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Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion
Floyd Patterson: The Fighting Life of Boxing's Invisible Champion
by W.K. Stratton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Punching Paradox, 29 Nov. 2012
Fifty years have passed since Sonny Liston scored the second of his two first round knockout wins over Floyd Patterson, effectively ending the top-level career of one of the most paradoxical and misunderstood heavyweight champions of modern times.
Shoe-horned between the legendary eras of the ever-popular Rocky Marciano and a brash young upstart then still known as Cassius Clay, little credence is given to Patterson when it comes to the age-old task of ranking the heavyweight all-time greats.
Patterson's confusing contradictions were there for all to see: he possessed one of the most malevolent left hooks in history, but appeared almost disinclined to use it, preferring to help an opponent scrabble to retrieve his gumshield, or hug him in apology after beating him.
Shy of the media, he was nevertheless an articulate and politicised man, championing the cause of black people in their rise against racial segregation and developing friendships with stars from president John F Kennedy to Frank Sinatra.
And yet, for all the fact that he made history as the then youngest heavyweight champion in history and the first man to reclaim the crown, he is destined to be best remembered as a fighter who fled his losses in disguise, too embarrassed to be seen in public.
WK Stratton's new biography of Patterson fills a void on the boxing shelf and serves to remind us just how much Patterson's reign has been glossed over and largely forgotten over the past half century.
In it, Stratton charts the rise of Patterson from a dirt-poor urban upbringing in Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant, through reform school where he started boxing, to contender status in a sport still crying out for a worthy successor to the recently retired Rocky Marciano.
For a fighting man who would go on to conquer the world at a time when so-called the richest prize in sport really was still worthy of its name, Patterson's self-doubt and all-round inclination towards pacifism was really quite extraordinary.
Hard-bit Writers weaned on Marciano's brutal simplicity did not quite know what to make of Patterson, who had a punch as good as any but a chin which saw him knocked down multiple times, even in apparently routine contests.
Patterson won the vacant title with a fifth round knockout of Archie Moore in 1956, and despite losing it shockingly to Ingemar Johansson two years later, bounced back to beat the Swede twice in a trio of bouts that helped define his career.
Patterson may have been no match for the ogreish Liston, who flattened him twice, but when many assumed he would take the hint from those losses and pursue other activities to which they assumed he must be better suited, he earned a crack at Muhammad Ali in 1965.
Therein lies one of the most unpleasant myths about Patterson, who was routinely branded an 'Uncle Tom' - a lackey of the white establishment - by Ali, a newly-minted member of the separatist Black Muslims.
In fact, Patterson had done an awful lot to help the advancement of black rights, refusing to fight in any venues in which segregation was employed, and ignoring safety concerns to visit Birmingham, Alabama when its race riots were at their height.
Ali admitted as much after their fight, in 1965, in which he appeared to go easy on the fading former champion. Incredibly, Patterson's supposedly questionable fighting heart even carried him to a 1972 rematch, which the post-Vietnam Ali won with ease.
Stratton's tireless sourcing of old articles and interviews have woven a fascinating book, which paints vivid portraits not only of Patterson but his long-time manager and later Mike Tyson mentor Cus D'Amato, as well as opponents like Johansson and Roy 'Cut 'N Shoot' Harris.
It is occasionally let down by unnecessary supposition - it is hard to believe the unqualified assertion on page 59 that Marciano retired undefeated because he feared a fight with Patterson - that "some people close to the champ feared Marciano risked getting killed in the ring with Floyd."
Not that such statements should be allowed to deflect from an eminently worthy and well-written project, and one which deserves its place on the bookshelf of definitive boxing biographies, just as Patterson's name should stand among history's heavyweight greats.


The Cook
The Cook
by Wayne Macauley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Tasty Read, 7 Nov. 2012
This review is from: The Cook (Hardcover)
Take Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential'. Add a heap of rabid ambition and a glug - no, make that a bucket-full - of gore, and you get, more or less, Wayne Macauley's wildly entertaining tale of a teenage delinquent turned aspiring chef, The Cook (pub. Quercus).
Actually, for all its obvious comparisons with Bourdain's biographical account of his life in the world's high-end, high-testosterone kitchens, it has to be stressed that as a work of fiction, 'The Cook' is entirely unique.
This is the account of seventeen-year-old Zac, who is given the choice of either going to a young offenders' institution or enrolling in a rehabilitation scheme that teachers troubled teenagers how to cook. The more Zac learns, the more he becomes convinced he has found his true calling in life, and the more determined he is to succeed, whatever it takes.
Armed with a copy of 'Larousse' plucked from the kitchen shelves, Zac immerses himself in basic techniques before he becomes, like Bourdain, obsessed with stretching boundaries, until his nascent desire to serve, to please, to succeed, threatens to spiral dangerously out of control.
This is not a book for avowed vegetarians or the easily queazy. There is a lot of fattening and slaughtering involved. Try this bite-sized chunk for size:

'My next challenge was agnelet. Milk lamb three to four weeks old four to five kilos in weight born in winter raised indoors fed milk only the meat very tender and delicate. I moved my lamb pens closer to the house and made three more for my pregnant ewes each ewe a bit bigger that than the next. I got Terry to show me how to spot a pregnant one and the ones I spotted I put in my pens. The trick with agnelet is to control the mother how she lives what she eats I fed these mothers quality lucerne up to about three weeks before delivery then intensely fed then a mixture of grain rosemary pinot noir and sea salt after that. This way the unborn lamb could take up via the placenta some of those flavours quite focussed and intense in utero then softened after birth when I bottle-fed it on high-fat cow's milk and whisked raw eggs. At slaughter I would have a lamb subtly flavoured with a bit of its mother's old grassiness but overlaid with hints of grain rosemary wine and salt yet exceptionally tender on account of the milk and eggs.'

Macauley's riotous tale is made all the more urgent by his employment of a colloquial first-person vernacular, bringing Zac's scatter-gun, hundred-mile-an-hour thought processes brilliantly to the page. It's as if the narrator has scribbled down these notes while he's half-watching a pan on the stove. While it takes some time to tune into, this works fabulously: Zac is, after all, a troubled and presumably relatively uneducated teenager, thus his narrative becomes increasingly mashed up with expressions gleaned from the cookbooks he scours.
All of which imbues this book with a fierce readability, propelling you through the pages with the simple desire to discover whether Zac succeeds. And I am not even going to hint at what transpires, beyond saying that you are very unlikely to read a more memorable ending to a book this year. A fun, high-octane, Bourdain-busting book. And, I should imagine, a real talking point if someone you know unwraps it just before they plonk the Christmas turkey in the oven.


Black Sky, Black Sea
Black Sky, Black Sea
by Izzet Celasin
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A triumphant Turkish novel, 5 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Black Sky, Black Sea (Hardcover)
Istanbul, 1977: a May Day parade is brutally suppressed in Taksim Square. Fingers are pointed at the conservative government, at fascists, at competing left-wing factions. The scent of revolution is mixed with gunsmoke. It is a city braced for violent change.
Oak, eighteen, a boarding school student, has gone along for the ride. Bewildered when the parade turns nasty, he is plucked from danger by a girl two years older than himself, with a pistol and a revolver and 'dark and angry' eyes. Her name is Zuhal. As Turkey escalates towards a military coup, her fleeting presence in his life will obsess Oak, shaping his ideas and values, challenging his political beliefs, and luring him deeper into an invariably violent world.
Black Sky, Black Sea is Izzet Celasin's first novel. One would assume it lends heavily from personal experience: a left-wing activist, Celasin was imprisoned after the 1980 coup, and moved to Norway in 1988 as a political refugee (incredibly, he first wrote this novel in Norwegian, from which is was subsequently, faultlessly translated by Charlotte Barslund).
If you're wondering at this point whether a novel about internal conflict in seventies Turkey can really cut a swathe through your reading pile, let me assure you: this is a book that mocks preconceptions, unfurling into a zappy, racy and above all extremely human story of urban guerrillas, and yet, for all its deceptive simplicity, one which begs fundamental questions about the very nature of revolution itself: the contradiction between genuine idealism and a desire simply to belong; the hypocrisy in using a gun to promote peace and harmony.
Zuhal's convictions gradually lure Oak from his quiet home life, where he lives with his mother and assumes he will one day marry Ayfer, a sweet, quiet girl from an opposite tenement block. Zuhal remains tantalisingly out of reach, and while she kindles a political flame in Oak, it is one increasingly at odds with her own, more aggressive vision of the path to a socialist Utopia.
'I was just one person on the planet who wanted to live in eternal peace, surrounded by poetry, music and love,' declares Oak, and yet at the same time: 'I fantasised about.. being an urban guerrilla in the back seat of a car on a murky day, pistol by my side, waiting impatiently to strike at a target. Or in the mountains, resting around a campfire with a Kalashnikov in my lap. I could see how the romanticism of this would appeal to most of my peers because such fantasies always ended before any blood was spilt.'
Therein lies the heart of a contradiction which will pull Oak in Zuhal's wake, immersing him further in the deadly world of fascist thugs and military prisons as the regime imposes curfews and flexes its muscles for the coup that is to follow. At the same time, Oak's story becomes increasingly personal as, if you like, his own internal revolution takes place: torn between regular girls and the absent guerrilla just as much as he struggles with two distinct political dogmas; flooded with feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and most of all rage at a society that has nourished such turmoil.
'Black Sky, Black Sea' is a superb, gripping book. In some respects, it is only after you shut it that its real cleverness becomes apparent, as those questions about the dichotomies in political activism refuse to dissipate: lingering in corners of your mind like wisps of gunsmoke over a battered city square.


Crossbones
Crossbones
by Nuruddin Farah
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's piracy, but not as we know it, 12 Oct. 2012
This review is from: Crossbones (Hardcover)
High-octane, high-seas shanties; eye-patches and cutlasses; bounties and buccaneers: all are conspicuous by their absence in Crossbones, Nuruddin Farah's gruelling yet gripping account of life in modern-day Somalia - it's piracy, but not as we know it.
Farah is ideally placed to examine the extraordinary strife afflicting his homeland, which he talks about in an excellent recent Guardian interview. 'Crossbones' - its piratical reference deployed with a delicious hint of irony - is the third and final book of his latest trilogy, though it stands alone. Where 'Links' (2006) explored the post-US invasion rise of Mogadishu's clan warlords, and 'Knots' (2007) concentrated on its virtual takeover by the hardline Islamist group Shaabab, 'Crossbones' is set in the vacuum of power that followed: Ethiopia is preparing to invade, Shaabab are scurrying for cover, and a murderous lawlessness reigns. 'Let's face it,' explains one of a seemingly limitless number of shady go-betweens, 'I, too, like so many others, profited from the turmoil. Turbulence upsets things, sends the dregs to the top. We are enjoying the turmoil and are unfettered by tax laws, a parliament issuing decrees, a dictator passing edicts, a government declaring draconian measures: the ideal situation for growth of capital.'
'Crossbones' charts the respective journeys of Jeebleh, his son-in-law Malik, and Malik's brother, Ahl, all American citizens, who return to their homeland ostensibly in order to search for Ahl's adopted son Taxliil, who has disappeared along with a group of other young Somali-American men from their homes in Minnesota, said to have been recruited by Shaabab with the lure of martyrdom.
While Jeebleh and Malik, a ambitious and intrepid war correspondent who intends to use the trip to file state-of-the-nation features, head to the chaotic capital, Ahl bases himself in semi-automous Puntland, where relative peace reigns, but so-called piracy proliferates.
Farah travelled extensively in Somalia to research his novel, and it shows. He has described his quest to chronicle the gradual breakdown of his homeland as a desire 'to keep my country alive by writing about it.'
'Crossbones' often feels as much Farah's personal interpretation of his nation as it does out-and-out fiction: while the search for Taxliil always underpins the novel, the plot unfurls slowly, often through long conversational pieces and the author's own exposition. This is not intended as a negative, far from it - though those who prefer their pirate adventures to do exactly what they say on the tin perhaps ought to look away now (Elmore Leonard's cliche-laden 'Djibouti' would be a good place to start).
What emerges out of a tough, complicated but rewarding read is a vivid portrait of a country clinging onto its nationhood by its fingertips, where chronic paranoia places journalists at the top of innumberable hit-lists, and where religious radicalization is rife among the young, often perpetuated by the clumsy actions of the west.
But what the Somalis whom Malik and Ahl encounter in their search for Taxliil seem most eager to shatter is the myth that Puntland's pirates live lives of luxury, funded by multi-million dollar off-shore ransoms. The reality, they insist, is entirely different: its stocks decimated by illegal incursions into their waters, Somalia's northern fishing fleet had little option but to pursue foreign ships for a form of insurance: from it grew a headline-grabbing industry driven by bankers and shipping magnates across the world, who divide the so-called ransom between themselves, leaving next to nothing for the kid in the skiff with the AK47 slung awkwardly round his neck, except the vilification of the watching world, and the ridiculous re-drawing of him as some sort of modern-day Blackbeard.
There's no glamour here. Farah's writing is hard and unflinching, shorn of all unnecessary accoutrements, and while his love for his country shines through, so too does his pessimism for its future:

'While there is always a beginning to an argument, there is never an end, never a logical conclusion to their disputation. Somalis are in a rich form when holding forth; they are in their element when they are spilling blood.'

For piratical stereotypes, direct yourself to Elmore Leonard. For a fascinating and exhaustive insight into what is really happening in the Horn of Africa, look beyond the news headlines and find a way to Nuruddin Farah.


The Consequences of Love
The Consequences of Love
by Sulaiman Addonia
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A stunning peep under the veil, 8 Oct. 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Sulaiman Addonia's debut novel prevails as a damning an indictment of the insane inhumanity of Saudi Wahhabism: a much-needed and utterly compelling insight into one of the most impenetrable and excrable societies on the planet.
Addonia grew up in Eritrea, from where he fled in 1976, and travelled via Sudan to Jeddah, where he studied through his teenage years. This novel is inspired by his experiences, and as such provides a valuable inside guide to the casual oppression of the Saudi regime, and the deep souls that exist in the minds of young men and beneath the burkas of the women with whom they are forbidden to communicate, yet clasp the kind of hope no amount of punishment can capture.
Feared religious police cruise Al-Nuzla street in tinted pick-ups, keen to contrive any breach of doctrine. Under the unrelenting sun, the street is bleached of humanity and emotion. This is a paranoid world in which a boy is arrested for wearing American sunglasses, which it is claimed have special powers to see under girls' abayas; where low-level foreign workers are effectively held hostage by their kafeels, or sponsors, who dictate the terms of their residency permits: terms which routinely and relatively openly include the requirement to help satiate forbidden desires.
It is a world in which imams spout hate and demand the stoning to death of women who commit adultery, yet whose laws are so arbitrary and hypocritical that even the religious police themselves hide dirty secrets, and which are applied 'only to the poor and to foreigners, not to the rich or the royal family.'
Like Addonia, Naser, the novel's twenty-year-old main character, has emigrated from his war-torn homeland in search of work. His aimless days washing cars and searching out secret places to sniff glue and drink perfume are abruptly altered when a fully-veiled woman scuttles past and throws a love letter in his lap. As the letters continue, he learns to recognise his admirer by the pink shoes she wears beneath her burka - themselves a significant expression of rebellion in such a black and white society - and the pair gradually contrive ingenious ways to allow their nascent affair to develop.
Addonia's prose is immediate and straight-forward, unencumbered by much back-story or unnecessary introspection, and it is its simplicity that makes it so compelling. He is adept at balancing the beauty of the burgeoning affair with reminders of the extraordinary risks they are taking in order to pursue it. As those risks increase, the apparent futility of their relationship impels the pair to consider the ultimate possibility of escape.
'The Consequences Of Love' retains at its core a rich, moving love story, not much different to so many other tales of forbidden trysts. But Addonia succeeds in displaying the full glory of their relationship without diluting his central indictment of a regime
whose twisted values have bled it dry of anything approaching humanity.


The God of Small Things
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant evocation of modern India, 8 Oct. 2012
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Arundhati Roy's debut novel won the Booker Prize in 1997 and became a best-seller in more than two dozen countries, yet it remains her only foray into fiction.
While Roy has evolved the public life that came with its success into becoming a tireless and outspoken campaigner for civil rights, both in her home state of Kerala and abroad, her book endures as one of the finest examples of modern Indian fiction: clever, thought-provoking and undeniably unique.
It is May in Ayemenem: the days are long and humid, the nights clear 'but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation'. Two decades on from the tragic events that abruptly ended their childhood and tore apart their laid-back family life, a pair of twins are reunited in a world unrecognisable from their youth: their mother dead, their pickle factory ruined, the once swollen river - a conniver in their tragic fate - now reduced to a polluted trickle, as if in penance for the truths it once contrived to hide.
In Roy's multi-layered, many-levelled novel, past and present blend seamlessly to present a darkly comic and ultimately desperately bleak picture of a community teetering on the brink of a Maoist insurgency; bedevilled by political hypocrisy, and still shackled, for all its increasing international opportunities, by the remnants of its obscene caste discrimination.
There is a pervading unease about this book: about both its characters and its broader subjects. Roy's writing style is thrillingly unorthodox, defiantly unfettered by convention, almost wilfully clumsy: the grass looks 'wetgreen'. The old trains rattle along making 'fallingoff noises'. As the pickles slowly cool, 'the dying froth [makes] dying frothly shapes'.
The twins, Estha and Rahel, are suffused with a wide-eyed childhood innocence, yet a delicate halo of otherworldliness, crafted by Roy's restrained use of language, is allowed to hover above them, barely discernable but for the context of the strange, unsettling world the author has conjured.
This is a challenging novel, flitting back and forth through time, slowly slotting together the complicated life stories of a disparate group of characters who hum like fat bluebottles in its fruity air, each awaiting its turn to flit into focus.
There is, it soon becomes abundantly clear, going to be no happy ending; no joyous reunion; no throwing out of old prejudices along with the vats of long-rotted fruit; no answer to the myriad social ills gripping both this village and, by inference, wider Keralan society, and India itself.
But for all that the ending is bleak and terrible and terribly, terribly vivid, it is also rendered strangely beautiful and curiously life-affirming by its confirmation that true love casts no such judgements: that it endures no matter the amount of blood that is spilled or the number of years that have passed.
If 'The God of Small Things' is to remain Arundhati Roy's first and last novel, then perhaps it is fitting, serving to enhance the legacy of a book that remains unapologetically one of a kind: by turn bewitching, baffling, tragic and triumphant: nothing less than brilliant.


Sarmada
Sarmada
by Fadi Azzam
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sex! Death! Exploding breasts!, 10 May 2012
This review is from: Sarmada (Paperback)
'Sarmada' is by pretty much any measure a unique and audacious book, drawing heavily on the both Scheherazadian tradition of stories within stories, and elements of magical realism as employed with aplomb by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
This cross-cultural clash is fitting, for 'Sarmada', named for a real-life Syrian mountain town perched in the far north-west near the border with Turkey, is as broad and ambitious as its influences.
'Sarmada' is split into sections, which ostensibly tell the life stories of three different women from the town: Azza/Hela, Farida and Buthayna.
Azza is a member of the Druze faith which believes in transmigration, a form of reincarnation in which souls are transferred from human to human. She convinces the author, whom she meets randomly at a reception in Paris, and with whom she shares the home town, to return to Sarmada to seek answers for her death in a previous life, when, as Hela Mansour, she was brutally murdered by her four brothers for eloping with a travelling salesman.
Hela's story evolves into that of the voluptuous Farida, who is tainted with the stigma of bad luck after the premature deaths of her first two husbands: her first shot by a stray bullet during their wedding feast; the second of heart attack brought on by his excitement at the prospect of their first night together.
It is here that things start to get a little off-beat. Farida slits the swollen breasts of her first husband's mother, who is consumed by grief, and uses her copious gallons of rich, scented milk to throw a rice pudding party for the whole of Sarmada, which at first poisons then purges its inhabitants of their sorrows. Suitably reprieved, and shamelessly coveted, Farida convinces herself she has found her true calling in hastening the journey of Sarmada's teenage boys into adulthood.
The sex scenes that follow are honest and lavish: at times, the story threatens to degenerate into pure centrefold porn. There were reports that the book's first English language translator gave up in protest at these extended scenes, though if true, the decision is more likely to have been influenced by elements of the significantly more challenging third and final section of the novel.
Buthayna is the sister of Farida's deceased first husband; as such, she despises her, and consults an old soothsayer with the intention of expediting her fate. Instead, she becomes obsessed with Farida's young son, Bulkhayr, who is born with two penises and will later come to devote his life to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Here is where even the most broad-minded readership will encounter problems: there is one short passage in particular that seems wholly unnecessary, and which only serves to cheapen the complexity both of their relationship and the book as a whole. It is the editing, in fact, which presents Sarmada's major flaw: it feels flabby at times, especially towards the end, and - even within its admirable Scheherazadian framework - is over-burdened with unnecessary backstory.
The narrative interruptions, too, are inconsistent and unconvincing, and disappointingly, the engaging mystery of Azza's memories are sidelined to the point of irrelevance as the novel draws on. But for all Sarmada's easily identifiable faults, it should not distract from what is a brave and clever first novel. Fans of the epic 'The Dark Side Of Love' will recognise the influence of Rafik Schami, whose Swallow Editions facilitated Adam Talib's tireless translation.
While Schami roots his work in realism, Azzam prefers to weave the myths and legends of Syria's mosaic of communities and clans in a more palpable way. The effect, though, is the same: works that paint extraordinarily vivid pictures of the nation's troubled history, and ask pertinent questions about its future.
'Sarmada' will undoubtedly polarise opinion. In my view, there is a lot here to admire, and the first two thirds present a spell-binding addition to the growing list of Arabic fiction translations. The chief charge against Azzam is perhaps merely one of over-ambition. There is more than enough here to mark him down as a name to watch out for in the years to come.


The Book of Answers
The Book of Answers
Price: £5.11

4.0 out of 5 stars Weird and wonderful, 3 May 2012
CY Gopinath's 'The Book Of Answers' richly deserves its place on this year's Commonwealth Book Award shortlist.
No doubt, it is a strange and unusual book. It seems entirely fitting that it should arrive in a strange and unusual way: published with sub-continental rights only by HarperCollins last year, the author has taken it upon himself to reach a wider audience by self-publishing. It is fully available by the e-book platform Smashwords.
Not that such things unduly matter much when it comes to content. And it is there that the real uniqueness of'The Book Of Answers' lies. Set in an Orwellian near-future in India, the story revolves around a happily unremarkable man by the name of Patros Patranobis, whose life of inconsequence is shattered when he receives a hefty, metal-bound book, an apparent bequest from some ancient relative.
The Book Of Answers purports to solve all the world's problems, but it can only be opened by a key to be found somewhere in Kerala. So Patronobis does what any self-respecting unremarkable, inconsequential man would do when faced such a burdensome situation: he sells the book to a second-hand skin-flick store for thirty-five rupees.
Months later, the book reappears in the hands of a self-styled (and faintly familiar) Godman, who is acting as spiritual adviser to one of India's most powerful politicians, Ishwar Prasad. Claiming divine intervention, Prasad passes a slew of laws designed to consolidate his push for power: the FYI Act, legalising cheating in examinations; the Happiness Tax, imposing a levy on sexual intercourse, and the 50-50 Law, proposing to partition India into two states: rich and poor. All laws, according to Prasad, which have been passed down from his Godman via the book - and thus, by inference, by God himself. Unbeknown to the public, the book remains unopened, because only one man is capable of finding the key. Not that its self-appointed guardians are in any rush to find it: as the author points out, there is nothing more dangerous than a book no-one has read.
The more the bumbling, endearing Patronobis tries to extricate himself from his situation and return to his anonymous, quiet life, the deeper he becomes inveigled in the political conspiracy. With each speech designed to resign his assigned role as some kind of national liberator-in-waiting, he becomes more of a talisman, his reticence mistaken for humility.
Eventually, inevitably, Kerala beckons. But who or what he will find there is unclear to everyone, not least Patronobis, as this bizarre, unpredictable, utterly readable novel winds towards its conclusion.
What makes 'The Book Of Answers' so good is that behind the general, clumsy humour, the preposterous satires on corruptive power and the life-affirming ode to ambivalence, lies a serious essay on faith and trust, and an example of the shocking ease with which it is is possible to manipulate the masses.
The concept behind the FYI Act would be laughable if it hadn't already been pursued in various diluted forms in the real world: think, by way of a random example, of Hugo Chavez pandering directly to the poor and hitherto disenfranchised communities of Venezuela.
This is a fine, thought-provoking book. Some parts are destined to remain unfathomable - I'm not sure I will ever fully understand what the role of the Circus Lady was in the general conspiracy) - but that's kind of the point. What is clear is it deserves its place on the shortlist, and beyond that, on the shelves of western bookstores.


The Dark Side of Love
The Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £9.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Massive and monumental, 30 April 2012
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Spanning eight hundred and ninety-six pages and three sprawling generations of Syrian families, 'The Dark Side Of Love' is a massive, monumental paean to passion in all its tragic glory.
Decades in its creation, Schami's work consists of three hundred and four separate fragments ordered together in the same intricate manner as the mosaics which adorn the Arab world's most splendid mosques. 'Each of these pieces tells a story, and when you have read them they show you their own secret colours,' says the author in his afterword, relaying the vivid dream he says finally presented him with the concept for this narrative form. 'As soon as you have read all the stories, you will see the picture.'
Seldom have books this long and exhaustive remained so utterly compelling from the first page to the last. Schami has not left as much as a single tile out of place.
'The Dark Side Of Love' starts with a murder and ends with its solution. But this is no detective novel. This is first and foremost a book about Syrian love, unfurled in startling vignettes of tragic, forbidden trysts that sprinkle its pages like the sugar-coated fennel seeds which fall onto the streets of Damascus one night as if by magic.
Two strangers gallop into the remote, mountain village of Mala in 1907, fugitives from a brutal arranged marriage, and inadvertently begin a feud between the Mushtak and Shahin clans which will spill the blood of generations to come. Some seventy years later in Damascus, the teenaged Farid Mushtak will meet and fall in love with a girl whom fate cruelly dictates is a Shahin. Their choice is stark: to deny their passion, or face death.
Embracing a breathtaking array of characters, but managing to retain a clarity characteristic of so much translated Arabic fiction, Schami proceeds to fill in the gap of those three-score years, revealing why Farid and Rana's nascent love is doomed.
Schami's work is in itself a love letter to a Damascus which in the course of his book survives the turmoil of occupation by the French, the terror of a never-ending series of brutal dictators and their Secret Service goons, short-lived union with Egypt and the birth of Israel. Yet so richly painted is Schami's picture of Damascene life that through all its turmoil and tragedies, the city never loses its allure.
The novel develops through countless doomed affairs and periods of suppression, both individual and collective. In the 'Book Of Laughter', there are beautiful anecdotes about Damascene childhood; in the 'Book Of Hell', a nightmarish portrayal of life in Syria's secret prisons. It involves an extraordinary amount of sex, but this is not the kind of gratuitous or perfunctory copulation prevalent in so many philosophical modern novels - there are no 'Bad Sex Awards' here: the sex in this book is straight-forward and stallion-esque, which only the most tiresome prude would deny is not entirely in keeping with Schami's exploration of passion's extremes: the price for such ecstasy is often certain death.
Schami's prose is simple and his outlook avowedly realist: beyond the occasional dream, he squeezes the whims of fate and fantasy from life itself. This realism makes 'The Dark Side Of Love' deeply affecting: haunting, heart-breaking and undeniably pertinent given the tragedy centred on Schami's beloved city today.
Others have been right to question Schami's choice of title for his book, for this is not simply about love's 'dark side', but about love in all its glory - the kind of love that conquers all, even death.

An old storyteller tells his rapt audience:

"A woman once loved a man with a large wart on his nose. She thought him the most handsome man in the world. Years later, however, she noticed the wart one morning. 'How long have you had that wart on your nose?' she asked. 'Ever since you stopped loving me,' said the man sadly."

Some say this is the great Syrian novel. I haven't read enough Syrian novels to venture an opinion beyond declaring it almost unfathomable that many, if any, Syrian novels could possibly be this good. It's the kind of book you truly wish will never end, and mercifully it takes a long time to do just that. Like the mosaics in the mosque, its intricate colours will shine out for generations to come.


Utopia
Utopia
by Ahmed Khaled Towfik
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A short, sharp, steroid jab of a novel, 23 April 2012
This review is from: Utopia (Hardcover)
Egypt, 2023: the nation's elite cling to a stretch of its north coast, the eponymous Utopia, fenced off and fortified by shoot-to-kill squads of ex-US marines. Over the wire exist the Others, in a broken-down, left-behind world where there is no rule of law and day-to-day life is a brutal struggle.
Such a dystopian landscape is nothing new, but in Ahmed Khaled Towfik's more than capable hands it is lent a new sense of urgency, underpinned by a conceit which renders his own Utopia more chillingly believable than the rest: the discovery of a new super-fuel which instantly renders the middle-east's oil reserves worthless.
The middle-classes have collapsed and the super-rich have fled behind gates to a community haemorrhaging wealth to the extent that almost anything is possible, and in which their offspring's only burden is the over-bearing nihilism which grows out of lives devoid of risk or thrill.
Utopia's teenage, nameless narrator - 'Let's not talk about names. What's the value of names when you're no different to anyone else?' - is the son of a pharmaceutical billionaire who passes his days overwhelmed with boredom:

'What can you do in this artificial paradise? You sleep, you take drugs, you eat until food makes you sick, you vomit until you can recover the enjoyment of eating, you have sex (it's weird how you notice that boredom makes your sexual behaviour aggressive and sadistic). If you knew another way for a person to live his life, I'd be happy if you could tell me about it.'

Utopia is a world in which even political enmity is non-existent: the narrator cannot fathom why former generations used to loathe the state of Israel. Here and now, money and status mean everything, no matter your creed. Only one pursuit remains enthrallingly off-limits: the sick, so-called sport of 'hunting', in which gangs of Utopians cross the fence to kidnap then hunt down selected Others, secure in the knowledge that they stay a mobile phone call away from being winched to safety by their always-compliant US guards. Friends have done it, hauling back hacked-off body parts as trophies. Consumed by the idea, the narrator and his sometime girlfriend hustle out of the gates, but they are bewildered by the parallel universe in which they have arrived, and it is not long before things start to go badly wrong.
Towfik is the author of scores of books in his homeland, and is feted as 'the Arab world's best-selling author of horror and fantasy genres.' First published in Arabic in 2009, 'Utopia' was translated by Chip Rossetti and published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar last year.
'Utopia' is a short, sharp, steroid-jab of a novel: perhaps not entirely ground-breaking in its global vision, but undoubtedly given added potency by its setting in lands where the class gap is at its most extreme. It is also an anything-but-ordinary addition to the notable canon of Arabic fiction translated into English, and as such is a refreshing as well as exhilarating read.


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