Honour by Elif Shafak Review

elif shafak
Title: Honour
Author: Elif Shafak
Country: Turkey
Pages: 342
Year published: 2012
My rating: ★★★★☆

Mesmerizing and brilliant are two words that best describe the beautiful narrative that Elif Shafak encapsulates in her novels. Just like The Bastard of Istanbul, this book speaks about cultural identities and personal experiences in a way that is both original and captivating. The Guardian’s review of the book likens Shafak to Isabelle Allende, and I concur. While the style is not the same, and Shafak doesn’t do magical realism, there’s something about Honour that reminded me of Allende and her deeply moving novels.

The concept of honour has another meaning altogether in the East, and Shafak’s novel does an incredible job of pointing out how the unwritten laws of honour in Muslim societies have an impact on women’s (and men’s) lives.

Honour follows the story of Pembe, a woman born in Turkey who moved to London with her husband and had three children there. Even though they are all born in Britain, the children couldn’t be more different, and the eldest son, Iskender, has a tough time navigating through life in London while doing his best to be “a good Muslim.” When Pembe’s husband leaves for good, Iskender feels that it’s his job to protect the family’s honour. At this point, tragedy is only a matter of time.

The prose is beautiful, as I mentioned before, but some readers, myself included, may find the final plot twist a bit trite. This doesn’t change the fact that the novel is a powerful, insightful look into the life of a family of immigrants. Living in a suspended world, always looking back to their place of origin, and never being able to really integrate in the new community, the family has the story of millions of uprooted individuals who were lured by the West and its way of life only to discover that you need to let go of the past and lose yourself in the process of rebuilding yourself into someone rather unrecognizable. Very few can do it, so the rest are condemned to tragic lives in which the geography of the soul plays a lead role.

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman Review

A-Man-Called-Ove
Title: A Man Called Ove (original title “En man som heter Ove”)
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Henning Koch
Country: Sweden
Pages: 337
Year published: 2012
My rating: ★★★★☆

We often mistake grumpiness and curtness for misanthropy, but Frederik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Call Ove is here to prove us all wrong. The main character is so well-defined and memorable that it’s difficult not to like the book and feel sad when you reach the end.

Ove is a 60-something retired Swedish man who lives alone in a house he once shared with his late wife. He spends most of his day planning to follow her, but somehow all his attempts at suicide fail in a tragi-comic way.

He’s also that old man no one wants to have as a neighbour, because he’s adamant things must go a certain way. He doesn’t like technology, non-Swedish things, pets, children. He doesn’t like much, to be honest. But all this is about to change when an Iranian family moves next door.

As we follow Ove’s misadventures involving Parvaneh, his very pregnant new neighbour and her family, we discover more about the events in his life that made him the apparently grumpy old man he is now. The story is an emotional one without being sappy, and I ended up loving both Ove and Parvaneh, who are both transformed by their unusual relationship.

A Man Called Ove is a gem of a novel because it mixes uplifting scenes with very serious themes in a way that makes you think while enjoying yourself. It contains passages like this:

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for the living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”

And also things like this:

“Ove stomped forward. The cat stood up. Ove stopped. They stood there measuring each other up for a few moments, like two potential troublemakers in a small-town bar. Ove considered throwing one of his clogs at it. The cat looked as if it regretted not bringing its own clogs to lob back.”

So we have a comedy, a great love story in the past, a beautiful friendship in the present, and much more, all in just over 400 pages. It goes without saying that the book had a tremendous potential to turn into a movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I do have high expectations.

Waltzing to the Top – 10 Books I Read More Than Once

With so many great books piling up on my TBR list, who has time to re-read things? Am I right? But somehow, I sometimes find myself perusing through one of the books I enjoyed a lot, and by the time I close it, I’ve read 100 pages. Might as well finish it, then.

When I was a kid, re-reading was a big part of my bookish routine. Whenever I found a book I liked, I showed it a good time – which translates into reading it so many times I knew entire paragraphs by heart. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Karl May’s Winnetou are two titles that immediately come to my mind when I think about those years. I read both those books so many times, that at some point they started to lose pages.

Since I’ve become an adult, I don’t re-read as much, but I sometimes lapse and find myself emersed again in a book that was already marked as finished. I also like to revisit some of the books that had an impact on me, but I read them 15 years ago, so I want to see how they sound in the present. Here are 10 of the books I read more than once in the past years (as an adult, that is.)

1. Michael Cunningham – The Hours 

the hours

I first read The Hours in 2003 and then twice after that. The last time was in 2014 and I already feel the urge to revisit it again. This is, of course, one of my favorite books of all time, and I don’t know what I like more about it – its magnificent construction or the actual impeccable story. The Hours is one of the most profound books I have ever encountered, and Laura Brown is still one of my favorite (and relatable) characters ever. Oh, and the movie adaptation was terrific – what more could I possibly ask for?

2. Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day

the remains of the day

Another book with a movie adaptation that truly did it justice, The Remains of the Day will forever have a special place in my heart, mostly because it was one of the great reads that helped me get over a very difficult period in my life. But also because it’s awesome 🙂 It’s a story that’s immersing and deep in a way that few other books are. To say that Stevens is an unforgettable character is to state the obvious. When Ishiguro got his Nobel prize this year, I was thrilled, because let’s face it, how many times did your favorite author get the prize?

3. Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

the bell jar

I first read The Bell Jar when I was 17, and it was a bit of a shock to me to see that it is actually possible to write about mental breakdown and spiraling into insanity with such force and frankness. At the time, I became a bit obsessed with Plath and her life, which led me to read everything she wrote plus a couple of biographies. This is a haunting book that I read again with the eyes of an adult at 32 and I found it just as mesmerizing as I did the first time.

4. Elfriede Jelinek – The Piano Teacher

the piano teacher

The Piano Teacher is a book that hurts when you read, in a rather physical way. Whenever I think about this book, I remember the feelings I experienced when I read it for the first time in 2005. I felt punched and abused, almost in a torturous way. The novel is shocking, and the character of Erica is developed masterfully as she is caught between her darkest desires and social conventions. I read the book again in 2016 and I found it even more disturbing and touched by genius.

5. Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex

the second sex

Simone de Beauvoir is the woman who taught me that I’m not less than because I lack a penis. Before reading The Second Sex for the first time at about 15, I had this idea that my gender is somehow the sole decisive factor of my destiny, which caused me years of dark depressions. De Beauvoir kindly let me know that’s not the case, even though most of the people around me thought that being a feminist equals being a frigid child-hating lesbian. Thank you, Simone! I promise to revisit this book again, and if I ever have a child (girl or not), put it on their mandatory reading list.

6. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera

love in the time of cholera

Whenever I think about Love in the Time of Cholera, I get that warm-inside feeling that accompanies a good story that is written so very beautifully. With this book, I experienced something unique – taking a break from the story every couple of pages just to admire just how marvelous the writing is. I somehow feel that I miss a lot by reading the English translation, and if I ever learn to read an entire book in Spanish, Marquez will have had something to do with it.

7. Henryk Sienkiewicz – Quo Vadis

quo vadis

There was a time in my life when I was smitten with this book. Since then, I read it a couple more times, last time in 2009, and the story still seemed perfect to me. It may have something to do with the fact that I read Classics in school and I’m fascinated by ancient cultures, but anyhow, Quo Vadis and I had some pretty good times together.

8. Irving Stone – The Agony and the Ecstasy

the agony and the ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy is responsible for the development of my love for art and later obsession with museums. I read this book for the second time in 2016 while living in Florence for a month (no, not a coincidence, it was deliberate) and couldn’t believe just how much the story shaped my admiration for all things Renaissance. It’s also one of the very, very few books that made me cry at the end (actual tears).

9. Tracy Chevalier – Girl with a Pearl Earring

girl with a pearl earring

Another book about art, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a page-turner that’s memorable and so well-written it deserved a second read. With this book, you can actually visualise the colors and smells of medieval Delft and picture yourself in Vermeer’s studio. The painting that inspired the book is the number one reason I want to travel to the Hague.

10. Caitlin Moran – How to Be a Woman

how to be a woman

A very modern approach to feminism, How to Be a Woman tackles all the major themes that make a woman what she is, from the society’s obsession with breasts to the expectation that every woman should have children, even if she doesn’t have the desire to be a mother. I love Moran’s witty writing, and I also enjoyed How to Build a Girl tremendously.

 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult Review

 

small great things
Title: “Small Great Things”
Author: Jodi Picoult
Country: USA
Pages: 480
Year published: 2016
My rating: ★★★★☆

Not being a Picoult fan, I found it amazing that I liked this book so much. I only read My Sister’s Keeper, which I thought was good, but anything else I couldn’t get past the first 50 pages or so. With Small Great Things, I was hooked, so I recommend it even if you don’t regularly see you reading Picoult.

Some would say that Small Great Things is a terrific book because of its theme: an African-American maternity nurse fighting the system when she gets discriminated against by a white supremacist couple. The book addresses white privilege, justice, and prejudice while keeping the story human and managing to avoid being over-dramatic. What I liked most is the way Picoult managed to contain the narrative while pushing boundaries that are inherent in such an uncomfortable subject. She is a gifted storyteller and somehow manages to do justice to the subject brilliantly, even though at the end of the day, I’m not sure this is something a white writer can capture in its entirety.

Ruth Jefferson is a middle-aged African-American nurse and the single mom of a teenager, who one day finds herself in an impossible situation at work. A white supremacist couple demands that no black nurse is to touch their baby, but when the little one goes into cardiac arrest and Ruth is the only one there, she is torn between ignoring the order and upholding her oath. When the baby dies, Ruth goes on trial for murder.

The book is initially written in the voice of Ruth, but readers soon find out that there are in fact three narrators: Ruth, Kennedy McQuarrie, the white lawyer that defends her, and the father of the baby, Turk Bauer, a white supremacist figure covered in swastika tattoos and hurling racial slurs all day long.

As the narrative develops, I noticed how Kennedy’s voice is perhaps the loudest one in the book. Her character begins as that of an educated woman who claims that she “doesn’t see colour”, and ends as someone who realizes that being racist is a more complex problem than one’s stance on equal rights. As such, the book doesn’t seem to focus on Ruth and her story, but mostly on the way white individuals who believe that “they don’t have a racist bone in them” actually feel about race and privilege.

“Active racism is telling a nurse supervisor that an African American nurse can’t touch your baby. It’s snickering at a black joke. But passive racism? It’s noticing there’s only one person of color in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kid’s fourth-grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why. It’s defending a woman in court whose indictment directly resulted from her race…and glossing over that fact, like it hardly matters.”

I liked that Picoult doesn’t seem to have written the book as a dramatic account of how being racist is morally wrong. Instead, she manages to force her readers, presumably lots of white people, look at themselves. She doesn’t claim that she understands the struggle of being a black woman, but does a good job at making people understand that it’s not alright to sit idly and let things such as this happen, simply because white people don’t have to be scared they may be arrested because of the colour of their skin.

“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Granted, this is a work of fiction, but it resonates profoundly with how white people feel about race, and that’s what makes it an important read. At one point while preparing for trial, Ruth tells Kennedy:

“You say you don’t see color…but that’s all you see. You’re so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren’t prejudiced, you can’t even understand that when you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what it’s like to be put down because of the color of my skin.”

This is perhaps the most accurate paragraph I found in a book describing a feeling and a situation any white person found themselves at least once in connection to a non-white individual. Those who say “that’s not me” or worse “oh, that’s not me, I have black friends” should definitely have a good look at themselves and think again.

 

The Book of Fate by Parinoush Saniee Review

the book of fate
Title: “The Book of Fate” 
Author: Parinoush Saniee
Translator: Sara Khalili 
Country: Iran
Pages: 465
Year published: 2003
My rating: ★★★★☆

Spanning 50 years in the life of an Iranian woman, The Book of Fate managed to get banned twice in the author’s country of origin and gained a fulminating international success. It tells the story of Massoumeh, a woman who suffered abuse and repression her entire life, all on the turbulent political background of a country on the brink of war.

Arranged marriages, religious fanatism, domestic abuse and persecution on political grounds are just some of the themes of the novel. I have read several books centered on the lives of Muslim women in countries such as Iran, Turkey, or Afghanistan in the last years because I somehow find myself drawn to the power these persecuted women display, in a way that seems unfathomable to someone Western-born. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi, The Bastard of Istanbul and Honour by Elif Shafak, Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini all had a powerful impact on me, and The Book of Fate has been everything I could expect from a book with this theme.

Massoumeh is a young girl who’s a bit too ambitious and open-minded for her own good in a country where women are expected to shut up, get married, produce babies, and serve their husband until the day they die. Her family moved to Tehran from a small town, and she dreams of going to the University. This is well before the Iranian revolution, in a time when women could technically still pursue academic careers. Her father is actually supportive of Massoumeh and lets her get away with things such not wearing the chador and going to school accompanied only by her good friend Parvaneh.

So, unlike other stories of Muslim girls with broken dreams, the father is not the source of the problem. Her mother and her three very abusive brothers are the ones who want to see Massoumeh married as soon as possible so as not to compromise the family’s “honour.” When she makes the mistake of falling in love with a young pharmacist, she suffers tremendous beatings and emotional abuse from her family, followed by a forced marriage to a man she meets the day of the wedding.

From here, Massoumeh’s life unravels at a rapid pace, mostly because her new husband is someone deeply implicated in planning the Revolution. I won’t give away too much, but suffice to say Massoumeh is in for a ride, not necessarily a pleasant one. When the book ends in a way that was just a tad too painful to read, she is a changed woman who bears little resemblance to the starry-eyed teenager she once was.

Besides being an account of Massoumeh’s life, The Book of Fate offers an intimate insight into the life of an Iranian family and does so with disconcerting candor. It also goes to prove the lengths a woman can go to protect her children, sometimes paying for it with her own wellbeing and happiness.

Massoumeh takes selflessness to the next level, one that in my opinion is a bit too much, and those who feel like me are going to be disappointed with the book’s ending. All in all, it’s one of those stories that you don’t want to end even if you think that the main character could definitely use a break.