Day 1162: Classics Club Spin! Letters from Egypt

Cover for Letters from EgyptLetters from Egypt is the book I drew for the latest Classics Club spin! A book like this one is hard for me to evaluate. Lucie Duff Gordon was an English gentlewoman suffering from consumption who spent the last seven years of her life in Egypt, hoping the climate would help her. The book of her letters is heralded as a first to deal with the Egyptian people rather than the scenery and monuments. She was by all accounts beloved by the people she lived among in Luxor from 1862 to 1869.

I try to judge books as best I can by the standards of their own time, but sometimes with this book that was a struggle for me. Duff Gordon is known for being kind to the people she met, particularly the Arab fellaheen, who by all accounts were the despised of Egypt. Certainly, she was loved by them and is careful to follow their customs, but she does patronize them in just about every word of her letters. She also takes pleasure in telling stories about how much they love her and what courtesies they exchanged. She adopts their customs and learns to speak Arabic, all very laudable. However, it seems to me that she takes their part to the point of perversity, for example, sprinkling Arabic words into her letters to friends and so participating in their customs that she speaks casually of such things as buying slaves (for herself), always for their own good, thirty years after England outlawed slavery. Further, she favors the Arabs by putting down other groups, like the Copts, the Jews (even though she meets hardly any), and some of the Turks but not all, even though the Turks would seem to be to blame for the dire state of the country.

If you are feeling politically correct, you may not appreciate her frequent use of the N word, and her constant mention of the color of the various people she meets, although that is clearly a difference in the standards of the time.

The book does have descriptions of various ceremonies and customs, which are interesting. And Duff Gordon’s behavior toward the people was clearly better than that of most “Franks.” Another slight issue is that she tends to use Arabic and Egyptian words without always explaining what they mean, which can be confusing.

I want to compare this book to West with the Night, which was written 90 years later. Beryl Markham was raised with Masai playmates in what was British East Africa. Never does she treat her native friends condescendingly. Not only that, but her book provides a better sense of the landscape and society of Africa, although admittedly more oriented toward the European. Another contrast is Tales from the Queen of the Desert, in which Gertrude Bell ventures into even more remote corners of the Arab world while not once patronizing anyone.

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Day 865: Arctic Summer

Cover for Arctic SummerFrom its description, I thought that Arctic Summer might be one of the most interesting books I’m reading from the Walter Scott Prize list. It is described as a fictional biography of E. M. Forster, particularly leading up to his publication of A Passage to India.

That is certainly the time period the novel covers, and A Passage to India is one of its preoccupations. But the novel spends most of its time on Forster’s obsession with his homosexuality and his desire for sexual experience. As I’m not all that interested in reading about anyone’s obsession with sexuality, this novel was not the best fit for me.

The novel begins in 1912 on Forster’s first trip to India. While he is there, he will visit a good friend, Masood, and he has hopes that his life will open up, particularly in regard to sex. At the age of 33, he is still a virgin, his fear of disgrace holding him back from expressing his sexuality at home. Perhaps in India he will have an experience, maybe with Masood, whom he loves.

Unfortunately, Forster, who goes by Morgan, has a tendency to fall in love with heterosexual men and prefers men from a lower class, so nothing quite works out the way he wishes. Even when he finally has some encounters, years later, what he is actually looking for is love, which he never finds. The novel follows him during the long gestation of his novel about India, back to England, to Alexandria during World War I, and back to India again. During this time, his most significant relationships are with two friends who do not return his feelings.

The novel is extremely well written, and Galgut deeply characterizes Morgan, if not the other characters. It did make me wonder if any person could be so relentlessly focused on sex, although of course he is also lonely. It also made me wonder how, if he really felt this unrelenting focus, he ever got anything written. Certainly this novel makes you feel for Forster—he was a sad man.

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Day 165: Alexandria

Cover for AlexandriaFor years I avidly collected all of Lindsey Davis’s Didius Falco mysteries. My passion has cooled a bit, as it usually does for series mysteries, but I still enjoy them enough to pick them up when I find them.

Marcus Didius Falco is a cynical, rascally, wisecracking “informer” during the Roman Empire of Vespasian. I have followed his path from the first book when he met Helena Justina, the fiery, unconventional daughter of a senator. Falco has had to work his way up from the plebeian rank and earn enough money so that he can legally be permitted to marry her.

In Alexandria, the 19th novel in this series, Falco and Helena Justina have been married for awhile when they travel to Alexandria with their two daughters, their adopted teenage daughter, and their mongrel dog for a vacation and visit to his uncle. Almost immediately upon arrival Falco is plunged into an investigation when his uncle’s dinner guest of the night before, Theon, the head of the famed library, is found dead, locked in his own office.

Of course, Falco has to figure out how Theon was murdered and why. He soon finds that several of the library’s scholars may want Theon’s job. Of course, people begin dropping like flies, including a philosophy student who is mauled by a crocodile. Falco begins to suspect that something else might be going on.

Davis’s books always involve a multitude of interesting, shifty characters and lots of dirty politics and other shenanigans, and Falco is always engaging and amusing. Davis does a convincing job of re-creating the ancient world in her books.

If you are interested in this series, I recommend that you start with the first book, Silver Pigs (recently renamed The Silver Pigs). Although the mysteries are stand-alone, developments in Falco’s personal life make it more enjoyable if you read this series in order.