Review: ‘Secret Son’ by Laila Lalami

secretson1Youssef and his mother Rachida live in a one-room house with no windows and a tin roof held in place by stones in a Casablanca slum. When it rains, the roof leaks. When it’s not raining, they live in the yard beneath a sky as spacious as Youssef’s dreams.

When it rains, they carry their life back inside the whitewashed house: the divan, the food bowls, the clean clothes off the line, and the black and white photograph of his father that hangs in the yard above the divan. The young man who forever smiles out of that old photograph was in his 20s, not so many rears older than Youssef is now as he prepares to enter college in Casablanca.

He thinks often about the man in the picture who died in an accident, his mother told him, when Youssef was two; he was a well-respected man, a dedicated school teacher and, as Youssef learns a few pages into Laila Lalami’s powerful debut novel, an invention.

As Rachida’s secrets unravel, the following facts emerge: Youssef is the product of his mother’s affair with a married man, a man who is not only very much alive, but a wealthy and influential Casablanca businessman. While his doting mother is content to play the role of the grieving widow, as Youssef sees it, and to eke out a living in a slum, he is now free to escape from all that’s been denied him into a life of achievable dreams.

Against his mother’s wishes, he leaves the windowless house to discover his true identity. While she prays her son will make something of himself by staying in college, he has set his sights on greater things. He leaves Rachida’s whitewashed house with food for thought. When the rains came, a volatile Islamic fundamentalist group called “The Party” brought aid to the flooded slum while the state handed out promises it would not keep.

Readers of Lalami’s collection of short stories released in 2006 may reflect on the title of that highly acclaimed volume, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, as Youssef makes his way through a labyrinth populated by corrupt commercial interests, inept government employees, “The Party,” and news media with a spider web of conflicting agendas.

Lalami’s prose and plot in Secret Son are devoid of moralizing and sentimentality, and therein lies the power of her story. The story is not unkind; it’s ardently realistic. While the conclusion of Youssef’s essentially illegitimate journey into the treacherous world outside his claustrophobic station is by no means predictable, it’s as inevitable as Icarus’ fall from the spacious sky.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Malcolm R. Campbell for POD Book Reviews and More, 2/28

Oklahoma Panhandle Perfect Setting for Zabel’s New Novel

300-croppedVivian Zabel, author of Prairie Dog Cowboy joins us today to talk about the setting for her new novel published in October by 4RV Publishing. The 180-page book set in the Oklahoma Panhandle in 1899 is primarily intended for ages 9-12.

Buddy, the main character begins learning how to work a ranch when he’s just four years old. The work of a cowboy is in his blood and that’s what he wants to do when he grows up. A neighbor who believes in him makes him a promise: when you’re good enough to rope a prairie dog, you can have a job on my ranch.

I met Vivian on the Published Authors Forum. She’s a fellow contributor to the Forever Friends anthology published last year and the author of Midnight Hours and Case of the Missing Coach. I’m happy to welcome her to the Round Table.

The Prairie of Prairie Dog Cowboy
by Vivian Zabel

cowboy The setting for Prairie Dog Cowboy was fictionalized but exists in the Oklahoma Panhandle. The prairie runs from what is now northeast Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and north into Kansas and Nebraska. The area is also considered part of the High Plains.

Many people think the panhandle is drab, ugly, and flat. Not so. Yes, a person may think the land is flat because few, if any hills, are found, but the land has unexpected valleys and gullies that contain green, living things.

The view is spectacular in its own way. I’ve stood outside the house where my husband grew up and looked “forever” in all directions. The sky bright and blue arched above my head. The horizon stretched at the edge of the skyline miles and miles away. At night, the stars against the black velvet of darkness seemed closer than in other places. The lights of towns twenty to thirty miles away could be seen without trouble.

The gullies, deep and rather narrow cuts in the land caused by wind and rain run-offs, often hide green grass when the land above is dry and grass is brown. Valleys, which are different than gullies in that they are usually wider and have more flood plain created by rivers, are filled with trees and lush plant life.

Along the roads, in pastures of prairie grass and man-induced plants, cattle graze, slick and fat. Fields of wheat or milo, sometimes corn, can be found creating breaks between thousands of acres of native pasture.

In the book, the ranches owned by the Hyman family and James Buck are found along the Beaver River. Much of the area used as the Buck ranch and a portion of the ranch used as the Hyman ranch were taken by the government to make Optima Lake and a reserve and hunting area. The land still exists though, cutting through the Oklahoma Panhandle prairie.

Buddy rode and worked the land that can still be found, rich and valuable, filled with hardworking people.

Prairie Dog Cowboy can be purchased through any book store,, Barnes and, and/or 4RV Publishing.

Prairie Dog Cowboy
4RV Publishing
Vivian Gilbert Zabel

Note: anyone leaving a question or comment will be entered into a drawing to receive one (1) of four (4) canvas bags with a 4RV logo.

Review: Women of Magdalene

Women of Magdalene Women of Magdalene by Rosemary Poole-Carter

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
My review from Powell’s Books:

“It’s easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out,” New York World reporter Nellie Bly wrote in her “Ten Days in a Mad House” expose about the poor conditions and mistreatment of patients at Blackwell’s Island asylum in New York in 1887. Deplorable by today’s standards, the approach to mental health then wasn’t far removed from the days when professionals considered the insane to be those suffering God’s punishment or the Devil’s possession.

The fictional Magdalene Ladies Lunatic Asylum in Rosemary Poole-Carter’s darkly beautiful novel fits perfectly into a time period when the treatment of female mentally ill patients was likely to be neither moral nor effective. Confinement was often a matter of convenience for the families of women viewed as domestic failures who were best kept out of sight and out of mind.

When young Civil War surgeon Dr. Robert Mallory arrives at the Louisiana institution for employment as general practitioner after the war, he soon sees that God and the world have forgotten the women of Magdalene, and the only devils on the premises are the asylum’s owner Dr. Kingston, his former assistant Dr. Hardy, and their dictatorial matron.

When Robert questions Kingston about the inhumane treatment of the women housed in the former plantation mansion, Kingston discounts Robert’s competence to judge what is right and proper in the realm of mental illness. Later, Robert will ask why no women are ever cured and allowed to leave the facility. Cures? There are no cures, only what Kingston describes without noticeable guile as “sanctuary.”

In Poole-Carter’s haunting, yet gritty prose, Magdalene floats almost dreamlike within a misshapen world of malaise and mist that will ultimately claim all who remain there–and for a high price. Robert, like the women, arrives at the asylum having been harmed by the world and with a growing expectation that he will be injured further by the methods and practices within the shelter of Magdalene’s walls.

This novel casts multiple spells over its readers and its characters. Readers with a growing understanding that the abuses at the fictional Magdalene were drawn from the world of standard abuses of the times, won’t be able to forget what they see there. As for Robert Mallory, in spite of his resolve, he’s not sure he can complete his personal journey out of the past and cure what ails Magdalene before he becomes yet another shadow alongside the old plantation’s dark river.

View all my reviews.

Note: Author Vivian Zabel will visit the Round Table on February 19th to discuss her novel Prairie Dog Cowboy.

My Experiment With Authonomy

Don’t worry, Authonomy is not a mysterious philter to be used at midnight beneath a full moon. It’s HarperCollins’ “avoid the slush” website where authors with manuscripts in search of a publisher and/or print-on-demand books in search of a mainstream house can upload their work to be read, watched and commented upon by adoring readers.

Is a good place for your manuscript? Possibly so. If you’re not sure, take a look at my entry for The Sun Singer and then take a look at the FAQs. I’ve only uploaded one chapter of the novel so far, but plan to add more as time permits.

I’m sure quantum mechanics principles will become involved in this experiment before it’s over. With luck, it will become an exciting entanglement.

What this blog is all about

A friend asked in a recent post on her MySpace blog “How Do You Define Success?”

Essentially, her answer was finding the freedom to be herself and to follow her dreams. The challenge for her–for many of us–was that while following our dreams requires a measure of security and financial well-being, if we spend too much time or stress establishing that, we may not ever get to our dreams.

My answer to her question was similar to hers. Success to me is doing what I’m here to do: making an inner journey and writing about it. This blog represents my random thoughts, and a lot of yours, about the challenges we face and about the things we see along the trail.

I’m influenced, as many of you can tell, by the work of such writers as Edward Abbey and Colin Fletcher and by the dedication of volunteers in such organisations as the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. I’m also influenced by Jane Roberts’ “Seth Books,” by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and Caroline Myss.

As we walk the trail, we learn–as Carlos was taught–that our outer journey is a reflexion of our inner journey and, conversely, that if we are impeccable in what we do in the physical world, we will be more centered within.

For me, success is being on the path and experiencing what I find there and then putting those feelings into words on the page.

What about you?


Click on my name for my current weblog.