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Chicago: A Novel Hardcover – October 7, 2008

58 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Egyptian author al Aswany (The Yacoubian Building) weaves a vivid tapestry of clashing cultures in post-9/11 Chicago. Dr. Ra'fat Thabit, an Egyptian-American professor at the University of Illinois Medical School, has burrowed deep into American culture, but finds his identity threatened after his rebellious daughter falls under the sway of a shady boyfriend. Ra'fat's colleague, Dr. Muhammad Shamay, retreats from his American wife into extended reveries of his life in Cairo in the 1970s when he was young and in love with a revolutionary. His histology student, Nagi Abd al-Samad, really wants to be a poet. Nagi begins a relationship with an American girl named Wendy (who just so happens to be Jewish). Meanwhile, Shymaa Muhammadi, a medical student who wears a veil, finds her traditional values under siege when Tariq Haseeb, another Egyptian med student, begins seducing her with dogged persistence. The characters are beautifully realized—Ra'fat's family trouble is especially well done—and though their cumulative effect is muted, each of the story lines is individually compelling. (Oct.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Aswany came to Chicago from Egypt in the late 1980s to attend the University of Illinois. A practicing dentist in Cairo, he became a best-selling novelist with The Yacoubian Building (2002), about the occupants of a Cairo apartment building. In his newest galvanizing novel, he creates another galaxy of lives, this time transforming the medical school at the University of Illinois into a seething microcosm of contentious politics, religious beliefs, and ambitions. Marshaling a magnetic cast of professors, Egyptian émigrés with American wives and children, and Egyptian students on visas and in culture shock, Aswany, using alternating points of view, uncoils a dramatic yet darkly hilarious plot involving imperiled marriages and covert political activity. Neatly smashing any notion of monolithic ethnicity and contrasting extreme ideology with determined morality, Aswany also expresses deep compassion for women, especially in the stories of  two lonely, pious students and that of a desperately job-seeking black woman married to a white professor. Brilliant and forthright in his insights into sexuality, racism, and tyranny; empathic in his psychological intensity; and righteous in his protest of covert post-9/11 brutality and injustice, Aswany has written a daring novel of our delusions and dreams, vulnerabilities and strengths. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061452564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061452567
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,613,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Smith on July 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I must say I had the wrong impression of this book from reading the product description. I was afraid this book was going to be something a bit tawdry and maybe even a little harlequinesque because the description focused quite a bit on the sex aspects of this book. Instead the book was a powerful look at people from different backgrounds coming into contact with vastly different personalities sometimes making connections and other times crashing into one another altering their lives forever. The sex in the book was integral to the plot and was anything but tawdry or gratuitous. Sex is a central aspect of all our lives and the author uses sex as a vehicle to expose greater truths about ourselves in intimate detail.

One thing that amazes me (although it really shouldn't) is how much I relate to some of the Egyptian characters in this novel that come from conservative religious backgrounds. Coming from a conservative southern Baptist background myself I find myself surprised to be relating with characters from a different religion and different cultures. For me this is simply more evidence that we are not anywhere near as different as we sometimes imagine we are.

The plot centers on Chicago University Histology department, and the author uses different narrative techniques to tell his characters stories. His transitions between characters is very fluid, and his use of the first person narrative with one character gives the book a deeper intimacy than the it would have had written solely in the third person. The transitions are what really moves the book forward and gives it a dramatic feel. The author chooses highly dramatic moments for his paragraph breaks and character transitions which leaves the reader wanting more.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By missed VINE VOICE on July 26, 2008
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Chicago is the first novel I've read by Alaa Al Aswany, Egypt's best-selling author, dentist and political activist. Chicago tells the tale of a number of Egyptian medical students studying in Chicago on an Egyptian government scholarship, several expatriates, and Americans. The themes are as vast as the great city: racism, prejudice, class, love, religion, politics.

Chicago's greatest strength is that it presents to the American reader a glimpse into a culture that is not only foreign to (most of) us, but on that has been distorted by the media. Aswany surprised me, particularly on two of the above themes: sex/love and politics. I never expected a novel geared towards a predominantly Muslim audience to be sexually promiscuous (with sharia consequences, of course), nor one that would so openly criticize Egypt's current despotic administration, the effects of which are displayed heavily in the novel, particularly with Nagi, an Egyptian student-poet who was once a political detainee, and General Shakir, a convincingly evil and sadistic part of the secret police machinery who takes pleasure in the human rights violations he commits. Another character of note is Shaymaa, a devout Muslim woman student who falls in love with fellow student Tafiq, and is faced with the needs of love and the conflicts in brings with her religious upbringing.

The problem with Chicago is the translation, especially during the first fifty or so pages of the novel. Much of it makes Chicago seem like amateur fiction, as if Aswany was writing a short story for a fiction workshop at some community center. The translation is clumsy and stiff, and at times I found myself wondering if I should bother finishing the book.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Dream Beast VINE VOICE on July 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Some things about Alaa al Aswany's novel Chicago put me off. The narrative voice, distant and rather formal, begins by treating readers to a brief history of the city, including the origin of its name (oh great, an academic lecture), then various characters are introduced and described with clinical objectivity (oh great, case histories). The one exception is Nagi, an Egyptian student who speaks in first person. His voice contrasts dramatically with that of the omniscient narrator and creates a more intimate connection with the reader. At first I wondered why Nagi gets the special treatment, but the reason becomes apparent by the end.

Another problem is dialogue that frequently sounds unrealistic. Mastery of American vernacular may be too much to expect from this Egyptian novelist, but the translator might have done more with the dialogue.

The narrative, when it finally gets going, consists of several interwoven stories. Situations are developed to the point of crisis, then left unresolved as the narrative switches to another storyline. The technique does create suspense, but it is used so consistently that it becomes irritating.

Despite these failings, Chicago is worth reading. Aswany creates memorable characters and dramatic situations. He shows a profound understanding of the motives that drive human beings and the pitfalls that can destroy their lives. There are scenes so vivid and authentic I will not soon forget them: Salah, a professor who regrets having left his native land decades ago, retreats to his basement and dresses in the clothes he wore when he came to America. Meanwhile his estranged wife goes out and buys a vibrator. Another character is reduced to peeping at his wayward daughter through a window.
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