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It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

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It All Comes Back to You by Farah Naz Rishi

it all comes back to you

Sometimes you just want a light fun, empty-calorie read, and in that regard I feel like this book really delivered.  The characters are in college, and yet it is published by HarperCollins Children, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, which perhaps added to the lack of expectation and increased forgiveness.  It reads very much like a Bollywood movie, there is dancing, angst, romance, redemption, culture, religion, and a sense that a certain arbitrary line of it all won’t be crossed to earn the book an R rating, and will keep it safe for Muslim high school teens.   I think the book is fine for Muslim’s in 10th/11th grade and will be enjoyed by those in college (and up) as well.  Over 429 pages the highly predictable tropes find their footing in their unique religious and cultural framing.  The plot is perhaps a bit on the nose and overly serendipitous, but individually the characters show range and complexities that will resonate with readers.  They have all made good and bad choices and continue to do so, but the big ones are largely in the past, and what we, the readers, get to see in many ways is them reaching for forgiveness in a contemporary whirlwind culmination of a wedding, overcoming addiction, a past felony, secrets, ex-significant others, familial expectations, loss, change, and school.  The book is not preachy, although there is a like-able imam as a side character and he gets some advice in.  The Muslim characters grapple with their faith as they would their culture; picking and choosing what to practice, but never really escaping it or wanting to completely abandon it either, it is just who they are and part of their identity. I enjoyed the book, reading it in two sittings and not feeling guilty that I lost sleep doing so, but like most rom-coms, the specifics and characters will blur over time.  It has a lot of similarities with Hana Khan Carries On, while not having quite the religious adherance of S.K. Ali’s characters or rawness of Tahira Mafi’s.  One thing that is uniquely it’s own, however, is the author’s beginning dedication, I don’t think I have ever read one quite so perfect, memorable, and possibly guilt causing.  I laughed out loud!

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SYNOPSIS:

Kiran’s mom passed away a year ago from ALS, and with her older sister Amira in law school at the time, she dealt with her mother’s illness and passing, largely alone as she additionally had just been ghosted by her first and only boyfriend, Deen.  Now that her sister is about to graduate, and Kiran is about to start university, they can finally be roommates and reunite the family.  Except, Amira has met someone, Faisal.  Someone who was there for her when her mom died, and they are planning to move across the country to California in a few months.  Devastated Kiran forces herself to be happy for her beloved older sister, until she finds out that Faisal is Deen’s older brother, and there are some gaping holes in his past.  With her sisters future on the line, promises to her deceased mother haunting her, and a serious lack of communication abilities (more on that later), she is determined to uncover the truth about Faisal and maybe even Deen in the process.

Alternating point-of-view chapters give Deen a chance to provide his side to the story: the reason he had to disappear from Kiran’s life, what happened to his brother, and the unreasonableness of his family.  As he struggles with his own conscious and stumbles around unsure of his own potential and worth, Deen comes across as selfish and arrogant, but ultimately only cares about his brother and making things up to him.  He is determined that Deen deserves to be happy and he is committed to keeping Kiran from destroying it.

In typical desi fashion, appearances matter and while all the behind the scenes sleuthing, plotting, and fighting is taking place, on the surface, wedding plans are being made and dances choreographed.

The book includes pages of texts from three years ago between Deen and Kiran as they meet at Sunday school and sneak behind the mosque.  There are also gaming dialogues between two anonymous fantasy characters that it is pretty obvious are Kiran and Deen.  The reveal isn’t a shock to the readers, only the characters, and proves a nice way to see redeeming traits in characters who’s present real actions aren’t exactly endearing.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The OWN voice representation of Desi culture and Islam is not in addition to the story, it is woven in to the characters and the plot.  The characters are largely liberal as the families are chill with dating, mixed gender hand shaking and dancing, and what not, but their Muslim upbringing is almost always close by.  The characters say “astagfirulllah” after kissing, they acknowledge that some of the Muslims drink and some have left that lifestyle, they miss visiting the mosque, they recognize that they aren’t praying, etc., while many flags are present, they really aren’t sensationalized or given more than a single word in print.  It strikes a pretty solid balance of showing where some thoughts or values come from, and where personal individuality takes over.  I don’t think Muslims will be offended, nor non Muslims confused.

The biggest issue I had with the characters is that it really could have been resolved, all of it, with a few decent sit down conversations.  Kiran and Amira, for example, are terrible at communicating and it blows this whole thing into a ginormous mess.  Sure, there is no book if there is no drama, but they never fix this.  So many lessons are acknowledged and the character arcs are shown or hinted at, this one, not so much, if at all.  They didn’t talk when their mom was sick, when she died, about what they were going through, about their dad, about their future plans, about the wedding, about the concerns with Faisal, about Kiran and Deen having a past, about moving to California,…the list really is exhaustive, and it doesn’t seem to show that they acknowledge their role in escalating everything and vowing to be better.  Sigh.

I read a digital ARC and it had a few spelling errors, it broke down the fourth wall in one paragraph, and I’m hoping the final copy will have resolved these issues.  It mentions that typically the bride and/or her family pay for the wedding in Islam, and this is erroneous, culturally possibly: the brides family would cover the nikkah and ruhksuti, with the groom covering the walima, but to put it on religion is just incorrect.

FLAGS:

Deen talks about “knowing women,” but it isn’t explored, and the groom is teased that he will be loosing his virginity card.   The kisses aren’t usually described, it is just conveyed as something that happened.  There is a bit of detail in the chemistry felt in the dances, but in true Bollywood fashion, they stop short of kissing. There is a stripper called to the bachelor party, but the characters are appalled and she is immediately escorted out. A religious character accidentally drinks alcohol and blacks out.  There is profanity, not excessive, but conversationally.  There is talk and repercussions of addiction to prescription drugs, a felony crime committed and punished for, deceit, lying, bullying, and physical altercations briefly recalled.  There are parties attended, alcohol consumed,and  at one point a female forcefully kisses an unconsenting male.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I’ve gone back and forth with suggesting to the high school book club advisor to consider this book.  I think the right group of readers could really opine on the characters actions from the shy Faisal with a huge forgiving enduring heart to the nosey obnoxious Mona Khala, but there are some potential flags that might ultimately keep this book from being entirely Islamic School appropriate even for the highest grades.  Ahh, I’ll keep you posted on what I decide.

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

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This 295 page middle grades AR 4.8 book is a fast passed romp through New York City as two 12-year-old kids explore freedom and fear in a new city while grappling with their own sense of identity and what it means.  The OWN Voice story features immigration, chronic disease, family, bravery, and friendship.  There is lying and avoiding police, sneaking and “borrowing” a horse, but it is all for a good cause, and third grade and up will enjoy this read.  There is very little religion in it, but the main character does say salam, notice the similarities between amen and ameen, and reference eid as his holiday. 

SYNOPSIS:

Jason D, known only to his mom and aunt as Shah, was named by a nurse when his mom wanted to make sure he had an American sounding name, and his middle initial D is for December, which comes from her staring at a calendar when asked if she wanted her son to have a middle name.  Life is fairly simple, he enjoys sneaking on to the roof of his apartment building to imagine training pigeons, his mom works at a dry cleaners, they walk where they need to go, money is tight, but they do ok, and his dad passed away before he was born.  His mom is from Afghanistan, but he doesn’t speak much Dari and his mom speaks English, but not confidently.  On her birthday as they are about to enjoy a cupcake he saved up for, the news in the background is covering protestors chanting for illegal immigrants to go home, and Jason’s mom starts to tell him about how she ended up overstaying her visa and  is living in the US illegally.  

Jason’s dad worked with the US military in Afghanistan and with his work came the promise of visas to America for him and for his wife to study.  Many of the locals though didn’t like that he was cooperating and vowed to take their revenge.  With the family in the US and Jason’s mom starting to study medicine, Jason’s dad had one more job in Afghanistan and sadly was killed by anti American Afghans.  Fearful to return, she chose to stay, but with a new baby, few resources, no family and friend support, eventually she was forced to drop out of school and remain undocumented knowing that to return would be at great peril to her and her son.  At some point she befriends an Indian lady, Seema and to Jason, she is Aunt Seema, the only family other than his mother that he knows.  

When a few weeks later Jason sees his mother being taken away by two officers, he knows that this is what she warned him about when she told him the truth about her legal standing.  Terrified and alone, Jason only knows that somehow he has to get to New York to Aunt Seema so that they can figure out how to save his mom.  He grabs a few pictures of his father, whatever money he can find a broken address and heads to the big apple from New Jersey.

Having never been to NYC or really out of his hometown, he loses his backpack to a dog, and struggles to figure out how to get a ticket to get in to the city.  When he arrives at Penn Station he is overwhelmed and exhausted and passes out, hitting his head, and landing himself in the hospital.  

When he awakens he is met by doctors making sure he is ok, and police trying to locate his parents, he opts to pretend he has amnesia and can’t remember anything.  This buys him time, and also acquaints him with Max, a girl with wires coming out of her head and who claims they are running tests on her to understand her level of genius.

The two hit it off and hitch a plan to escape the locked hospital floor, have a day of adventure in the city, and get Jason D to his aunts house.  Naturally this plan is going to have all sorts of obstacles, but thats the story and that is where the fun and discovery unfolds.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I was impressed at how emotionally cathartic the conclusion was.  I hadn’t realized how invested I had become in these two kids and their run through the city.  It was touching, and heartfelt, and a big sigh of relief when it all wrapped up.  I like that both kids are so very different, yet dealing with similar thematic issues from different perspectives.  Max is an epileptic and is kept on a short chain to ensure her safety. She is trying to find and define who she is outside of the medical diagnosis.  Jason is trying to understand if he can be American and Afghan and what that means about where he belongs, and where home is.  There is a lot that they ponder over as they run through central park and the zoo, duck into subways, and get all sorts of turned around on the streets.  Through it all though the kids show just how clever and smart they both are with the quick thinking, riddle solving abilities, and perpetual optimism.  It is at times far fetched, stealing a horse and bumping in to your doctor in the New York City Marathon, and at other times completely plausible, sneaking in to a zoo with a field trip group and ducking through turnstiles to get on the subway.

FLAGS:

Lying, stealing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This is a bit young for even early middle school readers, but would make a great addition to a summer reading list.  I think kids will marvel at the riddles and determination of the two protagonists and imagine a world where kids could maybe get away with such a bold adventure.

Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

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Neither This Nor That by Aliya Husain

neither this nor that

This 251 page novel reads like a biography that has no climax or real conflict in its linear retelling of the protagonist from 3rd grade to a junior in college.  If you are part or all Desi, raised in America in the ’80s and ’90s and have fond memories of NBC’s Must See TV, rolling your pants up, your family packing Corning Ware sets to take to the homeland, and the joys of TJ Maxx, you might enjoy the nostalgic similarities you too experienced, but even at that, with no plot or character arcs, the book is easily forgettable and you might forget to finish it.  For all my critiques of Muslim stories that don’t read authentic, this one definitely does, she doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t ever go against Islam, but because she is similarly not ever tempted to, I think most readers won’t relate to this fictional girl, who’s biggest worry is smelling like her mother’s cooking.  The book seems to just want to tell her life story, and getting through it is the point of the book, not making emotional connections, giving the reader something to think about or even inspiring others, which is ultimately a missed opportunity that this book could and should have capitalized on.

SYNOPSIS:

It is the first day of school for Fatima Husein the eldest of many daughters in her Indian American suburban home.  With a mother who doesn’t speak much English and parents that don’t seem to understand Fatima’s desire to fit in, the stage is set that will carry through the entire book of Fatima loving to study and separating herself as the girl at school pretending to be more American than she really is, and the girl at home pretending to be more Indian than she feels.  As the book follows the character through college, along the way Fatima and her family have extended maternal family move to America from India and then move back, they take a trip to India which is not enjoyed at all, her dad’s family then moves from India and settles near them, they move to be closer to the masjid, and they go for Hajj.  Characters bounce in and out: school friends, community friends, cousins, etc.. The only real constant is Fatima’s love of school and her paternal grandmother grumbling about her getting married. There are the ups and downs of life that are shared, most very specific to a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) living in the ’90s.  Fatima is religious and Islam is important to her and she never waivers in her black and white view of things.  It does take her a little while to wear hijab, but there is no real self reflection and catharsis, it is just states she wants to fit in and isn’t ready.  The conclusion is she finally accepts a proposal from the son of an old family friend who lives in Chicago.  Not so much because she likes him, but more because she has no reason not to say yes and her parents are in favor it.

WHY I LIKE IT:

If this were a biography and it was someone famous, the minutia of day to day living might be compelling, but as it is fiction and you have no idea where the story is going, it just seems to tell a story about a typical girl doing typical things.  It has value in that it shows how normal and boring even, a normal Muslim family is, but it gets really preachy at times and really dry.  None of the side characters are memorable.  I have no idea how many sisters Fatima has, when her grandfather passed away I felt nothing, when two who families died in a car accident Eid morning on their way to prayers, I had to flip back to see if the characters had ever been mentioned before.  It seems like the whole point is to get to the end, and more heart and less tedium would have made this book an amazing example of American Muslims in America.  The first page mentions friends and there is no follow up to where they are or what happened to them, and this happens all through out the book, there are no emotional connections, nor attachments among the characters to include the reader into their plight as well.  The protagonist one must assume gains her voice from the author’s experiences herself, but it just lacks internal dialogue and conviction.

Fatima lives through the Gulf War and makes big changes and has to find her place, yet the book just tells us all this, it doesn’t show us how she internalizes and processes and emerges from the experiences shared, it just gives an example and then comments on it.  The font and layout visually looks like a text book, and at times, the internal structure reads like an essay, sharing an anecdote, backing it up, and moving on to the next event on the time line.

I feel like I know the character, it definitely comes from a place of shared experience and credibility, but you have no idea where it is going, and just like I doubt anyone would want to read my life story, the book needs a little direction and editing.  In the author interview posted below in the “Tools to Lead the Discussion” she mentions that mainstream publishers wanted more rebelling and she wouldn’t compromise.  I agree with her, we need books that don’t follow that assumed track, I think that the presentation of the story, however, as it is, is lacking.  The integrity is there, but the character is really flat, and there are plenty of literary tools that could enhance the story without compromising Fatima’s character to drugs and alcohol and boys.  The book was self published in 2010 and I really hope at some point the author will re-edit it, to make it relevant to preteens and teens today and more personable.  Ultimately making it so that the successes Fatima has are cheered on by the reader, who are also inspired by her accomplishments while staying true to her beliefs.

FLAGS:

Considering how many pages are dedicated to how she and her sister are to behave in India as to not seem naughty or as arrogant Americans, the curse words flow pretty regularly in the book, and the way she speaks to her elders and in front of her elders is not always kind.  There are side comments about hooking up, STDs, and drinking, nothing any of the characters engage in, but judgments regarding these topics for those that do is present. She also talks about her mom’s failure to discuss menstruation before hand, to exemplify how things are only discussed once they need to be dealt with.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know that as a book club selection today’s youth would voluntarily pick up and read this book.  There might be some ability for a teacher to assign it and then turn around and make the students write something similar about their experiences in a fictionalized form.  I think students would struggle to relate to Fatima with the outdated references and the lack of conflicts and climaxes in the narrative.