Amy Blossom recommends

About a month ago, I was feeling sick of my own taste in books. I couldn't stand to read another John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner or Doris Lessing, and — at least for a while — I'd sworn off of books about the Middle East.

Ashland Public Library Branch Manager Amy Blossom saw me standing among the library stacks looking dissatisfied. I explained my problem, and after a few minutes of expertly pulling books from the shelves, she sent me happily off with an armload of picks.

One of the most interesting was Zoe Ferraris' "Finding Nouf," a mystery set in Saudi Arabia.

When a young woman disappears in the desert, a Palestian man named Nouf finds himself uncomfortably teamed with Katya, a Saudi Arabian woman, as they search for answers. Although Katya is clad in a full-length robe and wears a veil, Nouf — who has had little contact with women and adheres to traditional Saudi values — is bothered that she works.

Because of her intellect and a decline in her family's fortunes, Katya is a lab worker in a coroner's office.

Ferrari, the author of "Finding Nouf," is an American, but she married into a Saudi-Palestinian family and lived in the Middle East. Now divorced, Ferrari doesn't ridicule the strict rules of Saudi society, but the book does capture the everyday difficulties of living life in adherence to customs that cause both men and women to feel intense shame about such simple events as seeing a woman's face.

Ferrari also captures the unexpected, such as when she describes rich Saudi girls riding on jet skis around their family's private island. The detail is "stranger than fiction," leading me to believe that Ferrari must have witnessed such a thing herself.

I give "Finding Nouf" three stars out of five for the writing style and five stars for its level of interest.

Another of Blossom's picks took me to another place, this time to early 1900s Brooklyn.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith is a classic that's often assigned in high school English classes, but I had never read it.

Within 60 pages, I knew it would become one of my all-time favorites.

Smith's semi-autobiographical novel follows Francie through her hard-scrabble childhood until she is a young woman. Francie's alcoholic father brings singing and dancing into the household, but it's Francie's mother who must hold the family together and support everyone through her work as a scrubwoman.

At school, the impoverished children of European immigrants follow the lead of their teachers in favoring the rich, well-dressed children, while the less fortunate kids attack each other. Francie's mother believes that education will save her children, but she has only the vaguest idea of what education is. But she reads to them every night from Shakespeare and The Bible, and trades cleaning services with a piano teacher so her kids can take music lessons.

In one scene, Francie goes to get a vaccination after making mud pies with her brother. Smith writes how a nurse born of immigrant parents says nothing while a doctor criticizes the filth of immigrants and says they should be sterilized.

"A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices," Smith writes. "Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he left behind him in the cruel up climb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way."

It's obvious that Smith never forgot her background, and instead used it to create a great work of literature.

I give "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" five stars for both writing style and level of interest.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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