Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow

How does one write a review of this book? Visualize a group of people, led by Jesuits, who feel they are following God's directions and those directions include travel to a distant planet. If that was the totality of the story it would simply be a science fiction story complete with odd looking aliens. 

This story is so much more. Mary Russell sets the story up in a completely believable manner so that it is not difficult to suspend disbelief. Jimmy Quinn, an astronomer, makes the initial discovery. He picks up a transmisson which appears to be music and doesn't come from any earthly place. This sets up the ensuing story.

Russell weaves two narratives together in order to tell the story. The story takes place in 2019 and 2060. 

Initially eight people set out to discover what they could about the planet Rakhat .

In 2060 there is an interrogation of the sole remaining survivor of the journey ,Emilo Sandoz. He returns to earth maimed, depressed and sick and is subject to intense questioning by his Jesuit superiors.

The story of the  relatonships formed by the eight members of the team are both a study of how families operate and the complexities of relationships. 

The crew:Besides Jimmy Quinn and Emilo Sandoz,— Anne and George, a long time married couple, Anne is physician and George is a retired engineer and Sophia Mendes the creator of Artificial Intelligence Programs. Three more Jesuits: D.W. Yarbrough, Marc Robichaux, a naturalist and Alan Pace ,a musicologist, round out the team.

Each individual's story and struggles intersects with all the other stories. 

When they meet the residents of the planet they are totally unaware of their practices, cultural norms, pattern of relationships . They are unprepared for the reality of life on that planet.

Russell investigates belief, love of God, seeming absense of God. What does it mean to believe that God leads you and that God is directing your steps ?

Emilo Sandoz's faith is shattered by his ordeal. 

The title of the book comes from:

Matthew 10:29-30
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? and not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father: 30 but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Secret Life of Saeed: the Pessoptimist

By Emile Habiby

Emile Habiby was an Israeli-Palestinian journalist —well respected by both Arabs and Israelis. He was also a member of the Israeli parliament for three terms. The Secret Life of Saeed was written in 1974; Habiby died in 1998.

Benny Morris, a noted Israeli historian, recently wrote a book, 1948 which gives a detailed history of the events leading up to the war. He also discusses how much of the land was acquired—it's an open look at the realities of the time. Some call it revisionist. He, like Habiby, uncovers some of the less than savory ways that land was obtained. Blame is meted out to a number of divergent parties.

The Secret Life of Saeed is a satire, a tale told in letters by a bumbling narrator. There's also an extraterrestrial being who removes Saeed physically from some rather incongruous situations.

Saeed, our protagonist, moves through different situations. At one point he is an improbable and incompetent informer for the Israeli police. He suffers many losses, his first love, his second wife, a son who becomes a rebel, and the daughter of his first love.

To me, perhaps because this is 2010, and so much in that small area has solidified into what appears to be an impasse, the book’s tragic episodes are it's strength.

The forced evacuations, loss of home and property, the culpability of the wealthy Arabs in the sale of land, the actions of the police, the second class status of those Palestinians who chose to stay and the long history of subjugation of that land—from the time of the crusades.

Habiby's "anti-hero" Saeed who continually fails or finds himself in unwieldy positions is a reminder of the impossibility of finding a comfortable place in an occupied land where you no longer really belong.

Throughout the book there are literary references to 1001 Nights and Shakespeare.

A telling feature of this book is the full title: TheSecret Life of Saeed-the Pessoptimist. Salma Khadra Jayyusi said in his introduction to the book: "The paradoxical view of the dynamics of the situations explains the meaning of the word "pessotimist," coined from the partial merger of "optimist" and "pessimist." " Habiby aims ...to uncover the various contradictions that crowd the distance between the extreme poles of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian resistance."

This book won Israel's Prize for Literature.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where We Once Belonged

Where We Once Belonged
by Sia Fiegel

Sia Fiegel was born in Samoa in 1967 and was the first woman from Samoa to have her work published in the United States.

When I first started reading Where We Once Believed I found it somewhat confusing. Sia Fiegel includes many Samoan words and expressions in the narrative. While there is a glossary not all words are included; however, after awhile it doesn't matter. The context is enough to follow the tale.

This is a story told on many different levels. On one level it is a coming of age tale. Alofa, the narrator of the story, deals with the changes that come with adolescence. Because Sia Fielgel describes Alofa's encounters in great detail, the reader learns a lot about Samoa and Samoan traditions. There are also the discrepancies between what is available to whites and to native Samoans.

On another level the story is a vehicle for a look at the loss of Samoan traditions by the incursion of the West.

Siniva, who has returned to the village of Malaefou from New Zealand, where she has obtained an advanced degree, provides a voice for the loss. Siniva, caught between two societies, is lost.

In the end she cannot live in a society where her identity is destroyed. She commits suicide.

She had said: "Everyone is blinded. Blinded by too many Bibles. Blinded by too many cathedrals...Each time a child cries for coca-cola instead of coconut-juice, the waves close into our lungs."

"We kill ourselves slowly..."

The indictment of the west and its insistence that their way is the way is a powerful indictment.

Where We Once Belonged captured my attention with a narrative that demanded a close reading.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Big Bang Symphony

The Big Bang Symphony
by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

I've always been fascinated with Antarctica and usually read non-fiction accounts. So reading a fictional account was a new experience.

Lucy Bledsoe has not created a story out of bits and pieces she has read. She has been to Antarctica three times. In her acknowledgements she lists a number of people whose expertise enabled her to write a story that adheres to the reality of both research in Antarctica and the daily life of those who spend time in one of the field camps.

The Big Bang Symphony cast of characters includes three women, a composer, a kitchen worker, and a geologist. They each have a different reason for being in Antacrtica.

Music, men, geology, science--all are part of the story. Over the course of several weeks the three women bond and Ms Bledsoe certainly gives you the impression that this is a lifelong friendship.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, with reservations. Too many of the situations between the women and men or other women seemed contrived. Also all the bows were tied at the end of the book. That seemed too convenient.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun

The setting is Morocco in the 1950’s and the story is both universal and particular to the Moroccan society.

Islamic law and custom dictated to whom a father left his property and those laws were patently clear; the heir was to be male. What was one to do if their family consisted of a wife and seven daughters? Hajji Ahmed determined to have a son, forced his wife to undergo a variety of "desperate ordeals" to assure the birth of a boy.

"He consulted physicians, fakirs, charlatans, quakes from every region of the country. He even took his wife to a Marabout tomb and had her stay there for seven days and seven nights on a diet of dry bread and water. She sprinkled herself with she-camel's urine and scattered the ashes of seventeen kinds of incense on the sea."

Determined that his property would not pass to his brothers he decided that irrespective of the sex of the yet unborn eighth child he would celebrate the birth of a son. A midwife is sworn to secrecy, as is his wife, and when the child is born a girl she is named Mohammed Ahmed and Hajii Ahmed celebrates the birth of his son in grand style.

In true Moroccan tradition a storyteller tells Ahmed’s story.

He gathers his audience by telling them that he is the owner of Ahmed's notebook. It is within this notebook that the story and its secrets reside. The notebook was, according to the storyteller, entrusted to him just before Ahmed died.

"He made me swear not to open it until forty days after his death, long enough for him to die completely."

Day after day he tells the story of Ahmed's childhood and youth, his privileges as a male compared to his sisters’ position in their circumscribed world.

Tahar Ben Jelloun's narrative poses questions of gender, the rights of woman in North Africa, colonialism, a person’s identity, and Islamic law. This is all done within the constraints of the story.

Despite the binding of her breasts, the privileges she enjoys as a male, the despotic manner she rules over the household, Ahmed's life becomes suffocating. She has lost her identity. This gender loss, which was fostered on her by her father, must be similar to transgendered people who feel that their exterior belies their real identity. In the story Ahmed's greatest difficulties begin with her sexual stirrings.

Early into the story another teller of the story who claims that he is the one who truly knows the story confronts our storyteller. When this individual no longer is there to tell the story the listeners cannot let go before they know the ending. Three of them become tellers of the tale.

Each of these tellers relates a different ending. Their stories are infused with magical realism. As an acknowledgement to Jorge Luis Borges, Borges arrives from Buenos Aires to add his own interpretation to the tale.

The story’s power resides in the lyrical narrative, the layers of deception that are so well woven into the tale and the realization of how the story is also a metaphor for life under Islamic rule in Morocco.

This is a powerful book that works on a number of levels— the loss of self, stolen identities, the inadequacy of stories to determine just one ending that will fit. As a metaphor we see identities preempted by individuals, society, colonization and I’ll add biology.

Ahmed's story remains with me as a reminder of how stories are often thwarted before they are realized..

Linda Frances

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Club Dumas

The Club Dumas
by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Most books I've read about book dealers or antiquarian book hounds are non-fiction. I did attend the Antiquarian Book Fair in Boston where I briefly held some valuable first editions.

The Club Dumas has a bit of everything: a book dealer, Lucas Corso, investigating a rare book—The Book of the Nine Doors, a single Dumas chapter called The Anjou Wine,, a suicide, a cast of intriguing characters who become involved in Corso's investigation, and a story regarding The Book of Nine Doors which involves an author , Aristide Torchia, who was burned at the stake because his book reportedly gave formulas to summon Satan.

There's also a young woman whose name is Irene Adler, a character who appears in Sherlock Holmes stories.

Corso seeks out the owners of two copies of The Book of Nine Doors. The third copy belongs to the man who hired Corso to determine which copy is authentic. This involves a careful study of the illustrated plates of each book.

Almost every page of the book contains a literary reference, real and invented, and The Three Musketter’s plot is obvious if you're a Dumas reader.

While the plot can at times seem convoluted and the reader's attention strained, or at least I flagged,—it's all worth it.

Linda Frances