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Specters Paperback – October 11, 2010
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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From Publishers Weekly
The fates of two Egyptian women who grew up during the turbulent, nationalistic 1950s and participated in the revolutionary student movement of the early 1970s intertwine in Ashour's meandering autobiographical novel. The narrator, ostensibly the author "Radwa," born in 1946, returns to the time of her youth in Cairo, first in French grade school, then at Cairo University in the mid-1960s, by employing the parallel--and often intersecting--life of her character Shagar Abdel Ghaffar, a young woman born on the same day and year who attends the university as a history student and eventually becomes a professor. Shagar writes a book about the Israeli massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin that becomes the focus of Radwa's own research interest, which took the shape of Ashour's actual novel, Granada. The author draws pointed lessons from the defense of truth and intellectual freedom that Shagar stands for, though only American readers versed in recent Egyptian history will appreciate the nuances. (Jan.)
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Fiction blends with history and memoir in this novel by an Egyptian writer about young Egyptian writer Radwa, who is writing a novel about Shagar, a student, then faculty member, in Cairo more than 40 years ago. The postmodern twists and turns may be too much at times, switching back and forth from what happens, past and present, to what Radwa remembers and how she writes about it. When Radwa asks, “Are my thoughts rambling?” the answer is, yes. Yet, the history provides its own gripping narrative, including the anguished personal accounts of Palestinian families killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Radwa marries a Palestinian, so their son is Palestinian, and the deportations, passport muddles, and delays at airport security are beyond postmodern. Sometimes the anguish is intensified by farce, as when a prisoner wants to wear her best dress for the interrogation. Winner of the Cairo International Book Fair Prize. --Hazel Rochman
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I first learned of this book by seeing an article about Interlink Books, which specializes in publishing books written and published in foreign countries, although I ordered it through Amazon. It is my premise if you want to discover the cultures of other nationalities, read some of their good books. This book is like a historical novel except that the story line is written by two authors, one Radwa, who is writing a novel called "Specter," in which novel she is writing as Shagar, who has written a history entitled "Specter" which is also a testament to the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin. The book commences with the first Shagar, who is a beautiful 25 year old Egyptian woman who has just lost her husband and two brothers, leaving her to raise two small sons and is pregnant with a baby girl. She prefers to remain independent and tills her farm and raises her children without marrying a cousin, any of whom are eager to marry her. But her independence stirs up hostility for her because it is against their culture, but as the years pass, because she succeeds, the relatives continue to consider her family. Her daughter at age 14 is found slain and Shagar doesn't speak for 40 days; her relatives believe the shock has made her mute. However, the day the daughter died, Shagar had beaten her and later found her lying dead. She never speaks of this to anyone. Through the years, her sons marry, she has ten grandchildren and in the last years when she is an old lady, her deceased husband and sons appear to her as ghosts and they spend many hours visiting. Her grandchildren thinks she is mentally ill. Eventually her daughter comes and she talks and stays with her mother the rest of her mother's lifetime.
Then the story jumps to a granddaughter also named Shagar. The story takes us through Shagar growing up, going to school, segregation of the sexes in either convent or French schools. Then the story flashes back to the early years of Shagar's great grandfather's life as told by him in a journal he left for Shagar. When Shagar finishes high school, she attends the university in Cairo, gets her master's degree and then her doctorate; the flashbacks relative to different phases of her past life as participating in student sit ins, being arrested and jailed, become so complex and confusing, that it was difficult to keep up. It is about then that the second author, Radwa enters the storyline by discussing how she should write by novel by Shagar. There are so many characters introduced in the entire book with people's names and sites particular to Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebannon, that I couldn't keep up. I like to enjoy a novel and not have to strain to remember important details. The story keeps jumping back and forth between the years 1942 to the 1990s. During these years she covers the continual hostility between Israel and Palestine, some of the massacres and assaults by the Jews in such a way that the reader is at a loss. The last chapters are the excerpts of voices of all of the mid-east, including Israel, during times of hostility and distress.
In the back of the book, the author and the translator both have notes explaining a few of the important historical events Shagar refers to, which clears up some of the confusion. Also, the story's flow, pacing and a style of speaking that is probably usual to the Arab, but unusual to Americans, caused me to stop and wonder the meaning. The value in the book, however, is that the reader gets very clear insight into the thinking and cultures of the Arab world, and before WWII, the American woman didn't have much more freedom than the Egyptian woman. Shagar with her doctorate, except when she was in jail, lived as she pleased, although she married a man Mourrid, a Palestinian, who was expelled from Egypt and lived the next seventeen years in Budapest, They have a son and they visit him when they can, but it is always a struggle to get in or out of Egypt. And then she goes to jail again.
I do recommend this book for anyone who would like to understand the Arab culture better and although occasionally, Muslims are mentioned, it isn't important to any characters in this book. The story clearly confirms my thinking that most people everywhere truly only want sufficient to eat, being warm and clothed, comfortable living, a fair amount of freedom and peace..... The book does not give the feeling that it is political, although in the conversations, certain political figures are condemned. I am giving the book only three stars because I feel the flashbacks and the switching between Shagar and Radwa are not clear enough and much of the time, I was not sure whose voice I was reading.