Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cairo Modern: an Arabic Novel by Naguib Mahfouz

A number of years ago I happened upon The Cairo Trilogy and fell in love with Naguib Mahfouz and the Egyptian world he created. The series made me want to pick up and move to Cairo - well, the historical Egypt created by Mahfouz at any rate. Mahfouz had an incredible way of introducing readers to the subtleties and intricacies of social and political life in Egypt.

When my mom handed me Cairo Modern I was thrilled to revisit the world of Mahfouz.

A couple of initial thoughts:

Why is this "an Arabic novel"? The subtitle is extremely odd. Is any book about Egypt Arabic? Or is Arabic synonymous for Muslim? Is it only the American edition that adds that subtitle? Why?

What happened to bring this book to the American audience in 2008? Given all of Mahfouz's works, was there something in particular about Cairo Modern that interested American publishers now?

Cairo Modern is not nearly as accessible a story as Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. The main character in this story is not sympathetic and hard to engage with. While writing a story about his plight as a university student hampered by poverty is laudable, Mahfouz sets up a protagonist who is unlikable. In addition, for an American audience, the plot is very limited. The story revolves around a very small set of choices and outcomes.

Hmm.. that's not really true, I suppose. But it seems like the story circles on itself and spends significant time reflecting on minute details.

Despite my criticisms and questions, I think Mahfouz's book has a valid role as an academic source. Mahfouz has written a pointed caricature of Egyptian society in the early 1930s. From the story it is clear that Mahfouz finds the social changes occurring in the era to be corrupting and problematic for the Egyptian people - in particular the college educated who are expected to thrive in this bifurcated, confused society.

I think a study of women in Cairo Modern, as in Mahfouz's other novels I have read, would be a worthwhile venture. The new choices for women in the "modern" unveiled world, as described by Mahfouz are in no way laudable. I would argue that Mahfouz would have preferred the "anti-modern" or maybe "a-modern" world of the pre-World War I era.

I am glad I read Cairo Modern. But, I'm glad I read it as a scholar who teaches Middle Eastern History. There are very few people I would recommend this book to (not because it is a bad book AT ALL but because it has an extremely narrow scope), and most of them would be scholars, not fiction lovers.

If you liked Cairo Modern I would recommend:

Friday, January 15, 2010

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

I read The Book of Ember this summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. With my Christmas gift card I bought the second book in the series, The People of Sparks (Somehow I find it easier to pay full price for kids books because I know they will get read by multiple members of my family).

I read the book in twenty-four hours. Then I sat down to review it.

I'm torn.

As a reader, I really liked DuPrau's continuation of the Ember series. As a parent, I have trouble with this as a young reader book. I may need to reconsider my definition of "young reader" but I will leave that topic for another post. Suffice it to say, I will not be reading this book to my six-year old son anytime in the next two to three years.

Post-apocalyptic stories have fascinated me since junior high. I am continually intrigued by how an author envisions the future. DuPrau has done a good job: Lina finds a Monopoly game and a magnifying glass, characters use "wagon-trucks" (old trucks with their engines removed) as oxen-pulled vehicles. The world above ground has no electricity, in contrast to the Ember world of the previous book which had electricity but no trees or animals.

The main story in the book revolves around the intersection of these two societies as they try to work together to move forward. However, it is exactly this post-apocalyptic theme that disturbs me given that this is a children's book. I am uncomfortable explaining to my son why a bunch of characters die in the first twenty pages or why war is a recurring theme in the story.

In addition, DuPrau has a limited space to tell her story. She does a good job of continuing to flesh out her characters. She delves into moral questions that are appropriate for a young reader to consider. But, because she is constrained by page count, the book feels very heavy and very dark throughout. DuPrau does not take enough time to stop and smell the flowers, literally. I would have liked a bit more character exploration of this brand-new world full of flowers, trees, birds, and bugs.

Would I recommend this book, yes. But with reservations. Some kids could handle it. Others I think would have trouble reconciling the debates. I could read the book in 24 hours but spending a week or two going through the story it would have felt very heavy.

If you liked The People of Sparks /post-apocalyptic books (and you're an adult) I would recommend:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Sultan's Seal by Jenny White

Wow!! This is one of the most amazing first in a series novels I've read in a long time. The information and accuracy is incredible. Unlike certain unnamed academic authors, White does not fall into the trap of telling information she knows just to prove how smart and knowledgeable she is. Every gleam of detail is necessary to forward her story. Just wow! I'm in love.

Author Jenny White is a professor of Anthropology and has written academically about the Ottoman Empire. Her knowledge of Turkey, the complicated workings of the political system, the debates surrounding nationality and identity, the innerworkings of power in the harem, and the political maneuvering of the European nations all combine to make this a historically accurate but also well-developed murder mystery.

The main character Kamil Pasha is a Turkish magistrate who trained at Cambridge. As such he straddles his familiar Turkish world and the modernizing British scientific method world. He wants to see his country survive and flourish but he does not ascribe to some of the "traditional" organization of Turkey.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a young British woman who is found drowned. She is wearing a locket that ties her to the sultan's palace. Kamil Pasha works with the daughter of the British ambassador to attempt to discover the identity of the woman and learn how and why she was killed. The story is twisted and interwoven. It is not straight-forward and at the end the resolution is not a neatly tied-up package. White leaves a lot of questions to be answered, which I think is more honest than many mystery novels.

After reading the book I found myself thinking about a criminal investigation in such a society. When men have no access to most women how are they expected to investigate the death of a woman? He had to have the assistance of someone who could breech the inner circle.

One review I read suggested the British character was too flippant and well, dumb. I didn't see that. I thought that White painted a stereotypical character for the time. She used Sybil as a representative Brit who wanted to understand Turkish society but could not divorce herself from her Britishness.

There are two very nitpicky things I disliked about the book:
The chapters with Kamil Pasha were in present tense. Personally I prefer reading books written in past tense. But I understand her literary choice as it separated those chapters from the ones written from another character's perspective that were often about past events.

I would have liked one more chapter to wrap up the story. I felt that she ended a touch too quickly. There is the obvious motivation of having the reader pick up book #2. Yet, I still wanted a little resolution. What happened when the sun rose?

All in all, a big thumbs up. If you like historical mysteries and have any interest in the Middle East - an amazing read!

If you liked The Sultan's Seal, try these books:

Thursday, January 7, 2010

About a Boy by Nick Hornby

A friend gave me her copy of About a Boy with the caveat, "it's not a very good book." She described Hornby's book as fluffy and meaningless. I decided to read it anyway - there's never anything wrong with occasional fluff.

While I would not describe About a Boy as award-winning or worth writing home to mom about, I enjoyed reading it. It is relatively fluffy and yet it had a good message.

The plot is largely identical to the movie of the same name staring Hugh Grant. The ending of the novel is different and better than the movie. There are heavy themes involving depression and suicide so I would not hand this book to all readers.

What I appreciated about the book was the point of view and the choice of main character. As a reader it is hard to like Will, the protagonist. He's shallow, he's self-absorbed. And yet Hornsby keeps you reading despite your frustration with Will. In some ways Marcus is as frustrating a character as Will, but as an adult I had distinctly more sympathy for this poor wandering twelve year old. Intermixing the two characters allowed me to read through the Will chapters to get back to Marcus until their lives intertwined.

I give Hornsby credit for writing a non-sympathetic character that I enjoyed reading. His characters felt more real than many books; there were multi-dimensional and flawed.

If you liked reading About a Boy...

I would be curious what else you would recommend. Hornsby's book does not fit the mold of my typical reading so I don't have other similar suggestions

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes

Last year I read Moo and thoroughly enjoyed it. The descriptions and the ridiculousness of academia were well displayed in Jane Smiley's book. When I finished, a friend recommended The Lecturer's Tale. I finally found a copy and happily devoured it over the holiday break.

Anyone with a graduate degree in the social sciences/humanities should read this book. Especially if you found some of the graduate school theory ludicrous, ridiculous, or otherwise downright weird. James Hyne's novel is satirical, slightly eccentric, and in certain sections ... yep, downright weird. But I laughed loud and hard and identified with a lot of what he wrote.

The basic plot: Nelson Humboldt is fired from his contract composition teaching gig at a (fictional) Ivy League University. Leaving the English building his hand gets run over by a bike and he loses a finger. He discovers that with his reattached finger he can force his will on others. In short order, Humboldt uses his power to get his job back, secure his apartment, and help his friends. However, he gets power hungry. If it sounds weird, it is. But the point of the power is to show how manipulative and power-driven academia can be. Hynes portrays that extremely well.

Hynes has an incredibly witty and deadly accurate portrayal of life in academia. He uses jargon and sexual innuendo and the ridiculous to paint a terribly pointed picture. While reading one night I was convulsing in laughter. I tried to explain what was so funny to my husband. I eventually said, "It's really not funny at all. It's just too true." Although exaggerated the scene in question (in which a flustered lecturer tries to deliver a paper on gender/queer theory to the tenured professors in the English department) could have happened in my program.

There is a point near the end of the book when Hynes jumps off the deep end. The plot gets really weird and slightly nonsensical. I was not overly found of the out-of-body type experience of the characters. Nonetheless, in order to complete his study of university life he needed a farcical denouement. He returned to the satirical depiction of university life and ended the book on a good note.

I will definitely read more work by Hynes. I would recommend this book to anyone who was heartily invested in academia - and is willing to laugh at it and themselves. However, I cannot imagine The Lecturer's Tale has a wide appeal. He purposely overuses all of the theoretical jargon that academia loves which won't make sense to some readers.

If you liked The Lecturer's Tale try:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson) by Rick Riordan

I'm behind in my posts. It's time to try and catch up.

With the end of the semester and a sick son I needed something light and mindless to read. The second book in the Lightning Thief series seemed like a perfect go-to. In this book Percy ends his otherwise uneventful school year with a dodge ball game against monsters bent on killing him.

On the run from the monsters, he and his friends make it to Camp Half Blood only to discover that the borders are open to the outside. Percy puts himself up for another quest which he does not get chosen for, but ends up doing anyway.

I enjoyed Sea of Monsters. It was a fun light read. It was a good continuation of the Percy Jackson series. I think it would have appeal to a tween. For whatever reason I did not enjoy this book as much as the first - it could be the shorter length. While I found myself wholeheartedly invested in The Lightning Thief this one finished to quickly to get lost in the story.

I will keep reading the series. It is a fun series. I will hang on to it for my son in a couple of years. All in all, not a bad modern boy's adventure series.