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The Translator by Leila Aboulela

16 Jul
I just finished this book twenty minutes ago and I feel like I need to immediately write up my thoughts on it, as it’s one of those ephemeral, unusual books that I might lose the details of as time goes on. It took me a little longer than usual to get into this book, I think because the themes of exile and alienation worked a little too well on me at first. The book seemed, well…..sad and a little grim. That’s okay, but it’s not necessarily something I jump to pick up, you know what I mean? But given time, the book opened right up for me – the characters are so human and real and relatable, and I LOVED the exploration of loneliness, doubt, and faith, both in yourself and religion.

Sammar is a widow from Sudan living in Aberdeen, Scotland and working as an Arabic translator at the university. When the book begins, Sammar has been living within a numbing bubble of grief for her husband Tarig, who was killed in a car accident four years earlier in Scotland. Unable to function, Sammar left their son with relatives in Sudan and returned to Scotland after a horrendous fight with her aunt (also Tarig’s mother). She is alone and content to be so – interactions with others are kept purely surface, as not only can Sammar barely manage to interact with others but she also is locked into an alienation from her surrounding European culture. The only person who seems to crack her shell is her employer, Professor Rae Isles, a noted Muslim scholar. Though he is Scottish, he seems to understand Sammar in a way that no one else does in gray and misty Aberdeen. Though they connect, they are still separated by layers of cultural difference and Sammar’s unyielding faith in Islam.

This book reminded me a lot of some other “quiet” books and authors that I adore – Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News comes immediately to mind. There’s something about books that are subdued, that take the time to let events unfold realistically – I think it’s a break for me from some of my genre favorites, like fantasy or romance. What I really identify with is that sense of being “other,” being outside the norm, of not feeling like you know what to do next. Sammar is incredibly strong and capable, but she doesn’t know it. She’s been brought very, very low, but continues with her quiet life because she has no idea what else to do. I just like that steady, no-fuss minimalism of life when you get knocked down and have no idea how to get back up again.

Another thing I adored about this book, and I’m hoping Leila Aboulela’s writing in general, is the window into everyday Muslim life. There wasn’t much talk about the hot-button issues I usually hear when people talk about Islam; terrorism is mentioned but it’s periphery and not at all connected with the mundane Muslim life Sammar and her family know. Descriptions of the food, the rhythms of family life, the daily call to prayer – these were so interesting to me and really peaceful and beautiful. I love learning another facet of Middle Eastern life, and can’t wait to read Minaret, which I’ve heard is just fantastic. The Translator is short – only 202 pages – so I encourage anyone to give it a try and see how it feels. I found it really, really rewarding.

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March by Geraldine Brooks

6 Jan
This was a really, really interesting book. It was a bit of an unusual experience for me, because I ended up not really liking the main characters too much. I mean, they were well-rounded and complex and interesting, and I definitely wanted to know what would happen to them, but as far as agreeing with them or liking their behavior, not so much. That sounds a little harsh, but what I really want to convey is that Brooks did an amazing job of juxtaposing the two people in a marriage, shedding light on how one’s perceptions in a marriage may be completely true to one person but not accurate for the other. Ostensibly, this is about war and loss and bravery (or the lack thereof), but tying all the horrible events together was the story of two well-meaning people who love, and also hurt, each other.

March is based on Brooks’ imaginings of what Mr. March, the patriarch of the March family of Little Women, experienced during his time with the Union army during the Civil War, away from his wife and daughters. Little Women is a bit of a distant memory for me, and I wish I had reread it before starting on March, as I think I would have grasped the intertextuality a bit more. Mr. March, an ardent abolitionist, decides to join the Union army at the outbreak of war, leaving his impoverished but loving family behind. The book follows his evolution from a confident though naive idealist to a broken and ill man, haunted by his failures. The story of his youth as a peddler through the South, his marriage to Mrs. March (Marmee), and his and Marmee’s work in the Underground Railroad is woven throughout his experiences at war.

Y’all, it took every inch of my patience to listen to Mr. March sometimes. A more naive man was never seen. His innocence was irritating but noble; he only ever expected the best from people. Time and again, his best efforts are too strident, too unrealistic to bear fruit. At one point, March has left his position as a chaplain in the army to teach “contraband,” or freed slaves, how to read and write in between their shifts working on a cotton plantation. The Confederate locals are none too pleased with these Union interlopers who seek to change their way of life, and risk of attack is high. One of the workers talks of his worries about violence at the plantation, and March calmly assures him that there are standards of behavior that everyone adheres to.

“Jesse, the Confederate soldier is a hard and desperate fighter, but he is not a savage. There are rules, even in war…”

He stopped then and gave me a look of the kind I had become all too familiar with in the course of my life, a look that combined pity and exasperation.

“Marse, them men round here what hides out in the woods – they’s thicker’n fleas in there – they ain’t even rightly in the army, and they sure enough don’t follow no rules.”

That kind of innocence was a constant throughout March’s life and marriage. When the abolitionist John Brown propositioned him for an investment, March happily gave as much as he could, eventually bankrupting the family. Still, he could feel no ill will or regret because it had all been “for a good cause.” Though they had little to live on, March’s ideals pushed him to leave his family at the age of 40 to join the Union army, leaving Marmee to struggle to raise the children and provide for them herself.

Though he is burned often by his idealism, he is also rewarded. Marmee and his “little women” adore him, though, through an ingenious device employed by Brooks, Marmee’s voice is heard in the latter part of the book and the reader is given much more understanding of exactly how she felt about how her life turned out. Though I didn’t always like Marmee, I admired her determination to stick things out, no matter what, and ultimately I felt she was just as brave as March, gambling her inner peace and soul as much as March gambled their money and his life.

I don’t know that I had the typical reaction to the ending of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, but hearing Marmee’s voice and watching her learn the secrets her husband had kept from her was difficult. Brooks did a fantastic job showing the compromises and sacrifices of marriage, and how sometimes you have to dig deeper than you ever thought possible to make your own union work. I also loved the extent of Brooks’ research – at times, I was astounded at how detailed her account of the Civil War, slavery, and life during that time were. I feel like she could successfully run a cotton plantation herself at this point.

I’m really impressed by how well Brooks knows her craft, and I’m looking forward to reading more from her. I think People of the Book might be next.

The Calligrapher’s Secret – Rafik Schami

14 Dec
This was a random pick-up from the library’s New Fiction shelf, and I grabbed it because I’ve been feeling like I could use a dose of the exotic. Couple that with my near-nonexistent knowledge of Syria, and I was ready to get down with The Calligrapher’s Secret by Rafik Schami. After finishing this a few weeks ago and trying to settle on my reaction, I’m torn on this one. There were aspects I really loved, but something else that kept niggling me, preventing me from truly escaping into the story.

First, what I loved:

  • Damascus! I don’t know much about this city, but I’ve definitely gotten an intriguing taste of this complex, cruel, and beautiful place.
  • You know what’s awesome? Calligraphy. No joke. The intricacies of calligraphy are fascinating, and learning about the craft of calligraphy makes me incredibly curious to find out more. I’ve always loved handwriting – I even got my dad to copy out some of his recipes by hand because his handwriting is beautiful.
  • Embarrassingly enough, I don’t know as much about Islam and the life of Muslims as I should. I mean, I know the basics that any college-educated person would, but nothing in detail. This gave me definite insight into a complicated religion and lifestyle and inspired me to learn much more.

What I didn’t really love:

  • It takes a looooong time for things to happen. While I loved meeting all the characters, eventually I started wondering when they were going to meet and the real plot of the book would get started.
  • Dropped plotlines. What about Pilot the dog? What about Noura’s neighbor Maurice? I felt like I kept getting invested in characters only to have them inexplicably disappear or fade away without ceremony.
  • This is a little one, but *SPOILER* ….I felt like Noura and Salman fell in love in such a strange, quick way. All of a sudden, after never even talking much, Noura decides she loves Salman and he quickly agrees. What? Of course, there’s always the possibility that there was some underlying theme that I failed to pick up on and this makes sense in a fabulous, literary way and I’m just completely obtuse, but it bugged me and didn’t really allow me to engage with them as a couple.

All in all, I got into the atmosphere of the book, but the plot…just didn’t do enough for me. I felt like the author would engage me in something, then drift away into a new topic and, eventually, I got tired of it. I’d love to learn more about this culture though – that was as fascinating as I hoped. Maybe I’ll try something else by Schami – Wikipedia is making me think he’s an interesting dude. Born in Syria, he moved to Germany as an adult and now seems to write primarily in German. It could be that this one just didn’t connect with me, and that it would be completely wonderful for someone else.

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

8 Dec
I finished The Remains of the Day last night past my bedtime (I know, I’m living on the edge). I got that chest ache thing – you know when you read something that’s so beautiful and sad that when it’s over, you get a little achy feeling? But don’t go thinking it’s a book about huge tragedies. It’s more about the little compromises we make, the small occasions when you let yourself down a little bit, when you take the safe road when you should have trusted yourself. It’s an intrinsically human experience, when your ideals and your reality don’t match up. I’m glad I didn’t read this when I was younger, because I don’t know if both the sadness and the hopefulness would have resonated with me as deeply.

Narrated by Mr. Stevens, the quintessential perfect English butler, we are introduced to the ins and outs of running a great English estate post-World War II. It’s a changing of the guard, really; the old ways of service are fading out, and the gentrified English lord is slowly being replaced by those in “business” or even Americans, as is the case with Mr. Stevens. Still, he plugs on, and lives mostly on the remembered glories of the peak of his career, when he served Lord Darlington. The crack in this veneer occurs when he receives a letter from a Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, who left her post twenty years ago to marry. The reader is told all facts from the viewpoint of Mr. Stevens, and as Mr. Stevens hatches a plan to drive cross-country to offer Miss Kenton a job, we begin to see that Mr. Stevens isn’t always reliable; he lies to himself, and others at times, and he buries his memories and feelings so that they bubble up unexpectedly. His resentment, shame, and bitterness peek through ever so slowly, and it’s fascinating to watch the true events of Mr. Stevens life begin to be revealed.

Though he means well and tries to live his life with the “dignity” he believes defines a great butler, Mr. Stevens is not always sunshine and light. He’s a bit of prig sometimes, really. Demonstrativeness is to be avoided, the American habit of banter is difficult and labor-intensive, and under no circumstances must a butler drop his professional persona (the only acceptable time to do this is when he is alone). Must be a fun guy, right? Not that it’s his fault – he simply doesn’t have the tools to bust out of his butler façade and show the person underneath. He is so completely disconnected from himself, so lacking in self-awareness, that he cannot see when he hurts others or when he himself is hurt. His myopia forces him to make mistake after mistake, and he reminisces over his career, slowly uncovering his mistakes on his car trip across country to see the long-absent Miss Kenton.

At the end of his career, at the “remains of his day”, Mr. Stevens must face what he is left with. Did he give up so much personally for the greater good, as he hopes? Did he fulfill his calling by serving a truly great man? Ishiguro has Mr. Stevens drop hints of what really happened throughout the book, slowly building a psychological portrait of a repressed man, the perfect example of servitude, and I was both sad and happy for him by the end of the book.