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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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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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I read a pre-publication review of this debut novel by Swan Huntley and thought it sounded different. It is. It’s the story of Catherine West, a wealthy, bored forty-three year old woman from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been engaged twice, and wants desperately to be married. Her sister Caroline is married to a pediatrician and has three kids. Their mother, Elizabeth, a somewhat stereotypical cold rich woman with strong opinions, has Alzheimer’s and lives in a swanky assisted living facility. Catherine lives on her trust fund, although she owns a small store selling expensive art greeting cards. Her best friend, Susan, is also wealthy and owns a small bonsai store.

If this all sounds boring, it seemed that way to me too at first. But in the opening pages, Katherine meets William Stockton, and her life seems to finally head in the direction she’s always wanted. He’s marriage material, she can tell, and before long they’re engaged. She seems to notice that she has deeper conversations with her masseuse and her wedding planner than with William, but she’s willing to deal with it.

But her mother has an immediate reaction to the news that she is dating William. He tells Catherine he broke an expensive, irreplaceable vase once, as a child, when he was at their apartment with his parents. But Catherine suspects there is more to the story. As the novel unfolds, she tries to understand why her mother can’t stand the idea of William being her son-in-law, and readers learn the secret her parents kept for decades.

That part is interesting, and I enjoyed the mystery of it, even though the secret turns out to be pretty awful. But I also really liked watching Catherine begin to grow up, finally, as she goes through the discovery and eventual emotional fallout. She is trying to be as good a person as she can be, even if her way of being that isn’t terribly well informed. She tells herself she’s not an awful rich person because she provides her housekeeper health insurance, for example, and works in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Most of the time she is still completely out of touch with reality, but by the end of the book she’s working on being vulnerable emotionally with someone instead of awkwardly aware of how her wealth separates her from others. I also really enjoyed the way Huntley writes about Catherine’s relationship with Caroline, and the way the sisters interact with their mother, who has never shown either of them much love.

The story isn’t new — money can’t buy happiness, you have to make your own way in the world, even if your family gives you every advantage, etc. Catherine thinks to herself, towards the end of the novel, “I had thought that beauty was in the flashy, pretty things you acquired to prove that you were happy.” But she has figured out, “Our lives could be beautiful in the quietest ways, and already were.” In some ways it’s hard to understand why she didn’t know that all along, but when you consider her family life, maybe it’s not. We Could Be Beautiful is a fun, entertaining read, but not weightless — I’m still thinking a couple of days later about the characters and their lives.

 

 

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There are a lot of new books that interest me but lately I’ve turned to the “to be read” shelves to try to chip away at the endless piles of books I have been meaning to get to. Part defense mechanism to keep the Computer Scientist from “tidying” the bookshelves? Maybe. Also, there is comfort in the familiar, and often books I buy are by favorite authors or on favorite topics.  Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Drabble. This was no exception, even though it was a little bit depressing. First of all it’s a novel set in the early 80’s and many of the socio-political issues Drabble mentions are still prevalent — wars, middle east conflicts, economic disparity, cultural misunderstanding, lack of equal opportunity for women, and so on. Also this is a novel about a circle of London friends in middle age, and they’re all a damn sight more successful than I am.

But they are people I’d want to know. Kate Armstrong is a writer specializing in women’s issues. She’s a single mother in London, living what seems to be a fairly charmed life. Except for the hate mail she gets, and the person she thinks it’s from. And several other stressful things. One of the biggest is the end of her long relationship with her best friend Evelyn’s husband, Ted. When Evelyn ends up in the hospital, caught in the midst of a domestic dispute in her job as a social worker, Kate sits with the children until Ted can get home. Then she sits with Ted, talking, and thinks, “They would gaze at one another forever, good friends perhaps, old allies, old enemies, across this impossible void, trying new voices, new gestures, making true efforts to hear, to listen, to understand.But hopelessly, hopelessly.”

She goes on a few sentences later, “Men and women can never be close. They can hardly speak to one another in the same language. But they are compelled, forever, to try, and therefore even in defeat there is no peace.” Drabble looks at that question, of whether men and women speak the same language, through Kate’s complicated web of family and friends, and through Hugo’s and Evelyn’s perspectives as well. The Middle Ground may be about middle age but it’s also about the space between people, even people who are very close.

Drabble makes this very complex thing crystalize in small moments. Her characters and their thoughts drive the novel; to me this is far more compelling than a page turner (although I sometimes crave those as well) even if it’s harder to read a book like this is tiny snippets before bed. I love immersing myself in imagined lives, messy and meaningful as my own is, entirely unrecognizable and simultaneously entirely recognizable. To paraphrase Paul Harding, Drabble’s work is true in a way I’ve always known to be true, but written in a way I’ve never read before.

When I read Drabble’s fiction I am left feeling a little better about the world and little bit expanded, in heart and mind. Which is why I read. Also on my to-be-read shelf, Drabble’s memoir, A Pattern in the Carpet, which was a birthday gift from a book-loving friend. I look forward to reading it soon.

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