University of Chicago Professor Named Sheikh Zayed Book Award Winner

Sweden’s got the Nobel, New York proffers the Pulitzer, France bestows the Goncourt, and the UAE has the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Perhaps the latter is unfamiliar to some readers out there–it was to me–but it is a prestigious literary prize which, since 2006, has recognized works dedicated to and written in Arabic.

Professor Tahera Qutbuddin of the University of Chicago was recently awarded the 2020 Sheikh Zyed recognizing Arab Culture in Other Languages for her work, Arabic Oration–Art and Function, published by Brill Academic Publishers of Leiden. In it, Quibuddin presents a thorough examination of orations–speeches and sermons of Arabs and early Muslims from the 7th and 8th centuries. Qutbuddin has previously received fellowship support from the Franke Institute of Humanities, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. Her research focuses on how politics and religion influenced and shaped classical Arabic prose and literature, which has transformed tremendously over the past 15 centuries while influencing cultures such as ancient Greece and later, Spain. Born in Mumbai, Qutbuddin is the first Indian to receive this award.

This work, which, in her words, is “long and complicated,” presents a fascinating exploration of the oratorical genre, which adapted easily to the nomadic lifestyle of those living in the Arabian desert centuries ago.

Founded in the UAE fifteen years ago under the patronage of Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi–a man the New York Times called one of the most powerful men on the planet– the Sheikh Zayed award aims to highlight “the most stimulating and challenging works representing the Arab world, and to encourage greater scholarship and creativity by recognizing and rewarding these significant cultural achievements in Arabic literature.” 

Each of the eight winners, whose work ranges from children’s literature to literary criticism, receive a stunning AED 750,000 (USD $204,181), a purse that 2013 award recipient Dame Marina Warner described as “less of a trophy than a lavish bursary that allows the recipient to continue their adventures in understanding.” The awards were livestreamed during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair May 23-29.

Though it almost goes without saying that 2020 was challenging, the award committee received over 2,300 submissions from 57 countries–a record for the institution and a trend it hopes will continue. 

Such prizes serve an important role in providing the world fresh insight into the long history of cultural exchanges between the European and Arabic worlds. To understand another culture is to read its literature, and this prize aims to foster such engagement. 

Renato!

Renato! by Eugene Mirabelli, McPherson & Company, $20, 577 pages.

“The gods are immortal and we are not, and no, we are not free to live like gods. We die. We don’t want to be dispersed or dissolved into the void, we don’t want to lose each other.”

Appearing in the waning pages of Eugene Mirabelli’s masterful multi-generational literary opera, Renato!, these musings on the meaning of mortality capture humankind’s zest for love and life, at least, through the eyes of the titular protagonist, Renato Stillamare, a Boston-based painter and descendant of the prolific Sicilian-American Cavallus. Renato! is, on the surface, an autobiography of an aging artist forced to witness his own reputation erased with each passing year, and not for lack of talent, which he has in spades, but an unavoidable outcome of outliving his patrons. In a cruel twist of fate, his work improves with each year that he falls further away from the limelight. Securing an exhibition for his paintings in a tony Newberry Street gallery while also reconciling his tumultuous personal life consumes his days.

But this novel is more than an artist’s fight against mortality. The first half of Renato! offers a joyful genealogical history of the Cavallu family, populated by prostitutes, scientists, bankers, engineers, revolutionaries, and goddesses. (The latter is no laughing matter; some aristocratic Italian families do trace their heritage to interminglings between gods and mortals.) In this case, the family patriarch, Angelo Cavallu, is part stallion, with “equine hindquarters, those powerful flanks and long shins,” and Ava is his stunning bride. Those qualities make their way down the family tree–lusty, industrious men, beautiful, magical women–rendering this 150-year chronicle at once wholly believable and enchanting. The Cavallu family leaps through time and history, with appearances by General Giuseppe Garibaldi, finance con artist Charles Ponzi, and French pilot Louis Paulhan rooting these characters firmly in a convincing reality.

The three books between these covers were previously published separately in different forms but stitched together here seamlessly by Mirabelli. The tone shifts noticeably in the second and third books, where Renato is no longer the jubilant raconteur of wild ancestral anecdotes; rather, after a tumultuous youth, he is now seventy years old, living separately from his wife and mistress, wondering whether he will ever see his paintings grace a gallery wall again. Pushing up against barriers tests the spirit, and Renato is forced to explore the various facets of life and his relationships with those he loves. Another dramatic shift comes in the chapters following the death of Alba, Renato’s wife and guiding light, bringing with it an honest and raw assessment of grief.

Beautiful, hot-blooded, Renato! (which, it should be noted, comes from the Latin word for reborn), is a reminder that though the world may change as well as our respective places in it, love will ground us, should we choose to embrace it.

Like his protagonist, at age ninety, Mr. Mirabelli has persevered through the years and the publication of this book is nothing less than what appears to be the culmination of a lifetime spent burnishing words to smooth perfection. The Rockefeller grant recipient and professor emeritus at SUNY Albany has written ten novels that have been translated into French, Hebrew, Polish, and Sicilian, and in October, he will be recognized by the Albany Public Library system at its annual gala as this year’s Literary Legend.

Photo courtesy of McPherson & Company

Embrace Mr. Mirabelli’s captivating work and prepare to be richly rewarded.

“Too Small Tola” A Major Literary Treat

One of the most original children’s books to cross our desk so far this year is Too Small Tola ($15.99, 96 pages, ages 6-9) by Nigerian-born storyteller Atinuke, with delightful illustrations by Onyinye Iwu. Three short stories follow Tola, a girl living in an apartment in Lagos, as she navigates the hustle and flow of the bustling megacity. On marketing day, she and Grandmommy walk to the other side of Lagos and back with baskets overflowing with groceries for her family and neighbors–even when it seems like she’s just too small to be much help at all. When the electricity goes out, Tola heads down to the municipal pump to draw water from the well, despite the possibility of being late for school if everything doesn’t go according to plan. Tola demonstrates kindness and determination to help Mr. Abdul the tailor when he’s sidelined by an accident and needs help taking customers’ measurements. Atinuke’s writing is rich and evocative yet accessible to emerging readers, and deftly incorporates universal themes such as family relationships, bravery, and bullying. Tola’s Lagos is at once startlingly different (for most American readers) yet doesn’t feel overwhelming, which will no doubt inspire further inquiry.

The welcoming and detailed line art throughout are rendered in black-and-white, while the cover–a standout riot of color–would suggest more of the same within, but Iwu’s illustrations captivate and delight, revealing subtle details of Tola’s world waiting to be explored.

Courtesy of Candlewick

Too Small Tola is too great to miss.

A Perceptive Review of “Cross of Snow” in The Times Literary Supplement

The lead book review in today’s number of the TLS (Times Literary Supplement) is a lengthy, perceptive consideration of “Cross of Snow,” written by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, professor of Classics and English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford, and author of numerous monographs on nineteenth-century literature. Please take a look here!

A Troubling Account of Ethiopia’s Democracy Revolution

Ethiopia’s civil war continues to spiral into a political and humanitarian crisis and is the latest in a series of internal conflicts. The civil war of 1974 to 1991 saw the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) pitted against the military-led dictatorship known as the Derg. At the helm of the TPLF was Meles Zenawi (1955-2012), a strategist and skillful tactician who eventually served as the country’s prime minister from 1995 until his death. Maintaining that power involved corruption, violence, and Western leaders willing to ignore Zenawi’s unsavory enforcement methods in exchange for greater regional stability. Though harrowing and heartbreaking, Ethiopia’s battles are, perhaps, ignored by many Americans, only making headlines when truly atrocious acts trump the everyday horrors we’ve sadly become accustomed to seeing.

David Steinman’s novel, Money, Blood, and Conscience (Free Planet, 256 pages, $26.95) attempts to shake Western readers out of their stupor by offering a look at the formative years of the man who unapologetically consolidated Ethiopia’s power and influence. Steinman’s Virgil leading us through this inferno is the blissfully oblivious Buddy Schwartz, a Hollywood producer who, in 1986 and on the heels of yet another television success, grows a conscience after watching an ad raising funds for hungry African children. Thus inspired, Buddy launches his own star-studded initiative (think “Live Aid”), which becomes wildly successful. This endeavor puts Buddy in close and regular contact with Zenawi, then the leader of the still-struggling TPLF. Each of Buddy’s visits to Ethiopia reveal fresh acts of violence perpetrated by Zenawi in the name of deposing the Derg, and though Buddy protests weakly, he ultimately continues to provide food and aid to Zenawi in the hopes that those who need help will actually get it–an “ends justify the means” sort of excuse.

To say that the contents of this book are disturbing is an understatement. Steinman is clearly drawing from a deep well of information, having served as a senior foreign advisor to Ethiopia’s democracy movement for over two decades, which leaves this reader wondering if the goal of this effort–to illuminate the unending plight of Ethiopia and the willful ignorance of Western governments–would have been better served if it were a work of nonfiction. To take his Afterword and turn that into a fulsome piece of nonfiction might have been more effective than the narrative devices employed in Money, Blood, and Conscience. Given the severity of the human rights abuses continuing to play out in Ethiopia, there is still time to share those stories and have an effect on those Steinman hopes to influence.

Bronx Resident Bringing Mobile Bookstore to Borough

Lifelong Bronx resident Latanya Devaughn is on a mission to bring a bookstore on wheels to her borough. Now, after two years of soliciting donations for books and funds, Devaughn recently announced the acquisition of the bus that will bring her passion project closer to reality. We spoke earlier this week about her bibliophilic endeavor, the challenges posed by the pandemic, and what she hopes a mobile bookstore will do for the residents of the Bronx.

“My lifelong dream has been to open a bookstore. I’ve had other jobs but owning a bookstore has never left my heart.” Devaughn explained. Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to buy books since there were few such shops in her neighborhood. “I’m used to traveling outside of the borough to get to the bookstore. Even when we had one in Bay Plaza, I still had to travel very far to just purchase a book.” A bookstore on wheels would alleviate some of those transportation issues for fellow Bronx bibliophiles.

Like many New York bookworms, Devaughn credits the stacks at the Strand for sustaining her reading habit without breaking the bank. “I read a lot as a kid. My fondest memories growing up included going to The Strand. I spent hours there and came home with more books than I could carry.  The Strand left a huge impression on me because the books were affordable.”

Providing access to affordable books in a bid to increase literacy rates is sorely needed in the Bronx, where 70 percent of third grade students in the South Bronx cannot read at grade level, just over half of high school graduates are adequately prepared for college, and 41% of all Bronx residents lack basic prose literacy skills. Breaking this cycle is essential, and Bronx Bound Books will join a number of similar initiatives.

Raised by her grandmother, a public school teacher at PS 5 Mort Morris, Devaughn recalled witnessing firsthand how illiteracy holds people back. “I remember seeing my grandmother reading to her friends who couldn’t read for themselves. Her friends trusted her to read their leases, prescriptions, bills, and letters. I saw that as a huge responsibility.” Providing opportunities for people to become self-sustained readers is an important step towards social and economic independence.

A grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (underwritten by Lowe’s Home Improvement) helped put Devaughn’s fundraising efforts over the top. Now, Devaughn can’t wait to get on the road, but the bookmobile needs some TLC first. “I hired an amazing interior designer. She’s helping me bring the vision to life. Bronx Bound Books will look comfy and cozy–think Tiny House meets Tiny Bookstore.” Devaughn hopes the renovations will be complete by April in time for National Poetry Month and Indie Bookstore Day, held on the last Saturday of the month. No matter what day she launches, “We’ll have a full selection of books,” plus “‘pre-loved’ (pre-owned) and new books.” Devaughn plans to incorporate a lending library into the bookmobile as well. 

It wasn’t easy getting to this point: with the pandemic throwing Devaughn’s plans into chaos, she, like many Americans, spent the early days of 2020 just trying to make sense of the situation. “I was totally unmotivated for weeks. All the plans and partnerships were put on hold. I was really gearing up for a very active year. We made huge strides in 2019. I hoped to carry that momentum forward.” Soon, Devaughn realized that keeping the dream alive meant evolving, and so pivoted by hosting virtual story times and author talks. “The response and viewership was incredible–way more than I expected.” The intrepid bookseller has even set up shop at local farmers markets in recent weeks. “I could not ask for a better welcoming response from the community. We have so many weekly supporters, and they also tell their friends. Now, we’re getting more requests from other parts of the Bronx.”

Devaughn is counting down the days until the official launch of Bronx Bound Books, and so are fellow Bronx residents. “So many people I meet share those memories [of the bookmobile]. They tell me how happy they felt when they saw the bookmobile every week. I hope to continue that joy.”

Devaughn is still raising funds so that she can hire a local artist to create a mural that would grace the exterior of the bus. “I love my community and strive to always hire within my community. We have so many talented and creative people living in The Bronx. It brings me great joy to showcase this.”

To donate or to learn more, visit the Bronx Bound Books website.

Jack Gets Zapped: The Latest from Mac Barnett and Greg Pizzoli

Courtesy of Viking Books

At this point in the pandemic, many of us living the WFH life may feel as though we’ve been sucked right into our computer screens. But we’re adults, supposedly capable of adjusting–just imagine how the millions of elementary schoolchildren are handling remote learning. Maybe you don’t have to imagine because you’ve got kids you’re helping navigate this strange, pixelated world. Now, there’s a book to help. Enter: Jack Gets Zapped! by Mac Barnett with illustrations by Greg Pizzoli (Viking: $9.99, 40 pages, ages 4-8) which shows kids they’re not alone in this strange new world, that reading can be fun, and that video games are not necessarily evil.

Courtesy of Viking Books

In this latest Jack caper, the titular protagonist is having, as in all these books, a bit of an existential crisis: he is “a good guy” but “can also be bad.” And here, on a rainy day tailor-made for curling up with a good book, Jack is playing video games instead. Which is fine, until he gets sucked into the television set, only to be saved from oblivion by an unlikely heroine. This, like all the books in the series, follows a predictable methodology ideal for coaxing reluctant readers out of their shells: limited and repetitive vocabulary coupled with simple sentence structures, bold art, and a lightly comedic touch make for a welcoming and accessible format. From font size and style, sentence structure, even the physical layout of the Jack series recall those in Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie lineup, and for good reason: both excel at reeling in readers most like to recoil from the activity. It’s a format that works, so why mess with a good thing.

Courtesy Viking Books

The Captain’s Boy

As America grapples with a battered democracy, it’s worth considering why these ideals are worth saving from rioters who would violently attempt to subvert them. Children certainly ought to have more than a superficial understanding of the tenets that hold this country together, but there’s no reason why that endeavor has to be purely didactic. Don Callaway’s recently published adventure, The Captain’s Boy ($19.95, 268 pages) takes middle-grade readers to the Pennsylvania frontier as the American war of independence is just getting underway. There, we meet fourteen-year-old Isaiah Brewster and his father Joshua, who join the cause after Hessian mercenaries pillage the family farm and murder the Brewster matriarch alongside her young children. Initially, the desire to fight is purely motivated by revenge, but a seek-and-destroy mission endorsed by none other than general George Washington himself challenges Isaiah’s priorities in this most gripping of coming-of-age novels.

Former middle-school teacher turned first-time novelist Don Callaway structured this tale to appeal to all readers, but especially to those for whom reading can be a struggle. “The reluctant readers in my classes avoided books in all genres and would only read under duress,” Callaway said. But when they did read, Callaway noticed common themes. “Boys would read war and hunting stories–as long as the reading level wasn’t too demanding.” With that in mind, “I wrote my book for a fourth-grade reading level to make it accessible.” Callaway cleverly walks the fine line between age-appropriate content and readability–in other words, there’s plenty of fighting here to keep readers glued to every page.

Callaway cited Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain as inspiration for The Captain’s Boy, and hopes his effort will spur a renewed interest in YA novels focused on the American Revolution. Further, he said that “there’s a shortage on books for boys about this topic.  I wrote to fill what I saw as a gap [in the market]” while also reaching underserved readers.”

The problem of boys not reading is, sadly, all too widespread: A 2011 essay appearing in The New York Times explored why boys don’t seem to read as much as girls–even though there’s no shortage of books catering to them. And among the reasons offered, one stood out: yes, there’s books aplenty, but they’re not engaging. Too many, according to Y.A. author Robert Lypsite, read like space-age video game manuals with flip narrative plotlines. And boys aren’t always encouraged to indulge their literary impulses because they may veer towards difficult topics: Lypsite’s novel, Raider’s Night (2006) explored the drug-fueled underbelly of high school football, but says it was frequently banned by male high school principals. He recalls meeting with a group of “reluctant” readers who were provided copies on the sly by the school’s (female) librarian, and their discussion touched on the myriad feelings and emotions conjured up by this book. “This was hard-core boy talk, but it was also book talk — the fictional characters we were discussing allowed us the freedom to express feelings the way girls do,” Lypsite writes. Callaway’s The Captain’s Boy is sure to fire up similar emotions as well.

Digging Things

For paleontologists, the year 2020 was a big one: a nearly complete skeleton of Stan the T. rex sold at Christie’s for $31.8 million in October, and just last month the Brazilian Society of Paleontology announced a non-avian dinosaur specimen acquired in 1995 by a museum in southwestern Germany appears to be one of a kind and may have also been illegally exported. In short, there’s some exciting developments taking place in the world of fossil studies.

To further pique the interests of the next generation of paleontologists is a recently released book by Dan R. Lynch entitled, fittingly, Fossils for Kids: An Introduction to Paleontology (Adventure Publications, $12.95, 188 pages, ages 6-10). Pocket-sized for ease of transportation, this fully-illustrated volume is an ideal primer for budding scientists and leaves no stone left unturned: scientific terminology such as “extinction event,” “species” and “fossils” stand out in blue text, while Lynch makes a compelling case for studying fossils–that these remains can both tell us about what life was like on earth millions of years ago and how creatures evolved over time. Straight-forward, no-nonsense prose makes what could easily be an overwhelming or dusty topic into a manageable and enjoyable one. A glossary, list of fossil sites studding the American landscape, and suggestions for further reading round out this thoroughly engaging book.

Finally, a gentle word of warning for parents with perfectly manicured backyard greenery: After discussing the various types of fossils, Lynch encourages kids to get into the dirt, a siren call that will be hard to resist, especially since the second half of the book is devoted to discovering fossils in the real world. By dangling the temptation that fossils are everywhere, prepare for some intense outdoor excavation.