Much can be said about a novel that generates introspection and self-analysis, a novel that paints details so vividly that character and reader emotions interweave, a novel that forces the reader to turn the telescope and look within themselves.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope, this month’s California Book Club pick, does just that.
The novel can be described as three stories entwined into one. We kick off by learning of a doctor, Mina Simpson, whose difficult past is tightly sealed. Through her eyes, we see vignettes of Syrian refugee family life. Our third story centers on an unnamed Lebanese American author to whom this book is written. This unidentified character has a pivotal role in the book, but his presence is almost ghostlike, with Simpson always one step behind as she works to connect with him. His tribulations are highlighted throughout the book, and his complex emotions as he copes with seeing what the refugees are dealing with reflect the reader’s own.
Alameddine throws the reader into the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis in the first few chapters, as his raw storytelling describes the process of refugees traveling by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos. But Alameddine also turns the telescope to face readers whose sympathy might be performative. Through Mina’s narrative, we see volunteers attempting to take selfies with refugees, growing irritated owing to the language barrier, and inadvertently offending some refugees with callous comments.
Narrating multiple sides of the refugee crisis, Alameddine weaves together a new way of thinking about the refugee crisis. In a similar fashion, the books and movies presented below shed exquisite light on refugee crises and bring the audience closer to understanding and recognizing the struggles of refugees.
Jonas Poher Rasmussen captures onscreen not just a story about refugees, but the aftermath of such a life-changing decision as well. Through animated clips, the audience follows Amin, a refugee from Afghanistan who has spent decades assimilating in Denmark. As his wedding approaches, he begins to reflect on his past, the trauma he endured, and the years leading up to where he is now.
Directed by Ben Sharrock, this film centers on a group of asylum-seekers waiting on a remote Scottish island for their paperwork to be processed. Among them is a young man named Omar, who carries his grandfather’s oud with him and whose family is spread around Istanbul and back in Syria. The film cuts through the overhanging gloom with occasional comedic relief and delivers a poignant look inside the refugee experience.
The toll that fleeing from their native land can have on a family is highlighted in this film split between Syria, Germany, and other parts of Europe. As Syria crumbles around her, Raf’aa, a mother of two, leaves her country to seek asylum in Europe, expecting her husband, Nazem, and two sons to follow close behind. Before they are able to join her, however, the borders to Europe close and the family is separated. Recounting the struggles of Syrian families seeking refuge, director Alexander J. Farrell crafts a moving story of resilience amid turmoil.
Sea Prayer, by Khaled Hosseini (2018)
This moving illustrated book feels like a poem that spotlights the familial ties and parental fears of Syrian refugees as they decide to leave their homeland and confront the perils of fleeing. Written as letters from a father to his son, the book features a father figure who reflects on Syrian cities before the war and expresses regret that his young son will never know them the way he remembers them. Hosseini captures the mindset of many Syrian families in this touching book.
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid (2017)
Blurring the lines of magic and reality, British Pakistani author Hamid brings to life the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people in an unnamed city who come together under a cloud of uncertainty and warfare. As the war escalates, the young couple steps through a magical door leading to the Greek island Mykonos and, eventually, to London. Although the door offers a supernatural element, the concept of leaving family and a homeland behind while dealing with prejudice and hostility is all too real.•
Join us on Thursday at 5 p.m., when Alameddine will talk to CBC host John Freeman and two special guests, Susan Sarandon and Rebecca Makkai, about The Wrong End of the Telescope. Sarandon is an Academy Award–winning actor who’s well-known for her roles in numerous films dating to 1970. These include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Thelma & Louise, Dead Man Walking, Little Women, and Cloud Atlas. Makkai is the author of several books, including The Great Believers, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
If you’ve finished Alameddine’s novel, watch one of Sarandon’s movies or read one of Makkai’s books to get ready for the event. And visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the novel. Register here.
DRAWING FROM REAL LIFE
Oakland writer Karin Spirn considers the figure of the author in The Wrong End of the Telescope. —Alta
Novelist Anthony Marra returns with his fourth book, Mercury Pictures Presents. Critic Mark Athitakis says the novel “is largely a pleasure, its characterizations rich with detail.” —Alta
SINGULAR DEBUT NOVEL
Critic Heather Scott Partington reviews Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, “fiction that feels completely new while also pulling together dark impulses and base instincts that are familiar to every one of us.” —Alta
PIQUING READER EXCITEMENT
The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses spotlights Zyzzyva, a smart and stellar literary magazine founded in 1985. Read an interview with editor Laura Cogan and managing editor Oscar Villalon, who is also on our CBC selection committee. —CLMP
Los Angeles writer Nada Alic writes a lively essay about the puella archetype—“an Eve Babitz in a world of Joan Didions.” —Harper’s Bazaar
BRUTAL ATTACK ON A NOVELIST
Author Salman Rushdie, who is known for many groundbreaking works, once told the Los Angeles Times what he thought made a great L.A. novel. On Friday, he was stabbed around 10 times at a literary event at the Chautauqua Institution. He has since been taken off a ventilator and is in recovery. —New York Times
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