Set in 1829 and based on a true story, Burial Rites follows the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was executed in Iceland. Having been convicted of murdering her former master, Natan, Agnes is sent to an isolated farm to await her execution. The family who owns the farm is horrified by this turn of events. Jón Jónsson, the farmer, is resigned to the family’s role, but his wife, Margret, is furious at being forced to risk their daughters’ safety by housing such a woman. As Agnes awaits her execution, she has selected a young priest named Tóti to be her spiritual adviser; no one knows why she has selected such an inexperienced person for the task, especially since she has no previous ties to him.
Margret puts Agnes to work around the farm, keeping a strict and watchful eye on her every move. Agnes willingly and ably follows orders, stopping only when Tóti comes by for their sessions together. Haltingly, Agnes’s life story begins to take shape, and the truth behind her involvement in Natan’s death begins to emerge.
Greetings from Dubai! I was here last month but didn’t get to post this because I was too busy sightseeing during the few hours I had during my layover. Now I’m here again, slowly making my way back home. Today’s book is by Maha Gargash, who was born and currently lives in Dubai. This is her second book.
Majed Naseemy is the controlling patriarch of an esteemed Emirati family living in Dubai. Years ago, he tricked his brother into signing over his share of their growing agriculture company. His brother died soon after, and many whisper that Majed’s betrayal is what killed him. Now, the family lives in great wealth. Majed has taken responsibility for his brother’s daughter, Mariam, who is studying in Cairo. He also has a daughter, Dalal, from a secret marriage. The family refuses to acknowledge her, and her recent stint on Nights of Dubai, an American Idol-type show, has infuriated her father, who sees such entertainers as low class. Dalal now lives in Cairo with her mother; she’s trying to get her music career off the ground.
Though Majed forbids them from interacting, Mariam and Dalal are close friends. Neither of them have a good relationship with Majed, but he tries to control their every move just the same, going so far as to employ goons to spy on them. The two girls are strikingly different . No matter how much she despises her uncle, Mariam is obedient and always conscious of how her image in public may be interpreted by fellow Emirati; her worst nightmare is being seen doing something improper and having people back home find out. Dalal is the complete opposite; she’s hot-headed and outgoing, and she and her mother openly defy Majed no matter how aggressive or extreme his reactions might be.
Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia! I’m on vacation! I read this book in preparation for my trip, and although we’ll only be here until tomorrow afternoon, my friend and I have been sightseeing all day with a guide and have talked about some of the things in this book (namely, Emperor Selassie). My friend and I are already regretting not making the Ethiopian part of the trip longer. Oh well. Today’s author, Maaza Mengiste, was born in Addis Ababa; she now lives in New York. This is her first novel.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze is set in Addis Ababa at the start of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. There are rumblings of discontent throughout the country and a war to the north with Eritrea. Life is getting harder, people in rural areas are starving, and curfews are in effect. Students are speaking out against Emperor Haile Selassie, who in turn is brutally tamping down on their protests. The Marxist Derg, at first with the support of students, is doing its best to overthrow the government and the class system.
Amidst all this strife is a doctor named Hailu who is still reeling from his wife’s recent death. His eldest son, Yonas, and his family live with Hailu; Yonas lives a very cautious life and spends much of his time praying for the violence to end. The youngest son, Dawit, lives with the family as well, though he’s rarely home. He’s a student who is eager to join in the fight against the government’s injustice, though Yonas constantly sneers that Dawit has no idea what he’s talking about. Dawit’s subversive movements aren’t just dangerous to him; any little slip-up can put the entire family at risk.
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
What it is: Microbes make up 90% of our bodies and help keep us healthy. However, with the twentieth century diet, we’ve also seen a rise in twentieth century diseases. Collen, a biologist, conveys some of the latest research charting the roles microbes may play in common modern health issues.
Why I read it: I was interested in learning more about microbiomes.
What I thought: Collen does an excellent job of conveying a lot of information in an accessible and engaging way. The book is fascinating and kind of scary; the chapters that center around autism and childbirth are particularly alarming. That said, she also takes a common sense approach in the advice she gives should you decide to try to mend your own microbiome. And the coolest project I heard about? You can DNA sequence your poop to get a picture of what your gut bacteria looks like. Is it TMI to say I’m all about that idea?
Wit by Margaret Edson
Publisher/Year: Faber & Faber, 1999
What it is: A Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an esteemed poetry professor, Dr. Vivian Bearing, who is dying of ovarian cancer. Feared and revered by her students, she’s known for coldly holding everyone to the highest standards. She agrees to brutal experimental treatments to fight her Stage IV cancer, and as she becomes the subject at the teaching hospital, she’s left to reflect on her own past interactions with people.
Why I read it: I saw the HBO adaptation several years ago and have always wanted to read the original play.
What I thought: Even though I already knew what would happen, this was still an emotionally brutal book for me. I think it hit me even more since I was also listening to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air at the time; the two books have closely related subject matter. Vivian’s reflections and regrets in the way she related to people are poignant; there are parallels in the way she treated her students and the way her doctors are now treating her. As her end draws near, she has to confront many of her values and ideas about the purpose of her life. It’s devastating.
Fereiba is dealt a cruel twist of fate at birth: her mother dies in labor, and although her father eventually remarries, Fereiba is never truly welcomed by her stepmother. It’s a bit of a Cinderella situation; her stepsisters are doted on and sent to school while Fereiba is kept at home and taught to serve. It’s only by her sheer force of will that moves up in the world, and then her fortunes truly turn when she meets the love of her life, Mahmoud, a man who treats her as his equal and whose family respects her.
While their family lives a comfortable middle-class life in Kabul, trouble is brewing in other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban is rising to power and people are fleeing the country in droves. Fereiba and Mahmoud don’t realize the error of staying until it’s too late, and their lives change drastically once the Taliban reaches Kabul and imposes their new fundamentalist regime. With two children and another baby on the way, they make plans to flee, but as a government employee, Mahmoud is targeted and murdered by the Taliban. Now, it’s up to Fereiba to escape and get her children safely to London. They manage to stay together part of the way but end up being separated in Greece; at that point, her oldest son must figure out how to get to London on his own.