Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Good Muslim by Tamima Anam : Mom & Me Review

Find it at Indiebound or Betterworldbooks
and/or sample her prose at Amazon.
Here's a new feature for y'all:  Mom and Me.  She's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of our imperfectly tended gardens (OK, mine's oh so much more imperfect than hers), lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), Jacques Pepin, travel, show tunes, Tignanello purses, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books!

Once a month or so, we'll offer up a tandem review/virtual dialogue about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy.  We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.

We decided to begin this feature with Tahmima Anam's new novel, The Good Muslim, thinking that its focus on mid-to-late 20th century Bangladesh would bring us into an unfamiliar culture through an engaging narrative.  The plan:  Read the book in its entirety, then shoot each other a few questions along with our general reviewish thoughts.  Our mutual thanks to Trish and all at TLC Book Tours for offering this opportunity, and to Tahmima Anam for her worthwhile new novel.

What's It About? The Good Muslim is primarily the story of Maya and Sohail, an idealistic brother and sister who both participated in Bangladesh's war for independence from Pakistan during the early 1970's.  He was a rebel soldier, she a doctor who aided victims of war.  The story traces their shifting relationship after the war and highlights the aftermath of that war's violence: female rape victims shunned by their families, PTSD-afflicted soldiers turning to fundamentalist Islam to cope with their lingering guilt and fear, plus military coups followed by martial law quickly replacing hard-won democracy.

Mom's Take:
I found this book to be engaging from the start. I almost always find stories that take me to a different culture experience appealing. There’s nothing like a good novel to help the reader absorb without having to work at it!

The realities of the wars between neighboring countries all over the world include the horror for the combatants, the effects on families at home, the terror for the women like Pilar and her companions, and the aftermath for all.  Sad though the story is in many ways, many moments struck me as universal. Maya—the independent daughter, Sohail—the independent son, loving one another but not able to understand the other. Religion is comfort for Sohail and his followers but not so much for Maya.  Rehana, the mother, like mothers everywhere wishing the best for her children, hoping that they will enjoy and help one another, suppressing her own needs, helping her neighbors. Zaid, Sohail's little boy, wanting so much to be loved by his father, finding solace with Maya: how many children today must look outside immediate family for sustenance? Class warfare—after being united in war the haves still want to have and the poor continue to strive to be noticed: Maya rises to cause change...

Some of my favorite passages were those with Maya and Rehana and I loved the tenacity of Joy in his love for Maya. I also related to Bangladesh because of my long-standing interest in Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus and his mini-banking system to help the poor of the country.

My take:
Who would find value in this book? Anyone who wants to experience history and a perhaps unfamiliar culture through the lives of original and well-developed characters would find satisfaction in these pages.  It's a story about the aftermath of war, so you can expect to see some quite regrettable actions and references to wartime violence against both men and women.  However, it's done quite tastefully, so mature teens could certainly appreciate the story and learn through this novel.

Both Mom and I thought that this novel was certainly worth our time, and that our newly refined understanding of this period in Bangladesh's history - not to mention the daily life of one family during this time period - sparked our curiosity about the current state of that nation.  I recognize that novelists like Tahmima Anam are probably not setting out to educate us about an entire culture but rather crafting fiction with that cultural foundation, yet when a novel's setting is new or unique to us, the urge to generalize from singular lives to entire cultures is tough to resist!

My Actions:
 This novel reminded me just how lucky I am to live in a time and place of relative plenty and power for women.  In her acknowledgements, author Asam thanks her parents for their example as socially engaged citizens.  Perhaps this novel was written - in part - to give voice to the then-voiceless and to empower people now to stand against religious extremism, institutionalized misogyny, and military dictatorships.  So I'm going to write to my Women for Women International "sister" in Afghanistan.  (Backstory: WfW provides education and assistance to female victims of war.  After my first years sponsoring sisters, I stopped writing because my sisters were illiterate and didn't respond.  I did have one sister who wrote to me after her sponsorship year was over, but I couldn't get back in touch with her. I'm ready to try again.)  PLUS, I will find at least one action to support returning veterans in my own community.

Now come on in and eavesdrop: The Mom and Me Dialogue is on the next page. (Just click "read more" below.)  Warning: Although we won't reveal specific spoiler moments, our conversation led us to discuss some aspects of the entire novel.) 

Then hop over to the other blogs on The Good Muslim's virtual book tour with TLC.

Mom: "How did the opening story of Sohail’s walk returning home after the war (which included his exploring the closed door in the enemy barracks) affect the story?"

Me: "What happened to Sohail on the road home was the key to unlocking the mystery of his transformation from a non-religious scholar-rebel before the war into an obsessive fundamentalist Muslim huzoor after the war, no?  And that drives one major plotline as Maya desperately tries to figure out how to change him back to the brother of their young adulthood; the woman Sohail discovers on his walk home also the reinvigorates Maya's efforts to help rape victims from the war.  Plus, the opening scene is one of only two times we get Sohail's perspective, as 98% of the novel is written in third person, from Maya's point of view."

Me: This book reminded me of The Luminist in one regard: I suspect that I will remember it more for the new information it provided me about a part of world history with which I’ve been woefully unfamiliar than for  the story itself. Do you agree or disagree?

Mom:  The Luminist took us to a different place just as The Good Muslim did but for me a difference was that The Good Muslim is set in present day history so there was an immediacy and an opportunity to apply the reading experience more closely to our lives today. I agree that The Luminist was enlightening in more ways than through the lens of the camera, particularly regarding the history of the time (with which I’ve been woefully unfamiliar, too!)

Mom: "Do you relate to Maya and her actions?"

Me: " Yes and no.  I can sympathize, as many readers will, with her love for her family, her spirit of rebellion and idealism, and the risks she herself took to help rape victims prior to the time during which the novel takes place.  But her impulsiveness and hair-trigger anger harm people around her on a regular basis.  Plus, although her motives seem understandable and at times even noble, the manner in which she acts forces many strangers to put themselves at risk while serving her personal needs.  Truthfully, I couldn't understand why anyone put up with her, much less adored her.  Weirdly though, my lack of sympathy for Maya - the protagonist! - didn't make me dislike the novel.  She seems realistic - many famous rebels are quite self-absorbed and willful, after all - and that was enough for me."

Mom: I see Maya as having a very reactive temperament most of the time and I accepted that as who she was and saw no need to expect otherwise. Even when she decides to accept the challenge to write for the newspaper there’s a certain amount of reactive personality but when she decides to write what she really wants to say, it’s all pro-active and I think that’s what the book hinges on.

Mom: "Did you have any premonitions about what would happen to Zaid?"

Me: "Sure. It was pretty clear that the charming little rogue Zaid, who was already a victim of his father's PTSD-related neglect, would continue to get himself into trouble, so it was just a question of which situations the world would offer up.  And in this fictional world, the situations weren't likely to be all that sunny."

Me: One aspect of this novel that I thought was clever: the title. It could apply to all three main characters (at least). Which of the three – Maya, Sohail, or Rehana – do you think the title most closely refers to and why?

Mom: As I was reading the book I found myself returning to the title and wondering: is it Maya? or is it Sohail? and I think that I settled on Sohail at that time. He was able to work his way through his personal crisis of dealing with war and death and then through a religious renaissance that led him to the one book and to his life style as huzoor and he seemed to be at peace with his decision. I never saw Maya as really being comfortable in any of her worlds (particularly the world of religion) or at peace anywhere. I wasn’t able to figure it out definitively—I think I was hoping for The Good Muslim to shout it out: “I’m the one!” Then your question raised the consideration that Rehana might be The Good Muslim. And now I’m leaning toward her—she lived her life as it was given to her, facing the death of her husband, seeing her son go to war, having her daughter deal with the issues by escaping from her home, receiving her son back, seeing him become somewhat radical in his beliefs (but still her son), recognizing that little Zaid was not faring well but allowing her son and his wife to be the parents and not trying to take over as Maya did, facing her illness with courage. So maybe Rehana IS The Good Muslim because of the wisdom she showed at every major turn of life, undoubtedly built on her family faith.
So, gentle readers, what did you think?  What can "Mom and Me" do to make our conversations more entertaining and worthwhile for you? Let us know!



Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I love the new Mom and Me feature! Great review!

Thanks for being on the tour.

trish said...

I love reviews where two readers bounce off of each other after reading the same book. No two perspectives are the same, so it's interesting to see what you two thought.

I also love that the book spurred you to some action! I think the author would be thrilled by this. :)

Laurie said...

Heather - Thanks for stopping by and for the encouragement.
You too, Trish!
And guess what else? My mom talked this book up so much that now her whole IRL book group is reading it for their next discussion!

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