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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10 Books the Critics (And I) Loved

I’m not really a book reviewer; I’m a book recommender. If I’m reading I book I don’t like, I have no problem putting that book down and moving on to the next one in my stack.  There are far too many 9781400067558wonderful books in the world to bother with those that don’t capture my attention. That’s why I wouldn’t want to be a critic. People who agree to review books end up having to plow through a certain number of books they don’t enjoy — and then, if they’re honest, enumerate what they see as the failings of those books. I prefer to ignore the books that aren’t to my taste and to spread the good word about the ones that are. Maybe that attitude comes from 15 years of bookselling? When someone comes in the store and asks for a recommendation, I don’t point out the books that the customer wouldn’t like! If I’m asked point blank what I think of a book, and it’s one I disliked, I usually say, “It wasn’t my cup of tea”. That response covers a lot of territory. . . . although I’m always happy to expand on it.

Apparently, there is a controversy in the world of book reviewing about the value of negative book reviews. The well-regarded critic Laura Miller addressed this issue in an article for the online magazine Salon entitled “The Case for Positive Book Reviews”, stating “Critics who have a choice generally prefer to call attention to books they find praiseworthy”.

In yesterday’s New York Times review of The Death of Santini, Frank Bruni quotes the author, Pat Conroy:

I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled . .  No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.

Although Bruni finds Conroy to be self-righteous in his refusal to criticize other writers (especially, Bruni notes, when his sensitivity doesn’t seem to extend to the Conroy family members who are used as material in his books), I appreciate Conroy’s position. Jacob Silverman, a columnist and book reviewer, does not.  In an article in Salon,  “Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture”, Silverman argues that there is a place for critical voices and negative reviews, saying “reviewers shouldn’t be recommendation machines” — that they should all “think more and enthuse less”. I appreciate his position as well — but I would rather keep my negative thoughts to myself.

cover-1I certainly respect the work that book critics do, and I am an enthusiastic reader of book reviews. Every Sunday, the book review section is the first one I pull out of the paper. I know I could read it earlier, when it arrives in the mail at the store, or online, but I like the ritual of reading it on Sundays. During the week, I read other book reviews online, in magazines, and in newspapers, but there is something special about the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I have a love-hate relationship with the Book Review — I’m mystified, and frequently annoyed, by the editors’ choices of books they deem worthy of review. But when I read a review of a book that I thought was terrific and find that the Times thought it was terrific too, I feel validated as a reader.

Here is a list of 10 books published in the last year or two that I loved, and that the critics loved as well. (Maybe sometime I’ll make a list of books that I thought were wonderful that the critics dismissed.)

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini; reviewed by Michiko Kakutani/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/05/21/books/and-the-mountains-echoed-by-khaled-hosseini.html

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo; reviewed by Janet Maslin/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/books/katherine-boos-first-book-behind-the-beautiful-forevers.html

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver reviewed by Julie Myerson/The Observer www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/11/big-brother-lionel-shriver-review

Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen reviewed by Max Watman/Wall Street Journal online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324354704578636141281560474

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker reviewed by Mimi Swartz/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/books/review/lost-girls-by-robert-kolker.html

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson reviewed by Michiko Kakutani/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/books/the-orphan-masters-son-by-adam-johnson-review.html?pagewanted=2a

9780062236678-1The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan reviewed by Susan Vreeland/Washington Post articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-01-21/entertainment/36472794_1_dancers-sisters-marie-van-goethem

Sister Mother Husband Dog (Etc.) by Delia Ephron reviewed by Elinor Lipman/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/09/15/books/review/delia-ephrons-sister-mother-husband-dog-etc.html

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett reviewed by Maureen Corrigan/NPR www.npr.org/2013/11/13/244996958/a-marriage-a-divorce-a-dying-dog-and-essays-done-right

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta reviewed by Margaux Fragoso/New York Times www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/books/review/with-or-without-you-by-domenica-ruta.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0