A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us CoverHonestly, I think I like this book better in retrospect than I did while reading it. And that fact is both a positive and negative. There were times I just wasn’t that interested in picking up the book again, but I did and was glad I did.

On the positive side, Mirza does such a good job of making her characters real. I was often cringing at what Amar might do next. It feels obvious that he has a good heart and he wants to do the right thing, but he is lost; he doesn’t know how to fit in–in his community, in his family, in his own mind. And his mother, his sisters, even Amira don’t know how to help him either because despite the love they feel for one another, they do not know how to share their feelings–everyone assuming that everyone else had everything figured out–and Amar is the most lost of all of them, not being able to find footing in the shifting sands between old world and new. Yes, this is a positive. Mirza’s skill at characterization brings them all to life. We feel for them; we want to laugh, cry, and yell with/at them.

Nonetheless, I was not always engaged in the reading because of the way Mirza shifts perspective and time throughout the first three parts of the novel. This stylistic choice does not necessarily have to be a negative. I enjoy seeing a story from multiple perspectives. Maggie Estep’s Hex, Gargantuan, and Alice Fantastic or George R.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice make use of the technique quite successfully. However, Mirza fails to signal the shifts adequately. Too often I had to reread a section, or part of it, to figure out WHEN we are in the narrative. (See spoiler alert below for an example.)

The fourth part which culminates the novel is my favorite. It is all from one perspective, Rafiq’s, full of his experiences as an old man and his reflections on his own life and his interactions with his children, particularly Amar. He even speaks directly to an absent Amar, trying to explain himself, to say all those things he didn’t know how to say earlier. No, this part wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier parts from the others’ perspectives, particularly Amar’s and Layla’s, but here is where Mirza’s prose shines. Her nostalgic tone draws us in and draws her tale to a successful conclusion (leaving me with that retrospective appreciation for the novel).

Ultimately, A Place for Us is a heartbreaking/heartwarming novel of family life and the clash when old world meets new. I recommend it for your book club–there’s lots to discuss.

***SPOILER ALERT: You can skip this part if you haven’t read the book.
One example of a particularly confusing shift occurs when Layla goes to Seema about Amar and Amira’s relationship. I read most of that section thinking, “But what does this matter now? Amira has already broken things off with Amar.” Of course, she hadn’t. We’d seen that scene from Amar’s point of view. Now we are learning the motivation for it. It’s actually a clever tactic that is so poorly signaled that we lose our connection to the story. Our narrative engagement is broken trying to figure out the shift. ***SPOILER ENDS



Fahrenheit 451

I’ve known “the story” of this book for ages, but I’ve only just actually read it because I have to teach it (next week). I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. Even basically knowing the plot, I was riveted. There is so much of this 1950 novel relevant to today, not only the censorship and the perception of a waning interest in reading (though not among my friends and family), but also in Bradbury’s prescient images of individual will consumed by social media. I am still working out how I will use the description of Mildred at the end with my students. I see such a resemblance to the blank stares and meaning chatter one hears from those with airpods in their ears and their eyes stuck on a screen. (Yes, I get the irony of the fact that I’m writing this, and you’re reading this on a screen.)

Then, there is Bradbury’s “Coda,” written in 1979. I found myself cheering on this curmudgeonly voice saying, “Leave my works alone! If you don’t like it write your own!” (Not an actual quotation. Just what I sum his position up as.)

I am looking forward to taking about this with my students.

Here is New York

20190705_082143.jpgYesterday was the 4th of July, and while I did not go to a barbeque (that’s ahead, on Sunday with the fam), I did enjoy some fireworks in the sky on my drive home from my mom’s. What I did not enjoy were the fireworks that someone set off either in our driveway or just behind it at 12:35 am–and I am not talking just fire crackers, but full blown stars and sprays of color and booms of sound basically right outside our window. I couldn’t see who it was, and that’s probably a good thing.

Unfortunately, I was so startled awake from a sound sleep that my heart was racing and I could not go back to sleep. I got up instead, reached for my book stack, and read Here is New York by E. B. White. It is a charming little book, this edition with essentially two essays about that grand place I call home: White’s original 1948 essay and Roger Angell’s 1999 “Introduction” to this edition. Both are worth your time, which they won’t take much of; I read them both in an hour in the middle of the night and will definitely read them again.

White wrote this essay after having moved out of New York; he was enticed back one hot August to write a piece about New York for Holiday magazine. This interestingly gave him three perspectives from which to view the city: young newcomer, eager and full of hope; resident, working, living and falling in love; out-of-towner, returned tourist noticing the changes. In fact, the changes are integral to White’s essay; New York changes at an amazing pace; both he and Angell, writing fifty years later, note that it is “the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date.” White focuses on the gifts of New York being its privacy and loneliness–probably not the first two words that come to mind when you think of New York. Yet, he makes it work in his own way, the way one can be private in a crowd of people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and lonely on a crowded subway.

White has great disdain for the commuter and depicts a stereotype of a frazzled man boarding trains like a lemming, working in an office like a drone, and living like a plastic man in the suburbs. I cannot agree with White here, but I can appreciate his view, especially remembering that 1947 was immediately post-WWII, and the dream of the suburbs was looming large. In addition, White’s New York is Manhattan only–like many a native and transplanted Manhattanite, that is New York, with only a sidelong glance at Brooklyn and bare mention of the Bronx; Queens and Staten Island are a suburb and ignored, respectively. Nonetheless, Manhattan is the New York most tourists flock to, and writing for a travel magazine and being a former transplanted Manhattanite himself, it is natural that this be his focus.

What is charming is not only White’s style that is both descriptive and contemplative, but also noticing how much has not changed despite the demise of the Automat, the Layfayette Hotel, and others. Roger Angell thought White would have deplored the crime and violence and poverty of New York at the turn of the millenium as well as the proliferation of chain magnets replacing Mom & Pop stores in the neighborhoods he described with reverence. Yet, Angell notes, there were positive changes too that he would have like to share with his step-father.

Twenty years later, I read Here is New York for the first time and am charmed by it and them. I think White would still find something to love in New York and still find the privacy and loneliness he describes as New York’s greatest gifts. Despite the proliferation of flashing colors, loud sounds, and constant connectivity, New York still harbors its old self, its neighborhoods, beneath the veneer of neon and plasma.

Summer Book Stack



Add in Educated by Tara Westover, which is on my Kindle…

This may be a bit ambitious for summer reading, but three of them are rereads, and I’m already halfway through the Deep Magic Anthology… and who knows, I may change my mind as the summer goes along. I’m already thinking that I may need to add in a Muirwood book too (but once I start those, I usually can’t stop!) Or a Clifton Chronicles. And some poetry, of course!

What are your reading plans this summer?

Mrs. Dalloway Completion Paper

Mrs DallowayI assigned a “completion paper”to my students write immediately upon their finishing Mrs. Dalloway, that is, to write a stream-of-consciousness response to the novel. My directions were a bit more involved than that to help them get their feet wet, but that’s essentially it. And I did the same, even though this was not my first read. Here is my response.

And so, let me begin. Mrs. Dalloway. I still love this book. Why? There is a quietness to it and a profundity. It is life–1920s London life, yes, but still, that’s in the details. In the style and the philosophy, there is much that holds true. We are connected to each other by slender threads and odd instances of perchance. Like Sir William Bradshaw going to Clarissa’s party and bringing Septimus namelessly with him through his excuse for their tardiness. A perfectly reasonable occurrence. And Clarissa is deeply affected- first in anger and then in agitation, and finally in some sort of understanding. Yet, no one (other than the readers) will ever know that. Nor will they ever know that the death Sir Bradshaw so unknowingly facilitates and yet mourns as he brings it to Clarissa’s is the same one Peter hears the ambulance for which he heralds as a “one of the triumphs of civilization” (151)– which in this case is the opposite, isn’t it? Septimus’s death results from his experiences in war, the failure of civilization, and from the misguided efforts of Holmes and Bradshaw, another failure of civilization. As a reader, it is easy to dislike both Holmes and Bradshaw. Clarissa does not like Bradshaw, though she’s not sure why: Richard agrees with her, and Peter laughs about him and his wife with Sally, calling them “‘damnable humbugs’… looking at them casually” (193). Septimus obviously doesn’t like them; Rezia wants to trust them, but deep down I think she knows they are wrong. As a 21st century reader who has read/ seen much related to PTSD, it’s easy to see them as self important and dangerous. Their prescription for poor Septimus is all wrong. But, did you notice that when Sir Bradshaw and his wife enter the party, bringing death with them, he speaks to Richard about “the deferred effects of shell shock” (183)? Perhaps there’s a sliver of recognition under his pomposity? And, we must remember that we cannot label a character with a diagnosis that had not yet been invented–it’s too facile.

This is what I mean– or at least part of it. These characters are so real because the story is in their heads. We are intimately connected with them in ways they cannot even be connected with each other, but this ability to see the connections they don’t even know they have can, hopefully, help us understand that there is more to our relationships, even our most intimate ones, than we can ever know, and this understanding can help us, again hopefully, be more open and accepting of those around us and more alert to those slender threads. This is why I love Mrs. Dalloway. Or, at least it’s one reason, today’s reason.

This morning’s reason, before I had reached the end, had me musing on prejudice, racism, colonialism, and empire. Peter, having spent fifteen years in India, brings this to the forefront with his thoughts about England now that he has returned, though presumably not for good or is it?, and about India and what he has left behind. And then there are the other characters’ thoughts about him. Everyone seems to feel a little sorry for Peter, like he didn’t make the most of his talents and position–going to India is viewed as less than staying in England. And everyone seems to think–though they do not share it with each other–that he was essentially ruined by Clarissa’s rejection of him in favor of Richard Dalloway–an occurrence Peter himself has not gotten over, no matter how many times he tells himself that he does not love her anymore. Everyone, reader and character alike knows it, even Peter himself, for even though he claims to love Daisy, and in some way really does, he cannot forget Clarissa. However, it is the memory of her that he seems to love more than the actuality of Clarissa now.

I meant to write more about the racism, classism, and sexism exposed through Peter’s story and his love affair with Daisy, but Clarissa will not stay out of it any more than she can stay out of Peter’s thoughts. So, I invite you to join Clarissa as she heads off to buy her flowers and makes her way through her day. See what it is she stirs in you. 

Book Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1)

This is the last Student-Faculty Book Club book of the year, and I have to admit that I didn’t really like the book at first. I didn’t hate it; I just found it only okay. Code Name Verity is a favorite of one of my students, and I just kept thinking, “why?”  The voice is not engaging; rather, it’s kind of whiny. But, in the second half, the Kitty Hawk half, the story picks up. Maddie’s voice, Kitty Hawk’s voice, is not only engaging but riveting despite her nearly constant blubbering. And, the twist makes the first half make sense; actually it’s a brilliant twist.

I read regularly on the train which means that I often have to close the book at inopportune moments. Usually, this leaves me itching to get back to the book as quickly as possible. With Code Name Verity, it was easy to close the book. I’d leave it for some time before getting back to it. Until the Kitty Hawk section. then, I didn’t want to put it down. As I neared the end, I read walking from the train and finished the the book on my couch at home. Maddie is quite the heroine and “Verity” is clever, even though she does not seem so at first. Stick it out through the “Verity” section; ultimately, the book is worth it.

Book Review: A Flaw in the Blood

A Flaw in the Blood

I have read a few of Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen as detective series and enjoyed them. This book is in a similar vein. Set at the time of Prince Consort Albert’s death, the atmosphere and prejudices of Victorian London are well depicted. Patrick Fitzgerald and Miss/Dr. Georgiana Armistead run for their lives as they try to unravel why someone is trying to kill them. The two main characters are interesting enough to keep the reader invested in the story and a few of the side characters are delightful. Prince Leopold, for example, is charming! I’m tempted to read a biography of him now. The “bad guy” is a bit too stereotypical for my taste, though he fits the time and the genre, and his power was not sufficiently explained. Queen Victoria was a bit too simpering and whiny too, though more on that later. What really keeps the book from a four star rating, however, is the subtlety of the motives for the murders. The reasons are actually a big deal, but I never felt an “aha! that’s it!” moment. I kept expecting something more. While I could follow it, I’m not sure everyone will “get it,” my students in particular who are always looking for mysteries to read, and I’m always on the lookout for appropriate choices But the twist at the end was well-played which helped change one’s perspective on this representation of Queen Victoria. Overall, it is an enjoyable read, a good escape.

Book Review: Blood of the Fey

I’ve been remiss lately in posting, but I return with some book reviews of what I’ve read so far in my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge.

Blood of the FeyBlood of the Fey by Alessa Ellefson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me preface my review by saying I love Arthurian legend stories, both traditional, contemporary, and influenced by, and I was excited by the title and premise of this one. I really wanted to like it. However, I found this book annoying after the first chapter or two. The premise of a contemporary underground Knights of the Round Table protecting the world from the Fey is good. I love the idea of this high school for pages, squires, and knights underneath Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. However, the characterizations fall far short. Morgan is ostensibly a smart girl, but she never seems to learn anything about herself or her surroundings. Time and again, she expects different reactions from people than what they’ve ever given her before. And she never asks the the right questions. Most of her questions are one form or another of “why me?” When she goes to the secret school for knights, she refuses to believe anything anyone tells her about knights, fairies, and powers despite her classes and first hand knowledge. As she sees more, she seems to learn less. She continues to react as if none of it is real, and then is astonished by the results. She continues to flout the rules and regulations and takes them as a personal affront, and then is angry beyond thought when she is discovered. Had this happened once or twice and then had she learned to modify her behavior even just a little bit, her character would have been more believable and sympathetic.

I had almost forgotten about Morgan’s “guardian angel,” the voice she hears inside her head. He comes and goes with no regularity, so it is easy to forget about him. And he disappears from the story for chapters on end, especially at the end (like everyone else). Is he good or evil? Is he Catholic or Fey? Why does he abandon her for long stretches of time, particularly when she needs help most? What is the point of this character? Perhaps more will be revealed about him in future books in the series. I’ll never know

In addition, the way her friends and enemies seem to know all about her but share nothing with her is unrealistic. For example, her nemesis Daniel would surely throw her Fey connection in her face if indeed everyone knows as Irene contends. Her good friends Jack and Bri tell her almost nothing and cannot believe she doesn’t know anything about their world. I can believe that when she first arrives, but soon after, that line falls flat. They too should learn a little and realize that Morgan doesn’t know their rites and rituals. As for her roommate Keva, I still don’t understand why she would hang out with them at all after the first few moments when everyone would have to have realized that Morgan and Arthur do not have the best relationship. But, at least she is fairly true to her character of wanting to be near the “royalty” of the school throughout. And then all her friends pretty much disappear from the narrative.

Another inconsistency is that Morgan, who is not supposed to be on her own at all, goes off alone again and again. She fights person after creature after creature, breaking school rules all the while. This holds true for the genre, which I’d put as young adult fantasy than fantasy, but she learns nothing from each successive encounter. And her worst punishment for her flouting the rules is essentially “go to your room.” Then she faces the worst demons on her own–including one she, who believes nothing she is told about the school and has not even been in the school for a year, foretells returning yet the learned professors and knights cannot see the signs of.

Finally, the “twist” that is held back until the very end is no surprise at all, especially given the title. Morgan should gradually figure out her ancestry instead of continually whining that people don’t like her and life is unfair. The knights, professors, and other students should grow and learn from each other and from her as well.

Ultimately, the book was unsatisfying. There are too many gaps, inconsistencies, or unbelievable instances (and I do not mean fairies, power, or magic). I will not continue with the series which saddens me. I do love a good fantasy series, especially Arthurian.

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