Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Review ~ Marrakesh by Design by Maryam Montague

June 14th, 2012 9 comments

It’s not often that I read an interior design book cover to cover. I had been waiting for some time for Marrakesh by Design, published last month and written by Maryam Montague, an American expat and hotel-owner living in Morocco. She writes the well-regarded blog My Marrakesh, and her home was featured in the April issue of Elle Decor magazine.

There is a certain flair to Moroccan design—something I haven’t observed in other Arab countries. Of course, there are beautiful items from all over the Middle East and North Africa, but when I see iconic objects like painted tea glasses, a fanciful teapot, pierced lantern, door knocker, tagine, colorful pouf, or pointy slippers, I think that’s Moroccan, and I have a clear association with the country.

Meanwhile, many design elements highlighted in the book are not unique to Morocco but are Islamic and Arabian—familiar all around the region. As the author states, Morocco has design influence from the Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Spanish, French and other African countries.

This eclectic blend is featured in the book’s captivating photographs of real homes in Morocco. The author, who took most of the photos herself, showcases a wide range of living spaces—from simple to bohemian, from grand to humble, and from traditional to surprisingly contemporary and whimsical.

Going way beyond adding a pouf or lantern to your living room, this book is divided into three parts. The first part “Discovering Moroccan Style” explores the architecture, colors, finishes and patterns of the country. Here the author goes into the artisanal and craft traditions of Morocco. I especially enjoyed the chapters on patterns and color.

The second part “Living Moroccan Style” provides examples of how to incorporate this style into bedrooms, salons, bathrooms, entries, gardens, and my favorite—kitchens. The last part of the book offers tips for buying carpets, pottery and all those distinctive Moroccan items. Finally, the book ends with lists of sources online and around the world for gathering these goodies.

The information is surprisingly detailed, like that on the art of zellij (mosaic tile), as well as the layout of the traditional Moroccan home and the meaning behind various motifs. Throughout the book are “Bring it Home” sidebars with hands-on projects for all types of living spaces. These practical ideas are interspersed with cultural information on such things as Moroccan greetings, superstitions, and even how to make Moroccan mint tea—all good stuff for lovers of Morocco.

As for me, the book has been a bit of a revelation. I have been collecting Arabian bric-a-brac for the past twenty years. But after I while, I stopped seeing my own things; they began to look like clutter. I drew inspiration from Maryam’s photos, which gave me fresh eyes to see my own home, my collections and the potential therein.

Granted, I will not be stenciling my ceiling, re-tiling my bathroom, or making a fountain out of a flower pot. However, I just might add a pierced lantern above my dining table, buy a Berber carpet, rearrange my Hand of Fatima collection, and plant some jasmine by my door.

Marrakesh by Design is for anyone who adores all things Moroccan or Arabian. Even if you are (like me) more of a daydreamer than a decorator, the photos alone are worth this book’s place on your coffee table—crafted, of course, out of an antique window.

To know more, here’s a 1-minute video introduction to Marrakesh by Design.


Question: What are your thoughts on Moroccan design or this book?

Book Review ~ The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

May 28th, 2012 4 comments

In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.

Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.

At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday.  The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”

The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.

And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.

The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.

The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.

Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.

Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?

Book Review ~ In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

May 3rd, 2012 5 comments

In the Country of Men, written by Libyan-British writer Hisham Matar, is set in 1979 Tripoli in a neighborhood swirling with underground resistance.

The story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Suleiman, who hovers over his young mother and continuously awaits the return of his father who seems to be nearly always gone. The book starts with a scene where young Suleiman catches a glimpse of his father in Martyrs Square—yet his father is supposed to be away on business. What is this father up to? I wondered.

Turns out the mistress of Suleiman’s father is the counter-resistance movement trying to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. It’s not only Suleiman’s father who is involved, but his father’s best friend as well, the professor who lives across the street.

The young narrator’s world is small: home, neighborhood boys, and street games. The boys are sons of both dissidents and government officials. As events on the street grow darker, so do the boys’ street games.

Early on in the story, Suleiman witnesses the alarming arrest of the professor, someone Suleiman admires and the father of his own best friend. Thugs pull the professor from his home, his wife and children following behind, and shove him in a car. His arrest is for “treasonous actions” and sets the tone of fear for the rest of the novel as the neighborhood residents wonder who and what is next.

At the center of the story is the relationship between Suleiman and his mother, a young anxious woman who is deeply unhappy whenever her husband is gone. As she fears for her husband’s safety, she grows increasingly dependent on her bottle of “medicine” to cope.

There are tragi-comic moments as well. When the family hangs an enormous framed image of Gaddafi—“Our Guide” as he is referred to in the novel—young Suleiman notices that their new picture is even larger than the one hung in the home of the neighbor who works for the intelligence service.

While the story is set in the late 1970s and was published in 2006, it paints a picture of the stirrings which lead to the Arab Spring: the tension, fear, uncertainty and anger brewing for decades. In many ways, this story is timeless and not unique to Libya. It could take place in almost any country with a repressive system.

Matar has personal connections to the themes about which he writes. Various relatives and friends of his have been imprisoned or hanged by Qaddafi’s regime—including his own father, who was imprisoned and tortured in Tripoli and last heard from in 1995.

I found many things to appreciate about this novel. I particularly enjoyed how the story is told through the eyes of a child. As he tries to make sense of the increasingly horrifying events around him, the reader will see things that he does not. Meanwhile, Matar’s prose is poetic as he strings together graceful sentences with flashes of insight. Finally, in light of recent events in North Africa, this novel is as relevant as ever; it’s the story of families and friendships straining, and in some cases breaking, under great oppression.

Next on my reading list is Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance.

Question: Have you read one of Hisham Matar’s novels?