Archive for the ‘book reviews/recommendations’ Category

‘Guests of the Ayatollah’

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Happy 2014! My winter holiday was brief (as are all holidays, I suppose) and now I am back at work. For those who may be interested, my review of Hooman Majd’s The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay appeared in the New York Times last week. Here is how it begins:

To write about one’s country while living in another is to invite questions about loyalty. Why are you writing this? And for whom? The questions can take an ominous tone: What is your agenda? The journalist Hooman Majd faced such suspicions on one of his trips to Tehran, when an employee from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance told him bluntly: “Just because you have an Iranian passport doesn’t mean you can come here and write whatever you want when you leave.”

It was partly in an attempt to gain a wider perspective on the country of his birth that Majd, who lives in Brooklyn, took his American wife and infant son to live in Tehran for one year. “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay” is a memoir of 2011, spent reconnecting with the homeland he left as a baby, when his father, then a career diplomat, was posted abroad.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Photo credit: GQ.

Share/Bookmark

Imagine: On J.M. Coetzee

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Few writers inspire in me as much admiration and respect as J.M. Coetzee, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity to write about his most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus, for The Nation magazine. Here is how the piece begins:

In 1516, when he was a councilor to Henry VIII, Thomas More published a slim little novel in which he described a society starkly different from his own, a place where education is universal, religious diversity is tolerated, and private property is banned. Citizens elect their prince and can unseat him if he turns tyrannical. The state provides free healthcare for everyone, and the law is so simple that there are no lawyers. For this ideal society, More coined the term Utopia (“no place” in Greek). It sounds enlightened, doesn’t it? But here is the fine print: in Utopia, each household has two slaves, drawn from among criminals or foreign prisoners of war; the prince is always a man; atheism is frowned upon; and women and children have far fewer rights than men.

Still, what enchants about Utopia is More’s dream of an ideal society, a dream shared by poets and prophets, artists and thinkers throughout the ages. In The Republic, Plato wanted the ideal city to be run by philosopher-kings. In Candide, Voltaire situated the perfect society in El Dorado, where there are schools aplenty but no prisons. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorized that the future would belong to workers once they had lost their chains. Every era has its utopia. Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.

The great J.M. Coetzee follows in this tradition in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which explores the enduring question of what a just and compassionate world might look like. Over a career that has spanned forty years, the South African novelist (now an Australian citizen) has given us novels that explore the ethical responsibilities of the individual. How a person copes with power—whether political, physical or sexual—is a concern that runs through all his work. His characters often find themselves thrust into situations that force them to take note of, and act against, an injustice they had previously declined to notice. His latest novel offers a new variation on these themes: it focuses not on the drama of an unjust yet ordinary situation, but on an unusually just one.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo Credit: Basso Canarsa)

Among the Blasphemers

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

The latest issue of The Nation magazine includes an essay I wrote about Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his memoir of life during the years of the fatwa. More generally, this piece is about how society reacts to blasphemy and what those reactions tell us. Here’s how the essay starts:

The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author.

Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.

As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them.

You can read the rest here. And you can subscribe to the Nation magazine here.

(Photo credit: Syrie Moskowitz)

History as Story

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Some years ago, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company recommended three books I could take with me to keep me company while I was on a promotional tour for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I bought the books, put them in my suitcase, and then of course read something else entirely. It wasn’t until last week that I pulled the three books that make up Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire from my shelves. This is brilliant, brilliant work. In brief, poetic vignettes, Galeano tells the history of the Americas from ancient times to the present. It seems impossible, doesn’t it, telling the history of an entire continent in just three books? But he does it so well and so sensitively. For each year, he selects one or two events and turns them into a little story, sometimes as short as a paragraph, sometimes as long as two or three pages, but always taking the time to bring characters into relief. I brought the books with me to Marfa, Texas, where I am on residency to work on my new novel.

(Photo credit: Marfa courthouse via West Texas Weekly.)

On Annawadi

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

My review of Katherine Boo’s amazing book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, appears in the latest issue of The Nation. Here is an excerpt:

During the year I spent in Casablanca, I noticed that slums were discussed in the press almost exclusively with the vocabulary of pathology. The karian were “dangerous.” They were places that “tainted” the city and had to be “eradicated.” One journalist called them “a gangrene”; another urged a “hunt for the slums.” The language became even more antagonistic after a failed terrorist attack in March 2007, when it was revealed that one of the suicide bombers, like those who had attacked the city four years earlier, had come from the slum of Sidi Moumen. I remember vividly a television reporter shoving a microphone in a woman’s face in Sidi Moumen and demanding to know why “your” youths did what they did.

I tell you all this because I want to explain why Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, struck me with the force of a revelation. Unlike other reporters, who come to the slums in brief and harried visits, only when they have news to report or statistics to illustrate, Boo, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has chosen to chronicle the lives of slum-dwellers in the Indian city of Mumbai by spending more than three years with them, patiently listening to them talk about their aspirations, their struggles and their dilemmas.

Here is one dilemma, all the more disturbing for its banality. Fatima Sheikh, a crippled woman, lies on a bed in Burn Ward Number 10 at Cooper Hospital in Mumbai, an IV bag and a used syringe sticking to her skin. Abdul Hakim Husain, the teenager who is accused of pouring kerosene over Fatima’s body and setting it alight, is in the custody of officers from the Sahar Police Station. After assessing the situation, Asha Waghekar, a part-time schoolteacher and full-time fixer, makes what she deems a very fair offer: Abdul Hakim’s parents can pay her 1,000 rupees and she will persuade Fatima to drop the charges.

You can read the full review here, and you can subscribe to The Nation here.

Some News

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’ve been having a hard time with my new novel. I don’t like to complain about my novel–really, who needs more whining from a writer? But that week had been particularly brutal. Now, though, I’ve heard some lovely news, and I thought I’d share that with you too. I’ve been awarded a Lannan Residency Fellowship by the Lannan Foundation for next fall. What this means is that I will finally have that most precious of things: uninterrupted time to work on my book. The fellowship really could not have come at a better moment, so thank you to whoever nominated me for this!

I neglected to mention that, last month, the Guardian asked a few writers, including me, to reflect on the uprisings in the Arab world, one year later. And I also have an essay about Percival Everett’s new novel in this week’s Nation. (The article is only available to subscribers, but you can subscribe to the magazine here, for as little as $10.)

One last thing. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had to contend with several hacking attacks on my website. (As if I didn’t have enough craziness in my life.) So I’ve had to do a few upgrades to security, and I got myself a new design as well, thanks to the brilliant people at Being Wicked. If you’re looking for great web designers, hire them. They’re amazing.

Industrio Ad Infinitum

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

I haven’t posted much on the blog lately, mostly because the last few weeks have been extraordinarily busy. I wrote about press freedoms for Newsweek, music festivals in Morocco for Foreign Policy, and the enduring mythology of Tangier for Time. I also reviewed Leila Ahmed’s new book, A Quiet Revolution, for the Los Angeles Times. And in between writing all of this, I went on holiday for a week. But things should be settling down now. (I hope.)

My Year of Silence

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

At about this time last year, I decided that I wouldn’t send out any stories or essays and that I would turn down requests for contributions to magazines or anthologies. A vow of public silence, you could call it. I wanted to spend all of 2010 doing two things only: reading and writing. So, whenever I wasn’t teaching or traveling, that’s precisely what I did. I read and I wrote. It wasn’t always easy, especially at the beginning.  It was difficult to resist the temptation to write a review of a book I particularly enjoyed or an opinion piece about the latest political outrage.  (Oh, sure, I had short pieces coming out here or there, but these were written before my resolution.)  And now it’s been a year, and I realize this was one of the best things I could have done for myself. I feel as if I’m still under the spell of that working silence, so that I hesitate even to tell you about the novel I’ve written or the essays I’ve completed. But all in good time.

This review I wrote for The Nation is the first one I’ve written in a year. (It occurs to me that my last piece was also for them, from last November.)  It’s about the Moroccan writer and critic Abdelfattah Kilito, who has recently released a collection of short fiction with New Directions, in a translation by Robyn Creswell. Here is how it opens: 

On Idriss al-Azhar Street in downtown Rabat, not far from the Muhammad V Mausoleum, there is an unassuming but wonderful little coffee shop, the Café Jacaranda, where book readings are held and young artists’ paintings exhibited. There, on a warm spring afternoon three years ago, I went to hear two of Morocco’s foremost intellectuals discuss the feminine and masculine in classical Arabic literature. One was Fatema Mernissi, the world-renowned feminist, sociologist, and memoirist, the author of some twenty books on feminism and Islam, and co-winner, along with Susan Sontag, of the Prince of Asturias Award. Her arrival at the café was met with murmurs of awe. A throng of admirers immediately surrounded her, so that the only part of her that remained visible from the other end of the lobby was her fiery red hair.

The arrival of the other panelist, Abdelfattah Kilito, went unnoticed until it was time for the event to start. Where Mernissi was gregarious and funny, Kilito was reserved and bookish. Once the panel discussion started, however, the audience got to hear Kilito speak knowledgeably about Maqamat al-Hariri, the classical work of rhymed prose that until the end of the nineteenth century was one of the most widely read books of Arabic literature. Kilito spoke about the use of the sun and the moon as symbols for the masculine and feminine, the popularity of the Maqamat, the miniatures that the artist al-Wasiti created to illustrate the manuscript, the reasons why these miniatures are nowadays more widely disseminated than the text itself—and much else besides.

Among Moroccan writers, Kilito has always cut an unusual figure. He is equally at home in French and Arabic, in a country where language lines are drawn early and barriers are rarely crossed. He is not particularly known for his politics, in a society that routinely expects—and occasionally even demands—of its writers that they be politically engaged. His is not the name you will see mixed up in the kind of controversy that attracts the international press. But one would be hard-pressed to find a Moroccan writer who is more respected by his peers and more appreciated by his readers than Abdelfattah Kilito.

The full piece is available to subscribers only. (You can subscribe to the magazine here, for as little as $18.)

(Image credit: Wickednox)

‘The New Inquisition’

Monday, November 30th, 2009

I have a new essay in December 14th issue of The Nation magazine, which just went up online. It’s about the spate of books that claim that Europe is headed to its demise because of its rising Muslim population, with a particular focus on the most recent exemplar, Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West. Here is how it begins:

At a literary festival in New York City some years ago, I was introduced to a French writer who, almost immediately after we shook hands, asked me where I was from. When the answer was “Morocco,” he put down his drink and stared at me with anthropological curiosity. We spoke about literature, of course, and discovered a common love for the work of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, but before long the conversation had turned to Moroccan writers, then to Moroccan writers in France, and then, as I expected it eventually would, to Moroccan immigrants in France–at which point the French writer declared, “If they were all like you, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

His tone suggested he was paying me some sort of compliment, though I found it odd that he would want the 1 million Moroccans in his country to be carbon copies of someone he had barely met and whose views on immigration–had he asked about them–he might not have found quite to his liking. It was only later, when I had returned to my hotel room, that it dawned on me that the profile of the unproblematic Moroccan immigrant he might have had in mind was based solely on conspicuous things. Some of these, like skin color, were purely accidental; others, like sartorial choices or dietary practices, were in my opinion inessential, but from his vantage point perhaps they suggested a smaller degree of “Muslimness.”

Was this man really suggesting that I was a more desirable immigrant because I did not look Muslim? We had started our conversation as two equals, two potential friends, two writers discussing literature, but we had ended it as judge and supplicant–the former telling the latter whether or not she would make a suitable immigrant. And why on earth did I not say something on the spot? Why did I not ask him what he meant? Instead, I had stared back at him with what I imagine was dumbfounded perplexity, and then changed the subject. Perhaps if I had confronted him I would have been able to remove the sting of the insult that had lain hidden inside the compliment.

You can read the essay, in full, here. The picture above is from an election poster by the Swiss People’s Party, which recently led a campaign to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. In a referendum held yesterday, the Swiss people approved the proposed law. It is now set to become part of the Swiss constitution.

Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird

Monday, October 19th, 2009

In The Locust and the Bird, the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh tells her mother’s life story, in her mother’s voice. Kamila, Hanan’s mother, is born to a destitute family in southern Lebanon in the late 1920s. They move to Beirut to live with an older half-sister, Manifa, though they are expected to earn their keep by selling wares door-to-door. In Beirut, Kamila discovers the world of music, fashion, and Egyptian movies. She also meets the love of her life, a cultivated man named Mohammed. When Manifa dies unexpectedly, the illiterate Kamila is married off, at the age of thirteen, to Manifa’s widower. They have two children (one of whom is the novelist) before Kamila manages to be reunited with Mohammed, whom she marries and to whom she bears several children.

Translated by Roger Allen, The Locust and the Bird is in some ways a tragic story, but it’s also an inspiring story, in which a woman manages to survive by her wits alone. Kamila is constantly trying to figure out ways to outsmart the men in her family. This is because, she tells us, “most of my friends were scared of every man in their family — even distant relatives — and this included the rich and the grand, like my glamorous cousin Mira.” Although Kamila’s struggles are occasionally rendered with minimal empathy and psychological depth, the story is engrossing. Reading this book, one comes to understand why Al-Shaykh has written so many novels with feisty heroines fighting back against male domination.

Photo credit: Al Ahram.

Abdourahman Waberi’s In The United States of Africa

Friday, June 12th, 2009

I have an essay in The National about the work of the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, whose most recent novel is In The United States of Africa.

Most African fiction to which English-language readers are exposed seems to be exclusively concerned with the question of “what is?” The plight of child soldiers, the Aids pandemic, life under apartheid, the clash between traditions and modernity – these subjects make up the bulk of what English-language publishers translate. One plausible explanation for this is that too many British and American publishers view African literature through the prism of ethnology. And since their primary understanding of Africa comes from headlines about the continent’s troubles, it makes sense that novels exploring these subjects would attract their attention. Perhaps this is why writers such as the Congolese Wilfried N’Sondé or the Moroccan Fouad Laroui, whose work often addresses broad themes of love, friendship and betrayal, have never been translated into English.

Fortunately, the University of Nebraska Press has broken with this trend. It recently published In The United States of Africa, by the Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, a novel that seems entirely concerned with the question of “what if?” What if Africa were the world’s locus of power? What if Europe and America were the third world? How would one perceive, think and speak about each continent? Which races and ethnicities would be described with specific and nuanced expressions – and which with vague and essentialist phrases?

You can read the full essay here.

(Photo credit:daad.de)

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones

Monday, March 16th, 2009

My review of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones appeared this weekend in the Los Angeles Times. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: “Lolita’s” Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare’s Richard III and “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In “The Kindly Ones,” the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.

You can read the entire piece online here.

Salih Tributes

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I have a small piece on the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih in this week’s issue of Time Magazine.  Here is the opening paragraph:

When I was in college, a friend of mine pressed with great urgency a copy of a slim little novel into my hands, as if he were aware it would satiate a hunger I didn’t know I had. That book was Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, who passed away in London on Feb. 18 at 80. I had been writing for some time by then, but Salih’s perceptive assessment of the relationship between East and West, his complex weaving of personal and political lives, and the beauty of his prose redefined fiction for me.

For those who are interested in the introduction I wrote for Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, an abridged version of the essay appears in this weekend’s National.

Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass

Friday, February 6th, 2009


My review of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass and African Psycho appears this weekend in The National. Here is the opening paragraph:

In Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns. When the Malian writer and ethnologist Amadou Hampâté Bâ uttered these words at a Unesco assembly in 1960, he was attempting to draw attention to Africa’s tradition of oral storytelling. Little did he know that his aphorism would turn into one of the most persistent clichés about the continent, one that unfortunately reinforced the erroneous idea that there was no tradition of written literature in Africa prior to European colonialism. Early on in Alain Mabanckou’s new novel Broken Glass (to be published this month in translation from French to English), the proprietor of a seedy bar in Brazzaville, who is referred to only as Stubborn Snail, hears the slogan and derisively responds that it “depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down.”

In fact, Stubborn Snail is so sure of the power of the written word that he gives a notebook to his most regular customer, an old schoolteacher nicknamed Broken Glass, and asks him to write his customers’ stories. Broken Glass takes up the challenge, though he quickly warns the reader that “I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else.” One suspects that Mabanckou shares these feelings, that he has no time for pious and well-meaning clichés about Africa, and that he intends to write as irreverently and as freely as he pleases.

You can read the entire piece here.

Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

I was so overloaded with work last fall that I didn’t have time at all for any pleasure reading, which is why I came so late to my friend Randa Jarrar‘s debut novel, A Map of Home. This is a traditional bildungsroman, but one in which the hero is actually a Greek-Palestinian-Egyptian heroine named Nidali, who grows up in Kuwait and Texas, who puts in a strong argument for why the Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim must have been gay, and whose attempts at college entrance essays include one titled “I Come From Crazy Stubborn, Mad Lovin’ Hoes.” I read the book in one sitting. Jarrar writes with honesty and humor about what it’s like to be a Palestinian girl in Kuwait, or an Arab in Texas. Here’s a small excerpt from the middle of the book, when Nidali’s father decides he will write his memoir:

Your father was the #1 student in all of Jenin!” Baba said proudly one afternoon after supper. “I blew fear into the other boys’ hearts. No one surpassed me. I rode the donkey down to school every morning and sat in the classroom–which was freezing in wintertime since some of the windows were broken–and I always had my hand up: I could answer any question. Without fail, my name appeared first on that list every year.”
I wanted Baba to tell me more about this donkey, about growing up in Palestine on the small hill in the small house, spreading mats for beds on the floor of the one-room house. “I’d rather hear your stories than study any book,” I said, and, unfortunately for me, he took this announcement literally.
“Then bring me a piece of paper!” he commanded. “And bring me a pen!” he said, so I did, and then he said, “Sit! Now write: Ever…wait.” He stared off into the window, or at the branches in the fake forest we painted on the wall. “Evergreen,” he said, “write it,” so I did. Then he said, “Now write, A Memoir, Waheed Ammar,” so I wrote, A Memoir, Waheed Ammar. Then he stared off again and anxiously bit the inside of his cheeks, his mouth twisted to the side and his lips pouting.
“There…No! Don’t write that. Wait! The hills in 1901…No! Did you write that? Don’t write it. Wait till I say full stop. Wait! Fuck, you’re ruining my inspiration. Kids! You can’t be an artist and have kids! Now sit, don’t stand there leaning that paper against the couch, didn’t you hear? I said a memoir. So sit.”

You can find out more about the book here.

Xujun Eberlein’s Apologies Forthcoming

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

apologies-forthcoming-xe.jpgAs I’m sure you’ve realized by now, I’m spending much of this week chatting up some of my friends’ books. Today, I was hoping you would take a look at Apologies Forthcoming, Xujun Eberlein‘s debut collection of short stories. Eberlein is an M.I.T-trained engineer who started writing in Chinese, but switched to English after moving to the United States in 1988. Her stories and personal essays have been published in Agni, StoryQuarterly, and Kwani, among other magazines. They often feature characters struggling with the effect of China’s cultural revolution. Her collection of stories, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize last year, is due out in May.

Mary Akers’s Radical Gratitude

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

radical-gratitude.jpgYesterday, I mentioned Mark Sarvas‘s debut novel, so today I’d like to give a shout-out to my friend Mary Akers, a novelist and short story writer from New York. She just published her first book, Radical Gratitude, a memoir co-written with Andrew Bienkowski, about his experiences in Siberia, where he and his family were exiled during Stalin’s rule. The book has done very well in Australia (it’s already on a second printing there) and is due out in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere very soon. You can read some of Akers’s work in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Wisconsin Review, and Brevity.

Mark Sarvas’s Harry, Revised

Monday, April 21st, 2008

harry-revised.jpgMy friend Mark Sarvas has just published his first novel, Harry, Revised. It’s about a recently widowed man who finds love at the most unexpected of times, and has to reinvent himself in order to win the woman for whom he’s fallen. I read it when it was still in draft form, and I really liked how it dealt with the subject of grief without being stern or preachy. I admired the fact that it’s a very sympathetic and complex look at a pretty pathetic man. And, of course, it’s full of humor. Now that Harry, Revised is finally out in bookstores, I’m looking forward to reading the final version.

Sarvas will be going on book tour at the end of the month, so check out his website for dates.

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.

Elias Khoury’s Yalo

Monday, January 14th, 2008

littlemountain.jpgyalo.jpgcitygates.jpg

My review of Elias Khoury’s new novel, Yalo, appeared on the cover of Sunday’s edition of the L. A. Times Book Review. The piece also makes mention of two of Khoury’s earlier books, Little Mountain and City Gates, which have just recently been re-issued. Here’s an excerpt:

Few cities have withstood the kind of violence and carnage that Beirut has. Though destroyed by a civil war lasting 15 long years, it seemed to be on the verge of an economic and cultural renaissance in 2006 when it was bombed again during the Israeli invasion. Beirut is a city that has learned to start over, to rebuild itself on top of its ruins, but it is also a place where memories are long and myths are persistent. In his new novel, “Yalo,” Elias Khoury grapples with the idea of truth and memory, what we choose to remember and what we prefer to forget. In fact, “Yalo” is composed of confessions — whether forced or voluntary, true or laced with self-aggrandizement, redemptive for the confessor or entirely useless.

The rest of the review is freely available on the L.A. Times website.

Sinan Antoon’s I’jaam

Friday, January 4th, 2008

Ijaam.jpgMy review of Sinan Antoon’s debut novel, I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, appears in the January 21 issue of The Nation magazine. Here is how it opens:

Legend has it that in the eleventh century, when the very eccentric and possibly demented Caliph El Hakim needed some money, he wrote a letter to the governor of Jerusalem asking that a tax be levied. The governor wrote back that this was impossible–most of the people were poor, many of them monks who lived in caves in Wad er-Rabâbeh. El Hakim asked his scribe to write a letter with the command “Count the men.” Whether the scribe made a mistake or whether the letter was intercepted, no one really knows. But by the time the letter arrived in Jerusalem it read “Castrate the men.” In Arabic, the difference between the two verbs hasaa and khasaa is a single dot.

The history of the Arabic language is full of such tales, in which a dot can change the meaning of a word entirely. In fact, the original Arabic alphabet consisted of consonant letters only, some of which corresponded to multiple sounds.

And it is that aspect of the language that Antoon’s novel exploits, to great literary effect. You can read the review here.

On Joan Scott’s The Politics of the Veil

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007

veilpolitics.jpegThe December 10 issue of The Nation magazine is its annual Fall Books issue, so it’s a particular delight for those of us who like to read books, and read about them, too. There are pieces on Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, among many others.

The magazine also includes an essay of mine about the headscarf controversies in France. It’s called “Beyond the Veil.” Here is its opening paragraph:

“A kind of aggression.” “A successor to the Berlin Wall.” “A lever in the long power struggle between democratic values and fundamentalism.” “An insult to education.” “A terrorist operation.” These descriptions–by former French President Jacques Chirac; economist Jacques Attali; and philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann–do not refer to the next great menace to human civilization but rather to the Muslim woman’s headscarf, which covers the hair and neck, or, as it is known in France, the foulard islamique.

In her keenly observed book The Politics of the Veil, historian Joan Wallach Scott examines the particular French obsession with the foulard, which culminated in March 2004 with the adoption of a law that made it illegal for students to display any “conspicuous signs” of religious affiliation. The law further specified that the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap and large crosses were not to be worn but that “medallions, small crosses, stars of David, hands of Fatima, and small Korans” were permitted. Despite the multireligious contortions, it was very clear, of course, that the law was primarily aimed at Muslim schoolgirls.

The rest of the article is freely available online, here.

Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Cion

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

waysofdying_mda.jpegmad_cion.jpeg

My review of Zakes Mda’s Ways of Dying and Cion appears in the November 12 issue of The Nation, but the piece is already available online. I wrote this back in August, but my editor at the magazine left to join the LRB, so it took a little while to get the piece through with the transition. Here’s an excerpt:

Over his long and prolific career, South African writer Zakes Mda has produced plays, novels and stories that explore very different characters, eras and landscapes. In Ways of Dying, two childhood friends from a small village in South Africa reconnect decades later in an unnamed city, their relationship fulfilled only when they reconcile with their painful past. In The Heart of Redness, villagers in the Eastern Cape fight over whether to celebrate or denigrate the legacy of a nineteenth-century teenager who prophesied that if the Xhosa people killed their cattle and burned their crops, the ancestors would be resurrected to defeat the British colonizers. The Madonna of Excelsior chronicles the coming of age of a South African woman whose mother and father were tried in 1971 under the Immorality Act for having interracial sex. Mda’s latest book, Cion, is set in a small town in Ohio that once provided refuge for runaway slaves. It features a cast of characters who struggle with how to fit this important historical fact into their lives, their relationships and even their art. The connecting thread in all these novels seems to be the unresolved presence of the past. It hovers like a ghost, at once forbidding and inviting, seductive and terrifying, depressing and inspiring.

Mda is deeply concerned with how people remember the past, how they use it to shape the present, how they call upon it to fashion modern selves, modern identities–and how in the process they run the risk of exploiting or sentimentalizing it. Given Mda’s life story, which is marked by all the major events of his country, one can see why he has such a keen interest in history.

More here.

Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher

Friday, October 12th, 2007

abstinence_teacher.jpegOn the plane back from Europe, I read Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, which I believe comes out next week in the U.S.. It’s very similar to Little Children in its structure: alternating chapters take us into the minds of a man and a woman, with diametrically opposed lives, and yet of course strikingly similar flaws. The title character in The Abstinence Teacher is Ruth Ramsey, a recently divorced high-school sex-education teacher who runs into trouble with members of an evangelical church. They complain to the school board, the school board sides with the concerned parents, and a new, abstinence-only curriculum is introduced. The other protagonist is Tim Mason, the soccer coach. He’s a drug addict and an alcoholic who only managed to get clean and sober when he found Jesus, and he is a member of the church that forced the abstinence curriculum on Ruth. Tim is riddled with doubts, though, jealous of his ex-wife’s new husband, and generally having a hard time finding anything in common with his new, church-approved wife.

Given the frightening influence of the Christian right on current U.S. policies in education, public health, and foreign affairs, it’s really refreshing to see a novelist tackle the theme of fundamentalism. (And if you doubt for one minute the wide influence of fundamentalists, just look at what the nutty Ann Coulter recently said about Jews, and at the campaign the equally nutty David Horowitz is mounting on university campuses.) Perrotta does a good job of placing his characters in difficult situations, and his satirical eye is devastatingly sharp. I found the novel engrossing, and ended up staying up to finish it even though I was exhausted when I got off the plane. I did have a couple of issues with the book, though. For instance, the continual mention of brand names grew tiring after a while; nearly each product name was shorthand for a character trait, and consumer choices don’t go very far in drawing out character.

Camus’ L’étranger

Monday, October 1st, 2007

camus.jpegOn the plane to Orlando, I re-read, for the first time since I was fourteen years old, Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I remembered some passages from the novel so well I could have recited them (C’est alors que tout a vacillé etc.) My unease with the book as a teenager did not change, though, and in fact it grew worse. Meursault’s killing of the character referred to simply as “the Arab,” the complete absence of any dialogue from the three Arab men who confront Raymond and Meursault on the beach, the fact that the only Arab character who says anything is Raymond’s abused and oppressed girlfriend, the absence of the Arab man’s family or any Arab witnesses at the trial: these are not coincidences, naturally, but clear narrative choices Camus made. One might argue that Meursault’s fight with the chaplain and his realization at the end are an assertion of the Self in the face of an indifferent universe and a moralizing society, but I think that assertion about the absurdity of life comes by way of victimizing the Other. Camus gives us a vision of the world that leaves nothing to compassion, emotion, or humanity.

M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song

Friday, September 7th, 2007

vassanji_assassin.jpegMy review of M.G. Vassanji’s new novel The Assassin’s Song appeared in last weekend’s Chicago Tribune. Here’s the opening paragraph:

In February 2002, a group of Hindu demonstrators converged on the town of Ayodhya, India, to demand that a temple be built on the site of the Babri Masjid, a 16th Century mosque that had been destroyed a decade earlier. On their way back from the rally, their train stopped in the city of Godhra, in Gujarat state, where a group of Muslims standing on the platform allegedly heckled them. Part of the train carrying the Hindu demonstrators caught fire, and nearly 60 people were killed.

The deaths — which new evidence suggests may have been caused by a cooking stove inside the train car — led to months-long attacks on the state’s entire Muslim minority. As many as 2,000 people were murdered. Muslim women were raped and burned alive, and their babies were torn from their wombs. Using voter lists, mobs targeted and looted Muslim businesses. By the time the killings stopped, 150,000 Muslims had been displaced.

The sheer viciousness and depressing regularity of communal riots in Gujarat make it an unlikely setting for a novel about a mystical saint who transcends religious identity, yet that is where M.G. Vassanji places the action in his new novel, “The Assassin’s Song.” Alternating chapters tell the stories of Karsan Dargawalla, an Indian college professor who returns home to Gujarat after having spent long years abroad, and Nur Fazal, a 13th Century Sufi Muslim who arrives in Gujarat seeking refuge with the Hindu king, Vishal Dev. Karsan is Nur’s descendant, his successor — and his avatar.

You can read the review in full here.

Zakya Daoud’s Les Années Lamalif

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

I am reading Zakya Daoud‘s new book, Les Années Lamalif. 1958-1988. Trente ans de journalisme au Maroc. Daoud is a fascinating person, and one hopes that a proper biography will someday be devoted to her. Born Jacqueline David in a small town in Normandy, she went to journalism school in Paris. There, she met Mohammed Loghlam, whom she married and followed to Casablanca in 1958, after the completion of their degrees. Loghlam applied formally for Moroccan citizenship (he was born in Casablanca to a Moroccan mother and an Algerian father), for himself and for their son, but when the citizenship papers came through, they included Jacqueline’s as well, even though she never asked for them. This clerical error resulted in her becoming one of very few naturalized Moroccans. Later on, the editor of Jeune Afrique suggested that she take on a pseudonym when she started writing for him, and that was how Jacqueline David became Zakya Daoud. Years later, her detractors still used her foreign birth to criticize her and to deny her the right to speak out on any number of political issues in Morocco. The wound of being called “nesranya” is very raw still, as her many references to it in the book attest.

Les Années Lamalif is a chronicle of Daoud’s work as a journalist at various organizations in Morocco, including the Radio Télévision Marocaine, and all the difficulties that such work entailed, including several vicious altercations with Moulay Ahmed Alaoui, the imprisonment of many friends or acquaintances, the constant threat of censorship. In 1966, using all their savings, Daoud and Loghlam founded Lamalif , which would later become a reference for many in the opposition movement. Daoud published the work of Abdallah Laroui, Mohammed Tozy, Paul Pascon, and many others. It’s very clear that this was a period not just of political upheaval, but also of great cultural and literary activity. There are a few gossipy tidbits (e.g. How the Souffles group became upset when a Lamalif article by a young Salim Jay ridiculed a reading by some of their poets.) There are also disturbing anecdotes (e.g. Daoud being required to go to the local commissariat regularly to be questioned about matters of public knowledge.) Most of all, Les Années Lamalif is a rigorous account of all the work that went into contesting the established power structure, into saying No to the Makhzen‘s domination.

Although the book is exceedingly interesting, it suffers occasionally from a tendency to list series of events rather than placing them in a narrative, whether personal or historical. This may be due to the fact that Daoud’s journals were stolen from her by Moroccan security on a flight to Paris in 1988, so she had no access to her personal notes from those years, and had to rely instead on memory, documentation, and research. Still, this is an important book, a reference for the younger generation. May they read it and draw the necessary parallels.

Colum McCann’s Zoli

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

zoli.jpegI picked up a copy of Colum McCann’s new novel, Zoli, when I was in New York for the PEN festival, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, including my editor at Algonquin. The story begins in the 1930s, when a young Roma girl named Marienka (nicknamed Zoli) loses her entire family in an attack by Hlinka guards. (Fascist attacks against such minorities were common in Czechoslovakia at the time.) Zoli escapes with her grandfather, and together they join a kumpanija, a traveling group of Romani musicians. Zoli’s extraordinary ability to remember and to write songs and poems soon attracts notice–from Swann, an expat translator, and Stransky, a Slovak poet and editor. Zoli’s growing fame is quickly co-opted by the Communists, who want to make of her a poster child of Romani “integration” in a new society. The novel explores questions of belonging–national, cultural, linguistic–as well as class and ideology, without ever once slipping into a harangue. A rare feat these days. McCann immersed himself in Roma culture to write this novel, and the care with which he draws this world is palpable. He breathes life into very different characters, giving them each the space in which to tell their story. A great book.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

theroad.jpgA father and son walk along a road in a post-apocalyptic future. Around them, everything is dead or dying. Between sunup and sundown, the sky’s color changes by only a few shades of gray. It’s numbingly cold, and ash falls from the sky nearly all the time. The reader is never told what could have caused the world to turn out like this, but it’s not hard to imagine that it could be a nuclear explosion. In the end, it doesn’t much matter what caused it all, because there is life to attend to. The little boy needs to be fed and protected, and the father devotes himself to that. There are other survivors, but it’s hard to tell who “the good guys” are, those “who carry the fire.” McCarthy ventures into the deepest, darkest recesses of the human heart, and chronicles what he sees in vivid, yet restrained prose. Some survivors engage in cannibalism; others have organized in armies, red scarves at their necks, killing and stealing and rampaging; slavery reappears; and through all this madness the father must find food and protect his little boy. I had to put this book down a couple of times because I was not sure I could finish it. But I cared about the characters far too much to stay away, and so I picked it up again and finished it in one sitting. What Cormac McCarthy has done in his new novel is difficult, brave, and incredibly well-executed. A masterpiece.

Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

Friday, May 4th, 2007

magicalthinking.jpgI’ve had a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking for a long, long while, and I finally got to read it last week, on the plane to New York. It’s her memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, of a massive heart attack while their only daughter, Quintana, was in the hospital, receiving treatment for septic shock. (After the book was completed, but before its publication, Quintana passed away, in an almost unbearable post scriptum.) Didion chronicles the process of grief and mourning with stunning clarity, and many times I was moved to tears and had to put the book down. But there were also moments when I was frustrated by the sheer amount of control in the prose, as if the words could somehow serve as refuge from things Didion might not want the reader to know.

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives