Archive for the ‘G. Willow Wilson’ Category

What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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I picked up a few books just before I left for Europe, all of which I am very excited about:

Three Houses by Angela Thirkell – I haven’t read this yet but I am very much looking forward to Thirkell’s memoir of the homes where she grew up.  It sounds rather like the sort of book Slightly Foxed might have eventually gotten around to publishing if Allison and Busby hadn’t gotten there first.

In these beautifully nostalgic memoirs, eminent author Angela Thirkell recalls in rich detail the three houses in which she grew up and the childhood memories their walls contain. Focusing first on ‘The Grange’, where her grandfather, the celebrated Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, set the cultivated tone, Thirkell also reminisces over her parents’ home in Kensington Square and the Burne-Jones seaside retreat, where Angela’s cousin, Rudyard Kipling, lived across the green. Her elaborate portraits of the three houses and the lives within provide an invaluable insight into late Victorian life, while the personal recollections of Thirkell’s famous grandfather reveal a loving family man behind the renown.

The Harold Nicolson Diaries, 1907-1964 edited by Nigel Nicolson – I have been wanting this for ages and finally broke down and bought it.  Only my concern over damaging the paperback cover prevented me from taking it along to Europe with me.  Once I’m back, you can bet this is what I’ll be picking up first.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – I borrowed this from the library, read it the same day, and then went out the next day to buy my own copy.  That is how much I adored this extraordinary fantasy novel.  I am already looking forward to reading it again and you can be certain that it will be high up on my “Best of 2013” list.

Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.

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“I had been raised an atheist but was never very good at it,” G. Willow Wilson remarks near the beginning of The Butterfly Mosque, a beautifully clear-sighted memoir of an American woman’s conversion to Islam and her life in Egypt, adjusting to her new faith, her new husband, and her new, increasingly conservative, fundamentalist country. 

Having grown up in a passionately secular household, I could immediately identify with Wilson’s family’s position on religion:

God was taboo in my parents’ house; we were educated, and educated people don’t believe in nonsense.  Both of my parents came from conservative Protestant families.  They left their churches during the Vietnam era, sick of the racist warmongering peddled from the pulpits.  To them, God was a bigoted, vengeful white man.  Refusing to believe in him was not just scientifically correct, it was morally imperative. (P. 7)

Indeed, my upbringing and personal inclinations made it easy not only to recognize her family’s attitude, but also her feelings as she is increasingly drawn to Islam, both before and after 9/11.  To convert before those attacks would have been difficult enough for Wilson but in the days and months following 9/11 it felt like an impossible betrayal.  Still, she knew that all she was doing was delaying the inevitable.  It wasn’t until Wilson graduated from University and took the opportunity to teach at an English school in Cairo that she was able to fully accept her faith and find both peace and love. 

I feel like this is the book I’ve been waiting for since 2001.  Among the stunning glut of books that have been published since then dealing with relations between the east and west, I can’t think of any so level-headed.  As confident as she is in her decision, Wilson still struggles with the distance between cultures, with the fear and misgivings that fill that gap.  Even as she’s falling in love with Omar, a fellow teacher at the English school, she keeps remembering the alarmist tales of Middle Eastern men that she’s been exposed to in the West:

It disturbed me that I couldn’t unlump Omar from the faceless mass of Middle Eastern men I had been taught to fear.  In the back of my mind was a lesson I’d learned watching the movie Not Without My Daughter and reading horror stories in women’s magazines: they always seem like nice guys.  It’s only after you’ve gotten involved that you discover the honour-killing wife-imprisoning fundamentalist reality beneath the façade.  Were there layers of Omar’s personality I couldn’t see?  The possibility made me hesitant.  (p. 43)

Wilson’s observations of interactions between Westerns and Cairenes are insightful and not terribly sympathetic to either side.  Wilson’s comments in the following two passages were particularly interesting:

…almost always arrived with the best intentions.  They want to learn, to see behind the stereotypes they were presented with on television.  They are willing, they think, to follow unfamiliar rules, though they can’t really agree to a contract they’ve never seen.  They come here and find that many of the stereotypes they don’t want to believe are perfectly true… (P. 215)

…westerners from the most liberal backgrounds, whose beliefs are tolerant and broadminded, find themselves unable to function in a society that requires them to live so conservatively and in such limited circumstances.  They are forced to revert to the ruling-race social tactics they hate in order to get by, and then hate the Egyptians for making them hate themselves.  This is the heart of the clash of civilizations: not the hatred of the Other, but the self-hatred produced by the Other.  This is what makes hatred so easy to propagate, and so difficult to counter even for those who question its authenticity.  (p. 146-147)

Wilson has a refreshing, appealing, centrist view, one that should be more accessible to the average reader than many of the other modern perspectives on Islam (generally one extreme or another).  She does a wonderful job of separating her religion and its great personal appeal from the various extreme versions espoused by certain groups and nations – versions which receive dedicated alarmist coverage in the American media.  Wilson remains open to Egyptian culture, but is not naïve about her adopted country’s political inclinations.  As a journalist, she has the opportunity to meet with some fascinating Islamic leaders, both male and female, making this more than a simply personal memoir.

This both is and is not a book about Islam.  If you’re looking to learn more about the faith, I’d recommend trying elsewhere (I’ve heard excellent things about No God But God by Reza Aslan).  However, if you’re looking for a book about both the personal experience of converting and being an obvious foreigner in an Islamic country, there’s nothing I could recommend more highly.  Wilson is understanding of all viewpoints and far more rational than parties on either the right or the left when it comes to considering the barriers between societies.  All in all, this is one of the few books about religion that I would feel comfortable recommending to everyone, regardless of their political or religious inclinations.

Sidenote: While I was reading this, Tony Blair wrote an article for The Guardian discussing the Faith Shorts competition run by his Faith Foundation.  I was really impressed by the goals of this project and I’ve included an excerpt from the article as well as one of the excellent entries: 

Faith is an incredibly powerful force and as globalisation pushes us closer together, it is more important than ever. It is the lens through which many hundreds of millions of people view our complex and diverse world. Technology and modern media are bringing those from other faiths and cultures together faster than ever before. Too often, young people hear a distorted view of other faith traditions. To be religiously illiterate in this world is foolish and dangerous.

We saw this film competition as an opportunity for young people to share, in their own words, what their faith means to them. We hoped their personal stories would help increase understanding between the main faiths, break down stereotypes and show a more positive face of religion. I think it was particularly interesting for young Muslims to present to a western audience what their faith means to them, and in so doing correct some of the misapprehensions and misunderstandings that exist around Islam.

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