The Reluctant Fundamentalist – bitter tea

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is charmingly written, and instantly riveting. A young Pakistani meets an American in a Lahore teashop and begins to tell him the story of his life. By titling his book in the way he has, and then giving a story about a clever young man who buys into the American dream, attends Princeton, falls in love with an American girl and becomes a high-flyer at a New York valuation firm, Mohsin Hamid invites his readers to examine their own unconscious prejudice about fundamentalism as fed by the fear-mongering Western media. One of the most interesting things about this book is the perspective it gives on the life of a suspicious-looking brown, and worst of all, sometimes bearded, person living in New York in an atmosphere of post-9/11 panic. This is the America of the apple pie and stars and stripes. A retro idyll: our hero wonders whether the America of that popular imagination ever existed, and whether, if it was resurrected, it would have any kind of place for a person like him. It’s an interesting thought, and it’s interesting to see a writer explore the perspective of someone who has some sympathy for the 9/11 attacks – not for the action itself, with its fatal consequences, but for the feeling of anger against America: the aggressor, the patronising big brother, the ruthless bully. It was interesting to watch Changez, our hero, with his love for the land of opportunity, its beautiful women and its personal freedoms, think again about the fragility of his life in the corporate machine.

The book is not centred around politics, whatever the assumption might be. It’s a personal story – one man on a path to success, hard won success at that, who is forced to re-evaluate his identity. Hamid writes convincingly about the two very different worlds his character straddles and Changez himself is full of depth. I read the book in a couple of sittings, eager to find out how it ends. I was transported – to dusty Lahore, to gleaming New York – and I was gripped by Changez’s life, its highs and its lows.

A fresh and refreshing perspective on most that popular of subjects: 9/11. Mohsin Hamid’s story is both beautiful and deeply sad.

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The Truth – a slightly unfinished jigsaw

Keith Mabbut in an intrepid journalist gone tame. From breaking a water poisoning story and making a wealth of enemies in the process to writing an oil company’s official history without any mention of the environmental disasters it has caused, it’s fair to say that in middle age the fire in Keith’s belly is sputtering somewhat. He is estranged from his wife, he’s always letting his grown-up children down and he has never had the success he hoped for in his career. But then, as he settles down to finally write his big novel, Mabbut gets an unlikely commission. A biography of the elusive Hamish Melville, his environmental hero. It’s a dream come true but Mabbut’s investigative nose is suddenly twitching. Is there something fishy about his commissioners?

Michael Palin’s The Truth is a story of second chances. His protagonist Mabbut is prickly, proud, and frustrating at times. A little bit of a pedant, he’s hard to warm to at first but he ultimately wins you over. The best parts of this book are those where he’s travelling India in search of Melville. Of course, Palin knows how to write a travelogue. Travelling also frees Mabbut from his dull daily life and some of the most irritating aspects of his personality.

In terms of review, I wasn’t bowled over by the book – it is, as it says on the back, ‘a very good story, very well told’ but I could never really love Mabbut enough to get any more involved in it than that. There were also a few small pieces in the jigsaw that seemed to have been left unresolved: is Stella secretly struggling with a serious illness? Is Shiraj really what he appears to be?

So although I enjoyed reading The Truth, it does fall between three excellent books in my reading calendar, and it is therefore getting graded on a curve. (Sorry Michael. Pole to Pole is still one of my favourite things of all-time.) A very readable book but not necessarily one to snatch from a bookshop at the earliest possible opportunity.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – fuku and family

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a hard book to pin down but it reminded me a bit of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, the way it pinpointed its characters in place and time. Lots of foreign words go unexplained in the course of this book – readers must learn by osmosis: you are dropped into the world of the de León family and you have to feel your way around. Nothing is contrived– Díaz is not interested in reader exposition and I like that.

The author’s offering is the story of a family cursed over generations by the Dominican terror: fukú. This curse can take many forms, as we come to see. As far as the family de León  goes, there is Oscar, firstly and most predominately. Oscar is a lovesick ghetto nerd – a kind of tragedy version of Manny from Modern Family if he grew up in a different, more difficult way. Oscar loves women but they don’t love him back in the way that he wants when he outgrows his chubby childhood cuteness. His sister Lola, meanwhile, is fierce and wild – she battles with their mother Beli in her diminished, cancer-ravaged form. But when Beli’s young life is revealed, we learn that she was once wild and beautiful herself – a world away from the bitter crone she has become.

Díaz always wants to make sure we know why things are the way they are in this family. With every new story, with every step back in time, a new influence the their lives is revealed. Everything is recounted via our trusty narrator Yunior, Lola’s old boyfriend, who becomes entangled in Oscar’s sad and lonely life and can’t quite seem to shake himself free. There is a conspiratorial tone to the book – as readers, we are peeking in through the windows of the de León family home, watching events unfold.

The book explores the Dominican culture of hyper-masculinity, to which Oscar, with his melodramatic soppy tendencies, can never truly belong, and which will crush Beli and Lola’s spirits in its own way. It explores issues of race – the yearning to be lighter, straighter-haired, more European-featured (the words prieta, morena and black-black are everywhere). It also details the hissing jealousies that come with being thought of as too pretty, or too confident, by your peers. But, as with other things in this book, race and gender identity aren’t topics as such, they’re more of a backdrop to the story. Díaz offers a snapshot of Dominican life through the lens of one troubled family. It’s a book to be swept away in, not one to analyse, po-faced, in a dusty room. So in that spirit, I will step back from the book and just say that Díaz is a very strong writer with a powerful sense of place. His book will have you wanting to keep mining the seams of history he has cracked open, and he will have you learning something new without you even noticing.

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This Book Will Save Your Life – or at least stay with you

I read this book ages ago when I was working all summer at a concert hall in Brighton. It was my job to take tickets and for the hours when I wasn’t doing that (which was all the long, stretching hours of concerts, evangelical conferences and whatever else) it was my job to sit there and read. It was a hot summer and I was about to go off to uni and I read this book and I just loved it. My mum bought it because it was one of the first Richard and Judy book club titles but she never read it.

I liked the donuts on the cover. I remembered that I liked the feel of the writing too. The thing is, I read so many books that lots of them inevitably slip out of my mind afterwards. But I remembered Richard Novak.  He’s a man who wakes up in middle age to realise he’s been living life in a vacuum. He barely knows his son, his ex-wife is long gone. He hasn’t spoken to his parents for years. He has a nutritionist, a housekeeper but apart from that he is alone. When he finds himself suddenly in pain and is rushed to the hospital, they ask him who he’d like to call and he realises there’s no one on earth he wants to speak to. No one he still has that connection with. This is a book about him putting his life back together from nothing. Finally, Richard starts to interact, to say yes to human contact. The man in the donut shop. The woman crying in the produce aisle of the supermarket. His next door neighbour. The 911 operator. He starts spending his money, spending his time, following the flow of life, doing whatever comes next. He reconnects. He opens Pandora’s box.

There’s just something so feel-good about this book! I never re-read – there are so many new things out there but this book drew me back in and it was just as good the second time. It’s basically a story about a man having a mid-life crisis but there’s something so real at the heart of it. It treads the same ground as a Richard Curtis film, plugs you into an idea of humanity you can believe in. It won’t change your life, not in any kind of profound way, but there’s a warmth in it that will stay with you. From life in a vacuum to horses and helicopters and have-a-go-heroism, A.M. Holmes takes you on a winding and inexplicably wonderful adventure back to life.

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The Wolf Road – made for the big screen

The Wolf Road is the story of Elka and her adoptive daddy Trapper – at least Trapper’s who he is to her. But the posters slapped up all over towns and trading posts across the cold, wild north call him Kreager Hallet – bloodthirsty, child-killing monster of the woods.

Seven-year-old Elka is taken in by Kreager when a thunderhead (a giant tornado-esque storm prevalent in this post-apocalyptic landscape) rips her from her hard-bitten Nana’s home (her parents having left her there to chase the gold rush some years earlier). Hallet teaches her his way of life – animal-trapping, hunting, fishing and surviving in the bleak, harsh, snowy wilderness. He’s not a lovey-dovey type, but he’s her daddy and Elka is shocked when at seventeen she goes into nearby Dalston on an errand and sees the posters. It’s there that she runs into ice-queen Magistrate Jennifer Lyon – Lyon’s got it in for Kreager Hallet; she lost the most precious thing in her life at his hands, and she’s not going to stop till she catches him…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot of this book because suspense and secrets are what it’s built on. The reader roots for Elka, this little wild woodland creature who spent her childhood in a killer’s lair, who called this monster daddy. It’s hard not to admire her grit as she ploughs through the post-apocalyptic wasteland, surviving against the odds, running towards a childhood fantasy (will she find her gold-hunting parents in the far reaches of the north after all this time?) and desperate to escape the horrors of her time with Hallet, which she’s kept padlocked in the dark corners of her brain until now.

I quite liked the dialect the book was written in – it didn’t feel awkward or forced to me like I imagine it easily could do. But the thing I liked most was the way Lewis builds this post-apocalyptic world of Elka’s. It’s not big on the details – we have to build the picture ourselves as we go along. There was a catastrophe called The Damn Stupid that’s left a world of fake forests, dead land and poison lakes. In some ways it’s like we’ve gone back to the old wild west where survivalist skills and trade in basic life necessities (furs, food etc.) are how a person gets by.

Lewis isn’t a JK Rowling or a Terry Pratchett, building whole new worlds down to the very last detail. She sets a scene with just the lightest descriptive touches and lets your imagination do the rest. A little bird told me that there’s been some interest in the film rights to the book and, having read it, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. The book feels like a film. It’s like you can hear the blood pounding in your ears and the smothering silence of the snow around you. Like you can smell the pine. It’s easy to imagine the voiceover in Elka’s distinctive dialect, or a well-cast Kreager Hallet’s terrifying tattooed face as he stalks the snowy woods for his prey.

On the whole I avoid films of books I enjoy because they leave so much richness and detail out, but there’s a sparseness about The Wolf Road and a cinematic heart to it that meant it played almost like a film real in my head as I read it. It’s a thrilling read on the page, pacey and engaging … but I can’t help but think how truly magnificent it could be on the big screen. I hope someone picks it up!

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The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician – a patchwork quilt for people-watchers

I read Tendai Huchu’s Hairdresser of Harare many years ago and the thing I remember most about it was its sense of atmosphere and colour and brightness and heat. The man makes you feel and that makes reading easy, makes you forget you’ve been on this train for an hour and a half, or that you’re tired. So I was excited to try The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician and I bumped it up my TBR list pretty soon after I received it.

The book tells the story of three Zimbabwean expats in Edinburgh. It introduces you to their family and friends, pinpoints their lives at a moment in time and watches how they run parallel, interweaving occasionally in unexpected ways. I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this book as I came to it thinking it was one thing, enjoyed it for what it was and was fascinated towards the end to find it was something else entirely.

Though Huchu’s native Zimbabwe is everywhere in his work, it never feels like a cultural lesson. Songs are not translated, terminology is not explained and I like that sort of thing. It’s not always practical perhaps but I like to learn language by context. It’s how children learn their native tongue and it’s how big readers get a good vocabulary, find words in their brains they know the meanings of even if they don’t quite know how they got there. In a world where so many half-hour TV shows offer a five-minute recap at the beginning of every episode, it doesn’t hurt not to have everything spelt out for us.

In this book, Tendai Huchu writes varied voices masterfully. I imagine him as the sort of person who listens to other people’s conversations on buses, catches snatches of them over his shoulder in coffee shops, listening to the lilts and language choices and filing them, perhaps even unconsciously, for future use. I suppose I’m one of those people too and that’s why I enjoy his work. It’s a tangled web of connections with some satisfyingly twisty turns. His characters are funny, sad and frustrating at times and his book is people-watching in paper form.

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Farenheit 451 – Watch it burn

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a jewel of a book. Sparsely yet beautifully written, it is a novel that peers into the depths of the modern soul. Bradbury paints a world not too different to the current age, where technology has driven people apart from one another and replaced that intimacy with a wall of televisual chatter. Books are forbidden and in these times, when houses are fireproof, firemen only exist to burn the books hidden in the houses of the few faithful after anonymous tip-offs. Of course, the beauty of the new world order is that this is barely even necessary. With their short attention spans and lust for sex, violence and the thirty-second summary, the people in Bradbury’s world are to all intents and purposes self-policing. Novels are mocked for their inconsistency with one other and dismissed for being untrue. Deep thinking is discouraged and people are urged to spend their time laughing at the spectacle of other people hurting themselves. Deep at the heart of the society, despite all the high-octane ‘fun’ that is being blasted at citizens, there are sky-high suicide rates as people try to find a way out of their loneliness. In this bleak world, where pondering is prohibited, fireman Guy Montag  is jolted out of his complacency by a young girl who stops him on his way home from work one night and asks him impertinent questions about dandelions and love, and the way things were before books were banned.

I can’t recommend Fahrenheit 451 highly enough. So bleak and chilling and realistic is its message that it really made me really think about the world I’m helping to bring about by reading the Daily Mail’s ‘sidebar of shame’. By joining in with the merciless clicking on brain-death stories (has she lost her baby weight yet? Is she too fat/thin/haggard/heartbroken? Has he been caught cheating/taking drugs again?) we create a world where that is the only news that will sell, till that’s the only news we get. Bradbury’s book is a stark and important warning not to be too complacent, not to be too complicit, not to give over the responsibility of educating ourselves to commercial interests. He invites the reader to consider what sort of future they are painting with the path they are following.

I would love to see this on every GCSE syllabus. It is fearless, thought-provoking and singularly impressive. It should be as famous as Orwell’s 1984 – it is just as great a cautionary tale.

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