Sahar Mustafah’s The Beauty of Your Face is excellent. It opens with a school shooter attacking a Muslim school for girls and then whips back in time to follow the childhood of the school’s principal, Palestinian American, Afaf Raman as she grows up with a missing sister and ostracized for her race and religion, and then finds herself a community and purpose through Islam and teaching. [how’s that for a run-on sentence, mom]
Part of what makes the book so good, like Louise Penny, are the descriptions of food. I wanted to eat every time I was reading.
I jest (sort of). No. What made it so compelling for me was the sense of purpose faith brings to Afaf, and the ways the discovery and commitment to this faith changes her relationships with her family, as well as her understanding of herself. As a devote atheist I am genuinely mystified by those who believe in God, even while I recognize, at least in this book, what that belief – at its best – offers. Which is not to say Afaf’s experience of Islam is uncomplicated, or her belief blind and unquestioning. Indeed, in the most obvious way her very life is at stake in her commitment. More, that the novel offers faith as something earned and difficult, but also as security, comfort and community. It was enough to make this heretical Unitarian soul yearn for the days of open churches so I might go and sing with other people the atheist song of a biological life and a radical enjoyment of the present moment and the people in it as all you can count on. Alas. Perhaps next year.
Until then, I commend you to The Beauty of Your Face for its exquisite writing, engrossing plot and nuanced portrait of a family. That sounds like a gross back-cover endorsement. But really – it’s very good.
Today I unintentionally dressed myself and the small human in matching outfits. We’re at that point. Also the point at which I read trashy airport novels unironically and enjoy them enough to finish. Lucy Foley’s The Guest List is extremely silly. Told from the perspectives of the bridal party (and a few guests) at an exclusive wedding held on a remote island, it’s a murder mystery that is as easy to solve as it is hilarious in its dun-dun-dun finish to every. single. chapter. It is not at all good unless your basic criteria is a book that does not require any thought and is magical in its anticipation of its movie adaptation. Which, tbh, is a pretty compelling set of reasons for reading it in These Times. I am likely mere days away from putting flowered bows on the small human’s very bald head. Send help.
I liked the writing the best. Strange that you could have a great book without good writing, but I’m sure it’s possible. In this case the book is great because of the writing. The characters are decent: imaginative, whole, endearing. The plot is steady: a hook of a crime, but much more about character development than solving that crime. The setting relevant: the cusp of the new millennium and wandering cities and costume parties. But what really soars is the writing. Delicate phrases that arrest the reader. Specific images that evoke and deepen. Confidence that means it reads not as showy but as necessary.
Yes, The Boy in the Field is excellent writing. I might even seek out something else by Margot Livesay, as I’ve not read anything by her before, and wouldn’t have if not for the New York Times best of the year list (which I’m sure is flawed in all the ways best of lists are flawed, but nevertheless gives me ideas of what to consider).
All that said I’m not sure it’s the most memorable book. Three children find a boy bleeding in a field. The rest of the book is the slow unfolding of their characters, and that of their parents. Of what they want from life, from one another. Most interesting, maybe, is the way they approach the question of honesty. In one scene they try a week without lying and have to give it up after a few days, concluding that lying is necessary for the preservation of relationships. I suggested the experiment to S. and after expressing interest, he grew wary. What was I reading, anyway? Just a novel, I replied. Still, I’ve taken to springing questions on him out of the blue, reminding him that it is the week without lying, waiting to trip him up or to learn something revelatory. When if I paid attention to the book at all I’d know that for the most part we don’t want our loved ones to be revealed. That we all do best to wear our costumes, to keep some things well out of sight. To be truthful only if we meet the criteria of is it useful, is it necessary, is it kind.
So start 2021 with great writing. Or, you know, a good show on Netflix and a bottle of liquid cheese.
I’ve never written reading resolutions before. Though I’m *big* into resolutions of other kinds. Always trying to Optimize The Self and Be More Better (but seriously, my resolution to floss my teeth, made over a decade ago, still at it! My resolution to write a novel… hahahha). I guess you could call the 100 books in a year of 2011 something of a resolution, but that was more of an overly-ambitious-and-self-satisfied goal of a adjacently employed* adult with no real responsibilities save making elaborate desserts and self-improvement.
So why now? Well, 2020 wasn’t the finest year for me and books. I know, I know, there were a few things going on. And I know, I know, the whole point of me + reading is for it to be enjoyable and not instrumental. And I know you can hear the BUT coming. But. I finished the year disgusted with the volume of words I’d committed to the American election, to the Pandemic, to googling the aches of middle age along with “what does it all mean,” etc. And I certainly didn’t feel any more energized, better informed or more relaxed.
So because there’s nothing I like more than a clearly defined SMART(TM) goal, ideally if it has a matching strategic plan and attendant KPI’s, I present to you my resolutions for reading in 2021:
- Read things I like. Stop reading things I don’t like.
- On this, I began reading Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, and I recognized it was a Good and Important book, and I *should* read it, and so I gave it 100 pages. But then I stopped because now I am (once again) a person who stops reading things I don’t like, even when they are Good and Important.
- Limit the accumulation of fines at the library to under $10 by visiting the library once a week.
- To this end, I owe you a post about The Death of Vivek Oji which I was a mere 30 pages from finishing when the library began sending spam-levels of warnings about the fines I owed. Here’s my summary: it was good and I will probably never get it back out because it was also sad. Spoiler-not-spoiler: Vivek dies.
- In other news, I may be singly handedly paying for the new main branch library in the fines I paid last year, even while fines were frozen for most of that time. Turns out when you check out 100 kids books at week some slip through the cracks of your well intentioned System for Keeping Track of All the Books About Diggers.
- Adjust my reading habits to prioritize reading books instead of my phone by keeping my phone in the bedroom during the day and in the kitchen at night.
- As this goal has a negative 20% chance of success owing to my Addiction, I will concede this one is unlikely to stick past next week. However, I am nothing if not an optimist.
- Perhaps I will reward myself with fancy wine recommended by C. if I can complete this goal for a month. TIME WILL TELL.
- Read more (e.g. any) non-fiction by reading one non-fiction book after each four novels.
- Because of The Times I have already ordered Man’s Search for Meaning and Dare to Lead and expect to be 1000x more balanced and a far better employee, by this time next month because isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction?
- Concede that the Children get in the way of blogging and be okay writing less.
- This resolution inspired by L. waking up Right Now. So… goodbye.
*when employment is understood as a graduate degree in English literature