The World From A Chair

John Freeman
6 min read
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Sharon And My Mother-In-Law: Ramallah Diaries

Asked in 1973 by the grandson of Winston Churchill how he would deal with the Palestinians, Ariel Sharon replied, “We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another set of settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years, neither the United Nations, nor the U.S., nobody, will be able to tear it apart.”

This moving and unexpectedly humorous memoir by Suad Amiry, a Palestinian professor of architecture, describes what might be called life inside the sandwich over the past two-and-a-half decades. Curfews, identity cards, a Byzantine system of permits and access points, color-coded passes, body searches: These are elements of everyday life in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Amiry went to live in the early '80s after marrying a man who lived there. They didn’t have long to set up house. Just two weeks after Amiry was married in 1984, an Israeli soldier stopped her on a bridge and tore up her visitor’s permit, forcing her into exile in Amman, Jordan.

This is just one of many separations Amiry endures, and Sharon and My Mother-in-Law embodies this fragmentary life structurally. It backtracks, unravels and then picks up again like a photo album that has had some pages torn out, others reshuffled.

Through it all, Amiry does not lose her sense of humor, and this keeps the flicker of hope for peace alive in this book. When her dog gets a Jerusalem passport before she does, Amiry pushes her luck and uses it to get into the city. “I am the dog’s driver,” she explains to a baffled soldier, who, in a rare moment of solidarity over the absurdity of it all, dissolves into giggles and waves her through.

Saving Fish From Drowning

Twelve San Franciscans shuffle off to Burma amid echoes of Chaucer’s merry travelers in Amy Tan’s new novel, Saving Fish From Drowning. The first hitch in their journey comes when their organizer, smart-mouthed socialite Bibi Chen, dies mysteriously. The group soldiers on, but being rich, white and entirely unfamiliar with the culture into which they have dunked themselves headfirst, they make a number of errors. They insult the food; they take Christmas lunch in a Buddhist country; a celebrity dog trainer in their numbers urinates on a sacred shrine.

Bibi Chen narrates this picaresque tale from beyond the grave with the same bemused and lashing humor that has made Tan’s books such guilty good fun. She critiques the décor of their hotel, and ridicules her friends. The book finally breaks out of this predictable register when a group of Karen tribesmen kidnaps the bumbling tourists, believing that one of them—a Stephen King-reading teenager—is the Young Whit Brother, a man fabled to save them from the country’s repressive regime.

Tan has a knack for telling stories that whirl toward hilarity only to become something darker. That happens here, as the ensuing media circus puts the Americans—who have begun to see firsthand the atrocities of the unelected repressive Burmese government—in the bind of realizing that speaking out would put the Karens at risk. The book’s wonderful title suddenly makes sense. “They scoop up the fish and bring them to shore,” says a man, explaining to the tourists how Buddhists allow themselves to kill fish. “They say they are saving the fish from drowning.”

Star Dust

There are really two books inside Frank Bidart’s latest volume of poetry, facing off like duelers at 20 paces. On one side stand lyrics of love and art, and Bidart is apt to note how both these activities aspire to transcendence. But it is Bidart’s lament for the finite and the destructive that creates this book’s pocked beauty. “We could have had ecstasies,” the poet cries bitterly in the breakup poem “Luggage.” Other lyrics focus on lost friends or on talent left to languish. Memory mulches pungently in Bidart’s work—the backward glance always encircled by a fog of melancholy. “We are darkness,” says one lover in the exquisite title poem. “We are the city/whose brightness blots the stars from night.” The only long poem in this volume, “The Third Hour of the Night,” which is told in the voice of Renaissance sculptor and murderer Benvenuto Cellini, reveals how very dangerous the fusion of creation and destruction can be. But it is the shorter poems where this message is most clearly unveiled.

The Lost Painting: The Search For A Caravaggio Masterpiece

Until the '50s, the 16th-century Italian baroque painter Caravaggio was a mere speck on art history's landscape. His works were scattered, his life a mystery. The richest glimpses of him came from police reports. So it is known that on April 24, 1604, he threw a plate of cooked artichokes at a waiter. Six months later, Caravaggio was stopped near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome carrying a dagger and sword. After flourishing a proper permit, he told the officers to shove the implements where the sun didn’t shine.

This fiery temperament most certainly made Caravaggio a nuisance. But it also led to some of the most vibrant and violent paintings of his period. Gradually the world came to realize this, but by then a few of Caravaggio’s masterpieces had gone missing. In his latest book, The Lost Painting, Jonathan Harr brings his gumshoe talents to Rome, where in the early '90s two graduate students stumbled upon the clues that led to the rediscovery of “The Taking of Christ,” the white whale of Caravaggio's paintings.

Harr’s chronicle of how this painting was rescued has all the intensity and elegance of “A Civil Action.” In fact, his rich cast of characters—from an English expert to a chain-smoking marchesa whose family archives contained vital clues—could not have been more brilliantly drawn had the master himself done it.

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