BOOK REVIEW: In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men by Hisham MatarIn The Country of Men
By Hisham Matar
Completed June 26, 2011

Young Suleiman is nine years old when Libya is taken over by dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, in 1979. Having a modern eye knowledge of Qaddafi’s reign provides a foreboding insight into the lives and choices in Hisham Matar’s debut novel, In The Country of Men. Told from the perspective of Suleiman, readers learn about the harsh political realties of living in Libya during Qaddafi’s early years.

Suleiman is an only child – an object of affection but remorse for his mother, who was forced into marriage at 14 when seen in a cafe with a boy her age. Suleiman’s father is aloof, living a double life as a political activist that would eventually catch up to his family. Through Suleiman’s eyes, we see how Qaddafi’s reign brought terror to many families, as fathers were whisked off in cars and telephone lines were tapped. Suleiman’s family was not excluded, and he becomes confused about why his father is lying about what he does for a living.

Matar’s writing style is pitch perfect, especially with a narrator so young. Very readable, In The Country of Men will make you cringe and shake your head at what is unfolding in Suleiman’s life. The whole time, though, you root for Suleiman, hoping he and his family can somehow escape unscathed.

With the current political activity in Libya, this book is very telling and offers insight into how Libya has become the country it is today. I congratulate Hisham Matar for continuing to write about Libya, despite his personal tragedies. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, thrilling book, I highly recommend In The Country of Men. (  )

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REVIEW: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room
By Simon Mawer
Completed April 10, 2011

Many forces come into play when I select a book to read. Often, I rely upon the reviews and comments of other book readers whose opinions are like mine. I also take into consideration any literary awards, which often tip me off to a great book. And, of course, the story must sound compelling.

Using this process, I picked The Glass Room, which seemed to be a sure-fire win for me. Several of my like-minded friends raved about this book. It was short-listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which I usually have good luck with. And the plot of a Czech family caught up in the tragedy of World War II should be up my alley.

Even the best laid plans can go array, though. Sadly, that is what happened when I read The Glass Room. Despite my best efforts, this book didn’t click for me.

Let me express the good qualities of this book first. First, Mawer’s writing style is descriptive and rich. He can paint a picture in the mind’s eye, which helps propel his novel. Additionally, he did a great job incorporating the arts into the novel. With an architectural feat such as the Glass House, that’s an important thing to do, but he also wove in music, painting and sculpture – and did so beautifully. Finally, the plight of early Czechoslovakia as it struggled to get its legs between the World Wars was illuminating, and I learned more about this aspect of history.

Here’s where I struggled: the characterization. It was very one-dimensional, and as a result, I didn’t like one character. Perhaps I would have liked them more if Mawer had given me more information about them. His characterization centered around their sex lives. Each character’s lives were qualified by their sexual activity or desires. Making this worse was the unequal descriptions about sex. Mawer fills us with intimate details about the female characters – the size of their breasts, the color of their nipples, the roundness of their bellies, the texture of their pubic hairs. However, with the male characters, we got nothing – not even a chest hair. Sex was definitely told from a male perspective in this story.

I am in the minority when it comes to The Glass House, so I encourage you to read other reviews before deciding on this book. Many other readers were moved by this story, and you might be too. As for me, I am happy that The Glass House is over and ready to find a book that better fits my fickle tastes. (  )

REVIEW: The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

The Dark Room by Rachel SeiffertThe Dark Room
By Rachel Seiffert
Completed November 30, 2010

Over the past year or two, I have been drawn to books about World War II. Most are told from the perspective of the Allied nations or Jewish people affected by the Holocaust. I am glad to have stumbled upon Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room, which offers the perspective of the average German citizen affected by World War II.

The Dark Room is divided into three separate stories:

1) Helmet is a young photographer’s apprentice, whose family supported Hitler and prospered during The Third Reich’s heyday. Even at war’s end, Helmet still clung to Nazi Germany’s ideals. Then, one day, he stumbles into a round-up of gypsies by German soldiers and sees the gross mistreatment of these people. He took pictures of the atrocity and ran away from the scene. As he reflects over his photos, you feel his heartbreak for a nation lost in so many ways.

2) Lore is a teenage girl – one of six children – who must embark on a treacherous journey from Bavaria to Hamburg at the end of the war. Through Lore’s journey, you see how war affected the home front and the people who once were bound by the same cause. No longer united, they stole and cheated from each other. Like Helmet, Lore didn’t realize Germans was killing innocent people, until she saw pictures posted in a village. Confused by what she saw, she befriended a young man, Tomas, who confirmed the genocide. Lore was devastated, especially as she considered her father and brother might have been involved in these mass murders.

3) Michael is a school teacher living in 1990’s Germany who began wondering why his grandfather had been imprisoned for so long after World War II. He began to research and learned that his grandfather was part of the Waffen SS, the elite police force of the German Army. He traces his grandfather’s service to Belarus and traveles there to learn more. The important theme in Michael’s section is national guilt – how after 50+ years, some Germans truly mourned what their country did, while others didn’t grasp it, or were too far removed from the war to be impacted. Michael, though, couldn’t forget and carried the weight of guilt for his whole family.

Admittedly, The Dark Room is a bit bleak, but Seiffert pulls you right in so you can experience the characters’ emotions. Seiffert writes simply but effectively, and her sparse prose adds to the brevity of her stories. Despite the grim subject matter, I found this book to be enlightening and engaging – and would highly recommend it, especially to those who believe, like me, that war has no true winner. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: Regeneration by Pat Barker

Regeneration
By Pat Barker
Completed October 25, 2010

One of my favorite eras of poetry is the War Poets – a group of British soldiers who served during World War I and used their poetry to express their disillusionment with the war. After learning that Regeneration, the first in a trilogy by Pat Barker, features two war poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, I couldn’t wait to read it.

Regeneration focuses primarily on Sassoon and his stay at Craiglockhart, a hospital for World War I soldiers who were experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome. Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart after writing his famous Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration – an open letter of protest, which alluded that the British government was prolonging England’s involvement in World War I (and at the expense of young British men). At Craiglockhart, we meet an interesting cast of characters, including Sassoon’s physician, W.H.R. Rivers, Owens and many soldiers who were traumatized by their time in the trenches.

Barker does a spectacular job depicting the stress of the soldiers at Craiglockhart. Many had nightmares, screaming fits and panic attacks, while others experienced physical symptoms such as mutism and paralysis. Sherman once said that “war is hell” – and there’s no mistaking its terrible effects on the men staying at this hospital.

Though written about a war almost 100 years ago, the messages about war’s atrocities bears much relevance to today. Regeneration is a cerebral book, delivering its readers to much introspection about the characters and their circumstances. I look forward to reading the other books in this trilogy. ( )

BOOK REVIEW: Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespass
By Rose Tremain
Completed October 11, 2010

When one reads the word “trespass,” it triggers the thought of someone illegally entering another’s land or property. While this definition of “trespass” is a minor theme in Rose Tremain’s newest book, readers learn that Trespass can be so much more than an errant footstep on a piece of land.

In this book, we meet two sets of siblings: Anthony and Veronica, British brother and sister who were very close, and Aramon and Audrun, French siblings who were not. Anthony’s career as an antiques expert was petering out, and he escaped to Veronica’s French home to collect his thoughts. Veronica’s home, which she shared with her lover Kitty, was near the mas of Aramon and Audrun. The pairs of siblings did not know each other until Anthony expressed an interest in purchasing the mas from Aramon. The potential sale was the turning point of the story, erupting into a tale of mystery, murder and unreconciled pasts.

Sigmund Freud might have had some fun with this story, as the effects of the mothers, Lal (Anthony and Veronica’s mom) and Bernadette (Aramon and Audrun’s mother) continued to influence their children’s lives, long after their deaths. The boys (Anthony and Aramon) individually loved their mothers strongly (some might argue inappropriately). Anthony was more concerned about pleasing Lal, which was often hard to do, while Aramon respected the beauty and domesticity of Bernadette. Their dysfunctional affection for their mothers affected them profoundly, with Aramon committing the worst sin by raping his sister, Audrun, repeatedly.

Trespass of the body, land, trust and love – indeed, it could be argued that many forms of “trespass” were at work in this novel. I caution readers who have not read Trespass that this novel doesn’t feel like a Rose Tremain book. It’s very dark, and the mystery aspect of the novel is atypical for her stories. If you can stomach the exploration of the darkest sides of people, then Trespass should be a satisfying read for you. ( )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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