Friday, March 27, 2009

When the Honeymoon Ends

12. Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni

Honeymoon in Tehran is marked with a certain maturity in hindsight that Lipstick Jihad lacked. At first, Moaveni returns to the singles whorl and Westernized cultural revolution perspective that characterized her first book. However, this book is deliberately political and faithfully follows the rise and fall of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's popularity and particulars of his policy and administration whenever possible.

It is my impression that is hard to write anything but a personal perspective on the government of Iran. As Moaveni explains toward the end, no one really knows who has the upper hand when, how, or why. The government contains too many conflicting agencies and parties, all overlooked by various schools of mullahs.

One gets the sense that Moaveni is looking over her own beliefs and motivations in hindsight. Her behavior in Iran and decision to live there were strongly influenced by her childhood needs for a sense of belonging and culture, and her spiritual attachments to Islam. It is due to this that Moaveni tries to balance her covering of the regime and the population, she checks and double-checks her stories, and submits everything before her extreme sense of justice.

I found myself greatly admiring her sense of fairness, and grappling along with her in the issues she faces. The questions that arise, especially in the epilogue, seem to be imperative to the future of Islamic, Arabic, and Persian culture today, in its native countries and extensive diaspora. What is Islam? Is it the territory of Western intellectuals and philosophers or Middle Eastern dictatorships and terrorists? Does Islamic culture inherently encourage repression, especially towards women?

Moaveni does not answer those questions, but after her experience in Iran, it is not as easy to quote the peaceful messages of the Koran and rest your case.

It is not at all or even largely a dour book, there are fun sections about her wedding and the sex-ed class the Iranian government sponsors for prospective married couples. But, in the end, Moaveni finds herself in England, facing more strict chador-clad women.

What does this say about Islam's future in the world, and the impact it is already having on the West?

I'd be interested in reading more about those experiences.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shopping District Reveals Literary Gem

I was surprised a couple of weekends ago, while traversing the narrow commodity-laden streets of Downtown Crossing, to run across the famed Brattle Bookshop!

I encountered them when I attended the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair back in November. This was the first time I had been to their location though.

Practically an entire store is housed outside the shop, partly in bookcases built into the brick of an alleyway. Antique books were to be had for cheap, I remember skimming the memoirs of a countess, published in 1809, on a $5 book rack. There were also volumes of the Everyman library, all manner of cookbooks, and a wealth of old biographies.

I didn't even really get to explore the actual premises, though centenarian books reclined on red velvet in the window display. I wanted to, but I thought it might be too tempting.

I've promised myself I will buy no new books until I have finished every single book in my room. This includes The History of God and The Theory of Everything, so I may be denying myself for a while. Fortunately, I have no restrictions against libraries.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wonder, Not Wonderful

11. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a modern-day Nabokov, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Like the Russian pedantic, Chabon is too obsessed with coaxing a pondiferous meaning out of each sentence for his work to flow as a whole. His prose is littered with adjectives and dubious compounds.

Such a style tends to make me want to skip around in search of a plot, and often ends up making me despise that pretentious narrator. All of Chabon's characters in this book are wordy and self-centered. If I don't like the characters, I rarely like a book. That said, Chabon's Grady Tripp is no Humbert Humbert. He's done (and does) some bad things, but I never ended up hating him.

Wonder Boys starts to improve toward the final third of the book. Usually, a book will start out well and go downhill from there, but I found this to be the opposite. Once I figured out the point of the book, and the main theme, how authors become their characters and vice versa, it became a lot more interesting.

I liked how Wonder Boys is also the name of the narrator's novel, and the parallels between the novel being read and the novel in the book. Chabon is skilled in this seamless blending of fiction within a fictional reality. A lot of authors have tackled this theme, and it can be tricky, but Chabon's version is neither overwhelming nor confusing.

In the end, Wonder Boys wasn't wonderful, but it did have something to say. If you have the time to get through it, especially if you're a writer, I'd say go for it. I'm not planning to pick up more Chabon anytime soon though.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Calm Rush

10. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I went into this book with certain expectations, but also having been just previously bowled over by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This book is on a much calmer, somewhat mystical level, so I got into it slowly, less rabidly.

In the past couple of years, I read both The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna. Allende hasn't disappointed me yet. Her books share some very strong common elements; focus on character development, "magical realism" (I think the term is ambiguous, but it will do for now), and some form of political activism. Daughter of Fortune fits the bill.

I would say, however, that this is lighter than her other books, and the main character, Eliza Sommers, is the most "normal" of all her protagonists I've met so far. Allende also limited the cast of characters to a comparative few this time.

Eliza grows up as an orphan in Chile. She is the adopted daughter of a rich British lady, Miss Rose Sommers. Her childhood world is intoxicating (Eliza learns to become a marvelous cook), but also a little stifling for her adventurous spirit.Then, Eliza falls in love. And follows her lover to the California Gold Rush.

The other main character is Tao Chi'en, a Chinese herbal doctor who also finds himself in California. China seems to be a bit out of the way of the thoroughly South American Allende, but somehow I don't doubt her insights. Probably the most valuable part of the book is the picture of Chinese life at the time, and how the Chinese brought and adapted their culture to California.

Daughter of Fortune was a relaxing read, and certainly encouraged me to read more of Allende's work.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A Real Work of Literary Magic

9. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

"What kind of magic can make a nearly 800 page book seem too short?" USA Today claims on the back cover. Despite the fact that my version at least was over 1000 pages (in rather small print too), I would have to agree it was not long enough. I wish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the literally Never Ending Story.

Mr. Norrell is the first practical magician in York for nearly three hundred years. To guard his distinction, he swiftly and capably disbands the York Society of theoretical magicians in less than one hundred pages. I appreciate the time Clarke takes in the first couple hundred pages to slowly introduce and develop characters. Her style here reminded me strongly of Tolkien, in the best way. I know many people are not such avid fans of description, I have heard this section described as "boring." But, I promise, those are the same people who complain of Lord of the Rings. It all depends on what you value.

Jonathan Strange comes on the stage rather late, but he is well worth the wait. He is England's second practical magician, and he and Mr. Norrell strike up a surprising friendship. Mr. Norrell takes him on as a student, but it is obvious that their opposing viewpoints on certain key points of English magic will one day spark an estrangement.

Clarke creates a large world of the history of English magic, built around a central ancient figure, the Raven King. Her extensive footnotes on the subject are interesting, though unnecessary to the story. I found the background story of the Raven King interesting, but its resolution was, to me, rather irritating. The Raven King, is, let me be clear, essential to the novel as a whole, it is the stories of magic and other historical magicians that are not.

After the first section that I mentioned, Clarke spends regrettably less time in character development. She introduces quirky, intelligent minor characters that I never felt I quite got enough of. I would particularly like to note Clarke's neglect of the women in the book. There are hints that Mrs. Strange and Lady Pole have extensive, and probably illuminating, views on magic and related issues of the book, but there is very little from their point of view. I would happily read another 1000 pages from Arabella Strange's viewpoint

The other details I would like to complain of might be spoilers, but I'll try to keep it mysterious. I don't like the idea that Arabella is a "possession" of Mr. Strange. I understand that the book takes place in the nineteenth century, but it's an "unnatural" book in many ways and isn't Susanna Clarke a modern woman? I also think the fulfillment of prophecies is kitschy. I understand their place in a book of magic, but must absolute determinism be allowed? Another nineteenth-century themed flaw, I suppose.

What impresses and astounds and flabbergasts me most about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is Clarke's powerful weaving together of a nineteenth century style and a fantasy world. There has been nothing so quintessentially English, so unmistakably fantastic, and so bona fide literary since The Lord of the Rings. I hope this hearkens in a new age in which fantasy as a genre can finally be respected and treated as literature.

Fortunately, my obsession doesn't have to end here either: www.jonathanstrange.com