This Week's Reads

Marjorie Leet Ford, Raja Shehadeh, Jessica Shattuck, and Jonathan Schell.

THE ANTI-POPPINS It's a nasty, thankless gig, the nanny business. In Marjorie Leet Ford's novel, The Diary of an American Au Pair (Anchor, $13), young Melissa learns this lesson the hard way. Suddenly unemployed in San Francisco, Melissa postpones her wedding and jets to Europe to be an au pair. Her visions of Mary Poppins-like whimsy expire within about 90 seconds of her arrival at the Haig-Ereildouns' drab London home. The lady of the house is, quite plainly, a bitch. The kids are a bratty 11-year-old princess; a death-obsessed 9-year-old boy; and a wild, shrieking 3-year-old who feigns deafness. Both of the family's homesthe other one's in Scotlandare dark, dreary, and frigid. And Mrs. H-E runs a tight ship. In her eyes, Melissa can do nothing right. The story's based heavily on Ford's experience as a London au pair, and the funyes, there is somelies in the details. Stingy Mrs. H-E makes five people in a row bathe in the same shallow tub of waterMelissa's last, of course. Meanwhile, Melissa has to teach the "deaf" toddler to speak. She also suffers the daily humiliations of the English-American language-pronunciation barrier (Diary was originally published in 2001 as Do Try to Speak as We Do and has been reissued now to cash in on The Nanny Diaries). Melissa's refuge is back in her room with her diary, where she captures every brutal detail with devious humor. Some of the best passages involve food. Fleshy Melissa likes to eat (she takes kindly to the European fondness for butter), and her stories of daily life tend to revolve around meals. There's even a love story, too. Or, rather, two sparring love stories, but they're less intriguing than Melissa's litany of nanny-related woes. Katie Millbauer Marjorie Leet Ford will read at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way N.E., 206-366-3333), 7 p.m. Wed., May 7. LOSING HISTORY We're so used to hearing shrill, calculatedly one-sided rhetoric about the Israeli-Palestinian conflictfrom Likudniks and the "Arab street" on down to the columnists in this newspaperthat it comes as something of a holy miracle when a voice emerges with passion, intelligence, and some measure of balance. There's no doubt that West Bank human-rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh despises the Israeli occupation. But among the many virtues of his memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine (Penguin, $14, new in paper), is its willingness to face up to the Palestinians' own failures of character. Shehadeh struggles with that issue throughout his book, brilliantly interweaving it with a portrait of lifelong conflict with his father. Born in Ramallah in 1951, Raja is no stone-throwing refugee urchin but a sickly, sensitive childone smothered by his overprotective mother and desperate for the approval of his gruff, emotionally distant father. Raja's worldview is dominated by a fixation on "luminous" Jaffa, the lost, cosmopolitan paradise of the Palestinians, from which his family was forced to flee in 1948. By contrast, he writes of Ramallah, "Here was only brown thistle and stone, an arid land without hope or future." The Palestinian obsession with turning back the clock; the refusal to take any steps to improve their own society for fear it would imply some kind of acceptance of the status quo; the fixation with a mythic goal of total victory and annihilation of "the Zionist entity"all these delusions are what Raja's father, Aziz, a distinguished attorney, spends his life combating. In 1967, he was the first prominent Palestinian to call for a peaceful two-state solution with Israel. He tries to promote a society of laws among his people but is branded a "traitor" by Palestinian leadership. After an escape to the bright lights and louche lifestyle of pre-civil war Beirut to attend university, followed by law school in London and a rather too-earnestly depicted period of soul-searching, Raja returns to the West Bank in 1976 to join his father's law firm. But the conflict with Aziz only becomes more intense, the search for acceptance ever more futile. Entering his mid-30s and still unmarried, Raja rises to some international prominence by investigating human-rights abuses by the Israeli military and poking holes in the legality of Israeli settlement policies. To Aziz, this is all useless effort: Instead of joining the tired chorus of Palestinian complaint, Raja should be advancing his own career, having a family, and seeking a practical solution that would end the occupation. "What was the use of wasting time diagnosing the disease when we already knew the remedy?" his father wonders. The mix of intimate autobiography and lawyerly career review is not always a smooth one in Strangers (which frustratingly ends in the '80s, with just a couple of recent postscriptssurely a follow-up is due). But for the most part, this is a powerfully vivid and articulate bookwritten in Shehadeh's own superb Englishthat portrays the conflicts and choices of educated people whose conflicts and choices actually matter. Shehadeh is both a meticulous documentarian and a literary writer, and he has passages of astonishing lyricism; in two of the most memorable sections, he assumes the role of omniscient narrator and describes events from his father's point of view. Idolizing the man with whom he never quite got along, Shehadeh has painted a portrait of Aziz that is profound and inspiringqualities notably missing from most of what we read today about the Middle East. But Raja finds himself unable to pursue the politics of compromise, and his view of the Israelis only hardens further when the Israeli police fail to adequately investigate his father's 1985 murder. Was he targeted by Palestinian extremists (as was widely assumed) or simply the victim of a civil land case gone bad (as Raja believes)? The case remains unsolved. Mark D. Fefer Raja Shehadeh will read at the University Congregational United Church of Christ (4515 16th Ave. N.E.), 7 p.m. Thurs., May 8. CHEEVER LITE The WASPs in Jessica Shattuck's debut novel of old-money anomie still sting, but mostly they just emit a low, dull buzz and swarm about aimlessly, oblivious to their own impending obsolescence. Think of The Hazards of Good Breeding (Norton, $23.95) as Cheever Lite, updated for the 21st century with rampant pot smoking and cable television. The girl who initially appears to be Breeding's protagonistCaroline Dunlap, a recent Harvard graduate temporarily returned to her Massachusetts home while she waits for the rest of her life to beginturns out in the end to be Shattuck's most opaque character. Much more vividly realized are her stoic-to-the-point-of- emotional-paralysis father, Jack; neglected baby brother, Eliot; and emotionally fragile absentee mother, Faith. Caroline quickly falls in with a mysterious filmmaker in town for the summer to document the vanishing world of Boston Brahmin deb parties, weddings, and country-club socials, much to the chagrin of her smitten, painfully aimless friend Rock. Meanwhile, Jack fights his feelings for the family's Colombian housekeeper; 10-year-old Eliot embarks on some secretive, mysterious kid mission involving complex maps and dioramas; and Faith tentatively reaches out for a connection with a visiting Frenchman. Shattuck, a first-time novelist and frequent New Yorker contributor, obviously knows her territory wellfrom the prematurely pompous young men of the country-club set to the casual entitlement of the genteel drunks who inhabit its upper reaches. She has a real gift for crafting beautiful small moments within that privileged realm. Unfortunately, the characters' thickly bricked emotional walls make it difficult to connect with them on a human level; but maybe that's just another hazard, after all, of that good breeding. Leah Greenblatt JUST SAY NO Having done the same for nuclear weapons two decades ago, Jonathan Schell sets out to write the definitive historyand future potentialof nonviolent people power in The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (Metropolitan Books, $27.50). It's an enormous taskanalogous to writing the history of warfare. Fortunately, in his concise, lucid prose, Schell lays out where both approaches, martial and peaceful, could lead us. For Schell, the utility of examining nonmilitary solutions to conflictfrom the Greeks to (especially) Gandhi and Martin Luther King in contrasting them with increasingly deadly military strategies. Because the latter are so powerful (see: Gulf Wars I and II), the former tend to get shortchanged. We forget the power demonstrated in the nearly bloodless fall of dozens of despotic regimes since 1985 (including the entire Soviet bloc). Schell also has American Empire very much in mind: "The danger, now as in other times, is that democracy's basic nonviolent principles . . . can be undermined by the very power the system generates." Schell emerged, with his 1982 The Fate of the Earth, as a global leader of the nuclear abolitionist movement, and he continues to harp on weapons of mass destruction. His basic critique of the unilateralism of leaders like Bush is that it, and any imperial plan, "tilts against what have so far proved to be the two most powerful forces of the modern age: the spread of scientific knowledge; and the resolve of peoples to reject foreign rule and take charge of their own destinies." The result, he claims, is that while Bush, in casting about for post-Sept. 11 rationales, has correctly pegged WMDs as a serious problem, only cooperative approaches can solve it. In other words, he's voting with the French. Schell is after Big Questions and Big Answers herethe results can sometimes be astonishing overgeneralizations. But those despairing for an alternative to George Bush's militarism may find World invaluable and persuasive. GEOV PARRISH Jonathan Schell will read at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-652-4255; tickets $5), 7:30 p.m. Tues., May 13.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow