Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cannonball Read #18: The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

I was about twenty pages into The Bookseller of Kabul before I realized why it felt so familiar. An excerpt of it was included in the article packet for my Religious Reporting class in sophomore year, and I remember there being a note from the author, Asne Seierstad (cool name huh? She's Norwegian), saying that the Sultan (the bookseller) had read the book and disagreed with her portrayal of him.

To be honest, I felt a little tricked by the book's blurb on the back. I thought that it was going to be about how the Taliban rule had affected the bookseller's life, and perhaps there would be some political commentary about his ideals (which are Westernized). It ended up being a great deal about his personal life and about how he and the males of his family treat their female relatives. It's not that the latter is an uninteresting subject – I just didn't know I was going to get so worked up while reading it. I thought it was going to be more of an intellectual read instead of a "God, these people are so terrible to their moms/sisters/aunts" read.

Asne Seierstad is a journalist who lived with Sultan Khan (a fake name) and his family for three months because she wanted to write a book about him. She thought that Sultan was going to be a different Afghan – the new, post-Taliban-world Afghan man – because when she visited his book store, he seemed well-educated and supportive of Western ideals, such as democracy or women rights. However, she realized that at home, Sultan was just like any Afghan – the women of his house had literally no say in anything, and all his sons and younger brothers must obey everything he says.

His hypocrisy is evident in the way he treats his son. Sultan often complains that Afghans are uneducated, which is why the country can never progress (he is a big talker about "progress.") However, he refuses to send his sons to school because he says that they must help him in his bookstores.

In the chapters surrounding the women of his family, like his sister, Leila – who wakes up first to put out everyone's clothes for the day, and then goes to bed last because she must prepare the breakfast for the next day – it is so heart-breaking because Leila constantly tries to reach beyond the four walls of her house to the outside world, and is always pushed back down. Leila knows a bit of English and she wanted to be an English teacher. She keeps trying to apply for the license, but there are so many bureaucratic stops, not to mention societal obstacles. If her brother does not want her to be teacher, Leila cannot disagree.

For me, this was an incredibly frustrating book. I think that Seierstad's writing is much better suited for the news than for this format that the book took, which was kinda like a story. Seierstad's strength was in keeping her voice (and her opinions) out of the book. Leila's story (and the other stories) are told in a very neutral tone. It's a sad, frustrating topic that probably doesn't need more fuel; but I still wanted her to show... i don't know... some sort of indignance.

Of course, after thinking that, I felt guilty because I realized that I was imposing my Western ideals upon these Afghan customs. But is gender slavery really something that should be culturally ok?

Like I said, this was a difficult read, and the writing wasn't especially emotional (the topic is emotional enough) so I had trouble staying engaged with it. Parts of it were really interesting though because I got to better understand some Afghan customs, like how weddings are arranged and how a prospective bride and groom are supposed to behave. Stories like those were told in a gossipy way, so it made it more fun to read.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cannonball Read #17: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Definitely, there are spoilers.)

While reading and talking about Lolita on the Internet, I noticed that people would often quote some Vanity Fair review where Lolita is said to be "the only convincing love story of our century." It piqued my interest that the rest of the article is never referenced so I decided to do a Google search for it. My quick search became an extensive comb of the interwebs, and the only thing (ONLY thing that came up! I mean, this is the Internet, so that's pretty amazing) that came up was a blog post written by an English Lit grad student. Once I read the rest of it, I realized that the original Vanity Fair writer would probably have preferred the next sentence to be the pull-quote "of the century":
[Lolita] simply stood as one of the great examples of passion in literature, a deeply touching story of unfulfillable longing, of suffering through love, love of such ardor that though it concentrated on its subject monomaniacally, it actually aimed beyond it, until it flowed back into the great Eros that had called it into being.

This would more accurately describe my feelings toward Humbert Humbert's and Lolita's "love story."

This is my second round through the book, and I'm still really unsure about it. I know there's the whole debate going on about it not really being about HH's love for Lolita, but an obsession with her – and I would absolutely agree with that. On the other hand, HH was able to respect her wishes about not following him, and allowed her to move on with her life, even giving her all the money that really belonged to her mother. I feel like the love that Humbert has for her started out as a fetish, one that came from never being able to "climax" his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Annabel. But he also stated, somewhere in the book (because I don't use bookmarks, so take my word for it) that Lolita became more than just an Annabel-figment; she is a more realized vision of whom he had always wished to be with, and whether if that vision started with Annabel, it really ended with Lo. Lee. Ta.

Whenever that above stops making sense to me, I only have to refer to the final paragraph in HH's novel. He stated that Clare Quilty should be killed because he, HH, had to make Lolita "live in the minds of later generations." Granted, the image of Lolita that we have is what HH sees, but what he sees is also what he falls in love with.

Wanting to express my thoughts on this is incredibly frustrating, and maybe the fact that this is so hard for me to put into words means that it is, indeed, just a mere obsession. Yet I can say that, and still I believe it's a love story. It is certainly not a good love, or a perfect love, and it is not the type of love we aim for in our relationships. But I have read those thousands and thousands of words and I can still feel the aching that HH has for Lolita. I connect that to something more than him wanting to possess her.

I can also feel my revulsion and skepticism for HH. Reading the book is especially painful when he gives the first few indications that Lolita is unhappy during his travels with him. She cries every night after they have sex while he feigns sleep; then he mentions this fact off-hand, like it's just a pesky little afterthought to their wonderful year-long journey. The problem is that HH was always aware that he was in the wrong, which is why he resisted for so longe. Right after they had sex for the first time (where she, he said, was the one who seduced him), HH writes:
The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline I would like to fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?

Before they had sex for the first time, he often congratulated himself for catching a caress without violating the child. This little self-righteous pat on the back is soon forgotten once we get into the second half of the book. Instead, he focuses on keeping her in his sight at all times, trying to limit her social engagements so that he can keep track of her friends, and he did all that in the pretense of being a "good father," which even he was aware was a flimsy excuse.

When Clare Quilty enters the picture, it was almost a relief. Nabokov often slyly refers Quilty as HH's brother, and we can see how they are "related" because of their taste for nymphets (I just winced after typing that but I can't think of anything else.) Quilty could be like the evil twin brother, but after I was done with the book, I wasn't so sure. Quilty never thought there was anything wrong with his pornographic/pedophilic life choices. HH does, but still persists in doing it; and even after admitting the wrongness and acknowledging his guilt, he still continues it.

I feel really lucky to have obtained an annotated version of the book because that absolutely helped me with my understanding of the second half. By that point, I was so frustrated with HH taking turns between self-flagellation and self-indulgence that I was just confused about how I felt about him, or even with what he feels about himself. I mean, the man voluntarily admits himself to psych wards on a routine basis, for heavens' sake. I do not sympathize with him, but Nabakov's use of language really helped me to feel what he felt.

For example, I read most of the book on the train, and in the beginning of the book when HH was describing his longing for Lolita, I could actually feel the need he had for her and I started feeling self-conscious about reading it in public. Towards the end of the book, I understood why he had to find Lolita to ask her where Quilty was so that he may kill him - and I got that! I have no idea why, only that Nabokov's language made it so self-evident to me.

So yes, it is one of my favorite books but saying "because of the language" just doesn't seem to be a sufficient enough reason. The subject matter kept me engaged though it was very icky. I don't know, I don't know. All I know is that when I got done with the book, I closed it and looked around me, and it all still looks like the subway train I take to work everyday. But I felt weirdly changed, like I had just gone through an incredibly heart-wrenching break-up and somehow, I'm the one who came out intact. And I'm so surprised by that.

I always feel sad when I hear that people didn't enjoy it. And perhaps "enjoy" is the wrong word to use with Lolita, but I just feel so much for it.

"No," she said, "it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean –"

She groped for words. I supplied them mentally. ("He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.")

Monday, February 15, 2010

Where I wallow in nostalgia.

Growing up in Singapore, celebrating Chinese New Year was a very big deal. As children, we get several days off from school, and we would come together as a family in my aunt's gigantic home and just eat and play. It's my favorite holiday because I used to love going to my aunt's house and playing hide-and-seek with my cousins. We would watch TV in her bedroom while the adults ate and chatted in the living room area. They more or less left us alone, except when they gave us red packets with money in them. I just remember having so much fun every year with my cousins, though if I have to think of specific details and describe them, they don't sound as fun as I feel like they were.

As my mother is the youngest to 6 older sisters and 2 brothers in her family, I had a ton of cousins to play with growing up. People are always surprised by how well-adjusted I am for someone who is a single child (which is not a dig to people who grew up without siblings. It was their observation, not mine.) I didn't really feel like a single child growing up. I am closest to my cousins who are in the same age range, and the older ones I regard the way I would an aunt or uncle. If it helps to picture just how large my mother's family is, my oldest cousin is 4 years younger than my mom, and his oldest son is a year younger than me. He and his younger brothers grew up calling me "Auntie" which is always bizarre for a 6-year-old to hear.

Anyway, yesterday was the first day of Chinese New Year, and I did not do anything to celebrate it except order shitty takeout Chinese food. It's times like this that I miss my cousins desperately and I wish I could go back to Singapore to visit. I know, however, that even if I were to return during the holiday, it would not be the same as before. Because I am now so much older, the adults (I will forever refer to my aunts and uncles as "the adults" even though I am technically an adult) now try to talk to me and ask me questions about my life here. And since I am not an immature 10-year-old, I can't really get away with ignoring my elders and running off to play with my cousins.

It may sound like I am complaining about having to talk to my aunts and uncles when they show interest in my life. The truth is that despite my age, I still get nervous about talking to them about my life and my choices. I don't feel comfortable with my aunts and uncles because they have been such figures of authorities for me growing up - These are people who have reprimanded me, scolded me and humiliated me (in the way that a petty child may feel humiliated by an adult reprimanding her, not in the David-Sedaris-scarring way) They have also taken care of me in some way or other, and therefore, there is some residual fear of them (fear in the "oh no, I am in trouble for playing in the rain!" way, not fear in the David-Sedaris-scarring way.)

Yesterday, I kept telling myself that I should do something special for Chinese New Year, like go down to Chinatown and watch the lion dance. But I know that I can eat all the fantastic Chinese food and watch all the parades, and I will still feel like I'm not really celebrating it. I haven't celebrated Chinese New Year for almost ten years and I just miss it so much. It used to be my favorite holiday and now it's been reduced to watching the All-Star game on TV while eating crap Chinese food with my boyfriend (In case he ever reads this, I should probably add that he's wonderful company. He's just not my cousins and watching the All-Star game is not celebrating in Singapore.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cannonball Read #16: Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley

I read Thank You For Smoking in a single sitting. I started it at the library, then borrowed it, went home and finished it in the same night. Nick Naylor, the protagonist, is my current favorite fiction character because he is honest to himself about his line of work, which is incredibly dishonest. Naylor is a chief spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, and he spends most of his time making media appearances to spin whatever claims that any health professional make about the harmful effects of tobacco. He often laments throughout the book that the media does not give him as much screen time as "health professionals." I think this book was written before people realized, empirically, that smoking is indeed bad for your health because there is this scene in the office where Naylor's boss is telling Naylor that they should never admit that cigarettes are bad.

The main wheels of the story starts turning when Naylor is kidnapped and is almost killed because his kidnappers stick Nicotine patches all over his body (you're supposed to only use one every x-number of hours). Naylor miraculously manages to survive the effects, and his doctor says it's because he is a smoker and his body was therefore not as overwhelmed by all that nicotine patches as a non-smoker's body would have been. The result is that Naylor can no longer smoke cigarettes ever again because there is now too much tobacco in his system.

Naylor's kidnapping is widely reported in the media, and he appears as almost a hero. The result is that all the people ("health professionals") who are usually vehemently against the Academy of Tobacco Studies are coming out and saying that they will never do anything like this, and they feel sorry that Naylor was a victim of this attack. This therefore puts Naylor's company in a sympathetic light, and media outlets want to give him more screen time so that he can shill more for his bosses.

While reading this, I couldn't help but picture Naylor as Aaron Eckhart from the movie. I watched the movie several years ago (on a plane I think) so my memory of it is a bit spotty, but I can say with confidence that the film departs greatly from the book. For example, Naylor's son is featured heavily in the movie whereas he only appears maybe twice in the book, and Heather, the sexy reporter Naylor beds, seems to play a bigger role in the movie. In the book, she serves mostly as Naylor's plaything and occasionally approaches him for sources and comments. Towards the end of the book, she writes a scathing piece about him and his friends (the MOD squad, which stands for Merchants Of Death, because his two other friends shill for alcohol and firearms) but in comparison to the other events that are happening, it seemed almost like an afterthought.

All in all, this was a really entertaining read, and I enjoyed Naylor's voice because he is so cynical but also very self-aware. Sometimes he seems like he really believes in the things that he is spouting to defend the people who write his pay checks, but then in the next paragraph, he'll use the same line that he uses for everything, which is "Where are the data proving this?" It tells us that he doesn't really believe in what he is doing, but he can't help do it because he is so very good at it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cannonball Read #15: Naked by David Sedaris

I read David Sedaris' Naked so quickly that nothing seemed to really have stuck in my mind except how hilarious some of the short stories were. I do most of my reading on the subway, so it's really surprising to people when the girl next to them starts cracking up, and that happened to me several times while I was reading this book.

Naked is a collection of short stories that Sedaris has penned about his life. A lot of them revolve around his gigantic Greek family, and they really seem to be the makings of some indie movie about a dysfunctional family that comes together in the end. Except the members of the Sedaris clan don't really seem to peddle in platitudes about how "family is the most important thing" or "spending time together is precious." Ma and Pa Sedaris can seem incredibly cruel (or thick) at times. In "A Plague of Tics," Sedaris' mom accurately imitates his idiosyncrasies to his visiting teachers, deflecting their criticism of his obsessive -compulsive behavior by charming them into laughter. In "The Women's Open," Sedaris' dad insists on dragging the children to boring golf tournaments, and then refuses to go home even though his sister got her first period.

It was a little difficult for me to connect the way Sedaris was as a child (in the beginning of the book) to the way he was as an adult. As a child, he was a nervous ball of anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness, which "A Plague of Tics" so humorously showed; then as a young adult, he was content to hitchhike around America and pick up whatever odd jobs he could ("The Incomplete Quad" and "C.O.G.") He said the smoking in college really helped to loosen him up.

Reading about his childhood (his family stories stick out more in my mind than his college years) really made me... (the word is) grateful. For not being the child of his parents. Now, I love my mother and I would never want her to be any other way than the way she is (even though I might complain differently to my friends about it) but I'm not sure how I would turn out if she was like Sedaris' parents (a famous author? sigh.) It's not that they are terrible human beings; they just seem to do and say really awful things. Even though everything was written in a really funny and entertaining manner, I kinda got the sense that Sedaris had to see humor in his childhood or else he might just be constantly disappointed with his parents. It could be that or maybe he's just grown-up enough that he has forgiven his parents. Not that there would necessarily be something to forgive for, but that he is now able to look back and just see that certain things were done for his own good, and other things were done because his parents, just like him, are human.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cannonball Read #14: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Blakspring and Jen K. recommended American Gods to me in my quest for more Gaiman. After reading it, I realized that this book has been reviewed many times by Cannonballers (Pajiba has even previously published a review of it) so I'm not sure if there is much more I can add to it.

The basic premise is that the gods of the old world and the gods of the new world are about to wage a battle, and one man, Shadow, is in for the ride of it. Shadow, a recently convicted gentle giant (I kept thinking that as I read on), was released a couple days early from jail because his wife was killed in a car accident. He is promptly hired by the mysterious Wednesday, who is later revealed to be the Norse god Odin, the All-Father, to just basically be an errand boy. Wednesday is trying to convince all the other old-world gods to join their forces and go to war with the gods of the new world, like the god of Media, or the god of the Internet.

Reading this felt a little like swimming underwater without goggles. I never knew which direction it was going - I was confused whether if this was reality or fantasy, and once I realized it was both, I was confused about the Bigger Picture. There was not much exposition or explanation. I definitely had to read behind the lines of the actual story in order to really understand it, and even then, I'm not sure if I quite get it. It was the story of Shadow that really kept me going. In addition, Gaiman's writing is fantastic. My favorite parts of the book (besides just following Shadow's adventures) were the little sections tucked in between the main story of how the gods are currently living in America.

After reading three books by him (Coraline, Stardust, and this), I still cannot see much similarities in writing except that it is phenomenal. If I had to quibble about this book, I would say that a lot of the events are a little too dream-like and whimsical for me. Hopefully, I will be able to understand it better/get more out of it when I re-read it.

Cannonball Read #13: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I picked this up in a bookstore in Singapore because the cover looked interesting, and was immediately drawn in by the beginning. It's just the right kind of compelling and quirky and mysterious (ah-hah!) that I decided, after leaving the bookstore without purchasing it there (English books in Singapore are very expensive), to get it on my Kindle. It was my first impulse buy on my Kindle, and I bought it because I wanted to continue reading it. Unfortunately, the middle-to-the-end-parts of the novel do not mirror its beginnings in awesomeness.

The beginning has Reynie Muldoon taking a series of exams after he spotted an ad in the paper. The ad had read, "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" with a phone number. Reynie, being a gifted child who is bored with his studies in the orphanage he lives in, decides to try his luck. The tests were really interesting and clever, and were my favorite parts of the book. Reynie also made some new friends, Sticky and Kate, during the tests, and they all eventually passed them and moved on to meet Mr. Benedict, who wants to send them on a highly dangerous mission. Apparently, children are the best people to send.

The four children (Mr. Benedict randomly introduces a fourth girl named Constance who proves to be very irritable and contrary in nature) are to go under cover into a Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.) where they are to try and learn what the Ultimate Objective is for L.I.V.E's leader, Ledroptha Curtain. Curtain has been sending out subliminal messages through television waves to try and influence the public's thinking, and Benedict wants to know if the subliminal messages will get louder and more aggressive and to what aim. That's why children are the best people to send in as undercover agents: Because they question everything, and their minds are not yet molded to think what society wants them to think.

OK, potential SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER, but this book is like 2 parts Harry Potter (the relationship that Reynie has with his friends is very similar to Harry-Ron-Hermione friendship triangle) and 5 parts Josie and The Pussycats The Movie (guess which parts?) END SPOILER. While reading The Mysterious Benedict Society I kept seeing how much more it could have been. The biggest problem with the story is that Stewart does not think big enough, or even detailed enough for his story to be great. If we think about some of the best, most well-known childrens' books, they were fantastic because the authors were willing to take an idea and just RUN WITH IT. J.K. Rowling created an amazingly detailed world that resembled reality; Philip Pullman boldly transformed metaphorical and allegorical ideas into his book's reality (Crazy Catholics be damned!).

Looking back at those two examples, the books written were clearly fantasy, and The Mysterious Benedict Society seemed to be wavering between reality and fantasy. I kept wishing Stewart would just go crazy and surprise us with something extraordinary, but it never happened. I'm not saying that a children's book has be a fantasy in order for it to be interesting. It's just that some of the ideas (the main conflict in the story, for example) was never properly fleshed out – Mr. Benedict says "SUBLIMINAL MESSAGES!!!" and then we never get a proper explanation of how it works except that the messages are "subliminal." Well, no shit, Sherlock. Stewart tends to gloss over the details of things that could have been used to its full potential, and it's such a pity because instead of aiming for "good," The Mysterious Benedict Society could have been "AWESOME."

All that being said, I will probably read the sequels, The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma. What? I'm a sucker for children's adventure books! And I'm still searching for the next His Dark Materials...