Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

15815364Blurb:

From the internationally bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the boldly imagined tale of a poor boy’s quest for wealth and love.

His first two novels established Mohsin Hamid as a radically inventive storyteller with his finger on the world’s pulse. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia meets that reputation—and exceeds it. The astonishing and riveting tale of a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change.

Review:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the best book I’ve read this year because it made me think and then it made me tear up. For a book with such a coarsely straightforward title, it’s remarkably beautiful; a love story (in a book whose third chapter title instructs: “Don’t Fall in Love”) about the power of connections between people.

That sounds rather trite, non? Yet this book made it seem like the most novel idea in the world. Mohsin Hamid chooses to write his simple story under the guise of a self-help book. We readers are addressed as “you” but “you” is also the main character, an Asian male we follow from birth to death as he becomes filthy rich. It’s an inventive method of narration that will likely fail for many people, but I found it inspired in the way it both separates and unites the reader and protagonist. As both the protagonist and an outsider, we can observe the protagonist’s failures with the detachment of someone who knows better, all the while suffering, and occasionally rejoicing, alongside him. We are complicit in his choices and thus, after reading, we feel compelled to reevaluate our own choices.

In tone, it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day. Both novels feature men who devote their lives to an occupation and realize, too late, the unworthiness of their chosen lives. Hamid’s writing is less formal though no less moving. It’s clever—

Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?

And beautiful—

He whispers a benediction and breathes it into the air, spreading his hopes for you with a contraction of the lungs.

He uses lots of appositives to pack complex asides into otherwise short and simple sentences. It’s masterful, simply some of the best writing I’ve ever read.

Hamid also has the most fascinating things to say about the relationship between a writer and a reader and the importance of writing and reading to our lives. Do you read this and nod so deeply your skull grazes the nape of your neck?

…When you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

I do. He just gets it. He profoundly understands the importance of stories to our every day lives:

We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.

He accomplishes so much in so few pages, poking the most thoughtful parts of my brain and pushing me to change the way I approach life. Before reading How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia I would see all the people around me and feel crushed that their stories will never be told, that upon death their stories will dissipate into the air like the morning dew rising from their graves. Mohsin Hamid reminded me that everyone has a story that should be remembered. He made me want to travel the world with a butterfly net collecting stories so that peoples’ lives—peoples’ immense and tragic and brilliant lives—do not die with them. He made me realize that empathy is not only the fruitful consequence of good literature but also the motor of the human spirit.

5 out of 5 stars

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Review: Orlando by Virginia Woolf

46133Blurb:

Orlando has always been an outsider … His longing for passion, adventure and fulfilment takes him out of his own time.

Chasing a dream through the centuries, he bounds from Elizabethan England amd imperial Turkey to the modern world. Will he find happiness with the exotic Russian Princess Sasha?

Or is the dashing explorer Shelmerdine the ideal man? And what form will Orlando take on the journey – a nobleman, traveller, writer?

Man or … woman?

Review:

Orlando; or, The World’s Most Interesting Premise Wasted

Virginia Woolf has a wild premise for Orlando: a boy living in Elizabethan England does not die and somewhere near the middle of his life turns into a woman!

What a spectacular starting point for an author not only wanting to provide a good story but also wanting to describe the effects of time and gender on a person. Maybe Virginia Woolf did that. Other readers certainly think she did. I do not, however. Orlando is the huge waste of a premise.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from this reading experience. Its most salient point was the immutability of the human spirit regardless of sex. For although Orlando must change her outward behavior to align with societal attitudes concerning gender, he/she remains steady throughout the text, mainly through his/her devotion to writing. I suppose I don’t find this point really profound. It’s been said before and it’s been said better.

My main problem, though, is the writing. I’ve read some of Woolf’s essays and short stories before and was impressed by her prose. In Orlando her writing choices confused me. Her prose lacks any emotion. I read this entire book utterly dispassionate to what was unfolding on the pages before me. For me, it read cold and surgical. It lacked any life. This detachment is exacerbated by the character of Orlando who is very aloof. Who is Orlando? Why should I care about her? Even when events upset Orlando—when the Russian princess leaves, when the critic insults his poem, when her lands and title are stripped from her—he/she continues on like before. Woolf might say, “Orlando was devastated,” but not once did I feel any of Orlando’s feelings.

It reminded me of reading a lab report. “Observe closely as our specimen, Orlando, male and aged 16, sits beneath the oak tree. [Six paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment] Now watch as he goes to the Queen’s Court [Nine paragraphs of description about his surrounding environment]…Now observe as he transforms into a woman [Sixty two paragraphs about 17th Century London]” And on and on.

Obviously I’m an outlier here. Most people are moved by Woolf’s writing and challenged by Orlando’s metamorphosis. For me a favorite book 1. makes me think 2. features a gripping story. Usually but not always in that order.

If I finish a book that accomplishes none of the above, I will be very unhappy. I just finished Orlando and I’m feeling very unhappy.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

17728Blurb:

First published in 1905, The House of Mirth shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social, and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities. Lily Bart, beautiful, witty, and sophisticated, is accepted by “old money” and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears 30, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her life in the luxury she has come to expect. While many have sought her, something—fastidiousness or integrity—prevents her from making a “suitable” match.

 

Review:

Love? Or money? You’ve read this story approximately 3,472 times before. But I encourage you to read it again.

Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite at the beginning of the 20th century, must choose between love and money. It’s a seemingly tired plot, though truly it is not. Because nowadays the question is not love or money? The question is both please? in extra large quantities if possible? Somehow in the past hundred years, love and money have been concatenated. Simply consider recent trends: the greatest romance of the 2000s was that of Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, a romance that convinced many women to fight for it all—a man that can both capture your heart and wallpaper his 20,000 square foot mansion with dollar bills. Love is money; money is love.

But for Lily Bart, that is not so. It is a choice, a crucial choice, and not as easy as any romantic would make you believe. The most interesting part of the love/money dichotomy has always been what these choices represent. Love is not just throbbing hearts and flushed cheeks; love is morality and goodness. And money is not just an estate on Long Island, a mansion in Newport, an apartment on Fifth Avenue, and a yacht harbored at Monte Carlo; money is corruption and superficiality.

So Lily is actually choosing who she wants to be. And for her, that’s incredible. The fact that this impulse to consider love in a marriage still remains is impressive since her parents tried to beat it from her brain with silk dresses and fifteen course luncheons galore. But Lily is a deeply frustrating character. Wharton thwarts her at every turn; whenever it seems that she might recover, that she might make a good decision, she is thrown back to the wolves, that is, the shallow and noxious New York socialites. Her struggle for love, faith, and freedom figures heavily on fascinating gender dynamics. As a woman, her choices are already constrained, but she admirably works as hard as she can against the opposing forces. She’s heroic but far from a hero.

Lily is brilliantly characterized, which is no surprise since Wharton’s greatest strengths seem to be characterization and writing. Her writing is dense, every word placed so carefully in order to complicate these characters (For instance, this description of a tertiary character: …Young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles and later, in a delightful dispatch of depressed youth, Ned Silverton was probably smoking the cigarette of young despair in his bedroom.) It’s hilariously pithy, especially about money: “I know there’s one thing vulgar about money, and that’s the thinking about it; and my wife would never have to demean herself in that way.” Wharton’s words require some sifting through, but they are beautiful.

Depending on interpretation, The House of Mirth answers, somewhat answers, and doesn’t answer the question of love or money. It’s romantic while being completely unromantic. If you read it, do tell me what you think of the ending. I still can’t decide what I think about it.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

19063Blurb:

New York Times bestseller for seven years running that’s coming to movie theaters on November 15, 2013, this Printz Honor book by the author of I Am the Messenger is an unforgettable tale about the ability of books to feed the soul.

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Review:

In the span of two weeks, I’ve read two novels set during WWII despite hating war books. I enjoyed both of them (Code Name Verity and The Book Thief) for their unique take on the genre. The Book Thief takes place in Germany as the war effort is revving up and spinning out of control.

I appreciated Zusak’s originality. Narrated by Death, The Book Thief is full of his quips and asides, which refreshes this oft recounted tale. Characters are also multi-faceted; there is no heroic German who takes in a pitiable but hopeful Jew. I’d argue that even Hitler, a man whom history has rightfully represented as 100% pure evil, manages to demonstrate complexity. In The Book Thief, actions have consequences and choices are painted with ambiguity. Zusak does not sugarcoat the truths of wartime but he does not oversell them to the point of pity porn either. Triumph and loss are intertwined because humans can never, especially in times of war, separate the good from the bad.

I liked Zusak’s narrative choices as well. By choosing to narrate with Death, who benefits from near omnipresence and omniscience about the past, Zusak foreshadowed or in some cases outright exposed what was going to happen to characters. In normal circumstances, I’d expect the plot spoilers to mar my enjoyment of the novel, but in The Book Thief, it works extraordinarily well. We know the whats but not the whys, and discovering how things unfold leading up to Death’s announcements is the whole fun of it.

There is so much to analyze in this novel–the significance of colors, the state of childhood in wartime, the writing choices themselves–but what I’ll remember best are two themes: the power of language and the ambiguity of humankind. Liesel, our eponymous “book thief”, uses language to construct her world. Words can heal (they can make friendships; they can apologize) but they also can damage (they can start wars; they can denigrate an entire social identity). By finding the power of language throughout the novel, Liesel becomes a moral individual. But not all of her choices, nor the choices of the many other characters, are unequivocally good. In Death’s own words, he is “haunted by humans” because of their complexity of behavior, thought, and feeling. How can we be so capable of evil yet so capable of good? Countless authors have posed this question, but Zusak threads the answers (or non-answers) to this question into a broader historical and temporal fabric in a masterful way.

4 out of 5 stars

Soon to be a major motion picture! Box office prognosticators are predicting good things for the film which releases later this year, so make sure to read it before then. Here’s the trailer:

Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

333901Blurb:

Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.

As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary. But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.

Review:

This summer I started doing more fitnessy activities not in an attempt to lose weight or clear my prematurely blocked arteries but in response to the plethora of Young Adult Dystopian Novels that led me to question whether I could a) win the Hunger Games b) jump from a moving train with my Dauntless buddies c) take out an alien with a swift kick to the face and then evade their hot spaceship pursuit. The answers to these questions are a) no b) no c) no.

Young Adult Dystopian Novels forced me to stare fate straight in the eye: if removed from my cushy existence by a twist of apocalyptic fate, I would die. I would die every single time.

Refusing to accept this, I began a workout regimen to guarantee my survival. But then I read How I Live Now and my resolve is weakening. Because Daisy, who charmingly narrates her experiences during a world war, is no Teen Action Hero. She reacts how the vast majority of us would in dire circumstances: not by staging a coup or leading the resistance, but by surviving as best as she can. Now I’m left wondering if my pushups and jogs are even worth anything—if the world fell apart, I’d probably just stay in my basement trying to stop my towering piles of canned goods from toppling over. And face it: so would you.

So that’s what’s so refreshing about this novel. It’s about normal people. The people that most of us would be during all out world war. The people simply trying to survive. That’s Daisy’s story. It’s a story of survival in extreme circumstances and then learning to accept those circumstances as her life forevermore. After finishing the novel, I can’t help but wonder whether humankind’s immense adaptability is a strength or a weakness. It’s wonderful how Daisy and so many others find new ways to live after catastrophe, but isn’t it sad how quickly we humans adapt to a less than perfect world? How easily content we become with nothing?

Meg Rosoff is an excellent writer and demonstrates her skill most readily with Daisy’s voice. The novel is first person with Daisy recounting her experiences after the fact. The most incredible thing? Daisy actually sounds like a teenager. Aside from one too many SAT words, How I Live Now truly reads like a teenager talks. Daisy’s narration is witty (suggesting that we can find humor even in the darkest moments) and her experiences are recorded in the same way she might have submitted an essay to her English teacher on the first day of school titled “What I Did During Summer Vacation [When Bombs Hit Britain and This Manhattanite Was Stuck On the Wrong Side of the Atlantic During World War Three With My Very Hot Cousin].”

I’ve seen many reviewers object to the novel’s incestuous relationship. The incest is quite secondary and it’s included in the plotline to show how something scandalous in normal times is entirely irrelevant—even laughably unimportant—in times where people care more about 1. dying in a nuclear attack 2. dying by gunfire 3. dying from starvation 4. dying from infection 5. DYING.

“I guess there was a war going on somewhere in the world that night but it wasn’t one that could touch us.”

How I Live Now may have destroyed any motivation I had to go running tomorrow, but I’m glad I read it. I want to read more books—especially in YA—about the people who aren’t overtly special, who aren’t the Chosen Ones. Daisy is a normal teenage girl facing an extraordinary situation. She is a reminder that life persists even in epochs of death.

3.5 out of 5 stars

PS There is a film adaptation coming soon starring the lovely Saoirse Ronan. The movie Daisy seems to be more badass than she was in the book, but it was the film’s approaching release date that urged me to read this sooner rather than later and I’m happy I did.

Review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

10112885Blurb:

On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself.

Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world.

The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time he might lose even more.

Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.

 

Review:

I feel like I’ve just had my brain matter sucked from my skull through a straw, whipped vigorously by a whisk, baked into a quiche, and then returned to my head. Like six times.

That’s Night Film in a nutshell. It’s an engrossing read that is less of a book and more of an experience. Marisha Pessl is one of those rare authors who brings life not only to a story but to a world. Her world in Night Film is similar to our own, plus a single distortion: Stanislas Cordova, the enigmatic and acclaimed director of cult psychological thrillers. She makes Cordova, his films, his fans, and his family seem so real, like if you checked Wikipedia to see who won the 1980 Academy Award for Best Director, you would actually see Cordova’s name instead of Robert Benton’s for Kramer vs. Kramer. Mostly she accomplishes this with her impressive use of visual media. The book features TIME articles about his work and Vanity Fair investigations into his daughter Ashley’s suicide, the event that kickstarts the entire book.

So you start the reading by living, by living in this fabricated world. It’s all very fascinating but it remains a rather traditional—if wonderfully immersive—mystery until, midway through, the tipping point is reached and everything goes crazy. Once the story tips, it’s almost suffocating to be living in this incredible but dangerous world.

It is a story that makes you doubt your grip on reality. You will—or at least you should–question everything as you read. For example, one gripe about Pessl’s otherwise effusive prose is her tendency to italicize several words in a single paragraph. It’s ostensibly for emphasis, but at a certain point, I was tracking which words were italicized in the belief that they encoded some important secret. My excuse for this paranoid reading is the overwhelming sense that in Night Film every word is meaningful, that nothing is wasted.

Night Film is about fathers and movies and magic. It not only asks, What is Truth? but also, Is there such a thing as a Truth?

In his famous 1977 Rolling Stone interview, Cordova says:

Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out? Do you want to know what is there or live in the dark delusion that this commercial world insists we remain sealed inside like blind caterpillars in an eternal cocoon? Will you curl up with your eyes closed and die? Or can you fight your way out of it and fly?

Recommended for the fighters and the fliers.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

11671012Blurb:

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

 

Review:

Howl’s Moving Castle is hilarious while being deep and complex. It’s truly children’s literature at its best.

While I was reading the book, I wondered how I would have reacted to it if I read it when younger. I’m quite certain I would have liked it, but the messages I took from it would have been very different. When I read it this time, fresh off a course on literature from the French enlightenment, I read it through the lens of l’être ou le paraître. These words roughly translate to “essence” and “appearance.” French writers were obsessed with exploring what happened when someone’s appearance did not match his or her being. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones is preoccupied with the same question. What is true? How we look? Or how we are inside? Although we’re told from birth that it’s “what’s inside that counts,” it’s a profound question, and I was surprised by how deeply Jones investigated this question under the guise of writing a flashy and fun children’s book.

The book resembles a fairytale, so I found some character motivations a bit weak. The villain of the novel is purely evil for evil’s sake; unfortunately, there’s not much complexity to her actions. I also became intermittently confused. The novel is frantic and hectic, which makes it difficult to follow occasionally.

In spite of these reservations, I enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle immensely. Delightful characters, an inventive world, a surprising romance, charming humor, and an exploration of profound questions: this book has it all.

4 out of 5 stars