All Lit Up: : Book Reviews

In The Country of Men, Michael Rolliver Lives and more..

Jul 25, 2007 at 2:06 pm

With his debut novel, In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar transports the reader with a violent thud back to the Libya of his youth; the Libya of Muammar al-Gaddafi, the benevolent leader and the Guide of the revolution; the Libya of televised interrogations and public executions, of disappearances, separation, grief. Like a companion piece to Martin Amis' House of Meetings, published earlier this year, Matar poetically and vibrantly describes the sensation one feels when the weight of an entire state is pushing down on one's shoulders. The sun-bleached landscape of Matar's novel is a negative of Amis' frozen and denuded Soviet Gulag, and the shoulders in this case belong to a 9-year-old, but the nightmare and the brutality are the same. The novel is set in Tripoli in 1979, and narrated by Suleiman, an innocent Libyan boy. He spends his days swimming in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, fighting for his father's attention and administering to his mother and her mood swings and hangovers, which accompany the bottles of "medicine" she obtains on the black market and drinks when her husband is absent. Gradually, the turbulence caused by Gaddafi's revolution spreads outward, affecting everything, and making itself felt in Suleiman's simple world. The central conceit of this book is quietly powerful: only a 9-year-old could try to make sense of the despotic power of a homicidal leader like Gaddafi. An adult charged with the same task would have run out of words after a chapter or so. But Matar writes beautifully, and the result is a moving and gripping book, a necessary account of how revolutions swallow everything in their path. (Chris Kemp) Grade: A

What is the most important story of our era?

Is it the war in Iraq? The crises in Africa? The growing strength of China? These are outcroppings; the story, as it always has been, is power, how some cling to it and others are stripped of it. In studying history we see how one group of people controls another, but when we're too close in time, the view is obscured. This is particularly true when we examine the relationship between rich and poor nations. How often have you heard, "All aid money the U.S. sends to the Third World just lines the pockets of dictators"? This book balances this common view with stories of corruption on the other side, the side of the people giving the money. A Game As Old As Empire, a collection of pieces edited by Steven Hiatt, includes stories of bad lending in the Philippines, offshore banking in the U.K, control of oil in Iraq and disappearing money in South America and Africa. Sometimes the authors played roles in the recounted exploitations — these are the best reads. The cover claims that this book tells "the whole shocking story" of economic corruption in "gripping detail," but at heart it is a book about economics. Two cardinal rules of writing come into conflict: 1. A book about economics will include a lot of acronyms. 2. No book chock-full of acronyms can be called "gripping." Nevertheless, if you can cope with the occasional stretches of toast-dry prose and can keep track of all the references to OECD, ECG, ECA etc., the lessons of A Game As Old As Empire are worth learning. This book does, after all, tell the most important story. (Angela Pancella) Grade: B

As he opens a medicine cabinet brimming with the daily regimen of the HIV-positive — as well as Viagra, Lipitor and maybe even Wellbutrin — Michael Tolliver contemplates aging. He travels to Orlando for a face-off with born-again family members and an ailing mother. But this plot is just a hat-rack on which hang subplots, cultural observations and jaunts into sex trends that cause even Tolliver, gay veteran of the swinging '70s, to question his open-mindedness. Is he stodgy with age, he wonders when faced with his friend Shawna's sex-blogging forays into fetishism or his buddy Jake's transsexual dilemma over a prospect's interest in the "obsolete" equipment? Somehow he finds time to work as a gardener and dote on his home on Noe Hill. He's still smoking pot with Anna Madrigal, who, in her eighties, has moved down the hill. Mary Ann has disappeared into WASPish Connecticut, countless friends have died and he finds himself morbid, wondering whether natural causes will get him before the virus and where his current relationship with a man 21 years his junior will end. The better passages, reveries that hark back to 28 Barbary Lane, have a lyricism like Maupin's original Tales of the City as they detail San Francisco down to its mossy shingles and mourn the ravages of dot-com development. These stand out against the bulk of a book that feels phoned in. But Maupin still has that same old sense of fun, a disarming sense of humor and a grand, dramatic cast of characters, from Tolliver's Bill O'Reilly-loving brother to his mother's large, black (and proud) camo-clad hairdresser. Even from the driver's seat of Tolliver's new Prius, San Francisco is still a vibrant paradise that Tales of the City fans will love. (Cedric Rose) Grade: C

Joseph Mersman, born in Germany in 1824, arrived in Cincinnati as a teenager with his family a few years after Mrs. Trollope (Domestic Manners of the Americans) cast a disapproving eye on the young city, and he also wrote about his experiences here. Unlike Mrs. T., he wrote for himself rather than for publication, but the diary that he kept in his industrious fashion from November 1847 to September 1864 appears now as a book, some 150 years after the fact. Edited by the late Linda A. Fisher, Mersman's slender account is set in rich surroundings of historical information, footnotes, maps and illustrations. A good thing, too, as Mersman leans heavily on the weather ("pleasant" sometimes, "disagreeable" others), the whiskey business' ups and downs ("good" or perhaps "dull") and daily expenses (usually less than a dollar) for his narrative, not grabbers at this distance in time. What is fascinating is the whiff of life as it was lived in a period vastly unlike ours but ruled by ambitions and desires that stay the same. The most regular entries come from his time as a young man in Cincinnati, getting started as a whiskey merchant, flirting with the landlady's daughter, going to the theater with great regularity and drinking in a manner that behooved a whiskey merchant pushing business. In 1849 he moved to St. Louis, married, had a large family, became rich, was plagued by syphilis and died in 1892. The book is excessively footnoted — need we be told port is a red wine from Portugal, or that a person mentioned has not been identified? However, the historical context is what makes this account an interesting read. (Jane Durrell) Grade: B