Posted by: istop4books | August 17, 2011

Chicago, Al Aswany

This book started out with a bang. I told my husband I thought he would like it, I thought maybe I’d lend it to my son it was that good. But as I read further, I thought maybe it was my scatterbrain’s fault that I didn’t know who all the characters were from chapter to chapter. Maybe I should have started an index card cheat sheet to keep them all in order. The transitions were clumsy and trying to remember the plot of one chapter 4 chapters later was tricky.

Some of the characterizations of the Egyptians in this novel seem to be good. The political views were indeed interesting. Not being well versed in Egyptian politics I have no claim to question the views presented. Some of the observations of the Egyptian émigrés of America and the difficulties of understanding such a different culture, of being without family and a bit bewildered were insightful. But by page 100, the book started falling apart with one clichéd character after another. A black woman fired for her race (in post 9/11 in Chicago???) who then couldn’t find work anywhere (during the economic boom?) Health insurance (for a professor in a university) which is so expensive it leaves no additional money for extras. It just seemed like the author used topics which do occur such as racism and astronomical health care costs – and applied them at the wrong time to the wrong character in the book. He had a couple of mixed race who couldn’t walk down a Chicago street without observing hateful looks, blatant racism against Egyptians in a post-doctoral or PhD setting in Chicago? In Aswany’s world women are weak in matters of the heart no matter how strong and intelligent they are in other areas. I lived in Chicago from 1989 to 2004 – it just wasn’t so.
By page 250 I was barely into the book. It seemed more like short stories very loosely tied together by a thread of Egypt, Chicago and histology – but never really meeting in a central place.
In the end, it was just unsatisfying. I really enjoyed The Yacubian Building a few years ago – this one I wouldn’t even recommend to anyone. Even if you can get over the blatant mistakes about American Culture and history (at the start of the book he mentions that Chicago got its nickname from the heavy winds off of Lake Michigan – total mistake), the translation creates flat, stunted language and dialog that begins to annoy early on.



  1. Isn’t that aggravating? It sounds like it had an interesting premise but went to pieces in the details.

  2. It was aggravating Carrie – specially when you’ve had a string of ho-hum books and you turn to one you’re not only sure to enjoy, but that starts out with such a bang and then it fizzles… I’m surprised though that this book received as much hype as it did when it came out, based, I’m sure on the interest of his previous book, The Yacubian Building, which was actually excellent.

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