Local roundup

November 15, 2009|By Diane Scharper | Special to The Baltimore Sun

"A Country Called Amreeka," Alia Malek, Free Press, 305 pages, $25

A daughter of Syrian immigrants who took child-rearing seriously, Alia Malek holds a bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University, a law degree from Georgetown and a master's in journalism from Columbia. Moreover, she attributes her success to her parents' strict standards. Malek's story is included in "A Country Called Amreeka," a collection of mostly compelling narratives focusing on Arab-American immigrants. Arranging her book chronologically, Malek begins in 1963 with Birmingham, Ala. Then a hotbed of civil unrest, the city was home to Lebanese immigrants who endured racial profiling. Despite this, Ed Salem, subject of the chapter, achieved fame (as a member of the NFL) and fortune (as an entrepreneur) - with strong family support. If there's an overriding theme to the book, it's the importance of family ties. Another vignette profiles Luba Sihwail, her children and husband - from Baltimore. Learning of the 1967 Israeli invasion of Palestine, they become terrified because their parents are in danger. Sihwail was especially torn between her need to help her parents and protect her children. The book's final chapters focus on a Maronite Roman Catholic priest who witnessed the fall of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and an Arab-American Marine who served in Iraq. His angst is almost palpable as he feels loyalty to his parents in the U.S., to his fellow Marines and to the Arabs who denounced him as a traitor. Ultimately, the book gives voice not just to the political side of the Middle Eastern conflict but also to the human side. Malek believes there's more that unites us than divides us. She makes the point vividly.

"Jacob's Cane," Elisa New, Basic Books, 328 pages, $27.95

Rich with details, "Jacob's Cane," Elisa New's memoir, makes up in poetic language what it lacks in conciseness. New's account begins with Jacob Levy's arrival in America and the fabric-finish business that he started in the basement of his West Lombard Street rowhouse in the late 1880s. He was so successful that he soon opened a factory on Baltimore's Redwood Street. But as New describes it, his personal life was unhappy. His wife and youngest son suffered from mental illness and had to be institutionalized. Three other sons followed a wealthy uncle to London instead of helping their father with his fabric business. New focuses on the indomitable Levy (her great-grandfather) and the cane that she found in her cousin's Baltimore house. Marked with place names, the cane led New to her family's roots in a small town near the Jewish cultural center of Kaunas, Lithuania, and to their years in Baltimore as entrepreneurs and members of the Jewish upper-middle class. A Harvard University professor, New embellishes her narrative with anecdotes from her great-aunts about life in 1920s Baltimore, reflections on Lithuanian history, customs, foods and language, as well as meditations on family photographs. As New tells her family's story, she adds her own history, noting her divorce and her second marriage to Larry Summers, economist and adviser to President Barack Obama. Her discursive book ranges from bucolic descriptions of the verdant Lithuanian countryside to nightmarish recollections of Jewish persecution.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.

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