Sunday, July 05, 2015

Read-the-World: Algeria, Chile, Palestine

Continuing with my Reading-the-World challenge--a challenge I have set for myself based on Ann Morgan's A Year of Reading The World web site, here are three more books.

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane
The narrator of this strange and fairly erotic tale is a 40-something Algerian man living with his mother and brother in a suburb of Paris. He has a good job and aspires to an even better one in a Paris bank. Living at home he is under his mother's control and she is trying to marry him off to an acceptable Muslim girl but he has other ideas. He has straightened his hair, lightened his skin, and changed his name with the intention of embarking on wild sexual adventures. The book starts out quite funny. Everything Mohammed/Basile does--from selecting an apartment to buying furniture--is designed to impress his future lovers. He imagines dazzling a lover by fixing her coffee in his elegant coffeemaker the morning after. He obsesses over lamps, tables, his clothing all the while making excuses to his mother and trying desperately to persuade this woman or that to relieve him of his virginity with little luck.

In the early chapters of the story it reminded me a bit of A Confederacy of Dunces, Algerian style, set in Paris instead of New Orleans. But as the book progresses things are not making sense, something is off-kilter and it was at first hard to tell if it was deliberate or if something was missing in translation. In the final section, we realize that Mohammed/Basile is not what he imagines himself to be. Not at all.

I certainly appreciated the author's skill at building a character so filled with both desire and self-delusion. This is not a book for everyone but I found it a very worthwhile read.
One of the things I love most about Allende's writing is the rich mixture of characters and cultures she brings to her stories. In Maya's Notebook she introduces us to Maya Vidal, a teenager who was abandoned by her parents in the custody of her amazing grandparents, Nini and Popo, an African-American astronomer. When Popo dies, Maya descends into a life of self-destructive behavior--drugs, violence, and petty crime.  When her grandmother discovers how endangered Maya's life has become, she ships her off to Chiloé, an island off Chile’s southern coast, to live with Manuel Aria, an old friend of Nini's. She gives Maya a notebook and tells her to record her life and, thus, begins Maya's chronicle.

All the characters in this story are remarkable and equally remarkable is the very island of Chiloé which I found to be a character all its own with a hypnotic presence. This is definitely among Allende's best stories and one I'd love to read again.
This is a wonderful story of three generations of Christian Palestinian women but with some excellent male characters as well. The first two thirds of the book are filled with history, culture, and food described with familiarity and exquisite detail. The last part, when the story moves to America, wasn't as rich in culture, but by then I was so hooked on what was going to happen to the characters that I stayed fascinated. There are secrets in this family--many secrets--and I was fairly breathless hoping that some would be revealed and some would be kept forever.

One of the things I most loved is that a few of the male characters were just wonderful--something I cherish in books because it seems rare to me. Nadeem, the husband of Miriam, and Samir, the husband of Nadia, were such dashing, fascinating men in their youths, who grew into the kinds of husbands and fathers we all dream of. The history, especially of Samir's early life among the Bedouins, is unforgettable. I thoroughly enjoyed this look into a culture I knew little about and I recommend it highly. 

Thanks for reading, and more to come!

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