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Updates: Book Soup and Christian Science Monitor And Entertainment Weekly

August 5, 2009

The Night Counter is still #2 Bestseller at Book Soup, thank you West Hollywood.  I should be blogging about San Francisco and Seattle, which have been awesome, but I’m waiting for photos.  Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, which reminded me of my students when they say to me, “A B+?  Couldn’t you make it an A- It sounds so much better.”   And here is an excerpted review in the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that I grew up reading as a kid because our neighbor in Minnesota, Mary Ellen Fairbanks, had a subscription and used to tell us all the time, “If you want some legitimate international news, this is the paper to get.”  The review came out on Sunday, a day I actually spent with her two daughters in Seattle, whom I had not see in years and years.

The Night Counter

In a contemporary twist on “1,001 Nights,” a Lebanese grandmother spends her nights telling tales about her Arab-American family.

By Marjorie Kehe August 1, 2009 edition

The Night Counter By Alia Yunis Shaye Areheart Books 384 pp., $24

Scheherazade was the lovely Persian queen who kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories so enthralling that her murderous monarch couldn’t bear to behead her. So he married her instead. Fatima Abdullah, however, has neither Scheherazade’s narrative flair nor her seductive looks.

Fatima is an elderly Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her favorite grandson, Amir. She moved to Detroit from Lebanon seven decades ago and has since had two husbands, 10 children, and 14 grandchildren. At this point, she’s ready to say goodbye to all of it.

Or almost ready, that is. First, she must find a wife for wannabe actor Amir (blithely overlooking his constant insistence that he’s gay) and then arrange for him to inherit her beloved mother’s house in Lebanon. In the meantime, as the successful conclusion of that task drags on, Fatima is content to stay alive for another 1,001 days, spending each night telling her stories to Scheherazade. (Scheherazade apparently, has become immortal, and now travels the globe – beautiful as ever – hearing stories from others.)

Such is the premise of The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s debut novel, the sweet, funny, meandering story of Fatima, her family, and the uneven process of their assimilation into life in America.

Not all of Fatima’s children, who now live scattered across the US, are entirely likable. In fact, most have disappointed her in one way or another. Her only living son, Bassam has spent much of his adult life on an alcoholic bender in Las Vegas, although the events of 9/11 have now shocked him into a promising sobriety. Several of her daughters have succeeded in pursuing what many would consider to be the American dream – but it’s not necessarily the course their mother would have chosen for them.

Fatima makes a grand protagonist – a somewhat befuddled yet strong, independent character who may have rejected much about the US, but sure loves American sports, particularly the Detroit Tigers. (“How could [the Tigers] get swept by the Twins,” she frets, “a team playing under a plastic bag on spongy cement?”) There is also a hilarious scene in which a special FBI agent trained in Arabic (assigned to watch over this “suspicious” Arab-American family with ties to both Lebanon and Detroit) tries to interview Fatima, who mistakes her for Scheherazade, offering her cooking tips and motherly laments which the FBI agent frantically parses for information on terrorist plots.

The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that’s what holds a family (much like a nation) together.

“Stories keep us entertained and enlightened,” she tells Fatima. “And if we don’t know the ending, all the better.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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