Riad Sattouf; Trans. Sam Taylor

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor, is Sattouf’s memoir in the form of a graphic novel. This first book in the trilogy describes Sattouf’s early childhood in France, Libya, and Syria. It opens when he is two years old and concludes when he is the ripe old age of six.

Born of a French mother and Syrian father, Sattouf experiences life in France, in Gaddafi’s Libya, and in Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria. He describes the sights, smells, sounds, and events with unflinching honesty and innocence, without judgement, and through the unfiltered perception and inquisitiveness of a child. And that is what makes this graphic memoir so compelling because what Sattouf witnesses and describes so innocently can cause one to recoil in horror.

Educated in France where he met his future wife, Sattouf’s father takes a job as an associate professor in Libya. While there, Riad learns that in Gaddafi’s Libya homes are free and their doors cannot be locked. He also learns homes are a free-for all in which a family outing can result in the loss of one’s home since even a temporarily vacant home is considered available for occupation by strangers. Food is in short supply; poverty is rampant; and the whole country looks as if it is under construction.

From Libya, Riad’s father moves his family to Syria to be closer to relatives. Riad’s blond hair attracts admiration from some and ridicule from others. He is bullied mercilessly and labeled a Jew by neighborhood street gangs, later revealed to be his cousins. He witnesses horrifying acts of cruelty to animals; child abuse; gender, racial, and religious discrimination; othering; and violence. A crumbling infrastructure and a stifling atmosphere permeated with pollution and the smell of raw sewage rounds up his experience in Syria. The novel concludes with the family returning to Syria after spending their summer vacation in France.

As a former contributor to the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, Sattouf is well versed in satire. Because he speaks through the innocent voice of a child in the novel, his narrative is laced with irony and satire. The young Riad is an unreliable narrator who does not comprehend the import of his words. He idolizes his father who, in actuality, is a conflicted individual with a distorted self-image and delusional visions of reality. His mother is portrayed as a voiceless non-entity. The poverty, the stench, the bizarre behavior of his relatives, the abuse, and the bullying are all described through the eye of a naïve child trying to make sense of bewildering situations. The observations are authentic, unfiltered, and presented with unabashed honesty.

Just as is the case with the text, Sattouf’s illustrations are expressive and exaggerate the predominant quality of a person’s features and/or surroundings. He is a skilled cartoonist and a skilled story teller with an ability to expose the disturbing elements, the poverty, the corruption, and the chaos of Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria as seen through the eyes of innocence. But while the novel highlights some traditional Muslim behaviors, it bears remembering that many of these behaviors are taken out of context, grossly exaggerated, and do not reflect Muslim behavior or attitudes either then or now.

Recommended with reservations.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Mia Couto; Trans. David Brookshaw

Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated by David Brookshaw, is the first book in a forthcoming trilogy that tells the story Portugal’s attempt to colonize the southern Mozambique territory of Gaza in 1894. The territory is claimed by Ngungunyane, the last of Gaza’s leaders. He has raised an army to fight the colonizers, and as the novel opens, Ngungunyane and his warriors are making their way toward the border village of Nkokolani where the story takes place.

The narrative alternates between the voices of two individuals: Imani, the fifteen-year girl of the VaChopi tribe, hired to interpret for the Portuguese; and Sergeant Germano de Melo, appointed as captain of the garrison at Nkokolani to represent the interests of the Portuguese crown. Germano’s narrative takes the form of letters to his supervisor in which he assesses the current political situation. His letters gradually become increasingly personal and confessional with the passage of time. Imani, who learned to speak fluent Portuguese at the mission school, is conflicted. Her situation is fraught with tension: her father is an abusive alcoholic; her mother continues to mourn the death of her children; her two surviving brothers are on opposite sides of the conflict; and she and Germano gravitate between love and hate in their relationship.

There is much to admire in the novel. Couto skillfully depicts the clash of cultures, miscommunications, deceptions, and attitudes of the colonizers and the indigenous peoples. And as is frequently the case, the indigenous people are split between those who support the colonizer and those who want to rid the country from the yoke of foreign oppression. This split takes the form of internecine violence with one tribe perpetrating atrocities on its neighbors. The situation is multi-layered and riddled with a complexity that is reflected in the alternating voices of the narrators.

Stories taken from African folklore, superstitions, dreams and their interpretation, and the occurrence of bizarre events all thread their way intermittently throughout the narrative. Many of these are taken seriously and interpreted as warning signs by the indigenous population; many are summarily dismissed by Germano as the belief systems of a primitive people.

The weakest element in the novel lay in its characterization. The characters are flat and one-dimensional with a portrayal that is stereotypical. Imani’s voice and diction are not reflective of a fifteen-year old girl. Her forays into self-doubt and existential angst lack authenticity. Germano’s letters are self-indulgent and full of self-pity. And other than the difference in content, there is little to distinguish Imani’s diction from that of Germano’s. Having said that, however, if one is willing to forgo the dearth of characterization, the novel does tell a compelling story, a story that sheds light on a turbulent period in Mozambique history, a story that has been repeated many times over and in many different forms whenever and wherever the colonizer and colonized clash.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an essay based on the author’s December 2012 TED talk. It is a short, quick read that packs a hefty punch. Using personal anecdotes of her experiences in her native Nigeria, as well as the experiences of herself and others in different parts of the world, Adichie deconstructs the word “feminism,” stripping it of its stigmatization while explaining its tenets in easy to understand, relatable terms. She exposes some of the ways sexism makes its ubiquitous presence felt in our everyday lives.

Adichie’s voice is not shrill or confrontational. She is engaging, non-threatening, and inclusive. She does not point fingers or assign blame but uses wit coupled with the eye of a keen observer to illuminate the ways and frequency in which women are marginalized. She appeals to all men to examine their words and actions through the prism of feminism to expose the possibility of underlying sexist assumptions. Her goal is to educate others by exposing the deleterious effects of sexism on society. She argues that strictly defined gender roles restrict both men and women into conforming to the expectations placed on them by society. The result is inauthentic selfhood. As examples, she offers women dressing and behaving in ways to garner acceptance; men suppressing emotions to appear manly.

Adichie aims to build bridges for a common cause that will benefit all. Although the ideas she expresses are not particularly groundbreaking, she should be credited for articulating the basic tenets of feminism and popularizing them through her TED talk and booklet. She does it in a manner that is non-threatening, engaging, logical, and one that is likely to win converts to the cause.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui is a graphic memoir about the struggles Bui’s family faced in Vietnam, their subsequent immigration to the United States, and the challenges they faced in adjusting to their new country. Bui’s entrance into motherhood is the catalyst that prompts her to seek a better understanding of her parents—their lives in Vietnam, why and how they escaped from their homeland, and the sacrifices they made to build a new life for themselves and their children in America. As a result of her exploration, she learns what it means to be a parent.

Although Bui describes the oppression and discrimination suffered by her family as civilians in Vietnam and then as immigrants in the U.S., her description seems detached, almost bordering on being clinical. It is as if she were describing their experiences through a veneer. There is such little depth to the characterization that it barely scrapes the surface. As a result, it is difficult to connect with any of the characters. This detachment may have been intentional on the author’s part, but it places a heavy burden on the reader to be interested in the outcome. The sketchy characterization, disjointed dialogue, and snippets of information dropped here and there were not helped by a narrative that jumped from one location to another, from one time to another. The art work, while quite good, might have profited by being less monochromatic.

I sympathize with the author and her family for all the hardships they experienced. I just wish the memoir could have been more compelling.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Katie Hickman

Courtesans: Money, Sex, and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman is a social biography exploring the fascinating lives of five renowned courtesans—Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786), Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1842), Harriette Wilson (1786-1845), Cora Pearl (1835-1886), and Catherine Walters (1839-1920). Hickman charts the illustrious career of each courtesan, beginning with her life either as a prostitute or actress (a word synonymous with prostitute at the time).

Each courtesan is described as a unique individual. Sophia Baddeley recklessly spent exorbitant amounts of money; Elizabeth Armistead was an astute businesswoman who secured annuities from each of her successive patrons, enabling her to purchase homes for herself; the enterprising Harriette Wilson threatened to name names in her salacious memoir of 1825 unless she was duly compensated; the candid Cora Pearl valued her independence to such a degree she refused marriage proposals, claiming she detested men too much to ever obey one of them; and Catherine Walters (Skittles) excelled in horsemanship and in having an exceedingly small waist.

Some courtesans were able to move up the social ladder by attracting the attentions of wealthy, aristocratic patrons, (many of whom were European royalty) who then showered them with gifts and money and set them up in their own residences. Referred to as “kept women,” they frequently adopted the last name of their patron as if they were unofficially married. And some eventually married their patron.

The extravagant life-style of the courtesan was fodder for the gossip columnists. They and their patrons were frequently listed in the celebrity gossip section of Town and Country Magazine so all could see who was “keeping” whom and what benefits the “kept” woman received, including copious amounts of money, a home, servants, jewelry, etc. The successful courtesan demanded and received an all-expenses paid set up. Although the terms varied, for the most part, the courtesan was expected to make herself available exclusively to her patron at all times—that is, until he got tired of her and/or until he discovered her infidelity. Accomplished courtesans were highly sought after by men competing with each other to win her favor. The more prestigious her clientele, the more desirable she became, and the harder men would try to lure her from her current patron.

In addition to their dripping sexual allure and good looks, some courtesans were accomplished musicians, singers, actresses, and conversationalists. Admired by women as well as men, they were the fashionistas of their day, setting the trend for clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. But by the early nineteenth century, the general public became less tolerant of courtesans and extra-marital relationships. Men no longer gleefully paraded their mistresses around for all to see. The celebrity status of the courtesan declined, her work becoming enshrouded in secrecy; her transactions conducted in private.

Hickman provides more than an engaging biography of the lives of these five women. She gives us a detailed view of the life and mores of upper class nineteenth-century Europe, occasionally veering off into areas that are only tangentially relevant. Her research is well documented with extensive notes, sources, and bibliography. Her style is accessible, lively, and engaging.

Hickman treats her subjects with sympathy, admiring them for their fierce independence. But her claim that they are “a powerful symbol of a woman’s potential for autonomy” is, perhaps, a bridge too far. These women forged their identities based on their perceptions of what men desired. They were also totally dependent on a series of men to provide them with financial security and to maintain them in their extravagant lifestyles—a situation that doesn’t lend itself to the image of an autonomous female.

This was an engaging and highly informative read. It is recommended for those interested in cultural history and in understanding how and why a group of women cultivated the role of courtesans in nineteenth-century Europe.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Shirley Ann Grau

Shirley Ann Grau’s The Keepers of the House is a stunning masterpiece of epic proportions. Winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize, the novel is a scathing indictment of racism and its damaging impact. It chronicles several generations of the Howland family in a rural Alabama community. The narrative begins in the early 1800s with the first Howland. His descendants gradually acquire more and more land in the county, becoming the biggest landowners. The narrative culminates with Abigail Howland in the 1960s. Grau weaves an intricate fabric with care and precision, gradually connecting disparate threads of time, place, and people until she draws us into its stunning conclusion.

The story is told in the voice of Abigail Howland, the granddaughter of the last William Howland. Abigail provides the backstory of her ancestors, going back a few generations; leads into her wealthy grandfather with whom she spent her formative years after her mother’s illness and death; and then takes us to her own marriage, the birth of her children, and her return to the Howland estate.

The narrative takes an unexpected turn when the widowed William Howland invites a young Negro name Margaret to be his housekeeper. He fathers five children with her, only three of whom survive. This was a time when interracial marriage was still considered a crime in the South. As long as Howland didn’t formalize his relationship with his mistress, the community looked the other way. But under the veneer of a supportive extended family and a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and where weddings and funerals are community-wide affairs, there lurks the insidious head of racism. Shortly after his death when Howland’s actual marriage to Margaret is exposed, all hell breaks loose, and Abigail is forced to defend her home against her white neighbors who try to set it on fire.

Grau has woven an intricate story with memorable characters in an authentic setting. Through her use of vivid sensory details, she immerses us in the small Alabama community with its swamps and woodlands; its snakes and alligators; its seasonal fluctuations; its farming and livestock; its sights, sounds, and smells; its racial prejudice; and its politics. She introduces us to a host of characters, depicting them as unique individuals with their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms.

Particularly impressive is Grau’s ability to capture the dialect, subtleties, and nuances in speech of each of her characters, especially William Howland and Margaret. Although Howland is a man of few words, he emerges as an authentic, fully-fleshed out individual who casts his expansive shadow over the community even after his death. And through her sparse but astute dialogue, Margaret emerges as a strong, fiercely determined, intelligent, and resilient woman. The characters come alive on the page. Some have imbibed the bigotry of the times and the place; others try to navigate their bi-racial relationships and bi-racial identities the best way they know how in an environment that is hostile to both.

This is a complex novel with complex characters. Grau eloquently evokes the landscape, atmosphere, and inhabitants of a rural Southern town. She builds her story with skill, adding layer upon layer as she moves us forward in time. Through her characters, she illustrates how racism and bigotry influence the difficult choices we make in our lives and the choices we make for our children. She illustrates how a community that has known you all your life can turn against you because of its intolerance. And through the character of Abigail, she illustrates how a young girl, sheltered from the harsh realities of life, grows into an empowered female, fiercely determined to confront racial prejudice and to defend her family’s legacy. By the end of the novel, Abigail Howland has earned her title as the keeper of the house.

A powerful story told with eloquence, passion, and heart. Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Trans. Emily Wilson

The Odyssey by Homer. Trans. Emily Wilson is the first published translation by a woman of Homer’s Odyssey. As with any translation, the translator has an infinite number of choices to make in terms of diction, emphasis, ambiguities in the language, meter, etc. Wilson’s choices make for a unified and consistent approach, drawing attention to subtleties and nuances in the work that had previously been overlooked. Her translation invites a new reading of The Odyssey.

Wilson makes some interesting choices. Her unabashedly gendered perspective exposes some of the gender bias in previous translations. Her translation has the advantage of fleshing out the female characters, treating them with sympathy. In the case of the slave girls who are executed at the end of the poem, Wilson’s language suggests they should not have been held culpable for cooperating with the suitors since they were slaves and had no choice. Throughout her translation, Wilson stresses the interplay of gender relations; the silencing of mortal female voices; and the deep-seated male fears about female power.

Using sparse, clear diction presented in the familiar rhythm of iambic pentamer, Wilson’s translation is probably the most accessible and readable of all its predecessors. It has a very down-to-earth, plainly spoken feel to it, stripping it of the grand epic voice we have come to associate with an epic poem. But her occasional use of colloquialism has a jarring effect. One hardly expects to hear Telemachus addressing Eurycleia as “Nanny” or Penelope addressing her as “sweetheart,” or Telemachus addressing Eumaeus as “Grandpa,” or the use of “canapés” for what Fitzgerald translates as “savories.”

Wilson’s thoughtful and scholarly translation of The Odyssey yields new and interesting ways of interpreting the poem. She has made a significant contribution to our understanding of The Odyssey by translating it through a different set of lenses. And just as Caroline Alexander shattered a glass ceiling by being the first female to publish a translation of the Iliad, Emily Wilson has done the same with her translation of The Odyssey. That alone makes it a worthwhile read.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Penelope Fitzgerald

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald is a curious little book. It tells the story of Florence Green, an elderly, kind-hearted widow who decides to open a bookshop in her small coastal town of Hardborough, England, in 1959. She purchases the ‘Old House,’ a dilapidated structure that had remained vacant for several years. Although she meets with opposition, most notably from Mrs. Gamart, a prominent member of the community, Florence remains undaunted and eventually succeeds in opening the bookshop in the Old House, taking up residence on the second floor. She is fully aware—as is everyone in the community—that she shares her residence with a poltergeist (“a rapper”) who intermittently makes its presence felt with loud bangs and other noisy interruptions.

Florence’s efforts as a bookshop owner yield initial success. She starts a lending library and hires the ten-year old Christine Gipping as her assistant. But Florence’s success proves to be her downfall. Complaints are launched about the crowds lining outside her bookshop to purchase a copy of Lolita. Florence is eventually undone by Mrs. Gamart’s nephew who succeeds in passing an act of Parliament that permits the government to order a compulsory purchase of the Old House. The law is used as a weapon by those in power to get their way. The bank abandons Florence; her neighbors don’t rally to her support. The novel concludes with Florence admitting defeat as she exits town.

The novel was disappointing. The title was misleading since this is not a novel about a bookshop but about small-minded, selfish people, not one of whom is a particularly engaging or well-developed character. Florence is kindly and gentle and a formidable fighter when backed into a corner. But it is never made clear why she decides to open a bookshop, especially since she doesn’t display an inordinate passion for books. She just decides to do it, does it, succeeds temporarily, and then is forced to shut down. She is convinced a bookshop is a good idea that will benefit the community. But she underestimates the lengths people will go to resist change.

The subplot with the resident poltergeist is baffling since it is never developed. One wonders why it was included in the first place. Florence is nonplussed by the rapper, taking its presence in stride. And for its part, the rapper does nothing more than clutter about upstairs or make the occasional loud noise. Nothing comes of it, and it all seems a rather superfluous addition.

At 123 pages, the novel is a quick and easy read, but it isn’t one I would necessarily recommend.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Wilfred Thesiger

 In The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger describes his intermittent eight-year stay with the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq during the 1950s. The marshlands consist of a 6,000 square area of wetlands where the Tigris and Euphrates close in on each other and eventually meet before flowing into the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, pass the city of Basra, and merge into the Arabian Gulf. Regarded by many historians as the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden and Great Flood, the area is known as the cradle of civilization. The Sumerians established a thriving civilization in the area, establishing an elaborate irrigation system that allowed the culture to flourish. Their descendants are the modern-day marsh dwellers.

Seeking to lose himself in a place untrammeled by the trappings of modern civilization, a place where people live as they have lived for many thousand years, Thesiger found what he was looking for in the marshlands. He lived among the Marsh Arabs for the better part of eight years, traveled from one village to the next in his tarada (canoe) with his skilled canoe boys; stayed at the village mudhif (guest house); enjoyed legendary Arab hospitality; ate meals and drank endless cups of coffee and tea with his hosts; hunted alongside them for game, pigs, boars, and other wildlife; witnessed the hardships of drought and flooding on their crops; participated in a mourning ceremony; and observed them building their incredible structures made of tightly bound reeds. In short, Thesiger experienced life with the Marsh Arabs as it had been lived for centuries. During that time, he made many friends and provided rudimentary medical assistance to the indigenous population who lined up to meet him with their ailing relatives when they learned his tarada was coming to their village.

Thesiger provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Marsh Arabs. In addition to the detailed descriptions, he includes several pages of invaluable black and white photographs which help the reader visualize the people, structures, activities, and environment. His immersion in the culture is all the more impressive because he does not exhibit the prejudices of a technologically advanced culture against a people living under very primitive conditions. Nor does he idealize the Marsh Arabs as “noble savages.” He provides a balanced perspective, admiring many of their qualities while recognizing their failings.

The Marsh Arabs live under a brand of justice that can be harsh and frequently cause bloody family feuds since the aggrieved party has the right to demand blood money or kill the killer. Justice is usually dispensed by the tribal leader who settles disputes and metes out compensation and a punishment that is frequently violent and lacks compassion. But these are also a caring people, coming to the aid of one another in times of difficulty; caring for their disabled; and affording great respect to the mustarjil—a man born in the body of a woman. The mustarjil is accepted on equal terms as any male and is treated accordingly with no hint of stigmatization or marginalization.

With the 1958 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, Iraq descended into a period of chaos and lawlessness. The rise to power of Saddam Hussein presaged a reign of terror. Saddam drained much of the marshland, destroying a culture and an ecosystem that had remained virtually unchanged for many thousand years. Attempts are currently being made to restore the marshlands, but the way of life that thrived in this environment is probably lost forever.

Thesiger concludes his book with the words, “. . . another chapter in my life had closed.” But what has been closed is more than a chapter in the life of one man. What has been lost is the remnants of an ancient civilization—a devastating loss from which we can never fully recover.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Sarah Perry

With pages housed in a stunning cover by Peter Dyer, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent generates a compelling sense of place peppered with elements of the gothic. Set in Victorian England in the 1890s, the novel’s atmosphere is replete with mysterious happenings and disappearances; villagers under the chokehold of superstition, paranoia, and hysteria; shapes that emerge in the dark and disappear behind a curtain of fog; and ostensible sightings of a mythical creature who presumably haunts the waters.

We follow the recently widowed Cora Seaborne as she moves from London to the Essex village of Aldwinter in search of the mythical Essex Serpent. In tow is her autistic son, Francis, and her companion, Martha. Cora is a free-spirited nature enthusiast who delights in traipsing around in her manly overcoat and muddy shoes, searching for fossils and hoping for a sighting of the elusive Essex Serpent. Her meeting with William Ransome, the local vicar, triggers lively debates about science versus religion, faith versus superstition, the natural world versus the spiritual realm—debates which defined the Victorian era. Their bantering back and forth is fraught with sexual tension.

The novel is peopled with interesting, fleshed-out characters with unique personalities. Martha, a feminist and vehement socialist, advocates for better housing for London’s poor. Dr. Luke Garrett is a brilliant surgeon with a hunchback and progressive ideas on medical procedures. His wealthy friend, George Spencer, becomes politically active on behalf of London’s poor in the hope of winning Martha’s favor. Stella, the saintly wife of William Ransome, is dying of consumption. Her illness takes a strange turn when she becomes obsessed with the color blue. And Katherine and Charles Ambrose, friends of Cora and the Ransomes, are a wealthy couple with government connections.

And then there are the children, portrayed with sympathy and compassion as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. Francis, Cora’s autistic son, collects and itemizes odds and ends, seldom communicates, and baffles adults, including his mother, with his behavior. The three Ransome children are Joanna, James, and John, each of whom has a unique personality. Joanna’s friend, Naomi, is a sensitive child who succumbs to a hysterical fit of uncontrollable laughter in the classroom. Her mysterious disappearance haunts her father with visions of his daughter being gobbled up by the Essex Serpent.

The love interests are many. William and Cora fall in love but remain as friends since William also loves his wife. Spencer loves Martha who is in love with Cora. Luke Garrett is also in love with Cora. Cora loves her son but is unable to connect with him. These love interests thread their way throughout the novel. Although they remain unfulfilled, they explore the different guises love can take, its power, its limitations, and its intersection with friendship.

Perry’s strength lies in creating a strong sense of place. Whether we are in the desperately poor districts of Victorian London with its filth and stench and overcrowded housing or whether we are in Aldwinter, with its bogs and marshes and muddy Blackwater River concealing goodness only knows what mysterious creature, Perry’s lyrical and descriptive prose is as immersive as the Aldwinter fog. Her ability to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of a particular location is impressive. Some of her descriptive passages are stunning. She breathes life into the landscape through personification:

Essex has her bride’s gown on: there’s cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common, and the hawthorn’s dressed in white; wheat and barley fatten in the fields, and bindweed decks the hedges.

Perry sprinkles the narrative with letters, diary entries, and the occasional bird’s eye view where we catch short glimpses of the characters in their different locations as if we were peering down on them from above. To say Sarah Perry is a gifted writer is an understatement. Her prose is exquisite; her narrative mesmerizing; her imagination captivating.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

George Eliot

Silas Marner by George Eliot is a charming novel of a simpler time in a rural English village. 

Marner, a skillful weaver, is wrongly accused of theft and feels compelled to leave his village. He moves to a neighboring village where he develops a reputation as a miser. Bereft of companionship and embittered by his lot in life, his only pleasure consists of stacking up his gold coins and watching them grow. But when he gets robbed of his coins and sinks to his lowest point, a young child enters his life. Marner adopts the little girl, showering her with love and affection.

The two form an inseparable bond based on mutual love and appreciation. The girl, Effie, recognizes the role Marner played in saving her from an orphanage and workhouse; Marner recognizes the role she played in saving him from living the rest of his days as a miserly recluse. He emerges as a sympathetic character who has been redeemed by giving and receiving love. There are twists and turns in the novel, most notably those involving the girl’s real father and his connection with the thief who robbed Marner.

Eliot skillfully captures the nature of rural life in England. Her use of vernacular to portray character is very effective. The characters come alive with their quibbling and bantering back and forth. The rural population with its simplicity, honesty, and genuine goodness is contrasted with the upper classes, some of whom are not above lying, deception, and thievery. Even though her characters are flawed, Eliot paints them with a tender brush.

Eliot clearly delineates class divisions, but she does it with compassion, humor, and irony. Her intrusions into the narrative where she comments on characters or events are done with an astute lens into the foibles of human nature. Her exploration of what motivates humans to behave the way they do is rich with insight. The novel illustrates the importance of belonging to a community from which one can garner support, friendship, and guidance. It also illustrates the truism that happiness does not come from wealth but from the bonds we form with one another.

A simple novel, told with honesty, grace, and eloquence. Recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Charif Majdalani; Trans. Edward Gauvin

Imagine yourself transplanted to Lebanon in the early 1900s. You are a Westernized Lebanese, fluent in Arabic, English, and boast a smidgen of French. You decide to leave Lebanon and head to the Sudan where you become a translator for the British colonial administration. Your employment entails traipsing across deserts with British army officers; witnessing battles and tribal feuds; quelling rebellions; encountering a motley crew of Bedouins, tribal chieftains, and sheikhs with their respective entourages; negotiating agreements; sleeping under the stars; and interacting with Western military officials whose presence against the desert backdrop smacks of an absurdist drama. Along the way, you encounter a man who has dismantled a lavish palace in Tripoli and is transporting it piece by piece in a camel caravan. You eventually become the proud owner of this piecemeal palace and, after a series of detours and hiccups, you return to Lebanon with the bits and pieces of your palace in tow.

This is the highly imaginative setting for Charif Majdalani’s Moving the Palace. The narrator is the grandson of Samuel Ayad, our intrepid traveler who ostensibly relayed details of his adventures to his daughter who then relayed it to her son. The novel is a blend of historical fact and fiction, the narrator freely acknowledging he had to fill in gaps in the storyline and embellish details as necessary.

The novel is an absolute delight. The reader is transported to exotic locations and is introduced to a quirky set of characters at a pivotal moment in world history. As fascinating as that is, what really sustains reader interest is the narrator’s voice. This imaginative tale comes through the voice of Majdalani’s narrator who delights and amuses us with his dry, sardonic humor, with his exposure of the foibles and absurdities of human behavior, and with the manner in which he presents outlandish events in a matter-of-fact tone.

Majdalani’s strength and the strength of Edward Gauvin, the translator, lies in crafting flowing sentences that strongly evoke the topography and atmosphere of the Arab desert and its people. The story is told in lyrical, rhythmic sentences that mesmerize and sparkle with humor.

Very highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Ahmed Saadawi; Trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, translated by Jonathan Wright, depicts the horrors perpetrated on the residents of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation. Based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it deviates from the original to reflect the situation in Baghdad.

Hadi, an Iraqi junk dealer, selects the discarded body parts of victims of suicide bombers. He stitches the body parts together until he has formed a complete human being. His goal is to shame the Iraqi authorities into giving a proper burial to the bits and pieces of the human body blown apart by suicide bombers instead of just tossing them into the trash. His plan takes an unexpected twist when the lifeless body comes alive with the infusion of a soul from another victim.

The Baghdadi Frankenstein, known as Whatsitsname, takes justice into his own hands by killing those responsible for murder and/or for causing irreparable injury to others. His “avenging angel” killing spree takes an unexpected twist when he justifies killing innocent people because he needs fresh body parts to replace his disintegrating body.

Several threads run throughout the story populated by a wide range of characters whose lives intersect with each other. Together, these threads paint a picture of horrendous violence, corruption, lies, theft, injustice, paralyzing fear, abusive government officials, power struggles, physical and mental dislocation, subterfuge, superstition, and collective guilt. No one is really innocent; no one can be trusted. The same individual is at times a victim and at other times a criminal. Amid this chaos and uncertainty, Saadawi explores the role of religion—its power to heal and its potential for harm when it is manipulated to promote a ruthless political agenda.

The novel is translated from Arabic. The language was prosaic, which may be due to the nature of the translation. Elements and events were introduced as if they were of great significance only to be summarily dropped from the narrative, leaving the reader struggling to understand why they were mentioned in the first place. The disparate threads and several characters intermittently weaving in and out make it a challenging read.

Saadawi portrays the horror of life in a war zone and the destabilizing impact on residents living under a constant barrage of car bombs, internecine warfare, foreign occupation, disappearances, and senseless killings. Just as Hadi stitches various body parts to compose a complete human being, the residents of Baghdad struggle to stitch the bits and pieces of their desperate lives to sustain some semblance of normalcy when all around is fragmented and punctuated by acts of unspeakable violence. War dehumanizes all who are caught up in it—whether they are active participants or bystanders just struggling to survive.

A complex and sobering novel. Recommended if only because it explores the consequences of war on the personal and collective psyche of the people caught in its cross hairs.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Carson McCullers

On the surface, the plot of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers seems fairly simple. It takes place over a period of three days in 1944 Georgia. Frankie, a gangly twelve-year old girl, is excited about her brother’s upcoming wedding and has convinced herself she will join her brother and his new bride on their honeymoon. We follow Frankie’s footsteps before, during, and after the wedding. The beauty of this novel does not lie in its plot. It lies in McCullers considerable skill in capturing the mind of a twelve-year-old suffering from pre-teen anxieties.

Frankie’s mother died giving birth to her. Her lonely, widowed father neglects and marginalizes her. The only adult guidance, comfort, and companionship she receives comes from Berenice, the African American maid. Like many young people teetering on the brink of adulthood, Frankie struggles with her identity and with feelings of alienation; loneliness; self-doubt; low self-esteem and, at times, self-hate. She yearns for acceptance and love. Left to her own devices, she roams the streets of the small southern town, unsupervised. Her occasional companion is her six-year old cousin, John Henry West.

One strength of this novel lies in McCullers skill in slowly and expertly drawing us into the mind of this angst-ridden, confused, sensitive, imaginative, and intelligent young girl as she desperately tries to find her place in the world. We sympathize with her as she struggles to articulate her thoughts and express feelings of being adrift and disconnected from those around her. We want to wrap our arms around her when her pleas for attention are misunderstood or ignored. We are anxious for her safety as she wonders into a bar and agrees to rendezvous with a sailor later that night, oblivious to any potential danger such a “date” might pose.

Another great strength of this novel is McCullers ability to capture the dialog of Frankie, Berenice, and John Henry as they sit around the kitchen table. Much of the novel focuses on their kitchen conversations. The dialog is uniquely suited to each character—Frankie’s unbridled flights of fancy and struggles to make herself understood; John Henry’s childish interruptions; and Berenice’s insights on racism and marriage as she tries to shepherd the young girl into womanhood while humoring her outlandish ideas. The diction, nuances of speech, dialect, and subtleties of expression, as well as what is said and what is left unsaid, powerfully depict each character as a unique and believable individual. Their interaction is realistic, creating a sense of cocoon-like intimacy. And although not articulated by any of the characters, their strong bond based on feelings of mutual love and community is evident.

McCullers has created a gem of a novel with beautiful language and flawless characterization. Her sensitive depiction of the confused emotions of a young girl as she experiences tumultuous transitions in her life is nothing short of impeccable.

Highly recommended.

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller’s long-awaited novel, Circe, reimagines the life of the goddess Circe beginning with her childhood, to her encounter with Odysseus, and beyond.

As a child, Circe is ridiculed, bullied and teased mercilessly by her siblings for her appearance and voice, and marginalized by her parents, Helios and Perse. When the gods discover she is a witch with considerable powers of transformation, she is banished to live a solitary life in Aiaia. While on Aiaia, she hones her skills in witchcraft, transforms men into pigs, gives birth to the son of Odysseus, and feuds with Athena. When her son accidentally kills Odysseus, he returns to Aiaia with Penelope and Telemachus. The novel ends with Circe transforming herself into a mortal to live out the rest of her days with Telemachus.

There is much to admire in the novel. Since Circe lives in isolation, visitors who come to her island share the latest events and gossip, thereby providing Miller with an opportunity to weave stories from Greek mythology into the narrative. The description of Circe’s island with its plush vegetation and bewitched wild animals was vivid and colorful.

But the novel has its weaknesses. Parts of it dragged, especially the parts where Circe putters about on her island. The biggest drawback, however, lay in the portrayal of Circe. In Book X of the Odyssey, Circe is empowered, confident, at peace with herself, and “virginal” in the sense that she does not feel the need for a man to complete her. She helps restore Odysseus’ strength when he lives on her island for a year, and then she sends him off on his merry way when he tells her he has to leave. She doesn’t cling to him as Calypso tries to do. She doesn’t fall apart. She is complete in and of herself.

Miller’s Circe is, unfortunately, nothing like that. Unlike her sister, Pasiphaë, who is portrayed as strong, willful, and exciting, Circe is weak, insipid, and gullible as a child. She develops a clingy obsession with Glaucos, the fisherman; exhibits low self-esteem; allows her sister to bully her even when they are both adults; is abused, abandoned, and raped. She does gain strength during her stay in Aiaia and is fiercely protective of her son. But underneath the veneer of strength and witchcraft, she is still the same little Circe who desperately wants to love and be loved by a man. It is as if there is a void in her life that only a man can complete—whether it be Daedalus, Odysseus, her son, or Telemachus. She is uncomfortable with being an immortal and ultimately transforms herself into a mortal to live out her days with Telemachus.

It is disappointing to see the powerful Circe of the Odyssey reduced in stature, experiencing self-doubt, and lacking in self-confidence. Her growth stems from her relationships with men—whether as their lover or as a mother, and her actions stem from her desire to protect the man she loves. Uncomfortable with being an immortal and wielding the power that it affords her, she ultimately transforms herself into a mortal to live out her days with the man she now loves.

It would be refreshing to see a female role model who is strong, empowered, and one unto herself, and who has no need to relinquish strength or agency in order to love and be loved in return.

I was hoping for a wild and untamable Circe. Instead, I got the Little Mermaid.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Najla Jraissaty Khoury; Trans. Inea Bushnaq

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated by Inea Bushnaq is a collection of 30 Arab folktales transmitted orally through the generations by Arab women. Khoury traveled in Lebanon during the civil war, collecting stories told by women in women-only gatherings.

The folktales share many of the characteristics of Western fairy tales with some cultural variations. Pomegranate-Seed-on-a-Platter and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves resembles Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; Thuraya with the Long, Long Hair resembles Rapunzel. Ghouls and ogres make a ubiquitous presence; as do wicked step-mothers; talking animals, trees, and flowers; humans who transform into four-legged creatures and/or vegetation; peacocks that impregnate girls; and turds that sing. In some cases, a series of tasks or quests have to be performed before a marriage can take place. Also present are mnemonic devices very common to oral transmission in which a phrase or verse is repeated as an aid to memory. The virtuous are rewarded, the wicked punished and invariably meet with a dire end when they “explode in anger and die on the spot.”

The central character is a virtuous female whose beauty surpasses all others, and whose wit, intelligence, strength, and wisdom outsmart her male counterparts. In this patriarchal culture, the girl usually disguises herself as a male in order to travel freely and outfox her enemies. Through her perseverance, tenacity, smarts, and unparalleled beauty, the heroine wins the love of the handsome prince or sultan. Not surprisingly, the tale ends with the celebration of a happily ever after marriage.

This is a delightful collection, at times bawdy, at times didactic, at times funny, and always entertaining. Since oral transmission of folktales is rapidly becoming a dying art, the real value of this collection lies in its preservation of traditional Arab folktales for the enjoyment of future generations.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro transports us to Britain shortly after the death of King Arthur. Although the war between the Saxons and the Britons is over, peace is tenuous. Against a backdrop of festering tensions, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to go on a quest to seek their lost son. As they slowly make their way toward their son’s village, they encounter ogres, crones, a warrior, a young boy with a mysterious bite mark, Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s court, pixies, monks who want to kill them, monks who want to save them, mythical creatures, and a boatman who intentionally separates couples by ferrying only one partner to an island while leaving the other partner stranded.

To complicate matters further, a mist is ever-present throughout the land, causing people to suffer from collective amnesia. Axl and Beatrice struggle to remember their past, recollecting bits and pieces as they trudge along. They detour along the way, either because they seek help from a wise elder or because they want to assist others in need of help. Eventually they get embroiled in the search for Querig, a mysterious dragon that ostensibly terrorizes the land.

Ishiguro has written a masterpiece in which fable, allegory, and magical realism intersect. The novel has received mixed reviews, some of which were critical of the style, content, and characterization. But if the characters seem detached, removed, and unengaged, it is because they are characters in a fable. If the language seems archaic, pedantic, and overly-polite, it is because it has to be distanced from every day speech. We are immersed in a land replete with mythical creatures and monsters, knights in armor, an elderly couple on a quest, and mysterious happenings all of which are shrouded in a mist of forgetfulness. But this isn’t a novel about pre-Saxon England. The setting, characters, and plot are vehicles to engage us with the theme of the novel—a meditation on memory. 

The recurring thread weaving its way throughout the novel is about memory, the buried giant of the title. What do we remember and what, if anything, is best forgotten? On a personal level, can love between two people endure when memories of grievances, abandonment, and infidelities intrude? And on a collective level, can there be peace between two former warring factions when memories of atrocities, brutalities, and genocide inflicted by both sides continue to haunt? At what price do we remember? Do we have to confront the good and the bad in order to heal? Is it better to suppress all memories, in essence to bury the giant, in order to forget injustices? Or is it better to remember injustices of the past and risk getting caught up in the thirst for revenge? The characters grapple with these questions and, by extension, invite us to do the same.

Ishiguro gradually builds meaning as the narrative unfolds. The language is mesmerizing; the world he creates blends history with mythology with fantasy. This is a fable that raises profound questions about the efficacy of personal and collective memories and their role in healing and reconciliation—questions as relevant today as they were in the past.

Highly recommended

 

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AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Carson McCullers

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers takes place on an army base in the American South in the 1930s. It focuses on five characters, each of whom is dysfunctional in one way or another.

Although we are told at the outset of the novel that a murder will take place, we are not yet told who or why or how. Instead, we are introduced to the characters. There is the young Private Ellgee Williams who seems to suffer from a learning disability. Captain Penderton struggles with his sexuality, finding himself developing an obsession for Private Williams. Penderton’s wife, Leonora, is having an affair with their neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Penderton has knowledge of his wife’s affairs, and although he feels nothing but loathing for his wife, we are told he finds himself attracted to her lovers. Alison, Langdon’s wife, also has knowledge of the affair. She suffers from a weak heart, is fragile both physically and mentally, and executes a fit of self-mutilation due to her frustration. Into this mix is Alison Langdon’s confidante and soul-mate, Anacleto, the gay Filipino house boy. The events gradually unfold, revealing the nature and extent of each character’s dysfunction.

After catching a glimpse of Leonora prancing about in the nude in her home, Private Williams develops an obsession for her and sneaks into her bedroom at night on several occasions to watch her sleep. Penderton’s obsession with Private Williams reaches such proportions that he begins to stalk him and wanders into areas where he knows he will encounter him. Leonora also has some sort of learning disability since we are told she finds simple addition of numbers and/or letter writing as overwhelming challenges. Major Langdon resents his wife’s bond with Anacleto and is convinced his wife is faking her illness. He displays a boorish insensitivity to his wife’s grief over the loss of their child. Alison Langdon is, perhaps, the most sympathetic of the characters in that she suffers her husband’s infidelity, is plagued with a weak heart, and is totally estranged from her husband. Her despair with life reaches a climax when she mutilates her body.

None of the characters are particularly endearing. McCullers’ skill lies in the gradual revelation of the full nature of each character’s dysfunction. The details pile up with restraint, dropping a hint here, a sentence there until the climactic conclusion. What emerges is a portrait of five very lonely, out of joint characters who muffle their pain with alcohol and sleeping pills. McCullers captures their hurts, sadness, loneliness, and festering resentments—all of which they bury under a veneer of respectability and social acceptance. She handles this with precision, detachment, and an acute eye for observing the frailties that make us human.

Recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review

Fiona Mozley

A finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet is a haunting book that continues to linger long after the final word has been read. What makes this such an impressive novel is Mozley’s ability to generate and sustain an atmosphere of impending catastrophe.

The narrative is straightforward. A father and his two children, fourteen-year-old Daniel and fifteen-year-old Cathy, build a home on land that previously belonged to the children’s mother. They are self-sufficient and depend on each other to build their home and grow their own food. They limit their interactions with outsiders. The father is a burly giant who made a living as a prize-fighter. He is protective over his children, treats them with kindness, teaches them the survival skills of animal trapping and foraging, all the while instilling in them a respect for nature. The mother is absent, appearing intermittently in the children’s lives before finally disappearing for good. It is after her last disappearance and the death of their grandmother that the father decides to relocate and build the home for his children.

The lifestyle sounds idyllic in many ways. But from the beginning, Mozley establishes a foreboding atmosphere that intensifies as the novel progresses. The mother’s previous appearances, disappearances, and final exit are never fully explained. The father sometimes vanishes for several hours at a time without informing his children of his whereabouts or activities. Young Daniel seems to be struggling with his sexuality. He has the homemaker instinct, assuming the responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and decorating the home to create a welcoming environment. Cathy exudes a toughness and staunch determination. Plagued with the anxieties and frustrations of her physical maturity, she is fiercely protective of her brother and views outsiders with suspicion.

Into this environment intrudes a wealthy and powerful landlord who accuses the family of squatting on his land. He has the paper work to prove it, claiming he purchased the land from their mother when she needed money. The clash escalates into a class conflict with landowner versus tenants, business owner versus laborers. The situation rapidly deteriorates, going from bad to worse until the final climactic and bloody crescendo.

Although the novel has its strengths, it also has a few noteworthy weaknesses. The story is told from the first-person point of view of Daniel. But there is an incongruity between the internal thoughts and fluidity of his narrative voice with his outward speech. Daniel’s interiority is relatively sophisticated, profound, reflective, and mature—qualities not evident in his actual speech, which is child-like and naïve. The problem is compounded by Mozley’s attempts to capture the dialect and inflections of the north of England. We are thrust from the sensuous and vivid description of the surroundings into a speech in which doendt substitutes for doesn’t, wan’t owt substitutes for wasn’t anything, and so on. Rather than sounding authentic, these attempts at capturing the Yorkshire dialect seem contrived and jarring. The climax of the novel stretches plausibility, and too many loose ends, relationships, possible connections, and mysteries hinted at throughout the novel are never adequately resolved.

These lapses do not detract from Mozley’s talent and achievement in this her debut novel as there is much in it to admire. The writing is beautiful and has a rhythmic, lyrical quality. Mozley’s descriptive and vivid language captures the sights, sounds, and smells of the landscape in rural Yorkshire. Her main strength, however, lies in generating a strong sense of atmosphere, an atmosphere that permeates the novel, gradually intensifying to its inexorable conclusion.

A compelling page-turner in many ways. Highly recommended.

Posted
AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review