Tag Archives: Tahereh Mafi

An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

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This 256 page YA OWN voice book is a real and raw look at a character and the many layers of life weighing down on her.  At the center of it all is a strong Muslim teen dealing with post 9/11 bigotry, the shattering of her family, toxic friendships, and a broken heart.  It is a love story, but it is so much more, as the protagonist’s voice draws you in to her crumbling world from the very first page and has you begging for more when the last page is read.  So often in Muslim-lead-mainstream-romance-themed novels, I want there to be introspection at the choices that the character is making and the internal processing of navigating their wants with their beliefs, and this book surprisingly does it.  There are some kissing scenes, cigarette smoking, cosmo magazine headlines, and waiting for her father to die, but not without introspection. Shadi reflects on her smoking quite often, she questions the repercussions of her actions, and she analyzes her father’s faith and approach to Islam as she forges her own relationship with the deen.  There is mention of a Muslim character drinking, doing drugs, hooking up, and it mentions he had condoms in his car, just those exact phrases, nothing is detailed or glorified, just stated.  There are also threads of mental health, self harm, death, and grief.  The characters are genuinely Muslim and some of their experiences are universal, and some specific to the faith, culture, and time.  Muslims and non Muslims will enjoy the book, and I would imagine relate to different things, but find it overall memorable and lingering.  For my Islamic school teens, I’d suggest this book for 17/18 year olds to early twenties.  It isn’t that they haven’t read more graphic books, but to be honest, Shadi has a lot going on, and if being close to Ali can lighten her load and help her find hope and joy, I’m all for it.  I know it is “haram,” but it is fiction, and it will have readers rooting for them to be together, not a message you may want to pass on to your younger teens.  As the author says in her forward, “we, too, contain multitudes.”

SYNOPSIS:

The layout of the book bounces between December 2003 and the year before.  In a previous time, Shadi’s life was easier, her brother was alive, she had a best friend, her Iranian immigrant Muslim family may have had stresses and issues, but they were a family. In 2003, Shadi is largely forgotten by her parents, her brother is dead, her father is close to death, her mother is self harming, her older sister preoccupied, and as a high school student Shadi is both falling and being crushed by her heavy backpack both metaphorically and literally.

The story opens with Shadi being approached by a police officer wondering why she is laying in the sun, he thinks she is praying, and she doesn’t have the energy to be angry by this assumption, she is exhausted, and doesn’t want to cause any waves that might get back to her fragile mother and cause any more stress than necessary.  So she drags herself up, and begins the walk to her college level math class miles away.  The sun is short lived and the rain begins to pour, she knows no one will come to pick her up.  Her parents have long ago stop being present in her life.  She once had a best friend, but that relationship, as toxic as it was, also has ceased to exist.  So she walks, and she is drenched, and she falls, so she is now soaking wet and bloody.  A car slows down to presumably offer her a ride, but then he speeds off drenching her in a tidal-wave.  The scene is set for the tone of the book. Shadi is drowning, we don’t know all the reasons why, they unfold slowly, but we know that it is going to get worse, her phone is nearly dead and her sister has just called to let Shadi know her mother is in the hospital.

I don’t want to detail my summary as I often do, because the way the story unfolds, would really make any additional information given act as a spoiler.  The book is short and a fast read, but along the way the introspection to the chaos that is Shadi’s life, makes it impossible to put the book down.  Shadi will have to confront her crumbling life and find away to reach toward hope.  She will have to keep walking to avoid drowning and along the way cling to the few precious things that give her joy: an emotion of great delight.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really enjoyed this book.  I loved the Islam and real approach to her volunteering at the mosque and calling out racism within the community and diving deep in to understanding is Islam more than just rules and toeing the line.  It was a great mirror for so many nuances in real life, that I will probably re-read the book again in the near future, to enjoy it all.  I absolutely love the unpacking of the toxic friendship.  When women tear each other down under the guise of caring it is brutal, and the acceptance and growth that Shadi is struggling with in regards to her best friend of six years, Zahra. who is also Ali’s sister, is a reminder that sometimes walking away is the only choice.  

The two criticisms I have of the book are: one-that the book is too short, I wanted, no, I needed more.  And two I didn’t understand why Ali’s family and Shadi’s family were no longer close.  I get that Shadi cut Ali out of her life and Zahra and Shadi had a break, but Ali/Zahra’s family still care for Shadi and she for them, so what happened between the parents? It seems that the death of a child would draw the friends out and make them protective, not push them to being aloof.  It seemed off to me and major plot hole.

FLAGS:

As I mentioned above: kissing, smoking, drugs, hooking up, referencing condoms, cosmo headlines, self harming, grief, death, alcohol.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think even high school could do this as a book club selection, because you really want to ship Shadi and Ali.  If you had like an MSA book club then I think this would be a great choice.  I would love to hear teens’/young adults’ thoughts about Shadi’s view of religion, her fathers approach, and how they view passing the deen on to their children.  I think it offer great role-play scenarios in empathy and how you’d react in real life to finding your mother struggling, your best friend taking off her hijab and being so jealous of you, the bullying, the assumptions, understanding your father and where to assign the blame for such a traumatic event that claimed your brother’s life.  There is so much to discuss, and I hope at some point I find the right forum to chat about this book and listen to other’s perspectives about it.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

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In many ways this 338 page dystopian YA fiction book focuses more on romance than the super human powers the 17 year old protagonist has and the role she will play in the resistance.  That isn’t to say the book is bad, just that it isn’t as high action, or reform-a-broken-world, or even use-my-super-powers-to-save-myself-and-those-around-me as I had hoped. It is more a lot of self loathing, desire, and anger.  That being said, I am on the fence about reading the rest of the series, as this is the start of a six book series, with two “half” novellas interjected in and being told from other characters’ perspectives.  If this was a show pilot, however, I would let Netflix automatically start the next episode until I had binge watched the entire season, not necessarily because the story is great, or the characters amazing, or the writing stellar, but because it is easy and fun and you really want to suspend belief and know who all these attractive mutated teens running a broken world are, and yes you will roll your eyes at the syrupy sweet lust filled pages, but it is YA so maybe I’m just overly cynical and 15 year olds and up will enjoy it.  It is an AR 4.3, but the language, violence, and romantic build ups should not be read by 4th graders.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts with Juliette counting how many days she has been locked up in a cell, 264, void of human interaction of any sort and hinting at the reason her parents feared her and turned her in.  She is then joined by a male cellmate, Adam, one she slowly realizes she remembers from her youth and is in love with.  As he asks her questions we learn a bit about her power and the state of the world.  Juliette can kill people with her touch and apparently has killed someone, a child.  Her parents, along with everyone else, have always feared her, and not being hugged or touched her whole life has definitely been a painful existence for her.  Adam is a soldier and can touch her, he is also planted to learn about her as part of his job.  Warner, another teen, is in charge of a soldiers in the Reestablishment and has been following Juliette for a long time trying to see how they can weaponize her and use her for their cause.  Adam was playing a role, and now Juliette will have to play one in a world where the food is fake, the clouds the wrong color, and artifacts of culture and life before it all fell apart are destroyed and deemed illegal.  Along the way she will have to see the world in shades of gray and be willing to forgive and understand that people are not just for or against the way things, are, that sometimes you just have to do things to survive and protect the ones you love.

WHY I LIKE IT:

With all the talk of Iran in the news, I felt compelled to read a book with a Persian character, or at least by a Persian author, so I revisited the works of Iranian-American Muslim Tahereh Mafi.  The book reminds me of a Bollywood drama from the 90s where the hero and heroine do everything suggestive, except kiss, in this book they do a lot, but I guess don’t quite cross a line.  The scenes with Adam and Juliette are too much at times, where the story building about her understanding herself, her world, and what her powers can be, too little. The stage however, is set for the book and characters to grow in the series and with that optimism of knowing that the story stretches on, I have to hope the twists and turns make for a more interesting ride than this first book presents.  Most of the drama is already spelled out on the back cover, she can kill people just by touching them, she wrestles with seeing herself as a monster, or as being more than human.  It really doesn’t start getting good until she finds others like her, but then she is bored of them and the book ends.  The book has a huge following, so much like perhaps the Twilight series, maybe I’m just too cynical, and not in the target demographic, or maybe I need to keep reading.

FLAGS:

There is violence, *SPOILER* Juliette accidentally kills a child.  There is language, there is suggestive talk, there are romantic passages with kissing and touching.  For a book about a character who can’t touch, I feel like the majority of the book is about her touching and being touched.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do this as a book club, because I feel like it really is just a book setting the stage for what more is to come and because it ends so abruptly it feels almost like a teaser, yes a 300+ page teaser.  I was hoping that I could at least suggest it to readers of Hunger Games, City of Ember, The Giver, etc., but I don’t think it spends enough time on the crisis of the world at hand, and the adjustments made by a select few to appeal to the same readers.  It really is a romance, at least thus far, and the destruction of life and the environment just a back drop for their storyline.

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi

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I put off reading this book (I read the companion, Whichwood, first) because I had heard that the audio book was great and I wanted to listen to it with my kids.  Read by Bronson Pinchot, Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, the audio book takes 8 hours to cover the 401 page book, and it is delightful.  While Mafi’s circular repetitive world building, takes some slowing down to get used to, listening to it made the story move along when a physical book may have been abandoned.  An AR 5.5 the book is clean, but not gripping until about two-thirds of the way through.  As the main character grows in maturity, the story gets better and better, a mix between Alice and Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time.  The book will require some determination to get through, but the journey will be worth it in the end.

SYNOPSIS:

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow is missing her father who left 3 years ago with only a ruler in his pocket, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Her life is a bit messy as she is being homeschooled by a mother who she doesn’t really think likes her and thus spends most of her days outside eating flowers and trying to avoid wearing clothes.  Alice lives in a world of magic and color, but Alice has no color, at least not externally, her magic, which she must learn to accept is to add and manipulate color to the world, to anything and everything, except herself.  As a 12-year-old she must surrender her magic and be given a task to prove her place in her world.  She thinks her best gift is dance and her surrender goes terribly wrong.  With no where to go after her humiliating performance, she decides to take Oliver Newbanks up on his offer to go with him to help him on his task, he is 13 years old, and find her father.  Their unlikely assistance to one another is fraught with mistrust and bickering as they journey to a world Alice didn’t even know existed, Furthermore.

In the land of Furthermore, magic is used very differently then in Ferenwood, and on their journey where up is down and paper foxes rip limbs off, and Time is actually a person.  The two companions will have to learn to be honest with one another as well as themselves in order to survive, let alone to find Alice’s dad.  With the threat of death and being eaten constantly plaguing them, they journey from village to village where the rules are different and the laws of logic ever changing, with the hopes of completing the task and reuniting a family.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The details in the story are luscious and beautiful, and once you fall into it, you really do want to stay and look around a while.  There were times when listening to it, that the kids would get bored, yet now that we have finished it, all have mentioned that maybe we should get the book so they can reread parts again.  Mafi’s writing style is very thick that you don’t feel like you are making any progress, yet when you start to digest what you know, you realize in fact you have.  

At the beginning Alice is very annoying, and she stays that way for a while.  Her whiney nature isn’t sympathy evoking, but rather gets you irritated with Oliver as well, that he doesn’t just tell her stuff.  Both combined need to be bopped on the head.  Seriously, a bit of communication would really have taken out a lot of the unnecessary frustration the readers feel for the characters, and let the personal stuff they were hesitant to share with each other have more value.  It is a middle grades book, the empathy of understanding Alice and Oliver’s own fears and reticent in opening themselves up is a great lesson to explore through fictional characters, but because the kids have such poor communication skills about anything, their own fears lose potency.  The pacing of the story, is just as random as the villages they pass through as well, while they always seem in a rush, some of the places they stop they could chat at, rather than while they are running to save their lives, or while they are walking they could talk to give description through their eyes, to build up the characters, not just the world they are in.

Like in Whichwood, the narrator talks to the reader which is fun, and provides information that otherwise couldn’t be shared.  The characters names in each of the villages are clever and while the story could be mapped pretty straightforward, girl journeys to a new world to find her father with the help of a boy, who will become her friend, the twists and details, make the book memorable and worth the strain to get to the climax. 

I know this review sounds back and forth, and I think a lot of it stems from what you expect from the story before you begin.  I had tried to read the book and got a little discouraged, but I had a good feeling the audio book wouldn’t disappoint, so I plugged through and found myself enjoying and loving the story.  If you are expecting an action packed fully fleshed out rational story, you will be let down.  If you can just enjoy the whimsy on the surface and let the little tidbits of the larger story come at different times to complete the larger puzzle, you will love Alice and Oliver’s magical world and the fantastic journey that they go on.

FLAGS:

The book is clean.  A bit disturbing is that the people of Furthermore want to eat Alice and Oliver to absorb their magic.  It isn’t vulger, but it is silly that Alice doesn’t like wearing clothes.  While one could be nervous that Alice and Oliver develop a romantic relationship, rest assured they do not, they become friends and are 13 and 12 years old, so phew.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I can see me doing this as a book club selection, although I’d probably lean more to Whichwood, in an Islamic School environment because of the names. I think young Either one though, I’m positive Muslim kids will enjoy seeing a hijab wearing Muslimah pictured on the back flap and seeing that she can write a mainstream engaging fantasy novel about whatever she likes.

Author’s website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/book/furthermore/

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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The book is often marketed as a Muslim coming of age story in a post 9/11 world.  The contemporary work is semi-autobiographical, but really I think the positioning is a bit misleading.  It’s a love story, and the main character is Muslim, and her environment is awful and she is angry. Its an engaging read, I read all 310 pages in one sitting, but I don’t know that the take-away will enlighten anyone about Islam, or really what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11, I think people will remember how sweet the couple is and wonder how much of it mirrors the author and her husband, author Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children), but not suddenly become knowledgable about more than what the main character experiences and endures.   I appreciate that the book challenges the stereotypes of Muslim women, there is authenticity as it comes from a writer who lives it, and I do think it shows evolution of attitudes that teens can benefit from.  The book is not yet in the AR database as it just came out, but I would imagine high school and up.  

SYNOPSIS:

Shirin’s Persian-American family moves a lot.  Her and her older brother are incredibly close as their parents are rather aloof to the day-to-day experiences the kids endure.  That isn’t too say her parents aren’t around, they eat two meals a day together and the parent’s are warm, but Shirin’s brother Navid is a much more present.  The story starts with 16-year-old Shirin starting her 12th new school.  Conditioned to not make eye contact, remember faces, or get affected by the trivialities around her, the reader sees how angry she is as she curses at a teacher that assumes she needs ESL not Honors.  Knowing how fleeting her time in any location can be, as her parents are constantly trying to find better jobs, Shirin doesn’t feel compelled to make friends or get attached to anyone or anything.  This intimidating vibe similarly keeps offers at bay, for the most part.  When she gets paired up with Ocean to dissect a cat, he tries to talk to her, and this throws her off her game.  Most every interaction she experiences at school are people making racist comments and being very one dimensional and bigoted.  Ocean tries to be nice, an attitude so foreign to Shirin that it begins to force her to change.  Simultaneously, Navid, who is charismatic and has no problem finding friends wherever they go, decides to put his and his sister’s dream into action and they start a break dancing club at school.  Three other kids join, and start becoming, not just Navid’s friends, but Shirin’s as well.  

Shirin and Ocean fall in love, despite Shirin fearing what the backlash will be for ocean.  She doesn’t really know anything about him, but feels strongly that all the racial slurs thrown at her on a daily bases will effect him and ultimately make them wish they didn’t pursue a relationship. She draws line after line in the sand, and crosses them all.  Only then does she learn how blind she has been, he is in two of her classes, not just one, he is a year older than her, and he is the golden star of the high school basketball team.  Being that the story is told from Shirin’s perspective, this is surprising to the reader as well.  The town turns on the pair and things get really ugly for Ocean who is willing to risk it all for Shirin.  Threats by the basketball coach, pictures of Shirin without her hijab being taken, accusations of terrorist ties and sympathies all challenge the couple and shape Shirin.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like the twist of having the relationship be difficult for the non Muslim, rather than going with the assumed Muslim girl having to sneak around.  Not saying that I support it, but interestingly she never mentions that what she is doing is going against anything religious.  She mentions twice that her parents wouldn’t like her with any guy, and that they view her as a child still, but she doesn’t explore Islamically any boundaries regarding their relationship.  She hides talking on the phone to Ocean, because her parents are adamant she gets enough sleep at night.  That is about it.  Shirin discusses that she wears hijab like an armor that she gets to pick who she shows her hair too.  I love the strength in that, but wish there was a bit of doctrine to back it up too.  At one point a Muslim, non hijabi, at school calls her out for wearing hijab and having a boyfriend, but she essential tells her it is none of her business, which it isn’t and who is to say that one sin is worse than another, but still it befuddles what exactly Shirin believes and why.  The book just paints her as a Persian Muslim, but never explores what that means other than the superficial outward appearance.  They do fast in Ramadan, no explanation about why is given, just that they not eat or drink during daylight hours, and right near the end, Shirin remarks how her mom asks her and her brother every morning if they have prayed and they lie and say yes, their mother sighs and tells them to make sure they pray the afternoon one, to which they lie and agree, only to have their mother sigh again.  AstagfirAllah, that is awful lying, and lying about Salat, but it is so real, I audibly chuckled.  

I like that the parents aren’t harsh, they just seem disinterested.  I didn’t want to read another book about the parent’s being the gatekeepers and bad guys, so that was really refreshing.  They mention they don’t celebrate Christmas, but they have an open door policy on Thanksgiving for any friends wanting to come.  I did hope for a bit more about them, why they don’t talk to the kids about moving, what makes them tick, because really they seem to have a solid relationship with the kids, they are just clueless to their social experiences and school environment stresses.

I love the growth and self reflection of Shirin, she holds a mirror to herself and she and readers are better for it.  She has to realize that she is doing so much of what she is accusing others of doing.  I love the support and genuine concern of the breakdancers and her brother.  It resonated to me as a girl with an older brother and the relationship feels very genuine. I just wanted to know more about Navid. 

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing. kissing, hand holding, romance, lying, and ditching school.  There is a brief mention of graffiti being sprayed.  There is racial slurs, threats of violence, violent physical outbursts by people of authority.  When a student throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin, Navid and his friends beat the kid up severely, it isn’t detailed, but it is mentioned.  Ocean  also gets suspended for a few games for a fight he engages in, and there is some detail of Shirin getting jumped in a previous city for wearing hijab.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think I could in good conscience present this to a group of Muslim students.  I wouldn’t want them to think I was endorsing the violence and language and romance.  Like so many books of the genre though, if someone found it and read it on their own, I’d love to chat with them about it, as it is well written.

Youtube video about the book by the author: https://www.hypable.com/tahereh-mafi-a-very-large-expanse-of-sea-tour/

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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I am admittedly late to the Tahereh Mafi fan club, and to rectify that I checked out all her books from the library (There’s quite a few).  Yeah, I have four kids and not a ton of time, so I decided to start reading Whichwood thinking then I could review it here due to it’s jacket claiming “Persian Fantasy,” plus noticing characters having names tinged with Islamic culture: Benyamin, Roksana, and Laylee Layla Fenjoon.  So, while I guessed the 368 AR 7.5 wouldn’t have anything Islamic, I figured it would at least give Muslim kids a taste of themselves in some of the words and representation by the hijab wearing author. And I think I was right. 

SYNOPSIS:

Laylee is a mordeshoor, which means she is responsible for caring for the dead and moving them to the next world. Its hard physical work, and since her Maman has passed away and her Baba has gone a bit crazy, the grueling job is left to her.  She is desperately tired and overworked and behind, and the people of the town, Whichwood, abuse and ridicule her relentlessly.  Laylee’s world is a frozen wonderland filled with odd characters and occurrences and magic of all random and gruesome sorts.  Two children, Oliver and Alice, from a different magical land show up unexpectedly to help Laylee with her burden, but Laylee is not well and is on the verge of death, and their help is not initially wanted.  As Laylee starts to die, it will take her living friends, with their variety of magical gifts to bring her back to life, and the dead ghosts that she can speak with, to help her live a life worth enjoying.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Rumi is mentioned and quoted.  I love that words such as hamam and halva are tossed in, it gives flavor to a book that doesn’t need it, but is enhanced by it none-the-less.  The world created is so bizarre, that I was pleasantly surprised how the author kept the descriptions from becoming confusing albeit at times circular and tedious, the book starts out slow, but speeds up as you progress.  The narrator is telling the tale, and speaks often directly to the reader, which is a literary device that one doesn’t see that often in YA books, and I really enjoyed it.  It kept the book inline and avoided plot holes, as the narrator could just tell you how she knew and keep the timeline of the story intact.  

The characters are amazing.  Laylee is 13 and on her own, washing and scrubbing and pulling nails out of corpses before burying them in the frozen earth.  All while being harassed by the ghosts around her.  She has dropped out of school, the community doesn’t even pay her financially or with respect for the work she does, and yet she plugs along.  The reader wants to feel sorry for her, but there isn’t time, there is a lot going on.  Alice’s magic is she can color the world, and Oliver has the gift of persuasion.  Benyamin, Laylee’s closest neighbor on the peninsula, has insects and spiders that live in him and that he can communicate with.  His ailing mother can speak with whales, and rides inside them as a form of transport.  Yeah, it’s a bit nuts.  And because it is so fantastic, at times the story isn’t predictable or even really seeming to move to a clear climax, there is just so much to take in.  

I don’t really even know what to critique in terms of what I wish I would have seen or felt was lacking because there was no expectation.  The book is a companion book to Furthermore, which I think I will do as later as an audio book with my kids.  Perhaps once I read that one I’ll know more about Oliver and Alice’s gifts as the book is about them, as I do have some lingering questions about their whimsical abilities and backstories.  I would have also like a bit more on the mordeshoors, how they are trained, when they marry what enchantments that entails etc.  Seems like the concept in its most basic form could have benefitted from a little more detail.

The book is dark, and there is some darkness in Laylee, and I think that is what makes me like her as a character.  There are some emotions that she really has to work through, and I like that it is fuzzy and messy, I think the target audience of the book will really identify with some of Laylee’s internal struggles. The heart of the book is solid and is very grounded in reality even with all the fantasy on the surface.  I love that Laylee isn’t affected by what other’s expect her to be, there is amazing strength in this being brought to the forefront.  Also, the crystallization of giving someone what they need, not what you think they need is a lesson that will hopefully linger in the readers. 

FLAGS:

The book could be seen as grotesque, but I didn’t find it overly icky, I think middle school and up will  be perfectly ok with all the death.  Oliver is completely star struck and in love with Laylee and her beauty.  But, the book hints only at a future romance.  Similarily, Benyamin and Alice might have a future, but it isn’t mentioned more than a crush and isn’t dwelled on or annoying to the action of dead bodies coming out of their graves or anything like that.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Author’s Website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/

A youtube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgwtFqiFIi0