Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan; Dial Books, 331 pages $17.99. Ages 12 and up.
This impressive debut novel is charming, hilarious, insightful and above all, fun. (According to the publisher, it’s been “optioned in a pre-empt by Warner Brothers” and slated for publication in 10 languages this year.) Sixteen-year-old Josie Sheridan, who is much younger than her beautiful older sisters Kate and Maggie, has an off-the-charts IQ, and with her brainiac, musically gifted best friend and neighbor Stu, splits her time between high school and college. Josie is completely lacking in social graces, what she perceives as living her life in translation, and struggles to learn to speak the language of college, of high school, of friends, of boyfriends. Then her sister Kate gets engaged to a man Josie instantly dislikes and Josie makes it her mission to break the couple up. But the close relationship between the sisters becomes endangered instead. Complications ensue as Josie gets a boyfriend, loses a boyfriend and develops a crush on her college professor. McCahan skillfully sketches full portraits in this marvelous story of a family, a rare thing in YA fiction. And she offers a pitch-perfect rendition of Josie’s painful struggle to learn to understand the foreign language of the people she loves best.
– Jean Westmoore
The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas by Anand Giridharadas; Norton, 336 pages ($27.95)
In the chaos following 9/11, Mark Stroman walked into three Dallas gas stations and shot three men he supposed to be Arabs at near point-blank range. Two died within moments. The third, a former Bangladesh air force officer who immigrated to America to pursue a technology career, survived, though he would undergo repeated surgeries to his mangled face.
New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas meticulously re-creates the crimes and all that would happen to these two men over the next decade, a period of transformation for the self-styled “Arab Slayer” as he awaited his fate on Texas’ Death Row, and for young immigrant Rais Bhuiyan, who finds in his Muslim faith the power to forgive.
“The True American” is a riveting tale, dense with detail. The state charged Stroman with just one of the killings, but the outcome of the trial was never in doubt, Giridharadas writes. Stroman got the death penalty. For Bhuiyan, who had lived in fear that Stroman would track him down and kill him, the sentence brought freedom. As he prayed for a full recovery, he promised that he would use his life to help others. Eight years after the shooting, with his career on track, Bhuiyan flew home to Bangladesh, picked up his mother and took her to Saudi Arabia to visit the sacred sites of the Muslim religion. The experience left him transformed, his heart filled “with peace, forgiveness, and love. Ultimately, that spirit of forgiveness came to include the man who had left him for dead.
Stroman, on death row, was gradually undergoing a transformation of his own. “I’m no angel by far and I’ve done some things after September 11, 2001 that still haunts me and by no means am I proud of the pain my own actions have caused,” he wrote for a blog in 2009. Stroman drew followers on the Internet, mostly opponents of the death penalty. But none could have imagined that the person who would fight as hard as any to keep Stroman alive was the man he almost killed in that rampage after 9/11.
– Michael E. Young, Dallas Morning News