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.



Revisted: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I first read The Alchemist as a teenager and disliked it and now having read it again (with inhibitions) in my twenties and still dislike it. A minimalistic story (without the pleasure of reading other minimalist authors) outlining a boy’s quest from Spain to the Pyramids and back again. Mixed in with alchemy, universal languages, souls, omens, and above all else fate – the overriding theme is to follow your dreams, etc. Nearly every noun is a symbol of something else and the overall idea of the book put me in mind of Tuesdays With Morrie or The Secret; that is, a single idea story loosely veiled behind the suggestion of a story. If you’re looking for something less metaphysical/religious to read or simply another book with (some) similar qualities I suggest The Higher Power of Lucky.

There is just something about books like The Alchemist, Tuesdays With Morrie, The Secret, and most recently The Last Lecture that make me want to gag. With Coelho though it is somewhat different and for whatever reason I want to like him, but I just don’t. It’s an allegorical tale and really lacks any complexity. And perhaps it’s this lack of complexity wrapped in with the length (though a short book) that makes me want to not bother or care.

Other opinions: Scathing Book Reviews. (Apparently no one else on my blogging list bothered with this book.)