Sometime last year the actress Molly Ringwald published a collection of short stories called When It Happens to You. Short stories! A collection! Wasn’t Molly Ringwald supposed to be permanently stuck in a John Hughes’ movie, displaced by adolescence yet opaquely beautiful with her bee-stung lips and watery eyes? I loved Molly Ringwald and I related to her—she was the outsider, poor in Pretty in Pink and a spoiled brat in the Breakfast Club. She made a giant gaffe on David Letterman and then became obscure a few years later, but still she seemed to represent something—some indefinable ennui that adolescents seem to feel so deeply. So, this is a long way of saying I was disappointed when she broke out of her self-imposed seclusion and tried to write a collection of stories. Shouldn’t only “real writers” be allowed to pursue such a torturous quest?
It’s difficult when famous people write books of a literary sort (we expect them to write blistering memoirs and cool autobiographies, of course). When a famous sort writes a book, we crush them and make fun of them. Rarely do we say, That was great! I’m thinking of the pop singer Jewel who wrote a collection of poetry called A Night Without Armour and of an actor (one of the Phoenix brothers, I believe) who also tried his hand at the ancient form. Let’s just say, these two weren’t embraced with opened arms. So what do we do when the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan writes an erotic, lively book about a lesbian couple, whose main character is suffering from the loss of a child?
It should be noted here that Patti Davis has written critically acclaimed books in the past, but these are mostly non-fiction or semi-autobiographical works. For this novel, she has departed from her previous style and has consequently self-published. So, we read it with gratuitous thoughts clanging in our heads, of course… The daughter of Reagan, a lesbian book, a taboo book, but really it’s not such a taboo subject anymore, is it? What would Reagan think? Nancy? We think this until the book starts to take on a life of its own and the book gets better and there’s no longer the background noise of the book anymore, but just the book itself and the words on the page…
Till Human Voices Wake Us is the story of Isabelle Berendon whose child drowns in a swimming pool in her house. Shaken with grief and unable to cope with her distant husband, Isabelle turns to comfort in her sister-in-law, Iris. Soon both women are having “we’re-more-than-best-friends” thoughts. Rather than ignore their passion, they dive into it fully, confessing their love to their husbands and shacking up in a beach house by the sea in Malibu.
If this all sounds a little too good-to-be true, perhaps it is. The book exists in the realm of a romance, but it also portrays realistic moments of motherhood. In fact, the details of mothering are some of the strongest in the book. There is the mothering between Isabelle and her mother, a “failed” dancer, whose outward fragility masks a strong character. There is the destructive mothering of Iris’s mother who won’t accept her lesbian daughter, and who has always wanted a veneer of civility at any cost. And finally there is the mothering of Isabelle to her stepdaughter Marjorie. The scenes between Marjorie and Isabelle are emotionally apt and at times poignant. Marjorie darts out on to the beach and Isabelle watches from the window above; Marjorie catches a cold and Isabelle frets over her; Isabelle follows Marjorie to ballet class, etc. These are the mundane details that make up the full scope of mothering in real life, and I was glad to see them included in the book.
In fact, at times the book seemed to be overwhelmed by the small details that make up day-to-day life (“I’ll pick up the kids from school”; “no, I’ll pick them up”), but in a way that is the beauty of the novel form, the slow unfolding of events and the way the reader can get spellbound by another family’s saga, another reality. So, even if certain sections seem slow and unimportant, they work together to create a whole.
Which brings me to another strength of the book, namely the sense of community that is formed within the book. Isabelle leaves the security of her husband behind, but in doing so creates a makeshift family for her daughter and herself. Isabelle’s mother who is dying of cancer ends up living with them, as does a sophisticated hospice nurse from England. Beside the women live two gay men who affectionately take Isabelle under their wing.
Of course most women who leave their husbands don’t have to “suffer” in a beach house in Malibu. Sometimes the apparent wealth and entitlement of the women just doesn’t work. Davis tries hard to weave in the story of Isabelle’s “humble” beginnings, but sometimes these moments in the book feel false. The working class depictions of the house and situation rely on cliché, such as the “chain-link” fences around the “postage stamp” yards. Isabelle wears Payless shoes when she’s young; her dad’s a thief (as if drunk, working class guys naturally turn to thieving—this just didn’t seem realistic to me). When Davis describes Isabelle and Iris they are wearing cashmere and diamond studs; they drive their fancy cars through the city. At one point Isabelle orders a tuna sandwich from Subway (this is portrayed as an exotic event), and finds it absolutely repulsive. These are the kinds of details that got under my skin and lured me back into thinking about Patti Davis, the author, rather than Isabelle the character—Does Patti Davis find Subway gross? I wondered. These aren’t really questions I want to consider while reading a story that is supposed to take me away.
Luckily, if the book is at times heavy-handed, it also abounds in humor. Isabelle has many hilarious lines in the book, many self-deprecating points that can ease me away from my “confusion” over the Subway sandwich incident. Davis has a natural flair for the absurd (the section where she’s buying a Hillary Clinton mask is hilarious) and I hope in her next book her sometimes scathing wit will come out even more because it is delicious.
As I said before, the book meanders with a rather slow pace, but there is a bit of mystery surrounding the drowning child’s accident and there is a big payoff at the end. In fact as the book goes on it gets stronger and more assured (which is a good thing—I’ve read many books that start off great, but fizzle out). There is no fizzling here; rather it ends with a bang. Davis explores themes of loss and togetherness in this book, and looks at what it means to be alone. At one point, Isabelle muses, “I like my aloneness; I wanted to preserve it.” It’s a beautiful line and one that draws me again to Davis, the famous daughter wanting to be alone, wanting to create her own world. I’m glad she had the will and imagination to do so.
My friend, Linda Jue, a Chinese-American from the Bay Area, once was describing someone she knew to me: “Well one thing about him, Fred” she finally concluded, “he is very Chinese.”
I thought I understood what she meant by very, and why she gave it such import. I gave her a small nod.
As an African American I have met more than my share of folks who were very black, and I don’t mean in skin color-- with an inner self that I could always detect; that carried over countless generations, the very soul of Africa.
And, believe it or not, I have also run into some very Americans, small as they may be.
Unlike with many of my fellow countrymen, however, what I didn’t know, listening to Linda, was what types of things made someone very Chinese.
I, like perhaps most Americans, know little about the largest population on earth. All most of us know, especially wild-eyed greedy Capitalists, is a huge, endless army of low paid worker drones; and an unbelievable gigantic market for all kinds of goods and services, that had somehow magically materialized out of nowhere.
However, in my mind, it would somehow behoove us to try and understand what my friend Linda meant by her observation, if we are going to understand who we are now locked together with economically, and who knows what else.
In the book, From the Dragon’s Mouth, we get much insight about what makes a Chinese very Chinese
Ana Fuentes, an award-winning journalist from Madrid, Spain, spent 4 years living and working in China. Fuentes’ approach, in her ten chapters, is to look into the lifestyles and attitudes of a broad variety of Chinese citizens in a deeply personal way, mainly, by letting them talk.
This choice, as well as making use of many techniques novelists know well, bore much fruit.
We see, among others, Chinese life through the eyes of the spoiled children of the newly rich; a noted dissenter, imprisoned and tortured by the communist government; a woman married to a homosexual; an aging Kung Fu Master; and she hit pay dirt in terms of Linda’s observation, in chapter 5, when she profiles Yang Lu.
Here is how she introduces her subject: “This slender, determined woman became a self-made millionaire giving seminars on how to form corporate teams and motivate them… And speaking about innovation. Only thirty years ago, before the Chinese economy opened up, this would have been unthinkable.”
Later, at Yang Lu’s large, tasteful suite of offices, “located in a skyscraper in the CBD, one of Beijing’s business districts,”the successful entrepreneur outlines her approach to Fuentes; which, in many ways, also gets to the heart of what it means to be Chinese, which had been echoed in one way or another in all of the chapters.
”She told me candidly,” Fuentes writes, “that the biggest burden holding back Chinese …was the legacy of Confucius, which dictate a very rigid hierarchical structure. To Confucius, the interest of the group come before the interests of the individual and maintaining cohesion and harmony had to be the top priority before anything else.
“Yang Lu believed the typical pyramid corporate structure where the bosses give orders and the employees obey fails in the end. In her opinion, the weak point of China’s private companies was their lack of experience. The oldest businesses had been in existence for less than three decades (until 1988, they didn’t even legally exist) and they had to learn so many things in a hurry.”
Fuentes points out that “Today fifty million companies are registered in China, and of those 93% are private. However, the State still controls strategic sectors of the economy through their massive petroleum, gas, cement, insurance and telecommunication firms. Eight of every ten members of the board of directors of these companies are appointed directly by the Communist Party. They are less efficient than private companies, but the major banks, also state-owned, extend the most favorable credit terms to them. Many experts wryly observe that, at the end of the day, they are all part of the same big enterprise: China, Inc.”
There is much more to be gleamed from this insightful book, and I hardily recommend it. We might as well get to know our new best friend, and From the Dragon’s Mouth could certainly help in that regard.
If you are like me, you either never heard of the Baltimore Plot or forgot about it, letting it slip between the lessons of your American History class years ago. But Daniel Stashower has decided to reeducate us, and lifted this controversial moment in history from the ashes of the Civil War that followed in his latest book, The Hour of Peril. He masterfully dusts off the pages and lays bare the story.
It could be said that this book is the tale of the legendary Allan Pinkerton, his life as well as his association with Abraham Lincoln and to the Baltimore Plot, a plot to kill Lincoln before his inauguration could make him the 16th President. Stashower, who has merited numerous awards and has impressive credentials as a biographer and narrative historian, brings this riveting and mysterious story to life by sifting through what I can only imagine was a mountain of research (including correspondence of some of the main characters involved in Lincoln’s safe delivery) and streamlining the story.
Taking notes from Pinkerton, both figuratively and literally, Stashower plays the good investigator and never forgets to shed light on the possibility of inaccuracies and biases that frequented accounts of this emotional charged period of American history.
It is 1861. The Northern states and the Southern states are at each other’s throats over the issue of slavery. Following decades of give and takes (of which the Dred Scott Decision in1857 was no small factor) the Republican Party and Abolitionists manage to elect their champion in the staunch and cool-headed Abraham Lincoln. Southern states are outraged and begin seceding. It is in this climate that The Hour of Peril explores the circumstances and evidences that convinced Lincoln to face reprisal and humiliations in order to secure his safe arrival in Washington.
But first Stashower establishes his hero. Allan Pinkerton was Scottish born. As a Chartist supporter of the laboring class, he was forced into flight, sneaking off to America. As a cooper, he settled into a small business making barrels in Dundee, a small town fifty miles from Chicago. It was there that Pinkerton inadvertently fell into the trade that would make him famous. He was a stubborn, restless, daring, and astute man (some would claim incorruptible as well).
With these characteristics (as well as his massive hands), he set to the task of detective work, in which his handpicked team succeeded in solving many high profile cases. His growing renown, especially with the railroad companies, made him a familiar of Lincoln and brought him into Baltimore on business in the weeks before Lincoln’s inauguration.
Stashower gives an overview of how Pinkerton and his team landed the job that put them in Baltimore while interspersing it with the details of Lincoln’s rise to be President-elect and the history of the growing agitation between slave and free states. When the stage is set, the author drives semi-chronological moment-to-moment account of the Pinkerton detectives’ investigations that uncovered a plot to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore on his way to the Capitol.
These rumors weren’t unfounded as government operatives were sniffing along the same trail and finding similar reports, but on a much larger scale than Pinkerton had found. It becomes a race against the clock as the detectives try to find convincing evidence and get it into the hands of men they can trust. Pinkerton takes it upon himself to personally see Abraham Lincoln through safely. Obviously he succeeded, but the quick wit and clever plan conceived by America’s most famous private detective is no less intriguing and intricate for its known outcome.
The writing compels the listener on with short stories of interest that build to the big picture. We learn about, from a certain regard, many historical figures including Abraham Lincoln and his self-appointed bodyguard Ward Lamon, the detectives and Union spies Timothy Webster and Kate Warne, the radical Abolitionist John Brown, the Marshall and later Mayor of Baltimore George Kane, and General Winfield Scott. Stashower has succeeded once again with a work that is at once historically interesting and in a narrative sense gripping.
The Hour of Peril, the story of one most of America’s most renowned Presidents, is narrated in a stately manor by Edoardo Ballerini. You may recognize him as the autistic teenager in that 1995 episode of Law and Order, but Ballerini has since logged extensive experience acting, writing, directing, producing, and narrating. He is a winner of Audiofile Magazine’s “Earphohes” Award and narrator of Nobel Prize Winner Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Ballerini brings his success and experience to the table, offering soothing confidence in tone and proper inflection and cadence as The Hour of Peril lays out the life of Allan Pinkerton, builds through the excitement of Abraham Lincoln’s flight for the Capitol through a city that longs for his demise, and concludes in how the Baltimore Plot would be laid out for posterity. Stashower and Ballerini are a dynamic team that compliments\ each other in making thirteen and a half hours of historical narrative a worthwhile venture.
You may want to make yourself a brown paper bag book cover - remember those? - unless you're reading Wrecked in the original German. Yes, Virginia, that is a vagina on the cover.
The first 15 pages: up close & personal! Roche has made sure you will keep on reading.
Then a major shift occurs. Elizabeth, the narrator, finally gets out of bed. You’ve had a good look at her body; now you’re introduced to her psyche. And she’s pretty much of a wreck: knocked down but not out by her free-associating angst, severe post traumatic stress, thrice-weekly Freudian therapy sessions, caring for her daughter and stepson, interspersed with visits to neighborhood brothels with her husband for a little R&R. In off hours, she and her husband have marathon sessions of watching porn, shaving their privates, and “doing it.” How surprising then when you discover that at the core of this behavior is the kind of horrific tragedy you hopefully only read about in the tabloids the day after it happens.
Elizabeth is “wrecked” but carries on with the help of a loving well-endowed husband/sex machine and mountains of highly distracting (to her) libidinous activity. Does it work for her? Uncertain, but it certainly keeps the audience tuned in.
Whether you will find this book too graphic, too clinical, too titillating, or will applaud its candor, I can’t say. For this reviewer, the crux of the story is about how one survives, puts a life back together, without losing one's mind after a family tragedy of this magnitude. If Elizabeth’s coping strategy is being the perfect wife, mother, sex partner, catering to her husband's wishes in a decidedly pre-feminist fashion, it mostly works. She gets as good as she gives in that her hubby tolerates her extreme emotional leakage, obsessions and fears and by the end gives in to one of her what’s-good-for-the-goose fantasies.
For the whole of the book, you are inside Elizabeth's mind and see things only from her perspective, reliable or not. There are brief patches of dialog with her husband, daughter and therapist. She controls everything you see, declaring that she has promised her therapist to be 100% honest about all her feelings and actions, no matter how offputting. There are questions you don’t get to ask her: why she turns her back eventually on surviving family members, for example. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she wills her life to be as boring and predictable (even to some extent in the bedroom) as she can arrange it - she wants no more catastrophic surprises.
A sexual guide to the perplexed and uninitiated? This well-crafted book features a fractured soul trying to choose life over death, but not convinced that is the right choice. She entertains suicidal and even homicidal thoughts and you don’t know how seriously to take them. She lives on, mainly, she says, to please others. Towards the end, she seems to have made some progress, taking steps to insure that her own desires - to drop a friend, take a lover - have an equal chance of getting satisfied. Sex is the vehicle for getting her where she needs to be. Sex is the life force. Sex is the weapon. When she’s engaged in sexual activity, for however long that is, she has a respite from her relentless thoughts of death.
Charlotte Roche, the author - is this semi-autobiographical as the book jacket asserts? Sadly, yes. The author has survived by becoming a controversial figure in Germany - actress, singer, shock jock*, author of books some critics see as pornographic and many feminists stridently deplore. In March 2008 her first book, Wetlands, was the world's best seller on Amazon. Who says sex doesn't sell? So take a look - you may be hooked in the first 15 pages!
* She once publicly offered to have sex with the Prime Minister of Germany if he would veto a bill!
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” famously sings Henry Higgins in MyFair Lady.
“Why can’t men be more like women?” respond John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio in The Athena Doctrine, whose subtitle “How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future” pretty much sums up the thesis of their book. According to their global survey of people in thirteen nations representing 65 percent of global GDP, two-thirds of those answering agreed that “the world would be a better place if men thought more like women.”
In their 26 page introduction the authors explain how they first became interested in this theory. John Gerzema, described as “a pioneer in using data to identify social change” ( check out his website, Wikipedia entry, and watch his TED talk) and Michael D’Antonio (part of a Pulitzer Prize winning news team, prolific author, and consultant — check out his website and Huffington Post blogs) had collaborated before on another book, Spend Shift, which examined the Great Recession of 2008 and its recovery. During the book tour for Spend Shift they noticed that audiences were pointing out to them that “most of the traits exhibited by the successful entrepreneurs, leaders, organizers and creators we profiled seemed to come from aspects of human nature that are widely regarded as feminine.”
Not that it necessarily meant that women were the leaders, but that what were considered traditionally feminine values and traits were what was working, and going to continue being successful, in the 21st century. But what is “masculine” and “feminine” and who decides?
Gerzema and D’Antonio decided that the best way to go about it was to conduct research around the globe to find out how people in the various countries define masculine and feminine traits, see if there were commonalities in the returning data, and then survey if indeed the feminine traits were more highly valued. As Gerzema manages the largest survey panel in the world, Brand-Asset(R) Valuator, “which has conducted studies on more than one-and-a-half million people and fifty-one thousand companies in fifty countries since 1993”, they knew how to do it.
They constructed a special survey of sixty-four thousand people chosen to mirror the populations in thirteen countries that represent 65 percent of the world’s domestic products. What they found was a global population who were filled with anxiety, distrustful of governments and corporations, and “unhappy with the conduct of men.” The authors asked half the respondents to classify 125 different human behavioral traits as either masculine, feminine, or gender neutral — and found that there was a strong consistency across countries in the answers.
Gerzema and D’Antonio gave the same list of 125 human traits, this time without the gender labels, to another wide sampling of people in the same 13 countries and asked them to rate the importance of these traits to certain virtues. When the data in two samplings were compared, the authors could see what were considered “masculine” and “feminine” traits and what was most valued: and their findings showed that what are defined as feminine traits are what people worldwide equated with making the world a better place.
The book gives you lists and charts, that include all the “masculine”, “feminine” and gender neutral traits and the population breakdown in each country. Those who replied thought that a mix of the masculine and feminine not only were the key to personal success, but “65% of people around the world believe that more female leadership in government would prompt a rise in trust and fairness and a decline in war and scandal.” The key “feminine” traits: Connectedness, Humility, Candor, Patience, Empathy, Trustworthiness, Openness, Flexibility, Vulnerability and Balance — all of which are explained in greater detail in the Introduction.
The authors decided that the Greek goddess Athena embodied all these traits; not only is she the goddess of wisdom, courage, civilization, and the arts (to name but a few), she also personifies mathematics (good for business), just warfare (not a pushover) and law and justice. Plus she reportedly also gave the Greeks the olive tree.
Quite frankly, if this were all the book was, it would be an interesting essay for academics. But what Gerzema and D’Antonio did next is what makes The Athena Doctrine an interesting book to read. For having done their data collecting and explaining it thoroughly and persuasively, they turn to storytelling, going around the world to find examples (“case studies” they call them) of The Athena Doctrine at work in the world.
The book is organized into ten chapters which cover 13 different countries: Great Britain, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Columbia, Peru, Kenya, India, China, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Bhutan. In each of the countries they talked with people of different ages and genders, some working on a large scale as part of a government or business, some working on a more personal scale, one-on-one with others, all of whom are embracing an Athena attitude towards the world. These people and what they are trying to accomplish — and have accomplished — will leave you feeling optimistic about the future. There are numerous examples in every region of the world.
For instance, in England, entrepreneurs have founded successful businesses such as Grannies Inc. where skilled older women are connected with customers who desire a handcrafted sweater, scarf, or hat. The customer picks their “grandmother” and they communicate from start to finish on the project, so there is an emotional connection to the quality product they receive.
Then there is the successful car-sharing company “WhipCar” which connects people who own cars they’re not using for a day or longer to those who need to rent one. At the time they were interviewed, WhipCar’s fleet of individually owned autos was about to exceed 15,000 vehicles and there are versions of this model starting to be seen in urban centers worldwide, including downtown Los Angeles.
On a larger scale there is the Golden Company, an organization dubbed a “social enterprise” in Great Britain, which means it blends business with a social agenda. In the financial center of The City of London are bank buildings which are now also homes to beehives ; the hives are tended by the financially disadvantaged youth in the nearby section of Hackney who get to interact daily with the business people/bankers populating the buildings. The Golden Company, besides bringing the business people and bankers together with the young people in an environmentally aware enterprise, is also running a successful business based on the honey produced which goes to various companies who used it for various products (including, of course, selling jars of honey). The Golden Company can be considered sustainable on many levels, including helping the endangered honeybee, creating jobs for low-income youth, using high rises in an environmentally aware fashion, and promoting positive interaction between social groups who otherwise would have little in common.
More examples of creative and flexible successes, all reflective of the Athena Doctrine, are shown worldwide. In Israel, where women have risen to the top of the military ranks, women soldiers have been shown more effective at check points because of the empathy they show with those waiting to get through. In Japan, a small canning company wiped-out by the tsunami is rebuilt through the spontaneous efforts of a small community who rescues thousands of unlabeled cans containing fish, hand labels the cans one-by-one, carts them to markets and sells them to small stores where customers enthusiastically buy them - allowing the plant owner to rebuild and rehire with the profits, and saving the community.
In Medellin, Columbia, once a center of the drug trade run by violent cartels, the city is being rebuilt with an idea of creating “a climate for peace” using the input of all the citizens for city planning, and aerial gondolas now connect the once isolated poorer hillside neighborhoods where a life of crime often seemed the only option with the vital city center below where there are jobs. In Kenya women organize farm collectives, small and sustainable, and are empowered based on the group action. China is a place where communism is giving way rapidly to capitalism, and the social and environmental cost of bringing 600 million people out of poverty in 20 years is being examined by groups who want to bridge the gap between the government caring for people (and dictating their behavior) and newly rich individuals who are learning the value of philanthropy from the likes of Bill Gates who flies in to give seminars on the joy, and social obligation, of sharing the wealth.
Gerzema and D’Antonio admittedly went out to find examples of the Athena Doctrine, and while some of the examples, both large and small, are successful, it does not necessarily mean that other models are not also working and successful — and sometimes in control of business and politics. And really, how new is all this? Certainly the qualities that are listed are timeless human qualities. Could all of this have been found fifty years ago when it was being proclaimed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us, with its “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding?”
The qualities could have, but not most of the examples given. Because what is fueling The Athena Doctrine is the human connectedness that is the result of the internet and cell phones — turns out “the minds true liberation” of the song comes from shared knowledge, not drugs. Easy, immediate communication is what is empowering this new world — whether it be the power of one person in Tahir Square using Bambuser, a service invented in Sweden to enable anyone to stream live video from a mobile phone (the inventors thought it would be used to share such things as wedding receptions, they had no idea it would fuel a revolution) or the crowdsourcing of a new constitution, which is what happened in Iceland after the financial meltdown. The Internet means that A University of the People based in Israel, can be successfully designed to be used by poor students worldwide in internet cafes; social media connects “grannies” or car owners with customers and wireless phone service connects diverse farming communities in Kenya with markets. The point is made that the entire continent of Africa pretty much skipped the wired past of telephone cables and has gone right to almost everyone owning a cell phone, enabling instant communication and commerce. Trust and transparency through the new media means that the country of Sweden can promote itself to foreign tourists by turning over its Twitter account on a weekly basis to individual citizens — including a priest, a sheepherder and a lesbian truck driver — who volunteer to tweet about their country(@Sweden) and five Nordic countries can share an embassy in Berlin.
Besides the list of “feminine” traits, the other words commonly used to describe the enterprises and movements throughout this book by the authors and the people they interview are: collaboration, communication, compassionate leadership, flexibility, creativity, independence, personal responsibility, spontaneity, empathy, hope, resiliency, justice, sustainability, trust, socially conscious, innovative, caring, freedom, long-term thinking, transparency. If Gerzema and D”Antonio are right, and the recent financial meltdown and current economic challenges are a turning point for a world now connected and communicating by a world wide web, we can all be hopeful that those embracing The Athena Doctrine will end up — if not ruling the world — at least powerfully influencing it in a positive direction. This is an optimistic book and it is always good to hope. Hope, indeed, seems to be a main ingredient for a peaceful and productive world.
I saw the film before I read the book. I was confused by the film’s ending as I didn’t know exactly where its fictional protagonist (nor the author for the matter) stood and what exactly had transpired; I figured my confusion would be cleared up when I read the book a few days later, but, lo and behold, I was left more confused than ever and OUTRAGED! I was outraged by what I consider its author, Mohsin Hamid’s dishonesty on some very important issues and by how both its screenplay writer, Ami Boghani, and its director, the well-respected Pakistani director Mira Nair, had so bowdlerized the script as to make parts of it unrecognizable from the novel. (She was also the director of the movie Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, a provocative movie set in 16th century India. In 2001 she released Monsoon Wedding (2001), a film I thought wonderful about a chaotic Punjabi Indian wedding. She also directed The Namesake.)
I don’t consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist Ms. Nair’s best work. I didn’t like the novel’s conceit--the novel uses the technique of a frame story, which takes place during the course of a single evening in an outdoor Lahore cafe, where a bearded Pakistani man called Changez (the Urdu name for Genghis) tells a nervous American stranger about his love affair with an American woman, and his eventual abandonment of America. There is no dialogue between the two; the narrator does all the talking. We don’t really know who the American is, nor why Changez is telling him his story.
He says he comes from a well-to-do Pakistani family whose fortunes have fallen in recent years. For a while he lived the immigrant’s dream. Because he’s so clever he got admitted into Princeton and Harvard, graduated at the top of his class, and was hired by the elite valuation firm of Underwood Samson. For a while the world was his oyster. He thrived on the energy of New York and fell in love with an elegant, wealthy woman who promised him entry into exalted Manhattan society.
What his company did was evaluate other companies, seeking ways in which they could cut costs and increase profits. As the companies streamlined operations of course unnecessary jobs were eliminated. Changez was taken under the wing of a supervisor well pleased by the ruthlessness with which he addressed his work.
All of this changed after 9/11—secretly Changez finds he was pleased by the efficiency with which the terrorists carried out their plan—the sheer audacity of it! Now, because of his ethnicity he is under suspicion whenever he travels. For reasons of her own that have little to do with him, his beloved Erica withdraws from him… All of these things lead him to question his life in the United States―he decides to quit his job (knowing he is giving up all chance of every landing such a handsome position again) and returns to his family in Pakistan.
Mr. Hamid does not make Changez’s politics entirely clear—he becomes a popular teacher in a college in Lahore, where he tells his students that “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America,” yet he denies that he is in cahoots with terrorists of the marauding gangs of students intent on violence.
Perhaps the book’s ending is clever—I found it devious. Changez and the stranger walk through the streets on Lahore arriving at the man’s hotel. The waiter from the restaurant has followed them, (whatever that means.) As Changez reaches to shake his hand, he sees him reaching into his jacket and detects a glint of metal: “Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business card.” And so the book ends.
I am currently a part of writing group in Los Angeles in which the majority of writers are interested in writing screen plays. A cardinal rule of screenplay writing I am given to understand is “show, don’t tell.”
I can imagine that when the time came to turn The Reluctant Fundamentalist into a movie certain problems arose. For the most part, My Dinner with André notwithstanding, a conversation between two people, actually here a monologue, does not make for interesting filming. That being the case, I can understand that changes needed to be made; what I am shocked by is the degree to which changes were made.
The list is long. Take how Changez’s relationship with Erica is represented. In the book she is a budding writer who is emotionally shattered by the early death of her fiancée. In fact, she is unable to move forward and eventually is incarcerated in a mental institution, where she disappears, presumably because she has taken her own life.
Now if that’s a bit of stretch, consider how things have been changed in the movie. In the movie she has been changed into a photographer; they meet when she is doing a shoot in Central Park because inadvertently he was included in one of her pictures. In the book the couple never successfully consummate their union―her loyalty to a dead lover have made her unresponsive. In the movie, they do make love, however, the relationship is destroyed when she uses their relationship as the subject for a show. Changez is outraged, berates her for being drunk on the night when she was driving and her lover was killed, and walks off. No such thing happened in the book.
At times the movie improves on the book, like when Changez tells Erica that in his culture mourning is allowed to widows for only a certain length of time and then they are expected to move on with their lives. When they make love, he suggests that she pretend he is her dearly departed lover.
In the movie an American professor is kidnapped and murdered, something that doesn’t happen in the book. Changez is persuaded to examine his values on a business trip to Chili. In the movie it’s a trip to Turkey. In the movie his father is a poet. In the book his profession is not named. In the movie his mother is disturbed when he tells his father that he supplied the money for his sister’s wedding. This incident is not recalled in the book.
And so on. All of these contrivances, even those that may have improved the story, left me confounded and feeling as though I was being jerked about. But, the thing that I find the most disturbing is that, with such interesting material at hand, Mr. Hamid has little to contribute to struggle between east and west that is so troubling our world. I’m only mildly interested in reading his latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.