And Letters: Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke.  What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer.  Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes.  With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving,  comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands.  Hamid is such a novelist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques.  This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.

The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation.  The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his  experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm.  While Changez  always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises.  His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.

As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation.  I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money.  It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty.    No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”.  No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard.  But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins?  Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.

Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story.   It’s a guided meditation.  Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.

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Too Cool Artists — srichter’s Drawings

sakura marker and watercolour on bristol paper by Etsy artist srichter

Recently, I’ve been fiddling around with black ink line drawings on white paper.  A simple enough idea, my family calls “doodling.”   But, these days, there’s a new word for these line drawings:  Zentangle. I admit there’s something a little obsessive about these drawings.  My family sometimes wonders what evil spirits compel me to throw such detail and complexity onto a relatively small piece of paper.   But, there is something elemental about a simple black line on white paper.  That’s why Etsy artist srichter’s art caught my eye.

The subtle addition of colors adds extra dimension to this drawing by srichter

Srichter adds watercolor to the line drawings, creating vivid, mythological worlds that are both realistic and slightly tipsy.  What make srichter’s art complex aren’t the lines themselves, but the patterns that emerge under the artist’s hand.  These pieces are an excellent example of the old trope that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

And Letters: Review of Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

There’s no denying that Per Petterson is a master storyteller.  His spare prose squeezes every ounce of meaning from the chosen words in his novel, Out Stealing Horses.  The Norwegian setting lends an other-worldliness to the story of an older man reassessing his past.  In particular, the man reconstructs memories of his father.  Partly from his own memories and partly from wartime stories about his father told by a friend, what emerges is a contradictory tale of a father’s wisdom and love and of a father’s neglect.

Lovely prose and haunting subject notwithstanding, I was  nonplussed by Out Stealing Horses.  I never developed a relationship with Trond, the man at the center of the story.  It was difficult to keep my mind from wandering while reading about Trond.  His self-imposed removal from the outside world, which provokes his contemplation of this youth,  feels artificial.  Despite ooccasional wispy hints of his earlier life, Trond never becomes real.  Trond, isolated in a cabin in the Norwegian woods, seems more a vehicle for an interesting semi-story of wartime intrigue.  Trond is just another anti-social old guy who likes to live alone and think about himself.

Out Stealing Horses made the New York Times Books of the Year list, so perhaps I missed something.  Or, perhaps, certain authors of the male persuasion overestimate the charm of isolation and rumination.  Without a compelling character, reading about Trond’s memories of his life is like sitting through a long dinner with a first date who does nothing but talk about himself from soup to nuts.

Still, Petterson’s writing is lovely and spare, and ultimately worth reading.  I just don’t think the story is as universally appealing as some reviewers believe.

An Apology of Motherhood – Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap

Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to the men’s necktie. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

Review of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin

   

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In a sort of steroidal six-degrees-of-separation excercise, In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann spins a giant tale out of several disparate small tales.  Sometimes the threads spin with a a leaden sense of doom, somtimes with a jolt of recognition and joy.   

Set in the mid-70’s days of Vietnam, racial tension, and sexual revolution, Let the Great World Spin begins with a discomfiting scene at the World Trade Center twin towers.  A tight-rope walker has inexplicably strung a wire between the twin towers and is performing a breathtaking balancing act, mid-air, in the exact spot that, years later, takes a punch in the gut from two airplanes.   

Next we meet a young Irish man trying to make sense of the life his brother, Corrigan, has chosen to lead – the life of a priest whose only church exists under the freeway in the projects where his congregation – a group of hookers that include a mother and daughter team – ply their trade.  

Next we meet Claire, a blue blood Park Avenue wife struggling with loosing her only son in Viet Nam.  Through Claire, we meet Gloria, another grieving mother, but from the Bronx, a million miles from Park Place in the seventies.  Gently unfolding fully developed characters, McCann gives us a judge, desperate for something, anything, meaningful in his life.  He gives us a self-centered new-aged artist and the woman who is more than ready to walk away from him, given good enough reason — which she has after a monstrous car crash.   

If any of these tales sounds comical, they are not.  They are wry, ironic, and sharp.  But not comic.    There is no “I knew it all along” moment for the reader.  McCann’s writing is delicate enough  to avoid reeking of conicidence yet strong enough – like the tightrope- that each scene carries its own weight.   In Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann suspends relational definitions.  People slide into common orbit through nothing more than grief.  With nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, lives change.  With nothing but shared awe at a speck prancing boldly in the sky, bonds forge.   While familial relationships  form the baseline bonds for most people, sometimes it is the encounter with a stranger that leads to the most important bonds. 

The end of most books telegraph their arrival by dwindling pages and a sense of denouement.  Even very great books can have unsatisfying conclusions.  The best books leave the reader missing the characters.  The ending of Let the Great World Spin took me by surprise.  Literally, I must admit I was fooled by the inclusion of a readers’ guide in my edition.  When I reached the last page of the last chapter, I expected to turn the page to a new chapter, but I didn’t.  It’s not that the book ends abruptly – not in the way that disappoints a  reader hungering for resolution.  The abruptness is due instead,  to the circular nature of the tale.  I was engaged to the last word.  Though I expected to read on, immediately I knew that the story ended right where it needed to end.   The only way to survive loss is to keep moving.  McCann’s story moves  in a rich, full and expanding circle.  Being a Nashvillian, I couldn’t help thinking, in the words of  bluegrass musician Alvin Pleasant Carter,  “Will the circle be unbroken, Lord, by and by, Lord, by and by.”