Adventures in Reading

Fiction: Brick Lane by Monical Ali

I was at an awards dinner recently when a professor mentioned Brick Lane and I interjected, “Oh right, by Monica Ali.” Brick Lane is one of those books that I have intended, and meant, and had all the best wishes to read, but alas it promptly found a home on my shelves and started to collect dust. At least until this dinner and then I promised myself that I would get around to reading Brick Lane before the summer was out.

Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen, a girl from a Bangladeshi village that has an arranged marriage and finds herself in London. Nazneen’s life is interwoven with the fatalism her mother so strongly believed in. When Nazneen was born she was ill and wouldn’t eat, but her mother refused to take her a hospital and swore fate would decide whether Nazneen lived or died. This fatalism follows Nazneen to England and pursues her for much of her life. In contrast, is Nazneen’s sister Hasina. The reader learns of Hasina through Nazneen’s flashbacks and from letters the two sisters’ write. Hasina never relies on her fate and as the more impetuous of the two sisters, she arranges her own marriage and ran away from home.

Nazneen’s story almost entirely unfolds in the small apartment her and her husband Chanu share. Through the birth of three children and the death of one, through her husband’s loan problems, to Nazneen’s affair with a younger man, specific poignant issues move the story and develop the relationships between the characters.

One thing about Brick Lane is that I never really felt as if there was any movement of time. Obviously there was, by the end of the novel Nazneen has had three children and the oldest surviving child is in her early teens. Much of the novel’s time is ushered through a series of letters from Hasina and the reader is kept aware of time from the dates on the letters. But the reader actually experiences very little time in the book. Four three-fourths of the book, Nazneen remains very much the same as she did when she first arrived from the village. There are small suggestions of time, such as the apartment accumulating furniture, but perhaps these were simply too subtle or at least did not greatly effect the characters.

I can’t help but compare Ali to Jhumpa Lahiri if only because they have both written on immigrants from a similar area of the world, but another terrific author also born in Dhaka, Bangladesh is Tahmima Anam. Anam’s first book A Golden Age is “set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence” and is a superb novel too.

P.S. Roger Ebert recently posted a review of the movie, which also has some great additional information about the novel.


Michael Chabon’s Final Solution

“A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks.”

Michael Chabon has always been one of those authors and I think: “I’m going to love him. He will be one of my favorites. Now I just need to get around to actually reading him.” I’ve always categorized him, without reading him, with the likes of Eggers, Foer, and July. All youngish, newish, hipish authors and ones I’ve always looked forward to reading. For my clearing shelf project I finally got around to picking up Chabon and pleasantly made my way through his novella Final Solution.

Escaping the Nazis, Linus and his parrot come to England to stay out the war. But the string of numbers the parrot chatters in German becomes too tempting for some and a man is killed and the parrot goes missing. Belonging to an era reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, an elderly, retired, bee-keeping detective becomes involved in the case of the missing parrot without being particularly concerned over the murder.

The Final Solution was my first piece in a long time where I had to write down the character’s names to keep them straight. A habit I started out of necessity and carried through much of college as a beneficial study method. While the names themselves were not particularly difficult, I did at times find Chabon’s writing style cumbersome and confusing. I recall an NPR interview with him and Chabon’s vocabulary is immense (perhaps he read Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite too?). For a 131-page story I found myself turning to my electronic dictionary with regularity, but perhaps so much that I found it difficult to be dazzled by Final Solution.

It is a fun “who done it” story, which does not necessarily provide all of the answers the reader might like by the end. Which I prefer. As things are not laid out clearly, I confess the temptation is strong to reread the book. But as I’m currently still slugging my way through Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune there must be a rain check for now on Chabon.

For another take on Final Solution as well as Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, visit Steve over at Jewish Literary Review.

Pollen by Jeff Noon

I was so taken with Jeff Noon’s Vurt that I couldn’t wait to get started on the second book of the Vurt series Pollen. Pollen is another novel set in a futuristic Manchester, England and beyond the setting there is not much connection with Vurt. In Pollen, the cop Sybil Jones begins exploring a little too closely the murder of a half-dog, half-human cab driver named Coyote. His death leads Sybil on a case that uncovers bad cops, a cab company monopoly, a lost daughter, and a plan from a Vurt archetype that would ultimately allow the Vurt (a cyber dream reality) to consume reality.

Pollen is written in a much smoother and collected style than Vurt, but I was actually a bit disappointed by this. In Vurt the jerky writing style and interjected essays from the Gamer Cat allowed a rough and tumble feel to the reading. In Pollen Noon continues with a similar writing style and structure but allows a more fluid availability of information through Gumbo Ya Ya broadcasting over the airwaves. I do wonder between the more stinted flow of introductory material how if I would have been able to read Pollen without previously reading Vurt: I would definitely recommend starting with Vurt before diving into Pollen.

Pollen does begin to explore a more philosophical edge that utilizes the Persephone myth, and in that way actually was reminiscent of Terry Pratchett. From the Vurt dream world stories are told over and over when the Vurt is visited, but Pollen explores the actual existence of Vurt creatures. In this case, Persephone leaves the Vurt to begin hatching a plan of overlaying reality with a kind of Vurt heaven, which sounds marvelous in plan but none of it is real. Noon finds a fascinating way to intertwine virtual reality with old-fashioned Mother Nature.

Sex is something I didn’t mention when writing about Vurt, but in both novels Noon has an abundance of literal and figurative sex. He deals with sex and sexuality brashly and somewhat pornographically. The act of using a Vurt feather is equated with deep throating.

Pollen was definitely not as good as Vurt. Where I had to force myself away from Vurt, I had to force myself into finishing Pollen and nearly didn’t. Noon has created a complex world and where Vurt was very much a journey through Manchester, Pollen attempts to continue not only the Manchester journey but an introduction to the Vurt, which loses it’s abstract dream quality that was so well developed in Vurt.