A Thousand Splendid Suns: I Just Don’t Believe in Happy Endings

I can’t explain it. I’m an optimist. An obnoxiously optimistic optimist, like I’ve had to consciously learn how to listen to folks when they’re having a problem and just say ‘that sucks’ rather than ‘oh oh! here’s why there’s a silver lining to your total misery.’ So how can it be that I’m so irritated by happy endings? I don’t find them plausible. Sure, I appreciate that sometimes things work out, but mostly? no. Which, okay, is at odds with my claim to optimism. Maybe it’s just that my outrageously privileged life has led me to believe that things will (mostly) work out for *me*, even while they mostly do *not* work out for other people/the world.

So cue my dissatisfaction with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which *spoiler* has a ‘happy’ (well happy-ish) ending. Don’t confuse the happy-ish ending with a happy story. The book is full to bursting with very difficult scenes of domestic abuse – many of which I ended up skimming over because I found the level of detail to be too much for me. And there are all kinds of moments of pain, grief, loss, disappointment, betrayal. So maybe Hosseini felt like after making the reader – and the characters – suffer through all that they do, they/we were owed a happy-ish ending? To me it just wasn’t plausible, though, that after all that had happened, that things would end out working out as they did,

Anyway – broad strokes, the book follows Mariam and Laila through thirty-odd years of Afghan history. I appreciated the historical fiction aspects, as I’ll admit to a spotty-to-non-existent understanding of pre-2000 Afghan history. Both characters are reasonably well drawn, and their particular motivations and interests thought through, though I would say that Laila is the more believable of the two. Mariam reads as a little underdeveloped, particularly in her transition from downtrodden wife to heroic sister/friend. Similarly, Rasheed, the abusive husband/father felt like a caricature to me. I’m not expecting a sympathetic portrait of a violent, abusive, volatile man. At the same time, I might have believed his character more if there was some nuance to his actions.

The effect of these somewhat underdeveloped characters was to have me doubt the reliability of the rest of the narrative. What I mean is that because I didn’t fully believe in the reality of the characters, I doubted the veracity of the rest of the narrative. Like if these characters were caricatures, maybe the depiction of Afghan life under the Taliban was being similarly reduced to its most extreme or most recognized elements. What I will say about that doubt, was that the reading prompted me to read more non-fiction to find out how closely the narrative followed ‘actual’ events and circumstances, so perhaps there’s a silver lining there…

And there we go. Full circle. A book I didn’t really like that I am – optimistically – suggesting might have some merit after all.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Historical Fiction

There, There: Top three of 2018.

Tommy Orange’s There, There is in the top three books of 2018. You should go get it and read it and that’s about all you need to know.

If you must know more… the opening chapters – broad and context setting – are powerful, moving, persuasive and other synonyms for compelling. After these historical and broad chapters we move through a series of characters and their tangential relationship to a coming pow-wow in Oklahoma. Weaving through second and third person, these initially discrete chapters layer and build to the climax that is polyphonic and emotionally charged in the best possible ways. While each character receives relatively scant development because of the condensed chapter the reader encounters them, I was nevertheless utterly riveted by the climactic scenes and cared urgently and completely about the outcome.

So there you go. Go get it and read it.

*UPDATE* A bunch of you have been asking for the other two books in the top three for 2018: reasonable request. So…

My Absolute Darling

Red Clocks

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner

Strangers with the Same Dream: In which I learn a fancy word for History

Reading the description on the back of Strangers With the Same Dream, I was skeptical. I felt no immediate urge to read about Zionist settlers in the 1920s and the kibbutz movement. But a little part of me thought, hey, isn’t this what reading fiction is all about? Reading about topics and people and places you find no immediate interest or resonance with? Or might have existing assumptions about? So I let the small part of me take over, and I thought, I like Alison Pick, I’ll put myself in her capable hands and see where this goes.

So glad I did! The novel is beautiful, told with an inventive narration and thoughtful about how it positions the Zionist project through self-conscious reflection from its narrators on the relationship with the Palestines the group is displacing. The story is told in three parts, each narrated from the perspective of a different character recounting the same events. The shift in narration has the effect of inviting the reader to see how – even within the same community with shared politics and ambitions – the truth of the story, the beliefs about motivations and goals, are malleable and personal.  Wikipedia let me know there’s a name for this phenomenon – the “Rashomon effect,” which were I a trivia player or better at life, I’d already know about (and you probably do). In any case, tis’ when the same event is told differently by the people who were all there. Underscoring the point I suppose, that if history/fact is contradicted even by those who all shared the same experience, what little doubt is there that those of us encountering the event from a distance – whether geographic or historic – are only ever going to get a partial (both incomplete and biased) version.

I did find the introduction of a ghost in the first chapter, and the recurrence of this ‘character’ distracting and irritating. The ghost of the murdered/suicide character doesn’t offer much to the narrative, instead layering a heavy-handed Doom and Gloom vibe, as well as Aura of Mystery that I found myself all too happy to ignore. And it was easy to do so as the ghost would (seemingly randomly) appear and make some Ominous Statement and then disappear again and I was like who cares.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Educated: Not so much about school as it is about trauma

In urging me to read *An Education*, folks suggested I’d like it for a few reasons: the celebration of the university as the epicentre of ideas and learning (which I don’t hold to be true, but people must think I hold to be true); the fascination of the memoir genre in self-consciously commenting on what can be remembered and what must be fabricated (and the blurring of both) that recalls my enjoyment of historical fiction; and the irresistible lure of a cascading catalogue of trauma and violence, that predictably pulls the reader in wondering what new horror might be visited upon our protagonist.

I did like the book. And for the reasons predicted by my friends and book-recommenders. Though I’d say the first suggestion – and one blatantly made by the title (and certainly in the marketing of the book) – that this book is about the educational transformation wrought by the university, is misleading. Very little of the book is spent at the physical space of the university, and Tara, our protagonist (I suppose in a memoir we don’t call them protagonist so much as author?), seems ambivalent about what the university itself offered her in terms of education or transformation. Rather, and I appreciated this, her ‘education’ takes place in the shift from home to university, the conceptual journey as much as the physical. Sure she learns facts and explores ideas in ways never open or offered to her before, but the book focuses much more on how the space and culture of the university transforms her sense of self and what might be possible for her self, rather than what facts she accumulates.

To step back – by her account, Tara is raised in the Idaho mountains by parents who neither send her to school nor offer formal education at home. Instead she spends her childhood working in the family junkyard and navigating the twin dangers of a physically abusive brother and an emotionally abusive father, and the effects of this abuse on her sense of self and worth. Much is made in the press coverage of the fact that her parents are ‘survivalists’ preparing for the end of days, but I’d caution that the book doesn’t make as much of this aspect of her childhood as the marketers might have you believe, so if you’re hoping for a catalogue of food and fuel stockpiling, you’ll get some of that, but the narrative recognizes the gratuity of these moments of her life and rather than emphasize her difference from the reader, seems intent on demonstrating that while the particulars of her experience may be extreme, the experience ad effect of living in abuse is altogether common.

Long sentence!

Anyway.  It’s not a perfect book and I have some complaints. It fits well with the other books in this genre in that it…

And that’s where I left this post when I started writing it two weeks ago. So I’ll have to trust past Erin that the novel fits well in the genre. And that I have complaints. I bet you have complaints! What didn’t you like about the book? Let’s share responsibility for finishing this post…

 

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Filed under Bestseller, Non-fiction