Sign in using your account with
Kai Bird: Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
When writing about the Middle East, it is constantly challenging to separate rhetoric from personal experience and impressions from stereotypes. The difficulty of separating the personal from the historical and rhetorical is clearly apparent in Kai Bird's rambling memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 .
Bird’s intentions may have been to create a book that melds his memories of a childhood in Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a historian's perspective on the major events that he experienced firsthand as an expat in the Arab World. He manages to do this more or less successfully in the first few chapters, providing intriguing insight on everything from life in post-1948 East Jerusalem to the beginnings of the Saudi oil empire and diplomacy in Nasser's Egypt. However, the later chapters become confusing as Bird needlessly tries to reconcile the (false) dichotomy between his affinity for the Arab World and his marriage to an American Jew, whose parents fled the European Holocaust.
The later chapters cover the experiences of Bird's in-laws during the Holocaust and discuss the origins of Zionism. Although the stories are very interesting, it is unclear why Bird felt compelled to include these chapters in what is supposed to be a historical memoir of his own experiences in the Middle East. It is a shame that it seems to be an unwritten requirement that books on the Middle East published in the United States today must include a discussion of the Holocaust and Zionism, as if to justify Israel's actions and the political situation in the Arab world. These 'required' chapters would make a great book on their own; but they have no place in Bird's memoir.
While a similar self-conscious need for 'balance' shows through in Bird's discussion of his childhood in East Jerusalem, the chapters on Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular are interesting. Bird's narrative is based on his own observations and the stories and papers of his father, an American diplomat. Bird lived in Saudi Arabia when American presence in the kingdom was still a new reality and a source of intense friction. Bird describes the strange world inside the ARAMCO compound, and the many ways in which the oil business drove political relations between Saudi Arabia and the US during that time.
A good memoir should contain amusing anecdotes, historical facts and a healthy dose of introspection. Bird's memoir contains the first two elements but fails to delve sufficiently into his clear personal struggle between his fondness for the Arab World and the current political reality in the US, which seems to demand that his marriage to a Jew should be diametrically opposed to his sympathy for the Palestinians and his regard for Arab culture and history.
Penny Vincenzi's latest novel The Decision tells the story of Eliza Fullerton-Clark and Matt Shaw who live in London in the 60s. Eliza is a society girl, carving out a career for herself in the fashion industry and Matt becomes a millionaire by working in the property market.
Introduced by Eliza's brother, they get married, but it's not long before their seemingly-solid marriage goes downhill. Eliza wants to keep pursuing her career, but Matt's old-fashioned notions require her to stay at home and raise their only girl, Emmie.
The entire story is pretty much given away in the synopsis. It feels like the author is robbing you of the element of surprise; you already know they are getting a divorce. The only part that the author holds back on until the end of the novel is the results of the court battles over custody of their daughter. Emmie is a spoiled brat of a child; a fact that makes it difficult for readers to sympathize with her.
There are many subplots seamlessly woven into the main plot, adding richness and depth to the story. Readers might even find themselves more interested in the fates of the secondary characters than Eliza's and Matt's.
Vincenzi's writing is laden with poignancy. She accurately describes how marriages that are often fuelled by so much passion can gradually deteriorate into a battle. In this aspect, Eliza and Matt are extremely relatable.
The Decision is such a long read, but that doesn't detract from its enjoyment. The longer pages only mean additional engagement with the characters' lives, but it also means that Vincenzi ends up repeating herself quite often.
The story captures many of the time’s ill-founded ideas against women, but it also includes many female characters that challenged the ideologies of the 60s. Louise, Matt's business partner, is a headstrong woman who won't let anything come between her and her goals, while his sister Scarlett is another female character who does things her own way.
The author takes readers back to the 60s and offers vivid portraits of different aspects of life back then; however, the plot could have easily fit into any other time.
Vincenzi's avid fans might find The Decision a tad disappointing. It's not quite as addictive as the rest of her novels, and it generally sticks to the author's pattern, making it even more predictable.