Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Review: "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

Having read and enjoyed "The Kite Runner" last summer, I picked up "A Thousand Splendid Suns" when it first hit the charts. I didn't get the chance to read it until a recent cold gave me a bit of extra time next to my night stand. It was worth the wait.

"The Kite Runner" was an impressive mixture of personal and historical drama, and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" mines the same vein. "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is also a story about Afghanistan, and covers much of the same time period, but where "Kite Runner" focused on the lives of the central character and the men in his life, in "Suns", the lives of four generations of women take center stage.

The fortunes of women in Afghanistan vary from the 1970s until the early 2000s. At the low point, a career, education, choice of husband, even the freedom to walk the streets unaccompanied are all denied to women. Even at the high point, the freedom to pursue any of these things is largely determined by the men in a woman's life.

With war as a constant backdrop, life becomes a daily exercise in loss, and a daily struggle for survival. Resources for women in this society are a luxury in good times, like education and music, and a burden in bad times. The shocking conditions at the womens' hospital in Kabul and the consignment of a female child to an orphanage to leave more food for the male child are especially striking examples.

Hosseini is obviously a gifted storyteller. He takes what must have been an overwhelming flood of stories from the lives of Afghani refugees and distills them down to a compelling handful of threads that make the point without quite overwhelming the reader.

This is a great book, and a quick read. Highly recommended.

Review: "The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" by Yann Martel

Like many people, I first encountered Yann Martel's work with the stunning "Life of Pi", which was a playful and engaging book with dark notes to it, and which holds up to repeated readings. (There are other, less kind views of the book on librarything.)

"The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" is a book of Martel's short fiction written prior to "Life of Pi". Other reviews (1 2)have criticised his experimentation with narrative devices as overly contrived. I can see that three of the four stories could be read that way, and to be honest, it's hard to shake that off as being anything other than a fair criticism.

The titular story revolves around storytelling game in which a man and his friend escape from a devastating illness by creating the history of a fictional family, kind of like "Hundred Years of Solitude: The Home Game". There are nice spots in the story, but on the whole the device does overstay its welcome a bit.

The next story is entitled "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton". The lack of economy in even the names of stories tells you something about the maturity of his writing, although in this case, the story transcends its title. It is an ode to serendipity, to siezing the moment to discover something of the truth of another human being. The narrator stumbles on to a performance by a veterans' orchestra of a series of works, including the titular Rankin concerto. His pursuit of and interaction with the composer is well handled, and rings true with its small details of a failed life with brief hints of greatness. Not to spoil the next review, but I have a cold at the moment, and blew through this book and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini in a single sitting. Reading these books one after the other helped me see that this story is the strongest in the book precisely because it highlight's the author's ability to collect and present the details that make a compelling character.

The other stories in the book display this talent to perhaps lesser effect. "Manner of Dying" is engaging enough, but reads somewhat like an episode of the Twilight Zone, but without any metaphysical questions. "The Vita Æterna Mirror Company" is also engaging enough, but is so uneconomical with space (half the page is often literally filled with "blah blah blah") that it reads as though it were five pages of story spread thinly to cover just over forty pages. Contrast this with Borges, who is so economical that five pages merit their own careful study and reflection, or with Updike, whose short stories are so dense with descriptive detail that I can typically only read one or two at a sitting before my focus is strained (perhaps reading Updike is the antidote to the lack of focus that Google is purported to be engendering in modern readers).

In short, this is a collection that has its moments, but is obviously among the author's early work. To be honest, it's not a book that I would have bought myself, but having received it as a gift, I'm glad to have had the chance to read it (the "Rankin" story especially).

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Review: "The Mustache" (La Moustache) by Emmanuel Carrère

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect." --Franz Kafka, "The Metamorphosis"

Hot on the heels of "Class Trip", I just finished "The Mustache" by Emmanuel Carrère. Written some ten years earlier than "Class Trip", this is an even more astonishing book.

The main character alters his routine one morning, and instead of shaving around his mustache of many years, decides to see how he'll look without it. From there his world is gradually unraveled. His present and future are tinged with uncertainty, and shockingly, so is his past. His very identity begins to slip away.

Where Gregor Samsa's transformation was grand and undeniable, the man behind (or lacking) the eponymous mustache suffers all the more for the complete acceptance his wife, friends, and colleagues all have of the altered reality that unfolds around him.

This is a grand portrayal of mental anguish and paranoia. For much of the book, the main character alternates between believing that he is insane and believing that the world is either mad or conspiring against him. The transitions between these two irreconcilable extremes are sometimes gradual, and sometimes startlingly abrupt.

In his struggle to find some stability in the shifting reality he occupies, the main character ends up becoming a kind of parody of the world traveler, latching onto what temporary routines and human connections he can while shifting from one impersonal locale (hotel, ferry, airport, restaurant) to another.

A bit of warning: the ending of this book is absolutely devastating. I was clenching my teeth when reading the last few pages, and very nearly had to bite my knuckle to keep from crying out.

This is an absolutely vital work, and wonderfully crafted. Highly recommended, but only for those who delight in the uncertainty and complexity of a book like "The Metamorphosis" and who also have a strong stomach.

Review: "Class Trip" (Classe de neige) by Emmanuel Carrère

After reading the excellent "I Am Alive and You Are Dead" a while ago, I promised myself to track down other books by Emmanuel Carrère. On a recent trip to Paris, I did just that, picking up translations of "Class Trip" and "The Moustache" (likely the next book I'll read).

In "Class Trip", we see inside the mind of and look out from the eyes of Nicholas, a troubled boy, an outcast, on the cusp of adolescence, whose morbid fantasies give him comfort even as they begin to come true. We as adults understand many of the things that are mysteries to young Nicholas, which does not soften our own horror at detecting some of the hard truths that seem on the verge of being revealed to him throughout the book.

The book is simultaneously accessible and dense. The words flow by, the sense of Nicholas' internal struggles are astonishingly well rendered. At the same time, there are things unsaid that challenge the reader to keep track of the full range of possibilities, evaluating each new development in the light of what may or may not be the truth behind Nicholas' overheard whispers and imaginings.

I suspect that this is not only a good, but a great book, and look forward to reading it again fresh after a few months.

Review: "Film Club" by David Gilmour

When I was young, my father (whose first two degrees were in Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures) would on occasion share films with me, some of which might have been just at the edge of my understanding as a teenager, but which opened my eyes to the world of film that I enjoy exploring to this day.

The book "Film Club" is about a father and son learning to relate to one another and make sense of their lives in the context of watching and discussing films together. Their conversations wander from relationship troubles to finding and using one's talent, to the dangers of alcohol and drugs: in short, they talk about life, and build a kind of intimacy that helps carry them both through a directionless period.

Their conversations are tinged with snippets of wisdom gleaned from films like "Giant", "Notorious" and "True Romance" to name only a few. The author has kindly provided a full list of films discussed at the end, most of which I've seen, a few of which I can't wait to see, one or two that I'll wait to see until my Dad comes to visit us in the UK.

Anyway, I know I'm biased, but I loved this book. It reminds me of film nights past, buying or cooking dinner and then watching a film together over a few beers. I can't wait to send my Dad a copy, if there's anything I like as much as talking about a good film, it's talking about a good book.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Review: "Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore

One of the first books that rekindled my interest in Science Fiction as an adult was "The Man in the High Tower" by Philip K. Dick. This classic story involves a parallel world in which the allies lost World War II.

"Bring the Jubilee" was written at the end of World War II, and deals instead with a parallel world in which the South won the American Civil War (which is instead referred to as "The War of Southron Independence"). "Bring the Jubilee" does not get bogged down in the same kind of metaphysics as "The Man in the High Tower" (there is a navel-gazing point in that work in which the characters realize theirs is not the world that was meant to be). Instead, as with "Earth Abides", "Bring the Jubilee" is a work which is earnest and direct in a way that later books tend not to be. Instead of philosophy, we get details about daily life in a world in which indenture is common, and in which the remaining 26 United States are a part of the third world while the Confederacy is a center of learning and commerce.

I plan to run this one by my friends who are more up on their Civil War history and hopefully start a few good conversations. Until then, I'll hold my tongue to avoid giving anything away.

Review: "Super Crunchers" by Ian Ayres

I read the bulk of the now-infamous "Freakonomics" while waiting for a friend to join me for dinner. It was a very quick read, and good food for conversation.

"Super Crunchers" comes from another mind that runs in the same circles, breaking down real-life problems into equations, struggling to explain phenomena we see in life in terms of either random chance or human action.

Where "Freakonomics" was a bit of a ramble through a few applications of regression, "Super Crunchers" clearly brings regression analysis to center stage. Like the wheel, the screw, the lever, regression analysis and other experimental methodologies are simply tools. Each of these tools was initially expensive and required specialized knowledge, but over time became ubiquitous and universally understood. "Super Crunchers" chronicles the emerging ubiquity of making decisions based on statistical analysis. It also provides hints as to the changing role of thinking individuals in a statistics based world.

A quick read, and good food for thought. Buy it for (or loan it to) someone you plan to have dinner with and have at it.

Review: "The Dispossessed" by Ursula Leguin

I generally carry three to four books with me whenever I travel. On my recent trip to Paris, I had the pleasure of working my way through "The Dispossessed" by Ursula Leguin.

In many works of science fiction, time itself is the principal actor. The future provides evidence of the progress of mankind, allowing man (or the equivalent) to explore the limits of consciousness. In many works, the chief evidence of this progress comes in the form of a series of technologies. In "The Dispossessed", the chief developments are cultural and intellectual. Annares, the anarchist moon on which our main character begins the story, is rendered as fully as if it were a separate character. Citizens alternate between pursuing their individual talents (if they have any) and taking whatever work needs to be done. In a world where material goods, housing, and even partners and children are freely interchanged, peer approval is one of the only forms of riches, and peer disapproval the chief punishment.

The main character travels from this world to the neighboring (and dominant) Urras, a materialist society which includes women and servants among the things that can be possessed. The contrast between the two cultures with regards to class, gender, and intellectual achievement helps to illuminate the ideas on which both are based, and provides food for thought.

A good book, and well worth reading.

The 9th Sakai Conference, Paris, France

I've just returned from the 9th Sakai conference in Paris France. As always, the conferences are a kind of a family reunion for long-time Sakai community members. It was great to catch up with the professional (and personal) life of so many institutions and individuals. There were so many great conversations, learning the nuances of existing colleagues, meeting new colleagues, all while surrounded by good food and wonderful scenery.

In spite of all the wonderful distractions Paris has to offer, it was also an incredibly productive time. An idea would be passed around in the morning and available to work with by the evening. I brought back with me a moleskin full of ideas regarding my own Config Viewer and Config Editor tools that should keep my nights and weekends busy for the next few months if not the next year.

The next full conference is planned for next Summer (possibly in Boston). I can't wait.