"The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism" by Deborah Baker (Graywolf Press, 246 pages, $23)
Deborah Baker, author of books on the poet Laura Riding and on the Beats, describes how she chooses her subjects and how she writes about their lives:
"Anonymity is my vocation. I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them. ... Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls."
One day in her local library, Baker stumbled upon 24 letters written between 1962 and 1996 from Margaret Marcus to her parents. In 1962, Margaret, then a devoted student of Islam and of the influential Islamic thinker and political leader Mawlana Mawdudi, accepted Mawdudi's invitation to come to Pakistan and join his household.
Baker started asking questions: Why did Margaret convert? Why did she feel so compelled to leave the West? How did she fit into that strange new household? And finally, what was the state of her mental health?
This last question leads Baker down a fascinating path, through Margaret's diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1957, her stay in a mental hospital outside Lahore, her arranged marriage to a friend of Mawdudi's and on into a thicket of lies and cultural miscommunications that helps the author distill the relationship between Islam and the West.
There are many conversions in this story that illuminate a subtle relationship between two cultures rarely revealed.
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"The Sojourn" by Andrew Krivak (Bellevue Literary Press, 192 pages, $14.95)
Novels set during World War I (think of "The English Patient" or "A Long Long Way") possess a desolation, violence and a desperate longing to go back, to return to life as it was lived before the war.
"The Sojourn" was inspired by the life of Andrew Krivak's grandfather, Josef Vinich, born in a Colorado mining town in the late 1800s. After his mother was killed by a train and his father wrongfully accused of murder (events that confirmed the suspicions of his Austro-Hungarian relatives about America's Wild West), father and son returned to the Magyar village where Josef's father was born to start anew.
Fifteen years later, Josef became a sharpshooter in the Austrian army and was taken prisoner by the Italians. After his release in 1918, he began the long walk home. He saved a young pregnant gypsy girl who had been raped by soldiers, and together they tried to start a peaceful life. The novel is a beautiful tale of persistence and dogged survival.