The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
Hazel has terminal cancer but she’s not dead yet. She thinks a lot about death until she meets Augustus at a cancer support group and he accuses her of being defined by her cancer. He shares her sense of humour and love of words and together they explore what it is to love a person and be a person when cancer is always there. I didn’t find the characters particularly believable but I did find them charming, and their love story is witty, ironic, sweet and sad.
Infidel, Aayan Hirsi Ali
A Somali-born Dutch politician who now lives in the US, Aayan Hirsi Ali is a controversial character with little time for finding middle grounds. She believes Muslim values are incongruent with western values as the former oppresses women. When she was a child her father was a Somali political activist though she knew almost nothing about his actions. She just knew that her family was in almost constant turmoil. She grows up in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia as well as Somalia, and within a rigid, fundamentalist Islam. Ali points to the power of literature as her first exposure to ideas like personal autonomy — even Danielle Steele novels are carriers for western worldview! Ali’s world is dominated by what is means to be pure and submissive. When she runs away to the west to escape an arranged marriage she meets Christians and is fascinated that their relationship to God and the world is more about dialogue and love. I spend so much of my life thinking, ‘My culture’s way of doing this is not better, it’s just different’ but when Ali first arrives in western culture she marvels at life in the west — how ingenious the idea of having a street’s name on a little sign so it’s easy to navigate without constantly stopping to ask for directions; how the government collects your garbage because they’re there to serve rather than oppress; how you pay a fine after the event when you get the slip in the mail so the police officer is not tempted to inflate the amount and pocket some of it. For me, this was such a refreshing and perhaps affirming perspective on where I come from. After Ali starts receiving death threats for her unpopular political views, she’s placed under heavy guard and her freedom is significantly limited as her security detail moves her from place to place against her will. It’s for her own protection, but there’s some pretty ironic symmetry here.
Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin
This classic covers just one day in the life of a black family in Harlem in 1935. They all end up at a prayer meeting in which John, the son of Elizabeth and stepson of Gabriel, lies bowed and struggling with God in some kind of vision. Meanwhile, the narrative point of view switches and the reader is privy to each person’s past life. Through their stories, it quickly becomes clear that being ‘saved’ doesn’t fix brokenness, destruction, pride or habitual sin. However, the characters are contending with more than messed up relationships or their own failings; their world is one in which wholeness is out of reach for people of colour. As John leaves the church a ‘saved’ man, he struggles with just how he will move ahead in all the messiness. You get the feeling that, for John, the hope of eternity lies not just in his sins forgiven but also in a world and its relationships put right. While Jesus as author and finisher of faith provides the hope of this, it’s hard to keep from despair in the light of those who have come before him.
Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, Diana Gabaldon
This is the conclusion to the Outlander series and it’s all about tying everything up in a neat little bow. There’s nothing particularly highbrow about this series; it’s time travel romance which toys with none of the conventions of historical romance or time travel fiction. It’s completely in the box of its genre, but man, it’s a fun box! All the novels are long which means you can enjoy each one at leisure without feeling like you have to save it because otherwise it will end. I found this book immensely satisfying in its own right and as the final book in the series.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.