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24 July 2013

'The Proof of the Honey' by Salwa Al Neimi translated by Carol Perkins

A book that celebrates female sexuality, desire and self determination. The language used to describe the search for words that describe female desire and passion was like eating a box of my favorite chocolates

'The Proof of the Honey' seems to talk about sexual discovery but that is only at first.  Then the book's focus changes to the language of sex (personal and public) as well as eroticism and how they are all linked to long neglected Arab erotic works.  Funny enough, it was not the sex that caught my attention, it was the author's language.  Carol Perkins is a sensitive woman, if this translation captures the feeling and rhythm of Salwa Al Neimi.  The language used to describe sex and passion is elegant and straight forward.  Even the language used to describe the search for words that describe female desire and passion was like eating a box of my favorite chocolates.

The author soon introduces us to a sexual partner she calls "The Thinker".  At first he may be a real man and then I realize that he need not be a real man, but rather thoughts, intelligence and memory.  Never the less, Salwa Al Neimi is gentle and explicit at the same time with herself and with her reader.  She takes nothing for granted and questions everything about her own sexuality.  In this way, I too questioned and probed my sex life.  It is a feminine book.  It is a book that celebrates female sexuality, desire and self determination.  One of the first conversations I had with my husband as I read this book was about the adequacy of language today when it comes to women and sex.  I felt it was lacking but my husband argued that what was lacking was the courage for women to use out loud what is available, even in western Europe.  How delicious that such a slim book would take my knowledge of my marriage further by encouraging a new conversation with my husband of many years.

The book is a confession of an Arab woman's sexual discovery.  She is led by beautiful literature and language, though she admits that modern language is not always adequate to describe or explain a woman's desire and experience.  'The Proof of the Honey' is courageous in that it takes back what has been taboo for the past 40 years from Arabs of both sexes, sexual freedom; this includes sex in the bedroom, on the streets, in language, literature, academia and in the mind (creativity, imagination).  As she says in the end... "sex is not the scandal, the secret is the scandal".  How true.

A friend of mine read the book around the same time I did.  She told me she had a difficult time not thinking of the narrator as a whore.  I had two replies to that.  First, if the narrator were a man, no one would call him a whore (or the male equivalent... is there a word?)  Second, then we are all whores.  We all have an imagination and most adults have a sex life, satisfactory or not.  We all have curiosity, desire and the wish to know and be known.  Moreover, most of us would like to seek sexual satisfaction without shame.  Literature explores with us some of these paths as Arab erotic literature and erotic works from other cultures can attest.  Humans both male and female may then explore sex in their own lives without shame.

Salwa Al Neimi 
ISBN: 9781933372686 

11 July 2013

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn translated by Ralph Parker

Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition

I read this book when I was 17 years old, which is a long time ago... I liked it very much and found it dynamic and touching.  My memories of this book included the rhythm of Ivan laying bricks in order to build a wall and keep warm.  I was curious to see how my perspective would have changed and if I would enjoy it as much as I did the first time.  I plunged in and enjoyed.  This book is straight forward, unadorned and unsentimental. By this description I would be tempted to call another book boring but not this book.  Many people who write soon learn one of the best pieces of advice is to tell it (action) not describe it.  Well this book is all action, every gesture and shiver is real and necessary, no extras...

On my first reading, 22 (more or less) years ago,  all I could think of was the cold in Siberia and how Ivan treats the cold.  All the work the prisoners in his camp do is to be able to keep warm through labor.  This time around I notice all the blessings Ivan feels he has received in this day.  He has dignity and gratitude.  His pragmatic approach to life in the Gulag is in keeping with the diminished life he has in terms of love and goods.  But, instead of bitterness or groveling he arranges his life so that he harms none and survives at the same time.  On the other hand, Ivan is no hero. He will steal, cheat and avoid jobs if he can, after all, he must survive.  I am proud to report that I went from noticing the physical deprivations to noticing the inner strengths.

The world was changing at the time I first read this book.  The Cold War was ending, the first Gulf War was going on and young people around me felt extremes... some thought it was the end of the world and some thought it was the beginning of peace, a fresh start.  Five years later I had an email address and was communicating with my family cheaply and quickly over long distances.  We all learnt to type (more or less... ehem...)  Perhaps the horrors of the Gulag and others like it were coming to an end.  Now I look around and wars are still going on, crimes against humanity are still occurring and governments all over the planet are killing their own citizens.  On the other hand, people are coming together worldwide in ways that I could not have imagined, this blog is an example.  Then I look at Ivan Denisovich again.  I realize that the human condition is a personal, private balance between hope and despair.  Technology, guns, fences, mad dictators, ecologists, government agencies etc. are in fact herding cats.  Cats are self contained, you can train them in vague ways but a cat is a cat.  I use cats as an example because dogs have been bred over the millennia to favor certain traits and to look certain ways, but cats, well, in spite of considerable effort cats are the same animals the Egyptians were mummifying several millennia ago.  You see my point?  Human nature remains the same, technology or dictatorships change.

'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' shows all kinds of characters.  There are leaders, cheaters, criminals, young, old, powerful, weak, sad, happy, confused, angry... Ok I'll stop now.  My amazement is that one cold, hard day (in a mercifully brief book, I mean I did read 'The Cancer Ward' but it took forever) can illuminate humans at their worst and at their best.  Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to a writing style that is simple enough to let the story move, but a story that is vast enough to encompass the human condition.  Camps like those in Stalinist Russia still exists.  There are still multitudes suffering torture and humiliation; sometimes governments justify these detention centers, camps or reeducation centers with the protection and safety of the same citizens incarcerated.  Weird.  Humans do not fundamentally change.  People will be cowards or rich or greedy or dishonest or (horror) disagree with current authority, but mass extermination and torture will not change humanity one bit.  A book like 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' is one of the many signs that this is so.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 
ISBN: 9780141184746