what i liked most in this book, what kept me electrified from the first sentence, is the language. i loved the language. wow. poetic passages with not...morewhat i liked most in this book, what kept me electrified from the first sentence, is the language. i loved the language. wow. poetic passages with not a shred of tiresomeness. originality of vision. beautiful.
in the last third, the story got in the way. truth be told, i was all about kweku. his tragedy, told almost indirectly, through his kids' stories, through the flashbacks he's having as he's dying, is powerful and delicate and so poignant. a brilliant man, an accomplished man, an african living in america: you know he doesn't stand a chance. you know the land of opportunity will chew him and spit him out.
the twins' story robs the limelight in a way that is not to advantage, in my opinion. maybe it belonged in another book?
but i read it breathlessly till the end, and if you like language half as much as i do, read this extraordinary book as well. (less)
i read it, or looked at it (there isn't a single word in the whole book; wait, there are words, but i didn't have the key). i was disturbed by the fac...morei read it, or looked at it (there isn't a single word in the whole book; wait, there are words, but i didn't have the key). i was disturbed by the fact that the copy i got from the library was all battered. i thought poorly of public library users until i realized that was actually the design. it wasn't battered at all.
anyway, i'm done. it's taken me two renewals and a starbucks' latte's worth of late fees. once i actually cracked it open it took me only maybe a week. it's a beautiful book and the drawings are astounding. when i was very very little i would have liked them. when i was a little older i would have briefly considered trying to copy them.
now please, oh ye graphic freaks, leave me alone for at least another decade. (less)
this was a daring idea -- american writer tries to inhabit the american dream of a recently-immigrated albanian woman. making the albanian a sassy 26-...morethis was a daring idea -- american writer tries to inhabit the american dream of a recently-immigrated albanian woman. making the albanian a sassy 26-year-old full of albanian stories was even more challenging. what does francine prose know about albania? also: comic novels are hard to pull through. i think this fails. it's readable, but it falls short of everything it goes for: humor (oops!), the american-dream story, the albanian-angle story, suspense, critique of american suburban life, the boredom and borishness of american life. there is some success in the human empathy side -- in fact, more than some. but in order for that angle to have been fully explored this would have had to be another novel. me, i think it would have been a better novel too.
let me just say that francine prose is a master of the craft of writing. aspiring writers: read this and learn how to put together sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books. (less)
this book is eye candy. DM fills it with language so rich and poetic that, if you like language, you'll be delighted. and he manages, always, not to b...morethis book is eye candy. DM fills it with language so rich and poetic that, if you like language, you'll be delighted. and he manages, always, not to be purple or cloying. maybe the language is Thousand Autumns' best asset. it works at multiple levels: the richest is descriptions. i didn't even try to keep up with the adjectival flourishes. nothing much is lost, for me, if language washes over me and the occasional (far from infrequent) pearl simply sucks all the light, leaves the rest of the sentence/paragraph in an under-conscious blur, lodges itself firmly in front of my eyes. DM is not afraid of pearls. he disseminates them with generosity. in a time when realistic and edgy prose is prized, this is brave. at least i find it brave.
another level is dialogue. DM is representing in english what is presumably working class dutch parlance, which he does virtuosistically and with great picturesque turns. but he also gives voice to japanese administrators high and low, haltingly-speaking servants (lots of people here speak in a language not their own), slaves, and the highly educated, and most spectacular, doctor marinus.
but then, like other DM's book, this is also a brutal look into empires, international commerce, the exploitation of human beings, the exploitation of countries by one another, the deceit that characterizes human interactions especially when money and power are at stake, the consistency with which humans screw each other, the rottenness of nationalism, and some pretty brutal times in world's history that are only slightly less brutal than the times in which we live now and, in fact, remind us that there may well be, and in fact are, parts of the world in which things are happening in precisely this way. which makes the book, also, an implicit critique, it seems to me, of the complacency of the reader, who is comfortably enjoying his or her heightened state of civilization (freedom to move, shop, read books) while imperialism, barbarism, oppression, and brutality go on unchecked in all five continents.
and if you want to think of DM as a critic of our times, you can very well see that the imperial lust he exposes in Thousand Autumns is not very dissimilar from the imperial lust of his and our governments, except now we tend to do things in a more polished and much more secretive way.
but then DM is a sweet writer, and doesn't let us walk away from his marvelous novel with bitterness coating the inside of our mouths. he gives us jacob de zoet, who is lovely, sweet, smart, and profoundly decent, and he also gives us other really decent characters (marinus first among them), and those are the ones who ultimately win the day.
* the only reason why i docked that one star is that i don't jive to historical fiction, especially of the boy variety, where exchanges between guys constitute the bulk of the story.
[i posted this review when i finished the book, then the whole thing got deleted, somehow. the helpful folks at GR found it for me cached in google; here is the link. i copied the review: the link is only for all the cool comments.](less)
rakesh satyal has written a brilliant, delightful, heartbreaking/heart-lifting story of the coming of age of a 12-year-old queer indian-ohioan (second...morerakesh satyal has written a brilliant, delightful, heartbreaking/heart-lifting story of the coming of age of a 12-year-old queer indian-ohioan (second generation: the parents immigrated to the US as adults) boy. kiran is a beautifully drawn character. original, thoughtful, playful and super-smart, he deals with his difference (racial, sexual) and his status as an outcast with the aplomb, dignity, and life-joy of someone with tremendous faith in his vision of himself. in this vision kiran is simply fabulous. he is beautiful, brilliant, skillful, modest, accepting, and kind. he is also a little divine. he is the god of his self-contained world.
then, at some point, this vision is horribly shaken. and then, later, it's put back together again, and it's a thing of beauty.
what keeps kiran together -- solid and for the most part happy -- are his family and his religion, the two single worst enemies of queer kids in a lot of western-centric YA and adult queer narratives, fictional and otherwise. the evolution of his family's feeling toward him constitutes the core of the novel so i won't spoil it. as for religion, kiran finds in flamboyant (in his eyes, i know nothing about hinduism), romantic, blue-skinned krishna a fabulous object of identification. the divinity is not only an example to emulate but a guardian and a protector.
through identification with krishna, kiran manages to navigate his gender troubles. krishna loves a beautiful, absolutely special girl. kiran loves girls too: he wants to be like them! what a perfect match! he must certainly be krishna’s reincarnation!
satyal is a skillful enough writer not to let kiran’s perfect world be crushed from the outside. the attacks come from the inside – where kiran has to navigate the tricky combination of fantasy/reality/self-deception that sustains him. as reality rocks his world like an earthquake, kiran has to resort to great inner strength to keep it standing. it is the depiction of kiran’s strength, and of the sources of it, that is the genius of this sweet and funny book. (less)
i found Brick Lane breathtaking, and if anyone is deciding whether or not to read Brick Lane based on this book, i really think they should reconsider...morei found Brick Lane breathtaking, and if anyone is deciding whether or not to read Brick Lane based on this book, i really think they should reconsider, if for no other reason that they are so different, they could be written by different authors. they really should be judged independently.
i would finish this book if i were reading it at another time. but this is not a good time for me to slog through a writer's experiment with a genre she -- it seems to me -- doesn't quite inhabit. what monica ali seems to want to do here is look at multicultural england through the eyes of an average joe who is not a total scumbag but is not exemplary either. gabriel lightfoot is the chef of the kitchen of a once-first-rate hotel, but the melting pot metaphor doesn't quite pan out, mostly because the white male protagonist is not pleasant. his morals are at least frayed, his character weak, and his mental world on the verge of falling apart.
i don't enjoy novels that chronicle the unraveling of their protagonists, and i don't enjoy novels written by young female writers with a kick-ass feminist novel under their belts that chronicle the unraveling of middle-aged guys (zadie smith does this too! what gives?). there's plenty middle-aged guys chronicling the unraveling of middle-aged guys, and if i want to read about this subject i'll turn to them. what i'm saying in not that writers should be limiting themselves to writing about people who are, whatever that means, "like them," but that if you are monica ali and you can write about vibrant women like nazneen, why write about gabriel lightfoot? (note: i'm aware there are like a million holes in this argument, but please, monica ali, understand what i'm saying! i don't ask that you give us bangladeshi story after bangladeshi story, but... can you take a breather from experiments and write something, you know, good>/i>? cause we know you can).
the writing is solid, sometimes really good, but ali does seem out of her element. she is still head and shoulders above the average writer, but the language doesn't seem to gel, quite. the plot is all over the place. a lot of sections should simply be cut by 9/10s. i've read half the book and i am still far from finding a focus or finding out why people, including gabe, act the way they do. i'm going to be the first one to check out your next book from the library, monica ali, but i'm giving up on this one.(less)
this is jhumpa lahiri meets zadie smith (look what you've done, jhumpa and zadie! turned a whole generation of women novelists to your stark, in the f...morethis is jhumpa lahiri meets zadie smith (look what you've done, jhumpa and zadie! turned a whole generation of women novelists to your stark, in the former case, and bleakly humorous, in the latter, demolition of the multiple barriers the human psyche erects to keep itself looking normal) meets dostoevsky. seriously. what a tour de force. susan choi takes the concept of "scene" so seriously that her scenes turn into long long chapters, even when all she describes is a trip from home to campus. the scope is definitely 19th century. this is writing that leaves no stone unturned in its analysis of the movements of the human heart (george eliot? flaubert?). but there is also a nabokovian pleasure in delving into perversity and pettiness. except that, since this delving is from the point of view of the close-third-person protagonist, these agonies of disclosure are stained and rotted by self-doubt, self-contempt, and a feverish, pathological loneliness. lee is the most tortured person i've ever met, either in real life or in fiction.
at the same time (enter zadie and jhumpa) there are all the hallmarks of post-post-modernity in this novel: immigration, cultural impasses, the horrors of academia, the ungraspability of the constructed self, technology, and, of course, terrorism (the novel starts with and centers on a bombing).
i'm just at the 100 page mark. this is not fast going. but wow, susan choi, how could you write this and sleep at night?
now the story is picking up -- lee is a suspect in the bombing -- and while this makes for faster reading, you feel that something is lost (not a bad thing, just a regular loss, one of the losses one gets all the time, every day: hours passing, meals ending, goodbye, goodbye). it was really crazy to see lee at his purest, most solipsistic tortured. now he's got something to be tortured about, and the reader's puzzlement, her... anger? starts being directed elsewhere, i.e. at those brutish FBI people. lee becomes the victim, which makes him likable. sea change!
wow. i just finished this extraordinary book. more on overall impressions tomorrow. it's a masterpiece. i'm surprised it didn't get nominated for any of those awards they are always so eager to give women of color (no slight in the least bit intended -- choi would totally deserve at least a nomination). what a book. i'm reeling.
what an accomplishment. i don't understand why we don't hear about susan choi at least as much as we hear about jhumpa lahiri. the protagonist of this book, lee, is a late-middle-aged asian man, a math professor in an unnamed mid-western college. and already things get strange, because lee's original country, which he left in his late twenties and which was at the time occupied by a repressive communist regime, is never named either. and the time frame doesn't quite work (or at least it didn't for me). like: his next-door colleague, the guy who gets bombed in the first line of the book, is a computer scientist working with dial-up. in fact, he's a pioneer in computer science. so, this is the very beginning of this book, and you read the words "dial-up:" what do you do? you locate yourself immediately in the nineties. but then the FBI shows up, and they have snap phones. did we have snap phones in the 90s? i don't think so. so you readjust your focus, but also keep your eyes peeled for clues. and suddenly you have cassette tapes...
to be sure, choi gives a million time-clues. in fact, she tells us at what approximate age lee graduated from grad school, and what year that was. but i found myself doing the math over and over, and bad as i am at basic arithmetic, i don't typically find myself counting so much in a book. oh wait, it's a book about mathematicians! is that why choi makes us count so much?
same goes with space. once lee leaves his little town, the geographical markers are awfully precise, down to interstate turns. but it's as if his town and state, much like his time, were sunk in fog, slightly off, slightly murky, slightly out of sync with the rest of reality (the reader's reality).
and this is such a great quality of this book, because it makes it vague and mysterious and, also, makes you pay attention. and pay attention is the thing you must do most when you read this book.
which brings me to the what's-this-about question. this book changes aboutness every 100 pages or so. ultimately, i think, it's about love and family, spouses, children, but probably someone else would find the aboutness to be different. these issues are the ones that talked to me. the invisible children that live (more and more noticeably) just under the surface of this novel are its center, and the crotchety and failed fatherhood of lee the very heart of this amazing novel.
it's lovely that the protagonist should be an east-asian guy living in the midwest. even though he is hardly ever described in terms of otherness, you, if you are like me, i.e. a white reader, herself an immigrant, have his otherness imprinted on the inside of your cornea at all times. this is vastly helped by the fact that choi dwells SO MUCH on his physicality -- his clothes, his thinness, his age, his scrawny body, his smallness, the fatigue lines on his face, etc. every time she does that, you are forced to see his asian face. and, if you are like me, what you see is a kind of inscrutability (which is racist, but then this book is also about making us question our subtle racism) because you know that's what lee's fellow midwesterners see, and what you'd see if you were one of them.
and this is certainly not aided by the fact that, in the book, lee is almost always tongue-tied, paralyzed, terrified, blundering, and horribly self-conscious. also, he makes a point of disdaining the most basic social conventions, and seems entirely out of tune with everyone else, as if he were so shy and misanthropic and self-conscious that he didn't have one thought to spare for anyone but his own agonizing self.
so it comes as a surprise when choi goes into flashback mode and you discover than a younger lee was, if not more sociable, capable of passion and, even more surprising, of terrifying outbursts of rage.
and this is another lesson of this book: that we don't know each other. we don't know each other's motivations, desires, inner selves, potentialities, and future actions. we can't predict. the only thing we can do is talk, and connect, and try to find out.
choi writes amazing prose. i can't wait to read her other books. she's a master. (less)
as best as i can judge, lawrence hill reproduces here the style and tone of the classic slave narratives, which he also credits at the end (in particu...moreas best as i can judge, lawrence hill reproduces here the style and tone of the classic slave narratives, which he also credits at the end (in particular, he directs to reader to The Classic Slave Narratives collected by henry louis gates in one volume that includes olaudah equiano's, mary prince's, frederick douglass', and harriets jacobs' autobiographies). i have taught a couple of slave narratives (douglass and jacobs) and i must say it was a labor of love, because, well, because they sound dated. their authors describe their lives in vivid and horrific terms, yet our contemporary sensibility, latched as it is to the psychology of the individual, relying as it does on introspection, inner conflicts, and psychic shadows, remains somewhat cool at these depictions. and then there's the fact that we are habituated to descriptions of horror. and the fact that we understand the pain of others only when these others are our friends. hundreds of people blown away on the screen don't move us unless: a) we have gotten to know and like at least one of them or b) there are cute animals involved. for some reason, the powers that manipulate the responses of our heart strings have not yet gone to work on immunizing us against the pain of animals.
but yeah, they have worked long and hard at immunizing us against the pain of the human "other," so narratives of slavery, the jewish holocaust, and various other genocides leave us a lot colder than they should.
hill cuts himself a pretty arduous task in writing a slave narrative using the classic conventions of the genre (if one can call it that) yet trying to make us feel what it is like. i think he succeeds.
maybe he should have abandoned the genre conventions, written a different kind of story, made the characters more tridimensional and complex and nuanced, instead of sticking to black-and-white (pun totally meant) representations, the way the original writers did. there are some efforts, especially towards the end, to penetrate motivations, ambiguities, and the power that political pressures have on personal motivations, but at heart this is a story of white people being horrible to black people.
if you have already read the classic slave narratives you'll appreciate this book better, because you'll see what hill is trying to do. if you are looking for a contemporary novel with all the hallmarks of the contemporary novel, this will let you down. well, except for the remarkable historical details, which, judging from the acknowledgments, have been researched with painstaking meticulousness.
okay, i've finished with my caveats. now to what i like about this book:
* aminata is a remarkably strong, vibrant, and sympathetic character. she's a leader and a role model and you will love her. the parts when she describes her present life give perspective to the parts where she recounts her story of slavery. put simply, sophisticated, multilingual, erudite, worldly, wily, skeptical, witty, and non-religious blacks are not part of the pop culture or even the high-culture canon of the western world (this is bound to change rather dramatically now that we are past january 20, 2009, a day that must have made lawrence hill deliriously happy).
* the subtleties of the politics of the slave trade and of all large historical events that subsume individuals and force them to collaborate are depicted mercilessly and in a savvy and clear-eyed way. this is also something that comes to fruition particularly towards the end.
* because he puts us inside the head of aminata better than douglass and jacobs (the only two ex-slaves whose narratives i've read) put us inside their own heads, hill makes us feel the pain of loss and dehumanization more strongly, to the point that, as someone else here on GR pointed out, we feel that this could happen to us. one of the reasons why white students tend to remain cool when they read douglass & co. is that it is abundantly clear to them that this is something that can only happen to "others." i almost feel that, having to choose one slave narrative for a class, this would be the one to choose.
* from the point of view of those interested in historical trauma, the african sections of the story are non-pareil. africa as it was when aminata was little is gone, never to return. it is the devastation, not only of one or many peoples, but of a whole continent, and it all takes place in the space of one generation.
* also from the point of view of trauma and survival, it is exceedingly moving that aminata's inner strength comes to her till the very end from the memory of her parents, even though she lost them when she was only 9.
* **MINOR SPOILER** the book analyzes very poignantly the dynamics of race and belonging. as an african-born, aminata is always considered different from her american-born fellow slaves, at least until she learns their language fluently. but it is not until she goes back to africa that her difference becomes a mark of her identity. in spite of her fluency with their language and, obviously, of her appearance, the villagers among whom she takes refuge are tempted to identify her as a white person instead of as an african: "In South Carolina, I had been an African. In Nova Scotia, I had become known and a Loyalist, or a Negro, or both. And now, finally back in Africa, I was seen as a Nova Scotian, and in some respects thought of myself that way too" (385).
rather than the psychological complexities of the contemporary novel, this book adds to the traditional slave narrative a transnational, multicultural, race-studies dimension. and i didn't mention that it is written beautifully and wisely and grippingly, and that i admire it very much.(less)
the first half of this book is prose poetry written in what i can best describe as trinidadian english, because that is the island-english i've heard...morethe first half of this book is prose poetry written in what i can best describe as trinidadian english, because that is the island-english i've heard that most closely approximates the language of this book. maybe it's another island. certainly it's another island. many of the localities have french names. i don't think localities in trinidad have french names.
still, it's the caribbean and life is hell and two women love each other but life is hell and something happens to one of them and the other goes to canada to look for her.
life is hell because it's brutalized by 500 years of slavery and 500 years of exploitation and the island is a prison but also home and life is lived in the dark shadow of trauma.
brand's description of elizete's life in canada is amazing and if you have left your land (any land at all) to move to a north american city you will know exactly what she is talking about. (this is true even if you are coming from another "first world" country, though your life will probably have been infinitely better as far as material conditions are concerned).
the second part is also prose poetry but it's in standard canadian english and the poetry is less surrealistic. this part belongs to elizete's lover, and it too describes hell and Verlia's efforts at making it better by joining a black power movement and trying to organize black people in canada and the caribbean, only to be quashed mercilessly by the US-propped local dictatorships.
you can read this book for the story and you'll be happy you did. you can read this book for the language and you'll be happy you did. you can read this book for the hell and you'll be happy you did.
but you have to be into all three. if you are not, this book will be hard. i found it amazing and now i want to read everything this woman has written. (less)
i was entirely captured by the first two sections of this book. unlike my good friend jeff, i found myself totally taken by pretty boys writing books...morei was entirely captured by the first two sections of this book. unlike my good friend jeff, i found myself totally taken by pretty boys writing books and talking music and philosophy in a villa on the italian riviera in the middle of the mediterranean summer. maybe it's because i know the mediterranean summer, though i have never spent it on the riviera or, for that matter, in a villa. there's some scott fitzgerald that takes place in a similar environs, and i dare same some hemingway. i thought i had had enough of decadent descriptions of life on the riviera in the summer, but nope, i hadn't and haven't.
this is all foil. the real story is the depiction of unbearable adolescent longing and lust, mixed with guilt, self-hatred, impossibility, and an overwhelming sense of doom. i found the subtle description of the tiny nuances of these complex feelings riveting, pitch-perfect, and heartbreaking (because, let's face it, none of us ever entirely outgrows his or her adolescence, the same as we never outgrow our childhood: rather, we pile all these former selves inside us, perching the adult precariously on top).
i lost interest, instead, when the novel moved into the third part. but this is probably me. after all that skin and sun, nighttime rome felt contrived to me. it is also more difficult to describe perfect happiness than perfect misery, and less interesting to read about it.
i would like to mention the fact that, to the best of my judgement, this egyptian author makes his protagonist italian (yes?), and that both lovers are jewish, one sephardic the other one presumably ashkenazi (aciman is himself a sephardic jew). quite a bit is made of the jewishness at the beginning; later, though, it gets dropped out of the novel. since the beginning is the part in which longing and loss are most prominent, this seems significant to me. elio's isolation (he doesn't have any friends, he spends all day alone with is music, his parents are worried about him, he is not much interested in girls) is a mixture of gayness, overcultivation (at some point oliver asks him, "do you know everything?" and, truly, he does!), and jewishness.
equally intriguing, in the same melancholy and doomed way, is the little girl vimimi (what kind of name is that???), who lives with her leukemia and her certain death like a top-notch stoic.
*** SPOILER ***
i'm angry at this book for the violence it consciously does to one's heart strings, and i'm particularly angry at the very last part, in which the description of failed lives made out of missed chances reaches a truly tragic pitch. but the first part, with all the sun and the lust, with the uncertainty and the despair and the intolerable longing, with the blind heartache that hits kids who haven't yet gotten used to life, that spoke to me.(less)
***finished this book, and this endless, sprawling review!***
i'm finding myself liking this a lot, yet also being a bit tired of it. i wish it were sh...more***finished this book, and this endless, sprawling review!***
i'm finding myself liking this a lot, yet also being a bit tired of it. i wish it were shorter. at the same time, i deeply enjoy the language and a part of me will be sad when this ends.
as people have pointed out here, soueif is consciously reprising the style of the massive 19th century novel centered around the plight of an unhappy heroine, and the references to Anna Karenina and Middlemarch abound. i have not read Anna Karenina, and i read Middlemarch some time ago, but my impression is that such novels pivoted on more stories and more narrative threads than Eye of the Sun. in fact, Eye of the Sun stays pointedly focused on its protagonist, Asya, who is almost the sole point of view. since the side-characters are multiple and potentially rich (the novel opens with a striking representation of asya's uncle, hamid, who however recedes to the background in the rest of the novel), you wonder whether she would not have done better to give them more room in which to expand.
but maybe the narrowness of the focus is the novel's point, and, if so, i most certainly do not feel in any position to say that soueif fails. this is a striking book in a number of respects, and i'm really looking forward to finishing it and being able to say more about the themes it covers.
let me now talk for a second about genre and audience. if amazon.com and goodreads are any indication, many people have read this book, which is encouraging. i wonder though about contemporary tolerance for the sprawling psychological/realist 19th century novel, with its pleasure in the act of storytelling, its desire to immerse us in the story, anticipating and meeting our delight in the scene, the texture of the moment, the substance of places, and, above all, the rich emotional and mental reverberations that are unleashed in the interaction between the characters, their stories, and their surroundings. maybe this is an outmoded way of telling stories, and not only because we have in the meantime picked up a variety of ways in which stories are told and transmitted. i wonder whether the outmodedness of the large realist/psychological novel, if there at all, is not due to a restlessness we have acquired with the act of deep, nuanced, and unrelenting psychological probing, its fixed focus on the characters' inner lives, its fascination with melancholy and pain.
i'm babbling. i'm probably entirely wrong. i'll come back to these thoughts. but i'm struck by simon's current impatience with fanny burney, and wondering whether we might not have outgrown the genre. which is not to say that all examples of it are outgrowable, and that there aren't superb and timeless models of this and any style. still, Middlemarch could not be written now, and neither could the Iliad.
-------------------------------- TAKE TWO *** spoilers ***
i'm almost at the end but i can't finish this book at this time. this is one painful book. soueif builds such a relentless, single-minded, deeply nuanced yet jaggernaut-like destructive path for young asya, i feel that i'm getting destroyed at the same pace as she is. even if she survives the book unscathed (and we know that, to some extent at least, she does), the psychic erosion she undergoes, the systematic emptying out of her self and her strength, the demolition of her life and vitality seem almost irremediable.
this book is most certainly about sexual politics (it is about sex), but i am not sure that, as edward said suggests in his write-up, it's specifically about the sexual politics of the arab world. asya, her family, her husband are deeply westernized people. in fact, the book takes great pains to represent them as sophisticated, erudite, and, to a large extent, liberated. they are the cairo elite, university professors enamored of english lit, and they consider themselves -- at least asya does -- pretty much bicultural. of course the arab influence is massive, and negotiating it while navigating the western world is one of these characters' most watchable enterprises. at the same time, though, it seems to me that what asya experiences, her sexual martyrdom, this terrible calvary, is something any western woman can relate to with great ease. at bottom, this is a novel of domestic abuse, seen from the p.o.v. of the woman. what's so remarkable about it (and it is a remarkable novel) is that the abuse is portrayed subtly and over such a large number of pages (soueif's narrative patience is astounding). asya is barely aware of it, and so are we. asya assumes much of the blame for it, and at first we are tempted to blame her, too. in other words, soueif does not even try to simplify the terrible situations men and women build for themselves and each other, often in perfectly good faith and equally perfect ignorance. asya's damnation is not the violence she endures, but her constant need to investigate, probe, understand. no one else in the book asks her or himself this many questions. asya is the book's relentless questioner.
i'm still a bit sorry that the book's secondary characters fall by the wayside, but asya's story is sure powerful, and has good and sturdy legs on which to carry this novelistic tour-de-force.
-------------------------------- and now that i've finished this, some words on what it's about. oh, it's about egypt and thriving/teeming/alive third-world cities. cairo surely plays a big role here, even though unfortunately much of the pleasures of the city are lost on me. but i love novels that celebrate cities: avenues, small streets, quarters, life-styles, old homes, poor homes, street vendors, shops, markets, monuments (the pyramids!), cemeteries, universities, botanic gardens, riverfronts, little niches where lovers kiss and passersby don't bother them. london is similarly celebrated, and england in general, which becomes delightful and alive in spite of its grayness and its mud the moment asif joins asya in it.
asif brings life with him. he also brings a peculiar death, the death -- for asya -- of foreclosed communication, the presumption that you know the other therefore do not need to listen to her, a misguided protectiveness, adoration, infantilization.
a lovely scene, towards the end, between asya and her mother; and a great celebration of women, mothers, non mothers, lovers, sisters, friends, beautiful and rash and smart and brilliant and oh so on top of everything, amazingly resilient.
and asya's resurrection (i didn't think it possible, but this is fiction and you can do anything you want), her return to her family, to egypt, which is however a transformed country, more westernized for sure but also changed by war, the constant strife with israel, the bullying on the part of the americans, the political imprisonments, the palestinian question, the rise of fundamentalism.... great book, not for the faint of heart. (less)
i think that, as short story collections go, this one is up there with the great masterpieces -- flannery o'connor, hawthorne, raymond carver, nadine...morei think that, as short story collections go, this one is up there with the great masterpieces -- flannery o'connor, hawthorne, raymond carver, nadine gordimer, alice munro (the writers who come to mind are the ones who straightforwardly explore the torments of the human heart). the most extraordinary feeling i have about it is that i glided from story to story without having much of a sense of interruption. the stories flow into each other, having to do with people who are different (in age, gender, lifestyle) but also similar in some deep way, so that you have a sense that you are reading about the same group of folks, people who share a profound connection. the last three stories are interconnected, yet i felt no difference. they all felt interconnected to me.
part of it is that all these characters are locked inside, deeply alone. they are remote from others and also from themselves. i feel it would be extremely hard to have a relationship with them, and i wouldn't want to. yet, they seem so incredibly human, so easy to identify with. this is lahiri's sleight of hand, to make you feel both very close and infinitely distant from these people.
these characters are also intensely self-contained, though not in an assured, relaxed way. they feel to me as if they were tightly wound up, and held themselves together with great care, aware that a sudden movement can make the tightly wound edifice of their lives spring into chaos.
there is of course the theme of immigration, of living in a place that is not yours, and you don't feel as yours. this is always true in the book for the first-generation immigrants, the parents. most of the kids were born here -- hence the tragic, portentous intergenerational strife. all of the children seem married to people with anglo names, some of them clearly identified as white. it's strange how race doesn't seem to be much of a concern for lahiri. apart from one egyptian character, everyone is either bengali or assumed to be a white american. race-based discrimination never comes up. if anything, class is more of a concern. everyone is highly educated and well-off. so, oddly for a book that is so much about cultural and ethnic displacement, this reads to me more like an investigation of a particularly isolated section of the middle/upper middle class than as an investigation of race. in this sense, it is similar to... oh, who writes about the dislocation of the upper middle class in america? i feel i should be able to rattle off authors, yet can think only of movies: the ice storm, ordinary people, six degrees of separation (i guess they need to have donald sutherland in them!).
writers love to probe the dissatisfactions and, ultimately, hidden horrors of the orderly middle/upper-middle class life (see michael haneke's funny games, which is supposed to be about voyeurism instead seems to me to be about class). this is what lahiri does here. is she suggesting that behind wealthy living lies some sort of cultural displacement, that being an immigrant is just one way to be out of place and out of touch?
some more stray comments. this is not a cheerful book. it is, in fact, deeply sad. in one way or another, everyone is unhappy, and unhappiness is offered to you matter-of-fact, the way life is. there is no search for happiness, no pursuit of the american dream. at most, these characters seek tranquility and a quiet contentment. right now, actually, i can think only of the father of the first story... another father later on...
like their parents and their arranged marriages, the second-generation children land in their lives rather than choosing them. there is a story in which a young man "chooses" his life and it is a quiet train wreck. even their jobs and their ph.ds seem to have been handed to them, rather than resulting from passion or aspiration or desire. this is not to say that they are not satisfied with their lives. rather, it's as if happiness, this all-american pursuit, were irrelevant, a foreign concept that doesn't apply.
this book relentless focus is relationships, but they are portrayed as if each member lived in profound insularity. the story's protagonists, whose point of view we adopt, see others as if from inside a fish tank. a lot of time is spent being away from others rather than being with them. love, this other american obsession, is unstated and taken for granted, even when it's not there. same with the loss of love, and, ultimately, even death.
one might be tempted to say that lahiri critiques our american obsession with the pursuit of intimacy -- gently mocks this country that, perhaps more than any other, has so much trouble with intimacy that it needs to keep circling around it, fantasizing about it, obsessing about it. but i don't think lahiri is after critiquing anything. i think she describes life as she sees it, the quiet grinding of it, with a sort of melancholy acceptance that appeals to me tremendously.
one last word about language. this book could not be written in a simpler, plainer language. yet the language is gorgeous and the structure of the stories deep and dreamy and enchanting. the language matches the themes: there is no striving, no pulling, so thrashing. instead, lives are built with simplicity and respect, as if they were handed to the author the same way as they are handed to the characters, already formed, like an arranged marriage. (less)
louise erdrich wrote this with the wind of the spirit at her heels. what amazing writing. i'm going slowly, because a) the writing is too beautiful to...morelouise erdrich wrote this with the wind of the spirit at her heels. what amazing writing. i'm going slowly, because a) the writing is too beautiful to hurry; b) the story is too intense to hurry; and, less fancifully, c) i need a solid plot-directed narrative to keep me going these days, and this book doesn't have one, so i am reading when the need for aforementioned is not too pressing.
this novel goes back and forth in time and space, focusing on a host of characters of mixed indian-white ethnicity in some state up north (i can't tell them apart in real life so i read their names fast and don't retain them in my memory -- minnesota? north dakota? one of those). some of these characters are straight out of flannery o'connor, others are funny; some chapters are pure adventure, others are magical realist, others are moving, others are simply deranged. but this is louise erdrich territory, and everything is delightful in its own way.
there are strong women. there are tender, damaged men. there is the tragedy of the land and the tragedy of race. there is the inescapable tragedy of human nature.
many of these chapters were published separately and the book has a disjointed feel, as if it were a collection of loosely connected (long) short stories. at the same time, there is a clear vision keeping it all together, as if erdrich had imagined one of those bruegel paintings then decided to tell us what's behind it, one character at a time, with all the time in the world to go back and tell the story from the beginning, properly.
for the record, i'm not even trying to keep the characters straight. i'm sure erdrich doesn't expect me to and seriously, who cares who's married to whom and who's the cousin of whom? they are all interrelated and it's a rum world out there anyway. (less)
perfect book on the endless personal and collective repercussions of reckless colonial gestures. i found the beautiful but elaborate language a little...moreperfect book on the endless personal and collective repercussions of reckless colonial gestures. i found the beautiful but elaborate language a little tiresome. the characters are not entirely sympathetic, which is of course the point, and brave on the part of the author, yet that, too, drew away from my pleasure in reading this book. it is, however, a truly valuable and beautiful book, and and it deserves a higher rating than than the subjective one i gave it.(less)
i'm almost done with this. this book is breaking my heart. maybe my heart is particularly breakable these days, because other people's reviews don't s...morei'm almost done with this. this book is breaking my heart. maybe my heart is particularly breakable these days, because other people's reviews don't suggest a similarly pained response. more when i finish.(less)
this play is astonishing. the opening monologue is worth alone the play's weight in gold. the development of the story is mind-blowing, moving, and pl...morethis play is astonishing. the opening monologue is worth alone the play's weight in gold. the development of the story is mind-blowing, moving, and pleasantly mystifying: a brilliant commentary of the State Of The World. i can't wait to teach it. (less)