Monday, August 13, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Everyone I know has read Kite Runner. It's an incidental thing, not a case of everyone saying "you must read this book" but rather, a more casual, "hey I just read this book the other day, have you heard of it?"

If you liked Kite Runner, I suspect you will like this book as well, the second book from the same author. I found that I liked and disliked in this book the same elements that I liked and disliked in Kite Runner.

I find the history included in the story to be compelling. The author has a way of educating his readers about a part of the world to which we are largely ignorant, and he does so while telling an engrossing story. Accidental education, you think you're just enjoying a story when in fact you're learning something.

The characters led such brutal and harsh lives. This, I know, is unfortunately a reflection of the reality of what women have endured in Afghanistan. That might be what makes the story so hard to digest, the awareness that this is happening in the world. This was not a third world country, this was a prosperous nation, and it all fell apart, and remains in pieces.

The novel spans several generations of women, and many phases of Afghanistan's history -- the Soviet occupation, the warlords, the Taliban, the U.S. bombing, and finally, the current time period, which unfortunately may be a return of the Taliban. By reading this book we understand how the people were affected and in this case the women in particular.

There were times when I didn't feel as if the female characters rang true. These were clearly female character created by a man. I was unnerved by the nine year old thinking she was in love. That was too young for a child to have feelings like that. She was describing the sort of feelings that usually don't happen until later teens. I had to go back and read the part because I was so startled when I saw the line that "she was almost ten years old." I never felt especially close to the characters. Their situations took on a soap opera like element with so many extreme situations, the deaths, the pregnancies, the betrayals, so many characters that were pure evil versus characters that were pure good. While I found the situation and the portrayals of war in the city to be devastating, I felt numb to individual characters.

The coincidences bothered me. They didn't seem as absurd in this book as they were in the other, but nonetheless they were there. When I mentioned this a friend pointed out "that's what happens in fiction." Maybe, in some fiction, not the type I usually read. If this didn't bother you in Kite Runner, it won't bother you in this book.

Despite my criticisms, I'm glad I read it because I am interested in the history of the Middle East. I believe that a lot of people will enjoy it, in the same way that they've enjoyed Kite Runner.

finished reading: August 13, 2007

Thursday, August 02, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I found the premise of this book intriguing. A young couple's wedding night, both virgins, contemplating the consummation of their marriage.

The setting is the 1950s, right before the sexual revolution. According to the book, they live in a time before it was fun to be single, it was necessary to be part of a couple in order to enjoy what the world had to offer.

Much of the book consists of the thoughts in their head. Reminding each other of how they met, how they fell in love, and the concern and frustration over what to expect, how to react, what to do in this next step of adulthood, the beginning of a marriage.

He's so eager and she's simply terrified. But they're both entirely too polite with each other. They haven't quite grasped the concept that they are going to be spending the rest of their lives together.

They've both had unusual upbringings, his mother was brain damaged and his father had to be both parents to his three young children and care taker to his wife. She had a cold, distant mother who certainly never took the time to talk to her daughter about something like sex. It is also hinted ever so slightly that she might have had an improper relationship with her father. But again, it could be the confusion of a child. (I've read Atonement by this same author, a book about lives ruined because of a child's confusion regarding sex.)

As I read this, I felt so much aching empathy for the female character. Because even in modern times, if a person doesn't know what to expect, if she's never been told, if she's having to gather second-hand information... It made me wonder how a man could write something so accurate with regard to a woman's feelings. I tend to not read books written by men, especially if they presume to understand women. But I continue to read work by McEwan because he does seem to understand his subject matter and he creates women that are real, and not the hysterical, over-emotive and/or cardboard characters created by most male writers. In this instance, I was especially impressed. A man who has such a strong understanding of the thoughts in a woman's head is quite rare.

It's a small, compact book. The action takes place in one night. Easy to read while laying out in the sun. Probably not considered a beach read, despite its title, but I did read it while sunning, all at once. Gave me a bit of a sunburn because I stayed outside a little too long. But I couldn't stop reading.

It's very sad. In the end, I found the story to be a cautionary tale about what happens when a person doesn't express his or her feelings. If these two people would have just told each other what was going on in their minds, then they probably would have had a good laugh, realizing they were on exactly the same page, and worked through their fears. They loved each other and that should count for something. But when pride stands in front of love, a person may retain their pride, but that might be all that is left.

It's a beautiful story, and as I've said in other reviews, I don't especially enjoy McEwan's books, but I think they are very well written. In this case, the writing was so powerful, I couldn't stop thinking about the book after I read it. I had to keep reminding myself that the characters were fictional and that it was silly to get so upset over what happened to them. When something sticks with you like that, that's the mark of excellent writing.

finished reading: August 1, 2007