Fiction

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Author: Immaculee Ilibagiza

Publisher: Hay House; 2006

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Immaculee Ilibagiza grew up in a country she loved, surrounded by a family she cherished. But in 1994 her idyllic world was ripped apart as Rwanda descended into a bloody genocide. Immaculee’s family was brutally murdered during a killing spree that lasted three months and claimed the lives of nearly a million Rwandans.

Incredibly, Immaculee survived the slaughter. For 91 days, she and seven other women huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor while hundreds of machete-wielding killers hunted for them.

It was during those endless hours of unspeakable terror that Immaculee discovered the power of prayer, eventually shedding her fear of death and forging a profound and lasting relationship with God. She emerged from her bathroom hideout having discovered the meaning of truly unconditional love-a love so strong she was able seek out and forgive her family’s killers.

The triumphant story of this remarkable young woman’s journey through the darkness of genocide will inspire anyone whose life has been touched by fear, suffering, and loss.

The Glass Castle

Author: Jeannette Walls

Publisher: Scribner; 2006

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The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

Gone with the Wind

Author: Margaret Mitchell

Publisher: Scribner; 1936

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Since its original publication in 1936, Gone With the Wind—winner of the Pulitzer Prize and one of the bestselling novels of all time—has been heralded by readers everywhere as The Great American Novel.

Widely considered The Great American Novel, Gone With the Wind explores the depth of human passions with an intensity as bold as its setting in the red hills of Georgia. A superb piece of storytelling, it vividly depicts the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

This is the tale of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, manipulative daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, who arrives at young womanhood just in time to see the Civil War forever change her way of life. A sweeping story of tangled passion and courage, in the pages of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell brings to life the unforgettable characters that have captured readers for over seventy years.

The Secret Life of Bees

Author: Sue Monk Kidd

Publisher: Penguin Books; 2003

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The multi-million bestselling novel about a young girl’s journey towards healing and the transforming power of love, from the award-winning author of The Invention of Wings
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily’s fierce-hearted black “stand-in mother,” Rosaleen, insults three of the deepest racists in town, Lily decides to spring them both free. They escape to Tiburon, South Carolina–a town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sister, Lily is introduced to their mesmerizing world of bees and honey, and the Black Madonna. This is a remarkable novel about divine female power, a story that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.

The Invention of Wings

Author: Sue Monk Kidd

Publisher: Penguin Books; 2015

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Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

A Fine Balance

Author: Rohinton Mistry

Publisher: Emblem Editions; 1997

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A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry’s stunning internationally acclaimed bestseller, is set in mid-1970s India. It tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a “State of Internal Emergency.” Through days of bleakness and hope, their circumstances – and their fates – become inextricably linked in ways no one could have foreseen. Mistry’s prose is alive with enduring images and a cast of unforgettable characters. Written with compassion, humour, and insight, A Fine Balance is a vivid, richly textured, and powerful novel written by one of the most gifted writers of our time.

The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

Author: Lisa See

Publisher: Scribner; 2019

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A novel about female friendship and family secrets on a small Korean island.
Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

Love Anthony

Author: Lisa Genova

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada

Assigned Reading Age: Adult

Subjects: Autism

Love Anthony is yet another great read written by Lisa Genova, author of  Still Alice, Left Neglected and Inside the O’Briens. This time Lisa explores the topic of Autism.

Love Anthony is a tale of two Nantucket women who have recently experienced loss and are questioning life and all they believed in. Olivia and David’s son, Anthony, was diagnosed with Autism at a young age and his life has come to a sudden end.  The stressors have impacted their marriage and they have separated. Olivia has come to Nantucket to grieve and heal. Beth lives in Nantucket and has recently learnt that her husband of 14 years has been unfaithful and she’s now separated and is left alone with three girls. Olivia takes up her love of photography to help her heal and earn a living. She meets Beth and her girls as they come to create a new family portrait. Beth’s passion for writing has rekindled and she writes about a boy with Autism. The two women connect and help each other through the healing process while teaching us what it’s like to be diagnosed with Autism. An eye-opening book that has helped me empathize and learn more about Autism. A must read for adults of all ages!

Hayy ibn Yaqzan

Author: Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185)

Assigned Reading Age: Adult

Subjects: Purpose of live, human nature, purpose of religion, society, morality, spirituality, medieval Islamic philosophy, wisdom

Review:

Coming from an age when perhaps, reading works of fiction would have been frowned upon as an idle pastime and diversion of the mind away from God into frivolous pursuits, comes the first Arabic novel. It is the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, written by the philosopher Abu Bakr ibn Tuafyl. The story takes many of the issues discussed among Muslim philophers of the Middle Ages and presents them in a hypothetical situation: a story about a boy – raised without human contact – on an isolated equatorial island.

In contrast to similar premises found in the plots of Western literature and film, this boy does not grow into a savage creature, his mental development is not incomplete and his progress is not impaired by the absence of society. Rather, in these pristine conditions, the boy follows his own fitra and the demands of his body, develops ways to provide for his daily needs and develops a personal set of ethics to interact with his environment. He philosophizes deeply upon aspects of the world and arrives at an understanding of many things, culminating in an awareness of God.

Eventually he spends nearly all his time in deep meditation upon God and reaches a sublime spiritual state.

In the next part of the story, a pious man from a nearby civilization who is seeking solitude visits the island where Hayy lives and the story tells of how the two interact, become friends, and learn to communicate. The pious man, who appreciates the station of Hayy, convinces him to return to his civilization to be of benefit to society. However, Hayy is not appreciated by the society which cannot see beyond their inherited beliefs, rules and established ways. He eventually returns to the island where he can contemplate God with minimal distraction. This part of the story is particularly interesting in its reflection upon society and the collective mindset.

On the one hand this story provides a profound contemplation on how a human being might develop without the influences of culture and upbringing. On the other hand it uses this tabula rasa case to show where the concepts of philosophy play a role in moving one from ignorance to profound wisdom. Since the details of Hayy’s thought processes may not be easily understood by the modern reader who is unfamiliar with medieval philosophy, a commentary may be helpful.

The story can be a fun way to delve into philsophy via a story, and may help one develop an appreciation for the esoteric aspect of Islamic philosophy. Overall, the premise of the story inspires reflection on the purpose of life, the meaning behind religious teachings, the aim of religious laws, and how religion and society may hamper or aid one’s progress – depending on one’s receptiveness to the truth.

This story was originally written in the 12th Century. It was translated into Latin in 1671.

The book is noteworthy because the themes it discusses and the perspectives it shares are clearly born in a context of Islamic thought with a heavy religious underpinning. Yet the book became a best-seller in Western Europe, and went on to influence important classics of Western literature such as Robinson Crusoe and The Jungle Book. It is a tale that can be appreciated by thinkers everywhere.

There have been multiple translations into English over the years. One recent translation by Lenn Evan Goodman, published by the University Of Chicago Press, is available in the MARC Library. There is also a highly readable select translation and summary by George N. Atiyeh, of the American University of Beirut, which can be found online.

Still Alice

Author: Lisa Genova

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada

Assigned Reading Age: Adult

Subjects: family dynamics, living with an ailment, psychology

Still Alice is an amazing story about a well-educated 50 year old woman’s sudden self-discovery of early onset Alzheimer’s disease; an irreversible disease which destroys brain cells, causing thinking ability and memory to deteriorate.

Alice Howland, a happily married with three grown children, is a celebrated professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. Family members try to support her but it is not always easy.  The author, in remarkable detail, takes us through the struggles of Alice and what it’s like to literally lose your mind.

Inside the O’Briens

Author: Lisa Genova

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada

Assigned Reading Age: Adult

Subjects: family dynamics, living with an ailment, psychology

This is yet another wonderful thought provoking story by Lisa Genova, known for her great work in previous stories such as Still Alice and Left Neglected. In this book, Lisa explores impacts of Huntington’s Disease on a young family.

Joe, a 44 year old, Boston Police officer has started displaying outbursts of anger and some involuntary movements, that he attributes to stress and aging. His diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease (HD) changes his life and that of his wife and 4 children. HD is a neurodegenerative disease with no treatment or cure. It is inherited and each of his children have a 50/50 chance of getting it. A blood test can show if one has the mutated gene and would be symptomatic and develop HD. This book explores the confusion and support family members go through as they come to terms with this diagnosis and try to decide if they would like to take this genetic test to find out if they will get HD or continue with life not knowing what is to come. This story also explores questions around faith in God and looking at disease as a blessing to learn from or a curse.

As in her previous books, Lisa has her audience captivated building empathy for those suffering with HD and knowledge on what this disease can do to those suffering or genetically prone to it. A must read.

The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett

Publisher: Penguin Books

Subjects: Family, Political

If you like meaningful fiction this is one book you should not miss. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett is an amazingly well written book that is difficult to put down. A deeply moving story, the book shows how it is to be a black maid in the 1960s in Mississippi at a time when racial conflict was rife.

The plot is about a white woman who compiles accounts of black maids in complete secrecy. She wants them to show how it feels to be black maids in white households, how they cook the food, clean the house, serve the family and their guests, and raise the children, yet are treated so disgracefully. The risk of the project is great for if they are found out the consequences could be fatal. But the women are determined, using writing to let out the bitterness of their suppressed emotions.

The story revolves around three main characters, each with her own strengths and weaknesses. The characters are excellently portrayed and their lives woven together. It is easy to empathize with them, feel their joy and pain, laugh at their antics and fear for their safety. The story is intense and absorbing.

The author was born in Jackson Mississippi and writes how she also was brought up by a back maid whom she loved. Black maids brought up children who grew closely attached to them, only to grow up and realize the truth about racial segregation. Thus, she lived in a household similar to what she writes about.

A touching book full of humour and insights into the lives of the women of that time. Add it to your list of good reads!

The Kite Runner

Author: Khaled Hosseini

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Subjects: Historical Fiction, Drama

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a story about two childhood friends from Afghanistan. It starts out in California in the present and then goes back in time to a town in Afghanistan where the author beautifully illustrates an unusual – but not unique – friendship between the son of a wealthy man and the son of his father’s servant. These two lead parallel lives in their own social and cultural standing but then come together whenever they can and enjoy the fruit of a loving friendship, especially while flying kites. The fathers approve and support this friendship. However, over time an incident happens that causes the two boys to drift apart until the present time when the true value of their friendship is tested.

Based in Afghanistan the story beautifully showcases the political and social unrest in the country while taking the readers through the lives of these two friends who come from such different backgrounds. Social, cultural, and political issues all come to play in this novel with the atrocities of the Taliban playing a pivotal role in the second half of the book.

The Kite Runner comes highly recommended as it is a captivating read that outlines friendship, love, betrayal, and redemption; it is culturally rich and at the same time gives the reader a portrait of Afghanistan and a glimpse into the lives and workings of the Taliban.