Friday, August 14, 2009

Book Reviews

Book Review: Beyond Paradise وراء الفردوس by Mansoura Ez El Din: After establishing herself as one of Egypt's finest writers with her previous novel, Maryam's Maze, Mansoura Ez El Din decides to do something daring with her second novel. Shift gears and try something different and more difficult to pull off. Well, does she succeed? The novel, titled Beyond Paradise, at first seems to be her attempt at a grand Gothic novel a la some of the works of Joyce Carol Oates; a novel high on melodrama and with a large cast of eccentric characters. But to expect conventionalism from Ez El Din wouldn't be smart, and after the stunningly gripping (and Gothic) opening, the novel shifts gears and becomes a sprawling psychological study of several characters as told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator: a young woman seemingly grieving for her just deceased father. Ez El Din takes us on a compelling journey through the lives and psyches of the characters, and every now and then shows us their worst fears and nightmares with her assured style and penchant for nightmarish imagery. It's an intriguing piece of work, occasionally fascinating, and, above all, daring and stylish. And to me, the last sentence of the novel is sheer brilliance and manages to end the novel on an effectively chilling note.

Book review: The Low-Life الواطى by Mohamed Ghazlan: I am not a fan of socio-political novels, especially ones written by Arab writers. They usually tend to be full of anguish, heavy-handedness, and, above all, they are usually boring as hell. The Low-Life is an exception. It's a darkly satirical piece of work that manages to shed a light on the corruption eating Egypt from the inside out without digressing or preaching. The trick that author Mohamed Ghazlan (a journalist) admirably pulls off here is telling the tale through the first-person voice of a bitter, corrupt former VIP who has now lost favor with powerful Government officials, and therefore gets ostracized and his privileges yanked from under him. The tone of this delicious, wicked, and hugely entertaining novel effortlessly shifts between dark, suspenseful, and, occasionally, darkly comic, as we see a former giant used to getting everything he wants struggling to get people to answer his calls and treat him with respect. And just when you think Ghazlan has run out of tricks, he pulls another bunny out of the hat in the form a perfectly executed ending. Highly recommended, this is a breath of fresh air.

Extra! This edition's Extra! selection is the 1971 Egyptian film Adrift on the Nile ثرثرة فوق النيل , directed by Hussein Kamal. A rousing adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz's novel, this is a film that manages to be wildly daring, experimental, and heartfelt at the same time. With earnest performances, assured direction, and a mostly spot-on script, it is a near-perfect masterpiece about one of the major low points in Egyptian history. Unmissable.

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