Archive for June, 2005

Reminder: Roberge Reads @ Reading Frenzy

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

I’m signing off for the week. The one and only Randa Jarrar guest blogs on this site tomorrow and every Friday. But if you’re in Portland and would like to check out a cool reading, then join us tomorrow night to welcome Rob Roberge, who will be at Reading Frenzy at 7 pm. Details here and below:

Friday July 1st, 7pm
More Than They Could Chew: Rob Roberge & The Violent Rays
Reading, Signing & Live Music
Reading Frenzy
921 SW Oak
Portland, 97205
503 274 1449

Come by and say hello!

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Where The Novelist’s Marriage Precedes Her Work

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

Culled from Tuesday night’s Open Source radio show, about summer reading recommendations, where our good friend Maud was one of the guests:

Caller: I have been recommending a book to everybody I know and I often find it hard to recommend something without qualifying it, and this is one of those that I don’t need to qualify. It’s Alison Kraus’s book called The History of Love.

Host #1: Alison Krauss. You know. Er. What do I know about her? She’s married to somebody. She’s married to…

Caller: She is. She’s…um…Oh, I forget his name.

Host #2: Peter… I mean… David Mamet?

Host #1: (Sigh of frustration)

Maud (unable to restrain herself): She’s married to Jonathan Safran Foer. I think her first name is Nicole. And it is an exquisite book.

Host #1: (surprised) You, you know the book!

Maud: I do, I do.

Host #1: Tell us about it.

There you have it. Poor Nicole Krauss’s marital condition precedes any kind of recognition of her book or her person.

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Writers You Should Be Reading

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

The Guardian asked 10 literary critics to recommend 10 ‘overseas’ writers. I loved that Maya Jaggi picked Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo. Here’s what she’s said about him:

Exiled from Franco’s Spain and still living in Marrakech, Juan Goytisolo is Spain’s greatest living writer, and its most scathing iconoclast. His milestone Marks of Identity trilogy (1966-75), which began with an exile returning to Barcelona after the civil war, skewered political tyranny and Catholic repression to reclaim Spain’s long-buried Moorish and Jewish heritages. His bisexuality (explored in his masterpiece memoirs of the 1980s, Forbidden Territory and Realms of Strife), spurred his rejection of the church and Spain’s obsession with cultural “purity”. The Spanish civil war – in which his mother was killed – haunts his fiction, whether he uses it to evoke Lorca’s links with the Arab world (The Garden of Secrets, 1997) or the bombardment of Sarajevo and Baghdad (State of Siege, 1995).

At 74, Goytisolo is still passionate about Islamic culture (see his essays on the Muslim Mediterranean, Cinema Eden, 2003), and invaluable in his long view of the Muslim world’s ties with Europe. As he once told me, when Catalan was forbidden: “I realised that to have two languages and cultures is better than one; three better than two. You should always add, not subtract.”

And Dan Halpern puts in a recommendation for a Morocco-born author I’ve never heard of: Marcel Benabou.

Link via Conversational Reading.

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Best Headline About Bush’s Latest Iraq Speech

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

There are so many to pick from, but my favorite is Tim Grieve’s over at Salon. Bush to Errant Flock: 9/11, 9/11, 9/11.

George W. Bush referred to the attacks of Sept. 11th six times in his speech on Iraq Tuesday night. Weapons of mass destruction? He didn’t mention them once.

That just about sums it up. I mean, 9/11 has become so convenient these days that even directors use it to hawk their latest film.

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Another Day…

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

Another article on Iranian writers–this one focusing on women authors, who have been dominating best-sellers lists in the Islamic Republic of late.

Link via Maud.

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Jose Saramago Condemns Embargo

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

While attending a book fair in Costa Rica, Jose Saramago condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba. No surprise there.

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Guest Review: Julie Benesh

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

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The Apple’s Bruise
Lisa Glatt
Simon & Schuster, 2005
194 pages

The title of this collection, taken from an incident in its lead story “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car” hints at the Genesis story of the fall from innocence and the acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil. In Glatt’s story a bully steals hungry Hannah’s sandwich, just as Hannah is about to bite into it. She is left with only a bruised apple “and chewed and chewed, pretending she loved it, pretending that brown spot was the very thing she was hungry for, the very thing she craved.” In Hannah’s act of pride and deception are the seeds of empowerment, seeds which take root by the story’s end. Thus Glatt’s protagonists cross lines, extend their established moral boundaries, resulting in personal consequences comprising a refreshingly realistic amalgam of remorse, defiance, and inevitability. The stories are honest without being brutal, sensitive and subtle without sentimentality.

Fans of Glatt’s striking debut novel A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, about a young female professor, her terminally ill mother, a female student of the professor, and a social work client of that student, will find these stories equally compelling. While Comma‘s biggest (and perhaps only) drawback is a somewhat stitched together quality that imperfectly unites its various threads, The Apple’s Bruise, conversely, combines unity and diversity to the best possible effect, making it a great introduction to Glatt’s sensibility for readers new to it.

In many of these stories, Glatt’s emotional landscape evokes that of Mary Gaitskill: girls and women get drawn into shame-infused encounters that leave them emotionally devastated, bereft, empowered, and wise in varying combinations and proportions. In the aforementioned “Dirty Hannah Gets Hit by a Car,” abuse and damage transform (as Nietzsche long told us) into strength and pride. “Body Shop” presents a wife understandably compelled to investigate her husband’s inexplicable act of disloyalty; this “research” inevitably leads her into her own. In “Eggs,” a series of pressures drives a somewhat judgmental professor to acts once off limits and beyond her recent comprehension. The young widow in “Soup,” drawn to her son’s hoodlum friend, must confront the darkness in herself, and, far more distressing, in her son.

The lines where proximity becomes collusion and where collusion becomes culpability are most closely examined in the two stories with male narrator-protagonists. In “What Milton Heard,” a man endures police questioning about his serial killer neighbor and is called out on his stalker-ish obsession with the wife of the new neighbor. The narrator of “Animals,” the head veterinarian of a zoo where animals are dying at an inexplicable rate, must navigate his complicated relationship with both his wife and his wife’s seductive teenage sister who is living with them.

In several stories, a quality of abjectness startlingly similar to that exemplified by minimalist icon Raymond Carver fairly shimmers up from Glatt’s lucid prose. Glatt’s story “Waste,” while covering quintessential Gaitskill S&M territory ends: “…I am leaving him. I will leave him. It’s sure as anything” strikingly reminiscent of the close of Carver’s story “Fat.” Two other stories demonstrate the frequent minimalist technique of projection. In “Bad Girl on the Curb,” a couple, estranged as a result of the wife’s recent mastectomy, contemplate earthquakes and speculate on the precise culpability of the accident victim outside their window, a subtle Rorschach test for their views on the intersection of fate and will in their own lives. Similarly, in “Tag,” the morning after their one night stand a couple witnesses a childhood game as it devolves into violence. As Carver often juxtaposed the mundane with the psychologically agonizing, so Glatt does in her harrowing “Grip,” where a couple coldly and without explanation abandon their three year old daughter amid domestic arguments about coffee-making and conciliatory discussions of auto maintenance. The story is made emotionally bearable by its shifts in perspective from the man to the girl and finally to the girl’s fireman rescuer who is named, perhaps significantly, “Adam.”

Many stories use humor to good effect, and at least one, “Ludlow,” is unabashedly comic, complementing its poignancy.

But Darlene Tate is persistent…I shot up from the couch and went to the kitchen, where I opened a drawer and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. “Make a list for me…I’m all about self-improvement. Darlene wants to better herself,” I told him.
The first thing he wrote down: It bugs me when you talk about yourself in the third person.

The last story in the collection, this is one of many that ends in a gesture of reconciliation as Jimmy says “No music…let’s just talk. I want to hear everything you have to say, Dar. You’re my wife.”

As readers we might hope to have better luck than these characters in extremis, may hope to escape from having to make similar choices. But, deep down, we suspect there is no escape, and that when our time comes we might well not exercise any better judgment than they do, either. The consolation of this insight is that it connects us to our flawed culture, our flawed humanity, just as it binds Glatt’s characters to one another. In all of these stories, there’s a strong element of comfort, even cheer, in the attitude that it’s never to late to ‘come of age.’ The chance to embrace the wisdom that is gained as innocence is lost can happen to any of us, at any moment, and any time of life, whenever we choose to wake up, bite, and savor the apple’s bruise.

Julie Benesh’s fiction has appeared in Tin House and Bestial Noise: A Tin House Fiction Reader, and many other magazines. She is completing an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College and teaches creative writing at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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Insularity of Mind

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Over at the Guardian, International Man Booker judge John Carey denounces the virtual conspiracy that keeps world literature out of the hands of British readers.

Dr Carey said foreign literature was “neglected” in the UK, and to an outsider the British publishing industry could “seem like a conspiracy intent on depriving … readers of the majority of the good books written in languages other than their own”.

If such laxity had applied 50 or 60 years ago, “that would have meant, for the English reader, no Kafka, no Camus, no Calvino, no Borges,” he said.

As bad as things sound from this excerpt, they’re even worse here in the U.S.

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Shihab Nye in Austin

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Over at Rockslinga, Randa reports on a recent reading by Naomi Shihab Nye in Austin.

After she read novel excerpts, Naomi read some of her poetry, including “Red Brocade,” which begins: “The Arabs used to say/When a stranger appears at your door,/feed him for three days/before asking who he is,/where he’s come from,/where he’s headed./That way, he’ll have strength enough/to answer./Or, by then you’ll be such good friends/you don’t care.”

Of course, I got all teary.

Read more Rockslinga here.

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French Lit Prizes Under Attack

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

A French anti-government watchdog has attacked the top French literary prizes (Femina, Medicis, Goncourt, etc.) for being open to corruption.

France’s major literary awards such as the Prix Femina, the Prix Medicis and – most prestigious of all – the Prix Goncourt have long been accused of rigging their votes, taking it in turns to reward big publishers.

Of the four best-known names in French publishing, Gallimard has won the Goncourt 34 times, Grasset 16 times, Albin Michel 11 and Seuil five. Perhaps in response to mounting resentment, the prize went last year to a small and relatively recent house, Actes Sud.

The situation is unlikely to change soon–membership in juries doesn’t rotate often, if at all. It’d be interesting to see a similar survey conducted here.

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Hate Sells

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

The Guardian says that Hitler was the best-selling author of the last century. Mein Kampf was sold, never given away, and Germans were essentially “required” to own it.

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Another Hot Trend in Publishing

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Miscegenation is in, says the Daily News.

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Kadare Takes Home Man Booker International Prize

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

The announcement was made earlier this month that Albanian author Ismail Kadare had won the Man Booker International Prize for his body of work (the award is given to deserving authors writing in English, or translated into English.) Kadare got to pick up his trophy in person in Edinburgh on Monday. There is coverage all over the place, including the BBC, the Herald, and the Scotsman.

I remember reading Kadare in French years ago, but I’ve never read anything of his in English. It wasn’t until I read one of the Lit Saloon’s many posts about the prize and the author that I realized why that might be. There are few translators from the Albanian to the English, and so Kadare’s work is in fact retranslated into English from the French, by David Bellos. You can read this essay by David Bellos over at the Complete Review, in which he talks about the problems of twice-removed translation, and in which he also explains how the Librairie Artheme Fayard and Albin Michel own the copyright to Kadare’s work.

Kadare himself has chosen Bellos to receive the translator prize associated with the International Man Booker, so one assumes he was happy with how he was translated. Kadare’s latest book in English is The Successor, which will be published by Canongate in the UK.

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Tsunami, Six Months On

Monday, June 27th, 2005

It’s been six months. The death toll stands at 178,000. More than 2 million people have been made homeless (yes, million). And what does the print press have to say? The Washington Post doesn’t have anything at all about the grim anniversary. The NY Times relied on Reuters and AP releases. (Maybe all their staff writers were busy reporting on Tom Cruise.) And CNN, which was quick to send that smug-faced anchor of theirs all the way to South Asia for the tragedy, has only bothered with one article.

The picture below is from Post Secret, a website that collects postcards sent in by people who want to share a terrible secret with the world, under the cover of anonymity. I hadn’t visited the site in a while (it’s updated only once a week) but I was prompted to do so again after a mention on another blog. The secret below seemed oddly appropriate for today:

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I don’t think this person’s secret is unique. It’s a truth that many, many people in this country would probably admit if they, too, could put it on an anonymous postcard. So then why are talking heads acting all shocked that America is now less popular than communist China?

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Department of WTF

Monday, June 27th, 2005

A controversial biography of the Prophet, written by one George Bush (distant, distant relation, says the White House), in the last century, has been authorized for distribution by the powerful and often belligerent Al-Azhar in Egypt. Al-Azhar is a religious university that has the power to censor particular books in the republic, so I was a little surprised that they gave the book a pass. (The book describes the Prophet as an “imposter” and Muslims as “locusts.”) Are the ulamas of Al-Azhar becoming more respectful of freedom of speech? Sure would be good news for novelists like Haydar Haydar. (But I remain skeptical.)

WH link from Lit Saloon.

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Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Monday, June 27th, 2005

hummingbird.jpgMy review of Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter appears in the Sunday Oregonian. Here’s a snippet:

Part family saga, part chronicle of a tumultuous time in Mexican history, the novel is an enduring examination of the ways in which the divine and the logical come together, and how even the most reasoned people sometimes must surrender to the beauty of that which they cannot see.

Urrea has more than just a creative interest in this saint — Teresita’s real name is Teresa Urrea; she is his great-aunt. But this familial relationship is to the reader’s benefit: The story of the saint is told with such love and care that it will make a believer out of anyone.

I am far from alone in my praise of the novel. The Hummingbird’s Daughter has been collecting rave reviews so far. (See for example Marta Barber’s review in the Miami Herald and David Hiltbrand’s write up in San Jose Mercury News.) You can also check out this post, by Los Angeles writer (and frequent Moorishgirl.com contributor) Dan Olivas, and read his interview with the author:

DANIEL OLIVAS: One of the things the rave reviews keep on mentioning is the fact that your novel is based on a real person–your aunt. Why did you decide to fictionalize her life rather than attempt outright biography?

LUIS ALBERTO URREA: The simplest answer is you can’t footnote a dream. The book has taken many forms over the years of research. But fiction kept asserting itself. I think the magic of fiction is that in many ways it’s more true than non-fiction. By that I mean that fiction can take you into truths of feeling and it lends itself better to the kind of trance that allows a reader to smell and taste the world I’m trying to evoke. Also, as a lifelong reader, I can say that I come from a generation where the great achievement was the novel. So, you know, I wanted to try to honor her with an attempt at a masterpiece. You never know if you’ve gotten there or not, but no guts, no glory.

So, do yourself a favor, and go read The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

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“Arseholery” Is My New Favorite Word

Monday, June 27th, 2005

The Financial Times continues to surprise us by its attention to books. Here’s their latest: A profile of British author Hari Kunzru, with this priceless quote:

I ask him how he feels about [his large advance] now – such deals can be a mixed blessing and it must have been a shock to those close to him. “Initially, with my friends, there was a certain amount of jealousy,” he admits in a drawl. “There was a general holding of breath as they waited to see if I was going to go all Puff Daddy. I had to be quite strict with my arseholery.” A laugh. “But I think, now, it has actually been good in a straightforward way. It has given me a place to live and a chance to write. The books have been critically well-received and when I meet journalists, by and large, we are talking about the work rather than the publishing story.”

I have yet to read either of Kunzru’s books, The Impressionist and Transmission.

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Strange Times, Indeed

Monday, June 27th, 2005

strange.jpgStrange Times, My Dear is the most important book to be published this year in the United States.

You might wonder why I’m using such a strong statement for an anthology of contemporary Iranian literature, rather than one of the 100,000 other books of fiction being published in 2005. The reason is simple: This book represents a major win against those who think that writers from “Axis of Evil” nations should have to apply for a license to get their works published here, against those who consider a Nobel Peace Prize winner such a threat to American readers that she could not publish her book in the States, against those who think freedom of speech is negotiable with the government.

Last year, the rules imposed by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made it necessary for Arcade Publishing to go to court to get Strange Times, My Dear published. This, in one of the world’s largest democracies. Co-plaintiffs in the case were the Association of American Publishers, the Association of American University Presses, and PEN American Center, whose president, Salman Rushdie, a man who knows a thing or two about freedom of speech, contributed a letter of support. And OFAC backed down.

The first review of the book I’ve seen so far is this one, by Christopher Byrd for The American Prospect, and it’s largely positive:

Although Strange Times, My Dear is not wholly free of the blemishes usually found in anthologies, it succeeds on the primary level of hastening one to delve deeper into its chosen subject area. And, on a civic level, it heroically assists to demystify a people seldom viewed in the United States outside the lens of geopolitics. Yes, there are excerpts that feel like excerpts, such as Esmail Fassih’s “Sorraya in a Coma.” This story allows the reader to overly empathize with the protagonist’s position of waiting in the intersection between where one is and where one is headed. While other entries feel too slight, for example Ghazaleh Alizadeh’s tale of bureaucratic blitheness, “The Trial” or Manuchehr Atashi’s poem “Visitations.”(..)

In contrast with these samples, which make up a negligible part of the book’s contents, the greater portion is composed of selections that advance like a vanguard of hypnotists contracted by the original works. Hushang Golshiri’s “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi,” which describes the hypocrisy that bedevils people and revolutionary movements, provides one of the many “aha!” moments in the book. Or, in variance with the tendentious reversal of connotations in “Visitations,” there are exquisite lines of poetry that make all the more tired the bemoaning of poetry in translation.

The anthology features poetry and prose, and includes brief bios on all the authors chosen. Contributors include Mahmud Dowlatabadi, Hushang Golshiri, Shahrnush Parsipur, Abbas Kiarostami, and Roya Hakakian, among many others. You can buy a copy at Powell’s or B&N.

But what still troubles me is that, even with this gained freedom, American publishers simply are not eager to put out books in translation. Consider this: Last December, the Association of American Publishers offered $10,000 grants to publishing houses interested in releasing three Iranian novels in translation here in America. Even with the subsidy, there have been no takers so far, Poets and Writers reports. So the next time people start bitching about the insularity of the Middle East, they’d better be careful with their own glass houses. It’s a fucking worldwide disease.

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Readings Around Town

Monday, June 27th, 2005

Mark your calendars, kids. On Friday July 1st, Rob Roberge will be at Reading Frenzy to read from his new novel More Than They Could Chew, and to play some live music.

Friday July 1st, 7pm
More Than They Could Chew: Rob Roberge & The Violent Rays
Reading, Signing & Live Music
Reading Frenzy
921 SW Oak
Portland, 97205
503 274 1449

I will be there, with bells on.

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Hi Again

Monday, June 27th, 2005

It was a quiet weekend at Dar Moorishgirl. We saw Batman, which Alex loved, but which I found slightly hard to get engaged in. I’d watch Christian Bale in anything, and I love Christopher Nolan’s work, but the whole set up was just too middle-of-the-road for my taste. I’ve started reading Admiring Silence by Abdulrazzak Gurnah, and spent some time with family and out-of-town visitors. I didn’t get a lick of writing done, and I’m OK with that. I’m still working out things in my mind even when I’m not typing three pages a day. I guess I’m not as paranoid these days as I used to be.

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See Ya

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

That’s it for Moorishgirl this week. The one and only Randa Jarrar guest-blogs here tomorrow and every Friday. Have a great weekend!

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Perello in Boston Review

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Ibarionex Perello, a very fine writer and good friend, has a wonderful story in the spring issue of the Boston Review, about a young boy witnessing his father’s return to his hometown because of a serious illness in the family.

It was the first time I had heard the name of one of Papi’s sisters, though I knew I had grandparents and two aunts. Papi didn’t speak about them, and, though I was curious, I was never brave enough to ask.

“Pablo is not here,” Mami said. She leaned against the door for support. Her leg had been bothering her more and more. She hadn’t had another stroke since the one she had suffered giving birth to me, but its damage-her weak leg and arm and the frozen side of her face-became more pronounced with each passing year. “I don’t know where he is, but I’ll let him know when he comes home.”

Mami offered the man something to eat. He declined at first but accepted when she insisted. She gave him some pastelitos, which he ate standing at the counter. He ate them quickly.

“What’s wrong with him?” Mami asked

“The old man, he’s dying.” The crumbs from the pastry fell onto his shirt.

“That’s sad news.”

“It’s never good, senora.”

Read it here.

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Pamuk Takes Home German Peace Award

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has won the German Book Trade Peace Award, given by the German booksellers’ association, for work in which “Europe and Islamic Turkey find a place for one another.” The prize will be given out at the next Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

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For Once We’ll Agree With Time

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Here’s something you won’t often read on this blog: I agree with Time magazine. They’ve displayed good taste by selecting the Complete Review as one of the 50 coolest websites around. The Complete Review’s blog, the Literary Saloon, is one of my must-reads every day.

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Women Prizes & Post Feminism

Thursday, June 23rd, 2005

Over at the NY Times, Alan Riding dissects the subject of literary awards reserved for women, such as the Orange Prize. The reasoning behind the prize has been discussed ad nauseam in the press, so no need to revisit it here. The article does have some baffling quotes, though, like this one:

“We found that books written by men were significantly less intimate than those written by women,” Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia (www.mslexia.co.uk), said of a study by the magazine. She added: “Men’s texts referred typically to sex, exteriors, violence, work and tools. Women’s texts referred typically to relationships, interiors, clothing, children. Women inside. Men outside.”

She sounds just like my grandmother.

I do wish there were some hard facts in the article, though. For instance, starting with the NY Times, how many titles reviewed so far this year are by men and how many by women? I’d love to see Sam Tanenhaus tackle that one.

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Speed Reading

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

Robert Gray reminds those of us who get panicky every time they look at their TBR pile to just read slowly. He also provides a couple of lovely quotes from books, including this one:

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

I never used to worry about how long it took me to read a book until they started showing up at my doorstep.

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Hilarious

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

Patricia Storm’s latest cartoon on the publishing industry pokes fun at awards, judges, and…the LBC.

Link via Bookdwarf.

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Khadra Profile

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

Moorishgirl reader David F. of London writes in to say that “after the Arab Woman Writer Who Writes About Sex, here comes the Arab Woman Writer Who Is Really A Man” and he sends us this link to the Guardian profile of Yasmina Khadra (a.k.a. Mohammed Moulessehoul).

“There were many misunderstandings because people found it hard to understand a writer who was a soldier,” says Moulessehoul (formerly Commandant Moulessehoul), who settled in France to pursue his writing career in 2001 after quitting the Algerian army. “I had to really fight against those who did not appreciate my work because they pigeonholed me as some sort of brute who was responsible for military massacres. In the eight years I led the fight against terrorism, there were no massacres. Let me tell you, it was a hard battle – there is no honesty or integrity among the pseudo-intellectuals I had to take on. There’s much more honesty and integrity among soldiers, trust me.”

Yeah, just ask the civilians. Later on, Moulessehoul explains that it was the Algerian army (of which he was a member for nearly 30 years) who sought to censor all his manuscripts. They feared for his integrity, I’m sure.

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Guest Review: Colleen Mondor

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

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Under the Persimmon Tree
Suzanne Fisher Staples
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005
270 pages

Under the Persimmon Tree has an irresistible premise for readers curious about Afghanis struggling to have a “normal” life under the Taliban. It tells the story of Najmah and her search for her family on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in the months after 9/11. The twist is provided by the dual plotline, that of an American woman, Nusrat, who teaches refugee children in Peshawar while she awaits news of her Afghani husband who has crossed the border to work in a field hospital. A desperate Najmah ultimately ends up in Nusrat’s classroom, “under the persimmon tree” and the two find comfort in each other’s company as they wait for word on their loved ones and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of war.

One of the most striking things about Under the Persimmon Tree is the way in which Najmah’s world is easily and effectively destroyed within only a few pages. Author Suzanne Fisher Staple was a UPI correspondent for ten years and lived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan; clearly the Afghanistan Civil War is a subject she knows about. By approaching this story from the perspective of a young girl she gives readers a chance to view their own childhoods in a completely different way. What would it be like for any of us if we came home one day to see our father and brother dragged away, if we lost our mother in an instant, if we had no one to trust? What would we do if finding our family bordered on the impossible, and ever reclaiming our home again seemed like a dream? If you were Najmah what would you want for the rest of your life and what would you hope for your future?

Because the author is American the answers to Najmah’s questions might seem obvious, but Staple has a lot of surprises in this book. The character of Nusrat in particular is a revelation, an American who has chosen Islam for its beauty and complexity, and explains her choice in a manner that makes it both understandable and compelling. There is no glorification of one religion over another in this book, simply questions of math and science and faith that help one woman decide where her place should be in the world. For the girl Najmah there is the definition of home, and what it means to her even if the people she loves are no longer part of that familiar landscape. In many ways Under the Persimmon Tree is about who you are and where you belong, and what you will do to discover the answers to those questions.

The thing I loved best about this book, though, the part that still resonates with me, is Najmah’s response to Nusrat’s offer to return with her to New York City and pursue a new life there. Nusrat knows that Najmah has better chances to obtain an education in New York; that in many ways her future would be without limits in the U.S. She thinks this would be the best thing for the young girl. Najmah’s immediate response is heartfelt and deeply honest:

For hundreds of years my people have lived a good and simple life in hills that are more beautiful than anywhere on Earth,” I say at last, for this is the truth. “I think always of the wind on my face and the smell of grass, the gentle sounds of the animals. I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

When tomorrow’s casualty numbers blink across my television screen, it is these words, from a fictional Afghani girl, that I will think of. What if she does live in the most beautiful place on earth? Shouldn’t we be doing something to save that beauty? Reading about Afghanistan is the smallest thing we can do, the first thing. Learning about the land that lives under the same sky and stars as America is a beginning, no matter what age of reader; it is a place to begin.

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Daniel Alarcón Recommends

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

“Last year I went through a Polish phase,” Alarcón says. “At one point I was doing some serious ethnic profiling, buying almost every book I came across by an author with a Polish surname. Janusz Anderman, Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Maria Kuncewicz, Jerzy Andrzejewski and of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. I’m not really sure how to explain this, and I can’t really remember how it began. It’s a strange way to come to know a country, a people, a culture-necessarily incomplete of course, especially given that my knowledge base of Polish history is limited to what I learned in high school and whatever I picked up the summer I stayed with a friend in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But I don’t really know any Polish folks, have never been there, don’t speak the language-but what struck me was how much I recognized in the work. They say that winners write history, but losers write the literature: I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Poland has lost quite a bit throughout history. My own country-Peru-has done its share as well. Maybe that’s what I recognized: the dark humor, the fatalism, the savage beauty of the prose and the strong, unflappable, acidly funny people these authors described. Everything. I won’t lie. I loved all of it. These writers could be Peruvian, I thought. What’s more, I wished they were. We have our own masters, but still.

konwicki.jpgThe novel that has stayed with me most is A Minor Apocalypse by Tadeusz Konwicki. The copy I found at University of Iowa Library was from an old one, but it turns out it has been re-released by Dalkey Archive Press (God bless Dalkey Archive Press) in an the same excellent Richard Lourie translation. I don’t think I’ve ever read a funnier, sadder, stranger novel. When the novel opens, a older man, a writer, is visited by some Communist dissidents: you’re done, they say. You’ve accomplished all you’ll ever do, probably more than you could have hoped, but let’s face it, you might as well kill yourself. They propose he set himself on fire in front of the Congressional building that evening, in protest. The writer agrees to spend the day thinking it over. And so he does, and we follow him as he half-heartedly prepares for his death, writes his last will and testament (which is outrageously funny) and wanders around a crumbling, chaotic Warsaw that is as much a character as any in the novel. Bridges collapse around him, no one seems to know if it’s warm for fall, or cold for spring-but everyone agrees the weather is very, very strange. People stroll onto the scene, disappear, the action and dialogue is almost continuous with very few breaks. Everything is negotiable, everything is unstable, as the narrator gets drunk, falls in love, avoids friends, makes enemies, and prepares for the inevitable. It’s trite to say that I didn’t want this book to end, but it’s true. Konwicki is the real deal.”

alarcon.jpgDaniel Alarcón is the author of the story collection War by Candlelight.

If you’d like to recommend an underappreciated book for this series, please send mail to llalami at yahoo dot com.

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