I found Cal on a list of top ten books about the Troubles. Leon Uris’s sprawling and cinematic Trinity, which I read last summer and found historicallI found Cal on a list of top ten books about the Troubles. Leon Uris’s sprawling and cinematic Trinity, which I read last summer and found historically impressive but aesthetically underwhelming, is also on the list, a few notches above Cal. Though Cal is much slimmer and less glamorous, it’s infinitely better than Trinity and packs a stronger punch.
Cal is set near Belfast during the 1970’s. It’s primarily a love story between two people separated by age, lifestyle, politics, and a big, lurking secret that the titular character, Cal, guiltily harbors from the object of his romantic yearnings, Marcella.
“The happier Cal felt, the sadder he became. He wanted to confess to her, to weep and be forgiven. He saw the scene in his mind…he saw the scene as he knew it would be in reality and it horrified him” (118).
The novel has many strengths. Its simple, effortless prose is ultimately very moving. The dialogue and character portraits ring true. Most impressively, it avoids vilifying either end of the sectarian divide. (This is quite a feat and something at which Trinity fails.) MacLaverty portrays the Troubles not as a battle of saints versus devils, but as a struggle between individuals swept up in something larger than themselves. There are idealists and opportunistic sadists on both sides, but most people are just trying to get by.
“To suffer for something which didn’t exist, that was like Ireland. People were dying every day, men and women were being crippled and turned into vegetables in the name of Ireland. An Ireland which never was and never would be. It was the people of Ulter who were heroic, caught between the jaws of two opposing ideals trying to grind each other out of existence” (82)....more
They were young, and I remember them as beautiful.
Without You, There Is No Us is a deeply personal memoir of one Korean-American woman’s experiences tThey were young, and I remember them as beautiful.
Without You, There Is No Us is a deeply personal memoir of one Korean-American woman’s experiences teaching the sons of North Korea’s most elite citizens. The setting of Kim’s story is PUST, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a rare and experimental institution in North Korea that only exists because it is privately funded by international donations, largely from evangelical communities. Kim manages to attain a position there as an English teacher, though only by masquerading as a Christian missionary who has promised the regime not to proselytize its young people.
I’m sure there are better books available if one is curious about North Korean history and politics, or dramatic events involving gulags, defectors, or the Arduous March. But, this book is unique in the way it gives readers a sustained look at everyday life among the privileged few in Pyongyang. In the author’s note, Suki Kim writes, “I do not pretend that this book offers a complete picture of North Korea, but I believe it offers a rare one [and]…seeks to capture a slice of the lives of the elites in the DPRK, the sector of society about which the least information is available” (ch. 28; 8:32:07).
While Kim’s writing felt, at times, dangerously laden with sentiment, I thought she did an excellent job of conveying the unique kind of relationship a young female teacher has with adolescent male students. It’s a lovely, bantering, almost maternal kind of bond, non-threatening, but definitely gendered. I relished every description of her interactions with her students, when they would laugh at her lame jokes, or she at their adolescent awkwardness. These young poster-children for the DPRK are surprisingly endearing, and her love for them is genuine and palpable. I was delighted—and at times very moved—by her medications on teaching.
And then there’s the flip side of these young men—their robotic, duplicitous side. The ease with which they lie. The way they avoid forbidden topics of conversation by ejecting the predictable word, “Boring!” before asking to move on to a different, pre-approved subject. The meticulously rehearsed quality of everything they do and say. The North Korea Suki Kim describes is not one filled with scenes of obvious violence or suffering, but it eerily suggests a horror lurking beneath that painstakingly constructed, yet quivering, façade.
This book is worth reading, and I found that its intimate storytelling lent itself well to the audiobook format. I have an impulse to defend the author against reviewers who fault the book for being exactly what it set out to be—a subjective memoir. Other readers were put off by her constant references to an unnamed lover awaiting her return to New York. While her yearnings for this man were, at times, a bit maudlin, I think she was trying to say something interesting about our human nature—how desperately we seek something transcendent to answer the problem of our existential anguish, whether it’s the triune God of the Bible in her colleagues’ case, the all-powerful Great Leader in her students’ case, or the yearnings for fulfillment in romantic love in her own case. We are meaning-orientated creatures, and that is interesting to me.
All that being said, I’m still left with a few nagging concerns of my own. What will happen to PUST when North Korean officials learn of this book, which we know they will, as no country on earth is as obsessed with its own image. Will her pseudonyms and other surreptitious attempts to veil sensitive material be enough to shield her former students and colleagues from the wrath of DPRK? And, are there some ethical boundaries even a curious and talented author should not cross for the sake of attaining and publishing a good story? ...more
We Should All Be Feminists has great classroom potential, perhaps as an introduction to feminist critical theory, or as a scavenger hunt for ethos, paWe Should All Be Feminists has great classroom potential, perhaps as an introduction to feminist critical theory, or as a scavenger hunt for ethos, pathos and logos, or as an example of how to craft an engaging essay. It's not hard to imagine its warmth and real-world illustrations holding much appeal for high school and college students.
As for me, I enjoyed Adichie's writing style, but I can't say I share the effusive enthusiasm other readers experienced in response to this essay. While I was eager for Adichie to show me how patriarchy uniquely manifests itself in Nigeria (women are dismissed in similar yet entirely different ways in Nigeria than in, say, the United States), her argument ultimately left me a little cold. I like her "old-school" feminism, which is more attractive to me than the more radical varieties, but I did feel like she wavered a bit on the age-old are men and women inherently different? question. When it suited her argument, she suggests there are no inherent differences between the genders; at other times, she seems eager to celebrate femininity as something entirely distinct from masculinity. This left me feeling just a little bit confused as to where she stands on the big gender questions.
I'm not surprised to see reviewers who identify with radical feminism somewhat disappointment with Adichie here. I also doubt that more conservative types will be ready to jump on board with all of her ideas. Basically, this is luke-warm feminism. Safe feminism. The kind that is least likely to offend the largest number of people, at least when it comes to her Western readers. I don't mean for that to sound like a terrible indictment; many of her ideas did resonate with me and I'm sure there are parts of the world that would find her societal prescriptions quite novel. Perhaps she is writing to those audiences. I was just expecting something a little more, I think....more
In a recent New York Times article, Marilynn Robinson alludes briefly to Flannery O’Connor’s shortcomings as a fiction writer: “There’s a lot of writiIn a recent New York Times article, Marilynn Robinson alludes briefly to Flannery O’Connor’s shortcomings as a fiction writer: “There’s a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart.” When I read this two weeks ago, before beginning Robinson’s latest book Lila, a prequel to her Pulizter Prize-winning Gilead, I struggled to wrap my head around her statements. I had always categorized O’Connor and Robinson together, in a place where very few others dwell: brilliant, spiritually insightful writers who deal with human depravity and divine grace in equal measure, somehow—miraculously—reaching believers and skeptics alike. The idea that a never-before-realized discrepancy exists between the two great American authors, one that compels Robinson to say of O’Connor “her imagination appalls me,” threatened to undermine what I thought I knew about these two I so casually call “my favorites.” But, now I’ve read Lila, and I think I understand better what Robinson might mean.
Set in the same fictionalized town as Gilead and populated by the same characters, Lila tells the story of how the Reverend John Ames came to marry that quiet, uneducated, hard-edged wife of his. Using third person selective omniscient narration, the novel breaks into the mind of Lila, a character who figures prominently in Gilead while also remaining largely peripheral. The novel is epic, not in terms of its plot but in the wide net it casts around biblical characters and themes. There are echoes of Ruth, Job, Hosea. There’s creation, baptism, regeneration, sanctification, exile, prodigals, wanderings of both a literal and spiritual kind. There’s even room for doubt, the earnest cry of a father, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”
With every stroke, Robinson’s pen underscores the theological significance of life’s most mundane features: marriage, friendship, romance, loneliness, laughter, gardening, childbirth, death, sleep. This is the story of an old man made young by the love of a woman so surprised by grace that she tries desperately to cleanse herself from its far-reaching effects: “The river was like the old life, just itself. Nothing more to it. She thought, It has washed the baptism off me. So that’s done with” (22).
The reverberations of John and Lila’s romance run deep because they signal not just their story but a larger human story. Lila’s waywardness is not just hers, but ours: “Fear and comfort could be the same thing. It was strange, when she thought of it. The wind always somewhere, trifles with the leaves, troubling the firelight. And that smell of damp earth and bruised grass, a lonely, yearning sort of smell that meant, Why don’t you come back, you will come back, you know you will” (240). From beginning to end, this novel filled me with a beautiful kind of dread.
Grace abounds in Lila, an uncontrollable, counterintuitive, logic-defying kind of grace and O’Connor liked to write about grace, too. I wonder, after reading this novel, if what makes Robinson different is her treatment of common grace, the grace that whispers itself into every life and every heart, even to the skeptic and those people who are just “trying to get by.”
Doane tying that ribbon around Marcelle’s ankle. If that wasn’t good or bad, it was something she was glad to have seen. ...more
I was recently exhorted by someone close to me to read the puritans as an antidote to spiritual apathy. In need of a respite from the zany shallownessI was recently exhorted by someone close to me to read the puritans as an antidote to spiritual apathy. In need of a respite from the zany shallowness that characterizes much of what is written for popular Christian audiences today, and with a craving for something weighty, I reached for The Acceptable Sacrifice by John Bunyan.
Bunyan’s thesis is simple and straightforward—“a broken spirit, a spirit rightly broken, a heart truly contrite, is to God an excellent thing" and the primary means by which God draws people to himself. This idea is reminiscent of the fervent prayer spoken by the speaker of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
The Acceptable Sacrifice uses the same violent metaphorical language to describe the initiative God takes to refashion the heart of the believer, which involves the stripping away of spiritual idols so that we might be radically reoriented toward him. That God foreordains spiritual suffering in the lives of Christians for their good is undoubtedly distasteful to many, even to many Christians. But I find it so entirely comforting, and I cling to it.
This is the idea that Bunyan unpacks in this book, and he does so meticulously, thoroughly and with relish. Most of it is great and helpful, although I did come away with two reservations.
The first is simply due to 17th century weirdness—or what sounds like weirdness to 21st century ears. A few of his illustrations are not likely to resonate with contemporary audiences. This is neither the fault of the writer nor the reader; we are both products of our time and place.
The deeper concern I have is in response to his assertion that any growth in the Christian life must be accompanied by anguish and suffering, or what he calls at one point, “soul pain.” Grief over sin is, indeed, a vital part of the Christian life, and I would agree with Bunyan that one cannot come to a point of true repentance and faith without first feeling the weight of one’s sin before a holy God. But, our sanctification—the ongoing process by which God shapes believers into his own likeness—is often characterized by great joy and discovery. The fact that Bunyan seemed to suffer from persistent depression might explain his emphasis on “soul pain” in the Christian life at the expense of true Christian joy.
This great and beautiful old hymn (indeed, one of my favorites) by John Newton entitled “I Ask the Lord that I Might Grow” is the distilled version of Bunyan’s argument, so I’ll leave it here for those who might be interested in pursuing The Acceptable Sacrifice.
I asked the Lord that I might grow In faith, and love, and every grace; Might more of his salvation know, And seek more earnestly his face.
'Twas he who taught me thus to pray; And he, I trust, has answered prayer: But it has been in such a way As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour, At once he'd grant me my request; And, by his love's constraining power, Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, he made me feel The hidden evils of my heart, And let the angry powers of hell Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with his own hand he seemed Intent to aggravate my woe; Crossed all the fair designs I schemed, Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this? I trembling cried; Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death? 'Tis in this way, the Lord replied, I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ From self and pride to set thee free, To break thy schemes of worldly joy, That thou mayst seek thy all in me. ...more
I read an interesting article several years ago about a progressive and ideologically-motivated Toronto couple who have opted to disguise the gender oI read an interesting article several years ago about a progressive and ideologically-motivated Toronto couple who have opted to disguise the gender of their child—strategically named Storm—until the child is able to elect a gender identity for him (or her) self. Never would I have imagined that this couple might have something in common with the conservative, Afghan families profiled in Jenny Nordberg’s new book The Underground Girls of Kabul. Though their motivations and expected outcomes differ wildly, what these families from opposite ends of the globe, with polar-opposite worldviews, have in common is the desire to keep their child’s gender a secret from society at all costs.
The Underground Girls of Kabul is a fascinating, compassionate and intelligently-written book that explores what the author refers to as “a missing piece in the history of women": the phenomenon of bacha posh in Afghanistan (ch.24; 0:10). Translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy,” the practice of bacha posh—young girls masquerading as boys in society at the behest of their parents—likely predates Islam, though it has only recently come to the attention of Westerners.
Afghanistan is a place that “demands sons at almost any cost” (ch. 7; 17:37), where girls are widely considered “stupid by birth,” and “lacking wisdom due to [their] weak brain[s]” (ch. 5; 11:43). A woman with many sons is highly esteemed, and one without is looked upon with scorn and suspicion. Given the prevailing prejudice against girls and the fact that boys ensure status, economic stability and physical security, the author finds it unsurprising that Afghan families go great lengths to secure the birth of a son, even a “fake” son. What I, however, found quite surprising is that the practice of bacha posh is “accepted and uncontroversial” among Afghans, as long as the covert girl assumes her proper identity as female before puberty hits. In the meantime, she is allowed all of the freedoms and privileges that actual boys enjoy: playing outside, working outside of the home, speaking her mind, laughing loudly in public, etc. Even when family members, neighbors, teachers and others in the community know that a particular little “boy” sporting pants, a dust-stained face and a closely cropped hair cut is really just a girl in disguise, they sympathize and play along with the charade, in tacit acknowledgement of the deeply ingrained belief that even a fake boy, a bacha posh, is better and more useful than a girl.
The Underground Girls of Kabul primarily profiles women and girls who have spent—or are spending—portions of their lives in Afghanistan as boys. It’s engaging, eye-opening, well-researched and often completely counter-intuitive in an educational way. Interwoven into Nordberg’s examination of bacha posh are a number of equally fascinating discussions, including the history (and apparent failure) of foreign aid in Afghanistan, an overview of the wars that have ravaged the country and, what I found particularly intriguing, a look at the syncretism of ancient Zoroastrianism and Islam and its implications for everyday life in Afghanistan.
I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the plight of women in the world. I only have two reservations, and they are as follows:
First, I sensed Nordberg’s discomfort whenever the subject of Islam’s relationship to the low status of Afghan women presented itself. She strives to remain objective throughout the book, to her credit; however there are moments when she can’t avoid pointing out the rather obvious role that the Islamic faith has played in, what Westerners would perceive as, the oppression of women in Muslim countries. Every mild criticism of Islam, Muslims and/or the Qur’an is swiftly followed by a half-hearted reminder that the ills women endure in Muslim countries are the result of “flawed interpretations” of the Qur’an, and that the Old Testament, Christianity and Western culture have all made life for women just as bad in times past. Maybe there are interesting comparisons to be made here, but Nordberg never bothers to develop these claims; she just expects readers to reflexively nod along in agreement. One example: Nordberg’s attempt to explain the mindset that condones honor killings within Afghan society:
“Much like in the historical culture of honor and guns in the American South and Southwest, an Afghan man must be able to protect and control both his property and his women at all times. An Afghan man needs to demonstrate readiness to use force against any threat. The three pillars of…the Pashtun code of conduct to live by are revenge, refuge, and hospitality. A favorite phrase of gun owners in the United States may as well be used by the ever-polite and always gun-carrying Afghans: ‘An armed society is a polite society.’ Should an Afghan man fail at this, his most fundamental task of protection, he can no longer function in society, since his honor capital will be depleted” (ch. 12; 15:22).
Having lived in Southwest Georgia for five years, I can affirm that there is indeed a gun culture in the American South and, generally speaking, more value is placed there on protecting one’s home from intruders than in other parts of the U.S. where I have lived. But that’s about the only morsel of truth I can glean from Nordberg’s writing on the subject, and I certainly remain unconvinced that there is some kind of meaningful relationship between attitudes about guns and home protection in the American South and the culture of honor killing in Afghanistan. This line of argumentation is so weak and underdeveloped that it’s hard not to see it as a veiled, preemptive attempt to ward off accusations of political incorrectness, since Islam seems to be a topic that few can speak about today with equal parts honesty and level-headedness.
My second criticism stems from the difficulty I had reconciling conflicting statements made throughout the book about the nature of bacha posh and what exactly it means for girls. I can’t be too hard on the author for this, since she herself deftly demonstrates the complexity of the issue and its tendency to defy comprehension. The subtitle of the book (“In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan”) implies that girls are dressing as boys as an act of subversion against a rigid and conservative culture that essentially makes women prisoners inside their own homes. But, throughout the book, there are countless examples of parents forcing their girls to dress as boys in order to garner some societal benefit. Midway through the book, the author wonders if the existence of bacha posh is perhaps a “symptom of a deeply dysfunctional society” (ch. 11; 21:37). In the epilogue, however, she asserts that the practice of bacha posh is a “historical and present-day rejection of patriarchy by those who refuse to accept the ruling order for themselves and their daughters” (ch. 24; 0:23). To be fair, she does profile a few older girls who voluntarily dress as boys despite the urgings of their parents to revert back to womanhood, but these stories were the minority, not the majority. Since most girls have no say in the matter, and several other girls have been emotionally wounded by the experience, it’s tempting to see bacha posh as a capitulation to patriarchy rather than a “rejection” of it.
Criticisms aside, this is a compelling book worth any reader’s time and energy. It sheds light on a very fascinating human issue that, at least in my case, undermined what I thought I knew about Afghan culture and values. Definitely recommended.
”How many lives should I have? How many people must I be?
What an insufferable yet strangely irresistible novel this is. Within the first few pages, I found myself wading through swaths of overwritten, melodrWhat an insufferable yet strangely irresistible novel this is. Within the first few pages, I found myself wading through swaths of overwritten, melodramatic prose:
"I tasted, with the glowing pleasure of the colour in my brain, the warm guiltless pressure of her tongue upon mine, her arms upon mine. The magnitude of this happiness—we could not speak but gazed abundantly at each other with eyes full of unshed tears.”
I’m actually not all that unromantic, but I cringed through passages like the one above.
And, it’s hard to take an author seriously when he uses the verb “to impregnate” metaphorically several times within the book's opening pages (when once is more than sufficient).
…impregnating the gloomy streets…
…flavors of exhaustion which impregnate…
He impregnates things.
This is all within the first tenth of the novel. Too much, just too much!
Who can disagree with the titular character Justine when she calls herself “tiresome,” “pretentious” and “hysterical”? She’s the Don Draper of Alexandria: “…not a pleasure-seeker, but a hunter of pain in search of herself,” and “like a somnambulist discovered treading the perilous leads of a high tower; any attempt to wake her with a shout might lead to disaster.” It all gets a little tedious after a while, the characters’ navel-gazing and histrionics. I kept wanting to gently push them all out of the way so I could better bring Alexandria into the focus, the novel’s most interesting element. But, like Mad Men, you can hardly look away, even when it’s downright ridiculous and predictable.
And yet, there are lovely passages and truthful passages. Sometimes Durrell relaxes a bit and sets aside the strained, ornate language in favor of something more straightforward and natural. Here’s a wonderfully descriptive passage that doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard:
“Little Mnemjian is a dwarf with a violet eye that has never lost its childhood. He is the Memory man, the archives of the city. If you should wish to know the ancestry or income of the most casual passer-by you have only to ask him; he will recite the details in a sing-song voice as he strops his razor and tries it upon the coarse balck hair of his forearm…Moreover he is well briefed in the living as in the dead; I mean this in the literal sense, for the Greek Hospital employs him to shave and lay out its victims before they are committed to the undertakers—a task which he performs with relish tinged by racial unction. His ancient trade embraces the two worlds, and some of his best observations begin with the phrase: ‘And so-and-so said to me with his last breath’”.
For every strikingly good passage like the one above, there are sadly several like this: “Across all this, the image of someone dearly loved, held in the magnification of a gigantic tear moved the brown harsh body of Justine naked.”
I’m not sure if I can bring myself to read what remains of the quartet. ...more
An incredibly insightful and stirring essay that richly combines cultural analysis and autobiography. Here is a representative passage that had particAn incredibly insightful and stirring essay that richly combines cultural analysis and autobiography. Here is a representative passage that had particular resonance with me:
"One of the things I remember well from my childhood is my grandmother's silver mirror. It was an antique mirror, ornamented on the reverse side with an elegant design of roses in bloom and singing nightingales. She would comb her long, chestnut hair, never moving her eyes from her reflection. Every mirror was a passage to another universe, she said, and when you peeked deep within something there peeked back into your soul, too. From time to time, Grandma would declare that it was time for this passage to shut down and rest a little bit. It wasn't healthy for human beings to stare at their reflections all the time, she would add by way of explanation. On such days, all the mirrors in the house would be turned back to front, and I would go to school without knowing what my hair looked like.
Years later, I cannot help but lament the loss of this age-old wisdom. Perhaps we gaze too much and too often at our own reflections, in the sense that we generally, if not solely, interact with people who think like us, vote like us, talk like us and are like us. If asked whether we have anything against those outside of our cultural cocoons, the chances are that we will firmly and sincerely say no. Of course, we are not biased. Of course, we have nothing against them. On the contrary, we relish some degree of multiethnic diversity. The Iranian grocery shop that is open on Sundays and sells high-quality saffron, the Turkish restaurant where they serve tea in small glasses, the travel agency around the corner that offers flights with Bangladeshi Airlines for a reasonable price...All of this enriches our environment. It's just that we don't socialize with them...
...As a storyteller I am less interested in generalization than in undertones and nuances. These may not be visible at first glance, but they are out there, lurking beneath the surface, durable and distinct." ...more
Shortlisted for the Booker prize in the late 1970's Shadows on Our Skin is the story of an unlikely friendship between a Catholic schoolboy and a younShortlisted for the Booker prize in the late 1970's Shadows on Our Skin is the story of an unlikely friendship between a Catholic schoolboy and a young, female Protestant teacher set in Derry, Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
With detail-rich imagery and evocative prose, the novel gives readers a window into domestic life during this turbulent period of Irish history. Johnston's writing is very straight-forward and effective. I love the way she casts light on mundane details, a quality that adds much richness and texture to the narrative.
A few examples:
"He yawned hugely, a yawn that showed Joe clearly all the complexities of the throat."
"He picked up his cup and blew ripples in it."
"She had eaten nothing. She hadn't even put a plate for herself on the table, just smoked cigarette after cigarette, her fingers plucking them angrily from her mouth when they were too small to smoke any more and crushing them to death in a saucer."
While I enjoyed the novel and am happy to have read it, I can't give it more than three stars. The setting, characterization and dialogue were strong; however, the denouement was predictable and unsatisfying. I think it would have worked better as a short story.
(The photo is from my recent trip to Derry/Londonderry.) ...more
In this collection of articles written during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, a young Paul Theroux ruminates on nearly everything, from family life to friendIn this collection of articles written during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, a young Paul Theroux ruminates on nearly everything, from family life to friendship, from political trouble in Malawi to teaching in Singapore, from train travel in India to Cape Cod kayaking, from his contempt for Ernest Hemingway to his adoration for V.S. Pritchett. And more.
He calls the diverse bits of writing that comprise this collection “pieces” and distinguishes them from his “books” with this description: “These pieces I meant to be concrete, responses to experiences…immediate and direct, written to fulfill a specific purpose and somewhat alien to the meandering uncertainties of the novel…a breath of air” (ch. 1; 5:33).
I have a growing obsession with Paul Theroux. I find him incredibly funny, clever, profound and, despite what many say, affectionate and generous of heart. These last two traits, sometimes dormant in his more famous works, usurped by his penchant for relentless honesty, shine forth brilliantly here. This is especially true when the topic of discussion is writers he loves. Paul Theroux loves to love other writers.
The best piece in this collection is Theroux’s profile of V.S. Naipaul, a complicated man with whom Theroux had a complicated relationship.
I live in a walking-centric city, and I often listen to audiobooks while strolling about. Theroux’s writing on Naipaul is the kind that makes the listening walker disregard all road signs and pedestrian etiquette so that one’s entire focus can fall upon all that matters in the moment: the prose. Candid, direct and redolent with the unique kind of longing that accompanies reflections on a bygone friend, this piece alone is worth the price of the collection.
Paul Theroux on V.S. Naipaul, his mentor, writing teacher and friend:
“Doubt, disbelief, skepticism, instinctive mistrust—I’d never found those qualities so powerful in a person. And they were allied to a fiercely independent spirit, for his belief in himself and his talent never wavered. He was merciless, solitary and, one of his favorite words, unassailable. No one had a claim on him” (ch. 7; 11:30).
Excellent reading for those who love Theroux, and essential reading for those who don't. ...more
This is a voyeuristic look into the elite and secluded life of a Saudi princess. It's written in first person from the perspective of Princess "SultanThis is a voyeuristic look into the elite and secluded life of a Saudi princess. It's written in first person from the perspective of Princess "Sultana," a boisterous, bright and spirited Saudi royal who finds herself deeply dissatisfied with the culture of her homeland, particularly its poor treatment of women. The book is gripping, though, for me, somewhat problematic.
I listened to the audiobook version of Princess and nowhere included is a note from Jean Sasson, the Western journalist who wrote the book, explaining the process by which she crafted the narrative. This left me reading with nagging, unanswered questions. How did Sasson meet the princess? Aren't there risks involved for Sultana, living in such a secretive and repressive country? Why did Sasson choose first person from Sultana's perspective to relay the book's contents and not first person from her own perspective? Or maybe third person? To what extent did Sultana "write" the book? Did Sultana provide the stories, while Sasson massaged and synthesized them into a compelling narrative with rising and falling action and decent prose? If so, what did Sasson need to add or take away to accomplish that? If Sultana's stories appear in the book as she described them to Sasson, then is Sasson more of an editor or a scribe rather than an author? What the heck? How did this book get written?!?!
For me, this created some credibility concerns, and I felt like it all could have been resolved with a simple author's note of explanation, preferably at the book's beginning. Perhaps another edition has this? Mine definitely did not.
There is also an ethos problem with Sultana herself. She's a very interesting and complex individual, and this is part of what makes Princess so appealing. She's passionate, choleric, prideful, spoiled, obstinate, intelligent, reflective, violent at times, and...duplicitous. By her own admission, her life is punctuated by lies she told to achieve her ends. Lies told to her parents, her husband, her sisters, and her children. So, of course, I couldn't help but wonder, has she lied to her readers? She's not above scheming, arguably a necessary tactic for the oppressed in fighting their oppressors. If lies, though, are the means by which she obtains her end of women's liberation in Saudi Arabia, perhaps she finds no moral objection in lying to her Western readers to further that cause. This left me scratching my head, guessing where perhaps the truth ends and fabrication begins.
But, despite all this uncertainty, I could hardly put the book down. You can't help but root for Sultana, even when her behavior made me cringe just a little bit. I especially enjoyed her surreptitious attempts to undermine her oppressive and cruel brother, Ali, whom she describes as one "well-suited to a land who kept women at his feet" and one who "would be terrorized by a woman of strength and character."
There are moments of levity, but most of it is bleak. Sultana has known several women who were made victims of honor killings, perverse attempts to mete out justice to a woman who, through some perceived or petty crime, has brought shame upon her family name. In hearing these stories of barbaric cruelty perpetrated against young girls, many of whom were not guilty but themselves the victims of sexual violence, my heart was seared with rage and sorrow. These are the moments when I indeed wished the entire book was one giant fabrication, but somehow I doubt that's the case.
And one last thought. To me, the book's most fascinating insight was regarding the unhappiness of Saudi men. Often when I think of a patriarchal culture like this one, I imagine that all the men are happy dancing on the oppressed souls of their women, relishing their power, privilege and satisfied appetites. But Sultana contends that the men of her land are miserable: "By treating women as slaves, as property, men made themselves as unhappy as the women they rule and have made love and true companionship unobtainable to both sexes." Of course this makes perfect sense. I don't believe the oppressor ever finds true joy or peace in his oppression. What a strange and sad irony and how broken is our world.
I felt predisposed to love this first-person account of a man's forays into European monastic life, since I'm very much interested in church history aI felt predisposed to love this first-person account of a man's forays into European monastic life, since I'm very much interested in church history and Christian spirituality and have previously enjoyed travel memoirs written by uppity men. While I loved Fermor's descriptions of the carved-out cave monasteries of Cappadocia—"The scenery of early Christendom lay all around us" (87)—and found his analysis of Trappist ideology to be fascinating—"A Trappist career is a long-drawn-out atonement, a protracted imitation of the Wilderness, the Passion, the Agony in the Garden, the Way of the Cross, and the final sacrifice of Golgotha" (60)—Fermor's prose was something I felt I had to slog my way through—neither a joy nor a delight. Interestingly, one of the best parts is the introduction by Karen Armstrong: "The monastic life demands a kind of death—the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life...If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves—incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly" (x)....more