Monthly Archives: April 2013

American Dervish, by Ayad Akhtar


American Dervish

By Ayad Akhtar

Back Bay Books, 2012

356 pages

Hayat Shah is a Muslim-American boy growing up in Milwaukee when his mother’s close friend, “aunt” Mina, and her son Imran, come to live with Hayat and his parents. Mina brings with her a deep respect for the Koran and Islam, and she teaches Hayat about his faith. Initially Mina and the study of the Koran bring purpose and joy to Hayat, but the second year she lives with his family, Mina falls for a Jewish colleague of Hayat’s father’s and everything changes. Hayat sees life and religion in with a new lens, and acts in ways he would not have before meeting Mina.

The novel is close look at one year of Hayat’s life, when he is 11 – 12, with bookending chapters from his adulthood. I found Hayat to be an enjoyable narrator. The story builds on the page and presents a unique look at what it means to be Muslim American. Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants. While Hayat is interested in his Koranic studies, his father, a neurologist, has rejected the local Pakistani community and disdains Islam. His mother takes a neutral stand with most topics.

Akhtar is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright and actor. His play, Disgraced ran at Lincoln Center and is premiering in London at the Bush Theater in May 2013. He spoke to the New York Times about his writing process.

This book was given to me by a friend.

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Where I Get My Books…

I started this blog because I love to read and write. I also have a long commute and a good book makes the journey easier. How long? My commute involves 3 subways and when I tell people how much time I spend underground, I usually get a look of horror or a gasp. When I’m lucky I get to sit down for at least 30 – 40 minutes of each trip.

I decided to focus my reading, and write reviews of, debut novels because although there are a lot of book review blogs, I didn’t find many focused on the first book. This blog lets me ruminate on what makes a good first novel, while discovering and supporting new writers.

The first few months of  this blog I read books that I bought or were given to me by friends and family. In the new year I discovered a website, Net Galley, which allows bloggers and other “professional readers” to request advance e-versions of books from publishers. I thought that sounded like an appealing way to get and find out about books, so I signed up and eventually I got my first advance e-copy of a debut novel.

So moving forward, some of the books I review I will get from publishers, for free. I am under no obligation to write a positive review of any of these books, but I tend to only write about books I like. I see this blog as a way to support other artists and discuss what I like in books, more than a forum to criticize the books I don’t connect with. But when an blogger writes about a book they like and get for free that post can be considered (by the FTC) an “endorsement.” Thus in the spirit of full disclosure, at the end of my posts I will now share with you where I get the book reviewed.

Next review…American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar, a coming-of-age story about a Muslim American boy.



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Heart of Palm, by Laura Lee Smith


Heart of Palm

By Laura Lee Smith

Grove Press, 2013

496 pages

The Bravo family lives in Utina, FL, an economically depressed community in the north part of the state, near St. Augustine.  Utina is the kind of town people want to move from, not to, but in the early naughts, developers and investors are coming to Utina to buy up land along the Intercoastal Waterway. The Bravos face new challenges in this changing landscape. The matriarch, Arla, married into the family and lost touch with her moneyed St. Augustine background when she did. With her husband Dean she had four kids – Frank, Carson, Will and Sofia. Sofia still lives with her mother, at the age of 44. Frank runs a fish fry down the road from the family home, Aberdeen. And Carson lives in St. Augustine. This novel tells the story of both a family and a place. Most of the action occurs over the course of one summer, with flashbacks used to fill in the family’s history.

I was completely engrossed by this book. Smith tells a moving story that twists and turns in unexpected ways. She writes with poetic language and uses an omniscient third person narrator to rotate the story’s focus between the Bravo siblings and their mother, creating a compelling collection of characters. Although I have limited experience with North Florida, I was there with the Bravos as they faced their challenges, limitations and opportunities with varying levels of insight and success. If you are interested in literary novels, with a good story, this book is for you. The final pages really churn up the drama, almost too much for me, but the beauty of the story and characters made me keep turning to the final page.

Smith lives in St. Augustine and has also written short stories and essays. The book just published in April and for those of you in Florida, Smith is reading at different venues across the state.


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The Tournament of Books, 2013

The Tournament of Books ended last week. Sponsored by The Morning News, the Tournament of Books is a “March-Madness style book battle,” now in its 9th year. I was curious to see that of the 18 novels selected as some of the best books of 2012, six were debuts:

Fobbit by David Abrams

HHhH by Laurent Binet

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Ivyland by Miles Klee

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (reviewed on Proto Libro)

Two of these books were eliminated in the “Pre-Tournament Play In” that put Fobbit, Yellow Birds and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk up against each other as Iraq war books, with Billy Lynn winning and making it into the actual brackets. Billy Lynn got eliminated in its next round, up against A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven.

All of the other debuts also got eliminated in the first rounds, in tough match ups. Ivyland, a sardonic book about “drugs, decay, loss” went up against Gilian Flynn’s best selling, Gone Girl, a suspenseful page-turner about a wife who goes missing. Others were defeated by Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Bring Up the Bodies and Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, which I have heard is a beautifully rendered novel; and his seventh book.

The books selected for the tournament are to be some of the best published in 2012. There is no set criteria for how books are chosen, rather nominations come from a variety of sources and are whittled down through conversation by a “decision panel.” It is great to see so many debuts bubbling up to the top of this list, and although there is a satirical quality to this competition, a sort of anti-prize tournament in which the winner gets a live rooster, after nine years the tournament has established itself enough to be presented by Barnes and Noble this year.

And while the debut’s didn’t fare so well, this year’s winner was The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It is the author’s second novel and widely reviewed as one of the best novels of 2012. It’s on my list. I find this tournament an entertaining way to learn about new books and to find books I might have overlooked from the past year.

Next week I am going to start reviewing some debuts just published in the spring of 2013…next up Heart of Palm, by Laura Lee Smith.









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Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil



By Jeet Thayil

Penguin Books, 2012

288 pages

Rashid’s opium den, Shuklaji Street, Bombay. Narcopolis tells the story, over the course of twenty plus years, of Rashid, Dimple, Rumi and Mr. Lee. The main characters are addicts whose days revolve around multiple visits with pipes. Rashid’s family lives above his den. Dimple is a hijra prostitute. Mr. Lee came to Bombay from China and the second part of the book tells his story and the history of the pipes at Rashid’s. Rumi is an addict and a criminal. And a narrator, who also smokes pipes, jumps in and out of the story, spending time at Rashid’s in the late 70s/early 80s, coming back to the area 20 years later to see how the city and culture has changed.

This book fictionalizes a subculture and a period of history. The first and last words of the book are Bombay. It is a novel about a place or way of living, and how the characters’ lives are impacted by their addictions. Dimple’s life story is described more than some of the others and I was drawn to her history and circumstances. This is a beautiful book, but not always an easy one to follow. The point of view jumps around and small characters become a passing focus. But I was very taken with the poetic prose and the world of Rashid’s. The writing reminded me of a combination of Roberto Bolano and Michael Ondaatje – rambling and expansive storytelling, with poetic and precise language.

Thayil is a poet and former addict who has told interviewers he chose the topic for his book because he was “writing what he knew.” The book was shortlisted for the Man Asian prize and the Man Booker prize in 2012. Check out the book cover for the Indian edition. I love this art!





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