Book Review – “A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam

a-golden-ageIn honour of today’s anniversary of the founding of Bangladesh, I give you — A Golden Age.

A year ago, I wrote about the launch of Tahmima Anam’s first novel, in my “Do I Want to Read Your Book?” series. Now I have accomplished my desire to read the book, and it has fulfilled everything that was promised that evening.

The book provides a bittersweet, personal tale of the events surrounding the creation of Bangladesh, as East Pakistan declared independence form Pakistan and fought for its own identity. While many of the events that befall the main family in the story are fictional, Ms. Anam reached into her personal history to base much of the tale on the life of her own grandmother. The account of everyday existence in the midst of turmoil appears simple at first, yet expands to reveal profound insights into personal identity in the context of family and country.

The events that led to the declaration of independence, and the troubling and frightening times that followed until it was finally achieved, weave almost seamlessly through the lives of the widow Rehana Haque and her two young adult children. While the young people have no doubts whatsoever about their own identity and allegiance, Rehana herself must struggle with hers: is she Bangladeshi, or does she truly belong in Pakistan, on the other side of India to the west, where she was born and grew up?

Rehana’s own trauma from previous losses stunts her and makes her afraid. Yet as she fights to protect her son and daughter — even while they plunge themselves deeply into the war for independence and remove themselves from her protection — she begins to fight also for herself. And as Bangladesh achieves its own identity, through tragedy, loss, and victory, she finds a way to recreate herself, both as a person and as a citizen of the new country.

A Golden Age does not get bogged down in the fine details of the politics and history of the war, but it does reveal them to the reader through the eyes of people who lived it all: the ideals, the betrayals, the battles, and the ultimate victory. The book is a story of exuberance, struggle, maturity, and identity — not just in the life of a newly-born country, but in the lives of the real people who gave birth to it.

[To read chapter one of this book online, visit the Shortcovers entry for A Golden Age.]

“The Book of Lies” by Brad Meltzer

bookoflies_smWho could resist a story that links Jerry Siegel’s creation of Superman with the first murder in history – the legendary Cain and Abel story? Brad Meltzer’s The Book of Lies makes that link, in a thriller with an intriguing premise that sweeps you along at a non-stop pace almost from the first.

Cal Harper, a young man who helps homeless people get off the streets, faces his own demons as he encounters his father 19 years after the man went to prison for being responsible for the death of his wife, Cal’s mother. But Lloyd Harper has become involved in a mildly shady deal that soon ensnares Cal as well, mushrooming into a quest for the ancient weapon that Cain used to kill Abel, at the beginning of human history.

Legendary weapons constitute a significant theme in this book, for the gun used to kill Superman-creator Siegel’s father, Mitchell, is also used to wound Lloyd Harper 75 years later. That gun, like Cain’s original weapon, has become almost an instrument of ritual, used in a revival of another primal theme. As Ellis Belasco, the villain of the piece, thinks to himself, “Of course. It had to come back to father and son. Just as it began with Adam and Cain. Just as it was with Mitchell and Jerry Siegel. It was the same when he’d first heard the truth about his own family – the lifelong lie his father had told him.”

The father-son theme or, more properly, the parent-child, weaves through the book as we discover in almost all the characters’ lives the fallout from parental loss, abuse, and abandonment. Yet Naomi, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who begins hunting both Ellis and the fleeing Cal and Lloyd, provides the balance in that equation: a parent whose first concern is the safety and security of her adopted son. Her love for the boy, and even Cal’s own work on the streets, offer a promise of redemption to counteract the tragedies.

The book isn’t perfect, of course. The occasional thing did feel a bit implausible. Would all the characters really always have deciphered the clues leading to the next step quite so quickly? It’s possible that they all actually were that good, but you did raise your eyebrows now and then. Still, it was always fun to see who would ambush whom, at the next step of the chase.

The discovery of the hard-sought documents, and the drama of the revelation of the shadowy person pulling strings behind the scene, lead finally to a sweet and moving conclusion as all themes in this book gather together at last. Yet the Big Truth at the end, the secret of the ages, is something of a letdown, a bit of a platitude.

But that’s not a flaw in this book, as such; it’s a problem with any book whose plot involves the Eternal Verities. Because the truly transcendent, legendary truths are so infinite and indescribable that, well, they’re indescribable. So while the grand human truth at the end of this book is indeed profound, by its (and our) very nature, it can’t live up to its advance PR. The Eternal Verities remain just out of our reach.

But the Verities aside, the story is a rather mad race from Miami to Cleveland and finally to Marina del Rey, California, creating an intriguing puzzle as you try to discern just who are the bad guys, and who are the good. And how the Book of Lies relates to, of all things, comic books.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who reads this genre, and even for those who (like me), often don’t. And for something extra, check out Brad Meltzer’s website, explore all the great goodies (there are a lot of them) connected with this book, visit his blog, find out about his favourite causes — be inspired.

“The Secret” by Beverly Lewis: this is what a “Christian novel” should be

"The Secret," by Beverly Lewis

My review in a nutshell? I loved this book.

I had read the blurb, so I knew a little of what would develop in Beverly Lewis’s latest Amish novel, The Secret, due out in April. But having this foreknowledge or not, I’d have kept reading. The action in the book was pretty low key, but that’s what you’d expect, since the plot features an Amish family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Yet the story was sweet without being saccharine, a tale of a culture — personified by Grace Byler, the main character — that values community, good food, hearty work, and decent living.

I couldn’t put it down. Despite the rather strict rules in this community, you recognize the complexity of the relationships and the depths of the people’s feelings. And yes, you also see the difficulty these rules put the folk in, when their teaching against being preoccupied with “self” collides with a genuine crisis where they need, most of all, to be comforted.

You become truly interested in the members of the Byler family, wondering how they will cope with the crisis that strikes them, centred on their mother’s secret, and how they’ll choose their futures. The Amish way of life is presented not so much as “old fashioned” as it is simpler, more willing to share others’ joys and burdens than the one we readers come from. Reading about this community, you never feel condescending toward it. There might even be a little envy.

The book follows two plotlines: the main one, with Grace and her Amish family, and another featuring Heather, a young woman from the “outside” world, who faces a troubling medical diagnosis. At first these plots seem completely unrelated (apart from interesting parental parallels). But the stories finally begin to intersect near the end of the book, and you realize that they are going to intertwine more and more deeply.

But not in this book, not yet. Because I discovered, at the end, that this is only the first in a new series for Lewis: the “Seasons of Grace.” It’s a measure of her accomplishment that when I realized that the story will continue into other books, my first thought was, “Oh no, we have to wait to find out what happens now??”

I already can’t wait for the next book in this series. And having discovered Beverly Lewis and her novels, I want to read more. Although Lewis is a Christian novelist, the Christianity, in The Secret at least, was not preachy or in your face. The story of the people themselves was first and foremost, and never used as an excuse to sermonize or condemn.

Meanwhile, I have “a secret” of my own: my Mennonite ancestors moved up to Canada a century or so ago — from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The way this lovely region and its people were presented in the story made me feel the way Heather feels: that some day I must spend some time there, even if it’s just to walk and breathe.