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April 2005

Up Close and Personal

A diary and a memoir

Granta is a British publishing company best known for its magazine of new writing, including fiction, personal history, reportage and inquiring journalism, which is published quarterly. Founded in 1889 by students at Cambridge University as The Granta, the magazine has had a long and distinguished history. Contributors have included Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, AA. Milne, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Bill Bryson, to name a few. Granta has taken the winning approach that made the magazine so successful and applied it to the books they publish. Here are two of their current bestsellers.

By Suad Amiry
Granta, 2005

Suad Amiry is an architect who kept a diary during the Israeli invasion of Ramallah in 2002. After e-mailing extracts to friends around the world, she was offered a publishing deal. She expanded on her original diary to produce Sharon and my Mother-in-Law. The book has now been sold to publishers in 11 countries and won Italy’s prestigious Viareggio-Versilia Prize last year.

Amiry’s is a refreshingly different take on the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. The book documents her experience of living in the West Bank from the early 1980s to the present. She writes about all aspects of her life in Ramallah—from neighborhood gossip to her relationship problems to the struggle to live a normal life. The title of the book refers to the period when her feisty 92-year-old mother-in-law was forced to come and stay. The mother-in-law’s constant requests for meals to be eaten at certain times, on certain sized plates annoy Amiry beyond belief, but make for amusing reading. However, it is clear to the reader that behind her annoyance lies deep affection for the elderly woman.

The most enjoyable aspect of the book is Amiry’s warm and constant humor. She is able to laugh her way through ridiculous and humiliating situations, like when her pet dog managed to acquire a Jerusalem passport even though thousands of Palestinians didn’t. Ordinarily, books about Palestine tend to be boringly political or overly-lyrical. Sharon and my Mother-in-Law, however, is an honest account, and utterly original. And it is interesting to learn that Amiry is the opposite of what most people in the West perceive a “typical” Palestinian woman to be. She smokes, drinks, does not cover her hair and does not have children. This spirited and human diary has brought the issue to an entirely new readership.

By Tim Guest
Granta, 2005

There is nothing new about a book concerned with the author’s angst-filled and complex childhood, but My Life in Orange, a memoir by Tim Guest, really is a bit different. He grew up with 200 mothers and 200 fathers who dressed entirely in shades of orange. After unsettled early years, Guest was taken by his biological mother to a commune in Suffolk at the age of six. She was a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the famous Indian guru. Tim became Yogesh and his mother Anne became Vismaya (although he requested that he still be allowed to call her “mum”). The rest of Guest’s childhood was spent traveling between Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s various communes in Britain, the United States, India and Germany.

While his mother was busy meditating, Guest lived a life of unsupervised freedom. It is heartbreaking to read about his constant struggle for her attention, which proved largely unsuccessful. In fact, on many occasions his mother would go to other communes for weeks on end, leaving him alone. “While they danced, rolled their heads, swayed their arms, flailed their malas, beat cushions, broke down their social conditioning and set themselves free, we filled our lives as best we could with the things we found around us.” It is easy to forget that these are the thoughts and feelings of a little boy. When Guest chose to leave the commune, he was still only ten years old. His intelligence, independence and world-weariness make him come across as so much older.

The story of the Orange People is fascinating and intriguing. It is insightful to get an insider’s account of the communes, particularly through the innocent eyes of a child. Guest tells of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s preaching—a doctrine of Eastern mysticism, chaotic therapy and sexual freedom—which lured so many devoted followers. The book traces the hopeful beginnings of the hippie nirvana and, after corruption and scandal, its subsequent disintegration.

Guest’s writing is at times unfocused, which can be frustrating (not to mention surprising, as he writes for the Guardian and The Daily Telegraph). He spends too much time on certain irrelevant details and skips over others that could well have been expanded on. The much-analyzed black and white photos throughout the book, from family snapshots to portraits of the charismatic guru, serve to add an element of reality to the unbelievable tale. The most remarkable achievement in My Life in Orange is the fact that Guest succeeds in conveying the spiritual and political aspirations that motivated his mother in her selfish quest. <<<

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