The Boston Globe Review

http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2009/08/09/in_dunants_sacred_hearts_a_story_of_thwarted_love_and_church_intrigue/

“In Alia Yunis’s poignant, hilarious first novel, “The Night Counter,’’ purple-haired, 85-year-old Fatimah Abdulla tells her life story to Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller from “The Arabian Nights,’’ who appears every night in the elderly woman’s Los Angeles bedroom. Fatimah has plenty of stories. She came to Detroit from Lebanon as a teenage bride, had two husbands and 10 children. She is preparing to die, but not before tying up a few loose ends, chief among them finding a wife for grandson Amir, an actor who insists he’s gay.

Fatimah has been telling her story for 992 nights, so she has only a few nights left to wrap things up. Three years ago she divorced Ibraham, her devoted second husband of 65 years, left him in Detroit, and flew to L.A. to move in with Amir. She passes her time fruitlessly matchmaking, following the Detroit Tigers on ESPN, and keeping up with “the Arab funeral circuit in L.A.’’ And she talks to Scheherazade about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction. There’s Randa, who calls herself Randy and is married to Bud (formerly Bashir), a Houston attorney, and is the mother of three daughters, all cheerleaders. Daughter Hala, a Minneapolis gynecologist, was married and is now divorced. Fatima’s only surviving son, Harvard-educated Bassam, is a recovering alcoholic who calls himself Sam, works as a limousine driver in Las Vegas and is contemplating a fifth marriage, to a blonde bartender named Candy. Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

During my tour of The Night Counter, I was often asked either “What writers have influenced you the most?’ or “Who are you favorite writers?”  I have no

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

One Hundred Years Twenty Years Later

answer for the first because to say Gabriel Garcia Marquez influenced me is to say that I’ve made some conscious choice to use his style or tone in my own work, which I haven’t, nor would I be comfortable implying that by being influenced by him my work stands should-to-shoulder with his.  I’ve been saying One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book since I read it for the first time 20 years ago, long before I’d ever contemplated writing a book myself.  I’ve said that based on that ‘wow’ feeling I had reading it.  But in recent years, it seems like nearly every other person I meet mentions it as his or her favorite.  My favorite book had become a favorite book cliché.  I felt every time I said that people were thinking “well, she’s just taking her cue from Oprah.”  I’ve taken my cue from Oprah on several occasions, but when she chose it for her book club, I didn’t pull it out again.  I don’t tend to re-read a lot because I love reading so much and there is so much more for me to get to.  But as my tour began, I started feeling like literary cheese mentioning One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It was a book I’d randomly picked up at a bookstore, nothing I had studied in school. When I read it then, I had barely ever had a job, hadn’t finished all my education, hadn’t been to the many places that did indeed influence me, and hadn’t met the many people who would yes, influence my life, for better or worse, hadn’t seen babies grow into adults, watched marriages end under a multitude of circumstances and new ones begin, and hadn’t watched global events change the dynamics of the world I lived in.  It was also before the Internet, e-mail, cell phones, and so many other things that have affected our attention spans and the speed at which we get information, including fiction. Twenty years is a lifetime ago, let alone one hundred.  And then there are all the other great books I’d read since then, although none ever seemed to roll off my tongue as easily when the word “favorite” comes up.

So I decided to read it for a second time, the first fiction book for grown ups I had done that with in almost as long as I can remember.  I found my old copy and discovered my first revised reaction: I could no longer read without strain the small print like I had before.  Rather than consider getting reading glasses, I purchased a new copy with bigger type and began reading. The first couple of pages sucked me in as before, but now I had more demands on my time, and so couldn’t devour books for the long periods I used to, and reading a book over several days or weeks is not the same as in two or three days.  Nor was my memory as clear as before:  The first time I read it, I didn’t have to keep referring to the family tree to keep the Aureliano Buendias and Jose Arcadios straight, but unlike before I realized, having had to name a large cast of characters in The Night Counter, the repetition of names symbolized the families repetition of life’s mistakes. The book is also paced at the pre-Internet speed, indeed at the speed of a small village in the middle of nowhere South America, a little slow for me now.

There were parts of the book that made my stomach churn in ways that it had not before, particularly what now seems an almost cavalier depiction of incest.  On the other hand, although I had lived through war as a kid, I did not appreciate the truth in the cavalier way he treats the death tolls of war and plague as I did in this reading.  And I had not battled insomnia to appreciate the humor in the village that no longer sleeps.  Magical realism was not a word I was familiar with back then, but the mastery with which he wove it in is even more of a marvel to me today as a writer.  I could go on but suffice to say it’s still a brilliant book, but parts of it strike me differently.

Would I still say it is my favorite book?  It was still an undisputedly unique, original transportation into a tragically magical place, a clearly allegoric third world town, with obvious comparisons to South American but also the Middle East realities. (Qaddafi anyone?). But with time I’ve learned that when it comes to things and children, it’s best not to have a favorite soda, a favorite shade of lipstick, or as I’ve discovered a favorite book. Today it’s one of my favorites, along with Anna Karenina, Cry the Beloved Country, Pippi Longstocking and a host of contemporary novels.

Just like homes, maybe with books too, you just can’t quite go back, at least not the same way.

Mathematics and Olive Oil

Mathematics and Olive OilIn The Night Counter, Fatima is fixated on numbers and it is something that runs through the family for five generations.  She thinks about math when’s she’s cooking, too, as any woman who raised 14 kids probably would—how much to make for each one, how much it was costing, and so forth.  And how many bottles of olive oil to order at the Middle Eastern market is certainly something necessary to be calculated, much as her ancestors would have wondered each year how much olive oil their crops would yield.

Many people ask me anything in the book is autobiographical, and I can honestly say no, but there is a tendency for OTHER people I’m related to have a thing for math.  Me, I was flustered yesterday trying to help my 10-year old nephew with algebra I vaguely recall doing  in 8th grade, which was a long time ago for my brain cells.  But I had a good time with these math word problems with my seven-year old nephew, perhaps because they involve olive oil and pizza.  So if you need any word problems for the weekend, voila.

(And for those of you interested, the photo of olive oil here is of three olive oils from the West Bank, organic oil made under Fair Trade laws to help the Palestinians preserve their centuries old olive groves.   One is distributed by American Friends Society (http://www.afsc.org/mepepla/) and the other two are available at Whole Foods, believe it or not.  Politics aside, the West Bank produces pretty amazing olive oil because of the nature of its soil and landscape.)

Now back to Fun With Math (which I have adapted from a real math book for kids):
#1  OLIVE OIL

Fatima has a problem. For the last 50 years her neighbor Millie has been a very good friend and has entertained her for many hours with her silly jokes. Millie’s about to celebrate her 70th birthday and Fatima wants to give Millie something that will give her a taste of Lebanon.  She has prepared 40 bottles of her village’s olive oil of which she has promised her cousin Dalal half of her final inventory. She would like to give Millie 10 bottles for her birthday. If she wants to keep as many as possible for herself should she first give Dalal half and then give Millie 10 or should she reverse the order in which she gives away the bottles?

#2  PIZZA PARTY
Romano Pizzeria offers the following toppings for a standard large pizza: pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and sausage. In addition to ordering a plain pizza, you can order any number of toppings, even all five (which happens to be the “special”).

How many different kinds of large pizza do you have to choose from?

ANSWER TO #1

Fatima is a pretty frugal woman. She realizes that if she first gives Millie a gift of 10 she will be left with 30 bottles of which she promised half (30/2 = 15) to cousin Dalal.
40 – (10 + 15) = 15 bottles left for Fatima

If she would give the bottles away in the reverse order she would be giving Princess cousin Dalal half of 40 (40/2 = 20) and then giving Millie 10 as a gift.
40 – (20 + 10) = 10 bottles left for Fatima.

By giving Millie the gift of 10 first she is left with 5 extra bottles of her  fantastic olive oil for herself

ANSWER TO #2
You can choose from 32 different pizzas.  Here are the possible combinations: 1 plain, 5 with one topping, 10 with two toppings, 10 with three toppings, 5 with four toppings, and 1 with five toppings.

PENN, CHEESESTEAKS, AND BROTHERLY LOVE

A week ago I was in Philadelphia reading at the Penn Bookstore, my first East Coast stop.  I was pretty uncomfortable about Philadelphia, as it was a city I had no base in, so I accepted the offers of two friends to come down from New Jersey and New York for the event, bringing along their mother and boyfriend respectively. And maybe I had some Ivy League anxiety, too, as I had wanted to go to Harvard but was turned down not by Harvard but by my parents, who didn’t see why anyone should go in debt when a perfectly good education was available at the University of Minnesota.  So I finally got to make it to the Ivy League, and it turned out great, one day sufficing for the four years I missed.  Philadelphia was very supportive, particularly Penn and the group of young Arab Americans in NAAP (National Association of Arab American Professionals).  And people were so enthusiastic about books and the world in general when I was talking to them at the bookstore.  So I got to experience Philadelphia’s brotherly love.

You would have thought that Philadelphians I met in LA and other cities would have been anxious to recommend the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross’s house to me as I went off to their hometown—or even lunch at Reading Terminal or shopping around Rittenhouse Square or spending an evening on South Street.  But this is what they wanted to tell me about Philadelphia:  “You have to have a cheese steak.”

In fact, my friend Pat, who came down from New York, was able to get her boyfriend, a former Philadelphian, to come along for the ride by promising him cheese steak afterwards.   My other friend returned to New Jersey with a look that said “Cheese steaks? You’re going to go chase cheese steaks?” perhaps having eaten with me enough to know I’m not really the kind of person to go cruise a strange city for cow-related products.

I’d gotten numerous recommendations before I arrived in Philly to know that Jims, Geno’s, Pat’s are the holy triumphant of cheese steaks.  We asked the opinions of some people at the bookstore reading, too.  The bottom line:  Jim’s was inconvenient to get to, so go to the old Italian neighborhood and park near the park, as that is safest.  We got there between a misguided GPS and stopping to question a homeless guy at a gas station, who set us on the right path in exchange for a dollar (normally directions were free, he hinted, but his mom had died just that day, so a dollar would bring him some comfort)  Geno’s and Pat’s  are kitty corner from each other and nicknamed “ground zero for cheese steaks.” Pat decided we’d go to Pat’s not because of the shared name thing but because a student had told us that a couple of years ago Geno’s put up a sign  that said “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.”  As Italian Americans, Pat and her boyfriend were outraged that an Italian place would do this, so she refused to go there.

While Pat’s was more politically correct, the food seemed to be about the same–large and filled with beef that it would be a stretch to call steak, canned mushrooms, and Cheez Whiz, which I didn’t know they were still making.  The peppers and onions were the ingredients most convincingly derived from Mother Nature.  Greg savored every bit but Pat and I looked at each other and shrugged. We kept taking bites, waiting for the magic thrill to happen, but it never did. However, I marveled at the humongous cans of Cheez Whiz.  P1010636

There is much to love about Philadelphia—its shopping, its historical attractions, its educational and art institutions and yes its food, as in the stromboli and hoagies, but the cheese steak sandwich, I’m not so sure about it.  Maybe it’s like a nostalgia food, like tuna noodle hot dish, that you like more for the memories than the taste. As one young woman explained if you haven’t been drinking, a cheese steak is just cheese (or imitation cheese) and meat on bread and that’s not really such an exciting thing unless you’re starving or drunk.  Now if someone had mentioned Philadelphia Cream Cheese…P1010634

Penn, Cheese steaks, and brotherly love

Penn, Cheese steaks, and brotherly love

The Washington Post Review

It’s pretty cool to get reviewed by one of the book critics you respect the most.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/13/AR2009081303267.html

A SCHERHEZADE FOR OUR TIMES
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO 1,001 NIGHTS
By Carolyn See

Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009

Shaye Areheart. 365 pp. $24

Some people write about death, dying and tragedy as if they were death, dying and tragedy. Others — God bless them — just don’t carry the genes for drama or melodrama; they look at the world with all its flaws and suffering, and something about the situation strikes them funny.

First-time novelist Alia Yunis writes about the years after 9/11 and how that sorrowful event affected members of the ordinary, law-abiding Arab American community. She writes about wiretapping and FBI surveillance, as well as an old woman dying alone in West Hollywood, with no one to care for her but a grown grandchild, a hapless, unemployed actor. Yunis takes all this material and stirs it into an immigrant-ethnic cocktail laced with political oppression, but before shaking, she adds Scheherazade, the fabled storyteller who kept herself alive by distracting her tyrannical husband for a thousand and one nights.

Fatima Abdullah is 85 years old and close to death. She’s more than half blind, quite deaf and has trouble with arthritis, but her worst ailment is the systematic neglect of her many adult children. They call her every week or so but give her nothing except weather reports from where they live; they don’t want to tell her anything about themselves, and that’s probably wise. Fatima is not a very charming old lady. She’s repetitive; she gets things wrong, refuses to listen and obsesses on things her kids don’t care about: her mother’s old letters (even though she, Fatima, never learned to read), her wedding dress (although nobody seems to want it) and especially the old family home in Lebanon, which she hasn’t seen in 70 years. Which one of her children should she leave it to? (Her children, and the reader, know it would be a miracle if this house has survived the wars and bombing raids that have transpired through the years.)

Fatima is sure she is dying because for the last 991 days she has had an unlikely visitor to keep her company: Scheherazade. Strangely enough, she has been extracting stories out of Fatima instead of the other way around, but whatever way you slice it, there are only nine days left before death is scheduled to appear.

Scheherazade listens to Fatima fairly impatiently: Surely, she must have listened to thousands of tales of young women who came to America from their beloved old country only to find poverty, struggle, homesickness and disappointment. Fatima, while still a bewildered teenager, landed in Detroit, where her first husband worked in the car industry but died before their first child was born. His best friend, Ibrahim, dutifully asked her to become his wife. The rest of their children followed, each, of course, carrying tales to be told.

Some nights Scheherazade flies out on her carpet to see how things are going with the kids. There’s Laila, in her 50s now and still in Detroit, so fed up with the Muslim faith and the injustice of having to suffer breast cancer that she cooks up a mess of pork chops for the elders of the Mosque and passes it off as veal. Or Dina, a spoiled grandchild, who spends a summer at a refugee camp in Lebanon and realizes there’s more to life than cheerleading and makeup. Or Soraya, a successful psychic, who, 20-something years ago, visited a sperm bank so that she might have Amir, the gay grandson who’s taking care of Fatima right now in his West Hollywood bungalow. Or Randa, who lives in Houston, in dreadful fear that she and her husband will be recognized as being of Arab descent. Or Hala, the good girl who grew up to be a doctor but was imprudent enough to marry a Chinese man, thus incurring the wrath of both families. (And that match produced Brenda, a flaky high-school dropout whose hook-up with a black guy produced Decimal, who carries every kind of blood and every kind of allergy in her put-upon veins.)

Needless to say, with all their trials and distractions, none of these family members had anything remotely to do with the events of 9/11. But Amir, the gay guy and would-be actor who takes care of his grandmother, has been turned in to the FBI by a vengeful ex-lover, and the bungalow in West Hollywood is duly wiretapped and watched by a clutch of semi-delusional agents who are trapped in stories of their own devising. (One of them is a zealous woman named Sherri Hazad.) The agents investigate the daylights out of every member of the Abdullah family, but manage to misunderstand almost everything they see. (It doesn’t help that Amir keeps trying out for parts such as Jesus so that his costumes and long fake beard make him appear sinister, indeed.)

This is a plot-heavy book — I’ve left out several characters and events — and I can only say that when death comes, it does so in an unexpected way. But “The Night Counter” is also lighthearted, full of silly plays on words and comedic errors. In this easy-seeming way, the author aims, without being in any way preachy about it, to give us a short history of the Middle East and the Muslim faith in America — to say: Don’t be so quick to misunderstand us; we are, in so many of the ways detailed here, the same as you. She succeeds, very gracefully.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune and Other Reasons I Love Minnesota

Lake of the Isles

Lake of the Isles

The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote a great review of The Night Counter in its Sunday edition:
http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/52617702.html (Link also posted under The Night Counter Press & Reviews here)
But that is not the only reason I was excited to do a reading for Mizna (www.mizna.org) in Minneapolis on Saturday.  Minnesota has been a part of my life since I was five-years old and we moved there from Chicago, and I spent several of my growing up years there, as well as attending the University of Minnesota.   Back then, there were no sushi restaurants and luxury spas—in fact, I’m not sure anyone would have even known what those were 20 years ago—and one of the few foreign accents you heard were from my parents’ lips.  It’s a lot more global and trendsetting now, but it’s still mercifully Minnesota. The Twin Cities are notorious for their winters, but with some training and effusive enthusiasm, a very common Minnesota trait, they can be charming.  Still nothing beats a perfect summer day– sun, blue sky, shady trees, lakes, walleye-on-a-stick stands, and soda pop.  Here are some other reasons I like Minnesota:

1.    Everyone talks like me.  No one ever asks, “Are you from New Jersey or something?”  My slight Minnesota accent needs no explanation.
2.     When people say, “You have a good day now,” they actually sound sincere.
3.    To this day, some 40 years later, people still point out to you locations that appear in the opening credits of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” particularly the exact spot where she tosses her hat in the air.
4.    Multi-colored Mohawks and Mullets

Downtown Minneapolis

Downtown Minneapolis

Reasons I love Minnesota

Reasons I love Minnesota

never seem to go out of style here—they ebb and flow in number, but I always run into at least one or two whenever I visit
5.    People actually follow traffic signals and do yield to others, the Scandinavian stock here forever dominating the culture, and ja, that’s a good thing.
6.    You meet vegetarians who like to go hunting and ice fishing.
7.    There is a great respect for the Native Americans who first settled this area (although the poverty and disease within that community remains appalling)
8.    It’s one of the most-educated and/or most well-read places you’ll ever visit, whether you’re talking to a college professor or a pro-wrestler governor.
9.     You can actually drink the tap water.
10.    I’ve never had to question the loyalty or honesty of the people I’ve called friends here, even family friends that go back to grade school.