About Time I Read It: Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne

You probably remember the novels featured in my two previous posts, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and The Sleeping World I found among the new releases and featured titles displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance of my public library. Interestingly enough, the topic of this post, Teddy Wayne’s debut novel Kapitoil  I also discovered sitting on one of those shelves. But that was way back in 2010, right after it was published and prominently displayed on the New Books shelf. You see, almost a decade ago on several occasions I saw Wayne’s novel sitting there and while I toyed with reading it, alas I never did. Nevertheless, its title stuck in my head and for years off and on I thought about reading it. Then, about a week ago I got the itch to finally do so. Luckily for me, I was able to find an available copy at my public library. Much like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I burned through Kapitoil in no time. And I enjoyed it.

Our story begins in the fall of 1999 when Karim Issar, a 20-something, self-taught computer programmer from the Arab nation of Qatar travels to New York City to assist financial giant Schrub Equities in safeguarding its IT infrastructure from the looming disaster known at the time as the Y2K bug. Finding this particular project simple and uninspiring, the highly capably and talented Karim shifts his attention to a side project, a computer program that uses news articles to predict changes in oil prices. Soon his new program is earning the company tons of cash, which does not go unnoticed by founder and CEO Derek Schrub who begins taking the young Karim under his wing, showering him with attention and lavish perks. But even though Karim is on the fast-track to wealth and prestige, he worries his invention is merely making money off the misfortune of others. He also fears losing ownership of the program, and with that his chance to  better humankind by using the program’s core algorithm to track and prevent global disease outbreaks.

I enjoyed Wayne’s novel and perhaps what I liked most about it was seeing Karim slowly acclimate to American life. Through countless fits and starts, he gains a deeper understanding of American English as well as our nation’s nuanced, and at times contradictory cultural mores. Awkwardly, he makes only a few friends, but those friendships are authentic and meaningful. Kapitoil reminded me a lot of movies like 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson and 1986’s Crocodile Dundee in which a relatively innocent outsider finds himself in a large American city and in process of learning the ropes we the audience see our own culture in a new light as it’s perceived through the eyes of a foreigner.

In conclusion, I found Kapitoil an enjoyable read. Since Teddy Wayne has written a few more novels since Kapitoil was published almost a decade ago, I have a feeling I’ll be reading more of his stuff in the future.

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Filed under Arab World, Fiction, Middle East/North Africa

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

During the spring and summer of 2014 I frequently dropped by the Central Branch of my public library just to see which new books were displayed on the shelves just inside the main entrance. While most of the featured material consisted of newly acquired stuff, there were tons of librarian’s choice selected books as well. As a result of these little side trips I discovered a number of quality novels like Lauren Grodstein’s The Explanation for EverythingAndré Aciman’s Harvard Square, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Matthew Olshan’s Marshlands. Once home, I spend my evenings sitting outside my door reading these recently published works of fiction frequently with an adult beverage in hand and accompanied by friendly neighborhood cat or two. Good times indeed.

With the return of summer, I found myself longing for those pleasant evenings of drinks and good fiction. (Unfortunately, since then I moved, and it’s hard for the neighborhood cats to make it to my third floor balcony.) So recently I’ve gone back to raiding the those shelves near the main entrance of the Central Branch. One of the novels I recently grabbed off those shelves, The Sleeping World wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the other Vendela Vida’s 2016 novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our story begins with our nameless 30 something female protagonist traveling solo on a transatlantic flight from Florida to Morocco on trip that vaguely feels like a personal vacation but without any hint of joy or pleasure. Upon checking in to her hotel, she’s quickly robbed of her credit cards, passport and other valuables. After visiting local police station only to be “reunited” with another woman’s credit cards and ID, she opts to spend her time in Casablanca living as that woman, knowing full well she could end up in jail or something worse. Before long she’s noticed by a local film crew shooting on location in Casablanca and gets hired as a fill-in body double for the movie’s starring American actress. The two women soon bond over gin and tonics while swapping relationship horror stories. With this series of improbable events behind her our heroine has shed her previous identity and reinvented herself as a minor league Hollywood jet-setter.

More than one reviewer described this novel as taught and I wholeheartedly agree. Vida’s writing is tight and to the point. To risk sharing any spoilers, let’s just say she doesn’t reveal everything at once, but by the time you get to the end everything has unfolded nicely.

If, after reading The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty you find yourself in the mood to read more about Morocco, I would suggest novels like Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Leaving Tangieras well as nonfiction pieces like Joseph Braude’s The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty served as my introduction to the writing of Vendela Vida. Her excellent novel has left me craving more. I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of her stuff.

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The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

A couple of weeks ago I found myself rummaging around the new book section at my public library’s Central Branch when I came across what I thought was a novel set in Spain by a Spanish author. Reading the novel’s brief description, I could see the setting for The Sleeping World takes place two years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco as the nation begins taking its first shaky steps toward democracy. Duly intrigued, I grabbed it along with another book and headed for the automated check-out kiosk. Later that night, I began reading it. Pleasantly sucked in at first, I soon realized this was one of those novels I wasn’t enjoying as much as I’d hoped, but thankfully it had enough good things going on that I continued to read it. Oh well, sometimes that’s the way it is with debut novels.

Written not by a Spaniard, but actually an American born and raised in the Midwest, Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’ first-time novel follows the adventures and misadventures of a small group of college age friends, the focus of which is Mosca, a rebellious young woman whose parents and brother were murdered by Spain’s Fascist security forces. Drifting from protest to protest and dingy bar to dingy bar across Spain, Mosca’s small band of misfits passionately yet aimlessly stumble about fueled by a steady diet of drugs, alcohol, Marxist-flavored radical politics and early punk music.

While some reviewers and readers enjoyed Fuentes’ novel, I on the other hand merely found it OK. I enjoyed the author’s glimpse into the turmoil of early post-Franco Spain but overall The Sleeping Years was not a big hit with me. On the other hand, I take comfort in knowing this is Fuentes’ first novel and as a novelist, she shows considerable promise. Therefore, with that in mind I look forward to her next novel which I’m betting will be much more to my liking.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

Books About Books: The People and the Books by Adam Kirsch

About 10 years ago Grove Atlantic Press published a series of books called Books That Changed the World. By enlisting established writers and other subject matter experts to write a brief “biography” of some of history’s most seminal books, Grove Atlantic produced a nice line of books devoted to the West’s most significant works. With Karen Armstrong writing about the Bible, Christopher Hitchens discussing Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Bruce Lawrence weighing in on the Quran, how could any lover of history, comparative religion or bibliophile not fall in love with a series like this.

Late last year, I learned  W. W. Norton & Company recently published a book by Adam Kirsch in which he took Grove Atlantic Press’ Books That Changed the World concept and applied it to the great works of Judaism. When I discovered my public library recently purchased a copy I immediately put it on reserve and before long I had my hands on a treasured copy. The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature is gifted and poet and literary critic Kirsch’s history of Judaism as seen through what he considers, and probably rightfully so, its most important books. From the Biblical books of Deuteronomy and Esther to the Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories (think Fiddler on the Roof) it’s a detailed but still readable and relatively concise look at the books that profoundly shaped Jewish history.

I found The People and the Books full of fascinating and thus pleasant surprises. For instance, I never would have considered the book of Esther such a significant text, but after one takes into account the substantive issues it touches on like assimilation, civic duty and the threat of genocide, all within a very surprising secular context (it’s probably the only book in the Bible, including the Christian New Testament that rarely, if ever mentions the name of God) one quickly realizes Kirsch appreciates the book’s vital significance. While I expected to see mentioned in a book like this works by luminaries Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, Maimonides and Spinoza, my own subject matter ignorance precluded me from considering worthy of inclusion the writing of  Tsenerene, whose Yiddish paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible served as one of history’s early adventures in chic-lit.

I didn’t know a lot about The People and the Books before starting it but in the end, Kirsch impressed me. (The only part of the book I didn’t like that much was portion on the Zionist fiction of Theodor Herzl.) Not only has he crafted an excellent book but my goodness the man knows his stuff. For anyone seeking quality books on Jewish history, The People and the Books should by all means be including in that reading list.

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Soviet Spotlight: The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel

The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet JewryLast year, when I heard the news Elie Wiesel passed away like many others I was saddened because the world lost not only a powerful writer and wise man but also a survivor one of history’s darkest episodes. Over a prolific career spanning over half a century, his extensive body of work was undoubtably shaped by not just the horrors of the Holocaust but also his quest for meaning in the modern age. Throughout his many writings he asked how does a Jew, or really for that matter any person live a just and fulfilling life?

Saddened to hear of his passing, I later found myself inspired to read more from his extensive body of work. I even thought about doing some sort of ongoing series, perhaps calling it an Elie Wiesel retrospective. Unfortunately, like so many blogging projects I’ve vowed to embark upon, I never got around to doing so. Typical of me.

I stumbled upon his book The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry completely by accident while fumbling through my public library’s catalog of available Kindle downloads. Seeing it was a collection of Wiesel’s newspaper dispatches he wrote in 1965 chronicling his travels across what was then the western portion of the former USSR observing Jewish life under the authoritarian rule of the Communists I simply HAD to borrow this book. So of course, I did.

Despite being a slim book (the paperback version is only 144 pages) it nevertheless punches above its weight. Wiesel recalls in detail the conversations he had with his coreligionists throughout the major cities of the USSR including Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Vilnius. He describes meeting Jews who are free, but not completely free of oppression. He learns despite the Soviet lines of proletariat equality and all men are brothers old prejudices die hard. The USSR’s Jews are still looked at with suspicion by some in power, and are seen as “rootless cosmopolitans” with questionable allegiance to the Soviet state. Worse, some see them as a potential fifth column secretly supporting America or the (then young) modern state of Israel. All of this is made worse by living under one of the mid-twentieth century’s most oppressive regimes.

The Jews of Silence left me wanting to read more stuff by Wiesel. It also made me wanna read Gal Beckerman’s 2010 book on the Jews of the USSR When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone which I’m happy to report I bought myself as a Christmas present late last year. So with that in mind, look for more books by Wiesel and one by Beckerman to show up on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The topic of this post, Sarah Waters’ novel The Paying Guests has been on my list to read for about three years, ever since I heard Maureen Corrigan’s glowing review on Fresh Air. My desire to read Waters’ novel was reinforced not long after that, when a well-read co-worker of mine raved about it. But I think it was reading Margaret MacMillan outstanding history book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World with its detailed look at Europe in the immediate post-WWI era that finally inspired me enough to read The Paying Guests. (Set mostly in the London district of Camberwell, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, not to mention maybe even another reading challenge or two.) So duly inspired, I found an available copy through my local public library and began reading it. I’m happy to report I was not disappointed.

I won’t say too much about the story, but for those unfamiliar with The Paying Guests it takes place in 1922, when a down on their luck mother and daughter team decide to solve their cash flow problem by renting a room to a young married couple. Of course any situation in which a family is left with no choice but to share their home with a couple of strangers is not the best of all possible worlds. However, when a lesbian romance blossoms between daughter of the house Frances and border Lillian you know things will end badly. You just don’t know when and disastrous it will be in the end.

While many, rightfully so, have praised this novel for its charged but nevertheless nuanced eroticism, I’d like to applaud The Paying Guests for other reasons. One, as far as I can tell Waters researched the hell out of it. Reading it, you feel like you’ve been transported back to England in the years immediately after World War I. Two, undoubtably because Waters long ago established her bona fides not just a lesbian writer, but one who excels at portraying how those romances could have played out in historical contexts much less accepting than our present one. (In one interview she prided herself on her ability to “pay attention to women’s secret history and lives.”) Since I can’t articulate it better than Maureen Corrigan did back in September of 2014, I’ll just quote her:

What’s so immediately compelling about our protagonist, Frances Wray, is that, in a way that doesn’t seem at all anachronistic, she’s comfortable in her own queer skin. It’s most of the rest of the world — and, tragically, some of the people in her own house — who have serious problems with Frances and her so-called unnatural sexuality.

Three, for all the above-mentioned reasons and probably a few others I didn’t mention, The Paying Guests is just one hell of a well-written novel. It’s got me wanting to explore more of Sarah Waters’ stuff and something tells me that’s not a bad thing.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

About Time I Read It: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

My last post featured The Golem and the Jinni, a novel we read for my fiction-oriented book club. The post before that featured The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, an anthology we read for my science and nature themed book club. The subject of this post, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness we read for my nonfiction book club. Three posts, three books, three book clubs. That’s how we roll at Maphead’s Book Blog.

Published back in 2012, The New Jim Crow has been on my list to read for half a decade or so, ever since I saw it mentioned on a number of my favorite book blogs. Alexander’s insightful, hard-hitting and heavily footnoted analysis of how and why our supposedly colorblind criminal justice system has stacked the deck against the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has generated and continues to generate a ton of buzz, especially among those involved in the Black Lives Matter campaign. With more considerably more African-American men languishing in prisons, jails or subject to some sort of parole or probationary restrictions than enrolled in college, all of this happening in a nation that recently boasted a two term African-American President, not to mention countless anti-discrimination laws on the books should cause any intelligent American to take a step back and ask what’s wrong with this picture.

After taking a detailed and focused look at our nation’s history Alexander concludes while America successful dismantled the old Jim Crow system of laws and practices that kept African-Americans away from voting booths, jury boxes and decent public schools and colleges a more subtle and sophisticated means of societal control has arisen in its place. This one, while officially racially blind, targets black and brown-skinned individuals in the guise of the War on Drugs and assorted get tough on crime measures. Focussing these aggressive policing measures on the nation’s African-American and Hispanic communities has resulted in not only high incarceration rates, but also political disenfranchisement; (in many states felons can’t vote) and high unemployment; (most employers are hesitant to hire ex-cons). In The New Jim Crow Alexander asserts our nation’s zealous anti-drug crusades have produced an American version of Apartheid.

I guess my only knock on The New Jim Crow is it could have used a tad more editing. Reading it, I felt Alexander’s editor could have cut about quarter of the material. By doing so it could have created a tighter and more focused book without sacrificing the author’s powerful message. Lastly, while her critics might accuse of her of bias or promoting her own political agenda, one must remember her book is a call to arms. And you can’t have a call to arms without passion.

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Filed under Current Affairs, History