When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I used to review books for the English language newspapers. (I did that under various names, for the papers were competitive.) The first books reviewed were purchased from the local bookstores. Usually a publication will under no circumstances use a review of a book that has been out in the world for a year, but in the 1980s, the local English-writing competition was so sparse in Saudi Arabia, copy editors were delighted to receive coherently written reviews. Sooner or later, everything I ever submitted was printed.
Some of my favorite books were discovered through that hunt for books to review. The Story of my Wife by Milan Fust was a bookstore purchase–and I still consider it a classic, about a jealous sea captain who imagines all kinds of things about his wife. Later, when I sent clips (by mail) to book publishers, I obtained a fair number of books for my sons, like Never Shave a Camel by Dr. Peter Rowan, Tailypo! by Jan Wahl and Weird Wolf by Margery Cuyler. The first one seemed region-specific, a good choice for an expatriate audience living in Saudi Arabia. Such titles, found in catalogs, were always put at the top of my request list. Tailypo! turned out to be too scary to be read more than once. After the first read, my children begged me to close the book. Hmmm.
Hugely talented authors came to my attention. I loved Ella Leffland’s writing in The Knight, Death and the Devil, a fictionalized account (that attempts to stick close to the truth) of Hermann Goring, Hitler’s right hand man. You may think whatever you like of me when I tell you that I wept through the sad ending of Goring’s love story with his wife. Leffland wrote so movingly I had to purchase another copy of the book for my father, a World War II buff. He read every page.
Paul Auster’s Moon Palace gripped me completely. I thought it one of the finest books have ever read. In fact, I would like to read it again (Some of my books, alas, did not make it back with me to the USA–insignificant readers can only ship so much.) I have the review in one of my notebooks and am not surprised to see that it came to me via London (Faber and Faber)–Auster has long been appreciated in Europe far more than he ever has in the USA, American though he may be. (I wonder why he did not follow Henry James’ path and become a British national.)
Naturally it takes a while to review books; it is not as easy as, say interviewing someone. Since I wrote every type of article a housewife can for the local press (including travel), I will admit that book reviews are among the hardest. But the richness! The tapestry and enchantment! How many hours have I wrestled with Virago Press’s list of upcoming titles, knowing I could not confuse the representative by requesting too many. I had to keep the number down to as many as I could read, for I might receive all of them. The reps were asked to send airmail, which they would have done anyway–anything by boat was subject to inspection by Saudi censors. I cannot explain why boat was more suspect than airplanes. I guess there are more vermin on boats. (At the ports, perhaps a subject for another day, my valuable antique books were destroyed.)
British publishers were not only closer, but I discovered my tastes are more European/British than they are American. That is probably a damning comment.
Yet I adore Stephen King!
Let the above comment rest as a glowing stamp of my American identity–I am the roving American whose tastes often jump to the other side of the pond.
At times I have felt inclined to look up those writers whose books I reviewed while in Jeddah. Auster is in New York and not too concerned with writing a new book; Bernice Rubens, beautiful writer that she was, has passed on; Geraldine Brooks was kind enough to respond to fan mail in a letter I will cherish forever. Ella Leffland, born in 1931, lives near me, in San Francisco. (Oh my goodness, would she let me visit her??) Michael Foreman, author of The Game of all Wars, turns out to be British (I should have known), and of course Upamanyu Chatterjee is Indian although I do not know where he resides. It appears the book I reviewed, English,August: An Indian Story (and a really good one!) is his most
How lucky I was to have reviewed it!