Marina Warner

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner is an exhaustive and comprehensive study of the history and development of fairy tales and their tellers. The book is divided into two parts: Part 1 addresses the tellers; Part 2 addresses the tales. Warner’s basic thesis is that fairy tales consist in narrative form of the lived experiences of women as told primarily by women. In order to understand the content and various permutations of fairy tales, one has to contextualize them within the social, economic, cultural, and legal conditions of women at the time. Fairy tales which pit woman against woman in vying for the affections of and benefits bestowed by the all-powerful male figure were no more than a woman’s strategy for survival in a world hostile to women and all things female.

The book is dense; the research impressive; the breadth and scope wide; the insights, interpretations, and commentary inspired. But this is not a light or quick read, especially Part 1. Her examination of specific fairy tales and their motifs in Part 2 was more accessible. The book is highly recommended but only for those with a serious commitment to understanding the social and cultural context from which these tales emerged.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Laurel Corona

Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona tells the story of Xanthe, the ostensible daughter of Penelope and Odysseus, conceived before Odysseus left for Troy. Xanthe grows up in Ithaca until her mother decides to scuttle her off to Sparta for her own protection. Penelope orchestrates Xanthe’s supposed death and burial. Disguised as a young boy, Xanthe travels to Sparta under the care of Mentor. Once there, she comes under the tutelage of Helen of Troy who embraces her as a companion and daughter. Xanthe spends several years with Helen until Telemachus is sent to escort her back to Ithaca where she witnesses the return of Odysseus and his revenge against the suitors and the women servants who betrayed him. The novel ends with Xanthe’s betrothal to the love of her life, Peisistratus, the youngest son of Nestor.

Since I love reading and writing about myths and the re-tellings of myths, I was looking forward to reading Penelope’s Daughter. I wasn’t disappointed. It was an engaging novel with some interesting elements.

Each chapter begins with Xanthe’s description of the fabric she weaves, explaining how each thread, pattern, and colors represent specific events, people, and phases of her life. Since weaving was the pre-eminent occupation for women at that time, the continuous references to weaving were interesting and convincing for the time period.

Another strength of the novel was its focus on women: their daily lives, their friendships, their rituals, their activities, and their support of each other. It was refreshing to hear women’s voices and to see the world through their eyes as they carved a niche for themselves within the confines of a male dominated society.

Reference to events and characters from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were skillfully woven throughout the narrative. These popped up at unexpected places, with the men behaving in ways true to their characterization in the original epic poems. But for the most part, men and their activities were treated as nuisances and interruptions from the all important focus of women and their activities.

The only issue I have with the novel is with the characterization of Xanthe. She came across as insipid and dull, an uninteresting character more acted upon than acting. Granted, she lives in a heavily patriarchal society with little space to maneuver. However, both Penelope and Helen live in the same society and yet they are far more interesting and emerge as active, vibrant agents with no shortage of cunning up their sleeves. Penelope dupes the suitors by scuttling her daughter out of Ithaca right under their noses. And Helen has her own bag of tricks to navigate the events to her desired outcome. Even Hermione, the daughter of Helen and Menelaus, actively tries to change or forestall events, regardless of how misguided her actions or motives are. But Xanthe is a wallflower relying heavily on others to navigate the situation for her.

Other than the shortcomings of Xanthe’s characterization, Penelope’s Daughter is a well-researched and engaging read. With its description of rituals, the intricacies of weaving, the intermittent appearances of characters familiar to readers of the Odyssey, and its unflinching focus on the lives and activities of women, it will appeal to readers interested in breathing life into mythology, especially since it gives voice to those denied it in the original myths.

Recommended, especially for readers who love mythology and enjoy the re-tellings of ancient stories.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Par Lagerkvist

The Herod in Par Lagerkvist’s Herod and Mariamne is the Herod of Biblical notoriety. The novella is a love story of sorts. Herod is a monstrous ruler who derives satisfaction from killing and torturing his perceived enemies. He falls in love with the innocent Mariamne. She agrees to marry him but only because she thinks she may be able to temper his violent urges. She succeeds temporarily, but Herod resorts to his former cruelties when he realizes Mariamne doesn’t return his love. His rage at being spurned by the only woman he has ever loved fuels his resentment, and he eventually has her killed. He dies years later, a decrepit old man, alone, despised, and calling out to Mariamne with his last breath.

This is an engaging novel, simply told and written in Lagerkvist’s style of unadorned language. Lagerkvist’s portrayal of Herod is convincing. He is a cruel man consumed with self-importance, an inflated ego, and is paranoid to top it off. When he finds himself passionate about someone other than himself, he demands full reciprocation. His love turns to resentment and then to a seething anger aimed at the woman who deigns to withhold her love.

Lagerkvist’s portrayal of Mariamne is not so convincing. She is a woman of flawless internal and external beauty, a selfless creature totally devoted to sacrificing herself to save others. She tolerates Herod’s indiscretions and his cruelties with an unnerving patience. She goes about living her life as if she is not of this world. In short, Mariamne is barely human.

The portrayal of Mariamne reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s description of the Angel in the House in her Professions for Women. Woolf describes her encounter with the Angel while writing a review of a male-authored novel:  

I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all — I need not say it —-she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty — her blushes, her great grace.”

Virginia Woolf comes to the realization she has to kill the Angel in the House if she wants to survive as a writer. Her action is based on self-defense: “Had I not killed her, she would have killed me.”

Mariamne shares the qualities of Woolf’s phantom Angel. And it is those very same qualities that cause Herod to act in a murderous rage against her. Perhaps if she had been a little more human, thrown a few tantrums of jealousy here and there, argued with him, revealed she had needs and desires of her own, shown her weaknesses, she may have survived his onslaught.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mark Spragg

An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong in that both focus their lens on the relationships of people living in small towns. Both novels also tackle the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and finding home.

An Unfinished Life tells the story of Jean Gylkison, a wife and mother who harbors considerable guilt for causing the car accident that killed her husband. She vaults from one abusive relationship to another, taking her ten-year-old daughter, Griff, with her. The novel opens with Jean leaving her latest abusive boyfriend, Roy, after experiencing yet another night of beatings. With Griff’s urging, mother and daughter run away from Roy and end up in the small town in Wyoming where Jean grew up and where her father-in-law, Einar, lives. Einar resents Jean with a passion and blames her for the death of his son. But as the story unfolds, Einar and Griff develop a strong bond. Ultimately, Jean and Einar reconcile and forgive each other, primarily due to their shared love for Griff.

The strongest part of the novel for me was in its character portrayal. Spragg somehow manages to enter the mind of the ten-year-old Griff, revealing her innermost thoughts and capturing her dialogue very convincingly. Griff is an endearing character, wise and intrepid beyond her years. She has had to be in order to survive living with her mother’s abusive boyfriends.

Einar’s relationship with his war buddy, Mitch, was also beautifully captured. Their friendship has lasted 50 years, with Einar acting as the caretaker for his now severely disabled friend. The dialogue between these two elderly men was like that of an old married couple who have been through difficult times together but who survive by relying on each other for support and friendship. They know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s thoughts. Their communication is sparse, with meaning being conveyed more by what is left unsaid than what is articulated.

Spragg also captures the psychology of a woman living in an abusive relationship. Jean is consumed with self-blame and diminished self-worth. She thinks she deserves the abuse and gravitates from one abuser to another before finally extricating herself. Research on domestic violence tells us, on average, a woman attempts to leave her abuser 7 times before she finally leaves him for good. And the number one reason women finally leave their abuser is because of their children. Griff certainly plays that redemptive role. She urges her mother to leave Roy, and it is because of Griff that Jean tries to start a new life for herself.

But for me, Spragg’s strongest portrayal lies in the character of Roy, the abuser. He is typical of many batterers who confuse love for another person with possession, entitlement, and control. Roy has convinced himself he loves Jean, that she is his to possess, that he beats her for her own good, and that beatings are a normal part of all relationships. He is a thoroughly despicable character who sees himself as the victim, not the abuser. Spragg does a magnificent job of capturing the psychology of both the victim of abuse and the perpetrator.

This is an engaging, well-written novel about forgiveness of one’s self as well as of others, about reconciliation, friendship, and community. But for me, the most impressive part of the novel lies in the strength of its character portrayals, especially the portrayals of Griff and Roy.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is an imaginative re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey told from the first person point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering and patient wife. Interspersed throughout Penelope’s narrative are the songs of the twelve maids (the chorus) killed by Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca.

Atwood delivers some interesting twists on the original story. Penelope speaks to us a few thousand years after her death. Her phrases and references are current, and include, for example, a commentary on the recent rash of steroid use by athletes. She engages in several snide conversations with Helen, fueled by her jealousy and Helen’s narcissism. The twelve maids who meet their deaths were only following her orders to cozy up to the suitors in order to spy on them. She recognizes Odysseus from the moment he enters the palace disguised as a beggar but feigns temporary ignorance of his identity to better position herself.

Atwood provides some intriguing insights. For example, the twelve moon-maidens suggest their rape by the suitors and subsequent murder by Odysseus is a metaphor for the diminution of the great goddess and her cult. Accordingly, the maidens demand justice for the crimes perpetrated against them during Odysseus’ mock trial for the murder of the suitors.

This was an engaging novel told in brisk, accessible language. I enjoy re-tellings of myths, especially those told in the first person point of view. Atwood adheres to the skeleton of the original while providing interesting twists and perspectives to flesh out its female characters. Although I appreciated the feminist lens and commentary threading its way intermittently throughout the narrative, I didn’t think it shone far enough. I was disappointed there was no evidence of sisterhood, the bond of mutual support women frequently forge while living in the throes of a patriarchal culture.

Before and after their deaths, all the women in Atwood’s interpretation align themselves either with men or children. Their loyalties are never to each other. Penelope is resilient, enterprising, and quick-witted. While alive, she is thrust into an alien culture as Odysseus’ wife where she has to fend for herself with no support from her sisters. Anticleia is hostile toward her; Eurycleia treats her like an incompetent appendage whose sole function is to produce male offspring for Odysseus; and Helen thrives on ridiculing her and fueling the petty jealousies that characterize women who vie for the attention of the all powerful male. Penelope’s only tools for survival are subterfuge, deceit, and the pretense of stupidity. The closest she comes to feeling the bond of sisterhood is with the 12 maids. Unfortunately, they end up paying dearly with their lives for the privilege.

It would have been refreshing to see some evidence of sisterhood, of women supporting Penelope during her ordeal both in life and beyond the grave. But it’s quite possible the absence of sisterhood is intentional, suggesting the tools available to women to counter the effects of a male-dominated culture will remain limited until women learn to support each other. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Imam Abdallah Ibn Alawi Al-Haddad

The Lives of Man: A Guide to the Human States: Before Life, In the World, and After Death by Imam Abdallah Ibn Alawi Al-Haddad is an explication of how Islam views the different stages a human being undergoes in life and after death.

Although relatively short in length (approximately 90 pages), the book is intense. The life of the human being is divided into 5 stages: before conception to birth; life in this world until death; life in the grave until the resurrection; from the time of the resurrection until one enters the Garden (Paradise) or the Fire (Hell); and entrance into the Garden or Fire. The final stage lasts for all eternity. Each stage can have subdivisions and different states within it.

Imam Al-Haddad supports his explication with frequent and extensive references to the Qur’an and Hadiths. This is not a quick or easy read, but it is an essential read for anyone interested in learning how one of the world’s major monotheistic religions envisions the stages humans experience in life and after death.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Tahir Shah

Tired of what he describes as his “meager existence” under the wet, grey skies of England, Tahir Shah decides to uproot his wife and young children and move to Morocco, chronicling their experience in The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca.  Shah purchases the Caliph’s house (Dar Khalifa) in Casablanca, a dilapidated home, empty for ten years and situated on the edge of a shantytown. Upon entering his new home, he discovers his house comes equipped with a staff of three guardians and a she-jinn known as Qandisha. The intrepid guardians do their best to educate Shah on Moroccan ways and caution him to tread carefully so as not to incur the wrath of Qandisha who haunts the house and who (understandably) resents his presence.

So begins a year of living in the Caliph’s house. Shah’s vision is to remodel the decrepit home and restore it to its former glory. This brings him in contact with Moroccan craftsmen who are incredibly skilled at what they do but who work at a maddeningly slow pace. Shah eventually learns to accept the Moroccan way of doing things and, by the end of the year, the Caliph’s house has been beautifully remodeled with fountains, colorful mosaics, plush gardens, and a library that is the envy of any book lover. Additionally, the jinn have been successfully exorcised from his home through a combination of prayers, chanting, rituals, and the slaughter of a goat. The book concludes with Shah and his wife lying back and admiring all they have accomplished in the space of a year. He is finally at peace.

Some of the fantastic happenings in the book should be taken with a grain of salt. But perhaps nothing is quite as unbelievable as Shah’s gallant determination to forge ahead in the face of what appear to be insurmountable challenges. Shah speaks of these challenges with humor and irony. What shines throughout is his love for his adopted country in spite of the trials and tribulations he endures—or, perhaps, because of them.

Shah graphically illuminates Moroccan culture and life in Dar Khalifa. His engaging jaunt through the underbelly of Moroccan life exposes us to shady characters who speak in ambiguities, a place where corruption is rampant, where poverty abounds, and where money exchanges hands without quite knowing what one is getting in return. It is an excursion made all the more appealing due to Shah’s ability to capture the sights, sounds, scents, and texture of life in Morocco that waft through every page with vibrancy and color.  A delightful and entertaining read. Highly recommended.

 

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Marie-Louise Von Franz

I've been a big fan of the works of Marie-Louise Von Franz ever since I read The Feminine in Fairy Tales. In The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Von Franz does what she does best: she performs a Jungian interpretation of fairy tales. Von Franz deconstructs the tales by delving deepr and deepter into the significance of each character, object, and event. She compares and contrasts different versions of the same tale to offer a more expansive interpretation. Her discussion provides insights into human behavior and relationships. However, the last chapter on Shadow, Anima, and Animus can be a challenge to those without even a rudimentary familiarity with the works of Carl Jung. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Anne Enright

Anne Enright’s The Green Road is about the Madigan family with Rosaleen, the mother, at its center.  The novel opens in 1980 with Rosaleen, her husband, and their four children at their home in Ardeevin, County Clare, Ireland. They are gathered around the table having a family meal when Dan, the eldest, announces his decision to become a priest. His mother greets the news by taking to her bed for several days—“the horizontal solution,” as her son, Dan, refers to it.

The novel follows the paths of the four siblings over a period of 25 years. Dan is in America struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality while experiencing the gay lifestyle in New York. His sister, Constance, is married with children, lives in the same town as her mother, and struggles to do the right thing and say the right thing to satisfy her mother. Emmet, the third child, is in Mali where he struggles to help a people plagued with disease, poverty, ignorance, and violence. Hanna, the youngest daughter, is a struggling actress, an alcoholic with a young baby. Their struggles are different but they all have in common their inability to forge meaningful connections with the significant others in their lives.

Enright captures the jealousies, resentments, petty squabbles, and rivalries of the four siblings, the seeds of which are apparent in their childhood and which continue to haunt them as adults. These tensions surface when they respond to a summons by their mother to gather for a reunion Christmas dinner in their childhood home. They walk through their childhood home where every nook and cranny, every fading piece of wallpaper, conjures up memories of a time long since past. We see the siblings talking at cross-purposes, misunderstanding each other, and raising past grievances.

At the center of the gathering is Rosaleen. Her children respond to her in different ways, but they all harbor a mixture of love and resentment toward her. She feels the same toward them—alternating between experiencing an overpowering love for them one minute and resentment the next. Enright’s gift lies in her ability to depict the inner life of her characters and to situate them in poignant, vivid scenes that tug at the heart. Her characters are fumbling in the dark, searching for meaning and connection.

The novel is about aging. It is about the things we leave behind and the baggage we carry with us as we journey through life. It is about realizing the bonds we formed in childhood with our siblings can be lost to us as adults. It is about recognizing one’s children may follow paths that lead them far from home in ways we can’t understand. And, finally, it is about fragile attempts to move forward and forge connections based on giving and receiving love.

A beautiful story told with unflinching honesty and sensitivity.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kent Haruf

In one sense, nothing much happens in Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. In another sense, everything that is of any importance in life happens.

It is the story of two elderly people in search of companionship and love. They find each other when Addie More invites her neighbor Louis Waters to share her bed at night so neither one of them has to sleep alone. Their conversations at night are honest, touching, and devoid of artifice as they reveal the intimate details of their private lives. Their friendship develops into a genuine love, the kind of love that can come to two people in their twilight years who understand they don’t have to play games or pretend to be something they’re not or care any more about what the nay-sayers and gossips might think. Their connection is forged on the premise that the elderly are entitled to companionship and to the sharing of life’s simple pleasures.

This is another of Kent Haruf's gems--quietly told, gentle, heart-warming, delicate, and beautiful in its simplicity.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sunjeev Sahota

I have mixed feelings about The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I found it bleak, depressing, with very little that could be considered uplifting.

The novel tells the story of a group of runaways from India who come from different backgrounds, castes, and socio-economic status and whose paths cross in Sheffield, England. The opening chapters thrust us into their squalid lives in Sheffield where they have come in search of employment. They struggle at working in a construction site; live in appalling, dehumanizing conditions; experience cruelty and exploitation; and are in constant fear of being captured and deported.  The characters are desperately poor. A portion of what little money they earn has to be sent home to support their families in India.

We are then taken back in time to reveal the tragic and violent circumstances that drove each to leave home, family, and country (in short, all that is familiar) to embark to an unfamiliar land in search of a better life.

As the story progresses, their situation deteriorates. They sleep on the streets and under bridges, eat whatever scraps they can find, compete for the same meager, low-paying jobs, and steal. It is all pretty bleak. Sahota narrates their horrific experiences in a very matter-of-fact, almost pedantic style. He peppers the writing with Punjabi and Sikh words or phrases that are unintelligible to a non-native speaker.

Having immersed his characters in squalid and desperate circumstances and just as they reach the point where the little they have begins to unravel, Sahota leaps ten years forward where the characters are now leading middle class lives with no explanation as to how they managed to do this.

This is not a "feel good" book. But in spite of some of its drawbacks, it is an important book since it increases our understanding and, hopefully, our compassion for the desperate plight some immigrants experience in their home countries and in their adopted ones. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Brian Morton

Florence Gordon by Brian Morton is a delightful depiction of a seventy-five year-old feisty feminist who advanced the goals of the woman’s movement through her writing and political advocacy for decades and who remains politically active in spite of her advanced years. Florence is fiercely independent, brutally honest, selfish, tactless, eccentric, and a passionate advocate for justice and equity. 

Brian Morton manages to create a character that is complex, believable, and admirable in her own uncompromising way. His portrayal of this eccentric woman is all the more remarkable in that he was able to get inside a woman’s head and capture her personality so convincingly.  Florence is gutsy, values her space and privacy, and has little tolerance for anyone other than herself. Much to her chagrin, her family’s dramas weave in and out of her life, interrupting her work and routine. She remains fiercely determined to live and to die on her own terms.

The novel is situated in New York, an ideal setting for this rough and tough protagonist. The style is accessible. The story moves at a brisk pace. But the true strength of the novel lies in its character portrayals, beginning with Florence's aging feminist friends whom she has known for decades, her ex-husband, her son, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter. Like Florence, they may not be loveable characters, but they are recognizably real, However, it is Morton's portrayal of Florence Gordon herself that shines above all others and that makes the novel such an engaging and delightful read. Highly recommended.  

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ursula Le Guin

In her novel Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin takes the character of Lavinia who gets little more than a tertiary mention in Virgil’s Aeneid, and provides her with voice, character, and background. The novel is in the first person point of view with Lavinia speaking directly to the reader. She describes her childhood, upbringing, meeting with and subsequent marriage to Aeneas, the birth of their son, Aeneas’ death, and her son’s rise to power.

Lavinia is portrayed as a strong woman determined to fulfill her obligations as the daughter of a king, later as the wife of a king, and later still as the mother of a king. The love she feels for Aeneas and he for her seems genuine and touching. She converses with Virgil’s spirit, learning what the future holds in store for her and her progeny. She is curiously aware of her status as the poet’s creation and is not shy of telling the reader Virgil neglected some of the relevant details in her story and was mistaken in others.

Le Guin takes us to areas where Virgil never ventured. She expands on his vision by presenting the untold part of the story. Through her vivid and meticulous description of the rituals, ceremonies, and oracles, coupled with the daily routines of domestic life at the time, Le Guin creates a world that hovers on the borderline between myth and history. Her novel has a haunting quality that makes the mythic appear real. Her believable evocation of a different time and a different place, grounded as it appears to be in thorough research, is what I most enjoyed about the novel. That and the obvious fact she is such an incredible writer. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ammon Shea

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea is an absolute delight. Shea describes his experience of spending a year reading the 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. He begins each chapter with a narrative of his experience and then selects about half a dozen words from each letter of the alphabet, defining and commenting on its meanings and usage. Some of the examples he provides are quirky; many are obscure; others are outright hilarious. Shea describes the OED as “the greatest story ever told.”

The pages of his foray into the OED are peppered with wit and sarcasm. His enthusiasm for the task is contagious, conveying genuine fleshment (the sense of excitement that comes from initial success) as he invites us to join him in conjubulation (being jubilant or rejoicing with another person). I encourage you to dispel your addubitation (suggestion of doubt) and delve into Shea’s Reading the OED. I assure you it will happify you immensely (to make happy).

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason is a series of 44 short chapters, some of which are loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, and some of which are creative re-imaginings, scenarios, and “what-ifs” that are so far removed from the Homeric poem they’re no longer recognizable as off-shoots from the original.

I approached the novel expecting a re-telling of the Odyssey, so I got slightly irritated every time Mason deviated substantially from the original. But to be fair to the author, his aim was not to re-tell. His aim was to take us down alternative, untrodden paths where, for example, we entertain the notion that Odysseus is a coward who hides behind a pseudo identity; where Helen is his spouse; where Penelope commits suicide; and where Scylla, Circe, Athena, and Greek and Trojan warriors are completely re-imagined. Reading the novel was almost like taking a romp through an alternative fantasy world where even the characters question what is “real” and what is fabrication.

If we accept the author’s premise that the stories are based on missing fragments of Homer's Odyssey, and if we are willing to abandon a desire for more faithful adherence to the original, then we will find much here that is commendable. The episodes are highly imaginative, creative, entertaining, well crafted, and well written.

Even though I prefer re-tellings of classical myths that adhere closer to the original, (check out my review of David Malouf's Ransom), I recognize The Lost Books of the Odyssey to be an extraordinary feat of the imagination and an entertaining, satisfying read. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ya'a Gyasi

Ya’a Gyasi’s Homegoing is an ambitious novel exploring the impact of slavery and colonialism on the people of Ghana and America’s northern and southern states. It does so through a series of vignettes focusing on two stepsisters and several generations of their descendents. The sisters never meet. One sister, Effia, marries a British slave trader; the other, Esi, is sold into slavery. The chapters alternate from a descendent of one sister to a descendent of the other until we get to the preset day. The story spans about 250 years.

Thankfully, Gyasi includes a table to chart the descendents of each of the sisters to minimize the confusion caused by the shifting perspectives. We barely have time to get familiar with one character before we are thrust to the other side of the world and introduced to a new character or to a character we met earlier who is now decades older. There is little time for character portrayal and development. The effect of all this shifting in time and space and character gives the novel the feel of a series of jarring episodes. This is especially true in Part 2 which seems contrived and where one gets the sense the characters are not fully formed but are stereotypical mouthpieces.

Having said that, I still feel this is a remarkable achievement as a debut novel and well worth reading, primarily due to the strength of Part 1.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Caroline Alexander

It has been a number of years since I last read The Iliad, preferring The Odyssey since it doesn’t have quite as much blood and gore or the constant litany of men killing and men being killed by arrows and spears and swords. I wasn’t sure I was up to reading about “darkness covering their eyes” or the sounds of clashing armor as men stumble to the ground. But learning of Caroline Alexander’s translation of The Iliad, I decided to tackle it again, especially since this is the first translation I know of done by a woman. I wasn’t disappointed.

Alexander does an impressive job. I have read translations of The Iliad by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, and Robert Fagles. My favorite has always been the Lattimore translation, but I would put Alexander’s translation right up there with the best of them. I found her language to be more accessible and lucid than previous translations. Her lines have a certain rhythmic quality which I can only assume is similar to the Greek. And although I don’t speak Greek, I appreciate her line-by-line translation, retaining the same number of lines as in Homer. This will make it easier for Greek speakers to do a line-by-line comparison.

I won’t deny I find it particularly commendable that Alexander’s translation shatters yet another glass ceiling. But it bears repeating that her translation of The Iliad is a mammoth achievement that stands on its own merit. I strongly recommend it. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eka Kurniawan

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” So begins Eka Kurniawan’s epic novel, Beauty is a Wound. With that startling opening sentence, we are hurled from one fantastical situation to another. In this topsy-turvy world where violence and rape abound, a legendary beauty marries a dog, a pig turns into a human, a woman wears an iron chastity belt to prevent her husband from raping her, and ghosts interact with humans and with each other on a regular basis. It’s as if we ventured with Alice down the rabbit hole where the bizarre becomes plausible. All of these fantastic events take place against a backdrop of the recent history of Indonesia with its struggle for independence, guerrilla warfare, bloodshed, and massacres.

The novel recounts the story of the Dewi Ayu, the most beautiful, sophisticated prostitute in the village of Halimunda. The story of Dewi and her four daughters intertwines with cultural folklore to such a degree that the lines separating them blur with the latter bleeding seamlessly into the narrative of Dewi Ayu and one or another of her daughters.

Kurniawan has written a brilliant tale, one that is simultaneously imaginative, compelling, funny, tragic, and an absolute delight to read. Highly recommended. 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Simon Winchester

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester chronicles the origins and development of the Oxford English Dictionary. One would assume the history of a dictionary—even one as illustrious as the OED—would be dry. But thanks to the colorful character of William Chester Minor and the skillful treatment of Simon Winchester, the tale was riveting.

Minor, an American suffering from mental illness that led him to commit a murder, was incarcerated for most of his life in an asylum in England for the criminally insane. He was a brilliant intellectual with a lot of time on his hands.

When Dr. James Murray, the editor of the OED, put out a call for volunteers to assist in compiling definitions for the dictionary, Minor answered the call with unparalleled commitment and fervor. He worked systematically and industriously on the project for years. His contributions (over 10,000 definitions) to the creation of the OED were critical, earning him the respect and friendship of Dr. Murray.

Winchester is a master story-teller. His writing is engaging, informative, and peppered with a great sense of humor. He tells us in the opening pages of Minor’s prodigious contribution to the OED and of his residency in the insane asylum, a fact unknown to the sedate James Murray until they finally meet after 20 years of working together. Winchester builds up the suspense so we are anxious for the meeting to take place. Weaving in and out of their stories is a description of the painstaking and time-consuming work that went into the creation of the OED, a 20-volume project that was 70 years in the making.

Winchester takes what could have been a boring subject if executed by less skilled hands and turns it into an entertaining, informative, and fascinating story of the compilation of an epic achievement in the English language and of the two individuals instrumental in its creation. 

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elif Shafak 

Honor by Elif Shafak is the story of three generations of a Kurdish family told from multiple first person points of view. Shifting backward and forward in time, the narrative weaves together its different threads. The novel reads much like a puzzle that has to be pieced together to arrive at a complete picture. By giving us access to the thoughts of each of the characters, Shafak helps us to understand the motivation for their actions. This includes Iskender who commits a murder having convinced himself it is the only way to preserve his family’s honor. We may not like his character, but we understand why he felt driven to do it.

Shafak explores the role of cultural values in our lives and how they can sometimes be constructive and other times destructive. The novel is about the impact of cultural baggage that is so imbued in us, we wear it like a second skin, unable to shake it off even if we are in a foreign land miles away from our place of origin.

The novel has a wide scope, taking the reader from a Kurdish village on the border of Turkey and Syria, to the streets of London and Abu Dhabi. It covers a broad spectrum of themes: the immigrant experience, racism, domestic abuse, parental love—or lack thereof, loveless marriages, oppressive gender roles, and the positive and negative legacies we inherit from our culture and our family.

I enjoyed certain aspects of the novel but at times felt it was somewhat contrived--as if the characters served as mouthpieces for ideas. I felt this was especially true of Zeeshon who seems to be inserted in the novel for the sole purpose of precipitating Iskender's ostensible redemption.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review