A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I had already read Hosseini's The Kite Runner but everyone told me I had to read this one and I am very glad that I did. Hosseini is a writer of incomparable power both for his use of language and for the characters he creates. In this novel we get a look into the lives of Afghan women and it is a terrible, bleak, and frightening world, yet within the world there is such strength and beauty between people who band together for mutual support. At the core of the story is the relationship between Miriam and Laila, the first and second wives of the cruel, despotic Rasheed. As the first wife, Miriam tried to do everything she could to please Rasheed and, for awhile, it seemed as though he was trying to be a good husband to her but when she failed to produce children, Rasheed turned cruel and violent. When he took the beautiful, fragile Laila as his second wife, Miriam was devastated and did everything she could to make Laila's life miserable--which was already pretty miserable. But eventually, thanks to Laila's tenderness and sweet nature, Miriam changed. It is a sad story and probably an all too common story--a glimpse into lives we are lucky to have little knowledge of. In the end, it is Miriam's love for Laila that is utterly heartbreaking and beautiful. Not an easy story to read but one that left me in tears and grateful that I'd had this experience.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
A friend suggested I read this book and it has been a long time since I loved a book as much as I did this one. I've already read a good many books by French writers including Marguerite Duras, Anais Nin, and Colette but Francine Prose writes with an authority that is delicious and seductive. The book's title refers to the name of a photograph taken by a Hungarian photographer of the book's central character, Lou Villars, a lesbian, cross-dresser and remarkable athlete who becomes a distinguished race car driver until her career is ended by a jealous police commissioner. The book starts out in the 1920s in Paris and has much the flavor of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, one of my all time favorite books. There is even a Hemingway-esque character, Lionel Maine, a poor, American writer who spends a fair amount of time complaining about Hemingway. As the story moves through the 1930s and then into the years preceding World War 2 much of the action takes place in the Chameleon Club, where characters of all sorts go for entertainment. Much of it had the feel of the movie Casablanca. Then Hitler's troops occupy Paris and the lives of all the main characters are turned upside down.
The story is told in alternating voices--through letters, excerpts from books, diaries, and newspaper articles. It is a story of such intensity I felt nearly breathless at times and, in the end, we are left wondering what just happened. This is a great read and one that I'm pretty sure I will return to again.
Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
This collection of short stories are set in both the Philippines and in Filipino communities in the United States. The eight stories in the collection are at times funny, at times tragic, and all seem to focus on the love/hate relationships that exist within families. We love the sense of belonging and long for that warmth when we are away from the family, yet feel smothered by it when we are in the midst of family. Among the stories were three that I particularly loved:
- Felix Starro, about two Filipino faith-healers who travel the country taking advantages of gullible immigrants
- The View from Culion, a sad, heart-wrenching story set in a leper colony and the love of a young girl for a World War 2 American soldier also afflicted with the disease.
- L'Amour, California, which tells the story of the author's family's immigration to America--a sort of Filipino Angela's Ashes.
Powerful story-telling with wit, insight, and tenderness.
I've acquired so many more books for this project--I have no idea when I will have time to read them but this is such an education. One of the next books on my list is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and Mario Vargas Llosa's Death in the Andes. I am finding that some of the writers I have encountered--especially Llosa, Hosseini, and Nadeem Aslam, are so fascinating that I want to read more of their work before moving on to another country.
Thanks for reading.