Reading Challenges

March 14, 2011

Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie Novels

Some of you may remember my initial post about Alexander McCall Smith's creation, the philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, a nosy yet ethical Scotswoman whose inquisitive nature lands her in many a sticky situation, but normally results in a positive outcome. Recently, I've completed the third and forth books in the series, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. The former concentrates on myriad developments in Isabel's personal life as opposed to the mysteries we've grown accustomed to in the first two books. Fortunately, the latter sees us return once again to the successful formula that places our heroine's professional and private life on equal footing. In The Careful Use of Compiments questions related to honesty, authenticity and the use of money are raised, encapsulated in the cozy Scottish environment of Edinburgh and Jura (a coastal island), providing the perfect backdrops for an art history-themed mystery. Fans of Isabel's romantic life won't be disappointed either, there's plenty to read about regarding her newest family addition and young love. 

Isabel, as usual, handles her quirky lifestyle with aplomb as she tenaciously attempts to track down an artist who is forging profitable masterpieces by a deceased renown Scottish painter, but are the works truly forgeries? If people are happy with a painting they've bought, should the fact that it's a forgery make any difference? What is a painting's true worth? You may find yourself contemplating these questions alongside Edinburgh's favorite busybody moral philosopher...

The author has an excellent website HERE

Alexander McCall Smith discusses The Careful Use of Compliments:

March 11, 2011

The Voices of Marrakech by Elias Canetti

Well, my original review seems to have been lost in the ether somewhere (that's a first!), so I'll try to summarize here what I reported on earlier today. If Hideous Kinky (see post below), gives a vintage view of Morocco in the 1970s, Nobel prize winning Elias Canetti's The Voices of Marrakech reaches further back in time to provide a glimpse of life in the immediate post-colonial period of Morocco in the 1950s. Like Esther Freud's memoirs, the author focuses on the hub of Marrakech and its bustling central square filled with characters, the Djama El Fna.

While The Voices of Marrakech ranks high atop most lists of must-read Moroccan travelogues, the book is far from being a literary treasure. Its tone is straightforward, if not a bit dry, and flows from informational sections that read like standard non-fiction to personal recollections of the author's own encounters and experiences. What is impressive about reading Canetti's account is noting just how little has changed in Morocco since the time the memoirs were written. For this reason, the most valuable portion of the book is perhaps the chapter dedicated to the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, because this is one aspect of the Moroccan cultural landscape that has changed drastically in the past century. Marrakech, and a few other Moroccan cities, were once home to a sizable Jewish population and the country prided itself on its diversity. This population has since decreased exponentially and no longer resides in the traditional Mellah quarters. 

The first section dedicated to the camel trade is also of interest as this is one aspect of Moroccan culture that can be hard to tap into while visiting the country due to language barriers or accessibility issues related to camel traders and their travel routes. Canetti's experiences with Moroccan Jews and camel traders act as valuable documents for those interested in Moroccan history and culture. Still, The Voices of Marrakech is really only recommendable for true Morocco aficionados. For those who are looking for an entertaining read or a first introduction to life in Morocco, there are better choices available such as the works of author Tahir Shah, whom I blogged about HERE.  

Elias Canetti is an interesting figure who led a vibrant life. Born in Bulgaria, he later immigrated to England, Austria and Switzerland, in addition to traveling abroad frequently. You can read a full list of the author's award-winning titles and access his biographical details HERE

March 7, 2011

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

I read Hideous Kinky five years ago or so after seeing the film adaptation, but decided to pick up this quick read again after my first visit to Morocco.  The author, daughter of  renown painter Lucian Freud and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, spent her early childhood in Morocco traveling alongside her older sister and bohemian mother. Freud's illustrious family ties are deceptive, however, as Hideous Kinky details the impoverished lifestyle the children often led as their single mother searched for a way to make ends meet between payments received from their father back home in England.

What's refreshing about Hideous Kinky is that unlike many memoirs, Freud is quite adept at recounting how she perceived events in Morocco as a five year old child, capturing both the simplicity and imagination of a young girl not yet encumbered by prejudice or the colonialist attitudes of adult expatriates. The young sisters' adventures are both humorous and insightful, largely taking place in the cosmopolitan hub of Marrakech and its famous central square, Djama El Fna, as well as a few other escapades in the remote countryside that involve hitchhiking and a dangerous road trip to Algiers.  

Freud also writes with a neutral voice about her mother, although readers may draw their own conclusions about what constitutes responsible parenthood, especially when the girls visibly yearn for stability that their well-meaning mother, on a personal spiritual quest, fails to provide. References to the mother also offer a window into the counter-culture movement of the West that infiltrated Morocco in the 1960's and 70's (escape from convention in Anglo-Saxon societies versus the relaxed quality of the Mediterranean lifestyle). In short, the book provides a nice balance between its observations of Morocco and Moroccan people, as well as the country's foreign guests (largely from Europe and North America) that were heavily present post-colonialism during the hippy era.

Film adaptation of Hideous Kinky
When I finished my second reading of Hideous Kinky, I also decided to give the film (of the same title), a second go as well. Although the cast does an excellent job, the story itself suffers quite a bit at the hands of the script, which turns the film into more of the mother's story and her romance with Bilal, a local, well-loved and accepted by the sisters. As a result, it loses the children's perspective of Morocco and focuses more on the spiritual aspects of expatriate life at the time (Danish and Americans alike sit around a table wishing on a dead Sufi's shoe, for instance). The film also creates a picture-postcard vision of Morocco, omitting the grittier street life described in the book (and anchored in reality) that takes place amid Marrakech's stunning pink architecture and lush surrounding valleys. 

Click HERE to read an interview with Esther Freud in which she discusses her writing process, Hideous Kinky, and her novel The Sea House.

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