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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Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mockett – Book Review

Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Matsuki Mockett
Published by Graywolf Press

Life is not easy for a single woman and her daughter in post-war Japan. Satomi and her mother are making a living, but Atsuko’s presence as a smart, engaging, unmarried woman is seen as threat to the other women in their small, rural community. As such, Atsuko and Satomi were always made to feel as outsiders, a situation that was perhaps not helped by Satomi’s status as a musical prodigy. Atsuko is determined that Satomi’s life will be richer and more fulfilling than her own has been, discouraging her from a domestic future in favor of a life that will incorporate Satomi’s artistic abilities. When the unexpected happens, however, Satomi must learn how to make a new life for herself, because the life she has known is gone. The story picks up again with Satomi’s daughter Rumi living in San Francisco, having never known the mother she believes is dead. As new people come into Rumi’s life, however, she finds herself forced to examine her past and learn about the mother who has always been notable only in her absence.

Picking Bones from Ash is a lovely story of identity, family, and fitting in, among other things. The title comes a passage – relatively early in the book, this really isn’t a spoiler – after Atsuko passes away in Satomi’s absence:

I had missed my mother’s cremation and so had not been present when Mineko, Chieko, and the rest of their family had stood around her still-hot remains to remove her bones from the ash. They would have used chopsticks to do this, culling only the most essential parts of her body and placing them inside an urn, which was then set inside a box. – p. 98

Not knowing anything about funerary practices in Japan, I found this passage both shocking and beautiful. The thought of a family gathering around the remains of a loved one and doing something so intensely personal as picking out the bones with chopsticks is somewhat mind boggling, but at the same time, what better way to reiterate the loving bond of family, that you take care of one another even after death. And yet, if this is your own mother, one who you loved dearly, how heartbreaking to have missed such a ritual, to have it attended to only by your stepsisters and their families.

The place of women in the world over the last 50 years, the relationships between mother and daughter and their effect on the relationships of the next generation, the interaction of East and West. Add these things to a compelling story and sympathetic characters and you have a great novel. You also have Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mockett. Recommended.

We will be discussing Picking Bones from Ash on March 22, 2011 at Linus’s Blanket.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, for BOOK CLUB.
* 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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The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah – Book Review

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1944, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is somewhat removed from the rest of the world, enough that a nine year-old boy would not know that the rest of the world had been embroiled in a bitter war. Of course, even without knowledge of the war, Raj has a very painful life of his own, growing up in a small, poor village with a violently alcoholic father, and losing his two brothers to a storm. His life is difficult enough that things actually seem to be looking up with Raj is hospitalized at the prison his father works for – the only hospital facility around – and meets David. Raj doesn’t understand why David and so many other light skinned men and women are imprisoned, on Mauritius the white men are the ones who are in charge, not the ones found in prison. Regardless, though, he and David are immediate friends, more like brothers, really.

The Last Brother is framed from the modern-day adult perspective of Raj, and we know almost immediately that something tragic happened during his time with David, although it is only through his recollection of the past that we discover exactly what it was. This is a rather short book – less than 200 pages – but it is so richly evocative of place and emotion that it feels just as meaty as something twice as long. Having Raj frame the story as an adult lends the more reflective and retrospective feel that is really crucial to this story, while still allowing the narration of Raj as a nine year-old to be authentic.

Besides being very well written and translated, The Last Brother gives the reader a peek at a story of World War II that most of us have never read, that of the 1500 European Jews who were turned away from Palestine and detained as illegal immigrants on Mauritius for years. More information about this historical reality can be found in Nathacha Appanah’s interview with Tablet Magazine.

Don’t let the slim volume fool you, The Last Brother is a powerful novel that packs a huge emotional punch. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: Publisher, for BOOK CLUB.
* 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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The Report by Jessica Francis Kane – Book Review

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1943, a shelter in Bethnal Green, London became the site of the largest civilian accident of World War II. Citizens of Bethnal Green, anticipating a retaliatory air strike, crowded into the station. Before 9pm, 173 of them were dead, although the Germans did not bomb London that night. After the accident, there was much finger-pointing in many directions: from the lack of light and the late arrival of the constable to the general existence of Jewish refugees. In order to quell unrest, the government appoints the young and popular local magistrate, Laurence Dunne, to conduct a private investigation. He works with surprising speed to create a report he hopes will mend the broken ties of the city in general and Bethnal Green in particular.

When I picked up “The Report,” I expected a competent novelization of a fascinating historical event and mystery. I also expected the account to be somewhat dry, if interesting, based both on the less than titilating title and the fact that it is essentially the story of how a governmental report came to be. Still, I was interested enough in the Bethnal Green tragedy, of which I had never heard before, to give it a go.

How wrong I was to be expecting something dry!

Kane takes an ensemble cast of characters and manages to make all of their stories compelling, without spending so much time on character development that she loses the thread of the story. A major element in this success is the inclusion of a secondary storyline, that of a documentary film maker – who has his own ties to the tragedy – who contacts Dunne to enlist his help in a documentary that will memorialize the 30th anniversary of Dunne’s report. This storyline serves as a nice foil to the primary storyline,  moving events along and explaining what is necessary, without being overly expository.

“The Report” is a surprisingly compelling novel about a seemingly unlikely subject. A fabulous read if you are at all curious to explore history and human nature. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
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Amazon
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This review was done with a book received from the publisher for review.
* 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.