Monday, November 30, 2015

MINARET by Leila Aboulela (fic)

I enjoyed reading this beautifully constructed and lyrical novel by Leila Aboulela.  It isn't often that I have read a fiction work that helps one understand the cultural difficulties encountered by a young Sudanese girl. Najwa is forced to move to London when her father's corruption is exposed in Khartoum where he was a government official.  The story doesn't dwell on the differences between Najwa and  the English, as much as it does between Najwa and other Sudanese ex pats she encounters in London.

In 1984 Najwa and her family lived in a large home with many servants; they had an opulent life in Khartoum.  They also maintained an expensive apartment in London.  Najwa didn't think much about her countrymen who lived in poverty.  Her family were not religious, lived a western life-style, and traveled to Europe frequently.  She took much for granted including her University education.  She largely ignored the fundamentalist factions at school as she dressed in latest fashion and cultivated other wealthy friends.  Najwa's brother, Omar, ran around with a fast crowd and early on was addicted to drugs.

At school, Najwa falls in love with Anwar, a radical socialist and student leader.  She admired his cool demeanor and agreed with his criticism of religious traditions and clothing like the hijab.  She even ignored his attacks on her father until a coup forces the family to flee when her father was jailed and executed.

At first things remained much the same for Najwa and her family in London.  But, after her mother dies everything changes.  Family money begins to run out, and Omar is arrested for stabbing a policeman during a drug raid.  Before long there is another political upheaval in Sudan, and Anwar's faction is no longer in favor, and he washes up in London.  Najwa and Anwar resume their relationship, and they quickly go through much of the money that Najwa has left.  Alas, their love doesn't survive this downturn in fortune.  Najwa is on the cusp of despair when she meets a woman who convinces her to begin attending the Mosque in Regent's Park.  Najwa slowly rediscovers her Islamic religion, and as she finds support and friendship at the Mosque, she begins to find peace with her situation.

Years go by and we see that Najwa's life changes dramatically as she finds herself taking a job as a Nanny in a rich Muslum household.  She has a complicated relationship with this secular family, and she is drawn to the much younger son who is, like Najwa, a devout Muslum.

As the story evolves, the reader, like Najwa, is not sure what her future holds.  While she finds comfort in religion, Najwa begins to realize some of the binding and claustrophobic rules keep women down and curtails freedoms.  The weakest part of the novel is the number of questions it leaves the reader with regarding Najwa's future and her relationships.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book and the way it caused me to see life through the eyes of a young woman as she struggles to understand her family, her background and her culture.  It offers a good opportunity for a book group discussion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

FALL OF GIANTS by Ken Follett (fic)

Reading this long long novel, I felt like I was binge-watching Downton Abby.  It was part---"this is silly, I can't read another word, and part--gimme more...more."  Follett spins a good yarn. His stories are magnificent period-piece soap operas.  The plots are often contrived and the characters outsize.  But, we keep reading anyway.  I find his formula works for different periods of time, characters from different books slip into convenient plots in other stories, just as they do their period costumes.

This is the first of a trilogy (the second and third books, equally long, have already been published).  This book begins the saga of several families, whose paths converge over and over, just as World War I is about to begin.  The Dewar Family are American and Gus Dewar, the son, seems to miraculously rise in power until before the reader can digest it, he is advising Woodrow Wilson, who seems to always take his advice.  Then there is the Williams Family,  poor Welsh miners.  Once again, miraculously, the children are gifted beyond belief.  How is it that a 16 year old boy, on the first day of his job in the mines, is soon giving seasoned veterans advice when a crisis arises.  Similarly, his sister, Ethel who plays a major role in the novel and begins as a parlor maid, within days is soon running the household as the head housekeeper.  If we learned nothing else from Downton, we know there is a pecking order in grand country houses.  From parlor maid to housekeeper in a matter of days----never!

Other main characters are also soon giving orders: the son of the German Ulrich Family is equally sought out for his advice. The brothers Peshkov, Russians, are spearheading the revolution.  Well, you get the picture.  The English Fitzherbert family whose fortunes cross all these characters, seem not quite as gifted as the others, but they hold power and position.  All these families and characters meet, separate, and implausibly meet again. The book ends as World War I ends, and the Women's Movement is in full gear. There is a lot of history to digest withing these pages, and all the characters are movers and shakers who impact that history.  Come to think of it, amongst them all, they seem to be running the world with their timely advice to the powers that be.

Did I enjoy this book?  Of course--it was addictive like candy.  It is not great literature, but it is great escapism.  Will I read the other two volumes?  Possibly.

Monday, November 2, 2015

VIRGINIA WOOLF: A PORTRAIT by Vivianne Forrester (non-fic)

Originally published in French, this biography was translated by Jody Gladding.  It won the Prix Goncourt for biography in France before Vivianne Forrester died in 2013.  This is an intensely researched book and Forrester turns around some well entrenched perspectives of Virginia Woolf.  What Forrester does is to intensely scrutinize Virginia's relationships with her family, her husband, Leonard Woolf, and her nephew Quentin Bell.  Most of the accepted scholarship of Woolf up to this writing was largely based on memoirs written by Bell and accepted as gospel.  He portrayed Virginia as frigid and emotionally fragile.  A good example is the recently reviewed fiction book "Vanessa and Her Sister."

Forrester begins her study with Virginia's traumatic youth and her strange relationship with her overbearing father, Leslie Stephen.  What a dramatic fierce upbringing Virgina and her sister Vanessa had, along with her step-siblings, the Duckworths and their mother, Julia.  All of Virginia's work is influenced by her childhood experiences which were filled with secrets and lies.  According to Forrester the most tragic lie was the myth fostered by her family of "Poor Virginia," who can't help herself as she is touched with madness.  Even Quentin Bell's mother, Vanessa who was closest to Virginia comes in for her share of the blame.  This infantilization of Virginia has slipped in to all her previous biographies.  It was further nurtured by Leonard, her husband, who fussed and over-protected her.

Leonard Woolf is really hit hard by Forrester.  What she accuses him of doing is taking his own compulsive weaknesses and fostering them in Virginia and then bullying her into helplessness.  Problems that Leonard had with his own sexuality and anxieties became the very problems that he accused Virginia of possessing.  Virginia indeed had bouts of mania which the author believes could have been managed in a way that would lead to a more wholesome view of her illness.  Typical of the family's handling of Virginia is a quote from Vanessa to her sister at the height of fears of the German invasion during World War II.
"You must not go and get ill just now.  What shall we do when we're invaded if you are a helpless invalid?"  Such cruel misunderstanding of Virginia's condition, Forrester claims eventually pushed Virginia over the edge to her suicide.

I found this book difficult to read.  There was a great deal of material at times presented with complicated sentence structure.  I am not sure if this was the interpretation of the translator or the author's style.  At times it was almost a Woolfian stream of consciousness.  Since the author takes a different approach and viewpoint of Virginia Woolf's tragic life, it is best read as a comparative study.  It is certainly a book of great importance in the study of Woolf and her literature.