6. Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi

•August 24, 2013 • 1 Comment

Fatima Mernissi is one of the most widely known and well respected women writing about Morocco today. She was a pioneer in the field of women’s sociological writing in the Middle East and she broke many stereotypes of Moroccan women. I read Dreams of Trespass in an effort to read some of the classic works in the field, to see where today’s scholarship and writing comes from.

Mernissi grew up in Fez in the 1940s and 50s, a completely different time. Women’s rights movements in Morocco were just beginning, and Morocco was still under French occupation. Women, especially upper class women, were expected to remain in the home – it was unseemly and below their status to leave the house. For these women, they lived in what Mernissi calls a harem, but what most would now call a large riad. These riads usually housed many branches of the same family – cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and each part of the family occupied a different area of the home, depending on status within the family and other internal politics.

Mernissi has previously written broader books about women in Islam, in Morocco, throughout history in the Middle East, but Dreams of Trespass focuses on her early childhood in Fes. Not arranged in any particular order, each chapter is a short story about a different adventure, or a random memory from her early life – most stories seem to take place before she turns 10 or 11. As it is often her research focus, Mernissi writes a lot about gender dynamics and the woman’s place in ‘harem life’, this time through the lens of a young girl. There were several interesting insights into Mernissi’s early childhood, and the sections in which she described an early fascination with witchcraft and light magic were enjoyable. However, she has an agenda: to differentiate between men’s and women’s experiences and I think the narrative suffers for it.

Interesting stories about life on the farm and the differences in a woman’s status and freedom on a rural farm versus the restrictions placed on urban women are marred by unnecessary introspective questions. The incessant side remarks often feel like unwanted voiceovers in a movie that doesn’t need it – hammering home obvious points.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. Mernissi has written some truly great works, and grew up during an interesting period in Moroccan history. However, I think her professor instincts were too strong when writing this book, and what could have been an enjoyable set of coming of age stories turns into more of a lecture. For someone who isn’t familiar with Morocco or with women’s experiences here, it could be an interesting book – but I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t have a good background in the area, lest they come away with the impression that Mernissi’s experiences are universal throughout Morocco, the region, or even among upper class Fessis during the 1940s.

 

Pages: 242/1837

5. Baghdad Without A Map by Tony Horowitz

•August 24, 2013 • 1 Comment

Such a good, interesting book. Baghdad Without A Map is the best kind of summer book reading, and the absolute best travel book, particularly about the Middle East and North Africa. So many books about the Middle East rely on terrible stereotypes, generalizations, and are written by mostly uninformed dilletantes. I’ve read a lot of these types of books, and have been to a few countries in the MENA – enough to know these books are grossly exaggerating the charms of living in the Middle East, but don’t explain the real reason the region draws you in – the weird, strange, amazing people, the hospitality, the great adventures you can have, so different from life in America.

Each chapter is about a different country, with a few doubled sections, and they tell different short stories about the author’s experiences throughout the region. Horowitz is aware of his ignorance and writes in a way that allows the reader to discover the region as he learns more about it. The chapter about chewing qat in Yemen is one of my favorites, and the one where he drives into backwoods Yemen to investigate buying huge tanks and machine guns is also pretty terrifying, hilarious, and interesting. Horowitz’s description of Cairo is amazingly accurate, and seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever read something that conveys the energy, dirt, sheer number of people and really, how lively the city is, even at 2AM.

Horowitz reported on conflicts in Lebanon, Libya, the Gulf, Iran and Iraq, and his stories about these countries are also interspersed throughout the book – it’s nicely balanced between absurd stories about paying an Egyptian man to take you on a sinking boat ride or chewing so much Qat you can’t feel your face, to heavier stories about going into Beirut by boat as shells fall in the water around you, or seeing bodies piled everywhere during the Gulf war.

This is such a terrible review of such a great book. I’m not sure what to say, except that anyone who has ever been to the Middle East or wants to go there, or knows someone who has been there and wants to know why they keep going back (or need a break) should read this. Everyone should read this book. Instead of handing your parents another dull memoir of ‘traveling in the Middle East’ which orientalizes and exoticizes the region, give them Baghdad Without a Map. It’s entertaining, thought provoking, informed, self-aware, and by far one of the best (and most entertaining) books I’ve read on the region.

 

Pages: 285/1595

4. Hold Everything Dear by John Berger

•July 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

This collection of essays from John Berger subtitled, ‘Dispatches on Survival and Resistance’, mostly focuses on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the war on terror, and other recent acts of violence and destruction, like Hurricane Katrina. Berger is often described as a cultural theorist, and I previously read his book Ways of Seeing in a college course – we used Berger’s description of women as objects and the ‘internalization of the patriarchal male gaze’ as a framework for reading Flaubert and looking at 19th century French painting. On the whole, Berger’s writing is a lot like that – you have to be in the right frame of mind to take him seriously, and he packs a lot of thought into each sentence. You might not agree with a single word he says, or believe that he takes his analysis waaaaaay too far, but Berger’s writing raises important questions – about patriarchy, dominance, resistance and humanity.

I read this on the beach, which I wouldn’t quite recommend. Berger is not light summer reading, but it is good for reading in short spurts. Each chapter is a different short essay, written at a different time and place, and the topic usually changes from chapter to chapter.

I particularly liked Wanting Now, the opening chapter, which talks about revolution and the desire for change and resistance to tyranny. I thought it was a great way to open the book, and this chapter definitely gives a preview of what came after.

“Civil society is learning and beginning to practice the guerrilla tactics of political resistance…struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. The promise of a movement is its future victory; whereas the promises of the incidental moments are instantaneous.”

I couldn’t help but read this in light of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa which have taken a new turn in Egypt in the past few days. I don’t live in Egypt, but here, we talk a lot about the movement (here, in Egypt, and elsewhere), and what brought people together, the impact of their protests, and how they can continue to rally for change. The difficulties of creating lasting social change are multitudinous, and not frequently addressed in the media – people calling what’s currently going on in Egypt a ‘coup’ are mistaken (and also somewhat right – the Egyptian constitution did not have a process to remove the president without parliament) – the process of political resistance and change is long, and making a transition from an autocracy to a democracy isn’t easy, nor is it quick. (It frequently involves lots of missteps). But what I loved about this opening chapter, just 2 pages long, was how much was packed in there – he spoke about desire and freedom, and these short words really opened up the book for his treatment of America’s positioning as a global super power, abuses of power in the war on terror, guerrilla warfare, and his very strong ideas about Israel and Palestine.

I think it’s important to note that if you don’t agree with his viewpoint – that Palestine is oppressed, violently and bitterly, by Israel, you’ll have a hard time reading a large portion of this book. Many of Berger’s eloquent thoughts about desire, wanting, and human triumph are couched in discourse about Palestine, and I think a lot of people would have a hard time separating that from personal opinion on the matter. However, his chapters on desire, particularly Another Side of Desire, which talks about desire as a radical plot, a conspiracy of two to shield one another from the pain of the world, are extremely thought provoking, and although potentially cheesy, still interesting.

I wasn’t a big fan of most of the essays: only five of the sixteen chapters really spoke to me, but I still very much enjoyed the book as a whole. I borrowed this from a friend, and in speaking about it beforehand, he warned me that both he and another friend had both only enjoyed five or six of the essays, saying that most of the others were not worth giving too much attention. I would agree, but even in the essays that didn’t particularly grab my attention, Berger still made interesting points about hegemony, terrorism, love, desire, the media, and social connectivity.

Pages: 140/1310

3. Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

•June 16, 2013 • Leave a Comment

With Anthony Bourdain’s writing, I always hear his voice in my head reading aloud with me. As a writer and a public figure, he has such a clear identifying voice which comes through, even when reading his words on a page. Bourdain writes like he talks – forcefully, descriptively and without pretension. If you have enjoyed his TV shows, appearances on Top Chef or his previous written work, you’ll feel the same way about Medium Raw. I loved it. But if you don’t like what you’ve seen before – as many cannonballers have previously said with comedians’ books – this one isn’t for you.

That being said, I find Bourdain’s no-bullshit approach refreshing. It’s sometime a little brutal, but he’s clearly not afraid to go out on a limb for anyone he supports. He’s like the friend that you absolutely want on your side when shit hits the fan, but if he’s not on your side, you should probably duck for cover.

I’ve previously read several books by Bourdain, and Medium Raw’s approach doesn’t stray too far from his other books. Several chapters, which each read like a separate vignette, are dedicated to apologizing for past missteps, correcting misinformation, and knocking himself down a few pegs in the public eye.

As good as Bourdain is when he writes in self-deprecation mode, and he has a lot of stories that put him in an unflattering light, his writing is strongest when Bourdain writes about someone he admires. Two chapters in particular stood out to me – one about David Chang, Bourdain’s workaholic friend and the creator of Momofuku in New York, and the chapter about Justo Thomas, the resident fish guy at Le Bernardin in New York. Bourdain admires determination, dedication, hard work, and excellent results and reading these elegies to great chefs makes me want to make better food, be a better person – Bourdain makes these people on the page truly come alive, and his enthusiasm and admiration for such people literally pour out of the page.

In another few chapters, Bourdain also takes time for introspection, and examines his evolution from a drug addicted, self-proclaimed mediocre chef to a TV star with appearances on Top Chef, hanging out with chefs and industry people he respects and admires, and being well paid to travel the globe. Even when he comes off as mischievous, Bourdain makes it clear that he does not take his new lifestyle for granted and that he sees both great responsibility and the privileges that come along with this type of fame. Bourdain takes his food seriously, and expects his readers to do so – but he makes sure there’s always a hefty dose of humor and humility along with the serious bits.

 

Pages: 320/1170

2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

•June 16, 2013 • Leave a Comment

At this point, I read this book about 2 months ago. I’ve been putting off the review – for no particular reason at all but general busywork. I absolutely loved it The Art of Fielding. I thought it was a fantastic novel. Even if you have no interest in baseball whatsoever, it’s still a great novel. I was just skimming through HelloKatieO’s review from last year, and I think she summed it up well – it’s similar to The Marriage Plot (which I read last year) and Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (although I think that might be better) and she also compared it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit to the Goon Squad.  They fall in this realm of (very) good literature that offers a critique of American culture, has beautiful prose, flawed/tragic characters and for me at least, I absorb the books in sort of a dream-like state.

If you have enjoyed any one of these novels, you’ll definitely really enjoy reading The Art of Fielding, which brings together a bunch of undergraduates at Westish College, all rallying around the baseball team and it’s underdog cum star player cum potential washout, Henry Skrimshander.

Throughout the book, Harbach uses baseball as a metaphor, but also as the ‘show’ part of ‘show and tell’ for Henry, his friends, his life, and the mental state of characters. The way Harbach describes baseball perfectly captures the grace and agility that makes it such an interesting (or if it’s not your thing, boring) sport to watch. The ways in which characters quietly strive for perfection, on and off the baseball field, are all united in their team’s struggle to become viable champions. Henry is originally recruited by Mike, a senior player on the team, and struggles to bulk up, to prove his worth to the team, but eventually becomes the leader, the bellwether of the team’s strength and capabilities. I’m not quite sure how to talk more about the book without summarizing the plot – but that’s not to say that it’s not worth enjoying, or that there aren’t deeper themes running through.

 

Pages: 512/850

1. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

•January 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Even though I’m off to a slow-ish start for this year’s CBR, I absolutely loved my first read. I received The Tiger’s Wife over a year ago as a Christmas present, and brought it with me when I moved, so I might be more motivated to read it. Not even all the way through the first chapter, I was already in love with the book. The story follows Natalia, a young doctor in the present day Balkans, as she goes to a tiny village to administer vaccines. Although I don’t know much about the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the novel is saturated with the imagery of war and its aftereffects.

Through Natalia’s life, Obreht weaves in the story of her grandfather’s life and their relationship, everything connecting, building to make one of the richest and most complex stories I feel I’ve read in a long time. From the beginning, I felt immersed in Natalia’s world, different as it was from my own. Natalia’s life feels surreal and otherworldly – rightfully so. With war interspersed, Natalia grew up going to the zoo every week with her grandfather to admire the tigers. As a young girl, she doesn’t realize the complexity of this weekly visit and the purpose it serves for her grandfather. As a teenager, she outgrows the ritual and grows apart from her grandfather. However when war comes, the family draws closer together, and Natalia learns more about the mystery of her Grandfather’s affinity for the tigers, and about his childhood in a small village.

The mystery and surreal aspects of her grandfather’s life begin to permeate Natalia’s life in the present, as she searches for more answers regarding the mysterious events surrounding his death. The book switches so deftly between past and present, and the story is so tightly knit that I felt so intertwined with the whole atmosphere. This is the first book by the author, but I will happily read anything else she puts out. I can’t really recommend this book enough, and I’m struggling for the right words to describe how much I loved this story. Nonetheless, pick it up – it’s worth the hardback price.

Pages: 338/338

26. Spook by Mary Roach

•January 2, 2013 • 1 Comment

As my last book of the year, I read Spook. Verdict: eh. There were some really interesting parts, and I can see why a lot of people really enjoy reading Roach’s books. She writes about history and current events in a scientific but approachable manner, and it’s definitely easily digestible. Some of my favorite parts are her footnotes though, when she goes into really esoteric parts of the history, but most of the book was too focused on achieving the goals of each chapter for me to really enjoy it.

In Spook, Roach looks into the phenomenon of ghosts, spirits, possession, séances, and the like. On the whole, it’s a fascinating topic, but I think it would have been slightly better as a series of shorter, but more in depth articles for the New Yorker or a similar online publication. In Spook, each chapter focuses a little too much on proving a point or following a story further than I cared to read about it, and it didn’t feel quite natural to me.

However, some of the chapters were definitely better than others. I loved the story about the North Carolina farmer who went to court to prove that supernatural spirits existed so that he could prove that a second will and testament (the provenance of which came to him in a supernatural dream) was accurate and written by the hand of the deceased. I also really enjoyed the section about women who conducted séances and the tricks they employed to fool people. I’d heard about the phenomenon before, but never fully realized how many people were drawn in by these types of charlatans at the time. All the pictures of ‘ectoplasm’ were just gauze that women would hide in their cavities. Yep, alllllllll of their cavities. And some would undergo full bodily examinations before séances to prove they weren’t hiding anything (even though they always were). Overall, a pretty enjoyable read, but nothing too special. I think it’s a book I’ll quickly forget, but I’m not upset at myself for reading it (like the Chelsea Handler books I regret reading, or Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which I have soured on even more since writing my review – it just gets worse with time).  I’d recommend picking it up if you see it at the library, or borrowing it from a friend as I did, but it’s not really a book I’d buy.

 

Pages: 311/7227