Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Thousand Splendid Suns

            A Thousand Splendid Suns sounds like a buoyant title that belongs on a “Top Ten Beach Reads” listicle. I pity the middle-aged woman who naively opens this up while lounging by the sea drinking a Starbucks unicorn Frappuccino.

            Never mind. She’s made her bed, let her lie in it.

            This 2007 novel by Khaled Hosseini comes four years after his bestselling debut into the literary world via The Kite Runner. Hosseini is a licensed physician who practiced medicine until he realized his hands could wield a scalpel and write brilliant prose.

            A Thousand Splendid Suns is similar to The Kite Runner, in that both novels are set in Afghanistan during the tumultuous regime changes of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Each addresses how political calamity affected Afghanistan’s youth. The two novels differ in terms of gender, with A Thousand Splendid Suns focusing mainly on the females.

            What I love most about Hosseini’s writing is his ability to deliver nuance when it comes to characters’ relationships with their war-torn homeland. Of course, it’s easy for Americans in the 21st century to think why don’t they just get the hell out of their terrible situation? Hosseini reminds us that Afghans have physical, emotional, and economic ties to their country, just like Americans have a deep affinity to Chili’s. Maybe that’s just me. 

            On the other hand, his characters aren't very complex. The novel follows two women—Mariam and Laila—separated by a generation. We see their lives as separate individuals until they’re inevitably and pitiably thrust together. I admire the two women’s resilience, and I appreciate that Hosseini intentionally set out to document the female voice; however, all of the characters he covers fall into neat little categories labeled “good” or “bad”. As a result, there is a flatness to the plot and an anticipation of what will occur when a specific character is present in a scene.

            Perhaps because of the limitations of female agency in the country, there aren't many opportunities for women to do evil. For example, when the Taliban takes over, they inflict a series of rules. A large portion of the mandates are written explicitly for women, including but not limited to:

“You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten” (Hosseini, 278).

            If you’re forced indoors, required to wear inhibitive garb, and suppressed intellectually, there aren't many uoutlets for acting “bad”. Nonetheless, my observation stands.

            Additionally, as a reader, I constantly expect something terrible to happen. His novel contains a series of inherent spoilers, because every time things start to go well-ish, you know it’s about to all come crumbling down. This isn’t a flaw per say, considering the subject has to be bleak given the setting. If events don't go south, I’d probably complain like a brat that the book is unrealistic. Still, these are all factors to be aware of when considering your next book (or beach-read).
           
            While some Goodreads reviewers warn about the graphicness of the novel, I personally think that Hosseini did an expert balancing act—he depicts enough gore and viciousness to convey the severity of the characters’ plights, but he doesn’t attack us ruthlessly or unnecessarily. Additionally, the bouts of brutality don’t exist to glorify violence—they serve a broader purpose in the novel. As Laila observes, “every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet…people find a way to survive, to go on” (Hosseini, 395).

            Overall, I would let Hosseini write to me and operate on me. With this novel, he proves himself once again as an author who can masterfully communicate a horrible truth about historic events via a fictional pathway. A Thousand Splendid Suns receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Hosseini, Khaled. A Thousand Splendid Suns. New York: Riverhead books, 2007. Print.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

All the Light We Cannot See

            You know how old people wistfully tell you to look for the light at the end of the tunnel during a hardship? Reading All the Light We Cannot See has me thinking that the light at the tunnel is for sure a high-speed train gearing up for a head-on collision. Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is aptly packed with a great deal of darkness, and I may or may not have cried a little at the end.

            At 530 pages, his work is also not light in the physical sense.  While the longevity isn’t always appreciated (I much prefer the latter half of the book to the former), it is necessary in order to accomplish Doerr’s goals. It’s clear he wants to present multiple perspectives on a historical travesty—even if it means inducing readers to empathize with a Nazi................

            Specifically, he uses a parallel structure to compare the lives of two European children during World War II.  The first, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is a blind Parisian who must flee her childhood home and take refuge with extended family in another French town occupied by the Nazis. Fun fact: it’s not easy to leave everything you’ve ever known when you literally can’t see a single thing. The second, Werner Pfennig, is a precocious German orphan whose science skills land him in a select Nazi military school. There, he is brainwashed by nationalism and fear, yet intrigued by the power of his intellectual gifts for “the cause”.

            The two main characters’ paths unknowingly intertwine throughout the novel, and Doerr underscores the connection by hopping around from person to person and from year to year. Here’s where I pause. It’s difficult enough to simultaneously resonate with two different people in two different places with two different sets of problems. Whiplash me back and forth from 1940 to 1944 to 1942, etc., and you’ve lost me. When I’m reading something super sad, I need an enduring sense of place. Interestingly, the overly-jumpy-factor ruined another Pulitzer Prize winner for me—A Visit from the Good Squad. Is that the secret ingredient?

            When you’re able to look over the novel’s questionable rhythm, there are plenty of gems. Literally, there is a gem known as the Sea of Flames, which allegedly gives its owner immortality at the expense of everyone around him/her.  Some characters covet the diamond, and the location of the stone lends to a consistent mysterious tone throughout the novel. Figuratively, Doerr gifts us his beautiful prose. Perhaps due to the fact that one of his main characters is blind, Doerr uses some stellar imagery to describe the haunting images of war-torn countries filled with children deprived of their innocence.

            Overall, his work is moving but perhaps not award winning given the helter-skelter style. All the Light We Cannot See walks away with three out of five camel humps.


*Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014 Print.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Everything That Rises Must Converge

“And they all lived happily ever after” is a sentence that Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t be caught dead writing. Instead, she was caught dead writing Everything That Rises Must Converge*, so it was published posthumously. My three-part O’Connor selection consists of Wise Blood (her first novel, 1952), The Violent Bear It Away (novel, 1960), and Everything that Rises Must Converge (collection of short stories, 1965). I started with her first novel and moved on to her last stories in order to track her trajectory as a writer; then, I circled back to her 1960 novel. Here, I’ll give a brief summary of each book and aggregate the ratings. Lots of sophisticated mathematics occurring on this site.  

Wise Blood is one of those first novels that you know is a first novel. Some authors thrive on subtlety, which I assume comes with experience. In this case, O’Connor thrives on hitting you in the face with an idea over and over again. The blood motif referenced in the title points to several—mostly religious—conclusions. The notion that blood can possess the quality of wisdom suggests that a person can have an innate sense of guidance that renders spiritual guidance irrelevant. Additionally, the Christian belief that Jesus redeemed humanity through the blood He shed contrasts with some of O’Connor’s characters’ insistence that salvation isn’t necessary in that their own blood sets them free. Lastly, because blood is associated with inheritance, O’Connor plays on the idea of psychological lineage to emphasize inevitability: some tendencies run through our blood that can’t be eradicated.  Because O’Connor’s devout Catholicism imbues the majority of her work, these bloody implications remind us that no character is safe from the author’s need to show a reckoning with Christ. Although it is impressive that Wise Blood extends from her Master’s thesis at the University of Iowa, I can’t appreciate the story. The characters’ actions seem consistently non-sensible. I know that religion can sometimes make people do irrational things, but I don’t want to read about a series of bizarre events that don’t get due explanations. Either develop your characters more or create less wacky scenarios. Not into it... Wise Blood receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

The Violent Bear It Away evinces O’Connor’s growth as a writer. The novel discusses similar themes while telling a more sophisticated, interesting story. In it, a fanatically religious uncle indoctrinates his orphaned nephew. After the uncle’s death, the boy must come to terms with his own faith (or lack thereof) and carve his own path outside of the influence of an overbearing relative. Again, there’s a darkness to the plot, and no character comes out unscathed. We get to watch the characters wrestle with their inner demons and reconcile their insecurities with the irresistible draw of a passionate religiosity than runs in the fam. The downside? Her transitions between past and present are too abrupt and they result in reader-whiplash. I also seriously question the practical aspects of some of the forest fires scenes. As a whole, The Violent Bear It Away receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

Everything that Rises Must Converge stands out well above the rest. Each of the nine short stories shows a character confronted with their own mortality, which is perhaps reflective of O’Connor’s own battle with lupus at the time of writing. She wields incisive prose, a dash of wit, and tragic endings as usual; but I believe that this triple threat is better packaged in a short story. She trades tediousness for tension—every interaction is charged with some sort of conflict (generational gap, racial prejudice, intellect disparity, religious quarrel, etc.). Her characters realize that they’re shitty people, but the insight comes too late. I’m very impressed with this collection, and I would re-read and recommend it to others as an introduction to O’Connor’s work; therefore, Everything that Rises Must Converge receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

Overall, this three-book edition was good bang for the buck, but only parts were worth a read. As promised, the average score is 3 out of 5 camel humps. Be selective with your book of choice.

*O'Connor, Flannery. Three by Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, Everything that Rises Must Converge. New York: Signet, 1986. Print.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Candide

            Never have I ever been so thankful for Voltaire than when my boyfriend and I came dangerously close to starving in an area of the world that’s basically Antarctica. Yes, that’s a real sentence.

Recently, we went on a three-day backpacking trip through Patagonia. We had withdrawn what we assumed was a generous amount of Chilean pesos for the trip, because various legs only accept cash, and we knew there wouldn’t be an ATM chillin on one of the glaciers out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, some expenses that we thought we had already paid for actually needed settling, some transportation that we’d been told could be charged by card actually needed cash, and some rates were more expensive than we had anticipated. Really, we’re noobs. After we got to the end of the earth via three planes and three buses, we didn’t have enough pesos for both of us to take the necessary ferry that would finally shuttle us to the start of our trek. More troubling was the fact that I had only packed enough food to have meager snacks on the trail (I planned on eating dinner at the hostels along the way). Even if we could finagle our way on the ferry, if the hostels pulled the stunt that everyone else had pulled and didn’t accept credit cards, I foresaw many hangry nights and weak attempts at backpacking uphill. I clutched to a word that means the same in English and in Spanish: no no no no no.

Luckily—before I completely lost my shit amidst a multicultural group of mostly non-English speakers—a nice American couple agreed to trade USD for pesos and the hostels agreed to take our Visa.

Truthfully, I was very grumpy in the hour or so that I envisioned having to live three physically strenuous days off of one questionably packaged Chilean sausage and a bag of raisins; however, there were brief moments where I found solace in Candide*, Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novella that I had finished the day before. Candide is like The Odyssey, in that a man named Candide travels a long, fraught journey to reunite with his true love, Cunégonde. Unlike Homer, we know a great deal about Voltaire, especially how his philosophical and religious views influenced his work.

Candide was written in response to a philosophy of optimism espoused by Voltaire’s contemporary, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz believed that, because God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, the world that we live in is necessarily optimal, or the best of all possible worlds. The character Candide inherits this worldview from his mentor, Professor Pangloss; however, this belief is continually challenged as Candide faces trial after trial. He’s a good man with simple aspirations, and he can’t seem to catch a break. Surely his experiences are not the best that they could possibly be? Perhaps Pangloss deludes himself with a false optimism that’s in reality “the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong” (Voltaire, 49)?

I’m a sucker for dry humor and Voltaire knows how to dish it out. He renders Candide’s misfortunes as larger-than-life, and he describes catastrophic events in a deadpan, dark way, similar to that of Catch-22, the GOAT of 20th century literature. In the end, Voltaire doesn’t provide us a clear-cut answer key on how to endure hardships. Instead, he offers an enigmatic practical solution: avoid idleness and work without disputing. This notion reminds me of Albert Camus’ suggestion that one must accept the absurdity of existence and actively live in spite of it. Keep on keepin’ on.

In Patagonia, as I considered my helplessness and yearned for Taco Bell back home, I thought of Candide’s tribulations and his insistence on perseverance. He hoped that his plights would eventually resolve, but because nothing is guaranteed and things don’t always work out for the best, he swallowed the bitter pill of life and accepted his less than gratifying hand. Mad props to Candide and medium props to myself for not publicly wailing. Voltaire, in his infinite critical wisdom, receives 5 out of 5 camel humps for Candide.


*Voltaire. Candide. Trans. Lowell Bair. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1984. Print.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Me Talk Pretty One Day

Meh. I bought Me Talk Pretty One Day* because I had heard wonderful things about David Sedaris’ previous work, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. The latter, published in 2013, was hot—it stood at the number one spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. The former, published in 2000, was not (in my humble opinion). Truthfully, I had no idea that Sedaris is a humorist; I thought that Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was genuinely about owl diabetes. Healthcare is confusing, but I figured that owls can have diabetes because they have insulin, which I discerned after a simple Google search—“do owls have insulin?” Spoiler alert: they do.

You can imagine my surprise when I started reading and realized that Me Talk Pretty One Day is a collection of comedic essays. This realization was further delayed by the fact that the essays are not very funny.

 I love collective works (like George Saunders’ Tenth of December and The Best American Short Stories 2013) because they’re easy and fun to navigate. I can finish a short story in one sitting and let that simmer in me for a while before I move on to the next, which is a totally different user-experience than if I was dealing with a novel in its entirety. 

Unfortunately, the bite-sized offerings of Sedaris produce little more than pity laughs. He’s the guy that gets you a notch before laugh-climax but can’t go all the way. I do an inner chuckle, but I recognize it as a cheap joke. Obviously, not everything is going to land, but out of a whole book, I expect at least one LOL.

Sedaris’ life in general is interesting enough to wield comedic potential. He went through a period of methamphetamine addiction, served in a series of jobs that he was highly unqualified for, and moved to France largely unprepared. I found myself more interested in the plot than his attempt at witticism. The truth of the matter is that there are much funnier people out there begging you to read their book. I’m reluctant to throw out a number, because my sense of humor might be different than yours, but I suppose you came here for a reason. Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day receives two out of five camel humps.

*Sedaris, Dave. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Back Bay Books, 2000. Print.