Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Round-Up #11

Book Review: Midaq Alley (زقاق المدق) by Naguib Mahfouz: What can one say about the works of Naguib Mahfouz that hasn't already been said? His work has been over-analyzed, over-criticized, overly lauded and, most importantly, occasionally misunderstood.

I am going to take a different route. I am just going to review this one book, which, for me, is the ultimate Naguib Mahfouz novel. It summarizes his ambitions as a novelist, his obsessions, his genius, his style, and his strangely progressive sensibilities.

Midaq Alley, focuses on just that; a small alley where several Egyptian families, widows, singles and orphans live. As is his specialty, Mahfouz takes us on a tour of the lives of these individuals; a tour through their innermost thoughts and dreams. And what a tour it is. Mahfouz creates fascinating characters that leap off the page. From the young woman with dreams of grandeur, who would do anything to achieve money and fame (including becoming a high-class prostitute), to the owner of a small coffee house, a Haj who is also a pederast, to the young man who sees joining the colonial British Army as his only means of becoming a somebody, to the wealthy merchant who, after suffering from a stroke, becomes a reclusive hypochondriac with an obsession with death. The list of character goes on and on.

But Mahfouz's ability to draw fascinating characters is not the only thing that makes this novel a masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece is Mahfouz's mastery of two things which have been absent from most Arabic novels in recent years. Realistic dialogue and tight plotting.

Here, Mahfouz weaves numerous plot strands, brings them together seemingly effortlessly, creating a compelling narrative that ends with a satisfying conclusion. And let's not forget that this book deals with things like prostitution, colonialism, psycho-sexual problems, youth angst, among many other things in an analytical and progressive-thinking manner; that in itself is a marvel considering that this book was published in Egypt in 1947!

If you want to get introduced to Naguib Mahfouz's work, there's no better introduction than Midaq Alley. A timeless masterpiece by an author who truly understood Egypt, warts and all.

Book review: The Infinite by Douglas Clegg: Haunted House tales are a dime a dozen. Ever since Shirley Jackson created the modern Haunted House tale with The Haunting of Hill House, authors have been milking the formula for all its worth to mostly repetitive results (with a few exceptions, of course, like Stephen King's The Shining and Richard Matheson's The Legend of Hell House).

Then there is The Infinite by Douglas Clegg, which attempts to do something different with the whole concept. While Clegg is obviously influenced by Jackson's work (along with the works of Matheson and Thomas Tryon), he also manages to achieve the near-impossible. Create a Haunted House story that feels fresh. He manages to do that with interesting characters, an effectively unnerving atmosphere that never wavers even for a single page, and with loads of imagination.

The novel, admirably, also takes its time, slowly developing the characters and the story, building the tension, turning the screws till the truly frightening climax, which has some really vivid nightmarish imagery.

So, if you are in the mood for a Haunted House tale with a modern twist and which leans more toward psychological horror than Splatterpunk, dim the lights, make a cup of tea and grab a copy of The Infinite. Chills of the spine are guaranteed.

Extra! Black Dog by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: This month's Extra! selection is Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's magnificent rendition of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog. Plant and Krauss (who teamed up for 2008's amazing Raising Sand album) take on this rock classic and turn it into a haunting, moving, slow-burn bluesy rocker. Fantastic!

So, until next time, keep browsing those shelves.