During the last two weeks (and after abandoned the dreadfully monotonous Desert), I have dug into my roster of books by finishing Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Coetzee’s Summertime, and Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I enjoyed them in the reverse order. Here are my brief thoughts:
Smith is endowed with great writing skills, though On Beauty felt fabricated, contrived, and reminded of why I prefer to read novelists who are actually from the country they are writing about. One of the main problems with On Beauty was translating British to American English. The American slang and American dialogues simply didn’t sound American. I kept thinking, an American would never use that word. Why didn’t she get an American to proof read? This may seem petty, but in the end it added to the book’s general feel of a lack of authenticity.
On the other hand, Summertime is an example of an experienced novelist in all of his splendor. The story completes Coetzee’s fictionalized autobiographical trilogy (the first two parts being Boyhood and Youth). In Summertime, a biographer is researching a period in the life (the 1970s) of the late novelist John Coetzee, and each chapter is the transcript from interviews with different acquaintances of Coetzee from that time. The self-deprecating portrait Coetzee paints of himself is nothing like the Gershwin tune (his father is not rich, his mother is not pretty); rather Coetzee appears the unlikeable, talentless loner, with the ultimate goal – I can only suppose – of giving some perception into the South Africa of the 1970s.
And then I finally got around to reading Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I frequently read Ms. Lalami’s blog, mainly to get her book recommendations, and have even had a few pleasant email exchanges with her. Nevertheless, and I don’t have any reason why, I didn’t expect much. The book is about four different Moroccans who all have in common that they are about to embark on the same small boat to emigrate to North. The books starts with them together on the boat, then moves to tell the story of each’s life prior to and then after the attempt to cross the narrow stretch of sea between Spain and Morocco. I was immediately hooked and finished in just two sittings. The story reads like a Naguib Mahfouz novel, with characters from all the different social strata – the rich and the poor, the religious and the secular, and always at least one prostitute. Then there were the obvious reasons that I had an connection to the story: portions take place in Madrid and Rabat (where my wife is from). I only have one small criticism. There are a few sentences in Spanish where Lalami, like Smith above, could have easily gotten someone to proof read for errors. But overall, it was a quick paced and very touching story. Ms. Lalami can write. Bravo!
Now I am just beginning the non-fiction The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird. According to its jacket, it is
A story virtually unknown in the West, about two of the Middle East’s most remarkable figures—Oman’s Sultan Said and his rebellious daughter Princess Salme—comes to life in this narrative. From their capital on the sultry African island of Zanzibar, Sultan Said and his descendants were shadowed and all but shattered by the rise and fall of the nineteenth-century East African slave trade.
“As shrewd, liberal, and enlightened a prince as Arabia has ever produced.” That’s how explorer Richard Burton described Seyyid Said Al bin Sultan Busaid, who came to power in Oman in 1804 when he was fifteen years old. During his half-century reign, Said ruled with uncanny contradiction: as a believer in a tolerant Islam who gained power through bloodshed and perfidy, and as an open-minded, intellectually curious man who established relations with the West while building a vast commercial empire on the backs of tens of thousands of slaves. His daughter Salme, born to a concubine in a Zanzibar harem, scandalized her family and people by eloping to Europe with a German businessman in 1866, converting to Christianity, and writing the first-known autobiography of an Arab woman.
Christiane Bird paints a stunning portrait of violent family feuds, international intrigues, and charismatic characters—from Sultan Said and Princess Salme to the wildly wealthy slave trader Tippu Tip and the indefatigable British antislavery crusader Dr. David Livingstone. The Sultan’s Shadow is a brilliantly researched and irresistibly readable foray into the stark brutality and decadent beauty of a vanished world.