Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

If you’ve read any books that take place in England in the last 20 years, you have a pretty good idea of how dramatically the influx of immigrants from India and Pakistan have changed the cultural landscape there.  However, it is rare to find – or at least I have seldom come across – novels that present things from the Pakistani or Indian point of view.  Until recently; there seems to have been an explosion of new writers, or the publishing industry finally realized there was a market. 

Anyway, Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam, is one of them.  First, just listen to this voice:  “ . . . or the genius of Count Basie so unmistakeable that the stylus would seem to be travelling around the very whorls of his fingerprint” p.13.  That metaphor really caught me. 

 His description of jazz:

” . . . engrossed by those musicians who seemed to know how to blend together all that life contains, the real truth, the undeniable last word, the innermost core of all that is unbearably painful within a heart and all that is joyful, all that is loved and all that is worthy of love but remains unloved, lied to and lied about, the unimaginable depths of soul where no other can withstand the longing and which few have the conviction to plumb, the sorrows and the indisputable rage – so engrossed would the listerners become that, by the end of the piece, the space between them would have contracted” p.13-14. 

Man alive.  What a description!

The story is about Pakistani exiles in Britain.  A family torn apart by the mother who is trying so desparately to hold them together.  I keep feeling and thinking about the characters.  The book taught me so much about a world I thought I had a fairly decent understanding of.  When I closed the book I thought, “I sure wouldn’t want to be Allah, having to judge these souls on Judgement Day.”  Because according to their own interpretation of Islam, the characters are all guilty.  They have each done such terrible things, all in the name of faith, or love, or patriotism, or hope or belief.

Who is really to blame in a total system that brutalizes everyone?  That hurts and twists and deforms individuals so much that their every action is a result of the system, or a response to the system that created them?  The makers of the system are to blame, one is tempted to say.  But the reality is – each person becomes a perpetrator of the system.  Each person who acts to defend and perserve it, rather than walk away, is to blame for it.  So we are at a structure vs. agency kind of dilemma.

Let me be more specific.  Aslam has built his story around the dysfunction of individuals, families, societies and nations that comes from the perverse focus on women’s chastity.  Not just virginity before marriage, but an enormous preoccupation with a woman’s state of social and sexual and moral purity at all times in her life.  The state of every woman’s purity is the measure of her family’s worth.  Period.  It doesn’t matter what their wealth, their history, their responsibility, their actions in the community; all of that can be undone not just by a sister’s bad marriage, rape or fornication.  Oh no, a family’s reputation could be lost because a girl was seen answering a stranger’s request for directions, handing a man change, opening the door to a male delivery person when she was expecting her mother.  Accidents!

And so, if a female chooses to behave immorally, the men in her family feel they have not only the right but the duy before God to set her straight.  That also alerts the community that they do not condone her behavior, are separate from her.  Killing her is often the only way to make that perfectly clear.

The men seem utterly evil – how could they be so cruel?  They are selfish, putting their own well-being above that of the female in question.  But haven’t they been utterly deformed by this system too?  Taught from infancy that their only worth can be measured by their sisters and mothers and wives’ behavior?  Their masculinity is not under their own control, their value, their worthiness – even whether they will go to heaven.  All of that depends on women.  And at the same time, the women have no intrinsinc worth.  No value in themselves.  Since the society is segregated, boys can never come to know their sisters as people.  Same with their mothers.  Mothers are so busy trying to teach their daughters to be proper, prove to their sons that they are deserving of their loe and devotion in their old age – it never occurs – there is little opportunity for it to occur to a man or boy that his mother or sister might have dreams, feelings, hopes, desires and fears of her own.  Women are just a great canvas upon which men can project whatever they need.  So where would any man get the idea that his wife is a human being?  Especially when even his mother has prepared him to believe a woman is just there to wait on you.

The word for brother-in-law in Urdu is sura (I think) and is also a great insult.  Insult because it means – implies – “I have sex with your women.”  A man-in-law has to grate on the nerves of the righteous.  But they are a necessary evil, and the insult is compounded because women are so lowly valued that you have to beg men to take women off your hands.  You never know if you’ll be able to marry your daughers off, and marry them well, so you better be nice to this sister/daughter-sleeping guy even if he beats or abuses the girl.  Or he might divorce her.  All he has to do is say one word three times and by Islamic law, the marriage is over.  Sure, if you are in England or the United States, there are other legalities, but those are meaningless, just as are the bigamy laws.  Men take 2nd, 3rd, 4th wives at the mosque as they wish and are able.

The men are driven, then, by their need to have and maintain masculine and honorable identities in the community.  Not just their psyche’s need but economic need, and the ability to find marriages for their children, etc.

What strikes one reading the novel, as Aslam intended, is the culpability of the women.  The mothers.  After all, it is the mothers who taught the sons to feel and think this way about women.  They modeled passivity, passive aggression, insecurity, piety, etc., for their sons, and they taught their daughters to think of themselves as chattel.  “I must do this to please my parents.  I must not wear that or it would shame my father.  I must not be seen on the street, going into this store, opening the door to the mailman, speaking to a classmate, etc., because it will bring shame on the family, ruin my chances of a happy (or any) marriage, cause Allah to frown on me at Judgement Day.

The amount of energy these women  put in to arranging their lives so as to never run counter to anything in the Quran or what the clerics say the Prophet said about women’s behavior; to ensure they never encounter non-familial men and that men of the family only see them in certain circumstances.  I mean, its a full-time job!

In the story, the mother has pretty much lost all of her children, she thinks, because of England and its secular temptations, as well as her husband’s laxness.  He is Muslim, but not really a believer.  He has been a tireless servant of the community – the immigrant community, and is frankly fed up with the backwards and superstitious practices of his wife.  But he loves her and takes steps to protect her from the harshness of English society and even from her children and eventually from herself.

She, being pious and self-righteous and faithful to her beliefs and traditions, she doesn’t protect anyone.  No.  She blames him for their children leaving when it was her they couldn’t stand.  She drove them all out with her insistence on the things I’ve been spelling out, but her kids had refused.  They had seen the craziness of the system, maybe because of their father, and rejected it. 

It’s hard to summarize quickly what she did, what her great sin was, which makes Aslam’s achievement all the greater.  We see it unfold, her betrayal of them each, over and over, when she thinks, she believes, that shes saving their souls and their earthly lives by bringing them back into the fold of the Paki Muslim community.  For example, she encourages her teenage daughter to marry a cousin in Pakistan as a cure for a teen heartache.  A cousin she’s never met in a village she’s never visited.  This after she’s told her daughter that the first two decades belong to the husband, but the rest of life belongs to the wife, as whe will have bent the children to her and can use them against their father.  She has modeled for her daughter a need to be always concerned with what the neighbors think, as well.

When her daughter’s husband becomes horribly abusive, burning her with cigarettes, putting sewing needles in her thighs and half strangling her, along with calling her an English whore because she once made a motion of pleasure during sexual intercourse, the daughter leaves him.  She doesn’t want to hurt her mom, so she lets her believe she is the faithless, bad child who walked away from a deserving husband, and has to listen to her mother berate her, beg her to go back to him, and brag about him to others – for years.  The daughter could have told her mother the truth, but 1) the mother had created an atmosphere in which her children felt they needed to protect her, and 2) the mother just assumed the fault was with her child.  She never asked any questions, never tried to find out what life was really like.

The sons had to be on good behavior so their sister could make a good match.  Their dreams of art and science were pooh-poohed as not serious, not real.  When the younger grew rebellious, she consulted a cleric and was given blessed salt to sprinkle on his food.  He had it analyzed; it was salt-peter, to chemically castrate him and make him docile.  When they had both left her she consulted a kind of Muslim mafia that specializes in finding strayed children and bringing them back with whichever level of violence you ask for.  A couple of broken arms?  Beatings with belts everywhere but the face?  Whatever you pay for.  She didn’t hire them, but the fact that she consulted them makes it so that when her husband finds out about their existence and opens and investigation, they beat him within an inch of his life and he cannot go to the police because of her.  He can’t even tell her – protecting her from her behavior, again.

But mostly it is the constant, daily tenor of her life and speech.  She refuses to hear a negative word about Pakistan, Muslims, or Islam.  She flat out refuses to believe it, kind of like some of the Americans I can think of who refuse to hear any negative truth about America.  If someone persists in telling her some news, she’ll say either, “That is British propaganda to make us look bad,” or “Why are you trampling on the love of the one who loves you most in the world?  Who gave you life?  Why must you ridicule me and my traditions?”  Any hint of contradictions in the teachings of the clerics, their interpretation of the Quran, or any other bordering on heresy sends her into threats of hell and Judgement Day, genuine fear for their souls and bouts of praying and fasting.  She is rigid and immovable.

She is always watching others in the community the way she expects to be watched, and is quick and harsh in her judgments.  While she is kind to the women and children and clerics in her community, and she does attempt to be charitable and compassionate in her own head, while she is sorting through what her response to something should be, her instinct may be to be compassionate, but she’ll start doubting herself, wondering if she isn’t or wouldn’t be breaking some rule.  So out of fear, she ends up erring on the side of harshness, over and over again.  When she wants to reach out to a pair of lovers (who get murdered) because she recalls with empathy and compassion that everyone falls in love before they marry – she really wants to.  But then she remembers that to condone a sin is the same as committing the sin oneself.  If she is compassionate to the lovers, the sin of adultery will be added to her list on Judgement Day.  So she condemns them with all the rest.  Refuses to speak to them.

In her favor, she does try to get the woman’s husband to divorce her so she can marry her lover, if only in the Muslim way.  Three simple words.  The man is resistant though, and won’t do it.

Even at the very end, when she has been confronted with her role in much of the tragedy, and the cause of her children’s fligh, and her own loneliness and bitterness, and she’s been shown the mosque she had trusted over her family has been shielding a child molester and a swindler, not to mention the murderers of her son, so as “not to make Islam look bad.”  Even after all of that, she refuses to admit any part.  She remains in total denial.  She says she’s going to kill herself but then she launches into a tirade in which she blames absolutely everything on her husband.  Who takes the means of death out of the house to keep her safe and accidentally freezes to death.

The woman is a monster.  A monster of need and faith – no, ignorance and belief and denial and small-mindedness and refusal to change and fear and insecurity . . . But how did she get that way?  Didn’t her mother model much of that for her?  And didn’t England brutalize her country and then her person, her family and her faith?

It gets to be too hard to apportion blame.  What about responsibility?  Does that make it easier?  Because I do believe we are responsible for our lives.  If not what we are dealt, certainly how we play.

The husband/father was a product of the same system in Pakistan, but he began, even in Pakistan to throw off the chains.  Of course, he had a father who discovered he’d been born a Hindu, but he didn’t know that until much later.  He saw in England an opportunity to make a new, better society and he dedicated his life to achieving it.  Maybe he didn’t do enough.  Maybe he should have interfered more with what his wife was teaching their children.  But maybe not; all of his children eventually chose their own lives.

And so did (and do) others, both in England and the U.S. and in Pakistan and all over the world.  What about Benizeer Bhuto?  All the other Pakistani women and men working tirelessly to improve women’s lives?  All of those who left Islam, and all of those Muslims working to reclaim an Islam that comes down on the side of compassion and mercy, not vengeance and justice.  That takes individuals who were created by and are fully part of a system – but who are saying “NO! I think this system is wrong.” Or this part of the system is wrong.  So everyone that doesn’t say that, who sees the wrong but keeps perpetuating it out of fear and weakness and brokeness?  What is their – my? - our? – status?  Responsible.  Maybe not “to blame” or “at fault,” but certainly they must carry the weight of that responsibility.

Aslam has written a powerful piece of work; while it takes us deeply into the world of Pakistani immigrants in England, it helps illumine issues in our own country and our own lives, as all great literature should.


Graveyards and Greed

   Posted by: Jill White

In the spirit of catching up, I will be posting some things I wrote while I was laid up last winter and spring.  Here is one of them:

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.  It is a fairytale (?) about a little boy, Nobody Owens, who grows up in a graveyard.  He is raised by ghosts and a vampire guardian – Silas – who really is responsible for his survival since he’s the only one who can leave the graveyard and bring back food for Nobody.  Silas also brings him toys and books and teaches him to read.  He tries to bring his grammar and knowledge of the world up to date, which is a good thing, as his primary caretakers, the Owens’, died in the 1830s and weren’t much for reading while they lived.  His other main pal is the first-buried, a Roman, Carius, who was buried around 100 BC.  Bit outdated in his notions.

Nobody, or Nob, is there because a very bad man named Jack murdered his entire family in their sleep.  He escaped and crawled into the graveyard (at 18 mos).  The ghost of his freshly murdered mother went screaming through the cemtary and begged the Ownes and other denizens to protect her baby.  So they did. 

Trusty Gaiman.  He never disappoints.  It is an absolutely delightful story.  How he’s able to create such affection so quickly for such dark and creepy creatures.  Who else – besides Tim Burton – would even conceive of a boy being raised by a bunch of ghosts, vampires, witches and werewolve?  I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading it for all of you by telling what happens.

After finishing it, I noticed that on the back, among the praise for the book was this, from Laura Hamilton, “After finishing [it] I had only one thought – I hope there’s more.  I want to see more of the adventures of Nobody Owens, and there is no higher praise for a book.”

I, too, will regret leaving Nobody Owens to his life and not knowing what happens next.  But it struck me again that this demand of ours for stories that go on and on – singles that become trilogies that become series – is yet another sign and symptom of our greed and our collective lack of self-discipline.

Why is “the highest praise” for a book that it creates a desire for more?  That it serves our endless round of stimulate, consume, stimulate, consume”  but in which or by which we can never be satisfied because we no sooner have the thing than we are looking forward to the next thing?

Why isn’t the highest praise: “That was the whole story.  S/he told a complete, satisfying, engaging and True story that touched me, changed the way I perceived the world forever.  And it is done.  It is complete in itself.  It satisfies all the desires it creates.”  I would much rather have that on my dust jacket.

It seems to me that our greed, as a nation, a culture, is more than curiousity, a puzzle to solve.  It is a pathology.  One that twists and cripples its victims.  It is a developmental pathology; we are shaped and hammered into greedier and greedier people.  The book I assigned my students in Adolescence last semester (Cold New World, by Richard Finnegan) baldly names consumerism our national religion.  The mall is our temple.  Once you begin analyzing our culture that way, it is hard to see it any way else.  I mean, what is the one unforgivable sin in our country?  To be poor. 

From a super wonderful children’s book to a rant about the state of the country!  This is what happens when you have too much time on your hands : )


Reading “The Reader”

   Posted by: Jill White

One of the reasons I originally began this blog was because I wanted to create a forum where I and students could communicate about books we enjoy.  It has taken a long time to get around to that, but I thought I would take the leap and begin with my thoughts about this absolutely incredible novel by Bernhard Schlink.  The film – out this year – has won at least one Golden Globe and been nominated for Oscars.  I haven’t seen it.  Maybe some of you who have can comment.  I will try not to spoil it for those who want to see or read it but haven’t.

The story has themes that are strongly developmental, so I think it will really appeal to you all; it takes place in post-WWII Germany, so it has cross-cultural application, and for those of you who are taking the War and Peace class it is a “can’t miss.”  But actually, I was compelled to write this post for my students in Middle Childhood and Adolescence. 

The story opens when Michael Berg, the protagonist, is fifteen.  With prose that is spare to the point of being spartan at times, Schlink is nevertheless able to capture the complex emotions that are created by the secret sexual relationship that develops between Michael and an older woman.  He carries us through Michael’s early awkwardness and his growing familiarity with his own and another’s sexuality to the social consequences of his growing confidence among his peer group and in his family. 

While I think that Schlink handles adolescent development well, his real gift to us is the presentation of a truly unusual moral quandary.  Without giving too much away, Michael has to decide, later in his life, which kind of betrayal to make.  There really is no way to avoid some sort of deep betrayal of his lover. 

He is in a situation where he knows that his lover is doing something – and has probably done many things – all because she has a secret she is trying to hide.  But he knows that if others knew the secret, she would receive more social support.  Does he betray her by telling her secret and thus make her life easier for her but steal her dignity?  Or does he allow her to keep her secret and her dignity, and make her life more terrible for herself?

Michael’s father is a professor of philosophy, which has always seemed pretty useless and unhelpful to him in the past, but at this moment he realizes his father is the one person who may be able to help him.  His father said something that made me think of the assignment I gave my Adolescence students last week.

My Hum Dev 332 students are reading a book in which a reporter is hanging out with and trying to understand the life of a 15-year old African American sometime-drug dealer in New Haven, CT.  Everyone around this youth is always telling the reporter their theory about what is wrong with him (the teenager), and why he has the problems he does.  It is his mother’s fault, or his father’s fault, or his paternal grandparents, or the school system.  And the reporter, Finnegan, says, “But a life is not an illness in need of a diagnosis.”  So last week I asked my students to discuss what that meant to them.  What does that have to do with Schlink and The Reader?

Here is what the father says to Michael when he goes to ask him whether he should do:

“When he answered, he went all the way back to first principles.  He instructed me about the individual, about freedom and dignity, about the human being as subject and the fact that one may not trun him into an object. ‘Don’t you remember how furious you would get as a little boy when Mama knew best what was good for you?  Even how far one can act like this with children is a real problem.  It is a philosophical problem, but philosophy does not concern itself with children.  It leaves them to pedagogy, where they’re not in very good hands.  Philsophy has forgotten about children . . . But with adults I unfortunately see no justification for setting other peope’s views of what is good for them above their own ideas of what is good for themselves.’

‘Not even if they themselves would be happy about it later?’

He shook his head. ‘We’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about dignity and freedom.  Even as a little boy, you knew the difference.  It was no comfort to you that your mother was always right.’ “Pg. 140-41

I won’t tell you what Michael eventually decides – but the connection to question to my class and the reporter’s point is that we cannot treat human beings as objects.  Human beings, even when they are making terrible mistakes, even when they are teenage drug dealers, even when they are five year olds, even when we believe they are wrong, wrong, wrong – are subjects. They are humans just like us, with all the rights to their own dignity and self-determination that we accord ourselves.  Why does it seem that this is often forgetten in the social sciences?  Because people become our research subjects – they are often treated, at least written about, as research OBJECTS; as illnesses in need of diagosis, for example. 

What do you think?  About the book, or the film, or about treating subjects as objects?