four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
user_rating: 
0

744532.pngThe author of two previous works of nonfiction and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting, journalist Anthony Shadid served as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Tragically, 43-year-old Shadid, who was on assignment for the New York Times, died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to flee Syria.

The Topic: After Shadid’s abandoned ancestral home, Bayt Samara, in Marjayoun, southern Lebanon, had suffered decades of neglect and vandalism, an Israeli rocket ripped through its second floor in 2006. A year later, Shadid took a leave of absence from the Washington Post to oversee renovations of the house, built by Shadid’s great-grandfather Isber Samara, a grain merchant who had made a fortune during World War I. As Shadid copes with suspicious neighbors and irritable, dawdling craftsmen, he ruminates on the meaning of home and family, interweaving his own story and the stories of his forebears, who fled to the United States nearly a century before, with the larger story of the Middle East since the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780547134666

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"What emerges from this book—an extraordinary memoir, rooted in humility and humanity—is the beauty of his mind and the depth of his feeling. Some of the most elegant passages are the quiet side-roads, about harvesting olives or refurbishing dusty tiles." Ken Armstrong

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"His symphonic narrative strikes many notes—elegiac, ironic, angry, funny (in a rueful sort of way). But a yearning for the Levant that flourished under the Ottoman Empire runs throughout, a hymn for a world and a time not without tumult but far more civil, gracious and ordered than the blood-dimmed chaos of the present-day Middle East." Philip Caputo

Miami Herald HHHH
"Shadid writes movingly about the dreams his great-grandfather must have had and how a father who had worked so hard to give his children opportunities decided the best he could do for them was to send them away, away from the homeland he knew and the home he had built for them. … The story is hard to read now, knowing that he will never go there again and that a voice that understood the Middle East like few others is now silent like the stone walls he so lovingly restored." Susannah Nesmith

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"As it is, a book conceived as an introspective project of personal recovery—as well as a meditation on politics, identity, craft and beauty in the Levant—now stands as a memorial. … House of Stone wears its erudition about Middle Eastern history and politics lightly, but it makes room for Mr. Shadid’s trenchant assessments of the Levant’s lost tolerance and intense sectarianism." Steve Coll

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"His death makes reading this book a more somber experience, more so than even his exceptional journalism. This time, the story is also personal. … Despite its seriousness, it would be a mistake to ignore that House of Stone is also very funny." Leslie Rubinkowski

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The flashbacks to his family’s past can sometimes seem haphazard and forced. … Despite such flaws, however, House of Stone offers a fascinating portrait of a unique time and place, along with a self-portrait of the author." Mark Pendergrast

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book would be easier to read if it had a more chronological format and was less a mosaic of barely connected episodes. Even so, it offers a powerful reminder of the impact that never-ending insecurity has on people long after the violence that ruined their lives has been forgotten by the rest of the world." Patrick Cockburn

Critical Summary

An intensely personal and introspective story, this "elegiac, heartbreaking memoir" (New York Times), far removed from Shadid’s grisly war zone dispatches, exhibits the same elegant writing and keen insight as his award-winning reporting. Although Shadid uses his story as a springboard to a larger meditation on the Middle East and its people, his talents truly blossom in his portraits of the workmen and townsfolk of Marjayoun: He "dissects them … with a combined passion and merciless objectivity worthy of Flaubert" (Washington Post), resulting in some wickedly funny passages. Although critics briefly noted some occasionally meandering passages and confusing chronology, these criticisms were deemed insignificant. It is "one of the finest memoirs I’ve read," proclaimed the reviewer for the Washington Post, and readers will no doubt agree.