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Mary Whipple (New England)
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Dorothy Parker Drank Here
Dorothy Parker Drank Here
by Ellen Meister
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.44

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The gun's not loaded....Go see for yourself. It's in the night table under my copy of Strunk and White.", 24 Feb. 2015
Dorothy Parker had no real need for Strunk and White's Elements of Stye manual - she could use the English language to perfection, bending it to her will and molding it with her ascerbic humor, sarcasm, and caustic wit, often flicking it like a switchblade in her satire. Parker, a charter member of the Round Table, was part of a group of about a dozen novelists, dramatists, journalists, and critics who met for lunch regularly at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where many of them had apartments or studios throughout the 1920s. Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott, among the regulars, were often joined by guests like Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, and Tallulah Bankhead, many of whom appear in this novel.

Ellen Meister, author of Dorothy Parker Drank Here, the second novel in a series in which the ghost of Dorothy Parker (1893 - 1967) is a main character, has set this novel at the Algonquin Hotel, where Parker's spirit still resides, thanks to the fact that Parker once signed an old guest book on display in the Algonquin's Blue Bar. Her signature, like those of other Round Table members, guarantees that her spirit will not leave the earth until it has decided it wants to go, and Parker is not ready yet. Lonely in her ghostly life, however, Parker hopes to persuade Ted Shriver, an author now living at the Algonquin, to sign the special guest book and keep her company after his death.

Norah Wolfe, a young assistant producer of a TV talk show, is also trying to contact Ted Shriver, a man who was disgraced when three paragraphs in his last book were shown to have been plagiarized, and he has lived as a recluse ever since. Shriver's novel Dobson's Night saved Norah Wolfe's emotional life when she was a teenager, and she is desperate to talk with him. Eventually, Norah and Dorothy Parker team up. A third plot line concerns Audrey Hudson, Ted's wife at the time of the plagiarism - the person most likely to have planted the plagiarized paragraphs in Shriver's manuscript. When Norah calls on her, however, she discovers that Audrey's fragility is much like her own, and as Norah's past is revealed, her need to connect becomes clearer.

Writing this as pure entertainment, author Ellen Meister pulls out all the stops, juggling these plot lines and keeping them moving in surprising ways. She plays on the reader's interest in the characters and their connections to books and writing while also developing an atmosphere which crosses timelines. With a light, sure touch, she conjures up some hilarious visual scenes which beg to be filmed, and it is easy to imagine her sitting at her computer with a grin on her face as she writes. Meister's "Dorothy Parker" feels true to what we know about Parker, not a caricature created for the sake of amusement, and Parker's interactions with other literary characters and their often hilarious patter bring the whole literary scene to life. Her interactions with Tallulah Bankhead, Groucho Marx, and Lillian Hellman, and her opinions of Alexander Woollcott and Dashiell Hammett made me wish I could have been there, too. A fast-paced and amusing glimpse of Dorothy Parker and the writing life.


Lies, First Person
Lies, First Person
by Gail Hareven
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Anyone who has once dwelled in the Garden of Eden will forever fear being cast out,”, 22 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Lies, First Person (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) Aaron Gotthilf’s book, Hitler, First Person, plays a key role in this stimulating experimental novel in which Israeli author Gail Hareven plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction, truth and lies. Most readers here will probably agree that a fictional depiction of Adolf Hitler as a “real,” and presumably sympathetic, human being would be too small a gesture to “advance our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century” in any meaningful way, but the idea that it might is just one of the many twists, turns, ironies, tours de force, and even dark-humored reversals that take place in this extraordinary novel. To tell her own (fictional) story, Hareven creates another author, Elinor Gotthilf from Jerusalem, who is a cousin, once removed, of the “Aaron Gotthilf” who wrote one of the most controversial novels ever published.

Elinor tells her story in the first person, explaining that she has avoided her cousin Aaron for most of her adult life. When she was a young student, Aaron had stayed at her family’s “Pension Gotthilf,” a modest hotel, and she equates his stay there with the Devil/Serpent inserting himself into the Garden of Eden, images which repeat throughout the novel. It gives nothing away to say that while he was at the pension writing, he had abused her “slow” older sister Elisheva, requiring her to read The 120 Days of Sodom aloud to him and repeatedly raping her. Her sister’s abortion, her mother’s mental breakdown, and the dissolution of her family were sad by-products of this abuse. Now Aaron plans to return to Jerusalem from abroad to attend a writing conference, and Elinor fears for the future.

Hareven’s approach to her novel is thoughtful and literary, despite the novel’s surprises and reversals. She incorporates a broad artistic and philosophical history within its structure, and though the novel contains some elements of a mystery novel, these are subordinated to the stories and experiences of the people, especially Elinor, who live within the novel and grow (or not) from their actions as they confront their own hatred during their search for justice and truth. Elinor goes on to describe her family life as she and Elisheva were growing up, then, in circular fashion, doubles back to her present life as wife, mother, and writer, then returns to earlier issues, concerning her mother, sister, and father in the aftermath of Aaron Gotthilf’s stay.

Ultimately, Elinor and her husband Oded develop a plan for dealing with Aaron Gotthilf when they themselves inevitably meet him, and as they begin to put their plan into action, the author creates a spine-tingling conclusion mixed with dark humor, the ultimate twist. Though the novel is occasionally disjointed and the characters are thin, the author has created a novel which is a never-ending source of surprise and intrigue, and as Hareven raises the question of whether, if ever, it is possible to forgive someone like Hitler, and whether it is appropriate to do so, she keeps the novel in the realm of serious moral and ethical issues. Exciting, unusual, thoughtful, and darkly ironic.


Frog
Frog
by Mo Yan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I was a living Buddha back then, the local stork."--Gugu, a Chinese obstetrician, in 1955., 8 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Frog (Hardcover)
When Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, controversy swirled. Mo has been able to publish his works in China because he works within the existing communist system and is considered part of the establishment, while other talented but less discreet Chinese writers are prohibited from publishing without serious censorship. He has avoided attention by living a quiet life and by writing about the small communities in which he has lived. By creating "small fry" characters with all their peculiarities, he depicts everyday life in the rural countryside and provides rare insights for non-Chinese readers.

In this novel, Mo's speaker is Tadpole, also known as Wan Zu or Xiaopao, who writes letters to his Japanese teacher, Sugitani Akihito, from 2002 to 2009 detailing his progress on a play about his Aunt Gugu, a woman who has worked as a rural obstetrician for more than fifty years - a fearless woman who has seen and done it all - before, during and after China's "one-child" policy. As he works on his writing project and reports to the sensei over the next few years, Tadpole recreates all aspects of Gugu's personal and professional life, beginning in 1960 and continuing to the present. He vividly reconstructs several historical periods, from the famine of the late 1950s through the country's efforts at population control, stressing the emotional effects of these policies, not just on the population, but on medical personnel themselves.

Including side bars throughout, in which he talks about such topics as the choices of personal names, and branching out into traditional stories and occasional tales of animals and legends, the author introduces the subject of famine in 1960 through a casually told story of children eating pieces of coal and exclaiming over how tasty it is. By 1961, Gugu notes, that "over a two-year period...not a single infant was born in any of the more than forty villages that made up the People's commune," the result of this famine. In 1962, an unexpectedly large sweet potato harvest changes lives, however, and people begin referring to the "sweet potato babies." Almost three thousand babies are born that year in just fifty-two villages. The government's stringent one-child policy is an outgrowth of its need to feed this burgeoning population

The immediacy and honesty of Tadpole's writing to his teacher, and the powerful personality of Gugu herself combine to expand the issues of population control from the small community in Gaomi County, where they all live, to the population at large. The author varies his styles throughout this broad picture of late twentieth century China. A scene in which one character tries to get his father to have a vasectomy devolves into a slapstick scene featuring a saber, a pigpen, and a chase. Another scene, in which a character is about to remarry, is emotionally moving - and totally different, filled with symbolism from nature. Ultimately, Tadpole's play, called Frog, is reproduced in the novel, adding a touch of magic realism and fantasy to the ending of the novel. Many ideas related to reproduction and contraception and many different literary styles highlight the various individualized characters here, as Mo Yan takes on fifty years of history and a wide variety of characters to bring rural China alive in ways completely unfamiliar to most western audiences.


Happy are the Happy
Happy are the Happy
Price: £6.64

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Old folks are people from the past who are stuck in the future.", 1 Feb. 2015
In the opening salvo of this darkly humorous but deeply sensitive collection of interconnected vignettes, French author Yasmina Reza sets the scene for her exploration of love and marriage, family and home, romantic satisfaction and dysfunction in modern France. The often huge gap between what people, including the reader, see from the outside and what the characters are really thinking creates opportunities for great irony and delightfully witty exchanges as the author, also a successful dramatist, reveals her characters through small, everyday details and animated conversations. Each of the twenty vignettes is limited to six or seven pages, and the author's witty and rapid-fire presentations lead to each vignette having its own punch line and thematic development.

The pure delight of reading Reza's lively prose (artfully translated by John Cullen), grows as the reader discovers that the characters in one sketch often appear in other sketches, too, leading to a broad picture of several families, their friends, and their lovers, as seen from several different points of view. Robert Toscano and his wife Odile, whom we meet in the opening scene, arguing about his unfortunate selection of cheese at a supermarket, have two vignettes apiece and reappear in each other's lives, while Odile's family - her father, mother, and aunt - also have their own points of view which broaden the focus.

Additionally, the psychiatrist who is treating one person appears several times here in sketches for three other characters. Robert's friend Luc Condamine, a fellow journalist, is trying to set him up with Virginie, a medical secretary, who has her own touching sketch. Odile, Robert's wife, is having an affair with another character here, someone she believes will save her "from Robert, from time, and from melancholy." The new lovers and former lovers serve as contrasts to the present romantic attachments and separations. Ultimately, each sketch becomes an integral part of the overall depiction of time, place, and character, and this collection begins to resemble a novel in its interconnectedness.

Despite the structural interconnectedness, the theme of personal isolation, even among characters who are surrounded by others, pervades the book on all levels, and the ways in which the characters attempt to connect with each other or deal with their loneliness privately, engage the reader because they feel ordinary and familiar. Death lurks in the background throughout. Filled with ironies, the book is great fun to read and is often very funny, even as the author also depicts the emptiness of these lives. Concise and insightful.


Seducing Ingrid Bergman
Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The studio has spent a lot of money placing that halo on her head. People won't [like] you decanonizing her.", 30 Jan. 2015
Four years before there was a Roberto Rossellini in her life, Ingrid Bergman experienced a period of unexpected and intense happiness with Hungarian photographer Robert Capa. Their affair was conducted in Europe, where Bergman managed to keep it quiet from the press, her studio, and her husband, Petter Lindstrom, and it is only now gaining wide notice with the publication of this fictionalized biography. Robert Capa had achieved fame for his uncompromising and heroic photographs of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, the Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion in the early 1940s, and the Magnificent Eleven photographs he made of the D-Day landings in 1944.

Addicted to danger and exhilarated by the high drama of battle, Capa would seem, on the surface, to have little in common with the coolly elegant Ingrid Bergman, the Swedish Academy Award-winner famous for the subtlety of her acting performances and her quiet, lady-like demeanor. Nevertheless, these two people found solace with each other in the aftermath of the war, as each was alone and dealing with private demons. Capa, out of work at the war's end, was wandering Europe, drinking too much and gambling, while Bergman was traveling and entertaining the troops remaining in Europe. Long dominated and controlled by her husband of eight years, who managed her career and every aspect of her life, Bergman was able, on this trip, to feel complete liberation, and she discovers passionate love for the first time.

British author Chris Greenhalgh, creates a lively and unsentimental novel from what is known about the Bergman-Capa affair and the atmosphere which produced it, creating and then conveying details which make these two characters "real," as he explores their thinking and behavior over the course of their year-long affair. By alternating the points of view between the first person accounts of Capa, and the third person point of view of Bergman, which keeps her at a more discreet distance, Greenhalgh creates sympathetic characters who pursue their love. Their relationship becomes increasingly tense when they return to Hollywood. The overwhelming presence of Petter Lindstrom takes its toll on both lovers, and Capa, often drunk, begins to be indiscreet. Symbols arise as their relationship is tested.

History reveals the outcome of this relationship before the novel even starts, but this affair in 1945, Bergman's first, may have been most responsible for her emotional growth. Passionate and desperate in their need to escape the present, for a few months, at least, Ingrid Bergman and Robert Capa cannot help but recognize the inevitable outcome long before the curtain falls. The strength and the sense of finality with which the two lovers face the inevitable will stir even the most hard-hearted reader.


His Own Man
His Own Man
by Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.02

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "There are deaths that snuff out a single life. And others that, like military coups, finish off an entire generation.", 22 Jan. 2015
This review is from: His Own Man (Paperback)
(3.5 stars) Beginning his novel in Brazil during the military coup of 1964, and extending the story through to the twenty-first century, prize-winning Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro sets his novel, not in the streets, but in the country's foreign service offices, a setting he knows well from his own experience. Once a member of the foreign service himself, he was able to observe the behavior he illustrates in this novel, apparently modeling his main character on a real person. He tells his story through a first-person narrator, a story that he says has been so daunting that it has taken him forty years to come to grips with it.

The Brazilian foreign ministry in the 1960s and 1970s provided a most unusual, perhaps unique, atmosphere in which to work. Though the military ruled the country's daily life and ran the security service, they themselves regarded the foreign ministry as "an elite group...[and] the generals tended to regard leftist leanings that might exist within it as more intellectual than radical in nature." By the speaker's own admission, this political contrast sometimes led to "bizarre situations: In a right-wing country, we were increasingly allowed to formulate a left-leaning foreign policy," If someone in the foreign service could keep his mouth shut about the disappearances, the torture, and the killing within the country, he could survive. The speaker's former friend and colleague, "Marcilio Andrade Xavier," known as Max, was a born survivor, "one of the most pitiful symbols of our country at that time" - a confounding and wholly self-serving young man, who managed to keep all options open and play all sides and interests for his own benefit, while carving out a place for himself in the maelstrom of Brazil, and later Uruguay and Chile.

Though many novels have been written about various coups in South America, this story is unusual, in that its focus is squarely on the foreign service and the role of its representatives. Not a single scene here reflects the tortures, the murders, or the disappearances which are so traumatizing, and none of the major military leaders responsible for these actions are featured here. This approach works well for people in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile (and eventually Argentina), who are well familiar with the events which have often dramatically affected their own lives, though much of the action in this book will be new to many American and British readers.

The movement back and forth in time over the eventual course of over forty years and several countries is sometimes challenging, and the mysterious Max, a lone wolf, is not someone with whom the reader will identify. The narrator's own reports contain more thoughtful reporting and analysis than direct action. Ultimately, the author raises important philosophical questions: "In the space of a generation, thousands of people...had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer...[who] would face a camera to publicly lament what had happened, as Robert McNamara had with respect to the horrors caused by the Vietnam War? What had occurred four decades earlier...remained suspended in time...on a planet deprived of memory."


Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine
Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine
by Maximillian Potter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.58

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The thing about fate is that you never see it coming.", 17 Jan. 2015
The language with which vintners, connoisseurs, and critics talk about their favorite subject often resembles religious ecstasies, making the use of sacred wine for Christian communion services seem not only appropriate but completely right. In this book, which is "the true story of the plot to poison the world's greatest wine," however, author Maximillian Potter, a journalist, takes a much more secular approach to the subject, as he investigates the very real 2010 plot to poison the vines at the Domaine Romanee-Conti on the Cote d'Or. With its Pinot Noir regarded as the world's greatest wine, and its availability limited because the vineyard itself is small, the interest of sophisticated criminals in this wine is not surprising. At auction, a single bottle of Romanee-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000.

The 2010 crime within the French vineyard itself is daring, potentially devastating to the vineyard, and both complex and time-consuming to pull off, as an unknown person or persons sets out to extort a million euros from M. Aubert de Villaine, the seventy-one-year-old "Grand Monsieur" who runs the Domaine with his cousin Henri-Frederic Roch. When Aubert de Villaine does not act upon receiving a message, the extortionist gives one last warning, providing more specific information and indicating that he has already drilled the bases of seven hundred vines and has already begun injecting them with poison. He will continue to do this if his terms are not met.

Author Potter's broad approach to this subject resembles a compilation of stories about the vineyard, its owners, and its history, jumping back to the time of Louis XV and Madame Pompadour, and then jumping forward to the present, then toggling back and forth. While some might argue that such an approach slows down the narrative, others will treasure the insights gained into the whole subject of wine-producing. Throughout the book, Potter keeps the personalities of his subjects front and center, giving life to a subject which might otherwise feel static. King Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, and the Prince de Conti, an ancestor of the vineyard's owner and cousin of Louis XV, share space with scenes of the extortionist, living in a tiny eighty square-foot cabin carefully disguised on the de Villaine property, while two police try to discover who he is.

In the last pages of the book, the author raises questions regarding the succession to M. Aubert de Villaine's position and who the choice may be. He talks about his own background and his reasons for writing the book and his opinions about wine critics with their elaborately over-the-top descriptions of wine, then describes having his first taste of Burgundy in the cellars of Domaine Romanee-Conti, with M. Aubert in decidedly different terms. He tells le Grand Monsieur: "This may sound crazy to you, but when I was a kid there was a candy called Pop Rocks. It was like candied sand and when you put it in your mouth, it sort of bounced around and filled your mouth. "[This wine] is like divine, liquefied Pop Rocks that make me feel lightheaded - the kind of happiness that I felt after I first kissed my wife."


The Secret Sister
The Secret Sister
Price: £4.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The land has surprises in store for us, Jonathan. Surprise is the antidote to fear"--Amalia., 10 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Secret Sister (Kindle Edition)
(3.5 stars) Greek author Fotini Tsalikoglou, in her first novel to be translated into English, introduces a man we come to know as Jonathan, along with the first of his family's many mysteries. Jonathan has just boarded a plane from New York City to Athens, and while sitting next to an empty seat in the plane, he speaks to it as if it were "Amalia." He is reminiscing about an unnamed woman who dragged him, as a small child, to museums all over New York to see Greek statues and pediments, but he is puzzled because, despite this behavior toward Greek art, she was clearly "revolted by her country." Her name was Lale Andersen, a name she chose when she changed it from the original, and she was Jonathan's "mutant mother."

What follows is a complex conversation in which two people, Jonathan and his sister Amalia, through changing times and places, discuss with each other their shared childhoods and differing memories. The author's use of italics to set off one speaker from the other is helpful, as Jonathan remembers his grandparents, their emigration from Greece to New York, and his own life as a boy without a father. The novel jumps around without warning, as he comments to himself about the plane trip and his decision to travel to Greece, interspersing observations in the present with memories from his past. Ultimately, the novel becomes Jonathan's story, and the past haunts every aspect of it.

The narrative, a series of brief reminiscences by Jonathan, Amalia, and their grandmother, requires the reader to pay careful attention to the text as it explores the complex meanings of identity and the importance of the past in determining one's future. Because it is so short (only 116 pages), and so limited in its exploration of the background of the several characters, the reader must depend on the author (and translator, Mary Kitroeff) for the context clues which explain Jonathan's journey, reveal his state of mind as he begins it, and justify his need for Amalia as a companion on the journey.

For some readers the information provided here may not be enough to make the main character's decision to go to Greece feel like the natural outgrowth of his experience, or make the ultimate fates of two other characters feel inevitable. The writing is intense, psychological, and filled with the mysteries of life both in the present and in the past, and how much influence these mysteries may have on the main characters is suggested, rather than stated. Some readers may diverge from the author's suggestions that we cannot escape the past - that we become who we are by the accidents of fate. Others may feel that we have more control over the present than what we see in the lives of Jonathan and Amalia. Many tantalizing questions remain as the novella comes to a close. Readers looking for a change of pace and an analysis of how much we may all be connected to and controlled by family secrets will find this novella a treasure trove of suggestions.


Nora Webster
Nora Webster
by Colm Tóibín
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

4.0 out of 5 stars “When she asked herself what she was interested in, she had to conclude that she was interested in nothing at all.", 6 Jan. 2015, 6 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Nora Webster (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) Nora Webster, recently widowed in her mid-forties, has decided to sell the now-deteriorating country cottage on the Irish coast in Cush, where her family has spent summers for many years. Her drive to the Irish seaside to clean out the property is one she makes alone, leaving her two young sons in the care of others while she works. Reminiscing about the past, her beloved husband Maurice, and the family vacations there over the course of twenty years, she realizes how much her children will miss it, and she feels guilty because she feels she may have failed them.

Throughout much of this intense character study by Colm Toibin, which takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster observes the niceties – common, traditional actions which give her a way to deal with reality without thinking too much – and since she is reluctant to share her feelings directly with anyone, it is up to the reader to figure out her inner needs and moods by observing her behavior. The author smoothly develops Nora’s character without resorting to overt explanations of her thoughts and moods, and he controls our perceptions of Nora without using emotionally charged adjectives like “frenzied” or “cold,” or adverbs like “regretfully,” or “angrily” to describe her behavior for the reader. Through vibrant, often touching, scenes in which the characters speak and interact Toibin draws in the reader so subtly that one never feels manipulated.

Nora’s boys have returned from their stay at Aunt Josie’s house during their father’s final two months with obvious problems and a sense of loss – Donal is stuttering, and Conor is wetting the bed – but Nora sees her primary duty to be that of finding a job to ease the family’s financial burdens after Maurice’s death, and when she does, it is a full-time job which leaves her precious little time to spend reconnecting with the boys. A crisis leads to Nora’s taking a stand for the first time, and the boys ultimately benefit from it as she gradually becomes stronger and more independent and realizes that she does not necessarily have to remain a victim.

Nora’s behavior parallels some of the social and political movements of Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time in which Ireland was roiling with deeply emotional issues, and when Nora ultimately challenges a priest who changes Conor’s school classroom, she makes a major statement psychologically. Generational differences are highlighted by the activities of Nora’s daughter Aine, who is deeply involved in political causes and seemingly has no fear. Adding softness to the hard psychological truths which Nora must face is her love of music and her decision to spend more time with it, and when, near the end of the novel, she decides also to redecorate her house, she has a transformative experience. An author at the zenith of his writing career, Colm Toibin does it all with this novel which will appeal to those who treasure precise and careful writing and admire an author’s ability to surmount the challenges of bringing a difficult character fully to life, however “ordinary” that life may be.


Brilliant
Brilliant
Price: £6.21

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Sand moves fast. It eats you every time.", 2 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Brilliant (Kindle Edition)
With its stunning cover, contrasting the architectural details of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with the elemental sand which is its underpinning, Denise Roig’s collection of interconnected stories opens a vibrantly exotic and alien world to English-speaking readers. Illustrating the disparities of social life within the United Arab Emirates as lived by those who make up its oil-rich economy, these stories highlight universal themes within domestic circumstances which every reader will be able to appreciate: a pastry chef from Egypt, so poor he has to sleep inside a flour bag, wants to present a special gift to the sheikh he admires and who employs him; a Filipina servant woman begs to borrow a cellphone from a neighbor woman in order to escape her abusive circumstances; a doctor delivers the baby of a fourteen-year-old girl, who has no idea what is happening to her; a limo driver voluntarily takes the obnoxious son of his employer to see an experimental “green city” where both learn an important lesson.

These are just a few of the characters who come and go and sometimes overlap within these stories illustrating the almost impossible riches held by the sheikhs and their families and the almost unimaginable poverty in which their help lives. The only members of the middle class who appear here are the educated foreign professionals who have been hired to work for Emirati businesses or as teachers, doctors, and nurses, and their stories become the literary buffers between the very rich and the very poor, enabling the author to make her points about all aspects of society without constantly resorting to black and white stereotypes. The biggest difference among these groups is that only the middle class is really free to leave.

The professional class here has come primarily from the United States, England, Canada, Scotland, and other first world, mostly English-speaking, countries, bringing their values and goals with them and forming their own societies within the complexes in which they live. The poor here – employed primarily as nannies, cooks, housekeepers, and maids – come from the Philippines, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Palestine. These poor immigrant women live primarily with the families for whom they work, their freedoms severely curtailed. The poor men tend to live in labor camps and dorms, sometimes with twelve men to a bunk. Shifting points of view allow people from each of these groups to speak to the reader.

Three short sections – “Oasis, 1962”; “Oasis, 1972”; and “Oasis, 1973” – inserted among the stories, help to set the time periods and provide factual information about the formation and development of the Emirates, and the speed of this growth is almost impossible to digest. The futility of life for some of these characters is exacerbated by the lack of respect in which they are held, yet Roig describes the kindness of one starving servant whose desire to help someone else in need shines through when she has her only chance to escape. Some of the wealthy seem to regard their dependent help as throw-aways, just as they also sometimes build “bright new things,” which they abandon or allow to decay because of “the drudgery of having to make [them] work.” Justice is not democratic. Ultimately, the greed of some of the foreigners who become caught up in the frenzy to buy, buy, buy, leads to a kind of blindness, and when the crash comes, as it inevitably does, disaster is only a step away. As one character remarks, “Sand moves fast."


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