Reading Challenges Update: Jan – March

Winter has come and gone…well, hopefully it is gone…and it is time to do a quarterly update of the three year-long reading challenge I am participating in this year!

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My goal for NovelKnight’s Beat the Backlist challenge is to read at least 24 books off of my massive TBR list! I am not quite as far as I would like to be in this challenge, but I’m hoping to play catch-up in April and May.

This is what I have read for this challenge from Jan – March:

Favorite: The Underground Railroad

Least Favorite: Year of No Sugar

Total Read: 6/24 books  – 25% Complete. ON SCHEDULE!

 

Diversity Bingo 2017

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This is definitely my favorite challenge of the year! Here is what I read from Jan – March:

Favorite: The Hate U Give

Least Favorite: Of Fire and Stars

Total Read: 9/36 books – 25% Complete. ON SCHEDULE!

 

Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017

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Popsugar always has a fun 52-week reading challenge that I like to do. Last year I failed miserably at completing the challenge, and I am hoping to do better in 2017! Here is my progress so far:

  • A book that has been on your TBR list for way too long: Dawn by Elie Wiesel. 

  • A book that is a story within a story: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. 

  • An espionage thriller: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

  • A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

  • A book with a subtitle: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family or Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.

  • A book that’s published in 2017: A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab.

  • A book about food: A Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub.

  • A book with a red spine: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
  • A book with a title that’s a character’s name: Ms. Marvel, Volumes 2 – 5.

  • A book with an unreliable narrator: The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda.

  • A book with pictures: Why I March: Images from the Women’s March Around the World by Abrams Image, New York

  • A book about a difficult topic: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. 

Favorite: A Conjuring of Light

Least Favorite: A Year of No Sugar

Total Read: 12/52 – 23% Complete. BEHIND SCHEDULE (but not by much!)

 

 

Book Review – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Historical fiction, Alternate history, #OwnVoices

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad, is, I dare to say it, a masterpiece. Despite the detached tone that turns off a few readers, the author gets to the heart of the horrible truths surrounding American chattel slavery in a way that most historical works have not. In addition to Alex Haley’s Roots, which comes with its fair share of controversy, Underground Railroad is one of the most powerful novels about slavery that I have ever read.

In Underground Railroad, we begin with a fairly straightforward story on a slave plantation. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia; she is also a stray and outcast amongst her fellow people. When Caesar, a slave relatively new to the Randall plantation, convinces her to run with him, she eventually agrees, and they both make their escape.

It is here, on page 66, that the story takes a turn into the realm of alternative history. For the Underground Railroad is not the version we find in our history books, but a real train line, built by slaves, buried deep underground.

The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.

The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall, walls lined with dark and light-colored stones in an alternating pattern. The sheer industry that had made such a project possible. Cora and Caesar noticed the rails. Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus. Someone had been thoughtful enough to arrange a small bench on the platform. Cora felt dizzy and sat down.

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

Throughout the novel, Colson borrows from history to reveal the true heart of darkness: slavery and the ongoing systemic racism in America. As Cora moves through each state: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Colson begins to tell a broader story. South Carolina is completely reinvented – I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers – but it is definitely jarring, and brings together the pseudosciences of eugenics, forced sterilization, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Project. All is not as it appears, and what looks shiny and promising on the outside often hides a darker, menacing aspect within.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that’s what you do when you take away someone’s babies – steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

I definitely see why this novel won the National Book Award. Colson Whitehead not only shows the struggles African-Americans have experienced during chattel slavery and beyond; he also touches on the way that white folks, and not just antebellum Southerners, justified their mistaken belief in racial superiority.

Interspersed throughout the story are chapters featuring a few of the minor characters: Caesar, Ridgeway, Dr. Stevens, Ethel. Some peopel take issue with these chapters as unnecessary, but I really appreciated them, particularly the chapters about Ridgeway and Caesar.

Whitehead writes in a detached way, and I know that is a turn-off for some people. I really enjoyed his writing style, and definitely recommend you give it a chance! In my opinon, it deserves all the accolades it has received.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review – Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

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Title: Of Fire and Stars
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Genre: YA Fantasy, LGBTQIA+ Romance

I have been procrastinating on writing this review, because I do not enjoy writing negative reviews. Sadly, I was not a fan of this book. I desperately wanted to be, but it all felt like a bucket of lost potential.

In Of Fire and Stars,  Princess Denna of Havemont has been betrothed to marry the Prince of Mynaria, Thandi, since she was a young child. Her marriage will seal an alliance between the two kingdoms, but she is harboring a secret – she possesses a Fire Affinity – a dangerous gift in the land of Mynaria, where magic is forbidden. Along the way, she meet’s the Prince’s sister, Mare, and they decide to join forces to search for the culprit of a mysterious assassination.

I was incredibly excited when the LGBTQIA+ novel, Of Fire and Stars, showed up in my OwlCrate box in December. There are so few f/f fantasy novels out there, and this one definitely has an interesting premise. An arranged marriage, with Denna falling for her betrothed sister instead? My curiosity was piqued.

And then, everything fell flat. And by flat, I mean FLAT. The world-building, the character development, even the dialogue, was all….meh. There was also way too much dialogue and pages dedicated to horses…and I love horses! By the end of the book, I was groaning and skimming every time another section came up focused on horses.

Where, oh where, art thou character development?

All of the main characters were incredibly one-dimensional. Mare, Prince Thandi’s sister, (yes, the character who has loved horses her whole life is seriously nicknamed Mare) is the token “bad girl”, complete with temper tantrums and extreme sulking. Denna, newly arrived in the land, is the “good one”, apparently full of sugar and spice and everything nice. Mare is rebellious and Denna is good. Denna breaks her mold towards the end, but even there it just fell flat. Don’t get me started on her magic and the stars falling scene – one of the most awkward things I have ever read. It made no sense the way it was written.

As for the rest of the cast, wow, I know nothing. Seriously, nothing. Poor Prince Thandi, with no personality, felt like a shell. The Directorate – the people who make the policy decisions in Mynaria – are clueless and incompetent. I mean, truly and incredibly dense.

Can someone explain the Northern Kingdoms?

Despite finishing the novel, I still don’t understand what this world is about. Why did Mynaria hate magic so much? A legitimate reason was never given for this intense hatred of magic users. Nor was there much of an explanation for the sudden existence of the Recusants vs the fundamentalists. Who were the fundamentalists, even? This lack of depth was incredibly frustrating for me. We’re plunged into a world with four kingdoms that together seem to make up the “Northern Kingdoms”, but we find out nothing about the history or political situations underlying these lands. Such as, why has Prince Thandi never left the castle’s home in Lyrra? Why can’t he explore his own lands?

The idea of having an Affinity (Magic) connected to one of the six gods was intriguing and new, if it would have been further developed. Yet once again, the reader is left with no real understanding of the magic and religion of these lands.

Refreshingly, heterosexuality is not assumed as the default sexual orientation – but then why on earth was there so much sexism in the novel? From the time Denna arrived in Mynaria, she is held back by what appears to be strict gender roles; as future queen, she is expected to be the castle’s numero uno party planner and tour guide. One of the only conversations that Denna has with the king is this:

“No need to be too formal among family,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll be relying on you to keep this son of mine in line. It has been too long since we’ve had a woman’s touch about the place.”

I can list at least ten ways in which this exchange makes absolutely no sense. But you get the idea. A few of the people on the Directorate are women, but they barely have a voice. That may be due more to poor character development, but it is still frustratingly annoying.

I was really excited about reading this novel, but ultimately, it was a tremendous let down.

This now makes two books in a row that I have rated two stars, something that does not happen very often. Thankfully, I’m now reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which is FANTASTIC. So, hopefully, this 2-star streak ends here.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Reading as Resistance – Part 3

As part of my personal resistance and opposition to the recent executive order banning travelers and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and accompanying moratorium on all refugee admissions, I decided to develop a three-part series highlighting authors from the seven countries included in the ban. You can find the Introduction and Part 1 here. Part 2 is here. Below is Part 3. 

Authors from the Seven Countries Affected by Trump’s Travel Ban: Iraq, Somalia and Libya.

Iraq

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Betool Khedairi. Born in Baghdad, Betool received her B.A. in French literature from the University of Mustansirya, and divides her time between Iraq, Jordan and the United Kingdom. She currently lives in Amman. I have one of her books on my bookshelf, so A Sky So Close will probably be one of the first books I read to #resist this year.

  • A Sky So Close – “This haunting coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in wartime Iraq was the subject of heated controversy when it was published in the Middle East; now in English, it offers American readers a rare chance to experience an Iraqi childhood.”

Ahmad Ardalan. Born in Baghdad in 1979, he grew up in Vienna prior to returning to Iraq in 1989, graduating from the University of Dentistry. He moved to the UAE due to the unstable conditions in his home country. Returning for a visit in 2013, this formed the inspiration for his novel, The Gardener of Baghdad. 

  • The Gardener of Baghdad – “Adnan leads a weary existence as a bookshop owner in modern-day, war-torn Baghdad, where bombings, corruption and assault are everyday occurrences and the struggle to survive has suffocated the joy out of life for most. But when he begins to clean out his bookshop of forty years to leave his city in search of somewhere safer, he comes across the story of Ali, the Gardener of Baghdad, Adnan rediscovers through a memoir handwritten by the gardener decades ago that beauty, love and hope can still exist, even in the darkest corners of the world.”
  • Baghdad: The Final Gathering – “With the drums of war just weeks away, Omar invites all those closest to his heart for lunch at his lavish villa overlooking the Tigris River of Baghdad. He can’t help but smile at the faces that have graced his eventful life that spans from an interesting childhood, the two Gulf Wars, and the inhumane embargo that crippled the nation. Loved ones come together, probably for the last time, in the city their ancestors called Baghdad or Baghdadu, ‘God’s Gift.’

Somalia

Nuruddin Farah. Farah is a prominent Somali novelist. He was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The only author I have already read on this list, I highly recommend his work.

  • Knots – “A strong, self-reliant woman who was born in Somalia but brought up in North America, Cambara returns to Mogadiscio to escape a failed marriage and an overweening mother. Her journey back to her native home is a desperate attempt to find herself on her own terms-however ironically, in a country where women are expected to wear veils.”
  • Links (Read in 2008, 4 out of 5 stars) – “Jeebleh is returning to Mogadiscio, Somalia, for the first time in twenty years. But this is not a nostalgia trip—his last residence there was a jail cell. And who could feel nostalgic for a city like this? U.S. troops have come and gone, and the decimated city is ruled by clan warlords and patrolled by qaat-chewing gangs who shoot civilians to relieve their adolescent boredom. Diverted in his pilgrimage to visit his mother’s grave, Jeebleh is asked to investigate the abduction of the young daughter of one of his closest friend’s family. But he learns quickly that any act in this city, particularly an act of justice, is much more complicated than he might have imagined.”
  • Crossbones – “A dozen years after his last visit, Jeebleh returns to his beloved Mogadiscio to see old friends. He is accompanied by his son-in-law, Malik, a journalist intent on covering the region’s ongoing turmoil. What greets them at first is not the chaos Jeebleh remembers, however, but an eerie calm enforced by ubiquitous white-robed figures bearing whips.”

Libya

Ibrahim al-Koni. Al-Koni was born in the Fezzan region in 1948. He spent his childhood in the desert, and studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky LIterature Institute in Moscow. He has published more than 80 books, although most have not been translated into English.

  • The Bleeding of the Stone – “The moufflon, a wild sheep prized for its meat, continues to survive in the remote mountain desert of southern Libya. Only Asouf, a lone bedouin who cherishes the desert and identifies with its creatures, knows exactly where it is to be found. Now he and the moufflon together come under threat from hunters who have already slaughtered the once numerous desert gazelles. The novel combines pertinent ecological issues with a moving portrayal of traditional desert life and of the power of the human spirit to resist.”
  • Gold Dust – “Rejected by his tribe and hunted by the kin of the man he killed, Ukhayyad and his thoroughbred camel flee across the desolate Tuareg deserts of the Sahara. Between bloody wars against the Italians in the north and famine raging in the south, Ukhayyad rides for the remote rock caves of Jebel Hasawna. There, he says farewell to the mount who has been his companion through thirst, disease, lust, and loneliness. Alone in the desert, haunted by the prophetic cave paintings of ancient hunting scenes and the cries of jinn in the night, Ukhayyad awaits the arrival of his pursuers and their insatiable hunger for blood and gold.”

Hisham Matar.  Hisham Matar was born in NYC, where his father was working for the Libyan delegation to the UN. When he was three years old, his family moved back to Tripoli, where he spent his early childhood. Eventually, his family was forced to flee and live in exile in Egypt, later moving to London. His novel, In the Country of Men, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

  • In the Country of Men – “Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie? Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand-where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.”
  • The Return (the only non-fiction selection on this list) – “From Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Hisham Matar, a memoir of his journey home to his native Libya in search of answers to his father’s disappearance. In 2012, after the overthrow of Qaddafi, the acclaimed novelist Hisham Matar journeys to his native Libya after an absence of thirty years.”

I hope you enjoyed this 3-part series! Please add any other recommendations you might have from any of the seven countries featured.

 

Reading as Resistance – Part 2

As part of my personal resistance and opposition to the recent executive order banning travelers and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, and accompanying moratorium on all refugee admissions, I decided to develop a three-part series highlighting authors from the seven countries included in the ban. You can find the Introduction and Part 1 here. Below is Part 2.

Authors from the Seven Countries Affected by Trump’s Travel Ban: Iran and Syria

Iran

 

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Mahmoud is an Iranian writer and actor, best known for his promotion of social and artistic freedom in contemporary Iran.

  • Missing Soluch – “Perhaps the most important work in modern Iranian literature, this starkly beautiful novel examines the trials of an impoverished woman and her children living in a remote village in Iran, after the unexplained disappearance of her husband, Soluch.”
  • The Colonel – “A pitch black, rainy night in a small Iranian town. Inside his house, the colonel stared at the portrait of the famous military hero –The Colonel, long executed. He thinks of his own children, one of whom died supporting the Shah, another of whom fought for the Ayatollah, another of whom – his fourteen-year old daughter – has been captured handing out leaflets against the regime. The Colonel has fought against the British…he fought for the Shah… he fought for the Ayatollah…he’s dedicated his life to his country…the house is quiet.

    Could they really be coming…for him?”

 

Shahrnush Parsipur. Shahrnush was born and raised in Tehran, receiving her B.A. in sociology from Tehran University in 1973. She is the recipient of the first International Writers Project Fellowship from the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

  • Touba and the Meaning of Night –  “Introduces English-speaking readers to the masterpiece of a great contemporary Persian writer, renowned in her native Iran and much of Western Europe. This remarkable epic novel, begun during one of the author’s several imprisonments, was published in Iran in 1989 to great critical acclaim and instant bestseller status—until Shahrnush Parsipur was again arrested a year later, and all her works banned by the Islamic Republic.

  • Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran – “With a tone that is stark, and bold, Women Without Men creates an evocative allegory of life for contemporary Iranian women.”

Syria

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Fadi Azzam. Fadi is a Syrian journalist and fiction writer, who studied Arabic at Damascus University. He now lives and works in the United Arab Emirates.

  • Sarmada – “Sarmada, Arabic for perpetuate or the eternally-not-changed, is the novel’s fictitious setting. In the title, Fadi Azzam creates a new word (a derivative female form of noun-verb, which does not exist in Arabic) and in so doing immediately lets the reader know that women are the protagonists of this story that spans several generations, from Syria to Paris and back again.”

Adonis. Adonis was born Ali Ahmed Said in the village of Al Qassabin. At the age of 19, he adopted the name Adonis (also spelled Adunis) after the Greek god of fertility. He is considered one of the Arab world’s greatest living poets.

  • Adonis: Selected Poems – “This volume serves as the first comprehensive survey of Adonis’s work, allowing English readers to admire the arc of a remarkable literary career through the labors of the poet’s own handpicked translator, Khaled Mattawa.”
  • The Pages of Day and Night – “Restless and relentless, Adonis explores the pain and otherness of exile, a state so complete that absence replaces identity and becomes the exile’s only presence. Exile can take many forms for the Arabic poet, who must practice his craft as an outsider, separated not only from the nation of his birth but from his own language; in the present as in the past, that exile can mean censorship, banishment, or death. Through these poems, Adonis gives an exquisite voice to the silence of absence.”

In Part 3, I will take a look at authors from Somalia, Iraq, and Libya. Stay tuned!

Reading as Resistance – How do you fight back? Reading Authors from the Seven Countries Banned By Trump, Part 1.

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Last week, I followed Trump’s Executive Orders closely. Each day, there seemed to be new trials and tribulations unleashed from his pen as he signed one executive order after another.

What I would like to focus on today is Friday’s executive order, and my response.

When a draft executive order was leaked to the media on Wednesday that placed a moratorium on the refugee admissions program, and an outright travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim countries, I knew we had even more trouble ahead. Prior to the birth of my daughter, I worked in refugee resettlement. I remember the repercussions of the two-month freeze on refugee admissions after 9/11, how it devastated resettlement agencies and made it incredibly difficult for them to have enough funds to keep case workers employed, so that they could continue to help people who were already here, and prepare for those who would arrive after the ban was lifted.

When an admissions ban goes into effect, almost all funding for resettlement agencies dries up quickly. And Friday’s executive order is like no other. A 120-day moratorium on ALL refugee admissions is twice as long as the post-9/11 freeze. A complete travel ban on all citizens of seven countries, irregardless of their visa status, or how long they have lived in the United States.

Such a ban has a catastrophic impact on people fleeing war and famine, on permanent residents who have made a home in America only to find themselves trapped outside of the country and unable to return home. Discrimination against a person based on their religion or national origin is a gross violation of a person’s human rights, and Friday’s EO is harmful to hundreds of thousands of people.

Much has already been written on the illegalities of this executive order, which breaks both domestic and international law. How can we respond, especially as a book community, to such discrimination and human rights violations?

As an individual, I have participated in quite a few actions over the past week. I have called my Senators and Congressional Representatives almost every day. On Friday evening, I participated in a protest at the Charlotte Douglas Airport. I donated, again, to the ACLU, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and my local refugee resettlement agencies. I will continue to volunteer in the refugee community on a regular basis.

For those who also engage in activism, you are likely already aware that self-care is needed to prevent burnout. One of my biggest forms of self-care is reading. Yet, even in this hobby, I see a way to Resist.

I have made a committment to reading at least one novel written by authors from each of the seven countries included in the immigration and travel ban: Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia. I encourage you to do the same.

During the course of this week, I will feature authors from each of these seven countries. I am a firm believer in the ability to learn through literature. If you are participating in #DiversityBingo2017, most of these suggestions will work for a few of the categories in that challenge as well.

Today’s post will highlight authors from Sudan and Yemen.

Authors from the Seven Countries Affected by Trump’s Travel Ban: Sudan and Yemen

Sudan

Leila Aboulela. Leila grew up in Kartoum, graduating from Khartoum University in 1985. She was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 for her short story The Museum, and her novel The Translator was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2002, and was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times in 2006.

  • Lyrics Alley – “The evocative story of an affluent Sudanese family shaken by the shifting powers in their country and the near-tragedy that threatens the legacy they’ve built for decades.”
  • The Translator – “Sammar is a Sudanese widow working as an Arabic translator at a Scottish university. Since the sudden death of her husband, her young son has gone to live with family in Khartoum, leaving Sammar alone in cold, gray Aberdeen, grieving and isolated. But when she begins to translate for Rae, a Scottish Islamic scholar, the two develop a deep friendship that awakens in Sammar all the longing for life she has repressed.”
  • Minaret – “Leila Aboulela’s American debut is a provocative, timely, and engaging novel about a young Muslim woman — once privileged and secular in her native land and now impoverished in London — gradually embracing her orthodox faith.”

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Tayeb Salih. Tayeb was born in Karmakol, near the village of Al Dabbah in the Northern Province of Sudan. He studied at Khartoum University before leaving for the University of London in England. Despite living abroad for most of his life, his fiction is firmly rooted in the village in which he spent his early years.

  • Season of Migration to the North – “After years of study in Europe, the young narrator of Season of Migration to the North returns to his village along the Nile in the Sudan. It is the 1960s, and he is eager to make a contribution to the new postcolonial life of his country.”

Yemen

Wajdi al-Ahdal is a Yemeni novelist, short story writer and playwright. Born in 1973 near Bajil in the province of Al Hudaydah, he received a degree in Literature from Sanaa University in Yemen. He won the Afif short story prize in 1997, and the youth prize of the President of the Republic of Yemen for a short story in 1999.

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  • A Land Without Jasmine – “A sexy, satirical detective story about the sudden disappearance of a young female student from Yemen ‘s Sanaa University.”

Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj was a Yemeni politician and writer. His short novel The Hostage was selected by the Arab Writers Union as one of the top 100 Arabic novels of the 20th century.

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  • The Hostage – “Set in the pre-revolution Yemen of the Imams, this novel depicts the experiences of a young boy who, having been taken hostage, in line with the Imam’s general practice, as a pledge for his father’s political obedience, is sent to serve as a young male attendant in the palace of the city governor.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Wednesday!

Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars