Archive for March, 2008

Back in Action

Monday, March 31st, 2008

On the flight back from New York, I was seated next to an eccentric older woman who seemed to think everyone’s job was to keep her entertained, informed, or/and comfortable. She asked a guy across the aisle to help her put her suitcase in the overhead bin, and then five minutes later asked him to pull it back down so she could search through it for reading materials. After she finally took her seat, she looked over at the novel I was reading.

She: “So you like Joseph Conrad?”
Me: “Yes, I do.”
She: “I have a first edition of one of his books.”
Me: “Oh?”
She: “I can’t remember the title, though. It’s the one about the boat captain.”
Me: “Several of his books have boat captains. Is it Heart of Darkness?”
She: No.
Me: Lord Jim?
She: That one. But, you know, I don’t care for his writing.
Me: Oh no?
She: I bought the book because he’s so famous and a first edition of his is very valuable, which is what I’m interested in.
Me: …

I must have had a horrified look on my face, because she immediately asked, “Wait, are you someone who’s into books? Are you a writer?” I nodded, and then took out my reading glasses to signify that I wanted to read now, and to please leave me alone, but she wouldn’t shut up. I got to hear about her earlier flight, the troubles she had with security people, etc. She complained that the coffee was lukewarm (“It’s a plane,” the attendant quipped), got drunk on red wine, snored when she slept, and woke me up when I finally managed to doze off so she could go use the bathroom. Every time I travel on an airplane, I become more of a misanthrope.

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In Rochester, New York

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

It is about 74 degrees in Los Angeles today and very sunny. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be heading out to Rochester, New York, where, according to the weather forecast, it will be snowy and 40 degrees. (That’s 3 degrees Celsius? Or 4? I don’t know. But bone-chilling cold either way.) The good people at Writers and Books have selected Hope for the 2008 If All of Rochester Read the Same Book. I’ll be doing a series of readings and talks in various venues around the city. So if you’re in the area, do come to one of the events and say hello. I’ll be the one with the blue lips and red nose.

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Compelling Book Muses On Craft

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

There’s a great post by Bob Harris over at the New York Times‘ Paper Cuts blog, in which he lists the seven deadly words of book reviewing. In the comments section, people have been contributing their own loathed terms. Hop on over there and add yours.

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New Laroui

Monday, March 24th, 2008

My friend H. forwarded me this link to the Le Monde review of Fouad Laroui’s new novel, La femme la plus riche du Yorkshire. It’s about a young Moroccan university professor named Adam Serghini, who arrives in the English countryside for work, and, bored out of his mind, decides to conduct an ethnological study of the population. He sits in their preferred habitat (the pub) and takes scrupulous notes of their mores. He soon meets a rich old lady, with whom he obviously has nothing in common. Clash of civilizations–and typical Laroui humor–ensues.

Anyway, don’t bother looking up a date of release in the U.S. As incredible as it sounds, Laroui has never been translated into English. (Don’t look at me. I tried to get several editors interested in him, even offering to translate him, but no one has shown any interest.)

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John Sutherland’s How to Read A Novel

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

sutherland_howto.jpegLately, there’s been a veritable deluge of books on how to read. (See Reading Like A Writer; Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, even How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read.) It seems writers and critics are worried that the art of reading is becoming passé.

The other day, at the dentist, the technician asked how come my appointment was in the middle of the morning. “I have a flexible schedule,” I said.
“What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, wow. So, like, you have a book?”
“Yes, I do.”
“So is it at, like, Costco?”
I wasn’t so much startled by the mention of a big chain like Costco as I was that the first question about the book was its store placement rather than its content. Everyone buys books. Who reads them, though?

So books like John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, which came out last fall and which I started reading two days ago, seem necessary to me. This is meant for the general reader who may not always be aware of what is going on in the world of books, but there are some juicy literary tidbits, too. I love the examples he uses to make his points. For instance, to highlight divergent reader reactions, he brings up Disgrace–I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve had about that novel with people. Occasionally, though, his sense of humor reminds me of my dad’s. (Commenting on the popularity of iPods, he says “Head implants, doubtless, are on the way, for the dedicated music lover. Seattle is working on it.” Har, har, Dad.) Still, his love for books comes across on every page, so even if you didn’t already love books, you’d love them by the time you were done with this tome.

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Iraq, Five Years On

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

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Photo credit: Mark Wilson/AFP/Getty Images

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Fouad Mourtada is Free

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Rumor has it that Fouad Mourtada, the young engineer who created a fake Facebook profile of the crown prince of Morocco, and as a result was sent to jail for three years for “identity theft,” has been pardoned. He is a free man tonight. (I have not seen confirmation of this news in the mainstream media yet.)

I don’t think this is a a victory for human rights, because, as usual, the courts have not done their job, but the pressure on the part of bloggers and human rights activists in Morocco and around the world seems to have worked. It is an immense relief to know that Fouad has been freed. Happy Eid el Mawlid, everyone.

For background, see this, this, this, and this.

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Off Days

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

The term at UCR is over, and now I have two weeks (two whole weeks!) before the new one starts. And of course even that little time is over-committed with dentist visits, talks, and other stuff. I want to lock myself up in a closet with my book.

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The Band’s Visit

Monday, March 17th, 2008

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So last Saturday, we braved traffic on the 405 to go see The Band’s Visit. It’s about a small Egyptian orchestra that arrives in Israel for a performance, but instead finds itself stranded in the desert, in the remote town of Beit Hatikva. All right, so you have to suspend disbelief for this one, considering Egyptians and Israelis aren’t going to be performing in each other’s countries anytime soon. Anyway, the band has no money and no place to stay, and Tewfiq the conductor (Sasson Gabai) is a grouch. One of the film’s running gags is that Tewfiq persists in referring to the band as the Alexandria Municipal Classical Orchestra, and no one has any idea what he’s saying. Eventually, the band is taken in for the night by a restaurant owner named Dina (played by the lovely Ronit Elkabetz). The Egyptians don’t speak Hebrew, the Israelis don’t speak Arabic, so everyone speaks broken English. I thought the story was a bit thin and the director, Eran Kolirin, tried to be cute, but for some reason I was charmed by the film. (And I don’t do cute. Go figure.) My favorite line in the movie is when Dina asks Tewfiq why he still plays Umm Kulthum, and he answers, “This is like asking a man why he has a soul.”

(Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics. You can view the trailer on YouTube.)

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“Arabic Booker”

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

I first heard about the project to establish The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arabic Booker) at a reception in London a couple of years ago. I was, of course, delighted by the idea, particularly when one of the organizers told me that the winning book would be published throughout the Arab world, and translated outside of it, thus helping the author gain a wider readership. The cash awards ($10,000 for shortlisted authors, $50,000 for the winner) would also give a tremendous boost to authors in a part of the world where it is nearly impossible to live off of one’s writing.

But even then I was under no illusions about the inclusiveness of the prize. The way these things often work is that, despite the richness of the Arabic language and its culture, the attention goes to the Middle East, with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria dominating. The Maghreb, on the other hand, tends to be forgotten. And sure enough, despite the presence of my illustrious countrymen Mohammed Berrada and Mohammed Bennis on the judging panel, the shortlist included:

June Rain by Jabbour Douaihy (Lebanon)
The Land of Purgatory by Elias Farkouh (Jordan)
In Praise of Hatred by Khaled Khalifa (Syria)
Walking in the Dust by May Menassa (Lebanon)
Swan Song by Mekkaoui Said (Egypt)
Sunset Oasis by Baha Taher (Egypt)

Two Egyptians, two Lebanese, and yet not one Algerian, not one Moroccan, or Libyan or Mauritanian, or Tunisian. Why? There should be more effort to reach out to Arabic-language publishing houses in the Maghreb, and to encourage them to enter their authors in these prizes. And the publishers in the Maghreb need to keep themselves apprised of what is going on in the world of letters outside their borders.

At any rate, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction went to Baha Taher. Many congratulations to him. And I look forward to the day when someone like Bensalem Himmich or Leila Abouzeid gets a nod.

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PEN: Making Histories

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

pen_america_journal.jpgLast April, along with Arthur Japin, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner, I took part in a panel on “History and the Truth of Fiction” at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. (The discussion was moderated by the amazing Colum McCann.)

I’m told now that PEN America has collected some of the comments from that discussion (you can read it here: “Inventing the Past” ) as well as fiction, essays and other writings on history and truth in fiction in a new issue of their journal: Making Histories. The journal includes contributions by Chris Abani, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Amitava Kumar, Etgar Keret, Grace Paley, and many others. Check it out.

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This is Progress

Monday, March 10th, 2008

I am over the flu. But I went to the dentist today and now I can’t feel the left side of my face. Still, I got a chuckle out of seeing that Le Matin (pro-government paper, largest in Morocco) reviewed my book. And they changed my first name to Lamia. (Second paragraph.)

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Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, so here’s a little poem for you by the lovely and amazing Suheir Hammad: “Not Your Erotic, Not Your Exotic.”

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Aches in Fiction

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

In response to my post on Tuesday about various ailments missing in fiction, a reader sent me a note reminding me about the horrible toothache in Russell Banks’s Affliction. The story, you’ll remember, revolves around a middle-aged man’s steady descent into murderous paranoia; the toothache he suffers from makes things worse. I leafed through my copy of the book to find this memorable passage, where Wade extracts the painful tooth with a pair of pliers:

He uncapped the bottle of whiskey and opened his mouth–it hurt just to open it–and took a bite of whiskey the size of a tea bag and sloshed it around inside his mouth and swallowed: but he felt and tasted nothing, no grainy burn in his mouth or chest; nothing except the cold steel ripsaw of pain emanating from his jaw. He opened his mouth wider and touched the beak of the long-handled pliers to his front teeth, pulled his lip away with his fingers, forcing a cadaverous grin onto his mouth, and moved the pliers toward the dark star of pain back there. The jaws of the pliers angled away from the handles, like the head of a long-necked bird, and he managed for a second to lock them onto one of his molars, then released it and clamped them onto the adjacent tooth. He withdrew the pliers and set them back down on the bench. The pain roared in his ears, like a train in a tunnel, and he felt tears on his cheeks. (…) He set the bottle down on the toilet tank and looked into the mirror and saw a disheveled gray-faced stranger with tears streaming down his cheeks look back at him. He opened the stranger’s mouth and with his left hand yanked back the lips on the right side, then took the pliers and reached in. He turned the face slightly to the side, so that he could see into it, pried the mouth open still further, and locked the pliers onto the largest molar in the back, squeezed and pulled. He heard the tooth grind against the cold steel of the pliers, as if the tooth were grabbing onto the bone, and he dug further into the gum with the mouth of the pliers and squeezed tightly again and pulled harder, steadily. It shifted in its bed, and he moved his left hand into place behind his right, and with both hands, one keeping the pressure on the tooth, the other lifting and guiding the pliers straight up against the jaw, he pulled, and the tooth came out, wet, bloody, rotted, clattering in the sink. He put the pliers down and reached for the whiskey.

Of course, the toothache here serves a metaphorical purpose, and there really is no symbolic meaning for mine (that I know of.)

And now I must go back to bed, to take care of my own affliction, the flu.

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Hope in Rochester

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

There’s a profile of me in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. I’ll be giving a series of readings in Rochester, New York, for their “One City, One Book” program, since Hope is the book in question. There’s also a review in the new magazine Elan.

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Hazards Of Being Me

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Three weeks ago, I contracted a terrible cold that left me practically deaf in one ear. The doctor put me on a decongestant, but it had the side effect of making me feel like I was on speed. By the time I was halfway through my afternoon lecture, I was ready to climb on top of the class table just to make a point about, I don’t know, characterization. Last week, I cracked two fillings and had to visit the dentist and be lectured about wearing my night-guard every night. I have another appointment today because I broke a temporary crown on a plantain chip. And this weekend, I came down with that terrible flu that’s been making the rounds. I wish I could live in a novel. Have you noticed how book people never get the flu and rarely ever have to go to the dentist?

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Beyond Baroque Stays Put

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Nice news in the Los Angeles Times last Saturday: Beyond Baroque will stay in its Venice location for $1 per year for the next 25 years. Thank you, city council.

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The Weight of Words

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Just a few days ago, I posted a link to Yonathan Mendel’s article in the LRB in which he discusses the media’s use of language in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was quite au point, wasn’t it, considering the statement by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i that Israel would unleash a bigger “shoah” on the Palestinians.

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