Friday, July 21, 2017

Book #65 (Part 3) - Sugar Street (Naguib Mahfouz)

Motherfuckers!!  They get me every time!!  So I go to the liquor store, which in my case is Beverages and More (who have now taken to calling themselves BevMo!, apparently because Americans can no longer handle stores with more than one word in their names.  And the exclamation mark?  Is that really necessary?  It reminds me of the time back in the 1980s when the town of "Hamilton", Ohio changed their name to "Hamilton!".  With an exclamation mark.  Seriously, they did that.  Over the years they seem to have dropped it, probably because these days the exclamation mark would more appropriately be a used needle.  But I digress.  I mean, I really digressed!) looking to re-up my gin supply.  My favorites, as anyone who's actually read a couple of my blog posts would know (i.e. no one), include Hendrick's, Plymouth, Tanqueray Ten, and a new favorite Sipsmith London Dry Gin. I'm digressing again, but seriously, that Sipsmith gin is really good shit and makes an awesome martini.  It's from a newish (founded 2009) London microdistillery and these guys have it hats off to them, even though I rarely wear a hat.  Anyway, so I'm at Beverages and More (I refuse to fucking use the name "BevMo!", at least in this post) looking at the gins when a new, shiny bottle catches my eye: Uncle Val's Handcrafted Peppered Gin.  Hmmm, my interest is piqued!  I read the bottle, and this gin is infused with red peppers, black peppers, and pimento.  My interest is further piqued!  It's made by a microdistillery in Bend, Oregon.  I've been to Bend, and it's a lovely town...very outdoorsy, in the middle of Oregon.  So I'm like "Fuck it, Uncle Val sounds like a righteous dude, let's give him a chance".  I pass over Plymouth, Sipsmith, and all my other faves and I take a bottle of Uncle Val's home.  Mmmm.  I make myself a Gibson (more on that in a minute), sit down to start typing out this blog entry, take a sip, and...WTF!?!  This stuff tastes like kerosene infused with gasoline, with maybe a splash of WD-40.  Ugh, not good.  So now I'm stuck with a Gibson made from this rather disgusting gin, while a half empty bottle of Plymouth that I bought previously stares at me from the shelf, as if taunting me about how delicious my drink could have been, if only I didn't stray from the fold.  That'll teach me.  But there are starving children in some country somewhere would would love to drink my Gibson, so I will do my humanistic duty and choke it down, while ranting on and on about booze when I should be ranting about the world's great literature.  Ah well.

Anyway, on to the world's great literature.  No, wait, I promised to discuss the Gibson, my new go-to drink!  I first heard of the Gibson when Cary Grant orders one in Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (a movie, BTW, which if you've never seen you need to go out and rent it ASAP.  One of my favorite movies of all time, and the one I consider Hitchcock's best).  A Gibson is a gin martini that contains a pickled onion or two instead of olives.  Seems like an innocuous change, but the onion really adds a flavor to the gin that, while subtle, is very different from the traditional martini with olives.  According to (and how can you not love a website who's URL is "the Gibson is believed to have been created by San Francisco businessman Walter D.K. Gibson in the late 1800s, who thought that eating onions prevented colds".  Good for you, Walter, your contribution to humanity lives on over a hundred years later!  But seriously, I love this drink, or at least I do when it's made with a decent gin, and not this petroleum by-product I'm drinking now.

Alright, on to the literature!  A few weeks ago I finished Naguib Mahfouz's "Sugar Street", the third and final volume in the Cairo Trilogy.  I'm going to sum up this review right away by saying this: read these fucking books!  They are so great.  As I said in my previous two reviews, the first book of the trilogy was outstanding, while the second one dropped off a little, but this book, the third and final volume in the trilogy, was so outstanding, and so moving.  In this book, the parents in the original novel both meet their ends, of old age and decay (sigh...where I'm headed next...).  The patriarch, Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd, once a stern, strong, commanding, and fearful presence, is now a withered shell, who has lived long enough to see all of his friends die off (side note: they never tell you that about getting old.  People say "Oh look, she lived to 105...that's so awesome, good for her!" when what they don't realize is that a 105 year old has probably seen all of her contemporaries, possibly including her children, put into the ground.  That has to be incredibly dispiriting).  He finally dies one night from stress brought on by a bombing raid (the novel takes place up to and during World War II).  Time is everyone's enemy in this book, as in life.

Meanwhile Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's son Kamal, who suffered through unrequited love in the last novel, is still a teacher, still writing obscure intellectual tracts, and still a bachelor.  By chance he meets up with Budur Shaddad, the younger sister of the woman he was so very in love with so many years ago, and they have a brief flirtation, rekindling many of the old feelings in Kamal's heart.  But in the end he can't pull the trigger, and he lets her get away.  It's sad and frustrating, because you want those two to get together, and you want to kick Kamal in the ass for being such a dick, but it's just who he is.  It seems pretty clear Kamal will be a bachelor for the rest of his days.  We are who we are.
Then there are Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd's three grandsons, each of whom takes a remarkably different path in life.  The most successful of the three is Yasin's son Ridwan, a really hot-looking kid who turns out to be totally gay.  He starts sleeping with a powerful politician, which allows him to rapidly rise through the ranks of the civil service.  Meanwhile Khadija's two sons, Abd al-Muni'm and Ahmad, take completely opposite courses from each other.  One becomes a Muslim fundamentalist, more and more militantly devout.  The other goes into political journalism, and becomes a committed activist and Marxist.  Ironically, despite these divergent paths, they both get arrested for being politically subversive and end up sharing the same jail cell.  Two divergent roads leading to one convergent end.

Years ago I read "Buddenbrooks" by Thomas Mann, a classic novel of a middle class German family through the generations.  The Cairo Trilogy reminded me of that sprawling novel, tracing the story of the changing fortunes of a family through the generations.  These two works share that sense of time and change and yet the continuity of the bloodline.  But for me, a white dude from middle America, the story of a German family, despite the cultural differences, seems much more akin to the milieu I'm used to than the back alleys of early 20th century Cairo.  But the genius of Mahfouz is that he makes his characters so familiar and so human that they transcend the foreignness of the culture and become instantly relate-able.  Whether we speak English or Arabic or German, we all have the same emotions, and we all grow old and have the same frustrations.  I highly recommend these books, they're some of the best I've read for this blog.  And have a Gibson while you're at it.  Trust me.  Just use a good gin.

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