19 February 2011

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New WorldThe Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How very different Cairo was during and after WW2, before the military and Nasser. It was cosmopolitan, a cultural olio, a beautiful mashup of the old and the new, Jew and Muslim, scented with rosewater and apricots - at least, in the experience of Lucette Lagnado, filtered through the story of her elegant father. I began to read this book right before the recent uprising in Cairo, and it added a layer to my understanding of how many changes have occurred, as well as how some forces (i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood, and the role of the military) have long been powerful undercurrents in shaping Cairene culture.

This book is about Lucette Lagnado's childhood in Cairo, the family's exile to France and then to the United States, and her own layers of acculturation that had to be added to and peeled away for her to understand her boulevardier father. It added immeasurably to my own understanding of recent middle-eastern history, and the different outlook that history produced for Sephardic vs. Ashkenazi Jews, something I have longed to explore.

Lagnado's writing is as sensual and immediate when she describes feeding delicacies to her Cairene cat as when she tells of the misery of being stateless after the Jews were expelled from Egypt in the 1950s. She comes to see her literary but exhausted mother through new eyes as the family is forced to adjust to American expectations of the role of women, and takes us through the medical care that cured her childhood Hodgkin's disease - quite a different type of care than the overnight vigil at Jewish holy spots in Cairo that had preceded the disease's remission years before, but still old-world, as her father feeds her olives to give her strength through the radiation treatments. We see how her sister and brothers adapt to the new world, and how her father's elegance is reduced as he sells ties on the Brooklyn subway line.

This is a delicious book, multi-layered and fragrant as any of the pastries once enjoyed in Cairene cafes. Highly, highly recommended!!

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Lucette said...

I was so very moved by your of this child of my heart, it really was one of the loveliest and most elegant critiques that i have ever read; i am so touched by what you said, truly --
take care once again --
lucette lagnado.

ChelleC said...

Your book review truly is wonderful. It makes me want to rush right out and get this book. In fact, I believe I will do so. Thanks for the excellent recommendation. The author's comment above says it all.