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Egypt Readings

One way to learn about a culture is to peruse the literature.

Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali. Political instability of the 1950s still resonates in Egypt today. The book is set against this backdrop as well as literary London. It’s been coined the Egyptian Catcher in the Rye.

Love in Exile / Sunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher. Cairo’s greatest literary secret, Taher is influential in the Arab world. He believes women in Egypt are still not free. The books reflect his frustration at Egypt’s stagnation under Hosni Mubarak, president since Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and now poised to hand power to his son Gamal.

Proud Beggars / The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery. Both I found last year in Paris, since the late Egyptian writer lived on Left bank and published books in French. He challenges the social norms by advocating idleness, the deprivation of luxury and simplicity in life.

Zayni Barakat by Gamal al-Ghitani. The book is set in Cairo during the waning years of the Mubarak era. The style is reminiscent of Mahfouz Naguib.

The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning. The novel is set in Cairo during World War II and gives detailed descriptions of life in the capital.

[805] The Sellout – Paul Beatty

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“I understand now that the only time that black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.” (Prologue, 18)

This book is incendiary and funny. In a time when race in America is at an absolute boil, Paul Beatty comes along with a book so bold and straight-forward, tackling all the racial taboo and faultlines. To the conservative mind it is repugnant, but to the liberal it’s brilliant.

In the nutshell The Sellout is about a young black man born in the “agrarian ghetto” of fictional Dickens, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of LA, who becomes a farmer and weed dealer. He ends up before the Supreme Court because he is reinstating slavery, at least in his own house, and segregating the local middle school, erecting around town signs that scream “COLORED ONLY.” Son of a psychologist, “Bonbon” has a weird childhood in which he was subjected to many social experiments studying blacks’ behavior.

When I was young I had a reputation for being extremely lucky. I never suffered from the typical ghetto maladies . . . Hoodlums would jump on my friends but leave me alone. The cops somehow never got around to putting my name on a scare card or my neck in a choke hold. (Ch.9, 124)

When Dickens is removed from the map of California, Bonbon aka “Me” goes on a campaign to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkin, an erstwhile chattel who is the last surviving Little Rascal, who used to perform racial skits. He volunteers to be the narrator’s slave. In addition to segregate the local middle school, he creates facade of a fake charter school populated by smiling white kids that he paints across the street from the real public school, inspiring a race to racially segregated achievement.

What really makes this book shine is Beatty’s constant barrage of asides that takes precedence over the whole plot. His wicked wit, bold racial discourse give the book it’s momentum. The rich asides, so full of racial slurs and innuendos, are very incendiary and provocative. They touch on the hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable. Within the humor, Beatty encourages the reader to re-examine the preconceptions of race and look at race relations in America in a new light. The book by no means suggests that black Americans were better off in the eras of segregation and slavery; instead, Beatty argues that the idea that racial issues are a thing of the past is a misguided and very detrimental concept. He calls for accountability and open discussion, dealing with inequality, prejudice, and discrimination in a honest way.

304 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Historical Fiction for Summer

imageWhat really disconcerts commentators, I suspect, is that when they read historical fiction, they feel their own lack of education may be exposed; they panic, because they don’t know which bits are true. –Hilary Mantel

Read for the story, read for the history. Historical fiction with average rating of 4 or higher on Goodreads.

Reading “The Sellout”

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The opening paragraph, satirical, provocative and funny, decides the purchase of this book. The book looks like a madhouse of insight into race in America.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly…

These are some of the most snarky and electric opening lines. I’m sold immediately.

[804] The Visitors – Sally Beauman

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“The most powerful spells known to his priests were recorded on the tomb walls—and there was a reason for that. These tombs are not about death, Lucy: never make that mistake—they’re about conquering death. Everything in them is designed to ensure safe passage through the underworld and an afterlife that would never end.” (Ch.14, 123)

Set predominantly in 1922 but spans almost a decade, The Visitors is about the story of 20th century’s greatest archaeological find in Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The story is told by the fictional Lucy Payne, daughter of a Cambridge don, who has been sent to Egypt with her American governess to recover from typhoid, which killed her mother.

In the Valley, Lucy meets the real life Frances Winlock, daughter of Herbert Winlock, American archaeologist and field curator of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s excavation site near Luxor. Beauman creates a firm friendship between Lucy and Frances—together they shadow the band of real life archaeologists (Beauman thoughtfully provides a list of names in chronological order and divided by geography) in sharing the mounting excitement and anticipation for the new tomb’s discovery.

The Egypt part makes up a bulk of the novel. It is the complex web of relationships and acquaintances in Egypt that will partially contribute to Lucy’s subsequent life. One of the key issues is the proposition that Howard Carter (discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s tomb) and Lord Carnarvon entered the newly discovered tomb secretly before the official opening with the relevant government officials and removed certain artifacts. This allegedly illegal act tarnishes the reputation of both men, who had achieved celebrity status at the time of the discovery. Lucy reveals the extremes to which people are driven by desire and greed. She witnesses deception and questions by what rights does Carnarvon deny the Egyptians the right to enter the tomb.

Following Lucy’s departure from Egypt, the story moves on to events to her career in writing, her reacquaintance with his father, who married her ex-homeschooling teacher Nicola, her rackety marriage to a closet homosexual, her encounter with a TV producer who asks about her experience in Egypt some 60 years ago.

Beauman has written a book with superb detail, blending real life events, fictional and factual characters really well. Although at times the events that unravel after Lucy’s departure from Egypt can be tedious and not as palpable, Beauman has a wealth of material in which to explore personal relations. Lucy makes frequent references to that past that has entrapped her but also has sustained her to an old age as she has outlived almost everyone.

Beauman’s sophisticated writing style is endearing. The style is comparable to university discourse but the prose flows seamlessly. She makes sharp observations about the behaviors and morals of the British upper class and the American wealthy elites. She really nails that sense of entitlement at the time when imperialism and colonial were at their peak. This is evident as Egyptians are scarcely present in the story, though the new and pressing Egyptian nationalism features in the background.

529 pp. Harper Collins. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[803] Memories of Beijing Southside 城南舊事 – Lin Haiyin 林海音

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This volume of five sequential stories is autobiographical of Lin’s childhood from age 6 to 13. The novella captures life in Beijing through the eyes of Yingzi, who lives with her family in a shiheyuan (a Chinese quadrangle in which four houses command a central courtyard) in the southern part of Beijing in 1930s. They are middle class people living among the poor. It’s 1930s but etiquette and social practices still resonate the imperial times. The stories testify the growth of this rambunctious girl into a keen observer of the social family turmoils she is not aware of at an earlier age.

Her life revolves around her family house and the rabbit warren of alleys (hutongs) that strew the neighborhood. She braves the neighborhood with a curious mind, exposing herself to the sights and sounds. The people really flesh out through the 7-year-old’s keen observation and interactions. There’s the young mad woman who yearns for her daughter, whom her family gave away because the bastard child is a disgrace to the family. Her best friend is an adopted girl whose abusive parents primes her to be a sing-song girl. Yingzi then befriends a thief who is hiding his loot behind her house. Then she plays the match-maker for a young concubine from next door who takes refuge in her parents’ house. Her nanny’s son dies in the distant village. her father, who has always been strict and loving, and most of all, interminable, becomes sick and dies as she graduates from elementary school. But her father’s death really marks her graduation from a childhood full of joy and innocent escapades. She matures to become cognizant of the turmoil and demands of life, and shoulder responsibility.

The world Lin portrays (through the eyes of Yingzi) is at the crossroad of old and modernity. She is especially keen on the role of women—how they thrive silently in a male-dominant, feudal society. Few women went to school. They all end up working away from home or being a concubine. There’s the nostalgia of the grown up who once upon a time was a child. The sense of loss and bewilderment that arouses the child’s awareness of the uncertainties of human relationships, even of life itself, and which jumpstarts her adolescence, is handled with great sensitivity and lyricism.

238 pp. Chinese University Press Hong Kong. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Milan Kundera

I finished Kundera’s latest novel, The Festival of Insignificance. The short book might very well be the culmination of his career although it’s not his best. He uses the conversations of five friends to explore ideas of life: jokes, despair, laughter, sex and death. Death is never far off stage–as consistent in his previous works. Absent the political context of the earlier work, the one pales in, pun intended, significance.

My favorite, by far, of all Kundera’s works is Immortality. Death pervades the book, not it is not sad. Several of its leading characters are real people, but were already dead, Goethe and Hemingway. Many are killed. But the brilliant part is that death and immortality form an inseparable pair in Immortality. Despite the preoccupation with death, Kundera beautifully renders his characters that they are possessed of that lightness of being.

That all said, I still enjoy reading Kundera and hope he will continue to write. A Nobel Prize is overdue.

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