Archive for May, 2010

The Painted Veil

May 26, 2010

W. Somerset Maugham first published the Painted Veil in 1925. The work has long been lauded as a nuanced character study and compelling portrayal of human growth. The basic plot line revolves around Kitty, a shallow woman who married for all the wrong reasons. After she ends a failed affair, her husband lays out a severe penance: she must accompany him to inland China where he will work to solve a cholera epidemic. Having left herself few other options, Kitty does so, and the results of this venture are all too human for both husband and wife.

I must admit that overall I found the book tiring and contrived. Perhaps this is because too much time has passed, and my worldview is too different from that of Kitty’s. I can’t imagine getting married young because I felt compelled to do so by society, to a man I never had feelings for, and then having nothing to do in life but endless parties while following my husband around the world. Even beyond the set-up of the story, I found the character development to be a bit unexplained. While risking her life to cholera, Kitty begins work at an orphanage and discovers some kind of deeper meaning of life. However, Maugham doesn’t explore what that meaning is or how precisely we get from orphans to an internal change in Kitty. Without exploring the connection, I saw only an overused trope that helping the less fortunate makes one a better person.

One good thing I will say about the book is that it’s one of the few I’ve read where the woman is the stronger character. Kitty’s husband, Walter, appears rather flat in comparison to his wife. I certainly commend Maugham on this point, even if his portrayal of Kitty’s character seems itself a bit hackneyed at times to a reader nearly 100 years later.

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Catch-22

May 8, 2010

Catch-22 is one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century, so there’s not much I can say about it that’s new. Suffice it to say that the book’s reputation is fully warranted. It is a masterpiece. Joseph Heller fills his novel with vivid characters who are unforgettable individuals, while also serving as deep symbols for the human condition. The novel starts off as basically a farce, with absurdist sendups of military bureaucracy. But it turns darker and darker as it progresses, climaxing with a dark vision of a shattered Rome in the waning days of World War II, in which all the darkest impulses of human nature have been given free rein by the ravages of war.

While the book has plenty of haunting and dark passages, most people will remember it more for its humor than for its pathos. The lunacy of the military bureaucracy, and the antics of such characters as Major Major Major Major, Colonel Sheisskopf, and Milo Minderbinder are unforgettable. Reading the book, you can feel the joy that Heller must have felt in writing it. And that seems to be its message. Yes, people are ridiculous, and human institutions are absurd and often cruel. Yes, we are trapped in a world of pain, despair, and death, where there can be no ultimate meaning that justifies the cruelty we see all around us. But in spite of this, we can scheme, we can forge human bonds with those around us, and perhaps most important, we can laugh.

The book is a must-read.

The Kite Runner: Riveting story, Decent Novel, and Starting Point for Culture Exploration

May 3, 2010

The Kite Runner is a widely read, highly acclaimed novel that traces the life of on Afghani boy from the streets of Kabul to northern California. The book covers the last days of kingly rule in Afghanistan, the Russian invasion, the Taliban takeover, and even a bit on the American-led invasion at the end. I think that how you feel about this book depends on what you are looking to it for.

If you want a highly readable, gripping story, then definitely pick this one up. Khaled Hosseini is a talented writer who had me crying a few times in the course of the book. He has a way with words and plotlines, no doubt, and it’s a quick and highly enjoyable, if utterly sad, read.

However, if you’re interested in higher fiction, then The Kite Runner is a bit more of a questionable work. I found the characters to be overly stereotypical. The bad guy, Aseef, is a heartless Nazi; the wife, Soraya, a one-dimensional devoted woman; and the friend, Hassan, an unexplained devotee of his friend. The exception is the main character, Amir, an intriguing, often very despicable guy who I found to be quite compelling in terms of thinking through human weakness. There is a theme of redemption that runs through the book that I found to be pretty lame but not too detracting from the overall plot.

Finally, if you’re looking towards The Kite Runner as a window into life in Afghanistan, then I say read and learn, but do so with caution. The book is fiction but nonetheless explores a real history, country, and culture. The Kite Runner won’t help you with basic things that few Westerners still seem to understand, such as the difference between Sunni and Shi’a, what the Russian invasion was all about, and the philosophy of the Taliban. However, Hosseini does offer a perceptive window into Afghani culture, with all its beauty, reliance on tradition, emphasis on honor, sexism, and more. It’s a good starting point for gaining some insight into Afghanistan and Afghani culture.

Mister Pip: Escapism and Stories at Their Best

May 2, 2010

Mister Pip is a novel by Lloyd Jones that centers around the experiences of a child named Matilda who grows up on an island that is slowly being torn apart by civil war. As war looms nearer, all the non-natives, all the non-whites, flee the area, save one man who stays behind for personal reasons, Mt. Watts. Soon Mr. Watts becomes the de facto school teacher, despite having no training and only one book—Dickens’s Great Expectations. As Mr. Watts reads Dickens to the class, Matilda finds herself immersed in the world of Mr. Pip and his escapism on many levels.

The book is an interesting, thoughtful meditation on the power of the written word to open up new worlds and new horizons, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Jones, the author, also does a good job with contrasts: the best and the worst, childhood dreams and the brutality of war, 19th century England and a 20th century black island. In the eyes of Matilda fantasy and reality become intermeshed to such a large degree that they begin to invade each other’s realms.

The weakest part of the novel is its depiction of the civil war. This part is left vague, unexplained, and almost melts into non-reality as Matilda living through a book takes center stage. That being said, the background of war still provides a useful counterpoint that sharply and unexpectedly draws the novel’s characters, and consequently, the reader out of the world of Mister Pip as seen through a child’s eyes and reminds you of the harshness of real life. While I felt this point could have been much better developed if the war had been portrayed as a real thing instead of fuzzy backdrop, the escapism and exploration of the power of a story remains the central selling point of this short novel.

Greene’s The Power and the Glory

May 2, 2010

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene is a captivating novel that details the struggles of a “whisky priest”—so named for his love of drink—as he evades the authorities in 1930s Mexico. The man has committed no crime except being a priest in a country that was intolerant towards the Catholic Church for a period of time and somehow manages to be one of the last to avoid capture. John Updike calls The Power and the Glory Greene’s masterpiece, and I think he’s not far off. The work is a deep character study that offers much insight about the nature of humanity, suffering, and charity.

The whiskey priest who serves as the book’s main character is very much a broken man who is plagued by his own inadequacy, self-destructive tendencies, and desire if not iron-clad will to be a good religious leader. The book is as much about his personal struggles as an aspiring devout man and the oppression that comes from within as it is about the oppression that comes from outside, from a persecuting government. I found the book to be a deep, nuanced meditation on the common human experience of falling short of what you hope for.

Greene lays out these more philosophical ideas very much through a narrative that is always compelling, sometimes heart-wrenching, and even humorous at times. I have often found one of Greene’s great strengths to be exploring human failings through a story (e.g. The Quiet American). But here he really outdoes himself—The Power and the Glory is a novel to both enjoy and reflect on.