Here’s the latest book I read for the neighborhood book club. I had to read through it as quickly as I could (meaning with all my other stuff, it still took a week), because my queue is full of good stuff (Elton John memoir arrived yesterday!). It’s another first novel, this time by Yaa Gyasi, daughter an immigrant from Ghana and quite a gifted storyteller. See, folks, some of those immigrants do indeed contribute to society. Ahem.
Homegoing (2016) is one of those epic novels (it says so, right on the cover!) that span many years of one family. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different family member, starting from a maternal ancestor in Ghana and ending up at the present day. Luckily, there is a family tree at the beginning of the book.
Hint: Bookmark the family tree. Even though there is a pattern to the chapters, you’ll probably want to remind yourself of who’s who and how they’re related.
Our little neighborhood book group met last night to discuss A Place for Us, by Fatima Farheen Mirza. This is her first novel, which makes it an even more amazing book. I’m glad we chose it! And look, a convenient way to buy it:
This month, we met at Maria’s house. We all enjoy inspecting each other’s houses for cuteness and signs of the owners’ personalities. I was most impressed that the house was mostly white, even though she has two small children. Many of us unwittingly dressed with a white theme, which made things even more festive than usual.
Another fun part of the evening that had nothing to do with the book was that we had a new member, Marilyn, who has just moved here from England. Her perspective was really welcome in the discussion of sibling issues, and she fit in so well!
The discussion this month went a little more smoothly, because those of us who need a rational discussion made the effort to come up with a few discussion questions, and I brought a “talking stick,” which was actually a magnifying glass with a deerskin cover. It looks sort of like a microphone, so people kept saying, “Is this thing on?” and talking into it, like it was going to help.
It did help us keep side conversations down to pretty much zero (that had been the issue last month; everyone talking at once about their own personal topics). When people spoke without the talking stick, the comments were all brief and in support of the main speaker. So, I got a lot more out of our thoughts and feelings on the book. Yay! (And later we got to just do chit-chat and neighborly support.)
Actual Book Report
As for the book, I enjoyed it so much that I took my time reading it, bit by bit, until I had to finish it for the meeting. There are actually a few really different reasons to love A Place for Us. And to me, they are equally important, so I had trouble deciding what to talk about first.
I’ve always been drawn to books about other cultures. I think it’s a great way to learn about how people live in the rest of the world AND enjoy a good story. I loved Maeve Binchy’s Ireland, Amy Tan’s Chinese-American families, and more. With my background in linguistics, I also have fun with learning politeness phrases and common terms in other languages.
This book had all that and more! While I’ve read lots of books about Muslims, most have been about Arab cultures, women in harems, and that kind of Islamic life. This book elegantly weaves normal day-to-day life for a normal Indian/Muslim family living in the US in among the story telling and life lessons.
I was especially pleased at how well Mirza included bits about the spiritual practices of each member of the novel’s family. If you aren’t familiar with the wide variety of practices in Islam (all with a common core) you might feel much more comfortable with Islam when you see how each person chooses what is meaningful to him or her, and the beauty they see in verses, prayers and teachings, just like so many Christians and Jews practice differently.
The story-telling is another thing I just couldn’t get enough of. I’ve always liked novels that present events and ideas from more than one character’s perspective. You really get to know Haida’s family (she’s the main character until a sudden shift in Part 4 of the book), their dynamics, and their virtues and frailties. I had a great time teasing out why each person acted the way they did, and realizing how small things can send a life in unexpected directions.
You pretty much end up liking everyone you encounter in the California community of Urdu speakers, because they seem so human. I drew a lot of comfort seeing how people can learn from their mistakes.
Our book club talked a lot about the family dynamics, and I enjoyed that older siblings sympathized with Hadia, middle children thought the middle daughter, Huda, got the short shrift, and younger ones had so much sympathy for how the younger brother dealt with what life handed to him.
I do look forward to more books from Mirza. She was born in the same year as my oldest son. Wow. I’ll stop before I give away a lot of plot, but one insight I had was that this actually was a mystery book, only it wasn’t a “who done it” but rather was a “why did they do it?” mystery.
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