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Krista Bremer’s “Accidental Jihad”

by Kati Heng

9781616200688 “MY ACCIDENTAL JIHAD” by Krista Bremer

We should probably start by pinning down what ‘jihad’ means, because a lot of Americans basically associate that word with “Holy War / Reasons for 9-11 Type Terrorism.” That’s really not the case. In the Islamic definition, jihad simply means “struggle,” or in many cases, “to struggle in the ways of Allah.” It’s an important difference to pick up – please don’t start reading this book thinking you’re getting the story of some white lady accidentally lured into a holy war / anti-American extremist group. That couldn’t be further from what’s going on here.

What is this memoir about? Marriage, and what makes a relationship work more than anything. Plus, it’s about author Krista Bremer’s struggle to understand and fully respect the religion of her husband. But really – if you’re going to pick this book up as a primer on a white lady explaining Islam to another white person, you should probably look somewhere else – it’s better as a woman explaining how to listen, love and learn from each other in marriage.

Also what this book isn’t: the tale of a white woman going full-out Islamic, subscribing to her husband’s rules and cultural regulations, adopting the traditional hijab and conservative clothing you traditionally think of when you call to mind Islamic clothing. Really, Bremer and her relatability to whites (me), non-Muslims (me), feminists (me) and women in general are what make this memoir work so well.

The story starts off with a young, fresh-faced Bremer, just out of college with her Women’s Studies classes and English lessons in hand. She’s working at an abortion clinic, interviewing women before their procedures, informing women whether or not that little pink lines shown up on the test. To state the obvious: she’s not in a job for a weak woman, or one who’s of the assumption enabling abortions is gonna get her in trouble with some higher power. At this point, she’s a part-time Buddhist, although one that ignores the rules she doesn’t like (i.e. no alcohol) with conviction.

Bremer’s still young when she moves away from this job, s to the other side of the country. She’s a strong, independent woman in this new setting, running miles along the trails in her new neighborhoods. It’s here where she meets this strange new man, Ismail, a guy that surprises her with his wisdom, his passions and his dedications to his God. Before long, she finds herself in a situation she never expected: young, pregnant and eloped to an older man with a background vastly different from her own. Of course, it’s a crazy big decision for Bremer to keep this baby and the man who fathered it – you can read for yourself the reasons why she makes this choice.

What’s most important in the story is what follows: Bremer’s education into her husband’s past life growing up in a poor Libyan village, what she learns about her own unconscious prejudices and her own selfishness and failings.

A good portion of the book is dedicated to the story of the couple and their daughter’s first trip home to meet his parents, still living across the world in a Gadhafi-ruled Libya. Of course, there are language barriers and cultural barriers – Bremer can barely communicate with her sisters-in-law or mother-in-law, yet she’s not allowed to sit with Ismail and talk with the men. She’s entering the country with a hatred of Gadhafi and his regime, which is only strengthened by the things she sees during her time there (did you think she’d turn around her opinion, realize she was being racist for judging his way of operating without truly experiencing it? The memoir’s not that stupid). Here, she comes into contact with her shortcomings and prejudices as well as a greater appreciation for her husband’s wisdom and his own strain of feminism.

There’s a significant amount of the story telling about Bremer’s own resistance to Islamic culture, a thing her husband never forced upon her. Their children, it turns out, is the one to most notably reflect the differences between the couple’s lives. Bremer struggles when her beautiful little girl desires to wear hijabs to school and to the mosque and tries to fight her husband’s desire to have their son circumcised in accordance with his religion. It’s fascinating to see this choice of religion through the eyes of a little girl – at this point in my life, I wouldn’t be attracted to wearing a headscarf, but as a child, would it seem glamorous?

What am I doing here? It’s always difficult to describe memoirs to you without ruining the whole book. I guess I’m just trying to prove to you a few basic things: (1) you can read this book and learn no matter what your religion/background (2) you’re gonna learn more about what it takes to make a marriage work than what it takes to be married to a Muslim from this book (3) you shouldn’t be offended (4) you won’t feel preached to and (5) it’ll still probably open your eyes to what it’s like to live in a bi-cultural/religious marriage. So, I’m going to stop trying to summarize Bremer’s story in my own words and just tell you – go read it yourself, please. This is a beautiful story.

Dirty and Lovely

by Jeremy Griffin

A review of Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love

I probably don’t have to sell you on the merits of Andre Dubus III (and if I do, check out Weston’s interview with him here). I mean, House of Sand and Fog? Garden of Last Days? Townie? Dude is one of the most talented storytellers around today–in my humble opinion–and has a twistedly keen sense of voice. Even more impressive is how he always seems to get away with things that, coming from other writers, would fall flat. Case in point: Dirty Love, D3′s latest book, a collection of four linked novellas, each of which illustrates some aspect of the human propensity for self-sabotage. I won’t tell you that Dirty Love is the best thing that D3 has published to date, but it’s still up there, a stirring read full of complex characters struggling (in typical Dubus fashion) to wring some sense of enlightenment out of their mistakes.

The book opens with “Listen Carefully, As Our Options Have Changed,” a slowly-paced story about a middle-aged project manager named Mark Welch who has recently discovered that his wife is having an affair. This knowledge comes to Mark through a DVD provided by a private detective he hired to follow his wife Laura and her lover, a high-ranking bank exec. Next there’s the eponymous “Marla,” in which our main character, a lonely and heavyset bank employee, searches for romance at the urging of her coworkers, only to find that their version of romance is far more complicated than she initially believed. In “The Bartender,” we follow Robert Doucette, beerslinger at the swanky Whaler Restaurant on Massachusetts coast, as he steadily sabotages his relationship with his pregnant wife. Finally, there’s the title story “Dirty Love,” in which a young waitress at the Whaler frantically attempts to distance herself from a humiliating  sexual encounter that has been documented online, seeking refuge in the dark anonymity of Chatroulette.

Each novella is crafted in the long-winded-but-still-somehow-succinct prose style for which D3 has become known. Much of the characters’ lives is told to us through third-person omniscient narration, a tactic that works surprisingly well by underscoring how little these characters actually know about themselves. However, it can also be overwhelming, the amount of exposition that is simply handed to us; at times I felt myself growing frustrated over D3′s habit of over-explaining the characters’ actions to us rather than simply letting them act. Then again, an argument could be made that this is necessary in order to get us into the characters’ heads; like them, we find ourselves feeling trapped, in need of a breather.

For the most part, the narratives here are fresh and memorable. D3′s characters always manage to make predictable behaviors seem shocking and illicit. At times, the book does slog into “precious” territory, particularly in “Marla” and to a lesser degree in “Dirty Love.” On one hand, this seems unavoidable when writing about the hidden lives and misdeeds of seemingly normal people (which is really it’s own sort of cliche, if we’re being honest here). Nonetheless, it’s frustrating when the characters continually say things like, “Oh, I missed you, Marla!” and “Can we make love when we get home?” Maybe this really is how people speak and I’m just a troglodyte, but in the context of D3′s writing it tends to come across as things that are are supposed to be said. We begin to feel the author’s presence a bit too sharply. It would have been awesome to see what would happen if D3 were to loosen the reigns a little, let these characters communicate more fluidly on their own, thereby allowing the reader into the scene rather than holding us at arm’s length as passive observers.

But then I suppose he sort of wanted us to feel that way because that’s how so many of the folks in Dirty Love actually feel–buffered from their own lives, helplessly watching them tick by. To be sure, these are not unique characters; you’ve encountered them before in other stories (probably by white dudes). But Andre Dubus III is skilled enough to at least make them compelling all over again and to make us care about them, That’s where the book really succeeds, I think: we know these people are bound to fail, and yet we continue to root for them. And it’s worth a little heavy-handed prose to see an author pull this off so artfully.

All The Birds, Singing, All the Time, Please.

by Kati Heng

9780307907769 Evie Wyld’s ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING

Back in college, I had this Canadian writing professor who created some of the most disgusting things you’ll ever read (disgusting, I mean gritty and raw; actually I don’t even think he’d care if I said gross and ended there.) This guy did one-on-one sessions with me that consisted of a lot of me just spouting out how much I love David Foster Wallace. He’d be like, “Oh, you like Wallace? This Canadian author is totally inspired by him, too,” and then he’d give me a book that was like the story of some depressed chick living in Nova Scotia desert who hunts regularly, which, really, were great, but like, I could never relate back to Wallace in any deeper significance than this book also kinda made me sad and really really want to shower.

The point of that deeply personal story: I’ve read some bleak stories and some gross things, not just from “God Bless America, Toliet Bowls are Gross” side of things, and feel completely safe in saying Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is one of the greatest bleak and icky things I’ve ever read.

The story starts with rough-worn beauty Jake Whyte (WhYte, WYld? I spent the entire book questioning if this was even anything) finding the corpse of a mangled sheep lying outside the British-Island farmhouse she inhabits very much alone. She’s thinking it’s the neighbor kids, just picking on the weird new lady who lives alone, just trying to get shit done like the guys around her do. Oh, by the way, in case you haven’t picked up – Jake’s super rad and not into ‘women’s work’ or being treated as the weaker sex or any of that nonsense.

From there, we get flashbacks into the reasons she’s gone out to the wild all alone, the reasons why she’s so hesitant to let any man give her a bit of help / affection. Years ago and miles away in the rich lands of Australia, Jake had to leave home and school way too soon (I can’t tell you why because, WOW, you’ll want to read it yourself), had to find enough cash to keep herself fed, had to take the types of jobs available for homeless young women, and eventually, had to put up with the excessive control of an abusive relationship. The stuff she goes through is TERRIFYING, even when you know, hey, it’s gonna be okay, she left that guy and left Australia, right? Even in Britian, Jake’s watching her back, and really, you can’t blame her after you read all the junk she’s been through.

Oh, plus there’s a monster. I’m not even referring to the guy she fled the country from (although, metaphors here? MAJOR METAPHORS); like literally, it’s not the neighbor kids messing with her sheep, but a freakin’ MONSTER that’s not a wolf or coyote or anything really known to scientists.

Jeez, this book is good. I mean, it’s DISGUSTING, the things she has to live through (think of Charlize Theron “Monster” gross), but the way Wyld writes it down makes it so worth reading.  I mean, I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the author used “farted” as an adjective to describe that weird sucking sound when you pull your foot out of the mud. That’s not a particularly pretty example of her writing. That’s probably good.

This book isn’t by any means light, but it’s amazing. Oh also, all the books that professor would give me usually ended with the male lead getting killed and/or another woman pregnant and the female lead getting post-partum depression or falling out of love with the father or her children, to the point that I had to put these books down and read Nylon because a girl can only take SO MUCH. Luckily, with All the Birds, you see all the conflict, but you see it resolve. I’m not saying the ending is “happy” (I guess the ending’s up to you to call happy or the most depressing thing ever; I think my reaction was an audible AWWW!), but the drama airs out by the end.

It’s gross, but it’s not gonna leave a bad taste in your mouth.

BOSTON STRONG:: Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice

by Kati Heng

13570 LONG MILE HOME: BOSTON UNDER ATTACK, THE CITY’S COURAGEOUS RECOVERY, AND THE EPIC HUNT FOR JUSTICE by Scott Helman and Jenna Russell

It’s incredibly hard to write this review, just as this is an incredibly hard book to read. Neither my off-the-mark review nor the difficulty of this book should keep you away, though. Why is it so difficult to write? After all, it’s not an unfamiliar subject. It’s not something I don’t know enough about, especially after reading. Yet, it’s something I haven’t felt as much as so many others.

Of course, tragedies like 2013’s Boston Marathon bombing touch everyone in the nation. We all feel it, to some degree. The degree I felt it may have been little – I didn’t know a single person from Boston ((this has changed since the bombing)), I’ve never been to city, before 2014, I’d hardly even heard of Copley Square.

What I do know a little bit about is running, even running a marathon. Granted, I’ve only ran one, not in Boston, but in Minnesota, but it was enough to understand just how much goes into Marathon Day. You train for months, maybe even a year. You test your muscles, push them to the extremes, reach their limits. You plan weeks ahead how to handle Marathon Day, where you’ll stay the night before, what to eat the morning of, how much you should run the day before, where you can expect your family to be standing. Even for the spectators the day of the marathon is a big deal: lawn chairs are set up, oranges, watermelons, water bottles, candies are bought to be passed out to the runners trooping by. Signs are painted, plans are made.

I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but for me, there were points after the 20 mile mark where I hit that wall, thinking “I just need to stop here,” and realizing, I can’t. There’s a point in the race where you just can’t not get to the end. Your family’s waiting there. Your bags waiting there – cell phone included. Sure, you could stop on the road, but to get home, you need to cross that finish line.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to hear you’re not even allowed to get to the end because a bomb has gone off.

It’s been a year, and still, the wounds feel so fresh. After all, victims of the bombings are still in rehabilitation, still mourning lost loved ones or lost limbs, still getting their lives back to normal, or at least to a new normal.

I’d have to say, for how fresh the wounds are, Long Mile Home is an amazingly balanced read. Written by two Boston Globe reporters, authors Jenna Russell and Scott Helman keep a remarkable cool under the subject of their book.

Memories of lost ones are apt memorials – recognizing the people for who they were, never resorting to martyring or putting people on undeserved pedestals. Stories from survivors (including Heather Abbott, a woman forced to make the decision whether or not to keep her foot and lower leg, and if not, just how much to let go) and those at the scene (race director Dave McGillivray; surgeon David King, who went straight from finishing the marathon in 3:12:00(ish) to saving lives in the hospital trauma center) are told firsthand, free from hyperbole and exaggerated emotions.

What I appreciated the most – the way authors handled the fact that the bombings were classified as an act of terrorism. Hisham Aidi talked very well about the way, just after the bombings before suspects were revealed and perpetrators were caught, Muslims around the country hoped in the deepest parts of their hearts that the bombers would be some WASP Americans, people tortured by mental illness or the like, rather than an Islmaic extremist acting on their own in last month’s Rebel Music – no true Muslims supported these actions, and they didn’t want the slow-forming scabs of 9/11 to be picked off by an incident like this.

Of course, as we know now, the bombers did unfortunately believe their actions were part of a larger religious cause, they were darker-skinned and had funny, foreign-sounding names, just pulling back the same feelings of hatred from a decade earlier. I truly, truly appreciated the way the authors cast the bombers a OUTSIDERS, boys with little to no connection to the actual religion of Islam, boys in troubled cycles of behavior. They even go on to point out the injustice done once the first videotapes of the brothers were released and internet witch hunts began, vigilantes naming innocents as the causer of the crime.

I don’t know how much more to say – you know the story, although not as well as you will after reading the book. It’s as fair and balanced as Fox News claims to be. It’s an incredibly hard read, mainly to stomach the whole story and all its details. I guess my best advice is to read it slowly, absorb as much as you can, and just pray for healing for the city.

New Non-Fiction: Twain, Twitter and Tsunamis

by Kati Heng

Hey Everyone,

Time for another blow-out, put these all up, quick! post from Kati. Like a fire sale, but with book information.

 

9781594204739

Ben Tarnoff’s THE BOHEMIANS: MARK TWAIN AND THE SAN FRANCISCO WRITERS WHO REINVENTED AMERICAN LITERATURE

I don’t know all that much about the San Fran lit-scene (their noise-rock scene? call me, I’d love to chat), historically or otherwise, but this book gave an AMAZING account. It’s as if you got a press release of what’s happening that season not from a publishing company, but just a city itself.

So who’s it about? Or specifically, who’s these folks featured on the cover?

(1) Mark Twain. Really, inspiring stuff about how this guy was NOT even that well liked or received in America and how he was working at newspapers for much of his life. I think a lot of us (at least me) think this guy writes one book; fame is immediate. Not the case. Cool stuff to here.

(2) Bret Harte. A guy I’d never really known much about before this book; apparently a literary ‘golden boy’ with a little bit of an ego. Celebrated in his time, if not that importnat in the long run.

(3) Charles Warren Stoddard. The poor gay poet type. Really, a guy without a home, or any kind of place to call his own. I would have loved to see a story of how San Francisco SAVED HIM, gave him a refuge and all that, but…

(4) Ina Coolbrith. My new lit-hero and the girl I’m planning to read up on more. Seriously – it’s the 1860′s and this girl is organizing meetings and hanging out with TWAIN and all these other cool guys of lit! She reaches icon status.

It’s a interesting read, if hard at times to get a proper footing in the context. But, if you have interest in writers’ circles, how one author influences another, this will be right up your alley.

images Biz Stone’s THINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME: CONFESSIONS OF A CREATIVE MIND

One of the major points of flack this book is getting: Biz Stone is a “co-founder” of Twitter, but it’s really hard to know what that means. And it’s not a totally unfair criticism; from the sounds of it, this guy was assigned to create a system of leaving status people could update from their phones, like Facebook with limited characters and simpler, and he (and his team of who knows who)  did it. Don’t question how. He did. 

If you can get over that fact, though, Things a Little Bird Told Me is a fun read. It’s the story of this sort-of self-depreciating dork finding his groove in Silicon Valley. Not exactly starting from a dorm room in Harvard, he created Twitter for a paying job (but really? doesn’t the phrase “from a dorm room in Harvard” imply enough proof that poverty is not at stake?) and just grew it from there.

Mixed throughout the story of Twitter’s humble and stumbling beginnings, as well as Stone’s own, are tales of Corporate Kumbaya, or how to work well in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong – that can sound condescending, but it’s totally not. Workplaces need more kumbaya. Offices in general should get along better if they’re gonna blow up like Twitter.

It’s not the most humble book or the most full-picture story like The Social Network may have been, but for fans of Twitter or anyone interested in the way this outlet can spread the news like wildfire, it’s an enjoyable read.

9781594205842 David Pilling’s BENDING ADVERSITY: JAPAN AND THE ART OF SURVIVAL

I’m always a bit hesitant with books that offer sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people, whether it be based on gender, race, age, generation, nationality, etc., ESPECIALLY if the person writing that book is outside the demographic in question. So for this book: David Pilling’s originally a Brit, spent years working/living in Japan, and still acknowledges the impossibility of summarizing a population.

That said, this book’s entirely a compliment to the people. Sure, it points out some aspects of the culture Americans/Brits might think “weird,” but overall, it leans to the fact that Japan is a country of contradictions, of people unwilling and unable to be easily packaged and explained.

Starting with the horrors of the 2011 tsunami that destroyed cities along the coast and set off a horrible nuclear reaction, Pilling explains why yes, the country may be down at the minute, but if the past offers any evidence, this nation is far from out. Think about it – both Germany and this island nation lost WWII; Germany’s never made quite the same economic impact as before the war; Japan’s doing just fine, innovating electronics, cars, etc. like the rest of us aren’t even there.

Basically, I loved this quote Pilling ended on, which really sums up the spirit of this whole thing the way a last sentence SHOULD every time: “Two ‘lost decades’ and its manifold problems notwithstanding, reports of Japan’s demise are exaggerated.”

 

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