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Monday, April 25, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See, the Pleasure of Audiobooks

Only recently did I listen to my first book after years of reading. I was fortunate to get a good start. My first novel was The Girl on the Train, a superbly written psychological thriller, by author Paula Hawkins. What made the experience immensely pleasurable was the incredible audio rendition performed by three professional British actresses. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard anything as beautiful before, music included.

After sampling a couple more excellent works of fiction, however, I’ve learned the golden rule of audiobooks selection. The vocal rendition is as important as the written word. From then on, I specifically search for and acquire audiobooks that are as highly regarded for their voice narration as they are for their literary quality.

I'm currently listening to "All the Light We Cannot See", written by Anthony Doerr, and narrated by Zach Appelman. It’s a WWII historical fiction novel and certainly one of the very best I've heard/read in my entire life. The main backdrop of the story is a French city in Brittany called Saint-Malo. Mr. Doerr not only writes with high geohistorical fidelity but on more than one occasion he brought tears to my eyes, when for brief instances, I felt as if he was writing about my Tartous, the one of my childhood (geographically) and the monster it has turned into (historically: since Tartous is similar today to Saint-Malo under German occupation). I've never heard of Saint- Malo before but a few minutes ago I did something I don't usually do until after I finish reading a book. I googled it and saw with my own eyes how it looks like.

The double picture in this post is of the Tartous of my childhood (upper) and of Saint-Malo today (lower). I don’t call the striking similarity a coincidence for although Brittany lies on the English Channel and not on the Mediterranean the construction of the old city of Tartous was nevertheless influenced by European architecture.

Back to audiobooks, and specifically to All the Light We Cannot See. There comes along a great novel that makes an old, aspiring writer like me feel humble and an older, seasoned reader, again like me, feel as if it was written specifically for him. Anthony Doeer achieved the most daunting task in literature, creating a universal masterpiece with an intimately personal appeal. I won’t even go into a synopsis of the story. I leave that entirely to your curiosity but I’ll wrap this post up with some final words on the performance of Zach Appelman. Despite the Americanized mispronunciation of French proper names, his narration is absolutely breathtaking!!!

Find below two reviews of the book and a short youtube video of the author talking about his 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times). 


Friday, April 22, 2016

'neath the Albert Pike Library

We stand in front of an almost unseeable door, cleverly concealed behind moth-eaten tomes on the last row of bookshelves in the Humanities section. The professor leads the way down a flight of stairs to the mechanical room. Our boots clunk against the gangway as we scurry toward the steam boilers. Under the last one’s chimney, he opens a hatch in the floor. I squeeze through first sliding down a tubular chute. He dispatches the backpack then closes the hatch behind him and jumps. Save for one monolithic door, we find ourselves in the middle of a stark anteroom. Above us, the Pike Library is deep asleep at this hour of the night.

I unpack the gear and arrange it on the floor. The professor takes the can of WD-40 and douses the door’s rusty hinges. While I light the torches, he produces a brass key from the folds of his academic robe. He fearlessly looks me in the eye, yet with a hint of concern he asks.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

I nod, affirming the inevitable. “Let’s go then. From here on we have to remain silent.”

The flames flicker as a rank draft sneaks through the widening gap of the door redolent of sweat and defecation. I fight the impulse to puke, barely able to repress the bile rising up my throat. The professor looks pale and old, as if twenty years have passed since we left the world above.

We climb down an endlessly twisting stone stairway. Rats squeak beyond the reach of light. The echo of water dripping somewhere reverberates against the sandstone. At the landing, seven shafts radiate in a half-circle like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The professor points to the second one from the right and proceeds. The air becomes heavier as we sink further into the bowels of the campus. A faint humming grows louder deforming and transmuting into orgasmic moans of werehyenas and ghouls.

We emerge into a high-ceiling corridor, flanked on both sides by a dozen massive doors. The professor retrieves a ladder from the shadows and leans it on the crossbar above the door labeled XVII. I climb and peak through the transom window. A proscenium, illuminated by chandeliers, torches and sconces is filled with grotesquely naked figures kneeling on semicircular kneelers and chanting in unison. On the stage, directly below, an old wizard with a belly that hides his genitals and an older witch with drooping, wrinkled breasts utter incantations in an alien tongue.

He pulls at the cuff of my pants. “How many?”

“A hundred-fifty, maybe more.” I answer, coming down.

“Let’s kill as many of the bastards as we can. I’ll get the two fuckheads first.” He says, grinning.

The professor pound-hugs me and ruffles my hair then he unsheathes his sword and I heft my ax, shattering the darkness with shafts of fire. Alea iacta est, we cry as we blast in, blinded with fury, stabbing hearts and crushing skulls.

Monday, April 18, 2016

10th Anniversary

Although I’ve been posting short stories sporadically here on my blog, I haven’t “technically” blogged anything since January of 2015. There are several reasons (excuses is a more appropriate word) why I’ve been away, but it all boils down to one important thing, my own state of mind. The shifting trends in social media that eventually led to the current supremacy of Facebook didn’t help much either. Like almost everybody else, I took the easy way out, the fast-food approach to gulping down information and throwing in my own mediocre input into one massive river of nonsense.

During my first five years of blogging, I was able to fulfill, partially at least, some of my self-imposed moral responsibilities. I did that by carefully navigating around political taboos and never trespassing red lines least I end up incarcerated or worse. I openly criticized social traditions and religious canons, sitting comfortably in the shade of a (seemingly) secular umbrella provided by the powers that be. Notice that even to this day, I’d rather call the regime, TPTB, instead of, well, the regime. It’s an ingrained Syrian cautiousness that only recently, in the last five years that is, has been broken by a courageous few who remain captives in their own land and by the multitude of ex-patriots who fear no reprisal. When the shit finally hit the fan and the inevitable did happen, I just couldn’t write anymore while remaining true to my principles and inside the country. Shutting up was my easy way out.

I turned to fiction and to writing short stories instead. I have also started on two novels, but alas, we, the unfinished novels and I, stare at each other with a longing detachment, not knowing what to do next. Had I been using pen and paper, the hundreds of pages I’ve written so far would have collected dust while providing a decent meal for a colony of moth.

It’s the 10th anniversary of The World According to a Man from Tartous. I don’t expect a stream of comments on this occasion the way my olden posts once solicited. Actually, I feel almost exactly the same way I felt when I first discovered blogging. I was writing to myself and this is what I’m doing now.

I’m paying tribute to the last decade of my life. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people through this blog. I stayed in touch with a few and lost track of most. But it’s only fitting in a way, I started alone and here I am once again, alone at last.          

Friday, April 01, 2016


Overnight the gale quit. The breakers retreated from the battered beaches and joined the dying whitecaps offshore. At dawn the swollen sea was still brooding over its latest outbreak, taking deep, heavy breaths to calm down. It wasn’t the first time the sea got this angry, nor would it be the last.

Fish emerge from the depths to feed nearer to the surface after the storm. I, too, am jittery and need to take to the sea. I cast off Sayonara, my 18-foot boat, and ease her out of the cove. Once clear of the shallows, I open the throttle three notches short of full and head to the farthest fishing ground known to me or to any of the islanders. Tiller loosely held in the crook of my arm, I light up a roll of tobacco and savor the smoke and salt as they course through my airways in a hedonic twirl.

Halfway there, the archipelago disappears below the horizon. The boat has no instruments since I seldom take her this far out of sight of land. I glance at my watch then at the sun and adjust my heading. That’ll do! I always talk to myself when between the sky and the sea. We’ll be there in seventy minutes. This time I talk to Sayonara. I move forward to fetch the baskets. I’ll get the lines ready.

I dead-reckon our position and slow down into a two-minute counterclockwise turn releasing a half-dozen droplines laden with baited hooks. The floats bob with the swell in a perfect circle. As I reach for the second batch of lines the engine sputters making the hairs at the back of my neck stand on end. Before I could reach it, it falters and dies of starvation.

The reserve jerrycan under the bow is full, though. I fill the engine tank and bleed the air from the pipes. These things happen, eh! I attach the hand-crank and have a go at restarting the engine. My hand, slippery with squid and diesel, loses its grip. The hand-crank, jerked loose, barely misses hitting me in the head as it plunges into the sea. My fifty years of seafaring have finally caught up with me.


I set a piece of fuel-soaked cloth at the end of a plank on fire and wave it high overhead. This way, I have a better chance to be spotted at night by a passing freighter or a trawler. After a few nights, however, when no one comes to my rescue, I stop. I’d choose spending my life lost at sea over being grounded without giving it a second thought. All I left behind was an empty shack. I don’t even have a dog. I could survive out here for months, for years, or until the next big storm hits. I lay my back on the foredeck and open my eyes to the stars. The boat squeaks and creaks. We’ll be fine, I run my fingers over her weathered wood, Sayonara.

Friday, February 19, 2016


The bus plows through the blizzard until a shapeless whiteout swallows the world. I brace myself against the seat in front of me and grab the arm of the woman sitting by my side. I sense her resentment but there’s no time to explain. The driver, blind as a bat, taps the brakes. The bus skids for a couple of hundred feet before it hits the railing on the side of the road. It isn’t a violent crash by any means yet it’s strong enough to knock one of the passengers, a young girl, off her seat. She removes her headphones with shaky hands, her purple hair’s all messed up.

The engine whines before the driver reaches for the ignition switch and kills it. The smell of fear pours like a thickly slime along the aisle. Groans of panic rise before the manic storm mercilessly silences them all.

“Is anybody hurt? You’re Okay ma’am? How about you, sir? Good!” The bus driver yells at the top of her voice, going around, visually checking the fifteen passengers, one by one. A man, wearing a toque on his bald head, helps the driver get the girl to her feet. His goatee is made up of long, scarce hairs, like the beard of a real goat. The woman by my side forgets or forgives me. She searches her purse frantically for her cellphone. We’re out of coverage, but she doesn’t know it yet.

“Calm down everybody, please. They will send another bus for us soon. Just stay in your seats while I call for help.” The driver doesn’t know that the cellular tower closest to us was just knocked out of service. No one’s coming till morning. We’re stranded in the eye of a snow storm twenty kilometers south of Ottawa for the next fourteen hours. I, of course, know. I know everything.

The bus driver, Ellen Thompson, is on brink of divorce. She would make out with her husband tomorrow. Over the next few months they would try to glue the broken pieces of their marriage back together, but he’s dying. Cancer would spread undetected until it would be too late. He has less than a year to live.

After refreshing her makeup, the purple girl puts her headphones back on and stares out of the window. She would bounce back and forth between meth addiction and recovery, until her neighbors, alarmed by the foul smell coming out of her apartment, would call the police. They would find her dead. Strangled.

The man with the goatee too. Tragedy would strike him one day. He would lose a yet unborn son. I grab my head with both hands and cry.

“Are you Okay?” Brenda asks. She would become my girlfriend but only for a short while. She would do her best to cope with my mood swings, to break through the wall I have built around myself. But eventually, I would wear her down. How could I ever tell her. I know everything.