02/21/2012 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

Books We're Talking About: 'American Dervish'

This is the first entry in our new weekly series, The Book We're Talking About. At the start of each week, we'll tell you about a recent release that is getting a lot of attention - and help you understand why that's happening. We're also sending it out as a weekly email at the beginning of every week - subscribe via the "alerts" box in the top right of our section's homepage.

"American Dervish" by Ayah Akhtar
Little, Brown, $24.99
Published on January 9th, 2012

What is it about?
Hayat is a Muslim boy growing up in 1980s America, engrossed in American pastimes such as video games and Looney Toons. But when his mother's patient and alluring best friend, Mina, moves in after fleeing Pakistan, he begins to take an interest in Muslim tradition.

As he memorizes verses from the Quran on devotion, ritual and chastity, he finds himself growing infatuated with Mina, in part because of his father's gruffness and his mother's sharp tongue. When Mina begins dating a Jewish radiologist, Hayat's opinions on love and religion are further complicated.

Why are we talking about it?
The cover is getting a lot of front-of-bookstore attention -- the image of a boy gazing sheepishly over his shoulder while biking through suburbia elicits feelings of nostalgia. It also helps that the blurb is proving enticing: "Passion, spirituality and betrayal."

On the main character
Hayat is more observant than the average nine-year-old. He can tell when Mina and her new boyfriend are "acting" rather than speaking genuinely, and he's a chess wizard, growing impatient when playing with less-skilled players. His insights coupled with his innocence make for an unusual style of narration.

Who wrote it?
Ayad Akhtar. This is his first novel, but he has a background in theatre, and has written about Muslim-American lawyers and Islamic militant groups for Broadway World and The American Theatre Company in Chicago. You can see this in his writing: he crafts direct, engaging dialogue.

Who will read it?
People interested in any of the following: world religions, gender relations, Muslim American life, the Midwest or coming-of-age stories.

For those unacquainted with Muslim-American life, it's a learning experience, providing a unique look at religious texts. Those familiar with the Muslim-American experience will find much they can relate to.

What's it similar to?
"Peace Like A River" by Leif Enger; "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse

What do the reviews say?
The New York Times: it was "a pleasure to encounter a first novel as self-assured and effortlessly told."

The Washington Post: This "poignant and wise debut announces the arrival of a generous new voice in American fiction."

The LA Times praised the writing, but said the one-dimensional nature of the secondary characters is unfortunate.

Impress your friends
A Dervish isn't just a whirling, white-skirted Sufi dancer. It is also a Muslim who has taken a vow of poverty and austerity in order to devote his like to Allah. The word derives from the Persian "darvesh," meaning "beggar," or "poor." In the book, young Hayat questions why a man would "choose to be homeless."

Opening line:
"Long before I knew Mina, I knew her story."

Closing line:
"And finally I started to hear it. It was only this: My heart, silently murmuring its steady beat."