Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “lefaquin”

lefaquin’s #CBR4Review #26: Spook by Mary Roach

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.

By far, the best part of the book was pictures like that – real ones of old victorian ladies pulling gauze out of various body parts. To check out the rest of the review, see my blog!



lefaquin’s #CBR4Review #25: Shopgirl by Steve Martin

I just sent in my list of favorite books I read this year during the cannonball read, and I’m already regretting not putting Shopgirl on the list. Although this was really a re-reading, since I first read Shopgirl around 2004, when I was much younger than Martin’s target audience, I loved it just as much the second time around. Some books, for whatever reason, just end up resonating with you. I think it has to do with place, time, and who you are at that particular moment more than the books themselves, but Shopgirl has always been one of those books for me. I’ve always seen melancholy as more of a sadness tinged with happiness, and I think that particular feeling captures this book very well. That Martin has even described this book as a novella seems fitting – at just 130 pages, it’s a quick read, but to me it feels like a longer, more luxurious book, something to savor.

The book centers around Mirabelle, a lonely and introverted girl who works at the glove counter at Neiman Marcus in LA. She meets Ray, an older man (even before the movie came out, I always imagined Steve Martin as Ray) and they begin to see each other. Martin does a fantastic job of painting Mirabelle’s single life, her inner thoughts and desires, but maintains a certain aloofness in her description. Mirabelle is isolated and lonely, as is Ray.

Check out the rest of my second to last review here!

lefaquin’s #CBR4Review #24: Manifesta: young women, feminism, and the future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

As contemporaries of Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards have written a book that is in many ways similar to one of the first books I reviewed for CBR this year, bitchfest. Both books target young feminists and hope to invigorate young women everywhere to be revolutionary in their everyday lives. While bitchfest was an extremely varied collection of pieces from the magazine, celebrating women and feminism, Manifesta has a more coherent message and felt more organized as a whole (a fact definitely related to the clear structure of Manifesta and to the cohesive vision of the two authors who penned all of the chapters therein). Bitchfest was better at pushing the envelope on feminism, and brought a lot of new ideas into play for me (and, I presume, for other readers). While Manifesta is jam packed with information and ideas, Baumgardner and Richards don’t set out to really push the boundaries of contemporary feminism as much as they try to include everyone in their quest for equality.

Manifesta has a much more didactic feel than bitchfest, but even as a relatively well read feminist, I had a lot to learn from this book. Baumgardner and Richards were both big activists and writers in the early 1990’s, and they offer great firsthand narratives of young activists around that time. Additionally, Manifesta has a great look at the history of feminism while encouraging young women to be inspired by their feminist foremothers. I really enjoyed their discussions of motherhood and raising young girls to be feminists. Those were partially couched in discussions of barbies, the mainstream media, and looking at how to introduce positive female role models and healthy ideas about sexuality into the lives of young teens.

It was also really interesting to hear their take on feminist writers like Naomi Wolfe and Elizabeth Wurtzel, two writers who I feel have been criticized very harshly by the media – there was a pretty hilarious review of Naomi Wolfe’s book in The New Yorker earlier this year (Wolfe goes to a lot of tantric sex workshops, and start calling her vagina her yoni). However, Manifesta was originally written around 1999, and this reprint has some updates, but much of the content remains unchanged. I also liked Baumgardner and Richards take on Katie Roiphe and her theories on college campus date rape, and the take back the night scene. For the most part, the authors pretty clearly explain feminist history, contemporary feminist thought, and reason their arguments. The appendices are also pretty amazing – there is a huge set of fantastic footnotes, a great timeline of feminist history (which focuses more on recent events, but is still pretty comprehensive), lists of great feminist organizations to volunteer with, work with, or to simply use their services. However, I love that at the very end, they put a huge call to young women to get active in their communities, and pretty clearly spell out the ways in which everyone can donate their time or money to worthwhile causes. Although it’s not as necessary for me anymore, I think this would be a great resource for teenagers and young college aged women who are looking for a call to action, or aren’t quite sure how to put their feminist values into action (or even why they should).

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #23: Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

The first book in a trilogy of stories about several generations of a Cairene family, Palace Walk is set at the end of both World War I and the British occupation of Egypt (and Sudan) between 1917 and 1919. This was a huge period of change for Egyptian society and this overall sense of turmoil is reflected in the life of each character. This first part of The Cairo Trilogy saga tells the story of the Jawad family which is dominated by its patriarch, Ahmad Abd al Jawad, who is an extremely harsh and controlling man. He has forbidden his wife Amina from leaving the family’s home for the past twenty five years and shows just as much control in his treatment of his two daughters and three sons. Ahmad fears that his children and wife will get into trouble if he does not control them so tightly, and although his fears are somewhat justified, his hypocrisy in this strict control and the manner in which he treats his family was one of the hardest things for me to read about.

Al Sayyid Ahmad (in Arabic, al Sayyid means Sir, and is a title/means of address that connotes respect) is a respected businessman in the community, and is well known for being fun-loving; a connoisseur of wine, women, and music. He stays out late every night with his friends, drinking, having affairs with many different women, and listening and playing to music. Amongst his friends, he is boisterous, tells raunchy jokes, and is always ready for a good party. However, Ahmad presents a completely different persona to his family. He is domineering, and commands equally large amounts of respect and fear from his family members. In front of him, his talkative children are often reduced to quivering messes, and his wife has been figuratively beaten into total submission. This control over his family is not presented in a positive light, but Mahfouz does attempt to soften the image of Ahmad in demonstrating the ways in which his family’s defiance of his rules only serves to destroy the reputation Ahmad has worked to build.

Unfortunately, this ‘softening’ of Ahmad’s character did not sit well with me. I was never able to warm to Ahmad, no matter how many stupid things his children did in defiance of his will. The ways in which Ahmad tries to control his family reflect some of the stereotypes and gender oppressing behaviors that I find most bothersome about Arab culture. While most of Ahmad’s behavior was out of the ordinary, even for the time, the isolation of his female family members (and the ridiculous double standards he holds his children to) as well as the two personas he presents (public and private) illustrate some of the depressing gender standards that still remain in Arab culture. Nonetheless, my dislike for Ahmad did not sour me on this phenomenal novel.

If you can get past any potential distaste you might develop for al Sayyid Ahmad, the other characters are extremely well written and interesting. Each family member undergoes some sort of large life marker – one son becomes extremely politically involved in the Egyptian attempts to overthrow the British occupation, another can’t seem to keep his hands off of their servants and must be quickly married off, the youngest son develops a strange friendship with some of the occupying British soldiers that his brother is rebelling against. Even Ahmad’s wife Amina stages her own rebellion, defying her husband’s rules and going outside of the house.

Naguib Mahfouz is truly a great writer – I absolutely see why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – and most of his writing is infused with social and political commentary on Egyptian society. Although his stories (particularly this one) can be enjoyed on a more superficial level, I think the significance of his work is greatly diminished without a deeper understanding of the context in which it was written. Reading a brief Wikipedia summary of the Egyptian struggle for independence would be illuminating. I do know that the family structure is meant to mirror the political situation of the time, an allegory for the changes happening in Egyptian society in the early 20th century, but even knowing a moderate amount about Egyptian history, I’m quite sure that many intricacies of the novel went over my head.

Palace Walk is truly a fantastic book. In all honesty, I bought this book in 2008 and have been trying to read it ever since. I consider it a fantastic accomplishment that I finally finished reading it, but I completely understand why it took me so long. The way in which it is written is absolutely in line with the way a saga is constructed. Mahfouz sets the scene for so many momentous events to happen, most of which will not take place in this first book. He spends a good portion of the novel setting the tone, helping the reader to understand the place and time in which the story begins and drawing us into the characters. While this portion of the novel is extremely well written, it’s not necessarily the most compelling or quickly paced bit. However, the payoff is rich, and once I passed around the 200 page marker, I was rewarded with exciting storylines and lots of jam packed plot development. I absolutely intend to seek out the next two novels in the trilogy, and I can only hope that it won’t take me quite as long to read them.

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #22: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Presented as a collection of official documents, interviews, emails, and the like, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (now a movie of the same name) is an ambitious book. The author attempts to tell the story of a British fisheries scientist tasked with building a salmon run in Yemen while pondering the nature of god and a lot of other existential type questions. The book definitely fell short in the latter respect, and I feel like the soul searching questions were definitely to the detriment of what could have been a pretty engaging story. For me, this was an OK book – I read it quickly and enjoyed doing so, but in the four or five days since I’ve finished, I’ve mostly forgotten about the characters.

Here, I think that the device of using documents and journal entries to tell the story fell flat. This approach allowed the reader to see different points of view, which was certainly welcome in the earlier chapters, which were limited by Fred’s mostly boring thoughts. However, reading interviews and letters about events that happened didn’t allow for the type of heavy character development that the book needed to support the heavier existential material that came later. If you see the book lying around – in a beach house, or while you’re on vacation, and have somewhat limited reading options, I would say go for it. It’s enjoyable, a quick beach read type of book, but otherwise, I would recommend skipping this book. The movie might be better, but I’m not really sure that I care enough to find out?

If you are still interested in this book, even though I doubt you are, check out the rest of the review here!

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Reviews #20-21: two books by Susan Schaefer Davis

Since the two of these books are extremely similar in topic and in scope, I thought it would be simplest to put up one post for both of them. I read Susan Schaefer Davis’ books on women’s roles in rural Morocco, and her novel on adolescence in rural Morocco. Although the material is pretty specialized, and the books are mainly ethnographic studies, I think they would be interesting to anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction and has a passing interest in youth or in women in the Middle East and North Africa. If you’re not sure, check out  my two reviews!

20. Patience and Power by Susan Schaefer Davis

21. Adolescence in a Moroccan Town by Susan Schaefer Davis and Douglas Davis

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #19: Secret Son by Laila Lalami

  This is the story of Youssef, a young man from the slums of Casablanca, which Lalami tells while weaving commentary on the political and social status of Morocco into the narrative. Class mobility is key here, and the difficulty of doing so in Morocco. Aside from excellent political and socioeconomic commentary, Secret Son is a thought provoking and enjoyable novel to read – check out my review on my blog!

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #18: All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

As an avid reader of hooks’ work, I absolutely loved this book, and thought that hooks raised excellent questions about the state of love in our lives. I wish that more people would write about their search for fulfilling, feminist oriented relationships (and get more press for it). That being said, this candid discussion of love, relationships, and hooks’ search for a new kind of love is definitely not for everyone, even though I think that most readers could take away something new. Check out the rest on my blog.

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #14: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa el Aswany

         The Yacoubian Building is a novel set in 1990’s Egypt, although the author admits that the attitudes and mores are consistent with today’s Cairo, as much as they can be after the January 25thmovement, which has added a new (more open) political dimension to the public sphere here. The story follows the tenants of one yacoubian building, an actual building on Sharia Talaat Harb, right near Midan Tahrir. Although the building is not as beautiful or ornate as described in the book, it is the actual setting where Aswany, a dentist by profession, had his first dental patients. Aswany writes in a way that is so true to what I know of Egypt and of the Middle East, and I feel like his personal connection to the building and to the neighborhood shines through in the writing.

Although the book describes Cairene society, it doesn’t reflect Cairo or Egypt as a whole, as some people have generalized it to do. The Yacoubian Building reflects the problems and desires and life choices of a certain subset of people in a dramatically imagined Cario. I highly enjoyed Aswany’s depiction of this type of society, and that he chose to tell these stories, because I think they exist much more frequently in Egyptian society than many people know or care to admit. However, it is clear that these narratives are fictionalized (which I’ve seen be more frequently obscured in discussions of Arab literature than in other genres) and focus on the exceptional rather than the prosaic.

To read more, check out the full post on my blog!

lefaquin’s #CBR4 Review #12: The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice

The Sisters of Sinai describes the adventures of Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, twin sisters who independently explored the Middle East in the late 1800’s and made one of the most important discoveries in biblical history. Agnes and Margaret came of age in a time when the historical accuracy of the bible was being called into question publicly. Scholars were extremely interested in amassing scientific proof to substantiate or undermine the veracity of biblical stories, and wealthy tourists were taking trips to the holy lands of Palestine and Egypt.

Born in 1843, and originally from a small town in Scotland, Agnes and Margaret were raised by their father in a somewhat unconventional manner for the time. Their father was adamant that Agnes and Margaret become well educated in an era where women were not allowed to attend most universities, and frequently took the twins traveling with him. After the death of their father, Agnes and Margaret continued their studies (they were already fluent in German, French and Italian) and began to travel independently, going to Europe, Egypt and Palestine in 1868. Their trip to the Middle East fueled their continued study of languages, driving them to study Greek, Syriac and some Arabic.

The twins do a lot more awesome stuff – to read more, head over to my full post!

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