not even for the town the whole story revolves around.
This helped to achieve the feeling of a mythical story, with no time or space, which could have happened anywhere, and anytime. Not today though, at least not in Europe. Women here bring a dowry to their spouses. They give birth at home. They wear long dresses and have maids if they're rich. It definitely tells of a world gone by albeit one which can't be confined to any country.
Its mythical features were enhanced by the lack of a specific religion, and the influence that the "spirits" have in the characters' lives. They can take form in ghosts, good or bad omens, premonitions, dreams, visions. They are alive and present the whole time.
It's human beings, though, who have the leading roles, no matter how many supernatural elements it contains. Two women especially: Meridia and Eva.
We follow Meridia's life from her birth in a house chilled by an unforgiving cold, haunted by ghosts in mirrors and by misbehaving staircases, and by an angry mist that surrounds it constantly.
The trick to enjoy this story, I warn you, is to not ask too many questions. Everything has its own interpretation, but you need to keep reading, and to fall into the story, to capture them, layer by layer.
So, yes, there's the mists, and there's the cold. But there's mainly Meridia, a lonely and neglected child of a couple who used to adore each other and now can barely stay in the same room. Meridia's mum Ravenna who teaches her how to be proud and never show her true emotions, suffers from forgetfulness and thus is a vague presence in Meridia's childhood. Her father Gabriel is a stern and cruel man who has never shown her affection. So there's no wonder that when Meridia falls for charming and playful Daniel, she can't wait to marry him and get out of the house. She thought she was escaping the mists to embrace lightness and warmth. Instead she clashes against Eva, Daniel's mother, and from then on she embarks on a lifelong struggle to become independent, smart and strong, while holding on to her marriage and keeping away Eva's bees.
I'll stop here, cause as much as I'm dying to tell you everything I loved about the story and the characters, I'd hate it to spoil it for anyone.
So what more can I say to convince people to read it? That its writing is beautiful? It definitely is. That sometimes when I was reading it I'd forget where I was and outside noises (i.e. cars) would startled me a bit? Er, yes.
That you'd have great fun interpreting the various magical elements? I certainly did. For me they were both real and symbolic. They were simply manifestations of human feelings and actions. There were smells, winds, bees, fireflies, flowers, people becoming invisible, ghosts. Really, there's lots.
You could also say that it's a story about senses. There's plenty of them and they all have important roles. The smells, the tastes, the colours...They are strongly a part of the story and the characters. The food especially is ever present, and you can tell the author had a great time listing the wonderfully exotic and delicious-sounding dishes that Meridia shares with Hannah, her first friend at the Cinema Garden, or with Daniel at the festival of the spirits, or that Ravenna cooks furiously in her kitchen. When food is concerned be sure it won't be your regular meat with three veg.
Not everything is wonderful, though. There were few little things that annoyed me sometimes. I couldn't believe it when I read a passage where Meridia is furious and the narrator describes her by saying "She did not seem like a woman then, but a man far more determined than he was". Really? It seemed ironic, coming from a book like this, where female characters are so much more powerful and strong-minded than male ones. Which brings me to this other thing I didn't like much. The lack of good strong male characters. Daniel is a bit of a wimpy kid, and Gabriel is a block of ice. Like, literally. But the good thing is that these characters grow and change and they all come to show different aspects of themselves, which I really appreciate. No one-dimensional characters here, except for some very minor ones, but that's OK. Because there's this other minor character who I loved to bits and who makes up for all the weak ones, and I'm not gonna tell who it is, but if you read it you'll know.
So, there, when is everyone going to read this now, so I can talk more about it?

other opinions:
In the Shadow of Mt TBR
Joyfully retired
I'm booking it