A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

books I’ve been reading …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 2, 2008

My new position leaves me with free time on weekends (a luxury I haven’t enjoyed for years), as well as roughly 20 minutes of commuting time every morning and evening. I’ve been putting all this time to good use by catching up on a shelf’s worth of books that I have ordered over the course of the past year but not yet found time to read.

The first was the bittersweet family memoir Kisses from a Distance, written by Raff Ellis (Elias). His maternal grandmother was the product of an unhappy alliance between members of two elite Maronite families in Ottoman Syria: the Hobeiches and the el Khazens. Elite, but deeply impoverished – which is what led their son, a man with the Hobeiche name and the desire for financial security to match, to marry off his sister to a ‘nameless’ young Lebanese man newly returned from the United States to look for a local bride, with a general goods store and bright prospects for the future. That man and that auctioned-off woman would become Ellis’ parents – and despite the initial promise of a rented store, they ended up living a very hard life, trying to keep their store (and family) afloat.

Ellis moves charmingly from one side of his family to another, and intersperses the history of their lives with his own memories of visiting Lebanon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The book is published by Cune Press, a small but very good Seattle-base publishing house, which has published a number of books on the Middle East and Arab culture. Kisses from a Distance is a sweet book, but its not a fairy-tale. I cheered for the Ellises when their store did well, and I grieved for them when tragedies struck.

The next book I read was one that I intended to be a totally brainless summer read: a novel with a bit of a mystery to spice things up, and a back cover reference to Lebanon. Alex Carr’s An Accidental American, whose main character is a half-Lebanese, half-American forger recently released from a French prison, was 100 times better than I had anticipated: well-written and utterly gripping.

If you’ve ever been tempted to imagine how the bombing of the Marines barrack was planned or executed, and what it meant for Beirut’s already frayed inter-communal bonds, this novel is for you. It has haunted me since I set it down a month ago – its that good.

The most recent book I read is From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Mid-Century America, by Jack Marshall, another family memoir. Marshall (original name: Meshaal, which you can relate either to the Saudi prince or the Hamas representative – your choice!) is the son of two Middle Eastern Jewish-Arab-Americans, one from Aleppo and one from Baghdad. Their families had emigrated to Brooklyn in the early 1900s, and Marshall’s memoir is rich with the texture of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, whose culture, food and language dominated his childhood. (I was particularly interested to note that the Arabic terms that he includes have largely to do with food and/or insults.)

Marshall’s parents seem to have had a deeply unhappy marriage, but he and his siblings remained close, and the book – a seamless mixing of past and present – is laugh-out-loud funny. So choose your reading site carefully – I read it on our flight to Iowa last Friday, where mercifully H was my only seat companion (and even he gave me a few odd looks when I disintegrated from quiet chuckling to big guffaws). You can buy the book from Amazon – and I hope you do!

One Response to “books I’ve been reading …”

  1. nicolien said

    Thanks for the reviews! Will definitely try to get my hands on that last one.

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