Open Your Heart | The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love,
by Elif Shafak,
Published by Viking (2010)
Rating: *****

Introduction

This is the first audiobook I ever consumed. It was recommended to me the minute I opened up my Audible app for the first time. I saw it, was intrigued, checked out the plot, and knew I had to read it immediately. Of course, I didn’t audiobook it completely. I ended up reading more than half of it because I felt a strong desire to push forth – the narrative had me so hooked. This is also what has sparked a renewed interest in reading Rumi’s poetry, or beginning to read Rumi’s poetry.

Plot

This is a book with a plot-within-a-plot, a book-within-a-book. The narrator/protagonist, Ella Rubenstein is a housewife, who takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment becomes reading a manuscript titled Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by Aziz Zahara. The book tells the tale of Shams-i-Tabrizi and Rumi, their respective journeys and how they find each other, and Shams’ role in transforming Rumi’s life. Ella is smitten, and takes to communicating with Zahara, finding that Rumi’s story apparently mirrors her own life, and sorrows, with Zahara being the person tasked with helping her find love, and joy again.

Nested Stories

Shafak does a beautiful job of switching between the manuscript and the real-life of Ella Rubenstein. The transitions between the two feel timely, never abrupt, and the chapters are never too long, so you never lose track of where you are in each story line. They seem to weave into each other purposefully, especially since they are meant to mirror each other – the pacing is well done, and Shafak introduces elements of conflict, or of communication and resolution in away that never seems to take your attention away from either plot. I appreciated deeply how Rubenstein’s letters to Zahara mimicked communications and the building relationship between Shams and Rumi. The conversations Shafak writes are deep and meaningful, opening up the minds of each of the characters in the book.

The Little Things

Shafak embeds the Forty Rules of Love into the book, exposing them by imagining that Shams revealed them throughout his life when the time was right for the person being spoken to, to receive them. You can see this across his interaction with common-people, with Rumi, and through Zahara’s quoting of the rules of love in his conversations with Rubenstein. I loved that each chapter began with the second arabic sound “ba”, and that each section of the book referenced an element. The story, in its entirety, with Shafak’s lyrical writing, made me more mindful and aware and appreciative of the beauty I have surrounding me, and for a while, all I felt like doing was sitting down and taking all of it in.
It opened me up to a new kind of love, and I cannot wait to read more Rumi soon.

Conclusion

Easily one of the best finds I’ve made this year. Worth reading for how well she brings Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrizi to life.

Brothers & Sisters | The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House,
by Ann Patchett,
Published by Harper (2019)
Rating:
 ***

Introduction

The title of this review stems from this Coldplay song. I discovered this book through the Goodreads algorithm, and later saw this lovely special edition that had been printed which looks stunning (here – look at those pages!), and was tempted to read it. I consumed this in-part through an audiobook, and in-part through the ebook. My overall rating stems from how I felt at the end of the book rather than being representative of individual components of the book itself.

Plot

The book navigates the life of the Conroy family, centering around siblings: Danny and Maeve, who struggle to confront the past and live in the present – returning to their childhood home as observers to figure out everything in their lives. The book begins at Danny’s childhood, with Maeve taking on a motherly role when their biological mother abandons them. It takes us through a tumultuous teenage time, where Danny and Maeve are booted out of the house by their stepmother once their father passes, and how they survive the world.

 The Home As A Character

Patchett does a tremendous job of making The Dutch House, the titular object a character within the book. She exposes the interiors, first allowing Danny to discover the house while growing up, and then allowing the younger stepsiblings to introduce us to more layers to the house when they are left in the care of Danny & Maeve. Maeve recounts everything about the past by using the house as a frame of reference. Not only does that set up context to the time in which events take place, but it takes you through the house’s own ageing process at the same time. The voice and tone of the book always make you remember the house’s presence – and in some sections in particular, it feels like it’s the walls of the house talking.

A Rushed Ending

This was honestly beautiful till I was about 70% in. I loved everything about it. I enjoyed the way the siblings grew up and grew older together, and the kind of challenges Danny was going through in processing his emotions. There was a complexity to both Danny and Maeve that made them feel like real people, and that these were real events happening in everyone’s lives. However, the last 30% really threw me off. The plot was rushed through and felt unbelievable. The changes to their lives felt like they were impossible in real-life, which took away from all of the set-up that Patchett had accomplished in the first half. That was disappointing. It felt, in a sense, that this book would have been more enjoyable had the ending not been as rosy as it ended up being. Especially because the book tries to hint at how we deal with the past as people. I would have genuinely preferred if Danny and Maeve struggled – in one final scene, with the idea that they would not get closure, and learned to live with that.

Conclusion

Read for characters who seem to have hearts of gold, and sibling relationships that seem to mirror what real siblings are actually like.

Preserve Joy | No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

No Longer Human,
by Osamu Dazai, translated by Donald Keene
Published by New Directions (1958)
Rating: 
****

Introduction

Goodreads recommended me this book once I had added a few books on Asian and Oriental history generally. Reading the blurb, I felt a newfound appreciation for the algorithm that suggested gems such as this based on my past reading history. Prior to starting the book, I read a little bit about Dazai. Just getting through his Wikipedia page, I recognized that this was going to be a book that would make me feel extreme emotion, or induce extremities in emotional response. This is honestly a heartbreaking story, from start to finish, but a heartbreaking story that deserves the read for the perspective it offers.

Plot

No Longer Human tells us the story of Oba Yozo, a confused child who became a troubled man, someone unable to show his true nature to most people, and feels disqualified as a human being. The story is told in three parts – three distinct memoranda from different parts of Yozo’s life, that attempt to channel his sense of isolation and loneliness he experiences. You can tell, while reading, that this isn’t a fictional character. Oba Yozo, the name, the person, may be fictional, but his emotional responses, his characteristics, speak of a very real struggle. Dazai’s writing has always been classified as being semi-autobiographical. I can’t attest to this, but Oba Yozo’s thoughts lift off the page and speak to you in a manner unlike much else I’ve read.

Guards and Masks

Across all three memoranda, you can recognize that while Yozo struggles with identifying exactly what his emotions represent and point to, he has a self-destructive streak that makes him consistently behave in a cruel manner to anybody who cares about him. His childhood notebook is easy to read, and you can sort of understand the trials and tribulations of a confused child who increasingly feels alienated from everyone else. However, beyond a point, Yozo seems to do things that cause hurt knowingly, which is at the point that I began to develop a distaste for the character. It was odd to realize at the end of the book that there was such a brutality to his honesty about his misdeeds.

Preserving Joy

At the end of the book, all I could think about was the kind of nurturing, joyous environment we need to create on Earth for individuals who struggle with aspects of their identity. While Dazai’s writing makes it almost inevitable at Yozo would have rejected any further nurturing, it pointed to me that perhaps nobody tried to help him let his guard down. Nobody peered through as clearly as he expected. That miscommunication is fatal, and one can’t help but feel sorry for Yozo.

Conclusion

I’d recommend reading this, but the depth of the translation I read felt lacking in parts. Guess it’s time to take all the manga and anime I’ve been exposed to in the past two-three years and learn Japanese to read the original.

Instability | Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury

Gate of the Sun,
by Elias Khoury
Published by Picador (2007)
Rating: 
*****

Introduction 

This book has been on my to-read shelf since 2016, and I was intimidated about picking it up because I feared that I would not like it. When I first heard about this book, I heard only good things – from the plot, to the characters, to Khoury’s writing – people praised the decisions he made throughout. I was told it was impossible for me to not enjoy it, and that I would leave the book with several questions.

The history of the Middle East is a history I have read obsessively about because of my own connections to that part of the world and my desire to understand how so much conflict has been allowed to persist in such a localized area for so long, with and without intervention.

At the start of this year, I decided that aside from reading a large volume of books, and reading widely, I wanted to remove books from my to-read shelf. My Goodreads is filled with all sorts of things I’ve shelved, and I figured that discarding those, or reading those would lead to better predictions from the algorithm, and fresh finds – things I’d genuinely like to read. After all, there’s too little time to do all the reading I want to be doing.

Thus began my adventure with Khoury. I completed the book in class, and recommended it instantly to the person seated next to me – certain that I had found another reader. So it was to be, and long may this book continue to travel.

Plot

The book is structured as a stream-of-consciousness narration by Khaleel, an almost-son-like figure to Yunes, a Palestinian freedom fighter, who is in a coma. Although others have given Yunes up for dead, Khalil sits vigil by his hospital bedside and recounts stories, in an effort to make sense of their lives, and to make some contact with Yunes.

Detail

There is incredible detail in Khoury’s writing. He spent years listening to stories at refugee camps, and those stories fed into the novel – and that experience shines through in a manner irreplaceable by any other experience. He weaves to life the Palestine cause, and in doing so, he is able to showcase the true sense of displacement that refugees live with and the burden that places on them. There are portions of this book that it hurt to read because I felt helpless – it felt unfair, and left me with deep despair that humans had to go through the harrowing experience of seeing their home, being able to identify it, but not being sure what the world identifies it as.

There is naturally, a grandioseness to Khoury’s writing that leaves you remembering the words he writes. One that stood out for me was:

“in the faces of those people being driven to slaughter, didn’t you see something resembling your own?”

These lines asking the Palestinians to understand the Holocaust.

This is an Odyssey.

Conclusion

If you cannot tell, I am enamored by this book – for it takes ordinary stories and everyday life in extraordinary circumstances and raises them to myth. If there is a book you read this year, please let this be it.

Science, Actually | Where The Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing,
by Delia Owens
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2019)
Rating: *****

Introduction

My book picks this year have been eclectic, but that’s the kind of spread that brings me the most amount of joy in my reading. Over the last few years there’s been a surge in the volume of historical fiction being read. I tried putting the genre aside for a while, but there’s something wonderful about being able to travel through time and live in a distinct period and learn about the culture that prevailed: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Delia Owens’ debut novel shows us just about all of it, and is going to rank high on my year-end list for sure.

Plot 

The main storyline takes us through the life of Kya Clark, between 1952 and 1970 (ages 6 through 25) as she grows up alone in a shack in the wet wilderness of North Carolina, having been abandoned by everyone in her family. We understand early on that Kya is a survivor, foraging and teaching herself skills to participate in a limited manner in the community, to get her essential supplies among other things. To the townspeople though, Kya is labelled as “the Marsh Girl”, uneducated, poor, and living alone and disconnected from the rest of civilized society. Owens introduces the centerpiece of the book: Kya is on trial for the murder of Chase Andrews, a rich town kid who is/was her love interest. Around the trial, Owens threads us along on a date-jumbled journey to understand the harsh reality of Kya’s life, and the reality that the public understands.

Nature 

This is a very vivid book. One of the things I learned after completing it was that Delia Owens is an American wildlife scientist. This shines through in her writing, which in some portions is so intricate – while describing foliage, or describing the kind of fish that Kya manages to get her hands on. Owens is skilfully able to tread this fine line between painting a perfect picture through her words, without her descriptions becoming excessive. That balance stems from the fact that Kya is gifted in her own understanding of wildlife and nature, allowing for nature to feature as a character, almost, upon which both Kya, and the furtherance of the book’s plot and narrative rests.

Kya’s reference points all stem from her surrounding environment, a fact that mirrors reality. Nature clearly plays a role in our upbringing (cue the nature versus nurture debate), and Kya is no different. This use of nature though, in making it the focal point of Kya’s life, allows for her depiction as a feral being, Mowgli-esque. Her isolation enables her to understand human interactions with nature far better than others, and her relationship with the environment is fundamental to her identity. Owens’ exposition of this relationship, by including wordy descriptions of the environment while critical scenes are taking place: abandonment, return, and love, made me feel that Kya had a personal relationship with nature that was left unexplored, and as all good books do – it left me wondering what was left unsaid about that relationship, and where it could go next.

Class 

Historical fiction leans on conflict and division very frequently, and this book is no different, relying on the class divide to allow for the development of the trial, and the tension in that trial even more. Kya is supported by a minority of the population, and her exclusion from the rest of the public speaks to her background and economic class. However, something I found interesting is that for a book set in 1950’s North Carolina, there was little direct mention of race – a choice that I found curious. Where race is introduced, it didn’t necessarily play a large factor in the book’s plot development – a creative choice I respect. The substitution with economic class allows for a less-traditional exploration of the divide in North Carolina at the time, and one I admired.

Conclusion

This was understandably one of the bestsellers last year. I’d sit and read it again in a heartbeat. Would recommend highly.