I have to admit I only read the first 50 pages of this book. Nevertheless, the fictional account of life in India’s lower castes, A Fine Balance by Rohatyn Mistry, is ten times more informative and hundred times more interesting. “Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey” confirmed that “A Fine Balance” may be fictional, but it certainly is not fictitious.
I know everyone loved this book. It’s a best seller and a book club must-do, but I couldn’t finish it. Too much hagiography. Too many adjectives. In some ways the book jacket gives it away, and then so does the introduction, and then every page after that. A man with no future beyond rock climbing foresakes all things American to build schools for disenfranchised Pakistani girls and becomes a world hero. Somehow it all seemed too moralistic. September 2008.
The New York Times book reviewer called this a masterpiece of travel writing — he was downright gaga over this book, calling it one of the best travelogues ever written. It’s about a guy who walks across Afghanistan in the middle of winter. And doesn’t die. I found the book a little enigmatic. It’s strongest when Stewart is writing about his personal travails: inhospitable village elders, vicious diarrhea, a stubborn dog. But it’s weakness is a lack of context, story line, indistinguishable characters, and absence of a full explanation for why he decided to walk for 19 months through Pakistan, Nepal, India, Iran, and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, what emerges from his 40 or so short chapters are snapshots of a part of the world and its men (women are almost entirely invisible on his trek) that I know nothing about: rural, tribal Afghanistan. November 2006.
You know at the beginning the story will end with planes flying into the World Trade Center, but Wright’s recounting makes the book a suspenseful thriller, nonetheless. His explanation of the rise of Al Qaeda from the writings of a disgruntled Egyptian expatriate to Osama provide context hard to find in the media. The psychoanalysis of Osama and his cult-like followers is especially insightful. March 2007.
Hard to imagine why this book won the 2008 Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer. The protagonist is a low-caste Indian who makes good, but most of the book is supposed to be an antidote to the lyrical prose of British writers who focused on genteelity and upper-crustism in India. But after forty pages of filth, corruption, poverty, and disease we get the point. After 140 pages, enough already. Read A Fine Balance, instead. That book covers much of the same despair and hope, but is a written by a future Nobel Prize winner. October 2008.
Compelling in the way of an auto crash. I could not look away, but I definitely felt worse for having partaken. Like her Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri delivers a compendium of short stories about the first and second generation lives of college-educated New England Bengalis. Only thing is by her accounting their lives consist nearly entirely of remorse, despair, despondence, regret, cancer, alcohol , duplicity, and disloyalty. March 2009.
A bottomless well of hopelessness, despair and background warfare in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of the 80s through the American invasion post 9/11. Seen through the eyes of two women who lose nearly everything they can imagine either blown to bits around them or whose common husband senselessly beats them. And yet. Hosseini’s crystaline writing and, in my case, Atossi Leoni’s heart wrenching reading simultaneously suffocated and repelled me. I wanted to stop the pain, but could not turn away; instead I lay awake for nights praying for salvation for Leilo and Miryam, two women who endured. December 2007
A poetically written account of life under the Taliban extremists of Kabul Afghanistan. It’s written by an Algerian, not an Afghani, with a self-described vendetta against extremist Muslims. The story wrings true enough compared to news reports, but is utterly depressing. All four main characters, two men, two women, go crazy and die horrible deaths at the hands of the Taliban. November, 2004.
A novel about tuning pianos in 1856 British Army in Burma. I found it painfully slow and predictable. A remake of the Heart of Darkness. I didn’t finish it. My mother and sister-in-law enjoyed it a lot, however.
Islamic Pakistani immigrants struggle with isolation from their homeland and one another. Aslam’s writing is so replete with metaphor and cultural insight that every page is like peeling an orange. Beneath the skin there is the filmy white pith, a thin membrane about each section, and as the sections are removed, and juice is squeezed from within, he reveals not just the seeds, but individual cells. Aslam’s masterpiece is a highly detailed tapestry of emigrant Pakistani culture caught between the old and new. Like all intricate weavings it takes time to construct, but as the plot slowly develops, so does each character’s relationship to Islam. Thus, this is the best book I’ve read on how Islam is practiced by real people, albeit fictional ones. See also, Guests of the Sheik, The Shia Revival, Persepolis, Reading Lolita in Tehran, December 2006.