Monday, May 28, 2012

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut

Eugene Debs Harte (named in honor of the Socialist and labor organizer Eugene Debs) is writing his life story from a college library that is serving as his prison. It’s complicated. After a spectacular failure at his high school state science fair, Eugene gets recruited by West Point. Four years and a “B.S. degree in Physics” later, he finds himself serving in Vietnam. When “the excrement hit the air-conditioning,” he returns home like all other veterans – misunderstood, jobless, and verging on a destructive outburst. Fortunately, his former-commanding-officer-turned-college-president offers him a teaching position and a place to live at the university. He spends quite a few undisturbed years teaching, philandering, and hiding his insane wife and mother-in-law from the rest of the world. Then he suddenly gets fired, and just as quickly finds a new job as a teacher at the prison across the lake from the college. A few more years pass, then the convicts pull of a mass prison break and take over the college. In the next few days, Eugene finds himself dubbed Mayor, Brigadier General, Warde, and, finally, prisoner at the same college where he spent so many years teaching. With not much else to do besides read books that nobody will ever read again, or probably never read in the first place, he writes his life story on scraps of paper.

The quirk about “Hocus Pocus,” on top of all the usual quirks of a Vonnegut book, is that Vonnegut positions himself as the editor. The story was written by Eugene Debs Hartke on scraps of paper he finds in the library, and Vonnegut says he has compiled them to put the whole story together. The different pieces of paper are distinguished in the book by lines, so each section of text, sometimes almost a whole page, sometimes only one word, represents each supposed scrap of paper the author wrote on. My mind made a big deal about this in the first few chapters, but eventually I pretty much stopped seeing the lines altogether.

This is the second time I’ve read “Hocus Pocus” in less than a year, and it only got better. Largeley because I understood it more. In case you missed it, go back and read my summary. It’s a complicated plot to follow, especially when the narrator skips around between history and present day. The other reason it got better is because this is a truly fantastic book. Vonnegut comments on everything from the institutions of war, education, and prison, to racism, to the ability to guess at what the future holds. Though his view of the world is only cynical, he points out human short-comings so blatantly that the only option is to laugh at the stupidity of it all. His statements range from politically incorrect to harsh-realities, but he doesn’t shy away from topics others would generally ignore in an effort not to offend. Scathing, hilarious, and brilliant. Must read.

The Places In Between

The Places In Between – Rory Stewart

In a trek across southern Asia (including Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal), Stewart returns to Afghanistan in January of 2002 to complete his journey. Due to visa restrictions, Stewart was unable to walk across Afghanistan when he first reached it, so after leapfrogging it to complete the rest of his journey, he returns to Afghanistan 18 months later to finish his last route. Walking from Heart to Kabul, west to east, Stewart literally follows the footsteps of Babur, an emperor who conquered the region centuries earlier and trekked the same route across Afghanistan in winter. Relying on the hospitality and compassion of villagers, Stewart spends a month walking hundreds of kilometers through mountains, valleys, and snow to complete his journey. Along the way, he encounters everything you would expect – no electricity, sickness, all kinds of people with guns – and many things that get lost in the places in between – ancient ruins undiscovered until the middle of the 20th century, then abandoned again, remote villagers who know more about European geography than most Europeans, and a part wolf/part dog who makes for a surprisingly faithful travel companion. He is accommodated, hosted, escorted, assaulted (both verbally and physically) and quietly observant the entire way.

Having walked across southern Asia for months, Stewart is relatively fluent in many of the languages spoken in the region, varying from Dari, Pashtun, and Urdu, although he does not speak Arabic. He has an intimate knowledge of the region and culture, and knows what to expect of the people he meets. He knows how interactions will play out on the surface, but is familiar enough to know the truth lies underneath. Familiar with cultural customs, he knows how to enter a village, how to request accommodation, how to approach people for personal knowledge and history, and how to walk away from tense situations by literally just walking away. Overall, Stewart gives us what feels like an accurate picture of post 9/11 and pre-invasion Afghanistan. By talking to villagers without preconceived stereotypes about which ethnic groups are welcoming, cruel, or should be avoided altogether, he draws attention to the unnoticed lives of Afghans lost in the middle.

Stewart’s writing is calmly reflective. He somehow manages to get in the exciting information while still drawing attention to the beauty of footprints in the snow, particularly drawing attention to the way the snow feathers out behind the heel of a footstep. He brings out the quiet beauty of solo travel, showing how walking really can be meditation, and subtly observes his interactions with others without making many judgments. The book is calm, relatable, and well-informed. He inserts footnotes throughout to clarify names, histories, documentation, and occasionally add his own slightly sardonic opinions. An excellent read, and much more informed and observant than “The World From Islam.” This is what I was looking for.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

In the global upheaval of the 50s and 60s, a zealous Baptist missionary moves his family – his wife and four daughters – to the Congo. While they were only contracted to stay in the Congo for one year, the Congolese push for independence and subsequent US-backed overthrow of the new government, the contract is thrown out the window, and along with it any support from the Baptist missionary service. Apart from the eldest teenage daughter, the family willingly throws themselves into this new and foreign lifestyle, encountering all kinds of problems that they could never have predicted. In attempting to come prepared for a year in Africa, they find that their cake mixes don’t survive the weather, precious clothes are worn to shreds, and even a hammer is useless against mud walls. Slowly, the mother and daughters adopt a new lifestyle and learn the ways of the jungle, but the father keeps pushing his will against the world, causing continual problems for himself and his family. As the mother quietly fights for herself and her daughters, they each fight their own demons, find their own identities, and take away the indelible lessons of jungle life. Ultimately, the wild, continual motion of Africa triumphs any effort to maintain one position, and everything gets moved along, willingly or not.

The bulk of the novel is narrated alternately by the four daughters, with the mother providing a reflective preface at the beginning of each chapter. Kingsolver expertly creates unique voices for each character, and grows with them throughout the story as they learn, struggle, and overcome – or not, depending on the character. Although it is a work of fiction, Kingsolver did thorough research on the era and the particular situation of the Belgian Congo, which became Zaire after the US stepped in, and in her preface, she admits that her story is largely influenced by the novel “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe, and it is easy to see how. It is a beautifully crafted work of historical narrative that shows how the personal is political as the characters find their voices, their position, and their own story against the backdrop of a churning nation that is doing exactly the same thing.

Absolutely beautiful. That is the only way I can describe the book. It is one of my absolute favorite books, and I brought it with me to Samoa knowing that I would want to read it while I was here, and it was fantastic reading it as a Peace Corps. The lessons about attempting to prepare for a completely unexpected life, only to arrive in a foreign country and realize that nothing you could have possibly thought of would have actually helped you are so familiar I could have written it myself. Their struggles adapting to a less-than-luxurious life also resonate, and they take on a new relevance now that I have experienced the same thing. Despite being thoroughly exhausted from Mother’s Day dance practice, I found it practically impossible to put this book down, and even at the end, I desperately want it to keep going. There is so much more she can tell about the story! I had a hard time choosing another book to read after I finished this one – what could possible come close to being as good as The Poisonwood Bible? You must read it.

The World From Islam

The World From Islam – George Negus

In the aftermath of September 11th, the world was stuck on the idea of radical Muslims engaging in terrorist acts against “The West.” In an attempt to uncover the differences between Islam as a culture vs. Islam as a religion and how much extremists adhered to Muslim principals, George Negus set out on a journey around the Middle East to find the opinions and attitudes of everyday, “normal” Muslim. Negus, a famous Australian media personality known for his news reporting and travel pieces, embarks on his travels in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, then follows up two years later after Saddam Hussein had been ousted from Afghanistan. Armed with a list of references from friends and his own journalistic ability to talk to strangers, he has conversations with everyone from oil millionaires, sheikhs, lower class businessmen, and nomadic Bedouin about their religion, what it will take to get the Muslim and the non-Muslim world to interact peacefully, and how to settle the chaos that has consumed the region for as long as anyone can remember. He discovers a mixed world, almost a culture clash between a modernizing global world taking root in the midst of strong religious tradition. Ultimately, he finds that every Muslim he encounters is nothing other than your average human being, looking for a balanced life of spiritual fulfillment and worldly fun and rooting for peace and against suicide bombers. Curiously, there is basically unanimous agreement among the people he talks to about the solution to the Middle East chaos: a two-state solution to Israel and Palestine.

I was not a fan of this book. After reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was looking for something with more information on the region, but despite the title, the book did not provide that. Negus has strong journalistic credentials, which he doesn’t hesitate in sharing in the book, but this didn’t feel like an investigation of Islam. His other renowned book, The World From Italy, was apparently an excellent travelogue on the life, culture, and architecture of Italy, and this book felt like it could be a sequel to his first (not that I’ve read the first, nor am I planning to). Rather than exploring the nuances of Islam as a culture vs. Islam as a religion, or even really explaining the fundamental beliefs of Islam, Negus tells us about the architecture, sites, and attractions in the Middle East. Since his travels extended over several countries, I had trouble keeping track of where he was, who he was talking to, and how it all related.

The writing style also bothered me. He kept asking rhetorical questions that were meant to emphasize how Muslims in the Middle East are normal people, but came off sounding patronizing. His 13-year-old son was one of his travel companions, and he kept referencing him in his questions and answers. Yes, the innocent questions of a child often force us to face harsh realities that don’t have simple explanations, but that tactic loses its effect after the first or second time. He also refers to himself as “the author” on multiple occasions. I was confused by this at first, then understood that he was talking about himself, but preferred to do so in third person rather than saying “I was talking to…”. Furthermore, his flowery language is full of embellishments that sound more like tangential wanderings than drawn-out explanations. It wasn’t easy to follow, it didn’t address the topic I thought it would, and was not written in the style I was expecting from a renowned journalist. The one credit I will give this book is that it is interesting to read it in the current context of the Middle East in a post-Osama Bin Laden and post-Arab spring situation. But really, don’t bother.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is a harami, an illegitimate child, but she doesn’t understand why she can’t live with her father, his wives, and all her other brothers and sisters. In the innocence of adolescence, Mariam tries to force her way into her father’s family despite her mother’s warnings, and the results are immediate and disastrous. Shortly afterward, Mariam is married off from her rural hometown of Herat to a shoemaker in Kabul, over 650 kilometers away. In Kabul, Mariam learns about modern life, covering herself with a burqa, and the responsibilities and trials of being a woman and a wife. When revolution hits Afghanistan and the government crumbles to chaos, Mariam and her husband, Rasheed, take in the young girl across the street who was orphaned by a stray rocket just as her family was planning to leave Afghanistan. Rasheed makes this new girl, Laila, his second wife, and she also quickly learns what it means to be a wife, woman, and mother. Feeling betrayed by the decision, Mariam keeps a cold distance from Laila, but extraordinary circumstances bring about unusual actions, and Mariam and Laila slowly become friends. Eventually, they join together to fight for friendship, love, and life in their struggle to survive the revolution and an abusive husband.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of women working together in revolutionary Afghanistan. Overall, the writing is clear and understandable, although Hosseini has a tendency to tell tangents before making a point. There is one chapter in the story that starts off with the women digging a hole in the backyard, and then Hosseini digresses into at least eight other vignettes before he tells us what the hole is for. By the end of the chapter, I almost forgot what he had been talking about. Otherwise, it is straightforward and easy to understand. He doesn’t throw in too much Arabic, and he translates most of what he does put in.

This book has been on my list so long that I couldn’t really tell you what happens in Kite Runner – his other book. I never heard a compelling summary or argument from anyone else as to why I should read it, so it was never a priority book, but I would say it deserves priority status. This story is amazing. In a world where women are so often fighting against each other to get ahead, Hosseini gives us a beautiful, heartbreaking story of two women who find friendship and strength from each other. This book tells the story of disrupted lives coming together, forced to unite amidst chaos, and somehow finding strength to overcome hardship. The story itself is compelling enough, but set against the background of a country caught between competing warlords and the government of the Taliban imposing Shari’a law, it is almost unbelievable that someone could endure (endurance is a key theme in the book) such hardships and still find beauty and meaning to life. Well worth the read.

Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart

Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart – Joyce Carol Oates

It’s rural New York in the 1950s and Iris Courtney is growing up on the wrong side of lucky. Her dad has a gambling problem, and while it occasionally brings in luxurious gifts, it more often results in unpaid debt. They move frequently, trying to stay in the nicest neighborhood they can afford while avoiding the streets that everybody knows are the territory of white trash. There is no concern about living in a black neighborhood because racial divides are so embedded that the possibility of having black neighbors is unthinkable even when they don’t have enough money to get by. For a white family, maintaining the semblance of class is what matters. Iris’s mom concerns herself with brands, labels, keeping the right company, and maintaining her reputation above all else. Constantly seeking upward mobility without acknowledging her lack of opportunity, she denies or ignores every problem she encounters. Rather than aiming for a good reputation, Iris’s father focuses more on a good time, causing the demise of their marriage. Meanwhile, Iris tries desperately to figure out her relationships with other people within the context of her race and class boundaries. Her life is forever altered and continuously redefined when the black boy she loves kills a white boy from a white trash family who had been threatening her. (Don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler – it happens in the first section of the book and is the impetus for every other major plot point). Iris comes of age while trying to find her identity amidst all her struggles of how to relate to people and why.

Because it is Bitter is the first…anything, I think…that I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates, so I don’t know much about her background and I can’t compare it to her other work. She writes not quite in stream of consciousness, but her sentence structure tends to reflect natural thought patterns with some fully formed, grammatically correct sentences, but most of them with a few errors, some incomplete thoughts, and some consisting of just single words. It took me a while to get used to this style of writing because I am one of those people who have to read every word of every sentence, but after the first section, I stopped noticing it. The bulk of the novel is written from the perspective of Iris, but she switches between characters occasionally and convincingly builds different patterns of thought and speech, different behaviors, and different perspectives. I was very impressed with the character development.

I read this book on the recommendation of another PCV (I love reading books recommended by others, please let me know what you think I should read!). She was a high school English teacher before she came to Peace Corps, and she said “I was reading this book, and I thought it would have been great for my class. Then it got kinda sexy, and I realized why we would never have read it. So I thought you might like it.” It certainly fits her description, and I really enjoyed the book. I wouldn’t make a blanket recommendation that everyone read it, but I can think of some people who would also really enjoy it.