june reading

American Taliban by Pearl Abraham — This is a novel that is not actually based on the story of John Walker Lindh — in fact, he shows up in the narrative toward the end, just so you know for sure the protagonist isn’t him — although it is a novel about a young American who becomes entranced with Arabic, goes to Pakistan to study, and becomes entranced there with militants in the mountains and ends up going to Afghanistan with them. Like this reviewer, “my first move after finishing was to Google Lindh,” which was interesting, because I read very little of the coverage of him at the time because it made me so angry. Nine years later, I am still incredibly angry about this country’s treatment of the Muslim world and political prisoners, and at its incredible lack of respect for subtlety, and many other related issues, but I’ve calmed down enough to consider, at least, and enough time has gone by that more subtle things have been written. In addition to the New Yorker story linked above, you might also enjoy this piece from Esquire about Lindh in prison. But back to the book, for a moment — it’s good, though maddening at times, particularly toward the end. If anyone else out there reads it, or has read it, I’d love to discuss the ending.

Fat Girl by Judith Moore — There is a great deal of hatred for this book among fat-acceptance activists, at least to judge by Amazon reviews, which I didn’t look at until I was sitting down to write this post. I think it’s a misplaced anger, or an anger based on a misunderstanding of the book (which is a devastating account of both growing up fat and having a truly horrific mother, and yet isn’t at all self-pitying). Consider this, from the opening: “Narrators of first-person claptrap like this often greet the reader at the door with moist hugs and complaisant kisses. I won’t. I will not endear myself. I won’t put on airs. I am not that pleasant. The older I get the less pleasant I am.” Of course, telling the reader you are not endearing is a pretty good way of endearing yourself to this reader, as is writing well — and ultimately, I am afraid, my allegiance to good writing outweighs my allegiance to just about anything else.

Red Line by Charles Bowden — Charles Bowden is my new crush. This is an old and peculiar book that is half memoir, half narrative of trying to trace down the life of a Mexican drug dealer who was executed outside Tucson. It’s full of lines like “Without the music, the last few decades would remain political prisoners of the New York Times” and “I do not care about the table setting, I eye the knife.” And he has the best hat ever.

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle — Kyle wrote a great novel about a girl and horses and early adolescence and grief and western Colorado called The God of Animals. This is a collection of stories that, I would guess, were mostly written earlier and dug out to publish after her novel was successful. They are quite good, although I suspect they are probably more appealing to my general demographic than to the broader readership of the world. If you like what I think of as serious chick lit, you’d like these.

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum — I will generally read almost any novel that deals with mental illness, because I am interested both in mental illness itself and in portrayals of it. This is a fast (as in fast-moving), semi-melodramatic about fraternal twins, a brother and sister. The brother has bipolar disorder and the sister does not; she lost touch with him twenty years ago but then gets a call from a psychiatric hospital where he’s been admitted, only to discover that he’s not there when she arrives. She knows he loves to chase storms, and it’s that season, so she gets her editor to let her cover a stormchasing tour in hopes of finding him. I don’t really think it’s fair to ask the portrayal of one person to be representative of all people with a particular disorder, because how could it be? Charles, the character in this book, isn’t every person with manic depressive illness, but he seems to me like a fair portrayal of one.

The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart — Childhood friends suffer a rift and, through mildly improbably circumstances, are brought back together again. I should be more bothered by the contrivances of the plot and the improbably happy ending, but I am endlessly fascinated by friendships, and thus I liked this book.

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney — Part of this story — before it became a book — was on an episode of This American Life some years ago. It’s a memoir about how Gwartney’s two older daughters ran away from home when they were 14 and 16 and lived as street kids, first in their town, and later in San Francisco and elsewhere, and how Gwartney tried to find them and get them to come back, and the ways in which she succeeded and failed. I used to know a fair number of street kids, kids who mostly, like Gwartney’s daughters, had homes but chose not to live in them, and because I was a kid myself, I was always on their side. Their home lives doubtless were horrible — if not outright abusive, then intolerable in some other way. And I was a great believer in self-determination, for people as well as nations, and I hate to see anyone being harassed by the police, as these kids frequently were. I never considered their parents, and what they might actually be like, and how they might feel, and now I realize that probably some of them were like Gwartney — confused and overwhelmed and overly attached, but not monsters. I’d never considered what it might be like to be the mom of one of those kids and not know where that kid was. The book is not prescriptive about parents or runaways, and I’m not either, but I was glad to read it for the whole new angle it gave me on something I thought I pretty much knew all about.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson — I fell in love with North Africa at a young age, dating, I suppose, from my mother reading King of the Wind to me. I’ve always suspected that this means my love of the place and of Islam is just the sort of exotic, Orientalist view of things that, while I suppose preferable to intolerance and hatred in some respects, ultimately causes just as many problems. I just went over to glance at the opening of King of the Wind again, and, indeed, Marguerite Henry refers to Muslims as Mohammedans, and the illustrations are full of minarets and turbans. I forgive her in part because the book was published in 1948, and in part because I believe it was meant respectfully, whatever its flaws. And I know that Henry fought with her editors to be able to publish a book in which the main characters were a horse and a mute Moroccan boy. My love for and understanding of Islam may have more to do with my mother’s explanation of Ramadan to me when she was reading the book to me and later her telling me about Malcolm X making a hajj to Mecca than it does with my specific memories of the book, but that’s where I pin it.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of getting around to saying how much I loved The Butterfly Mosque and what a good instruction it was for me in the ways in which even a fairly enlightened Westerner can misapprehend another culture. Willow Wilson was born and raised as an atheist in Colorado but always felt somewhat uncomfortable with atheism. She was interested in Islam, had studied some Arabic in college, and was sort of adrift, so she took up an offer to teach English at a school in Cairo. She converted, met and fell in love with an Egyptian, married and lived for several years full-time in Cairo; they now (according to the author biography) split their time between Cairo and Seattle. This all takes place not too long after September 11, so as you may imagine, it’s an interesting ride.

It’s pretty rare to meet people in my demographic (young, college-educated, liberal-minded) who are religious at all. and thus I find I tend in some ways to feel kinship when I do meet them, even when they are of a different denomination or even an entirely different religion. Anyway, this is a lovely, lovely book, and it continues the unofficial theme of this month’s reading by being very much the story of one person — one person within the context of a religion and two cultures, but one person, with her own quirks and loves and fears and stories — an individual, not a representative.