Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"All He Ever Wanted"
by Anita Shreve

I suspected as soon as the first page that this wasn't my type of book. My suspicions mounted after the first 100 pages did little to pique my interest, and I was certain, absolutely certain, after the 101st page. And yet I read on.

Reader's guilt, I call it. It's when you start a book but find that you don't really like it but feel guilty not finishing it. The writing wasn't wretched, the story was intriguing in its own way, and it read fast. So I would feel guilty if I didn't finish it.

So I read. I read like a child eats spinach, force-feeding myself the words like they were good for me, like I had to read them to expel some sort of virus. When really all I wanted was to finish, because the only thing more satisfying than finishing a book you love is finishing a book you hate. I'm done with it! Yes! Celebrations are in order, we must mark this occasion.

All He Ever Wanted was not a bad novel, and for anyone interested, the story is about love. But the kind of love it's about is not what you'd expect. A man of reason, Professor Nicolas Van Tassel, becomes infatuated with a woman, Etna Bliss, one night after helping her aunt out of a fire, and will not stop until he can have her. The lengths he goes to win her love, and then the lengths he goes to keep her from leaving (because she doesn't love him in return), are disturbing and though-provoking in their own way.

Shreve does a great job of weaving together elements of story with philosophy about love, fate, chance, and the sacrifices we make. Still, I couldn't get into it, and only indulged myself because I had no other choice. Well, I could feel guilty, but who wants that.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Dirka Dirka, Progressivityism "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"
by Mohsin Hamid

I know novels about 9/11 are nothing new, and I suspect the events and issues surrounding that day will continue to be explored for quite some time. This is the first novel I've read that involves the events of September 11, and offers a different view than what I experienced in the aftermath.

Perspective is good.

A bearded Pakistani man sits at a cafe with an American in Lahore, India, and tells of his time in America. From his days at Princeton to his courtship with an American woman named Erika (whose name, I suspect, hints at the metaphoric representation of her country), to his subsequent departure from the U.S. after 9/11, the man, who goes by Changez (another phonetic name), recounts his story in painstaking detail.

The story is told in both second and first person. It is you, the reader of the novel, who is the American sitting with Changez at the cafe in Lahore. He talks to you, asks if you would like to order dinner, a drink, dessert. He makes assumptions about you and guesses your assumptions about him. It all has a very choose-your-own-adventure feel, and though Hamid's device works in theory, in practice the effect proves to be too jarring to be enjoyable. It's successful to a fault, it takes you out of the story enough to gain a fair distance from the story, and that fault is the reason I don't completely love this book.

There are some gems in the novel, and Hamid is a clever writer. The poetic passages that lace this novel kept me hoping that he would not stop the story and go into talking to me at the cafe. Changez's relationship with Erika, his longing for her, and her actions after 9/11, all seem too obvious in their attempt at allegory. Changez is like Pakistan, wanting to be allied with America, while Erika is like America, her sites set on something else, her mind in a whole different state. Erika is not grounded in the real world, she makes decisions based on imagination, and this adversely affects everyone.

It's perfect fodder for the state of the world right now. If it didn't necessarily succeed as a novel (it fell short, I must say), it's refueld my interest in current affairs, and at least motivated me to learn more about what kind of damage we are doing in the world that we have absolutely no idea about.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist asks a lot of great questions. We have turned backwards, fallen into illogical thinking, and are not looking clearly at what we are doing to the world. We move forward because we are America and we can, because we have the most powerful everything and no one can challenge us (though for how much longer, I wonder?). What The Reluctant Fundamentalist does is point out that people are hurt by us, Pakistan was hurt by America because they failed to help them (Pakistan, America's ally, was left in the cold after India threatened to invade, while America bombed the bejesus out of Afghanistan - the catalyst for this story), that racism is anything but over with, and that it's all too easy to be an American and think you are entitled, but it's the worst mistake you can make.

Making Waves
"Life of Pi"
by Yann Martel

Supposedly, this book will make you believe in God. At least, that's what the inside cover of the library edition claims, that "it may, as one character claims: make you believe in God."

What a letdown! I was expecting some major breakthrough, some tour de force, I was expecting to open the book and gold rays to come bursting out that would melt my face off like some sort of modern covenant. Didn't happen.

Life of Pi is, the inside cover also claims: about a boy, a tiger, and the Pacific Ocean. It is a fascinating story that won a prestigious award, but it didn't change my life. Maybe my expectations were too high, perhaps I wanted something more, some insight, some meaning I couldn't or haven't yet gleaned from life as I know it. Didn't happen.

Which made me wonder, am I not impressionable anymore? Am I past that phase? Is it a phase? Can I not be moved like I once was? I really can't bring myself to believe that I can't. I have my beliefs, my doubts and cynicisms, I have a pretty good idea on what the world will bring me and what to expect. I've formulated a philosophy for my life that works for me, but is it set in stone? Can it change? I'd like to think so, it should grow and change and adapt as I do. But that isn't impressionism, that's influence. It's change. Impressions have already been made on me. So nothing major, certainly not just a decent book, can make me change my life.

And, after a long discussion with my wife, one that is sure to continue, I must conclude that I am past that impressionable phase (as far as spirituality goes, not, perhaps, meaning). I've read books far worse yet been moved by them far more, I've found God and spirituality in so many other things that I cannot possibly find in Life of Pi, not a bad thing, just a letdown of expectations.

The lesson here is that a book should not stake that claim that it may make one believe in God. It inevitably dooms the book. It takes the 100 page setup of the book that has no insight at all, but rather just an exploration with a child into the various forms of religion (Hinduism, Muslim, and Christianity), and forces the rest of the book stand in its shadow.

The book is quite moving, it's a great read, and I found the story exceptional. One insight the main character, Pi Patel, had particularly moved me. Pi found himself at the mercy of opposites. He would often want one thing, get it, and then want another. When it would rain, he would wish for the sun to be out, to be dry and warm; when it was hot, he'd give anything for a bit of freshwater to cool off with. It's an extremely common thing, to want something, to get it, and to hope for the opposite. And it's the balance and the acceptance of these opposites as a way of life that I found so endearing when reading this novel.

Pi survives over half a year at sea in a boat with a 350 pound Bengal tiger. It's a story that you should read, not so that you will believe in God, but because it will move you, it will make your life more meaningful, shine light on things you take for granted, and inspire you. You might read this book and find that life is amazing even in the darkest, most solitary moments.