Europe: Wrap-up!

This month was one of the most enjoyable reading adventures of this year. With all the horrible news and fear-mongering and violence in the world today, it can be hard to find spots of brightness and optimism, but my reading this month managed to inspire me and make the gaps between me and others seem a little smaller, a little more scalable. The beginning of this month started out with some heavy-hitter reading, stories of importance and emotional beauty that were still sometimes traumatic and definitely made me cry or cringe or rave, but the end of this month, particularly the last weekend of August, I found softer, sweeter, more warming stories, which I’ve been trying hard to find throughout this challenge. I hope in your reading next month, you too are able to find bright spots of unadulterated joy and hope. It’s still out there, in spite of it all, dear reader.

What I Read

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (Ireland): I’d heard amazing things about this novel for years, and I even bought two copies of it — one to keep and one to send to my friend so we could buddy read it. My friend finished the novel almost immediately last summer while I, embarrassingly, hadn’t made it around to it! When I finally settled into it this month, I devoured it! My friend was delighted that I had read it at last and we talked about it a lot, especially about the experience of gay men in the modern world. This novel tells the story of Cyril Avery as he navigates growing up and finding his place in Ireland in the 50s and 60s. This book is wild, literally turn after turn, but it beautifully and movingly explores identity, belonging, family, and sexual politics in the modern world. I cried, I laughed, I cringed a lot, but overall, this book was a wonder and a marvel to read. Believe the hype on this one! 

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Italy): Another modern classic that gets a lot of attention in the book world, My Brilliant Friend tells the story of two girls growing up in Naples in the 50s and 60s. It is rife with violence and misogyny but overall, I think this is a beautiful novel about girlhood that transcends the time and place of its setting. I felt deeply akin to Lena, the narrator, and was alternately enchanted and disturbed by her best friend Lila. Dealing with education, poverty, sexual politics, and the political fall out of WWII in Italy, MBF captures perfectly the ways that girls are placed under pressures beyond their years, and how they manage to scrape and climb their way to independence, freedom, and love. This was another story that I couldn’t put down, and I even rushed to the bookstore on the way home from work the day that I finished it to get the next one. 

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante (Italy): While I didn’t love this installment as much as I loved MBF, I still raced through this 400+ page book in only a few days. The story picks up almost immediately where the last one left off, so I won’t give spoilers, but it progresses along the life of our brilliant friends Elena and Lila as they move away from girlhood and into young womanhood. It deftly explores the options for self-determination that women have, and all the ways that they can earn their freedom and independence, for better or worse. It also beautifully, though sadly, illustrates the ways that adulthood strains and complicates relationships that, in childhood, were easy and clean-cut. I found myself getting much more frustrated with the choices that Lena and Lila were making, to the point where once I finished The Story of a New Name, I decided to get a little space from the characters. I might return to their story one day (there are four novels in total), but for now, I’m satisfied!  

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (UK): I’ve been complaining about the fact that many accessible novels from the regions I’ve read so far have been either political or trauma based, and that I haven’t been able to get a lot of lighter reads like romantic comedies or coming of age or other softer reads about the people who I’m reading about. Luckily, I stumbled across Ayisha Malik in the last few days of the month and was able to read this amazing novel! Sofia Khan is Not Obliged tells the story of a 30 year old Pakistani Muslim girl in London as she tries to find a compromise between her family’s expectations for her (marriage) and her own desires (love, adventure, travel, writing!). I completely adored this novel. I realized when I finished it that it was probably the first adult novel I’ve ever read with a Muslim protagonist, and only the second novel I’ve ever read with a Muslim protagonist (the first was a YA novel in verse). Being basically anti-religion myself, I thought it would be hard to understand Sofia’s perspective, but in fact, I not only deeply related to a lot of her struggles and fears, but I found her religiousness to be a deeply intriguing part of her story — I found myself telling her to return to her religion at a particularly sad part of the novel, instead of waxing critical about how her religion didn’t keep bad things from happening to her. Isn’t it amazing how we can learn to empathise with others, recognize our similarities, and honor our differences when we read about people who aren’t immediately recognizable as being like us? Huh. 

The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain (UK): Another novel that I found by chance at the last minute, The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters comes from the best Great British Bake Off contestant of all time (in my professional opinion) Nadiya Hussain. I fell in love with Nadiya’s humility, charm, and beautiful nature on the GBBO years ago and I was so delighted to find that she’s written novels! The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters is also about Muslim girls attempting to navigate the complexities of womanhood in the modern world while simultaneously balancing the various demands and expectations that come from their immigrant parents, this time in a small English village as Bangladeshi immigrants. I loved the way that this novel integrated the four perspectives of the Amir sisters, showing us, in small scale, the variety of opportunities, desires, and struggles of modern women. Fatimah struggles with her self-image and belonging in her 30s, Bubblee attempts to find ways to be unapologetically herself while also nurturing the bonds of sisterhood, Farah attempts to reconcile her identity within her marriage and receive the respect she deserves for her traditional choices, and Mae fights to be seen as more than just the baby of the family while growing her own artistic drive and vision. This novel was so sweet and savory, I didn’t want it to end! There are more books in the series, but the story ended so nicely, I’m not sure when I’ll revisit the Amir sisters again, but odds are, I will be!

Further Reading

  • Islamophobia in the United Kingdom: Sofia Khan deals directly with anti-Muslim sentiment in the novel, because it’s still a huge problem that Muslim people in the United Kingdom deal with today. We tend to see Islamophobia as an American problem, especially since 9/11, but the attacks on the World Trade Centers sent a shockwave of anti-Islamic prejudice and racism across the Western world. Women who wear hijab, like Sofia does, are facing race and religion fueled misogyny on a daily basis. While prejudice in the UK has slackened some, there is still an overwhelming amount of people who harbor racist, sexist, and hateful views about Muslim people. 
  • A history of gay rights in Ireland: While Cyril Avery’s story deals a lot in the early stages with his identity as a gay man in a county where relationships between men could result in imprisonment, the story of Ireland’s fight for gay rights is tangential to Cyril’ story, and not the focus. I was curious myself how the Ireland depicted in Boyne’s novel could be the same one that was the first country to legalize gay marriage by popular vote, so I did some reading, and while I still have a lot of questions, this guide is helpful to understand the timeline of decriminalization and legalization. Also important to note: gay marriage didn’t become legal in Northern Ireland until last year.
  • Who is Elena Ferrante?: The identity of Elena Ferrante is one of today’s most tantalizing literary mysteries. Once her Neapolitan novels hit the big time and became global successes, people wanted to know who was really writing these books that seemed to so acutely and often painfully capture what it is to be a modern woman, but the author desired to remain faceless. Of course, that only added fuel to the fire and many journalists have tried their hand at unmasking a writer who insists on being left alone. While I’m perfectly content to let Elena Ferrante remain a shapeless and faceless creative force, others aren’t so inclined. This long-ish article from a Ferrante superfan explains some of the theories about who Ferrante is (or isn’t) while also exploring the role of gender in writing. 

In September, we’re moving right along into the Middle East before pushing farther east as this year and challenge begin to come to a close. Who are you reading next month? What did you like this month? Until next time, dear reader!

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