Archive for September, 2013

Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

September 3, 2013

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I’m a fan of Mohsin Hamid’s previous two novels (particularly his first, Moth Smoke) and also enjoyed his third (admittedly oddly-named) book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. The book begins as a “self-help” work that goes on to narrate the story of the never-named protagonist in the second person. It’s an effective strategy to draw one in, and it quickly fades to the background in any case as you follow the story of a boy born into a poor South Asian family and his rise through the social ranks as an adult.

The book may follow a seemingly clear rags-to-riches plot, but just below the surface is also a compelling love story that threads throughout the book and, in some ways, characterizes the man’s entire life. The book is short and readable but also invokes a wide range of themes. Questions of destiny and hard work, love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, surface repeatedly throughout the novel and are dealt with in complex, insightful ways.

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Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel

September 3, 2013

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, and it’s a spot-on coming-of-age story for our times. The main protagonist is Nathaniel P., a young writer who experiences his first taste of professional success but is still unable to maintain his desired type of personal relationship with a woman. Nathaniel P. is a thoroughly unsympathetic character. He is self-absorbed, shallow, fits a certain Brooklyn stereotype perfectly, and can be downright cruel. But he represents a significant trend in modern relationships, which is what captured my attention in this novel. Walman also offers cutting insight into the common behaviors of women who find themselves paired with such men. Without passing judgment, she offers an unmitigated look at the vicious cycles that can lead relationships to their dismal ends or, in some cases, to depressing stability.

In addition to its more serious, and often downer moments, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. also offers plenty of comic relief. The depictions of Brooklyn hipsters are hilariously correct, and Nathaniel’s inner monologues will make you laugh, even as the next line will often make you cringe. Overall a highly readable work on relationships and some of their modern (and perhaps timeless?) challenges.

C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

September 3, 2013

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I recently finished C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. The works are (in order): Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandra, and That Hideous Strength–originally published in the 1930s-40s. The three books share some key plot threads and characters, most notably Ransom who is a wise, do-good professor. However, they can also easily be read on their own. Generally speaking, the novels get worse as one goes along in the series. I would recommend the first book, feel lukewarm about the second, and I would warn against the final book.

The first two novels display considerable creativity, particularly in depicting the landscapes and lifeforms of other planets. Out of the Silent Planet is the best book in this regard, set on Mars and featuring some highly imaginary creatures. The description of the space flight from Earth is also interesting and well-done, as is his discussion of language and the nature of communication. Perelandra, which unfolds on Venus, offers compelling descriptions of radically foreign vegetation and even the nature of land itself. However, even in Perelandra, Lewis’s heavy-handed theological vision begins to be oppressive.

In many of Lewis’s works, his Christian messages enhance and guide the story. But in Perelandra and even more so in That Hideous Strength, Lewis pushes theology at the expense of plot. The result is an uninteresting and occasionally totally unclear and unexplained set of events–you get the Christian metaphors, but you don’t really understand what the novel part is all about.