Short Story #41. Faeries of the Nile (Mansoura Ez-Eldin)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the king of spades.

Story: Faeries of the Nile, by Mansoura Ez-Eldin [in The Granta Book of the African Short Story] (translated from the Arabic by Raphael Cohen)

Comments: Mansoura Ez-Eldin is an Egyptian writer and journalist.  In this story she explores the responses of a woman trapped in a very limited situation: physical poverty, a betraying and abusive husband, the death of their only son.  The “river faeries” sing to the woman, entrance her, seduce her, and she succumbs…  One critic says that it is a story about sexual repression, but I think that it points to much more than just sexual desire.  It is about the woman’s desire for freedom, for self-determination, for a voice.  The story itself gives the woman, Zeenat, no voice: it is told from the points of view of an omniscient narrator, and of the husband.

There are some great phrases: “my wife cried a lot, at her mother’s direction”; “She obeys me as if castigating me with obedience”.

The Guardian’s reviewer found the story “incredibly dated”, and Think Africa Press said it “show[s] a little too strongly the influence of past generations and styles… Faeries of the Nile is a story in the tradition of tiresome magical realism”.  But I agree more with the Goodreads reviewer who calls it “a great piece of imaginative literature” and other more positive reviews.  I would be happy to read more by this author.

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#52. A Severed Head (Iris Murdoch)

Book: A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

Genre and Year of Publication: Fiction, 1961

Where I got it: The Open Door second hand book shop

Length: 205 pages

Briefly, it’s not a murder mystery, despite the title!  It’s a look at marriage, adultery, incest, and “love” amongst a group of people who keep forming and re-forming liaisons.

Comments: I first encountered Iris Murdoch’s work in a philosophy undergrad class, and did not realise for some time that the novelist of the same name is in fact the same person.  But Murdoch’s novels – this one at any rate – are highly philosophical.  What is love?  Can relationships be permanent?  Where does one draw the fine line between use and abuse of people?  Why do we strain to keep others in our possession?  This novel starts out with a classic and rather simple situation of a man, his wife, and his mistress, but quickly becomes very complex as they break up with each other and realign in new relationships, which in turn break up and the same people form yet new liaisons, or return to previous ones… who will “love” whom next?  What is “true” love, if such a thing exists?

I found this novel gripping, but was glad that it ended when it did, as much more would have been too sordid.

Challenges: Back to the Classics challenge for the category “A Classic by a Woman Author”

#51. Men at Arms (Evelyn Waugh)

Book: Men at Arms, by Evelyn Waugh

Genre and Year of Publication: WW II Fiction, 1952

Where I got it: Lent to me by a friend (VA)

Length: 246 pages

Briefly, it follows the military career of Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old Englishman, who enlists for the army at the outbreak of World War II, through his training period and initial posting to Senegal.

Comments: This book is full of dry wit.  Allegedly based loosely on Waugh’s own war-time experience, it describes an army which is confused, chaotic, unclear about its objectives and largely operating with very, very limited information about what is going on elsewhere.  Most of Crouchback’s time with his division is spent awaiting orders to move elsewhere.  There is an element of boarding school to some of the adventures, and to the whole tone of upholding the ancient traditions of the regiment.  Waugh’s makes his point about the pointlessness of the war with humour and lightness of touch.  Crouchback is a likeable character, and the reader is on his side when his time in West Africa ends in his being sent home in disgrace. 

This is the first book of a trilogy, and I would certainly read the two subsequent volumes, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender.

There are many reviews online; I like the one at  http://brothersjudd.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1251/Men%20at%20Arms.htm

Challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge for the category “A Wartime Classic”

Short Story #32. Gooseberries (Anton Chekhov)

Deal Me In Reading Challenge: I drew the six of hearts.

Story: Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov (available online here)

Comments: According to a dream dictionary, “To see or eat gooseberries in your dream suggests that you are enjoying your time of leisure.”  Is that a universal meaning which Chekhov drew on, or is the dream dictionary basing itself on this story?  In either case, that’s exactly what Nicholai Ivanich does in the tale-within-the-tale here.  He has dreamed all his life of owning a country house with land and all that goes with it, including a gooseberry bush.  And though he starts out as a city-dwelling civil servant, he saves and scrimps and eventually marries a rich widow and makes her too live so frugally that she dies, and then in middle age he is able to buy his longed-for estate, and plant his gooseberry bushes, and act the part of the squire.  Ivan, his brother and the teller of the tale-within-the-tale, visits him when the gooseberries are served at dinner.  Nicholai relishes them, though to Ivan they are bitter.

Ivan tells this tale when he and his travelling companion Bourkin are sheltering from winter rain as unexpected guests at the house of Aliokhin.  He then launches into a tirade about how life should be lived, doing good while one is young and able; about the injustice of poverty and ignorance; about dreams unfulfilled… his idealism does not really inspire or engage his hearers.

So – what are we to think?  Nicholai attains his life’s dream, and is happy, but according to his brother his happiness must be feigned or illusory because the gooseberries are, in fact, sour.  But perhaps to Nicholai they really are sweet?  Whose perception is right?  How can one say that someone else’s perception is illusory (or even that he is lying) simply because it is different to one’s own experience?  And the impassioned speech of Ivan – is it all a refusal of responsibility, this cry “If I were young…” Why does one have to be young to start living the good life?

The most remarkable thing for me in this story is the absence of any explicit reference to a source of morality.  By what standard is Ivan judging what is good?  What is at the basis of his belief system?  Is there some allegedly objective set of norms for guiding human behaviour, or can each one make it up as s/he goes along?

Most of all, perhaps, after reading this story, I really want to go and swim outdoors in the rain!  The description sounded wonderful!

 

#50. For Bread Alone (Mohamed Choukri)

Book: For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri; translated from the Arabic by Paul Bowles

Genre and Year of Publication: Autobiography; English translation 1973

Where I got it: The Open Door used book shop

Length: 168 pages

Briefly, it’s the autobiography / memoir of a boy born into a poor family in Morocco in 1935, who experiences extreme hardship, including near-starvation; runs away from his violent father at age 11 and becomes a street-kid, involved in stealing, smuggling and prostitution; and at age 20 meets [in jail] someone who encourages him to learn to read and write.  (He later went on to be professor of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier, but the book stops at age 20; later books take up the story).

Comments: I bought this book in a second-hand shop specifically with the African reading challenge 2014 in mind.  But then I avoided it for several months, fearing the theme, not wanting to read about poverty and hardship, not wishing to get emotionally wrecked by the desperation described in the blurb.  However, when I did pick it up and open the cover, I whizzed through the book and did not find it at all emotionally manipulative.  Quite the contrary, it is rather understated.  The author lets the facts speak for themselves.  He does not try to impose his own adult, educated conclusions on the events surrounding his youth.  Neither is he, apparently, angry or self-pitying. 

This book was banned in Morocco from 1983 to 2000.  It is not difficult to see why.  No country, let alone a Muslim country, would be happy to see an account of one of its youths involving frequent near-starvation (one of the hardest parts of the book to read is about the starving teenager diving into sewage-filled water to retrieve and eat bread that someone had thrown away), sex, alcohol, and drugs.  And there is a LOT of sex.  From the (relatively innocent – ?) pre-pubescent boy who climbs a tree to spy on a girl bathing naked, to fantasies about various older women, to masturbation, sex with prostitutes, sex as a prostitute, sex with a tree (yes)… But while there is a lot of it, the scenes are not overly drawn-out nor especially graphic.

I find it strange that an error which went uncorrected in the translator’s introduction should be copied in various reviews around the internet without comment or note.  The lines read: “Choukri grew up under conditions of poverty excessive even for Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition and neglect.  Another brother was killed outright by Choukri’s father in an access of hunger and desperation.”  In the last line, the word should, of course, be “excess”, not “access”.

One of the lines which most struck me in the book concerned the death of one of the other siblings.  Choukri writes, “One day my little brother Achor died.  His death left me with no feeling of regret.  I had heard him crying and seen him crawling, but I had never thought of him as another person.”

It is all too easy not to think of certain people, or classes of people, as persons.  Choukri’s story certainly makes him a very real person, though if I had met him as youth I would probably have tried to avoid him, or not to connect with him.

Challenges: Africa Reading Challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

#47. Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Elayne Clift)

Book: Achan: A Year of Teaching in Thailand, by Elayne Clift

Genre and Year of Publication: Travel memoir, 2010

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 192 pages

Briefly, it’s an account by an American woman of a year which she spent as a teacher in Thailand.

Comments: I had mixed feelings about this book.  The first part, where she describes her initial experiences of living in Thailand, her students, their families, her responses to a new culture, was interesting.  The second, in which she focuses more on visits from her friends and shopping trips that she took with them… much less so.   Overall, I felt it was a missed writing opportunity.

Challenges:  ebook reading challenge 2014; non-fiction reading challenge

#44. Sacred Road (Todd Maxwell Preston)

Book: Sacred Road: my journey through abuse, leaving the Mormons and embracing spirituality,
by Todd Maxwell Preston

Genre and Year of Publication: Spiritual memoir, 2013

Where I got it: Free Kindle download

Length: 152 pages

Briefly, it’s what it says in the subtitle: one man’s story of leaving the Mormons (“and embracing spirituality”)

Comments: The author’s childhood and adolescence were spent in New Zealand, Australia, and Utah.  His parents were both converts to the Mormon religion – I would have liked to learn a bit more about their stories.  The family was not a happy one, the father in particular being full of anger towards Todd, abusing him physically and emotionally (not sexually).  The Mormon environment was very closed and manipulative, and when as an adult Todd came to realise that it was time for him to leave, it was very difficult.  He had to leave behind his wife and children, as well as his relationship with most of his siblings. 

I would agree with other reviewers who say that he blames things on the Mormon religion which actually should be blamed only on his particular family circumstances.  With that caveat, it is an interesting book.

Challenges: Non-fiction reading challenge, ebook reading challenge.