Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Materialism as Identity

37. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

Only one concept separates this book from a thousand others like it. Unfortunately, persecution is not a new or even relatively rare subject, and so it is often unnecessary to read more than a few of this genre before getting a taste of the pain often personally experienced by authors. The Septembers of Shiraz is fiction, but loosely based on the experience of the author's family.

The year is 1981. The place, Iran. The father of a wealthy Jewish family is imprisoned, innocent of the accusation-Zionist spy. Sofer alternates between the father's musing and experience in prison, his wife's anguishing search, his nine-year-old daughter's thoughts, and the feelings of his nineteen-year-old son attending university in New York. Some of the coincidences are unbelievable, such as that Shirin, the daughter, discovers a file on her uncle at a friend's house and hides it. Sofer stretches credibility unnecessarily, the sheer intensity of her story is enough to carry a plot.

What I never really considered, and has never been thoroughly discussed before (to my knowledge) in a situation like this, is a particular feeling of wealthy people who must leave their country to start over again with nothing. Obviously, they would miss the luxury, but Sofer makes the reader consider how objects can represent a family history, and a cultural, or personal identity. Even something as shallow as a handbag could be an important symbol of a need to control, or moving on to a new chapter in one's life.

Shahla, the father's sister, known for her materialistic indulgences, nonetheless makes a valuable point; "If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbukto, will understand who we once were? (56)"

She invokes the fear and uncertainty of displacement of the self along with the stuff, fear of assimilation, and, though unstated, of the assimilation of one's children and descendents.

I found this even more interesting to contemplate, as my own grandfather and his family escaped Nazi Germany, ceding over their entire estate and business to do so. Undoubtedly, they were the lucky ones, their wealth helped them escape, but they had to start all over again with nothing in the Bronx. This consideration helped me to understand more the feelings of my great-grandparents. My Great Grandma brought over with her an ornate, expensive set of goblets, which were sold one by one to support the family. The last goblet, saved from its brethren's fate due to a chip in the rim, now rests in my family's dining room cabinet and serves as our Elijah's cup for Passover. Every time we glance at it, we are reminded of the hardship of our forebears. Based on that, I would concur with Sofer's thesis, that an object can be more than an object and can in fact make a difference.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Ever Want To Be Sleepless?

36. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

I gave Kress another chance, and am so overwhelmingly glad I did. The Hugo and Nebula awards were well deserved.

Beggars in Spain is the story of humans genetically modified to be Sleepless, awake 24/7, never tiring, and how the "Sleeper" majority population turns on them. Sleepless, due to the way they are engineered, are happier, more intelligent, and live longer than Sleepers. As the first generation begins to grow up, Sleepers become jealous of their superhuman abilities and slowly begin to prohibit them from competitions and businesses, de facto or de jure, because of their unfair or "inhuman" advantages. The main character, Leisha Camden, is part of that first generation and she is born in 2008.

Kress deftly portrays the effects of American politics, ideals, and economics on the national social psyche. Americans strive to better themselves, thus the rise of the Sleepless, but a society based in individual achievement, with nothing for losers, will quickly try to eliminate competition and accumulate monopolies through any means possible, even hate and dissension. There were many insights I thought relevant to understanding our society today.

One of my favorite quotes is from Kress' projected New York Times editorial,

"The United States has never been a country that much values calm, logic, and rationality. We have, as a people, tended to label these things "cold." ...[the ellipses are my own] A peculiar aspect of this phenomenon is that it grows stronger in times of prosperity. The better off our citizenry, the greater their contempt for the calm reasoning that got them there, and the more passionate their indulgence in emotion (81)."

Just something to think about. I really recommend Beggars in Spain to anyone who loves science fiction and even people who do not, but are interested in economics or politics or sociology. The characters are easy to relate to and I did feel connected with them, but this is primarily a novel of astute observations about contemporary American society disguised in this imagined, but not implausible, scenario.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

American Born Chinese Disconnect

35. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The title is my own clever nod to the Indian-American ABCD acronym. If you're curious, read Born Confused by Tenuja Desai Hidier. There's lyric prose for modern youth if there is any.

The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989 but it is a novel of 1940s China and 1950s and '60s U.S. More than a book, this is a collection of reflections from Chinese-born mothers and their American daughters. The New York Times Book Review, quoted on the back cover, used the word "vignettes." I like the sound of the word, and in this case the meaning is perfectly applicable as well.

It is not so much the stories that are important, though the history and sense of displacement are, but the feelings of the characters toward each other. The crux of the book is the never even close to breached chasm between an immigrant mother and assimilated daughter. The book is amusing in places, certainly tragic, even hopeful, but it reminds readers (poignantly) of what they already know.

This will be nostalgic or at least familiar for Chinese-American readers, and somewhat insightful for others. Amy Tan has a gift for capturing life as it is. I had been planning to read this for a while, and I also have The Bone Setter's Daughter unread on my shelf, though I don't know if I will get to it this year.

Magic? Just Kidding

34. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

You don't read Rushdie for historical accuracy. However, I do love how this novel encompassed the coexisting worlds of Renaissance Italy, Mughal India, Persia, and the just discovered New World. I happen to think it was one of the most fascinating times in world history.

The novel is a series of stories within stories, with a charming disregard for chronology. You won't be able to keep track, especially at first, and it won't matter too much either, let Rushdie carry you gently from moment to moment. A yellow-haired stranger appears at the court of Akbar the Great (of India) with the tale that could loosely be called the Enchantress's. The cover asserts that this is a novel about women of the past reasserting themselves, and while this may be technically true, I wouldn't call this a book about female empowerment. The central female character forges her own destiny, yes, but she relies heavily on men, and seems to be very lost and confusing both to herself and the reader.

Instead, I might call it a not entirely successful attempt at redefining magical realism. Rushdie leads you on a path of wonders, only to stop abruptly with a plausible, and disappointing, explanation at every turn. A much more successful version of this technique would be Yann Martel's Life of Pi. Also, unlike Life of Pi, there is no clear message or purpose.

My favorite character was Akbar the Great. Rushdie fashioned him into a contradictory vain and benevolent philosopher-warrior. The inclusion of his imaginary wife Jodha, however, seemed weird and unnecessary. I don't want to get too nitpicky about historical accuracy, like I said before, but some of Akbar's philosophical rants sound too unbelievably modern.

Bookslut's Jessa Crispin mentioned the sex scenes were like "watching your father flirt with a waitress" or something equally awkward, and I can definitely see where she's coming from. All I can say is, it's fortunate there's little of it, but even more unfortunate that what there is makes me wonder if Rushdie has ever had a threesome.