Naguib Mahfouz; Translated by William M. Hutchins

Cairo Modern by the 1988 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Naguib Mahfouz tells the story of Mahgub, a young, proud, embittered, and poverty-stricken university student in 1930s Cairo. The translation is by William M. Hutchins.

The novel opens with Mahgub and his three friends discussing the current state of Egyptian politics, philosophy, religion, the changing role of women, and the best methodology for resolving the ills of society. Mahgub conceals his poverty from his friends while eyeing their economic circumstances with bitterness and jealousy. His financial situation deteriorates even further when his father suffers a stroke and can no longer work.

After graduating from university, Mahgub’s hope to find gainful employment is dashed. He quickly learns employment is unavailable to someone in his position since he lacks the necessary contacts. Faced with dire circumstances, he becomes desperate. So when opportunity knocks on his door, he seizes it even though it places him in a repellent position. He makes a Faustian pact with an unscrupulous man in exchange for future wealth and prosperity. But at what price? He learns too late the gains are short-lived. His deal with the devil unravels, exposing him and his wife to the censure of Egyptian society.

Through the plight of his central protagonist, Naguib Mahfouz offers a scathing indictment of Egyptian high society and the governing class. Both are riddled with hypocrisy and corruption. Nepotism is rampant. Without money or contacts, even those with education are left floundering on the margins of society. Mahgub struggles to retain his dignity while seething with anger at a society that denies him the opportunities afforded those with money and influence. He stifles his already shaky moral compass to penetrate the social barriers impeding his advancement.

The situation is even worse for poverty-stricken women since they are treated as commodities with few available options. If they are beautiful but poor, they are candidates for victimization by men with wealth and influence eager to exploit them and prey on their vulnerabilities. The pressure to avail themselves to lecherous men in exchange for financial security is overwhelming.

Mahfouz’s critique of the Egyptian elite and governing classes is unrelenting and persistent. He reveals their hypocrisy and corruption at every page and holds them accountable for fostering an environment where ethical and moral behavior are sacrificed for the sake of survival. In that sense, his theme transcends Cairo society of the 1930s. It is universally applicable to any culture which denies those without means or lucrative connections access to advancement.

Mahfouz ends the novel as it began by taking us full circle. Mahgub’s former friends debate the latest government scandal, the role of religion, changing mores, and rectifying the ills of society. One is left with the impression that it is all talk followed by more talk. Meanwhile, the wheels turn but nothing changes.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Rachel Cusk

One would be hard- pressed to consider Outline by Rachel Cusk a novel in the traditional sense. There is no plot and very little happens. It consists of a series of conversations, many of them more akin to soliloquies than actual dialogue.

The novel is in the first-person point of view of a female writer who is on her way to Athens to teach a brief summer writing course. Seated next to her on the plane is an elderly gentleman who proceeds to disclose personal details about his failed marriages. The narrator mostly listens with an occasional prompt or question. What makes it confusing is Cusk frequently omits the use of quotation marks so one is never sure if the narrator is articulating her perceptions aloud or if they are internal. It is only after her neighbor responds we realize she has actually spoken.

Her arrival in the smoldering heat of Athens is punctuated with a series of conversations with an assorted group—a fellow teacher, her friends, her students, her neighbor on the plane, an author, and her replacement at the writing school. The conversations feel more like monologues or soliloquies than dialogues. The speakers reveal intimate, detailed stories about their lives and their loves. In each case, they disclose a pivotal incident long since passed that has had a lasting impact on their life or changed its trajectory. Cusk occasionally puts their disclosures in quotation marks, but more often they are reported through the filter of our narrator in the form of indirect dialogue.

The narrator says very little to interrupt the flow of the monologues. Details about her life surface through snatches or through her occasional commentary. Her portrait is sketchy, an outline at best. We don’t even learn her name until we are almost at the end of the novel. But she is an attentive listener and an astute observer of behavior. She asks probing questions which prompt the revelations. Her eye is trained to catch seemingly insignificant details. Her tone is resigned with a tinge of sadness. Her perceptions reinforce the thread that ties the conversations together—the sense of having lost something that can never be regained, whether it is one’s family, a former lover, an identity, a meaningful purpose, or a philosophy of life.

This is a very different type of novel, one that stretches the genre to its limits. It is both frustrating and brilliant. The frustration lies in the expectation that something is about to happen, some stunning revelation or epiphany. It never does. The brilliance lies in Cusk’s exquisite prose and in the manner in which the narrator somehow manages to erase her presence while mediating the monologues of those around her. What emerges from these monologues is stunning observations about human nature, loneliness, regret, loss, the desire to connect, gender stratification, fractured relationships, parenthood, failed marriages, and the amorphous nature of selfhood. These observations resonate forcefully as nuggets of truth. They creep up on us slowly, almost incidentally, attesting to Cusk’s consummate skill as a writer.

Highly recommended for those willing to plunge into an innovative novel where very little happens.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Diane Setterfield

One Upon a River by Diane Setterfield begins in the Swan Inn at Radcot along the River Thames. The year is 1887. In addition to serving ale, cider, and meals, the Swan offers its patrons a daily fare of stories told either by the owner or by a patron (with others chiming in with their two pennies worth to help the storyteller along). So, if you want to hear a good story, the Swan is where you need to be. And that is where Diane Setterfield takes us to share a delightful story, delightfully told.

It begins on the night of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. The patrons are huddled together, drinking ale, telling stories, and embellishing each story in the telling of it. Suddenly, a badly injured man with a bloodied and misshapen face bursts into the inn carrying what appears to be a large puppet. The puppet turns out not to be a puppet, after all. Instead, it is a lifeless young girl. And the young girl turns out not to be dead, after all. She slowly regains consciousness and becomes the subject of future stories as the child who died and came back to life. And so the story unfolds.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is the identity of the child. Who is she? Is she the young girl who was kidnapped two years ago? The sister of the cleaning lady at the parsonage? Or the daughter of the woman who committed suicide? Or is she someone else entirely—an ethereal creature from a different time and place?

The novel is populated with believable and delightful characters: the proprietors of the Swan with their brood of children; their customers; a farmer of mixed racial heritage with his wife and children; a young couple still reeling from the loss their child to kidnappers; a photographer; a midwife; and a host of villagers who make up the medley of characters. But what would a story be without a villain? So, add to the mix a ruthless villain, kidnapping, murder, and blackmail. And haunting the river is the mysterious Quietly whose name is spoken in hushed whispers. He ferries people safely to the river bank if their time has not yet come, and he ferries them to the other side where they are never to be seen again if their time is up. Throughout it all is the ever-present river with its winding ways and changing currents, harboring mysteries in its enchanting waters.

With interlocking threads of magical realism, folklore, science, and myth, Setterfield has composed a magic carpet that whisks you to a different time, a different place, and the liminal space between the real and the unreal. Her writing is eloquent, haunting, descriptive, and immersive. The dialogue is so realistic that one gets the sense of eavesdropping on real conversations. Her lines, peppered with irony and a gentle humor, reveal a charming ability for turning a phrase.

 Setterfield is a talented storyteller with an uncanny knack of making you feel as if you are curled up in a comfy chair, cradling a hot cup of tea, and listening to a gifted storyteller as she tells her wondrous tale.

A delightful story, delightfully told, celebrating the power of story-telling. How can it be anything but highly recommended?

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kamila Shamsie

Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie is in the first-person point of view of Aasmaani Inqalab, a thirty-something Pakistani woman. Her mother, a charismatic and prominent activist for women’s rights, disappeared and is presumed dead of suicide 14 years before the book opens. Her mother’s lover (“Omi”), a very famous poet, had been incarcerated several times in Pakistan for his radical views and critiques of the government. His body, with evidence of brutal torture, was found two years before her mother’s death. And now, more than a decade after their deaths, Aasmaani still struggles with accepting their disappearance from her life.

The novel opens with Aasmaani taking a job at a local T.V. station in Karachi. She has apparently drifted aimlessly in life since her mother’s disappearance. While at the T.V. station, she receives coded letters forwarded to her by a famous actress who was one of her mother’s closest friends. These letters convince her that either the poet or her mother or both are still alive. She de-codes each letter and becomes obsessed with investigating the circumstances of their alleged deaths.

The plot is interesting and has potential. Unfortunately, it fails in execution. Aasmaani is a self-obsessed whining character who spends an interminable amount of time fretting about not being the center of her mother’s life. This “poor me” stance goes on throughout the novel, ad nauseum. She spends an inordinate amount of time obsessively remembering her mother and alternating between feelings of anger and love toward her for choosing to be with the Poet rather than with her own daughter. These ruminations are tedious and weigh down the novel.

And then there is the issue of Aasmaani’s relationships. She has a strained relationship with her father, her step-mother, and step-sister—three people who continue to shower her with unconditional love. She has a love/hate relationship with the movie star’s son who also happens to be a colleague at the T.V. station and who shares the struggle of having a famous mother. Their dialogue is strained, pretentious, and completely unnatural. They talk in clichés and cite lines from Western poetry and Western movies as if each is trying to outdo the other. People simply don’t talk like that in real life.

Add to the mix references to recent political events and prominent figures in Pakistani politics; an oppressive government; the tensions between religious extremism and civil rights; a halting love affair; Aasmaani’s famous mother as Omi’s muse; a beautiful movie-star whose return to the T.V. screen causes a media frenzy; the mystery of encoded letters; and Aasmaani’s obsessive search for the truth about the deaths of her mother and step-father figure.

Kamila Shamsie has tried to do too much in this novel. And it shows. There is little depth to any of the characters. The dialogue is unnatural. The attempts at lyrical language are blatant and over-written. The mystery lacks luster and ends with a fizzle. And the main character’s interminable whining throughout makes her unlikeable and thoroughly annoying.

The novel is disappointing and lacks the talent Shamsie displays in Home Fire.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Zinzi Clemmons

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons reads more like a memoir than a novel. It consists of a series of vignettes told in the first-person point of view of Thandi, a young woman of mixed heritage.

Thandi’s mother is South African and her father is African American. Born and raised in America, Thandi has a foot in both countries, regularly visiting her mother’s homeland and family in Johannesburg while growing up and attending schools in the U.S. She feels estranged wherever she goes—“too black” in America and “too white” in Johannesburg. While grappling with her identity and notions of self-hood, she witnesses her mother’s physical decline as cancer ravages her body. Her mother’s death catapults Thandi into a period of extended mourning. Her feeling of being adrift leads to sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, a pregnancy, marriage, divorce, and single parenthood.

The structure of the novel is unorthodox. There is no straightforward plot. The narrative unfolds in a seemingly haphazard sequence of events. The chapters vary in length from a few lines to several pages. They include anecdotes, vignettes, newspaper articles, pictures, graphs, and intimate reflections on Thandi’s life, her mother’s gradual decline, and her inability to come to terms with her mother’s death.

Thandi continues to feel her mother’s presence in every nook and cranny of her life long after her death. The pages are saturated with her overwhelming feeling of loss and her sporadic attempts to fill the gaping void that gnaws at her being. With the birth of her child, her time and energies are so consumed with care-giving that her mother’s presence no longer intrudes on her waking and sleeping hours to the same degree. She expresses profound regret that the memories of her mother have receded into the background of her life.

This is a poignant and compelling coming-of-age novel that explores the meaning of motherhood, the search for identity of children of mixed heritage, the interplay of racial and class dynamics in different cultures, and the impact of post-apartheid racism. Its predominant tone is one of a profound grief permeating every aspect of a life. How does one cope with feelings of rootlessness triggered by the loss of a loved one who served as a foundation for being and self-hood?

Clemmons packs a powerful, visceral punch in each chapter, never letting us lose sight of Thandi’s all-consuming grief and loneliness as she tries to piece together the disparate threads of her life. Each chapter is an elegy, a heart-wrenching lament for loss and for the struggle to find a foothold in shifting sand. Dotted throughout are lyrical and meditative sentences, giving one pause to reflect.

Highly recommended for its refreshingly unorthodox structure and for its compelling depiction of the raw emotions a young woman experiences at the death of her mother.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Jean-Christophe Rufin; Trans. Adriana Hunter

The Red Collar by Jean-Christophe Rufin, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, is a novella with a straightforward plot and few characters.

The year is 1919 in a small town in France. A young man is in a military prison for committing an unspecified crime after the end of the war. His mangy, battle-scarred dog is outside, barking incessantly for his master. Along comes a military lawyer who is tasked with investigating the man’s crime and determining his fate. Added to the mix is the young man’s former lover and the father of his young child.

In the sweltering heat, the lawyer questions the prisoner and slowly unravels the story of his participation in the different campaigns during the war. We learn of the prisoner’s increasing disenchantment with the war, of the incompetence of military commanders, of the sheer drudgery and apparent futility of troop movements, and of the nascent stirrings of communism within the ranks. We learn the dog never leaves his master’s side and witnesses and/or actively participates in the some of the campaigns. He is loyal to his master and singularly focused on saving his life.

As the narrative unravels, we learn about the prisoner’s commendation as a hero of the war. We learn of the role the dog played in a crucial campaign. And, finally, we learn of the “crime” for which the prisoner faces the death sentence. The plot is simple, simply told, and with few characters. But what emerges from this simple narrative is a moving illustration of the meaning of love, loyalty, integrity, and sacrifice in times of crisis.

Rufin, a founder of the humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, and winner of the 1997 Goncourt Prize for a debut novel, has constructed a poignant novella based on a true-life anecdote revealed to him by a former colleague. He turns his lens away from the trenches of World War I to the women, children, and animals who suffer during a war. He reminds us of the indiscriminate impact of war. It is not just the men, women, and animals serving on the battle lines who are indelibly scarred by war. War also scars those who are left behind to pick up the pieces and who struggle with whatever semblance of normalcy they can salvage after the devastating loss of loved ones.

Highly recommended for the simplicity and subtlety with which it conveys the enduring aftermath of war.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism by Tikva Frymer-Kensky is a collection of 30 essays addressing various topics in the Bible and comparing them with their treatment in Near Eastern religions. Of particular interest was her analysis of the ancient Mesopotamian myths of creation, the flood, and goddesses.

The primary focus of the collection was on different aspects of Judaism and how it compares with Near Eastern religions and Christianity. Frymer-Kensky explores Jewish law; perspectives on the image; the covenant; ecology; and the role of women. She interrogates the concept of gender-neutral terms for God. And in her final essay, “Woman Jews,” she includes personal reflections on why she is a Jew.

The essays were uneven, and there was some overlapping and repetition of ideas, especially in her discussion of the Mesopotamian poem, Atrahasis. Her reading of the poems, in particular the Enuma Elish, may be subject to interpretation since she disagrees with scholars who see the poem as a precursor to monotheism. But the depth and scope of her scholarship is impressive. The notes at the end of each chapter coupled with an extensive bibliography are provided for further reading.

Recommended for those with an interest in Jewish perspectives of the Bible.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman is the second book in his Dark Materials series. Picking up where The Golden Compass (#1) left off, this book introduces us to a new protagonist, the young boy, Will. The protagonist of Book I, Lyra, recedes into the background as we follow Will on his adventure to locate his father. When Will and Lyra finally meet up and coordinate their activities, Lyra assumes the role of a support figure, following Will, obeying his orders, and nursing his wound.

The book is populated with witches, angels, specters who feed on adults, children running amok, adults with their demons, adults without their demons, the mysterious Dust, alternative worlds that run parallel to each other, armies preparing for a final, all-out war, and a knife that can cut between worlds.

This has the feeling of a middle book—a “filler” passage between Book I and the final book in the series. There are a lot of loose ends and questions that need to be answered at the end of Book II. Threading its way throughout the narrative is religious commentary—primarily critiques of organized religion, Catholicism, and the concept of original sin—as well as splashes of physics and anthropology. The narrative felt rushed and choppy, the events hurried, the focus scattered, and the dialogue stilted. The characters dash from one place to the next, from one event to the next, neither of which is sufficiently developed. And it was disappointing to see the plucky Lyra, full of spunk and audacity in Book I, be relegated to Will’s obedient side-kick in Book II.

All of this begs the question, where is Pullman going with this? Presumably, we will get the answers in Book III.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ross E. Dunn

The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century by Ross E. Dunn recounts the journey (Rihla) of Ibn Battuta throughout the Islamic world.

In 1325, at the age of twenty-one, Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta set off from his birth place of Tangier, Morocco, to go on a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. After performing the hajj, Ibn Battuta goes on a detour to visit the far reaches of the Islamic world, a detour that was to last twenty-four years. He visits Syria, Egypt, Persia, Iraq, East Africa, Yemen, Anatolia, southern Russia, Constantinople, India, southern Spain, the Maldives, Sumatra, and, possibly, China. Upon his return and with the help of Ibn Juzayy, a secretary, Ibn Battuta records his travels in the Rihla.

Since the spread of Islam and Islamic jurisprudence required literacy in Arabic even though Arabic may not have been a country’s primary language, Ibn Battuta has no difficulty encountering an Arabic-speaking individual to serve as his translator and guide wherever he goes. He is generally greeted as a visiting dignitary and is provided with free accommodation, money, and gifts—a characteristic of Islamic hospitality. Even when he is robbed and stumbles destitute into a village, he is immediately taken in and given housing, food, and clothing. He survives shipwrecks, pirates, malaria, and the plague.

Using the Rihla as his reference point, Professor Dunn takes us on a fascinating tour of the Islamic world in the fourteenth-century. He traces Ibn Battuta’s steps as he travels by foot, by camel, by horse, and by boat to the different locations. Professor Dunn suggests Ibn Battuta’s destinations are frequently serendipitous. He happens to encounter a caravan or a boat going in one direction and decides to join it even though his initial intention may have been to go in an entirely different direction. We are the beneficiaries of the haphazard and extensive nature of his travels.

Professor Dunn situates each location in its cultural, social, historical, and political context. As a consequence, we learn a great deal about the geography, history, trade, religious practices, habits, and conduct of a wide geographical region in the Islamic world. Relying on quotations from the Rihla as well as summaries and maps, Professor Dunn charts the journey. During Ibn Battuta’s time, the Islamic world was divided in numerous kingdoms and provinces with competing factions and feuds. The glue that bound them together was their faith and their modes of conduct derived from their belief in the one God and their allegiance to the Sacred Law. This made it possible for Ibn Battuta to travel to foreign climes and feel right at home because of a shared belief system governing public and private affairs.

Professor Dunn paints an intriguing portrait of this fourteenth-century Muslim globe-trotter. Although he is not without the occasional criticism for Ibn Battuta’s oftentimes meddlesome ways and self-inflated importance, it is obvious he holds an affection for this quirky adventurer. But more importantly than his portrait of Ibn Battuta is Professor Dunn’s extensive research, bibliography, endnotes, maps, commentary, and narrative of the mosaic nature of the cultural and political climate of the Islamic world in the fourteenth century.

Highly recommended for any who wish to trek through the Islamic world in the fourteenth century under the expert guidance of a professor of History and his audacious world traveler.

Michael Ondaatje

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a masterpiece of storytelling.

The novel begins in 1945 London, shortly after the end of the war when London is slowly recovering from the Blitz. Although the war may officially be over, the conflict between factions continues but assumes a different form.

Unwittingly embroiled in post-war events is 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sixteen-year-old sister, Rachel. Abandoned by their parents who have ostensibly gone to Singapore for a year, Nathaniel and Rachel are left in the hands of a guardian, a mysterious figure they call The Moth. Initially, Rachel and Nathaniel are convinced that their guardian is engaged in some sort of nefarious criminal activity. Their impressions are reinforced when The Moth’s motley crew of cohorts enter and exit periodically in their lives with little to no explanation.

The narrative unfolds from Nathaniel’s first-person point of view. He attaches himself to one of the regular visitors, The Darter, and joins him on his midnight adventures through the streets of London and on river barges as they smuggle greyhounds and transport crates, the contents of which remain a mystery. From The Darter and The Moth’s other visitors, Nathaniel picks up survival tools, takes on odd jobs in London, and has his first love affair. All this comes to a violent and bloody halt when his mother emerges from the shadows to be with her children.

We skip forward about a dozen years when, as a grown man employed by British Intelligence, Nathaniel begins to uncover his mother’s secret life. He recalls people, events, activities, and snatches of conversation that had little meaning for him during his adolescence. He unearths documents about post-war clandestine activities, interrogations, spies, and covert operations. He learns that the shady characters who befriended him as a teenager all had unique talents that were put to use by British Intelligence. And he learns of his mother’s activities under her code name, Viola. 

This is a multilayered historical novel about what happened and what might have happened in post-war London. The research is impressive and encapsulates the zeitgeist of the time: the “mopping up” or destruction of sensitive documents; the transportation of explosives by river and through the dimly lit streets of London at all hours of the night; the museum and gallery collections stored in hotel basements and tunnels for safe-keeping; and shady people operating in the margins.

But it is also a novel about memory, about the fragmentary nature of memory, and about how our recollections are enveloped in a fog. As a teenager, Nathaniel snatches images and tidbits of conversations, the full import of which he doesn’t understand until years later. He grasps at hints, suggestions, innuendos. His enigmatic mother provides evasive answers to his questions and cradles her secrets to the grave. His attempt to reconnect with The Darter later in life is unsatisfactory. Like Nathaniel, we are haunted by much that is left unanswered. 

Just as with memory, the novel progresses in a non-linear fashion, circling back on itself with flashbacks and flash forwards. The narrative switches from first-person point of view to limited omniscient as Nathaniel imagines events in his mother’s secret life and in the life of The Darter now with a wife and child. The diction and imagery exquisitely capture the ambiguity and indefinable quality of life in the shadows. We witness his struggle to connect shards of memory to make meaning of a historical period in which secrecy was a pre-condition for survival.

The term “Warlight” refers to the dimming of lights during wartime to evade night time bombers. In this novel, Michael Ondaatje has captured the essence of warlight—a foggy darkness peopled by barely discernible shadows, engaged in activities that remain a mystery, with Nathaniel as a participant in a game he didn’t even know he was playing.

A breathtaking masterpiece at evoking a murky, haunting atmosphere and the shadowy characters who people it. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is about a bookstore owner who struggles to come to terms with the death of his wife. His deteriorating life-style takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of a package mysteriously abandoned in his bookstore. The package prompts his transformation from a curmudgeonly, unsociable book lover to a loving father and husband who gradually learns to connect with his community and become a socially active and contributing member.

Fikry is a book lover who harbors strong opinions about books. But don’t we all? Zevin peppers the narrative with references to various books and Fikry’s unapologetic assessment of the work, as well as his pronouncements on what constitutes a good story and why. He is the focal point in a social circle of people who share his love for books—from Chief Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer; Amelia, the book sales representative; and Maya, his adopted daughter.

Fikry is lovable enough, but his portrayal is somewhat stereotypical—a socially inept, frosty book lover who is more comfortable between the pages of a book than among real people. The portrayal of his daughter Maya is the most problematic. She speaks with the voice of an adult while a toddler and maintains the same voice even as she ages. At times it is difficult to pinpoint whether she is still a child or a young adult.

The plot was predictable, especially the burgeoning romance between Fikry and Amelia. And the rose-colored lens with which the tragedies are viewed and summarily dismissed is unrealistic and superficial. The tone of Maya’s short story in which she imagines what led to her mother’s suicide is callous and flippant—as if to suggest that every tragedy in life can be dealt with if one turns it into fodder for creative writing.

In spite of these shortcomings, there is much to recommend this book. It is a quick, easy, and enjoyable read. The narrative is brisk and the discussions of the merits and demerits of various books are sure to thrill most readers. The setting is delightful as it is the only bookstore in an off-the-beaten path village. And the lovable Fikry with his precocious child and quirky wife make an amiable team.

Recommended for readers who love reading books about people who love reading books.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

David Wengrow

In What Makes Civilization, David Wengrow argues the connections of Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt with the West go beyond the perception of the former as the birthplace of civilization. He does this by dissolving the concept of distance and arguing that civilization consists of the exchange of culture between different societies.

Part 1 of his book focuses on a discussion of metals, gems, food preparation, food cultivation, trade, currency, dwellings, and culture in the civilizations of the ancient Near East. Through detailed and concrete examples, Wengrow demonstrates that prehistoric and ancient societies did not exist in isolation of each other. They were interconnected and inter-related in spite of geographical distances. His detailed and extensive analysis shows how the raw materials found in one location were consumed in a different location. He then demonstrates the similarities and differences in how the cultures tried to dissolve the distance between humans and gods.

Part 2 focuses on dissolving the distance between the ancient Near East with modern European history by drawing parallels between a belief in sacral kingship with the modern institution of monarchy.

Wengrow’s aim is to repudiate the idea of a clash of civilizations. Rather, he sees strong evidence of cultural sharing between civilizations—both past and present. He criticizes the West for regarding itself as the successor of ancient cultures, as if “Modern Civilization . . . is a unique possession of the West, but one nevertheless built upon (ancient) Eastern foundations.”

The book as a whole made for challenging reading because its details and plethora of examples bordered on being too technical, cumbersome, and confusing at times. But if we step back from the minute details and view the general argument, we can appreciate Wengrow’s promotion of an interesting perspective: civilization is to be found in the domestic and mundane and not simply in ancient structures; ancient civilizations interacted and engaged in cross-fertilization; and the lines which separate ancient civilizations of the Near East with the West are blurred, at best.

Recommended for its exploration of daily life in ancient Near East societies and for arguing for a fresh look at the meaning of civilization.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Bessie Head

With some of the stories echoing folktales, Bessie Head’s The Collector of Treasures is a collection of thirteen short stories set in a Botswanan village where life is fraught with tension.

Conflict permeates most aspects of village life. Some villagers cling to traditional religion and culture while others have adopted Christianity, embrace modernization, and view indigenous culture with disdain. Conflict also exists between men and women. The men in several of the short stories are depicted with rapacious sexual appetites, abandoning wives and children to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, the women eke out a living to support themselves and their children. Exacerbating the tension is a harsh climate, devastating droughts, unforgiving soil, poverty, corruption, and the sheer desperation of village life.

Several of the stories illustrate intolerance and hypocrisy. For example, in “Heaven is not Closed,” a devout Christian woman is banished from the church by a missionary for choosing to marry a man who insists on adhering to traditional customs. In “The Village Saint,” a woman is exposed for being harsh, cruel, and domineering. “Witchcraft” and “Looking for a Rain God” echo traditional beliefs and superstitions. In “Kgotla,” we see an example of the traditional method of resolving conflicts by having each party publicly air its grievances in front of a “court” of elders, with all agreeing to abide by the chief’s decision.

The subordination of women is clearly evident in this patriarchal culture. Women are used, abused, and perceived primarily as sexual objects to satisfy male lust. Male misbehavior is tolerated, whereas the same behavior exhibited by women is vociferously condemned and accosted with wagging tongues. Women have little recourse to defend themselves or their children. Some, as in the case of Dikeledi in “The Collector of Treasures,” resort to violence since they see no other viable option available to them.

Although most of the stories portray conflict and challenges, a few illustrate harmonious marital relationships. Kenalepe and Paul Thebolo in “The Collector of Treasures” and Tholo and Thato in “Hunting” are married couples living in harmony and mutual respect. And some stories show glimpses of female solidarity—women supporting each other in the face of adversity.

The strength of these stories lies in Bessie Head’s portrayal of village life while maintaining the tone of a detached observer even when describing scenes of horror and abuse. She presents harsh events as if they are every day occurrences woven into the fabric of village life in Botswana. There is no lapse into righteous condemnation. There is no banner-waving to call attention to the injustice. Injustice occurs at every street corner. It just is. Head’s quiet equanimity and distancing in voice and tone is highly effective since her understated manner of presenting events serves to reinforce the horror.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kid is a heart-warming, coming of age story of Lily, a young girl who became motherless at the tender age of four when her mother died of an accidental gun shot wound.

Lily grows up in South Carolina with her disgruntled and abusive father, T. Ray. Rosaleen, the African-American housekeeper, assumes the role of Lily’s surrogate mother. Plagued with questions about her mother’s death, Lily hungers for but is denied affection from her father. When Rosaleen offends three of the town’s worst racists and is thrown in jail, Lily devises a plan to set them both free.

The two escape to Tiburon, South Carolina, where Lily hopes to learn something of her mother’s past. They end up in the home of three African-American beekeeping sisters. The sisters teach Lily about beekeeping and running a business. They introduce her to their unique form of worship for the Black Madonna. With their network of eccentric female friends, they surround Lily in a cocoon of love and support for the first time in her life. Lily realizes she no longer feels the absence of mother love because she now has several mothers who shower her with unconditional love.

Set against the backdrop of civil rights movement in the early ‘60s, the characters are forced to contend with virulent racism. Rosaleen is harassed by the town’s racists when she declares she is on her way to register to vote. Although successful business women, the three sisters have to be extremely cautious when dealing with outsiders. The youngest sister’s inability to cope with the cruelty of racism leads to tragic consequences. And Lily, who had never given much consideration to racism in the past, begins to recognize her white skin privilege and to purge herself of the seeds of internalized racism planted in her as a child.

The female characters are well drawn, but, in the case of August, a little too good to be true. The novel is told in the first-person point of view of Lily, which allows us access to her inner thoughts. Lily is endearing, resourceful, intelligent, and articulate. Much to her credit, she harbors an innate sense of right and wrong, and her gradual transformation from a naïve, lonely child to a precocious adolescent unafraid to confront her father is believable.

Threaded throughout the novel are references to the habits and activities of bees, including the focus on the all-important queen bee. These references supplement the novel’s feminist sensibility with its gutsy female-centered characters, a female-centered/goddess worshipping religion, and a support network composed of well-grounded, no-nonsense women.

A quick and enjoyable read with writing that is brisk and engaging. Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Nadifa Mohamed

Nadifa Mohamed situates The Orchard of Lost Souls in Hargeisa, Somalia, in 1988. It is a turbulent time. The country is in the iron grip of a military dictatorship. As the opposition to military rule gains force, the country descends into a brutal civil war. Mohamed shows the deleterious impact of war by focusing on the lives of three females.  

Deqo is a nine-year-old orphan living in a refugee camp. Because she fumbles dance steps in the military parade, she is taken aside by guards and beaten. She manages to evade her captors only to lead a destitute existence on the streets of Hargeisa.

Filsan is a young and ambitious female soldier, fiercely determined to prove herself in a man’s world. When General Haarun singles her out for attention, Filsan assumes he does so because he is impressed with her skills as a soldier. Her hopes of a promotion are dashed when she rebuffs his amorous overtures and is unceremoniously kicked out of his car. Humiliated and angry, she channels her frustration by savagely beating up an older woman brought to the jail.

Kawsar is that older woman. She is in her late fifties and still grieving the loss of her husband and daughter. When she sees the guards beating up on the young child during the parade, she confronts them and is promptly carted off to the squalid conditions of the local jail.

These three lives intersect briefly at the beginning of the novel and then at the very end. In the interim, we are provided with the back story of each of the characters as Mohamed alternates the perspective by weaving in and out of their past and present lives. Each has suffered a trauma: the orphan Deqo is traumatized because she has no family; Filsan is abused by her father and treated as less than by the male-dominated military; and Kawsar is haunted by her daughter’s suicide.

Mohamed paints a compelling portrait of the everyday lives of women against the backdrop of a brutal civil war. She gives voice to their experiences and their fears. As the rebellion gains momentum, corpses line the streets; women and children are slaughtered and their meager possessions stolen; young men carry guns, shooting at anything that moves; the elderly and disabled are tortured and beaten; women are raped. War at any time and anywhere brutalizes all those caught in its tentacles. Atrocities are perpetrated on all sides. And the innocent caught in the crosshairs have no safe refuge. They struggle to hold on to whatever vestige of humanity they have left amidst the horror and the carnage.

The pace of the novel is quick; the writing accessible; the characterization adequate. The ending is somewhat contrived. Filsan’s sudden transformation is rushed and barely plausible. But what emerges from these horrific circumstances is the resilience and dignity of Somali women. Their network of support for each other coupled with a fierce determination to survive against all odds makes this a compelling read.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir; Trans. Brian FitzGibbon

Hotel Silence by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is a delightful novel told in the first-person point of view of Jónas, a forty-nine-year-old man undergoing an existential crisis. Convinced his life has lost meaning, Jónas calmly plans his suicide. The only thing worrying him is how to do it while causing minimal disruption to his daughter.

After eliminating several options, Jónas decides the best way to achieve his goal is to travel to a war-torn country currently experiencing a fragile truce. His plan is to spend a few days there before hanging himself. He reasons the country has seen so much death, the presence of another corpse is a relatively unremarkable event.

Accordingly, Jónas gets his affairs in order, reserves a room in Hotel Silence in this unnamed country, packs minimal clothing and his all-important tool box with the necessary tools to carry out the deed, and heads off. But then events take an unexpected turn.

The location of Hotel Silence is never revealed, indicating the impact of war is the same regardless of where it occurs. The hotel and surrounding area carry the scars of war. The infrastructure has collapsed; buildings are pock-marked with bullet holes; walls are missing, revealing the shattered interior of homes; electricity is rationed; water supply is intermittent; land mines have yet to be defused; shops and restaurants are shuttered. As bad as it all is, Jonas realizes that whereas buildings and infrastructure can be fixed, the impact on survivors is not so easily fixed. Internal scars have etched themselves indelibly in the minds of survivors and surface in the form of fleeting glimpses of the horrors.

Jónas is viewed with suspicion upon his arrival in this war-ravaged country, especially when he declares he is on vacation. He takes everything in stride and has learned to expect the unexpected. He doesn’t complain about the condition of his room. Instead, he sets about fixing the plumbing and lighting. When the hotel proprietors discover his skill, they ask him to perform odd jobs around the hotel, duct taping this, wiring that, tightening door hinges, painting walls. Eventually he finds himself performing the same fix-it services in neighboring buildings. And as Jónas duct-tapes, re-wires, unclogs plumbing, repairs broken windows, he helps to mend the shattered lives of those around him, gradually re-tooling his own life in the process.,

Jónas is a self-effacing man of few words who thrives on anonymity. He never wallows in self-pity. His internal life is vibrant and engaging, revealing an awareness of the ironies of life sprinkled with occasional bursts of gentle humor. He hides a delicate sensibility. His compassion for others is shown through action rather than through words. This is a quiet, subdued portrait of an endearing protagonist whose gentle, unassuming qualities go straight to the heart.

Ólafsdóttir’s style is understated, subtle, and minimalist. Her sentences are short but pregnant with sensitivity and meaning. There is an absence of flowery language. Instead, the diction is sparse, simple, straightforward and somehow manages to capture the poignancy and poetry of life in few words. The novel won the 2016 Icelandic Literary Prize and was selected by Iceland’s booksellers as the 2016 Best Icelandic Novel. It is well deserving of the awards.

Toward the end of the novel, Jónas is asked by a disgruntled hotel guest, “Do you think you can glue back together a broken world?” Well, maybe not the whole world. But, as the novel demonstrates, you can at least glue parts of it to make some lives whole again.

Highly recommended for its quiet subtlety, tenderness, and delicate strokes of character portrayal.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an extraordinary novel depicting a shattered, post- apocalyptic world in which all the conveniences and safety valves of modern society have disappeared.

A global pandemic has killed off over 99% of the human population. The survivors cluster together in small, isolated groups in abandoned buildings. They learn to function without electricity and running water. They adjust and make compromises in their daily existence. Survival frequently depends on kill or be killed. Some are able to adjust better than others. Some turn to music and theatre as a refuge, performing in make-shift venues as the Traveling Symphony. Some join a violent cult headed by a deranged, self-proclaimed prophet. And others walk off into the wilderness, never to be heard from or seen again.

Emily St. John Mandel plunges the reader in a terrifying world where social obligations, morality, and the rule of law have totally collapsed. She structures her novel around flashbacks and flash forwards in a series of vignettes with leaps in time in which the life that used to be constantly compares with the life that is now. She introduces her characters in seemingly disjointed threads—Arthur Leander, an actor who dies on the stage while performing King Lear; a young girl who plays Cordelia; a former journalist turned paramedic in the audience who springs to action to perform CPR on Leander; Leander’s first wife; and Leander’s closest friend.

Through the vignettes, we learn about the characters and their lives before and after the pandemic. Leander appears intermittently throughout the vignettes as the connecting glue. The characters are also linked by a joint memory or an object from the past—a snow globe, a tattered comic book, a magazine, a photograph. In this way, St. John Mandel skillfully ties the threads together, connecting one character with another, connecting the past with the present in a vibrant tapestry.

Life in this post-apocalyptic universe is harsh and dangerous. The characters cling to their memories of loved ones. They stock a “museum of civilization” with objects from the past. They share a cultural history. They talk of electricity, heating, cooling, airplanes, running water, etc. to post-apocalypse children. They buoy their spirits with music and poetry and Shakespeare. They form ties with one another to survive and thrive. When families and loved ones are lost, when former relationships have vanished, new relationships must be forged, new communities must be developed, and new meaning must be created. Choices are made, and the choices the characters make define them and determine how they will operate in this post-apocalypse world. Ultimately what remains in a universe bereft of all the trappings of civilization is the resilience of the human spirit.

Emily St. John Mandel has written a stunning novel. The back and forth leaps in time, the pacing, the diction, the consistency of tone, the strong characterization, the vivid imagery, the shard memories, and the use of telling detail all combine to make this a complex, compelling, and thrilling read.

Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anita Diamant

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is loosely based on the Genesis story of Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob and Leah. Daimant fleshes out Dinah’s story, telling it in her first-person point of view while deviating from the Biblical version in significant ways. Dinah provides background on her grandfather Laban; the entrance of Jacob into their lives; Jacob’s marriage to her mother; his subsequent marriages to her three aunts; and their plentiful offspring, consisting of Dinah’s brothers and cousins.

The novel starts out strongly. The focus on women and their activities of weaving, cooking, tending the garden, healing ailments, birthing, and nurturing children is evidence of a caring and supportive network of women in an exclusively woman space. The women cling to their worship of the goddess figures of Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt during the early stages of the transition to monotheism. This is a segregated, patriarchal society in which a woman’s primary function is to birth sons and to assume a subordinate role to the male. But within that framework and within their woman space of the red tent, the women bond, sharing knowledge and body wisdom that is transmitted from mother to daughter, from crone to virgin.   

As the only daughter of Jacob and Leah in a bevy of sons, Dinah is singled out for special affection by her mother and aunts/other mothers. They welcome her into the circle of women, initiate her into the inner sanctum of the red tent—the exclusive province of females, embrace her entrance into womanhood with the onset of menarche, train her on midwifery, and teach her the medicinal properties of certain plants and herbs.

All seems to be going in Dinah’s favor until things go horribly wrong. After her husband is slaughtered and Dinah goes to Egypt with her mother-in-law, the novel loses much of its strength. Dinah is forced to relinquish control of her son, befriends a midwife, and becomes known throughout Egypt as a midwife with exceptional powers. She falls happily in love with a carpenter, marries him, and is summoned by the Egyptian vizier to assist in his wife’s delivery of their child. The vizier turns out to be her brother, Joseph. The two then travel together to visit their dying father. Dinah returns to her husband to live the rest of her days in happiness.

The events after Dinah’s arrival in Egypt are rushed and, in contrast with the first part of the novel, time gallops at an unprecedented pace. The women of the red tent are well-rounded and portrayed as unique individuals. The men, however, are flat, never fully developed, and most are portrayed stereotypically as bossy patriarchs. Character development suffers, especially in Egypt where we are introduced to characters with barely a superficial nod. Dinah is portrayed as more acted upon than acting. And her convenient love affair with her carpenter husband reeks of a sentimental mushiness reminiscent of the unrealistic “happily ever after” endings of fairy tales.

Perhaps Diamant’s intention was to demonstrate that the lives of women unraveled after the loss of their woman space in the red tent and all it signified. Perhaps the goal was to show how women’s strength diminished when they were deprived of their female network of support. All well and good. However, in the process of demonstrating this, the novel loses much of what made it compelling and focused in the first place—an unfortunate conclusion to what started off with such strength.

Recommended but with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul intricately weaves together the lives of two families, the Turkish Kazanci family and the Armenian Tchakhmakhchian family. When Armanoush, the young daughter of Barsam Tchakhmakhchian and Rose from Kentucky, flies to Istanbul to visit her step-father’s family in Turkey to learn about her heritage, little does she know her visit will open up old wounds that have festered for generations.

The “bastard” of the title is Asya Kazanci, the illegitimate daughter of Zeliha, the youngest of the Kazanci women. Zeliha refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father. So Asya is raised in a house full of women—her mother, two grandmothers, and three aunts, all of whom gloss over the fact that no one knows her father’s identity. Since she feels cut off from her roots, the nineteen-year-old Asya becomes a nihilist, denying the past has any bearing on her life. When Armanoush (“Amy”) shows up at the Kazanci residence in Istanbul, the step cousins become friends, discovering they have much in common. The novel’s end reveals they have more in common than any could have imagined.

Shafak has written an entertaining tale of families whose fates are intertwined. Her characters ponder questions about the past and how much of the past should be allowed to impinge on their present day lives. Perhaps some secrets should stay buried while others should surface to facilitate healing and reconciliation. Shafak skillfully weaves snapshots of the 1915 Armenian deportations and genocide with the disparate threads of her character’s lives. A picture gradually emerges that links the past with the present, the Armenian family with the Turkish family, in unexpected ways. 

The novel’s strength lies in a number of areas. Shafak’s ability to create a sense of place is impressive. She immerses the reader in sights, sounds, smells; in the hustle and the bustle of a cosmopolitan Istanbul in all its beauty and contradictions. Food plays a prominent role both in America and Turkey. Armenian food, Turkish food, and American food are all described in vivid, sensory detail. Interestingly enough, Shafak uses the ingredients for the ashure dessert as her chapter headings, a dessert that plays a pivotal role at the end of the novel.

Shafak’s portrayal of the bevy of women characters is equally impressive. The women envelope Asya in a cocoon of love that is, at times, comforting and, at other times, stifling. Each woman emerges as an authentic individual with a unique set of eccentricities and mannerisms. But there are occasions in which Shafak stretches plausibility. For example, she puts words in the mouths of the nineteen-year-old step cousins that are, perhaps, too sophisticated for their age. Asya, in particular, comes across as inauthentic when spouting her ideology.

The seemingly disparate narrative threads are skillfully woven together to make a rich tapestry with surprising twists and turns, brimming with vivid detail, shifts in time and place, and a touch of magical realism with the sporadic presence of talking djinns. Shafak peppers her narrative with humor, irony, and, above all, with sympathy for characters who struggle with personal identity and with reconciliation for past injustices.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

George MacDonald

Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women by George MacDonald is a rambling, episodic fantasy of a young man’s journey in Fairy Land.

The novel opens with Anodos who has just turned 21 years old. As he is going through his father’s old desk, he encounters a pint-sized woman who jumps out of the desk and expands to a normal height. She announces his trip to Fairy Land. Anodos wakes up the next day to find his room has transformed into Fairy Land, a plush natural environment with woods, a stream, and a path. It looks so welcoming that Anodos embraces the chance to enter. And so it begins.

We follow Anodos as he navigates through Fairy Land. He encounters a motley crew of characters, objects, and places: knights in not-so-shining amour; elderly ladies inhabiting cottages in the woods; an ash tree that tries to snarl him with its branches; goblins; a shadow that follows him; a lady trapped in marble whom he sings to life; a maiden in an Alder tree; a magic castle; and the list goes on.

Andodos’ journey is episodic in nature, lacking any sort of coherent structure even though there is a suggestion that some of the events mirror image each other. The journey has a dream-like quality, seemingly devoid of any logical connections. Our intrepid protagonist drifts from one event to another with no evidence of rhyme or reason. No sooner does an event seem to make sense than a nonsensical shift in time and place interrupts the flow.

The entrance into Fairy Land can, perhaps, be seen as an allegory of the soul’s journey into the spiritual world or the world of the imagination infused as it is with many lyrical passages, vivid imagery, and sensuous language. Unfortunately, MacDonald mars the effect by inserting lines of abysmal poetry which ooze with sugary sentimentality. He immerses the reader in a rambling, incomprehensible fairy world with its hints of symbolism and allegory, its dream-like qualities, and its fairy tale elements thrown in for good measure.

Recommended with reservations for readers willing to suspend disbelief to gain the experience of entering a dream-like, magical, fantasy world. But be forewarned: abandon all expectations of a logical sequence of events before opening its pages.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review