Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November, 2015

If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

Posted by nliakos on November 27, 2015

by Carla Power (Holt 2015; ISBN 978-0-8050-9819-8)

According to the copyright page, this book should be searchable under “Muslim converts–Biography”, which is peculiar because Carla Power, a secular American journalist, never converted to Islam during (nor, so far as I can tell, after) the year she spent studying the Quran with her friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi. Power spent much of her childhood in Muslim countries (Egypt, Afghanistan…), but she is your basic non-believer. The Sheikh, as she calls him (or sometimes just Akram), grew up in a small Indian village, studied in a madrasa in Lucknow, India, as well as in Syria and Saudi Arabia, and lives in England, where he teaches at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. They met when they worked together at the Centre during the nineties, and he gave her extraordinary access to his time and expertise during the year covered by the book.

Sheikh Nadwi is an amalgam of a very conservative scholar who bases his entire life on the Quran, and an open-minded thinker tolerant of others’ views and foibles. He comes across as a wise and humble human being. He is also the father of daughters and the author of a forty-volume study of Muslim women scholars going back to the time of the Prophet. He is unafraid to criticize the shrill and violent version of Islam practiced by jihadists; he is very sensitive to what is in the Quran versus the culture of one’s country of origin.

Power tries to explain how the Skeikh’s  Muslim worldview differs from the Western/Judeo-Christian one, and also where they share some things in common. As a non-believer, she is unable to accept some of what he says, but she respects the power of his beliefs.

In these days of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, and the like, this book teases out what Islam is, and what it is not. A reader comes away with a much better understanding of this important world religion.


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The Valley of Amazement

Posted by nliakos on November 7, 2015

by Amy Tan (HarperCollins 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-210731-2)

In this, her sixth novel, Amy Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, her mother Lucia or Lulu Minturn, and her daughter Flora Ivory.  In 1897,  rebellious 17-year-old Lucia leaves her parents and her life in San Francisco to follow her Chinese lover across the sea to his homeland, believing that she can convince him to rebel against his family and culture to make her his legal wife. Failing at that, Lulu eventually opens “a first-class courtesan house” in Shanghai. When the revolution of 1912 forces Lulu to flee Shanghai and return to America, her 14-year-old daughter Violet (who narrates most of the novel’s chapters) is left behind and sold to a similar courtesan house as a “virgin courtesan” (not destined to remain so for long).

Violet is fortunate to come under the protection of Magic Gourd, who formerly worked in her mother’s house. Magic Gourd is aging out of her life as a courtesan, and she saves herself from the nearly inevitable downward trajectory into street-walking and worse by attaching herself to Violet as her attendant and teaching her how to be a successful courtesan. (One of the most interesting chapters is “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir: Wherein Magic Gourd advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide.”) Violet learns fast, and she is soon much in demand, but she cannot avoid some of the pitfalls Magic Gourd warned her against. First she falls in love with a man who will never marry her, and eventually she marries a man who will never love her–who in fact abuses her cruelly. But in between, Violet marries the father of her daughter Flora, an American fleeing his own unhappy memories. But she is destined to lose both her beloved Edward and her young daughter, and to return to the life of a courtesan.

The changing politics and fashions of early 20th-century Shanghai influence Violet’s options and choices. And just when it seems that she can fall no further, Tan opens a window of hope with a daring escape over a treacherous mountain path. That is also the moment when she takes us back from 1925 to 1897 to learn how Lulu came to be a madam in a Shanghai courtesan house–and what happened to her after she lost Violet in her escape back to America in 1912. (At this point I confess I had to look and see who narrated the final chapter, because I wanted to know how Violet’s story turned out! But I promise I did not read that chapter prematurely.)

In fact, the ending might have been a little too pat, but it pleased me.

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