Eteraz, known for his blog Islamophere, opens his memoir with a vivid description of his father promising Allah that if God bestowed him with a son, that boy “will become a great leader and servant of Islam.” The rest of the book finds Eteraz, whose given name is Abir ul Islam (which translates as “Perfume of Islam”) trying to come to terms with his father’s mannat, or covenant, and understand the role that Islam will play in his life as well as the role he will play for Islam. Born in Pakistan but raised in the U.S. from age 10, Eteraz moves easily between describing the holy history and tenets of his faith while exploring and explaining the differences between the Islamic world and Western society. As Eteraz’s feelings for Islam change to fit his evolving personal, political and religious views, readers get a glimpse of all aspects of this hot-topic religion, from fundamentalism to reformism, salafism and secularism. A gifted writer and scholar, Eteraz is able to create a true-life Islamic bildungsroman as he effortlessly conveys his coming-of-age tale while educating the reader. When his religious awakening finally occurs, his catharsis transcends the page.
Pakula, an experienced biographer of royal women (An Uncommon Woman: The Empress Frederick), looks at the imperious (if not imperial) wife of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, presenting a richly complex account of 20th-century China that, despite its length, remains thoroughly engrossing to the end. Born May-ling Soong (1897–2003) and educated in America, Madame Chiang and her five Soong siblings were wealthy, Christian, fluent in English and major players in Chinese politics. Marrying Chiang Kai-shek in 1927, the strong-minded and hot-tempered, shrewd and ruthless May-ling quickly became a partner in his efforts as Chinese leader until the Japanese invaded, and then in 1945 when Mao’s Communists drove him to Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), which he ruled until his death in 1975. From the 1930s to 1950s, Americans idolized Madame Chiang as a symbol of Chinese resistance to the brutal Japanese and as an anticommunist stalwart. But critics of her and Chiang’s ineffective, authoritarian, corrupt leadership soon became the majority. Pakula draws a vivid if often unflattering portrait of a charismatic Chinese patriot, her husband and family, in tumultuous and tragic times.