When the Moon is Low — Book Review and Giveaway

I dare to imagine a perfect world. I dare to dream that the woman writing my story on these many pages will stop and remember that a boy by the name of Saleem Waziri is here and in search of his family. I dream that I will tell him his brother is well. I dream that we receive a letter declaring that we will not be sent away and that we will be allowed to work and go to school and stay in this country where the air is clear and life is more like metal than dust.
Fereiba, widowed mother

Saleem lived in those voids. He lived in the uninhabited spaces of night, the places where bright, cheerful faces would not be. He lived in the corners that went unnoticed, among the things people swept out the back door.
Saleem, teenage son

When the Moon is Low book coverFereiba and her family survived the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, only to suffer more under the Taliban regime. Unable to provide for her three children, since the oppressive regime prohibits her from working as a schoolteacher, Fereiba packs up her children — including a sickly infant — and embarks on a dangerous and illegal journey to join her sister’s family in London. Along the way, Saleem becomes separated from his mother and siblings and tries to find his way to freedom.

Nadia Hashimi tells the Waziri family’s story from the alternating perspectives of both Fereiba and Saleem. Fereiba’s chapters, told in the first person, lend emotional intimacy to the sweeping narrative. Fereiba’s distinctive voice allows the reader to connect and empathize with her. Saleem’s chapters, written in the third person, include not only his point of view but occasionally the points of view of various other characters. The effect of these additional perspectives is to distance the reader from Saleem. The sections of the book focused on Saleem’s experiences attempt to cover too much territory, and I found myself anxious to return to the chapters narrated by Fereiba.

Without giving away important plot points, it’s difficult to reveal much about the family’s odyssey through the Middle East and Europe. Hashimi creates sympathy for her characters along with tension that will keep readers turning the pages. Americans read frequently about the plight of illegal immigrants in the United States, but not as often about the hardships faced by refugees and immigrants in European countries. When the Moon is Low brought to mind Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, another heartbreaking story about the human cost of repressive political regimes.

Of course, the best known novels about modern-day Afghanistan are Khaled Hosseini’s — especially his debut, The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is often credited with introducing Afghan culture to Americans; in an interview with the Atlantic, Hosseini says: “Most readers have come away with a sense of empathy for Afghanistan and its people; there’s been awareness of the richness of its culture, its heritage and its history.” Hosseini — like the fictional Saleem in When the Moon is Low — was forced to flee Afghanistan as a teenager.

Hosseini arrived in the United States knowing no English, and although he had always dreamed of becoming a writer, he never imagined he would write books in English. He acknowledges that his greatest strength is as a storyteller, not as a prose stylist:

I think my strength is in telling a story. That’s my strength. I can keep a reader’s interest. I can bring a sense of anxiety to every page; bring a sense that something’s at stake in every page . . . . I also write in a way that emotionally resonates with the audience. I want something to be at stake emotionally for every story I write . . .

My weaknesses? I have a long list. I’m well aware of my limitations as a writer. I will never be stylish. I will never have a particularly interesting prose. When I read contemporary fiction, I recognize prose that is beyond my grasp.

Nadia HashimiHashimi, too, is a gifted storyteller and a competent writer. Born in the United States, she is the daughter of Afghan immigrants. Her parents left Afghanistan in the 1970s, planning to work in the U.S. for a few years, but ended up staying permanently after it became clear it was unsafe for them to return. Her mother, an internationally trained civil engineer, was one of the first women to enroll in Kabul University’s engineering program.

In a surprising coincidence, Khaled Hosseini and Nadia Hashimi are both physicians. Somehow — in between practicing medicine, helping to manage her husband’s neurosurgery practice, writing articles for Psychology Today, and raising three children — Hashimi has had time to write two novels. The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, published in 2014, is the moving story of two Afghan girls, separated by a century, who adopt the custom of bacha posh, in which they disguise themselves as boys in order to attend school and move freely. (For a nonfiction account of this custom, I highly recommend The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg — just out in paperback.)

Sashimi told her college alumni magazine  that she actually began writing The Moon is Low before she came up with the idea for The Pearl That Broke Its Shell:

When the Moon Is Low was Hashimi’s first attempt at fiction. Her husband thought her idea for the story was interesting and encouraged her to explore it. . .  Hashimi got a literary agent on the strength of an early draft. “Actually, until I had an agent, I didn’t really think anything was going to come of it,” she says. “Writing was more like a hobby.”

She also had the idea for “Pearl” percolating. Eventually, she put the “Moon” manuscript aside to give the second book her undivided attention. She wrote “Pearl” in nine months — it came “in one big swoop,” she says — while she was working part time as a doctor and expecting her second baby.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell focuses on the oppression of Afghan women, both generations ago and today. Released earlier this year in paperback, it’s garnered excellent reviews, including one from Khaled Hosseini: “Nadia Hashimi has written, first and foremost, a tender and beautiful family story. Her always engaging multigenerational tale is a portrait of Afghanistan in all of its perplexing, enigmatic glory, and a mirror into the still ongoing struggles of Afghan women.”

When the Moon is Low documents the struggles of Afghan refugees, but also shines a light on the experiences of displaced people everywhere. As the author says in her acknowledgments, “This story was inspired by the masses of people all over the world in search of a place to call home.”

I have an extra copy of When the Moon is Low I would love to give away — please comment below or send me an email at bksonthetable@gmail.com, and I’ll toss names in the proverbial hat in a couple of weeks.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours.



Why My Books Are Not Clutter

Clutter n: A large amount of things that are not arranged in a neat or orderly way : a crowded or disordered collection of things.

Clutter n: A crowded or confused mass or collection; a mass of disorderly or distracting objects or details.

IMG_1221When it comes to my books, I’ll admit to “large amount, and even to “crowded” — but definitely not to “confused” or “disorderly”. I do find them “distracting” — but isn’t that part of the point of books? My books are organized by subject and in the case of fiction, even alphabetized by author. They are lined up neatly on shelves and stacked on tables. Clutter, to my mind, is the stuff I shove in my laundry room junk drawer — mysterious cords, chargers, and hardware items. I’m also guilty of hanging on to piles of magazines. The homes featured in those very magazines don’t have overflowing baskets of House Beautiful and Veranda in their living rooms. (They also rarely have reading lights next to chairs and sofas, I’ve noticed.)

We’ve recently tried to spruce up our house, recovering furniture, replacing rugs, and adding window treatments. So I’ve been reading a lot of interior design magazines, blogs, and books. I’ve learned that there are some very big no-nos — “brown furniture” (which apparently means antiques made of wood) and “matchy matchy” frequently come up as evils to avoid. The absolute worst sin that amateur decorators can commit is failing to eliminate clutter. Clutter not only causes people to experience stress, it may contribute to obesity — according to professional organizer Peter Walsh, author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down.

Judging from much of what I’ve been seeing, today’s ideal home looks like an upscale chain hotel, with lots of neutral colors and empty space. (In a large percentage of these homes, the designer adds “personality” by tossing a zebra skin rug over a sisal rug.)

Dominique Browning  (past editor-in-chief of House & Garden) wrote a lovely and insightful article, “Let’s Celebrate the Art of Clutter”, published in the New York Times a few weeks ago. She laments today’s “propaganda of divestment”, and asks, “Why on earth would we get rid of our wonderful things?” :

It is time to celebrate the gentle art of clutter. We live, and we pick up things along the way: the detritus of adventure; the vessels of mealtimes; the books and music of a life of the mind; the pleasures of our daily romps through the senses . . . And yes, you will have bookshelves. Never enough of them. And more books, to replace all those books you gave away. That, too, is a law of nature.

9781607747307Organizational guru Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says that “books are one of three things that people find hardest to let go”. Maybe this should tell her something. Why must we feel pressured to let go of things we would like to keep? She says the “true purpose” of books “is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It’s the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves”. That’s where Kondo and I disagree. Being surrounded by my books (even those that don’t particularly “spark joy”, to use Kondo’s phrase), gives me a sense of comfort and warmth that half-empty, dust-free shelves can’t provide.

Kondo recommends placing bookcases in the closet, leaving “nothing to obstruct the line of vision”.  But books are exactly what I want in my line of vision. Just because I’ll never reread a book, cover to cover, doesn’t mean I don’t want it on my shelf. The familiar gray cover of Bonfire of the Vanities reminds me of stolen hours on the couch while my infant son napped. On the shelf above I see Gorky Park and recall reading it on a lounge chair on my honeymoon. I know without looking that The Poisonwood Bible was published in 1998, because I remember that it was one of my very first purchases with my employee discount at Lake Forest Book Store. I’ll never forget coming home from work and reading it during a power outage, by candlelight, while the children were at school.

Every now and then I reread some of my childhood favorites — most recently, I reread A Wrinkle in Time. The lines I underlined when I was 12 are the same ones I would underline now:

In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet . . . There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter . . . And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants . . . You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

I’m glad I have this book on my shelf, even though I may never open it again. I understand a little more about what Madeleine L’Engle has to say about fate and free will than I did when I was 12, and I’m inspired to read her adult books. As our world becomes more digital, I find myself becoming more attached to physical objects that evoke memories — books, of course, but letters and photographs as well. The books I read electronically don’t seem to lodge themselves in my memory as well as the “real” books I read. A few times, I’ve actually bought the physical version of an e-book I’ve read just so I can add it to my collection.

elements-of-style-9781476744872_lgOne book I recently bought that I had already read is Elements of Style: Designing a Home and a Life, by Erin Gates. The photos didn’t show up well in the electronic version (which was a galley, anyway), and it’s a book I’ll stack on my coffee table and refer to again and again. I love that lots of the rooms Gates designs include bookcases that are filled with books, rather than with pottery and knickknacks. She has lots of great decorating tips for the amateur, and plenty of funny anecdotes also.

I’ve amassed piles of design books, including Books Make a Home, Living With Books, and Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature. My house is not “enchanted”, but it’s not cluttered either — it’s just full of books!

The Joys of Podcasts — Put Those Headphones On!

UnknownA couple of years ago, when I came up with the crazy idea of writing a book blog, I thought I had the perfect name: Books on the Nightstand. A Google search revealed that a website by that name already existed. My initial disappointment evaporated when I spent some time exploring Books on the Nightstand. Two Random House sales reps started recording podcasts in 2008 and since then, have produced 340 episodes. (They recommend books from many publishers, not just Penguin Random House.) Here’s their description of Books on the Nightstand:

At Books on the Nightstand, we strive to bring you great book recommendations, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the world of books, bookstores and publishing. We do this through our weekly podcasts and frequent blog posts. Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman are friends and colleagues who work in the publishing industry. That means that we talk about books all day long to other people who love to talk about books. But sometimes, those conversations have to end before we’re ready to stop talking. Thus, this blog . . . Our weekly podcasts (internet radio shows) are the heart of what we do here, and we hope you’ll join us. We post new episodes every Wednesday (or often late Tuesday night).

coverBooks on the Nightstand podcasts usually follow the same format: a discussion about a book related topic, with book suggestions; an in-depth book recommendation from both Michael and Ann (“Two books we can’t wait for you to read”); and an audiobook recommendation. Most often, the recommended books are hot off the press, although about once a month backlist books receive attention in a feature called “Don’t you forget about me”.  The books chosen for discussion are always interesting, and often surprising; recent selections include one of my favorite neglected gems, The Rope Walk, by Carrie Brown;  a new — and very topical — thriller, The Cartel, by Don Winslow;  and a new memoir, Blackout, by Sarah Hepola. (By the way, I just read Blackout, and I don’t think I’ve stopped cringing. It’s very well-written, but painfully honest.)

I’ve moved quite a few books to the top of my stack after listening to a review on Books on the Nightstand. (The podcast is the next best thing to in-store presentations by our own Random House reps, Bridget and Laura.) Ann’s high praise for The Painter inspired me to read the novel right away:

My pick for this week is The Painter by Peter Heller. I love this novel so much, even more than I loved The Dog Stars, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. I think this is a book that will appeal to so many of you: those of you who love beautiful sentences, those that like intriguing characters, those that love great descriptions of the landscape, and all of you that love a fully-realized story. Don’t miss this one!

rosie-effect-9781476767314_lgI especially enjoy the audiobook reviews, which focus not only on the content of the books, but the performances of the narrators. I’ve mentioned before that I love listening to audiobooks when I’m on car trips (Road Trip “Reading” — The Joys of Audiobooks). Right now, I’m able to relax — and even laugh– while driving in Chicago traffic because I’m listening to The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion.

Podcasts are perfect for getting me moving — an hour of brisk walking seems to fly by when I’m listening to something interesting. Music just doesn’t do it for me. Once I discovered Books on the Nightstand, I found that there are countless podcasts that hold my attention. If you haven’t listened to Serial, download it immediately — you’ll be hooked.  The Huffington Post reports that host Sarah Koenig announced that two more seasons are in the works, and provides some background on the  series:

Serial debuted in October as a spinoff of This American Life, a long-running podcast from Chicago public radio station WBEZ. In it, Koenig reinvestigated the case of Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for the 1999 strangulation of his high school ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in a Baltimore-area park. The show racked up unprecedented numbers of downloads and took on a life of its own as devotees debated Syed’s guilt.

Other podcasts I enjoy listening to are The Moth: True Stories Told Live, Selected Shorts: Let Us Tell You a Story,  and Slate’s Audio Book Club. The online magazine Bustle has a good list of literary podcasts, noting that “podcasts are a great excuse to shut out the world for a little bit on your next commute, jog, or errand, and get lost in a community of people who are just as psyched about books as you are. Put those headphones on; all the cool people are doing it”.

One question: why haven’t I lost any weight, with all the walking/listening I’ve been doing?


I’m on vacation this week, which means lots of reading and relaxing — and no reviewing. I’ll be back next week with book reviews. 

9780804170154On my vacation, I’ve read two books I loved: The Painter, by Peter Heller, which came out last year, and Hold Still, by Sally Mann, just published.

If I were teaching a class called “How to Write a Novel”,  I would use the opening lines of The Painter as an example of how to grab a reader’s attention:

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

(By the way, I just read the advance reader’s copy of a terrific novel with the title How to Write a Novel, by Melanie Sumner, that will be published as a paperback original in early August. I enjoyed every page of this clever and endearing book, and what I loved most was the voice of the 12.5 year old (yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. If you liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (and who didn’t?), you’ll have a great time with How to Write a Novel.)

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165I think Hold Still is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is not only a renowned photographer but a talented writer as well. Don’t be tempted to read the book electronically, because the photographs — and there are many — are integral to the story, and I think you need to see them on the printed page.

IMG_1535I’m in the middle of The Rocks, by Peter Nichols, which I brought along because it seemed like such a vacation book — it’s good, but I’m able to put it down. There’s so much else to do, especially when the sun is shining!

Nonrequired Reading

children-studying-670663_640Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
Maya Angelou

Yesterday I saw a sight that warmed my heart. A little boy, on his way home from our local library, just couldn’t wait to read one of the books he’d just checked out. He meandered along the sidewalk, once nearly bumping into a tree, while reading one of his books. I don’t know what book captured his attention, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of the books on a required summer reading list.

I remember riding my Schwinn Hollywood home from the library, the basket piled with books. Some were books I’d read before, some were below my reading level, some were what is now called “inappropriate”; very few were the kinds of books teachers would be likely to assign. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t finish it. If I liked it a lot, I’d read it again. No one paid any attention, as far as I could tell, to what I read. The school didn’t send home a list of books that were required summer reading.

Here is the information on required summer reading my old elementary school publishes on its website:

Summer provides a wonderful opportunity for nurturing self-directed learning experiences, but it is equally important to give students more structured activities that keep them from losing ground over the long break from school. This summer’s reading requirements closely align to the English Language Arts Curriculum so that students are prepared to jump right into their first unit of study. Below you will find an overview of the summer reading program with directions explaining how to access the reading list and assignments.

The assigned fiction title will prepare students for their first unit of study in English Language Arts. Each grade has one specific novel and an accompanying assignment. No substitutions will be accepted. Grade six has an additional link to a teacher model of the assignment. Remember that the fiction title and assignment are on the same document, and is accessed the same way, as nonfiction.

61iWdIYvLcLPretty grim . . . doesn’t exactly make you want to pick up a book, or even “nurture a self-directed learning experience”, does it? (And by the way, what is “English Language Arts”? Maybe the school couldn’t decide whether to call the subject “English” or “Language Arts”, so they came up with this weird compromise?) When I reviewed the “assigned fiction titles”, I was very glad I wasn’t entering fifth grade, because I would have been forced to read Avi’s Something Upstairs (published in 1988), a horror story about a boy who discovers a ghost. I hated those types of books when I was 10, and guess what — I still do. I did enjoy S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (published in 1967) when I read it in the early 1970s, but it seems like an odd, dated choice for today’s seventh graders.

The school district in the town where our bookstore is located has a slightly more upbeat attitude toward summer reading. I say “slightly” because the school refers to summer reading as a “task”. What was the last “task” you enjoyed? Warning parents that “while the summer months are a wonderful opportunity for fun and relaxation, the break from the rigors of school can cause a lag in learning”, the school does acknowledge that an additional goal is “to foster and encourage a lifelong habit of reading — for pleasure as well as knowledge — in our students.” I wonder how many eighth graders will find reading And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, to be a pleasure. A few will, I’m sure, but the school has required students to read this book for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a child come back to the store and ask for more Agatha Christie books.

At least, from a bookseller’s perspective, it’s easy to hand over the requested copy of And Then There Were None. What we dread are the requests for sixth grade reading, which is supposed to center on themes of hope and gratitude:

For your summer reading, we’d like you to read 2 – 3 books of various genres that focus on the themes of hope or gratitude. Look for books where the characters may have overcome struggles or where, despite the conflict within the book, it has a “happy ending”; you believe the characters will be OK.

I suppose almost any book could fit this description, especially since the school mentions Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as an example of a book that focuses on optimism. (News flash: the “characters” were not OK.) If an important goal is to develop a love of reading, wouldn’t it be better to ask children to read a few books — on any subject and on any reading level — and tell why they liked these books? Anything, from graphic novels/comics to series books to sports biographies, would be fair game. The only requirement would be that kids find something to read that they enjoy.

Is that an unrealistic idea? Schools are understandably concerned about students losing ground over the long summer vacation. Our school website says: “Research demonstrates that students must read at least three challenging books during the summer break simply to maintain fluency and comprehension skills; a minimum of five such books is necessary to improve on any reading weaknesses.” But what is the cost of forcing children to read books they don’t enjoy? What good is “fluency and comprehension” if children don’t want to read? I’m curious to hear what teachers and parents of school-aged children think.