In the face of extraordinary challenges, five tenacious men and women cope.

By Juliet Wittman
Sunday, September 28, 2008

ORIGINS By Amin Maalouf, Translated from the French By Catherine Temerson | Farrar Straus Giroux. 404 pp. $26

Amin Maalouf is a novelist and journalist who left his native Lebanon over 30 years ago to live in Paris. In this memoir, he focuses on the life of his grandfather Boutros who also contemplated leaving his homeland, over and over again, but never did; Boutrous was urged to leave by his brother, Gebrayel, who had emigrated to Cuba. Maalouf gives us not only the arc of these two men's lives, but an account of how he found his history by mining his relatives' memories, along with letters and documents (the family has always had a strong relationship with the written word; Maalouf possesses an ancient book detailing his genealogy and a trunk of papers saved by his mother). This memoir illuminates the way we make narrative out of pieces of fact and rumor and also serves as a revealing glimpse into the complexities of a part of the world to which nationhood came late and where borders remain unusually porous and slippery.

Boutros was a poet, an educator who believed that girls should be in the classroom along with boys, an eccentric iconoclast who dressed as he pleased, going about his village bareheaded and with a black cape swirling around his shoulders. He believed -- sometimes despairingly -- in the perfectibility of his homeland, hoping, according to his grandson, "to build our own United States at home in the Levant, a federation of the different Ottoman provinces, where the diverse communities would coexist, where everyone would read the newspapers, and where corruption and arbitrary rule would no longer prevail."

The pace of the book is magisterial, and the assumption that a reader is as interested in every detail of the search can be tiresome. But it is a journey well worth taking, an elegant meditation on mortality and our relationship to the past.

THE THREE OF US A Family Story By Julia Blackburn | Pantheon. 313 pp. $26

Englishwoman Julia Blackburn's parents were the painter Rosalie de Meric and the poet Thomas Blackburn, both ferociously self-involved. Blackburn was an alcoholic addicted to barbiturates who frequently hit his wife. De Meric, hedonistic, sex-obsessed, began a sexual competition with her child when the latter reached puberty. By the time Julia reached the end of her teens, she was seriously depressed.

But this isn't one of those "I suffered as a child but have since found growth and redemption" works currently overwhelming bookstore shelves. A successful novelist, Blackburn produced her memoir as a mature artist (she was born in 1948) rather than in her 20s or 30s. She makes clear that she loves her damaged parents, who obviously bequeathed to her a vivid, exploratory approach to the world, and she lets us understand them through telling detail. Some of the most touching passages describe the animals with which, as a child, she felt a sense of wordless communication: a rescued pigeon, a bush baby bought at Harrod's.

The narrative is punctuated by quotations from her father's work and images from her mother's, as well as family photographs; it is framed by faxes written to Herman, an early lover with whom Julia reconnected in middle age. These describe de Meric's final days, which were extraordinarily loving and peaceful.

Thomas Blackburn, too, reached a state of acceptance toward the end of his life, though it was an acceptance filled with incoherent mysticism and facilitated by pills and booze. In a sense, however, both parents had finally found a way to bless their daughter; in this luminous book, she blesses them in return.

THE TWO KINDS OF DECAY By Sarah Manguso | Farrar Straus Giroux. 184 pp. $22

When she was 21, Sarah Manguso developed a rare form of Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body's immune system attacks the nervous system; with Manguso, the condition began as a numbness in her feet. To survive, she required long hospitalization; endless sessions of apheresis (the separation of blood into components); frightening and invasive medical tests; and a Hickman line in her chest because human veins can tolerate only so much piercing. Hers is not a day-by-day description of this grueling time, but an impressionistic text filled with bright, poetic flashes. The use of such terms as "spacetime" at the start of the book is a little off-putting, but before long Manguso has earned them: She is attempting, after all, to give form to a vast, formless and terrifying experience.

Many sick people learn to live in the moment, but the power of Manguso's writing makes that truism revelatory. Her book is full of generous-hearted descriptions of those who helped her: the nurse who always remembered to bring mints; the engineer who designed a new apheresis machine; and a boyfriend, Victor, who continued to sleep with her and to whose tender intervention she credits her recovery. Victor himself subsequently died of an aneurism.

DRUNKARD A Hard-Drinking Life By Neil Steinberg | Dutton. 270 pp. $24.95

Neil Steinberg is a lively writer, with a keen gift for observation. His scenes are fun to read; he describes those he meets in a few powerful strokes. But although as a journalist he has an expansive worldview, his memoir adheres very closely to its theme of addiction, and addiction is necessarily repetitive.

It's interesting for a while as Steinberg takes us through his daily routine, shows us how he stashes his bottles, describes the pleasures of his drinking habits. His shamed description of the night he hit his wife, Edie, and ended up in forced rehabilitation is compelling, and the skepticism he brings to AA meetings is disarming. Eventually, however, I longed for digression, diversion, some anecdote unrelated to the author's personal struggle. What's happening in Edie's mind during all this, for example? She's cold and rejecting through most of the book, and there are good reasons for this, but I would like to have had her perspective nonetheless. At the very end when Steinberg, succumbing to the vocabulary of AA, identifies her as his higher power, I was frankly baffled.

MY GUANTANAMO DIARY The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me By Mahvish Rukhsana Khan | PublicAffairs. 302 pp. $25.95

When President Bush first announced that prisoners at Guantanamo would be called enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war, it was clear what was coming, though official obfuscation hindered a serious public discussion of torture and human rights for a long time. This year, however, the torments endured by detainees have been extensively documented. My Guant√°namo Diary joins such indispensable documents as Murat Kurnaz's Five Years of My Life in chronicling events behind the thick secrecy surrounding the prison. Khan is an attorney who volunteered to represent prisoners. She is American-born, but her parents are from Afghanistan; she has straddled two cultures throughout her life and can translate fluently. Her contribution here is to show us the humanity of those who have been waiting for years -- often in conditions that drive human beings mad -- to learn what they are accused of and when, if ever, they might be released.

These stories will sink permanently into the reader's consciousness: the way Al Jazeera reporter Sami Al-Haj (since released) describes being force-fed, for instance. The young suicide whose family was unable to confirm the cause of death because his body had been shipped home with various organs missing. Eighty-year-old Haji Nusrat Khan, illiterate and paralyzed by an earlier stroke, describes being mercilessly beaten at Bagram Air Force Base and forced to take off his clothes in front of a female soldier. And then there's the letter to a detainee from his young daughter; military censors had painstakingly blacked out every single "I love you." ·

Juliet Wittman is the author of "Breast Cancer Journal: A Century of Petals" and the theater critic for Westword, a Denver weekly.

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