ECHOES OF AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Americans accustomed to the histrionic self-display of celebrity memoirs and the self-involved, studied impressionism of writers' self-portraits are likely to find Nobel laureate Mahfouz's fragmentary approach to autobiography charmingly novel. In fact, Mahfouz's volume would be unrecognizable as autobiography to Western readers if it weren't for its title. Instead of presenting a straightforward narrative about his family in Cairo, his philosophical studies, his career in the civil service, and his 34 novels (Children of the Alley, 1996, etc.), Mahfouz collects 200 terse memories, parables, fictions, and fugitive moments, some narrated in the first person, some in the third, most no more than a few sentences long. Many of them read like distillations of the longer fables in Arabian Nights and Days (1995). A nine-month-old fetus worries about the dim prospect of an afterlife. A billiard player, refusing a game, says he prefers to play alone as others watch him, even though everyone else in the parlor is asleep. A man bothered by a commotion in the street stops trying to quiet the carousers when he suddenly sees them "in God's good time, as they hurried toward the grave." An old man and his wife recall how "they were brought together by love 30 years ago, then it had abandoned them along with the rest of their expectations." The majority of the characters here pass briefly and are gone, hustling off on their errands. Only one figure abides: Sheik Abd-Rabih al Ta'ih, whose Sufi-tinged apothegms on time and age, the ripeness of memory, the everlasting pursuit of love, and the shaping forces of death and faith ("There is no one more foolish than the foolish believer, except for the foolish unbeliever") dominate the last third of the book. Readers looking for conventional revelations about the famously reticent Mahfouz will come away disappointed. For those more patient, the novelist offers a haunting commonplace book of tranquil wisdom.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-385-48555-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1996

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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