Rainy Day Reads – Dark and Difficult Tales

Although the stories are difficult to read, each leaves the reader with an understanding and some sympathy for the characters’ circumstances, and possibly a sense of shadenfraude.

514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid focuses on the lives of two immigrants, Saeed and Nadia, whose country is bombarded by war and terror.  Saeed, the son of a university professor, works at an ad agency and lives with his family. Nadia lives alone, rides a motorcycle,  and wears a full black robe, not for religious deference but to discourage men’s interest in her.  Opposites attract; they meet in a college class on product branding and fall in love.

As the city becomes overrun with refugees and the terror escalates, many yearn to escape.  Hamid graphically documents what is it like to live in a war zone and the desperate lives of those who are collateral damage.

The novel veers into magical realism when Hamid creates mysterious doors opening to other places.  Unlike the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicle of Narnia, these portals lead to actual places – in this case, first to the island of Mykonos, then to the outskirts of London, and finally to San Francisco.  As  Saeed and Nadia escape through each set of doors, they find themselves among other refugees and subsist poorly.  Their lives are difficult, facing constant fear and roadblocks.  Hamid electrifies the refugee crisis as he melds the political and personal, and disconcertedly jumps between scenes of bombing and drones to starry skies and dreams of a future.

The novel ends with hope, but also emphasizes how experiences have affected the couple – even magical doors take a toll.   The story is difficult to read, not just for the misery and struggle but also for its truthful timeliness.

8f097af436887d7ef6a7422ab1e6e846-w204@1x  Stream System by Gerald Murnane

When I read Mark Binelli’s interview of Gerald Murnane in the Sunday New York Times – Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town? my curiosity led me to Binelli’s recommendation for a place to start reading the author – his collection of short fiction, Stream System.

An obscure Australian writer, Murnane lives in a poor ramshackle space outside of Melbourne and would seem more eccentric than brilliant.  He prides himself on writing only what he knows within his small sphere – no travel and little patience with people.  His stories are set near Melbourne, are in part autobiographical, and focus on perceptions.  The canon of his work is extensive and his writing reflects a strange simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway.  The first story in his collection – “When the Mice Failed to Arrive” – jumps from introspection to problem-solving and left me not with a yearning for more but with a general unease.  You can read it – here – and decide for yourself.

180319154736-the-child-in-time-cumberbatch-exlarge-169  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

McEwan’s stories are always compelling but with sad endings.  Although I have read many of McEwan’s books (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Nutshell) I had not read this earlier work – The Child in Time.  More for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch than for the story, I watched the PBS Masterpiece production.

The story shows Stephen, an author of children’s books, and his wife, as they deal with the kidnapping of their three-year-old daughter Kate.  A sense of magic as well as despair pervades their grief as Stephen has glimpses of his daughter after her abduction.  The ending offers a sense of hope but their overwhelming pain persists. The drama was compelling and worth seeing.  The story will stay with me, but I doubt I will read the book – enough.

 

 

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The President on Books and Reading

President giving a speech clipartAs one of the most literate United States Presidents, Obama discussed books with Michiko Kakutani, the chief book critic for the New York Times. In an interview as he leaves office,  Obama noted “…the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.”

Citing books he has recommended for his daughter as she prepares for college – how many have you read? –  he included:

  • The Naked and the Dead
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • The Golden Notebook 
  • The Woman Warrior
  • The Moveable Feast

From some of his favorite authors, I found a few familiar names and two new ones I might try:

  • Marilynne Robinson
  • science fiction writer, Liu Cixin (The Three-Body Problem)
  • Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies)
  • Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon)
  • V.S. Naipaul (A Bend in the River)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Junot Diaz
  • and leaders: Mandela, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Gandhi, Teddy Rossevelt, Abraham Lincoln

And he offered a clue about what he might be doing after January 20th, when a new President will be inaugurated:

“…and so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.”

Read the full interview – here