Monthly Archives: April 2012

Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar

Nuri-el Alfi is a teenage boy living with his father after his mother passes away. On a holiday to the Magda Marina beach in Egypt, Alexandria, he meets and falls in love with Mona, a 26 year old woman who later will marry his father. Then one day his father disappears and an avalanche of questions seems to overwhelm Nuri. Where is his father, who took him, and most importantly, is he still alive?

The action takes place in Egypt, Switzerland and England. The small number of characters make the novel easy to follow – the enigmatic father, whose secretive life style is revealed in small doses but never in its entirety, the furtive glimpses of his first wife, Nuri’s mother, provided here and there around the novel, her unexplained death, and the role of Naima who is not just a housekeeper, all seem to come together towards the end.
A feeling of absence and longing pervades every page, the disappearance of the father transforming the son into an emotionally crippled young man living in the past, trying to cling to the memory of his father by smoking the same cigarettes, wearing the clothes he left behind, looking at photographs. Smells, memories, gestures, become ties that bind Nuri to a brief past he shared with his father and he is reluctant to let them go.

I found the novel somehow disjointed; halfway through the story I got frustrated with the bits and pieces that didn’t fit and others that didn’t make sense – too many questions and so much mystery. Some of those questions got answered in the end – just enough so that I wasn’t left with a total feeling of incompleteness. I was intrigued and I did a little research on the author, only to discover that his own father, who was involved in politics, had been abducted, his whereabouts known only years later.
Hisham Matar is probably the first Libyan author whose work I have read. It is very likely that I never would have picked up this novel on my own, but a book club I recently joined chose this as the book-of-the-month and so I gave it a try. I have mixed feelings about it – the story did not appeal to me, too gloomy and hopeless, but the occasional sparkle of the language made reading it bearable; this one paragraph about Nuri’s mother I particularly liked:

“Her hands, the pale thin fingers that never seemed to match her strength, would be frozen twigs. She would tuck them between my knees or, if I were lying on my back, slide them behind my lower back, the place that is still hers.”

And another one:

“The world had to be sliced into hours to fill, otherwise you could go mad with loneliness.”

My review feels incomplete, more like a jumble of ideas glued together but that’s ok – it took me a while to reach the final page and I had days when a sort of dread was creeping on me, knowing that I had to finish it because I hate giving up on a book, especially one that is not even that long. At just under 250 pages, it should have been a quick read. Alas, it wasn’t. Or maybe I just needed something more cheerful.
And that brought a question to mind: how do you feel about gloomy stories? Do you enjoy these kinds of books or stay away from them? Or perhaps the degree of sadness doesn’t matter as long as the author keeps the story interesting?

*Read in April, 2012

You can also read Athira’s review here

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 7 Comments

The Resurrection

Since I started blogging I have tried to post as regularly as I could and while I have read quite a fair number of books last year, the last time I did a summary was for my Best Books of 2011 post. And so I had a nice surprise to see my name nominated for the 7X7 Link Award, by writer Andrew Blackman (whose book, On the Holloway Road, is on my TBR list) and thought it was about time I got a shovel and started digging through the archives to get some answers for this fun meme.
Before I start, here are the rules:

1: Tell everyone something about yourself that nobody knows.

2: Link to a post I think fits the following categories: The Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, Most Pride-worthy Piece (interview).

3: Pass this on to 7 fellow bloggers.

After some research, picture selecting and some deliberating, here are my answers:

1. I love to bake, and while this isn’t exactly a big secret, the part I actually enjoy the most is the decorating. I have a special fondness for whole wheat muffins and cookies, which not even the very high temperature can dampen. After all, I’m living in a country with a perpetual summer and baking is not easy but oh, so rewarding!
Cute, isn’t it? Here’s another one: the first time I saw a live, full grown monitor lizard I was looking out the window and the first thought that crossed my mind was: Oh my God, what’s that crocodile doing in the yard? Then I ran for the camera but by the time I got back, the lizard had disappeared. A while later the penny dropped and I realized crocodiles don’t have a snakelike tongue, but in my excitement that detail was completely forgotten.

2. The Most Beautiful Piece. There’s a mango tree in my front yard and every year it bears fruit but last year most of them just fell while still small and green. Weeks of waiting for that perfect sweet fruit left me with nothing. And then, this year, an amazing thing happened: in February, the tree was so full of fruit that I had to give some to the neighbors because once they fall, the soft skin breaks apart and the ants eat them or they start rotting. And not only I had enough mangoes to eat for a month or more, but they also had a pinkish tinge, something I haven’t seen before. This story is about that tree.

3. Most Helpful Piece. That might be Best Books of 2011 but I think it was mostly helpful for me, as I discovered interesting new blogs to read.

4. Most Popular Piece. If I were to judge by the comments, I would say the one at no. 3 but people seem to stop by and read Haunts – Reliquaries of the Dead quite often.

5. Most Controversial Piece. Nothing in this department, I’m afraid.

6. Most Surprisingly Successful Piece. For some reason people seemed to like One Day, by David Nicholls but it’s definitely not on my top 10. The movie didn’t do much to change my opinion, either.

7. Most Underrated Piece. That must be the whole Wandering Thoughts section which consists of verse.

8. Most Pride-Worthy Piece. That’s an easy one. Farundell, by L.R. Fredericks – I liked the book so much I wanted to know more about it so I contacted the author for a written interview. I was so happy when she agreed to answer my questions that I walked around the whole day with a big silly grin on my face. It was one of the best experiences that came from starting this blog.

The bloggers I am passing this on to are:

1. Carl@stainlesssteeldroppings A site that is updated quite often and includes movie & book reviews and also The Once Upon a Time Challenge which consists of reviewing books and movies based on the classic fairy tales.

2. Jenners@Life…With Books She has a great sense of humour and writes posts about her experiences and the books she reads. Her funny posts always cheer me up.

3. Hannah@Wayfaring Chocolate Here’s a girl who loves baking and posts some mouthwatering recipes on her blog. She takes great pictures, too.

4. Charlie Louie@Hotly Spiced A great blog about food (with recipes, yum!) and life in general.

5. M—–L@Outgoing Signals I like this blog not only for the posts, which cover book reviews, music and other random stuff, but also for the comments. That is also the place where I first found out about Babo, the cutest ugliest doll I’ve seen so far.

6. Jov@JoV’s Book Pyramid A book blog with quite a mix of classic and contemporary authors.

7. Olduvai@Olduvai Reads A new blog I’ve just discovered. Olduvai and I bonded over our love for mangosteens and I look forward to reading more of her posts which combine book reviews and snippets of her life.

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 21 Comments

Songs of Love & Death and the “Once Upon a Time” Challenge

I found out about Carl’s “Once Upon a Time” Challenge from Caroline@ Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and being a great fan of short stories and fairy tales, I decided to join. The challenge runs from March 21st to June 19th. More details on Carl’s website.
I wasn’t sure which one of the levels I should participate in, so I’ll start with short stories for now and see what comes up next. Being relatively new to the world of books based on legends or fairy tales, I thought it would be a better idea to start small. This short story collection caught my attention because of the name and also because Neil Gaiman was on it. Two strong reasons to give it a try. So I did.

The second anthology I’ve read this year is about love stories, some with a tragic end and some with their happily ever after. This collection is comprised of 17 stories, many of them using fairy tale elements, demons and all kinds of spirits, their setting varying from ancient castles where kings and queens hold court, to traveling spaceships.
Before each story there’s a short introduction of the author, works they have published and a brief description of the story.
I liked most of the stories but these are special:

The Marrying Maid, by Jo Beverly, is set in London in 1758. A young man must find his bride before his twenty-fifth birthday or everyone related to him by blood will die. Caught between a battle of wits between Titania, the Faery queen, and her husband, king Oberon, Rob has no choice but to find the girl who will marry him before the set date. The story brings back memories of Shakespeare’s famous “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; there’s a mention of leprechauns and gold buried at the end of a rainbow, and also of Robin Hood.

Demon Lover, by Cecelia Holland, is the story of a girl, Fioretta, who is abducted by a wizard and brought to his castle. There she reigns as his queen during the day and tormented by the wizard-demon during the night. Magic can have terrible power but true love conquers. A story that incorporated elements of another famous fairy tale in which remembering a name is all that stands between destruction and happily-ever-after.

Rooftops, by Carrie Vaughn, starts in a modern day theater, where Charlotte is supervising the rehearsal of her first important play, the one that’s supposed to make her famous. It’s a Gothic story, modernized, but something seems to be lacking. Just like there’s something lacking in her life as well, until one night a masked man saves her life and gives her what she wanted: a bit of adventure.

The Thing About Cassandra, by Neil Gaiman, is one story that confused me. Two friends, Stuart and Scallie, start reminiscing about the past one hot summer night. When Scallie says he has met Stuart’s former girlfriend, Cassandra, things start to get complicated. The fact is, she does not exist – Stuart made her up a long time ago to impress his friends. What’s true and what is imagination, where is the line that stands between them? I couldn’t find it in this story but I liked it nevertheless.

The Wayfarer’s Advice, by Melinda M. Snodgrass and Courting Trouble, by Linnea Sinclair, are the stories I liked the least. The fault is all mine, I admit. The science fiction setting does nothing for me, especially when it’s right at the beginning of the story and I gave up before the end. I could have overlooked it if this was secondary to the story, but I just couldn’t get through to the “mechanical part”. That being said, I did like The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Blue Boots, by Robin Hobb, is the story of Timbal, a young, orphan girl working at Timberrock Keep, and Azen, the handsome wandering minstrel whom she falls in love with. He calls her Blue Boots because that’s what she wears on her days off, a present from her father who died a tragic death. After a magical night spent together, intrigues and misunderstandings force them apart but the blue boots bring them together again.

His Wolf, by Lisa Tuttle, is one of the best stories in the book. It explores the connection between a man and a wolf and the fact that not only humans can repay an act of kindness. I liked it so much that I’m afraid saying more about it will only spoil the magic of the whole story.

You, and You Alone, by Jacqueline Carey, is a story that spans generations. When Anafiel is sent to the court of Rolande de la Courcel to mediate a marriage between his near-sister Edmee, and the famous prince, he never expected to fall in love with the handsome youth himself. But love does not ask, and the attraction between the young poet and the warrior prince blooms into a beautiful love story with a tragic end. My only regret was that the story ended so soon. The writing was beautiful, flowing easily, the world it created drew me in and never let me go until the end. I could have read a whole book based on it.

Man in the Mirror, by Jasmine Galenorn, is the story of a spirit caught between two worlds and yearning to be a man of flesh and bone again. Imprisoned in an old house, he lies and waits for his chance and when Laurel, a young woman with a terrible past is drawn to the same house, he can see his way out. But then love ruins his plans and he must make a decision. Can he switch places with Laurel and leave her a prisoner in his stead so he can escape and live a normal life again? Ah, who said love was easy…

I will probably never grow tired of fairy tales. To create an entirely different world, to bring back legends and myths from various cultures and use them again to create something new which has its roots in the stories we heard as children, that is a relatively new concept I’ve started to explore, and I’m beginning to like it more and more. Snow, Glass, Apples, by Neil Gaiman, was the first such story that captured my heart and made me remember Snow White again. Mermaid, by Carolyn Turgeon, was another, and I expect there will be more to come in the near future. I look forward to reading similar stories.

You can find Caroline’s review here.

*Read in March, 2012

Posted in Challenges | 14 Comments