Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I featured The Reluctant Fundamentalist film a few weeks ago as one of my “Movies for Readers.”  At the time, I mentioned that I had not read the book upon which the film is based but that I intended soon to do something about that so that I could compare the two.  As it turns out there is a huge plot variation in the movie that almost exemplifies the stereotypical relationship between books and the movies that Hollywood turns them into. 

Both the novel and movie versions of The Reluctant Fundamentalist focus on a central character, a Pakistani by the name of Changez, as the man tells his life story to an American while the pair sits together at a table inside a Lahore cafĂ©.  Changez tells the stranger about his education at a prestigious American university, and how that education resulted in a New York City job that was coveted by all of his fellow graduating-students. 

Just as he had risen to the top of his graduating class, Changez did the same in his new job at Underwood Samson, a company considered by those in the know to be the best “valuation firm” in the business.  His future seemed to be unlimited – at least, that is, until 9-11.  After the murders of 9-11, Changez experienced the same backlash felt by so many other Muslim ex-pats living in the West. Almost overnight, Changez and those who looked like him were viewed with a combination of suspicion and spite.  It did not matter who they were, where they went to school, or where they worked; they were dark-skinned Muslims and that was enough to make them easy targets on the streets of the city.

Even Changez’s Underwood Samson colleagues treated him differently than they had before the 9-11 murders occurred.  Changez understood exactly what was happening to him, and even though he understood why it was happening, he resented it.  And when he decided to grow a beard as a symbolic expression of the anger and resentment he felt, Changez found the perfect look and image to place an even larger target on his own back.  So now the two men sit in Lahore, Pakistan, and it seems that neither of them is particularly happy to be there.  Changez seems to know a lot about the American and what he must be thinking, but the man hardly speaks or much acknowledges the observations with which Changez continuously challenges him.

Keep in mind that this 184-page novel is one long monologue that does not end even at the end of the book when Changez, near midnight, is walking the American to his hotel.  Everything the American feels or says is delivered to the reader only in the reflection of what Changez says in response to what he sees and hears from the man.  

The movie, on the other hand, uses multiple flashbacks to help Changez tell his story and to show a kidnapping that happened in Lahore a day or two earlier.  The movie makes very clear why these two men are uneasily sharing a table – something the book is much less clear about.  It is easy to see that the novel serves as the skeleton around which the movie is built, but it is also easy to understand why the film scriptwriter needed to make some major editions to the novel’s plot in order to transform it into a film that viewers would pay to see. 

Bottom Line: This is one of those relatively rare cases where the movie is actually better than the book – but both versions of The Reluctant Fundamentalist can be enjoyed as standalones from each other (I do, however, recommend reading the book before watching the movie).  On a five-star scale, I give the movie four stars and the book three.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

If you liked Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton (and almost everyone who read it had good things to say about it), you are going to absolutely love Strout’s follow-up, Anything Is Possible.  My Name Is Lucy Barton largely took place in Lucy’s hospital room while she and her mother talked about people they both knew from the little town in which the Bartons lived.  If the Bartons were not the poorest family in town, they were certainly among the very poorest, and Lucy and her mother largely judged their neighbors as a reflection of how those people treated them and the rest of the Barton family. That, however, does not mean that their assessments of those they discussed were always the same, leaving the reader to wonder sometimes which of their characterizations was the most accurate.

Elizabeth Strout
In Anything Is Possible, Strout fills in the backstories of many of the characters Lucy and her mother discussed in that hospital room.  And because Strout has revealed that she more or less wrote the two novels simultaneously, Anything Is Possible is even more intriguing than it already would have been.  This time around, the author uses a group of what at first appear to be a collection of standalone short stories that turn out to be so interrelated that they morph into an even more satisfying novel than Lucy Barton was.  And that is saying a lot.

There are stories about Lucy’s mother, her siblings, one mentally-unstable Vietnam War veteran, some of the town’s richest residents, and several others from Lucy’s past.  Lucy herself makes an appearance in a story titled “Sister” in which we learn that the trauma of growing up dirt poor as member of a family looked down upon by the whole town has emotionally crippled her for life.  Lucy, now a well-respected novelist, seems caught between two worlds when she finally pays her hometown a visit after several years of absence – so much so, in fact, that she suffers a panic attack of sorts that has her fleeing Amgash in pure desperation to escape the childhood memories being there stirs up for her. 

Bottom Line: Anything Is Possible works beautifully as a stand-alone novel for readers who have not read My Name Is Lucy Barton, but the novel’s special beauty comes from how much it adds to the reader’s understanding of the events and characters in Lucy Barton.  This is literary fiction at its best, and it is not to be missed.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reykjavik Nights by Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights (published in the US in 2015) is billed as a prequel to the author’s popular Inspector Erlendur series.  As such, it offers fans of the series a fascinating look at a very young Erlendur just as he begins his career as a member of the Reykjavik police department. 

Although young Erlendur’s responsibilities are mostly those of a traffic cop as he works the night shift with his two partners, his curiosity about what happens on his city’s streets is already transforming him into the dogged investigator he will one day be.  Erlendur is not the kind of man who can turn his back on those whose bad habits have condemned them to a precarious life on Reykjavik’s cold streets.  Despite the resistance of many of those he tries to help, the young traffic division cop always tries to leave them in better shape the he finds them.  Erlendur sees the homeless as individuals, not simply as a long series of drunkards or mentally ill people to be dealt with on his shift and then quickly forgotten.  He remembers their faces and their names and tries to connect with them in as positive a way as the situation allows him. 

A man named Hannibal is one of the hopelessly addicted alcoholics whom Erlendur has dealt with more than once, even to letting the man shelter in a jail cell one particularly cold night when there was room to spare in the jail (something he has been known to do for others in similar circumstances and conditions).  Something about Hannibal intrigues Erlendur, something about his personality that hints how seriously the man has been damaged by something in his past.  Erlendur wonders if it is too late to save the man from himself.

Arnaldur Indridason
But that will never be, because three boys paddling their makeshift boat down one of the city’s tiny waterways soon discover Hannibal’s drowned body floating there.  For Erlendur, the worst thing about Hannibal’s sad end is that no one seems to care.  The police are quick to write his dearth off as an accidental drowning; the man’s street friends are not concerned with the details of his death; and the world will soon forget that Hannibal ever existed.  Erlendur, however is not so ready to forget Hannibal and starts asking questions, lots of them, during his off-duty hours – questions that lead to an entirely off-the-books investigation that will find Erlendur risking his own future by keeping what he learns from his superiors in the department, including the very investigators who would most profit from learning what Erlendur discovers.

Reykjavik Nights will be particularly enjoyable for readers already familiar with the Inspector Erlendur character because the author has clearly built the young traffic cop from elements of the man readers know the mature Inspector now to be.  It is all there:
·      Erlendur is not a man who enjoys drinking
·      Staying in alone to read, listen to the radio, or play his jazz records is much to Erlendur’s taste.
·      He prefers to eat plain, traditional food and saves even roast lamb for special occasions.
·      He is intrigued by books about people who have gone missing but have beaten incredible odds to find safety once again – and her reads them over and over again.
·      Not nocturnal by nature, he has nevertheless come to enjoy the relative silence and isolation of Reykjavik at night.
·      And, most importantly of all, Erlendur himself is a man severely damaged by the disappearance of his childhood brother during a blizzard whiteout.

Reykjavik Nights is far from a perfect crime novel.  It is, in fact, a rather plodding one that despite is relatively short 295 pages seems to take forever to reach its conclusion.  Still, this is definitely one that Inspector Erlendur fans need to read if they are to completely know and understand the character.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pagan Babies by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard published novels for parts of seven decades (1953-2012) and more than twenty of his books were made into theatrical or television movies.  Leonard began his career writing westerns but turned to crime fiction, the genre for which he is best known today, in the 1960s.  By the time Pagan Babies was published in 2000, Leonard (who died in 2013 at age 87) had begun to slow his pace considerably but did later have great success with work that was turned into the television series Justified.

Pagan Babies exhibits many of the traits that Elmore Leonard fans have come to love over the author’s long career. It is filled with long, quirky conversations that do as much to develop the novel’s characters – and even the plot – as anything else Leonard has to say about them.  As is usually the case with Leonard, the plot moves along quickly but is subject to veering to the left or right at short notice because of the sheer ineptness of some of the novel’s characters.  Elmore Leonard never seemed to have a very high opinion of the average intelligence of the criminal population, and it shows again in Pagan Babies.

For reasons best kept to himself, Father Terry Dunn decides to leave his Rwanda church and return to his hometown of Detroit.  That he witnessed the massacre by machete of forty-seven church members during his last Mass, and that the bodies are still inside the church weeks later, does have more than a little to do with his decision, but it does not tell the whole story.  Now, despite having left Detroit five years earlier under a tax-fraud indictment, Father Dunn is willing to take his chances there.  So armed with scores of pictures of Rwandan orphans and mutilated bodies, he comes home hoping to dodge the tax-fraud indictment and raise a little money for the orphans.

Elmore Leonard
But is Terry Dunn really a priest?  He certainly doesn’t convince the two main women in his life at the moment, his sister-in-law and Debbie Dewey, a woman who sometimes works for his brother.  In Terry Dunn, Debbie Dewey (who has just completed a three-year sentence for aggravated assault) sees a kindred spirit.  And she may just be right because Terry seems to feel the same way about her.  So when Debbie explains her plan to recover the $67,000 her ex-boyfriend stole from her, the pair joins forces in a complicated scheme they hope will net each of them considerably more than that amount. 

 Remember, though, that this is an Elmore Leonard novel and soon enough a whole cast of dimwits is going to appear just in time to gum up the works, including Mutt, perhaps the dumbest hit-man in the history of crime fiction (and my favorite character in the book). 

Pagan Babies may not quite be Elmore Leonard in his prime, but it is still a damn fine crime novel.  Take a look.