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The Kite Runner

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 01:52 (A review of The Kite Runner)

"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years."

Thus begins The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel; a tale spanning Afghanistan in the seventies to its part in the Twin Towers passing the Soviet invasion and Taliban rule along the way. The story involves the narrator, Amir, trying to gain his father’s respect by attempting a triumph in the local kite fighting competition. Hassan, his friend and servant, helps him but a life-changing event, for which Amir blames himself, occurs which sees their lives take different paths. When the Soviets attack Amir and his father flee to America via Pakistan where they begin a new life. Amir grows up, graduates, marries, but the thought of his guilt sees him return to Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule, in order to trace Hassan and to right the wrongs of that day in 1975.

Despite the first chapter, a page at most that could be cut, the book begins nicely and sets the stage. Kids play, Islam encourages regular prayer, and the village teems with life. The story continues and we learn about the Hazara, the lowly Afghans used as servants, and how Amir’s playmate, the hare-lipped Hassan, is of this caste. Hassan represents everything the narrator wishes he could be: brave, honourable, and willing to stand up for himself. When Amir needs something, Hassan provides, when Amir is in trouble, Hassan takes the blame, and when Amir is bullied Hassan takes the beating.

It is during this time that Hosseini is at his strongest which, in my opinion, is still rather weak. His characters are alive in their own environment, the play between them is realistic, and the dialogue is nicely garnished with a sprinkle of Farsi. We are also invited to sample Afghani culture as we tour houses and schools, sample the food, visit the cinema, and smile during the kite fighting competition. The only problem here is that the description is so matter of fact that it seems the narrator is listing what he remembers without commenting on any emotional impact it may have caused.

In much the same way that the Soviet attacks caused a downhill surge in the quality of life, the book takes a tumble. Amir’s life in America is a section of approximately seventy pages which, thinking back, seems tagged on. It was as if it were written once the novel was complete and tucked in the centre simply to lengthen the text. Nothing that happens here bears any relation to the rest of the story with the exception of the characters and where the ending is located. I wonder, perhaps, if this part were added to make it not so completely foreign to the mainstream American market.

After the American section the novel doesn’t improve. Amir returns to Afghanistan to right his wrongs and the story becomes more of a catalogue of Taliban atrocities than the emotional narrative it could have been. Eventually, after a series of ridiculous coincidences, the story returns to America where it, thankfully, concludes.

I found the narrator to be too perfect in his recollection of times gone by. Every detail is rendered with incredible certainty, including dreams where he’s not quite coherent, and the descriptions are without sentiment. Nostalgia has never been so dry. Cliché is used prolifically within the narrative although the middle aged Amir does make light of this. He doesn’t, however, seem to realise that his own life story has graced so many movies and books already that, despite being the only Afghan protagonist I know, he is already hackneyed.

The Kite Runner is not a book that I can recommend and I disagree with the critics that are quoted as saying the book was “emotional” when it was so cold that it would take more than a poppy field ablaze to melt its boring heart.

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Dr Haggard's Disease

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 01:38 (A review of Dr. Haggard's Disease)

For months now, a number of people have been reading Patrick McGrath and talking him up. The novel they've usually read is Asylum but, just to be contrary, I thought I'd try a different introduction to the man. Thus I chose Dr Haggard's Disease, McGrath's third novel.

Set in pre-war London, the novel is based around a monologue from the eponymous Dr Haggard. Haggard, a general practitioner living in a house on the southern coast of England, is a man who has loved and lost. But, when the son of his former lover pays him a visit old feelings are renewed, former loves remembered, and madness begins to show from beneath the cracks.

Crucial events in Dr Haggard's Disease, being those that shape the later narrative, happened years before in Haggard's life when he was a promising young surgeon under the tutelage of Vincent Cushing - a nod perhaps to a couple of actors well known for playing doctors in low-budget horror movies - and under the spell of the senior pathologist's wife. But it's the events now, as recalled by Haggard, that drive the narrative on. And, being just ever so slightly mad, there are many moments in which you doubt his version of events, if not everything he has to say. And rightly so. He's crazy! But ever so poetic with it.

The tone is a modern take on the Gothic, so while there are no clanking chains, ghostly castles, and other supernatural happenings as in previous centuries, there are grim hospitals and dark, rugged coasts with waves crashing against the cliffs. The language here is exemplary and showcases McGrath's ability to turn a phrase. As an example, one only has to look at the novel's opening:

"I was in Elgin, upstairs in my study, gazing at the sea and reflecting, I remember, on a line of Goethe when Mrs Gregor tapped at the door that Saturday and said there was a young man in the surgery to see me, a pilot. You know how she talks. 'A pilot, Mrs Gregor?' I murmured. I hate being disturbed on my Saturday afternoons, especially if Spike is playing up, as he was that day, but of course I limped out onto the landing and made my way downstairs. And you know what that looks like - pathetic bloody display that is, first the good leg, then the bad leg, then the stick, good leg, bad leg, stick, but down I came, down the stairs, old beyond my years and my skin a grey so cachectic it must have suggested even to you that I was in pain, chronic pain, but oh dear boy not pain like yours, just wait now and we'll make it all - go - away -"

It's testament to McGrath's ability that he manages to continue this style for nigh on two hundred pages, right up to the gruesome denouement, making the book an absolute delight to read despite the dark subject matter. The characters, while we only have Haggard's account of them, are strong and easily envisaged - both as the doctor sees them and as we, looking between his words, see them. But however certain Haggard is about his story, as readers our reflections upon them will always be cast in doubt.

As a portrait of a man falling into madness brought about by the ignition of past passions, Dr Haggard's Disease does no wrong (and if it did, I was too busy enjoying the prose) and its dark tone, tinged with erotica and horror, create an almost perfect novel. Almost, because there were times when I did find the lengthy paragraphs overwhelming, despite their quality. But, now that I've joined the ranks of those gushing over McGrath, I know that the next time I need to get away from my usual fare, I'll be running for Asylum.

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Lisey's Story

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 01:34 (A review of Lisey's Story)

Every time Stephen King releases a book it seems that it's always a return to form. Even From A Buick 8. Whether this is finally an admission that he lost it is open for debate, but Lisey's Story is further hyped in that King believes it to be his best work yet. It's certainly a departure from his previous novels, a move probably due to his controversial award from the National Book Award foundation in 2003. It would seem that King, as if in justification for his reward, has literary pretensions. Or has something to prove.

In Lisey's Story King continues with one of his favourite subjects: writers. In a departure from previous novels like Misery, The Dark Half, and Bag Of Bones, the author is dead two years prior to the novel opening. Scott Landon, survived by his wife Lisey, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award during his short life. It's no mean feat for an author of horror novels. (Wake up, Stevie, you're dreaming!)

Now, as the story begins, Lisey is preparing to pack up Scott’s scribblings and move on with her life. But, as she enters his study she is taken on trips down memory lane by the objects therein to such events as the couple’s first date and an assassination attempt, John Lennon style, on Scott. The novel, however, isn’t just a nostalgic journey; Lisey's Story is, at its core, about madness, and there’s a fair peppering of characters a slate short of a roof: Scott’s father, Lisey’s sister, and a loony fanboy who just happens to be in the area. Nice. And it’s this lunatic, threatening Lisey to offer Scott’s papers to the local university, that forms much of the drama within the novel’s here and now.

As a read, the first 150 pages were a disorganised mess. It is apparent that King has attempted something different to his usual work, grappled with stylistic decisions, and not managed to pull it off. What we have here is a collection of memories, one after the other, that serve to portray Scott Landon as the man Lisey loved. They are lifeless recollections, told in the present tense for immediacy, but they fail to connect with any empathy the reader may have for their predicament. And so it continues, stories told without lustre, which is disappointing given that, while told in the third person, the scenes often delve into Lisey’s mind. Aren’t her memories exciting? The reason, to take the assassination attempt as an example, is that King is trying to cram every detail into the scene (and one which happens all too fast) rather than giving only the pertinent details.

It picks up, however, with the introduction of the aforementioned fanboy as the drama begins to mount in the present, bringing Lisey out of her dull reveries. And, just as soon as the book becomes interesting, it commits literary seppuku and delves back into the past. The more we learn of Scott, the more Lisey remembers of him. So it comes to pass that, like King himself, Scott had a personal demon in the booze. Scott, also, to give the book a supernatural twist, has a place called Boo’Ya Moon in which he retreats. It’s a place that he finds both a relief and terrifying in equal measure.

The biggest problem with Lisey’s Story is that it is wordy. Not just verbose to the point where an editor’s red pen may have saved it, but wordy in the sense that it’s full of meaningless words. In an attempt to catalogue the interior language of the Landons’ marriage, King puts some of the stupidest twee phrases ever seen in print into the mouths of his own characters. Thus Lisey, around fifty years old, goes around calling her elder sister ‘Big Sissa Manda Bunny’ and excessively using the word ‘smucking’. Scott, in the past, talks of nonsense such as bools, which seem to be some confused mess of clues and/or gifts. Attempts to explain it fall by the wayside and this reader was left just as confused as Lisey first was when Scott came up to her, his wrists bleeding on their first date and offered her his blood-bool. The biggest problem with this twee verbage isn’t that it’s utter nonsense, it’s that King actually declares it as ‘the interior language of their marriage.’ I guess he’s never read the show don’t tell part of his own On Writing.

I honestly think that the biggest problem that I had with Lisey’s Story is that King’s prose is just one big ramblesnooze. That, and the fact that it’s full of annoying phrases. Not signature phrases attributed to characters, as there’s nothing wrong with that, but the continual poor attempt at introducing them: ‘like so-and-so used to say’, ‘as they say’, ‘so-and-so used to call them’ ‘what so-and-so referred to as’, and so on ad infinitum. The other annoying aspect to the prose was the way that, rather than just tell the reader what the character was thinking, he would interrupt a paragraph with a bracketed sentence before continuing the narrative.

As for the characters, they just lacked spirit. Lisey, despite being the eponymous title of the novel, doesn’t have much of a story to tell. She wanders about, remembers a few things, and not much else until the denouement. Scott, as a character, came across much better but that’s because he had a more interesting past, a broken home, the death of an older sibling, and a father certifiably mad. The other major player, the lunatic, works, although his appearances are few, his spectre still lingers throughout. Lesser used characters come and go, some more believable than others, but King really needed everyone to be plausible for his work to be more credible.

While I didn’t like Lisey’s Story, I can find no fault with the idea, the notion of a spouse cleaning up the unfinished works of an author while grubby hands wait to get their eyes on them. And to catalogue a love that endures, even after death. It’s just a pity that King thought of it. But I think that the novel would have been much better if King could tighten his prose, ditch silly get-out devices like Boo-Ya Moon, cut the glut of phrases and just write, and finish the story when it has met its natural conclusion rather than just saunter about for sixty pages cleaning up the loose ends. Next time Lisey has a story to tell, I won’t be listening.

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From A Crooked Rib

Posted : 11 years, 9 months ago on 24 September 2006 12:36 (A review of From a crooked Rib (Penguin Modern Classics))

Nuruddin Farah's first novel, From A Crooked Rib, looks at life in his native Somalia from a feminine perspective. Despite being male, he choose to use this novel to discuss the status of women and their treatment in what is a country balancing traditional and Islamic values while fending off the outside influence of former colonial powers.

It begins with the graceful orphan, Ebla, who, her grandfather has announced, will marry a man she has not met. Not wanting to give herself away to the stranger, considerably older than her, she escapes her nomadic life by running to the town of Belet Wene, where a cousin lives. The cousin, like her grandfather, takes her in and sells her "like cattle" to a broker as a wife. On hearing this she flees again, this time to the city of Mogadishu, where, despite seeking equality, she learns that to be a woman in Somalia means little in comparison to being a man. Yet, with all the struggles within society as she pushes for her own equality, she finds herself questioning her religion and the world around her:

"What an agony, what a revolting situation! Naturally women are born in nine months (unless the case is abnormal) just like men. What makes women so inferior to men? Why is it that a girl should refund a token amount to her parents in the form of a dowry, while a boy needs the amount or more to get a woman? Why is it only the sons in the family who are counted? For sure this world is a man's - it is his dominion. It is his and is going to be his as long as women are oppressed, as long as women are sold and bought like camels, as long as this remains the system of life. Nature is against women."

Ebla's life in Mogadishu continues to teach her valuable lessons about her place in society; her naivete leads her through marriages, divorce, prostitution, and reflections upon the horrible practice of female circumcision. All the while she argues - within her head - her place in the world, without having the conviction to speak her mind. Traditional values, at times, retain their hold on her.

It's written by Farah from a female point of view and while I wouldn't be the best judge of what a woman thinks, he certainly has the degrees of indecisiveness to a tee. Ebla felt convincing, in her way, and so I would rather praise Farah for creating a vivid character, rather than one that was truly authentic.

The prose itself isn't all that flowery, being matter of fact, although there are times when it heads off into good passages that try to delve deeper into the psyche of why women are supposedly inferior within her world. There's an interesting scene, toward the end, where Ebla discusses the matter to herself mimicking a man's voice to counter her own questions; and then reverses this so that she answers the man's.

From A Crooked Rib is a short novel, coming in at less than 200 pages, but it carries with it many points for discussion around Somalian practices, Islamic law, and the place of women in the world. But in the end it boils down to men need women, women need men, and the world would be a happier place if we treated each other as equals. Something that religion doesn't exactly help with. From a crooked rib to a straight story: worth reading.

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Only The Lonely

Posted : 11 years, 9 months ago on 21 September 2006 08:19 (A review of The Lonely Londoners)

First published in 1956, Trinidadian born, Sam Selvon, began his London based fictions with a short novel called The Lonely Londoners. It's set during a time when many West Indians were emigrating from a life of sunshine to the British Isles, believing, like many emigrants, that the streets were paved with gold. Of course, this is London we're talking about; there's no gold.

The book, for the most part follows the fortunes of Moses Aloetta, a Trinidadian who has lived in London for years, as his life meets tangentially with others. His time is spent between his job, in which he is paid a meagre wage, and heading on down to Waterloo to meet the latest influx of West Indians.

There all manner of characters coming to London, and not only from the West Indies. Shiftless ladies' man Cap, for example, is Nigerian. But the majority are coming from Trinidad and Jamaica. Local prejudice tends to label all the black immigrants as being Jamaican, which rankles Moses. Other characters include Henry Oliver (nicknamed Sir Galahad), a young kid looking to start over in London; Tolroy, who on writing home to say he gets paid five pounds a week, wasn't intending the letter to be an invitation for his whole family to join him; Five Past Twelve, an ex-soldier always on the scrounge; Big City, who has always been captivated by urban living yet can't quite integrate; and Harris, a man who has found himself in London yet is still tied to the burgeoning black community.

The novel follows their fortunes as they come to Moses for help, as they crash in on each others' lives, and flirt with the white women who see them as a novelty; all the time wondering if they will ever return home. Through all this, though, there's a sense of unease. For the native Londoners there are too many black people coming for work; the immigrants also share this resentment, in that the other immigrants are seen as competition for what little jobs are available. Most jobs, when the person is discovered to be black, tend to offer lower wages too.

What makes The Lonely Londoners special is the narrative. Rather than a straightforward English narrative, Selvon has opted for the third person narrator to tell the tale in creolised English, which give the effect of bringing the reader into the immigrant community:

"When he get to Waterloo he hop off and went in the station, and right away in that big station he had a feeling of homesickness that he never felt in the nine-ten years he in this country. For the old Waterloo is a place of arrival and departure, is a place where you see people crying goodbye and kissing welcome, and he hardly have time to sit down on a bench before this feeling of nostalgia hit him and he was surprise."

Selvon's characterisation works well with this creolised style but it's more than a tragi-comedy of the life in fifties London as immigrants try to find work and settle. Life is hard, the people reduced to living in small rooms. Jobs are scarce. And there is much racism coming from the local people and businesses, which Galahad struggles to understand when, still hoping for a job, he says:

"The Pole who have that restaurant, he ain't have no more right in this country than we. In fact we is British subjects, and he is a foreigner."

Galahad takes this further when he addresses the colour Black itself:

"Why the hell you can't be blue, or red or green, if you can't be white? You know is you that cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, you know, is you! I ain't do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time you causing misery all over the world."

The Loneley Londoners doesn't follow a conventional storyline, opting instead to collect a bundle of stories about its characters adapting to life in London, using Moses as their backbone. This method actually gives the story more direction than one would expect and also blesses it, for its size, with an epic feel.

For all its sense of community, The Lonely Londoners, as you would expect from title, isn't a bunch of laughs. Sure, there's much comedy to be had, but an undercurrent of sadness runs throughout. Employment, racism, immigration, relationships, personal ambition, and nationality all come under Selvon's spotlight in a book that is anything but black and white.

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The Fascination Of Zeller

Posted : 11 years, 9 months ago on 21 September 2006 08:16 (A review of Fascination of Evil)

Florian Zeller, from what I can gather, is the latest darling of the French literary scene. At twenty-six, he is a novelist, a playwright, and a lecturer. And, for one so young, he has received a number of literary awards. His third novel, The Fascination Of Evil, was recently published by Pushkin Press, a publisher well known for producing quality books from international authors, new and old. And, as novels go, it's a mature work with hints of Kundera, dealing with the decline of morals in both Islamic nations and the West.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator preparing for a flight to Egypt for a literary conference. He is due to meet and travel with Swiss novelist, Martin Millet, of whom he is aware but not acquainted in person or in work. And while the narrator, with his girlfriend at home, is looking for a quiet life, Millet is more interested in kicking up a fuss within Egyptian society, spouting his opinions on Islam, and, for most of the novel, finding local women who will have sex with him. This latter desire is inspired by letters Flaubert wrote about his time in Egypt. And, as Millet's obsession grows, the narrator finds himself dragged further into the author's world. Then, without warning, Millet vanishes. The narrator, of course, can do nothing but fear the worst for his companion.

The Fascination Of Evil concerns itself, at a deeper level, with the diminishing power of words. It looks at the suras of the Koran, at their hold over the devout, but then, as Millet learns during a meal, there are those who claim to hold true to the tenets of Islam yet, the minute they head to a more liberal nation, the words that dictate their faith are soon forgotten:

"They're not Egyptian women. They are often Lebanese or Moroccan, but they are not Egyptian. And they only sleep with Saudis, I believe. In any event, for Egyptians, there is no prostitution and no sexual freedom."

"What do they do?" lamented Martin.

"They bugger each other."

Apart from that, the food was excellent."

Zeller, however, is not like Millet and is not out to upset Islam. Indeed, aside from pointing out the hypocrisy inherent with some Muslims, he also takes a swipe at Europe. The continent has allowed freedom to send it into decline. Political correctness has reared its ugly head and when religious groups (say, Muslims) protest at novels (Rushdie gets an honourable mention), we seek to remove the offence rather than staunchly support it. By seeking to be inoffensive we are watering down our own culture. Such subtexts lend the novel an impressive depth and you can't help but agree with Zeller's observations.

The book's title, as it would be giving nothing away, relates to the feeling of fearing the worst. The narrator comes to feel the fascination of evil when Millet vanishes after a night out hunting women. But the true fascination, as implied by the denouement, is the fear of what is happening to the west. There are many facets in which our continent, the narrator believes, is falling apart, one such example being letter-writing:

"It's the telephone, and in particular the mobile, that has killed off the art of letter-writing once and for all. I often think of those women who lived in hope, with the pledge of one single love letter, when the other person, for example, went off to war. Back then, words had a formidable strength, since they decided lives. People waited, and trusted, even without news of the other person, for infinite lengths of time. Today, you start panicking the moment you can't get that other person on your mobile. What's he doing? Why isn't she answering? Who's he with? Anxiety has gained ground. We have entered a period of no return that signals the end of waiting, that is, of trust and silence."

Zeller's prose style is not florid - to an extent it's simplistic, realist. Each sentence serves to make a point or an observation and does so without decoration. If I were to have a criticism it would be the sheer volume of exclamation marks used where they were wholly unnecessary, although that may be a quirk of a translator who had a quote to use up, especially when they would appear in the narrative rather than within speech.

Although The Fascination Of Evil, at times, reminded me of Kundera because of the sporadic digressions the narrator would make, the ending was more reminiscent of Houellebecq's Atomised in that the narrator goes beyond the original narrative and aims to provide a conclusion to all that has gone before, something, I admit, for which I'm not a convert. But, overall, Zeller succeeds at producing a great tale that offers up some interesting points that merit consideration.

And, while he's still young, The Fascination Of Evil showcases the wisdom of an fantastic talent who must surely be deserving of an great future in literature. And, since I've already been looking into his previous novels, it certainly looks like this novel could just be the beginning to my fascination of Zeller.

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