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Reading Report: Books and Me in 2011

In Book Reviews, Culture, Reading, Writers, Writing on October 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

My goal for this year was to read 80 books. I didn’t have a list of which ones; I learned my lesson a couple of years ago: I don’t stick to lists. I’m too ADD. I hear of a book that sounds interesting and I immediately get it out of the library, just so I have it at hand. I currently have approximately 75 books out of the two libraries I go to. (My husband works at one of them, so I can get out as many as I want on his card.)

I’m actually three ahead of where I need to be to finish 80 books by the end of the year. I’ve read 65 and those are just the ones that I actually finished. There are at least a dozen more that I got halfway through before I decided that they weren’t worth my time to finish them. They weren’t necessarily bad books; I just didn’t care for them or couldn’t get into them for some reason. And of course there’s always another book or more that’s tantalizing me from my bookshelf.

Recently I’ve been on a Scandinavian kick. Ever since I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Scandinavian novel. There’s something about their atmosphere that draws me to them. And then of course there was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who…  series which I finally read this year. From there I jumped to Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo and just the other day I got two books by an Icelandic author named Arnaldur Indridason that are supposed to be good. (Jar City and Silence of the Grave.)

I also continued my love affair with Philip Kerr‘s novels, particularly the Bernard Gunther detective series (which are set in Germany) and started a new one with Val McDermid. Kerr and McDermid both happen to be Scottish. Another Scottish writer I like is Ian Rankin. All of the above are mystery writers.

I have a theory about the mystery genre. Some people consider any genre writing to be commercial or even junk. While that may be true of some of it (James Patterson’s later novels come to mind), it is a gross misrepresentation of the better examples. I get a lot of flack for being a devourer of mysteries. Reading mysteries is considered to be like eating popcorn or penny candy, while literary fiction is likened to a gourmet meal.

I don’t buy that. I see literary novels as an acquired taste, like eating caviar. You’re not sure what you’ve gotten into and you may never be sure if it was worth the bother (and the cost, in time).  But with genre fiction, you know what to expect. The worst examples are the ones that are so formulaic all you have to do is insert new names and settings and you’ve got a new book. But the best … oh, the best are the ones that surprise you. You start out thinking that you’re going to read a mystery and you end up feeling like you’ve been given so much more.

Val McDermid does it with the character Tony Hill, a neurotic psychologist who aids the police in their investigations. Ian Rankin does it with the gritty pictures he draws of life in Edinburgh. Philip Kerr does it with his “inside look” at Germany before, during and after the Second World War. And the Scandinavian authors do it with a sense of place that lends itself to a particular life philosophy.

Mysteries provide us with a view of human nature at its worst and its best.  The criminals might be bad, but sometimes the heroes aren’t much better. And, like puzzles, they stimulate our intellect. Mystery readers are not typically passive readers. They become involved. Mysteries bring out the participant in us. In that sense, they are like movies of the mind. It’s no accident that mystery novels are made into movies more than any other kind of literary genre.

Every novel should have suspense in it, because that’s the way we live life. We never know what’s going to happen next. That’s why I like writing with surprises. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, or even fiction. Some of the nonfiction books I read this year earn high marks for bringing new insights and information into my life. I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Midnight Disease, for instance.

A No-Longer New Convert

In Religion on May 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

I’ve been a Muslim for going on two years now (it will be two years on September 20th). I haven’t been writing in this blog because I’ve been putting all my efforts into my feminist blog, Femagination, and my newer blog about being a Muslim convert, I, Muslimah.

But I’ve missed this blog, because I feel like I was more personal here than anywhere else. So I’m back with an update about where I am personally right now.

I’m still glad I’m a Muslim and I’m actually a lot more comfortable with it than I was for the first few months. I won’t lie to you; those days were hard. First of all, I felt so out of my element. So much of being a Muslim is cultural and I’m definitely not from that culture. I’m as WASPy as you can get, or at least I was until I became a Muslim. (WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.) Now the only part that doesn’t fit is ‘Protestant.’ But I’m still white and Anglo-Saxon and have blue eyes and fair skin. In other words, I don’t look Middle Eastern which is where most non-Muslims think Muslims come from. (In actuality, only about 20% of Muslims are Arab.)

But the real difference between me and most born Muslims is that I’m not steeped in all the traditions and attitudes that come with being born into a Muslim culture. At first, everything felt strange to me. I’ve written in earlier posts about how I responded to all this “Muslim business.” Well, I’m still learning. I find out something new almost every day that I didn’t know about being a Muslim. Some of the things have been disturbing, others amusing, most of them enlightening.

But at first I was terribly hung up about all I didn’t know. I felt like I’d never learn how to be a “real” Muslim. And I was consumed with guilt about all the things I did know but didn’t follow.

For instance, I found it very difficult to say all my prayers every day. Each day that went by where I hadn’t prayed five times (or sometimes not at all) made me feel horrible. I was sure I was going to Hell and I was afraid to admit to anyone that I was having trouble with the prayers. Also, every time I found out something new that some Muslims think is mandatory, I would get discouraged by how difficult some of the things were.

I got so hung up about whether or not I was doing everything right, I lost my joy about being a Muslim. But even in my worst moments, I never regretted my decision to convert. I didn’t feel like Islam let me down but rather that I let Islam—and other Muslims—down.

After a few months I finally started to relax. It helped that I finally made it through the Qur’an. And I had many Muslim friends, both born and converted, to encourage me and teach me the most important things I needed to know. I began to understand that Allah knows our hearts, judges us by our intentions as well as our actions, and is always willing to forgive us and help us to start over. I will never be a perfect Muslim, partly because there is no such thing (Muhammad is the only one who came close) and partly because I’m human.

But most of all I learned about the importance of prayer. That’s the cornerstone of Islam. I still don’t always say all my prayers, but when I do, I am so blessed. I can’t believe how good it feels to be in God’s presence and have a conversation with Him. I’ve come to love the prayers themselves, even when I don’t understand every single word. I get off track a lot, but prayer always brings me back to Allah. And I praise Him for that.

Seven Months As a Muslim

In Opinion, Religion on May 13, 2010 at 12:35 am

Things look a lot different now that I’ve been a Muslim for over seven months. I’m wearing the hijab for one thing; I started wearing it full time about a month ago. I’m actually surprised at how good it feels. I don’t feel strange at all. You know what my biggest worry is? How am I going to make it through the summer! I have to wear long sleeves and pants, dresses or long skirts besides the hijab and I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to stand it. My Libyan Muslim friends say that it’s not that bad, but they’re used to it. Oh, well, I’ll just pray a lot and hope for the best.

But how I dress is just an outward thing. That’s why I don’t think it’s critical to one’s faith. It might even stand in the way for some people, like if it makes you feel so self-conscious that you can’t concentrate on your relationship with God. One of the things I like the best about wearing the hijab is that other Muslims know right away that I’m one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask where I’m from as if they can’t believe that someone like me is Muslim. (I look stereotypically American: blue eyes and fair skin, light eyebrows–my hair is blonde.) When I say I’m from “here,” they ask if I’m Muslim and when I say yes, they get all excited. Mash’allah is something I hear a lot. (That’s what you say when something is good.)

Or someone will say to me, “Salaam alaykum (peace be to you),” which is a standard greeting from one Muslim to another. I’m prepared for it when one of my Muslim friends says it, but when a stranger says it to me, I’m taken aback for a moment. I forget that I’m wearing the hijab, so I’m not expecting someone to recognize me as a Muslim. I had a young man apologize to me the other day because he was afraid that I wasn’t a Muslim after all, since I hesitated before replying, “Wa alaykum salaam (and peace be unto you).” I told him I’m just not used to it yet!

Sometimes I have trouble arranging my headscarf or I can’t find one to go with my outfit (or the other way around), but I’ve managed to collect about 20 hijabs so far, so I do okay. At first I was worried that I’d look awful, but I needn’t have worried. I look different but not worse. And sometimes I even think I look better. But that’s just a vanity thing. It shouldn’t matter what I look like, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t give it a thought. I am a woman after all. Becoming a Muslim doesn’t erase who you are.

Some people think that women who wear the hijab are more religious than those who don’t, but Muslims are quick to tell you that what matters is what’s inside, not outside. So how am I doing on the inside?

Well, I still think I made the right choice to embrace Islam. But it’s not an easy transition, at least not for me. I have trouble getting in all my prayers every day. I can’t read Arabic so I have to rely on pronunciation guides, which are hard to find. I get confused when I hear different opinions about what Muslims can and cannot do. I wasn’t prepared for there to be a difference of opinion. But I should have been; after all, Muslims are human. There are Muslims who are very strict about the “old” ways. And there are those who are more open to modern interpretations.

I can see both sides. After all, I wear the hijab, which is seen by some Muslims as mandatory. But I don’t think, for instance, that women should be closed off in a room or behind a barrier when they go to the mosque. A woman has as much right to hear and see the iman, the recitation of the prayers and the sermon as a man does, and depriving her of that right puts an obstacle in her path to Allah. That should be a sin (and possibly is, in God’s eyes).

Even though I often feel inadequate, I know that what God wants is for me to concentrate on Him, and all else will follow.