Ursula K. Le Guin

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin is a collection of blogs Le Guin wrote between the years of 2010-2016. The collection is selected and introduced by Karen Jay Fowler.

Le Guin’s topics are wide-ranging and include the following: her lack of spare time; the benefits and challenges of aging; the nature of writing; letters from children; Homer; literary awards and the great American novel; feminism; thoughts on Utopia and dystopia; capitalism; anger; her discomfort with public appearances; and the ideal way of eating a soft-boiled egg. Le Guin also ventures into the animal world by delighting us with the antics of her cat, Pard; her eyeball encounter with a rattle snake; and her meditations on a lynx.

Le Guin expresses her opinions with unabashed candor, articulates her concerns with the direction the world around her has taken, and communicates the wonders she finds in seemingly mundane conversations and encounters. Her language is informal, conversational, and laced with the occasional acerbic witticism. Even though the tone conjures up an atmosphere of sitting around the kitchen table and chatting, Le Guin’s words are not to be dismissed lightly. This is not a simple jaunt into the mind of an octogenarian. Her voice is authentic; her words full of wisdom and insights that give you pause and make you think. She segues seamlessly from one topic to another, from the seemingly trivial to the very profound. Her encounter with a rattlesnake, for example, is transformed into a meditation on the sacred.

The collection is full of gems taking unexpected turns and laced with a wry sense of humor. Le Guin’s mind is active, sensitive, compassionate, graceful, and unflinchingly honest. She compels us to confront hard truths. She will be sorely missed.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Haifaa Al Mansour

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour is the story of Wadjda, a precocious and enterprising eleven-year-old girl in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wadjda is a tom boy who refuses to conform to her culture’s expectations of what is considered appropriate behavior and mannerisms for girls. Her best friend and playmate is a young boy called Abdullah. When Wadjda sees a green bicycle in a toy store, she decides to earn the money to buy it so she can race with Abdullah. It is considered highly improper for girls to ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia, but Wadjda will not allow that obstacle to deter her.

Based on Al Mansour’s award-winning film, the novel explores gender roles and the restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia. It provides a glimpse of the education system for girls, dress requirements for females, and the limitations imposed on a woman’s movement and speech. Wadjda challenges these restrictions with every aspect of her being. Eventually, her mother gets on board and launches her own rebellion.

Al Mansour captures the struggles of life in Saudi Arabia and the social expectations and traditions that place a burden on both men and women—with women shouldering the heavier burden. Wadjda’s father takes on a second wife since only sons are recognized in the family tree and Wadjda’s mother can no longer bear children. Al Mansour is careful to distinguish between the cultural prohibitions placed on women and the precepts of Islam, attributing prohibitions to tradition and dismissing many as superstitious in nature. For example, Wadjda is repeatedly warned that riding a bicycle will inhibit her ability to bear children—an admonition she dismisses as mere superstition.

Wadjda’s relationship with her mother is heartwarming and handled with sensitivity. Their bond is unbreakable, infused with love and understanding. One of the most touching scenes is of Wadjda’s mother teaching Wadjda to recite verses from the Qur’an. Wadjda is moved by her mother’s sonorous voice as she delivers the words with passion:

Gently, she clasped Wadjda’s hands in hers and placed their joined palms, fingers interlaced, over her own heart. Words spilled from her mouth, full of a sincerity and passion Wadjda had never seen before. A passion her mother had, up until that point, kept locked inside.

The connection between mother and daughter is unwavering. As the mother says to Wadjda when her husband takes on a second wife, “It’s all right,” she said softly. “He made his decision. It’ll be just the two of us now. We’ll be fine.”

And you know they will.

Recommended for children ages eleven and up—and for those young at heart.

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is an unsettling novel that grabs the reader with a relentless grip from its first page to its last. Told from the first-person point of view of a naïve and unreliable narrator, the novel unfolds in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards. The narrator, Kathy H, an adult in her early thirties when the novel opens, remembers her childhood and schooling at Hailsham, followed by her years in “the cottage,” and then as a caregiver to donors. 

Initially, Hailsham sounds like an idyllic school in the English countryside, isolated from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. Kathy is surrounded by friends and guardians who oversee the children’s education, artistic endeavors, and sports activities. But slowly seeping into this atmosphere are hints of something ominous: references to the children as “special,” furtive glances, partial revelations, and bits of overheard conversations. Kathy narrates these activities and snatches of conversation but seems completely oblivious to their import at the time. This makes it even more haunting since the reader is able to piece the puzzle together long before everything becomes apparent to the narrator. The tension builds up slowly with layer upon layer of hints and clues shared with the reader through the eyes of a child who doesn’t fully comprehend their significance.

Winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro has created an amazing tour de force. Through his use of first-person narrative, the reader experiences events through the eyes an innocent child who grows into adulthood. We feel sympathy for her and her friends as they try to make sense of an incomprehensible situation. We watch them as they clutch at straws and fabricate meanings to understand their circumstances. And we recoil in horror as we learn the purpose of their existence and the full extent of the cruel and inhumane experiment they have endured under the ostensible guise of scientific medical research.

This is not an easy read. Brilliant in its execution, the story is chilling, disturbing, and will continue to haunt long after the final sentence has been read.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Elif Shafak

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak tells the story of a Turkish woman, Nazperi Nalbantoglu, known as Peri. The narrative shifts backwards and forwards in time, beginning with Peri as an adult wife and mother living in Istanbul in 2016, to her childhood growing up in Istanbul in the 1980s, to the time she spent as a student at Oxford University in 2000. 

Peri’s childhood is fraught with anxieties. Her favorite brother is arrested by Turkish authorities and serves time in a Turkish prison. He emerges from his ordeal as a changed man. Her mother and father fight incessantly over religion with each side becoming increasingly entrenched in his/her respective positions. To add further complication to her life, Peri is visited by a mysterious spirit in the form of a baby enshrouded in a mist of clouds. He appears and disappears at pivotal moments in her life.

During her stay at Oxford, Peri befriends Shirin, a non-observant Muslim from Tehran; and Mona, a devout Muslim from Egypt. Collectively, they are the three daughters of Eve. On the advice of Shirin, Peri enrolls in a seminar about God. The charismatic professor, Dr. Azur, employs an unconventional pedagogy in conducting the seminar—one that is designed to challenge his students. Unfortunately, he is also arrogant, manipulative, and doesn’t hesitate to exploit the vulnerabilities of his students to further his aims. He manipulates them like pawns on a chess board. Predictably, Peri becomes infatuated with him, an infatuation that soon turns to hostility when she learns of his affair with Shirin. The novel concludes where it began—Istanbul in 2016. Peri, hiding in a closet from gunmen who have invaded the house, phones Professor Azur and achieves a closure of sorts in her conversation with him.

Shafak sustains reader interest in the narrative with happenings that generate interest and shifts in time that are easy to follow. But the character portrayals are weak. While Peri is depicted as well-rounded, confused, and conflicted, the remaining characters emerge as venues or mouthpieces for different perspectives on religion, philosophy, and politics. They spout their views, presenting one side or another in a manner that feels obviously constructed. They talk at each other instead of to each other and are reduced to little more than mouthpieces for a particular point of view. As a result, the story suffers. And although the novel concludes with Peri presumably achieving an understanding of her experience at Oxford, that understanding wasn’t communicated effectively to provide satisfactory closure to the novel.

Recommended with reservations.

Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice is a much stronger and more compelling novel and displays her talents to better advantage.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

J. Courtney Sullivan

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan is the story of two sisters from a small village in Ireland who emigrate to America. Their lives take different paths as the younger sister, Theresa, becomes pregnant and then joins a nunnery. Nora, the older sister marries, adopts her nephew, and raises him as her own child while concealing the identity of his birth mother. She has three other children. The sisters are estranged, maintaining an on and off relationship for decades until a possible reconciliation is suggested at the end of the novel when they are in their seventies.

The story is moderately interesting but the main flaws lie in the telling of it. Character portrayal is lackluster and, in the case of Nora’s lesbian daughter, borders on being stereotypical. The narrative consistently meanders into brief backstories that interrupt the general flow, giving the impression of distracting, unnecessary fillers.

Unfortunately, the novel was unable to live up to the promise of its engaging opening chapters.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mary Roach

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is at times informative, educational, interesting, humorous, and, at times, positively macabre.

Roach explores how the study of human cadavers has advanced the field of medical science and forensics, and how it has saved lives through improvements in car safety and in the protection of military personnel in combat zones. Each chapter contains a brief explanation of experiments performed by pioneers in the study of cadavers, explaining their contributions—or lack thereof. Roach also interviews individuals currently working with cadavers, including physicians who transplant organs, military personnel, embalmers, forensics experts whose task is to determine the time and nature of death, and injury analysts. She attends autopsies, transplant surgeries, and laboratories where experiments are performed. And through it all, she manages to pepper her discussion with a tongue-in-cheek humor without being disrespectful toward the subject of her inquiry.

Roach’s study was interesting and informative in many ways. Because scientists now know the rate and stages of decomposition of human remains, they can pinpoint the time and nature of death with accuracy. And through their study of human remains, injury analysts can determine the cause of a fatal plane crash. The differences between organ donation and donating your body to science are clarified, as are the procedures involved in embalming; cremation; the composting of human remains; and traditional burial.

Much has been learned through the study of cadavers. Obviously, it is preferable to experiment on cadavers rather than live humans in the interest of advancing knowledge. But one wonders whether it was necessary to describe experiments in such graphic, gruesome detail. Some of the experiments performed on animals were cruel and resulted in grotesque aberrations. And some experiments performed on human body parts made one recoil in horror. A case in point: the French physician who feverishly collected guillotined heads during the French revolution to determine if and for how long a head can survive after it has been severed from the human body. The chapter “Eat Me” was particularly grisly. Roach gives a historical overview of various bits and pieces of cadavers and human and animal bodily excretions ingested for medicinal purposes.

Although interesting and educational in many ways, this is not a book for everyone. Recommended but with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Marguerite Yourcenar; Trans. Grace Frick

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated from the French by Grace Frick, is a work of historical fiction. The narrative unfolds in the voice of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) as he speaks to his adopted grandson and heir, Marcus Aurelius. The novel is a fascinating combination of autobiography, history, psychology, and philosophy. Hadrian offers valuable advice to his heir by meditating on the nature of good governance, and on how to live, love, and die well. He does it through the form of a story that recounts his rise to power; his struggles, failures, and successes as emperor; the monuments he erected and why he erected them; the genuine bonds he formed with servants who took care of him; his losses and his loves, especially the one true love of his life who died at the age of 20.

Hadrian emerges as a complex character, unafraid to take risks and to live life to the fullest. He implemented reforms, restored ancient sites that had fallen into ruin, built new sites and monuments, and felt more at home in the culture of Athens than that of Rome. He nurtured a strong appetite for art and literature and loved to contemplate the stars puncturing the night sky. He stabilized the borders of the Roman Empire and took great pains to establish procedures and codify reforms that would survive his death. Widely travelled, he derived pleasure from exposure to different lands and cultures, appreciating the diversity in all he saw. He recognized conquering a people through cultural assimilation is far more effective and enduring than a war that blankets their lands with bloody corpses.

Yourcenar conducted extensive research to piece together this narrative. Her Author’s Note at the back of the book, explains how she scoured texts—ancient and otherwise; read what has survived of Hadrian’s own words; and explored coinage, artifacts, and archeological sites. The depth and breadth of her research is impressive. She immersed herself in Hadrian so successfully that one can almost believe he speaks through her. The language is beautiful, the pace slow and contemplative, the meditations insightful. One of the qualities that make this work so appealing is Yourcenar’s achievement in capturing a voice for Hadrian that sounds so very authentic, intimate, and honest. It is almost as if the aging emperor, aware of his proximity to death, allows us to eavesdrop on his reflections. The effect is extraordinary.

This is a unique achievement—unlike any other work of historical fiction I have encountered. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger

Pull back the curtains and take a peek at life in Anglo-Saxon England by reading The Year 1000: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger. This is a delightful trip back in time. By piecing together interviews with an impressive number of scholars in the field and conducting extensive research as evidenced by their notes and bibliography, the authors provide a unique perspective on what life must have been like at the turn of the first millennium.

The organization of the book takes its cue from the Julius Work Calendar, the earliest surviving document of its sort, dated approximately 1020 CE. Divided into twelve months with a page for each month, this perpetual calendar chronicles the holy days and saints’ days to be celebrated during the month and offers a glimpse into the daily lives of Anglo-Saxons in the year 1000. Each month is adorned with a delightful illustration depicting the activity associated with that month, whether it be ploughing, harvesting, sheep-shearing, or performing a myriad of other activities.

Written in a style that is engaging and accessible, the book is full of fascinating little tidbits of information and curious facts about the lives, habits, clothing, homes, and activities of Anglo-Saxons. The details allow us to peek into the lives of Anglo-Saxon villagers—from the texture of their coarse, woolen clothing, to the fleas infesting their beds, to the stench of open sewers, to the back-breaking labor as they worked the land. Life at the turn of the first millennium certainly had its challenges. People were totally dependent on nature and dated their lives by years when weather and land failed to cooperate. July, known as ‘the hungry gap,’ was the hardest month on the poor since spring crops had not yet matured and grain bins were probably empty.

In spite of these challenges, however, life in Anglo Saxon England had a charm all its own. Imagine living according to the rhythms of nature. Imagine stepping outside your home and not being accosted by sounds of machines in the air or on the ground, or cell phones buzzing for attention. Imagine the only sounds you hear are the rustling of leaves, the twitter of birds, the grunts and snorts of nearby animals, the chatter of a brook. Imagine living in a village with such a small population that you know everyone and everyone knows you—who you are and where you came from; the names of your parents, grandparents, and siblings; which animals belong to you and which belong to your neighbor. Imagine the strong sense of community that develops in such an environment. Imagine living in a place where surnames had not yet been invented because everyone really and truly does know your name.

Life in Anglo Saxon England certainly had its challenges. But thanks to the digestible and entertaining format of this well-researched historical glimpse of England, we recognize it also had its charms.

Highly recommended.

Muriel Rukeyser

The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser is an exploration of poetry—its relationship to the visual and performing arts, its role in our personal lives and in the life of our culture.

Rukeyser begins her exploration by discussing the fear of poetry, a fear she attributes to all imaginative work for its ability to invite a total response reached through emotions. Convinced of the transformative power of poetry, Rukeyser argues the impact of poetry and the arts is to make us more compassionate and humane, linking us to our common humanity. She cites various poems, exploring the impact of and similarities between poetry and works in the visual and performing arts. Her vision is expansive.

Rukeyser peppers her discussion with references to poets, authors, philosophers, and scientists. She draws on events from her personal life and from her interactions with others. She argues all aspects of our culture are integrated, the only barriers being those that are artificially created. She promotes the view that even science and poetry are integrated—one bleeds into the other.

The originality of her thought is impressive. First published in 1949, so much of what she says is still relevant. But there were times when it was difficult to follow her train of thinking. The organization was choppy. She seemed to jump from one thought to another, from one reference to another, without making clear the connections or transitions. Perhaps this is reflective of so many thoughts and images and ideas bombarding her mind simultaneously that even though the connections are obvious to her, she is unable to communicate them adequately to the reader. In spite of some of these drawbacks, however, the work contained passages that were lucid, quotable, and truly inspirational.

Rukeyser defines the poem as “an exchange of energy,” as “process,” as one part of a dynamic triadic relationship between the poet and the reader. She redefines the reader as a “witness,” since the term “. . . includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence.” Her final chapters are particularly compelling. In language breathless with anticipation, she retraces her experience with the images and thoughts that went into the process of writing a poem. And bordering on lyricism is the chapter containing fleeting images of her childhood memories.

There are many quotable and inspiring passages in the work, including this passage that is perhaps one of the most salient:

The tendency of art and religion, and the tendency of poetic meaning, is toward the most human. It is a further humanity we are trying to achieve, at our most conscious, and to communicate.The thinning out of our response is the weakness that leads to mechanical aggression. It is the weakness turning us inward to devour our own humanity, and outward only to sell and kill nature and each other.

Words to savor. Words to remember. Words to live by.

Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Annabel Lyon

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon is the story of the nearly seven years Aristotle spent as the tutor of Alexander, the son and heir of King Philip of Macedon. The narrative is told in Aristotle’s voice, opening with his arrival in Pella, the capital of Macedon. He is accompanied by his wife, Pythias, and his nephew, Callisthenes.

Aristotle’s initial task is to work with Philip’s mentally challenged son, Arrhidaeus. Although he treats Arrhidaeus with compassion and helps him improve both his physical and mental agility, it is Arrhidaeus’ younger brother, Alexander, who consumes Aristotle’s interest and becomes the focus of his attention.

Aristotle is portrayed as highly intelligent and with an unbounded curiosity of the natural world, including human anatomy. Even though the novel is told from his point of view, he remains somewhat aloof and impenetrable. He is subject to fits of depression and has a tendency to weep he knows not why. His conversations occasionally sound stilted and have the flavor of a lecture—as if he were nothing more than a mouthpiece for his ideas.

Alexander emerges as an inquisitive, petulant, arrogant, lonely, willful, ambitious, and brilliant young man, capable of performing atrocities both on and off the battlefield that horrify even his father. Aristotle struggles to reign him in, to teach him the self-control required to live within the gold mean. Their conversations assume the form of verbal sparring—challenging each other back and forth as they debate ideas without arriving at mutually satisfactory resolutions.

Lyon guides us through a period of history replete with examples of male dominance. Her prose is muscular, straightforward, and, for the most part, engaging. However, her frequent use of obscenities and modern phrasing was jarring and incongruous. Such language yanks readers out of historical time and place and thrusts them smack in the middle of contemporary terminology and contemporary cuss words. Their presence is gratuitous, detracts from the setting, and diminishes what would otherwise have been a more enjoyable read.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Eka Kurniawan; Trans. Labodalih Sembiring

He brutally murders a neighbor by biting chunks out of his neck and jugular vein. When confronted, Margio calmly declares:

“It wasn’t me . . . There is a tiger inside my body.”

With those words, Eka Kurniawan introduces us to Margio, his young protagonist in Man Tiger. A white tigress possesses Margio’s body. This same white tigress possessed the body of his grandfather before he died. And if you find that difficult to believe, know that Mameh, Margio’s sister, witnesses the tiger exiting and entering her brother’s body and occasionally catches glimpses of the tiger’s eyes peering at her through her brother’s eyes.

The novel is set in a small Indonesian village where supernatural and fantastical happenings are woven into the fabric of everyday life and where belief in their existence is ubiquitous. The fantastical presents as a normal occurrence. Margio doesn’t question the existence of the tiger possessing his body. He only wants to learn how to control it.

We know Margio killed his neighbor. We know how he did it. But we have to wait until the end of the novel to find out why he did it. After the graphic and grisly description of the murder, Kurniawan takes us back in time where we learn about Margio and his family. There are constant shifts in time with flashbacks and flash forwards. Margio’s father is an abusive, vicious tyrant who beats his wife and children without restraint. Margio’s mother, once young, beautiful, and vibrant is now an empty, withered shell of her former self. She reacts to the trauma by withdrawing into herself, preferring to chat with pots and pans rather than with people. Margio spends much of his time trying to ease life for his brutally abused mother and fantasizing about murdering his father.

The novel is replete with examples of lack of restraint. A garden grows so abundantly that it resembles a jungle and consumes the outside of the house. A young girl ponders the possibility that there is an actual woman growing inside her, causing her body to fill out in ways she can’t control. The dead are apparently incapable of containment within their graves. The boundaries separating human from animal are blurred. Marital rape and domestic violence are socially sanctioned. Not even the neighbors intervene when they hear the screams of Margio’s mother as she is being raped, battered, and bruised. Their callous indifference to the atrocities makes them partially culpable for the ensuing savagery.

This is a highly imaginative and compelling read, but it is not without its flaws. The structure seems rambling and haphazard. The novel meanders down paths and back stories of characters, some of whom bear little significance to the main plot. The digressions are disconcerting because one is never quite sure of their relevance.

This is a story about the impact of poverty, desperation, and violence. It paints a vivid portrait of the exploitation and brutality inflicted on women and children. The portrayal of a young man who finally reaches a breaking point and allows the emergence of the tiger within to perpetrate a horrific act of retaliatory violence is profoundly illustrative. It serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a people pushed repeatedly to the brink of endurance without recourse or social support to alleviate their suffering. Blinded by their rage, they may eventually snap. The ensuing barbaric acts may be understandable because of the extent of their suffering. But that does not detract from the horror.

Recommended but with a word of caution because of its explicit rendering of sexual assault, domestic violence, exploitation of women, and the rampant brutality against women and children.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

In his novel The Watch, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya transplants the story of Antigone to an isolated American outpost in a desert in Afghanistan.

The novel opens with Nizam, a young burqa-clad Afghan girl whose family was killed by an American drone as they were returning from a wedding. Although she survived the attack, Nizam lost both her legs. With makeshift bandages wrapped around her stumps, she drives a cart to the isolated American outpost to request her brother’s body for burial. As the lone survivor of her family, she is responsible for ensuring his burial according to her religious traditions.

She is told her brother was a Taliban insurgent and responsible for the recent attack on the outpost. She denies her brother was a Taliban and says his attack was retaliation for the death of her family by the Americans. She is told his body will not be returned to her. She insists it is her right to bury him. She is told to go home. She refuses to budge. She is offered food. She declines. She waits in her cart, fiercely determined to get her way. The young girl’s presence outside the camp thrusts the soldiers into an unsettling moral quandary. After all, there are no guidelines for handling a courageous, defiant young girl who doggedly insists on retrieving her brother’s body to give him a proper burial. And so begins a two-day standoff with both sides firmly entrenched in their positions.

Through a series of first person narratives, we circle back to the same event—Nizam’s arrival at the outpost—but each time we see it through a different set of lenses. The majority of voices are those of the American soldiers. The characters are believable and portrayed with sympathy. The dialogue is realistic. Each narrator is given a unique identity and struggles with personal demons. Some want to do the civilized thing, the humane thing. But all are depicted as pawns in a situation that is decidedly uncivilized and inhumane.

Roy-Bhattacharya gives us a haunting taste of life on the outpost. The personal narratives include the characters’ back stories and provide access to their thoughts. We witness their trauma as they are attacked by insurgents and lose some of their comrades. We feel their panic. We taste their fear of living on the edge with fingers ever-ready on the trigger. We are with them as they experience a sand storm so strong it invades their eyes, nose, ears, food, drinks, and the air they breathe while it reduces visibility to a bare minimum. We sense their frustration as they struggle to comprehend a situation that isn’t in the rule book. We hear their doubts about the war as they question their presence and the efficacy of their mission. We feel their exhaustion. We witness their snatches of sleep and dreams of back home. We awaken with them as they jolt back to a reality they would prefer to forget. We experience abrupt shifts in time as sights and sounds trigger memories of home and loved ones.

Roy-Bhattacharya does not take sides in the conflict. Instead, he lets those embroiled in its tentacles speak their reality. The result is a riveting anti-war novel that captures the essence of war in all its ubiquitous horror, insanity, and anguish. The image of a young, disabled girl in a cart, willing to risk death to honor her brother, haunts the soldiers as it does the reader. Although Nizam’s narrative is restricted to the opening chapter, her presence hovers over every page of the book, testifying to the horror of war and to the senseless destruction of human life.

In war, even the winners—if there are any—will lose.

Highly recommended, but because of its graphic language, its intense and emotionally-charged situations, this may not be for everyone.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Caroline Alexander

Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War is more than an exploration of Homer’s Iliad. Alexander’s interpretation of characters and events in the epic arrive at conclusions about the experience of war in general—conclusions that are applicable to all wars at all times and in all places.

Alexander encourages the drawing of parallels. She cites examples from 20th Century wars that echo sentiments expressed in the Iliad. Achilles’ confrontation with Agamemnon, for example, leads her to ponder questions about the efficacy of challenging an inept, incompetent leader. Achilles’ withdrawal from the war leads to an exploration of whether a warrior should be willing to sacrifice his life for someone else’s cause. Achilles’ return to the war after the death of Patroklos illustrates the brutal and dehumanizing impact the death of a comrade can have on a fighter.

Alexander highlights the reluctance of both sides to participate in the war. The Greeks just want to go home; the Trojans are willing to surrender Helen and her possessions in order to have them leave. But circumstances, in the form of the meddling and scheming gods who have allied themselves with one side or the other, intervene to prevent an end to a war that no one believes in and no one wants to fight. And yet the war proceeds to its inexorable conclusion.

Included in the work are over 40 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography. The breadth and depth of Alexander’s scholarship is vigorous and impressive. Her ability to make connections within the poem, to interpret details, and to zero in on subtleties and nuances that a casual reader of the epic may miss is inspiring. But perhaps one of the most impressive qualities of her work lies in its character analysis.

Agamemnon emerges as an incompetent, self-absorbed leader with an inflated ego and abysmal leadership skills. Paris emerges as frivolous fop, resented by Trojans and Greeks alike for leading them into an unpopular war. Hektor is a family man with little taste for fighting. However, it is in her analysis of the character of Achilles that Alexander shines.

Achilles emerges as a complex character plagued with internal and external conflicts. A reluctant participant in the war, his skill in warfare is unsurpassed on the battlefield. Although he expresses a longing to return home to his father, he never leaves Troy. He initially demonstrates compassion for his enemies as when, for example, we read he spared the life of Lykaon, a son of Priam, during their first encounter. But he turns into a brutal killing machine after the death of Patroklos. He is the most heroic and bravest of warriors and, yet, he gives distinctly unheroic advice to the delegation of Greeks who have come to reconcile his feud with Agamemnon. He tells them to abandon the war and sail home since a peaceful life at home is more precious than glory on the battlefield. And, finally, he rejoins the war to avenge the death of Patroklos while knowing that his choice will lead to his own death on the battlefield.

In her reflections on and interpretation of Homer’s Iliad, Caroline Alexander encourages a meditation on war—its justifications; its mutually destructive nature on all sides of the conflict; its impact on family; its brutalizing influence on those fighting in the front lines; and its interruption of the peaceful, civilizing scenes of daily life. Her reading of Homer’s Iliad strips war of its glory and grandeur and exposes its reality with unflinching honesty.

A fascinating read that provides valuable commentary on the Iliad. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Alifa Rifaat

Alifa Rifaat’s collection of 15 short stories in Distant View of a Minaret is a quiet, subtle, and delicately nuanced collection of mostly first-person narratives that take place in Egypt. The stories are short, but what they lose in length they more than make up for in depth and penetrating insight. Rifaat has an uncanny ability to elevate ordinary acts of daily life into the level of ritual.

With few exceptions, the first-person narratives are in the voices of women at different stages in life. For example, in "Distant View of a Minaret," we meet a married woman whose husband makes her feel ashamed for seeking sexual fulfillment. "Bahiyaa’s Eyes" is in the voice of an aging woman with failing eyesight who wants to feast her eyes on her daughter one last time before completely losing her vision. In "An Incident at the Ghobashi Household," a mother protects her daughter by pretending her daughter’s illegitimate child is her own. In "Just Another Day," peace descends upon a woman as she is invited to enter the Gardens of Paradise while her body is being prepared for burial.

The strength of these stories lies in the poignant and perceptive manner in which Rifaat handles life’s disappointments, situations, oppressions, and challenges. Several of the stories depict wives struggling to come to terms with their husbands’ prolific infidelities. Although many of the women recognize the injustice perpetrated against them, they do not rage against a patriarchal system that oppresses, discriminates, and marginalizes them. They do not seek divorce or retaliate against their husbands’ infidelities by committing adultery. Instead, they exercise an agency that manifests itself in a different form. They are practicing Muslims who derive sustenance from their Islamic faith.

What is impressive about these stories is the feminist consciousness that emerges. It is not a Western style feminism. Instead, the women operate within the precepts of their Islamic faith. Their stories are punctuated by the muezzin’s call to prayer. As each woman makes her prostrations in prayer, a peace and calmness descends upon her, enabling her to better handle life’s challenges and accept her fate with poise and equanimity. Her thoughts are peppered with references to God and His mercy. In “The Kite," for example, a poor, uneducated widow who followed her husband's lead in prayer because she never learned to memorize verses from the Qur’an finds herself unable to perform prayers after his death. But she does what she can. She remembers to thank God for His generosity by performing the simple and tender gesture of raising her hand to her lips repeatedly to give thanks.

Through her depiction of women as conscious agents who find refuge in their faith, Rifaat quietly exposes the double standard and systemic injustices characteristic of a patriarchal society. Eastern and/or Islamic feminists demand justice but seek it on their own terms. Their methods may be more effective than strident rebellion, which can be alienating. Many non-Western women resent the paternalistic attitude of some Western feminists who seek to impose their world-view and methodology for addressing injustice while simultaneously discrediting the world view of feminists from Eastern and/or Islamic countries.

Alifa Rifaat exposes injustice with subtlety, sensitivity, and poignancy. She shows us how some women of the Islamic faith confront injustice. We don’t have to agree with their methods of coping with challenges, but we should at a minimum respect the right of all women to exercise agency by choosing their own paths for dealing with oppression.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sara Baume

If you enjoy a “feel good” book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume is not for you. If you enjoy a book that is uplifting, this one is not for you. If you enjoy a book heavy with action and plot, this one is definitely not for you. What Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither does offer is beautiful prose, prose that is lyrical and rhythmic and mesmerizing. What she also offers is penetrating insight into the soul of a dysfunctional man.

The novel tells the story of a fifty-seven-year-old man, a victim of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma. A social recluse who never attended school, he adopts a dog with one eye—a misfit like himself who is also a victim of abuse, neglect, and trauma. They are both outsiders, fearful, mistrustful, loners, and lonely. Together they form a unique bond based on the qualities they share. Their identities merge to such a degree that the narrator occasionally dreams as his dog.

The novel is told in the first-person point of view with the narrator speaking to his dog. He names him One Eye and refers to him as ‘you.’ The ‘you’ can also be seen as an invitation to the reader to enter the narrator’s life. We learn about the cruel and abusive treatment the narrator received from his father. We learn about his loneliness, his isolation, his social ineptitude. We learn about his desperate need to find companionship, to find someone to talk to, someone with whom he can share his life. He finds it One Eye. One Eye hears but doesn’t understand. And perhaps more importantly, One Eye doesn’t talk back, doesn’t judge. This enables the narrator to speak freely and with unremitting candor.

Much of the novel is written in the present tense so that the reader witnesses the events alongside One Eye just as they are happening. But very little happens in this book. What keeps you turning the pages is Baume’s exquisite prose. She draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. Baume captures the lilt and rhythm of Irish speech, filling it with detail and colorful imagery. Her prose has a rhythm that borders on poetry. She skillfully describes the beauty of the natural surroundings. But not all is beauty as Baume doesn’t shy away from describing the gritty and gruesome in unflinching detail.

Baume has an astonishing ability to draw us into the mind of her narrator, to experience his desperation and fears as he experiences them, to see the world through his set of lenses. Although the tone is somewhat hopeful in the opening section of the book, it gradually shifts as we witness the narrator’s increasing desperation and declining options. One gets the sense early on that we are heading inexorably to a tragic conclusion.

This is a powerful book in many ways. It is also a sad one.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Daniel Mendelsohn

An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn is a combination of literary criticism of Homer’s Odyssey, a family memoir, and a travelogue. This is a unique and fascinating combination that Mendelsohn skillfully weaves together by transitioning seamlessly from one genre to another.

The literary criticism occurs when Daniel Mendelsohn, a Classics professor, conducts a seminar on Homer’s Odyssey. He analyzes the text with his students, providing insights and interpretations that illuminate the text in rewarding ways. The family memoir occurs when Mendelsohn’s octogenarian father sits in on his seminar and contributes to the discussion and analysis. As a result of his father’s reactions to the Odyssey, Mendelsohn interrogates his own relationship with his father, one that had been fraught with tension, misunderstandings, and lack of communication during his formative years. The travelogue occurs when father and son go on a literary cruise that re-traces Odysseus’ return from Troy.

Mendelsohn describes the structure of Homer’s Odyssey as a “ring composition” in which “elaborate circlings in space and time are mirrored” and where

…the narrator will start to tell a story only to pause and loop back to some earlier moment that helps to explain an aspect of the story he’s telling—a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.

Mendelsohn replicates this same ring structure in his work, looping backward and forward in time; weaving interpretations, highlighting details, and drawing connections within the poem; translating words from the Greek, providing their definitions, connotations, and context; and applying all of the above to significant events from his life that shed light on his relationship with his father. One of the most intriguing aspects of his discussion of the poem is the manner in which he interrogates Odysseus’ relationship with his son and his father, applying both to father/son relationships in general and to his relationship with his father in specific. This is as much an odyssey of Mendelsohn’s personal discovery of his father’s personality and behaviors as it is anything else.

What emerges from this work is a sensitive portrayal of Mendelsohn’s father, a fascinating critique of Homer’s Odyssey with profound insights on the poem, and a travelogue describing the locations father and son visit as they pursue their own transformative odyssey.

A fascinating and compelling work. Highly recommended for anyone with a pulse.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Julia Butterfly Hill

In The Legacy of Luna, Julia Butterfly Hill recounts her experience of living on Luna, a Redwood tree, for two years to save it from logging. Perched over 100 feet above the ground on Luna, Hill has a bird’s eye view of the Redwood forest and the devastation caused by logging. Her tree-sit ends after an agreement is successfully negotiated that will save Luna and some of the surrounding trees.

This is a quick and easy read. The prose is straightforward and unadorned. It is not particularly well-written although there was the occasional smattering of inspirational wisdom. Hill describes how she learned to adapt her platform on a tree to meet her needs for food, shelter, and routine bodily functions. She interacts with loggers, heads of corporations, the media, popular entertainment figures, and government officials as she gradually becomes a savvy advocate for saving the Redwoods. She survives snow storms, hail, blizzards, lightning, freezing temperatures, a terrifyingly close encounter with a hovering helicopter, and the napalming of the surrounding denuded areas.

Hill develops almost a symbiotic relationship with Luna. She becomes increasingly comfortable in her habitat, learns to “read” the grooves, gnarls, twists, and growths on Luna’s bark, and recognizes which of her branches will cradle and protect her. Her familiarity with Luna emboldens her to climb to the very top branches in her bare feet and with nothing to protect her. She befriends animals, feeding squirrels and allowing insects to crawl on her limbs as if she were an extension of Luna.

Governed by her spirituality and strengthening her resolve through prayer, Julia Butterfly Hill took a courageous step to save the Redwoods. But her tree-sit in was about more than saving trees. It was about the interconnectedness of all living things; the decimation of animal habitats; the deforestation that leads to devastating mudslides, destruction of property, and even loss of human life. Her commitment serves as a potent reminder of the intricate web that connects all living things and the importance of preserving and protecting our environment.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Orhan Pamuk

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk is a whodunit mystery set in sixteenth-century Istanbul. Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, takes us on a labyrinthine journey with interlocking threads of intrigue, love, rivalry, murder—all of which are interspersed with philosophical debates on the function of art and its intersection with religion.

The narrative progresses through the first-person point of view of multiple narrators, some of whom are startling. The opening chapter is in the voice of a corpse. The narrator has just been murdered and thrown down a well. He tells us he is an artist—a miniaturist who paints and embellishes books. Although we learn his murderer is a fellow miniaturist, the identity of the culprit is not revealed until the last pages of the novel. Other speakers include the murderer, fellow miniaturists, their mentors, a matchmaker, lovers, a storyteller, the image of a horse, a dog, a tree, a coin, the color red, death, and Satan. Some of the speakers address the reader directly as if extending an invitation to participate in the debate.

As the narrative gradually unfolds, we listen in on debates about the merits and demerits of eastern vs. western art; the nature of art; the perspective adopted by the artist; whether certain images are idolatrous/anti-Islamic; the artist’s anonymity vs. personal style and self-aggrandizement; artistic styles that have been passed down through the centuries; and vibrant descriptions of beautifully illuminated manuscripts alongside the stories they tell. Weaving in and out of these threads is a love story, a murder mystery that keeps one in suspense, and lamentations for a dying art form. To add complexity to an already complex tapestry, many of the speakers express themselves and answer questions on philosophy, religion, or art by telling stories derived from the cultural fabric of their society.

This is a great novel with a broad sweep that sheds light on a particular period in history while addressing some of the same philosophical, religious, and aesthetic issues we struggle with today. It is a challenging read but well worth the effort.

Highly recommended.

 


 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Alaa Al Aswany

The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany, translated into English by Russell Harris, has an odd opening chapter. Two of the Gaafar children in the novel materialize and leave the author a copy of his manuscript in which they speak in their own voices. The novel then embarks on the story of Bertha and Karl Benz and the invention of the first automobile. This segues into the formation of the Automobile Club of Egypt and the fate of the Gaafar family.

Founded by foreigners and the Turkish aristocracy and under the patronage of King Fuad, the Automobile Club serves as a venue for the king and his sycophants to gamble, drink alcohol, and engage in all manner of licentious activities with a bevy of women selected specifically for that purpose. James Wright, an English man, is appointed as the club’s managing director. The employees of the club are Egyptian, and their treatment and compensation depends on where they’re situated in the hierarchy.

Into this club enters Abd el-Aziz Gaafar, a once respected landowner who has been reduced to taking a menial job at the club to provide for his family. His untimely death leaves his bereaved wife and four children destitute. Two of his sons, Mahmud and Kamel, become employees of the club. Mahmud earns additional income by becoming a gigolo; Kamel works in the Club’s storeroom while studying for his law degree. Said, the eldest son, marries. He abandons his mother and siblings to their own devices. And after an unfortunate marriage and divorce, Saleha decides to continue with her education to fulfill her father’s dream by becoming a university professor.

Simmering in the background is the beginnings of the political upheaval that would eventually overthrow the king and end British rule of Egypt. We see evidence of the exploitation of the workers and the poverty that forces them to tolerate inhumane treatment. James Wright’s racism rears its ugly head in his opinions of and interactions with the local population. We also see evidence of internalized racism in how the Egyptian supervisors treat those beneath them in the hierarchy.

The novel has some strengths. In addition to the Gaafar family, we are introduced to their neighbors and the club’s other employees. The wide array of characters, their backgrounds, overlapping stories, and struggles to survive makes for interesting reading. The narrative moves forward at a rapid pace. The plot sustains the reader’s attention with most chapters ending with a mini cliffhanger that is picked up again a few chapters later. Al-Aswany skillfully alternates the narrative between first person and third person point of view.

There were also some weaknesses. The opening chapter in which the two characters speak to the author served no purpose, did not enhance the story in any way, and could easily have been omitted. And the ending was abrupt and lacked closure. But the main weakness lay in characterization.

Although the Gaafar children are depicted as unique individuals with differing temperaments, the portrayal of some of the remaining characters bordered on being stereotypical: the septuagenarian women desperately seeking humiliating sex with virile, young men; the too-good-to-be true young English woman who defies her father, is enamored of all things Egypt, and falls in love with an Egyptian; the racist who spews racial bigotry every chance he gets; the corrupt officials who have no qualms about torture; and the Egyptian supervisor with his internalized racism, gleeful torment of his compatriots, and obeisance to all things western.

In spite of these weaknesses, this was an interesting novel. It sheds light on Egypt in the 1950s, portrays the political and moral corruption of the king’s court, and illustrates the panoply of ills that imperialism inflicts on a country and its indigenous population.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review