The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

Nonfiction — print. Beacon Press, 2015. 251 pgs. Review copy courtesy of LibraryThing.

Subtitled “An Intimate History of Pakistan”, Zakaria’s book opens with the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which occurred while her own family was anxiously awaiting news about the health status of her uncle by marriage, Sohail. This moment of inner conflict – how do you offer praise for the health of a relative whilst simultaneously mourning the loss of a leader and political stability? – demonstrates how entwined Pakistani history is with Zakaria’s family history, and the author continues to maintain this close alignment as the narrative jumps back in time to the partition of India in 1947.

In 1962, Zakaria’s Muslim-Indian grandparents and parents immigrated to Karachi, Pakistan from Bombay committed to the founding of a Muslim state and afraid to remain in predominantly Hindu India. They along with millions of other Muslim immigrants were viewed with suspicion by the earlier inhabitants of the new Pakistan, and the city of Karachi was quickly subdivided into enclaves based on ethnolinguistic groups and a class system established in India.

But while the family begins to prosper in their new community, East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) wants to separate from the newly formed Pakistan setting off both a new wave of immigration and political instability with Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the center of the conflict.  This conflict strengthen resolve within the political apparatus of the country to establish a “true” Islamic Republic and, by the 1980s, the military dictators who executed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto began an Islamization campaign to legitimize their seizure of power.

This campaign allowed Zakaria’s uncle by marriage to practice polygamy, which is permissible for up to four wives by Islam, and take a second wife. Her family is deeply shaken by this change as none of them practiced polygamy or associated with people who do, and her Aunt Amina fled to the family home in protest refusing to grant his husband permission to take another wife, which is required in Islam.

However, Uncle Sohail refuses to divorce Aunt Amina and for her to seek a divorce is not only not permissible under Pakistan’s shariah law but is considered to be more scandalous than Sohail’s decision to take another wife. (There is also a suggestion that his decision is understandable given the couple’s lack of children, although the second marriage is said to occur because Sohail was in love with the younger woman.)

Thus, Aunt Amina becomes “the upstairs wife” relocated to the newly built second floor of her home so her husband’s new wife can move into the first floor. And as ever-more restrictive religious edicts are passed, Aunt Amina becomes further and further confined to the upstairs section of her home. Only by looking out from her window can she look out onto the city and see the changes occurring in Pakistan; only by looking into her window can we see how Pakistani politics and history impacts the personal creating a life that stymies women and reduces to their lives to ones far below expectation.

The book is structured almost like one would expect to find a diary with the date written at the top of each entry and short passages infused with emotion. And, for the most part, the intermingling of the family’s history with the country’s history works remarkably well. The reader can understand the cause and effect so-called “big picture” changes have on the intimate workings of one person’s life.

Occasionally, the family’s narrative would become lost amongst the over archiving history (or vice versa) with multiple entries devoted to detailing the political or geographical changes. Emotions would be clipped in favor of more academic entries. And when the vice versa would occur, details would be missing so it was difficult to tease out how interfamily squabbling was related to national squabbling. There were only two moments were I felt this was glaringly apparent, but it threw off the flow of the narrative and I had to either backtrack or skip ahead to reground myself in the narrative.

Still, the intimacy promised in the subtitle exists throughout much of the book. The final moments when Amina wanted to relinquish her status as the “upstairs wife” unexpectantly moved to me to tears and alluded Zakaria’s decision to leave Pakistan and avoid an arranged marriage, which she mentions in her author bio but leaves out from the text. More importantly, I felt like I walked away with a larger understanding of Pakistani history than I possessed before as well as a desire to seek about more information about this particular country.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Caroline Lee. Penguin Audio, 2014. 16 hours. Library copy.

Twenty-four year old, single mother Jane has decided to relocate with her five-year-old son, Ziggy, to the oceanside community of Pirriwee, Australia. Ziggy is excited to start kindergarten at Pirriwee Public, but Jane is apprehensive about how well her son will adjust and, even more so, about how well received she will be received by members of the “Blonde Bob”, a caddy group of mothers who seemingly run the school.

On the way to kindergarten orientation in December, Jane ends up assisting forty-year-old Madeline after the later twists her ankle and both she and Ziggy quickly become friends with Madeline and Madeline’s daughter, Zoe, respectively. And Madeline quickly defends Jane and Ziggy after Renata, a high-powered executive idolized by some mothers at Pirriwee Public, demands Ziggy apologize for choking her five-year-old daughter, Amabella. Ziggy says he did not hurt Amabella, and Jane refuses to make her son apologize for something he did not do.

That refusal earns Jane the score of the kindergarten mums at Pirriwee Public, especially after Amabella begins coming home with bruises and bite marks. The community is split along those circulating a petition calling for Ziggy to be suspended and those – namely, Madeline and a mother to twin boys named Celeste – who stand by Jane’s assertion that her son is innocent, and the conflict ultimately concludes with a murder during Pirriwee Public’s casino fundraiser for parents.

If that last statement caused you eyebrows to rise in confusion and/or alarm, I can assure you that the murder is merely the hook to pull the reader into the story. The main narrative concerns itself with Ziggy’s guilt or innocence and whether or not his behavior is the fault of nature (his absentee father) or nurture (Jane) while also examining Celeste’s picture perfect marriage and exploring Madeline’s complex feelings towards the ex-husband who walked out on her while their daughter was three weeks old and now has a daughter in the same kindergarten class as Zoe and Ziggy.

The only reminders that this is an active murder investigation are the short interviews from minor characters, which are unfortunately not labeled as such by the audiobook’s narrator. And other questions about the lives of these three mothers – Who is Ziggy’s father? How will Madeline accept Abigail’s decision to move in with her father? Why does Celeste stay? – are the primary concern of both the reader and the writer. The murder is merely the nicely tied bow of an ending I’ve come to associate with Moriarty’s writing. Sounds odd, yes, but it’s the best way to describe why a murder is even included in this tale.

After all the problems I had with Moriarty’s previous novel, more than a few members of my book club were surprised to see me show up for a discussion on another one of her novels. Yet most of my issues stemmed from the content of the novel rather than the writing itself and curiosity got the best of me. While there were so similarities between this book and her previous one – strangulation, murder, motherhood, broken relationships – I felt she handled these issues in a more mature, if I can use that word, manner. The evil in the world expressed in this novel is never forgiven, never glossed over, and never excused away.

This book does provide one of the most compelling arguments for never having children, though. And it has nothing to do with the children in the novel and everything to do with the way these parents treat one another. I told a close friend to, please, smack me upside the head if I ever reach the point in my life where my biggest concern is that another mother lost the class stuffed animal.

Some of the characters have very real problems in their lives, but they are so concerned about how other parents will view them that they hide those problems behind smoke and mirrors. Or, they viciously attack one another presumably to make themselves feel better. Seems like a terribly unhealthy and unhappy way to live, although it did help to contribute to the mystery surrounding who the victim could be.

As for Moriarty’s writing, I loved everything about it – the well-crafted dialog, the thoughtfully expressed emotions that made my blood boil and my chest ache – until the end when a backstory for a character largely marginalized by the story was suddenly provided. Her need for a neatly wrapped bow of ending knocked the book down slightly in my estimation and felt incredibly rushed for how much detail she put into the rest of the book to craft her tale.

Caroline Lee is quickly becoming one of my favorite audiobook narrators. There is something so comforting about her voice, which helps balance out of the darkness Moriarty explores her novel, and it was rather pleasurable to listen to the audiobook in the two days between it appearing on the hold shelf for me at the library and my book club’s meeting.

Sunday Salon: Currently in March

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Wintering | New England was slammed by four terrible winter storms in three weeks so I’ve been “wintering” a lot – staying inside, drinking hot tea, working from home, and reading or watching television. Getting anywhere has been next to impossible thanks to an often closed public transit network, but I did manage to go cross-country skiing twice and snowshoeing once so all this snow hasn’t been a total loss.

Visiting | The newly renovated second floor of my public library opened last weekend. I missed the grand opening and tours due to an earlier commitment, but I did stop by after work one day and, oh my word, is it beautiful. The new children’s library is so bright and colorful, and the teen room actually makes me wish I was in high school again so I could hang out there. The picture above is of the teen room, but you can see more detailed photographs here and get a better sense of how drastic the changes were. So long drab 1970s, protest architecture!

Reading | I’m slowly but surely making my way through Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which follows a Hungarian Jew named Andras Lévi to architecture school in Paris in the years before Hitler’s invasion of France. Andras becomes involved in an affair with an older woman, and…that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I also started Berlin Noir by the British author Philip Kerr. This collection of detective novels set in 1930s Germany includes March Violets, The Pale Criminal, and A German Requiem.

Listening | Unfortunately, none of the audiobooks I have loaded on my iPod are holding my attention. I’ve jumped from The Iliad by Homer (read by Stanley Lombardo and Susan Sarandon) to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (read by Jenna Lamia and Adepero Oduye) to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (read by Jim Dale). Yet nothing has kept me enthralled for more than an hour or two (yes, even Harry Potter!). The podcast “Serial” earned a lot of buzz towards the end of 2014, and listening to it instead of audiobooks has opened up a bit of a rabbit hole in my listening — “Freakonomics”, “ShondaLand Revealed”, “Stuff You Missed in History Class”, and “The History of Rome”. Some informative; some not so much.

Participating | March is the final month of the TBR Double Dog Dare. I haven’t made as much progress on clearing off my shelves as I would have liked. Only seven of the twenty books I’ve read have come from my (physical) shelves and the rest have either been audiobooks or for my book club(s). Knowing full well that I’ve scaled back my reading in the past two months, I’d like to hit a total of ten physical books read by the end of the March before I allow myself to take home library books again.

Anticipating | Spring. Or, the end of the TBR Double Dog Dare so I can explore the second floor of the library. I’ll also be unveiling readalong plans for Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery later in the week so keep a lookout for it!

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Random House Audio, 2000. 11 hours, 48 minutes. Library copy.

Third-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are allowed to visit Hogsmeade, a town that looks like it came right out of a Christmas card, provided they have permission slips signed by their parents or guardian, of course. Uncle Vernon refuses to sign Harry’s permission slip after a disastrous incident where Harry Potter inflates Aunt Marge, but Harry figures the permission slip is the least of his worries since underage wizards are expressly forbidden from performing magic and he is now a runaway.

Picked up by the Night Bus and delivered to Diagon Alley, Harry assumes the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is there to expel him and revoke his wand. Fudge, however, seems relieved to see Harry telling him not worry about the incident and making him promise to stick to Diagon Alley until term begins out of fear that Sirius Black, loyal follower of Lord Voldemort who managed the impossible feat of escaping from Azkaban, will kill the Boy Who Lived.

The whole of the wizarding world is on edge over Black’s escape – dementors have been stationed at Hogwarts, quidditch matches and trips to Hogsmeade are cautiously held, Harry’s scar is hurting him even though Voldemort is nowhere near him. Ron’s parents, Molly and Arthur Weasley, are unsure if they should stick to Fudge’s plan of keeping Harry in the dark or tell him that Sirius Black was Lily and James Potter’s best friend and Harry’s godfather before he betrayed them to the Dark Lord. And although Harry seems oddly affected by the dementors’ presence, everyone assumes him will be safe at Hogwarts making the fact that Black manages to break into Gryffindor tower all the more terrifying.

Once again, Hogwarts has a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher named Remus Lupin, who just so happens to also be a friend of Harry’s late father. He also has the distinct of being the first competent and liked (at least by Harry, Hermione, and Ron) Dark Arts teacher in the series and becomes a comforting figure for Harry throughout the book. For some reason, Lupin never made much of an impression on me the first time I read this book – maybe because so much of my attention was focused on the mystery surrounding Sirius Black – but I found his story rather captivating this time around. Prejudice affects more than just house elves and Muggle-born witches and wizards in this world.

The introduction of Lupin allows Harry to learn more about the kind of person his father was and allows the reader to learn more about how Voldemort rose to power expanding upon the introduction to the individual provided by the previous book to explain how He Who Must Not Be Named expanded his influence over minions like Wormtail, how Voldemort is still able to extend his reach when most the wizarding community believe him to be dead. I find there something both haunting and exciting about the way Harry’s scar links the two of them together and links the past to the present. The latter of which is explored through Hermione’s time turner and the importance it plays in saving both Hagrid’s beloved hippogriff and Sirius.

Although this book is the point in the series where the story takes a much darker tone, I was struck by how Rowling’s manages to maintain Harry’s innocence and age throughout the novel. A madman, a murderous wizard is on the loose determined to kill him yet Harry seems more affected by the fact that he cannot visit Hogsmeade with his friends on the weekend. The dementors affect Harry in a peculiar way no one else experiences yet Harry almost entirely focused on the possibility that the Gryffindor quidditch team won’t win the cup this year. A rather clever way of reminding the reader of how young Harry is and how children are impacted by war and violence in different ways than adults; a rather clever way of allowing young readers to connect with a character facing an unimaginable experience.

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Nonfiction — print. Crown, 2014. 350 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan”, Nordberg’s book introduces readers to families who have made the decision to raise their daughters as bacha posh (“dressed up like a boy” in Dari). These young girls are raised as boys and, therefore, allowed to travel freely outside the home, attend school, work, and play with other children unlike females of all ages.

As Nordberg explains, because Afghanistan is a patriarchal society and biology is poorly understood, women who fail to produce male children are, at best, criticized and pitied or, at worst, abused and divorced. Some women such as Azita, a female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, raise their youngest daughter as bacha posh in order to save face in their community or to provide their elder daughters with protection to and from school. Others do so because of a belief in a particular strain of magic, which Afghanistan’s obstetricians and mullahs equally support, remaining from the country’s history with Zoroastrianism that says a daughter raised bacha posh will cause the next child to be a boy.

While there are no statistics to explain how wide spread this unique phenomenon is in Afghanistan, Nordberg managed to meet with multiple girls, women, and mothers of varying ages who were either raised bacha posh or are raising their own daughters as boys through the life cycle of a typical Afghani female. Mehran, Azita’s daughter, seems to revel in her freedom as a bacha posh; she plays games with unrelated, male children in the neighborhood and is much louder and freer with her opinions than her three older sisters are allowed to be.

However, she is adamant that she is a boy rather than a girl leaving both Nordberg and the reader to wonder if Mehran will struggle with the transition back to womanhood as much as Zahra, a teenager who rejects her mother’s attempts to force her to wear a hijab, continues to wear clothing designated as male, and categorically loathes the parts of her body that are decidedly not male.

If Zahra is transgender, her childhood as bacha posh does not transition onto to adulthood. She is expected to conform to the constrictive standards for young women now that she has reached puberty, and her community, which like others did not comment on her bacha posh childhood, has begun to exclude her and tarnish her reputation possibly ruining her changes of making an advantageous marriage.

However, even if Zahra decides she is cisgender or her father refuses to continue to support her as a bacha posh, she might follow in the footsteps of Shukria and struggle to adjust marriage and motherhood after living twenty years as a man. Time as bacha posh provided Shukria with access to an education allowing her to support her family after her marriage, but I found it incredibly telling that Shukria is adamant that she would not allow her two daughters to be raised as bacha posh because of how confusing the transition back to girlhood can be. After all, once you get a taste of freedom, it is impossible to willingly give it up.

This is one of the most humanizing books on Afghanistan I have had the pleasure of reading. Nordberg makes connections here and there between the experiences of Afghani women to those in Western history (e.g. Joan of Arc and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge), but she largely removes her own commentary from the book and allows her interviewees to present their own stories and experiences. The women and bacha posh in her book are not the nameless, shapeless blobs in burqas found in so many other books on the region. Rather, they are individuals with contradictory ideals and beliefs.

Nordberg’s book is also one of the few on the region that addresses gender issues without heavy-handed preaching. It would have been easy to glorify bacha posh as resistance as the subtitle suggests, but Nordberg moved her examination of this phenomenon beyond childhood to show how this “solution” to the forces of patriarchy can be both a saving grace and have lasting consequences. Zahra and Shukria are obviously extremes, but Nordberg also explains how there are still “tells” amongst the most well-adjusted, former bacha posh. Namely, these women forget to avert their eyes around men and carry themselves differently, which can cause them to be labeled as jezebels and, therefore, tarnish their and their family’s reputation.

Furthermore, can this truly be perceived as resistance if bacha posh are expected to immediately conform to expectations placed upon their mothers and sisters as soon as they reach puberty? If teachers and community members are willing to accept a child’s gender based solely on appearance with commentary or opposition until that child reaches puberty? If fathers such as those profiled in the book are only willing to interact with or provide opportunities to their bacha posh child rather than their female children?

Certainly, the book suggests that American society has a long way to go on its acceptance of gender fluidity, but wouldn’t resistance be allowing children like Zahra to continue to present themselves as males or engage in male-only activities with the blessing of their mother, father, and extended families? More than enough food for thought, no? Exactly how I like my nonfiction books to be.