A writer confesses, Book reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid–sort of Graham Greene-ish

I took a break from Runaway, a manuscript I am reading for a writing friend, last night and devoted my reading hour(s) to finishing The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  I had to.  Fundamentalist was a library book and it was soon coming due.  Not that I haven’t ever been guilty of 1. returning a book before finishing it or 2. returning a book after its due date.  But when a book is so excellently written, it would be a sin not to finish it.  How else can excellent writing be cultivated if it is not read?

Funda was sort of Graham Greene-ish.  It features a young, principled man trying to make his Horatio Algiered way in the world.  Changez possesses a sharp, steel-trap mind, a soccer player’s agile body, and oceans of politeness.  He hails from Pakistan, yes, but he is the right kind of foreigner.  Not the kind to embarrass.  You can bring him home to mom and dad.  He can represent your company’s “face of diversity.”

But what happens to such a hero after hijackers of roughly his skin color, subscribing to his religion and from, approximately, his part of the world, suicide crash planes into the World Trade Center? How does he change? How does the cosmos of faces around him  change? Is he still the guy you want to represent your company’s “face of diversity”? Really? What about if he starts sporting a beard? Are you sure you’re still on board with that? And are you quite sure you want to partake of that drink he just poured for you? Oh, that’s better.  He took a sip.  It must be fine.

My big confession about Hamid’s book? It’s “spin” ending.  It caught me by my U.S. of A. centric, white-biased views and sent me skidding.  Conclusion: it’s awfully difficult not to have my so-called open-minded view of the world biased by standard issue, U.S. of A. assumptions and presumptions.  Maybe it’s impossible?

Fortunately books like Hamid’s are out there.  I can at least check where I’m at and challenge myself to keep growing.

Hamid’s book was also of interest to me in another regard: Fundamentalist worked as a sort of measuring stick against which to compare my own delve into post-911 politics with Traveling to Palestine.


Book reviews

The best response to oppression and injustice is love.

Dear Neighbors Northers,

On Saturday, I finished reading Ibtisam Barakat’s first memoir, Tasting the Sky.  A week plus earlier I read Ibtisam’s second memoir, Balcony on the Moon.  Ibtisam hails from the Ramallah area of the West Bank, but these days makes her home in the U.S.  Ibtisam’s memoirs have been stamped with the YA sticker, but they really should carry the ALL AGES sticker.  


Ibtisam Barakat

On the evening of June 5, 1967, after an Israeli bullet nearly took Ibtisam’s mother’s life steps from the family home, Ibtisam’s family fled.  It was Day 1 of the Six Day War.  Ibtisam was three.  Ibtisam’s mother commanded her three children, ages three, six, and seven, to find their shoes and put them on.  Ibtisam’s mom carried Ibtisam’s infant sister.  Her father’s arms were full as well, with bedding and food. In the chaos and darkness, Ibtisam couldn’t find her shoes.  (It wasn’t a simple matter of flipping a light switch and behold, there was light!  The Barakats had no electricity.  They relied on a kerosene lamp.)

Ibtisam’s family charged off without her.  Ibtisam set off after them, one shoe on and one shoe lost.  She had no idea if she would ever set eyes on her family again.

She wandered through the night and didn’t find her family until the next morning.

Over the next several months, the Barakats sheltered in various places.  While housed temporarily in an elementary school, Ibtisam made Alef’s acquaintance.  Alef was the stick figure-like first letter of the Arabic alphabet.  With a simple scratch of chalk nubbin to blackboard, Ibtisam brought Alef to life.  On occasions when chalk wasn’t available, a stroke of stick point to patch of dirt would do.  With Alef, and eventually, Alef’s 27 friends (the other letters of the Arabic alphabet) Ibtisam could venture anywhere.  She could connect to the world.

You can sample Ibtisam’s poems and short stories at http://www.ibtisambarakat.com/

I recommend Poem 10: A Poem Made of Bread.  Click the button and listen to Ibtisam read her Bread poem aloud.

I hope you love the cadence of her voice as much as I.  Listen closely and you’ll hear the tiniest hint of an accent.  It adds a fragrance bottle’s atomizer’s worth of “other countryness” to Ibtisam’s poem.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.  Ibtisam has a thought-provoking article about that as well as her experience of growing up under Israeli military occupation in today’s Nation magazine.   www.thenation.com.

Below are links to Ibtisam’s website


and Ibtisam’s memoirs:

Book reviews

The Solace of Monsters

Dear Neighbors Northers,

Yes.  I know.  It’s been a while.  Months, in fact.  Work on novels continue.  Writing continues.  I find myself in a period of great editing and deep, cavernous story.  It takes events of seismic proportions to rouse me into posting.  One such recent event was reading Laurie Blauner’s The Solace of Monsters.  My apologies if I give away too much of the story in my review (below).  I hope it will not disincline you from reading Ms. Blauner’s novel.  If you read it, I would love to read your take on it here at Neighbors North.

the-solace-of-monstersSome books provide answers and facts and knowledge.  They leave the reader with a greater sense of “knowing.”  Laurie Blauner’s Solace of Monsters left me with a greater sense of “unknowing.”

Monsters is an updated Frankenstein story.  Mara, more specifically, Mara Five, is the monster.  Her creator is Father, a heart-broken mad scientist.

Mara is in a state of becoming.  She is young, on the cusp of womanhood.  Father is still tinkering, cramming her with parts and fixing them in place with Krazy Glue.

Mara learns about the world through reading.  She doesn’t watch television or listen to the radio.  She never goes outside.  Father locks her in her room when he is away at his job.  Sometimes memories of Mara’s past existences slip into her consciousness.

In the opening scene, the description of the bird on Mara’s dinner plate tingles with references to the living creature the bird once was—alive with muscle, blood, bone, and skin.

Mara hasn’t yet got a handle on her outsized strength.  In an early scene, when she wishes to show affection to Gloves, her feline companion, she overdoes the love and kills Gloves.

Gradually Mara learns why Father goes to such lengths to not only make her but perfect her.  She is the child Father lost.  The child Father cannot let go of.  The child he cannot release.

She submits to Father’s operations.  She doesn’t particularly like them.  She doesn’t like the long painful recovery period, but she wishes to please Father.

She keeps it a secret when she loses a toe.

She busts out of her locked room the morning after the dinner party with Greg, Father’s work colleague.  She makes her way to the basement, to Father’s laboratory.  Greg’s corpse is laid out on the operating table.  Father has already begun dissecting.

Mara’s veil of ignorance falls.  She flees.

A motorist takes her to the outskirts of a forest.  Others, offended by her appearance, wish to annihilate her.  Mara eludes her pursuers.  She finds shelter in a little church in the forest.  Teresa, the village laundress, takes her in.  In addition to washing others laundry, Teresa also keeps the church clean.   Mara receives a hostile welcome from Teresa’s little girl, Kat, who is surly and blind.

Mara’s adhesive bonds weaken.   Her decay accelerates.   She loses another toe, another tooth.  Part of her ear and an eyebrow fall off.

She hobbles to the city.  She is down to one kidney.  Her strength has begun to ebb.  She is more hideous-looking.

Prostitutes and other wayward people befriend her.  The normals turn away.

She has run-ins with doctors and police.  A doctor examining her excitedly alerts his colleagues.  He has never seen anyone with so much necrotic tissue.

She meets Father Bill.  He is a spirit-driven holy man, a redeemer and executioner.  He  restores sanctity by killing prostitutes.

Mara kills Bill and departs the city.  She journeys by bus back to Father in a state of great decrepitude.  She hides her ravaged face beneath a scarf.  She leans on a crutch.

She and Father fall into their old pattern of creator and clay.  Father guides her toward the operating table.  This time, when she falls under the narcotic’s spell, she understands exactly the meaning of the moaning and crying she hears coming from a distant room.

Solace left me with many questions.  How do we keep from becoming monsters? At what cost do we preserve ourselves, defend our territory, our right to exist? How much suffering and death do we allow to be done in our names? What are we willing to do and to have done to others so that we may be fixed and repaired?

What is the cost of sheltering with killers?

What do we wish to preserve of the dead? What is it we wish to remember? What do the “normals” see? What does the blind girl see? What does the lady pushing the shopping cart see?

And what of the self-proclaimed redeemers, such as Father Bill, such as Mara’s father? Is one any nastier than the other?  Both men long for the face of God to eternally shine on them.  Is that not what all of us, on some level, wish?

Lastly, what calculus allows Mara to return to Father’s operating table? Why doesn’t she choose the nobler path? Why doesn’t she lie down under a bed of leaves and wait for her decay to be complete? Would that be the nobler path?

Book reviews

The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan


Dear Neighbors Northers,

I simply couldn’t not blog about this exquisite read, The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan.  Probably I’m not doing it justice.  See for yourself.  Read Ploughmen and see what you think.  How will it speak to you?

Ex nihilo nihil est.”  The killer John Gload says he came across those words decades earlier, embroidered on a hotel pillow.  Sheriff’s deputy Valentine Millimaki thinks it must be Latin.  He is too wrung out from sleeplessness to think anything more.

The Ploughmen heaves up from the earth in cataclysms and cataracts.  In between are periods of exquisite quiet.  Zupan reveals a bleak, flat Montana of blowing sand and hot, rainless summers; cricket clouds, elusive bats, and circling, hungry gulls.  He uses language in a precise, unexaggerated way, without irony or hyperbole.

Ploughmen centers upon two orphaned farm boys, Valentine Millimaki and John Gload.  A note written in his mother’s elegant script instructed eight-year-old Millimaki to come to the shed.  There, he found his mother swaying cold from the rafters.  Gload waited out a snowstorm in a truck cab for his drunken father’s return.

Millimaki marries and has a cabin in the woods.  He becomes a sheriff’s deputy.  Gload earns his bread killing.  He bows before no god and follows no commandment other than his own.

The law catches up to Gload at age seventy-seven.  Millimaki is assigned the jail’s graveyard shift.  He is instructed to pay special attention to Gload.

Gload isn’t interested in escaping.  He’s neared the end of his row and fine with living out his days behind bars.  Still, in his own inimitable fashion, he would like to put some things right.

Neither guard nor prisoner is sleeping.  Millimaki is haunted by the dead—beginning with his mother and extending out to the hikers, loners, and drifters he tries to rescue but reaches too late.  His wife can no longer bear the sorrows dripping from him and walks out.

Gload’s sleeplessness isn’t due to regret for those whose lives he has snuffed out, but for his never-fulfilled boyhood wish of being a ploughman, a dream buried in a long ago snowstorm’s drifts.  He has another wish, too, but keeps Millimaki in the dark as to what it is.

The wind, ice, snow, and sun bleach, scar, bend, and disfigure.  The punishment men mete out seems almost trivial compared to what nature doles out in the harsh and beautiful land.

Ultimately, Millimaki puts things right for Gload, just as the old man wished.

Ex nihilo nihil est.  Nothing is created from nothing.  Was this the ultimate take away from Kim Zupan’s Ploughmen?

Book reviews

Riding the Ferris Wheel

Then WE came to the End


No, I have not gone illiterate. These past darkening, October-November, rainy, blustery weeks I’ve read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, and In the Spider’s Web by Jerome Gold. Wintry tales all.


Shipping took me northward to Canada’s Eastern-most province: Newfoundland. I like venturing to the north country, but why so many storms? Ice? Snow? I wish Annie had tweaked things a bit and made it warmer. Though, what’s not to love about a house coming unchained and sliding off its rock into the sea?


From there I moved on to Heart. Dark. Troubling. Unforgiving. Death by toil. A big angry god. Wresting valuable ore and shipping it out. Imperialism’s evils. Greedy, mind-warped conquerors. Hey guys. Guys. Listen up. You’re trampling on someone else’s land. Oh. I see. You brought guns as well as Bibles. Well, then. Go ahead. Be as greedy as you wish.


Then In the Spider’s Web by Jerome Gold. Highlighting the retribution-driven Washington judicial system which leads to such things as thirteen-year-olds serving twenty-two year prison sentences for murder.


Now, I’m reading a chuckler: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. Set in the ancient history, long ago age of the dot-com bubble and its bursting. We’re talking pre-google, pre-You-tube, pre-collapse of the towers. The hoi-polloi at an elite Chicago ad agency are about to lose their jobs.

Book reviews

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act

(The Children Act has many of the delicious ingredients in many other Ian McEwan novels. Smart, complex, ambitious characters; their love lives; and their obsessions. I was reminded of Enduring Love’s strange love triangle; The Kindness of Strangers echoes slightly.)

The Children Act is Ian’s take on marital crisis—stasis?—for the older set.

Fiona has been in a fulfilling marriage since the 1970s. She is a judge specializing in family law. Her husband is a successful academic. It never seemed like quite the right time to have children. She and her husband settled into an ordered, increasingly comfortable life where each pursued their academically-inclined, high-brow passions. They drink moderate amounts of wine, eat fine cheese and grapes and have a fulfilling sex life.

A case Fiona presided over earlier in the year has been haunting her. Conjoined infant boys, Matthew and Mark, shared entirely too much. Matthew’s internal workings were weak, ineffectual, or missing. Brother Mark was doing the work of living for both of them. It was exhausting and Mark’s body was giving out. The decision fell to Fiona: separate the twins, which would certainly kill Matthew but might save Mark, or do nothing and let the brothers wither and die more slowly.

Fiona ruled for a surgical separation. Months later that decision still haunts her. It’s impacting her marriage. She can’t summon desire. She may have lost all desire for sex, but her husband has not. Now he wishes to have an affair.

He states his intentions on the evening of another numbing work day. She can’t even summon the energy to argue with him. Instead she buries her nose in the following day’s caseload.

In the morning, she wakes to find that her husband has left to begin his adulterous life. Fiona calls a locksmith and has the locks changed, but that is her only spiteful action. From there, she slips into a slightly altered state. She starts allowing things to happen she would have guarded against in her former life as a happily married.

That afternoon she journeys to the bedside of Adam Henry. Adam, age seventeen and 3/4s, has leukemia. Radiation therapy was successful, but now his blood count is dangerously low. He needs a transfusion. But Adam is a Jehovah’s Witness. He objects to the transfusion. His faith forbids the acceptance into the body of any blood products. But, being a minor, The State is obliged to protect Adam and may overrule Adam’s wishes.

Fiona is impressed by Adam’s wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite being near death, Adam is exuberant about life. He reads her his poetry. He pulls out his violin—he has been learning how to play while in hospital. He plays the “Sally Gardens,” then plays it again to Fiona’s tuneful vocals. Although Adam does a good job convincing her he is of sound mind and reached his decision to refuse the transfusion independently of pressure from his parents and religious leaders, she rules in the hospital’s favor and the transfusion proceeds.

Weeks later, Adam begins sending her letters. He is grateful to be alive. He questions his faith. His parents are becoming difficult. He wants Fiona to stay in his life. Could he live with her? Platonically, of course. As a kind of lodger.

In the meanwhile, Fiona’s husband has returned from the wars. It took him less than seventy-two hours to realize his wrongheadedness. Sure, sex is missing from his life, but what he and Fiona have is so much more than that.

Fiona is not ready. She can’t even summon a cleansing, purifying anger.

Adam continues to write.

In autumn, Fiona departs to preside over cases in out of the way places. Adam arrives at the country estate where she is lodged on a dark, rainy evening. He is drenched to the bone. She tries to reason with him; explains that he must stop pursuing her. In a moment of forgetting who she is, her obligations, and the life she has built, she and Adam kiss.

In the weeks and months that follow, Fiona prepares for a Christmas performance with a barrister colleague. She and her husband continue to share living space, though still not a bed. Adam sends letters, and finally a poem, the last line of which has been torn away.

The night of the performance, Fiona and Adam’s paths cross one final time. You will have to read The Children Act to find out how.

Book reviews

The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir makes me curious about fish balls, eight-petaled roses, the medieval period, monasteries, Iceland, lavascapes, sex in greenhouses, girls named Flora Sol, birth, death, twins born to white-haired parents, the soul, popcorn, cocoa soup, haddock, rhubarb jam, veal, knitted garments, forests, dead languages, blonde-headed children, and landscapes without trees. Also,

60 degrees north and higher, the sun’s weight on the horizon, hothouse tomatoes, sanctified children, stained glass chancel windows, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and car wrecks, as well as

final conversations, shadows of hot house roses—their blossoms, leaves, stems, and thorns–dappling bare skin in Icelandic greenhouses. Also,

the accidental and coincidental; blood pouring from wounds, sperm flowing into wombs; living and dying; circularity

what you hear when the sound’s turned off and the subtitles are scrubbed away. Also,

monasteries topping hills in unnamed European countries, wine stashed in the trunks of cars, what you find when you remove the weeds and prune the bushes, when you rebuild the paths and plant the herbs and trees.

Exit an Arctic Circle land. Pilot rental car south. Traverse unnamed forests. Unfold map across dashboard. Drape over steering wheel. Trace finger across colored borders.

Arrive at the bottom of a hill. Above is the village, the monastery with its fabled garden, its treasury of roses, now fallen into neglect.

Your septuagenarian, widowed dad asks why you aren’t cohabiting with the mother of your baby girl. He doesn’t care about you being a friend of a friend, someone the mother doesn’t really know. He doesn’t believe in accidents or coincidence. Mom’s life was bleeding out after the car crash while you and Flora Sol’s mother were in the act of creating and Flora Sol was coming into being. Was that an accident, a coincidence?

Think of the regenerative power of greenhouses.

Think about where miracles take place. Think about what needs to happen for them to occur. They need witnesses. They need believers.

Think about what is possible to see. Think of how long it took you to see the eight-petaled rose in the church’s stained glass window. Think how you are only seeing it today, with your tow-headed daughter, Flora Sol.