What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mystery Monday: "Gaza has a special relationship with the dead."

One of the newer mystery series that I have discovered and begun to read is that of British journalist Matt Beynon Rees, who draws on his experience covering the decades-long conflict in the Middle East to develop profoundly human stories about the toll this takes on the ordinary lives of ordinary citizens. His hero, Omar Yussef, is a schoolteacher in his mid-50s, shuns politics -- he is no hero; he simply wants to open the minds of the history students he teaches to possibilities beyond the black-and-white world of the West Bank. Above all, Omar Yussef deplores the cult of violence that has taken over his world -- in Rees's first book, The Collaborator of Bethlehem, Omar muses that "there was such violence even in his girls that it shocked him. No matter how he tried to liberate the minds of Dehaisha's children, there were always many others working still more diligently to enslave them."

I've just finished reading the second in this series of mystery novels, A Grave in Gaza, and I was delighted to find that it's just as rewarding as the first. The focus of both novels isn't the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but rather the toll that conflict is taking on Palestinian society. In his debut, Omar Yussef struggles to rescue a former student and Palestinian Christian, from being lynched as an informer for the Israelis  -- even in the hope of unmasking a murderer and clearing the name of his friend, he can't approach the Israelis themselves. In the second novel, factionalism again rears its head from the very second that Omar Yussef and his UN colleagues enter Gaza on an inspection tour of UN-sponsored schools there. Immediately, they must embark on an effort to save a schoolteacher who has been arrested after he accused the local university of granting degrees in return for money to local policemen. As a sandstorm rages and one of his colleagues is kidnapped by one of the many guerilla factions in Gaza, Omar Yussef must find a way to understand the power struggles underway within Gaza, and their implications for his friends and colleagues. "There is no single, isolated crime in Gaza," a friend warns Omar Yussef. "Each one is linked to many others, you'll see. When you touch one of them, it sets off reverberations that will be heard by powerful people, ruthless people."

Rees does a superb job of delineating and distinguishing the tensions within the Palestinian community. Nor does he shy away from violence or even tragedy, all of which are too much part of the real backdrop in which his fictional characters live; still, even as the body counts climb in the novels, there's an almost bitter awareness that in the circumstances, any other outcome would be unrealistic. Omar Yussef may see himself as a coward -- once imprisoned for his political views in Jordan, he has shied away from any activism since then, fearing a return to jail or torture -- but however fallible he may be, he ends up taking personal risks in order to live up to his sense of himself as being a voice of reason and a human being.

This may not be a mystery series to read if you happen to have very strong views on the state of affairs in the Middle East, regardless of which side you're on: Rees makes clear in his non-fiction book, Cain's Field: Faith, Fratricide and Fear in the Middle East (published in 2004) that he views the real culprits as those extremists willing and even eager to annihilate opposing points of view. That's the philosophy that serves as the basis for this series of mysteries and for Omar Yussef's rather quixotic efforts to bring a measure of justice, however small, to the unjust society in which he must live. He may fail in some of his efforts, but at least he tries. The result, for mystery fans, is another good series; I'm hoping to read the third and fourth books sometime before the end of the year.

1 comment:

  1. Superb reviews, Suz! Clearly these are a cut above the usual mystery novels. I'll pick up "The Collaborator of Bethlehem" soon.