Tuesday, November 24, 2009

125 (2009 #50). Small Kingdoms

by Anastasia Hobbet

The author spent five years, 1995 to 2000, the period between the two Gulf Wars, living in a traditional neighborhood in Kuwait, much like Kit, one of the main characters in her novel. She was able to observe her Arab neighbors and their servants from countries such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines (people who were often the main financial support for their families back home), as well as Americans in the country for business and humanitarian reasons.

Besides Kit, the quiet wife of an American businessman, the other main characters are Mufeeda, her upper-class Kuwaiti across-the-street neighbor, a devout Muslim; and her maid/cook, Emmanuella from India; Theo, an American doctor who works with Mufeeda’s husband at the local hospital; and Hanaan, the unconventional Palestinian woman who teaches Theo Arabic (and loves cats). Emmanuella discovers that the Indian maid of another neighbor is being abused, and ultimately draws all the other main characters into that plotline.

This was an absorbing look into different societies and cultures. Kit and Mufeeda in particular grow and change in the story in a positive way. The characters are well-developed and I was drawn into their lives, and even the minor characters contribute to the story. I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to Theo and Hanaan.

I would recommend Small Kingdoms, slated for release in January 2010, If you have read (even if you didn't like) other fiction and nonfiction set in the contemporary Arab/Muslim world, such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, Tears of the Desert, Kabul Beauty School, The Translator, The Kite Runner, and Three Cups of Tea, I think you will appreciate this book.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

124 (2009 #49). Ali and Nino

by Kurban Said,
translated by Jenia Graman

Originally written in German and published in 1937, Ali and Nino was out of print for decades and rediscovered and translated into English in 1970. It is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, mostly in Baku in Azerbaijan, in the Trans-Caucasus area south of Russia and Georgia and north of Iran (then Persia), and between Armenia on the west and the Caspian Sea on the east. Ali is an aristocratic Shiite Muslim, Nino is a Georgian Christian princess, and they fall in love. Subtitled (in some editions) “A Love Story,” it does remind one a bit of Romeo and Juliet, particularly because of another sad ending.

I thought the way Ali's and Nino's personal stories reflected the clashing cultures (male and female, East and West, Asia and Europe, Muslim and Christian, desert and forest, tradition and modernity) of their homeland was fascinating. The book has been described as the national novel of Azerbaijan, inspiring a chain of bookstore/cafes and a historical walking tour of Baku.

I also thought the unclear authorship of the book was intriguing - the kind of thing that makes me want to research all the databases I have access to! Kurban Said is a pseudonym. Was the book really written by the Baroness , The Orientalist, both of them, or someone else?

Monday, November 02, 2009

123 (2009 # 48). The Soloist

by Steve Lopez,
read by William Hughes

This nonfiction title was the October selection for my local book club. Author Steve Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist, and this book came out of columns he wrote about a homeless black man, Nathaniel Ayers, a former Julliard student with schizophrenia, playing a beat-up violin on the street. Many newspaper readers are moved by Nathaniel's story and donate various musical instruments for him. Lopez tries to help Nathaniel find housing and treatment, but Ayers is resistant. The only thing that really seems to help him is the music he plays.

Lopez writes well. I just couldn't get very excited about the subject matter. I guess I have to read enough work-related and medical nonfiction that I prefer my recreational reading (or listening) to be fiction. I'm also a little turned off by "inspirational" books - which unfortunately, my book club has read three of this year.

I listened to the audiobook read by William Hughes (interestingly, a professor of political science and an accomplished jazz guitarist who's done voice-over work for radio and film). Since the book is written in first person from Lopez' viewpoint, the single narrator works well. The audiobook would have benefited, I think, with excerpts from some of the classical music pieces mentioned in the text being played as background music, or as bridges between chapters or parts, and at the end and beginning of discs.