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Posts Tagged ‘family drama’

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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All Right Here, by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is published by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. I buy fiction for my public library and I know “inspirational” (mainly Christian) fiction is big business. I figured the demand comes from a sizable segment of the reading public that doesn’t want much sex, violence, or bad language in a book.

But Armstrong includes some of each — sex, violence, and bad language, albeit very gently portrayed — along with adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, premarital sex, and abortion. Granted the abortion serves as a plot point to explain why one of the main characters is kind of a jerk to his wife. But I was pleasantly surprised that although Gardner’s characters frequently pray and mention their faith, their actions speak louder.

Ivy Darling and her husband Nick (he of the jerky behavior) are well rounded characters and I found myself thinking I’d like to hang out with Ivy. Despite her faith, Ivy’s not always sure what she should do or what’s happening in her life. Which I appreciated.

And which makes the book a lot like mainstream women’s fiction. All Right Here is about family and friendship, possibility and love, pain and forgiveness. When the book opens, Ivy is wondering who will live in the run down house next door. It turns out a woman moves in with three kids, and one day, Ivy finds them on their porch, their mother gone. She does not hesitate to take them in.

The kids are black and “from away,” and small town Maine, most especially Ivy’s in-laws, don’t exactly embrace this unorthodox turn of events. I loved Ivy’s unequivocal open hearted compassion for the kids, and her extended family’s similar response. I also liked Nick’s honest hesitation. Gardner addresses something I’ve never read about in mainstream fiction: infertility from the husband’s point of view. And I enjoyed the fact that the path to becoming a family isn’t smooth — Nick is not instantly in love with the kids, and isn’t even sure he likes them much, and that seemed very realistic to me. As did, unfortunately, the open racism the kids face.

An overtly religious point of view isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d recommend All Right Here to readers who like inspirational fiction. Gardner writes well, and despite a few “typecast” folks, her characters are interesting, especially Ivy. The kids are too, and although the musically talented Jada and athletic Hammer are a little predictable, the teenaged DeShaun turns out to be good at inventing fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. Which is just as quirky and charming as it sounds. I appreciated that Gardner didn’t just make him a tough guy or get him in trouble, which is where the book appeared to be heading at one point.

Gardner introduces Ivy’s and Nick’s siblings and parents, but I was more interested in their new family than in the subplots. The way the book ended, and the subtitle (A Darling Family Novel), indicate sequels are forthcoming and that the next one might focus on Laura, Ivy’s troubled twin sister who isn’t too thrilled with her large, close-knit family. That story didn’t interest me as much, but I’m curious enough to want to find out what happens to Jada, Hammer, & DeShaun that I’ll be looking for the next book.

 

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Full disclosure: I’m one of those nuts who got up before dawn to enjoy uninterrupted hours of BBC America coverage of both the royal wedding and The Queen’s Jubilee.  So perhaps I’m the target demographic for Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, a debut novel from established historian and biographer William Kuhn.  I read it to write a brief review for the Concord Public Library.*

Sometimes it’s just nice to read a book you can tackle in one or two sittings, one that is witty and smart but not overbearing. Kuhn works in a variety of “issues” but I never felt like the book was messagey, even when it touches on mental health or other serious topics. Mostly I got a kick out of the clever but respectful portrayal of The Queen; we see her making marginal notes in biographies of herself, struggling with her computer and vowing not to call the IT woman again, annoyed with rogue tweets (“it’s gin o’clock!) by someone impersonating her.

There are a number of other characters, some of whom I warmed to more than others, but none of whom felt extraneous to the story. I enjoyed the train scenes very much; Kuhn’s portrayal of The Queen’s fellow passengers was terrific and reminded me of people I heard and saw on our recent trip to England. All in all, a nice little comedy of manners, which is something I always appreciate.

Here’s my review, a version of which will come out in January’s “Beyond the Bestsellers” and various other places.

Historian William Kuhn’s debut novel is reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Queen Elizabeth II is feeling low. She decides a visit to the decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, which is moored near Edinburgh, might be just the thing to set her right again. The Queen boards an ordinary train at King’s Cross Station with a string of staff on the trail, trying to keep her safe and to keep her adventure private. Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs fans will enjoy the stories of her majesty’s dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry, stable girl, and butler, as well as a clerk in a posh cheese shop. Kuhn weaves their stories — touching on everything from the Iraq War to class and racial stereotypes, yoga, sexual orientation, aging, environmental politics, royal and family dramas, and Twitter – into the tale of the AWOL Queen, to humorous effect. A light-hearted, entertaining read packed with interesting tidbits about contemporary British life and the royal household.

* Since I mention my job here and quote from a review I wrote for it at work, it’s a good time to remind readers that my blogs represent my views and not those of my employer, and I am writing here as a private citizen.

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