Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Saadi Youssef is a powerful writer. I have just read a book of his poems, Nostalgia, My Enemy (translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon and Peter Money). Born in Iraq, Youssef now lives in London. His words convey the longing and pain of a man exiled form his homeland, hungry for peace, brokenhearted over the conditions of his people. His words are the words of a man who is able to tenderly articulate an ache, words that will make you wonder what is in the mind of the next quiet man you see across from you on the subway. He also writes of the beauty in the light, the bird’s wing, the movement of water. May peace be upon us all.

I was happy to receive a copy of this book, published by Graywolf Press, through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway; what I read was an uncorrected proof. (Since I am beginning to learn Arabic, I admit to a slight disappointment when I realized that the volume did not include the Arabic text. I look forward, one day after much study, to reading his words in Arabic.)


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The best way to understand a country, its culture, and its people is to spend time in that country. With no opportunity to travel to Yemen in the near future, and aware of the difficulties of travel there, I was grateful for the chance to take an armchair journey. American journalist Jennifer Steil has performed a great service for readers interested in life in Yemen, as well as the political situation in that country, by writing a fascinating and powerful memoir of her year working at the Yemen Observer.

Steil initially went to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to train newspaper staff in journalism skills, and was invited back to serve as editor. She experiences power struggles with her boss, and struggles to train her staff into polished professionals. More interesting, however, are the culturally-specific challenges of journalism in Yemen. For example, both men and women worked on the newspaper, but the women generally had to be home before dark, and had their family’s permission to work. However, Steil’s narrative is respectful and careful, tending to highlight the strengths of her female staff.

Based on Steil’s experience, journalists in Yemen face considerable challenges with censorship and government control of media. During the presidential election, it was challenging to convince some staff of the necessity to publicize opposition candidates, for example. Also, the newspaper was prosecuted for reprinting cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad pbuh, even though the cartoons were accompanied by an article condemning such depictions.

Describing her day-to-day life in Sana’a, Steil paints a picture of what life is like for ordinary Yemenis. When staff members invite Steil to their homes and to wedding celebrations, she has an opportunity to experience Yemeni culture and customs in an intimate manner that a tourist would not experience. She was granted many exemptions from cultural norms, due to her status as a foreigner; for example, she ate lunch in a restaurant with a male companion, and saw no other woman doing so. At times Steil wore an abaya (a dresslike robe worn over clothes) to observe modesty, and a scarf over her hair, as an attempt to blend in more readily.

Understandably, Steil faced many personal challenges while living in Yemen. Her work schedule was exhausting, and she experienced illness and loneliness. While adjusting to life in a dramatically different culture, friendships and social outings with other expatriates provided a chance for release. Her descriptions of parties and similar indulgences were perhaps the least interesting aspect of her story.

At this writing, people throughout the Middle East are voicing their hunger for change. Those of us living outside the region would do well to educate ourselves about its unique cultures and political predicaments. Steil’s book serves as a helpful tool in this regard—a highly readable first step in learning about Yemen. The country faces immense challenges, including diminishing natural resources, but Steil was able to lift up its beauties as well.

My hope is that this book reaches a wide audience, helping readers to develop a more holistic image of Yemen, and enticing readers to dig deeper into Yemen’s history. Reading this book has increased my desire to travel there one day (perhaps once freedom increases ever-so-slightly?), and heightened my wish that change will come through peaceful means, making daily life in Yemen, as well as the prospect of tourism, much easier.

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When jae steele’s Ripe From Around Here arrived, it joined a pile of vegan library books on my kitchen table. I needed inspiration and fresh ideas, and hoped one of the books would help. steele’s book was the star. These are the recipes that will become everyday favorites, and the ones that omnivores will devour, blissfully unaware that no animal products are present.

Read my full review, posted on 3rd November 2010 at Elevate Difference.

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excellent journal published in Belfast. read my full review at Elevate Difference.

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At Belletrista, an excellent online literary magazine focused on women writers, there is an interesting discussion of Touch, written by Palestinian author Adania Shibli (translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar).

I encourage you to take a look at this author. My review of Touch is posted at Elevate Difference, and you are welcome to post comments there.

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I jumped at the chance to review Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale, an unconventional graphic memoir from writer/artist Belle Yang. While I am no expert on graphic literature, I did devour Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis series. With this medium, I enjoy (and envy) the way an artist can show emotions through inked illustrations, and use words more sparingly. Further, there is an intimacy created on the page, because the typeface and conversational style evoke a personal journal lying on a nightstand.

Read the complete review, published on August 23, 2010, and post your comments at Elevate Difference.

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Toni Morrison’s Beloved will stay with me for a long while. I had put off reading it for years, picking it up in the library only to replace it on the shelf, because I have a big problem with ghosts. However, it is not only the ghost in the story that will haunt me, but the frightening and painful details of what slavery wrought upon the African Americans in this novel. From the epigraph, “sixty million and more,” the tears began.

Yet the story has redeeming moments of beauty and tenderness, as in the pleasures of nature, the colors of a quilt, the light touch of an old friend, or the quiet help of a neighbor.

The story centers around Sethe, a woman who escapes from slavery to join her children (escaped) and mother-in-law Baby Suggs (freed from through paid labor under an unusual enslaver). Baby Suggs was a leader in her Ohio community, known to be a healer and a powerful preacher.

From the beginning of the novel there is a sense of pending doom, despite the hopefulness of escaping to freedom, because we know one of Sethe’s children died and is haunting the home she shares with Baby Suggs and a daughter, Denver. Slowly, Morrison unwinds the story of Denver’s birth, of Sethe’s life enslaved on Sweet Home, of her escape, and of the disaster.

Only a month after Sethe’s arrival, disaster strikes, leading to the death of the child who haunts their home. After escaping from slavery, and longing for her family to be together, Sethe is shaken by this disaster and its impact on her family. Morrison creates for the reader a world where the freedom to love is a frightfully precious thing, something that those of us born into freedom should never take for granted.

Aside from the fact that a main character in this book is a ghost that takes a bodily form, the details of the novel are all-too realistic. Morrison’s descriptions of the everyday sufferings under slavery, and in the period following the Civil War’s end, are heartbreaking. Supporting characters, including Paul D from Sweet Home, provide a window through which the reader sees the disastrous results of treating people as less than human.

Morrison’s luminous writing gifts the reader a view into the loving and wounded hearts of these characters. To be honest, many parts of this novel turned my stomach, and I cried more than a little. But that is only right, considering the subject matter.

Beloved was published in 1987 and received the Pulitzer Prize. I read this book as part of the African Diaspora Reading Challenge hosted by BrownGirl Speaks. Her blog is full of wonderful reading suggestions, and I invite you to join the challenge.

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