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.

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.

Some Few Books to Be Chewed and Digested

Below we offer a rundown of three titles to share with loved ones, and, given the givens of 2020, not a one deals with sleigh bells or other traditional trappings of the season. Yet each is a reminder that hope remains a powerful antidote to overwhelming despair. Hang in there folks, and stay safe.

For young adult fans of historical fiction: The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party, by Allan Wolf, Candlewick Press, 416 pages, $21.99.

From the author whose previous books explore, among other things, the sinking of the Titanic and a teenage murderer, you may be wondering how on earth this title makes an appropriate holiday gift. Trust me when I tell you that this chillingly poetic account of the ill-fated 19th-century Donner Party expedition is perhaps one of the most intriguing and expertly crafted stories to appear between hard covers this year. With the voice of Hunger serving as a sort of Greek chorus interspersed among multiple narrators, there’s more to this tale than mere hunger pangs–it is a bone-chilling examination of love, ambition, and blind faith in manifest destiny, all based on Wolf’s near-obsessive research on the subject, as evidenced through the accompanying historical notes, biographies, and further resources. No detail is spared, while middle-grade readers will finish the book pleasantly surprised that they devoured a novel written almost entirely in verse.

For adult offspring: Offerings: A Novel, by Michael ByungJu Kim, Arcade Books, 288 pages, $24.99.

Michael Kim’s debut novel draws heavily from his thirty years of experience in the world of international finance wherein a brilliantly woven narrative explores the simultaneous pull of family loyalty versus duty to one’s profession. Here, during the throes of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Korean-American immigrant and now genius investment banker Dae Joon–known as Shane to his American compatriots–is summoned to his birthplace in a bid to save the country from financial ruin. As the family jangnam, or first-born son, Dae Joon was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the ranks of academia, but the siren song of Wall Street proved irresistible. While Dae Joon toils relentlessly to save the Korean economy from collapse–and, as it turns out, unravel a sordid tale of financial corruption–a mysterious illness threatens the life of his father. Throw in a mysterious romantic interest, and there’s plenty competing for Dae Joon’s time and attention, each creating a cohesive story that’s all but impossible to put down. Offerings has–dare I say it?–a cinematic quality to it, no easy feat for a writer. Here’s hoping there’s a second offering in the works.

Courtesy of the Folio Society

For lovers of the great outdoors: The Complete Flower Fairies, by Cicely Mary Barker, forward by Roy Vickery, Folio Society, $149.95. Orders for Christmas delivery must be made by December 10 and 17 for standard and express delivery, respectively.

Struck with epilepsy as a child, South London native Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973) was homeschooled and honed her artistic talents via correspondence courses. By 1911, her watercolors and drawings were gracing postcards, and in 1923 the first book in a series illustrating seasonal flora appeared as Flower Fairies of the Spring. The internationally bestselling Flower Fairies eventually encompassed eight charming volumes that, nearly a century after their first appearance, are now being offered as a limited-edition set by Folio Society. Botanist and Honorary Secretary of the Folklore Society Roy Vickery provides a nuanced explanation of why this collection extolling the virtues of the great outdoors remains a perennial favorite, even among cooped-up urbanites worldwide.

Covid PSA from the Princess in Black

Having a hard time explaining the new normal to your youngsters? Striking the right balance between informative without causing panic is essential, and Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, and LeUyen Pham–the children’s book trio behind the bestselling The Princess in Black series–recently completed a child-friendly coronoavirus public service announcement to help make that task a little easier.

Created in accordance with Center for Disease Control guidelines as of April 8, 2020 and published by Candlewick Press, the free eight-page booklet is a “call to heroes” to join the intrepid problem solver, the Princess in Black, and do their part to slow the spread.princess2

All three creators have children at home and face many of the same quarantine-related issues as other parents:  “LeUyen, Dean, and I are all parents self-isolating at home with our children,” said Shannon Hale. “The anxiety and distancing is hard enough on our older kids, but we know that younger kids might be having an even harder time. We hoped that it’d help if a familiar book friend like the Princess in Black talked them through it. Even the Princess in Black is staying home! Even Princess Sneezewort had to cancel playdates! LeUyen had the idea of creating a short comic to download and share widely so caregivers could have an extra tool for talking to kids. Our goal is both to help kids understand what’s going on and to help them feel less alone.”

The Princess in Black and the Case of the Coronavirus is available for download here https://www.princessinblack.com/ and is attached here: pib-coronavirus