Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Kites and Tractors

Long haul journeys to and from Australia have seen an unprecedented volume of reading this month and I therefore find myself ahead of the game for once...

I really enjoyed Kite Runner - I felt it gave a very good insight into the country, it's people and the horror of the Taliban, and I came away feeling I'd really gained something from reading it. This is what I want from this kind of book (and film, incidentally - it's the reason I didn't enjoy Munich - very little insight into why things happened). Yes, it was gruelling in many places, but it had to be really, and at least the book ended with hope (but not a banal everyone living happily ever after). A couple of minor irritances - firstly, I thought they got over the problems of getting Sohrab out to America far too easily - the suicide attempt was a shock and well executed, but I don't think Soraya talking to someone would be enough to magic a visa out of thin air. It felt a bit like the author was in a rush to get to the end by that stage. Irritance number 2 is in agreement with Emily's point - the constant "And I never saw him smile again..." type statements. It gave a horrible feeling of being back with Mr McGregor and his blessed remarkable things. Other than that though, I thought the use of language was often wonderful.

Tractors next - potential spoiler territory...

I enjoyed it - much more lighthearted than Kite Runner - but think the competition for the funniest book award must have been a bit thin that year. Overall, I'm glad I've read it, if only because I was very curious about the title, and have been for a while. It was a bit thin though - the whole "is Valentina staying or going" felt very repetitive by the end, and I also didn't really get a handle on whether or not we were supposed to feel sorry for her. I know that was probably the point - i.e. these things are multi-dimensional and we must consider how the woman got like that - but overall it gave me the impression of confusion. Was she rich in Ukrainia (this is the impression you get at one point) and if so why leave? Or more to the point why stay in UK? All felt a bit silly in parts and I thought there could have been more insight into the country's problems. OK, this would have darkened the book but I think it could have withstood a little darkening. So overall, OK but not brilliant. (Oh, and the writing in accents irritates me - yes, we know they're foreign and speak with an accent, you don't need to ram it down our throats)

Feels like I've been a bit ranty this time! Never mind, will look forward to reading your thoughts as ever.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Running kites

Yes, I quite agree with Helen S and Valerie. I learnt a lot about Afghanistan that I didn't know (and part of me didn't want to know, so bleak was it!). But I felt I also got a sense of Afghans as a people; for instance: "Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules... [That wasn't a rule, that was a custom]". I found the characters well-realised (and authentic enough to be irritating in just the sort of way real people can be). There seemed to me to be a real division between the over-assertive and the under-assertive characters, with tragic consequences. Amir says: "Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would finally be over". If only he'd picked the good occasion to assert himself, against someone who needed standing up to!

The arc of the plot could be anticipated (Amir would return, would atone etc), but many parts still took me by surprise. I was especially impressed with Sohrab, who frequently surprised me. He didn't stay within the obvious templates, and I thought it courageous writing to have him damaged in so many ways. So often fiction has the child rescued just in time, and everything coming out in the wash. That said, I found the fate of both Hassan and Sohrab haunting and the book accordingly gruelling.

However, Helen S's point about grace v law and the constant hope of redemption did indeed make a real difference. I wouldn't have wanted to read it if I'd known more about the subject matter, but I'm very glad I did. And I'm sure that's partly because the treatment matters so much in this sort of thing, doesn't it? The same thing, handled a little more harshly, would have been unbearable for me.

The language wasn't quite what I'd have chosen, but it made its points well and I enjoyed some lovely turns of phrase. For example: "Baba loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him an ulcer" and: "To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people who mean every word they say." The transparency and loyalty of Hassan were nicely echoed in his uncanny ability to predict where the kite would land - to him it was just so very simple - and yet even there we had complexity. When Amir sees something else underneath Hassan's face, I was baffled. Only at the end did I realise who it was Amir had glimpsed, and then I appreciated the irony about this most straightforward of characters.

One thing which I think contributed to the bleakness for me is the technique - I don't know its proper name - by which the narrator teases the reader about what is to come, especially to show darkening skies. "It was the last time I was to see him smile for 26 years" etc. It bugs me! What do you all think?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Kite Runner

This was a very worthwhile read. The story was very involving and quite an emotional roller coaster. The characters were clearly drawn and the descriptive writing gave a clear sense of time and place. The image of Afghanistan given through the childish eyes of the narrator, Amir, paints a picture of a place of some wealth and culture. Not until the end of the book, the chauffeur Farid, tells him that he had had a sheltered existence. The effects of war and the horrors of Taliban rule were all there, but, for me, the enjoyment was in the characterisations and emotional strength. Amir’s sense of shame at letting down his friend and the same drawing back when asked to take the personal risk of returning to Kabul. He had to accept that it was the skill of Hassan’s son that finally saved them, together with the bravery of Farid. The period of being in exile in America, living in the Afghani community of San Francisco, doing what it takes to scrape a living regardless of what one did before, is reminiscent of so many refugees, who have no opportunity to use their skills. Soraya’s father seemed unable to accept his position, but Baba, once again showed his strength of character.
The following site makes an interesting read.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Starting the ball rolling or the kite flying...?

I thought I'd start the ball rolling on the posts for The Kite runner although I suspect that others' more perceptive comments may inspire me to add more later...

I really enjoyed this book. I had a vested interest in the subject matter as my father used to be a kite-fighter as a young boy, albeit in India and, I confess, I never fully believed his stories of the glass in the string!

I thought Hosseini's desciptions were wonderful, of Afghanistan as a place, the individual characters and culteral events (the wedding was fascinating). The political landscape was also very sensitively handled and was informative without being too over bearing(in contrast to A Suitable Boy - thank goodness, no speeches here!).

I thought the 'redemptive' aspect of the plot was quite predictable - it was fairly obvious he would go back to Afghanistan, as childless adopt Hassan's son, and face Assef again. Although, having said that, I found the suicide at the end very shocking and was deeply moved when Sohrab recovered. I thought for one horrendous moment Hosseini was going to leave us with total despair and I would not have been able to cope with that. However, I'm glad he also didn't finish with everything 'rosy' but instead opted for a more morderate, but far more plausible ending.

I felt there were alot of theological themes running throughout the book, although I have not thought them through fully. In addition to the obvious theme of redemption, there was also the more subtle concepts of 'grace' and 'legalism'; grace embodied in the actions of Hassan and then Sohrab, legalism in the attitudes held by Baba and Amir. Might it be too far-fetched to parallel this with the legalistic view of Islam as seen by the Taliban in contrast to that practised by Ali and maybe even Amir in the end?

I thought that the most poignant thing about the book was that Hosseini managed to maintain the idea of hope and redemption throughout. I noticed, after reading the book, that one reviewer likened it to A God of Small Things by Arundati Roi. I really disliked that book and never finished it. Whereas both described some nasty scenes I felt that the overall feel of Roi's book was impending disaster and hopelessness, whereas Hosseini managed to maintain a much more positive outlook which enabled me to continue reading. Perhaps this is due to the way he split the book into two: the 'fall' and then the 'redemption'?

Although it was rape and not murder, for a disaster-befalls-young-child novel this was a good one!

Monday, August 21, 2006

September's suggestion

To give you time to order it or whatever it is that you lot do, September's suggestion is, courtesy of Valerie, "A short history of tractors in Ukranian" by Marina Lewycka. It was also shortlisted for the Orange prize, so it fits in with that theme. Do go ahead and post on "The Kite Runner" whenever you're ready. I went first last time! My copy of Hosseini is also free if anyone wants to borrow it - just ask.