A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008)

I haven’t read a book this quickly since Into Thin Air, which I read in 2 days. This one took me about 4 days. What was so compelling about it? It’s hard to not keep reading when tragedy and suffering are around every corner!  Especially when it’s women who are suffering. Women at the hands of men, and things men do to mankind.

This is a story about the choices people make, the actions they take or don’t take, and the choices made for them; it’s about how the world around them keeps moving, sometimes in their favor, sometimes not. It’s also a story about the world of men/mankind and politics and mankind’s penchant for causing suffering over ideological claims. This is a story that is trying to tell the reader about real people whose everyday lives are affected directly, and yet not, by the turmoil of the world around them. It is a very sad story. But it is a happy one.

I knew I would be pulled into this novel when within the first 20-or-so-pages, tears came to my eyes.  This novel reminds me a lot of The Grapes of Wrath, and the choice Rosasharn makes in the end. As a matter of fact, this entire novel, to me, is permeated by that same pathos that Steinbeck is trying to convey through Rosasharn’s actions.  It is a reminder of the perseverance of women and the lengths to which they are willing to go to take care of their children, their friends, their loved ones, their fellow man.

This is a novel I would love to send out to people with a note attached saying: “This is what mothers go through for their children.” I am not a mother (yet) but I feel closer to the idea of motherhood than I ever have been. It is a scary thought, just to consider the motherhood option, much less being a mother in a war-torn country, where bombs have been raining down since the 1980s, and oppression inside the home, for some, has been a mainstay for time immemorial.  But in many ways, motherhood in this novel is a blessing. It is a way to find and create unconditional love. That is motherhood. Unconditional love and the endurance of suffering.  Motherhood is suffering from the beginning if you think about it: birth is painful. Love hurts and causes suffering. Death hurts and causes suffering. Life is suffering. Motherhood is life. Motherhood is suffering.

Rosasharn and Laila have a lot in common. Rosasharn breastfeeds a dying stranger to give him nourishment when she can give literally nothing else to the world. But she can give life, and she does without flinching, without hesitating, without being asked. And Laila endures the unimaginable in her unanesthetized caesarian delivery of Zalmai. All for life. All for the love of life. All hard to believe because “we” have not had the opportunity to be faced with such options. This is the core. This is the base the ethicists refer to. This is the factor-X we attempt to understand and describe. It is there, when all else is stripped away and there are no other choices to be made. But choice is still present.

I feel sorry for the women in this novel. They have been exploited and abused by men. But some of the men in this novel have redeeming qualities, and the choices they have made have been tainted by cultural expectations.  Rasheed represents the bottom of the barrel (selfish, patriarchal, violent, hiding behind the comforts of cultural convenience, oppressive), Jalil represents a step above that (compassionate with the unfortunate circumstance of having internalized certain cultural limitations), and Tariq represents the ideal: love for love’s sake, unconditional, enduring, long-suffering, truly compassionate.  The reader sees them all: the ‘regular’ men of the Afghanistan described by Hosseini. The reader doesn’t get a good glimpse of the men behind the wars, but then again, the bombs and the killings are just about all we need to understand them.

I think it’s important that we see regular people doing regular things, whatever they may be for their particular place and time. These are my favorite types of novels because regular people read these books and glean something out of them to use in their regular, everyday lives.

What do I take from this book? A sense of comfort that when I disagree with my husband, he doesn’t punch me square in the chest and shove a pistol in my mouth. A sense of anxiety that though my personal reality is basically thriving, the world around me is moving at such a pace that its suffering isn’t noticed over the speeches and the outbursts and the rhetoric. A sense of resolution about motherhood: that whatever suffering is required, will be endured for the love of life and of love.  A sense of understanding that suffering is part of the human condition.

The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Taken from my film blog: http://cinematophiliac.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/the-grapes-of-wrath-novel-1939/

As my faithful readers know (thank you!), this is a blog devoted entirely to analyzing film. And, I normally stick pretty closely to the unspoken tenets of only writing about films. But once before on this blog, I ventured into writing about Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey Tetralogy because of the corresponding films and my overpowering desire to write about the books in a place where I knew it would be read. So I suppose I justify my actions now in that same way.

Now, I haven’t watched the 1940  Henry Fonda/John Ford film version yet because I like to read the book first and then watch the film, but I did just add it to the top of my Netflix queue.  But, I feel compelled to write about the novel right now because I just finished reading it this morning and it evoked a particular reaction in me.

I don’t know if I had the same reaction as every one else who has read this novel or not. The older I get, the more I realize how similar we all react to things. So what I say about this, or anything else I write about on this blog, is just what comes out: untainted, unfiltered.

I’ll get to my point in a bit but I’d like to build up to it by explaining that the reason I picked this novel up at the Library was because it’s a classic and I’d never read it. I’ve started to feel ashamed lately because of my lack of experience reading some of our great American classics.  I didn’t specifically pick the book up because I thought it had some relevance to today’s “economic hard times” as we keep hearing on the news…now, after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I know the real hard times is yet to come, folks!  (A side effect of reading this novel is that you want to write in Okie dialect too).

But as soon as the novel began, I started seeing the connection between the state of affairs in the novel and what we’re experiencing today: big businesses and banks taking the land and livelihoods away from the American people in order to turn a bigger profit.    But by the end of the novel, in the last paragraph actually, it really hit home for me that we’re not any where near the level of desperation and human suffering that Steinbeck was describing. I know this for a few reasons.

I know this because we’re still taking vacations and planning weddings; we’re still shopping online for iTunes; we’re still filing sexual harassment lawsuits; we’re still protesting gay marriage rights; we’re still having parties at our houses and inviting friends and feeding them all night long.

We’re nowhere near the level of desperation Steinbeck describes. I agree with you that that is an obvious statement. But until you’ve gone through the novel and you’ve let your imagination run wild with the characters and their plight, I think it’s too easy to say to yourself as a reader in 2009: the same thing’s happening now!

No, the same thing isn’t happening now. We keep hearing “these tough economic times” every time we turn around. Yeah, we are experiencing tough economic times. Yeah, many of us don’t have jobs or have jobs that don’t come close to paying the bills. Yeah, I know. I’m living it too.  But the connotation that the media is trying to convey with “these tough economic times” is something much more grande than we can fathom in 2009.

I know this because I know what Rose of Sharon did in that last paragraph of the novel, and I know what the penultimate chapter was foreshadowing. Don’t worry, I won’t give it away. In the paragraphs leading up to the final paragraph of the novel, I didn’t realize what was happening. I stopped and re-read it a few times before I got to the end because I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I finished the last paragraph and I knew.  And I cried. I can’t remember the last time I cried reading a novel.

I cried first because of the beauty of human nature. And the confusing part became clear.  Then I cried because of my confusion and I realized that’s the difference between us and them: we can’t fathom it, and Rose of Sharon and Ma both knew what had to be done.

Despite the 4-5 weeks it took me to read this 450 page novel (I won’t lie:  it’s long and it’s depressing, and that makes it hard to read for long durations), I made it to the end and found it to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. At first, the rotating descriptive chapters are tedious because the reader hasn’t been brought thoroughly enough into the Joad Family story line yet.  But as the novel progresses, the descriptive chapters provide much-needed details and foreshadowing about the general state of affairs for migrants.  And by the penultimate chapter, it’s clear that it’s foreshadowing beyond the last words of the novel. It’s a lot like reading The Odyssey:  the narrative seemingly just ends without giving the reader the satisfaction of a truly happily-ever-after for Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus, but the reader has to recall the prophecies and the omens and then he or she will know what is to come for them, and the reader can take some peace from that because the end is known.

Steinbeck has done the same thing for his readers but his Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus will not grow old on Ithaca, and that is part of the sadness and beauty of this novel. We do not know what will specifically happen with Tom, but we know what happened to Casy. We do not specifically know what will happen with the rest of the Joad family, but we know what the penultimate chapter foreshadows. And we do not know what will specifically become of Rose of Sharon but we know that she is the embodiment of all that is good and pure in the human soul.

People relying on people who are in the same state of being as they are. People being good to others because they are good people, not because they’re being forced to for some ulterior motive.  People recognizing their own suffering in others and doing their best to assuage the pains of life.

This novel moralizes while also de-emphasizing the necessity for a fear of God. In fact, I think it is one of the best aspects of the book, and it is why Casy is in the narrative: to show that goodness and moral-ethical behavior do not have to be followed by God’s wrath. In fact, Steinbeck makes a point of showing that good judgment is just good judgment. (And there’s plenty of suffering for the living without having to worry about suffering after death).  And sometimes when wrong is being done to you, and you react in a way to protect yourself, bad things happen accidentally. I don’t think Steinbeck is justifying murder or violence; just the opposite. I think he’s justifying human behavior in the face of highly unethical treatment and oppression: the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.  I think he’s pointing out that if you push men to the brink, they will have no other choice (i.e. Tom) than to protect themselves, and at the same time, they will make the right choice (i.e. Rose of Sharon). When you’ve stripped man of his autonomy, you’ve opened up the can of worms on yourself; but when the can is empty, you’ll find the core of human nature.

Steinbeck was writing about real people.  We’re not quite real yet.  Nope. Far from it.  But I know there are Roses of Sharon out there waiting in many of us.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

What I like about Arthur C. Clarke’s writing is that his narratives are so diverse.  By that, I mean that there will be periods of narrative description or dialogue without much action, then he will hit you with the good stuff:  the stuff that gets your heart pumping and makes YOU want to get the heck out of whatever predicament his characters are in.  Its those moments of heart palpitations that keep me reading his books.  And those are some of the greatest moments of this novel.

So after reading Clarke’s 4-book 2001 saga (see my Cinematophiliac blog posting on it, and other related posts), I couldn’t resist Rendezvous with Rama, if not for the cover’s flaunting of its Hugo and Nebula awards.  Okay, enough of the build up.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!! (though you’ve had since 1973 to read this…. 😉

It’s ironic that Clarke ends this book mentioning the triple redundancy of the Ramans because of the quadruple-plus redundancy of his books I’ve read so far (2001, 2010, 2061, & 3001), and the other three left in the Rama series. Anyway, that’s an interesting side note.

Rendezvous with Rama ended before I thought it would, but clearly it ended primed for a sequel.  That’s good and I wasn’t disappointed.  I read books much like I watch films:  with little to no understanding of their backgrounds.  I never read film reviews, and I’d certainly never be caught reading a book review.  It’s just not my style.  And, that way I am surprised by what unfolds, like not realizing there were sequels to this book.  It sounds naive, but really it’s much more pleasurable that way.  And, if I knew there were 4 books, I might not have read the first one!  Large volumes intimidate me.  For instance, I took almost an entire summer to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  It was like 500 pages!  Great book though.

Sometimes the beginning of Clarke’s story is a bit tedious (i.e. my mention above of the diversity of his narratives), with a lot of background information before you get into the meat of the action.  I realize, after reading his books, that I really like narrative action.  I like feeling connected with the situations the characters are in:  the danger, the clock ticking away.  It’s exhilerating.  I think of the books on narratology I read in grad school. Mainly Mieke Bal’s On Narratology.  I learned a lot from that book.

One of the things that stood out for me in this novel was the insistence by Captain Norton to do the right and ethical thing at ever moment possible.  In fact, there weren’t any situations in which he acted out of fear or impulse.  He always took into consideration the way their actions would affect the Ramans and he went to extremes to make sure that they did not adversely affect the temporary world they were exploring.  I think that’s great.  He was even open minded to one of his crewmen’s (Rodrigo) “religious” explanations and thoughts on Rama, and eventually let him disable the bomb sent by the Hermians on Mercury.

(I just now get why they called them Hermians…obviously Hermes, the Greek god of the forge!  Ahh…Thank God for The Iliad and The Odyssey!!!  They’re the gifts that keep on giving! I love it!  And this is what’s so wonderful about writing on this blog:  it helps so much with comprehension and retention of what I’ve read.  Mission Accomplished!).

Captain Norton reminds me of Captain Jonathan Archer from the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series (2001-2005) because Captain Archer ALWAYS took the most ethical route possible.  That was a great TV series, by the way, and I can’t believe it went off the air. 

At a time when a lot of uncertainty was barreling through the solar system, and a lot of people were afraid of the unknown, Captain Norton kept his head on straight and didn’t react out of fear.  This says a lot about the type of character that Clarke was developing:  someone level-headed who could take in all of the data from a lot of different directions, and make the right decision.  His compassion for the reasonableness of his “religious” crewman (Rodrigo) showed perhaps the most about Norton’s character: that he didn’t jump to conclusions and assume the guy was a whack-job. 

I think we all need to learn some lessons from this:  we might be surrounded by people we think are whack-jobs, but aren’t we being just as fanatic by not being open to their ideas? 

I’m wondering what Rama II has in store for Captain Norton, or future generations’ captains.  I assume it’ll pick up with the NEXT Rama ship (because there will be 3 if we read the triple redundancy correctly) and will help prove why it’s best to NOT bomb things we don’t understand, but rather observe, relate, and let them go on their merry way.  And, who knows how many years it will take for ship #2 to get there….

I finish with this:  In our day and age, can “we” refrain from bombing things and people “we” don’t understand?  Or is there a Captain Norton or a Rodrigo out there brave enough to stand up to the “Hermians,” and their political influence, savagery, and xenophobia, for the good of not only us, but for the good of those we don’t know, can’t see, and certainly don’t understand? 

That’d be nice.

When Things Fall Apart: The rest of the book

It’s nice when you find a book that you can sit down with and read the last half of it in one sitting, and learn a heck-of-a-lot in the process.

I want to briefly summarize what I learned from reading this book because it has been extremely helpful.  Thanks, JD!

Accept that life is ever-changing; therefore, accept that you cannot maintain stasis because it is impossible.  Therefore accept that life is groundless and you are groundless.  Therefore accept that change is inevitable and do not struggle against it.  When you find yourself struggling, remember that life is supposed to change and it is a good thing, but do not rely on habitual patterns of behavior to deal with the ever-changing state of life.  In other words, do not react the same way every time. We do this out of fear of the unknown or fear of failure or fear of something else.  The best thing to do is to face your fears head on, do not rely on old ways of dealing with things, push through it, and move past it.  Do not let your old way of doing things (including old ways of perceiving your identity) get in the way of true growth.  You cannot grow up if you stay in stasis. Your sense of reality will always be false if you never face your fears or rely on habitual behaviors. 

You must have unconditional compassion for yourself before you can have unconditional compassion for others. We put limitations and restrictions on others because we struggle with things ourselves. We pass judgments and create barriers to unconditional compassion because of our own insecurities about ourselves.  We do not give unconditionally because we do not give to ourselves unconditionally.  This is important, and difficult to overcome. 

Ultimately, we need to let go and move on. We recreate our identities so that we can keep from moving on.  We have to accept that we change as the world changes.  And that’s okay. 

We have to slow down and live in the present, and enjoy the present moment because it’s the only thing we have.  That makes a lot of sense to me because we cannot time travel either direction so clearly it is the present that matters. Yet we so easily get caught up in the past or future:  what we did or what we want to do. Or worse, what we wish we would have done.  It’s too much. We have to move on.

And most importantly, “Sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart” (170) so that you can reconnect with yourself, your groundlessness, and a clearer sense of reality.

There are a lot of things in this book that I found helpful and relevant to myself at this present moment.  I’ve gleaned a lot of strength from the words of Pema Chodron:  some of it I already knew, some of it I didn’t.  It’s just nice to “hear” it again, and again, and again….