Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

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Laleh Khadivi – A Good Country

Reza Courdee is living the typical teenage life in California. He has got his friends with whom he likes to spend time surfing in the ocean and haging around at the beach and he also has his first crush and makes first sexual experiences. He plays soccer and he is highly achieving in school. Yet, with his new bunch of friends, he neglects his former interests and spends more time consuming drugs and doing nothing which does not really agree with his parents’ – immigrants from Iran – expectations for their son. However, one day, his life starts to change: Reza, born in the USA, is suddenly the immigrant, a terrorist and his friends start to question their friendship. He becomes more and more isolated and thus joins a group of Muslims who find relief and support in the local mosque. Most of all Fatima is attracted by the strong believers and the hip American girl, who easily shared her bed with Reza, starts not only wearing a hijab but also following the strict rules of Koran.

I really liked how Laleh Khadivi elaborates the topic of finding your identity on different levels. In the beginning, we seem to encounter the average teenager who does not share his parents’ beliefs and finds his ideas much more mirrored in his peer group. A slight disdain for the elder generation is not uncommon at this age. The fact that his Americanizes his name “Reza” into “Rez” also shows that it is this culture and not his familial background that he identifies with. I also found quite remarkable how the parents cope with their own immigration history and their culture. They eat in the old Iranian style, but try to integrate into the American culture since they are grateful for the lives they can lead there. They do not seem to convey that much of their past to their son. This only happens after Rez is identified as an immigrant, which he apparently is not since he was born in California. His interest in his family life is only born at the moment when he is excluded from the culture he always considered to be his own. His drifting away from the parents now leads to a new rapprochement in order to create the new self and to identify who he is and where he comes from. The most thought-provoking step in this development is definitely the encounter with Islam. As a reader you can effortlessly understand why this is attractive and how and why radicals do not have any problems winning over second or third generation immigrants for their ideas. It is absolutely convincing why Fatima and the others are magnetized and easy comply with the codes.

Yet, it is not only the immigrants’ perspective which is worth scrutinizing in this novel, it is also the behaviour of the “native” population which should be taken into account. When did we start seeing our friends and acquaintances not anymore as whom they are but as “Muslims” or “immigrants”? Which effects do global and local acts of terrorism have on our own life? And to what extent to be transfer personal pain due to the loss of a beloved person onto others who are not at all connected with the incident which caused our grief?

If you are open, as a reader, to question yourself, you will surely find food for thought in this novel.

Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

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Mahsuda Snaith – The Things We Thought We Knew

Ravine and Marianne are best friends. Friends 4ever, the two 8-year-olds believe. Ten years later, Ravine is suffering from chronic pain syndrome and can hardly leave her bed. However, it is not only the illness that makes her suffer, but also her memories and now that her 18th birthday has come, she seems to be ready to confront the past. She is writing to Marianne, narrating what she recollects about their time together and with Marianne’s brother Jonathan, about both their dysfunctional families – Ravine’s father who ran away before she was even born and Marianne and Jonathan’s mother who was an alcoholic and didn’t really care for them – about Marianne’s uncle Walter coming to live with them and disappearing again and about that one evening which changed the lives of all the three of them.

“The Things We Thought We Knew” is an unusual coming-of-age novel. First of all because the protagonist who narrates the story is seriously ill and bedridden – how can a major event happen to such a character and change her life? Well, this happened already years before and thus we get a teenager’s view on the things which happened when she was a child. This is quite uncommon since we do not encounter the grown-up, rationally thinking adult who analyses what happened and has reflected on everything. Ravine is still in this process of becoming an adult, unsure of how to proceed and where her life will lead her. She is struggling with her mother and you can still at times see the child she once was in her.

The flashbacks, her memories of the past, the childhood which should have been carefree and was everything but are narrated in a child-suitable tone somehow as if Ravine could really slip in her former self and tell her story from the 8-year-old’s point of view.

The plot, alternating between the present and the past, has some suspense to offer. You surely want to know about the whereabouts of Marianne and about her family’s story developed. And there are secrets of the past to be revealed by Ravine. Yet, also the 18-year-old Ravine is at a crossroad of her life and it is not obvious which way she will decide for and is she is ready to make a decision at all, apparently, something needs to trigger her so move on, so what could this momentum be for a girl lying in bed?

What I appreciated most was the tone of the novel which made the characters come alive and which was well adapted to their age. All in all, a noteworthy debut novel.

S. K. Ali – Saints and Misfits

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S. K. Ali – Saints and Misfits

Janna Yusuf is an ordinary teenager who sometimes has fights with her single mother, who loves to read and works hard for school. But she is also the girl who wears an hijab, who does voluntary work with her elderly neighbour and who is in love with a non-Muslim boy named Jeremy. Her life is already complicated enough, but then her brother moves back in and courts Saint Sarah, the perfect and angelic girl of the community. And then there is Farooq who has been memorizing the Quran and is the preferred wunderkind of the community. But this is just one side of him, Janna also knows the other face of him: Farooq the stalker and molester who tried to rape her. Caught between those extremes in her life, Janna tries to find out who she is and which values she wants to follow in her life.

This is not just a typical coming-of-age novel of a young girl struggling with typical teenage problems. What is most interesting in S.K. Ali’s novel is the fact of living between two cultures or better: between two worlds which collide from time to time and which expect different codes to be obeyed from the people walking in them.

Janna is a really lovable character. She is neither the perfect nor the rebellious teenager, she shows different moods and has good days and bad days. She is a caring person, but nevertheless admits that taking care of her neighbour is paid which is an advantage. Yet, she enjoys spending time with the old man who triggers her reflection about herself and life. She is also quite attentive and a minute observer of the behaviour of her classmates and the people around her. She knows the rules of the Quran and follows them, but at times, she also wants to be free and live the life according to her own standards. The author portrays those contradictions in the girls really convincingly and thus paints a multifaceted picture of Janna.

Apart from the question which or rather whose expectations a believing young woman will fulfil, there was one aspect which I myself as a Christian found pretty noteworthy. Janna has a friend who wears a niqab. She herself has only decided for a headscarf which she only takes off for her all-girl sports lessons or at home. But when she feels increasingly stalked by Farooq, she begins to wonder about wearing a niqab which could make her disappear from the people’s sight. A completely covered woman becomes invisible and she would like to be unseen at times. From her story it is easy to follow and understand this thought and I think it is an important aspect in the discussion about Muslim women and their covering.

Even though I highlighted the religious ones, there are many more interesting and remarkable aspects in the novel which make it for me an absolutely outstanding book in the mass of coming-of-age novels. The cast of characters is unique and none of them is flat and one-dimensional, the plot itself offers much food for thought and is all but the typical off-the-rack foreseeable novel of the genre.

Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

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Karen McManus – One Of Us Is Lying

Five students of Bayview High School have to go to detention for having a cell phone with them. They all swear that the mobiles do not belong to them and that they don’t have the least idea how they ended up in their backpacks. Bronwyn, the perfect student with a flawless record and surely a place at one of the Ivy League colleges; Nate, the constant loser who is currently on probation for drug dealing; Cooper, a promising baseball player; Addy, the girlfriend of one Bayview High’s most wanted boys; and Simon, on the one hand an outsider, on the other the creator and head behind the school’s gossip app who seems to know all the secrets of his class mates. Just a couple of minutes later, Simon is dead and the four remaining students are the prime suspects. Actually, all of them have something to hide as the police soon finds out and their secrets might have lead each single student to murder. They all plead innocent, but apparently one of them must be lying.

I really enjoyed this combination of young adult with crime novel. Karen McManus’ four protagonists are interestingly drawn, very singular characters which – of course – show some stereotypical features but which I think is normal for their age where you try to play some role and fit in. The author plays with the reader in bit by bit revealing more about the teenagers and their individual flaws and weaknesses. I did not really expect all of them having these secrets which, in fact, are everything but harmless and could really destroy their lives – well, that’s what happens when they are a finally revealed.

I liked the arc of suspense a lot. First of all, there has been a murder quite at the beginning of the story and of course you want to know who committed the crime. But then, all protagonists one after the other tell you that they have something to hide without immediately illuminating you. So apart from the search for the murderer, there is much more you want to find out and which makes you keep on reading.

For me, “One of US is Lying” can easily equal novels such as Jay Ashers “Thirteen Reasons Why”, Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” or E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars”.

Julian Fuhrman – This is How We Talk

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Julian Fuhrman – This is how we talk

An evening in Tel Aviv, Yonatan finds himself outside his home without money and no idea where to go. He thinks deep into the city’s nightlife, with alcohol, women and drugs. How could he end here in the streets between party-goers and protesters? He once had a plan, for the time after his gap year after the IDF, a career as a photographer, a loving wife and a son. But also Lia, his wife, has to find her place and has to cope not only with the demons of her past, but also with the picture she had of her brother. Just like her sister Sharon who tries to forget and not confront all the negative events that happen in her life by filling her day with work.

I struggled a bit with the novel at first. The narrative structure which always alternates between the present and different points in the past was not very easy to sort out at first. However, this gave it a lot more dynamics and made it actually livelier. I found Yonatan’s and Lia’s story quite interesting, especially having two opposite characters approaching the same point of culmination. I can see what the other two characters contributed to the story, but I could have done without them.

What I appreciated most was the fact how Julian Fuhrman caught the atmosphere of Israel. On the one hand, the carefree and light-hearted nightlife in which you can indulge and forget. On the other hand, being threatened by war and confronted with actual bombings is also a part of their life. Likewise, the question if, as an Israeli, you can befriend an Arab – to which extend do political implications limit your personal sphere? The necessary and mandatory service in the army and the need to flee from this time after having completed the IDF – a constant crucial test of the love for your country. The protesters and their fight for affordable housing and food, it was reported worldwide about this movement and Fuhrman thus integrated very mundane aspects in the novel which rendered the characters and the plot authentic. In the centre, of course, the basic conflict between Lia and Yonatan. How can you love joyfully in those circumstances and make you love last?

A novel which traps the attitude towards life of a whole generation.

Daniel Galera – The Shape of Bones

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Daniel Galera – The Shape of Bones

Porto Alegre, early in the morning. A man gets up to meet his friend for a hiking trip. He does not wake up his wife or child. Yet, instead of getting to the meeting point, he decides to go somewhere else. A place he left years ago. A place of his past, where one day, he decided to become to man he is now. While getting closer to his destination, memories of the past, long ago buried deep in his brain, come to the surface and he has to face the worst moment of his life again. Today, he needs to do something about it, but can he ever correct what he has done wrong so long ago?

I needed some time to get into the novel. At first, I could not really get together the two plot lines and then I was not really sure which of the boys of the past is the man we get to know in the present. However, while reading and while slowing understanding Daniel Galera’s narrative, more and more suspense is created and you get curious to know what happened, what made him to man we see now.

From the innocent cyclist, he turns into a carefree teenager who enjoys himself with his friends. At the end, he is a rational, rather unemotional and very controlled adult. The relationship with his wife seems to be hardly affectionate, I was not sure if their marriage was already at an end or if this was really due to his character. In his profession, he is considered a prodigy. The doctor who everybody wants to consult, who can communicate with the patients and who is selflessly sacrificing his life for others. Yet, we slowly learn about his dark sides and the decisive point in his life which is not only a surprise, but also a very convincing explanation for how the character could develop in this way.

All in all, not a novel you can easily access, but it is worth the effort to get a complex psychological analysis of a very interesting character.

Elif Batuman – The Idiot

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Elif Batuman – The Idiot

1995, Selin, daughter of Turkish immigrants, has just finished high school and can leave New Jersey behind to study in Harvard. She is unsure of what to study, where to begin to understand the miracles of life and the world. It is literature and linguistics that capture her attention first. She studies Russian and tries to understand the mechanism of how language works. She makes friends with Svetlana, a Serbian classmate, and Ivan from Hungary with whom she sits in the Russian classes. She falls in love with the charismatic mathematician who quite often shows strange behaviour. But in writing each other emails, they find a way of expressing their feelings. Selin seizes the chance to go to Ivan’s native country in summer with a programme to teach English in remote villages. This is where she really gets an impression of the world, much more than all her courses in Harvard could ever teach her.

Elif Batuman’s protagonist Selin is a very attention-grabbing character. On the one hand, she is quite intelligent and intellectual, on the other, she is completely incompetent when it comes to dealing with people and analysing her feelings. This makes it difficult for her to understand the relationships she has. At the beginning, she needs the simplistic Russian-for-beginners story about a young woman falling in love to parallel her own feelings, later, when she leaves her English-speaking environment, the misunderstandings due to lack of language knowledge somehow work as a cover for her. She is absolutely ignorant about who is she and who she wants to be. Literature is her way of learning about people.

The novel’s title has been borrowed from Dostoyevsky, yet there are no clear parallels to be found by me. The only one might be in the protagonists’ character, both Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel and Selin are open-hearted and innocent-naïve when they enter into contact with the real world.  They are somehow unique and do not have an easy start in adult life. Selin is always afraid that she is not intellectual enough for Harvard, she wants to say meaningful things and starts questioning even single words. Thus, she spirals down to appoint where there is no meaning anymore. From the bottom, she has to create meaning for herself anew.

Apart from the two very noteworthy and fascinating characters of Selin and Ivan, what I appreciated most was the style of writing. Batuman plays with the content, the psychology and philosophy of language is paralleled in her writing, it sometimes breaks down to very plain sentences and then they are full of double meanings. The author is especially strong in finding metaphors and comparisons, in particular with nature which brings the theoretical cogitation back down to earth.

It is not a very typical coming-of-age novel, it is much more intellectual and demanding, but nevertheless I also found it entertaining.