Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Behind Closed Doors in Amman

Four women and one man in modern-day Amman find their narratives intersect because, although Amman is a big city, it’s still a small world.
Zaghmout, Fadi. The Bride of Amman. Trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Hong Kong: Signal 8 Media, 2015. ISBN: 9789881219893
WARNING:  For mature audiences only—graphic content.

Salma, unmarried at 30, fights against the stereotype of the Jordanian spinster, while her sister Leila is about to have it all—a degree, a career and a handsome and wealthy husband.  Her husband, Ali, has a dark secret he keeps well hidden.  Hayat, who knows Leila, has dark family secrets of her own, meets Samir who knows Ali’s secret.  Should she tell Leila or should they all be worried about their Christian friend Rana who has run off to Sweden with her Circassian boyfriend? 

This book was publicized as social commentary, and I began reading it as such.  As such, it bored me.  I didn’t care much for the voices I was hearing as their problems sounded shallow and self-obsessed.  I was drawn into the novel, however, bit by bit as the stories began to intertwine and the connections between the characters became more complicated.  Then, I was able to understand the complexities of the Jordanian families and friends I have met in Amman at a much more intimate level than I have previously understood.  Life isn’t easy in Amman, infamously known for the “Amman scowl,” but this book helps the reader understand how difficult it is for some modern Jordanians to put on a brave face and smile. 

Is the book a masterpiece of literary achievement? I don’t think so.  Is it enjoyable reading? Definitely, yes.  Does it pass the test of helping the reader step into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them? Definitely.  On that basis, it’s worth the 4 hours it takes to go through it.  

Next step, meet the author.  Fadi Zaghmout, where are you?  I want to have coffee.

Fadi's Blog: https://thearabobserver.wordpress.com/

Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's a Small World

I have been waiting for this book to come out in English since 2012 when it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Finally, finally, I received the English translation, made possible because of the prize.

Al Sanousi, Saud. The Bamboo Stalk. Trans by Jonathan Wright. Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2015.
ISBN 9789927101779
Having lived in Kuwait for 8 years, I was intensely curious to see how a Kuwaiti man would tell the story of a boy whose father was Kuwaiti and whose mother, although the two were legally married, was still the result of the father's union with the family's Filipina maid.

As it turns out, Al Sanousi's tale is realistic, believable, and as heart-breaking as I thought it would be. Afraid of the shame the half-blood child will bring to the family name, the father is forced by his domineering mother to send the mother and son packing back to the islands, shortly before he goes missing in the 1990 invasion.

Jose grows up, fatherless in his motherland, never quite feeling complete, always dreaming of the day his father will make good on his promise to raise him as his legitimate Kuwaiti heir.

When that time arrives, Jose becomes Isa Al Tarouf, and is literally caught in the net of the Tarouf family reputation. What ensues is a Juvenalian satire of the state of class and race relations in Kuwait. Al Sanousi creates a microcosm of the microcosm that is Kuwait--with the bad, as well as so much that is good.

It is a first novel, so perhaps some of its elements are a bit contrived. For example, the attempt to connect the colonization of the Philippines to the lack of father figures, is a bit of a stretch, but it does ultimately work for the "islands" part of the story as it resolves. The main motif, the titular "bamboo stalk" is made a bit too obvious in places.

However, the historical backdrop and discussion of Bidoon and Kuwaiti politics from 2006-2008 was dead-on accurate, as I was teaching during those years and remember those elections quite well.

Was I surprised at the outcome of the novel? No. No, I wasn't.

Was I disappointed? Yes, I was.

Oh, Kuwait. You are a small world, indeed, as the book so clearly reminds us. I wish the novel would become required reading for all students in Kuwait; however, I fear the opposite may be more likely to happen. Tongues wag. Reputation is more important than money.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's Not Always So Bright

Violet has been shrinking since, well, a tragedy occurred in her life about a year prior to the introduction of this story. Now, she is a confused and lonely HS Senior, drifting from clique to family, contemplating suicide. Enter Finch.
Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. London: Penguin, 2015. 
The description of the book as "The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park" is completely misleading. The protagonist of this story is Violet, who has been shrinking since, well, a tragedy occurred in her life about a year prior to the introduction of this story. Now, Violet is a confused and lonely HS Senior, drifting from clique to family, contemplating suicide. Enter Finch who finds her while he's contemplating the same thing on the ledge of the school bell tower. Finch is the handsome antagonist who quite literally steals the plot. He has bipolar disorder--all the joys and euphoria associated with it, but also the despair and hollowness it leaves in its wake, not to mention the anxiety and neuropathy in between. 

The book has nothing to do with star-crossed lovers, nothing to do with fate. It's about the roller-coaster ride that is bipolar. I'm on the fence about recommending it because I believe teens who experience suicidal thoughts should read more about the effects on the victims left behind. Focusing on the euphoria of highs or the eccentricities of the lows of bipolar tends to depersonalize, stereotype or even glorify the disorder in a way that trivializes the disease as a moral lesson from which shrinking Violets must learn.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Heroines in Hejabs: THE GREEN BICYCLE by Haifaa Al Mansour

When you have a goal, you go for it.  Wadjda wants a bicycle. This wouldn't be that big a deal, except for the fact that she's a girl. And she lives in present-day Saudi Arabia.  Will she be able to make her dream come true?

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour

Wow! The Green Bicycle was published in September 2015, after the very successful 2012 feature film Wadjda garnered world-wide respect for Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female director to come from Saudi Arabia.  Sometimes I make the mistake of setting my expectations for a long-awaited book too high, but this book did not disappoint me.  In fact, Al Mansour captures every facet of a middle-class, working woman’s world in Saudi (reading this brought me right back to my eight years in Kuwait).  The tendency for Westerners to think of all Saudis as oil rich snobs or overflowing with new money has got to be stopped.  Increasing exposure to Western culture often sends middle-class Muslim girls mixed messages that a coming of age story is perfectly suited to deal with.  Wadjda’s struggles to remain independent are innocent, but also become more weighty as they begin to affect those around her—her family, her friends, her classmates, and mostly, her own sense of being.  The theme of Wadjda’s struggle to find herself is very much echoed in the subplot of her mother’s struggle to be a woman of independent means in a patriarchal society where both men and women suffer because of cultural and moral restrictions placed upon them.  For example, Wadjda’s mother is forced to teach at a school two hours from home because teaching in an all-girls school is one of the only acceptable professions for Saudi women and local positions are flooded. So she and 8 other completely-covered female teachers must endure a two-hour drive to and fro on a crazy-dangerous desert highway, in a van with no A/C, driven by a surly Pakistani man who is her social inferior due to his illegal immigration status but who  feels he can berate her because she is a woman. There is also the tense relationship between Wadjda’s mother and father.  What happens when a Saudi woman cannot bear a son?

What superstitions would keep a girl from riding a bicycle in the first place?  Everything about this book was so real—the streets, the empty lots, the dust, the political elections. The longing of Wadjda’s mother to break social norms, but her reluctance to do so because of social tradition. The principal of the school, Ms Hussa, with her designer clothes, high heels and sense of self-importance, the attitudes of the girls in Wadjda’s school.  Seriously, I felt like I was right back in the Gulf. 

I don’t think, as some critics have said, that Al Mansour seeks to cast Saudi in a bad light.  She is showing it with ethos and pathos. She completely honors Koran.  The plots are beautifully woven, and shine brightest in the moment that Wadjda and her mother recite Koran which brings them together, “And of His Signs is that He creates for you mates out of yourselves, so that you may find tranquility in them; and He has put love and mercy between you.” This is beautiful, and Al Mansour turns a traditional male-female dynamic on its head by reinterpreting it as an unbreakable and triumphant bond between a mother and a daughter. 

Vital Stats:
Al Mansour, Haifaa. The Green Bicycle. London: Puffin, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-141-35668-6 

Read the book or watch the movie.  Either one would be a positive experience.
Movie trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3koigluYOH0

Monday, October 19, 2015

Gier, Kersten. Ruby Red. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Henry Holt, 2011.

I am being really honest here. One of my students recommended this series. It's a Young Adult series about a contemporary 16-year-old who time travels in London. I find the protagonist uninteresting, the plot slow, the romance boring and slow, and the period detail when time travel does occur is stereotypical and shallow. It's probably because I've read many, many books. I've read YA that is better written. I've also read actual literature from the time period to which the heroine travels back. I'd much rather students just read actual Austen or Dickens or Shakespeare. However, if a student finds this series interesting--I would not hesitate to recommend it to him or her. Perhaps if I were in Grade 6 or 7, I would have loved this series, and my interest in reading Austen, Dickens and Shakespeare would have increased because of it.

The author's page is here and contains links to the book trailer and various interviews that are useful.  I should mention this is the first of "The Ruby Red" trilogy, which also includes the titles "Emerald Green" and "Sapphire Blue."  I must admit, the covers are very beautiful.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Livin' in a Powder Keg and Givin' Off Sparks

Ashley Hope Pérez
Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Lab, 2015.
ARC provided by Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing

Henry, Naomi's step-father, and twins Cari and Beto's real dad, in a fit of newly found religious zeal to "make things right with God" takes them from their grandparents in San Antonio to live in the oil boom town of New London, East Texas, in 1937. This means more opportunity for the twins who are in Grade 3, smart, and white-skinned. But at 18 years old, Naomi is very self-aware of her dark skin, her poverty, and her ethnicity. At home, she struggles to overcome her hidden fears that the ugly monster Henry she remembers from her childhood will soon return, especially since she is older and looks like her mother once had. As  she endures ostracism at school and the burden of taking care of her family, Naomi finds herself attracted to Wash, an African-American from the New Egypt community who has befriended the twins and becomes smitten with her. The tension of their forbidden relationship is set against the historical backdrop of the horrific New London School explosion of March 18, 1937.

The story arc of Pérez's characters is well-suited for the setting. The story is tense, violent, and explodes, leaving few survivors to relate the tragic events that actually occurred. Racial tension and the race for money, oil, and souls in Depression Era East Texas was a powder keg waiting for a match, and Pérez found the fuse in this realistic narrative.

I would advise for mature students only, ages 16+, as there is intense and graphic violence of both sexual and physical nature.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Out of This World: a Review of ORBITING JUPITER by Gary D. Schmidt

Schmidt, Gary D. ORBITING JUPITER. New York: Clarion Books. Advanced Review Copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

A farm family in rural Maine fosters Joseph, a 14-year-old whose life is a series of unfortunate events. It's a rough start for Joseph and his new family, too, but he soon opens up to them after a bonding moment with foster brother, Jack. Joseph explains the truth behind the stories and shares his determination to reunite with his daughter, Jupiter. Just when life begins to look up, bad things go down.

Schmidt smartly establishes setting and character through a first-person narrator. Use of classical allusion, in this case, the Nativity, gives the novel its literary chops. Then there are the humorous potshots at English teachers, the nods to great literature, the ins and outs of middle school life one expects from Schmidt. But, somehow, in ORBITING JUPITER, Schmidt has managed to accomplish with fewer words what he fails to do in many of his other books--here, he makes every scene plausible. There are no zany subplots or misdirected steps. The most appealing of his novels, ORBITING JUPITER will stand out as classic Schmidt--crisp, clear, compelling.

Schmidt, Gary D. ORBITING JUPITER. New York: Clarion Books. Advanced Review Copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.

Publication Date: November 3, 2015. 
ISBN: 9780544462229
Ages: 12 and up
Grades: 7 and up

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Walrath, Dana. Like Water on Stone. New York: Delacorte, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-385-74397-6 

Shahen Donabedian wants more than anything to escape his sleepy little Anatolian village to go to New York City, just like his uncle before him. His twin sister, Sosi, does not feel the same, having just discovered the earliest stirrings of affection for Vahan Arkalian, the clock-maker's son. Together, Shahen and Sosi, are expected to help their parents with the family mill-work, grape harvests and care of their five-year-old sister, Miriam. When the unthinkable happens, and the children are forced to flee while their parents are brutally murdered, nothing matters but survival.

A very sensitive book detailing the horrors of the Armenian genocide for a brother and two sisters in 1914, as they escape to Aleppo with the help of an eagle. Walrath doesn't spare us the details-senseless murder, rape, rivers running with blood, death by starvation-but her choice of free verse somehow gives the reader a chance to come up for air once in a while. In addition, she pays attention to the little details of her Armenian heritage-the music, the food, the daily duties of mothers and daughters. She also explores daily interactions among Turkish Muslims, Kurds and Armenians in rural villages before nationalism crept across the Ottoman empire. Great understanding and depth of insight into the human condition is portrayed in this deceptively simple book.

Author's Website: danawalrath.com

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Heart Goes Last: a Novel

Atwood, M. (2015). THE HEART GOES LAST: A NOVEL. Nan A. Talese. ISBN: 9780385540353.

Stan and Charmaine have no money. Signing up to live in an experimental society is better than living in their car, even if they do spend every other month in jail.

Pretty soon, however, things take a strange turn. The POSITRON/CONCILIANCE experiment begins to go awry. The reader realizes this dystopian novel is about the definition of marriage. What is it? Sex, romance, dominance, dependency, any, all or none of the above?

Atwood's tells the story in the voices of Charmaine, a perky optimist, and Stan, her somewhat resentful husband. How far are they willing to go to be comfortable, to have "the good life"?

Based on Advanced Review Copy. Release Date September 29,  2015. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese.

Publisher's Summary:
Margaret Atwood puts the human heart to the ultimate test in an utterly brilliant new novel that is as visionary as The Handmaid’s Tale and as richly imagined as The Blind Assassin.

Stan and Charmaine are a married couple trying to stay afloat in the midst of an economic and social collapse. Job loss has forced them to live in their car, leaving them vulnerable to roving gangs. They desperately need to turn their situation around—and fast. The Positron Project in the town of Consilience seems to be the answer to their prayers. No one is unemployed and everyone gets a comfortable, clean house to live in…for six months out of the year. On alternating months, residents of Consilience must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system. Once their month of service in the prison is completed, they can return to their “civilian” homes.
At first, this doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice to make in order to have a roof over one’s head and food to eat. But when Charmaine becomes romantically involved with the man who lives in their house during the months when she and Stan are in the prison, a series of troubling events unfolds, putting Stan’s life in danger. With each passing day, Positron looks less like a prayer answered and more like a chilling prophecy fulfilled.

MARGARET ATWOOD, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; Oryx and Crake, short-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize; The Year of the Flood; and her most recent, MaddAddam. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award, and lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.

Author Website:http://www.margaretatwood.ca

Author Social Media: Twitter @MargaretAtwood; FB MargaretAtwoodAuthor

Thursday, June 18, 2015

I Read Literature Like a Professor. Who Knew?

Foster, T. (2003). How to Read literature like a professor: a lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines. New York: Harper.

This book is recommended reading for AP Lit teachers everywhere. It is also recommended for their students. Having taught the courses, I would find a few chapters useful. The intro is good for its discussion of memory, symbol and pattern. His chapters on Shakespearean and Biblical allusion are a good intro for students who may not have had much exposure to either, but are expected to understand obscure references to both in encounters with other literature. There is also a great apologetic for students who always question if readers are reading too much into a text. I would use that, for sure. His chapters on myth, poetry, seasons and setting are too cursory. I've seen better material. Where the book fell short: he uses examples that most AP students or college Freshmen have still not read and therefore will not understand or find his discussions engaging. His conclusions also draw 98% from the Western canon, yet he claims there is only one story. I believe he should qualify that statement a bit more. One last thing, I fear that some students and/or teachers may use this book exclusively for developing a critical literary lens. That would be disastrous, as many of the archetypes, symbols and motifs he shares are often used to limit an interpretation of a text, leading to a false sense that there is a "correct" way of knowing what an author was trying to say.

There are helpful reading lists in the back of the book, again, mostly drawing from the Western canon. If you teach BELOVED, Joyce, Eliot, Dickens or Frost, this book will be helpful. He also draws significantly from the works of Frye, Freud, Jung and Bahktin. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Great and (not too) Terrible Book

Bray, Libba (2003). A Great and Terrible Beauty. New York: Delacorte. 

This book and the author get tons of hype from Booklist and ALA. This book was fine, and some girls will get into the series, but it's not great. As far as historical fiction, the descriptions of England, India, gypsies--all a bit cliche. It's not a read alike for The Hunger Games or Divergent crowd. There was some mixing of occult and mythology. That was odd. Plus, what was the veiled lesbian stuff? And the repressed sex? Just a bit too much.

All that criticism aside, Bray is an enjoyable writer.  Anyone who suffered through the Twilight series will certainly enjoy this series more.  It is far better written and the female characters are much more nuanced and independent. For the literati, it might appeal for comparisons to The Crucible, as it does contain some similar themes--jealousy, adolescent friendship, first love, coming of age.  

The book is the first in the Gemma Doyle Trilogy.  Other titles are Rebel Angels (Gemma Doyle, #2) and The Sweet and Far Thing (Gemma Doyle, #3).   You can read more about the series on the author's homepage.  Fans of the author should check out her other books as well at http://libbabray.com/

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Diaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: a Novel. New York: Riverhead, 2007.

For the past 3 years, this has been on my radar, as everyone in my "library" classes had been going on and on about it. I really didn't like it that much, nor do I care for Diaz' short stories that I pick up here and there. There are some inspired lines, such as, "...when he thought about the way she laughed, as though she owned the air around her, his heart thudded inside his chest, a lonely rada." Sure, what girl wouldn't fall in love with that line? But "a lonely rada" is kind of lost on me. I'm just not that citified, I guess. The only Dominicans I really ever met were at Word of Life Camp when I was a teenager, and they didn't swear or speak in the vernacular Diaz uses in his writings, at least not while they were at Bible camp. I would have to say that I did enjoy the narrative techniques, story within a story within a story, the thread that ran through the narrative, the epiphany when the narrator was revealed-that was fresh. I learned quite a bit about DR history. And this book was so much more enjoyable than How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. If I was in a school where I was able to teach either book, barring censorship, I would choose Diaz over Alvarez. He's less agenda-oriented and less self-aware, more about the craft.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Haddad, Qassim. Trans. Ferial Ghazoul & John Verlenden. (2014). Chronicles of Majnun Layla & Selected Poems. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. ISBN: 9780815610373

This was a beautiful book in the Arabic tradition of Akhbar Majnun Layla, which the translators chose to phrase as the Chronicles of Majnun Layla. It is a common genre in Arabic literature about a man named Qays who wanders the desert, mad with desire for Layla, who he cannot have. I really enjoyed learning about the genre through this book. Haddad is a Bahraini poet, who elevates the tale beyond a Romeo and Juliet story into the story of a poet and the Word. It also reminded me a bit of Abelard and Heloise, and I am now psyched to research the influence of Majnun Layla tales on that story. The edition also includes some of his poems in translation, which are eloquent. Phrases like this stick out, "A mountain goat--wind defeating his horns--/makes light/of a mountain rock." That reminds me of another point. Some of the Majnun Layla poetry echoed parts of the Song of Solomon and the book of Revelation where Christ spreads his tents wide for His Bride. It is wonderful to trace a literature back to those fundamental, shared roots. This book has helped me grow as a reader. Another Arabic into English translation I'm so thankful I didn't miss.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Siraaj: an Arab Tale

Siraaj: An Arab Tale by Radwa Ashour. Trans. by Barbara Romaine.

Siraaj: an Arab Tale, part of our Lost in Translation collection, is a fictional account of a small island sultanate in the late nineteenth-century. A tyrannical sultan is caught between maintaining his power, based on slave labor and making concessions to a vast Victorian Empire.  On might be tempted to sympathize with the Sultan were it not for his equally evil, childless wife, his weekly romps with concubines, his stereotypical fondling of his precious gems or the bloody coup against his brother.

Told from multiple points of view, this novella is a densely layered volume of the inter-relationships that can be found among Arabs in the Arab world, the very essence of which is buried in a tale-within-a-tale, “The Ringdove”: “Don’t you know that nothing of good or evil befalls any of us other than that which is enjoined upon us by fate? In the full course of our days, whatever our weaknesses or our strengths, each of us will be tested, whether in poverty or prosperity. So it is destiny that put me in this predicament, that drew me to the bait, and hid the net from me so that I got caught in it, together with my companions” (37).

Against the backdrop of a British naval base being built on the island, rumblings of discontent among the slaves on the island begin, and those who formerly had no reason for revolt find themselves caught up in a revolution for reasons only they can tell.

Post-Arab Spring, this “Arab Tale” is more radical than ever. The Sultan. The People. The West. Who wins?

Sadly, Radwa Ashour passed away in December 2014. For more on her life and literary career, please check out the links below.  She was a remarkable person and should remain in our literary conscience.

Vital Stats:
Ashour, Radwa. (2007). Siraaj: an Arab Tale. Trans. By Barbara Romaine. Austin: Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Palestinian Childhoods

Tasting the Sky: a Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat


This book was gut-wrenching. Talk about putting yourself in someone else's shoes and walking around in them. Unless you were 3-year-old Ibtisam Barakat.  Then you have to walk barefoot in her tracks.  She was too young to tie her own shoes, and it was too dark for her to find her other shoe when her family fled, leaving her behind when enemy tanks invaded Ramallah in 1967, soldiers shooting over her head. Barakat relates a heart-breaking story of a family's survival in the midst of cruel and unsettling (literally, unsettling) circumstances without villianizing any people group. What she tells is her story, but its more than just plot. She's artfully crafted a narrative that pays tribute to the gift of language, which was for her the gift of empowerment. She uses a language, based on a common mother-tongue, to pose questions of national boundaries versus common ancestry, and whether language can bring hope and refuge.

Awards & Honors for Tasting the Sky:

Arab-American National Museum Book Award for Children’s/YA Literature

“Careful choice of episodes and details brings to life a Palestinian world that may be unfamiliar to American readers, but which they will come to know and appreciate.”
--Kathleen Isaacs, School Library Journal Review

“Ibtisam’s reverence for language informs nearly everything she does, and it keeps her alive, whether corresponding with her pen pals or crafting this memoir: ‘a thread/of a story/stitches together/a wound.’”
--Publisher’s Weekly Review

“What makes the memoir so compelling is the immediacy of the child’s viewpoint, which depicts both conflict and daily life without exploitation or sentimentalilty.”
--Hazel Rochman, Booklist

Vital Stats:
Tasting the Sky: a Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
Harrisonburg, VA: RR Donnelley & Sons, 2007.
ISBN 9780374357337

A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr


An interesting story about life within the confines of occupied Palestine, in this young adult novel three boys from Ramallah unite to clear away a piece of land for a soccer field between curfews, only to realize that their dream may never hold. A Little Piece of Ground explores the human cost of the occupation of Palestinian lands through the eyes of 12-year-old boys Karim, Jony and Hopper. In response to a Palestinian suicide bombing, curfews are tightened again, and Karim who gets caught outside takes shelter in an abandoned car right under the nose of enemy soldiers, wondering if he will survive.

Rewards & Honors for A Little Piece of Ground:

A Little Piece of Ground deserves serious attention and discussion.”
--Coop Renner, School Library Journal Review

“The heartbreaking personal drama visualizes the realistic challenges of wartime life at home, as well as the diversity of opinion about religion, class, and politics in the community.”
--Hazel Rochman, Booklist

Vital Stats:
A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird with Sonia Nimr
Chicago: Haymarket, 2006.
ISBN 9781931859387  

Further Resources for Understanding (from the Appendix of Tasting the Sky):

Promises, a film by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldbert and Carlos Bolado)

Seeds of Peace

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

New Collection: Lost in Translation

From Arabic to English: Lost in Translation
In speeches and conversations, American poet Robert Frost has often been quoted as saying, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation.” A few months ago, the English Department asked me if the library had any books originally written in Arabic that had been translated into English that were written for Young Adults.” I had no idea.  Thus began my quest.  It has been delightful.  I’m proud to announce a new featured collection “From Arabic to English: Lost in Translation,” which examines the difficulty of translating traditional Arabic forms of literature—from Kalila wa Dimna to Hayy ibn Yaqzan—into English.  When I ask them about bits of Holy Koran or Arabic poetry, so many students say, “Miss, it’s just not the same in English.”  However, after studying authors like Ghassan Kanafani, Mourid Barghouti, Hoda Barakat, Tayyib Saleh and Mahmoud Darwish, I feel compelled to share their voices, even in broken English. These are works of profound significance, worthy of translation, no matter if some poetry may be lost, no matter the risk of misinterpretation.  Here is a list of available Arabic titlestranslated to English as well as our New Arrivals.  Please drop by to have a look or go online or to your local libraries to find some of these titles.  They are worth looking into. Reading translated literature imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don’t read can sometimes lack (John Connelly, The Book of Lost Things).

Monday, January 12, 2015

Winter Is for Reading

Winter gives us the perfect excuse to curl up with a good book, write in our journals or read with our children.  The poet William Carlos Williams challenges the howling North Wind in his poem, “January”:

Play louder.
You will not succeed. I am
bound more to my sentences
the more you batter at me
to follow you.

You can always take shelter from the winter winds in your library.

Over the break, I discovered a fantastic reading app that kept my children entertained on the iPads for longer than they should have been.  Reading Rainbow, a show that aired on the Public Broadcasting System in the US for over 20 years, has now put all their wonderful experience into creating a safe, online environment for kids.  If your kids are like mine, you can never have enough reading apps.  You can check Reading Rainbow out for free.

Snowstorm Huda blasted Amman, but I was prepared.  I finished Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, I'd save this book for college students, or those familiar with Conrad or Achebe.  I don't know that very many high school readers would catch the nuances of the text, post-colonialism, deconstruction, some existentialism, some great feminist stuff.  You need a lot of lenses to unpack this text, which makes it really good reading for those of us who love to read, but probably a little too confusing and complex for those just starting out.  I really liked it though.  It would be great to teach in World Lit.  

I also read Jane Yolen's collection of short stories, Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast. It was interesting, but just that, a collection of fantasy short stories for Young Adults.  There were some "horror" stories, but they weren't very scary compared to what kids read today.  My favorites were "Mama Gone," a story set in Appalachia, wherein the young protagonist must face her vampire mother.  "Winter's King" sticks with me, not because of the plot, but because of its beautiful writing.  It reminded me of Game of Thrones.  I thought it was beautiful.  "The Babysitter," perhaps the most "horrorific" of them all had a nice twist at the end.  

My favorite was Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. My Goodreads reviews are now linked, but I'll repost it here.  I would give one caviat.  In a conservative culture, I would recommend this for 16 and up, no younger, just to be on the safe side with parents.
I wish John Hughes were still alive, because ELEANOR & PARK needs to be made into a John Hughes movie, circa 1986, the year in which it is set in the most unlikely of Midwestern towns, Omaha. Rainbow Rowell, did you make Eleanor into Molly Ringwald on purpose or was it typecasting? It took me two days to read this, and it felt like I was 16 again, hoping, praying, that some boy, any boy, would notice me, but not quite sure how to make it happen. And the bus rides, oh, the bus rides. Wondering what mean girl was stalking you, why you felt ostracized. The music, the Smiths, the Smithereens, U2, Foreigner, the soundtrack of my life. And the quiet, mysterious boy, the one who took martial arts, who probably kept a journal, who didn't talk about it, who melted your insides. Learning to drive. That first kiss. That promise of something more you know will never come true. The golden moment caught in time, like a picture, in your yearbook. Friends Forever, Eleanor & Park. 

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. London: Hachette/Orion. ISBN 9781409120544. Pbk.