An affectionate evocation of lost youth and life’s passage by a seasoned storyteller.

THE COFFEEHOUSE

Nostalgic roman à clef by the Nobel Prize–winning Egyptian novelist and secularist.

As it opens, the characters of Mahfouz’s novel, first serialized in a Cairo newspaper in 1988, are young boys who meet in 1915 in elementary school and who, years later, “will all be buried in the Bab al-Nasr Cemetery.” Five at the core of the group “have never left each other” while others will move away, fall out of touch. Some are rich; some aspire to wealth and influence in a time when young Egyptians are increasingly insistent on independence from Britain. A couple are faithful observers of Islam—one is Ismail, a boy who “never stopped imagining God in a majestic form whose grandeur had no limit”—while others are “without any sort of religion at all.” Yet all harbor the same enthusiasms, eagerly watching Tom Mix cowboy movies at the local movie parlor, fighting the neighborhood bullies and getting trounced in the bargain. As they grow into adolescence, the boys find a second home in a coffeehouse far enough away from their homes that they won’t be seen smoking and whiling away the hours playing dominoes and talking politics, as they will do for years to come even as they come of age, marry, struggle, and try to cope with onrushing events to greater or lesser degrees of success: “Hamada al-Halawani’s life continued between the palace, the houseboat, and Khan al-Khalili, while he added the Allies and the Axis to his vacillation between schools of thought,” writes Mahfouz of one at the outbreak of World War II. Covering a broad sweep of nearly a century of history, Mahfouz’s last novella is a single narrative, not broken into chapters but flowing like the Nile and time itself. Writes the translator in a welcome afterword, while Mahfouz and his generation are gone, the coffeehouse still stands, full of “old men from the surrounding neighborhood playing dominoes and drinking tea long into the evening.”

An affectionate evocation of lost youth and life’s passage by a seasoned storyteller.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2020

ISBN: 978-977-416-999-1

Page Count: 122

Publisher: American Univ. in Cairo

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2020

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A novel tailor-made for those who cherish books and libraries.

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THE PARIS LIBRARY

World War II Paris during the German occupation forms the setting for an intelligent and sensuously rich novel of a young woman's coming-of-age.

In 1939, Odile Souchet, the daughter of the captain of a police precinct, has just finished library school. She lands her dream job assisting patrons of the American Library, which serves both foreigners and Parisians, and falls in love with one of the police officers her father brings home for dinner. As the war proceeds and the Nazis take over the city, she fears for her twin brother, who has been captured by the Germans, places herself in danger by transporting books to Jewish patrons who are forbidden to visit the library, and begins to question some of her boyfriend's actions. Her story is juxtaposed with that of a teenager named Lily who, in 1983, lives in a small rural town in Montana. When Lily's mother becomes ill, Lily grows close to her previously frosty next-door neighbor Odile, who moved to Montana as a bride immediately after the war ended. While the chapters featuring Lily are snappy and often amusing, especially as she begins to adopt Parisian airs, they play a distinctly secondary role to those concerning Odile's life during the war. Structurally, the novel sometimes sags: Charles tends to move into the points of view of secondary characters, which leads to some repetition. But the author has a clear affection for both Paris and the American Library, where she worked as a programs manager in 2010, and she integrates the stories of many of the real-life employees and patrons of the library into the story with finesse, earning the novel its own place in the pantheon of World War II fiction.

A novel tailor-made for those who cherish books and libraries.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3419-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2020

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A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

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ANXIOUS PEOPLE

Eight people become unlikely friends during a hostage situation created by an inept bank robber.

In a town in Sweden, a desperate parent turns to bank robbery to help pay the rent. Unfortunately, the target turns out to be a cashless bank, which means that no robbery can take place. In an attempt to flee the police, the would-be perpetrator runs into a nearby apartment building and interrupts an open house, causing the would-be buyers to assume they're being held hostage. After the situation has ended with an absent bank robber and blood on the carpet, a father-and-son police pair work through maddening interviews with the witnesses: the ridiculous realtor; an older couple who renovates and sells apartments in an effort to stay busy; a bickering young couple expecting their first child; a well-off woman interested only in the view from the balcony of a significant bridge in her life; an elderly woman missing her husband as New Year’s Eve approaches; and, absurdly, an actor dressed as a rabbit hired to disrupt the showing and drive down the apartment price. Backman’s latest novel focuses on how a shared event can change the course of multiple people’s lives even in times of deep and ongoing anxiousness. The observer/narrator is winding and given to tangents and, in early moments, might distract a bit too much from the strongly drawn characters. But the story gains energy and sureness as it develops, resulting in moments of insight and connection between its numerous amiable characters.

A story with both comedy and heartbreak sure to please Backman fans.

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6083-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020

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