Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Lagnado)

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World
Lucette Lagnado, 2007
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060822187

In vivid and graceful prose, Lucette Lagando recreates the majesty and cosmopolitan glamour of Cairo in the years between WWII and Nasser's rise to power.

Her father, Leon, was a boulevardier who bore a striking resemblance to Carry Grant and conducted his business in the elaborate lobby of the Nile Hilton, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit. Lagnado brings to life the color and culture of Cairo's sidewalk cafes and nightclubs, the markets and the quiet Jewish homes of the ancient city.

But with Nasser's nationalization of Egyptian industry, Leon and his family lose everything. As streets are renamed and neighborhoods of their fellow Jews are disbanded, they, too, must make their escape. Packed into 26 suitcases, their jewels hidden in sealed tins of anchovies, Leon and his family depart for any land that will take them.

From Cairo to Paris to New York, the poverty and hardships they encounter make a striking contrast to the beauty and comfort of old Cairo. As their lives become an inversion of the American dream, though, "The resilient dignity of Lucette's family transcends the fiercest of obstacles," writes the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Set against the stunning portraits of three world cities, this memoir offers a grand and sweeping story of family, tradition, tragedy and triumph in their epic exodus from paradise. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 1, 1958
Where—Cairo, Egypt
Education—B.A., Vassar College
Awards—Sami Rohr Prize
Currently—New York City, and Sag Harbor, New York

Lucette Lagnado is an Egyptian-born American journalist and memoirist. She is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Lagnado attended P.S. 205 in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, New York City, and is a graduate of Vassar College. She is married to journalist Douglas Feiden, and lives in New York City and Sag Harbor on the East End of Long Island.

She was born to a Jewish family in Cairo, Egypt, and wrote a prize-winning memoir about her childhood, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. The book was awarded the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

In September, 2011, she published a companion volume to Sharkskin that tells the story of Lagnado's mother, Edith. The Arrogant Years: One Girl's Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn juxtaposes the author's own coming of age in New York with that of her mother in Cairo, revealing how the choices she made meant both a liberation from Old World traditions and the loss of a comforting and familiar community. Described by the publisher as an epic family saga of faith and fragility, the book was published in 2011. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/27/2014.)

Book Reviews
In The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit Ms. Lagnado—an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal—gives us a deeply affecting portrait of her family and its journey from wartime Cairo to the New World. Like Andre Aciman in his now classic memoir, Out of Egypt (1994), she conjures a vanished world with elegiac ardor and uncommon grace, and like Mr. Aciman she calculates the emotional costs of exile with an unsentimental but forgiving eye. This is not simply the story of a well-to-do family’s loss of its home, its privileges and its identity. It is a story about how exile indelibly shapes people’s views of the world, a story about the mathematics of familial love and the wages of memory and time.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

[T]he reality of the Lagnados' fate is so far from the triumphalism that Americans have come to expect from immigrant narratives—is one of many reasons to read this crushing, brilliant book.... In this book, she so effortlessly captures the characters in her family, and the Egyptian metropolis around them, that the reader may fail to notice the overwhelming research buttressing this story. But then you stumble upon a wonderfully vivid detail: the kind of stove used by her grandmother, what her mother was drinking when she met Leon, the exact menu of the elaborate meals served to a relative struck with pleurisy.
Alana Newhouse - New York Times Sunday Book Review

Lagnado, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wrote eloquently about her family's exodus from Cairo to New York, exposing an untold story of almost a million Jewish refugees forced to leave their homes and striking a chord with readers across the world.
Connie Ogle - Miami Herald

This memoir of an Egyptian Jewish family’s gradual ruin is told without melodrama by its youngest survivor, now a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Lagnado’s story hinges on her father, "the Captain," who cut a dashing figure in mid-century Cairo.... [When] the family escapes to Paris and then Brooklyn... Lagnado’s father fades, but he never loses his air of chivalry.
New Yorker

The strength of this memoir is in the writer's prose, at once graceful and powerful. Reporting on her father with the awe of a child and the wisdom of a grown-up, she manages to make the reader understand his charm and foibles and her love for him, and to feel his loss deeply. She also captures her extended family and the complexities of their lives and longings with depth and compassion. She joins memoirists Andre Aciman (Out of Egypt) and Gini Alhadeff (The Sun at Midday) in writing lyrical, personal books that are important documents of communities that have been extinguished.
Sandee Brawarksy - Jewish Week

We have a writer who looks at old Egypt from a unique point of view that combines the insiderishness and deeply felt insights of the native with the hard-edged realism of the probing, intelligent outsider...It is the splendid achievement of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit that it does not stop at being the loving evocation of a family that it indubitably is. Ms. Lagnado has also given us a timely and important reminder about the unwillingness of Arab nationalism to tolerate non-Arab communities.
Washington Times

Lagnado's captivating account of her family's life in cosmopolitan Cairo and painful relocation to America centers on her beloved father.... In Lagnado's accomplished hands, this personal account illuminates its places and times, providing indelible individual portraits and illustrating the difficulty of assimilation. An exceptional memoir. —Leber, Michel

Bittersweet memoir unveils a nearly forgotten era of Jewish-Muslim affinity in the streets of Egypt's capital.... The author documents her almost fairy-tale upbringing in a Syrian family that fled to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century.... Nostalgic but objectively tempered portrait of a family at the heart of social and cultural upheaval.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Author Lagnado dedicates her book in part to the memory of her parents yet does Leon emerge as a sympathetic character at the end—in spite of his flaws—or are his trespasses and libertine ways—not to mention his ill-treatment of his wife—simply unforgivable to any enlightened reader? Is it clear how the author feels about her father and in particular his womanizing ways? If you do find Leon to be likable, how come? How does the author make you appreciate Leon even as you become painfully aware of his shortcomings?

2. Is Edith given her due or is she given short-shrift? Should we know about her much much more than we do...why, for example, does she turn down the publishing job at Grolier, a position that would have given the family needed income and given her a sense of self-worth, an identity beyond that of wife and mother? Is she a shadowy figure, at the end? Is Edith ultimately sacrificed—as she was in the marriage to some degree—to the more charismatic Leon, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit?

3. What became of the Wayward Daughter, Suzette, and of the two brothers; should there have been a postscript to tell us how each ended up? Are readers cheated in a way because they don't know their fates and are forced to speculate in effect on what happened to them?

4. Loulou seems wistful about the life she left behind, and she casts a sentimental eye on the relations between Jews and Moslems in this corner of the Arab world, certainly as they co-existed in her parents' era; and even when she returns, while she notes the physical decay in Egypt, she sees only love and sweetness in the Egyptians that she meets. Is this a credible portrait of Arab-Jewish relations in post-9/11 world and also why is she not acknowledging the bitterness and anger that her family almost surely felt and continued to feel after being pushed to leave Egypt?

5. Illness is the running subtext of this book—as is the search for the miraculous, the supernatural. What is the role of superstition for Loulou and her family and do they ever shed their superstitious ways when they come to this country?

6. Lagnado casts a cold eye on the American Dream—perhaps her least sympathetic figure in the book is the social worker, Silvia Kirschner, who is trying to urge the family to assimilate. Yet in the eyes of the author, her family's experience is an unremitting nightmare. Does Kirschner have redemptive qualities that ought to have been underscored? Is this a fair portrayal of the shattered hopes of an immigrant family, and is it fair on Lagnado's part to dismiss what America has given her and her family.

7. Similarly, she is not especially kind to the feminist movement, either—at one point she lovingly recalls her father suggesting she become a flower-vendor...and at another she remarks on how self-absorbed she and her siblings became in their work, to the detriment of Leon and Edith—is this a fair indictment of the movement? Or is it ironic for her to condemn it even as she has clearly profited from the movement which enabled her to pursue her professional goals to become a journalist and ultimately the author of Sharkskin.

8. Lagnado casts a ruthless eye on the American health system, its hospitals and in particular its nursing homes. The Jewish Home and Hospital is seen as a cruel uncaring facility that devotes more love on its fish than its patients; Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York is seen as inferior to the Demerdash Hospital in Cairo. How do the author's experiences and her ordeal navigating these facilities compare with yours? Could you identify with her struggles or did you find the world as she portrayed it as foreign as WW2 Cairo?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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