Year of Shakespeare 2019

 

I signed up to join the 2019 Year of Shakespeare challenge with Hibernatorslibrary.  The goal is to read one comedy in January-April, one history in May-August, and one tragedy in September-December.

I plan to start with Taming of the Shrew.

Feel free to join me!

 

Deal Me In! Amy Silverberg, Suburbia!

I signed up for Jay at bibliophilica’s #DealMeIn2019 challenge.  The goal is to read 52 short stories this year.  The stories are chosen by drawing a random playing card.

This week, I chose the 4 of Diamonds.

The story is “Suburbia!” by Amy Silverberg, found in Best American Short stories 2018, edited by Roxane Gay.

“Suburbia!” is (for lack of a better word) an odd story.  It begins when the narrator is fifteen, and her father says “I bet you’ll leave here at eighteen and you’ll never come back. . . not once” (251).  The narrator agrees to the bet.  A week after her 18th birthday, her father takes the daughter to the train station and says goodbye to her forever.  (It did not seem that the daughter had been consulted about this trip.) The daughter does OK.  She gets a job as a waitress, makes some friends, and takes a few classes.  But eventually, she misses her family and wants to see them again, so she goes home unannounced.

She is surprised to find that the house she grew up in is tiny–smaller than a toaster.  She crouches down on her knees in order to talk to her parents.  They are embarrassed that she is seeing them like this, but otherwise they are doing fine.

The last line of the story is this:  “I thought this was a funny thing, the way the past and the future could both shrink down to a manageable size, like a pill to be swallowed, or the head of a match” (261).

I believe Silverberg is using the miniature house as a symbol.  When we are children, our families and our homes seem huge, all-encompassing.  After we grow up and look back on our homes, our families may seem in some way diminished.  One can understand why the narrator’s father would not want her to see them through the lens of her adult eyes.

I’m not sure what I think of this story.  I haven’t yet fully “digested” it.  In the back of the anthology, Silverberg included some notes on why she wrote the story.  I will quote part of what she wrote:

  “I’d just read the short story ‘The Paperhanger’ by William Gay and admire the mystery of it, how it seemed to go confidently into an unknown world, a world that felt a little surreal and a little absurd. . . .I was also in a workshop taught by Aimee Bender, and while I hadn’t set out to write anything with a magical realism element, I’m sure her stories. . . rubbed off on me–or if not the stories, then at least the courage or freedom to go confidently into that so called unknown world.”

I do like that idea of writers having the freedom to go confidently wherever they want to go.

*****
Have you read this story or anything else by Amy Silverberg?  Let me know what you think!

 

Back to the Classics 2017

I am reblogging Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics 2017 Challenge.  This is my way of announcing (for posterity) that I hereby join this challenge.  Bring. It. On.
Are you in?

It’s back! Once again, I’m hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 (US) prize from Amazon.com or The Book Depository!

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this s

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2016 {I think she means 2017} Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1967. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories).

5.  A classic published before 1800. Plays and epic poems are acceptable in this category also.

6.  An romance classic. I’m pretty flexible here about the definition of romance. It can have a happy ending or a sad ending, as long as there is a strong romantic element to the plot.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. For a good definition of what makes a book Gothic, and an excellent list of possible reads, please see this list on Goodreads.

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Three Men in a Boat, The Nine Tailors, Henry V, Fahrenheit 451, etc.

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  It an actual animal or a metaphor, or just the name. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, White Fang, etc.

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit. It can be real or imaginary: The Wizard of Oz, Down and Out in Paris and London, Death on the Nile, etc.

11. An award-winning classic. It could be the Newbery award, the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer Prize, the James Tait Award, etc. Any award, just mention in your blog post what award your choice received.

12. A Russian Classic. 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so read a classic by any Russian author.

And now, the rest of the rules:

  • All books must be read in 2017. Books started before January 1, 2017 do not qualify. All reviews must be linked to this challenge by December 31, 2017. I’ll post links each category the first week of January which will be featured on a sidebar on this blog for the entire year.
  • You must also post a wrap-up review and link it to the challenge no later than December 31, 2017. Please include links within your final wrap-up to that I can easily confirm all your categories. Also, it is OK to rearrange books to fit different categories in your wrap-up post — for example, last year I originally planned to use Journey to the Center of the the Earth in the Fantasy/SciFi/Dystopian category, but then I decided to count it as an Adventure Classic. Most books count count toward several categories, so it’s fine if you change them, as long as they are identified in your wrap-up post.
  • All books must have been written at least 50 years ago; therefore, books must have been written by 1967 to qualify for this challenge. The ONLY exceptions are books published posthumously.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible! You may also count books that you read for other challenges.
  • Books may NOT cross over within this challenge. You must read a different book for EACH category, or it doesn’t count.
  • Children’s classics are acceptable, but please, no more than 3 total for the challenge.
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link to reviews on Goodreads or any other publicly accessible online format. For example, if you have a Goodreads account, you could create a dedicated list to the challenge, and link to that with a tentative list (the list can change throughout the challenge).
  • The deadline to sign up for the challenge is March 1, 2017. After that, I will close the link and you’ll have to wait until the next year! Please include a link to your original sign-up post, not your blog URL. Also, make sure you add your link to the Linky below, NOT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION. If I don’t see your name in the original Linky, YOU WILL BE INELIGIBLE. If you’ve made a mistake with your link, just add a second one.
  • You do NOT have to list all the books you’re going to read for the challenge in your sign-up post, but it’s more fun if you do! Of course, you can change your list any time. Books may also be read in any order.
  • The winner will be announced on this blog the first week of January, 2018. All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, depending on the number of categories completed. One winner will be selected at random for all qualifying entries. The winner will receive a gift certificate in the amount of $30 (US currency) from either Amazon.com OR $30 worth of books from The Book Depository. The winner MUST live in a country that will receive shipments from one or the other. For a list of countries that receive shipments from The Book Depository, click here.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up at the linky below! I’ll be posting my list of possible reads for 2017 in the next couple of days. Happy reading!

Back to the Classics Reading Challenge

Book Shelf

 

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a Back to the Classics reading challenge for 2016.  Participants pledge to read 12 classic books throughout the year, following these guidelines:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1966.Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language.

5.  A classic by a non-white author. Can be African-American, Asian, Latino, Native American, etc.

6.  An adventure classic – can be fiction or non-fiction.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic. Dystopian could include classics like 1984.

8.  A classic detective novel. It must include a detective, amateur or professional. This list of books from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction is a great starting point if you’re looking for ideas.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title.  It can be the name of a house, a town, a street, etc. Examples include Bleak House, Main Street, The Belly of Paris, or The Vicar of Wakefield.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. If possible, please mention why this book was banned or censored in your review.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  If it’s a book you loved, does it stand the test of time?  If it’s a book you disliked, is it any better a second time around?

12. A volume of classic short stories. This must be one complete volume, at least 8 short stories. It can be an anthology of stories by different authors, or all the stories can be by a single author. Children’s stories are acceptable in this category only.

I hereby pledge to join this challenge.  I do not have a list of which books I will read, but I think I will read in the order of the list.  (I do not remember if that is part of the rules.)

Who else is in?

Around the World Reading Challenge, 2015

I invite everyone to join me in a reading challenge for 2015.  The rules are simple:

1)  Agree to read and blog about at least six books in 2015, with the following stipulations:

  • At least one book must be by a North American author.
  • At least one book must be by a South American author.
  • At least one book must be by a European author.
  • At least one book must be by an African author.
  • At least one book must be by an Asian author.
  • At least one book must be by an Australian author.

2)  The books may be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama–anything.

3)  The authors may be from any time period, dead or alive.

4)  If you want to participate, just indicate your interest, along with the link to your blog, in the comments section.

5)  After you have done a blog post for this challenge, indicate that you have done so in the comments section, include the name of the book and author, and provide a link to your post

That’s it!  Happy reading and blogging! Hope to read your posts next year!

Here is the link to the Official Around the World Reading Challenge Page: https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/around-the-world-reading-challenge-2015/

The Dante’s Inferno Weight-Loss Plan

In Dante Alighieri’s medieval poem The Inferno, the third circle of hell is reserved for the gluttons.   Everything in this circle is like a huge garbage dump.  The dead gluttons lie in a “putrid slush” while being deluged with “huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow.”  This landscape sounds almost as bad as Minnesota in March.

(For more information on The Inferno, see my previous post here.)

Illustration of Canto 6 by Stradanus
Illustration of Canto 6 by Stradanus

But that’s not all!  Added to this frozen rain of hell is the punishment inflicted by the triple-headed dog Cerberus, who “howls through his triple throats like a mad dog / over the spirits sunk in that foul paste. / His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm / his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws/ to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them”  (Canto VI, Circle 3, lines 14 – 18).  These gluttonous souls are buried like garbage, and the mad dog Cerberus devours them like so much leftover meat.

Dante believed the gluttons deserved such punishment because when they were alive, they could think of nothing better to do with their God-given gifts than to wallow in food and drink.  They thus deserve to spend eternity “rotting like a swollen log.”

In the past, whenever I read this description of the gluttons in hell, my first reaction was to think, “oh, crap.  I really need to give up those Snickers bars before I end up here.”  This time, though, reading about the Third Circle gave me a business idea.  I am going to create and promote the Dante’s Inferno Weight Loss Plan.  First, I will open up a chain of weight-loss centers across the nation.    My plan will work a bit like Weight Watchers.  Clients will agree to follow a reduced-calorie diet, and will meet once a week for a weigh-in.   If they lose weight, all is well.

However, if they do not lose weight, they will then be sent immediately (through a trap door) to  Dante’s Third Circle of hell, where they will remain for a week.  After being slobbered over and gnawed at for a week by Cerberus, they will probably become so nauseated and disgusted that they will not be able to eat much. They will come back after their “adventure” a few pounds lighter, but more important they will be motivated to stay on their diets forever, in order to avoid such punishment again.

With The Inferno plan, my clients will not only lose pounds, but they will lose the weight of their sins as well and can move on directly to Purgatory.

What do you think of my plan?  It’s brilliant, right?  All I need to make it work is a partner who is willing to invest a few billion dolllars to help build a replica of The Inferno.   (We could probably have it double as a theme park as well, now that I think of it.)

Are you in?

————

Want to know which circle of hell you belong in?  Click here to find out.

http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv

In Praise of Fallen Women

Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette
Engraving of Eliza Wharton by James Eddy, completed for the eleventh edition of The Coquette

If not for Fallen Women (aka strumpets, hussies, jezebels, floozies, trollops, and vixens), there would be no novels.  Female characters who have sex outside of marriage (often just once) and who then suffer grievously have excited the imaginations of our classic novelists more than any other subject.

A few examples off the top of my head include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  These novels were all written in the 19th century.

As the 20th progressed, fallen women no longer had to die.  Complete ostracism from polite society was deemed sufficient, as we see with Caddy in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence.   (In the case of Ellen Olenska, she was Fallen because of her divorce rather than sexual indiscretions.)

It all started with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel.  Clarissa was one of the first novels written in English, and one of the longest.  (I read the abridged version, which was around 800 pages or so.)  The plot revolves around the Lovelace, a dyed in the wool Cad, who lusts after Clarissa.  He spends several hundred pages trying to seduce Clarissa, who succeeds in resisting his advances.  Ever more desperate, he finally drugs her and rapes her.  Clarissa, who is now a Fallen Woman, spends several hundred more pages dying of anguish.

Seeing how successful Richardon’s novel was, many other 18th century writers in both England and the United States followed suit.  One of the most successful American novels of the 18th century was The Coquette or, The History of Eliza Wharton by Hannah Webster Foster.  Published anonymously in 1797, The Coquette was a fictionalized version of the real-life story of Elizabeth Whitman.

Coquette

Elizabeth Whitman was the daughter of a highly respected family with illustrious backgrounds.  She was known and respected for her wit, her intelligence and her charm.  Yet she died in a tavern, seduced and abandoned.  How could such a thing happen?  Foster tries to explain Eliza’s fall in her novel.

In The Coquette, Eliza was proposed to by an upstanding young clergyman.  She was not especially attracted to him, but she realized he was a good catch.  She vacillated about her answer.  In the meantime, she was pursued by a Bad Man who just wanted to seduce her for the fun of it.  Bad Man had no intention of marrying her, because he needed to marry for money.  Eliza knows at heart that she would not be a good fit as a clergyman’s wife because of her gay personality and love of fun.  She also knows that Bad Man has a bad reputation, but is attracted to him anyway.

As you might expect, things do not end well for Eliza, who ends up seduced, pregnant, abandoned, dead, and eaten by cats.  (The eaten by cats part was not technically mentioned in the book.)

The story of the real-life Elizabeth Whitman was fodder for countless finger-wagging sermons.    As one contemporary newspaper account intoned, Whitman “refused two as good offers of marriage as she deserved because she aspired higher than to be a clergyman’s wife; and having coquetted till past her prime, fell into criminal indulgences.”

Hannah Webster Foster’s novel paints a more nuanced picture.  As a reader, I was sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to marry someone she was attracted to, not just someone who was “good on paper.”  After all, her clergyman suitor was clearly interested in Eliza primarily because he found  her “hot.” I was also sympathetic to Eliza’s desire to enjoy her single state for a while and “date” more than one man.  (In the context of late 18th century America, “date” meant “talk to at balls or other public events.”).

Foster portrays Eliza as making some really dumb decisions.  But she also highlights how limited the choices were for young women of the time.  She also emphasized how narrow the path was for women who did not want to lose their reputations.

Alas, like so many other literary heroines afterwards, Eliza fell off her pedestal and into the gutter—swiftly and irrevocably.   She, like all the others, became fodder not just for cats but for all the voracious sermonizers who delighted in her ruin.

(This post is a continuation of my series on early American writers, in honor of Thanksgiving and my upcoming trip to Boston.)

What Fresh Hell Is This? Dante’s “Inferno:

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Dante
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of Dante

 

Medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote probably the most famous depiction of hell of all times.  In his Inferno, he wrote very detailed descriptions of the nine levels of hell.  For him, sins are not all created equal.  The first circle of hell is reserved for those who were not bad in life, just unbaptized.  The second circle is for those who succumb to lust.  The third is for gluttony, and so forth.  Each sin has its own punishment designed specifically for it.  For example, the lustful are forced to be blown about in a violent storm because they succumbed to the violent storm of lust  in real life.

Which level do you belong in?
Which level do you belong in?

At the center of hell lies Satan.  Although we tend to think of hell as a fiery place, Dante’s Satan is encased in ice, denoting his soul that is frozen to the love of God.

William Bougureau, painting of Dante's Inferno
William Bougureau, painting of Dante’s Inferno

Dante lived in the 14th century, so his conception of various sins was colored by the times in which he lived.  I think we need to update his map of hell for the present times.

I need your help for this.  If you were to create a map of hell as you see it, what/who would you put in the various levels?

For example, I teach at the college level.  If I were to make a map of academic sins, I might include the following:

–1st circle:  students who continually ask questions like, “When is this paper due?” or “What are we doing tomorrow” when all of this information is found on my carefully planned and copiously distributed syllabus.

–2nd circle:  students who missed class and ask the next day, “Did I miss anything in class yesterday?”

–3rd circle:  students who spend the entire class period looking down at their crotches, texting on their phones.

–8th circle:  Plagiarizers.

–9th circle:  Administrators who think people do not need to study literature.

(Obviously, this is a work in progress.)

Tell me about your levels of hell!

The Too-Wild-West: Amanda Coplin’s “The Orchardist”

MizB at shoudbereading hosts the weekly Musing Mondays event.

Here are the rules:

Musing Mondays asks you to muse about one of the following each week…
• Describe one of your reading habits.
• Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).
• What book are you currently desperate to get your hands on? Tell us about it!
• Tell us what you’re reading right now — what you think of it, so far; why you chose it; what you are (or, aren’t) enjoying it.
• Do you have a bookish rant? Something about books or reading (or the industry) that gets your ire up? Share it with us!
• Instead of the above questions, maybe you just want to ramble on about something else pertaining to books — let’s hear it, then!

Amanda Coplin
Amanda Coplin

I am currently reading Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist for one of my book groups.  Set in late 19th/early 20th century Washington State, it is the story of orchardist William Talmadge and two young women, Jane and Della, whom he befriends and tries to protect.   This is Coplin’s first novel, and she has received high praise from critics, deservedly so.

orchardist

I am only about halfway through, so I am not ready to make Grand Sweeping Pronouncements on the novel as a whole, except by saying that Coplin’s writing is beautifully evocative of a bygone era, and her characters are complex and engaging.

One thing that struck me about this novel was how utterly wild the Wild West was.  By that, I mean characters could live their entire lives with little to no contact with the larger world or even other people.  People could and did start their own homestead and live their lives with only the most minimal contact with society.

In today’s hyper-connected world, where we are constantly bombarded with information from around the world, this may seem appealing.  Such isolation, however, has a dark side.  We see this darkness in The Orchardist.  We learn early on that Jane and Della are runaways from what can only be termed sexual slavery.  A man named Michaelson keeps a brothel.  However, the brothel is full of children and young women who are kept captive there as slaves. It is unclear where these women came from, but it is suggested that many of them were kidnapped and several are the children of the slaves.  If a woman dares to escape, Michaelson sends out his men to hunt them down and bring them back.

Everybody in the sparsely populated community knows what goes on in Michaelson’s place, but nobody does anything about it.  This aspect of the novel puzzles me.  Surely, even in the Wild Wild West, there were laws about kidnapping and sexual slavery? Or did nobody care because the slaves were just “whores”?

Maybe some of you readers know more about the history of these times and can elucidate me.  I know that brothels existed (and still do), but I assumed the women working there were adults who chose this way to make a living.  Was Michaelson’s brand of sexual servitude for white women common in that day and region?

How to Create a Terrorist, Part I

The Sirens of Baghdad, by Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul
Yasmina Khadra, pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul

 

Note:  Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer  

Sirens of Baghdad
Sirens of Baghdad

Yasmina Khadra, Sirens of Baghdad.  Published in French in 2006.

The unnamed narrator of Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad lives most of his life as a peaceful, shy, naïve soul.  He is a Bedouin from the small, backwater Iraqi village of Kafr Karam, which lay mostly isolated from the tumult of the modern world.  The narrator notes that

“For generations beyond memory, we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts, contenting ourselves with whatever God put on our plates and praising Him as devoutly for the newborn He confided to us as for the relative He called back to Himself.  We were poor, common people, but we were at peace” (12).

This peaceful, if lethargic, existence careens to an abrupt halt, however, with the American invasion of Iraq.  At first, the Kafr Karam inhabitants try to ignore the violence occurring in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities.  Soon, though, the ravages of war come to them.

At this point, Khadra’s narrator begins his transformation from a peaceful village boy to a resistance fighter who is about to embark on a mission that, if successful, will destroy millions of people.  How can such a dramatic change occur?  Three key events catapult our protagonist into his short career as a terrorist.

The first event concerns a developmentally disabled young man named Sulayman who lives in Kafr Karam.  One of the symptoms of his disability was his habit of taking off running frantically until he passed out:  “Sulayman didn’t talk, didn’t complain, was never aggressive; he lived entrenched in his world and ignored ours totally.  Then, all at once, he’d give a cry—always the same cry—and take off across the desert without looking back”  (29).

One day, Sulayman accidentally cut off two of his fingers, and he needed to be rushed to a clinic.  The narrator accompanies Sulayman’s father on their trip to the next town, where the nearest clinic is found.  Unfortunately, their trip is interrupted by a checkpoint that blocked their route.  Two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped their car and started barking orders at them.  The American GI, in particular, intimidated the passengers in the car with his gigantic body, his rage, and his shouts.  Sulayman’s father pleaded with him, “I beg you, please don’t shout.  My son is mentally ill, and you’re scaring him.”  (55)

The black GI responded with even more rage, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains out!  Hands behind your head!”  (56)  The tensions of the exchange escalated, and eventually Sulayman became so scared that he bolted out of the car and started running away.  The soldiers assumed the worst and immediately started shooting.  They shot Sulayman so many times that his head “exploded like a melon; his unbridled run stopped all at once.”

Sulayman’s death left his family inconsolable and the narrator reeling with shock.  The Americans eventually realized they had made a mistake, “but they weren’t going to make a big deal of it.  Incidents of this kind were commonplace in Iraq.  Amid the general confusion, everyone sought his own advantage.  To err is human, and fate has broad shoulders”  (59).

The killing of Sulayman was just the first event that shattered the protagonist’s outlook on the world.  The second event involved the destruction of a Kafr Karam wedding party by American missiles.  The Americans had mistaken the wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. The results were devastating:

“The force of the explosion had flung chairs and wedding guests thirty meters in all directions.  Survivors staggered about, their clothes in rags, holding their hands out in front of them like blind people.  Some mutilated, charred bodies were lined up along the edge of a path.  Cars illuminated the slaughter with their headlights, while specters thrashed about in the midst of the rubble.  Then there was the howling, drawn out, interminable; the air was full of pleas and cries and wails” (93).

This slaughter, not surprisingly, appalled the narrator:  “I didn’t remember ever having borne a grudge against anybody, anybody at all, and yet there I was, ready to bite something, including the hand that tried to soothe me—except that I held myself back.  I was outraged, sick, tormented by a thousand thorns…” (97). And yet, he still remained peaceful, reasoning that “I held a better grudge against the coalition forces, but I couldn’t see myself indiscriminately attacking everyone and everything in sight.  War wasn’t my line. I wasn’t born to commit violence—I considered myself a thousand times likelier to suffer it than to practice it one day.”

This philosophy changes irrevocably one night when the narrator’s home was forcibly invaded by a squad of American soldiers looking for weapons.  As usual, they used excessive force, shouting obscenities and destroying the few valuables owned by the family.  Much more outrageous, though, was the way the GIs treated the family members, dragging everyone around and striking women into submission.

The way the Americans soldiers treated his father, however, was truly unimaginable to the narrator.  His father was frail and elderly and was not dressed when the soldiers knocked down his bedroom door.  He requested that the soldiers let him get properly dressed, but they would not allow it.  The father could not permit himself to appear in front of his family members with nothing but underwear, so he turned back to the bedroom to get his clothes.

The soldiers responded by knocking the elderly man to the floor with a gun.  When they did that, his abdomen and genitals were revealed to the entire family.  This sight was an unspeakable sacrilege to the narrator.

“That sight was the edge of the abyss, and beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness. . . A Westerner can’t understand, can’t suspect the dimensions of the disaster.  For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash.  The gates of hell would have seemed less catastrophic!” (102).

This outrage on the honor of his family was the final straw for our narrator.  As a Bedouin, he had no choice but to “wash away this insult in blood, until the rivers and the oceans turned as read as the cut on Bahia’s neck, as my mother’s eyes, as the fire in my guts, which was already preparing me for the hell I knew was waiting….”  (102)

From this point on, the narrator is bent on revenge.  He travels to Baghdad, where he joins resistance forces and agrees to participate in whatever mission they assign him, including a suicide mission.  He reasons that he is already dead, at least he can go down fighting.

Clearly, Khadra is suggesting in Sirens of Baghdad that the American invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region.  Moreover, while our presence was inherently disruptive, many of the events that traumatized the narrator could have been avoided if soldiers had been more respectful of ordinary Iraqis and cracked down on the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy of so many soldiers.

Also noteworthy in this novel is that the reasons for the narrator’s turn to terrorism had nothing to do with the religious tenets of Islam, although it did have much to do with Eastern vs. Western values. I will discuss these values as they are portrayed in The Sirens of Baghdad in my next blog post.

Stay tuned!

(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)

 

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