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Books October 2006

Katharine Sim: Desert Traveller (E)

This biography deals with the life and times of Johann Ludwig (or Jean Louis) Burckhardt, otherwise known as Sheik Ibrahim. JLB was the scion of a well-known Basle-based family (the historian Jacob Burckhardt comes from the same stock). JLB was born 1784 in Lausanne and died 1817 in Cairo. In between he (re-)discovered, among other things, the ancient site of Petra in Jordan and the temple of Abu Simbel. He was one of the first Europeans to cross into Nubia and to visit Mecca (indeed, he went there as a pilgrim and performed all the necessary duties of a would-be Haji). His travelling style was simple in the extreme: basically, he emulated the natives to such a degree (in speech, eating habits, garments etc.) that he was able to dupe even the most experienced travellers and other natives. A fascinating life story, if there ever was one. Alas, Ms Sim manages to press him into a thoroughly flat and boring character: her book is more a hagiography than anything else. There are tantalising glimpses, sure, but she never succeeds in bringing JLB to life. The many conflicts and complexities of his life (Why would he undertake these hazardous travels in the first place? What about his troubled relationship to his parents?) are never really treated in a “grown-up” manner. He was a good man, he could do no wrong and that is that.

Leila Aboulela: Minaret (E)


John Irving: A Widow For One Year (E)

Some people don't like John Irving at all and I have to admit that some of his books do drive me up the next wall (“Owen Meany”, to name but one). However, anyone who can write masterpieces like “The World According to Garp” or “Hotel New Hampshire” (to name but two) can get away with the occasional flop: writing is experimentation, after all. Anyway, it's always with a certain trepidation that I approach a book by John Irving. Never fear, “A Widow For One Year” is an achievement: its appeal to me is easily comparable to that of the already mentioned other two books. The narrative of Ruth Cole's life is a dense, complex web of stories in the same sense that Garp's story was. This book scores perhaps slightly lower on the sheer-craziness scale than Garp does but its main characters (above all Ruth, Marion, Eddie and Ted) are almost magically well-presented. It was a pure joy to read this book.

$updated from: Books October 2006.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$