The Convert by Deborah Baker – Book Review

The Convert by Deborah Baker
Published by Graywolf Press

One might think that a young Jewish girl growing up during WWII in New York would, if anything, feel a strong kinship to her Jewish roots. Logic seems to suggest that the intense suffering of one’s people might make one more determined than ever to hold onto faith and cultural identity. Such was not the case, however, with Margaret (Peggy) Marcus. From an early age, Peggy was obsessed with the idea of Arab peoples and Islam. For her, the creation of the nation of Israel was an equal injustice to the people of Palestine as anything the Jews had ever suffered, the repeated lauding of Zionism by those around her was endlessly disturbing to her and, in the end, caused her to renounce her religious and cultural heritage. Before long, Peggy turned to Islam and became Maryam Jameelah, moved to Pakistan, and began producing copious writings against the tyranny of materialism and lack of spiritualism in the West. It is this transformation that Baker attempts to address in The Convert: A Tale of Islam and Extremism.

I say that Baker attempts to address this transformation, because I question the effectiveness of her approach. The storytelling was very nonlinear – from Maryam’s trip to Pakistan, to the extensive history of the man who would serve as her guardian, back to her childhood, and then through her early years in Pakistan. It seemed that this flow may have followed Baker’s own discovery of Maryam’s story, but that is not completely obvious. If it was Baker’s plan for The Convert to have a feel similar to the discovery journey approach of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she needed to insert herself farther into the story, and give the reader a better idea of her background and biases; if it was her plan to write a more objective tale, she needed to be much less in the story. Baker directs at Maryam what can only be described as a rant at the end of Chapter 8, a moment that seemed very much out of place with the rest of the book.

The Convert is the type of book that really requires the reader to have the full story on the author. At the very end, in Baker’s note on methodology, it becomes apparent that many of the letters presented in a straightforward manner throughout the book were actually edited, and even rewritten, events moved from one letter to another, by Baker, in an attempt to make her story flow more smoothly and make more sense. She does succeed in making roughly the middle third of the book, comprised primarily of Maryam’s letters, flow very nicely, but at what cost? Without any idea about Baker’s biases and motivation, this is very problematic, as the reader is left without any idea to what extent letters were changed and to what purpose. It is hard to know how far to trust Baker, especially in light of the aforementioned rant.

The idea behind The Convert is a fascinating one: what makes a young woman of privilege drastically change her life and travel to what would to her be a very foreign country and rail against her native land? Sadly, the execution just was not there.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, for Book Club – discussion today.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda – Book Review

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

In rural India, Kavita Merchant’s first child is born a girl, causing her husband Javu to take the baby from her and give it to his brother to dispose of. Javu rationalizes that they need a son to help in the fields, and they would have to pay a dowry to get any girl married off, a daughter would be nothing more than a burden. Kavita does not accept this reasoning so easily, however. When her second pregnancy comes to term, she first hides her labor from him, and then demands to be given one night with the baby she has named Usha. Instead of allowing her second daughter to be killed as well, this newly delivered mother walks from her rural village to Mumbai in order to place Usha in an orphanage where she might have hope of a better life.

Meanwhile, in California Somer and her husband Krishnan are struggling with infertility. Krishnan was born and raised in Mumbai, coming to America only for undergraduate and medical school, until he fell in love with and married Somer, also a physician. After Somer repeatedly fails to get pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, Krishnan suggests that they might want to turn to adoption, and recommends that they use an orphanage his mother patronizes in Mumbai. Other than bringing home their precious Asha, however, their trip to India is somewhat of a disaster. Somer feels ignored and left out, that she doesn’t fit in, and this remnant of her time in India carries over into her life with her husband and child going forward, leads her to attempt to keep both of them away from India.

This was an incredibly moving book. I nearly cried for both Kavita and for Somer within the first 50 pages of the book: Kavita for the loss of her first daughter and the deep sadness of having to give up Usha; Somer for the pain of being able to have the child she wanted so dearly. Somer was a bit of a cold character for much of the middle of the book, which made her somewhat hard to connect to, but she felt very real to me, regardless. She was so afraid of losing what she had that she all but pushed it away for her.

I loved Gowda’s writing and got completely carried away with the story she was telling. Often Somer’s coldness would keep me from immersing myself fully into the book, but the emotional beginning to “Secret Daughter” pulled me in before I had a chance to get turned off by my lack of connection with one of the main characters. It let me see Somer as a real person whose motivations I could understand, even if i didn’t always agree with her behavior.

This was a fabulous story from a very talented debut author. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book received from a friend.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok – Book Review

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

When Kim was 11 years old, she and her mother moved from Hong Kong to New York. They seemed to be lucky in their move, Kim’s aunt was already in America and was able to help them get their green cards, give them housing when the arrived, help them find a more permanent residence, and employ Kim’s mother in the factory she managed. Until, that is, they realized that they were paying huge amounts from their paltry paychecks in loan repayment, were living in a dwelling unfit for human habitation (they had to heat the apartment by leaving the stove on), and that they were unable to meet their deadlines at the factory without Kim working long hours with her mother after school. Basically, not at all the life they expected when coming to America.

Luckily, Kim and her mother do have some hope for the future. Kim is an extraordinarily bright girl, and always excelled in her classes in Hong Kong. All she needs is to do the same thing in America, and then eventually she can rescue her mother from this life. Of course, success in school in Hong Kong doesn’t immediately translate to success in school in Brooklyn. First, Kim must navigate the cultural differences between her family and the people around her – and try to translate kidspeak.

“Girl in Translation” is an absolutely lovely novel, as is evidenced from the very first two pages (this quote is from an ARC, and may have changed in the final copy):

There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At the time it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted was finally within reach. I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.

lf I had any criticism, I would say that at times Kim did not have enough flaws; she had huge reserves of strength and determination that kept her forever moving in the right direction. Perhaps she wasn’t always good, but neither did she ever really seem weak. However, I could accept her strength because she had essentially no choice but to be continually strong. If she could not do that, she and her mother would be lost under the press of their financial woes and limited options.

Interestingly, I was reading through “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” at the same time as I was reading “Girl in Translation” and couldn’t help but see some similarities: the impoverished family, the father more or less out of the picture, the mother working incredibly hard, the daughter choosing to become educated no matter what the difficulties.

At the risk of sounding corny, this is a fabulous coming-of-age novel about the power of education and determination. Not only that, but the writing is gorgeous and Kim is a compelling character. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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