Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King

March 14, 2013 by

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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 by

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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 by

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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 by

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 by

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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.

Jalil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon

December 30, 2012 by

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The Wandering Falcon is an enthralling must-read for its fresh, direct narrative of life in the rural tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The author is an 80-year-old retired member of the Pakistani civil service who worked for years in the areas that feature in this book. The work is a series of vignettes that loosely revolve about Tor Baz, an orphan who moves between tribes throughout his life. Tor Baz is rarely the chief character in any given episode, however, and the work covers a variety of figures. Some of the key themes are tensions between traditional ways of life and the demands of the modern state, the plight of women, and the price of honor.

Plenty has been written about Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years, but a few things make this novel stand out. First, Ahmad writes in a non-judgmental but brutally honest voice. He neither condemns nor sugar-coats the sometimes abhorrent actions of his characters and focuses on allowing their stories to be told. Moreover, his writing style is deceptively simple and thus reflects an important feature of the social world in which his characters operate. I highly recommend this short novel.

David Lodge’s Trilogy

December 30, 2012 by

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David Lodge’s trilogy offers a humorous look at academic life in Britain and, to a lesser degree, the US. The work consists of three books: Changing Places (1974), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988). The value of the works descended with each sequel, and overall I would recommend Changing Places enthusiastically and the latter two only for those particularly interested in campus novels.

Changing Places details the experiences of Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp, a UK and US academic respectively, as they trade places, and hilarity ensues as they try to make sense of an entirely new academic world. Small World details the same characters a decade later as they’re both working the conference circuit. Nice Work changes casts and contrasts academic and industrial life in England.

Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

October 10, 2012 by

A 650-page memoir is bound to be a little indulgent and self-obsessed, but Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton disappoints in almost every way imaginable. I have long been a fan of much of Rushdie’s fiction, particularly his use of magical realism that blends the realms of reality and fantasy in compelling ways. Rushdie’s life story also provides intrinsically interesting material as he went into hiding for over a decade in order to thwart the implementation of an Iranian fatwa demanding his death. Running from international assassins created immense hardships for Rushdie, and his book makes one strongly empathize with the author’s position. That justifies, maybe, 100 pages, and the rest is a mixture of the tedious and the banal.

One major flaw in the work is Rushdie’s lack of insight into religious matters. This is unsurprising perhaps. I have always thought that the most problematic aspect of The Satanic Verses is not its offense to religion but rather its totally superficial treatment of Islam. The novel is simply bad rather than blasphemous. Rushdie has made no progress it seems and still fails to engage with religion in any substantive way. In this sense, Rushdie seems to entirely miss that part of what frustrated the public during the fatwa years was that the battle was fought over somebody who doesn’t have anything to contribute to discussions about faith in the modern world. This in no way lessens the value of Rushdie’s life or the importance of him receiving police protection, but it does make one lament a missed opportunity.

Rushdie also offers little in the way of discerning political commentary in his memoirs. He passionately and eloquently defends free speech, which is a redeeming aspect of the book. But he fails to elaborate on what that free speech means and what we can do with it. I will defend the right of Rushdie and anybody else to express themselves as they see fit, no matter how upsetting it may be. But it is much more fulfilling to hear interesting ideas rather than repetitive proclamations of self-righteousness.

Last, Rushdie focuses an immense amount in Joseph Anton on his personal life and friendships. The lurid details of the 1980s-90s publishing world will interest some, and for the rest there is his series of failed relationships with women. For an author that displays such wonderful and captivating imagination in his fiction, Rushdie exhibits a total absence of creativity in his personal life. He openly admits to lacking any moral backbone but does not even provide any interesting reflections on this character flaw. Here he comes across as simply a sad, pitiable man.

Stephen Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

September 18, 2012 by

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a thrilling political narrative based on the alternative history that Abraham Lincoln survived the attempt on his life by John Wilkes Booth. The novel opens with Lincoln being shot and then quickly departs from reality as Lincoln survives while Vice-President Andrew Johnson dies. The novel is fantastic for anybody interested in American history, the Civil War, Reconstruction, race relations, or old-fashioned conspiracy theories and murder mysteries.

The weak points of the book were generally when Carter obviously writes his characters’ lines to speak to present-day concerns about the ineffectiveness of Congress and the corruption of Washington. These lame moralisms aside, however, the novel is a beautifully constructed storyline that investigates the complex motivations of individuals in politics. The end of the novel contains a helpful epilogue where Carter distinguishes his reliance on fact versus fiction.

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land

September 3, 2012 by

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land tells the story of Ora and her family as they face the harsh realities of Israeli military service. Most of the book is told from Ora’s perspective as she undertakes a hike to nowhere in order to run away from the unexpected deployment of her younger son, Ofer. Ora takes along Avram, a long-lost friend and former lover. As they walk for days on end Ora recounts to Avram the childhoods of her two boys, Adam and Ofer, and her own marriage to Ilan over the past few decades. To the End of the Land has been highly praised by many, but I remain a bit ambivalent it.

Where the book shines is in capturing the pain and horror of war. It offers insight into both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and particularly showcases how atrocities perpetrated in battle impact soldiers and their loved ones for long afterwards. The work also investigates (perhaps unconsciously) the need to live in denial and imaginary worlds in contemporary Israel. Without being overtly political, it was also enlightening (if deeply distressing) to see how some Israelis conceptualize Palestinians.

Where the book goes a bit awry, in my opinion, is by having little connection between its separate sections and being long-winded without just reward. I love character development, and it is enjoyable to read about the countless events from Ofer and Adam’s childhoods that fill several hundred pages. But when all is said and done, I found no method or connecting threads between these random stories. David Grossman constructs a brutal story of how people live and lose, but more in the vein of a rambling memoir rather than an intricate novel.