Rodriguez Julia, Edgardo. The Renunciation: a Novel. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997.
Reason read: Puerto Rico’s Hostos Day is in January; to celebrate the birthday of Eugenio María de Hostos.
The year is 1753 in colonial Puerto Rico. Bishop Larra, desperate to bring calm to a slave population on the verge of revolt, arranges a marriage between Baltasar Montanez, a poor slave leader and Josefina Prats, the wealthy and white daughter of the secretary of state. The idea is to make the destitute population believe they can too can marry their way into wealth and equality; to calm black indignation and for a while it seems to work. There is peace in the community because if Baltasar can marry up…. Until Montanez’s true personality comes to light. He is not the hero everyone thinks he is. [As an aside, I tracked all of the different words and phrases used to describe Baltasar: enigma, hero, declasse, upstart, benefactor, traitor, puppet, emancipated slave, peacemaker, verbsoe, rhetorical, slightly pompous, of great intelligence, well-pleased, cynical, intruder, black, cane-cutter, handsome, a figure of profound historical significance…I could go on.] Here is a commentary on not only Puerto Rico’s political climate in the eighteenth century, but a study in human nature. Was the marriage orchestrated by Bishop Larra? Was the bride’s father involved from the beginning? Who holds the lie and who lives the truth?
A word of warning. Obviously, as most arranged marriages go, Baltasar and Josefina’s marriage is not a sexual one. Her enjoyment comes from peeping through the keyhole to spy on Baltasar’s legendary yet unimaginative orgies.
Author fact: Julia has received a Guggenheim fellowship.
Book trivia: The Renunciation is Edgardo Rodriguez Julia’s first English-translated work.
Nancy said: Pearl called The Renunciation “difficult but exhilarating” and if you are interested in colonial Puerto Rico you shouldn’t miss it (Book Lust To Go p 57).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Cavorting Through the Caribbean: Puerto Rico” (p 52).
Blackburn, Julia. Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman’s Life Among the Aborigines. New York: Vintage Departures, 1995.
Reason read: Australia Day is January 26th.
Julia Blackburn became fascinated by Daisy Bates quite by accident. In the beginning of her book Blackburn imagines Ms. Bates’s feelings and memories but by the middle of the book there is an odd shift in perspective and suddenly Blackburn assumes the role of Bates, talking in the first person as if she IS Daisy Bates. It was a little unsettling until I settled into the narrative…and then she switches back.
Through Blackburn’s words Daisy Bates became this larger than life figure; a woman trying to save the natives of Australia. At times it was difficult for me to understand her motives or her successes, but I learned to understand her passions. She truly cared for the people of the desert.
Line I had to quote, “I suppose it would have been awkward to pack and easily broken and anyway the skull of a good friend would not provide much comfort when one was feeling lonely” (p 95). On a personal note, when my first cat was ailing I seriously considered taking her to a taxidermist for eternal preservation. I loved her that much.
Another line I liked, “The sky was breathing; I could feel the cavity of the night expanding and contracting around me as if I was in the belly of the universe” (p 122). I feel that way about Monhegan sometimes.
As an aside, I am not sure what to do with the image of naked women with dingo puppies tied about their waists.
Author fact: Blackburn wrote several books which won awards. The most successful were Thin Paths and The Leper’s Companions. Neither are on my Challenge list.
Book trivia: Disappointingly there are not a lot of pictures of Daisy Bates. The best one is of her on a swing.
Nancy said: Pearl called Daisy Bates in the Desert “fabulous” (Book Lust To Go p 28)
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Australia, the Land of Oz” (p 26).
Ben Jelloun, Tahar. This Blinding Absence of Light. Translated by Linda Coverdale. New York: New Press, 2002.
Reason read: This one was chosen a little off schedule. I needed something for the Portland Public Library 2018 Reading Challenge for the category of a book that has won an International Dublin Literary Award.
This book was a hard, hard , hard read. Based upon true events, it is the story of an inmate of the Tazmamart Prison. Aziz was a soldier who took part in a failed assassination attempt on King Hassan II of Morocco. Hassan ordered his political enemies to be held in an underground desert concentration camp where they were kept in 6 x 3′ cells devoid of light or proper ventilation. Aziz and twenty-one other prisoners locked away without proper food or sanitary conditions. Many men went insane or died from uncontrolled illnesses and starvation. After nearly two decades in captivity, only four survived their experience. Because Ben Jelloun takes Aziz’s experiences and fictionalizes it with a first person narrative the story becomes even more intimate and heartbreaking.
If you are ever wallowing in your own pathetic cesspool of pity, try barricading yourself in a darkened room with only a hole to piss and crap in, a ceiling less than five feet from the floor, no heat or air conditioning with only a bucket of water too filthy to drink and starchy food too filled with maggots to eat. Or, if you are short on time just read this book. Your little life can’t be as bad.
Here is the heart of the story, “The hardest, most unbearable silence was that of light” (p 51).
Lines that stopped me short (and there were a lot of them), “What does a man think when the blood of other men runs down his face?” (p 6), “I felt death making itself at home in his eyes” (p 12), “Strangely enough, becoming time’s slave had set him free” (p 29), “It was a question of chance: you tell yourself you have plenty of time, you save a few books for later…and forget to read them” (p 68), “That night I tried again to sleep on the bed. It was just too comfortable for me” (p 181).
Author fact: Ben Jelloun has also won the Prix Maghreb award in 1994.
Book trivia: This Blinding Absence of Light won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004.
Nancy said: Pearl said This Blinding Absence of Light is “a difficult, soul-destroying read” (p 162). Interestingly enough, someone on Wikipedia said prisoners were not “actively” tortured. I find this really interesting. The decision to withhold light and food IS a form of active torture. True, these people were not tortured with acts resulting in pain but they faced starvation to the point of eminent death. I’m guessing the author of the Wiki page has never been hungry to the point of starvation; has never gone without light; has never experienced confining and unsanitary conditions for an extended period of time or faced the threat of scorpions stinging them in the dark. As Ben Jelloun said, “the entire body had to suffer, every part, without exception” (p 3).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “North African Notes: Morocco” (p 162).
Raswan, Carl R. The Black Tents of Arabia: My Life Among the Bedouins. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1935.
Reason read: The movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was released in December of 1962.
Raswan spent more than twenty years with different Bedouin tribes of Arabia. He went along with them hunting, raiding, battling and surviving as they migrated across the unforgiving arid desert. He submersed himself in the Ruala tribe, learning their customs and traditions on an intimate level. This intimacy and his passion for Arabian horses helped him escape enemy clutches when they were ambushed more than once. How he managed to avoid certain death was beyond me.
Raswan’s language has the ability to take the reader on his adventurous journey. In Black Tents of Arabia he had a way of describing sights and sounds that brought his wild experiences to life. Here’s one of my favorites, “In our tumble-down car there were now no less that seven men: Ibrahim, Ali, two Bedouin rafiqs, two soldiers, and myself; also a gazelle, a greyhound, and two hens. We were packed like sardines: we had to hold on to anything that we could and change grips when the hand threatened to go to sleep. But with thirteen arms interlaced (Ibrahim’s free arm controlled the steering-wheel) we prevented the car from falling apart, nor could any passenger fall out without the knowledge of the others” (p 122).
Quote I needed to quote: Here’s an example of romance in the desert. Faris says to his love, “The blade of my dagger reminds me that I shall never be at peace until the slender blossom bends before the storm of my love” (p 61).
Author fact: Raswan took all of the photographs featured in Black Tents of Arabia.
Book trivia: There are a generous number of photographs in Black Tents of Arabia. I counted over 65 photographs and they are remarkable.
Nancy said: Pearl said Black Tents of Arabia is “a hymn of joy and affection for the nomadic life” (p 25).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called Arabia Deserta” (p 23).
Owens, Mark and Delia. Cry of the Kalahari: Seven Years in Africa’s Last Great Wilderness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Press, 1984.
Reason read: Mark and Delia Owens were married in the month of December. Read this in honor of their anniversary.
In 1974 Mark and Delia headed to Africa to start a research project just one year after their wedding day. Cry of the Kalahari is the story of their seven years in the Kalahari Desert. Taking turns, they share their experiences living with brown hyenas, lion prides, and unpredictable jackals, among many other animals. Because most of the animals have never seen humans before they are neither threatened or antagonized by Mark and Delia’s presence. At face value, Cry of the Kalahari is romantic and idealistic.
Admittedly, I have a few issues with Cry of the Kalahari, beginning with the trivial. One, how many times they mentioned the temperatures being 120 degrees in the shade. You are in the Kalahari desert! What did you expect?
Two, their so-called research. They went to Kalahari not really sure what they wanted to work on. When they discovered there was little known about the brown hyena they set about to learn all they could about the species, then they added jackals, and yet after Bones, a male lion, was murdered by hunters they changed their focus to protecting all wildlife of the Kalahari. By the end of the book their focus had widened to include wildebeest. How they received funding for such vague and vast research is beyond me. However, the couple is quick to point out Cry of the Kalahari is not detailed report of their research. That will show up elsewhere they promised.
My third issue is probably the most personal. They claimed over and over they didn’t want to interfere with the wildlife because it would change the validity of their research. They cried as animals starved to death outside their food-laden tent. Yet they had no problem performing a makeshift surgery on Bones, a lion who had broken his leg, or smearing motor oil on Blue, another lion who suffered from parasites. Most likely both of these animals would have died without human intervention. Essentially, the Owenes actions disrupted the circle of life in the Kalahari.
As an aside, the description of the cheetah hitting the wire fence at 70 miles an hour is heart breaking.
Author(s) fact(s): The Owenses are no strangers to the media spotlight. They have been on numerous talk shows.
Book trivia: there is a generous selection of color photographs in Cry of the Kalahari, along with a smaller section of black and whites.
Nancy said: Pearl was actually talking about another book written by the Owenses when she mentioned Cry. Interestingly enough, in relation to Cry Pearl said Mark and Delia were “expelled from Botswana” because of this book (Book Lust To Go p 267).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Zambia” (p 266). Confessional: I deleted Cry Of the Kalahari from the true list of books I needed to read for the Challenge because Cry does not take place in Zambia.
Millhauser, Steven. Martin Dressler. New York: Random House, 1996.
Reason read: November is a fascinating time to be in New York City.
Martin Dressler, the ambitious son of a cigar maker, has big dreams even as a young child. He starts by delivering cigars for his father and finds an ingenious way to make profits soar. As a teenager, he starts his career employed as a young hotel bellhop. He catches the eye of the hotel owner and soon becomes his secretary and mentor. As a young man he falls under the spell of a mother and her two grown daughters while building hotels of his own. One daughter becomes his business partner when he delves into opening a chain of diners while the other daughter, Caroline, mystifies him with her silent, elusive personality. She reminds him of a girl he used to know…Strangely enough, he ends up marrying this shadowy, ghostly woman.
This is not a coming of age story. Readers watch as Martin goes through childhood and teenage years to adulthood without exposing friendships; it’s as if he doesn’t have any, puberty, or any other angst-y growing up tribulation. His personality is firmly grounded in business. There is a moment when Martin decides it is time for him to lose his virginity and almost without ceremony or fanfare, he visits a brothel. This becomes a matter of fact, once a week habit he continues into adulthood. Not much is made of sex either way. However, his wedding night is particularly uncomfortable.
What is especially fun to watch is late nineteenth century New York City growing up along side Martin. The street names change over the years. Buildings grow taller. Oil lamps are crowded out by electricity one by one. The Manhattan we know today competes with Martin’s metropolis of his dreams until they are both so large there isn’t room enough for the both of them. But, which New York lives on?
Quotes I found interesting, “She looked like a new painting, all wet and shiny, but already she was fading into the darkness between lamps” (p 138) and “Here in the other world, here in the world beyond the world, anything was possible” (p 292).
Author fact: at the time of publication, Millhauser taught at Skidmore College.
Book trivia: Martin Dressler won a Pulitzer Prize.
Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Martin Dressler in Book Lust, but in Book Lust To Go she hinted the book takes place in New York, but it’s not the Manhattan we know (Book Lust To Go p 236).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust from the chapter called “New York, New York” (p 170). Also from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Travel To Imaginary Places” (p 236).
Shah, Tahir. The Caliph’s House: a Year in Casablanca. New York: Bantam Dell Books, 2006.
Reason read: Morocco’s independence was obtained in November.
Everyone has a story of an event in their lives; how they met their sparkling spouse, how they came into their fascinating occupation, how they started an odd hobby for which they are extremely passionate. The most interesting stories are the ones that are life changing; an abrupt 180 degree turn from where they used to be. A hobby turning into a business so they can quit their dead end job, for example. Tahir Shah has such a story in The Caliph’s House. The London based travel writer was looking to move to Morocco. Tired of grey weather and bland food, he wanted to get back to the culture of his ancestry. After many false starts a classmate of his mother’s contacted him out of the blue in 2004 with an offer he couldn’t refuse: the sale of Dar Khalifa, the once home of a Caliph, a spiritual leader of Casablanca. Even though this is a story about living through a house renovation it goes beyond tiles and plumbing. Shah explores what it means to buy and restore a house in a post 911 society. Morocco struggles to be a paradise of tolerance. At the same time, Shah becomes intimately and intensely aware of “how things get done” when he hires a man of ill repute to be his right hand man. Encounters with thieves, possible murderers, even the mob are the norm. But, it is the exorcism that readers all wait for with breath held. Who in their right mind would slaughter a goat in every room of a mansion-sized abode?
Most startling takeaway – even Casablanca has a mafia.
Quote to quote, “There was a sadness in the still of the dusk” (p 1). Yes! I have always felt the melancholy amid the gloaming, especially on Monhegan. I can’t explain it.
Some funny quotes, “We were both blinkered by our upbringings” (p 105), “The nervous man pulled the lid off one of the toilets and fishes out half a dozen samples of cedar” (p 294), “But it was the first time I had hired a troupe of exorcists, and I didn’t know the protocol” (p 314), and “I like my meat to be anonymous, severed from its connection to life” (p 318). Don’t we all?
Author fact: Shah has a few videos on YouTube, including one of a tour of Dar Khalifa that is pretty cool. He talks about having to placate the Jinns and how he ended up having a grand exorcism with twenty-four exorcists.
Book trivia: the illustrations by Laura Hartman Maestro are wonderful, but what is most impressive is the assumed photograph of Dar Khalifa.
Nancy said: Pearl just describes a tiny bit of the plot.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “So We/I Bought or Built a House In…” (p 210).