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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Chigozie Obioma

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma is a gripping love story with tragic consequences.

Chinonso Solomon Olisa is a humble chicken farmer with a gentle spirit and compassionate heart. He leads a quiet, uneventful life, nurturing his chickens and goslings with tenderness and empathy. Through a chance encounter, he meets Ndali, the daughter of an affluent chief. They fall passionately in love. Their relationship is met with vehement opposition from her family. Humiliated by their rejection, Chinonso decides to seek a university degree in Cyprus to earn her family’s approval. Slowly but surely, his life begins to unravel. His decision, taken with the best of intentions, relentlessly catapults him from one tragic event to another until the novel’s inexorably catastrophic conclusion.

Through no fault of his own, Chinonso suffers degradation, humiliation, imprisonment, and rape until his release from a Cyprus jail. He goes back to Nigeria. But he is now a broken man, one who is beyond repair. His attempts to reclaim his property and the love of his life are repeatedly dashed. He cannot relinquish the past or reconcile himself with his losses. With his frustration and anger building, he sets out to avenge himself, perpetrating a crime which has tragic consequences.

The narrative unfolds in the voice of Chinonso’s chi—his guardian spirit. The tone of impending disaster is foreshadowed at the outset and recurs throughout the novel. It opens with the chi pleading for forgiveness for his host’s actions before a court of the Igbo god, one referred to in many different names.

Each chapter begins with the chi’s supplication to the god, pleading his host’s case. Threaded throughout the narrative are references to the beliefs and traditions of the complex system of Igbo cosmology. The chi shares the wisdom he has acquired from inhabiting the bodies of previous hosts going back many generations. He bemoans the erosion of the traditional beliefs of the fathers and the willingness of Nigerians to abandon those beliefs by adopting the beliefs of the White man. Although he tries to intervene in the form of Chinonso’s conscience and occasionally leaves his host’s body for the ethereal world of spirits to seek help for his host’s predicament, his ability to effect change as a guardian spirit is limited. He watches helplessly as Chinonso plummets into a vortex not of his making.

On the one hand, this is a riveting story of a love gone terribly wrong. On the other hand, the novel can also be read as a metaphor for a people who, through no fault of their own, experience betrayal, injustice, humiliation, rape, beatings, silencing, loss of dignity, and loss of personal property. No matter which way they turn, circumstances conspire against them. They struggle to retain their original identity, but their suffering has been too great and transformative. They become obsessive, embittered humans with a thirst for vengeance, capable of perpetrating acts of violence on blameless victims.

Obioma has written a complex, compelling novel, epic in scope, and threaded with elements of magical realism. He has taken a traditional love story of a poor boy and rich girl; situated it in a Nigerian village; immersed the reader in Igbo culture and cosmology alongside western culture; mesmerized with his lyrical prose; skillfully built up the tension; and grabbed us by the hand and heart to lead us to the inevitable, catastrophic conclusion. The title of the book refers to the chickens’ song of mourning when one of their flock is forcibly taken. Just like the chickens wailing in sorrow, just like Chinonso’s chi, we watch helplessly on the side lines and lend our voices to the orchestra of minorities mourning their loss.

A thought-provoking, challenging read. Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Lesley Nneka Arimah

What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a stunning collection of twelve short stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah.

Each story is a unique exploration of how people relate to one another. The pervading atmosphere throughout is one of palpable grief, loss, loneliness, and tragedy. The stories are fragmentary in nature. Arimah thrusts the reader in the middle of an event, sometimes going backward in time to explain a situation, and sometimes not. A few of the stories incorporate magical realism and folklore, and some are open-ended, leaving the reader to speculate on how the story will end.

The female protagonists are predominantly misfits, trying to find a place for themselves in the world. The stories consist of snapshots of family life in Nigeria or of Nigerian expatriates living in America. Most are tinged with sadness, the characters plagued with poverty and loneliness. A young girl is murdered by her sister’s abuser in a case of mistaken identity; a young woman makes babies out of yarn and human hair in the hope of bringing a baby to life to assuage her loneliness; a widow tolerates humiliation from her sister’s affluent family because she needs to provide a home for her daughters; a mother teaches her daughter to fall in public places to receive settlements from lawsuits or from the threat of lawsuits; a father watches his daughter’s light diminish after she joins her mother in America.

With the exception of “What is a Volcano?” the stories are about people—their relationships; their need for connection; their conflicts and struggles; how they cope with trauma and lost; the bonds they build and the bonds they sever. The stories, told with tenderness, sensitivity and compassion, poignantly touch on what it means to be human. They capture the quiet moments in people’s lives, the moments they share with one another and the moments that estrange them from each other.

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s packs a powerful punch in her debut collection of stories. She is a gifted storyteller with a keen eye for the suffering that can permeate lives.

The collection is highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar

Eudora Welty

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty offers little by way of a plot or character development. Instead what it does is conjure up an atmosphere of the hustle and bustle of a large extended family preparing for a daughter’s wedding in the Mississippi Delta in 1923.

Dabney Fairchild is getting married. The novel opens with the perspective of Dabney’s young cousin, nine-year-old Laura McRaven who travels by train to attend the wedding. Laura’s recently deceased mother was a member of the Fairchild clan. Laura is thrust in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind of an extended family of aunts and great aunts, uncles, and cousins. This is a house charged with an electrical current of frenzied activity in preparation for the wedding. It is a house that is seldom quiet. In every corner, boisterous conversations are taking place where people frequently talk at each other instead of to each other.

Welty’s portrayal of a large, multi-generational extended family is immersive. The cast of characters is extensive and confusing: Laura’s Aunt Ellen and Uncle Battle and their brood of eight rambunctious children with another on the way; Dabney, the bride-to-be and their second child, a self-absorbed, spoilt seventeen-year-old who lives in a romantic whirl of a fantasy of her own making; the elderly, interfering aunts, critical of outsiders since no one seems to be good enough to marry a Fairchild; the uncles, all of whom defer to the women in their lives. This elaborate structure is supported in the fields and in the house by a number of African American servants who appear intermittently to perform the bidding of one Fairchild or another.

To add to the confusion, Welty delivers snatches of simultaneous conversations; a dialogue that is at cross-purposes or spoken in a code to which few are privy; interruptions; announcements; and sentences that begin in the middle of a thought and simply trail off into the distance. Children tumble in and out of a conversation just as they tumble in and out of a room. Threaded throughout this crescendo of noise is Welty’s very detailed description of the sights, sounds, and smells of the Delta. Welty is not shy of piling on minute details with labyrinthine sentences that vividly evoke place.

If you prefer novels with a strong plot and fully developed characters, this may not be for you. But if you want to experience a snapshot of a wealthy plantation family in the Mississippi Delta of the 1920s; a family depicted in all its raw energy, shallowness, smugness, privilege; a family living in an exclusive bubble while oblivious to the concerns of outsiders, you may enjoy this.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life chronicles the life of a remarkable woman who has captured the imagination for two thousand years. Schiff sheds light on a figure hovering in the shadows of recorded history.

In her extensively researched biography, Schiff untangles fact from fiction, the Cleopatra gleaned from historical records versus the Cecil B. Mille/Claudette Colbert/Elizabeth Taylor portrayals. What emerges is a portrait of a highly educated woman, a brilliant strategist, intelligent, articulate, and with an uncanny ability to intuit exactly what a situation demanded and to mold herself effortlessly to manipulate it to her advantage. Above all, Cleopatra skillfully ruled an empire, expanding her territory and amassing resources and wealth that provoked the envy of Rome.

To remember Cleopatra exclusively for her romantic relations with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony is to do her a great disservice. She was far more than the sum of her sexual exploits. She pivoted her relations with these illustrious Romans for mutual benefit. Cleopatra needed their support to protect her empire; they needed her extensive resources to fight their battles.

Schiff convincingly attributes Cleopatra’s success to her brains rather than to her beauty or sexual prowess. Her accomplishment in governing a vast empire populated with competing demands was impressive. For a while she was able to seize any and every opportunity to promote herself and her empire. But she was also a woman—independent, charming, strong, powerful, capable, politically savvy, and a free-thinking one at that. Couple her success with Rome’s rampant misogyny and one can begin to understand why she was misrepresented, demonized, and accused of exploiting her sexuality to achieve success. As Schiff argues, “It is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.” In short, Cleopatra was a victim of male fear of female power. 

Schiff’s wealth of information made for challenging reading at times. It required an effort to keep track of the different characters and the roles they played, who did what to whom, and which of the numerous Ptolemies intermarried and/or were murdered by their sibling/spouse. A listing of the primary characters and a family tree showing connections would have been helpful. On the plus side, Schiff’s meticulous research is buttressed with detailed notes and an extensive bibliography and index. Her writing is engaging. The last few chapters in the book when Octavian is closing in on Mark Antony and Cleopatra have all the makings of a thrilling novel.

There is much we cannot know about Cleopatra. But by piecing together what is known with her informed suppositions, Stacy Schiff has gone a long way to unearth the background and exploits of this exceptional woman, arguably the most famous woman in history.

Highly recommended for those interested in biographies and history.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Diane Setterfield

Combine elements of the gothic novel with magical realism; add a healthy dose of references to and parallels with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; sprinkle a dash of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and you arrive at The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

In true Gothic style, this is a novel about a quest to unearth truths that have been buried for many decades.

Margaret Lea, the protagonist, works in her father’s bookstore and derives more comfort cushioning herself between the pages of a novel than by living in the real world and interacting with real people. She feels an absence or void in her life. One day she discovers a secret about her birth that helps to explain this void—a secret her parents had withheld from her. She was born with a conjoined twin who died upon their separation. Margaret feels an intense loss each time she touches the scar on her side that linked her with her twin.

Margaret is invited by Vida Winter, a highly successful author, to write her biography. Promising to reveal the truth about her life, Vida describes a childhood awash with Gothic elements. There is the large English mansion with its dark corners, its musty nooks and crannies; a family hiding behind its secrets; a shadowy figure intermittently appearing and disappearing; inseparable twins; a no-nonsense governess; absent parents; illegitimate births; a catastrophic fire; and a strong whiff that something is terribly amiss. Margaret embarks on a quest to piece together the truth. As she is drawn deeper and deeper into Winter’s story, she finds herself increasingly embroiled in her own story of the missing twin.

The novel is replete with unexpected twists and turns as Margaret investigates the truth and probes deeper and deeper into Vida Winter’s story until all is revealed. Or, nearly all. The ending feels rushed and a tad unsatisfactory. The identity of the surviving twin is left ambiguous and the missing long-awaited thirteenth tale is allotted barely a skeletal outline.

Diane Setterfield has written a riveting page-turner, choke full of suspense. Her prose is elegant and compelling. Her celebration of words and the homage she pays to novels, especially Gothic novels, threads its way through almost every page in the voice of her protagonist. Despite the somewhat derivative nature of the novel and a hasty resolution, its hypnotic language and suspenseful plot will hold you captive until the very last page.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken is the story of Peggy Cort’s obsession—some might call it love—with James Sweatt, a young boy whose pituitary gland is out of sync, causing him to grow unnaturally until he is over 8 feet tall.

It is the 1950s and Peggy, a very lonely twenty-six-year old librarian with no social life, focuses her attention on maintaining a clean, orderly, and organized library. Every aspect of her life has to be tidy and in its proper place. Her social interactions are limited to assisting patrons of the library. Peggy’s very regulated, orderly life comes to a screeching halt when the overly tall eleven-year-old James Sweatt enters the library with a request for books. Peggy’s world is turned upside down. She becomes obsessed with James, hanging on every word and every movement of this tall, awkward boy.

As the years progress and James gets taller and taller, Peggy’s obsession escalates. She befriends James’ family to get closer to James, eventually becoming his primary caretaker after his mother’s death. She realizes she has fallen in love with James and harbors romantic notions of their lives together.

When James dies at the age of 18, Peggy’s obsession assumes morbid overtones. She has a one-night stand with James’ father to get closer to James and then lies to herself and all in sundry that her ensuing pregnancy is a result of her intimate relations with James.

The story is told in Peggy’s first-person point of view, which is an unfortunate choice for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Peggy engages in interminably long internal monologues in which she constantly berates herself, convinced she is unworthy of being loved. And secondly, her penchant for organizing and cataloguing is taken to an extreme when it comes to her obsession with James. She focuses on every minute detail of his person and analyzes every interaction she has with him, ad nauseam. It becomes tedious and exasperating to read this page after page after page.

Elizabeth McCracken shows great potential as a writer. She knows how to dance with words, conjure up descriptive detail, and write sentences that sparkle. Unfortunately, her choice to tell the story from Peggy’s point of view forces her to focus exclusively on the narrator’s internal machinations and all-consuming passion for James—a focus that quickly becomes old and slows the narrative to a snail’s pace.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Penelope Lively

Awarded the 1987 Booker Prize, Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively opens with a septuagenarian Claudia Hampton dying in a hospital room. As she snaps and snarls at the nurses tasked with taking care of her, Claudia reflects on her life. An author of history books, she announces her grandiose plan to write a history of the world. What she really means is a history of the world as seen through the eyes of Claudia Hampton.

 The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks that begin with Claudia’s childhood, revealing her competitive spirit with her brother, Gordon. The flashbacks include her role as a historian; her stint as a journalist in Egypt during World War II; her love affair with a British army officer; her later love affair with Jasper, the father of her child; and her sponsorship of Laszlo, a young Hungarian student. The flashbacks alternate with present day reality as Claudia lies in the hospital bed while visited by a parade of characters who have played a role her life—her sister-in-law, her daughter, Jasper, and Laszlo. Each visit triggers another memory from the past.

 The sporadic shifts in time are further complicated by shifts in points of view. Most of the narrative unfolds in Claudia’s first-person point of view. But there is an occasional shift in which the same incident is described from a third person point of view. These overlapping perspectives shed an entirely new light on the event, adding multiple layers of meaning to a seemingly straightforward event.

 Claudia can be both intimidating and attractive. On the whole, she is not very likeable. She fails as a mother to show love and support for her daughter—a failure she acknowledges to her daughter and apologizes for as she lies on her death bed. Her narcissism, arrogance, self-absorption, vanity, fierce competitiveness, and incorrigibility are on full display throughout her life. But there is a softer and even admirable side to her that slowly emerges as the novel unfolds. She is capable of experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime love. Her sensibility is profoundly impacted by the horrors of war. She is always outspoken, independent, fearless, capable of great compassion, and fiercely committed to acting on her beliefs.

 Woven within Claudia’s reminisces and reflections are gritty explorations of war, love, death, incest; historical events and historical figures; archaeological sites in Egypt; the ties that bind and the ties that break; the things that are said or left unsaid; chance encounters that have a lasting impact; the pivotal role language plays in shaping our view of the past; and the many selves we leave behind as we make the inexorable march to maturity. Claudia superimposes one thought with another, one time- frame with another in a complex montage that allows us to see each character and event at different times and in different ages. This technique allows for the gradual piecing together of the fragmentary portrayals so that a more complete picture emerges of each event and character, including Claudia as she reveals more about herself with the novel’s progression.

 The moon tiger of the title is a reference to a mosquito coil that gradually burns down to become ash. Similarly, as Claudia Hampton recalls and reflects, she gradually pares down her many layers until she, too, becomes ash.

It is a testament to Penelope Lively’s skill as a writer that she is able to weave complex themes in a complex structure with fully developed characters wrapped in engaging, energetic prose. Her depiction of Claudia Hampton as a multifaceted, larger-than-life character who can be disliked and admired simultaneously deserves special praise.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mark Twain

The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain is a light, short, and quick read illustrating Twain’s humor and his keen eye for observing human foibles. The diary entries are in two parts, beginning with Adam’s entries.

Adam is portrayed as a cranky curmudgeon who wants to be left alone. He is curious about this new creature who enters his garden, follows him around, names everything, and irritates him with her talk, talk, talk. His entries get even funnier when he tries to determine the species of the new creature that monopolizes Eve’s attention. He observes the creature’s growth, and through a process of elimination, decides it must be some sort of kangaroo or bear before eventually realizing it’s a boy named Cain.

Eve’s dairy entries are not as funny as Adam’s. She is outgoing, curious, intelligent, observant, and adventurous. She befriends animals to alleviate her loneliness and expresses wonder at all she sees in the skies and in nature. Eventually, she and Adam become an item. She declares her love for him in gushing terms and admits she loves him “merely because he is masculine.” She then subsumes her identity to please Adam and claims she would love him even if he were to beat her. Such comments are sure to rankle, as will the gender stereotyping and the normative heterosexuality. But the sarcastic humor and light-hearted tone suggest the work should not be taken too seriously and is just Mark Twain having a bit of fun.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar