Asne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul: 5/20/2010

Bookseller of KabulMany in the group found ourselves thinking, “not another book about Afghanistan!” as we approached this month’s selection.  After reading it, we were glad to have read Seierstad’s journalistic book about a place that is so unfamiliar to us, yet so familiar to thousands of American troops.

We had some discussion about how non-judgmental the author really was (or wasn’t), how satisfying such episodic storytelling is (or isn’t), and how much license Seierstad must have taken in reporting the thoughts of participants in such incidents as Mansur’s pilgrimage.  Several readers were impressed with Seierstad’s vivid descriptions of of Kabul, down to the dust in the houses and the intimate smells within a burka.

We struggled to understand the tribal nature of life for the bookseller’s family, and found ourselves angered by the effects of such a strongly hierarchical and patriarchal society.  Leila’s thwarted efforts to establish a place for herself as a teacher, away from the constant demands of her family, were heartbreaking to read.  It was painful to read of Sultan’s mercilessness toward the impoverished man who stole some of his postcards.  The report of the girl killed by her brothers with her mother’s consent, for sitting with a man on a park bench, was enraging and unfathomable.

We talked about the difference between Islam and fundamentalist tribal culture, considering that patriarchal religious fundamentalism and extremism appears in connection with Christianity and other religions as well.

Some readers found the book a reminder of their doubts that our country’s involvement in Afghanistan can have a positive outcome for either nation.  One mother of an Iraq war veteran spoke up about her need to believe that the military effort is making some difference for the better.

Members suggested a few other titles:

James Michener, Caravans
David Baldacci, The Camel Club
Rory Stewart, The Places In Between
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin: 4/15/2010

Not everyone got through this book in time for our book club meeting, and the book’s length wasn’t the only reason.  Discussion revealed a range of reactions to this multi-layered tale.  Many enjoyed the richly evocative writing and the historical setting of the story.  A couple of readers found the book positively dripping with strained metaphors and similes.  The science fiction tale was the least successful thread of the book for most of us.

None of the characters was terribly popular, but Laura’s concrete thinking made her charming to one reader with an affection for kids who have different ways of learning and seeing things.  Readers drew a range of different conclusions about which of the sisters were visiting Alex in his rooms.

Atwood captures well the friction and affection between siblings.  Her portrait of a father and his family coping with the pain of losing his factory in the face of the Great Depression is poignant. But the same father that is driven to drink and despair at the loss of all of those factory jobs shows stunning insensitivity to his daughter when he arranges her engagement to a business partner, in an inept attempt to save the business.

The most animated discussion came at the end of the meeting, when people tossed around recommendations for other books they liked better than this month’s book club selection:

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl

The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

The Art of in Racing the Rain, Garth Stein

Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight: 3/18/2010

Alexandra FullerFuller has done an amazing job of writing candidly and lovingly about her childhood in rural Rhodesia. Readers came away with an appreciation for the skill and independence of the white ranching family and the wonderful adventures of her childhood, while the searing racism, violence and squalor of the situation stayed in clear focus all along.

Her connection to the land comes through in gorgeous descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood home.  Fuller managed to convey the best and the worst of her parents and sister, with mind-boggling subtlety and clarity.  Our group commented on the portrayal of such unorthodox parenting, alcohol abuse and the disturbing state of race relations.  Fuller managed to write with humor and matter-of-fact compassion for individuals, even while clearly describing a situation fraught with tragedy and brutality.