Erica Bauermeister

Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients is a warm, light-hearted novel about a motley crew of strangers who come together for a cooking class on Monday evenings at Lillian’s restaurant. Among them is Claire, a young mother struggling to find herself in a haze of toddlers and diapers; an elderly married couple; an attractive Italian woman with bubbling energy; a man still grieving over the loss of his wife; a computer engineer with a discerning palate for herbs and spices; a young girl who manifests her low self esteem by being clumsy and awkward; and an elderly lady with bouts of dementia. They enter Lillian’s restaurant as strangers. With gentle nudges from an unrealistically omniscient Lillian who seems to know exactly which culinary masterpiece is needed for the occasion, the strangers become acquainted with each other, emerging at the end of the cooking class with souls that have been healed, lives that have been restored, and friendships that have been forged. 

The novel is a quick and easy read. It suffers somewhat from its predictability, its lack of depth, and its abundance of sentimentality. But if you’re looking for a “feel good” novel that restores your faith in humanity while stimulating your taste buds, you can’t go wrong with this.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati (Arabic for storyteller) by Rabih Alameddine appropriately begins with the word “Listen” and ends with the word “Listen.” These two words form a circle encapsulating an enchanting world of stories within stories within stories told by a gifted storyteller who knows how to attract and sustain his audience’s attention. 

The main narrative is of Osama al-Kharrat who returns to Beirut in 2003 after an absence of many years to see his dying father. Within that narrative are flashbacks of Osama’s childhood; stories he heard from his grandfather, including circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s birth and family history; and fragmented memories of life in Lebanon before the civil war that decimated the country. We meet Osama’s large extended family and hear their stories as they visit the dying man in the hospital.

Woven within this main narrative is a rich tapestry of stories primarily taken from Islamic and Jewish texts, Arab literature, and Arab folklore. The characters and events populating these stories have been re-imagined in entertaining and inventive ways. We encounter demons and djinns, sit in the presence of august emirs and sultans, experience magic carpet rides, witness battles and conquests, visit the underworld, receive an education on pigeon wars, listen to rhapsodies of romantic love, learn of magic potions, and observe as dismembered bodies of loved ones are carefully reassembled and retrieved from the dead.  

Alameddine skillfully weaves myths, fables, tall tales, legends, stories within stories, short digressions, long digressions, wit, sarcasm, laugh out loud humor, twists and turns, and anything else imaginable into the backdrop of a Lebanon recovering from a devastating civil war and a prominent family that survived it. He has earned the title of being a true Hakawati—a master storyteller who seduces his listeners to join him on a boisterous, rollicking journey that captivates from the first “Listen” to the last.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anita Desai

A finalist for the Booker Prize in 1999, Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting is divided into two parts. Part 1 takes place in India with a family of five: a father, mother, two daughters, and one son. Part 2 takes place in America with a family of four: a father, mother, son, and daughter. The connecting thread is Arun, the long-awaited for son of the Indian family who goes to Massachusetts to study and spends a summer with the American family. Although worlds apart, the two families have in common a patriarchal family structure with an inflexible hierarchy that goes unchallenged, one that forces its members into rigidly defined roles. In both cultures, women are the primary victims whether they are married or single, young or old. 

Part 1 is seen through the eyes of Uma, the eldest daughter of the Indian family. She suffers from epilepsy and myopia—both of which are trivialized by her family and treated as inconveniences. She remains unmarried and lives with her parents who run her ragged with their constant demands. Uma complains but is ultimately complicit in her subordination. She has little choice. Uneducated, single, unemployed, she is totally reliant on her parents for survival.   

Desai takes us to America in Part 2 where we meet the Patton family. We see them through the eyes of Arun who is shocked to recognize some of the same patterns he witnessed in his own family. In Mrs. Patton he sees similarities with his own mother. Both constantly defer to their husbands and are reluctant to assert themselves. On those rare occasions when either woman expresses her views, her husband ignores her. Melanie, the Patton daughter, is bulimic. In her angry, contorted face, Arun recognizes the same expression worn by his sister Uma whose needs have been similarly misunderstood, ignored, and neglected.

Desai uses food as metaphor (the fasting and feasting of the title) to compare and contrast the two families. In one culture, food is used as a vehicle to express communion; in the other, it is used to express isolation. In India the sharing of meals assumes almost ritualistic importance. The family is drawn together for their meals even though communication falters and all are there to cater to the father. Food is a frequent topic of discussion: when to cook, what to cook, what food to offer guests, and who should or should not be invited to share a meal. By contrast, the Patton family has a problematic attitude toward food. The mother stuffs the freezer and refrigerator with food even though what is already there hasn’t been eaten. The father grills steaks that no one else wants to eat. The daughter gorges on peanuts and candy only to vomit everything out a few minutes later. The son forages for leftover meat on the implements used for grilling. And the family never sits together for a meal. They eat in isolation.

Desai is a keen observer of human behavior. Her characters come to life within the first few pages. They are revealed through intricate details—gestures, facial expressions, words said, and words left unsaid. Desai shows rather than tells. In Part 1, for example, there is a wonderful scene where the Indian family sits at the dinner table. Having finished the main meal, the father waits with a “sphinx like” expression. The mother takes it as her cue to peel him an orange. She meticulously removes the pips and places slice by slice carefully on the father’s plate. The father then lifts each slice, placing it ceremoniously in his mouth. Everyone watches in deafening silence at this amazing feat. When he finishes, mother sits back, flushed with pride at her achievement while father maintains his stony-faced silence without so much as a nod of appreciation. This scene speaks volumes.

Unfortunately, the novel ends abruptly, lacking in closure. We are told Arun leaves the Patton household to return to the dorms at the start of a new semester. We hear no more about his family. In spite of an ending that falls short, however, Desai’s skill at characterization through telling description is impressive and makes the novel well worth reading.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mary Renault

The King Must Die by Mary Renault is a re-telling of the Greek myth of Theseus. Renault begins with Theseus’ early childhood and concludes with his killing of the Minotaur in Crete.

Although Renault does an admirable job of fleshing out the historical setting and situating the myth in a realistic, historical context, her story-telling abilities did not live up to expectations. The first part of the novel was flat and plodding. The pace did pick up with Theseus’ arrival in Crete with the descriptions of life in the Bull Court, the Bull Dance, the earthquake, and the killing of the Minotaur.

The novel suffered from two main problems. The first lies in Renault’s writing style. Some of her sentences were unnecessarily cumbersome, wordy, and convoluted. The book was first published in 1958, so the muddled syntax may be attributed to its date of publication since writing styles have changed since then. However, books published even a few centuries before this did not suffer from the same problem. See, for example, the following sentence:

All this I saw before he deigned to look at me; this and the way he stood; like a painting done on a wall of a princely victor, whom words do not touch, nor time and change, nor tears, nor anger; but he will stand so in his ease and pride, uncaring, till war or earthquake shakes down the wall.”

The same message could have been conveyed clearly, concisely, and without all that extra verbiage and pretentious language. And then there were sentences that left one scratching one’s head:

If a man could prevent knowledge before he has it, I would not have known.”

The second problem lies in the handling of Theseus as the first person point of view narrator. The issue is not because Theseus exhibits an over-sexed masculinity and is a misogynist since that is probably an accurate reflection of the male culture of the time. It isn’t even because he is an unreliable narrator since unreliable narrators can reveal the inner workings of their minds in a manner that engages the reader and sustains our attention. It’s just that Theseus was not an interesting or engaging character. He was flat out boring.

Reynault’s lackluster portrayal of Theseus coupled with her writing style of unnecessarily convoluted syntax and unorthodox use of punctuation for no apparent reason detracted from what would otherwise have been an interesting re-telling of the myth.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Stephanie Golden

Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice by Stephanie Golden explores the issue of why so many women are willing to cater to the needs of others even at the expense of sacrificing their personal happiness, psychic health, and physical well-being. Using Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid as metaphor, Golden compares the behaviors of historical and contemporary women to the mermaid’s willingness to mutilate her body, lose her voice, and endure pain all because of a distorted sense of devotion to another person(s), an ideal, or a cause.

Golden weaves interviews of contemporary women with examples of the behaviors of historical women and with the research of prominent past and present historians, sociologists, psychiatrists, and physicians. Her well-documented research explores the religious and cultural roots of sacrifice and the unequal distribution of the burden placed on women to endure physical and psychological pain for the benefit of others. Women’s conditioning has been so ingrained that many women harbor feelings of guilt if they articulate their personal needs and/or insist on having them addressed. This results in women de-selfing, losing their identity, abandoning their dreams and aspirations, and assuming the guise of victim and/or martyr—a guise which relieves them of personal responsibility. They starve themselves both literally (as in the case of anorexics) and metaphorically from a sense of guilt and need for affirmation.

Golden argues that sacrifice in and of itself is not a bad thing. Sacrifice should be an exercise of conscious, mindful choice. It can and should be constructive, fulfilling, self-enhancing, mutually empowering, and nurturing of oneself as well as of those we serve. Problems arise when sacrifice is stripped of these qualities and, instead, entails self-defeating behaviors, a loss of voice and agency, a willingness to endure ill health and pain, and the surrender of control over one’s life.

Golden’s shuffling between different interview subjects was confusing at times and the central argument became repetitive. In spite of that, however, Slaying the Mermaid has considerable merit. The research is well-documented, all-encompassing, and considers how the intersections of race and class impact the gendered manifestations of sacrifice. Ample concrete examples from the lives of women buttress the claims.

But perhaps more importantly, the study spurs us to examine the motives behind our own sacrifices: Are our sacrifices made by choice? Or are they the result of years of a socialization that promotes the ideal of true womanhood as consisting of self-denial and a willingness to embrace physical and psychological pain in the service of others?

Slaying the Mermaid prompts us to interrogate our own motives. And as such, it provides a valuable service that makes it well worth reading.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Margaret Atwood

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the Handmaid Offred recounts in chilling detail the horrors of life in the fictitious Republic of Gilead. Offred’s unflinching lens in describing the circumstances of her life is thrown in stark contrast with her memories of how life used to be.

A taste of Gilead’s state sponsored practices: censorship, exploitation of women as baby-making machines, public display of corpses dangling from ropes, book-banning, control of women’s reproductive organs, secrecy, selective enforcement of rules, black vans that swoop in and “disappear” people, a climate of fear and distrust, road blocks, security checkpoints, confinement, clothing as markers of status, stripping of personal identity, othering, separation of families, discrimination based on race and/or ethnicity, banning the written word, armed militias roaming the streets, corruption and debauchery of officials, public executions, prohibition of birth control and abortion, torture, informants within one’s sex/caste/race/religion, control of the media, and enforcement of religious extremism. All these acts are committed in the name of security and for “the public good.”

While it may be easy to dismiss events in this book as a work of fiction, and/or as the creative imagination of a gifted writer, and while it may be easy to reassure oneself this can never happen in the real world, the truth of the matter is that it is happening. At one time or another, in one corner of the world or another, many such atrocities have been and still are being perpetrated on innocent people.

Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel serves as an uncompromising reminder to men and women to remain vigilant in opposing every creeping infringement on our rights as human beings no matter how innocuous these infringements might initially appear to be. We need to be particularly vigilant if these infringements come under the guise of safeguarding our security. As we saw in The Handmaid’s Tale, it was by utilizing those very tactics that the Republic of Gilead managed to get a stranglehold on its population.

Highly recommended

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Hanan Al-Shaykh

In The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story, the contemporary Arab author Hanan Al-Shaykh writes the biography of Kamila, her mother. Al-Shaykh tells the story of her mother’s childhood in 1930s Lebanon, her forced marriage at the age of 14, her illicit love affair with the man who later became her second husband, her divorce from her first husband, her second marriage, her widowhood and its aftermath. The narrative construction is unusual in that Al-Shaykh tells her mother’s story from her mother’s point of view, through her mother’s voice.

We experience the Arab world through Kamila’s lens. She is a child forced into a marriage with her much older brother-in-law after the death of his first wife. Although she is defiant and resourceful, she is also immature. She never seems to grow up or to assume the responsibilities of an adult—even after giving birth to seven children. Denied access to schooling, she remains illiterate all her life. Her knowledge of the world and how it operates is influenced by what she sees on the movie screen. She confuses the real world with the glitz of Egyptian movies and the lives of Egyptian movie stars. Struggling with debt after the death of her second husband, Kamila does what she has been doing all her life: she relies on her good looks and charm to get her through her difficulties.

In her later years, Kamila comes to regret the choices she made in life, including abandoning her two oldest daughters in order to be with the man she loves. But in spite of her remorse, she does not come across as a sympathetic or endearing character. She is self-absorbed, selfish, and has no qualms about using people—especially her children—to achieve her goals.

Because Kamila is illiterate, she has to rely on those around her to shape her worldview. As a consequence, she espouses a narrow worldview with very limited options. It is not surprising she is incompetent when it comes to managing a budget, running a household, or raising children. She has never been taught. And what female role models she does have were denied the same opportunities, rendering them equally incompetent.

Kamila’s tragedy lies in the fact she is never allowed to reach her potential. She has a romantic spirit that longs to soar. She loves the language of poetry, composing poems and committing them to memory but unable to write them down. Her family insists on keeping her illiterate, a situation she regrets all of her life. Forced into an unwanted marriage to a man nearly two decades her senior, castigated as a fallen women when she finally divorces him and marries the man she loves, she spends most of her adult years pregnant with one child after another. There is little room for individual growth or development under such challenging circumstances. But Kamila has the last word when she convinces her daughter to put pen to paper and write her life story.

Unfortunately, Al-Shaykh’s biography of her mother rambles, its prose simplistic and choppy. It reads like a diary—a series of unfocused, disconnected, episodic events that lack coherence or an organizational plan. But the book does have value in that it illustrates the deleterious impact on women when society denies them choice and opportunity for growth and development.

Throughout history, different cultures have oppressed girls and severely constrained their mobility and intellectual development. Whether they were kept barefoot, ignorant, or pregnant; subjected to the horrors of female infanticide, foot binding, or genital mutilation; bartered or sold off to an early marriage or prostitution, girls and women have historically been treated as pawns to be used and abused for the economic benefit of their families.

Kamila is no exception. Her childhood, upbringing, and experience severely hamper the range of possibilities available to her as a young girl growing up in that environment at that time and in that place. Unfortunately, many young girls throughout the world continue to experience the same harsh restraints—restraints that deprive them of the ability to thrive and flourish. As such, The Locust and the Bird serves as a cautionary tale of wasted potential and thwarted aspirations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eowyn Ivey

Based on an old Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a beautiful story about Mabel and Jack, a childless elderly couple living on a farm in Alaska, and the young, mysterious snow child they come to love and adopt as their own.

The story unfolds slowly and quietly with a decidedly nostalgic, almost melancholy tone permeating the novel. The Alaskan wilderness in all its seasons is described in such vivid detail and luscious imagery that it forms an essential backdrop to the story. One can almost feel the bitterly cold winds lashing against the body; see the vistas of unrelenting snow; hear the sound of feet squelching into the mud-soaked earth of spring; smell the crisp, clean winter air; and relish in the bountiful harvests of summer. Our senses are treated to the touch, sound, sight, and scent of pine forests, mountain herbs, and wild animals. 

Mabel and Jack brave the difficulties of eking a living in Alaska’s unforgiving climate. They live and work in virtual isolation until they befriend their neighbors George, Esther, and their boys. Their life takes an unexpected turn when a snowman they craft disappears and a young girl mysteriously and intermittently flickers in the woods wearing the same scarf and mittens Mabel and Jack had used to dress their snowman. Eventually this snow child, Faina, turns up on their doorstep and befriends them. They adopt her as the child they always wanted even though they suspect there is something strange about her mysterious appearances and disappearances into the Alaskan wilderness. They learn to accept the girl, allowing her to enter and exit their lives on her own terms. 

The tender love Mabel and Jack have for each other is in evidence throughout the novel, especially during challenging times. We witness their growing love for Faina as they anxiously await her return each time she ventures out into the snowy wilderness. Ivey successfully portrays the characters as well-developed individuals who support each other and who gain our sympathy and admiration for their work ethic and determination to persevere. Esther is particularly colorful and manifests the undaunted spirit of pioneering women. The only character that remains elusive is Faina. Although she is more fully developed in the second half of the novel, she remains an enigma from start to finish. She seldom speaks and only rarely are we allowed access to her thoughts, all of which contribute to her mystique. 

The Snow Child immerses us in a magical place with a magical young girl as its focal point. But it is also a celebration of what is important in life: family; community; friendship; selfless love; the freedom to live as one chooses; adjusting to the rhythms of nature; and, above all, a willingness to accept the inexplicable as part of the mystery of life.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Andre Dubus

I love Andre Dubus’ short stories and didn’t know quite what to expect from his essay collection, Broken Vessels.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Broken Vessels is a series of 22 personal essays written between 1977-1990. Dubus is a gifted writer with an astounding ability to turn even the most mundane event to an almost spiritual affair by leading the reader gently and unassumingly along. One minute we follow his thoughts as he cooks and eats breakfast with his wife; the next minute he has transported us to a completely different realm in which this simple occasion is transformed into a communion of souls with each soul acknowledging and sharing in the other’s mortality. The reader almost does a double take, wondering how on earth he got us here.

Dubus’ topics are wide-ranging: his boyhood in Louisiana; the poetry of baseball; the challenges of making a living by writing; the car accident that cost him his leg; his painful path in learning to navigate his disability; the fragility of limb and life; the breakup of his third marriage; and, most of all, his aching love for his two youngest daughters.

In the hands of a less gifted writer, the topics could easily deteriorate into syrupy, sentimental stuff. But Dubus is never guilty of being maudlin. He writes with elegance, sensitivity, and unflinching honesty. The truths he expresses are all the more profound because they sneak up on you quietly and unexpectedly and yet they shimmer with the passion and grace that characterize his writing.

Highly recommended.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Helen Humphreys

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys is a delightful series of forty vignettes, each based on an actual time when the River Thames froze solid due to an exceptionally cold winter in England. The vignettes begin in 1142 and conclude in 1895, the last year in which the river froze. Humphreys writes a short piece to correspond with each year. Some of the pieces are based on documented historical events; others are tremendous feats of imagination. All are written in a lyrical prose that captures intimate snapshots of individuals from all walks of life as they cope with a frigidly cold winter and a frozen river.

Humphreys portrays the wintery scenes in vivid, poignant detail: frozen birds tumbling from the skies; skeletal humans and animals dying of starvation; the bitter cold seeping into the bones; the desperate poverty of tradesmen whose livelihood is threatened since the frozen river cannot transport their goods and services; the shortage of food; people falling through the ice as it softens and melts. But there were also some illustrations of resourcefulness and acts of kindness and compassion: the young boy who gently picks up frozen birds, reviving them with his hands and breath; the driver who patiently waits for his oxen until they are ready to tread across the river; the people who allow birds to nest in their homes for warmth; the desperate struggle to save people from drowning; the Frost Fairs—booths and side shows that spring up on the frozen river offering goods and services in a carnival like atmosphere.

Physically small in size and printed and illustrated on a heavy, gloss stock paper, the book is a pleasure to look at and a pleasure to read.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Brooke Medicine Eagle

Brooke Medicine Eagle is a spiritual guide and teacher, conducting workshops to help others on the path of spirituality and growth. In Buffalo Woman Comes Singing, she traces the steps she took to connect with her spiritual core. She describes her life on the farm, her family, her upbringing, and her encounters with individuals in the physical and spiritual realm, all of whom contributed to her progress on the spiritual path. Scattered throughout are personal anecdotes about the people and events that impacted her journey. Each of her chapters concludes with exercises to assist readers on their own spiritual quests.

The most interesting part of the book for me is the way in which the ceremonies, rituals, objects, animals, and vision quests are rendered symbolically, making each pregnant with meaning and significance, and contributing to our understanding of the worldview of the indigenous peoples of America. Although the book contained some interesting insights, hers is not the best resource available for articulating the basic tenets of Native American spirituality. For that I recommend the writings of Paula Gunn Allen.

It should also be noted that Brooke Medicine Eagle has been accused by some Native American groups of misrepresenting Native American spirituality and ceremonies. Such criticism calls into question her authenticity as a medicine woman. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Christina Rossetti

Christina Rossetti’s hauntingly beautiful ballad, Goblin Market, has the fairy tale quality of John Keats’ equally beautiful poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci. And like Keats’ poem, Goblin Market tells a story of seduction.

In Goblin Market, two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear the Goblin Men’s song luring innocent girls to taste their delicious fruit. Whereas Lizzie covers her ears and shuts her eyes to avoid giving in to their seductive song, Laura is tempted to taste the forbidden fruit. She seeks out the Goblin Men, exchanging a lock of her hair for the fruit. But having once given in to temptation, Laura behaves like an out of control addict. Her obsession is to sink her teeth into the fruits offered by the Goblin Men. But since she can no longer hear them, she pines away with an insatiable yearning for the forbidden fruit.

Just as Laura is on the brink of death, Lizzie, her tenacious sister, rescues her. Lizzie confronts the Goblin Men, tightly shutting her mouth to prevent them from cramming in any of the forbidden fruit. Meanwhile, they jostle her, taunt her, claw at her, kick her, bruise her, mew and bark at her, and smother her body with their fruit, all in an attempt to get her to taste it. But she is impervious to their seductive wiles, refusing to submit to male violation.

The happy ending has a fairy tale quality. Lizzie runs back to Laura and urges her to suck the juice dripping from her body. Since the Goblin Men’s juices are mixed with Lizzie’s own bodily juices, Laura ingests her sister’s juice. This acts as a powerful antidote to the Goblin Men’s seductive magic. Laura is saved, and the poem concludes with the sisters marrying, having children, and living happily ever after.

Laura’s seduction has distinctly sexual overtones. The sensuous description of the forbidden fruits adds to their seductive appeal. The goblin men are uncanny. Despite the differences in their grotesque appearance, (one is described as having a cat’s face; another as prowling like a wombat; another whisking his tale; and yet another as crawling like a snake), they sing their song of seduction with one voice. Once they succeed in capturing an innocent girl in their snare, they disappear from her view.

Although the poem can be interpreted on many different levels, it is fundamentally feminist in its orientation. It illustrates the importance of sisterhood as a vehicle to overcome adversity. There is no Prince Charming galloping in for the rescue. Other than the evil goblins, men are absent from the poem.

Goblin Market can also be read as a feminist reworking of the temptation of Eve in the Biblical Garden of Eden. Rossetti re-works the story. Instead of Jesus as the personal savior, it is the resourceful sister Lizzie who saves Laura from the tenacious grip of the Goblin Men. And whereas Eve and her progeny’s punishment in the Biblical version is to suffer, there is no corresponding indication in Rossetti’s version of any long term adverse effects on Laura. While it is true Laura transgresses, the consequences of her transgression are temporary, and she is able to return to the idyllic world of sisterhood a wiser and happier being.

This is a beautiful poem, beautifully rendered with fairy-tale qualities. The edition I have contains the paintings of Christina Rossetti’s eldest brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always loved his sensuous paintings of women, so their inclusion in this edition was an added bonus.

Highly recommended, especially for lovers of fairy tales with a strong female role model.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kiran Desai

As one might expect of a novel entitled Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, hilarity abounds and sanity is in short supply. Kiran Desai’s novel, with its hint of magical realism, is funny, light-hearted, and a quick and easy read.

To begin with, Desai’s characters are absurdly comical: an eccentric, half-crazed mother, obsessed with undertaking bizarre culinary concoctions; the young Sampath, who, after losing his lackluster job at the post office, takes up residence in a guava tree from where he makes obscure pronouncements; the village locals who duly interpret these pronouncements as profound words of wisdom; a sister who bites off half an ear of the man she loves; a grandmother who drops her dentures in a cooking pot filled with gravy, fishes said dentures out, pops them back into her mouth, and proudly displays a grin with her curried yellow teeth; a father who schemes to capitalize on his son’s newly found fame; monkeys who terrorize villagers and then take up residence in the guava tree while adopting the young hermit as one of their own; devotees who come from miles around to wait patiently at the foot of the tree in the hope of hearing Sampath spout his pronouncements. The more fortunate devotees receive his blessing by placing their heads under Sampath’s dangling feet. And, then, of course, there is the overarching problem of what to do with alcoholic monkeys on the prowl for even more alcohol. Such is the world depicted in Kiran Desai’s charming novel.

Desai is a keen observer of human behavior, seeming to take delight in depicting the quirks and foibles of her characters. Sampath’s pronouncements, for example, “Why think about futter when you have plenty of butter?” Or, the even more inspiring, “Every plum has its own beginning.  Every pea its own end,” are greeted with “Ooohs!" and "Aaahs!" from his enthralled audience. Bizarre happenings are rendered in humorous and colorful detail. The plot is absurd, bordering on the fantastic.

Desai’s skill as a writer is evident as she weaves an incredible story, populates it with amusing characters, and captures the atmosphere of a small town in India. She does it all with humor, undeniable gusto, and a prose that borders on poetic.

A very funny, light, and entertaining book. Highly recommended.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Katha Pollitt

Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time is a compilation of articles the feminist scholar, essayist, poet, and social critic Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation from 2001-2006. Because of the time frame, some of the articles are obviously dated. However, the collection provides a useful recap of the Bush administration policies while giving a historical perspective on some of the issues we continue to face today. Many of her predictions have come true, especially those she made about the dire consequences that would ensue if the US continues along the same path in its Middle East policy.

Pollitt takes obvious delight in puncturing the misinformation and deceptions perpetrated on the American public. She unabashedly expresses her views, sometimes wielding her sword of acerbic wit and humor to do so, but always making a serious point. And although I didn’t agree with everything she says, I still found the collection to be choke full of keen insights delivered in her inimitable style of a refreshing, no-nonsense, cut-to-the chase punch.

Highly recommended. 

Hanan al-Shaykh

One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh retells 19 stories from the original tales that circulated in the Arab world as long ago as the 14th Century. The work is a delightful, bawdy, rollicking piece of fun in which we are lead by a thread from one story to another. The stories are woven together in an intricate pattern of twists and turns, reminiscent of an elaborate Persian rug, bold and splashed with color. If one thread is pulled out, the whole pattern unravels and the tales falls apart.

The stories obliterate boundaries between the human world and the animal kingdom, the real and the unreal, the natural and supernatural, the mundane and the magical. We drift from one world into another seamlessly, suspending our disbelief as we read of humans metamorphosed into animals and back again, of jinns who fall in love with humans, of a demon who traps a beautiful woman in a glass cage under the sea.

The tales show a proclivity for violence with characters chopping off parts of the human body with relative ease. Sexual organs and sexual activity are described in such a cavalier manner that some may find the tales to be in poor taste. Others may appreciate their unabashedly honest treatment of the human body—including the occasional use of scatological humor thrown in for good measure—as being perfectly natural and not as something to be hidden away in shame. Dotted throughout are lines of poetry bursting on the scene at the most inauspicious times.

In the midst of all this craziness, however, the stories divulge important messages about human behavior: the injustice of collective punishment; honoring one’s word and commitments; the importance of reciprocity; rewarding the just; punishing the wicked; and compassion and forgiveness as precursors for healing. These lessons are as true today as they were several hundred years ago when The Thousand and One Nights first burst on the scene as a collection of tales told by a gifted storyteller.

Highly recommended for those willing to suspend their disbelief and approach the tales with humor and gusto.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, written in the epistolary format, is set in post WWII England. The year is 1946, and England is still recovering from the war. Letters are exchanged between the writer Juliet Ashton and her circle of English friends in London and Scotland. Later, her circle is expanded to include inhabitants of the small island of Guernsey on the English Channel, an island occupied by the Nazis for five years.

Through their correspondence, Juliet learns about the hardships the islanders experienced while living under Nazi occupation. She also learns about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, hurriedly formed to explain the violation of a curfew and consisting of a motley crew of islanders. Enchanted by everything she reads about Guernsey, she visits the island and promptly falls in love with its inhabitants and its natural environment. Rejecting her wealthy American suitor, Juliet decides to take up permanent residence on the island, adopt a young orphaned girl, and marry a quiet, solid, salt-of-the earth pig farmer.

On the plus side, the letters were witty, the characters colorful. The description of England during the war and its aftermath is detailed and vivid. Some of the stories are heart wrenching, particularly the evacuation of children to live with complete strangers in the countryside while London and other major cities experience heavy bombing. Meanwhile, the people of Guernsey, cut off from the mainland, had to experience their own set of hardships under Nazi occupation.

On the minus side, while I enjoyed the dry, tongue-in-cheek humor of the exchanges, the voices in the letters were virtually identical. It’s as if the writers all shared a common style of writing and exhibited the same sense of humor with little to distinguish one from the other. Also the ending was very predictable. The Guernsey community embraces Juliet as one of their own, establishing a mutual admiration society. It becomes apparent early on that she falls in love with the steady, quiet pig-farmer and he with her. So it was only a question of time before the two of them got together and tied the knot with a ‘happily ever after’ conclusion to the book.

If you can get past the clichés, past the formulaic spunky female rejecting the rich American suitor in favor the solid country bumpkin with a heart of gold, and past the predictable ending, you will find this to be a quick and easy read, charming in its own limited way.

Yvonne Seng

The Australian born scholar Yvonne Seng is a professor of cultural history specializing in the culture and religions of the Middle East and Turkey. After leaving the region for several years to pursue her academic career, she decides to return to that part of the world to conduct interviews with its spiritual and religious leaders. She chronicles her journey in Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East. The book is as much a journey of self-discovery and her own quest for enlightenment as it is to share the insights of the spiritual leaders she interviews.

The book opens with a promise extracted from her on her previous visit by a Coptic Bishop on the Nile train. She promises him she will return to Egypt to “see the future.” She does just that many years later to conduct her interviews.

Her journey begins in Egypt where she interviews a Sufi mystic; Sheikh Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Islam; Adel Beshai, a former assistant to the Coptic saint, Pope Kyrillos; and Bishop Musa, Bishop of Youth of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

From Egypt she heads to Syria where Hafiz Al-Assad still rules the country. There she interviews Dr. Ali Khayyam, a personal advisor to the Sufi poet, Assad Ali; Assad Ali, himself; Abu George who speaks of the miracles he witnessed and the visitations he had from St. Elias/the prophet Elijah; Pope Zakka, the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church; Sister Salma who channels Jesus and is visited by the Virgin Mary; the tomb of Ibn Al-Arabi, the 12thC Sufi saint and mystic.

She returns to Egypt, does the five-hour hike up Mount Moses to witness the sunrise, and then interviews Archbishop Damianos of the Greek Orthodox Church before returning back to Cairo to make her way home.

Seng writes in an engaging style. On full display is her intrepid attitude as she knocks on doors of mosques and cathedrals hoping someone will open them and let her in; her patience as she navigates her way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Middle East; her inquisitiveness; her adventurous spirit; her sense of humor; and her obvious love for the culture, its sounds, smells, and people.

What she learns from these wisdom makers in black dresses surprises her. She learns of the common threads that unite them: their progressive attitude toward technology and medical science as long as the goal benefits mankind; their willingness to embrace people of different faiths; their tolerance of difference; their emphasis on the importance of family; and their belief that it is the heart and not the mind that is the seat of enlightenment.

An engaging book that speaks to a tolerance of diversity and a celebration of difference that the world is very much in need of nowadays. Highly recommended.

 

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others critiques photographic images of war and human suffering. Sontag traces the development of such images in photography, beginning with examples of photographs carefully staged to elicit a specific response from the viewer. Every photograph has a context, an interaction that occurs between the photographer, the victim(s) in the photograph, and the viewer. Sontag explores the nature of the interaction. Her argument is three-fold.

Sontag argues once it is taken, the photograph is out of the control of the photographer and the victim(s) in the photograph. It can be used to promote a political agenda that may or may not align with the photographer’s intention. A photograph can be used in a variety of ways depending on the context and caption. Sontag cites examples of the same photographs that have been used to advocate diametrically opposed political points of view.

Sontag also addresses the impact on the viewer of photographs depicting other people’s pain. She argues images of other people’s pain, misery, and death fascinate us, but we recoil in horror if the image is too close to home. To put it simply, there is an “othering” that occurs. We can tolerate images chronicling the impact of war and disaster on humans as long as the emaciated flesh and mangled corpses belong to people of color and as long as the violence occurs in distant lands. The same images closer to home are considered callous and insensitive.

The third point Sontag explores is whether a constant bombardment of images evidencing man’s inhumanity to man can desensitize us to violence. Our feelings may alternate between compassion, anger, guilt, relief for being spared, or indifference. In any case, constant exposure to the suffering of others may eventually cause us to perceive acts of violence as normal. We see the image and are momentarily impacted by it. We then shrug our shoulders, turn the page, and go on about our business. 

Throughout the pages of her book, Sontag implicitly invites us to explore our own reaction to images of violence. What does a photograph of others’ suffering mean? What is it saying to us? Does a graphic illustration of the cruelties and violence humans are capable of shock us? Does the context in which the image is displayed impact our response? Does the ubiquitous availability of images depicting human on human violence increase our tolerance for human suffering?

Although she does not provide ready-made, facile answers to the complex issues she raises, Sontag’s observations force us to interrogate the images for ourselves as well as our response to them. I assume that is exactly what she set out to do.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

John Berger

Portraits: John Berger on Artists is an exploration of centuries of art through the eyes and penetrating prose of the art critic, John Berger. Beginning with the paintings in the Chauvet Cave (c. 30,000 years BCE) through to the early 21st Century with the work of Randa Mdah, Berger situates the artist and his/her art in a historical context while simultaneously making us re-see already familiar works of art in a totally new way.

The book is poorly illustrated, its black and white photos blurred and of little help. However, most of the art referred to in the text is easily accessible on the Internet in full, blazing color.

In all, Berger discusses 74 artists and their works. Some of his essays are stronger than others, but all offer new insights. And some of these insights are breathtaking. Berger has an uncanny ability to take something initially appearing as tangential in a painting and make it his focus. He does this, for example, with the hand prints in the Chauvet Cave; the opaque window in Carvaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew; the eyes in Diego Velazquez’ Aesop. He draws our attention to a detail in a painting that was always there but that somehow we had overlooked.

Berger interacts with art in a deeply personal way, humanizing it for us and for himself. His chapter on Rembrandt forges an intimate connection with the artist and his work to such a degree that we begin to see the famous paintings in a new light. And this is true not just of Rembrandt but of many of the artists Berger discusses.

In his analyses of artists and their art, Berger reveals much about himself, his approach to art, and his politics. He doesn’t withhold his opinions. And he doesn’t hesitate to go sauntering off in an entirely new direction, describing a chance encounter with something or someone that fascinates him. For example, in the chapter on Willem Drost, Berger is captivated by the image and words of an elderly, diminutive tour guide who tosses off her expert knowledge of the paintings in a unique, almost cavalier manner. As she completes the guided tour and abruptly exits the gallery, Berger muses on the possible contents of the Marks and Spencer bag she carries.

Finally, what makes Portraits so impressive is Berger’s penetrating prose and his ability to juxtapose seemingly disparate entities in his discussion. For example, he describes Yvonne Barlow’s paintings as having a musical sense of composition—“Chopinesque.” In a letter to Leon Kossoff, he claims an art studio is “like a stomach. A place of digestion, transformation, and excretion.” Cy Twombly is referred to as “the painterly master of verbal silence.” And Berger assures us he “listens” to the paintings of Liane Birnberg. Such juxtapositions startle. They force one to pause and re-think everything one thought one knew about art.

In the end, Berger’s Portraits is not simply a discussion about art. It is about the role art and the artist have played and continue to play in our lives. It is about art speaking to us on an intimate level. And by looking at art through the lens of this intense, perceptive art critic, we learn about the heart and soul of John Berger, about artists and their art, and about life. 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, long listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, got off to a very strong start.

The story takes place in India. It begins with the young child Nomi retelling the traumatic events of her childhood: her father’s brutal murder, the disappearance of her brother, and her mother’s desertion. Abandoned on the seashore, Nomi is abducted to an ashram in Jarmuli where she spends the next several years as a virtual prisoner and victim of child sexual assault. She manages to escape and returns years later to retrace her past while researching a documentary film about Jarmuli's religious shrine. 

Her story intertwines with the exploits of three elderly women sharing the train compartment with her as they journey to Jarmuli for the religious festivities. In Jarmuli, we encounter a series of colorful characters: a homosexual temple guide who pines with love for the tea-maker's young assistant; the tea-maker on the beach who sings sad songs and whom Nomi recognizes as the ashram gardener from her youth, severely beaten for trying to protect her; and Nomi’s assistant for the documentary who turns out to be a son of one of the elderly women. The narrative takes place over five consecutive days, with a sixth day occurring on day eighteen.

Roy weaves in and out of her characters’ lives, allowing their paths to intersect at times or just miss each other at other times. There are shifts in time with periodic flashbacks revealing the characters’ backgrounds and experiences. All this takes place against the backdrop of the sights, sounds, smells, and bustling streets of Jarmuli with the scent of the ocean wafting through the atmosphere.

The first part of the novel was very engaging, the description effective. We are invested in Nomi and her horrific experience at the ashram. The three elderly women, one of whom suffers from dementia, are vividly portrayed with their creaky joints, aches, and pains. 

But as the novel progresses, the description becomes perfunctory, the pace slows, and the story seems to drag. What starts off as a very engaging novel peters out, leaving the reader wondering about the inclusion of so many incidental anecdotes and chance meetings that don’t seem to lead anywhere. In the end there were too many unanswered questions, too many loose threads, and too many connections suggested but never explained. As a result, the ending was disappointing.

 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review