The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) by Asne Seierstad

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I am currently completely and utterly absorbed in Eleanor Catton’s book The Luminaries, which explains my recent short absence from the blog. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks or so but am only just nearing the end of part 1 so I still have some way to go. It’s eye-wateringly complicated but luckily I’m so in love with it that I don’t really seem to mind that most of the time.

It’s a very different read to the last one I finished, The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist and in September 2001 she entered Afghanistan to cover the ongoing crisis that followed the attacks on New York. In Kabul she met a successful bookseller, known as Sultan Khan in the book, and struck up enough of a friendship that she was able to convince him to allow her to live secretly amongst his family for four months as research for an upcoming book on the war and its impact on ordinary families. This is the result of that stay: a detailed portrait of Khan’s large family (with pseudonyms of course) as they pick out a life in cramped conditions amongst the country’s war ravaged capital. She begins her story with an account of Khan’s marriage to his second wife but goes on to devote a portion of her book to each member of the family in turn.

It’s for the Khan women that Seierstad clearly feels the most fondness and I like the fact that she deliberately tries to shine a spotlight on the experiences of those whom she feels are dominated and repressed by traditional Afghan culture. Khan is clearly a complex man and he and his sons don’t come out of the story quite so well; you get the distinct impression that Seierstad, as a western woman used to more freedom, must occasionally have found their behaviour frustrating. This is all explained in Seierstad’s simple and down to earth style which I really liked, particularly at those times when she provided brief explanations of the background to the war and life under successive Soviet, Taliban and pro-democratic governments. I don’t know a great deal about Afghanistan’s troubled past so I appreciated the uncomplicated writing style here.

Although she lived amongst the Khans for some time Seierstad never actually references herself in her story telling; instead she writes as a sort of omniscient narrator with a privileged insight into the private lives of those she’s observing. I’ve given this some thought now and I think that this is at the heart of my reservations about this book; it’s not obvious whether this is a piece of journalism or fiction and the fact that she never acknowledges her role makes you wonder how many of those secret thoughts and feelings she attributes to the Khan family are real and how many are imposed upon their subjects. Is it true, for example, that Khan’s younger sister hides love letters from her secret boyfriend in her room? And if so, why would Seierstad reveal that information in her book when she’s already gone to great lengths recounting truly horrifying stories of women who have been beaten or even killed by their families for the same behaviour? It makes no sense. And really, when I think about it, I’m not sure I believe that even spending four months fully immersed in a family from another culture would give you this sort of insight into who they are: only the Khans know that.

I think there’s a bit of me that wonders whether this is all a betrayal of the trust of the family who welcomed her into their home. And I also wonder whether I might have more faith in Seierstad if she was more open about how she came to have such an insight into this family, if instead of painting herself out of the picture and treating the Khans like characters in a novel she recounted real conversations and experiences that she shared with them. I can understand that her apparent absence from the storytelling might give the appearance of impartiality but I think more openness might add more credibility to her portrayal of the Khan family. Khan himself, and his relationships with those in family, are probably more nuanced than Seierstad gives them credit for and her tone could be criticised for being occasionally (and I’m sure unintentionally) condescending.

So on the whole it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one. I explained all of this to a friend the other day and was told that I’m possibly overthinking things here and that I might be better off just enjoying The Bookseller of Kabul as it is without worrying so much about all the details. She’s right of course; there’s definitely no enjoyment to be had if you question the reliability of every narrator in every book you read. Having said that, I’ve changed my mind about using this book for my next stop on the Around the World in 80 Books tour. I’ll wait until I’ve read Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed (still in the TBR pile) before I cross Afghanistan off the list entirely.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi

ReadingLolitaTehran

“Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.”

I devoured this book in three short days and enjoyed it hugely. Later I was bemused to read a ton of online reviews and articles piling on the criticism, calling it too dry, too self-important, not academic enough (or too academic in one instance), too Western, too Iranian, anti-men, anti-Islam….. Crikey. I put my own review on hold for a few days while I mulled all this over. Is Nafisi’s tone a trifle imperious at times? Does she insinuate that Western literature is more worthy of study than Persian? I’m really not sure but I’m inclined to think no and in the end I decided that this approach to reviewing was going nowhere. Instead, I thought, I’ll just go ahead and write my own thoughts on Reading Lolita in Tehran, without further reference to the opinions of others. That’s probably for the best.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is, at its simplest, a memoir of Azar Nafisi’s experiences teaching English Literature in Iran. Her story starts in 1995 when, shortly after being forced to leave a university job for refusing to wear the veil, she decided to found a book group. She hand selected seven of her favourite former students, all female, and invited them to meet in her house once a week to discuss great works of literature, beginning with Lolita. She uses the group as a starting point for reflecting back in more detail on her experiences teaching some of these same works immediately after the Revolution in 1979, a time when the prevailing attitude amongst many of her students was that such books were decadent and immoral. In one of my favourite chapters Nafisi recalls asking her students to put The Great Gatsby on trial, to argue in favour or against the novel and to consider what makes it a great work of fiction or, on the other hand, a depraved monument to western capitalism.

I’ve said before that I love books about the love of books and this is just that. Only, it’s not just the love of books that Nafisi explores here but the universal power of literature. She describes spending night after night watching over her sleeping children with only Henry James and Dorothy L. Sayers for company as Iraqi bombs drop on the city around them. She and ‘her girls’ experience not just bombs but veils and prisons and floggings and ‘morality squads’ as they’re forcibly banished by the state from any visible form of public life. In such turbulent and oppressive times, Nafisi encourages her students to see books as a link to a life the regime can’t control.

“Our class was shaped within this context, in an attempt to escape the gaze of the blind censor for a few hours each week. There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our little pockets of freedom.”

It’s telling, I think, that the girls’ favourite heroine becomes James’ Daisy Miller, a young woman unafraid to be herself. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that for all Nafisi’s admirable intentions, the irony, sadly, is that in writing this book she somehow obscures the personalities that should be shining out of it. Maybe it’s because she introduces her seven young students all too quickly at the start, because they disappear for a big chunk in the middle, or because it’s not really about them so much as it is about Nafisi. I’m not sure, but the women she claims to be giving voice to seem to get lost somewhere in the story and it’s sad. I’d have liked to have seen more of them.

On the whole, however, I don’t really feel like I have much to criticise with this book. Nafisi’s writing style is hard to define but I quite liked it. The chapters are short, there’s little direct dialogue and no use of speech marks to distinguish spoken word from narrative. It gives it an almost hurried, off the cuff, feel, like all these memories have spilled out of her head directly onto the page. She writes really convincingly about the novels she teaches and I was fascinated by some of her insights into characters I already know and love. At one point she describes the story of Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice as a dance in which they are constantly being brought together and pushed apart, which strikes me now as the perfect way to describe their relationship.  Thanks to her, I’m also persuaded that the time has come to get over my fear of Henry James. I’m seriously considering reading Daisy Miller or Washington Square. How times have changed.

Towards the end of the memoir, Nafisi explains her difficult decision to leave Iran. She writes:

“ You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, I told him, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way again.”

If this had been my own book, and not from the library, I’d have furiously scribbled stars and exclamation marks in the margin here. It might sound trite but I’d been trying to express this very idea to a friend the other day and couldn’t find the words to say what I meant. There are some biggish (for me) life changes afoot and for the past couple of months I’ve been torn between excitement about what the future holds and the gloomy feeling that this phase of my life, the one I’m living now, is all set to pass away from me. Nafisi hits the nail on the head.

My thanks to Elizabeth at A Russian Affair for recommending this book.

The Quickening Maze (2009) by Adam Foulds

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The blue bore was one year old yesterday, as I was helpfully informed by WordPress at six o’clock in the morning. Hurrah! I didn’t really imagine, when I wrote my first post in March 2015, that this blog would still be going twelve months later – it says a lot about my own need to rabbit on about books and about the general loveliness of the online community that we’re still here! Thanks readers. It’s been brill. In honour of the bloggiversary here’s a post about Adam Fould’s novel, The Quickening Maze….

My interest in this book was sparked when I heard that it features everyone’s favourite Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare. Clare’s home village isn’t far from here so his poetry was rammed down the throats of all the children at my school from quite a young age. As a result he’s always held his own uniquely special place in my heart. I once, on a work visit, had the chance to hold some original drafts of his poems, written in his own hand, and it was one of the nicest moments in my working life. I felt uncharacteristically giddy at the experience. So, naturally, when I heard about this novel I was all over it like a shark with knees.

By 1837, when this book begins, the fad for rustic poetry that briefly thrust Clare into the limelight had already passed. Unable to sell his poems or readjust to a life back on the land he suffered a mental breakdown that saw him locked up in asylums on and off for over thirty years. The Quickening Maze is set during one of his early incarcerations at an institution in Epping forest run by the reformist Dr Matthew Allen.Allen has an impressive reputation and a seemingly happy family life but when Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s brother arrives at the asylum, Dr Allen sees an opportunity that threatens to unravel everything he’s built up so far. The story is told in a series of short vignettes from the point of view of Clare, Tennyson and Allen. They’re joined by Allen’s lovesick daughter Hannah and another inmate, Margaret, who has retreated into a religious mania to escape the horrors of her abusive marriage.

As you can probably tell from this description, John Clare is actually just one figure in a wider troupe of characters but I can quite understand why all the lore around this novel casts him in the central role. Fould’s Clare is a humble but gifted man who’s slowly losing his grip on who he really is. At various times he believes he’s a prize winning boxer named Jack Randall; on another occasion he redrafts some of Byron’s poems in the firm belief that he is Byron. He dwells obsessively on the life that’s been taken from him: the childhood sweetheart he lost, his wife and children at home, the gracious attention of his rich patrons, his raucous months in London at the height of his fame. These parts of the narrative can be rambling, even erratic at times, but they’re very touching and I think they perfectly convey the rush of thoughts in his head as he rages against all attempts to hem him in.

“He was a village boy and he knew certain things, He thought that the edge of the world was a day’s walk away, there where the cloud-breeding sky touched the earth at the horizon. He thought that when he got there he would find a deep pit and he would be able to look down into it and the world’s secrets.”

The prose is beautifully lyrical but absolutely precise, much like Clare’s poems in fact. Foulds is quite economic with his words – there are no long descriptions and no complex scene setting – but every word is chosen carefully. It feels more intricate, more lavish even, than it probably really is and it’s most noticeable in those chapters devoted to Clare’s narrative.

Sadly, however, Clare was really the only character I connected with and I wonder now whether this had little to do with the writing and everything to do with my existing interest in him. I’m not sure. While I loved his parts of the narrative I thought maybe there was just too much going on overall: too many central characters, too many voices, too many plot strands that didn’t really connect. It meant I could only muster up a vague interest in Allen’s scheme and I found myself a little unconvinced by both Hannah and Tennyson. I still don’t really know what the point of Margaret was. I don’t mind shifting narratives usually but this felt just too unfocussed, too busy, for me. Clare’s narrative was really the best thing in it and the other composite parts never really managed to carry the same sort of weight.

The Booker Prize shortlisters seem to have enjoyed this book far more than I did and all the reviews I’ve since read have been very positive. For not the first time recently I’m left wondering if maybe I am the only person who didn’t enjoy an acclaimed novel. Is there something wrong with me? Or (most likely) am I just in a bit of a reading slump at the moment? Hmmmm. I blame War and Peace.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid

“When my turn came, I said I hoped one day to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability; the others appeared shocked, and I was forced to explain that I had been joking.”

reluctantfundamentalistI’ve almost perfected the art of cooking and reading at the same time. I can’t do anything very complicated but I can throw ingredients into a pan, I can stir, I can wait for a sauce to simmer down, all with a book in hand and one eye on the page. At least, I used to be able to do this. Last week I was so absorbed in this book that I made an entire veggie spaghetti bolognese without spaghetti. Without. Spaghetti. That’s how distracted I was. It was only as I was getting out some plates to dish up my lovely sauce that I realised I was missing one of the main ingredients. What an idiot.

I can only blame the book. More specifically I blame the relaxed, conversational style in which it’s narrated for absorbing my attention so entirely. It’s written as a sort of one sided conversation between Changez, a young Pakistani man, and his unidentified American companion as they share a dinner in a Lahore restaurant. As they eat Changez describes his years at Princeton, his experiences working for a large corporation in New York and his romance with the beautiful but fragile Erica. The crux of his story comes in September 2001, when two hijacked planes collide with the World Trade Centre. Changez tells how in the aftermath of the attacks he found himself torn between his fascination with his adopted country and his anger at American actions towards his native home and his people.

As I said, it’s the narration I found most engaging about this novel. It’s direct, almost confrontational at times, and it asks some difficult questions about how far fear and anger influenced attitudes on both sides after the attacks. Hamid tries to show that Changez becomes first disenchanted but then increasingly hostile towards his adopted country as he considers that in pursuing his education and career he has become “a servant to the American empire.” In a longer book you might be able to convey this gradual change in all its complexity but there’s something missing here. I think maybe the deliberate parallels drawn between Changez/Pakistan and Erica/America were perhaps just too heavy handed to give this part of the novel any depth. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I couldn’t quite put my finger on what Changez really believed and how these views made him a ‘reluctant fundamentalist’. Although he’s a very personable narrator he was also very difficult to fathom at times.

In spite of my reservations I thought this was a surprisingly easy and enjoyable read given the emotive subject matter. I found myself feeling quite charmed by Changez, even on those occasions when he said things that I very much disagreed with. Without his gentle narration guiding the reader through the book I think the very tense ending would have had less of an impact and I wouldn’t have finished the book wondering who the real fundamentalists really are here.

I’ve nearly finished reading Theodor Fontane’s On Tangled Paths. More on this later!

The Uncommon Reader (2007) by Alan Bennett

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“Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic.” 

This was a Christmas present from my lovely friend C, who always buys the nicest gifts. I thought it’d be the ideal follow-up to War and Peace: short, funny and containing absolutely no references at all to battles, Napoleon or the nature of war, thank you very much.

Generally speaking I have absolutely zero interest in the royal family but I like books about the love of books so this short novella was a great choice. In it, Her Madge the Queen stumbles across a mobile library parked around the back of Buckingham Palace and is encouraged, for the first time ever, to withdraw a library book. It sparks a love for reading that soon takes over her life and begins to encroach on her royal duties. She soon finds that her new passion is frowned upon by her family and her staff, who suspect that the formerly dutiful monarch is losing her grip in her old age.

The Uncommon Reader is pretty charming. I love Beckett’s tone throughout; ironic, slightly dry, a bit snarky in places. There are some great exchanges between the Queen and her exasperated equerry Sir Kevin that made me smile:

“I’m just kicking the tyres on this one, ma’am, but it would help if we were able to put out a press release saying that, apart from English literature, Your Majesty was also reading ethnic classics.” 

“Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Kama Sutra?” 

Sir Kevin sighed. 

It’s quite a nice way of looking at why books are important, all the good they do us, and why they’re often treated with suspicion by those who think readers ought to have better things to do with their time. I guess it’s also a slightly cheeky way for Beckett to poke fun at the role of the ever impartial and aloof monarch in an increasingly noisy and opinionated world.

This ended up being a well-timed read as my local council is currently gathering feedback on their proposed cuts to the library service, proposals which involve completely axing the mobile library service in rural areas. I got a bit carried away in the “Any other comments or suggestions” part of the questionnaire so some poor data inputter in the council offices is going to have a horrible job typing that rambling, angry mess up (providing anything happens to these forms, that is).

I bet the Queen doesn’t have to put up with this kind of crap.

The Shape Of Water (2003) by Andrea Camilleri

SHapeOfWaterWork has been a bit grim lately so, to cheer me up, P booked us a weekend away in Oxford. I’d never been before but we had a great time exploring all those ancient streets, colleges and museums. We crammed a lot in that day, including a stop for lunch at a veggie pub called The Gardener’s Arms where I had a really good chilli cheese hot dog. I don’t really like hot dogs. That’s how good this one was.

Our table was next to a little book shelf and while we waited for our food we spent a little time browsing. Inevitably I ended up taking two books home with me and the barman would only let me give him £3 for them, which was very kind as they were both in good nick. One of the books was The Haunted House, a collection of Victorian ghost stories from the likes of Dickens, Gaskell, Collins et al. Apparently I don’t have enough classic ghost stories.

The other was this book, an Inspector Montalbano mystery by Andrea Camilleri, chosen purely because I love the TV show which you can sometimes find on BBC 4 late at night. In case you’ve not seen it, most of the show is taken up with the insanely long opening credits but there’s also some beautiful Sicilian scenery, several  people shouting at each other in Italian, some petty crime and lots of really gratuitous shots of seafood being prepared and eaten. I mean, really, it’s mainly about a man who eats seafood and solves the occasional murder on the side. Usually after his afternoon nap. I love it.

In this book Salvo Montalbano investigates the death of a local politician whose body is discovered in a car on a notorious beach used by local prostitutes. He suspects it’s got something to do with political rivalry in the dead guy’s party but he’s also got to deal with a missing diamond necklace, a mafia shoot out and an old man who thinks his wife is having an affair with the octogenarian postman. To make things worse several beautiful women want to sleep with him but he’s too preoccupied with eating seafood, napping and solving crimes to pay them any attention.

“As they ate they spoke of eating, as always happens in Italy. Zito, after reminiscing about the heavenly shrimp he had enjoyed ten years earlier at Fiacca, criticised these for being a little over done and regretted that they lacked a hint of parsley…”

I wasn’t overly gripped by the mystery but I think this is probably down to the very casual, laid back style in which it’s written. Part of me loves all that local colour; the food, the sunsets, the beautiful women, the humour. The scene setting is actually really well done and Camilleri is great at providing really effortless place descriptions that don’t feel tired or forced. But the other half of me gets frustrated and wants to feel a bit more engaged with the story and the characters. I guess it’s a book you read for the setting and the atmosphere, rather than for the mystery.

I hate to say it but I think I might prefer the TV show. Actually, let’s be truthful, I don’t hate to say it. I get a weird, perverted kick out of preferring the adaptation to the book. I’m like that. But I’m glad I read it, if only because I’ve been meaning to read one of these books ever since I discovered the show. At least now I can cross it off my ever growing TBR list.

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher (2009) by Kate Summerscale

“A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.”

SuspicionsMrWhicherA couple of years ago I saw a great BBC documentary by Lucy Worsley about the history of detective fiction, which mentioned the Road Hill House murder and its influence on the development of the genre. In spite of having seen this I was still expecting The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher to be a work of fiction and for Jack Whicher to be a made up detective. I think I thought it would be a bit like Arthur & George, sort of half fact/half fiction. It’s not like that at all – this is very much a factual account of real events – and I felt a bit silly when I realised my mistake. Thankfully the realisation just made me even more intrigued, it certainly didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

On the 29th June 1860 the body of three year old Saville Kent was discovered in a privy in the grounds of his family home in Road, Wiltshire. In the days after his murder suspicion fell onto his immediate family, his nursemaid and the servants who lived alongside them in Road Hill House. It caused a sensation. The idea that this evil could be lurking inside a respectable middle-class home fascinated the public. The gory details were hammered out daily in the press and discussed at dinner parties: the Home Office was inundated with letters from armchair detectives offering possible solutions. Even Dickens had his own theories about the identity of the killer. Kate Summerscale’s book looks at the investigation carried out by Jack Whicher, one of the very first detectives, who was sent by Scotland Yard to take over the murder enquiry after it went astray. She looks at how the public reacted to the crime, the lasting effect on Whicher and its influence on the evolution of crime and detective fiction.

I must admit that I’m not really a fan of the non-fiction ‘true crime’ genre. I tend to prefer my murders fictional. The thing about this book, though, is that the crime isn’t particularly interesting in itself. You can find more cunning suspects, more intricate plots and cleverer detectives in the many works of fiction that were influenced by it. Instead Summerscale shows you why it fascinated people. She suggests that the murder of Saville Kent played on people’s darkest fears and sparked a fascination with crime and detectives that is still noticeable today. This is despite the fact that at the time the public were, on the whole, less than supportive of Whicher’s investigation. In June 1860 Whicher was one of just eight detectives in the entire country and he was treated with a degree of suspicion. Many people associated detective work with spying and it seemed outrageous that a working class man should be allowed to pry into the private affairs of a respectable gentleman and his family. Despite his best efforts Whicher’s investigation was hit by a number of setbacks – not least the lying and resentful local police, an ineffectual legal team and a lack of popular support – and he retired a few years later, a disillusioned and broken man.

For me the most interesting parts of this book were those which looked at the wider influence of the case on fictional portrayals of crime and detection. The Road Hill House case was the first ‘country house murder’, which became a staple of the crime fiction genre. You can see traces of the case in works by Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins; versions of Whicher and his colleagues appear as Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. I really like the fact that Summerscale devotes as much attention to fictional detectives as real ones. As a fan of traditional crime fiction it was interesting to see a prototype for some of my favourite fictional detectives in action.

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is incredibly well researched and never veers off into gory sensationalism, as it could very easily do in the wrong hands. I’ve heard it described by some as a bit dry and too detailed, a bit like Summerscale was trying to include all the minute details she’d uncovered in her research regardless of whether they were interesting or relevant. I’d disagree though; maybe I don’t need to know how much Whicher’s monthly pay packet was but all those intricate details go towards painting a really vivid picture of the times.

There was a little bit of me that was disappointed this wasn’t a fictional case and could be wrapped up more neatly. I had so many questions remaining at the end – How did the Kents react to the uncovering of the killer? Had they suspected? How did Whicher react when his suspicions were proved right? It’s not Summerscale’s fault, of course, that these questions can’t be answered; there’s just not enough evidence so she (quite rightly) doesn’t speculate. The difficulty is that it’s such a readable book that you can almost forget that these were real people, not characters.