fiction · YA

All-American Muslim Girl- Nadine Jolie Courtney

I usually remember the process by which a book ends up on my TBR. I may not remember which friend recommended a book to me, but I’ll remember it was recommended by a friend. I may not remember which blog I saw that book on, but I know a fellow book blogger raved about it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first learned about All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), only that it went immediately onto my TBR. And that was absolutely the right action to take, because this book was ah-maaaaaaaaaa-zing.

Allie Abraham is Muslim, nominally. Her family- Dad was born Muslim, Mom converted- doesn’t pray, doesn’t attend mosque, doesn’t fast for Ramadan. Dad, a native speaker, never taught Allie Arabic or the Circassian language, and has always tried to downplay his religion and heritage. Allie’s pale skin and lighter hair don’t necessarily clue people in to her heritage either, and thus, not only does she feel out of place amongst her more devout extended family, she’s also the dumping ground for anti-Muslim bigotry that non-Muslims dump on her when they think they’re in good company. As a result, Allie has spent her life hiding who she really is, never truly comfortable with her background, becoming a different person each time her family moves for her father’s work.

This new town in Georgia, however, feels different. It’s meant to be permanent, and Allie almost immediately catches the eye of Wells, a supercute guy in her grade. Their attraction is mutual, but there’s one major catch: Wells’s father, a majorly conservative TV host who spreads Islamophobia, amongst other horrors, on his TV show. Allie could go on hiding who she is, just as she’s always done, but she’s increasingly drawn to Islam, its practice and its meaning, in a way she’s never been before. Via study and her new involvement with her school’s Muslim Student Association, Allie’s discovering things that speak to her soul and help her define who she truly is…but how will her father, who has always subtly encouraged her to pass as non-Muslim, react?

Ohhhhhh, how I loved this book. In Allie, Ms. Courtney has given us an Every Girl, a teenager used to changing her image to fit in like so many teenagers do, unsure of who she really is and who she wants to be. YA novels with strong teen characters who know exactly who they are are so necessary (and there are so many great examples of those out there!), but characters who are searching for identity and a sense of self reflect the experience of the majority of adolescents, and Allie’s character arc throughout the novel is a beautiful one of growth, in tentative baby steps, trying out what works for her and working up the courage to present that part of herself to the world (a world that isn’t always friendly and is often downright hostile to those parts). While her religious journey may not be something every reader can identify with, her search for identity is, and Ms. Courtney has created a sympathetic and sharply intelligent character who will have readers cheering through her bravery and triumphs, and rooting for her in her pursuit of identity.

A very basic understanding of Islam would be helpful in reading this book, but as Allie is learning as she goes (even buying and hiding a Qu’ran from her parents! The irony of a teenager sneaking religion, of all things, along with Arabic language lessons, was…I don’t want to say humorous, but given all the things she could have been hiding in her bedside table, well…), the reader should be able to learn right along with her. Allie’s entire extended family is warm, inviting, and deeply supportive, and should have any reader wistful for such a welcoming group. I also enjoyed the trajectory of her friendship with the girls from her Qu’ran study group. While they often disagree with each other on different issues (dating and relationships, how to best practice Islam, etc), there’s room for disagreement within their friendships while still remaining close and having each others’ backs.

Allie’s relationship with Wells is very sweet and mature without seeming forced. Wells is nothing like his father, and their relationship seems strained at best, as does his parents’ marriage. He’s an easy character to feel sympathy for, even when his and Allie’s relationship isn’t quite going the way they had hoped (that’s not a spoiler; teenage relationships have their ups and downs, as we all know!). He’s kind and supportive and a great match for Allie.

Content warnings exist for Islamophobia and religious bigotry and hatred, microaggressions, on-page panic attacks, on-page death of a family member, and strained parent-child relationships. Nothing is graphic.

There’s so much good in this novel. I’d never heard of the Circassian people before and Ms. Courtney has helped to begin filling in that gap in my knowledge. Her voice is so natural and so readable, even during the more tense scenes (such as between Allie and Wells’s father, or Allie and her own father during their confrontations over religion), that her novel of growth and identity is an absolute page turner. If you’re looking for a lovely novel on the intersection of family, faith, and identity, All-American Muslim Girl needs a place on your TBR list.

Visit Nadine Jolie Courtney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar's and Everything In Between- Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer

My current podcast obsession is Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast (as the opening goes, and available on whatever app you use to listen to podcasts; Podbean works well with my devices, although it takes up a LOT of space…), by Tablet Magazine. It’s funny, it’s fascinating, it’s at times reverent and irreverent in the best ways, and I love it so much that not only have I been listening to it at night, I also listen to it when I’m cooking and cleaning (well, not so much when the kids are home. It’s hard to listen to anything when I’m interrupted every six seconds to pull something down from a closet shelf, load the WiFi password into another device, cut a string off a sock or an itchy tag off a new shirt, and answer yet another question about the location of some random item). I’ve learned so much from it and added so many books to my TBR because of it, and I look forward to every single new episode (new episodes are out on Thursdays; I listen to those as they come out, but I’m also making my way through the back episodes). And the hosts don’t necessarily always agree with each other on everything, and I don’t always agree with them, but they seriously make it feel like there’s room for disagreement, and I love that. Those hosts, Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer, have come out with an awesome book, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between (Artisan, 2019), and a few episodes in, I slapped that baby on my TBR, requested it via interlibrary loan, and squealed loudly when it came in.

The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia is history, culture, food, religion, sadness, and joy. Its entries stem from religious figures- biblical, historical, and current- to pop culture (I had zero idea that Michael Landon was Jewish! His given name at birth was Eugene Orowitz), to history (biblical, Israeli, world) and beyond. It covers all aspects of life, because wherever life happens, Jewish people are there, too, changing the world and managing to not just survive, but flourish despite the odds.

You’ll learn Yiddish terms (shpilkes describes my inner state about 99% of the time, LOLSOB), read about horrifying incidents in history (the MS St. Louis, anyone? Babi Yar?), piece together a picture of the founding of Israel and some of its struggles to survive, and be jonesing for a really good bagel by the time you reach the acknowledgements. My sole complaint is that the book came to an end! Fortunately, the authors included in the entries many, many titles to books by Jewish authors and about Jewish subjects, along with movies and documentaries that cover everything from agunot to the Holocaust, that my ravenous appetite for more knowledge will have plenty to feast upon.

This is yet another book that I’ll probably end up buying in the future. Quite a few of the entries had me laughing out loud, and at other times, I was flipping back and forth to reread an entry or glean more information. Having a copy of this on my own shelf to refer back to whenever I want (and I can imagine that I’d pick it up again and again, both because it’s interesting and because my memory tends to be a little Swiss-cheese-ish…) definitely makes sense for me.

If you’re at all interested in any aspect of Judaism, or even if you’re just a student of history and culture, The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia deserves a place on your reading list and your bookshelf.

memoir · nonfiction

Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope- Megan Phelps-Roper

The second I learned about Unfollow: A Journey From Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper (riverrun 2019), I went running to Goodreads and smashed that Want to Read button. I’ve been a rubbernecker at the nightmare that is the Westboro Baptist Church for years, and I’ve also read and enjoyed both Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church by Libby Phelps with Sara Stewart, and Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain. So it was only natural that I read what Megan had to say, and as luck would have it, Unfollow appeared the next day on my library’s “These books are coming out next week, reserve them now!” shelf. I did indeed reserve it immediately, and I was the second person on the list (who ARE you, other cool local person??? We could be such good friends!).

Megan Phelps-Roper was born into the Westboro Baptist church, famous for their signs with foul statements about who or what God is currently hating, used to picket such occasions as funerals of dead soldiers. Despite the family’s constant spewing of hatred making international news, Megan’s upbringing seemed this side of normal. Her extended family lived mostly on the same block, she and her siblings were pushed to excel in school, and she never longed for company, as she was one of many children. And Megan had no reason to question her family’s aggressively hateful messages: she loved and trusted her parents and grandparents. Why wouldn’t they be telling her the truth about God? She happily and eagerly participated in their protests that caused so many others such pain.

Her story of growth and escape aren’t an immediate one. Through her use of social media to spread the church’s message, she gets to know her followers on Twitter and several of them plant seeds of logic that begin to germinate in her mind. Things begin not sitting quite right over a period of time, and eventually, Megan and her sister find their way out, striking out on their own in a world they’ve never really lived in. It takes time, but eventually she finds what she truly believes and how wrong her church was. Through it all, though, she never loses sight of how much her parents loved her, and how difficult this very necessary break is for everyone.

Megan Phelps-Roper has written what I think is the strongest so far of the post-Westboro memoirs. She shies away from nothing, including the more hideous parts of Westboro’s protests and her eagerness to take part in them, and for that, I give her a lot of credit. It’s really not easy to admit when you’ve been so wrong about something that has hurt so many people, and she makes it obvious that she’s done the work to extricate herself from the hurtful beliefs she grew up with (also something that’s not easy). Her pain at losing almost her entire family is obvious, and it was easy to feel compassion for her. Her writing really does an amazing job of separating the parents we know from TV interviews and footage (her mother is Shirley Phelps-Roper), and the mother who cared for her when she was sick and lovingly answered her many questions. That takes some serious writing skill to pull that off, as I’m obviously no fan of Shirley’s.

Her exit from the church and from her family is really the most intriguing part of this. The relationships she developed over Twitter and the thoughtful replies from these people were the beginning of the end for her, although she never would have thought of it that way when she first began connecting with them. It made me think about how I respond to those with whom I disagree on social media (usually with facts and pointing out the gaps in their logic; sometimes snark leaks through…), because without these people (and no spoilers, but there are two really interesting ones!), Megan might never have left. That’s pretty huge.

What a fascinating book. Is it okay to say you’re proud of someone you’ve never met? Megan Phelps-Roper seems like a genuinely decent person who was born into a bad situation and never had any reason to question it until just the right people came along and threw up some flashing neon signs that her brain wouldn’t let her forget. I’m proud of her for having the courage to be true to who her heart and soul told her she really was, and for taking the time to learn all that she has once she left. Leaving the majority of her family behind was no easy choice, and I’m proud of her for choosing truth and integrity despite the cost.

Follow Megan Phelps-Roper on Twitter here.

judaism · memoir · nonfiction · religion

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg

Have you ever read a book solely because you follow its author on Twitter? (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason; I follow authors I haven’t read yet simply because I like their personalities. I definitely need to be interested in the subject or story of a book to read it!)

That’s how I found Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press, 2008). I caught a few of her tweets since they were liked or shared by others that I follow and ended up following her because I enjoyed her voice and her message so much. And then she mentioned the book she wrote in one thread, and I was like, “A BOOK, YOU SAY????” Not only did I immediately add it to my TBR, I requested it via interlibrary loan as well.

Danya Ruttenberg decided she was an atheist as a young teenager. The Judaism of her childhood didn’t make sense to her, and so she continued on with her life, not believing but still trying to connect with something bigger than herself, a sense of connectedness with something spiritual or divine. She tried by partying with her friends, convening with nature, and delving deep into yoga practice, but while she occasionally got close and found certain glimpses of holiness and states of ecstasy, nothing was quite enough for her. Being a religious studies major gave her insights into other belief systems and the demands of each; connecting with other friends seeking the same helped her not only to see the beauty of the religion she was born into, but to recognize that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be. Hers is a gradual journey to faith and practice, replete of any sudden “A-ha!” moments, but it’s that slow, steady exploration before the eventual arrival at rabbinical school that lends her story such significance.

I really loved this book. Before ending up in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ruttenberg majored in religious studies (can you feel my jealousy??? I find religion so fascinating that, were I able to go back to school, this would be a heavy contender for my choice of major) and quotes some of the great historical and modern religious thinkers of every religion throughout the book. She mentioned something about Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou/I-it’ theory that led me to a better understanding of it, which I’ve been pondering all week (I even shared that article on Facebook, where I rarely talk about religious matters, because I found it so infused with meaning for me). While she does get a little into the more mystical aspects of yoga practice, something that, while I’ve done plenty of yoga to help with my back, has never appealed to me, I still appreciated her description of what it meant to her in order to further my understanding of what it meant to her and means to many others.

I identified with so much of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s feelings throughout her journey, her search for meaning and a sense of connection with the Divine. Her slow, measured journey to a deeper spiritual awareness resonated deeply with me, along with making me a little jealous. I’m not sure mine will have such a well-defined end goal or landing place, but I’m thankful that she shared her story with the world. Her view of life, of the sacred, of justice and of what connects us all is beautiful and inspiring, and I’m deeply grateful to have read her thoughtful insight, which has given me a lot to ponder, and a lot of what she’s written has given me a sense of peace I’ve been needing lately.

I’m very much interested in reading her latest book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. It sounds like a book I could definitely use in my life!

Visit Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult- Susan Ashline

Cult books! Cult books everywhere!

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult by Susan Ashline (Pegasus Books, 2019) was a new one for me. I made a trip to another local branch of the library in order to pick up a DVD for my son’s Oceanography and Meteorology class (seriously, when did high schools get such interesting classes? It was huge deal that my high school got Psychology my senior year. My son is also taking Sports and Entertainment Marketing, and a class called Incubator, which is basically Shark Tank for teenagers, it’s wild), and of course I trucked in with my list of books from my TBR that were on their shelves. This was on the New Books shelf (because you know I had to stop and browse that!), and I grabbed it right away, because, well, cults.

Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York seemed like a fairly normal church when it first started out, but after a while, neighbors noticed that it had become more secluded, more secretive: a gate went up, church members went in early mornings and didn’t come out until late in the night. What was going on behind those gates and the closed doors was a long, drawn-out indoctrination of its members, over whom control would be passed down from pastor father to pastor daughter, and which would directly lead to the members and leaders beating a teenager to death, along with prison time for many of the members and leaders.

While the recounting of the recordings and texts does occasionally become repetitious and wearying, Ms. Ashline has written a chilling work that shows exactly how people get involved with groups that eventually morph into something entirely different. There’s a LOT of weird stuff going on in this book, including moving a dead body across state lines and attempting to revive it, squalor (some of it involving animals and animal hoarding), demons (SO much talk of demons. I didn’t know I could get sick of hearing about demons, but hooooooboy, can I ever) and the constant verbal abuse of a flock by its pastors. If you’re at all interested in cults and secluded religious (or otherwise!) groups, this strange tale is one you won’t want to miss.

I was really struck by Bruce Leonard, the father of Lucas Leonard, and how weak-willed he was. He’s probably the stereotypical sheep-like cult member that everyone thinks of as being most likely to join a group like Word of Life, as opposed to the more firebrand people who are all in, lock, stock, and barrel from the get-go in a big and vocal way (although no one ever really joins a cult, so to speak; they join a church or a self-help group, something they think is going to meet their needs and improve their life. It’s the manipulation of the leader or leaders that turn it into a cult, and far too often, the members don’t realize the danger they’re in until it’s too late), being entirely unable to make decisions on his own or think for himself, and thus he turned to a stronger, more powerful leader to make those decisions for him, and his wife was only too happy to follow. He’s also an excellent example of people who stay in cults despite the terrible mistreatment they receive from the leaders. Bruce and his wife and children were insulted and ostracized from the small group on a regular basis, and still they stayed, and it’s deeply fascinating to see them constantly come back for more. There’s a bit at the end where another local religious leader talks with Bruce, who eventually figures it out, and the way that religious leader’s help affected Bruce intrigued me.

Content warning: there are quite a few mentions of child molestation. During the ‘counseling’ session that lead to Lucas Leonard’s death, he and his brother Chris admitted to molesting some of the children in the church. Investigations showed no evidence of this, and I believe Chris admitted that he only said it to get the beatings to stop, and because he thought that’s what the other church members wanted to hear. Ms. Ashline also mentions that, as in many cults, some words have definitions peculiar to that particular group, and in this group, it seemed that even changing the diaper of an opposite sex child counted as molestation. So while there’s never anything graphic mentioned that isn’t confessed under extreme duress, beware that this is a topic of frequent mention in the latter parts of this book.

I hadn’t heard of this story before (I seem to miss a LOT of stuff like this!!!), so I’m glad i stumbled across this book. All this constant reading and learning about different cults has made me start feeling like everything has the potential to become a cult (much like listening to Dateline via podcast makes me feel like murder is everywhere! Egads, I need to go read something about fluffy kittens and puppies frolicking in a sunshiny meadow…).

Are you or were you familiar with this story? If you learned about this on the news, I’d love to hear your take on it.

Visit Susan Ashline’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Saints and Misfits- S.K. Ali

Another book from my TBR! (I know, I know I’ll never tackle it completely, but at least I have a GOAL, right???) I managed to grab a copy of this right after my son went back to school- I live in a really amazing area (I know I say this a lot, but I really do love it here), and Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017) was on several school summer reading lists here, so every time I looked for it at the library during the summer, it was checked out. But when the kids went back to school, BAM- there it was on the shelf and I snatched it up like a ravenous seagull who has spotted a French fry in a McDonald’s parking lot.

This isn’t the easiest book for which to write a synopsis, so this will look a little different than my usual reviews. Bear with me here, because this book is SO. WORTH. IT.

Janna, a young hijabi, is struggling. Struggling with her parents’ divorce, struggling with her brother moving back home and taking over her room (forcing her to bunk with Mom), struggling with her brother’s Little Miss Perfect possible-future-wife, struggling with a crush on a non-Muslim boy, struggling to remain true to her convictions even when it’s hard, and most of all, struggling with having been sexually assaulted by a Muslim boy that everyone thinks is the most pious member of her community. To say that her plate is full is the understatement of the century.

The story centers around Janna navigating her school year, attempting to manage all these different parts of her life, with the assault and the young man who committed it looming largest over all the others. Janna’s identity as a Muslim is strong; though she sometimes makes decisions she later regrets in regards to her hijab and her crush on Jeremy, it’s her faith in herself, her confidence that her truth will be listened to and taken seriously by her own community where her crisis lies. When everyone loves the person who harmed you, whom can you tell? I think we’ve all seen in news stories these past few years that far too many people are willing to wave away any evidence, no matter how damning, when a woman comes forward about being sexually assaulted, and Janna’s fears here are both troubling and all too real.

I love-love-LOVED Janna as a character. She’s absolutely not perfect, and I was so able to relate to her- if we’re being honest with ourselves, I think most people will be able to. We’ve all made decisions that go against what we believe; sometimes, we later realize we were wrong in those decisions, and other times, we learn that we need to redefine what we believe because it no longer fits who we are, but we’ve all been Janna. What made me want to scoop her up and hug her forever, though, was the paragraph where she stated that she would rather suffer in silence than have people blame her community because of her assault. I can’t speak from personal experience here, but I know it’s not easy being a member of a community that far too many people (people who have zero personal experience with Muslims and who have even less knowledge of Muslims or of Islam itself) mindlessly vilify, and while I understand and applaud Janna’s need to uphold and protect her community in that way, it broke my heart that she understood that pressure well enough to name it, and it furthered my commitment to help make this world more accepting and loving for anyone who has ever found themselves on the outside. A teenager who’s suffering but who understands that her community doesn’t need more bad press- the sheer reality of this is so heavy. We’ve got to do better.

I’ve got to do better.

I loved Ms. Ali’s portrayal of Janna’s Muslim community- the fun, the warmth, the activities, the varying degrees of practice and piety, it all felt so very alive and real. The way Janna’s non-Muslim best friend Tatyana fit right in in mosque activities was so sweet, and I adored Sausun (who works up to wearing niqab, the full face covering) and her brash personality- I learned SO much from her. She’s such an empowered character, and I loved how much she made Janna think. She made me think, too, and those are the kinds of books I LOVE.

This is a seriously important book- because of the Muslim author, because it features a teenage Muslim girl who wears hijab as a main character, because it centers around a Muslim community, because Janna is every teenager who has ever struggled with family, friends, and crushes, because it covers sexual assault (I wish so hard I could introduce Janna to Melinda from Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; they would understand each other and could help each other heal), because of all these reasons and more. Nothing I say could possibly do this jewel of a book proper justice, because its truths and beauties run so very deep.

If you’ve made it this far, there are obvious content warnings for sexual assault; Janna has flashbacks throughout the story and is most likely suffering from PTSD related to the assault. There are also constant microaggressions (her gym teacher insisting on calling her hijab a hajeeb no matter how many times she was corrected drove me NUTS; it’s so disrespectful and I’m so, so sorry that anyone has to put up with crap like that); if these things are too much for you, wait for a better time to read it and be kind to yourself. If you’re able to handle these subject matters, this is an utterly amazing book that will allow you to see the world maybe a little differently than you’re used to, but so much of it will still look familiar, because we all have so much more in common than we have differences. πŸ™‚

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali is also on my Goodreads TBR, and after reading Saints and Misfits, I’m looking forward to reading that more than Christmas and my birthday and the first warm day of summer combined. I’m so, so glad I was finally able to get my hands on a copy, and I truly hope Ms. Ali never, ever stops writing. So many people, myself included, need stories just like this one.

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy- edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

While I’m not much of a series reader, after having read Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, as soon as I found out there was a companion version from the men’s perspective, I knew I had to read it, too. Fortunately for me, my library also had a copy of Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Beacon Press, 2014), so I happily grabbed it on my next library trip. (Which is pretty much every day, hence the name of this blog. Odds are, if I’m not at the library, I was there earlier in the day or will be there later on. Today, I was there twice. Why yes, I have no life!)

Just like Love, InshAllah, Salaam, Love is a collection of essays, this time written by American Muslim men on their perspectives on the search for love, dating, Muslim courtship, sex, the difficulties and joys of marriage, and all the happiness and heartbreak that come about in the search to find and live with a partner. Once again, this book highlights a unique perspective in romance; Muslim men aren’t necessarily the go-to voice when it comes to affairs of the heart, so each essay feels fresh, a novel (though it shouldn’t be) but welcome change from the usual, everyday take on love.

The essays, just as in Love, InshAllah, run the gamut on experiences: there are straight men who date, gay men who hide their relationships from their families (and one who grows in his faith after an encounter with a particularly devout man, which I found both charming and heartwarming), converts, Muslims from birth, men who submit to their parents’ wishes for a traditional Muslim courtship, men whose search for love continues, men whose loves died (both metaphorically and literally), love that works out, and love that doesn’t. Interspersed with it all are struggles with faith, culture (often the straddling of two or more cultures), and how to incorporate both fully into a relationship that may have ties to neither.

It’s possible I may have enjoyed Salaam, Love even more than Love, InshAllah (and I really enjoyed that!). I don’t read men’s writing as often as I read women- not on purpose, I tend to enjoy female writers more, especially when it comes to fiction- but reading about men’s thoughts on love and emotion and the struggle that goes with each, THAT was absolutely a breath of fresh air. How often do we hear about men’s feelings on anything? Men in our society- in most societies, sadly- are taught to not feel things, hide whatever they do feel, and never, ever discuss it, especially not in public. Hearing these men talk about having their hearts broken, about crying after being dumped by a girlfriend or the fear they felt over a loved one’s frightening medical diagnosis was a balm to my soul. (Are you listening, men? MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.)

The authors vary by background: many have ancestral roots in Africa, the Middle East, or south Asia (and many of these authors are first generation Americans); others are white converts who grew up Christian or Jewish and found a home in Islam, but often struggled to find a spouse. Several are bi- or multi-racial. It’s a beautiful mixture of people and places, and their stories had me wishing for more when I turned the final page.

I can’t recommend these books enough, and if you read one, you definitely need to read the other. I’m so glad to have a better understanding on some of the many Muslim American perspectives on relationships.

Reading these two companion books reminded me how much I enjoy essay collections, whether by a single author or multiple authors like these. If you have a favorite collection of essays, I’d love to hear about it!

(In writing this out, I discovered a few typos on my post of Love, InshAllah, namely, my failure to capitalize the A, and a misspelling of Nura Maznavi’s last name. I apologize greatly for these errors and have corrected them.)

Follow Love InshAllah on Twitter.

Nura Maznavi’s tweets are protected (and given the climate on Twitter some/most days, I can’t blame her).

Follow Ayesha Mattu.

nonfiction · religion

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others- Barbara Brown Taylor

I’m so busy hunting for books from my TBR most of the time that I’ve been neglecting the New Books shelf at my library, but just before we went on vacation to Branson, Missouri with my mother this year, I stopped by that shelf to see what I could find to take with me on our trip. A good, relaxing vacation read should probably have a beach on the cover, maybe a fancy drink with a little umbrella in it or a pair of sunglasses, but I can’t do anything normally, so I leaped at the copy of Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2019). I often say I’m not hugely religious, but this book sums up where I sit religiously: I may not have all the answers, or any of them, but I relish the opportunity to observe and appreciate what is sacred in the beliefs of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor was, for many years, an ordained Episcopalian minister. After leaving her position as minister, she taught World Religions at Piedmont College in Georgia. As Piedmont is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (and also located in a very religious part of the south!), the vast majority of her students were Christian, and most of them were encountering religions other than their own for the first time in their lives. Some of them couldn’t handle this and dropped the class early on or after a single field trip to another house of worship (one left a Hindu temple in tears, so upset that the worshipers could be so very wrong in their beliefs); others opened their minds and hearts and learned to experience what Ms. Brown Taylor termed ‘holy envy’: appreciating parts of these other faiths and using what they learned to make them a better practitioner of their own faith.

The leaps and bounds some of her students make are incredible, but it’s the insights that Ms. Brown Taylor experiences while teaching and the glimpses into houses of worship of non-Christian faiths that make this book explode with life and color and light. If you’re at all interested in religion or faith or the practice thereof, or the beauty that comes from education and growth and deep respect and appreciation for the many facets of humanity, this is a book you can’t afford to miss.

Holy Envy called to me from the very first page. I love reading about religion, the facts and the hows and whys, and I especially love reading how people experience and live out their own faiths. The concept of holy envy wasn’t one that I’ve ever realized had a name before this, but it’s definitely one I’ve felt over and over again as I’ve studied Judaism and its weekly Shabbat celebration and its relentless pursuit of social justice, both the Muslim and LDS sense of community, the Mennonite commitment to creating a sustainable lifestyle, the Catholic commitment to maintaining tradition, the list could go on and on. It was in reading through my Goodreads TBR list when it was up to 332 books that I came across the books of Rachel Held Evans, may her beautiful soul rest in peace, and I understood that another person’s faith doesn’t need to be my own for me to appreciate it and learn from it. And since then, I’ve never looked back, and that is why Holy Envy felt like home right from the start.

Ms. Brown Taylor speaks of many things in these pages that hit home for me; I constantly found myself reading a paragraph, staring at the wall or out the window as I considered what I’d just read, then reading the paragraph again, and nodding. Her reminder of the best way to learn about another faith being to talk to a practitioner of that faith felt pointed a bit in my direction; while I do enjoy a good memoir about a person’s experience of leaving a faith, I do need to keep in mind that that’s not always the best way to learn about the tenets of that particular religion, or what its best practice looks like. I’m always glad for such a gentle prod in the right direction. πŸ™‚

Her notion on suffering gave me pause, and I wrote it down in my reading binder because I found it so very poignant:

The sooner they learned to accept the human condition with equanimity, the sooner their suffering would end- not their pain, but their suffering- since suffering is so often a measure of how much we want things to be different from the way they are.

That rang so true to me. Far too often, I fight against how things are in my own life, when instead I could accept it, incorporate it- still work to change it, yes, but with grace and peace in my heart. I need to spend more time considering this…maybe I should cross-stitch it on a pillow or sampler, or paint it on my living room wall.

The other quote that stuck with me was the following:

Eventually all people of faith must decide how they will think about and respond to people of other (and no) faiths. Otherwise they will be left at the mercy of their worst impulses when push comes to shove and their fear deadens them to the best teachings of their religions.

The above goes for people of no faith as well, I think. Some nonbelievers are nonbelievers solely because they don’t believe; others have had poor experiences with religion in the past and no longer believe. No matter one’s belief status, it’s crucial that we learn to understand and appreciate what makes us unique; it’s not necessary to incorporate each other’s beliefs, but to acknowledge it, find what speaks to us, and use it to become better people, better human beings, so that we can better take care of each other. Because loving each other is everyone’s sacred duty, and we’ll never accomplish that goal without first understanding each other.

Holy Envy is a beautiful book full of love and wonder and awe, not only at the divine, but at the people who practice so many forms of faith, and it’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Barbara Brown Taylor has made me a fan for life with this one book and I’m very much looking forward to reading everything else she’s written.

Visit Barbara Brown Taylor’s website here.

fiction · YA

Internment- Samira Ahmed

Sometimes a book comes along that fits eerily well into the current cultural and political environment of the times. Internment by Samira Ahmed (Atom, 2019) is one of those books.

First off, content warnings. Internment focuses on racial and religious discrimination, and there are multiple instances of racial and religious hatred, including insults. There are also multiple scenes of violence and several deaths. It’s not hard to deduce that this book draws heavily from the current political climate, so be sure that this book, with its heaviness and reality-based horrors, is something you can handle at the time. It’s not an easy read.

Internment begins in a time when the United States government has begun placing heavy restrictions on the activities of Muslims, from where they work to how late they can stay out (history students, does this sound at all familiar?). Teenager Layla Amin is bristling under the unfairness of it all, but her parents are trying to stay optimistic. All their optimism crashes to the ground, however, when the authorities show up at their house one night to take them away to a Muslim concentration camp in the middle of the desert, run by guards who (for the most part) lack any shred of humanity, with other Muslims charged with keeping them in line (if you’re familiar with the term ‘kapo,’ this would be an example of it). Torn away from everything familiar, Layla can hardly believe that her once-comfortable life in the Land of the Free has been reduced to…this.

Almost immediately and often without thinking through the potential consequences, Layla begins making plans for freedom, enlisting other teenagers she befriends, as well as a sympathetic guard, who helps her contact her non-Muslim boyfriend back home. Slowly, Layla and her friends begin to enact changes around the camp, but the blowback and the repercussions are serious and deadly. The culmination of it all will leave you at the edge of your seat, frantically flipping pages and praying for resolution for Layla and all others forced into this kind of captivity.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: given the current political climate and with daily stories about the horrors of migrants, asylum seekers, and others, including children, in camps with questionable-to-downright-horrific conditions, this isn’t an easy read and will break your heart several times over. Layla is a bit on the young side for her age, and while she’s obviously intelligent, she’s also reckless and doesn’t always think things through (although if she did, I’m not sure this story would have been so action-packed, so her more imprudent nature serves its purpose for the story). More in the interest of brevity, the story concludes much quicker than it would have in real life, wrapping up a bit more neatly than reason leads me to believe it would play out currently, and though the director of Layla’s camp veers slightly toward ‘caricature’ in his overt monstrosity and lack of self-control, Internment is still a chilling, way-too-close-to-reality novel that is worth the read.

In a world where we have camps where children are taking care of other small children, reading this had me rage-screaming in my head, but I don’t regret picking it up- quite the opposite, in fact. Internment will stick with me as I continue to struggle to find ways to voice my fury at the actions carried out by my country. Nothing ever feels like enough, but doing absolutely nothing isn’t acceptable to me: as Edmund Burke said, β€œThe only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Internment and the daily onslaught of news are both depressing reminders of that.

Visit Samira Ahmed’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · religion

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life- Amber Scorah

Sometimes I learn about a book that I know I’d enjoy reading, and I add it to my TBR list, and there it sits for…well, a long time (years, sometimes *hides in shame*). Not so with Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah (Viking, 2019). I learned about this book only weeks ago, and as soon as a copy turned up at one of my local libraries, I was there, practically hissing at other patrons in order to keep this book all to myself.

Amber Scorah was a lifelong member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that door-knocking, proselytizing religious group known for not celebrating birthdays or holidays in any fashion. While her family wasn’t hugely devout during her youth, Amber grew more zealous as a young adult. After her marriage had grown stagnant, she and her husband moved to China in order to take the Witness religion to the Chinese. As this sort of proselytizing is illegal in China (some groups are allowed and heavily monitored; the Witnesses are not one of them), Amber and her husband had to resort to code words with the handful of other Witnesses, secretive worship services, and only bringing up religion to potential converts after first taking the time to establish a friendship and ensuring that these people could be trusted (a process that could take months and even years).

Culture shock and the language barrier were obviously an issue, but Ms. Scorah seemed to adapt better than most, eventually working for ChinesePod, a podcast dedicated to Chinese language learners. But this new culture, with its different values and ways of viewing the world, its language and its history, forced Amber to question the discrepancies in what she’d been taught her entire life, until she could no longer deny to herself that what she’d grown up believing no longer held any truth. Exiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses means being shunned by all friends and family members still in the sect, and thus began the long, lonely road of building a life outside of the only group, the only way of being, that Amber had ever known.

Odds are good that even if you don’t recognize her name, you know of Amber Scorah, and this goes along with a content warning for the book. A few years back, Ms. Scorah and her partner lost a young child in a tragic way that made the news, and as I read this section with shock and sorrow, I realized I remembered reading the articles when it happened. If reading this is too heavy for you to bear right now, please keep this in mind and maybe put the book on hold for a bit.

While I deeply enjoy delving into what makes a person leave a religion or a religious group, what really drew me in about the premise of this book was Ms. Scorah’s move to China. The linguistic challenge alone seems daunting to me, but she tackled it head-on, with admirable passion and fire. When immersion in Chinese culture and tradition, with its thousands of years of history and different perspectives, forced Amber to confront disparities between reality and what she’d been taught, instead of refusing to consider this new evidence, Amber realized that she had to change her mind and the way she thought about certain things. That’s not an easy thing to do and requires not only emotional intelligence, but strength and humility, and, in Ms. Scorah’s case, a well of courage to rebuild one’s life. I deeply admire her for that.

She doesn’t hold back when it comes to dissecting her ill-fated marriage to the husband who accompanied her to China. While always respectful of him (to the point of honoring his privacy and never sharing his name), she admits that their marriage was more due to Witness ideals and less because of love, even going so far as to confess that she realized she shouldn’t be marrying him the night before the wedding (community pressure can be a terrible thing). Plenty of groups and cultures view marriage as more of an arrangement where love will grow after the wedding, and obviously that works for many people, but in Ms. Scorah’s case, it led only to pain and heartbreak for both parties. While obviously not the most sorrowful part of the book, the descriptions of her marriage are forlorn and lonely and make me wonder how many other couples are stuck in similar relationships, neither one feeling free to leave and pursue something more emotionally fulfilling .

Leaving the Witness is a new take on exiting a religious group, and Ms. Scorah’s writing is strong and intense, placing you in her shoes as she takes on the Chinese language, her long-standing beliefs, and the wild, wide-open world. Her storytelling abilities are so tightly honed that I think we’ll be seeing her name on the shelves for years to come, and I look forward to reading whatever comes next from her.

Have you ever learned something from or spent time in another culture that made you view something in your own life differently? I found this one of the most fascinating aspects of this book, and I wish this were something more people were open to (not necessarily for religious reasons, but more in a way that we should always be open to considering that maybe we don’t have a monopoly on truth or perfection; maybe there’s a better way to go about even the simplest things in life. I try to keep this in mind and incorporate better ideas into how I live, and it can be frustrating when people around me insist on doing things in a less efficient or more difficult way simply due to tradition or stubbornness!).

Follow Amber Scorah on Twitter here.