Archive for May, 2021

The Parisian, or al-Barisi, by Isabella Hammad

May 31, 2021


Brief review: Stunning book, compelling protagonist, historical fiction in a time and place that is less familiar. Ultimately a deeply human story written in beautiful, masterful prose.
Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

And… the longer review:

This novel takes place in two places: France and Palestine. However, it really takes place singly in the life and mind of our protagonist, Midhat Kamal. We begin as Midhat leaves Nablus (“a town north of Jerusalem, south of Damascus”) for France to study medicine at The University of Montpellier. There he stays with the Molineau family, comprising Doctor Molineau and his daughter, Jeannette.

We follow Midhat’s relationships (especially with Jeannette – which is a complicated and mysterious one) and his trajectory at first the University and then the Sorbonne in Paris until he returns to Nablus to step into his father’s business in textiles and clothing.

The remainder, and bulk, of the novel takes place in Nablus, where the history of “Greater Syria” and Palestine is unfolding. While historical fiction often teaches us a lot about a time and/or place that we aren’t very familiar with, this book does it all from the particular point of view, and experience of, Midhat — an outsider no matter where he is. So, this “view” of historical events is both participant and observer.

That is the frame of the story — but the driving force of this sad, beautiful, human story is Midhat’s inner life and interaction with the people and world around him. He is a sympathetic, flawed character who never quite finds a home. Against the backdrop of both Arab and Jewish struggles to establish a territorial home under outside machinations of large powers (France, Britain, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire), we still experience everything from the personal instead of the political.

The writing is exceptionally beautiful and masterly, in some places almost more like being immersed in a painting than a novel. Strikingly, this is the author’s first novel – she is 19! [for those Top Gear fans, her father is Richard Hammond, long time co-host of that program.] Our sympathies (not surprisingly) lie with those Arabs who live in Nablus (what many characters think of as Greater Syria), but given the deeply personal point of view of a man who isn’t blantantly political, the reader (ie: me) doesn’t necessarily feel strongly partisan. More so, there is a loneliness of not quite belonging in the way that others do, that seems far beyond the author’s years.

Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

Author photo: (c) Kathy Coulter
Winner of The Plimpton Prize, O. Henry Prize, and National Book Award “5 under 35” Honoree.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi DarĂ©

May 19, 2021


This coming-of-age story of a fourteen year old girl in Nigeria is by turns hopeful and completely heart-wrenching. I have to admit that if I were to read that in a review it might keep me from reading it, but I will say that to me the book ultimately leans toward the hopeful. I am particularly glad I listened to the audiobook. The book is told in the voice of Adunni, and her dialect, and the frequent songs she makes up, are beautifully rendered on the audiobook by Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury for any Bridgerton fans out there). Adunni lives in a small rural village in Nigeria, and is grieving the loss of her beloved mother who instilled in her the optimism and passion for education that sustain her throughout the book. However, her father arranges for her to marry a much older man for her “bride price” in order to pay for the family’s housing, and Adunni becomes the youngest of three wives to an abusive man. Eventually she runs off to Lagos where she becomes trapped in servitude to a rich business woman and her predatory husband. Fortunately there is a library in the home, and Adunni finds a dictionary and a book of Nigerian facts, through which she learns, among other things, that child marriage is illegal in Nigeria (the book is set in 2014). The combination of poverty and sexism make things very bleak for girls like Adunni, and even in the upper classes the sexism is stark in the book. But there is kindness around her as well – at every stage she finds people who are willing to help her, and those relationships sustain her hope and determination to get out and to help other girls in similar situations. Adunni is a lovely character – funny and smart and kind, and her struggle to find her voice and get the education she deserves is a memorable one.

The Girl with the Louding Voice is available as both an ebook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive.

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

May 13, 2021


I’m finding a theme in a lot of the books I’m reading lately of people in difficult circumstances choosing kindness and compassion. In this fantasy novel, it is Maia, half-Goblin, half-Elf, who is making this choice. Maia is the exiled and mostly forgotten youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands, who finds himself thrust into the role of Emperor when his father and his older brothers are killed in an airship crash. Maia is only 18, and has grown up isolated and unloved after the early death of his beloved Goblin mother. Raised by an angry and abusive cousin, he knows nothing of the politics or etiquette of the Court, and is ill at ease among others in general, and particularly among the aristocratic Elf Court. His anxiety and sense of isolation only increase when he learns that the airship accident that killed his father and brothers was sabotage.

What I liked so much about his book, as strange as it may sound, was the lack of action. Maia is a very lonely and anxious character, and in the midst of trying to understand the political intrigue and ways of the Court, he is just trying to figure out who he can trust, who he is, and who, if anyone, he can count as a friend. There is no real love story, no epic battles in this book. Just a thoughtful, cerebral story of a young man trying to figure out how to be a good person, how to be a good leader, and how to find a friend. It is a surprisingly gentle and heartfelt book, and it was nice to see goblins get some love for a change. I listened to this audiobook on Hoopla and very much enjoyed it.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

May 6, 2021


In some ways reading this book reminded me of watching one of those 1950s Douglas Sirk films – lush, colorful, melodramatic, but with an underlying social commentary. The book takes place in Jaipur India in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The book centers on Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties who makes a living as a henna artist and an herbalist and healer for wealthy women. Lakshmi has worked very hard to establish her business and her position, after having escaped an abusive marriage as a teenager and come to the city to build a life for herself. Her dream is to build a house of her own, and she is nearly there when her life is disrupted by the arrival of Rahda, Lakshmi’s 13 year old sister, after the death of their parents. Lakshmi was not aware she had a sister, given that when she ran away from her marriage as a teenager, her parents were ostracized by their community and have refused contact with her. Lakshmi had not wanted to have children, and struggles with being responsible for Rahda, who has grown up in difficult circumstances and was considered to be bad luck back home. Rahda is obsessed with British literature and Hollywood movies, and bristles under Lakshmi’s attempts to make her understand and follow the rules and restrictive role demanded by Lakshmi’s work catering to the elite of Jaipur. Rahda’s choices, and in many ways her very existence, ultimately jeopardize Lakshmi’s precarious role in this world.

I appreciated the ways in which the stark realities of poverty, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and the narrow and restrictive roles of caste and gender, refuse to stay out of sight in this book, no matter how hard the wealthy characters, and to some extent Lakshmi herself, try to ignore them. While Lakshmi’s independence and success are admirable, It is painful at times to watch her struggle to keep her role in this wealthy society in light of the cruelty it often shows to those like her and her sister. But I also appreciated that there is compassion shown to almost all of the characters in the book, with empathy particularly for the difficulties and challenges of even the most privileged women, whose lives on the surface seem easy. This is a highly readable book, and there is a sequel that is coming out in June which I very much look forward to reading.

I listened to the audio version of this book on Hoopla. The book is also available at the Library, and as both an eBook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is on order at the Library.