Book: Emeralds of the Alhambra (Mechanicsburg, Penn.; Sudburry Press, 2013)
Author: John D. Cressler
Reviewer: Jacqueline Jones Royster, Ivan Allen Jr. Chair in Liberal Arts and Technology and Dean Ivan Allen
College of Liberal Arts, Georgia Institute of Technology
The majority of my reading centers on my academic scholarship in the history of rhetoric, with emphasis on the lives and contributions of women of African descent and the multiple lenses that are necessary for me to do this work.
This year, my reading has included, for example: Toni Morrison’s Home; Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun; Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis; The Woman of Colour (Anonymous), edited by Lyndon J. Dominique; Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region, an edited collection by JerriAnne Boggis, Eve Allegra Raimon, and Barbara A. White; Jim Downs’s Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and more. Sprinkled among these types of volumes, however, are books that don’t relate directly to my research at all but inevitably spark my curiosity and imagination nevertheless.
One volume that was most intriguing to me this year was actually written by a colleague at Georgia Tech, John D. Cressler. John is a physicist who holds the Schlumberger Chair in Electronics in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is a prolific researcher who, according to his web profile, is interested in “the understanding, development, and application of new types of silicon-based bandgap-engineered microelectronic devices and circuits for high-speed electronics in emerging 21st century communications systems.” He and his research team have published over 500 technical reports, and he has written 5 books. What really amazes me, however, particularly as someone in English Studies rather than engineering, is that John also writes historical fiction, and he does so with considerable grace, substance, and style.
Emeralds of the Alhambra is the first in a series entitled the Anthems of al-Andalus. It is a wonderful story of love, political intrigue, and adventure set in Medieval Spain, primarily in Granada and its surroundings during a time when the area was vibrantly multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Muslims ruled but the space was occupied as well by Christians and Jews, all living together, sharing history and creating the artistic, cultural, and intellectual accomplishments that mark the era as an interesting time of both cross-cultural peace and civil war. Monarchs were fighting monarchs, brother against brother, and by 1367, the beginning of the novel, the stage had been set and re-set for the tensions and disruptions that, in hindsight, we now understand would follow.
At the moment of the narrative, however, John weaves a compelling fiction. He creates a persuasive tale that helps modern readers to imagine the spectacular convergence of history, religion, loyalty, rivalry, and even technological and scientific innovations that swirl around the romance of Layla al-Khatib, a very well educated Sufi princess, and William Chandon, a Christian knight at court in the Alhambra Palace, the walled fortress of the Sultan. With his vivid descriptions of peoples and places, we are transported back in time. He helps us to imagine a cultural context that is not our own and a peace across religions that we are finding increasingly difficult to create and sustain today. He reminds us of the complexities of love and honor and the inevitable fragility of our lives, regardless of where we start or even how we finish. Ultimately, he underscores, it seems, the notion that life remains a question of what we manage to do amid what happens in between.
Needless to say, I enjoyed very much thinking about the world that John created inside the very real world of Medieval Spain. I have now read his second volume, Shadows in the Shining City, and I anxiously await the third, now in progress. As challenging as it is in our contemporary world to resist despair in the face of violence, terrorism, rampant inhumanity, and raging ignorance, I am pleased to have a colleague at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a physicist who publishes beautifully written (and researched) historical fiction. His novels bring me hope that all does not have to be lost. The power of love, learning, friendship, family, and human regard have, in fact, the capacity to endure and to make our efforts to be human in a world filled with challenges worthwhile.