Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Review: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

The Collaborator of BethlehemMatt Beynon Rees, The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Omar Yussef, a teacher at the Dehaisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, is a fussy, polite, middle-aged man with a combover. He’s the last person anyone would ever expect to make trouble, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of Bethlehem, where one wrong step (literally or figuratively) could place him and his family in lethal danger. But when a prominent Palestinian freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on whom you ask) is shot just outside his own home, Omar can’t help getting involved — especially when his friend George Saba, a Christian and therefore a convenient scapegoat, is arrested for the killing. Omar knows that George is innocent and even finds evidence proving that he could not have committed the crime. But Omar’s friend the police chief is unwilling to investigate the matter further, since clearing George’s name would anger the militant Palestinians who champion the dead man as a martyr. So Omar resolves to investigate on his own; but the more he digs into the events surrounding the murder, the more he risks his own life.

I don’t know if I can say I liked this book…it’s very dark and very serious, and “liking” doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to it. But I’m extremely glad I read this novel, because it introduced me to a setting and a conflict that I honestly know very little about. The book does a wonderful job of depicting everyday life in Bethlehem, where the threat of violence is omnipresent and where the voices of extremism are much louder than the voices of moderation and peace. I really appreciated that the book does not paint either Israelis or Palestinians as the “bad guys,” but rather focuses on the struggles of individual people to do the right thing (or not) in a terrible situation. This novel is technically a murder mystery, but I found the detective work to be the least interesting part of the story. The urgency of the plot comes not from the hunt for the killer, but from Omar’s race against time to save his friend George. Overall, I found this book a fascinating read and will probably seek out more mysteries featuring Omar Yussef.

Review: Suddenly, a Knock on the Door

Suddenly, a Knock on the DoorEtgar Keret, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (trans. Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander)

This collection of short stories is a strange mixture of realism and fantasy, comedy and tragedy. Keret is an Israeli author, and several of his stories reflect the current struggles of that country; one of them begins with a conversation in a restaurant and ends with a suicide bombing. But there is no grand political pronouncement in these stories, and ultimately they’re not about politics. Rather, they depict universal human experiences like sex, friendship, death, love, loneliness, chance, and fate. My favorite story in the collection (“What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?”) starts with politics but ends somewhere else entirely, as a documentarian interviews both Jewish and Arab residents of Israel and meets a man with a magic goldfish. Most of these stories are dark, and many are surreal, but all of them offer a fascinating perspective on the human condition.

I don’t often read short stories, and I’d certainly never read anything by Keret before, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this collection. Keret’s style is very understated and direct, which works well in his fantastical stories especially; it’s as though he’s telling a joke with a completely deadpan expression. I also think the stories as a whole are very well-crafted, with endings that are resonant and satisfying but don’t necessarily tie everything up too neatly. I definitely teared up on more than one occasion! As usual, a few of the stories didn’t quite work for me — the titular story in particular was a bit too clever for its own good — but overall I was very impressed with this collection and plan to read more by Etgar Keret.