Monday, December 24, 2012

Day 24: A Look at Saudi Arabia

It's finally here: the last day in our 24 Days of Books. Day 24. Christmas Eve. We've talked about a lot of books this month -- a little bit of everything. I'm guessing you deduced that the blog posts were written by more than one person: Sally McPherson (the every-day blogger), Roberta Dyer, Kate Bennison, and Joanna Rose. (Either you figured it out or you thought they were being written by one twisted, multi-personality bookseller.)  I resolve to write more book posts in 2013 on a regular basis, rather than saving the bulk of them up for the time of year when we're all likely to be the busiest. But, what the heck; it adds a little extra juice to the month.

I had a hard time thinking about which book to tell you about today. I considered I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, but those are selling like hotcakes without a mention here (the perfect stocking stuffer). I thought about writing about Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel Dora: A Headcase, but everyone seems to know about that already as well. (By the way, let me just say that I think a wrapped set of Dora with Lidia's award-winning memoir The Chronology of Water would make a incredibly thoughtful gift.)

I considered Standing at the Water's Edge: Bob Straub's Battle for the Soul of Oregon, a new biography that I will be taking on vacation with me next month on the personal recommendation of one of my biggest idols: former Oregon governor Barbara Roberts.

But instead I decided to go with another paired set of reading: two perspectives on Saudia Arabia and it's people, one nonfiction and one fiction.

On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - And Future, is written by Karen Ellott House, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been visiting the kingdom for more than 30 years. Saudia Arabia is a country of great importance to the world, but one that most people know little about, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Or, as The New York Times described it in its review of House's book: "It’s not Mars, exactly, but for most Americans Saudi Arabia is probably more like another world than any other inhabited part of this one. It is about as distinct from the freewheeling United States as a country can be."

In her book, House examines Saudi Arabia not only through her interviews with most of the key members of the royal family, but, more importantly, through the lives of countless individuals -- men and women, in villages and in cities, conservative Muslims and modern reformers, young and old. This book is an authoritative, illuminating, riveting inside look at a country that could well be on the brink, and what that portends for Saudi Arabia's future -- and for our own. Here are some comments from reviews of House's book:

Zbigniew Brzezinski: "It exposes incisively and dispassionately the social contradictions and the potential political vulnerabilities of contemporary Saudi Arabia. A timely and truly important book."

Henry Kissinger: "An engaging and lucid exploration of Saudi politics and culture . . . recommended reading for all those seeking a new perspective on one of the world's most consequential societies."

Tina Brown: "One of the most revealing and impressively reported books I read this year. Karen Elliot House’s 30-plus years’ experience in one of the least accessible countries makes us see, hear, and experience Saudi Arabia like a local."

For a fictional perspective on this country, I offer up the newest from Dave Eggers: A Hologram for the King,  a finalist for this year's National Book Award for fiction and recently named one of the top five fiction titles of the year by The New York Times. His novel centers on 54-year-old Alan Clay, a struggling American business and a bit of a sadsack in a rising Saudi Arabian city, pursuing a last-ditch attempt to stave off foreclosure, pay his daughter's college tuition, and finally do something great.

The book has been called a "heartbreaking character study" and a "deft and darkly comic novel," a sort of "moral vision quest." Pico Iyer in a review in The New York Times called A Hologram for the King a "supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad ... With ferocious energy and versatility, [Eggers] has been studying how the world is remaking America ... Eggers has developed an exceptional gift for opening up the lives of others so as to offer the story of globalism as it develops and, simultaneously, to unfold a much more archetypal tale of struggle and loneliness and drift."

I did not expect to like this book, although I'm not exactly sure why, but it became one of my favorite novels of the year.

So, that's the end of our 24 Days of Books. All of us at Broadway Books are full of immense gratitude for all of the kindness you've shown us in 2012. Best wishes for happy and safe holidays, wherever you spend them, and for good tidings in 2013.

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