K's Reviews > Girls of Riyadh

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea
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Mar 23, 08

bookshelves: mideastwomen, thank-god-i-wasn-t-born-there, chicklit
Recommended to K by: my mother-in-law
Recommended for: Die-hard fans of books about the lives of Middle Eastern women

In the words of one goodreads reviewer, this book is basically "Sex in the City" meets the Middle East. This juvenile book follows four young Saudi women through a series of superficial, mostly ill-fated romances. There's an interesting gimmick in that it's narrated by a Saudi woman, ostensibly a friend of the foursome, who posts their stories anonymously in a series of e-mails sent out to a group of subscribers.

Although the stories were somewhat repetitive and kind of dumb, this book provided an interesting, if confusing, window into the lives of young, educated Saudi women. I couldn't figure out the societal rules they were playing by (or flouting), though. Some of them were slightly reminiscent of Orthodox dating norms I grew up with (though way more rigid), but others were very difficult for me to wrap my mind around. I kept wondering -- is this woman an accurate reporter, or is she the Saudi Arabian Naomi Ragen?
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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message 1: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Schwartz Kudos to you for actually picking up a Hebrew book! I think the last one I read through to the end was in eighth grade, and it was all about the holocaust. Not a very nice introduction to Hebrew literature...

I can't wait to get back to Israel so I could join a Hebrew book club! Jealousy rears its ugly head!

message 2: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K The Hebrew book club has really been a wonderful opportunity for me. Until I joined it, I kept intending to read in Hebrew but was never motivated to actually attempt it. Unfortunately, I haven't enjoyed most of the books but I really appreciate the opportunity to improve my Hebrew literacy and fluency.

G-d willing, you can join us when you get back! Although I think your Hebrew is probably way better than anyone else's in the group.

message 3: by Ariella (new)

Ariella I still dont understand where you get all your time from? I cant even manage a whole newspaper article in Hebrew let alone a book!!!!

Are you saying that Naomi Ragen is NOT an accurate view of the religion?

message 4: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K To tell you the truth, I don't know where I get the time to read. It's an addiction for me. I suspect that people who are less addicted than I am have a more ordered set of priorities and lead more productive lives than I do.

As for Naomi Ragen, while I think her book characters' lives may vaguely represent some marginal Orthodox individuals, they are certainly not the Orthodox norm. I think she is inaccurate and terribly misleading in presenting them as if they are. The whole premise of "Jephte's Daughter" was highly unrealistic -- that a father would force his daughter into an abusive marriage and then turn his back on her, all in the name of religion. I'm not saying it absolutely couldn't happen; I guess if I really strained my imagination I could see it happening in some isolated cases. However, I cannot imagine a single person I actually know, Orthodox or otherwise, making such a choice and then abandoning his daughter to her fate. I read most of her other books, despite the fact that I don't think they're particularly well-written. I find her highly agenda-driven, and consequently, her characters are exaggerated at best. I could go on, and talk about specific books, but you get my drift. Why, do you think she is accurate?

message 5: by Ariella (new)

Ariella I also love to read and find myself readign all the time when I should probably be doing other things, but you just seem to get a whole lot more accomplished than I do.

No, I dont like Ragen. I dont think she is accurate in her portrayl of Orthodox life. I also get frustrated when I read her books. Her characters are too evil, or too simple or too goody-goody. Not very complex. And I don't think her books are so wellwritten. And I also find her work highly agenda-driven. I wonder though, what I would think of her books if I werent Jewish and didnt know anything about the society she writes about. I also wonder what drives her to write what she does. Does she realize that her characters and storylines do not paint an accurate view of Orthodoxy? She herself is Orthodox, so she must know something about it. ?? I dont know. I read Jephte's Daughter and Sota and hated them both. And now I refuse to read anymore of her work. I jsut dont see the point. They all ahve the same agenda and once you;ve read one annoying story with poor characters and gotten the agneda out of it, you've read it all. no? I just think bout it, because I've read interviews with her and also a differnet type of article she once wrote about the suicide bombing of a hotel in Netanya on leil haseder. She was there that night and she wrote about it. The article was very good. I thought, so different from her novels. t just struck me as strange.

message 6: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K I also find Naomi Ragen highly simplistic and not particularly skilled as a writer. I think her agenda contributes to that, because making her characters complex would make it difficult for her to promote her agenda. I was in touch with her briefly about this. Her response to me was, "I just hold up a mirror to society; if you don't like what you see in the mirror, don't blame the mirror." I think her "mirror" is more of a fun-house mirror that distorts, not one which actually reflects with any accuracy.

I did read her latest book ("The Saturday Wife") because my sister bought it for me as a surprise, knowing I would be curious about it but unwilling to spend money on it. The reason I was actually curious about it was that it targeted the Modern Orthodox community rather than the Haredi community. I still found it simplistic, poorly written, and over-the-top. If you're interested in more details, I reviewed it on goodreads -- you can do a search for it and my review will come up, and you can also see what other people had to say.

My mother bought me one of her books called "The Covenant," claiming that it was a different type of book than her usual because it was about Israeli settlers, characters for whom she feels more sympathy. I just haven't been motivated to pick it up, but if I get desperate enough, I probably will.

message 7: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Schwartz Lemme tell you ladies: I loved Jephte's daughter. Yes, I loved it. Of course, I was in high school at the time, but there was something so dramatic about the fact that the characters were so simple. Sometimes I find that when the characters are simpler the emotions of the reader are more intense, which can be fun in itself. I also read the one about the Spanish Inquisition, which wasn't half bad. It really explained to me why I was frum, even though my nature is not to be a believer.

That being said, I don't pick up her books any longer, b/c they are such terrible trash. There was that one about the woman being raped on her mikveh night, and it so upset me (it was too, too stupid and it really had such potential) that I never tried her again.

I do still get her e-mails from time to time. They help me keep abreast of what the people are thinking in Israel (even if her letters represent only one segment of the population).

message 8: by Ariella (new)

Ariella Miriam, do you like her writing in her letters online? Do you see a difference in that and with her books? I also read Jephte's Daughter in highschool, but still didn't like it. At first I was excited toread about a girl who like myself, went to a religious highschool, but then when I read the part of how her father forced her into this marraige with her fiance who kicked a cat. I thought "this is insane! and where is the girl's mother?" (was she dead? I dont remember the book)

I agree with you about simple characters having appeal, but then I think the story needs to be simple and not try to be complex which is I think what Ragen often tries to do.

And her mirror comment makes no sense to me. That is such a lousy attitude. She totally DOES NOT "just hold up a mirror"! Does she seriously think she does??

message 9: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K I've read some of her letters online as well. I find them rhetorical, but not wholly inarticulate. I think that stringing a bunch of words together coherently is one skill, and creating believable characters and stories is a completely different skill. I guess Ragen writes well enough to put together a readable article, although her content is another story. As for her fiction, well, I've pretty much already given my opinion on that.

Unlike you guys, I HATE simple characters. I find them boring and unrealistic. Life is complex, and people are complex, and when books fail to reflect that reality, I have a lot of trouble suspending my disbelief. I also don't feel at all engaged or empathetic with characters who think simply and view the world in simple terms, and experience emotions in an uncomplicated way. For example, if I were reading a book about a mother, I would be totally disengaged and bored if she either loved motherhood and her children all the time, or completely hated and resented it with no sense of redemption ever. On the other hand, I would find the book interesting if it explored her ambivalence.

I do agree, Ariella, that trying to write a complex story with simple characters is doomed to fail. I also agree that Ragen's presumption of "holding up a mirror" to Orthodox society is self-serving and unrealistic.

message 10: by Ariella (new)

Ariella I read Stardust by Neil Gaiman and really loved it. I dont think the characters were very complex. Neither was the story. But it was such an engaging read. Am I confusing simplicity with naivete?

message 11: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K When I read a good book, most of my pleasure is derived from reading about interesting, well-developed characters -- usually. Sometimes, if a book has something else to offer like originality, it's okay with me if the characters are a little simpler. For example, I really enjoyed "Ella Minnow Pea" by Mark Dunn. I can't say that the characters were particularly layered or complex, but I thought that the book was so clever and original that I didn't feel like I was reading it for the characters.

In terms of plot, I usually care more about the characters than about the story. However, I do hate books that meander aimlessly or are unnecessarily slow; I need some kind of a forward-moving plot to keep me going. The plot doesn't need to be overly complex to satisfy me, though.

Simplicity vs. naivete -- interesting linguistic distinction. I guess what bothers me in a book is not so much if it's simple, but if it's *simplistic* -- taking complicated things and treating them superficially. I suppose "Love Story" by Erich Segal was more of a "simple" book to read, but I didn't feel it was simplistic. Does that make sense?

message 12: by Ariella (new)

Ariella Yes. I think you hit the nail on the head.

message 13: by M (new)

M Also sad to have missed this exchange - I echo just about everything you said, Khay (we must be related, ha ha, insert line about how we were dropped at the doorstep by the same gypsies) as we have discussed many times before as far as characters go (I try to convince my creative writing class of this and it's at times a hard sell - they are very into plot twists and not so much into character twists) and I agree with the Ragen issues - as convinced as we are that she is a dolt, she is equally if not more so convinced that she is the herald of truth (and a good writer - ack) - but you know, I was talking to a friend of mine about BY plays, and how they have such a clear agenda that you can sum it up with more facility than the actual plotline, and I was contemplating how one would go about incorporating a message or theme with subtlety, and it is a challenge (this was in regard to The Sound of Music has many powerful messages - aside from the way people deal with loss/children and nationalism/anti government sentiments, the concept that a religious ideal is not for everyone is a very meaningful message to me, and I suggested doing The Sound of Kollel, but was told that this is why I will never be welcomed in the world of BY playwrights) so I'm wondering how one does go about conveying a message, or is it that the message itself should be ambiguous?

message 14: by Ariella (new)

Ariella I LOVE THE IDEA OF THE SOUND OF KOLLEL! I think you should run with it! I think you could make a great parody with that idea! I

Its a good question how to convey a message without being heavyhanded. I think Arthur Miller did a good job in the The Crucible. I also think a parody is a good way to lighten up the subject matter. (I think everytime there is a message behind a pieceof work it gets heavy no?) When you make something into a comedy it immediately lightenes it up and further allows to you to possibly touch on some taboos. ..... i would love to hear more!!

message 15: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K I love the Sound of Kollel too! You must post it on your goodreads profile page!

In general, I've felt that novels which intentionally conveyed a message sacrificed quality, and ended up being didactic and preachy rather than being about the story. I think it's best when the message comes through without any deliberate attempt to convey it. When the author's goal is to create a rich story without any conscious attempt to teach the reader something, that's when the story has the possibility of meaning different things to different people as long as the story itself is not superficial. I think that that's what makes a good book.

message 16: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Schwartz I think the Sound of Kollel is a terrific idea, Margueya! Only I think it should be the name of the song, "the Sounds of Silence" with "the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls" b/c the lack of subtlety in frummy books is pretty amazing. No one ever feels conflicted; they are either sobbing or dancing in the streets. There are so many parallels in that song, like "people talking without speaking". How many of us have sat through a shiur thinking, irrelevant, irrelevant, what a fool, could he sit through a shiur like this?

You know, I don't know why, but in my adult life I have become so cynical about our religious leadership. I feel like our community has become much like the Catholic community in which we send our kids to be taught by the nuns, but what they teach has so little to do with the reality of our lives at the end. I made aliya to an M.O. community and for the first time in my life learned that Modern Orthodox were not destined to go to hell. K., you raised kids in a community in which there was virtually no shabbos around you for 2 years. Ariella, you traveled the world and jumped from airplanes. Rivkie, you went to NCSY from YOB. Margueya, you took the time to develop yourself a bit before choosing someone to marry. We have each done things which were totally preached against and somehow have turned us into the people we are and have made us deeper frum Jews. But these are the very things that people told us not to do! How could we feel like these are the things that give us character and at the same time we are bad, bad, bad?
These are things that make me feel that if something doesn't change soon we are all going to be in trouble. Why doesn't anyone, anyone, talk about the role yeshivas play in this "kids on the fringe" generation? An entire Mishpacha Magazine article talked about this, and the question was, How can this happen in good families? Of course, the fact that our kids spend 9 to 9 at yeshivas, that means nothing. The role of yeshivas, in which there's molestation being covered up and zero quality control, that means nothing in the scheme of things. It's the good families being targeted. And then we wonder why people in our community have become so dishonest and corrupt, and the frummer they are, the harder they fall. I mean, folks, these are the successes. Why? B/c they are major donors to the yeshivas.

I'll get off my soap box, now!


message 17: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K I'm with you, M. This goes back to Ariella's original comment about fundamentalism. In recent years, the "party line" of the right-wing Orthodox has gotten increasingly monolithic. I feel like laypeople are afraid of thinking for themselves, and leaders are afraid of encouraging independent thinking and divergence. Maybe it's because society is growing increasingly free-wheeling and the threats to a religious lifestyle are more intense than they once were. But I think that, in these increasingly extreme efforts to safeguard religion from divergent thinking, we're sacrificing depth and complexity. Being a deeply religious person comes from engaging alternative views, not from avoiding them. But if you're too terrified to think differently or expose yourself to other cultures, you'll never achieve that depth; you'll always be someone who goes through the motions. And then, if your religion is that superficial, I think you're much more vulnerable to religious challenges in a sense, even as you strive ever-harder to defend against them.

I wonder if some of this "kids on the fringe" phenomenon comes from the increasing superficiality and fakeness of religion, this feeling of going through the motions out of conformity rather than out of the deep belief that comes from struggling. Teenagers hate hypocrisy, and they're exposed to it all the time. In my day, lots of FFB teens gravitated to NCSY and programs like Discovery in order to receive a religious "shot in the arm" that they clearly never got in their frum education and upbringing. Today, it seems, kids aren't even motivated to do that -- they'd rather just go off the derech.

I absolutely agree that there's a systemic problem with schools/yeshivos that's not being acknowledged -- again, probably out of fear of saying something that's beyond the ever-narrowing religious pale. I guess the frum establishment will take a long time to learn that, although avoiding things is safer in the short run, confronting them is probably safer in the long run.

message 18: by Ariella (new)

Ariella I have some radical ideas that I would like to espouse at this point:
1) I think we should form a Sanhedrin again. I think we as a people have major leadership problems - increasing fragmentation amongst our own elements and I think a Sanhedrin could help bring cohesiveness. (I think it needs to happen in Israel). I think this larger problem is reflected very well in the issue of Agunot. There is no rabbi that will find a solution to this problem. It is obvious that past solutions do not work in todays day and age and new thoughts and new halachos need to be put into place. This is a problem that has been dealt with in the past. But today everyone is too weak. - all our leaders are weak. No one is able to get up and say "I am a frum Jew. I am proud of who I am and what I do and I know the halacha and this is a solution for today".
2) I think every Yeshiva educated kid should have a comparative religion course taught obviously from the Jewish perspective.
3) I think every yeshive educated kid needs a basic Why-Do-I-Believe-In-G-d course. ]
4) I think every woman as soon as she gets her period should be going to the mikveh. And NOT make this WOMEN'S ONLY mitzva revolve around MEN!
Should I get off my soapbox now?

message 19: by K (new) - rated it 2 stars

K Never, ever get off your soapbox! If you can't emote on goodreads, then where can you?

I hear what you're saying about a Sanhedrin. Unfortunately, I don't have sufficient confidence in todays' leaders' ability to pull it off. I agree that our leaders are weak; I don't know whether a Sanhedrin would solve the problem, because it seems it would just be the same weak people in a different form.

I definitely agree about the comparative religion and Why-Do-I-Believe courses. I wish people weren't so afraid of engaging ideas like that. Maybe one good thing that could come out of all the "children on the fringe" hype is a possible willingness to try something new like that since the old ways are clearly not working.

I don't know about the mikveh thing, though!

message 20: by Riv (new)

Riv Ariella, you have some interesting ideas, but I cannot see them being instituted in our times. Based on my experience with yeshivos, no right-wing educator wouldkids know what else is out there, or ask quesitons that might lead to more questions -- they dont even let them go to the mall for fear of what they might see!

When I was in 10th grade, my best friend was thrown out of class for asking a question about a Rashi--pure apikorsus to question Rashi, don't you agree???

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