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Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Last week I went to hear Mohsin Hamid speak in Manchester because his book Exit West was our community wide read. I loved that book and Hamid’s talk was really interesting, so I decided to read his other work, starting with The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I enjoyed it, but not as much as Exit West.

In Exit West there is a narrator who tells readers not only what’s happening in the book but what will happen in the future, which is a little disconcerting. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist there is a first person narrator who is addressing an American man in a cafe in Lahore in about 2005 or 2006. The story he tells is interjected with comments that are directed at this man, which feels a little forced. For example, the narration is peppered with questions that represent the other man’s side of the conversation, like “How did I know you were American?” or “What did I think of Princeton?” or “But you are at war, you say?” At other times the narrator tells us about the man’s facial expressions or what he is looking at.

As a result, we get a very limited view of the other man, who is almost a stage prop. The narrator, Changez, tells us the story of his days immediately following graduation from Princeton, when he vacations with a group of fellow grads and begins to fall for one of them, Erica, and returns home to start work at prestigious finance firm that values businesses. The book traces the time from spring 2001 to winter 2002, when Changez moves back to Pakistan. There are many details about his relationship with Erica, whose life is more complicated than it initially appears, and his work. But at its heart the book is about the geopolitical awakening he experiences in the new post-9/11 world, as the war on terror begins and India and Pakistan seem to be heading for war as well.

Hamid’s structural choice means that Changez gets the last word — and really, the only word, since his monologue filters the other characters’ points of view. I appreciated that; it’s good to have different point of view than the one that dominated print and broadcast media after 9/11 in America. There are also hints throughout the book that the American in the cafe is on “a mission,” has a military demeanor and build, and is perhaps armed. The ending is both tense and nebulous — we’re left not truly knowing what is happening in the final moments of the novel, but suspecting.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good story, of a man who comes of age by realizing that none of the things he’s been raised to believe will help him get ahead — education, hard work, good manners, respect for one’s elders — will matter in the new world he’s thrust into. I’m still not sure if I understand fully the role of his relationship with Erica in that undoing; I’ll have to consider that further. It’s a unique book, and I’m glad I read it, but it’s unsettling.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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I wanted to like this book. First, I wanted to like it because it took me two weeks to slog through The Trial. I was ready for a quick, satisfying read. I wanted to like it as well because people I like recommended it and my book club is discussing it.

But, as a fellow librarian told me today, it could make for better discussion since I didn’t like it. Maybe. Anyway, I couldn’t warm to the characters or the story. For the same topic — woman overcomes emotionless  (or damaged) upbringing, allies with desirable man, uses her own talent to launch him and pretends to all the world that she is just a muse and not the real talent — see Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Which to me was still a strange story about people I couldn’t identify with, but which seemed both wilder and more complicated and somehow also more likely. I just can’t accept the premise of The Wife. I didn’t dislike the writing, so I kept reading, but in the end, it didn’t work for me.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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I got to know a small but lovely independent bookstore this summer, Belmont Books, and one Saturday I spied on their staff picks display Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had heard about the book when it first came out — although clearly I didn’t remember much, as you’ll soon see — and who doesn’t love that title? Not this librarian.

Only it turns out, it’s only partly about the librarians and a good bit about extremist jihadis and their takeover of Mali. I’ll grant that a good bit of the beginning of the book explores Mali’s history and the personal story of the incredible librarian, scholar and conservationist Abdel Kader Haidara. His story and that of the manuscripts of Timbuktu weave throughout the book. But Joshua Hammer also writes in great detail about why the manuscripts needed saving.

Haidara, son of a scholar whose family treasures included a very large collection of medieval manuscripts, was only seventeen when his father died and he was named the heir of the family library. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, established by UNESCO and the Malian government in the 70’s, sought Haidara out and asked him to come work for them. At the time, they had only about 2,500 manuscripts in their collection. Nine years later, thanks almost entirely to Haidara’s personal efforts, the collection had grown by 16,500, “one of the largest public collections of Arabic handwritten books in the world.”

Haidara wasn’t done. He went on to establish a private library to house his family’s collection, and he also established Savama-DCI, an organization of other families in Timbuktu with manuscripts. With his own library housing around 50,000 manuscripts, and the growing number of private libraries he had influenced, Haidara had been a huge force in re-establishing Timbuktu as a cultural center, and in reminding the world of the city’s long heritage of scholarship.

All of that is very inspiring. What is amazing is that as Hammer tells readers, Haidara’s hard work had only just begun. Despite these accomplishments and his successful fundraising (many prominent foundations from around the world supported his work and that of his colleagues), the most challenging tasks were still to come.

And this is where I had a harder time reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of  Timbuktu. Hammer spares no grisly details as he describes the rise of radical Islam in the Sahara and the Sahel. I admit part of my discomfort came from realizing that even though I try to pay attention to news from around the world, I don’t recall hearing much about the civil war in Mali and the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. And part of my discomfort is because I don’t usually read accounts of brutality as detailed as Hammer’s.

Faced with a growing fear that the jihadis would destroy Timbuktu’s manuscripts, as they had smashed Sufi shrines, broken and burned musical instruments and threatened Mali’s other cultural treasure — musicians — with disfigurement if they continued to play or sing, Haidara, knew he had to do something. So together with an American woman in Mali, known in the book as Emily Brady, he once again raised funds and worked to evacuate the manuscripts. Like the gripping story of his collecting them in the first place, the story of Haidara’s rescue is uplifting and mind-boggling.

They gathered trunks, recruited donkey carts, trucks, and boats, recruited families to hide manuscripts in Timbuktu and then recruited them again, to evacuate the trunks. Despite the dangers and expense, they succeeded. Around 377,000 manuscripts survived. Hammer tells the story well. Just be prepared for a fair bit of geopolitics and out and out horror if you read this book — well written, but hard to stomach.

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I’ve written before about my admiration for Exterminating Angel Press, including Snotty Saves the Daythe first book in the History of Arcadia series. Report to Megalopolis is the fourth. Tod Davies runs the press and wrote this series, and full disclosure: I really enjoy her work and she knows it, and sent me a copy of this book.

You can read Report to Megalopolis without having read the other books in the History of Arcadia (although why wouldn’t you?). It’s meant to be the writings of Aspern Grayling, a sort of combination mad scientist politician. Aspern is reporting to Livia, a witch who rules Megalopolis behind the scenes, via a council. Aspern grew up in Arcadia and had a love hate relationship with his brilliant colleague Devindra Vale. When he hatches a plan to take over Arcadia, he uses cloning and genetic engineering to impregnate Devindra’s daughter Merope with triplets, but only one survives — Pavo, Aspern’s “son” and creation, his “god,” “made through the chemical manipulation of the human genome.”

Aspern’s story reflects back on this history and tells also of Pavo’s attempted conquest of Arcadia and his desire to rule the whole world. But his report is also the story of Aspern’s reckoning with all that he has done. It’s not a pleasant tale — there is incest, rape, war, maiming and killing, and a great deal of misogyny. The people of Arcadia, ruled by queens who value scholarship and fairy tales, art and nature, peace and justice, offer some hope that the kind of lust for power Pavo represents cannot dominate goodness. But some Arcadians are swayed by Aspern’s calculated campaign to “cultivate the seeds of vanity and ego, of putting the ‘I’ before all else, and of fascination with godly risk rather than the puling weakness of self-preservation.” Men swayed by this and by Aspern’s efforts to foster “unrest” through “desire for growth beyond the limits of what Arcadia could provide” join Pavo’s band of power thirsty followers.

Sound familiar? Aspern reminisces that he and Livia discussed the danger of “independent thought,” recalling that they agreed that “Even one moment of independent thought can overturn years of centralized power.” Ah, the hope. Aspern knows, “Independent thought, independent life, independent story — this was the complete teaching of Devindra Vale.” Will these survive?

I won’t give away how it all turns out, but I’ll tell you I stayed up late trying to find out what happened. Just as I’ve said before, this series is for readers who like their fantasy injected with a good dose of ethics and philosophy. There’s plenty to discuss about the parallels between this story and other great tales of the struggle between political systems, value systems, and world views, from Frankenstein to Star Wars, not to mention the world we live in.

I’ll leave you this thought: reading a book from a small press like Exterminating Angel, supporting independent publishing, local bookstores, your library, all of this is a strike against the Megalopoleis (I declare that the plural of Megalopolis) of our own world, and a source of strength for our own Arcadias. And I’ll leave with you with this image, found in the a note from of Isabel the Scholar, friend of Shanti Vale (Devindra’s granddaughter) , and founder of the “Evolutionary Movement” at the end of this book:

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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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