Monday, February 7, 2011

The First 2011 "Bad Fit Redeemed by Conversation with My Brilliant Friends" Award

goes to...The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. 

To be fair:  If you don't know much about the formation of Israel and the resulting/continuing Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, this book will likely be thoroughly interesting to (and worthwhile for) you, because all the history of this important issue will be new, as will the narrative. 

ButI already know a fair bit about the complex history of the Palestine/Israel conflict, so when I encountered page upon page upon page upon page of detailed historical background info. shoehorned into what's marketed as a narrative of two families, a tree, and a house, I waxed increasingly frustrated.  Yes, the through-line here is the meeting and subsequent 'friendship' of Palestinian-born rebel Bashir Khairi and bookish young Dalia Eshkenazi, whose Bulgarian Jewish family took over his family's house in Ramla/Ramle after the expulsion of Palestinian families during the founding of Israel in the late '40's, but their story takes up less than one third of this book. 

Don't get me wrong: a certain amount of exposition/back-story is imperative for such a complex and controversial topic.  And I don't have any particular issue with Tolan's writing (generally solid journalistic style plus plenty of footnotes for some credibility, although it's an outrageously complicated subject).  Instead, as a reader I felt duped by the way this book was marketed as one thing and then turned out to be another. 

But when in conversation last night at book group: An exceptionally rich and (com)passionate discussion emerged about the issues related to the situation Tolan relates and also the potential impacts of current events on the region.  As usual, these brilliant people helped redeem a book that just wasn't a good fit for me.

So, book bloggers, I can't stress strongly enough: If you haven't found your perfect book group yet - either in person or on the interwebs - keep searching and adjusting, with grace and delicacy, but also with persistence.  When you find yourself in the right one, your life will be enriched immeasurably and you will look forward to these evenings of intense and funny and earnest conversation as sparks in the dark that illuminate both the book before you and your days to come.  Want ideas on how to make a good group great?  Ask me: I know.

Action Jump Starts:
* Online Inquiry & Action:  Listen to the episode of NPR's Fresh Air that sparked this book (on Tolan's Homelands website - just scroll down to find it).  Or try the follow-up interview on the NPR site (post book publication).  Or try the online documentary Promises about a group of Palestinian and Israeli kids who try to establish and maintain friendships "over the wall".  I am not sure how the website above got the video streaming for free, so you might want to buy a copy of the film instead:  Use the Promises site to take action toward promoting peace in the region.
* Creative Spark: This might provide a pleasant balance to the intense subject matter:  Consider the cuisine of this area and cook something delicious like baba ganouche or tabouli or Israeli couscous to nosh on while you're reading.  Lemons required. 
* Connection:  Consider current events in Egypt, Jordan, Syria... How will this affect the Israel/Palestine situation?  What, if anything, should the US or individual US citizens do in response to tensions in this area? Talk with a knowledgeable friend about it, or investigate together with a family member.  I think that NYTimes writer Thomas Friedman's often a good place to start, since he wrote From Beirut to Jerusalem years ago and still follows issues there quite closely.

My Actions:1. I listened to the NPR Fresh Air episode that initiated this book (scroll up: it's the first item in the list - just click for streaming audio).  45 minutes later, I can firmly state that the broadcast was MUCH more interesting than the book for me.  It actually follows through on the promise/premise: a single, intensely personal narrative with international ramifications. 
2.  And then I listened to a follow-up interview by Terry Gross with Tolan.  Also interesting.

3.  I was privileged to discuss this book with my esteemed friends. 

Get the book. (Again, I'm not an affiliate of either site, just offering easy access to what for most will be quite a worthwhile read.)


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