28 July 2007

July Book Report

I usually wait until after the end of a month to talk about the books I've read during that time, but I'm doing my July report now, since I have finished the two that were part of reading challenges, and will only otherwise be reading the 7th Harry Potter book. I will likely say when I have finished that what I thought about it in general, but won't say much about details, since I would not want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet.

So here's what I read in July:

Armchair Traveler Reading Challenge

The first book I read for this challenge was The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad. I read The Kite Runner about a year and a half ago, and found the descriptions of life in Afghanistan in that book interesting and quite evocative. So when I had a chance to read The Bookseller of Kabul, I couldn't wait to see what it was like.

What a book! Seierstad is a Norwegian journalist who was reporting in Afghanistan during the fall of the Taliban. She meets Sultan Khan, a bookseller with a shop in Kabul. After spending some time talking with him, and learning more about him and his family, she approaches him with the idea that she will move in with him and his family for a 3-month period, to live as they do, and learn about their daily lives. When she meets Khan, she thinks she has met someone who is atypical of others she has met during her stay: he knows how to read and write, he lives in an urban area, he owns his own successful business, and he is fairly wealthy by the standards of the country.

Khan agrees, and the experience begins. Seierstad writes in the foreword:

"I was just a guest but soon felt at home. I was incredibly well-treated; the family was generous and open. We shared many good times, but I have rarely been as angry as I was with the Khan family, and I have rarely quarreled as much as I did there. Nor have I had the urge to hit anyone as much as I did there. The same thing was continually provoking me: the manner in which men treated women. The belief in male superiority was so ingrained that it was seldom questioned."

Soon Seierstad is involved with all of the family members. She is there when Khan decides he needs a new, younger wife, and weds a teenager, thereby shaming his first wife. She learns that his daughters long to go to school, which is allowed since the Taliban is no longer in power, but Khan thinks education is a waste of time for women. He also refuses to allow his sons to attend school, but rather sets them up with a bookstand of their own. He tells them that the best way to learn about becoming a successful businessman is to work, not to go to school!

The book is extremely readable, and gives the reader a sense of what life must have been like under the thumb of the Taliban, and how it has changed - or not changed that much - since. Sultan Khan turns out to be not that atypical from the average male head of household in Afghanistan after all, a finding that seems to dismay the author.

One thing I found really interesting was the entire issue of leaving the house wearing a burkha. After the Taliban left, women were not required to wear the burkha in public, but most of them still do, because a woman walking through town not wearing one is often mocked, followed by men, and sometimes even can have stones thrown at her. I thought that it would be very frustrating to technically have a choice, but not really.

The book made me think, about my own values and assumptions, and about the life of people in a country that longs to become modern, but has a largely poor and illiterate population. I did wish there was some kind of follow-up, such as knowning whether or not the Khan family had a chance to read the finished book, and if so, what they thought of the way they were depicted.

I would recommend this book, if you are interested at all in life in Afghanistan post-Taliban. I have a new respect for those who managed to survive the domination of their country.

Book Awards Reading Challenge

I chose On the Black Hill, by Bruce Chatwin, as my first book for this challenge. The book received the 1982 Costa/Whitbread Award. It tells the story of Lewis and Benjamin Jones, twins born in 1900, to their eightieth birthday in 1980. It also tells you the story of their parents, Amos and Mary, and their tumultuous relationship throughout their marriage. Mary was the daughter of a missionary, and had traveled the world. Amos had always lived in the same place, and felt that Mary put on airs too often. When Mary sends the twins to school, and they begin to learn about the world, Amos insists that she take them out and teach them at home, so they won't think they are better than everyone around them.

The brothers are interesting, mostly in the way twins can be, with their routines and behaviors that can complement or differentiate them. The "Black Hill" refers to the area where they live in Wales, on a farm called The Vision. England is on one side of their property, and the black hills of Wales are on the other.

Lewis and Benjamin are basically quiet men, who do not have many opportunities to ever experience life outside the few square miles where they were born. This is fine with Benjamin, but near the end of the book, when their nephew takes them on a plane ride for their eightieth birthday, Lewis - who had always been interested in flying - has an epiphany when he is allowed to steer the small plane:

"And suddenly he felt - even if the engine failed, even if the plane took a nosedive and their souls flew up to Heaven - that all the frustrations of his cramped and frugal life now counted for nothing, because, for ten magnificent minutes, he had done what he wanted to do."

Though I found the passage above poetic, and to some degree romantic, it mostly depressed me. Lewis and Benjamin lived lives that were extremely limited, first by their father, then by their own resistance to changing things once both of their parents died. They even slept in the bed where their mother had died, both of them, because it kept them close to her. Though I understand this, I also found it a little bit creepy. They had lives that suited them for the most part, even if to an outsider, they seemed limited and extremely provincial.

This was a departure from anything else of Chatwin's that I have read, in that he is usually talking about traveling to a place that is foreign, different from everyday experience. He does that here, but in a completely different context. Once again, my own opinions and values made it difficult for me to really like Lewis and Benjamin Jones. But I think Bruce Chatwin told their story well.

No comments: