Neshama’s Choices for April 8th

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Behind You Is the Sea by Susan Muaddi Darraj

This book presents interlocking short stories about Palestinian immigrants in Baltimore. Three families, one rich, and we get the inside dope on their conceits and foibles from others who work for them in their homes and at their businesses. The older generation doesn’t understand the perspective of the more assimilated kids, and there are many confusions and conflicts between them. In one story, Aladdin's high school play brings up, unfortunately, Arab stereotypes. Layla, a student with a scientific bent, is charged with creating the floating carpet, but in a surreptitious act, she destroys the ingenious mechanism she created. Many insights about Palestinian culture and attitudes, yet the material is the universal stuff of life. Illuminating.

The Sun Sets in Singapore by Kehinde Fadipe

At first, I read this as a “movie between covers,” which is my term for a bonbon book.  But when I postponed my hike to finish it in one sitting, I realized there was lots of meat amid the flash. Three women with Nigerian roots are struggling in various ways in this opulent city. Dara is an ambitious lawyer bound for partnership until her boss brings in a male counterpart as a rival. Amaka, a bank trader, can’t stop buying luxury goods, though her own bank account is dwindling. Lillian, who was raised in America, has a dicey marriage with fertility issues. The three get together in a book club, and on a girl’s trip to Bali, havoc ensues. All end up sadder but wiser. The author is also an actor and playwright, which may account for the over-the-top action.

Happiness Falls by Angie Kim

Angelman Syndrome, along with symptoms of motor difficulties and inability to speak, renders those diagnosed as very happy. (Ironic—huh?) That’s young Eugene’s condition. But when he comes back from the park, all messed up, and by himself, his family is baffled and then deeply concerned because Eugene’s dad, who’d gone with him, would never desert his youngest son. The police get involved, but it’s a dead end, though suspicion falls on Eugene. His 20-year-old sister Mia does most of the digging. Ultimately, when she finds the right teacher, Eugene can finally “speak” through technology, and the mystery is solved. The family is of mixed race (her mother is Korean), which adds cultural complexity. Delightful Mia is endlessly curious about science, music, and literature, all of which she uses in her inquiries. Even The Little Prince gets into it—the story echoes some of the paradoxical elements of the syndrome. It is a lively, intriguing, and touching read.

Martyr! By Kavel Akbar

Cyrus is a college dropout still hanging around campus, fitfully writing poems but mostly addicted to drink and drugs. He’s obsessed with martyrs throughout history, fueled in part by his mother’s death on a plane that was accidentally shot down in 1988 by the US government, and by his uncle’s bizarre role in the Iranian army. He rode on horseback through the battlefield dressed in angelic garb to discourage dying soldiers from killing themselves, which is proscribed by their religion. The book is woven through with Middle-Eastern folklore and mysticism. Cyrus even bears the last name of Rumi’s spiritual teacher, Shams. Somehow, all these elements hang together, develop propulsion, and end with a sense of completion and accomplishment. Amazing!