Friday, June 19, 2009

451 Fridays

451 Fridays is based on an idea from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In his novel, a group of people (Bradbury calls them Book People) are trying to keep the ideas found in books alive. Instead of actually saving the books, the Book People each "become" a book - memorizing it, word for word, and passing it down to the next generation.

451 Fridays asks what books you feel passionate about. What book do you think is so important that you would be willing to take on the challenge of "becoming"?

Today I am especially lucky to have author, world traveler, and all-around cool lady Nadine Dajani share her 451 list with us. You can visit Nadine at her website or blog, and you can also read my review of her novel Cutting Loose. Welcome, Nadine!

What 5 books do you believe are important enough to be saved, and why?

This must be one of the most difficult questions to ask a writer or passionate reader. The thing with books - and what makes them so wonderful - is that there are never too many great books, or worthy ideas. Every single book is worthy for the simple reason that every book expresses a fundamentally passionate desire to communicate and be heard. If we listened more to the passions and the motivations of the people who inhabit our world, we might be facing a different world altogether (and probably a more pleasant one).

That being said, here are my five - a mix of books I read a long time ago and could never shake, and some I recently discovered and wished I had read before.

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The first book that came to mind when I thought of important ideas that desperately need to be conserved was '1984', because, really, that book is all about guarding against events and choices that might bring about the scenario you describe in Fahrenheit 451. In 1984, it's not just books that are removed, but the language itself is changed so that people are left with feelings of confusion and discontent but not the words with which to express them. But I'm choosing The Handmaid's Tale because it deals with issues that present the same dangers to individuals and society as those in 1984, but are mostly ignored, probably - or at least partly - because the book is written by a woman and from a woman's perspective (and is therefore considered "feminist" literature instead of just plain literature).

In this book, Margaret Atwood takes the world we live in and spins a worst case scenario of religious extremism. There are no books allowed in Offred's (the handmaid - one of the few remaining fertile women enslaved so they could bear children for the ruling religious class) reality either, except for the bible. Offred - that is, Of Fred, Fred being her "Commander" - can't have access to money or freedom, or "luxuries" of any kind. She is enslaved not so much by the men around her - who are all horny and hapless - but by the bitter women who helped bring about the revolution in the first place.

My favorite thing about this book is how it cleverly shows that those hurt most by this regime are the men (the "Commander" is a perpetually baffled, pathetic figure), because no matter how you look at it, this world needs both men and women, and needs them to be strong and able to affect their destinies however they see fit.

2. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgemery

I've lost count of how many times I have read and reread this book. Anyone who enjoys Jane Austen's wit will love Valancy Stirling, of the Deerwood "snobocracy". She is a funnier, more daring Elizabeth Bennet, who finds out she has one year left to live, and must decide if she will live this year as she has lived the last 29 - that is, in total misery and under the thumb of her acrid clan - or live it up. The tone and themes are also surprisingly current for something that was written so long ago.

3. Roots by Alex Haley

I read this when I was twelve and remember crying when I got to the end. And I'm not prone to weepiness when it comes to books (at least I wasn't at 12, when hormones hadn't kicked in yet....). Oprah should make everyone read this to get a sense of just how devastating slavery was and why it's important to acknowledge its impact on the American psyche. Ultimately, I think this book is about one man's journey to heal his soul, and it's a journey I think many people need to embark on instead of trying to pretend the past is irrelevant.

4. My Invented Country by Isabel Allende

When I grow up, I want to be Isabel Allende...she is an all-round wonderful writer, so it was hard to choose which one of her books to include. I settled on My Invented Country, a memoir she started after the twin tower attacks, when she finally accepted her American identity and realized that the Chile of her past was in fact her "invented country" because it was distorted by nostalgia and old memories. This book reminds me of the saying: "you can never go home again" and this has been very true in my life. I've relocated many times (Lebanon to Saudi, Saudi to Canada, Canada to the Cayman Islands, and back, and then back again, and I'm only 30!). Every time I left a place, I was never able to find it again because though the place itself might have remained the same, I had changed. This book helped me accept my nomadic experience, and did so in Allende's signature funny, witty, and wise way.

5. The Beginning and the End by Naguib Mahfouz

This was such a sad, haunting, and unforgettable book by a celebrated Egyptian novelist (and Nobel laureate). Like so many books by Arab authors, it was really depressing, but I think that its treatment of gender roles in Arab society is unflinching (and unusual) and for that, this book deserves a special place in literature. It's about a middle class Egyptian family that sinks into destitution when the father dies suddenly, leaving behind a wife, daughter, and two sons still in school. The sons can't support the mother yet (or themselves), so it falls on their sister to use her skill as a seamstress to support everyone until the boys graduate. But since "good girls" aren't supposed to work for a living, the sister becomes a sort of pariah, even to her own brothers, ashamed of having a sister who has to work (yes, the irony and stupidity of this was intentional!). As the boys go through school and their situation improves, the girl's reputation spirals downward until the tragic end. The tragedy is ironic and completely futile, and that's what's great about this book - through the lens of one downtrodden women's life, the absurdity of social mores (and why we need to do away with most of them) is held up to the light.

Of those 5, which book would you choose to "become"?

I think I already "am" My Invented Country, but since that was something imposed on me by circumstance and not by choice, I'm going to go with The Blue Castle. I love the idea of sincerity triumphing over hypocrisy, in a spunky, optimistic way.

Do you have any favorite quotes from the book, so we know why you love it so much?

From My Invented Country:

"Several times I have found it necessary to pull up stakes, sever all ties, and leave everything behind in order to begin live anew elsewhere; I have been a pilgrim along more roads than I care to remember. From saying good-bye so often my roots have dried up, and I have had to grow others, which, lacking a geography to sink into, have taken hold in my memory. But be careful! Minotaurs lie in wait in the labyrinths of memory."

"Writing, when all is said and done, is an attempt to understand one's own circumstance and to clarify the confusion of existence, including insecurites that do not torment normal people, only chronic nonconformists, many of whom end up as writers after having failed in other undertakings."

From The Blue Castle:

"Valancy was enjoying herself. She has never enjoyed herself at a 'family reunion' before. In social functions, as in childish games, she had only 'filled in'. Her clan had always considered her very dull. She had no parlour tricks. And she had been in the habit of taking refuge from the boredom of family parties in her Blue Castle, which resulted in an absent-mindedness that increased her reputation for dullness and vacuity.
'She has no social presence whatsoever', Aunt Wellington had decreed once and for all. Nobody dreamed that Valancy was dumb in their presence merely because she was afraid of them. Now she was no longer afraid of them. The shackles had been stricken off her soul. She was quite prepared to talk if occasion offered. Meanwhile she was giving herself such freedom of thought as she had never dared to take before. She has let herself go with a wild, inner exultation, as Uncle Herbert carved the turkey. Uncle Herbert gave Valancy a second look that day. Being a man, he didn't know what she had done to her hair, but he thought surprisedly that Doss was not such a bad-looking girl after all; and he put an extra piece of white meat on her plate."

Nadine, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us YOUR list of books which must be saved.

Would you like to see your list featured on an upcoming 451 Friday? Send me an email and we will chat!


bermudaonion said...

I am enjoying this feature more and more each week, Elizabeth. This is a great post and I loved seeing the cute picture of Nadine.

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

This is one of my favorite features!! Love seeing it every week. This was a good list.

Beth F said...

Excellent, excellent choices. Now I'm even more excited to read Nadine's novel, which I have scheduled for July.

Serena said...

this is a fantastic feature. Keep up the great work. I love the photos of Nadine...and her book selections.

Jenners said...

Excellent! I was so excited to see Nadine Dajani on this as I just think she is a fabulously cool and accessible author! I just reviewed her book "Cutting Loose" and have a giveaway for it too!

What thoughtful answers ... and though-provoking books. Loved this!

And the photo is great too!