Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Having just finished Isabel Allende’s book Daughter of Fortune, I was looking for something else to read and I thought about The Kite Runner which had been waiting on my nightstand for months, borrowed from a friend. Then I saw one of the comments on the cover and it was by Allende, and I thought, there must be a connection between these books. That is how I began reading Khaled Hosseini’s first novel.
Three years ago I had read A Thousand Splendid Suns, his second novel, and loved it, but stayed away from The Kite Runner because I felt there was too much hype surrounding the book, and for some reason I refused to be drawn into it. Perhaps it was not the time. Until now.

The Kite Runner The story of Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul, as they like to call themselves with words carved on a tree, is a bitter-sweet tale of love, devotion and betrayal.

For you, a thousand times over, Hassan says to Amir as they run around and play together as children, the second, a son born into a privileged family, the first his poor servant. Even though they share childhood games and play like brothers, the thin line dividing them is always there, in the words Amir uses to taunt his playmate who never takes them to heart, always trying to please and protect. His devotion is a testament to his generous and sweet nature, while Amir’s behavior seems at times like that of a spoiled rich child who takes full advantage of it. I couldn’t help but compare the two boys, admiring one and blaming the other, as the story evolved and events enfolded.

Afghanistan, a country that seemed like paradise on earth to the two boys, begins its descent into dark times as the Taliban come to power and destroys the sheltered, idyllic life of the protagonists. Young Amir and Baba, his father, flee to America, while Hassan stays behind in a country torn apart by violence. But Amir is not able to forget what happened to Hassan, and most of all, the part he had to play by not taking any action to save a friend who had stood up for him so many times. And then, many years later, when Amir is a grown man and married, and his father is dead, he receives a call from the country he left behind and he realizes the past had finally caught up with him. There’s a way to be good again, says the voice on the telephone, his father’s old friend, keeper of more than one terrible secret. And just like that, Amir decides to go back to Afghanistan and face whatever terrible punishment fate has decided to deal him.

Ka is a wheel, says Stephen King in his Dark Tower series, and in this book it makes perfect sense. The deeds of the past must be atoned for, and retribution is possible, even after so many years, even after thinking that time and distance had erased them into oblivion. Amir has a chance to set things right, and in doing so, to make up for, at least in a small measure, the sins of the past.

There are several interesting threads well worth analyzing: Amir’s relationship with his father – always strained, Hassan’s devotion – never faltering, the symbolism of the kites, and Afghan culture, to name a few. The characters are well drawn and the story moves at an alert pace with sudden revelations and emotional scenes. I loved Hassan for his bravery and self-sacrificing attitude, and quite a few times my eyes misted over a scene in the book. The writing is beautiful without being embellished, and the story kept me up at night, making me resentful of the fact that I needed sleep. Who needs sleep when there are books like this one, stories that can make two hours pass like two minutes and whose end makes one feel empty and alone? Still, the novel is not perfect – sometimes the events seemed to fit too well and that wheel turns a bit too often, but these are flaws I was content to overlook in favour of the story as a whole. And while it seemed like things tie up too neatly at the end, there is still that emotional current throughout the book that never really falters and which made reading it such a great and satisfying experience for me.

And that connection I was talking about at the beginning of my review is just a minor thing that I noticed while reading Allende’s book. She names one of her characters Babalu – he’s a big, scary-looking man dressed in wolf skins acting as a bodyguard to a group of traveling prostitutes. The same name is used in Hosseini’s book as a sort of boogeyman, a taunting name given to Hassan by a violent, evil wealthy young boy who never misses a chance to pick on him. Given that Allende’s book was published four years prior to The Kite Runner, I wonder what this small detail means and if the two authors knew each other personally. I like it when I discover small details connecting two books, like threads running from a story into another. Needles to say, I look forward to reading And the Mountains Echoed, Hosseini’s latest novel. I wonder if it’s going to be as emotional as this one.

My rating: 5/5 stars

*Read in February 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 13 Comments

Daughter of Fortune – Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende belongs to a special corner in my imagination where I put all the writers I would like to read one day: Joseph Bolano, Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Checkov, Alice Walker, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, just to mention a few. It’s a long list, and every once in a while a name pops up, a lottery type of moment if you will, and one of the books written by someone from that long list comes up front and I pick it up and start reading and in a moment I forget where I am and minutes later I come back to the real world and say, yes, I’ve been looking for this book.

Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende The main character is introduced right away. There is no overly florid description but a true, powerful first sentence that piqued my curiosity and managed to keep me guessing until the very last page. There’s adventure, danger, brutality, tragedy and loss, and for each of them there’s also love, courage, determination and a powerful desire to follow one’s dreams. Eliza gets to know all of them, first as the adopted daughter of a well to do family living in Chile. Little is known about her origins. Certainly nobody seems to know who her parents are or where she is from, but she is received with great joy by Miss Rose Sommers, who later convinces her brother, Jeremy Sommers, to accept the girl into the family. The other member of the Sommers clan, John, is a sea captain whose voyages into distant lands keep him away from home for the greatest part of the year. His visits are short and joyful, and his absences long.

Eliza grows up in a somewhat chaotic atmosphere, between Miss Rose’s strict rules concerning what a lady should do – play the piano, sit ramrod straight for hours or walking with a book on her head to cultivate a good posture, and being neglected for days, time she uses to sit with the cook, Mama Fresia, and learn all she can about the culinary arts. And then she falls in love. For the sixteen year-old who’s led such a sheltered life, the moment turns everything upside down. Passion, love letters, and a desire to belong to Joaquin Andieta, her first love, will have her run away from her family, hide her identity, endure a devastating experience aboard a ship and make a lifelong friend who saves her life.
Obsessed with finding her runaway lover who left her behind to pursue his dream of getting rich, Eliza goes to the city that was later to become San Francisco. Determined to find Joaquin, she risks her life in a land filled with people crazed by the gold rush, where death and hardship go together, and there, hiding under the disguise of a boy, she continues her search. We get to see how California came to be, the gold rush, the greed and drama, even Levi’s famous jeans get a brief nod, along with a more ample description of the origins of the peep show. Lust, in the form of traveling brothels and erotic books, is described in such a manner as to give the reader a good picture of what America was like in the mid 1800s and how gold changed everything. Scores of immigrants in search of fortune mingle and live together in the same city yet apart in well defined neighborhoods. Chinese customs and way of life are mentioned, mostly through the eyes of Tao Chi’en, the young zhong yi, trained in the ancient art of traditional Chinese medicine. His story is also a brutal one and after meeting Eliza, their paths never truly separate.

Eliza and Tao Chi’en are the most developed characters in the book, but the writer gives enough details about the Sommers so that the reader gets a good enough idea about them, Miss Rose in particular, whose scandalous past is described in a more lengthy story. There is a secret the Sommers are hiding and it comes out unexpectedly but a little too late.
I liked Eliza for her determination and courage. She is a true heroine, not necessarily beautiful (thank God for that or it would have been too cliché) but with enough willpower to feel like a girl ready to go to the ends of the world to find some answers, no matter what they might be.
I enjoyed this book for the sense of adventure and the historical references. The story keeps up an engaging pace and the reader is kept guessing until the very last sentence in the book. Although one might get a feel for where the story is going, the question remains: will Eliza find her first love, and if she does what will she do? Only that last line will provide the answer, and it’s not a straightforward one but perhaps more satisfying because of that. In the meantime, it was a really good adventure. And there’s also a sequel, Portrait in Sepia, published one year after the first book, in 2000. I would like to read that one, too.

My rating: 5/5 stars

*Read in February 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 8 Comments

To Thailand With Love – A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur

To Thailand With Love If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, this book might be just the thing to read before landing in The Land of Smiles. With over a hundred essays divided into nine chapters, this book offers a wealth of information about traveling in this country, from places you can eat jungle food (crocodile, anyone?) and the proper way to snack on bugs (those cricket legs might cause a slight problem), to famous temples where you can get a tattoo or have your fortune read, superstitions, island getaways and lesser known spa treatments, just to name a few topics. More than seventy writers have shared their stories and experiences and made reading this book a truly enjoyable experience. The photos are very beautiful as well, and the glossy pages enhance the reading pleasure.

It’s not only the beautiful side that the writers have explored in their essays, but also valuable information, like ways to avoid tourist scams and places you can help by volunteering or donating objects or cash. Thanks to the practical information, be it a website, address or telephone number, the reader can find out where to donate a used bicycle and old computer parts, or where they can offer their time to help children and animals in need, through various foundation programs.

Having lived in Thailand for more than a decade, it was refreshing to see the country through new perspectives and adventures. Some of the places I was happy to see mentioned in these essays were bookstores with English books like Kinokuniya, a true paradise for booklovers, Asia Books, and also Dasa Book Café, a secondhand bookstore I sometimes visit, and last but not least Neilson Hays Library, whose white building and cool, wood decorated interior reminds me of home.
I had to smile when reading about a writer’s experience with Songkhran (Thai New Year), the days-long-water-throwing festival which the locals celebrate every mid-April. During this time, Thailand is a water drenched place where no one is dry for long, unless they travel everywhere in a car. For some reason I was never able to enjoy this much loved Thai celebration, and don’t see the fun in being drenched with freezing water the moment I step out of the house, without having any say in the matter. Nevertheless, I’m happy to see that other people enjoy it.

What I liked the most about the book was that each writer brought their own individuality into the stories and shared their tips with the reader. Some of these places I’ve never been to despite the fact that they are not that far from where I live – the small island of Koh Kret is one of them, and others, like Wat Suan Mokkh in the Surat Thani province, where one can go on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. The retreat is not free, despite of what is stated in the book – a look at their website revealed a non-refundable registration fee. It is, however, one of the things I would like to do in the near future and I’m glad I found out about this place. No speaking, vegetarian food, yoga and meditation, and least desirable of all, sleeping on a concrete bed with only a straw mat and a wooden pillow for comfort. I think it would be an unforgettable experience, in more ways than one.
I’m glad I had the chance to read this book and I intend to use it as a basic guide when planning future trips. It was fun to read how others have spent their holidays in this beautiful country. Being here for so long, I’m afraid I lost some of that ability to fully enjoy and appreciate the uniqueness of Thai culture.

Many thanks to Joe Shakarchi, one of the contributing writers, who provided me with a copy in return for an honest review.

My rating: 4/5 stars
*Read in February 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 4 Comments

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell read-along, Volume III – John Uskglass

Here we are, at the end of week three of our read-along. I must say that even though I didn’t start this book with the greatest of hopes, I am very glad that I did get to read it. Many thanks to Vishy for suggesting we do this read-along (it probably would have taken me a lot longer to get to read this book on my own) and to the bloggers who have joined us. I hope everybody enjoyed the book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell The third and last volume begins with a story about Fairies that happened hundreds of years ago, long before the main story in the book. It has common elements with a vampire story, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much, and one of the characters named in the footnotes was made famous by Shakespeare in one of his plays.
The mix of well-known characters and real life people continues in this volume. I am enjoying those very much. One of these people is Lord Byron, and the author describes him and several other famous authors:

Strange was unsettled by Byron’s domestic arrangements. “I found his lordship at his pretty villa upon the shores of the lake. He was not alone. There was another poet called Shelley, Mrs Shelley and another young woman – a girl really – who called herself Mrs Clairmont and whose relationship to the two men I did not understand. If you know, do not tell me. Also present was an odd young man who talked nonsense the entire time – a Mr Polidori.”

The rivalry between the two magicians reaches new heights as Norrell causes his former pupil’s newly published book to vanish, to the amazement and indignation of the ones who buy it. Imagine if you bought a book you really wanted to read, only to find out it disappears once you get home. Comical and annoying. Ironically this is the thing that changes Strange’s impression of Lord Byron, as the poet sympathizes with him.

“When he heard that a whole book had been magicked out of existence by the author’s enemy, his indignation was scarcely to be described. He sent me a long letter, vilifying Norrell in the liveliest terms. Of all the letters I received upon that sad occasion, this is my favourite. No Englishman alive can equal his lordship for an insult.”

Vinculus and Drawlight make an appearance again for a brief time, but they are just pieces to be moved in the game and discarded once their roles are played.
After the shocking ending of the second volume, it takes a while before the author reveals what happened with that particular strand of the story. An interesting and hopeful revelation, very powerful magic, symbolism and madness, an almost-love-story, and a satisfying denouement made this book a great adventure. The last half of the volume was so intense it kept me awake well past my bedtime but it was well worth it. I like it that not everything was tied up with a pink ribbon at the end. We get some answers but not all of them. The mystery of The Raven King remains a mystery, and not everybody lives happily ever after but there is hope and the possibility of better things to come. I almost wish there was a sequel, but better not. It would have been great to find out more about The Raven King, as he was a most interesting character, but the mystery he left behind was equally intriguing.

The participants in this read-along and their thoughts on Volume III:

Vishy (Vishy’s Blog
TJ (My Book Strings)
Fleur in Her World
Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

My rating: 4/5 stars

*Read in January 2014

Posted in Challenges | 11 Comments