Where did our reading take us this month? New York, New Jersey, London, north of England, Cairo, Lahore, and some places in between. No wonder we’re tired…
I’ll start with In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif. Holy carp, what a long book! 785 pages! All four of us felt it could have been waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay shorter. First of all, let’s leave out all the “show your work” semantics research. Good grief! (I am especially pained because I actually labored through those sections, while other members of the group quickly figured out to skip those parts. My bad!)
Second, most of the scenes and conversations went on faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar too long, seemed like a bit of lazy writing and editing. Make your point but don’t punish us, okay? When the conversations go nowhere, we don’t need forever to see they are going nowhere.
The book is about Asya, a privileged young woman from a very wealthy Egyptian family. For much of the book, she is pursuing a PhD in linguistics at a university in northern England, although the story jumps between 1979 and 1967 and years in between. She fell in love with Said as a young student, and they are married after she finishes college. Because she is hysterical about the pain of intercourse, she can’t have sex, and Said acquieses, although she becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage (never explained and she seems to have no idea how it happened). But moving right along, she ends up having flirtations with other men, and then finally an affair with an English man with absolutely no redeeming qualities, and is in fact, a complete and utter asshole. Having created a kind of ultimate male villain, she rather inexplicably keeps going back to him. Usually with no explanation or clear motivation, other than she feels bad because she made him feel bad. Then she makes Said feel really really bad when she reveals she did indeed have a whole bunch of hot sex with the Englishman, Said then turns into a complete heel and jerk, which makes her really want him after all, but then not so much. And then she finishes her PhD and ends up working in family planning with Egyptian women in rural villages. But of course.
For 785 pages, there is an awful lot missing in the story. The author brings up multiple things without ever explaining or resolving them. (E.g., why was so much made of Said’s lies when they were young, without any explanation??) Why did she suddenly turn up with the sadistic Englishman in New York when she had seemingly finally been rid of him?
The relationships all seemed so superficial, as, in the end, did the main characters. While we expected the book to generalize to the dilemmas and challenges facing women caught between two cultures, in this case her highly neurotic nature limited the book so it seemed to apply only to these individual people. Oh how it made us long for reading Naguib Mahfooz again.
We did really enjoy getting the perspectives on political events during that period from multiple characters’ points of view, another reminder of the very limited reporting and characterizations we are exposed to in the U.S. We also enjoyed many of the minor characters and the insight into family life and friendships among women. Here’s a thought: it would have been a good book if you left out the main characters and their relationships. Would have been a whole lot shorter too!
Now moving on to The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid. We really loved the book! Two of us read it twice, in fact.
The book is the monologue of a man from Lahore who had been very successful in the U.S., graduating at the top of his class from Princeton and viewed as the top performer among the elite recruits of an American valuation firm (with the perfect name of Underwood Samson). In the course of the one-sided conversation, we learn about his experience in America and how he became so disillusioned with the culture and people that he returned to Pakistan.
There is a kind of theme of unreality running through the book in which characters are suspended in a kind of nostalgia that feels like an imagined reality that cannot have ever actually existed, but something keeps them trapped in the belief to the point they cannot live otherwise.
I think Americans need to read this book. I just looked over the reviews on Amazon, and I have to say, we Americans can be awfully touchy about anything remotely criticizing us, especially when it can be placed in any context with 9/11. My goodness, people. Do we realize how thin skinned we are?! We’re the most powerful nation on earth when it comes to weapons, control of resources, wealth, etc., but we can’t bear anyone suggesting we have anything to aplogize for or feel shame about? Don’t truly strong entities have enough faith in themselves to welcome questions? Aren’t those who are really comfortable with themselves able to hear to critiques. As Aaron said at work the other day (quoting a movie line, I believe): “Get off your cross and use the wood to build a bridge to get over yourselves.” Please.
Here’s what we felt was the most powerful passage in the book:
“A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in the lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except collateral damage. This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why Americans felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.”
I read the book aloud to my family. Saturday morning after I had finished it the night before, I heard a report on the radio that Americans had attacked “insurgents” in western Afghanistan and 76 civilians had been killed (with Americans first insisting all the dead were terrorists, but then later admitting to the “collateral damage”). Do we not think we will be paying for this a long time, America? Why are we letting our leaders do this in our name?
Even though the book is just a man talking, it is completely riveting. (Picture the movie Dinner with Andre in the way a conversation can be completely spellbinding.) There is so much tension, as we try to understand who he is talking to (an American “black ops” or a frightened businessman?), what will happen, is violence about to be played out?
And the ending! What happened? What was the glint of metal? Was someone killed? If so who? And who was the killer?
I just found this interview with the author on Amazon:
“It was always intended to end as it does. For me, the reader is a character in a novel, and the way one reads it shapes the outcome. So a reader who is more suspicious of Pakistanis might read it differently from one who is more suspicious of Americans. But it is the fear we are all being fed, the sense that something menacing lurks in the shadows of our world, that has the potential to make the novel a thriller. In reality, we should be much less frightened of our world than we are. When two people meet and disagree on this planet, the result is almost invariably a conversation–nothing more and nothing less.”
Ah, so very satisfying. This is the perfect book group book: very well written, easy and quick to read, so very much to digest, and even more to talk about!