August 16, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C
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Fiction

Dear Thief

Samantha Harvey's novel-length letter to a long-lost friend is as brilliant as it is sad.

Tyler's Last

"Tyler's Last" evokes the ghost of Patricia Highsmith in a thriller of global complications.

One Out of Two

Put mischievously spinster twins in a small Mexican city and out come sly laughs.

Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue

André Alexis's stunning "Fifteen Dogs" confers canines with human sensibility, and the greater gift of empathy.

This Census-Taker

China Miéville turns too arcane in his latest foray into the Stonehenge-styled surreal.

Zero K

Don DeLillo's latest future-sprawl, cryonic freezing included, doesn't quite know what it most wants to say.

Swallowed by the Cold

Jensen Beach's 15 stories are set in Sweden and convey equal doses of wisdom and melancholy.

Gutshot

Amelia Gray is adept enough with grotesqueness to make it feel second nature, and that's a gift.

Missing Person

Modiano's slender 1978 psychological thriller remains a superb and disturbing Parisian novel.

How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball's study of teen alienation, while persuasive, heads for and reaches a dead end.




BOOK REVIEW
The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories
By Osama Alomar, translated from the Arabic by C. J. Collins
New Directions, 2017. 112 pages

The world of Syrian writer Osama Alomar is one of meticulously condensed fables and parables made to fit the inside of a brooch. Yet these tiny tales grapple, often breathtakingly, with transcendent themes. Concealed in this plethora of one and two-page stories are cautionary tales about love, power, and politics. Objects — pyramids, garbage bags, even ears of wheat — assume the anxious form of humans. Melancholy humans in turn inhabit a largely fetid world where freedom is an illusion. His is an imagined (but all too real) Arabia in which a government "issue[s] a decree guaranteeing citizens the right to freedom of facial expression."

Damascus-born Alomar moved from Syria to Chicago in 2008, well before the outbreak of his country's civil war, working as a cabbie for five years. But he cannot and will not banish his exposure to an authoritarian past and the feelings it generates. He skins this past alive for clues to its nature, eviscerating motives and foibles, poking at tyrants and peasants, heralds and sycophants. He mulls and mocks "the splendor of a history that is eager to destroy the future." Not even revolt is immune to its own genetic betrayal. ("…Little by little the revolution against tyranny and oppression became something else … The tyrant who had been sleeping in the depths of the ordinary citizen began to wake up, baring his fangs. The country entered through the widest gate the hell of sectarian and civil war.") Simple answers are elusive. Fathers are unfamiliar with optimism. "This species, son, takes one step forward and many steps back. It is not an example for us to follow in."

Alomar's so-called very short stories produce a spellbinding mood in which chaos constantly ambushes order, leaving it for dead. The wronged receive little redress. The story "From the Depths of the Future" is neat and bitter: "The Second World War said proudly to her colleague, the First, 'Inside me are millions of victims!' The First World War answered her irritably, 'I didn't fall short in my duties either.' But just then a huge sound invaded them from the future, stating, 'I will devour everyone!'"

Alomar is a Syrian General Sherman of a sort, doing what needs to be done on his fictional battlefield, the resulting march of words deliciously scorched.

Reviewed by Book Staff
Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

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