In “A Place For Us”, I find home.

A Place for Us came across my desk and into my life suddenly and all at once. What I mean by that is that the book, the author, and the opportunity to interview her (!!) all came to Dallas in one big wave. Stay tuned for a second post with my interview of Fatima Farheen Mirza; read on for my review of her stunning book.

Readers, I ate this book up. In a day, I had laughed, cried, loved, cried and cried again at this beautiful portrayal of a Muslim-American family struggling with culture, love, religion, community, and family. We follow the story through shifting perspectives–from the mother Laila, to the daughter Hadiya, to the son Amar, and finally to the father, Rafiq–and view a lifetime in each of their eyes. The incredible thing is, I immediately and fully connected with and empathized with each and every one of them. Because I knew them. I had known them all my life in the shape of various uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and family.

The book begins at Hadiya’s wedding; the appearance of her estranged brother Amar immediately creating tension among every member of the family. Drug use and short tempers are hinted at and then the book brings us into the past. The parents and siblings are young and we watch them grow. The book forces us to read on out of sheer curiosity–What led to Amar’s estrangement? A whodunnit of sorts. Something or someone must be the culprit.

We barrel ahead, tensing at every sign of adversity that little Amar faces, much like his parents, thinking, this is it. This is the catalyst to his fall, but he seems to come out of each one a little rougher but mostly ok. There are gaps & skips in Amar’s story and we feel the darkness that fills those empty spaces like we may sometimes feel a presence in our periphery–something we can’t quite place and when faced head-on, it disappears.

We switch perspectives. This time to Hadiya. I watch as the ‘perfect daughter’ persona I have unconsciously dressed her in unravels quietly. She remains an innocent and respectful daughter to her parents and in the eyes of her community, but as she grows and gives herself permission to become something more than what society has prescribed, she struggles with her own rebellions. Amar’s decline effects her deeply and she begins to reflect on her own memories critically, searching for the answer to a question–“What happened?”. Her guilt wraps tightly to a small betrayal from her childhood, a moment of petty jealousy, and rings it steadily like a gong whose vibrations reach into her every memory.

We switch to Laila, Amar’s mother, and closest confidant. We see glimpses of her life as a young girl in India blushing at the thought of the local ice cream man, a quick skim through her introduction to and marriage to Rafiq, and the quiet love that grows between them as they build their life together in America and witness the birth of their children. Then the worry sets in. We watch Hadiya and Amar grow up through Laila’s eyes. We see how sensitive Amar can be to the religious teachings she gives; how deeply he thinks about them. Hadiya’s loving and motherly nature comes naturally and from a young age. Laila does her best to support and protect her children every step of their development but despite her best efforts, we see Amar struggling. Laila’s intentions with her children are never anything but the best, so when she discovers a secret romance between Amar and the daughter of a highly respected family in their community, we hold our collective breath, waiting for her next move. Love is a complicated thing and we feel that acutely in her experience.

We only hear Rafiq’s views in the final act of the book. But, readers, it will rip your heart out. A retrospective letter to his estranged son, Rafiq’s perspective never shows us Rafiq’s life as a kid or a teenager. It begins as a father and ends as an old man, riddled with regrets and questions, perpetually replaying in his internal monologue.

Without ever letting us as readers force any one character into black-and-white, good-or-bad binaries, A Place For Us resists the reader’s urge to deal with the book’s uncomfortable or tragic situations by picking sides. It defies the pull of society to portray or place Muslims in a stereotype, an ‘Other’ category, or a box of any kind.

A Place For Us is shockingly honest. Moments throughout the book would suddenly resonate so strongly with my own internal thoughts that I would feel a visceral pang in my chest–an incredibly emotional feeling of belonging and relief to finally, finally be seen.

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Paris: An Incomplete Guide to an Amazing City

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Paris feeds the soul. It’s as simple as that, Belles. So while I’ll do my best to give you my top 5 places in the city, you can bet that there will be more blog posts about my trip to explore the amazing experience that is Paris. Before I start though, I have to say, I loved my hotel. Le Glam Hotel was a steal! At $79 a night, I got an amazing, clean, modern, and stylish hotel room with amazing hotel staff. It was a truly wonderful experience.

My amazing steal of a hotel ❤

Here’s a list of hidden gems and totally touristy things I enjoyed the most while in Paris:

Boulangerie Dominique Saibron

I cannot stress how much I loved the macarons and choquettes here. And the eclairs, and the baguettes, and oh my God, the TARTS!–yeah, this could go on for a while. Everything is baked to perfection. I’ve had a lot of macarons, Laduree (made in France) included, but nothing has compared to these macarons. Light, flavorful puffs of perfection, never too heavy-handed with the citrus or floral tones! And the espresso flavor was to die for. Pure bliss.

Just rows and rows of goodies!

House of Dior

I’ve been obsessed with Dior for as long as I can remember. I even did a project highlighting the historical significance of the A-line dress, made by Christian Dior in the 1950s. When I found out that I’d be going to Paris in the Spring, I knew I had to see the place where it all began–the original Dior storefront. What I wasn’t expecting was an entire neighborhood of Dior!

Original Dior Store

Where it all began–Christian Dior’s first storefront

You know I had to buy something there, right? A memorable token of the trip. 😉

Versailles

Versailles is a whole day affair, and it is so so worth it. I’ve been to quite a few palaces at this point, in Turkey, in Italy, and England, but this was another level of opulence. Jaw-droppingly stunning. But more than anything, it was intentionally built like that. Every room you enter in the palace has layers and layers of meaning and intentionality behind it. Power play after power play. Just, wow. If you have never taken an Architecture tour, I recommend the ones in Chicago, but once you’ve taken one, you start to understand why buildings are built the way they are and it opens a whole world of expression you probably never considered.

A tip: If you can, go early, see the gardens first and then enter the palace. And one more thing: gifts are sold sporadically throughout the palace and in the gift shop. Make sure to buy things when you see them! I made the mistake of thinking I would find lots of similar things outside the palace gates and I was so wrong! I still regret missing out on the opportunity to purchase a beautiful horse and carriage piece I saw there.

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L’Orangerie

While the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay are wonderful museums and should definitely be visited if you have time, they’re both enormous and take a lot of energy to navigate. If you’re a fan of the more manageable, “bite-sized” museum experience, where you get a little bit of all the greats, then the Orangerie is for you. Plus, it’s got 3 rooms of wall-to-wall installations of Claude Monet’s Water Lillies. And it is gorgeous.

Monet’s Water Lilies

Alongside this wonderful series, I also encountered my first Jackson Pollock piece and discovered a few more artists that I have grown fond of. I didn’t come out of the museum exhausted and weary like I did with the other 2–I felt like I could actually appreciate the art. It was well organized and palatable.

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Running through the streets of Paris from the Eiffel Tower to the River Seine ❤

This one is really more or less about giving yourself the freedom to be silly. Traveling can be tough and it takes its toll on your mood. I’ve found myself tensing up in unknown environments and being super cautious. After a long day of museums, walking, and not enough bathroom breaks (why is it so hard to find a clean bathroom in Paris???), we took a moment to re-energize with some gelato near the Eiffel Tower. We were on our way to the docks for a lovely sunset cruise of the Seine, but the waiter at the restaurant took forever with the check and we had to hurry to catch it. We started with a tense speed walk. Which transformed into a speedy shuffle. And after glancing at our watches, we all burst out into a flat run. The glee on our faces, the laughing and hooting as we dodged bumpy cobblestones, poles, and people, was the thrill we’d been seeking all day. The feeling of being completely and totally silly. We missed the boat by thiiiis much but it didn’t matter. We were feeling adventurous again. Bold. So we talked and laughed loudly, openly, completely immersed in the thrill of a newly revitalized city, watching the sun set on the Seine. Watching as the sky around the Eiffel Tower transformed from pretty blues and whites against the structure’s steel railings to a deep purple, clashing brilliantly with the golden yellow of the Tower as it’s lights turned on. I attempted to flirt with a cute crepe maker in French as we waited for the next boat and got whip cream on my nose as I delve into the brilliant waffle I’d purchased.

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My point is, see the touristy things, cross places off your bucket list, but don’t forget to explore yourself. Explore the you that you are when nothing and no one is inhibiting you. Be free and be you. That’s half the fun.


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Rome in a Day

Cruising Europe was a dream come true, and it all started with 5 days in Italy. Me and my family intended to spend 2 days in Rome, taking in the city with all its decaying grandeur, and then spend the remaining time visiting the gilded halls of Florence’s top family–the Medici–and the time capsule that is Pompeii, a city sealed in all its volcanic ash and forgotten by time and men for thousands of years. From there, we would make our way to Venice to catch our cruise ship to the Adriatic Sea and Jerusalem. The trains tickets were purchased, the journey carefully mapped. It was going to be riveting. At least that was the plan until a tornado ripped through Atlanta.

The tornado delayed every flight in and out of Atlanta International Airport, including ours (we had a stopover in ATL). The logistics were a mess, and we ended up airport hopping for 3 days in our attempt to get there. We finally made it to Rome in the evening of what would have been Day 3. Our chances to see Pompeii and Florence were shot. So we decided to make the best of what we had. Believe it, Belles. We saw Rome in a day.

Fresh off the plane and exhausted, I somehow convinced my parents to grab some halal gyro pizza from a street vendor (there’s TONS of Bangladeshis in Italy! Who knew?) and come out for a quick walk. Little did they know I had a surprise in store. I led them through the cobblestone streets full of music and laughter, turned a corner, and bellisimo! We were at the Fountain of Trevi. It was magical; the perfect way to lift our spirits. We made our wishes and tossed our coins. Did I take the moment to sing the first few lines of “Call Me, Maybe”? You bet. On blast. 😀

In the morning, our first stop was the Vatican. This city/museum is so vast, you need to get a tour guide. Ours was wonderfully interactive and could answer all the questions I had planned to save for our trip to Florence about the Medici and their influence on art, politics, and religion. Two birds, meet my one stone. 😀 I had never been in a museum where the artwork was close enough to touch–not encased in glass. We walked through centuries of sculptures and art as we moved towards the Sistine Chapel with its most famous of ceilings–The Creation of Adam. No photos were allowed inside the chapel but Michelangelo’s fresco was awesome. The details, the history, the underpants (yes, I said underpants). All the controversy between artistic vision and religious propriety was right before our eyes. And it was MASSIVE.

After a quick lunch and a refreshing gelato to give us a boost, we left the Vatican and began our race to see Rome. It felt like the tornado had followed us all the way from Atlanta–we found ourselves running from place to place, trying to see as many of our must-see sights as we could. Here were our top picks:

The Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verita): First made famous in Roman Holiday, we had to try our hand (get it? pun very much intended) at surviving its jaws. On our way out, we happened upon a lovely operatic performance taking place in the adjacent church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

Daring to tell a lie at the Mouth of Truth

The Colosseum (Le Colosseo): To the movie-classic question, “Are you not entertained?!”, we gleefully reply, “Yes!” We were literally running to the gates of the Colosseum before the guards could call ‘last entry’ and couldn’t have been happier with what we saw. I still get goosebumps when I see the cells where the beasts prowled, impatient for that cocktail of clean air and blood. We soaked it all in–the scale, the sensation. Thanks to my handy Fodor travel guidebook, we all took turns giving the structure our own melancholy salutation like the hundreds of gladiators who had come before us. Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant. Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.

The Spanish Steps and Piazza Di Spagna: Believe it or not, this was one of my favorite places. We got here right around sunset, after a long day of walking. We’d seen the Pantheon, the Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus, the Roman Forum, and the wonderfully busy Piazza Venezia. We’d seen street performers seemingly floating in thin air and busts of old emperors by the Arch of Titus, with its towering trees of peculiar, almost Truffula-like form. We were ready for a rest. As we walked down the Piazza di Spagna, lined with designer stores, we met the most charming Italian violinist who, noticing our interest, serenaded us with his beautiful rendition of Por una Cabeza, which happens to come from my mother’s favorite movie, Scent of a Woman.

We grabbed some gelato from nearby and plopped down on the steps in true Audrey Hepburn-style. We were soon being shooed off (apparently food is no longer allowed on the steps–too many tourists making a mess!) but we had a grand old time with it. About ready to call it a night, we started making our way off the plaza when a barrage of heart-shaped balloons came bobbing down our way. A surprise proposal! We were thrilled. We joined in the festivities, observing and even singing along to the couples’ friends’ rendition of the Bruno Mars song, Marry You. Yes, my Belles, Rome was magical.

Proposal on the Spanish Steps <3

So, Gelato? Check. Pizza? Check. The perfect Roman Holiday reenactment on the Spanish Steps? Check!

Sure, we didn’t see the Borghese Gardens, the Duomo in Florence, the Barberini Palace with its exquisite interiors seen in Roman Holiday, or the many museums in the area but that’s what a second round is for. After all, this is what dreams are made of, right? 😉

Pope Francis Graffiti


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Giving Thanks Under an Open Sky

Ah yes, Thanksgiving! It’s my husband’s favorite time of the year, and why not?  Football and an unlimited supply of food while lounging with the guys yelling at the TV, and looking forward to a mountain of leftover sandwiches for days to come! It’s any man’s dream! Of course, if your family is anything like mine, it can get a little cramped in the house. So this year, take thanksgiving…OUTDOORS! If you live in the south or have warmer weather during the holidays like I do, try to enjoy it out amongst the beauties of nature! It’s a fresh new outlook and offers a comfortable amount of space for large parties.

For all of you who love a little something new, below are a few of ideas on what you can do to make this into a reality!

TREES, TREES, EVERYWHERE!

What could be better than the natural canopies provided by trees? If you’ve been blessed with many trees in your backyard, it’s a perfect fixture to set and decorate your table. Hanging lanterns and fairy lights off the trees can add a little sparkle to your table décor and also help provide that soft glow if the natural light fades.

BOUQUETS FOR DAYS

Centerpieces and table décor doesn’t have to be a huge expense! The best thing about fall is the changing of the leaves, and what better to adorn your tables than a bouquet of beautiful red, yellow, maroon and green leaves set with red and purple berries tied with twine string! This is a great way to get the kids involved in making some creative bouquets for the table settings!

CANDLES, GOURDS AND PLACE CARDS, OH MY!

Get creative with your left over Halloween décor! Chances are you still have a few of those tea candles and decorative pumpkins left over from last month! Recycle your décor brilliantly by experimenting with candles and small pumpkins as part of the table centerpieces. Candles of different sizes add dimension and a little fun to the whole theme of the table, and using simple place cards with a personalized message can be a beautiful way to show how much your family means to you.

DON’T FORGET TO ADD A LITTLE HEAT

Even with the warmest of weather, the evenings can get a bit chilly. Space heaters to the rescue! Help warm up the nights with a little heat so you can enjoy the outdoors a little longer without compromising that comfort.

Of course, there is no end to the creativity! These are just a few ways you can change up the holiday to add more space and sparkle and a little bit of your own custom touch to a meaningful get together!

 

MyFairLady is the latest addition to the Belles & Books writing team, so of course she’s an avid reader  ^_^ .  She’s a surgeon with a quirky side.  An ‘artsy’ mommy-to-be, she’ll be writing about design, decor, and DIY.  In her free time she indulges in new food finds around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. 
All images used in this post are from Google images.

Is Your House a “Trick” or *Treat*?

 

Post by: MyFairLady

OH, yes! Halloween! It’s that time of the year again, when you wake up to crisp cold mornings, oversized sweaters, pumpkin spiced lattes and well… outdoor decorations. There are essentially two types of Halloween decorations you see on the streets these days: the aspiring haunted house and the autumnal beauty, quite literally “Trick or Treat”.

Here are a few tips and ideas on how you can dress up your residence for the season.

BETTING ON A TRICK

Keeping It Simple

When on a small budget, the best thing to do is stick to one kind of scare feature! Sometimes subtlety is what makes the scare POP! Just pick what you think to be the scariest feature (skeletons, spiders, ghosts, ghouls, or even creepy pumpkins) and place it all over and around your residence. The effect is quite incredible.

 

Jump Scares

Sometimes the best scare is the one that comes at you unexpectedly and ends up giving you a mini heart attack! The genius behind this idea is making sure the scare is optimally hidden just long enough to allow for a jump scare. You can use human sized props and dress them to look like someone is standing by the door, or you can darken the front step and project screams and yells out of the front windows, or you can simply flicker the front porch lights when trick-o-treaters come by the house. Use the dark to your advantage.

Halloween Overload

This last idea is for those of us who like a bit of everything.  These are the homes where you will see a carnival of scares! Usually you don’t need a particular idea for this. All it involves is…well…EVERYTHING! From spider webs, to witches, flickering lights to skeletons, scarecrows and black cats, it basically looks like a Halloween ghoul party in your front lawn!

BETTING ON A TREAT

Warm colors

Beauty is the theme here, choosing fall flowers and colors to accent and highlight the season all over your front lawn can make the home feel rustic, and beautiful. Warm colors like maroons, oranges, yellows, reds, and dark greens all mix well to present a beautiful autumnal scene on your front lawn. You can even incorporate a cute scarecrow or corn stalks and pumpkins to add a little personality to the decoration.

 

MyFairLady is the latest addition to the Belles & Books writing team, so of course she’s an avid reader  ^_^ .  She’s a surgeon with a quirky side.  An ‘artsy fartsy’ mommy-to-be, she’ll be writing about design, decor, and DIY.  In her free time she indulges in new food finds around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. 

How could you be so Heartless?

If you’ve not read Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, I greatly urge you to do so. I’ve always been a sucker for a good fairytale retelling. I’m still obsessed with Ella Enchanted. Meyer’s does wonders blending sci-fi and fantasy together in hers. 

Beyond her Lunar Chronicles series, Meyer’s new book, Heartless, does not disappoint. How did the Queen of Hearts find her catchphrase “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”? We are given the thrilling experience of finding out.

love Catherine, with her kind yet passionate nature and strong sense of purpose. I found Jest to be a bit odd but I grew to like him, as I grew to like his whole tea party of friends. In a topsy-turvy world on the other side of Wonderland, Meyer ingeniously made me love a story I’ve never been fond of before. How? She has a very clear understanding of her characters and their actions and growth throughout the story feels devastatingly true. 

I swear to you, readers, I read the whole thing in 12 hours straight. No bathroom breaks or meals. 5pm to 5am. It was a whirlwind. And when destiny came knocking, I found myself sobbing. That’s how invested I was. At 4am, I was crying in big heaving sobs. By the end, I was an emotional wreck; my chest aching, hollow. 

Looking again at the title of the book, I have to ask, who does Meyer leave heartless? Because I could have sworn it was me.

 

Caution: Banned Books found here

Hey Readers,

I’ve been feeling rebellious recently. Maybe it’s because the days are growing shorter (what a phrase! Growing shorter?) and the nights are increasingly darker as winter arrives. Or maybe it’s my dark lipstick and makeup’s bad influence? Whatever it may be, I’m in the mood for a little rebellion. If you’re right there with me, take a stab at confronting censorship head on. Grab one of these banned books at your local library or bookstore.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Native Son by Richard Wright –I wouldn’t read this book after dark. It gets pretty gruesome!
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak –Baffled? So was I. The dark themes of the story made quite a few people nervous about making this available to children.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

You can do a little jig walking down the sidewalk ‘cuz you’ve stuck it to the Man–and also because you know you’re in for a treat tonight. Nothing is better than cozying up in your thickest knit, a cup of coffee by your side, and a forbidden fruit–i mean, book–in hand.

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Freedom of speech is a big deal in America, but too often we glaze over it when it happens in our very own communities. The media’s pushing soundbites like little pills in the playground. You laugh, but take a minute to think about it. Are these really just succinct phrases that embody a complete whole? Can we say for sure that our outlook on issues and people in the news isn’t being skewed by these censored bits and pieces? Because that’s really what a soundbite is–censorship at its trendiest.

Do you agree? Where else do you see censorship at work? Next time you see it, call it out, and think about why it’s happening. Then, go out and get educated. That’s the only way to fight this particular illness, the symptoms of which are ignorance and gullibility.

Wedding withdrawals

Hey readers,

Some of you may know from my Instagram feed that my sister got married last August. The bride and beau looked amazing, the food was divine (so I heard–didn’t get to eat any of it), and the bridal shower was a hit. Naturally, being the sister without kids or law school responsibilities, I took on the brunt of the pre-wedding festivity planning and execution.

I couldn’t have done it without my best friends, to whom I am forever grateful. Especially because I was also a bridesmaid in one of my close friends’ bridal party and she was getting married the week before! I have to give a shout out to Pinterest, too. I would have been completely lost if it weren’t for that blessed site. The bridal shower wouldn’t have turned out as beautiful as it did.

Best part of this whole post? The photographer’s album has arrived! Feast your eyes on an American-Desi wedding, readers. Enjoy!

All photos courtesy of Texpertz Photography

Oh-Hiya, Ohio!

Last week I was visiting my sister in Ohio where she was graduating from her med program. We found out that our flight was delayed by a few hours so we decided to make the most of it and see some of Cleveland.

We stopped by the house where Superman’s was born: 10622 Kimberly Ave. Jerry Siegel invented the Man of Steel in this house back in 1932. I love me some Cavill puppy eyes but the original will always win in a fight.

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We also found some amazing cultural gardens in Rockefeller Park. Since they were culture, and books have been a part of every nation’s culture since waaaaaay back, naturally I found some old friends. Ahhh, gotta love the smell of literature in the morning.

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Good old, depressing Goethe. Famous for “The Sorrows of Young Werther”

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Pondering Dante, of (in)famous acclaim around the world.

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Multi-tasking! Reflecting the sun’s rays and Virgil’s works

Go Set a Watchman

 

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Harper Lee’s second, and last novel Go Set A Watchman was received with mixed reviews by the critics. My favorite part had to be what made others cringe the most. The complete deconstruction of the one character most near and dear to our hearts, Atticus Finch. Over time, Atticus has become the epitome of a great father and a just and fair lawyer. Lee takes this man who so many have put on a pedestal, and through Scout’s eyes, bring that pedestal crashing down on all of us.

Just like Scout, we had to come to terms with the fact that no man, not even Atticus Finch, is perfectly just, perfectly good. To hold anyone on a pedestal like that is a form of worship, not admiration, and worshiping humans is a dangerous thing.

While I, ever the cynical one, could see the “fall from grace” a long time coming, it took Uncle Jack’s unnervingly winding conversations with her to get her to realize that it’s OK. Everyone has their own opinions and they may be right, they may be wrong, or they may just be different from your own, but that does not mean you have to cut them out of your life for having those opinions. You choose the battles you fight. You don’t choose the battles for you likelihood of winning, you choose them for the benefit of those voiceless whom you choose to represent.

Interestingly enough, Lee’s novel was released amidst intense controversy over the Confederate flag & several celebrated pro-slave historical statues around the USA. A considerable piece of that argument had to do with why the Civil War even happened. Was it just to preserve slavery? Or was there another reason that so many in the South chose to fight and die by the swords of their brothers in the North?

While the country fought over whether these symbols were actively encouraging acts of racism and discrimination or simply relics of the Civil War and Southern Pride, Scout Finch and Uncle Jack fought over the after-effects of the South losing that war and the reality that Atticus was NOT color-blind as Scout claims to be. I must admit, while at first, I strongly sided with those calling for the removal of the Confederate flag and statues from their government building, after reading Go Set A Watchman, I really understood the other side’s argument–or what it should have been, anyways.

I agree with the critics, it will not be a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird. But it was one hell of a good read.