Fiction


This month, I picked up a number of books that I didn’t like much and had to put down: Ayaan Firsi Ali’s Nomad (too polemical), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (too religious), and Robert Ludlum’s Sigma Protocol (too brainless), among others. My greatest flaw as a reader is my limited attention span.

But I forced myself to finish this one. Everywhere I turn these days, I see a new reference to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I finally succumbed to popular pressure and spent $7 on the small paperback version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The cover is striking. It’s a ubiquitous and hard-to-miss presence on all the NYC subways, with its bright yellow, lime green, and electric orange elements. I hear it’s in the running for a number of cover design awards, which doesn’t surprise me. I haven’t seen such a, well, radioactive looking novel in a long time.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I was slightly underwhelmed by this book at first. I wasn’t expecting a literary tour de force, of course; popular bestsellers rarely are. But I was expecting, at the very least, something superficially gripping along the lines of the DaVinci Code. I’m going to read the rest of this series (The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) solely because I liked the two main characters,  not out of any special regard for the author’s mystery-writing skills.

Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are wonderfully contrived protaganists that encouraged me to finish this book despite its lackluster first half. Blomkvist is a journalist fallen from grace by an unfortunate libel scandel. He is kind and humble, not to mention a little sexually promiscuous. But his escapades don’t hold a candle to Lisbeth’s. She’s a punk rebel, a computer hacker, and a man eater (almost literally – she swings a baseball bat at one, and forcibly tattoos another). At first I was afraid she’d be the typical quirky, offbeat computer geek, but she proved quite mysterious and I’m interested to read the next novel in the series if only to learn more about her past and her future.

Yo-Landi Vi$er, a musician whom the American "Dragon Tattoo" director wants for the part of Lisbeth Salander. Vi$er is reportedly not interested.

After Blomkvist’s libel trial, he is hired by a corporate giant, Henrik Vanger, to investigate the case of his missing niece, Harriet. Set in rural Sweden, the story revolves around the harsh climates (freezing winds, fierce snows) and hearty foods (moose steak, anyone?) of Larsson’s homeland. I enjoyed learning about this faraway hinterland, and it seemed a fitting place for a bone-chilling murder mystery.

Yet Larsson failed to capture my imagination with his writing. His style was very journalistic, and the first half of the book was a chore to get through. However, the second half was much more rewarding, which leads me to believe that perhaps he was just setting up background for the rest of the series with those miserable two hundred pages.

For now, I am going to have faith in the popular vote and wait to get my hands on a copy of The Girl who Played with Fire, the next book in the trilogy. I’m also really pumped for the American movie version of this book, which is starring the attractive Daniel Craig (read: James Bond) as Mikael Blomkvist.

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This week I was reading Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger’s newest novel. At first I was skeptical because the book involves ghosts and paranormal activity, but after the first 100 pages I found myself becoming more absorbed. The characters that Niffenegger created were wonderfully eccentric and believable despite the supernatural twist. The book centers on 20-year-old twins from Chicago, Julia and Valentina, who abruptly inherit their Aunt Elspeth’s flat in London after she dies from leukemia. The flat overlooks the historic Highgate Cemetery. The twins go to live in the flat for a year, where they encounter two very quirky neighbors. One is Robert Fanshaw, Elspeth’s former lover and Highgate tour guide, who is incredibly distraught by her death. The other is Martin, who is obsessive compulsive and unable to leave his flat, and whose wife Marijke has left him due to his illness.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger.

Upon arriving in London, the twins, who were previously inseparable, begin to drift apart after discovering their Aunt Elspeth’s ghost co-inhabiting the flat; Valentina befriends Elspeth while Julia has little patience for her. Valentina, who was always the more submissive twin, begins to have her own dreams and aspirations that do not coincide with Julia’s. The tension between them culminates at the conclusion of the book. This novel touches on the themes of sisterhood, family, and broken relationships. It celebrates imperfections and individuality; my favorite character is Martin, whose intelligence, sense of humor, and love for his wife shine through his debilitating disease.

While reading this book over the weekend, I suddenly craved something sweet. I had picked up some deliciously sweet blueberries from the farmers market, so I decided to make blueberry muffins before they went bad. These weren’t just any blueberry muffins – they were vegan, with no milk or eggs. And honestly, I didn’t miss the animal products at all. They were a snap to make and simply delicious.

Right out of the oven.

VEGAN BLUEBERRY MUFFINS (adapted from RecipeZaar.com)

1/4 cup margarine
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup almond milk (soy milk or rice milk works as well)
1 box fresh blueberries (around 1 and 1/2 cups), or 2 cups frozen blueberries

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Line muffin tray with liners or spray.
  3. Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. If using fresh blueberries, dust with 2 tbsp. of flour before adding them to the mixture to prevent them from sinking into the batter.
  4. Spoon mixture into cups and bake for 35 minutes.
  5. Cool for 10-15 minutes.

Mmm… these didn’t last too long after I made them. (:

Puerto Rico is such an idyllic vacation spot – if it doesn’t torrentially pour, that is. The week before my mom and I were scheduled to go, the weather forecast predicted four straight days of thunderstorms. I was prepared to enjoy myself no matter what, but my mom was in the doldrums.

Not so bad after all.

As you can see from my photo, it wasn’t really so bad after all. Turns out in Puerto Rico they always predict rain because its more likely than not, but no one really knows for sure. Our hotel was located on the fringe of the El Yunque rain forest, in a small city called Fajardo. It’s about an hour from San Juan. The biodiversity there is mind-blowing  – I was lucky enough to see iguanas, pelicans, and tropical fish. I spotted several starfish, conch shells, and purple crabs while snorkling. I even saw baby sharks swimming around my legs as I swam on the beach! (I was glad to discover that the mother shark wasn’t anywhere in sight, and that apparently they’re harmless.)

I had a wonderful time relaxing with my mom and reconnecting with nature. I spent a large part of my vacation in the water because I love to swim, especially in the ocean. The hotel had its own private island, Palomino Island, that was different from any other place I’ve visited in the Caribbean in terms of flora and fauna. Opposite Palomino is a smaller island named Palominito (“Little Palomino” in Spanish). The distance is swimmable, but I decided against trying because of motorboats and possible water currents.

On Palomino Island, a private island.

When I wasn’t in the water, I was in one of these amazing beach chairs reading. The sun was so strong – Puerto Rico has one of the highest UV indices in the world – that I had to read with sunglasses on to make it bearable. I managed to finish a heavy book that wasn’t very good for the beach, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I don’t know what my problem is exactly, but I find it difficult to finish a French classic, and this was no exception. This book is a bildungsroman focusing on a young, liberal male who secretly idolizes Napoleon while he advances himself by working for wealthy families. Julien Sorel’s character irritated me with his sensitivity and erratic behavior. I appreciated the book’s ironice hypocrisy in the vein of Voltaire, but Stendhal didn’t pull it off nearly as well.

Le Rouge et le Noir, by Stendhal. (English: The Red and the Black.)

On the third day, I was sad when I had to swim back to shore for the last time. It was a bittersweet parting, and I realized that I’d like to live close to the ocean when I finally have a place. When I got home, I researched Stendhal and discovered that, upon his travels to Florence, he was so overwhelmed by its beauty that he was dizzy and nauseous and faint. The doctors coined this Stendhal syndrome (look this up on Wikipedia if you want!). I wasn’t quite as taken by Puerto Rico as Stendhal was by Florence, but I was certainly enamored by its charms and would love to return again.

For my birthday in April, my roommate gave me a Barnes & Noble gift card and I picked up this book. Between final exams and moving out of my apartment, I never had the time for it. So this gem just sat there, collecting dust for almost four months, unopened.

Purge

Purge, by Sofi Oksanen

This novel, Puhdistus or Purge, is suspenseful and riddled with secrets. These secrets impelled me to keep turning the pages late into the night. I wouldn’t even say that I “read” this book; “devoured” seems like a more accurate term.

Its two protaganists, Aliide Truu and Zara Pekk, are connected by an invisible thread of family connections and betrayals. They both share suffering and mutilation at the hands of two governments — the Communist and Fascist regimes that alternately dominated the Russian/Estonian block. Aliide is an old woman burdened with shame and guilt at betraying Zara’s mother and grandmother thirty years before by turning them over to the Soviets. Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim who has a photo of Aliide and her mother in her pocket, but does not know any details of their relationship.

The book dances between Aliide’s story and Zara’s story, leaving the reader to discover the intersections. Both Aliide and Zara are victims of sexual violence in a time of war, forced to submit to men in “chrome-tipped boots.” Aliide discovers that no matter how much she pretends to be Communist or Fascist, the men come after her nonetheless. She realizes that to survive in Estonia is to be implicated. It is to betray herself or to betray the ones she loves. She even betrays her beloved, Hans Pekk, by forging letters to him and keeping him locked up in a room against his will.

The scenic town of Haapsalu, in Läänemaa, Estonia, where this novel takes place.

The novel culminates in Part Five, where the tone shifts markedly. Part Five is a series of secret service reports that shed light on characters’ actions. Sometimes these reports entirely change the meaning of these actions as they were portrayed in previous sections of the novel.

For me, this was equal parts “good read” and “history lesson.” I admit to being completely ignorant of Estonia’s condition during the Soviet occupation. Even though this book reflected primarily on the plight of women during this time, I learned a lot about the general condition during those times. I was especially surprised about the emotional and sexual warfare imposed on the inhabitants of Estonia in order to “rehabilitate” them for the Communist regimes.

Sofi Oksanen received both the Finlandia and Runeberg prizes.

Oksanen’s raw, minimal writing style colored this book with compassion and honesty. None of the characters (with the notable exception of Aliide’s sister, Ingel Pekk) are idealized. Aliide “smells like onions,” and she is plagued by flies that symbolize her decay. Zara has “tatters of skin torn from her lower lip,” a reminder of her sexual domination. For this novel, Oksanen received both of Finland’s prestigious writing awards, the Finlandia and the Runeberg. Purge is currently sold in more than 25 countries. If you have the time, please pick up this book – I promise you won’t be disappointed by this exciting, touching novel.

Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a lyrical, sensuous postcolonial novel that takes place in a small Sudanese village. If you’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, you’ll recognize several of the novels themes, which include racism, sexism, corruption, and moral decay. The key difference is that Salih’s work is taken from the perspective of the colonized rather than that of the colonizers. The central figure, Mustafa Sa’eed, draws on the eroticism of his African Muslim background to seduce several European women while studying abroad in England. In this way he manages to enslave and brutalize Northerners, reversing the traditional roles of colonized and colonizer.

Mustafa Sa’eed is to Conrad’s Kurtz as Salih’s narrator is to Conrad’s Marlow. The unnamed narrator in this novel is a “secret sharer” of the central figure’s life story, much as Marlow is privy to the details of Kurtz’s life. Mustafa Sa’eed entices the narrator with an incomplete version of his sexual escapades in England, and after his death, establishes the narrator as the guardian of his children. This irrevocably links the narrator’s life with Sa’eed’s. As more details of Sa’eed’s life become apparent after his death, the narrator is slowly driven insane by the likeness of Sa’eed’s life to his own. Also educated in England, the narrator becomes torn between the tensions between South and North, hot and cold, passion and apathy. He finally decides to live individualistically, without concern for the similarities between himself and Mustafa Sa’eed, but this decision may have come too late.

One major theme of this novel is the failure of postcolonial government in Sudan. Salih describes a fictional (though certainly not fantastical) Minister of Education, who says that farmers and peasants should not be educated “beyond their means.” He claims that education will result in unrealistic aspirations to become a part of the bourgeoisie.  Meanwhile, the Minister vacations on a yacht, wears expensive jeweled rings, and flies in dresses from Harrod’s on a private jet for his wife. The novel also stresses that education does not necessarily lead to action, particularly in political affairs. The narrator, educated in British schools and working in the postcolonial government, is unable to create tangible changes in his native village. Meanwhile, his friend Mahjoub, who only passed through secondary school, leads the village Commission and brings improvements to the people’s quality of life.

Another theme is the tension between tradition and modernity, particularly relative to sexuality and marriage. The narrator falls in love with Sa’eed’s widow, Hosna, after his death, but lacks the courage to marry her. While he leaves the village on government affairs, a 70-year-old man claims her as his second wife against her will. She is forced to marry under the edict of her father and the village elders. Moreover, female circumcision is traditionally performed in the village and upheld by elders.

The poetic quality of this book is most impressive. The version that I read, the Heinemann edition, was translated from Arabic brilliantly by Denys Johnson-Davies and retains a lovely, lyrical luster. I highly recommend purchasing this edition for a couple of dollars on Amazon. Although Tayeb Salih’s prose sometimes borders on overkill, he knows precisely when to reign it in. The story is gripping apart from its poetic qualities. This is a novel packed with action, violence, and lust, among many other powerful emotions that keep readers engrossed throughout.

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I am having difficulty sleeping after reading this book. It touched a nerve in me, because it resonates with so many of the emotional patterns that I see in others and in myself, even almost two hundred years after it was written. It amazes me that its author, Emily Bronte, had such perspicacity in discerning how humans react emotionally to events so obviously beyond their control, and how these reactions change as the event falls further into the past. I’d like to provide more context for appreciating this woman’s genius: Bronte was the daughter of a parson, and she grew up in the solitary moors of Yorkshire with little contact with the outside world. She lived in utter isolation with her three sisters and brother, attended a draconian boarding school, and only knew the desolate landscape that surrounded her. Yet she was able to describe, in verbal perfection, these feelings that I have struggled to articulate all my life.

I surprised myself by empathizing the most with Heathcliff. By all accounts, he is the most bestial, tempestuous, and cruel character described in the book. Putting aside many of his diabolical actions, I was able to identify with his spirit, which was so ruled by passions that he was hardly able to keep up appearances. His past, which he never made attempts to avoid (and in fact took pains to relive), manifested itself in his surroundings and his actions. As he slowly destroyed Catherine Linton’s life by contriving her marriage with his son, he facilitated her acquaintance with young Hareton Earnshaw, whom she would eventually marry after becoming Linton Heathcliff’s widow. Despite his best efforts to wipe out the families, Heathcliff only succeeded in continuing the cycle of Lintons marrying Earnshaws, with pure love always bordering close to destructive hatred. (Catherine Linton, after falling in “love” with Heathcliff’s son, is as quick to hate him as Heathcliff was to “hate” her mother.) Heathcliff’s home at Wuthering Heights, decrepit and morose as it was, echoed the equally dismal state of his heart. And isn’t it true? Aren’t our surroundings always some hollow echo of our thoughts? Moreover, many of Healthcliff’s soliloquies were beautifully written. I often read them five or six times to absorb their brilliance and depth. They almost could bring you to tears with sheer eloquence. Being naturally drawn to beautiful prose like a bee to honey, how could I not adore his character? Emily Bronte seemed to imbue him with a gift of speech that was unmatched by any of the other characters. In some eerie way, I could easily see myself in Heathcliff’s position, speaking and feeling with the same fervor.

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So, I really enjoyed the storyline of Paulo Coelho’s book – I’m always up for simple stories in exotic locations. This book takes you on a journey with its main character, Santiago the shepherd,  through Andalusia, Tangier, the Sahara Desert, and the Egyptian Pyramids. I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

On the whole though, I totally disagree with Coelho’s life philosophy which this novel is supposed to illustrate. Through the story of Santiago, Coelho claims that every person has a destiny (which he calls a “Personal Legend”) that they are obligated to fulfill in order to enrich the so-called “Soul of the World”. And apparently, the entire universe is supposed to help you out in fulfilling your destiny by sending you omens. Usually, I’m not overly cynical or realistic – I like to take flights of philosophical fancy – but I really think Paulo Coelho’s ideas were too farfetched.

5 stars out of 10. I can’t for the life of me understand why this book was so popular. I should have stuck this one under yesterday’s QotD (“Overrated”).

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