Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The last of 2013. A book I "had" to read (for work). A book I wanted to read. A book that disappointed. A book that subsequent events made all the more poignant and overshadowed (for me at least) the author's original story.

Anthony Shadid's House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East relates the year the author and reporter took a leave of absence to rebuild and restore the house his great-grandfather built in a small Lebanese town near the Israeli border, Marjayoun. In the shadow of Mount Hermon, it was once a thriving town, but emigration and the territorial battles both within and without Lebanon have left it -- and Shadid's ancestor Isber Samara's home -- shattered. He intersperses the story of the restoration, complete with a wacky cast of contractors and other Marjayoun residents, with the touching story of his grandmother's exodus to and subsequent life in the United States. His inspiration is bayt, an Arabic word for house whose deeper meaning connotes home and/or family. Rebuilding the house affords him the chance to find what home means.

Sadly, Shadid died just before the book was published, making that concept of bayt more intensely felt by readers who know how things turned out. You can't experience this book without the knowledge that the author is not around to enjoy his achievement and that knowledge colored the listening for me.

I enjoyed the family history, and -- in fact -- want to know more about the Shadids and the Samaras. Shadid ends their story with death of his grandmother (the last to live in the house). But the house restoration is tedious and has been told before: the contractors who make the owner appear foolish for one reason or another, the culture clash between owner and colorful residents, the realization that it all means something more than a house, even the thing that's uncovered that looks like it's going to derail the whole venture (which I don't recall Shadid ever telling me how they solved it). The unfamiliar Arabic names blended together so I quickly forgot who was the tiler, the roofer, the general worker, etc.  Of the two "non-worker" men Shadid portrays, I lost (or never heard) the origins of their friendships.

Lost (or never heard). That's really the truth here. I had difficulty paying attention to this book, I think because it starts with the names and places I need to remember but somehow they never stuck. Shadid moves his narrative into the past and back again with little preparation so occasionally it took a few crucial minutes to get oriented. I lost my place at one point and skipped a whole disc without realizing it until afterwards (I went back ... and it actually made more sense knowing what was coming).

The book is narrated by Neil Shah. He has a light voice and a precise style where he reads the narrative in a mostly neutral, nonfiction-ish fashion. He has no fear of the Arabic names which sound natural as he reads. There is a fair amount of dialogue in the book, and Shah reads this with a bit of characterization which help to keep things interesting. He gives a slight accent to a few of the men, but I couldn't determine why some had this and some didn't. I also heard a few mispronunciations and one word I think is just wrong: emiscerate? (According to the internet, this word is used in a [somewhat disturbing ... and so you'll have to look it up yourself] song called Necrophile Decapitator, and the OED hasn't heard of it ... am I simply mishearing eviscerate?)

Would I have gotten more from this book from eye-reading? I generally don't do so well with nonfiction anyway, but I did take a look at a copy while listening to see if there were photographs and discovered a truncated family tree in the front matter, which might have helped with some of the names:  Shadid's grandmother's siblings were Nabeeh and Nabiha; his grandfather's Najiba and Nabeeha. Ultimately, though, it's the pervading sense of what-will-never-be that's memorable here. And that has nothing to do with the book or its audio version.

[NPR reproduced this photograph of Shadid and his son in front of the house of stone, crediting Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid
Narrated by Neil Shah
Blackstone Audio, 2012. 12:22

1 comment:

carol said...

I've never tried listening to non-fiction, but this one doesn't sound like it would work for me in print either.