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.

Advertisements

Evocative Sights

Mother of God Santa Francesca, Rome 3rd-4th century Encaustic icon

A recent customer shared with me the memories and feelings that one of my collages evoked for her.  It got me thinking about the feelings triggered by things we see.  We’ve all seen people who so resemble someone else that we are compelled to call that person and tell them we’ve spotted their doppelgänger.   A glimpse of something similar to something else evokes memories that may feel good or terrible.

The way the brain processes information when we read is a good example of how we processes what we see.  A veteran reader reads faster than a new reader because, through her experience, she’s looked at so many letters, words, sentences, and patterns that her eye doesn’t have to register every single letter.  Instead, her eyes take in chunks and her brain fills in the rest using its own complicated system of probability.  What are the chances, our brain might say, that “a_d” is anything other than “and” . (A gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.)

But what about when visual images evoke connections and emotions that don’t relate to any memory we’re conscious of?  For example, recently I’ve been looking at medieval art – in particular icons – in preparation for teaching medieval history next year.  The images have taken my breath away.

French historiated initial with men slaying a monster, from a theological manuscript. 1110-1115

Until recently, I don’t think I’ve known how to appreciate art.  Until I began doing art myself, I don’t think I knew what to look for or how to feel about art.  So, it is as if a new dimension has opened up for me – an entire new way in which to view the world.  For a girl who has always dreamed in words rather than images, this is a big deal.

Mary Magdalen announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St Albans Psalter, English, 1120-1145.

I know that these centuries-old icons are not touching me because I’m particularly religious, so it isn’t so much the subject matter that moves me.  Nothing in my past is sparked by seeing these images.  I’ve tried to figure out what it is that I “like” about the images I’ve been viewing, and the first thing that came to me was the color.  The vividness of the colors – blues, ochre, reds–give me a palpable rush of pleasure.

Romanesque interlace, "inhabited" with figures, England, 1190-1200.

But, why does a color make me feel good?  I started to research how colors affect our moods, but it didn’t hold my interest for long.  All I could thing of was how an old neighbor of ours was convinced that our son’s bright red nursery would emotionally cripple him for life.  Articles about “color trends” have always struck me as kind of superfluous, and anything I could have written in that vein would have been pulp.

So, I contemplated the colors and the feelings some more.  The vivid colors created an immediacy to the image.  It was real, in-your-face intensity.  And I wondered, how did those vivid colors survive all these centuries?  What power did those brushstrokes have to leap across centuries to reach out and touch me?  My husband suggested it was lead paint and all kinds of other terrible stuff that can’t be used anymore.   (see note below)   Maybe.  Probably.  But I prefer to think of it as something more elegant.  I love reading history books, but I could read all day long and not experience the visceral feeling I do when I look at one medieval icon or illuminated page.  I’m not creating new historical insights or anything like that.  It’s just an emotion.  It’s just the feeling that we are connected throughout the centuries and across the globe by the humanity and passion of artists.
NOTE:  I did find some info on the make-up of paints used by medieval artists on wikipedia:


“The medieval artist’s palette was surprisingly broad. In addition to the substances listed below, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments[13].”

Red:   Mercuric sulfide (HgS), often called cinnabar or vermilion, in its natural mineral form or synthesized; “red lead” or minium (Pb3O4); insect-based colours such as cochineal, kermes and lac; rust (iron oxide, Fe2O3) or iron oxide-rich earth compounds
Yellow:     Plant-based colours, such as Weld, turmeric or saffron; yellow earth colours (ochre); orpiment (arsenic sulfide, As2S3)
Green:    Plant-based compounds such as buckthorn berries; copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite
Blue:     Ultramarine (made from the rock lapis lazuli) or azurite; smalt; plant-based substances such as woad, indigo, and folium or turnsole
White:     Lead white (also called “flake white”, basic lead carbonate (PbCO3)); chalk
Black:    Carbon, from sources such as lampblack, charcoal, or burnt bones or ivory; sepia; iron and gall
Gold:     Gold, in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or powdered and bound in gum arabic or egg (called “shell gold”)
Silver:     Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; tin leaf

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illuminated_manuscript

Mural Stories

Recently I picked up several rectangular shaped canvases – wider than they were tall.  The format feels like a mural, one that invites the viewer to “read” the finished piece from left to right.  Sure, it’s smaller than what we think of as a mural, it is fun for me to try to tell a story on these canvases.

Murals have been around for thousands of years.  Think cave paintings.  Our early ancestors tell us about how they lived in the paintings they left behind.

Chauvet Cave Paintings

Fresco of bull jumping in Knossos

Many murals throughout history were frescos.  Fresco comes from the latin affresco which means “fresh.”  In frescos, the paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings.  The frescos of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods told biblical stories and mythic tales.  They were stories about the way people viewed their relationship with the world and its cosmic forces.

Giotto, Kiss of Judas from the Scenes from the Life of Christ fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padova.

The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, Annibale Carracc, 1597

In the 1930s, the Mexican muralism movement gave us stories of social issues by artists like Diego Rivera and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.

Precencia de America Latina by Jorge Golzales Camarena

These artists drew on stories from their ancient past to reflect on social and political ideas.  In Diego Rivera’s mural of the Market in Tlatelolco, you can lose yourself in the ancient streets.

Diego Riveres’ Murales Rivera Market in Tlatelolco
Murals bring art to the public.  They are costly and outsized projects that generally require financing from a sponsor, like a local government or business as in Chemainus.  Throughout history, murals were financed by wealthy patrons of the arts.  Murals reflect a symbiotic relationship between artist, public, and our collective “story of the world.”   A mural brings exposure for an artist.  They bring exposure to the arts for the public.  Murals are a way of expressing the beauty and the heartache of world in which we live.
The west side of the Berlin Wall was poignant outcry against living in a world without freedom.
1986 view of the West side of the Berlin Wall
The Bardia Mural in Lybia by John Frederick Brill.
The Bardia Mural, created during World War II in Libya by artist John Frederick Brill shows images of war mixed in with beautiful images of the culture of his home.  Unfortunately, though the mural still exists, it has been defaced.  In 2009, Italian artists began renovating the mural.

Last year, Colquitt, Georgia was proclaimed Georgia’s First Mural City by its state legislature.  It will be the host of the 2010 Global Mural Conference.

Poster for the 2010 Global Mural Conference

The goal of the organization that sponsors the Global Mural Conference is to promote the wealth of artistic and creative talent available world-wide.  The Global Mural Conference was born in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus.  Chemainus was a dying town, with closed factories and a sagging economy.  Then, in 1983, backed by the Ottawan government and local businesspeople, Chemainus commissioned 7 murals, plus 20 more over the next nine years.  The themes for the murals were mostly based on old photos from a book about the history of Chemainus.  Artists faced the challenge of painting directly on buildings, working around roof overhangs, windows, and door.  The tallest mural was 33 feet.  The longest was 120 feet.  The changed Chemainus into a cultural attraction.

Mural by Carl Marcano of Hong Hing's old store

One wonders sometimes how a person can remain committed to a project that is too big, too expansive, too unwieldy.  I believe the commitment comes from the deep need to tell our stories.

Spring

"Faerie" by Ruthsartsandletters on etsy

Although it’s still February, this past weekend gave us a glimpse of Spring.  Going out the door without a coat felt reckless and the white skin of my arms was blinding.  I looked through the jeweled-tones of the art I created this past fall and winter.  The colors that seemed rich and festive in the winter, seem shabby by the light of the Spring(ish) day.  It’s time to rethink the color pallet.

The first spring color that comes to mind is a color midway between yellow and orange.  It’s that hard-to-name peachy color.  Not the sherbert color that older women wear to church, but the kind of peach that boils beneath the surface and will transform by summer into a color so vivid it aches.  That’s the color of a ripening peach in the open market in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Spring Collage on Microscope Slide

A Voice in the Crowd

Geography: Acrylic paints with vintage paper and wax

Being a late-blooming and unschooled artist,  I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with new techniques lately.  Browsing through Jerry’s Artorama catalogue spurs some experimentation.  Who can resist the rich colors and intriguing possibilities presented there?   The talents and  techniques of  all the fabulous Melange Team Etsy artists spur experimentation, too.  I want to try everything.

But, like all experiments, some of mine haven’t turned out so well.  For instance, I’ve experimented with encaustic techniques, without investing serious money for the necessary tools.  There is no way I can get a nice, smooth encaustic surface with a little heat gun and a soldering tool.

I experimented with representational drawing and painting and managed to work out a watercolor of a barn that I have to my father-in-law.  He loved it.  But, he’s my father-in-law.  I tried a second piece – a trite and hackneyed landscape scene in a truly freaky pink/green color scheme.  (I tried diffusing it with wax, but couldn’t get it smooth — see above).

I’ve experimented with a high-gloss, thick resin finish on a couple of collages on wood panels.  The look is stunning – it looks almost like a ceramic tile.  But, it was  difficult to get a flawless finish.  I sanded and added coats until my husband finally told me that he had given me “old” resin and that’s why the piece had flecks in them that I couldn’t sand out.  Thanks, dear!  There goes three pieces right there. 

For the past few years, learning new things has been my mission in life.  I’ve learned I’m capable of doing things at which I thought I stank.  Exposing your brain with new experiences keeps your brain in top working order; it really does keep you young.  At the same time, one struggles to find one’s voice.  Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.   The struggle is to listen for your own voice amidst the clamor of everything else.

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.”

Encaustic Art Opens New Possibilities

A Moment in Time: New encaustic piece from ruthsartsandletters.etsy.com

 

Encaustic art uses beeswax and resin to add texture and intense color to pieces of art.  It is an art form that has been around since ancient times.  More and more modern artists are learning about and using this ancient technique.

Using wax is as multi-faceted as using any other painting media.  In general, beeswax is mixed with a resin – often damar resin – and then melted and applied to a surface.  Encaustic paints are available, and the colors are particularly saturated and rich.  An artist can also mix their own colors using pigments.  The melted wax is applied to the surface in any number of ways, including with a tacking iron, a heated spatula or other hot tool, a brush, or simply drizzled on the canvas.  Once the wax is applied – it dries almost instantly – the artist can manipulate the wax using a heat tool.  You can embed almost anything in the wax, and build up the layers to form 3-D images.  Paints or other colors can be applied on top of the wax, also.  Due to the resin content, the wax cures to a very hard and resilient finish.

For more information on encaustic art, visit the following link:

www.encaustic.com