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.

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The Mapmaker’s Children — Book Review and Giveaway

The Mapmaker's ChildrenJohn Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.

When abolitionist John Brown’s daughters hear this song for the first time they are shocked: “Annie gasped and covered her mouth in horror. Even Sarah took a step back.” Less than a year before — on December 2, 1859 — their father had been executed for “crimes committed during the raid on the United States Armory at Harpers Ferry . . . the capital offenses of treason, murder, and conspiracy with no cause.”

John Brown, unlike most anti-slavery activists of his time, believed that armed insurrection was the only way to defeat the evil of slavery. Brown enlisted his sons in the fight against the “blasphemy of slavery”, but kept his wife and daughters ignorant of the details of their work. Sarah, who has survived a life-threatening illness that left her infertile, discovers that their home is a stop on the Underground Railroad:

Sarah knew her father was deeply invested in the Great Abolition Calling. Her brothers had fought and died in Kansas Territory for it, but the Brown women had never been privy to their plans and actions. John thought it too dangerous. A woman’s role was to be the helper — to tend to the household and raise strong children in service to God’s purpose.

John Brown, age 46

John Brown, age 46

Sarah, however, can never bear children, and her artistic gifts help many “passengers” on the Underground Railroad find their way to freedom. Her father even asks her to draw a map that will lead slaves in the area surrounding Harpers Ferry to a meeting point where they could join Brown and his men — a map that is seized by “southern lawmen”, making Sarah a target for arrest.

More than 150 years later, a young couple moves into a historic home on Apple Hill Lane in New Charlestown, West Virginia, not far from Harpers Ferry. Eden and Jack Anderson have struggled with years of infertility, and their marriage is at the breaking point. In her quest for the “seal of authenticity that could blast their real estate values through the roof” — a listing on the National Register of Historic Places — Eden discovers that the house may indeed have connections to the Underground Railroad.  A Civil War-era porcelain doll’s head, a hidden key, and a secret root cellar are all interesting clues — but what do they mean? With the help of Cleo, the little girl next door, and Mrs. Silverdash, local historian and bookstore owner, Eden attempts to solve the puzzle.

Eden’s research eventually brings her indirectly to another infertile woman, Sarah Brown, who visited the house on Apple Hill Lane 150 years earlier. Sarah, the “mapmaker”, may not be destined to have children, but her legacy is just as real and valuable. As Eden comes to terms with her possible infertility, she sees that a life without children can still be valuable and productive. Author Sarah McCoy seems to be asking the question that Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Wild Geese”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The novel is expertly constructed, although sometimes relying too much on coincidence, with the two narratives coalescing in a very satisfying and surprising way. One problem with novels that use dual narratives is that one of them is usually more interesting than the other, and The Mapmaker’s Children is no exception. The drama and tragedy of Sarah’s life overpowers the sadness and disappointment of Eden’s. Of course, suffering is relative, and the reader’s heart goes out to both Eden and Sarah, who have experienced loss and grief but face the future with hope and courage. Eden says to 11-year-old Cleo:

We can’t force life to do what we want when we want it. We can’t change yesterday or control tomorrow. We can only live today as best we can. And it just might turn out better than expected.

Sarah’s perspective changes after she nearly dies from dysentery:

Sarah had been on her deathbed and had risen a new person, tired of being on the outskirts, tired of waiting for fate to decide if she lived or died, tired of powerlessness. If she was damaged and never to have the family of her sisters and mother, what was there left to fear?

McCoy’s greatest accomplishment in The Mapmaker’s Children is her vivid depiction of Sarah Brown. She says, “I was more concerned with capturing Sarah’s heart and future impact in the present day than on writing an official profile.” That sentence perfectly describes the value and historical fiction. I’ve often struggled with an explanation of historical fiction. When someone asks me, “Is it true?”, I’ve said, not very coherently, “Well, yes, the author did a lot of research, but made some things up, like letters and dialogue, and changed some things around to make a better story.” McCoy explains it much better:

My role as the storyteller was simply to use the tools of my craft and imagine what Sarah’s life might’ve looked like, how she felt, her struggles and joys, what she might’ve dreamed, even as I dreamed her into existence. I did my homework for years: researched newspaper articles, letters, distant Brown relatives alive today, Sarah’s real-life art, Underground Railroad artifacts, symbols, and codes, bootleggers, baby dolls, and a colossal amount of John Brown information available in library archives.

John_Brown_-_Treason_broadside,_1859If you’re interested in learning more about John Brown — who remains a controversial figure today — I highly recommend The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (the National Book Award winner for fiction in 2013). John Vanderslice, an author and a professor of creative writing, teaches the novel in his class on historical fiction. He says, “The narrator’s voice just takes hold of you and doesn’t let you go. And what a way to bring crazy John Brown alive for an audience. I don’t think I can ever think of John Brown the same way after reading McBride’s book.”

Now, when I think of John Brown, I will think of Sarah Brown, whose maps and artwork demonstrate that we may have untapped talents and courage — qualities that are hidden like the root cellar on Apple Hill Lane, waiting to be found.

Crown Publishers is giving away one hardcover copy to a Books on the Table follower (U.S. entries only, please). To enter, please leave a comment with your email address or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.

To read more reviews of The Mapmaker’s Children, check out TLC Book Tours.

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop — Girls’ Edition

Because it’s finally summer . . . and it’s Saturday . . . and Books on the Table has never participated in something like this before . . . please join the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop!

I’m offering giveaways of two books: Hemingway’s Girl, by Erika Robuck, and The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica. (Hemingway’s Girl is a published paperback and The Good Girl is an ARC, due to be published in July.) What’s the connection? They both have the word “girl” in the title and they’re both terrific summer reading. And several critics have compared The Good Girl to another “girl” book — Gone Girl.

Reviews from Publishers Weekly:

0814-9780778316558-bigwAt the outset of Kubica’s powerful debut, free-spirited 24-year-old Mia Dennett, an art teacher at an alternative high school and a member of a well-heeled, well-connected Chicago family, goes missing. As puzzling as Mia’s presumed kidnapping initially appears, things turn infinitely stranger after her eventual return, seemingly with no memory of what happened to her or, indeed, of her identity as Mia. Key characters share the narrative in chapters labeled either “Before” or “After,” allowing the reader to join shattered mother Eve and sympathetic Det. Gabe Hoffman on their treacherous journey to solve the mystery and truly save Mia. Almost nothing turns out as expected, which, along with the novel’s structure and deep Midwestern roots, will encourage comparisons to Gone Girl. Unlike that dazzling duel between what prove to be a pair of sociopaths, this Girl has heart—which makes it all the more devastating when the author breaks it.

9780451467515MRobuck drops the fictional 19-year-old Mariella Bennet into the life of Ernest Hemingway in her richly realized newest (after Receive Me Falling), set in Depression-era Key West, Fla. Mariella’s father has just died. In order to raise money to care for her mother and sisters, Mariella bets on a boxing match refereed by Hemingway. Though she loses the bet, Mariella befriends the famous writer and is hired as a housemaid for Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline. Soon after, Mariella and Papa Hemingway attend another bout where one of the fighters, WWI veteran and Overseas Highway worker Gavin Murray, becomes smitten with Mariella. As she struggles to balance her fascination with the Hemingways’ glamorous life and the prospect of settling down with Gavin, an enormous hurricane careens toward the Keys. As the winds pick up and the rains fall down, tensions rise and Mariella must choose which way to run. Robuck brings Key West to life, and her Hemingway is fully fleshed out and believable, as are Mariella and others. Readers will delight in the complex relationships and vivid setting.

How it works:

  • You can enter for one or both of the books. To enter, leave a comment or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.
  • The giveaway is eligible to followers of Books on the Table in the United States.
  • Winners will be chosen randomly on June 25 and notified by email.
  • There are over 30 other blogs participating in the blog hop and they are offering some great giveaways, so check them out!

Link List:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. The Misfortune of Knowing
  3. Bibliosue
  4. Too Fond
  5. Under a Gray Sky
  6. Read Her Like an Open Book (US)
  7. My Devotional Thoughts
  8. WildmooBooks
  9. Guiltless Reading
  10. Fourth Street Review
  11. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  12. Word by Word
  13. Words And Peace (US)
  14. Ciska’s Book Chest
  15. Falling Letters
  16. Roof Beam Reader
  17. Readerbuzz
  18. The Relentless Reader (US)
  19. Mom’s Small Victories (US)
  20. Daily Mayo (US)
  1. The Emerald City Book Review (US)
  2. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
  3. Lost Generation Reader
  4. Booklover Book Reviews
  5. Bay State Reader’s Advisory
  6. River City Reading (US)
  7. Books Speak Volumes
  8. Words for Worms
  9. Wensend
  10. Bibliophile’s Retreat
  11. Readers’ Oasis
  12. The Book Musings
  13. My Book Retreat (N. Am.)
  14. Books on the Table (US)

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