Archive for March, 2013

Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King

March 14, 2013

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I picked-up Eggers’s A Hologram for the King for two main reasons. I was a huge fan of one of his earlier works, What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, and I’m generally interested in fiction based in Saudi Arabia. A Hologram for the King tells the story of Alan Clay, a slightly beyond middle-age consultant who wants King Abdullah to buy his teleconferencing technology. Clay travels to Saudi Arabia and waits day after day for the king to show up at a largely deserted city outside of Jeddah. In the meantime, Clay makes a series of loose personal and professional connections with people in the Kingdom while reflecting on the failings of his life back home in the States. Eggers uses a clean prose style while he paints somewhat fuzzy scenes that seem designed to encapsulate some of the uncertainty and contradictions that characterize life in one of the most oppressive countries in the world. I thought there were some missed opportunities to give a more vivid picture of life in Saudi Arabia, but Eggers’s approach worked well with his narrative. I also found it a surprisingly insightful work on the inner life of a middle-of-the-road American business man who isn’t very sure what exactly it’s all about.

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These Foolish Things, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

March 13, 2013

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Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things was first published in 2004 and came out again last year under a new title, taken from it’s loose adaptation into film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a story about aging, families, and adjusting to life in a new place. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll notice only a superficial resemblance to the book. In the novel, the characters are more believable and the back story involving each individual’s family is far richer. The depiction of India is somewhat disappointing, but Moggach’s attention is clearly on character development rather than scenery. I’ll admit I bought the novel at an airport bookstore where selection was limited. It’s a light, easy read while still offering some cutting insights into the processes of aging and finding your surroundings no longer familiar.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

March 10, 2013

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I read A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken on the high recommendation of a friend, and I was rather disappointed in the book. The work tells the auto-biographical story of Sheldon’s love for his wife, her untimely death, and their joint spiritual journey and conversion to Christianity. C.S. Lewis features prominently in the work, along with numerous of his letters (all real, apparently). Many readers find the work a moving love story, whereas others identify with its spiritual insights. I found A Severe Mercy lacking on both accounts.

Much of the work is focused on the author’s love for his wife and their various efforts to construct a solid marriage and an unbreakable bond. There wasn’t enough plot or character development for the work to have great artistic merit, and as a true-story, a sort of how-to love guide, I thought it heavy-handed. The couple’s conversion to Christianity was the most interesting part of the book, although the frequent references to C.S. Lewis walked an imperfect line between genuine religious sentiments and name-dropping. What really turned me off the book, however, was the incredibly dubious theological conclusions drawn by the author towards the end.

Here I issue a spoiler alert, but the essential moral of the tale is as follows: God’s “severe mercy” to Sheldon was to take his wife from him at a young age so as to preserve his faith. Sheldon’s logic here is distasteful at best and far too self-centered and theologically ungrounded to be believable. In the end, it’s a deeply sad tale, but one in which I found little merit.

 

A few British Novels…

March 9, 2013

I’ve been doing a bit of lighter reading over the past few months, exploring some British classics. Including: Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, a hilarious satire of a Cambridge college.

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P.G. Wodehouse’s novels are well-known classics. I enjoyed Uncle Dynamite that features one of Uncle Fred’s wild plans gone wrong.

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I also read Wodehouse’s Thank you, Jeeves, one of the beloved in the Jeeves canon.

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Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit and Why be Happy when you could be Normal?

March 9, 2013

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I heard Jeanette Winterson speak a few months ago, and it was an intriguing enough speech that it made me want to know more about this interesting woman and her life. I began with Oranges are not the Only Fruit, her quasi-auto biographical novel first published in 1985. The novel is about a girl adopted into a Pentecostal family and her difficulties upon exploring her sexuality. The creative writing style and narration makes for a delightful read, although it’s a saddening story. For those interested in the clash of religion and modernity mixed with a coming-of-age tale, it’s a fantastic read.

I next read Winterson’s new work that came out in 2012, Why be Happy when you could be Normal?

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I found the work enlightening to read after having encountered Oranges, especially Winterson’s discussion of why she changes certain parts of her story and her relationship to the quasi-fictive plot line of Oranges. But much of Why be Happy when you could be Normal? was rather mundane. In part the story was too self-referential. It was still an interesting read, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Oranges.