Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini

Like anyone who read The Kite Runner, I expected A Thousand Splendid Suns to educate me about Afghan history through a story rife with violence and brutality. So I avoided reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, despite having had a copy on my bookshelf for over a year.

Last week I finally decided to read the book; while my expectations were fulfilled, I was moved by Hosseini's story of two Afghan women. In the first section of the book, we meet Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman and one of his servants. She and her mother live in a small isolated house, where her mother keeps up a steady commentary on the horrible future Mariam is destined to face and Mariam lives in anticipation of her father's weekly visit. The next phase of her life is even worse, as she is married off as a teenager to a shoemaker 30 years her senior. After she suffers numerous miscarriages, she essentially resigns herself to life as her husband's punching bag.

At this point, Hosseini changes perspective, telling the second part of the book through the perspective of Laila, a teenager who lives down the street from Mariam. After the Communist takeover, Laila's father lost his job as a teacher. Her mother, once a spark plug of a woman, has been severely depressed since her sons went to fight with the Mujahideen. Laila finds solace at school, with her girlfriends, and with Tariq, who transitions from being a friend to a lover.

In part three of the book, Hosseini brings Mariam and Laila together in a development that surprised me (so I won't detail it here and ruin the surprise for others), and the two become close. Though both suffer heartbreaking physical and psychological violence, their friendship helps them to persevere. Part four brings a happy ending for one of the characters, though I wonder whether Hosseini's optimism might have faltered had he written the book a year or two later, as the Taliban were reemerging in Afghanistan.

While the ending was a bit pat, the bulk of the book is a moving tribute to the strength and resilience of Afghan women. The story--and the Afghan history that Hosseini clearly wants readers to understand--would provide ample material for book groups to discuss.

Favorite passages:
Mariam had never before worn a burqa. Rasheed had to help her put it on. The padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull, and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen. She practiced walking around her room in it and kept stepping on the hem and stumbling. The loss of peripheral vision was unnerving, and she did not like the suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth.

"You'll get used to it," Rasheed said. "With time, I bet you'll even like it."

In the coming days and months, Laila would scramble frantically to commit it all to memory, what happened next. Like an art lover running out of a burning museum, she would grab whatever she could--a look, a whisper, a moan--to salvage from perishing, to preserve. But time is the most unforgiving of fire, and she couldn't, in the end, save it all.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Giving Up on a Book

I thought I had overcome my aversion to giving up on books I don't like. Several years ago, I read that Barbara Kingsolver gave a book 50 pages and then, if she didn't like it, she moved on. I figured if 50 pages was good enough for Kingsolver, it was good enough for me. (I also liked the formula my friend Colleen read on a cup at Starbucks--subtract your age from 100 and that's the number of pages you need to read before quitting; if you're 100, you can go with whether you like the cover or not.)

When you're reading something for your book group, however, it's a lot harder to quit--the commitment to the group becomes a commitment to finishing the book if at all possible. Nonetheless, I am giving up (after 125 pages) on The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I find it overwritten, overwrought, and boring--and guilt about reading it is keeping me from reading anything else.

Maybe the group will change my mind. If so, I'll let you know.

Monday, January 18, 2010

U Is for Undertow, by Sue Grafton

In the 21st volume in her alphabet series featuring PI Kinsey Milhone, Sue Grafton has crafted an engaging mystery. U Is for Undertow didn't keep me up late reading (in fact, I took a two-week break in the middle of reading it to finish some library books), but I did enjoy it.

Twenty-something Michael Sutton comes to Kinsey with a memory from 20 years earlier, a memory he thinks is a clue to the unsolved disappearance of a little girl in Santa Teresa. Despite being paid for only one day's work and despite the fact that his sister and brother provide evidence discrediting Michael's memory, Kinsey works the case doggedly. Through chapters from the perspective of several other characters--some set in the 1960s, some in 1988 when the story told in the book takes place--readers know who the guilty parties are long before Kinsey does. So the mystery lies in how Kinsey will find the evidence to prove who the culprits were--and it's enough to keep you reading.

Grafton also provides more of Kinsey's family backstory, which she began unraveling several volumes ago. As some aspects of what she learns about her history raise more questions than answers, the last five books in the series are bound to fill in even more details.

I'm not sure what the significance of the title is--if there was an explanation, I missed it. Once an author starts one of these naming conventions, it must be difficult to keep them going.

Favorite passage:
Snapshots tell a story, not always in obvious ways but taken as a whole. Faces appear and disappear. Relationships form and fall apart.

(It's not the most beautiful writing--are mysteries really about the language?--but the idea of photos telling a story about what doesn't last, what comes and goes has me thinking. If I looked at my photos, what friends would have come and gone [besides the ex-husband, of course] and why would they have disappeared from my life?)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, by Julie Powell

If you think of Julie Powell as she was played by Amy Adams in the film version of Julie and Julia, wipe that image from your mind. If you thought she had managed to pull herself out of her late twenties ennui by the end of that book, forget that hopeful thought.

Very early in Cleaving, Powell reveals that, following completion of the Julie/Julia project, she embarked on another "project"--an affair with an old acquaintance she calls D. The main feature of the affair seems to have been rough sex, with PDAs (in both meanings of that acronym) playing lesser roles. The saintly Eric, perhaps showing chinks in his halo, has embarked on an affair of his own. Yet the two remain mostly married (there are separations, official and unofficial, throughout the book).

Although the relationship with D ends soon after the events in the book start, she continues to obsess about him for a year, texting, calling, buying gifts, driving by his apartment, and gazing at his Facebook profile picture. Reading about that obsession is about as much fun as, oh, drinking blood (more about that later). Reading about the painful morass in which her marriage to Eric is mired is also not fun. Of course, lots of things aren't fun but are still useful, but Powell's reflections on her lover and her marriage do not, for me at least, offer any particularly helpful insights.

Note, however, that the subtitle also mentions "Meat," and meat is the topic that lifts some parts of the book. In the first two-thirds of the book, Powell is apprenticing at a butcher's shop in upstate New York, and the stories about the shop are mostly engaging (the detailed descriptions of how to break down various sections of beef/pork/whatever carcasses do get a bit tiresome after awhile--you can't always follow them without having a similar chunk of meat in front of you). Powell's attempts to make butchery a metaphor for other parts of her life feel strained, and the transitions between sections about marriage/obsession and meat are sometimes awkward.

In the last third of the book, Powell sets off on travels to Argentina, the Ukraine, and Tanzania. She studies meat practices in the various countries and enjoys the sensation of getting along by herself in the world. She drinks beef and goat blood and shares that raw goat's liver tastes like bloody cheesecake. (If you haven't inferred this already, the squeamish may find this book hard to take.)

I guess I should admit I'm not a fan of memoirs, but I didn't think of Julie and Julia as a memoir; nor are the sections of this book that are about food memoiresque (if that's a word) to my mind. As for the affairs, sexual obsession, and dysfunctional marriage--I'd much prefer them in a novel!

Favorite passage:
Sorry to say, but my favorite passages are the poems Powell's brother composed using one of those refrigerator magnet sets:

I wanted a life of
Blue skies shining
Diamonds and lusty
Spring shadows.
I have an apparatus
To produce sausage

When the flood comes
I will swim to a symphony
go by boat to some picture show
and maybe I will forget about you

Of interest:
A publisher's rep told the crowd at a Tattered Cover book group gathering that the film's producers asked that publication of Cleaving be delayed because they feared the revelation of Powell's affair would diminish interest in the film.

Julie Powell still blogs, under the title "What Could Happen? Musings from a 'Soiled and Narcissistic Whore'": Her most recent post mentions the death of Robert, the family dog.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler

Liam Pennywell, the 60-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler's latest novel, tells his grandson Jonah that Noah did not need a sextant or compass because he wasn't trying to go anywhere, he was only trying to survive. That is essentially how Liam has lived his life: he has been married twice (his first wife committed suicide, he and the second divorced), has three daughters, and was recently fired from his long-time teaching job, but he seems unaffected. Having decided to downsize, he has just moved into a new, smaller apartment. He goes to bed early on his first night in the new apartment and wakes up in the hospital, unable to remember the attack that put him there.

Liam becomes obsessed with this memory gap and, while seeking help from a neurologist, he sees a woman assisting an older man in the waiting room. Still suffering aftereffects from his head injury, Liam thinks she is the man's "rememberer" and yearns to have her serve the same function for him. He is unusually proactive in finding a way to meet her, and they become involved. While she is not a "rememberer" in the way he hoped, by opening up his emotions, she does help him remember significant events in his earlier life that he had forgotten or repressed. Meanwhile, we see modest evolution in his relationships with his daughters and the stirrings of self=awareness. Yet, at the end of the book Liam is alone on Christmas, reading Socrates (he is also a thwarted philosopher, forced to give up writing his dissertation when his first wife died, leaving him to raise their toddler alone), so Tyler certainly does not give him an easy transformation.

Set in Baltimore, like most of Tyler's books, Noah's Compass is highly readable and the characters are well-drawn--yet we never really understand why Liam had only a "glancing relationship with" his own life. This is one of the questions a book group could discuss if they chose this book. While not Tyler's best work, Noah's Compass is worth reading and discussing.

Favorite passage:
He was familiar with those flashes of hatred. (He'd been married two times, after all.) He knew enough not to act on them.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Missing Mark, by Julie Kramer

My first mystery of 2010, Missing Mark is by an author new to me, and I was excited that I might have found a new source of enjoyable leisure reading. Kramer's character (this is the second in a series) is Riley Spartz, an investigative reporter for a television station in Minneapolis. In Chapter 1, she finds a body in a house she is thinking of buying--by Chapter 2, we learn that body really has nothing to do with the book's plot, the first sign there may be some problems with the writing. But Riley gets the idea for the story that is the primary focus of the book in an intriguing way--she sees an ad in the newspaper that reads "For Sale. Wedding Dress. Never Worn" and thinks there must be a story behind the item. Little does she know...the story of the cancelled wedding involves a missing comedian groom, a bride who cannot recognize faces, multiple deaths, and general mayhem. As subplots, Riley also investigates the theft of a large bass from the aquarium at the Mall of America and the goings-on at her neighbor's house, takes care of a police dog whose partner has been shot, and vacillates over whether to start a romance with a cop-turned-security expert.

Kramer seems to be aiming for a madcap, humorous tone--not as over the top as Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, but perhaps along the lines of Sarah Shankman's old Samanatha Adams books (whatever happened to Sarah Shankman?). The humor is thin, however, and the plotting strains credulity. The clues Kramer drops, especially regarding the neighbor, are so obvious that only an idiot would not notice them. Thus, it's hard not to conclude that Riley is indeed an idiot (she does, after all, reference the movie Speed as a source of life lessons).

Favorite passage:
During much of our converation, Mrs. Lefevre sounded as hardy as a perennial, but Malik and I soon learned she was actually soft as a pansy.

Yes, it's my favorite because it's so bad!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

You cannot read one of Lisa See's recent novels without learning a lot. In the case of Shanghai Girls, the reader encounters a great deal of information about Chinese history and culture and the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the United States, including what it was like to be confined and interrogated on Angel Island, living and working conditions in LA's Chinatown, the practice of selling the papers of dead children to others who wanted to migrate, and (completely new to me) the challenges Chinese Americans faced during the Red-baiting of the 1950s.

See weaves all of this information into her story of two sisters, Pearl (the narrator) and May. As the book opens, they are somewhat scandalously working as "beautiful girls"--models who pose for commercial artists and photographers. Their life in Shanghai is comfortable, until their father's gambling debts catch up with him. Soon, they have essentially been sold as brides to sons of a Chinese enterpreneur in the United States; they marry but avoid traveling to the United States with their new husbands. This turns out to be a bad decision, as they end up fleeing from the Japanese and the "Green Gang" to whom their father owned money. Their flight is grueling, but they eventually make it to the United States, where they end up spending months on Angel Island.

The remaining two-thirds of the book are devoted to their lives with their husbands (yes, the same husbands whose father "bought" them) and in-laws as they struggle to make their way in the United States. Again, the hardships are many, and See aims to show both the support and challenges that being part of an extended family offers, as well as the toll that keeping secrets takes. Irritatingly, the book ends with a clear set-up for a sequel (i.e., a major conflict/problem is introduced and not resolved near the end of the book).

Shanghai Girls is informative and interesting, but See is less effective in making the human relationships come alive than she is in educating us about aspects of Chinese-Americans' experiences. At times, her writing seems choppy; at other times, however, Pearl's thoughts are presented in more fluid and complex language. The author's intent may be to convey something about the difficulties of communicating in a new language compared with thinking in one's native tongue. However, the variance in writing doesn't seem to be consistent and See does not provide any clues as to her intent, so it is tempting to conclude that her writing is merely inconsistent.

For a book group that has not read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I would definitely recommend that book over this one. However, Shanghai Girls certainly provides lots of material for discussion for a group interested in China and/or Chinese Americans in the early to mid-20th century.

Favorite passage:

What's the first impression you have of a new place? Is it the first meal you eat? The first time you have an ice cream cone? The first person you meet? The first night you spend in your new bed in your new home? The first broken promise?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

The title character of Elizabeth's Strout Pulitzer Prize-winning work is a middle school math teacher (though retired through most of the book), wife of good-natured pharmacist Henry, and mother of Christopher. She is also irascible and judgmental, and her relationships (she would cringe at that word) are generally troubled. If the book were just about Olive, readers would likely get tired of her very quickly. But Strout has brilliantly presented Olive's story--and the larger story of the small town of Crosby, Maine--through a series of short stories, of which only about half focus directly on Olive. In others, she is a relatively minor character, but her role in those stories soften Olive; in one story she tries to help an anorexic girl, while other characters remember advice or concern she offered as a teacher (and still others express surprise that Henry has been able to stay married to her for so many years).

Henry is really the hero of the first story "Pharmacy," a lovely piece that introduces Henry's gentle kindness, his more than 20-year interest in a young assistant, and some of his frustrations with Olive. In another story, son Christopher marries a woman that Olive thinks is a "beast"; at the wedding, Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law mocking the flowered dress Olive wore for the occasion, a dress she made from a fabric that caused her "heart to open" when she saw it at So-Fro. Christopher and his wife move to California and are shortly thereafter divorced, but Christopher stays in California, wounding his parents. Two of the Olive stories are terribly sad. In one, Olive and Henry are taken hostage as part of a drug theft at a hospital and end up hurling insults at each other under the stress, forever altering their relationship. In another, Henry is in a nursing home (blind and mute following a stroke) and Olive ventures to New York by herself to visit Christopher, his second (and pregnant) wife, and her two children; the argument between Olive and Christopher reveals not only Olive's vulnerability but suggests that her mothering was even worse than we might have imagined. These two experiences prompt self-reflection that leads Olive to an unexpected relationship in the collection's final story.

The stories in which Olive is not at the forefront feature an array of odd, lovable, and sad townspeople of Crosby. All are experiencing loss or pain of some kind--a young widow learns on the day of her husband's funeral that he was unfaithful; a young man contemplates suicide; a young woman raised by her silent, pastor father finds her only excitement stealing from her doctor's waiting room; a boozy bar singer is abused by lovers old and new (and may be abusing her own elderly mother).

Somehow, the impact of these stories is not as grim as you might think. Certainly, they are sad, but people also offer each other kindness and support; Olive allows herself to connect; the natural setting offers solace; the people of Crosby soldier on.

This is Novel Conversation's first book for 2010, and I'm looking forward to discussing it tomorrow. I think it will prompt interesting conversation.

Favorite passages:
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.

(This is the first paragraph of the book and I think it's lovely.)

After that, it was like painting with a sponge, like someone had pressed a paint-wet sponge to the inside of her mind, and only what it painted, those splotches there, held what she remembered of the rest of that night.