Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Culture Shock

Dare I say it? If there could possibly be anything good to come out of this war in Iraq, which seems to be lasting a life time, it might be the fervor with which readers have embraced the plethora of novels that have come out of the Middle East in the past, say, five years. Thoughtful people all around our country seem to truly desire an understanding or insight into the Islamic culture and religion. Programs here in our library system on this subject generally have standing room only. Did this all begin with The Kite Runner? I wonder how the negative publicity surrounding the making of the upcoming movie will affect this phenomenon?

I've been thinking about this because I've just finished two books, one of which is Hosseini's much anticipated follow-up to The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which sits high upon the New York Times best seller list. This novel, dedicated to the women of Afghantistan, is a devastating indictment of a way of life that forces young girls into marriages that basically amount to slavery and virtual imprisonment. It is also a novel of war and is overwhelming in its relentless description of lives lived under the threat of daily bombings, starvation, death and destruction. I don't believe that any of us can conceive of such an existence. My complaint with Hosseini's work is that he portrays people and events as either good or evil, offering little of the nuance that informs a great book discussion.

On the other hand, Yasmina Khadra, an Algerian writer who gets much less publicity and respect, is a master at layered storytelling that forces readers to ruminate long after his books are finished. Last week twenty women attended my book discussion of Khadra's The Attack, second in a trilogy of life in the Middle East that began with The Swallows of Kabul. These novels, while as devastating as Hosseini's, delve much deeper into the effects of living in a suffocating atmosphere of turmoil and upheaval.
Khadra is a pseudonym (his wife's name actually) for Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former military officer now living in France. I have to wonder if he immersed himself in psychology during his military training as his ability to recreate the complexities of male/female relationships of long duration, and to speak from the woman's heart, is uncanny. There is a scene in Swallows...where a relatively liberated Muslim, aware of the injustice of Taliban rules toward women, happens upon a stoning of an adulteress as he walks home from work. He moves into the crowd, drawn by an ugly fascination, and inexplicably finds himself picking up a stone to throw at the already dead, cloaked stranger. Mired in guilt and disbelief at his own behavior, he confesses to his wife, expecting her usual succor and understanding. Khadra's description of the wife's response is a literary tour de force.

Once accused by an interviewer of always writing about terrorism, Khadra responded that his novels talk, not of terrorism, but of "human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, sometimes the hopes; and of this burning and fatuous actuality which spoils our life." A few of the women in my book group also seemed to fixate on the terrorist aspects of The Attack, a novel in which the central act of a suicide bomber serves as the catalyst for a more profound tragedy. The real story is about a marriage. Is fifteen years long enough to truly know someone? Dr. Amin Jaafari and his wife Sihem live as good a life as one can in a world of such conflict. They are Muslims who have assimilated in an Israeli community in Tel Aviv. He is a surgeon, dedicated to saving lives. They are educated, well-traveled, well-connected, and yet........

Khadra writes in French and has been well-served by his translators. The language of the text is as fierce and emotional as the story it tells. It may be a few months before I'm psychologically prepared to tackle his third offering, The Sirens of Baghdad.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Listening in the sickbay

So there I was in the bowels of the ship, somewhere between Corsica and Gibraltar, IV drip hooked up to my left arm and a nebulizer strapped around my nose and mouth (very bad hair day) with visions of dollar signs dancing through my head. I needed a diversion and was so glad I had thought to bring my loaded mp3 player on vacation with me. I chose to begin Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein. Great choice! For some reason I was under the impression that this book involved a negative treatment of Hillary Clinton so I had steered away. In fact, it is a fascinating and, so far at least, objective look at a most fascinating woman.

Now let me say right up front that I am an Obama girl. He has been my choice ever since I read Dreams from My Father and then the wonderfully titled Audacity of Hope. For me, Barack Obama is everything we need in this country right now, a bright voice of calm and reason in a world gone mad, a thoughtful man of nuance in a country all too black and white. I don't trust my fellow Americans to see this my way though so I'm hedging my bets with Hillary. After reading Bernstein's account I'll be even more comfortable with her as my final candidate.

This is a woman who has had a passion for justice and public service since her most formative college years. Her growth and development from an 18 year old Goldwater Republican to a mature, moderate Democrat was the result of an incredible education, a drive to succeed, a penchant for involving herself with movers and shakers in the legal field and a talent at attracting strong mentors. In fact, the naysayers who think that Hillary only hitched herself to Bill's star don't know the half of it. Most of Hillary's friends, professors and supervisors from her law school days actually thought she was throwing herself away by choosing love, Bill and Arkansas rather than a political career of her own. To her credit, through hard work and extreme determination, she's managed to have it all.

Hillary Clinton has been labeled a "polarizing" candidate and it's thought that voters either love her or hate her. I truly hope that Bernstein's book will get into voters' hands in time for them to get to know and empathize with this deeply complex woman who overcame a background that was a far cry from the idyllic life she herself described in her autobiography. Hillary has worked against racial discrimination and injustice since her early days with Marian Wright Edelman and the Childrens' Defense Fund. She struggled for more than two years with her decision to marry Bill and went into that relationship with full knowledge of his weaknesses which she ascribed to his less than savory childhood. She saw a visionary; he saw a nuts and bolts, "just do it" kind of gal. Contrary to public opinion, he pursued her relentlessly. Between them they have worked non-stop to fulfill an idealistic dream for a better world.

I haven't gotten to the "bad" chapters yet and I know it will be painful to read about the Monica fiasco and the impeachment proceedings. Ironically, Hillary Clinton made a name for herself in legal circles working on the impeachment of Richard Nixon. But I'll keep reading for the insight and with a firm knowledge that, as bad as it was, it doesn't hold a candle to what's happening right now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Barcelona - A City and a Book

Yes, I'm back from my extended, ambitious vacation which took Don and me to 4 countries and 9 cities in 14 days. Whew! Of course, I had big plans to blog my way around the Mediterranean but you know what they say about "the best laid plans of mice and men." A nasty respiratory infection and a terrible wireless Internet connection squashed my plans at travel writing.

Several people, including my sister and my library director, upon hearing that I was headed to Barcelona, had recommended The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I admit I had not heard of him before, yet now his name seems to come up in casual conversation every time I turn around. Isn't it odd how that happens? Between us I believe that Don and I carted about 10 books onto the cruise ship. This was the only one I finished! We even took a self-guided "shadow of the wind walking tour" through the Bari Gothic section of the city where much of the action in the book took place. Apparently this novel really put Barcelona on the map - a much deserving city in my opinion.

Every time I travel I'm reminded once again of how very important it is to get out of one's comfort zone and see the world as it really is and not how the news media would have us believe. I consider myself pretty well-traveled and open to new places and scenes but I still didn't expect Spain to be such a beautiful, modern country and a delightful blending of the ancient and the new. Barcelona reminded me a great deal of Paris with its lovely, wide, tree lined boulevards criss crossing the city. Separate, safe bike paths encourage folks to reduce emissions and stay healthy. You can pick up a bike at selected places in the city for a euro, unlock it, ride it all over the city and drop it off at any other designated spot. What a concept. I've heard that Paris has implemented this as well. There are special lanes just for buses and taxis and it goes without saying that public transportation is alive and well and efficient all through Europe. We used it everywhere when we weren't walking and managed to make ourselves understood in Spanish, French and Italian over the course of the two weeks. One doesn't need to be an expert to be appreciated for the effort and, damn, it feels good!

We had one rather ironic incident in a museum (Napoleon's birthplace and childhood home) in Corsica. After perusing three floors of information and reading the explanatory signs in our passable French, we came to a guest book. The person who signed before us had written a diatribe about the fact that "for heaven's sake, the signs should be in ENGLISH!" Hmmmm...We cracked up and proceeded to write a complimentary comment in our best high school French. I just knew in my heart that this anonymously indignant person was most likely from our cruise ship and would be the same person who would write to the News-Press complaining that Hispanics don't try hard enough to speak English. Nothing bi-lingual in America, please, just everywhere else!

Anyway, back to the Zafon book. It's difficult to describe this unusual novel. One word that comes to mind is atmosphere. It's one of those that I suspect people will either love or hate right out of the gate. Barcelona is definitely the main character; not the wide tree-lined streets described above, but the dark, seedy, mysterious labyrinth of alleyways that are home to the less fortunate denizens of the city, circa 1945. Nothing draws in a librarian like the promise of a story about a widowed antiquarian book dealer who initiates his lonely son into the world of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. When our young Daniel, allowed to choose one book for his own, picks a long lost novel by Julian Carax, an author around whom a shadowy legend has been born, the novel is off and running. Unrequited love, shifty politics, class wars and some very sly social commentary all combine to make this novel a great read.