Saturday, September 12, 2009

Review - Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers does it again. After reading Egger's What Is The What, I finally felt that I was understanding something about the chaos of Sudan - now I feel that I'm finally getting a grasp of what happened with Katrina. Eggers has a way of getting under the skin of the people he's writing about, exposing their human strengths and foibles.

Eggers explores the lives of not a typical New Orleans couple, yet in their individuality, they become a kind of everyman. Zeitoun, born in Syria in a fishing village, spent ten years on the high seas before settling in New Orleans and marrying Kathy, a 21 year old Moslem convert from Baton Rouge. Together they raise 3 children of their own, as well as a son from Kathy's prior marriage. Zeitoun and Kathy run a mom and pop construction business , very much a part of the American dream........until Katrina.

Zeiton stays behind to care for the business, while Kathy and the children exit the city. Zeiton takes a canoe that he'd bought years ago out on the flooded waters of New Orleans and begins rescuiing people, he even feeds four abandoned dogs. He's a hero. But then he's arrested by FEMA agents and spends a month behind bars in a torturous setting that you wouldn't have believed was happening in the U.S. of A. Meanwhile Kathy has lost touch with him and believes that he's dead.

Not only do we get a bird's eye view of the bungled handling of government rescue efforts, but we also bear witness to a bungled judicial system that was enacted to deal with looting, but which was greviously mismanaged.

Eggers' gift is his ability to set the reader right down in the flood water and muck, so that he feels as though he's actually living this ordeal.

The love between Zeiton and Kathy comes through, as well as the love of Zeitoun's older brother who lives in Spain. The sense of caring among members of the Moslem community during this ordeal is also well brought forth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review - The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

Enjoyed it very much. Didn't really know much about the founding of Liberia. Elijah Johnson, 1787, and Randolph Cooper, 1796 were Helene's direct line ancestors. It's a coming of age story. Helene, a privileged member of the Liberian elite, enjoys private school, luxurious home on the beach, and the companionship of a foster sister, Eunice, who is brought to the family to keep her company. Helene has a carefree existence with Saturdays at the movies, crushes on boys from class, chauffered rides, and a summer home in Spain. Her greatest fear is of her parents getting divorced which does come to pass. Helene's world shatters at the age of 14 with the coup by Doe during which Tolbert is overthrown and her uncle is executed. Perhaps the most dramatic scene is the description of Mommee's heroic stand against those who come to the home to rape and pillage.

The second part of the memoir traces Helene's life in the USA in Knoxville, the Carolinas and later in Rhode Island. She becomes a journalist and travels the world. While embedded with American troops in Iraq, Helene is injured, and at this point realizes her need to return to the country of her birth which has been overrun by the brutality of Charles Taylor.

Her return to reunite with her foster sister, Eunice, is heartwarming. Portraits of both Mommee and Daddy are vivid. Overall, a well done memoir.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review - Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Once again, I experienced the gratitide of being in the hands of a master storyteller. Like a Brueghel painting of villagers seated at a long wooden table, Mahfouz paints a cast of characters who are neighbors in a 1940's Cairo alley.

Mainly it's the story of men and women, power struggles between husband and wife, of families, of intertwined relationships, of loyalties and of betrayals. Life centers around Kirsha's cafe where men gather to smoke the water pipes and to socialize. Drug addiction, homosexuality, greed, lust, prostitution, grave robbery, husband beating, matchmaking, even the making of cripples for beggary are explored. And yet there is a deference to God"s will, to destiny, to the goodness of the prophet which is endearing.

The scene which captivated me the most was the seduction of Hamida into the ranks of prostitution by a man of extreme persuation, seduction, and stealth. Mahfouz weaves an erotic net into which the reader is also ensnared.

Telling us what a character thinks but does not say gives added depth to his characterization - Unlike our modern writers, Mahfouz does a lot of telling - he tells us the character's strengths, weaknesses, and yearnings. But somehow, this fails to detract. The story moves along at a fast clip - the generational struggles come off with authenticity.

The good, the bad, the deceived, the cunning are all painted with strokes of compassion for our shared human struggle.


Kirsha -
Abbas -
Hamida -
Zaita -
Uncle Kamil -
Sheikh Darwish -
Radwan Hussainy -
Saniya Afify -
Umm Hamida -
Salim Alwan -
Hussain Kirsha -
Dr. Booshy -
Husniya - bakeress
Jaada -
Ibrahim Faraj -

Favorite Scenes -

Seduction of Hamida - taxi
Return of Hussain with bride and her brother
Hussain leaves his father's house - electricity
Sweet love between Abbas and Uncle Kamil
Wife battles with Kirsha in cafe and confronts his young man

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


My guru spoke, saying,
me and mine
you and yours

Told me long ago,
all brothers and sisters
even animals and bugs.

Spider spinning mandalas,
cicada rubbing knees,
worms overturning soil
all relatives.

Me and mine
you and yours

Not card up your sleeve illusion,
but illusion at its most elusive.