Year of Wonders – Brooks / The Sibyl – Lagerkvist

year of wonders

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks

This is my second book by Geraldine Brooks after Nine Parts of Desire, and the first fiction. I’d been tossing between Year of Wonders and People of the Books, but finally picked up this one after the nudge from Historical Fiction course I was following on After reading this, I am now a firm fan. I’ll be happy to read more of her books any time.

Year of Wonders tells the period in the village of Eyam, England, in the year of 1666. It was the only place apart from London that was hit by the plague, and the whole village decided to cut itself from the world to avoid spreading the plague further. The story is told from an unlikely hero of a housemaid of the village’s rector and his wife – a point of view that allows us to have a peek into the decision makers (the rector essentially) and the ordinary villagers.

Without giving anything away, the ending seemed slightly off in tone compared to the rest of the book, as if Brooks left the novel for a while before coming back to it to finish it. I wasn’t super bothered by it, just thought it was a bit odd. But apart from that, the writing is consistently quite wonderful.

Rating: 4/5

the sibyl

The Sibyl – Pär Lagerkvist

The Sibyl is a really amazing, unexpected read. I didn’t have book set in Turkey to read while traveling in the country, so I opted to read this, as it is set in Delphi, Greece (the site which I went to last year). The narration has folk/fairy tale quality to it, and the premise is fascinating. The main character is an oracle priestess in the Apollo temple in Delphi, who fell into disfavor by god. Her tale is told to a wandering man who caught a glimpse of and in effect got cursed by Jesus. Sounds crazy? Yes. I was absolutely enchanted. I will definitely look fore more Lagerkvist’s books. Too bad many of them seem hard to find. It was the perfect book to read while traveling, as it was only under 150 pages, physically light, and the story has a good balance of being not too complex but stimulating enough.

Lagerkvist was awarded Nobel Prize of Literature in 1951. His most famous work was Barabbas – about the Barabbas who was chosen to be released instead of Jesus. It seems that a lot of his works are a weird mix of the old and the new religious beliefs, or the critiques of them. In any way, they seem thought provoking. His other famous book is The Dwarf, which I remember to have read good things about at Jackie’s. Another one I’m looking forward to reading.

Rating: 4.5/5

End of 2013 and Beginning of 2014

These two books ended my reading journey in 2013. I picked up a good pace about half a year into 2013, and read the total of 19 books and 20 short stories. Not yet close to my golden reading year a couple of years back, but I’m feeling more positive about 2014. We’re only two weeks in and I have actually finished 4 books! It’s a good start for the year.

Where ever you are, hope you have a good reading year ahead!


Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (1994)

nine-parts-of-desire-the-hidden-world-of-islamic-women“My interest in Islam had everything to do with being a women and zero to do with being a Jew,” thought Geraldine when asked by a Muslim Gaza woman why every time someone comes to research about Islam, they turn out to be Jewish. My interest in Islam has everything to do with growing up in the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world. Recently my brother in law married a Muslim and converted, and the same case with another friend. So this book which always seemed to be on the brink of horizon, was finally read.

Having lived in Indonesia and Malaysia for more than 18 years, Islamic rules and society are not new to me. However, there are always questions in my mind about how things came to be this way and that, about why Islam is often identified with oppression of women, about all the violence done in the name of Islam, about polygamy, and so on and so forth. Nine Parts of Desire did not answer all of them, but it definitely satisfied some and sparked things I would never have thought before. What I loved is that it specifically talks about women issues and Brooks has done her research first hand extensively, spending a decade talking and befriending many Muslim women in Middle East countries, poor and rich, ex-foreigners, converts, royal family. I applaud her for being so brave. Being a woman and a Jew at that really put her at disadvantaged position in that area. In many ways she’s everything I hope I could be.

There are 12 chapters in total, each discussing a different issue: veil, marriage, polygamy, jihad, about women in education, politics, army, business, art or entertainment. It covers many countries in Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and more. One of my favorites is the chapter on women soldiers in UAE, the obstacles they need to break to become fully trained and qualified soldiers, fighting along with the men, even supervising them. In any country, women soldiers seem to be rare breeds, but this is even done in extreme Muslim country, who is used to having women at home and in complete obedience. The idea is so out of the way it seems absurd! Cool is the word to describe them!

In Indonesia polygamy is something that is quite real. Men from range of classes are known to take more than one wife, beknownst to one’s wife or otherwise. Influential clerics do the same, using Islam as reasoning base, and caused an uproar. Polygamy seems to be against the society’s conscience in this age, but for some people there’s always Islamic rules to fall back to. Here’s what the book says:

“In the Koran, polygamy is presented as an option for men, not as a requirement. In seventh-century Arabian society, there had been no restriction on how many wives a man could take. The Koran, in stipulating four as a maximum, was setting limits, not giving license. A close reading of the text suggest that monogamy is preferred.

The issue of polygamy is analogous to that of slavery, which was gradually banned in Islamic countries. As with polygamy, the wording of the Koran permits, but discourages, slavery. Muhammad’s sunnah included the freeing of many of his war-captive slaves. Because freeing slaves is extolled as the act of a good Muslim, most Muslims now accept that conditions have changed enough since the seventh century to allow them to legislate against a practice that the prophet probably would have chosen to ban outright, if his own times had allowed, Polygamy is already on the decline throughout the Islamic world, and many Muslim scholars see no religious obstacle to a legal ban on the practice.” ~ p186

On the issue of inheritance, the Koran states that daughter should receive only half of the son’s inheritance. Interesting point is that the Koran was actually advanced in its time when it was first out.

“The Koran sets out the formula for inheritance as an instruction which all believers must follow. In seventh-century Arabia the Koran’s formula was a giant leap forward for women, who up until then had usually been considered as chattels to be inherited, rather than as heirs and property owners in the own right. Most European women had to wait another twelve centuries to catch up to the rights the Koran granted Muslim women. In England it wasn’t until 1870 that the Married Women’s Property Acts finally abolished the rule that put all a woman’s wealth under her husband’s control on marriage.” ~ p186

It reminded me of the time last year when I read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For the life of me I couldn’t make sense of why the Bennett sisters and their mother get nothing if their father dies–the estate would instead go to a distant male cousin. Now that seems backwards in comparison with the Koran, doesn’t it?

In the face of politic, in 1994 women led three Muslim countries: Tansu Ciller for Turkey, Bagum Khaleda Zia for Bangladesh, and Benazir Bhutto for Pakistan. If you think about it, USA has never had a female president. Australia just appointed a female Prime Minister last year (2010). Why is that? It’s a wonder that I have no answer to. These Muslim women get death threats (and Bhutto was assassinated in 2007) for being female in authority position. You’d wonder how they got to the top in the first place.

There are a lot more aspects discussed in the book. Though at times Brooks cried disagreement, her objectivity is more prevalent throughout the book. What I concluded at the end was that Islam seems to be religion of contradictions and therefore it’s quite easy for some groups of people to twist the text to their own interpretation. Added to the mix is the conservative Arab culture where Islam is easily absorbed and takes root.

Nine Parts of Desire was published in 1994, so some things have obviously changed since then (just knew that Queen Noor of Jordan has become a widow in 1999). But to my understanding the progression of Muslim women’s lives and roles goes at snail’s pace, so I believe the book is still as relevant today. Check out the afterword written post 9/11 at Geraldine Brooks’ website. Love the last paragraph. Brooks writes so beautifully that I’m sure I’m going to check her other books including the fictions.

It could be very depressing to read about the unfairness and the inequality towards female gender in that part of the world, but above all Brooks looked into the women who succeed in their own small or big ways, who prevail against all odds. In many ways, it’s celebration of the strength of women, of the choices they make in their lives, whether we agree to or not.Brooks, Geraldine

“I have my own young sons now, and it is unlikely that I will go adventuring again into lives so far removed from my own.  Somehow, moving house between London and Sydney, Virginia and Massachusetts, I lost the chador in which so many of my memories were wrapped.  Yet they are with me, always; memories of women who trusted me across the chasm of faith and culture. When I think of them, I think of laughter and kindness, warmth and hospitality.  I think of the things that united us rather than those things on which we disagreed.  They wanted to live, to see their children live.  That, at least, we had in common.  That, at least, is a place to start.” ~ Nine Parts of Desire, New Afterword

5 stars
1994, 255 pp

Nine Parts of Desire at Geraldine Brooks website

More Memorable Quotes

“Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” ~ Ali ibn Abu Taleb, husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and founder of the Shiite sect of Islam

“”Rose,” I said, incredulous, “are you telling me you’ve ruled him out because he had dirty fingernails? For goodness’ sake! You can always clean his fingernails.” She raised her head and gazed at me sadly with her huge dark eyes. “Geraldine, you don’t understand. You married for love. What’s a dirty fingernail on someone you love? But if you are going to marry somebody you don’t love, everything, everything, has to be perfect.”” ~ p65

“Few women’s colleges have their own libraries, and libraries shared with men’s schools are either entirely off limits to women or open to them only one day per week. Most of the time women can’t browse for books but have to specify the titles they want and have them brought out to them.

But women and men sit the same degree examinations. Professors quietly acknowledge that women’s scores routinely outstrip the men’s. “It’s no surprise,” said one woman professor. “look at their lives. The boys have their cars, they can spend the evenings cruising the streets with their friends, sitting in cafes, buying black-market alcohol and drinking all night. What do the girls have? Four walls and their books. For them, education is everything.”” ~ p150

Middle East Challenge, Aussie Author Challenge, Reading the World

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