This is the kind of writing that focuses on particular objects and senses--all the detritus in a back yard, the texture of a sweater, the feel of rainThis is the kind of writing that focuses on particular objects and senses--all the detritus in a back yard, the texture of a sweater, the feel of rain and mist. Scenes. Reading the scenes, I felt like I was in this community, like these characters really exist.
But the sadness and loneliness of each story got to me after a while. So I loved the writing, but can't say I loved the stories....more
This is a book about siblings. Feeling responsible for each other. Jealous. Guilty. The modern-day story of Josie and Judith Ashkenazi echoes in storiThis is a book about siblings. Feeling responsible for each other. Jealous. Guilty. The modern-day story of Josie and Judith Ashkenazi echoes in stories of the Victorian-era scholar who discovered the Cairo Genizah, and even in the snippet we get of Maimonides' life. This also is a book about memory--how we keep our memories, how we edit our memories.
I'm usually not a fan of novels that splice together stories from two or three different time periods. As soon as I get really hooked on one, the book snatches it away and forces me into another. I also go out of my way to avoid torture scenes. And asthma as a recurring theme seemed a bit dull.
But something about this worked. The author managed to link Maimonides with software programming, avoiding any "Da Vinci Code" similarities, and having women characters that ring true. Also there's a six-year-old little girl who isn't perfect: it seemed refreshingly realistic to have her parents wondering if she's just going through a weird phase, or if there is something more going on.
This is how I get my history now--reading family histories that incorporate world events. Here we start in the 1870s in a town famous for its yeshiva.This is how I get my history now--reading family histories that incorporate world events. Here we start in the 1870s in a town famous for its yeshiva. The children and grandchildren take us to New York's Lower East Side, to Jewish settlements in Palestine, and to some of the grimmest, bleakest places the Nazis created after they invaded the Soviet Union.
The last third of the book is hard to read. As Itel lounges in her "palace" on Long Island Sound, rich beyond belief from starting the Maidenform bra company, her cousins are trapped in Eastern Europe. It sound like the family in New York had one meeting with an attorney about whether they could get their relatives out of Europe, and did nothing more. I try to put myself back in that time--nobody could have imagined what would happen, quotas meant there really was nothing to be done--but still, when it was all over, what did they feel? Sounds like nobody talked about it. Ever.
Very well written. When the author had to turn to accounts of other friends or contemporaries, he wove them in smoothly, to make the settings more vivid. Fortunately, his family wrote lots of letters, which bring their voices alive....more
Nice scenes of buying bread in their neighborhood, and strangers fussing over their eight-month-old son. "The big sulk" is a political strategy both iNice scenes of buying bread in their neighborhood, and strangers fussing over their eight-month-old son. "The big sulk" is a political strategy both in families and at the top levels of government. Chilling descriptions of Basij gathering before a protest and of an acquaintance's time in prison.
But this book was still more about politics than about daily life. I wanted to read more about daily life. I wish he and his wife had written alternating chapters about their year in Tehran. She was a new mom, trying to run her business from overseas, determined to give her baby only organic foods (and gluten free for herself); and by the end of a year in Tehran, she seems unfazed when she can't order salad in a restaurant because there has been a cholera outbreak. That is quite a transformation.
I heard the author give an interview in which he pointed out something that gets lost in translation when Western media cover protests in Iran. For pretty much my whole life, TV has shown alarming images of crowds in Tehran shouting "Death to ___" (fill in the country). Those crowds, and the people who organize them, are not to be trivialized, but the author made me laugh out loud when he explained that "Death to ___" is a common phrase in Farsi. As in, when you're unhappy about something on your dinner plate, "Death to potatoes!"
Although I didn't see that "death to potatoes" line in the book, the author brings a good sense of humor to the paradoxes of Iranian culture. ...more
Slow paced, non-linear, spectacular writing. There are four strands to this memoir. Lots of time spent telling the stories of his great-grandparents,Slow paced, non-linear, spectacular writing. There are four strands to this memoir. Lots of time spent telling the stories of his great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents in Russia/Ukraine/Poland. A fair amount of time on his mother's depression and eventual suicide. A bit less time, but still phenomenal, on what Jerusalem was like in the last years of British rule and the first years of Israel's statehood. And a little bit of time on his adult self--his changing political views, his effort to start of a new life on a kibbutz, his morning walks and writing life now. Very moving, very engaging....more
Most of the book is about what happened to these men after the 1967 war. Their stories are really diverse and interesting, allowing the author to explMost of the book is about what happened to these men after the 1967 war. Their stories are really diverse and interesting, allowing the author to explain a lot about recent Israeli politics. Military history usually bores me, and I have no particular interest in Israeli politics, but this book kept me engaged, even through a lot of detail....more
A U.S. soldier tries to work through his experiences in Iraq. There is a plot, about how his friend died, but this book is more about the minute-to-miA U.S. soldier tries to work through his experiences in Iraq. There is a plot, about how his friend died, but this book is more about the minute-to-minute sensations of combat and the isolation-tank feel of coming home.
The style is more like poetry than prose. There's no glory here (no politics either), and as for the theme of friendship and bonding in battle--that gets sort of turned on its head. Impressive writing....more
Mournful--that's the word I keep coming up with for this story of a family in Tehran from the early 1980s to 2011. The author brings to life starkly cMournful--that's the word I keep coming up with for this story of a family in Tehran from the early 1980s to 2011. The author brings to life starkly contrasting scenes: a political prisoner going into labor, families driving up into the mountains to sleep between parked cars as Saddam Hussein's bombs fall, tea and sweets at family gatherings, the precise way that a mother washes her hands.
I was very moved by the description of a father using the only energy he had while he was in prison to make a bracelet from the pits of dates for his baby daughter.
I was, however, confused by the organization. Because the chapters move around in time and point of view, I found it hard to keep track of who was married to whom, who was cousins with whom, and who had taken refuge in the same house (but was unrelated and therefore could be fallen in love with, as today's generation starts its own protests against the regime). Also there were long passages of complete stillness--felt a bit like watching Zen meditation.
But overall a powerful reminder that many Iranians have tried to resist the current government. Some beautiful writing, even about terrible situations. I look forward to the author's next book. ...more
This book tries to get in the head of Richard Burton the same way that Hilary Mantel's books get in Cromwell's head.
There are three distinct segmentsThis book tries to get in the head of Richard Burton the same way that Hilary Mantel's books get in Cromwell's head.
There are three distinct segments. India is where he first learns to become fluent in the languages and customs of the local population (mostly to gather intelligence). He then goes on the Hajj. Finally he leads an expedition from Zanzibar to the source of the Nile.
Each segment is told partly from Burton's point of view and partly from the view of a servant or local official. For example, Ottoman officials try to figure out whether Burton's a spy.
I happen to like this sort of historical fiction. Lots of detail and almost a psychological approach. Beautiful writing. But it's a slow pace. 3.5 stars.
Burton's first munshi's house is "barely wider than a cow."
"What's the definition of an angle, Dick?"..."The difference between orthodoxy and heresy?"..."The difference between two directions actually." . . . "So I was more or less right?"
No one gets to the middle of their thirties without being disappointed in themselves at least once.
He was a person who could sometimes check over his opinions, the way people in villages check over their houses after the rainy season, and sometimes he'd change his opinion afterwards . . . . ...more
The writing is fine, especially about the ancient Egyptian ruins and the Nile scenery. Slow, introspective pace. I set it aside and didn't go back toThe writing is fine, especially about the ancient Egyptian ruins and the Nile scenery. Slow, introspective pace. I set it aside and didn't go back to it....more
A suspenseful story of nasty characters intersecting at an over-the-top house party in Morocco. I didn't like any of the people in this book. I thoughA suspenseful story of nasty characters intersecting at an over-the-top house party in Morocco. I didn't like any of the people in this book. I thought the plot was like a Coen brothers movie, without their light humor. Long passages describing the desert. But some beautiful sentences here and there. More like 2.5 stars. ...more
The year is 2000. Rukhsana is 24. She has returned to Kabul from Delhi, where her father was a diplomat and where she played cricket in college. RukhsThe year is 2000. Rukhsana is 24. She has returned to Kabul from Delhi, where her father was a diplomat and where she played cricket in college. Rukhsana's mother is dying of cancer. Although Rukhsana was working as a journalist, the Taliban takeover means the end of her work and brutalities to witness every time she leaves the house. Rukhsana and her brother Jahan think only of how to leave Afghanistan.
A very long-shot opportunity comes along when the Taliban-led government decides to improve its image by holding a cricket tournament. Jahan and several cousins form a team. Rukhsana coaches them in a game they've never seen before. Meanwhile, an evil Talib leader has become obsessed with Rukhsana. He and his brother stalk Rukhsana's house to force her to marry him.
This is an escape novel--not escapist, but a book about people who are being hunted as they try to escape. Deadlines imposed by the evil Talib leader add the pressure of a shot-clock ticking down. Rukhsana masquerades as a man, hides in a secret room built into her house (apparently not an unusual feature in Kabul houses). The plot was pure tension and kept me reading along. This book feels like a silent movie--do the sweethearts defeat the cackling villain?
This isn't a book with complex characters or a deep sense of place. For all the terrible things it describes, it manages to keep the tone on the light side, like a sports movie. Rukhsana's family is still fairly privileged and probably don't represent most Afghans. But it's a good story. ...more
Jinns and computer hackers unite against a repressive regime in an unnamed Arab state. This is something like Harry Potter/C.S. Lewis books, but for gJinns and computer hackers unite against a repressive regime in an unnamed Arab state. This is something like Harry Potter/C.S. Lewis books, but for grown ups and with a religiosity that is Muslim/Islamic instead of Christian.
Alif is just a 23-year-old computer geek who gets dumped by his upscale girlfriend. He writes a unique program that will keep her from contacting him again, discovers the truth about an ancient book of stories, and becomes the target of the Hand, who is actually an evil prince. Adventures and magic follow.
Lots of creativity in this book. Great characters, especially Dina (the girl next door) and Vikram the Vampire (a hero-rescuer who seems half Johnny Depp pirate, half Obi-wan Kenobi). I liked how the author made casual references to both literature and pop culture. She also addressed issues of class and ethnicity and foreign-ness in this hypothetical emirate.
On the cover, there is a blurb from Gregory Maguire. Fitting. If you like Wicked, you'd probably like Alif the Unseen. A mix of fantasy and familiar childhood stories and political edge. ...more