Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Matt Rees' latest, plus a question about outsiders in America

(Apologies for the possibly unsightly paragraphing. Thanks, Blogger.)

Matt Rees said at a reading a few years ago that his novels offered a tour of the Palestinian world. The first three were set in Bethlehem, Gaza and Nablus; next up, he said, were Beirut and Brooklyn.

Turns out he was joking — about Beirut. He set The Fourth Assassin, his fourth novel about a Palestinian schoolteacher named Omar Yussef, largely in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge section, with detours to the United Nations.

The book only slowly works its way to the central mystery: Who killed a friend of Omar's son, and how will Omar get his son off the hook?

In the meantime, Rees, a Welshman who lives in Jerusalem writing about a Palestinian in New York, offers a hundred pictures of the city through unfamiliar eyes: "the slippery, unwelcoming seats" of the N train, the Palestinian Americans, one a police officer, whom Rees uses as mouthpieces for any number of equivocal opinions about the old country and the new one, and my favorite of the bunch:

"Outside a store selling greeting cards and bumper stickers, Khamis Zeydan stopped to read aloud: `"Hatred is not a family value–Koran 49:13." The Koran says that?'

"`In that verse, Allah says he "made you into nations and tribes, so that you might get to know each other,"' Omar Yussef said.

"`So this is the dumb American version?'

"`What do you want from them? It's only a bumper sticker.'"

***
Read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Matt Rees. Then think about this:

Who are your favorite outsider protagonists and why? What are the attractions for a reader of a story about a stranger in a strange land? What are the attractions for an author?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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42 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

If you're ever foolish enough to read a comment thread under anything eventually you'll get a "dumb Americans" line. It's a very popular trope and it does get wearying when European writers arrive in America and are shocked by vulgarity and stupidity. They've been doing it since at least Mrs Trollope and Dickens. It never gets old but boy is it dull.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This time you don't even have to wait for the comment thread.

I was startled to see the words "dumb Ameerican," and the line would have worked just as well without at least one of those words. On the other hand, reducing the Koran to a bumper sticker was pretty funny.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

The comments under YouTube videos about say, World World 2 history, drive me to despair.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Matt Beynon Rees said...

hi Peter, Thanks for your appreciative reading of my book! As for the dumb American line: Adrian, you're mistaking ME for the CHARACTER in the book. The character in the book thinks Americans are dumb, as opposed to me (your wearying Euro writer). In fact, I married an American (two of them, one after the other, to be precise), and in neither case was I attracted to her because she was dumb. Further, as the character who speaks that line is an Arab, calling Americans "dumb" is pretty mild compared to what people in the Arab world usually have to say about the good old USA. ;)

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Slightly unrelated comment: I'm (sorta) glad to hear that you've been having trouble with Blogger, Peter, because for the past week it's been making me want to gouge my eyes out with my thumbs. At least the crazy, arbitrary paragraphing isn't restricted to me alone.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Matt

I'm glad you enjoy marrying Americans but thats neither here nor there is it?

When a European writer has his characters pontificate about the dumbness of Americans I just find it rather depressing. Its not that Arabs dont say that, of course they do, its just that its so hackneyed. It would be like an American novelist having his characters in London complain about British dentistry or about squat toilets in the Middle East.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Matt Beynon Rees said...

Adrian, You're being rather wearyingly superficial yourself, to tell you the truth. You're making a big deal out of one line in a novel spoken by a secondary character whose sentiment is immediately rejected by the main character. You're ascribing the sentiment of this character to the author (and you do it again in your second comment, even though my first comment demonstrated why that was a misreading; I notice that you avoided having to acknowledge the thrust of my earlier comment by instead picking up on the fact that both my wives have been American, thus enabling you to brush off everything I wrote.) I know the internet is the realm of those who need to have the last word and I sense that you may be one such fellow, but here's my last word: Why don't you just read the book?

March 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm with Matt on this, but then I wasn't born in this country. Sometimes the outsider (wasn't that the question?) sees things more clearly, because he can compare.
Matt, of course, is not his character. Heaven forbid I should be confused with opinions voiced by my characters. That distinction is elementary, and most readers make it quite easily.
Matt's writing, both in his books and on his blog, is always interesting because he brings a very wide experience with foreign cultures to it. I have admired the even-handed way he deals with the Palestinian-Jewish conflict, for example, cutting through the propaganda to get to the human factor. That approach has characterized all his writing, including his frequent visits to my native country, Germany. You can always believe Matt.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I found out on Twitter that others were experiencing the problem as well. I know how to get around the problem now, but doing so is a pain, so I hope it's been fixed.

In case it has not been, here's what you do: insert < p > before each paragraph and < /p > after (leaving out the spaces I have insered here before and after each p.)

Then run all the paragraphs together with no spaces between them. Your post will look like a great mass of type broken only by occsional < p >'s and < /p >'s, but it should look all right both when you preview it and when you post it -- unless Blogger introduces a new problem today.

Now I'll take a refreshing shower, then return to mediate the skirmishes that appear to have broken out here overnight.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For some reason feel like Jimmy Carter.

Adrian, whatever you think of the one line, I've noticed no anti-American current in the book, just a nice portrayal of an outsider trying to take in New York's noise and size. It reminded me in a way of the opening of Dead I Well May Be. I was going to cite the resemblance, but the post was growing long.

Matt, you should read Dead I Well May Be. Given what you do in the opening chapters of The Fourth Assassin, I think you'll appreciate how Adrian has his protagonist regard New York.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and I.J., Adrian wasn't born in the U.S. either. For that matter, neither was I, which may be why I find the outsider question especially interesting.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about Michael Forsythe...not sure how that happened.

The one that came to mind for me was Rae Newborn in Laurie R. King's Folly.

For me the attraction is just seeing it through someone else's eyes, especially when the author is giving a true view from experience and not what they think the place might be like.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Glenna: Perhaps I should put up a separate post about outsiders in New York. There's much for outsiders to experience there.

Laurie King's character is an outsider on the island?

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Well, in a way, more like the only one on the island. An outsider in the sense that she was born and grew up somewhere else and moved to the island in middle age, but there wasn't a culture to speak of that she was an outsider to. Does that make sense?

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I've been having the same problem with google blogger ALL WEEK - Gak! So glad to see it wasn't just me. It's been taking me forever to get each damn post done. Thanks for the 'cure' Peter! What a pain.

March 31, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I see that you mean foreigners, aliens, visitors from other countries, rather than people who don't fit in or don't belong for other reasons.

On the whole, the issue of the foreigner on a visit is less interesting to me than that of a native or permanent resident (I am an American citizen) who must cope with alienation.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

One of my favorite 'outsiders' would have to be Adelia Aguilar AND her taciturn friend Mansur. (I think that's how it's spelled.)

Generally, outsiders get absorbed into a storyline most especially if the books are part of a series. Eventually, the 'outsider' becomes somewhat of an 'insider.' Don't you think?

Off the top of my head:

I like Amelia Peabody, opinionated Victorian woman at large in 19th century Egypt. A great series - a parody, really, by Elizabeth Peters.

ODD THOMAS, the ultimate outsider in the books by Dean Koontz.

I like this sort of thing because the character can describe the world he or she views from a 'distance' as if for the first time and since I've never travelled to Victorian era Egypt or medieval Europe and, unlike Odd Thomas, I don't see the dead - I can enjoy their point of view. I can be an 'outsider' with them.

Don't know if this is the sort of thing you're talking about Peter.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Glenna, that sounds more like Robinson Crusoe than like a stranger in a strange land.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., these replies are helping me understand better why I like Matt's book.

What I mean are visitors of all kinds, long-term or short-term; residents, sojourners, or citizens who try to feel at home in one place while recognizing that they also have a home in another.

The descriptions of New York in Matt's book accomplish that honorable task of making the familiar strange. I know New York, not thoroughly but somewhat, and it's exciting to see a character seeing for the first time what I already know.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I wonder if the Blogger problem is getting worse. You and Loren have had problems for days; I had none until last night.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I've discussed Ariana Franklin's Adelia Aguilar at some length before, so I won't repeat myself here. But the character makes a splendid entrance as an outsider in Mistress of the Art of Death.

You raise an interesting question about the outsider becoming an insider, and I'll let you answer it. I've read just the first book in the series. I think there were just three or four all told. Does Adelia work well as an outsider in all of them?

The Peters and Koontz books were not the sorts of thing I had in mind, but I'm happy to welcome them to the discussion. An Englishwoman in Egypt could well qualify as an outsider, and some of my favorite ancient literature is about visitors to the land of the dead.

March 31, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The descriptions of New York in Matt's book accomplish that honorable task of making the familiar strange."

I.J., I should add that Adrian's "Dead" novels do the same thing, so it's an amusing irony that he and Matt should wind up squabbling. Omar Yussef's New York really did remind me of Michael Forsythe's.

March 31, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I wouldn't call Americans "dumb" nor would I characterize "Arabs" as any particular way or the other; different peoples, different countries, opinions, cultures, etc. Many, in fact, live in the U.S., including in my locale. And no one can be painted with a broad brush about "their" thinking.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Far from finding Americans "dumb" my favourite outsider has to be Hester Prynne.

Hawthorne is one of my favourite writers and I still remember the shock that reading "The Marble Faun" caused.

In fact, Hawthorne drew back from writing about such raw events after that last book, as it was causing him such mental distress.

The warmth in his writing shows a very beautiful mind. His sympathy for other people shines through "The Blythedale Romance", one of the first Hippie novels, perhaps.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Carried away by enthusiasm, I forgot to explain why...

The latest post on Widgetinghour answers the question.

And many thanks for asking...

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter,

You, sir, are a godsend! I'm printing out your solution posthaste.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't call Americans "dumb" nor would I characterize "Arabs" as any particular way or the other ... And no one can be painted with a broad brush about "their" thinking.

Kathy, the book is guilty of none of these sins. The "dumb American" remark comes, as Rees says, from a supporting character, and that character is given to blunt, impetuous speech. I suppose the main character's response could be read two ways, though:

"`What do you want from them? It's only a bumper sticker.'"

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, Hester Prynne is arguable the ultimate outsider. If I were grading the creativity of the suggestions, yours would get an A.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I hope that solution removes a bit of stress from your life.

Blogger had not solved the problem as of last night, so I had to use the < p > < /p > solution for last night's post as well.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D, here's your post.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I think Adelia remains an outsider through all the books primarily because she has the burden of being a doctor who must pretend Mansur is the doctor while she has the responsibility if something goes wrong. She is also, as matters stand, an unmarried mother. She's not only responsbile for her own life, but for the life of Mansur AND the life of her child. She can't blend. She can never blend.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Glenna said...

Peter, you're probably right. The story had a bit of the outsider feel to me since Rae pretty much took over the life of the past occupant and had to make that work for her. Robinson Cursoe sounds closer than outsider though.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Yvette. I didn't know she maintained that subterfuge after the first book. And being Jewish is always good for outsider credentials, especially in twelfth-century England.

April 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Glenna, I suppose Rae Newborn (talk about a name fraught with significance!) is like an outsider in that she has to figure out her own way since she hasn't grown into it naturally.

April 01, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

You know, thinking about this, I would not call Americans "dumb," but I worry about the psyche or those watching so-called reality shows, and everything else related to it, not to mention much of what's on t.v.--except for the crime fiction shows, of course.

The current shows are bound to affect some folks.

April 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, you could be right. New Jersey plans to revive its tourism marketing campaign, in part as a direct reaction to negative impressions created by The Shore.

April 02, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I feel like the "dumbing down of America" syndrome is happening, much from tv and movies.

And news shows are becoming entertainment shows. The Today show has more celebrity news, "girl attacked by shark" features than real news.

A viewer would barely know wars are going on, people are unemployed, budget cuts go on, health care is in crisis, etc.

But celebrity gossip goes on.

April 03, 2011  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Thank'ee kindly.
I shall wear my "A" with pride.

In Europe, "dumb" does not carry the same meaning as "stupid" so the idea of a "dumb American" (if it is not translated into Americanese) is actually amusing.

The verbosity of the TV programmes that are exported to us make me feel dizzy... and that coming from an island where people never seem to stop talking about nothing.

April 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The picture of a bunch of Americans standing around struck dumb is amusing.

Your comment about the verbosity of imported television is timely. I complain in a recent discussion string about the verbosity of social media.

April 04, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I do worry though about what people here are watching on tv, reading (if they read) and thinking, especially after watching some video news of things that were going on during the last presidential campaign.

And a lot of what is going on now; so many people parrot or believe some politicians without knowing any facts, without critical thinking.

I often want to say, "Don't let the facts get in the way of what you think!"

April 06, 2011  
Anonymous Chance said...

Absolutely loved the previous three Omar books. Didn't much like this one, not because of any "anti-American" sentiment (which is not tiring, but true, and should be explored by an author of political fiction), but because this one seemed to lose the gritty realism of the Middle East and plunge into the non-realistic super-heroics of American cop shows.

April 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may be referring to this novel's climax. But I think the book offers admirable portrayals of the gritty realism of Brooklyn's Little Palestine. I was wary when I heard Rees was going to set a book in New York, but he did an admirable job.

April 30, 2011  

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