My reading tastes are pretty eclectic, and nothing demonstrates that more than the last two novels I read. (I’m pretty stressed out about the election, so have been trying to divert myself…) Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf (Vintage Books, 2015) and Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt, by Yasmine El Rashidi (Crown Publishing Group, 2016) are short, almost sparse books that explore lives in two very different parts of the world.
First, I’m going to say this: if you are a reader of fiction and have not yet read anything by Kent Haruf, YOU MUST DO SO! IMMEDIATELY! He is simply one of the most original and evocative American voices I have ever encountered. His Our Souls at Night returns to the setting of many of his novels, the fictional town of Holt, which sits somewhere on the eastern plains of Colorado. In this last novel before his death, Haruf narrates an unlikely relationship between an older widow and widower, exploring the themes of second chances and simple pleasures. Like all his other books, the prose is careful and precise, reflecting the prairie setting. Reading Haruf for me has always been like visiting my Nebraska relatives. (In an interesting coincidence, Haruf graduated from the same university – Nebraska Wesleyan – as my mother and grandparents.) There is an overarching decency and thoughtfulness, with undercurrents of small-town grudges and prejudices that make all his books a true cultural experience.
I’ll be honest and state that I didn’t like Chronicle of a Last Summer nearly as much. I can’t say it’s because of the writing, which is readable enough. I just never found myself caring about the characters, many of whom seemed stilted and one-dimensional. I did enjoy the setting, Cairo, and the (sparse) descriptions of the family home and neighborhood, but that probably reflects more on my interest in travel than my appreciation of the novel. In fairness to the book, this could be a case of me juxtaposing my own shortcomings. I have been wondering if it’s a cultural issue, if it’s a historical knowledge issue (the author assumes of the reader a deeper understanding than my passing acquaintance with Egyptian political developments over the last thirty years), or an age issue. It might be that a reader my daughter’s age, one with experience living in the Middle East and with a stronger grasp of Nasser/Sadat/Mubarek/Morsi dynamics might savor this novel more than I did. And while I had difficulty identifying a clearly delineated plot, one thing I did take away from the book is the sense that political uncertainties that land dissidents in jail or exile (or worse) can exert insidious pressures on relationships both in and beyond a family.
I received Chronicle of a Last Summer from “Blogging for Books” for this review. And I’m glad I read it. Sometimes what we don’t particularly love gives us just as much to think over and ponder as what we do. In my case, the contrast between Holt, Colorado, and Cairo, Egypt has me thinking about the vast differences in our world and in our political systems, but also about the bonds of love and family that unite us in our shared humanity.
Part of what is stressing me so much with our current election is the dystopian future and threat to our republic I foresee in a Trump presidency. I didn’t particularly set out to write a political post this time, but what has emerged as I consider these two books is the contrast between the quiet assurance of continuity in Holt and the “who is in charge today?” uncertainty of Cairo. Those of us who dismiss this possibility in the United States would do well to read a bit more about what authoritarian leaders and their “everybody needs to think like we do or else” followers can do to a society.