Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I recently swore off Indian diaspora writing, tired of its hackneyed descriptions of brightly colored outfits and the sweet scent of jasmine wafting through warm evening air. Inevitably the protagonist will run straight into an internal conflict pitting his South Asian identity against his American sentiments, and he will be forced to make a choice, which of course will be heart-wrenching. The novel will then conclude with the protagonist realizing that he can take the best of both worlds and create his own identity, a new self that can live in harmony with his Eastern and Western identities. I will admit that some authors have done it significantly better than others. Perhaps more importantly, the problem is not that authors have not done it well, it is that it has been done to death.

So the other day when I was browsing through the sale cart at my local independent bookstore, if I had known that Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was, in fact, a specimen of this particular genre, I probably wouldn’t have glanced twice at it. But I didn’t know, and I think it worked out more favorably than expected. The greens and whites on the cover promised a politically aware narrative, and I was not disappointed on that count.

The entire novel takes place over an evening in Lahore, Pakistan, in the form of a conversation between the narrator, the young “foreign-returned” Changez, and an unnamed American listener whose particulars we learn only through Changez’s remarks. Pakistan-born and Princeton-educated, Changez lands a much-coveted job at a New York firm whose business is merciless appraisal of failing companies. His ensuing assimilation into American culture, complete with his infatuation with beautiful, brownstone-dwelling Erica is seamless and enviable until the attacks on the World Trade Center, when he finds himself almost pleased with the turn of events. Changez’s ensuing self-sabotage and inner turmoil fills the remaining pages of the novel, where we learn that the seemingly-perfect Erica is in fact troubled and withdrawn.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a well-constructed narrative, successfully capturing the disillusionment of today’s youngsters from other nations with America and its failure to live up to the ideals for which it stands. The conversational frame within which Changez shares his story is particularly engaging, interspersed with tidbits of small talk and hospitality.

Hamid’s novel falters, however, in its reliance on the tried-and-true – and therefore trite – devices of sensory comparisons between Lahore and New York, falling into the unfortunate rut of diaspora writing that has no independent identity. Hamid’s heroine Erica, the Beatrice to Changez’s Dante, is too perfect; she is too beautiful, too rich, too troubled and certainly too much in love with our hero to be believable.

Unfortunate missteps into commonality aside, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is different enough, and modern enough in its treatment of current affairs and East-West conflicts, that it passes muster. It was an enjoyable read, and although it could have done with a little more honing, it is an overall success.

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Book Review: True Grit – Charles Portis

I’m a little behind the times, so I still haven’t watched the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit. At the library the other day, I was looking through the stacks, waiting for a title to jump out at me, when I saw Charles Portis’ True Grit on the shelf. I wondered if it was the same True Grit that everyone’s been talking about, and when I saw the American Gothic-esque depiction of a teenage girl on the front cover, I was sold.

Portis did not disappoint. The story was short and sweet, an old spinster’s vivid recollection of her mission as a teenager to avenge the coldblooded murder of her father. The colorful cast – Rooster Cogburn the U.S. Marshall and LaBoeuf the Texas Ranger being the most prominent – embellishes the fast-paced, hyper-energetic storyline provided by Mattie Ross’s detailed narrative.

Truly American in its individualistic, go-get-’em attitude, Portis’s story is charming even in its bloodthirsty gore. Landscapes of Texas and Arkansas roll through the pages, peeking out between action-packed chase sequences and gunfights. Mattie Ross is a remarkable and unique heroine, her girlish fancies occasionally slipping through the cracks – like when she names her pony Little Blackie, hardly a name for a fighting stallion. A child’s story told in the voice of an old woman who has seen too much of life, True Grit is a must-read for any American, indeed any lover of the true American spirit of independence and justice.

Book Review: Vonnegut’s Parting Gift – While Mortals Sleep

I just moved to a new town and not knowing anyone here, I was wondering how I’d face the world. S had a great idea – join your local library, he said. When you have books, you’ll never be alone. It sounded like a cheesy line I’d give an eight-year-old, but hey, why not, right? I went to the library, which is little more than a one-room schoolhouse, and ambitiously checked out a handful of classics.

What I hadn’t taken into account is that I haven’t been a reader for quite a while now. I’ve forgotten how to read. I mean really read. How to see words on a page and create a world in my head. How to allow what could be hieroglyphics to evoke streams of emotion in me.

So I had to choose a book to re-introduce me to a world I haven’t experienced in years. Vonnegut’s death in 2007 had brought to my attention the sorry fact that I’m one of the few ‘literary types’ who has never read Vonnegut, so I thought now might be a good time to change that. I picked up a copy of While Mortals Sleep, which might be a strange choice considering it’s a collection of his unpublished short fiction, but I figured it’s a place to start.

It was, overall, an enjoyable experience to be invited to Vonnegut’s quaint, quirky world inhabited by an animated refrigerator named Jenny (Jenny), practical jokesters who take things a little too far (Bomar), an unbending rich old family who is destroyed when dance takes a hold of one of their young (Tango), and a self-sacrificing pregnant widow (Ruth). In a neat, crisp style that leaves no loose ends – one is reminded of O.Henry – Vonnegut paints sad little bucolic word-paintings. Although I haven’t read any other Vonnegut writings to allow me to compare, I would imagine that his later writings might have revealed a more world-weary man.

In an incisive, pithy introduction, Dave Eggers describes Vonnegut as a “hippie Mark Twain” who served as a moral voice in a world populated with amoral writers who refuse to take a stance. The collection in While Mortals Sleep certainly attests to that, as a quiet, understated request for compassion in an increasingly inhuman world.