REVIEW BY BARBARA SAMUEL
Last summer, just as the Romance Writers of America conference rolled into Dallas, the news leaked through the ranks: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss had died. Some sources hint that her heart was broken after the untimely death of her son, Dorren, who died weeks before she did; others say it was simply the more prosaic, but no less tragic, cancer. Romance readers only know it was too soon. The beloved author had just turned 68.
Woodiwiss is widely regarded as the mother of the modern historical romance, and her 12 novels (beginning with 1972's The Flame and the Flower) boast a staggering 30 million copies in print. Her strong-willed heroines are beautiful, her heroes devastatingly handsome, and the pair finds adventure and romance on the way to their happy ending. Woodiwiss sparked a passion in readers and writers alike, flinging open the doors to what has become a thriving genre offering work to hundreds of (mostly) female writers. In a tribute to Woodiwiss, New York Times best-selling historical romance author Teresa Medeiros wrote, "I am humbled by what a great debt of gratitude we all owe Kathleen E. Woodiwiss. At the conclusion of The Flame and the Flower, she should have written not 'The End,' but 'The Beginning.' "
One consolation is that Woodiwiss left a final completed manuscript for her devoted readers: Everlasting, a sumptuous story set in the turbulent aftermath of the Crusades. Abrielle's beloved fiancé has died, leaving her to find a husband who will help save her mother and step-father from ruin. Cornered by the specter of poverty, Abrielle agrees to a union with the loathsome Desmond de Marle, despite her conflicted attraction to a Scotsman, Raven Seabern. Raven is powerfully drawn to the beautiful and spirited Abrielle, and when her husband meets a fitting death, he becomes Abrielle's champion. Abrielle must sort out the truth of her feelings—and Raven's—if the pair is to find lasting happiness. This lushly written last offering is classic Woodiwiss, and every romance collection should include this final chapter in a brilliant career.
Colorado writer Barbara Samuel is the author of several historical romances.
REVIEW BY BARBARA SAMUEL
By Marie Phillips
Little, Brown, $23.99
REVIEW BY AMY SCRIBNER
So whatever happened to the Olympians? You know, the 12 Greek immortals who lived on Mount Olympus: Dionysus, god of wine. Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility. Apollo, god of prophecy. Ares, god of war. Artemis, goddess of the hunt. And the rest of the gang. Turns out, since they fell out of vogue, they've been living in a decrepit London townhouse and, quite frankly, after all these years they're starting to get on each other's nerves.
That's the premise of the intriguing debut novel Gods Behaving Badly by English author Marie Phillips. Devastatingly beautiful Aphrodite works as a phone sex operator. Dionysus is a nightclub DJ on a never-ending search for debauchery. Apollo is a cheesy television psychic. Artemis walks dogs.
All those gods and goddesses living under one roof can really take its toll on a place. Their house is in shambles, so Artemis hires a housekeeper. Alice is a mousy, shy woman who was recently fired from her job cleaning the television studio where Apollo films his TV program. She's not sure what to make of her new employers, but she needs the paycheck. When a scheming Aphrodite convinces Eros, the god of love, to cast a spell, Apollo falls deeply in love with Alice. They make an unlikely pair, complicated by the fact that Alice already has a devoted secret admirer in her equally timid friend Neil.
The battle of wills between Aphrodite and Apollo intensifies, and Alice and Neil are caught in the crossfire. What follows is a surreal journey by the two mortals into the underworld (via the London tube, of course) in a bid to save mankind.
It's silly, to be sure, but what's wrong with silly? And somehow, with brisk writing and sly humor, Phillips spins this whimsical tale into something bigger. She gets at the heart of what it means to be needed, and why all of us—even immortals—crave it.
Amy Scribner writes from Washington
REVIEW BY HARVEY FREEDENBERG
Most Westerners have a mental picture of Saudi Arabia that's hardly more than a mélange of clichés featuring white-robed sheiks climbing into Rolls-Royces to survey vast oil fields. Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's haunting and enigmatic novel, his first published outside Saudi Arabia after being banned there, offers a stark picture of that society.
The central character of Wolves of the Crescent Moon is Turad, a Bedouin and former desert bandit who, as the novel opens, finds himself in the Riyadh bus station with no destination other than one that will take him out of the city he has come to loathe. After losing his ear in a desert incident that's described in wrenching detail at the novel's climax, he has migrated to the capital, moving through a series of menial jobs until he finds a position as a servant at the finance ministry.
Like Turad, the other principal characters of Wolves are physically damaged. Tawfiq is an elderly man who exists on the fringe of Saudi society. Captured in Sudan as a young boy, he is sold into slavery and then castrated. Eventually he drifts into the finance ministry, where he and the Bedouin discover a surprising connection. Nasir is an orphan who mysteriously loses his eye shortly after he's abandoned at birth. In the bus station a stranger hands Turad a government file whose contents recount the mundane facts of Nasir's existence, facts Turad uses as the springboard for an imaginative re-creation of the boy's life. Employing a nonlinear narrative that shimmers with a certain dreamlike quality, Wolves interweaves the lives of these characters in complex and unexpected ways.
It's easy to imagine this tale being narrated by an ancient storyteller to a group of rapt listeners gathered around a blazing desert fire. Al-Mohaimeed's prose is taut and yet lyrical, evoking the harsh beauty of the desert landscape in spare sentences rich with vivid imagery. While his name will be unfamiliar to most American readers, his talent deserves serious attention.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Label: Wolves of the Crescent Moon
Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel laureate for literature, was born in an old quarter of Cairo in 1911. His study of philosophy at what is now Cairo University greatly influenced his works, as did his wide readings, and his work in the government and in the Cinema Organization. Life's Wisdom is a unique collection of quotations selected from this great author s works, offering philosophical insights on themes such as childhood, youth, love, marriage, war, freedom, death, the supernatural, the afterlife, the soul, immortality, and many other subjects that take us through life s journey. Naguib Mahfouz's works abound with words of wisdom. As Nadine Gordimer states in her foreword to one of his earlier books: "The essence of a writer's being is in the work, not the personality, though the world values things otherwise, and would rather see what the writer looks like on television than read where he or she really is to be found: in the writings." In keeping with Gordimer's comment, Mahfouz's true nature can be found in his writing. The quotations included here offer a broad, yet profound, insight into the writer s philosophy gained through a life's journey of experience and writing.
Label: Naguib Mahfouz
After reading days of 1908 by Constantin Cavafy
Had I been there then and seen for myself
That young man still and nude on the beach front,
I would not have remembered perhaps but the thrill
Of having seen such faultless beauty
And perhaps I might have recalled
That he did not seek my glance
But only that his eyes rested
On the sea
(as faultless as he . . .)
But Cavafy retained much more
He had seen the unworthy clothes, cast aside,
the garments of a poor man without work
But for the games of cards he found to play in cafés
For a dollar
For a shilling
“The shabbiness of his clothes was tragical”
and the Poet saw and suffered this as clearly as he saw the sunburnt limbs,
the tossed, uncombed hair,
the faultless beauty.
After the Bath
Bouake - Ivory Coast
Days of tourmoil
her friend in bouaké
is in danger
and still no news
after her bath
filled the small room with its perfume
she asked, "what is going to happen?"
By Karen Armstrong*
Financial Times - April 27 2007
Ever since the Crusades, people in the west have seen the prophet Muhammad as a sinister figure. During the 12th century, Christians were fighting brutal holy wars against Muslims, even though Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. The scholar monks of Europe stigmatised Muhammad as a cruel warlord who established the false religion of Islam by the sword. They also, with ill-concealed envy, berated him as a lecher and sexual pervert at a time when the popes were attempting to impose celibacy on the reluctant clergy. Our Islamophobia became entwined with our chronic anti-Semitism; Jews and Muslims, the victims of the crusaders, became the shadow self of Europe, the enemies of decent civilisation and the opposite of ”us”.
Our suspicion of Islam is alive and well. Indeed, understandably perhaps, it has hardened as a result of terrorist atrocities apparently committed in its name. Yet despite the religious rhetoric, these terrorists are motivated by politics rather than religion. Like ”fundamentalists” in other traditions, their ideology is deliberately and defiantly unorthodox. Until the 1950s, no major Muslim thinker had made holy war a central pillar of Islam. The Muslim ideologues Abu ala Mawdudi (1903-79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), among the first to do so, knew they were proposing a controversial innovation. They believed it was justified by the current political emergency.
The criminal activities of terrorists have given the old western prejudice a new lease of life. People often seem eager to believe the worst about Muhammad, are reluctant to put his life in its historical perspective and assume the Jewish and Christian traditions lack the flaws they
attribute to Islam. This entrenched hostility informs Robert Spencer’s misnamed biography The Truth about Muhammad, subtitled Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.
Spencer has studied Islam for 20 years, largely, it seems, to prove that it is an evil, inherently violent religion. He is a hero of the American right and author of the US bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Like any book written in hatred, his new work is a depressing read. Spencer makes no attempt to explain the historical, political, economic and spiritual circumstances of 7th-century Arabia, without which it is impossible to understand the complexities of Muhammad’s life. Consequently he makes basic and bad mistakes of fact. Even more damaging, he deliberately manipulates the evidence.
The traditions of any religion are multifarious. It is easy, therefore, to quote so selectively that the main thrust of the faith is distorted. But Spencer is not interested in balance. He picks out only those aspects of Islamic tradition that support his thesis. For example, he cites only passages from the Koran that are hostile to Jews and Christians and does not mention the numerous verses that insist on the continuity of Islam with the People of the Book: ”Say to them: We believe what you believe; your God and our God is one.”
Islam has a far better record than either Christianity or Judaism of appreciating other faiths. In Muslim Spain, relations between the three religions of Abraham were uniquely harmonious in medieval Europe. The Christian Byzantines had forbidden Jews from residing in Jerusalem, but
when Caliph Umar conquered the city in AD638, he invited them to return and was hailed as the precursor of the Messiah. Spencer doesn’t refer to this. Jewish-Muslim relations certainly have declined as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but this departs from centuries of peaceful
and often positive co-existence. When discussing Muhammad’s war with Mecca, Spencer never cites the Koran’s condemnation of all warfare as an ”awesome evil”, its prohibition of aggression or its insistence that only self-defence justifies armed conflict. He ignores the Koranic emphasis on the primacy of forgiveness and peaceful negotiation: the second the enemy asks for peace, Muslims must lay down their arms and accept any terms offered, however disadvantageous. There is no mention of Muhammad’s non-violent campaign that ended the conflict.
People would be offended by an account of Judaism that dwelled exclusively on Joshua’s massacres and never mentioned Rabbi Hillel’s Golden Rule, or a description of Christianity based on the bellicose Book of Revelation that failed to cite the Sermon on the Mount. But the widespread ignorance about Islam in the west makes many vulnerable to Spencer’s polemic; he is telling them what they are predisposed to hear. His book is a gift to extremists who can use it to ”prove” to those Muslims who have been alienated by events in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq that the west is incurably hostile to their faith.
Eliot Weinberger is a poet whose interest in Islam began at the time of the first Gulf war. His slim volume, Muhammad, is also a selective anthology about the Prophet. His avowed aim is to ”give a small sense of the awe surrounding this historical and sacred figure, at a time of the
demonisation of the Muslim world in much of the media”. Many of the passages he quotes are indeed mystical and beautiful, but others are likely to confirm some readers in their prejudice. Without knowing their provenance, how can we respond to such statements as ”He said that he who plays chess is like one who has dyed his hand in the blood of a pig” or ”Filling the stomach with pus is better than stuffing the brain with poetry”?
It is difficult to see how selecting only these dubious traditions as examples could advance mutual understanding. The second section of this anthology is devoted to anecdotes about Muhammad’s wives that smack of prurient gossip. Western readers need historical perspective to understand the significance of the Prophet’s domestic arrangements, his respect for his wives, and the free and forthright way in which they approached him. Equally eccentric are the stories cited by Weinberger to describe miracles attributed to the Prophet: the Koran makes it clear that Muhammad did not perform miracles and insists that he was an ordinary human being, with no divine powers.
It is, therefore, a relief to turn to Barnaby Rogerson’s more balanced and nuanced account of early Muslim history in The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad. Rogerson is a travel writer by trade; his explanation of the Sunni/Shia divide is theologically simplistic, but his account of the
rashidun, the first four ”rightly guided” caliphs who succeeded the Prophet, is historically sound, accessible and clears up many western misconceptions about this crucial period.
Rogerson makes it clear, for example, that the wars of conquest and the establishment of the Islamic empire after Muhammad’s death were not inspired by religious ideology but by pragmatic politics. The idea that Islam should conquer the world was alien to the Koran and there was no
attempt to convert Jews or Christians. Islam was for the Arabs, the sons of Ishmael, as Judaism was for the descendants of Isaac and Christianity for the followers of Jesus.
Rogerson also shows that Muslim tradition is multi-layered and many-faceted. The early historians regularly gave two or three variant accounts of an incident in the life of the Prophet; readers were expected to make up their own minds.
Similarly, there are at least four contrasting and sometimes conflicting versions of the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament the four evangelists interpret the life of Jesus quite differently. To choose one tradition and ignore the rest - as Weinberger and Spencer do - is distorting.
Professor Tariq Ramadan has studied Islam at the University of Geneva and al-Azhar University in Cairo and is currently senior research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. The Messenger is easily the most scholarly and knowledgeable of these four biographies of Muhammad, but it is
also practical and relevant, drawing lessons from the Prophet’s life that are crucial for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Ramadan makes it clear, for example, that Muhammad did not shun non-Muslims as ”unbelievers” but from the beginning co-operated with them in the pursuit of the
common good. Islam was not a closed system at variance with other traditions. Muhammad insisted that relations between the different groups must be egalitarian. Even warfare must not obviate the primary duty of justice and respect.
When the Muslims were forced to leave Mecca because they were persecuted by the Meccan establishment, Ramadan shows, they had to adapt to the alien customs of their new home in Medina, where, for example, women enjoyed more freedom than in Mecca. The hijrah (”migration”) was a test of intelligence; the emigrants had to recognise that some of their customs were cultural rather than Islamic, and had to learn foreign practices.
Ramadan also makes it clear that, in the Koran, jihad was not synonymous with ”holy war”. The verb jihada should rather be translated: ”making an effort”. The first time the word is used in the Koran, it signified a ”resistance to oppression” (25:26) that was intellectual and spiritual rather than militant. Muslims were required to oppose the lies and terror of those who were motivated solely by self-interest; they had to be patient and enduring. Only after the hijrah, when they encountered the enmity of Mecca, did the word jihad take connotations of self-defence and armed resistance in the face of military aggression. Even so, in mainstream Muslim tradition, the greatest jihad was not warfare but reform of one’s own society and heart; as Muhammad explained to one of his companions, the true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.
The Koran teaches that, while warfare must be avoided whenever possible, it is sometimes necessary to resist humanity’s natural propensity to expansionism and oppression, which all too often seeks to obliterate the diversity and religious pluralism that is God’s will. If they do wage
war, Muslims must behave ethically. ”Do not kill women, children and old people,” Abu Bakr, the first caliph, commanded his troops. ”Do not commit treacherous actions. Do not burn houses and cornfields.” Muslims must be especially careful not to destroy monasteries where Christian
monks served God in prayer.
Ramadan could have devoted more time to such contentious issues as the veiling of women, polygamy and Muhammad’s treatment of some (though by no means all) of the Jewish tribes of Medina. But his account restores the balance that is so often lacking in western narratives. Muhammad was not a belligerent warrior. Ramadan shows that he constantly emphasized the importance of ”gentleness” (ar-rafiq), ”tolerance” (al-ana) and clemency (al-hilm).
It will be interesting to see how The Messenger is received. Ramadan is clearly addressing issues that inspire some Muslims to distort their religion. Western people often complain that they never hear from ”moderate” Muslims, but when such Muslims do speak out they are frequently dismissed as apologists and hagiographers. Until we all learn to approach one another with generosity and respect, we cannot hope for peace.
* Karen Armstrong is the author of ”Muhammad: Prophet For Our Time”.
Label: karen armstrong
The following are excerpts from "Soul Mountain," Gao Xingjian's novel based on his travels in central China in the 1980s and translated from Chinese by Mabel Lee. The novel was cited by the Swedish Academy in awarding the Chinese author the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature.
The rich, the famous, and the nothing in particular all hurry back because they are getting old. After all, who doesn't love the home of their ancestors? They don't intend to stay, so they walk around looking relaxed, talking and laughing loudly, and effusing fondness and affection for the place. When friends meet they don't just give a nod or a handshake in the meaningless ritual of city people, but rather they shout the person's name or thump him on the back. Hugging is also common, but not for women. By the cement trough where the buses are washed, two young women hold hands as they chat. The women here have lovely voices and you can't help taking a second look.
* * * * *
In the North, it is already late autumn but the summer heat hasn't completely subsided. Before sunset, it is still quite hot in the sun and sweat starts running down your back. You leave the station to have a look around. There's nothing nearby except for the little inn across the road. It's an old-style two-story building with a wooden shop front. Upstairs the floorboards creak badly but worse still is the grime on the pillow and sleeping mat. If you wanted to have a wash, you'd have to wait 'til it was dark to strip off and pour water over yourself in the damp and narrow courtyard. This is a stopover for the village peddlers and craftsmen.
* * * * *
At the time every city along the way had gone mad. Walls, factories, high voltage poles, man-made constructions of any kind, were all covered in slogans swearing to defend with one's life, to overthrow, to smash, and to fight a bloody war to the end. As this train roared along there was the singing of battle songs on the broadcast system on board and on the loudspeakers outside in every place the train passed. [source: http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/beginnings/10/12/nobel.excerpts.ap/index.html]