Friday, 29 January 2016

Post 25: The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

I have to admit to some bookish indulgence in the winter sun yesterday...

We are visiting old friends from university this weekend.  Their offspring are our godchildren and so I decided that I could allow myself a visit to Henley to stroll along the river and pop into the independent Bell Bookshop.  Good advice is a given there, and I wanted books that the children might not have come across.  I know a godparent's primary role is to be a faithful role model and pray, but I have added the need to teach them a lifelong love of novels too!  Armed with an excellent excuse then, I managed to come home with six new books...only two of which were the said gifts!

But reading a book a week so far this year, I was obviously in need of new material!  That's what I told myself anyway....

Onto book four: my latest read was an unusual one. Labelled as non-fiction, it is written in a literary style and tells the story of Sultan Khan's family in Kabul.  The author, Asne Seierstad, spent four months living with them. Her timing coincided with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the American action to seek out Osama Bin Laden.  This is not a political history however, it is a series of stories told by different family members, therefore creating a window onto complex social patterns and expectations.

I am often surprised by the ability of stories to bring us closer to an understanding of one another. Through this book, I learned more about the lives of people in Afghanistan than I have ever gleaned from the news. 

Sultan Khan is the head of the family.  He considers himself to be a liberalist and not a fundamentalist and he has stood by these principles.  In the opening section of the book he quotes, "First the communists burnt my books, then the Mujahedeen looted and pillaged and finally the Taliban burnt them all over again."  He was imprisoned for his livelihood, and yet he never closed his bookshops.  He owned several in Kabul, each one run by one of his sons and overseen by his own steely authority.  Liberal in his politics, Sultan Khan was not liberal in the home. His women feared him, and his sons were in awe.  No-one disobeyed Sultan. He believed that Afghanistan had to recover from repeated lawlessness and the way to do this was to impose strict order in the home. His daughters enjoyed no freedom and his sons were expected to conform to his way of thinking, working and living.

I was expecting the book to centre more on the bookselling and the difficulties of sustaining a business through the different regimes, but the shop, though significant and central to their financial security was not the most important element of the book.

I enjoyed the stories of the women the most.  Sharifa, Sultan's wife of many years, has to stand aside when Sultan takes a second, younger woman into his home.  Leila is treated like a house elf in Harry Potter!  She is expected to cook, clean, get up with the men and serve them food, clean their boots and provide hospitality when called for, and yet she remains in the background, hardly noticed.  Her desire to teach is constantly undermined and she lives a life oppressed by intrinsic obedience to a system that renders her subservient.

Marriage is seen as exciting and a way out of family drudgery, but it seems as though, in the main, the women swap their father's rule for that of their husband.

The book does not judge,but recounts the experiences of a family who were kind enough to let the author live with them for  an extended period.  She was trusted and received many stories. Asne Seierstad brings Afghanistan to life, giving us a glimpse of religious ceremony, political uncertainty, police practices, poverty, wealth,expectations, morality and duty.  It is the latter that resounded with me.  For this is a story of duty and obedience rather than of love.  Relationships are formed by negotiation and agreements rather than by romance and it is duty that provides the cement of loyalty.

Despite its depiction of a culture very different from my own, humanity resonates throughout the book. People are people wherever in the world they live,think and pray. This is a story of life that sheds light on the complex politics of a complex country by empathising with a complex people.

So where to go next? 

First I had to find a home for those new books!

They are now installed on a newly created shelf (well the top of the existing bookshelf actually...and I have had to move the photo of the in-laws to make room) specifically for books not yet read.  I added the four new titles and then scoured the room for other good intentions that have not yet been realised!  I think my next novel will be Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go.

Please continue to read with me; as always, feel free to leave any comments or recommendations.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Post 24: Lila by Marillyne Robinson

January is a grey old month with little to recommend itself. The weather is non-descript to cold, and despite the daffodils bravely nodding their heads near my house, we all know that it is not quite spring. And yet there is a decadence to January that I don't always afford myself at other times of the year; the gift of staying in and using the very drabness of the month as an excuse to read more!  I have the soft chair, the book lined room and I have scandalously decided to leave my work laptop at work where it belongs.....

And this is how I met with Lila.

Nominated for the Man Booker in 2015 and with a glittering of other awards including the Pulitzer in 2005 and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2009, I am ashamed to say that I had never come across Marilynne Robinson before.  Discussing her in the English department staff room, it seems many others were as ignorant of this novelist as I was. I really don't know how she passed me by.  

And so the Man Booker nominations had me adding her to my basket at the end of last year.  The novel Lila had a pastoral cover and a simple blurb that appealed to me.  And I was not disappointed,  The opening of the novel sees the little girl, Lila rescued from a life that is never fully explained. The opening description of a child thrown outside and left to crawl under the house at night, afraid to go back in and terrified of what she might find in the dark, highlights her neglect.  She is taken by a saviour named Doll who nurses her to health and spends the rest of her life protecting her.

Their lifestyle is alternative. Lila lives on the road, getting work with Doll and their travelling companions.  There is a strong sense of morality among them; no-one steals and no-one is violent.  And yet Doll has a knife, and there is frequent reference to her whetting it sharp.  This symbol ensures that readers never forget that Lila was snatched, and the danger
that someone could find them is ever present.  There is no condemnation of Doll because Lila loves her and Doll loves Lila.

The storytelling is beautiful.  It is lyrical and gentle.  Told mainly from the perspective of Lila in later life, the reader pieces together her childhood, her relationship with Doll and her current situation. Fleeing from a life of prostitution and drudgery following Doll's death, Lila finds herself in a shack in the countryside. Next to the town of Gilead, she goes in for provisions, and she finds herself drawn to the church. Here she meets Reverend Ames whom she describes throughout the novel as "the old man." And it is this relationship that becomes central to Lila's life, as she learns to like him, even to trust him to some extent. Through this, she is free to ask questions of life itself, considering deeply questions of purpose, of salvation and eternity. 

What struck me the most was the gentle portrayal of the Reverend.  He is aware of his own shortcomings, and he carries with him the sorrow of personal grief. He treats Lila with utmost respect from the outset, never judging her, never condemning. I loved the fact that in his faith and in his wisdom he still had questions.  Lila prompts him to face those questions and live with them.  This called to my mind the verse from Hebrews, that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. The closing sentence, focalised on Lila, states "Someday she would tell him what she knew." Lila, in the ignorance afforded to her by her upbringing, had little education.  Reverend Ames was the opposite, and yet both added to the understanding of the other. 

The overriding feeling at the end of the novel, is hope.

This was an uplifting read with enough plot to hold interest in Lila and what happened to her at different stages of life. The deeper questions never become dull or overly philosophical because they are woven into relationships between characters.

It was only when I was half way through that I realised that this was the third book of a trilogy.  Speaking to a friend today, I have discovered he has the other two titles.  I will definitely be popping round to pick those up soon.

My next read is The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. If I manage this one in a week, then 2016 will be the best start to a reading year that I have had in along while, totalling 4 in a month.

Leaving my work laptop at school has been an excellent decision!

As always, please comment, suggest other reads and share my blog with reading friends.
Thank you for reading with me.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Post 23: Off to a Flying Start: Prince Caspian C.S. Lewis and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Well, here I am again, only two days into the New Year, with book one of 2016 already under my belt.  It is the third book in the Narnia series and I really enjoyed it.  The characterful monikers are delightful, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, Wimbleweather and the Bulgy Bears being amongst my favourites! This story is one of adventure and triumph, and features Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy once more. In this tale, they are forcibly called back to Narnia, (literally disappearing from a provincial English railway station!) in order to reinstate the rightful Prince Caspian onto the Narnian throne. Aslan is crucial to their success, and as they depend on him, the task gets simpler.  Susan was reluctant to conform when following the lion seemed like a harder and less logical step than carving their own path down the gorge.  She is however forgiven by the Mighty Aslan, "You have listened to your fears, child. Come let me breathe on you.  Forget them." This is a reminder of the allegorical nature of the books.

Part two of this post is being written mid January, and my homage to Narnia is evident on my patio. Our Christmas tree was a delightful 6-7ft this year, and it really wasn't ready for the tip.  So, I dutifully undressed it on 6th January and managed to manoeuvre it outside, stand still firmly attached, through the patio doors.  It now graces the corner of the patio next to a miniature lamppost, recreating that view of Narnia that greets Lucy as she tumbles through the wardrobe...all I need now is some snow....

But onto further reading and I must say that 2016 is off to a great start.  I thoroughly enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and I'm quite excited to have discovered a new author to add to my collection. I am a bit late to the Anne Tyler party however!  Clearly she has been rated for some years, having won acclaim in The Sunday Times and being a previous winner of the PulitzerI picked up the novel as it was shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015, and it did not disappoint. It was well crafted and absorbing.

The novel weaves through family life, with the characters of Red and Abby forming the focal point.  The opening chapter begins with a phone call where their son, Denny declares he is gay and then hangs up. Denny's absence is significant throughout the plot as his connection with the family appears to be random.  This distresses his mother and causes resentment from his siblings, and I spent much of the novel trying to work out who he really was and why he chose to behave in the way that he did.  Indeed, it is Denny who provides a link with the title, as in the closing stages of the novel he mends an article of his father's clothing with a spool of blue thread. 

This is a gentle novel, providing family history and illustrating how families interact and depend on one another.  It looks at identity and how we establish it, best constructed through the youngest son, Stem who isn't blood related at all.

I found the lives of each character sufficient to hold my interest and retain credibility.  The Whitshanks could represent any number of families living and loving at close quarters. But the ending disappointed me a little.  I felt that the story just stopped, rather than fully resolved.  It is clear that the blue thread was symbolic, representing forgiveness for Denny that enabled him to move forward wth his life.  And we know that Red will get on with his new life, though it won't be as fulfilling or agreeable as the one that he has given up.  The other siblings will continue as before, but perhaps with greater understanding of one another, and thus the continuance of the Whitshank line will endure.  And this is at its heart.  That family will endure.  And that isn't a bad way to begin a New Year.

Next up is Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  Please keep reading my blog, and feel free to add comments and recommendations.