Reviewlets: Around the world

As I’m behind with reviews of books read in 2012, I’m going to accelerate the process and present here briefly 5 books!
The size of the reviews has nothing to do with the value of these books: I actually enjoyed them very much.

They have 1 thing in common: I read them for my 52 countries Reading Challenge:

American Dervish

American Dervish,
by Ayad AKHTAR
Narrated by Ayad AKHTAR
Published by Hachette Audio in 2012
9:28 hours

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page. [Goodreads]


I was impressed by the quality of this book. It sounded very close to real life, to the personal experience of the author, with very true to live characters, set in the context of  the conflict between their country and tradition of origin, Pakistan, and their everyday life in America. The author does not hesitate to address major and hot themes such as religion, and even relationship between Jewish and Muslim. The book contains a neat and warm presentation of the Islam of the heart, if I may use this expression, without anything in common with the Islam mostly presented daily through our media. If you are interested in inter cultural issues, you need to read this book.
The author himself narrates the book, and he does a fantastic job, perfect of course for the accents, including for women, conveying the tenderness of some characters, and the intransigence of others.

house of stone

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
by Anthony Shadid
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 28th 2012
336 pages

In spring 2011, Anthony Shadid was one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya, cuffed and beaten, as that country was seized by revolution. When he was freed, he went home. Not to Boston or Beirut—where he lives— or to Oklahoma City, where his Lebanese-American family had settled and where he was raised. Instead, he returned to his great-grandfather’s estate, a house that, over three years earlier, Shadid had begun to rebuild.

House of Stone is the story of a battle-scarred home and a war correspondent’s jostled spirit, and of how reconstructing the one came to fortify the other. In this poignant and resonant memoir, the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near creates a mosaic of past and present, tracing the house’s renewal alongside his family’s flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. In the process, Shadid memorializes a lost world, documents the shifting Middle East, and provides profound insights into this volatile landscape. House of Stone is an unforgettable meditation on war, exile, rebirth, and the universal yearning for home. [Goodreads]


This book is excellent at evoking the tragic destiny of Lebanon, stuck within conflicts raised by its bigger and more distant neighbors. It felt depressing when I read it, because I knew the author had been killed shortly before the publication of the book, and that he did not have much time to enjoy and share with his family his ancestors’ house he renovated. The book describes with humor and honesty what seems to be common characteristics of the people. This is a must read for anyone interested in what’s going on right now in the Middle East.
It was also hard for me, being French: I remember in the early eighties even going to some meeting in France to help the Lebanon cause – very much supported by the French people. I stopped going to these meetings when the speeches got too violent and scary to my taste, but always kept some tender feelings towards such a small country stuck in so many conflicts beyond them.
This book has just been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards.

bridge of san luis rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
published in 1927
160 pages

This beautiful new edition features unpublished notes for the novel and other illuminating documentary material, all of which is included in a new Afterword by Tappan Wilder.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.

By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition. This new edition of Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning novel contains a new foreword by Russell Banks. [Goodreads]


A bridge. Five people. A collapse. 5 deaths.  Why did these people happen to be on that bridge, at the specific time of the collapse, and died? Did they deserve it? Do they have anything in common? That’s what Brother Juniper tries to figure out, in this very nice and deep short novel. The characters actually have one thing in common: they all knew and interacted with Camila Perichole.
For me, this novel is ultimately about various faces of love, about disinterested love as the only meaning in the world.

Here are some passages I particularly liked:

Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.

Some say that to the gods
we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day,
and some say, on the contrary,
that the very sparrows do not lose a feather
that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
p. 9

He thought he saw in the same accident
the wicked visited by destruction
and the good called early to Heaven…

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
p.148  – last words of the book

Beyond the sky and the earth

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan
by Jamie Zeppa
published in 2000
320 pages

At age 22 Jamie Zeppa, a Canadian who had never been outside of North America, said goodbye to her fiancé and her plans for graduate school and moved to Bhutan, a remote Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is an autobiographical work that details her experiences and transformations after spending three years in Bhutan. It is as much a book about Zeppa’s day-to-day life in Bhutan as it is about the personal awakenings and realizations that she had while living there.
Visitors to Bhutan, an increasingly hot tourist destination, are still few and far between, largely because of tight government restrictions on entry, visa requirements, and a law requiring tourists to spend at least $200 a day there. There aren’t many books on Bhutan, and even fewer first-hand accounts of life there. Beyond the Sky and the Earth stands out as both an informative introduction to the people and culture of Bhutan and as a beautiful piece of travel literature set against the backdrop of one of the most remote and unspoiled places on earth.
Zeppa recounts her experiences living abroad, such as learning to live without electricity and carrying on a forbidden affair with one of her students, in such a compelling way that even someone who has never left home will become entranced by her story and captivated by her unique experiences.
Naturally, Zeppa experienced culture shock when she arrived in Bhutan. The hardships she encountered seemed insurmountable, and at first she thought she couldn’t bear it and fantasized about returning to Canada. She had to learn a new language in order to communicate with her students, she had to learn to live on her own, and she had to learn to deal with homesickness. Perhaps her biggest challenge was learning how to reconcile her growing love for Bhutan with her nostalgia for her life in Canada, her family, and her fiancé. But after living among Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, lush valleys, colorful villages, and friendly people, and after gaining an appreciation for life in a place frozen in time, Zeppa realizes that she feels at home in Bhutan and wants to stay.
Although to Zeppa Bhutan is a magical land, she cautions herself and the reader not to deem it “the last Shangri-La,” as is often done by the lucky travelers who make their way through the red tape required for entry into the kingdom. Bhutan is not without its problems: it is an underdeveloped country plagued by the problems that affect many places cut off from modernity. There is infant mortality, illness, and poverty. There are also domestic and international tensions that stem from the government’s stringent regulations intended to preserve the national culture. Among them are the prohibition of foreign television and a requirement that people wear the national dress, a kira for women and a gho for men.
Few of us will ever get to see the place that was Zeppa’s home. But her narrative is so clear and insightful that you easily feel as though you are sharing this portion of her life with her. Even if you haven’t had the experience of living abroad, or if the prospect of a trip to the furthest reaches of Asia is not in your cards, Zeppa’s book is a worthy read on many levels.
From her powerful use of language to describe the superb beauty of Bhutan’s landscape to her passionate description of her spellbinding relationship with her future husband, Beyond the Sky and the Earth draws readers in and takes them on her rocky ride to self-realization.
When trying to explain to a friend what she finds appealing about Bhutan, Zeppa writes: “It takes a long time to find the true words, to put them in order, to tell the whole story. It is not just this or that, the mountains, the people, it is me and the way I can be here, the freedom to walk unafraid into the great dark night. It is a hundred thousand things and I could never trace or tell all the connections and reflections, the shadows and echoes and secret relations between them.”
But, in fact, Zeppa does tell the reader about these connections and reflections in a lyrical way. After reading the book, you will have a deep understanding, appreciation, and respect for Zeppa’s strength of character and for the wonders of Bhutan.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a delight to read in every way. Zeppa’s beautiful prose, peppered alternately with funny observations and profound soul-searching, is a truly special and unique work that will leave you craving an adventure of your own. [Goodreads]


This is a fabulous synopsis, what else can I add? Except that I really enjoyed how the author presented her inner evolution at the contact of these people, especially the children, and of this beautiful country – I’m talking landscape here; even if it meant walking 5 hours through forests and mountains to be able to visit a friend. It’s remarkable that from first wanted to leave right away and hating the conditions: fleas, cold, poverty, no comfort, she ended up staying longer than planned and even marrying a Bhutanese. This was for me the chance of discovering a country I had not much heard about.

“Let Jacques Derrida come here, I think. Let him stay up half the night scratching flea bites and then deconstruct the kerosene stove before breakfast.”

the far traveler

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman
by Nancy Marie Brown
published in 2007
306 pages

Five hundred years before Columbus, a Viking woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the known world. She landed in the New World and lived there for three years, giving birth to a baby before sailing home. Or so the Icelandic sagas say. Even after archaeologists found a Viking longhouse in Newfoundland, no one believed that the details of Gudrid’s story were true. Then, in 2001, a team of scientists discovered what may have been this pioneering woman’s last house, buried under a hay field in Iceland, just where the sagas suggested it could be. Joining scientists experimenting with cutting-edge technology and the latest archaeological techniques, and tracing Gudrid’s steps on land and in the sagas, Nancy Marie Brown reconstructs a life that spanned—and expanded—the bounds of the then-known world. She also sheds new light on the society that gave rise to a woman even more extraordinary than legend has painted her and illuminates the reasons for its collapse. [Goodreads]


And from Bhutan, I went to Iceland! I knew about the first Vikings on the American continent, but not about Gudrid. This was a fascinating study, touching about archeology, and all kinds of sciences allowing us to figure out who lived where when. It showed a very fierce and powerful woman, her trips and what her daily life could have been.
If you prefer a historical subject on the topic, focused on Gudrid, I have just heard about The Sea Road, by Margaret Elphinstone.



4 thoughts on “Reviewlets: Around the world

  1. Pingback: Around The World in 52 books « Words And Peace

  2. Pingback: 2012-2013: My Audiobook Year | Words And Peace

  3. Pingback: The Satanic Verses: read-along, pre-read discussion | Words And Peace

  4. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: from a nuclear power plant to bird migration | Words And Peace

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