A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

reading my way around the world

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 17, 2006

Yesterday was a very long day: counting from where I am now, it began Friday at 9 pm and finished Sunday a little past 3 am. Such are the joys of global and domestic travel, particularly in the winter.

Avoiding ‘personal treatment’ from Ben Gurion’s security staffers not only made my trip more pleasant but also allowed me enough time to visit the airport’s bookshops. They offered a tremendously well-edited collection of English language books – exponentially better than the bodice-rippers and ancient management texts that seem to crop up in non-English friendly European airports.

With the help of a friendly and equally bookish shop clerk, I selected two, which proved fine and well-appreciated travel companions for each of my two long-haul flights.

The first, Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men, is set in late 1970s Libya. I must confess that Matar is the first Libyan author (in this case, Libyan with years spent in the United States and Egypt) I have ever read, and that Libyan fiction of any sort is entirely new to me.

What I liked most about Matar’s writing was his ability to describe the fear under which people in newly created authoritarian regimes live without turning to didacticism or pedantry. There was no heavy-handed political or human rights message here – just the confusion and anguish of one family, seen through the 9 year old son’s eyes.

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The second book was Shifra Horn’s Four Mothers, whose own cover described it as “in the tradition of Isabel Allende and Amy Tan”. The comparisons are apt, but both fail in some way to capture the depth of Horn’s writing. Her characters live and breathe; their lives escape the narrative. This is what I loved about her book: that at the end I still had questions about the characters’ lives. Their lives spilled beyond the book’s boundaries; rather than an artificial denouement tieing up all loose ends, Horn respects her characters’ lives enough to let them continue past the page.

I want to know what happened to Muhammad, and how Sara forgave Edward for running away from her in horror when he saw her haggard from missing him, but at the same time I am thrilled that Horn does not answer these questions for me. I am left to puzzle out these details and their significance myself, without any indication whether my suppositions are correct – just as in real life, with real people. Horn’s captivating mixture of restraint and vividness kept me enthralled across the continental United States – and what a joy that was.

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