Ma Belle-Mère d’Algérie

My mother-in-law is staying with us this week, which sounds like I’m setting up a rather stale joke. I’m not coming on all Henny Youngman, though—I very much enjoy her visits. First of all, they make my wife happy, and second, my mother-in-law is no mean chef. If you haven’t tried her couscous or her lapin à la bière et aux pruneaux, you’re missing out, let me tell you. More than that, listening to her talk about her life is better than watching whatever premium cable TV show currently has you on the edge of your seat.

She grew up in Blida, Algeria, part of a nuclear family that we’d all recognize, though her own mother was born into a polygamous household with sixteen siblings. My mother-in-law thus has more cousins and other relations than I can count, maybe more than a hundred. She describes what sounds like a fairly idyllic childhood, playing at the foot of the fruit trees her father planted in their courtyard and outrunning the boys down the street in her bare feet. She had pets, too, of the usual kind. You know, like a baby gazelle and a fennec fox. She also kept a lamb at one point, although I don’t think it followed her to school.

She did go to school, which wasn’t a universal practice for girls in that place at that time. Her father was by all accounts a thoughtful, gentle man, and if he wasn’t completely immune to the sexism around him, he must have had only the mildest case, because he treated his daughter with respect and afforded her as much opportunity as he did her brothers. Not all were so lucky, as the Francophone writer Assia Djebar has spent her career illustrating. She’s a near-exact contemporary of my mother-in-law, born in a neighboring community, who in novels such as Fantasia (trans. by Dorothy S. Blair) and Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (trans. by Marjolijn de Jager) has created a panorama of the female experience in North Africa from the nineteenth century to the present day...

The government in Paris struggled to maintain the status quo as Algerians fought against the French army and among each other for different kinds of independence. Those of French descent (often called pieds-noirs, or “black feet”) battled against Muslim traditionalists in what was effectively a simultaneous revolution and civil war. As a teenager, my mother-in-law rode along with ill-equipped French soldiers into dangerous territory, providing basic medical care to indigent villagers, particularly women. You might know that modern hospitals administer antibiotic eyedrops to babies immediately after birth, but did you know that in the field the juice from a sliced lemon can serve as a substitute? It did in the late 1950s in Algeria, anyway...

The half a million French soldiers dispatched to what were euphemistically called “operations in North Africa” felt ignored and unsupported, much as American troops in Vietnam did. Even afterwards, few wanted to discuss the war, but in the thick of the fight, one novel appeared that addressed it directly. In 1957, Daniel Anselme published On Leave, about three soldiers who return briefly to a home that doesn’t want them. It sank like a stone and wasn’t rediscovered until it was translated in 2014 by David Bellos. His introduction to the new edition expertly contextualizes the story and establishes Anselme’s brilliance. It’s doubtful that any novel has more closely examined the experience of men unmoored by war....Read More

Why Is This Night Different?

Why is this night different from all other nights? If you’re Jewish, that’s one of the famous four questions your youngest will be asking at tonight’s seder. Yes, Passover is here again. I’ve written about this holiday before, but this year I’ve been thinking less about Haggadot and more about fiction that allows us to reflect on Passover, probably thanks to Peter Matthiessen’s powerful new book, In Paradise. His death less than two weeks ago will no doubt add another layer of the silent reflection needed to process his final work.

A three-time National Book Award Winner, Matthiessen liked to address difficult subjects like the destruction of nature and peoples by the hands of men, the American Indian movement, and men wrongly convicted of murder. He enjoyed speaking for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.

In Paradise tackles perhaps the toughest topic of all: the Holocaust. The plot centers around a meditative retreat at the site of a former Nazi death camp. Matthiessen was a Zen Buddhist, and said that he had long wanted to write about the Holocaust but refrained because he wasn’t Jewish. The protagonist of In Paradise, Clements Olin, seems to be a fictional version of the author. Olin was born in Poland to a Jewish mother, but taken to America as an infant and baptized. In the book, he returns 50 years later with a faded picture in his pocket, to search for his mother in the place where she may have died....Read More

Italian Experiments

cover"They’re coming from every direction. The barbarians, that is." So opens Alessandro Baricco’s book-length essay on "the mutation of culture" that’s happening all around us. His complaint sounds overly familiar at first—the inhabitants of the 21st century are slaves to technology who have no sense of history, they value spectacle over substance and quantity over quality, etc.—but don’t write him off as a reactionary crank just yet. His book’s title, The Barbarians, is actually rather tongue-in-cheek. 

Baricco does think that the world we’re entering has been fundamentally altered, subjected to changes “radical and profound,” but he’s not condemning it, just trying to understand: “[P]erhaps those we call barbarians are actually a new species who have gills behind their ears and have decided to live underwater. Obviously to us, with our pathetic little lungs, it all looks, from the outside, like an imminent apocalypse. Where they breathe, we die. And when we see our children gaze longingly at the water, we fear for them and blindly lash out at the only thing we can see—namely, the shadow of a barbarian horde on its way.”

These happy mutants swim in every sea, of course, but Baricco chooses to sound the depths of just a few in his attempt to explain how their new world works. Being Italian, he starts with the topic of wine....

Inspired by Baricco’s example, I next sampled the work of another backward-looking, forward-thinking Italian writer. Back in the 1960s, Nanni Balestrini composed Tristano, a contemporary take on the legendary love story of Tristan and Isolde. It’s a short novel of ten chapters, each comprising twenty paragraphs. Balestrini’s notion when he wrote it was that the paragraphs within a given chapter could be read in any order, such that there would be limitless paths a reader could take through the story. Nearly fifty years later, his dream has been realized....Read More

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The Library Book Sale and the Pleasure of Whim Reading

The Friends of the Mercer Island Library book sale took place last week. I often take my kids to the weekly toddler story time, so afterwards we wandered over to pick out one or two children’s books. It should come as no surprise that the next thing I knew, I was walking out of the library with a stack of books higher than my head. 

Because the book sale consisted of local donations, browsing through the stacks felt like raiding the libraries of my neighbors. There’s something to be said for seeing your community through the lens of their bookshelves. If these are the books the people around me are reading, I’m perfectly content to be here.

Not surprisingly, my pile consisted of titles like Dora’s Potty Book and Curious George at the Zoo. But once I’d stocked up for the kids, the whole experience turned into a game of “I always meant to read that! It’s only two dollars….” I had to force myself to put back the massive tomes I knew I’d still never get around to reading, like The Son by Philipp Meyer. I was getting overwhelmed....Read More

Bookstore Books

You’ve noticed, I’m sure, how something can be ignored for years and then suddenly become a media darling. Hardly anyone gave a thought to zombies since the B-movies of the 1950s, for example, and then they started shuffling into magazines and onto TV shows, first as single spies and then in stinking, decaying battalions. For whatever reason, they were having a moment.

In that respect, bookstores are like zombies. We’re brainier, more vital, and better-smelling, of course, but we’ve also become the focus of increased attention. As we all hurtle into a confusing future that comes faster every minute, shops like ours have become a symbol of sorts. Traditional, authentic, and operating on a human scale, but also engaged with the life of the mind and therefore open to novelty, freshness, and innovation—no wonder everyone is talking about us.

The charm of the independent bookshop has been described dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years (the platonically romantic 84, Charing Cross Road is an ur-text) but the current fashion may have begun with the publication of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in 2012. We’ve written previously about the pleasing blend of high-tech caper and paean to print that author Robin Sloan produced, should you want to take a spin through our archives. Other recent books on the topic include Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, about a Parisian shop that stocks only masterpieces, and Deborah Meyler’s The Bookstore, which features an engaging cast of clerks who rally to support a young pregnant woman in Manhattan. More offbeat and serious stories have come from overseas of late, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina out of Guatemala, about a haunting book thief, and Tahar Djaout’s The Last Summer of Reason from Algeria, in which a steadfast bookseller resists theocratic vigilantes out to suppress art and human expression.

I’d been thinking for a while that it would be a good idea to write about these and other titles, but those thoughts, like so many of mine, stayed idle and vague. Until another new book arrived, that is. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin hit the shelves this week and immediately became the poster child for everything I’ve been discussing....Read More

Swindlers, Liars, and Pranksters

It’s April Fool’s Day this week, which means The Onion will wreak their annual havoc, Google will reach new creative heights, and my mother will celebrate her birthday. Despite these amusing and upbeat events, April Fool’s Day isn’t the innocent holiday it appears to be. A day dedicated to making people fill stupid and gullible has a definite dark side. With that in mind, here’s a short list of books that seem appropriate on April 1st.

The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald: There are eight books in The Great Brain series, but this one is my personal favorite. Set in a small Mormon town in southern Utah, the series chronicles an ordinary boy named J.D. and his life alongside his big brother T.D. (aka “The Great Brain”). The Great Brain is known for tricking people out of money, but in The Great Brain Reforms, T.D. supposedly repents and tries to correct the error of his ways.

While you need to read the other books in the series to fully appreciate The Great Brain Reforms, what’s different about it is that this is the part when J.D. realizes that T.D. isn’t as great as he thought he was, and worse, his big brother’s crimes aren’t as harmless as he once thought. So J.D. takes it upon himself to “fix” the Great Brain. The town children put T.D. on trial and he’s finally contrite. Despite the Great Brain’s repentance, at the end J.D. (and we) come to realize that despite the temporary triumph, T.D. will never change. And honestly, readers would never want him to, because as long as he’s not playing tricks on us, he couldn’t be more entertaining....Read More

 

Less Is More: Watson & Kestin

Bearing in mind my inclination toward the loose, baggy monsters of literature, a friend once quoted John Barth to me as a corrective: “Much can be said for minimalism.” I’ve never found the source for that remark (though it may be a distillation of things he wrote in a thirty-year-old New York Times article), but I think of it often. If you know Barth’s massive novels by reputation, it may sound like hypocrisy, but if you’ve read him you know that he can be terse when it’s necessary. And sometimes it is.

In a dry climate, a trickle of water over the dam can bring life while a flash flood can kill. Less is more. Maybe that’s why all those movie cowboys keep their mouths mostly shut. So I’ll take a lesson from Johns Wayne and Barth, skip the digression I’d planned about how the word laconic comes from the name for ancient Sparta, and get right to the point. Which is that reading something simple and straightforward can be a bracing tonic when you’ve stuffed yourself with words. I’ve been on just that kind of cleanse this week.

I first prescribed myself a copy of Larry Watson’s latest, Let Him Go, which turned out to be a perfect choice...

Next up was a novel by Hesh Kestin called The Lie....Read More

Novels That Predicted the Future

Here’s something I don’t believe in: fortune tellers. But this recent story from The New Yorker gave me pause. It appears that Vassily Aksyonov’s 1979 novel, The Island of Crimea (unfortunately out of print), envisioned Russia annexing Crimea, in a situation where the citizens bring the invasion upon themselves. Basically, the same thing that happened this past week. But I still maintain that authors aren’t fortune tellers. I will, however, concede that their suggestions might plant seeds. You never know what people will take away from a book.

Science fiction in particular loves to envision the future. Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story presented a future in which the United States defaults on its debt, economic chaos ensues, and China scolds us for being irresponsible. Sound familiar? Speculative fiction has a good chance of being right if the author assumes that things will always get worse....Read More

The Man in the Snow

A man is standing in the New England snow. He is paunchy and bald, of below-average height, wearing only unflattering white briefs. His eyes are closed. He is The Sleepwalker, a hyperrealistic statue devised by artist Tony Matelli and installled out of doors on the Wellesley College campus. He is part of, and an advertisement for, a Matelli exhibition at the college’s Davis Museum, and though the museum director, Lisa Fischman, has described him as “vulnerable and unaware against the snowy backdrop of the space around him … not naked … profoundly passive … inert, as sculpture,” he’s caused a considerable kerfuffle.

Many, perhaps even most uninitiated passers-by have at first assumed him to be a living person. A number have them have been disturbed by his presence and worse, alarmed. One student has circulated a petition citing him as “a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for many members of our campus community.” Hundreds have signed it. I’m a straight, cisgendered white guy, so I have to squint just slightly to see through the eyes of the signatories, but I do respect their view. Still, I wonder why more people aren’t first worried about the sleepwalker himself. I am, but that’s probably because he reminds me of someone.

Robert Walser was born in Biel, Switzerland in 1878 and by the early part of the 20th century had achieved some fame as a writer....Read More

Reading My Way Back to Ireland

With St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon, I am reminded that my Irish passport is due for renewal. You may wonder why a girl from Walla Walla who married a bookseller from New England even has an Irish passport and you wouldn’t be alone. The short, logical answer is that Ireland is generous in bestowing citizenship rights on the descendants of its residents.

The longer, more personal answer started in an old farm house on the edge of town where I could turn left and walk a mile through tree-lined streets to St. Patrick’s Grade School or borrow the always available pony from the neighbor lady and ride straight out through the green fields of the Palouse. And if I rode that pony far enough in a northwesterly direction, I would land right on the fields that my Irish great-great-uncles and their sister homesteaded long ago....

Nearly every Irish writer that I have read describes a character just a degree or two off from the ones in my own family. The books, of course, tell about them so much more beautifully than I ever could....Read More

(Our store journal keeps you posted on books we're excited about, our literary musings, and other reading-related rambles. If you like, you can sign up to receive our posts by email.)

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