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In the Kingdom of Men Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 29, 2012

3.6 out of 5 stars 89 customer reviews

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Intrusion: A Novel
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“Lyrical . . . It takes guts to title a novel after a line from the Bible—‘the Most high rules in the kingdom of men’—and then to begin Chapter 1 with possibly the most famous biblical reference available: ‘In the beginning.’ Following through, Kim Barnes casts her protagonist and narrator, a young American girl called Gin, in the image of a certain female character from a certain creation myth. . . . In the Kingdom of Men [is] something more than a novel about an Okie who causes trouble in a foreign land. It’s that, and a feminist bildungsroman.” —Juliet Lapidos, The New York Times Book Review 
 
In the Kingdom of Men resembles Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills as much as any other book. The men run the administration of a society made up of darker-skinned and, by definition, inferior people, but the women run the white-skinned men, casting an invisible but exceedingly strong net over the group. . . . The menus here are . . . so enticing that you’ll want to stop reading for a while and put together a sumptuous dinner. . . . A culturally complex story about American venality and greed.” —Carolyn See, The Washington Post

“Seldom has a book drawn me into its clutches as quickly as this one did. By the second sentence I was hooked on the first person account of Virginia Mae Mitchell . . . With a compelling narrative that never flags, we are quickly transported from the dusty, red clay plains to the seemingly infinite desert sandscapes of Saudi Arabia . . . From the waves of numbing heat and the vastness of the shimmering desert to blinding sandstorms, Biblical locust invasions, and the insidious, stifling boredom found within the confines of Mad Men-era Americana in the midst of an alien culture, Barnes makes the city of Abqaiq come alive.” —Jay Trachtenberg, The Austin Chronicle

“With courage and zest, Kim Barnes’s novel In the Kingdom of Men takes an intimate look at . . . the rarified and harshly beautiful world of eastern Saudi Arabia. . . . Her Americans are loud and sharp and leaping from the page, casually refilling their cocktail glasses and whooping it up at the Beachcomber’s Ball, some joyfully, some desperately, but all clinging to their own habits while betraying a general disconnection from—and disregard for—the Arabia all around them. And that disregard leads to the dark, tragic heart of the novel. . . . Within these lyrical pages is a story well worth investigating.” —Zoë Ferraris, San Francisco Chronicle 
 
“Drawn with skill and filled with evocative period detail . . . the plot is unfurled like a rich carpet, rolling out over a vast space before it gently settles and fills every corner. Barnes . . . gets more motion and feeling into a deceptively plain paragraph than many novelists can cram into a chapter. She ensures that Gin’s evolution is authentic, a wary, quiet observer and survivor who plumbs the depths of her new world with heart and courage. The women who populate this novel are all heroic in their various ways, a wonderful juxtaposition alongside this man’s world build by oil money.” —Kimberly Marlowe Harnett, The Seattle Times 
 
“Barnes regales us with the exploits of her high-spirited protagonist, Virginia ‘Gin’ McPhee, who follows her husband Mason from Texas to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. . . . Energetic and fast paced . . . [Barnes] does an excellent job of conjuring the sights, smells and heat of Saudi Arabia. She also has an astute understanding of the subtle, persistent pull of homesickness that lurks beneath the glamour of expatriate life.” —Laura Albritton, Houston Chronicle

“Barnes’s dramatic powers are sure-footed and surely lyrical . . . An ambitious amalgam of sexism, racism, corporate colonialism, culture clash, class issues, religion, love and marriage, grief and loss.” —Kassten Alonso, The Oregonian
 
“Arresting . . . A richly wrought historical novel . . . Barnes seems incapable of writing a lazy sentence. It would be easy enough to enjoy her novel for its images alone—Gin learning to roast coffee beans over an open fire and milk camels straight into enamel bowls; the local children who line their eyes with kohl and drip with precious stones—but its feats are more than just descriptive. We have here the portrait of a woman whose ambitions outsize the time and place she lives, and also of what happens to a marriage when taken out of a familiar context. In the Kingdom of Men, in many ways, is a close inspection of how radically a life can be rescaled, and how quickly. With a protagonist like this, Barnes could have set her novel in a single room, and we’d keep reading.” —Alice Gregory, The Boston Globe

“Kim Barnes has created a heroine for the ages in Gin McPhee—fierce, sad and tenacious, a self-described ‘barefoot girl from red-dirt Oklahoma’ who is consumed with the desire to see and know everything going on outside the country-club-esque compound in the vast Arabian Desert where, against all odds, she has found herself living. In the Kingdom of Men is a gripping thriller that plays out amid the oil-inflected relationships of the Americans and the Saudis (further complicated by the Bedouins and the Indians who serve them both) in the moody landscape of the Arabian frontier.” —Pam Houston, More Magazine

“Barnes brings her own childhood struggles with a strict, isolating Pentecostalism to her enrapturing third novel about a tough, fearless Oklahoma girl raised with religious austerity and misogyny, who finds herself living in a luxurious yet oppressive American oil company enclave in 1970 in Saudi Arabia. . . . Barnes animates a magnetizing cast of cosmopolitan characters, lingers over descriptions of food and clothing, dramatizes cultural contrasts and sexual tension, and brings this intense and compassionate novel of corporate imperialism, prejudice, corruption, and yearning to such gorgeously vivid, suspenseful life that the story’s darkness is perfectly balanced by the keen wit and blazing pleasure of its telling. A veritable Mad Men of the desert, with the depth of a Graham Greene novel.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“An immersive and bracing exploration of one woman’s search for freedom amid repression. . . . Gin is a delightful heroine whose tenacity animates those around her, a quality that lays the groundwork for an extraordinary adventure and unsettling conclusion. Barnes deftly teases humanity out of corruption and hypocrisy, and her language is finely wrought and her pacing masterful—Gin’s story develops languidly, then draws taut as the stakes rise.” —Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

“Addictive . . . Barnes’s sweeping drama takes the reader on a captivating journey from rural Oklahoma to Saudi Arabia.” --Julia Edelstein, Real Simple

“When her husband Mason gets a job with Aramco, Oklahoman Gin McPhee moves from small-town life to a wider—and wilder—world of privilege, corruption and Middle Eastern geopolitics in the 1960s. . . . Barnes writes poetically and intensely about personal conflict and subtly informs the reader about continuing western misunderstandings of Middle Eastern culture.” —Kirkus Reviews

“A swashbuckling, thrilling ride of a book, In The Kingdom of Men transports readers to the sands of Arabia and the recesses of the human heart. Ginny McPhee is a heroine unlike any other, negotiating love, politics, the intricacies of marriage, and the journey to selfhood. A vivid and compelling tale.” —Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds of Paradise

“I was transfixed by Kim Barnes’s thoughtful, elegant account of a young American woman's experience of 1960s Saudi Arabia. It describes a piece of the world that seems utterly fresh, never-written-about, and In the Kingdom of Men brings it to vivid life. This is a historical novel which is not only romantic and dramatic and compelling, but has particular, important relevance to our current age.” —Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake and Await Your Reply

“This is a mesmerizing novel, set in the American heartland and Saudi Arabia—two locations that on the face of it couldn't be more different. But from the point of view of a woman not allowed to be herself, the two places have startling similarities. We read, in part, to be taken elsewhere. In the Kingdom of Men succeeds mightily in this. We also read because we enjoy good writing. You’ll find that in abundance here.” —Elizabeth Berg, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was You

“A great windswept adventure full of tension and suspense, In the Kingdom of Men is moving in the truest sense, sweeping the reader along with its gorgeous prose, a rich setting, and most of all, Gin McPhee, one of those rare characters who sits up on page one, grabs you and pulls you into her world.” —Jess Walter, author of The Financial Lives of the Poets
 
“This novel has it all: an intriguing story that thunders to a thrilling climax, characters who grab our hearts, gorgeous prose and a setting that stuns the reader at every turn. Arabia!” —Ellen Sussman, author of French Lessons
 
“If you want to understand, right in your gut, the history of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia; if you want a magical, layered story of west-inside-east, culture layered over culture, and the slow--still ongoing--revolution of gender and race oppression, In the Kingdom of Men is your book. It's Mad Men meets The Sheltering Sky, a Revolutionary Road for the oil-addicted. It's also an utter pleasure to read.” —Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall and About Grace

About the Author

Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two previous novels, including A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, the Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in a number of publications and anthologies, including The New York Times; MORE magazine; The Oprah Magazine; Good Housekeeping; Fourth Genre; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Barnes is a professor of writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (May 29, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780307273390
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307273390
  • ASIN: 0307273393
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,197,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Schell VINE VOICE on July 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
*A Brief Note to Readers: If you find this review "not helpful", please take a moment to tell me why in the comment section. Thank you.*

Virginia "Gin" Mitchell is a dreamer but life on a rural Oklahoma farm in 1968 is no fairy tale world, especially with a fundamentalist grandfather who finds infraction of religious law at every turn. When she ends up pregnant by local boy Mason McPhee, Gin is shunned and finds herself no better off in her new life with her new husband in Houston, TX. Impoverished and desperate to improve their situation, Mason takes a job overseas with an oil company, one located in the arid and isolated deserts of Saudi Arabia. It is here among haboobs and locust plagues that Gin comes of age and learns that the freedom and adventure she craves will continue to elude her and, once obtained, come at great price.

Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Kim Barnes describes "In The Kingdom of Men" as "part cautionary tale, part adventure story". The novel feels like a veiled treatise on feminism and religion. The author has many feelings about the latter - she ran away from home and a devout Pentecostal fundamentalist father twice in her youth. What she hasn't lived is the oil compound life and her information is culled from her aunt and uncle, employed and housed by Aramco in the 1960's. I found her interview on The Diane Rehm Show and her musings on her book and her own life more interesting than the book itself.

Her story arc is limp. The vast majority of the book is spent developing Gin and her relationships with the other characters.
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n 1967 Saudi Arabia is a company town. And the company is Aramco, the Arabian American Oil Company. The Saudi government had yet to nationalize Aramco, and the country was run by Aramco executives along with the Saudi royal family.

A young American couple, Gin and Mason McPhee, come to Saudi Arabia to live. Mason has accepted a job with Aramco. They are given a luxurious house to live in, and provided with a gardener and houseboy to help them. While Mason works on a drilling platform for two weeks at a time, Gin is left to her own devices. She is young, impulsive, bored and lonely.

Gin bristles at the strictures of living in an Aramco compound in the middle of the desert. She doesn't understand why she can't just do what she wants-ride horses, explore the desert, even go anywhere off the compound alone. Gin and Mason are committed to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are distressed at the way Aramco treats the Bedouins who work for the company.

Their youth and ideals are not a good match for Aramco. Soon, Gin and Mason discover that the previous residents of their house were involved in some kind of scam that resulted in poor equipment maintenance and the resulting deaths of a number of workers. Gin and Mason each want to bring this fraud to the attention of higher-ups. But communication has broken down between them, and they work at cross purposes. Meanwhile, Gin has become a writer and photographer for the company newsletter, and is discouraged and angry when the editor returns her photos as being unsuitable. She does not heed his warnings and continues to take forbidden photos.

This is a great book with great characters. In the history of Aramco we can see the seeds of today's uneasy alliance between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the politicization of the oil business. In the Kingdom of Men would make a great movie. I hope someone out in Hollywoodland pays attention.
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Format: Paperback
As a resident of Saudi Arabia over 1981-1995, I worked for Aramco, the national oil company, and lived four years in Abqaiq, the company compound where the book's main character lives in 1967. Of course, I looked forward to reading this book. I'll first review the story, then delve into fact-checking.

The first person narrative starts with the POV character, Ginny Mae Mitchell, living in rural Oklahoma, suffering through her mother's fatal cancer, followed by her grandmother's death from a broken heart, and being rescued by her grandfather from the city orphanage. The first act of the poor, ultra religious, dominating grandfather is to toss Ginny Mae's precious objects away (her mother's rhinestone tiara and wedding band, and her only doll) claiming them "worldly." In addition to distressed living in a two-room shack under the constant severe discipline of her grandfather, the pastor giving hell fire sermons at the local church, Ginny Mae attends fellowship meals noticing that she and women could eat only after serving the men and children. But after she finds herself pregnant from her high school boyfriend, Mason McPhee, Ginny Mae escapes her grandfather's control and marries Mason, who moves them to Houston where he finds oilfield work. Unfortunately, her pregnancy ends in miscarriage, and the inability to bear future babies.

Incredible to imagine young Ginny Mae in the `50s using an outhouse and riding to school on a mule, but Barnes paints her extreme poverty and her overbearing grandfather with fine literary strokes.

Mason accepts a job with Aramco.
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