16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Rachael Daum on Dark Company: A Novel in Ten Rainy Nights by Gert Loschütz, from Seagull Books.

Rachael (with an “A-E”, thankyouverymuch) I believe it’s been mentioned before, is a former intern-student of Open Letter, and a great friend to and advocate for literature in translation. She won out in the mad grab to get her hands on this book to review: Seagull has been putting out some really exceptional stuff lately (or per usual, I should say), and several of our regular reviewers were pining for Dark Company. And I don’t blame them—it looks like a pretty rad read . . .

Here’s the beginning of Rachael’s review:

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

For the rest of the review and more darkness and rain, go here.

16 August 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

If you open Gert Loschütz’s new novel Dark Company expecting a clear answer as to who the titular dark company are, and why the protagonist’s grandfather warned him against them, you are sadly doomed to disappointment. Indeed, if you want a clear linear plotline neatly laid out, a consistent character set, or a steady setting, you’re going to have a rough ride. It is unwise to approach this slender tome anticipating clarity; rather, you’ve got to gird yourself, step warily, and simply go. However, that is a great part of the magic of this new book: the challenge here is to keep up with the narrator, Thomas, in his fluctuating life, and to accept it as impossible. What makes this novel, translated by Samuel P. Willcocks, ultimately satisfying and worthwhile is its glimmering prose, the fascinating and highly changeable life of our protagonist, and the constant rain that ties together every event.

Dark Company is marked as a book “told in ten rainy nights.” In fact, each of the ten chapters opens with a different facet of a cold, rainy night: the rain itself, the chilling wind, the fog, or the artificial light that shines, but offers no comfort to those outside or inside. Indeed, as the book progresses, the weather and the surroundings—different every chapter—themselves become characters that lead Thomas through the narrative. These elements are personified, as the wind is when it opens the third chapter, finding “its way into the house through the cracks to tear the handle from your hand and send the doors slamming. The wind moans in the chimney, rattles the windows, and when I go out at night I can hear a shrill whistling.” The elements here have agency, indeed more than our protagonist, Thomas, ever really seems capable of. The rain that pulls us through the book blocks out all light; the author, who cites Kafka and Rosendorfer as influences to his own style, must consciously equate this lack of natural light to lack of illumination for the characters and the readers. This, however, does not deter a reader—rather, she is swept along with the plot as surely as the people in the book are, straight into the flood.

There are few constants in the novel, rain, again, being one, and the vanishing of characters being the other. Early on, Thomas admits to a boyish wonder of Henry Hudson, “the explorer I admired above all others for the way he had disappeared. The way he sailed off at dawn (and never returned) spoke to me of true modesty and greatness.” This ominously becomes a veritable tattoo of the novel In almost every single chapter, we are introduced to a person—a colleague in the German Navy, a former lover, a nameless woman working on an angel statue in a workshop—who disappears. The natures of their disappearances are all different: Daniel, a fellow sailor in the British Navy, vanishes after the appearance of an African sailor who joins and introduces voodoo magic to the ship; Katharina, a young woman Thomas shared a night and a tattoo with, seems to melt away with her blood on the pavement after being attacked by some guard dogs, only to appear later in England; her Doppelgänger vanishes with a promise on her lips after chasing after somebody who, in a Marquez-like twist, has Thomas’s face. Thomas’s grandfather, continually referenced to but never seen in the novel, has a theory about vanished people:

He believed that all those who had vanished had not really vanished at all but were all gathered somewhere, in designated places. If I have understood correctly what he was saying, they travel in a particular kind of train which carries them across the length and breadth of Europe, unceasingly: that is to say, they never leave the train. . . . Since these trains are not listed on any timetable and never stop—or stop only in very remote, hidden places—it is difficult to detect them.

It is, then, this baleful continual movement of the train that pushes the narrative along like the rivers and eventual floods of rain do. Thomas—and thus the reader—learns to expect, and accept, their inevitability.

There does seem to be a striking passivity in Thomas’s acceptance of how the narrative plays out, which is baffling. That is, Thomas is content merely to let things happen to him. He repeatedly follows people into the darkness, once even as far as being led to the meeting of a religious cult in which he is apparently “The Promised One.” Thomas yearns to “go back, back to the rivers, the docks, the warehouses where a man could lose himself walking round, not back to my flat by the river but to a boat, and so what if my license had expired . . .” He never helps himself, and in his yearning eventually ends up a worker on a train. As a former skipper, he deals in transit, and never seems to get anywhere himself. His timeline is all but impossible to figure out—was he struck from his position as a skipper because he may have killed a woman? did he meet the woman who resembled Katharina after his work on the train? when did he have the affair with the married woman? when did he meet his possible son? is this the titular dark company?—and this question of time and madness is what sweeps the reader along as surely as Thomas is pushed forward by his work on the boats and on the train, and his life aboard a bus (a sad parody of Noah’s ark) that takes him away from his flooded house. It becomes apparent that Thomas does not trust the reader and indeed keeps things from her, allowing for gross jumps in logic (one moment he is waiting in a bar till “zero hours forty,” and then he admits that “this was the place and I had to wait. If she had come at eleven, we could have sailed at twelve,” with no previous mention to waiting for anyone. Perhaps, the readers reflect drily, he doesn’t trust us with his secret). He eventually references his omissions, finally admitting to them and their fatality: “Add one more fault to my list of omissions. . . . Everything that I have failed to do leaps out at me from the dark, my failures lurk in the driving rain, in the whistling sound overhead.”

It is impossible to read this book and not notice the beautiful translation from German into English by Willcocks. The text reads absolutely effortlessly in translation, with glittering descriptions of Thomas’s surroundings that are timed to an English pace and sound-set perfectly: “Instead [there was] fog, silence and the smell that so often accompanies fog, a smell of fire, a burning smell, a hint of smouldering trees and smoke creeping over the ground at knee height . . .” It is, however, Willcocks’s poetic employ of generally difficult English words that is worth our attention and applause. For example (emphasis mine), Thomas’s “world outside . . . dissolve[s] into a fuzzy stroboscopic fog of impressions,” and Katharina’s dogs, “two deep-chested, powerful beasts . . . stopped at her command (a word? a signal?) and eyed us, obediently, yes, but truculent too, truculent in their obedience.” Willcocks has weighed the very sounds of the words he applied to the English text, resulting in a sensuous, sonorous prose. Ultimately, in the translation itself as in the text, this is a book for a reader looking for a thematic and highly, wonderfully literary challenge, and though the reader is left with gaping questions apathetically unanswered, it can’t be denied that it was worth buckling in for the ride and getting caught up in the flow of the flood with Thomas and the debris of his life.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Intizar Husain’s Basti, which is available from New York Review Books.

Each semester, Chad has students in both his Introduction to Publishing course and the World Literature in Translation course write book reviews as part of an assignment—we’ll be running these over the next weeks.

Rachael Daum (who is an accomplisher and recipient of all the things/fellowships, speaker of several languages, translator-in-training, and hails from England/Germany) was part of the internship and Intro to Publishing course this semester. Here’s a bit of her review:

The Urdu word “_basti_” refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother calling a curse on Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a further discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

To read the rest of the review, go here.

10 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.

The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother cursing Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.

It is interesting, and then sad, to observe how the role of religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India changes throughout Zakir’s life. This conflict is a common fact of life at the beginning of the novel—it’s a point of exasperation more than it is one of violence. For example, when the rainy season comes and soaks everything, the Hindu women sing night and day for the god Krishna to come and end the rainy season. Zakir’s mother, a Muslim woman, sighs over this, saying:

“Oh, these Hindu women won’t let us get a wink of sleep tonight! And on top of it the rain keeps coming down.”
“Bi Amma, this is the Janamashtami rain!” Auntie Sharifan elaborated: “Krishan-ji’s diapers are being washed.”
“Well, by now Krishan-ji’s diapers have been washed quite enough! The water is overflowing.”

The Hindu explanations of nature in terms of gods, and their terms of respect, “-ji,” and the like, flow easily from the Muslim women’s tongues. However, after the split of India and Pakistan, and the wars that follow, these cease, and the language in the text seems less colorful for it. The vibrancy of the references to Krishna and Vishnu seem dulled when replaced with the uniform allusions to Qu’ranic verses and the disciples Ali and Muhammed.

The majority of the novel concerns itself with Zakir’s position as a professor, caught in the war in Pakistan, while the woman he loved when they were children, Sabirah, is stuck in India. He escapes the war by losing himself in memory, and these passages are some of the most beautiful, particularly when he starts keeping a diary of the events of the war. In these entries, he remembers the plague that swept his town as a child, thus associating for the reader war with plague; he also tracks the confusion that comes with war. One of the most beautiful passages is Zakir realising that home, in war, means everything and nothing as the concept becomes more confused: “I can do nothing else for this city, but I can pray, and I do pray. In my mind is a prayer for Rupnagar, and its people as well, for I can no longer imagine Rupnagar apart from this city. Rupnagar and this city have merged together inside me, and become one town.” Here, the reader sees how in the desperation that comes with war, one must cope by surrendering what one knows as home and allow it to blend, pulling it closer, for the sake of being able to hope and pray for it. Zakir defies the inevitability of the destruction of Rupnagar, by stating, “No, the bomb shouldn’t fall on that neighbourhood. The house ought to stay safe, the whole house and the room which holds in trust the tears of my first night in Pakistan.” By blending the two places he regards as home, he can keep the former in some semblance of safety and wholeness in his mind.

The story of the novel—the chronicle of a Muslim man dealing with the loss of war-torn India and Pakistan—is good on its own, and the language is occasionally very beautiful, especially when the text loses itself in the storytelling of Muslim and Hindu myths, and as Zakir loses himself in them. However, for all the times that the language is elegant, there are instances of where wording seems awkward and there is a literalness that at times is detracting from the story. In her forward, translator Frances W. Pritchett explains that she has “not ‘transcreated’ the text or smoothed out its stylistic idiosyncrasies.” Spelling this out does not necessarily make the text easier for a non-Urdu speaker to read. One example hinges on the use of formality in spoken Urdu. Pritchett explains,

“. . . traditional Urdu is notable for its love of direct address and direct discourse. Speeches often begin with a form of address—sometimes a name or kinship term, or very commonly a vocative particle of some sort; while omitting or translating most, [Pritchett has] retained a few of the more vivid . . .”

The Urdu-speaking young man is very fond of addressing his fellow as “Yar!” This word is a term of comradeship, which is all well in itself, but, for the English-speaker, it calls to mind the cry of a bloodthirsty one-eyed pirate. Thus, the pages where the address is sprinkled throughout the text is almost comical. It’s possible to become quickly disenchanted with this frequency and form of address; in one two-page span, the term “yar” was used fourteen times. Here is a small sampling:

“Yar, that man seems a very suspicious character to me.”
“You’ve said something like this before.”
“But today I’m convinced of it.”
“Why?”
“Yar, anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I’ve begun to have doubts about.”
“Oh, let’s drop the subject, yar. I’ll tell you some news.”
“Really? All right.”
“Yar, today a letter came,” he said confidentially.

While this is the most extreme example of the proximity of the placement of this form of address, it can at times be distracting to an English reader. While Urdu is a more formalized language in which these forms of address and telling of proverbs is common, English is not—though that’s not to say there is anything wrong with presenting some foreignness in the translated text, There are schools of thought in translation theory stating that it is advantageous—if not beneficial—to have the reader work a little to understand a text.

Overall, this is a beautiful book that introduces the uninformed reader to a conflict that shook a whole subcontinent. It is strewn with beautiful language and references to cultures and religions the reader may be ignorant of. The novel is one for people who are interested in leaving their comfort zones and entering into a warzone, a place that was once a home, and learning what happens to those who stay, those who struggle with change. One can enjoy the lands traversed, be pulled in by the political struggle that is reminiscent, in some ways, of what the Western reader might associate with East and West Germany. And, in doing so, we can come to understand the meaning of basti, knowing, finally, that it is an international concept.

20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Rachael Daum on Gamal al-Ghitani’s The Zafarani Files, which Farouk Abdel Wahab translated from the Arabic and is available from The American University in Cairo Press.

Gamal Al-Ghitani was born in 1945 and educated in Cairo. He has written 13 novels and 6 collections of short stories. He is currently editor-in-chief of the literary review Akhbar al-adab.

Here is part of the review:

The Zafarani Files, a book with a misleadingly objective-sounding title, is, in short, a book full of all the deliciously taboo restrictions of traditional Arabic society, namely sex and lust. Despite having firsthand experience with Arabic culture, this reader, for one, was certainly surprised with the sheer lack of restraint in shamelessly allowing the reader to know everything—absolutely everything—about the novel’s characters. However, throughout his career, the author, Gamal al-Ghitani, has never shied away from taboo topics, and indeed seems to embrace them: these topics range from politics and cen¬sorship to the content of this sexually-charged (and ultimately utterly frustrated) novel.

The book is playful and utterly merciless in its content, immersing the reader into a world of both the tame and illicit that can and does happen between two (and sometimes more!) people under the bedsheets. The novel opens with Usta Abdu going to Zafarani alley’s local sheikh, informing him of and hoping for a cure for his sudden impotence. The language is wicked in its description of the issue.

Click here to read the entire review.

20 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The Zafarani Files, a book with a misleadingly objective-sounding title, is, in short, a book full of all the deliciously taboo restrictions of traditional Arabic society, namely sex and lust. Despite having firsthand experience with Arabic culture, this reader, for one, was certainly surprised with the sheer lack of restraint in shamelessly allowing the reader to know everything—absolutely everything—about the novel’s characters. However, throughout his career, the author, Gamal al-Ghitani, has never shied away from taboo topics, and indeed seems to embrace them: these topics range from politics and cen¬sorship to the content of this sexually-charged (and ultimately utterly frustrated) novel.

The book is playful and utterly merciless in its content, immersing the reader into a world of both the tame and illicit that can and does happen between two (and sometimes more!) people under the bedsheets. The novel opens with Usta Abdu going to Zafarani alley’s local sheikh, informing him of and hoping for a cure for his sudden impotence. The language is wicked in its description of the issue:

When [Usta Abdu] was engaged to be married, but before signing the contract, his fiancee, as she then was, had asked him specifically, “Can you water the soil, daily?” Refusing to believe his nod of affirmation, she had tested him thoroughly. For many years, apart from the days of her period, he had not ceased. She would fall ill and lose weight if he failed to mount her each and every day. This passing of a dry, unproductive week had been terrible, especially since his condition was showing no signs of improvement. He was getting so tense and his nerves were so bad that he now thought twice about going home.

It soon comes out that all the men in Zafarani have fallen under the same spell cast by the sheikh him-self. No man in Zafarani has the ability to please his woman, much to the shame of the men and the lamentation of the women in the alley. Any man who sets foot in the alley is likewise doomed, thus isolating the inhabitants. Not until later is it revealed that the sheikh has cast the spell upon its mem¬bers to “shock” the world and force it into a less “primitive” phase of existence. The sheikh promises that Zafarani is only the beginning, and soon the whole world will feel the effects of his magic.

All the happy and tragic sides of relationships are explored in the pages of this novel. From the old married couple, to the old man named Radish-head married to a fourteen-year-old white girl, to the man whose lover left him for his best friend, to the university student who cannot find herself a mate, to the abused divorcee who finds contentment outside of sex, no facet is left unexamined. More than that: even homosexuality, in the baker and the voice of the sheikh, is explored, if hastily. Interesting also are the reactions of those in the alley to the affliction that has come over the men. Some disobey the sheikh’s orders and leave; one woman, the sex-addicted woman referenced above, takes to the streets to escape death; one man loses his mind and believes he is a general on par with Hitler and Rommel; and another woman finds she does just well enough without it, asking her lover only to sit with her in the sun in a park. Al-Ghitani spares nothing and exposes his characters and readers to all, offering a spectrum of reactions, thus challenging the reader to guess what his own would be.

If anything, it is truly the voice of the narrative that is the most captivating part of this novel. It seamlessly weaves the stories into each other while not allowing the reader to be overly confused by the multitude of names, shifting from one story to the other. The unnamed narrator, the collector of these frustrations, has a chameleon-esque way of moving from voice to voice. Whether it’s making in¬timate observations about how Radish-head’s “breathing would get heavier as he made love to [Farida, his young green-eyed wife], while she would amuse herself by sucking a piece of candy…”, or posing thoughtful suppositions that the sheikh “was born with a full beard and that before coming out of his mother’s womb, he had recited verses from the Qur’an”, or assuming the formal police attendee’s voice writing up the reports that take up the majority of the book—the writing is sleek and smooth as the old cafe-owner’s hookah smoke. This indeed is much of what makes the humour viable in the book: even in the “serious” policeman-voice sections, it is littered with alluded reports from the “Supreme Depart¬ment of Eavesdropping”, the “Supreme Legitimately-Elected Assembly”, and the “Supreme Authority for the Collection of Jokes and Rumours”, being mischievous tongue-in-cheek references to the multi¬tudes of councils and authorities in Egypt at the time.

Concerning the translation of the book, Farouk Abdel Wahab weaves in the references to Arab culture, difficult for a completely foreign audience to understand, smoothly and coherently—almost imperceptively. Simply the direct translations of people’s greetings of “God is great!” and the praising of God in many instances does much to allow the American reader into the text. The translator also made a masterful decision to allow many of the idioms to remain the same between the languages: for example, there is no need to find an English equivalent of the Arab saying that translates to, “The bullet that misses you can still give you a headache”. It’s self-explanatory within the context of one of the men of Zafarani worrying that, though he may have temporarily been spared by the sheik, he still ought to see him. The choice to leave it is advantageous in any event, as the role of a gun is prominent with another Zafarani man later in the book (and that a gun is a symbol of manhood does not hurt the case either!). The voicing reads cleverly and smoothly in English, and Wahab surely deserves commenda¬tion for his feat of weaving these voices and happenings together in a way which retains the playful humour of the original author.

It is a shame that it took until 2008 to get this book, published in 1979, translated into English. In our current time it is becoming fashionable to read books with Arab authors, given the political situ-ation in our world. And while al-Ghitani is in fact a political writer, it would do him an unjustice not to remember that his politics when he wrote the novel are quite different than ours today. His sheikh spoke of uniting a world and shocking it into a less primitive, sex-driven state, something fairly universal; however, his characters reference East and West Germany, the crisis of the U.S. in Vietnam, among other timely world issues. The world has changed since then, countries have united and fallen, and politics, while still volatile, revolve on different axes than when al-Ghitani wrote The Zafarani Files. Ultimately, this is a book for those who have some political interest, but are more interested in the humanity of common people—those who are poor and those who are not—and what happens to them when one of the most basic human drives, the drive to reproduce and enjoy doing it, is taken away, as the characters, in their ensuing madnesses, betrayals, and coming-togethers, are mirrors for the reader to hold up to himself.

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