Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, December 26, 2011

For you, a thousand times over.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Kite Runner is a story about love, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption. It centers around two boys, Amir and Hassan, who grow up together in Kabul, Afghanistan. Hassan and his father, Ali, are Amir and his father, Baba's servants, due to the fact that Hassan and Ali are Hazara, a particular ethnicity who are forced into a lower caste in Afghan society in part because they are Shi'a Muslims, while the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims. Despite the difference in their respective castes, Hassan and Amir grow up like brothers. Amir is constantly fighting for Baba's affection, and hates that his father seems to share as much (if not more) affection and love for Hassan. The story pivots around a moment that occurs when Amir and Hassan are 12; (NOTE: this is graphic, and not for children's eyes); Amir wins a kite-flying competition, and after Hassan runs for the last kite (a great honor) and catches it, he is cornered by the local vicious bully and raped. Amir watches and does nothing, too terrified to intervene. Their relationship goes downhill in the coming weeks, and Amir, eaten alive by his guilt, frames Hassan and claims he has stolen from the family. Hassan is, in reality, unbelievably good and kind and would never do such a thing, but his father, Ali, finally having been clued in on all that happened, decides that he must take his son away. Baba is heartbroken, and tries to get them to stay, but they leave. Amir and Baba leave Afghanistan a few years later because of the Russian occupation and move to America. Amir eventually marries Soraya, an Afghan woman, and Baba dies of cancer. Amir and his wife are unable to have children. Amir gets a call from Rahim Khan, his father's old friend, and Rahim asks him to come to Pakistan. When Amir arrives, he finds Rahim Khan near death from illness. Rahim divulges to him Hassan's life since Amir left for America, and tells him that Hassan and his wife and son ended up moving back to Amir's old house (and living in the servant hut) while Rahim lived in the house. They led a happy life for awhile, but when the Taliban took over Kabul, they massacred the Hazaras. They arrived one day claiming that rumours had gone around that Hazaras were living in a mansion in Mazar-e-Sharif, Amir's neighborhood. Hassan denied it, but when the Taliban threatened to occupy the house and he protested, they shot him in the street. His wife ran out to stop them, so they shot her too. Sohrab, their son, was sent to an orphanage, and Rahim Khan asks Amir to find him. Amir is not at all interested in going to Kabul, and almost refuses, at which point Rahim Khan (who by the way knows everything about what has happened between Amir and Hassan) reveals that Ali, Hassan's father, was impotent, and in fact, Baba is Hassan's father. He dishonored Ali by sleeping with Sanaubar, Hassan's mother, and so Hassan is actually Amir's half brother. Amir is, of course, furious that this secret has been kept from him, but he agrees to go to Kabul. He goes to Kabul, only to find that Sohrab has been sold by the orphanage to the Taliban. He confronts the Taliban leader, who turns out to be Assef, the very same bully who assaulted Hassan decades before. Assef taunts Amir, and tells him he finally has it coming to him. They fight until Amir is near death when Sohrab (who Assef has been using as a slave and sexually abusing) holds his slingshot up to Assef and tells him he must stop. Assef won't, so Sohrab shoots a brass ball into Assef's eye. Amir and Sohrab escape, and Amir is nursed back to health in a hospital in Peshawar. Amir tries to set Sohrab up with an adoption agency run by two Americans recommended by Rahim Khan, only to find out that no such agency exists. He realizes Rahim Khan's motives, and decides to adopt Sohrab. The process is incredibly challenging however, and he ends up having to go back on his promise to Sohrab that he would never send him back to an orphanage. Overwhelmed and emotionally broken, Sohrab attempts suicide, ironically just as Amir receives news that a friend of the family will be able to help them bypass the orphanage requirement and he will be able to bring Sohrab home immediately. Sohrab is treated in a hospital and Amir eventually takes him home, but Sohrab doesn't speak for nearly a year. The book ends with a small, but encouraging outing where Sohrab and Amir fly a kite. It closes with Amir running the kite for Sohrab.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

So, first off, sorry if I ruined it for anyone interested in reading it, but you really should still read it. It's a tough book to stomach, not just because of the scene in the beginning or the scene at the end, but because of a few moments of really inhumane behavior, but it's also a book that centers on a very real and very upsetting event that touches all of our lives.

As always, in no particular order or structure, here are my thoughts:

- It is always an interesting experience reading a story that is told from the point of view of a protagonist you don't really like. Amir grows on you, and I think I found him unlikable because he represented the worst side of all of us when we're being petty and selfish, but he's a very believable character. I also think that you couldn't tell this story from anyone else's perspective and have the same power behind it. Just the same, I had forgotten how challenging it can be from the reader's perspective to disagree with and feel shame at the narrator's actions. This isn't to suggest that all protagonists are all good; the best ones are imperfect in just the right way. It's just hard for me to feel such tension with the character telling me the story.

- The people in Kabul treat Hassan like complete shit in this novel. I don't know exactly how true to life this is, but I really just don't understand societally-sanctioned, pervasive prejudice. I know that there are many groups persecuted and looked down upon, both here in the U.S. and in other countries across the world, but such dishonor, such hatred, such totally inhumane treatment, is hard for me to conceptualize and impossible for me to sanction. When Hassan and Amir are on their way to the movies, a man on the street insinuates that he slept with Hassan's mother. Hassan cries throughout the movie and Amir just keeps whispering, "He took you for someone else." Amir takes a back seat to the prejudice at several key points in the novel, but here he is a human, and a friend, and he is tender.

- Unlikable though he may be for the first half of the book, Amir is an obsessive reader, which I must admit, I love. He reads Hafez, Saadi, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, and Ian Fleming. I love a child who loves books.

- Hassan and Amir often visit a pomegranate tree behind Amir's house, and one day, they carve into the trunk these words: "Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul." When Amir comes back decades later, the words linger, faded, but visible.

- Part of the reason Assef is so angry with Amir and Hassan at the beginning is because he tries to beat them up, but Hassan threatens him with his slingshot. He tells Assef that if he tries to hurt Amir, he will become "one-eyed Assef". Even when he is faced with Assef, a bully and a jerk, Hassan still calls him "agha", a term of respect. Amir notices how bizarre it seems that Hassan is so ingrained in his class that he uses a respectful term even in this moment.

- I found the description of kite-running quite fascinating. They roll the kite string in a mixture of shards of glass and glue, and as they fly the kites, they undercut and attack each other, slicing the kite string. The last kite in the sky is the winner, and running (and catching) the last kite is an enormous honor. Hassan runs Amir's winning kite for him, and his refusal to hand it over to Assef is what leads to his assault. Part of what keeps Amir from intervening is that he hopes bringing home the winning kite will help him to win his father's love and approval.

- Before Hassan and Amir begin the kite tournament, Hassan tells Amir about a dream he had the night before. There is a lake in town, and no one will swim in it, because they think there is a monster living in it. Amir dives in and shows the town that there is no monster, and they rename the lake after Amir and Hassan. As they leave for the tournament, Hassan whispers to Amir, "There is no monster, just a beautiful day." He is wrong; Assef is the monster.

- When Amir witnesses Assef cornering Hassan, he wonders if maybe Hassan is the price he has to pay for Baba's love. While Amir atones for this moment in many ways throughout the rest of his life, I can't help but feel that it's kind of unforgivable. And even though he's terrified and he's 12, he could use the time after the event to change the outcome of all of their lives, but he doesn't. This moment took me back to my first book on this list, 1984, and the idea that maybe I hated Winston so much because the possibility that I would not act differently scared me so much. Amir finds that Baba loves him, and that is enough to cloud the guilt; the power of a parent's love (or lack thereof) is a thing to be reckoned with.

- After ignoring Hassan for weeks and not divulging the secret of what transpired in the alley to anyone, Amir takes Hassan to the pomegranate tree. He throws pomegranates at Hassan's face, hoping that Hassan will fight back. Hassan merely takes the beating, and eventually smashes a pomegranate in his own face. Hassan is almost unbearably good to Amir, and even in this moment, he is incapable of causing him harm, despite the harm Amir has done to him. In many ways, I found this the hardest scene to read.

- Amir and Baba end up having to leave Kabul at the drop of a hat. They are transported in the back of a truck part of the way out. Baba stands up for a woman who a Russian officer tries to rape as a "toll" to cross the border. They end up having to be smuggled the rest of the way to Pakistan in an oil truck, and one person ends up not making the trip because of the fumes. (There's another connection between this character and Amir, but it's complex and I'll leave it for you to read. I can't give away ALL the secrets!)

- I'm not going to get into it here, because it's a subject I have a strong opinion on and it's by no means a simple issue, but I found the treatment of women in Afghan culture (both before and after the Taliban) to be quite upsetting. Obviously it's tremendously worse with the Taliban (beatings in the street, stoning for adultery, etc) but I'm not wild about the whole "no non-chaperoned visits with boys", your honor is a one-time only deal, you should be on a separate side of the mosque, etc. thing. I know that there are totally different cultural and traditional customs, which is why I don't want to make any sweeping statements, but I just want to put it out there that I've got some concerns.

- Amir's wife, Soraya, has a complicated past - she lost her honor because she ran off with a man and did drugs and ended up being rescued and brought home by her father - but she reveals everything to Amir the night he has his father ask for her hand in marriage. He, on the other hand, does not reveal the truth of his past with Hassan until they are married for nearly 15 years. I know married people have secrets, but I find it telling that Amir withholds his, while Soraya immediately shares hers.

- Sanaubar, Hassan's mother, returns to him just before Sohrab is born. She ran off just after giving birth to him, but appears on the doorstep, bedraggled and quite ill. They nurse her back to health and she delivers Sohrab. She ends up passing away a few years later. I don't really have anything particular to say about this, other than that my only complaint about this book is that it feels a little bit like it's trying too hard to tie up loose ends. It brings just about every story line full circle, and at a certain point, I was like, "really? do we really need to resolve every relationship and every event?"

- When Rahim tells Amir about Hassan and what has happened to him in the years since Amir and his father left Kabul, Rahim gives him a letter from Hassan. Hassan was illiterate growing up, and Amir sort of withholds literacy as a trophy and a way to maintain hierarchy over Hassan. Hassan learns later on, and in his letter, he is still faithful and loving to Amir. I know that Assef is the one who is truly to blame for what happened to Hassan, but I am still amazed that he is able to forgive Amir for how he behaved after and what he did to have him sent away.

- The whole, "hassan was actually your half-brother" thing did feel a LITTLE bit like, "Luke, I am your FATHER!" But it does make sense with the rest of the story line. I think the book could have stood to be one ironic cliché or two shorter.

- There were so many parts of this book that were hard to read; the scene with Hassan and Assef, the public stoning by the Taliban at the soccer game, the grisly battle between Amir and Assef, and Sohrab's suicide attempt. I certainly wouldn't recommend this book to a child, and I'm not sure if I had a teenager I'd recommend it to them, either; it would depend on what that teenager had already experienced in his/her life. I'd probably recommend it to my old students at Fels, but not my students at Breakthrough. These things still occur to me even though I'm in grad school now :).

- As Amir watches Sohrab sleep and pulls the door closed, he has this thought: "Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night." I found this line really powerful and poetic.

- Amir grows a backbone throughout the novel (though it's often kicking and screaming) and when his father-in-law, a traditional Afghan, questions his decision to adopt Sohrab, Amir tells him that he is his nephew, and practically spits out, "You will never again refer to him as 'Hazara boy' in my presence. He has a name and it's Sohrab." I actually wrote "Go, Amir!" in this part of the book, I was so pleased that he stood up for Sohrab and shirked the Afghan prejudice and bigotry.

- The book closes with Amir offering to run a kite for Sohrab. He turns and says, "For you, a thousand times over." Hassan says the same thing just before he disappears to run Amir's winning kite. This is the last time Amir sees Hassan smile.

This book is dark, and it gets at some of the deepest part of our souls. It pulls you into difficult and painful situations, but there are moments of levity and joy, too. It may not be a classic in the truest sense of the word - only time will tell - but it is certainly a well-told and well-crafted story.

I'm off to bed (and YES, I do know what time it is!) a belated Merry Christmas to you all! I'm off to Narnia and the land of Aslan.

Safe travels, sweet dreams, and kind thoughts.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.

The Hobbit; or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Hobbit is a tale of adventure when it is sprung upon the unsuspecting. It takes a quiet, settled hobbit on a trip to faraway lands with 12 dwarves and one wizard to reclaim ancient dwarf treasure from an evil dragon named Smaug. They survive encounters with wood-elves, spiders, wargs (wolf-like creatures), being stuffed in barrels, and fighting an epic battle against goblins. Theirs is a tale of greed, deep-rooted family pride, friendship, magic, and merriment. Bilbo Baggins, our protagonist, finds a spirit in himself he never knew he had, and as you may or may not be lucky enough to know, this is not his only adventure.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I know my plot summary was a bit thin, but it's practically a novella and if you haven't already (or haven't in a long time) you really should pick up the book yourself. It's practically a tea-time snack.

I loved reading this book. I love the trilogy, but when I first got into them, it took me some time to get completely pulled into the story. From the first page of The Hobbit, I was entranced. I could practically hear Bilbo's kettle boiling on the stove, and his hobbit-hole would appear when my eyes closed.

I remember reading this in 6th grade, with Mr. Bricker? Brickstein? Brickle? (I think that last one is a computer game from the 90's.) Anyway, I distinctly remember being asked to draw the door to Bilbo's hobbit-hole, and I also distinctly remember getting a C on my drawing. (Art never was my strong suit.) I think I painted the door blue, and it was supposed to be green, with a yellow knob. Something like that. It's strange the things we remember.

In terms of overall thoughts, I think what struck me most was that Bilbo and the dwarves are on a completely voluntary adventure here. They decide to just pick up and go, and while the dwarves have their whole "we need to win back our hard-earned gold from the dragon" thing going on, Bilbo really is just along for the ride. Of course, he discovers some wonderful (and not so wonderful) traits about himself along the way, but it definitely makes him question his own motives more than Frodo is able to. Frodo is basically in for an epic battle between good and evil, and everyone takes a side, whereas here, things are a bit more grey. I actually got quite mad at the dwarves toward the end, because before they end up joining forces with the elves and the men to fight the goblins, the dwarves were going to wage war with the elves and men over the treasure and they are acting downright nasty, even though - and here's the kicker and I Totally forgot this part - THEY DON'T EVEN KILL THE DRAGON. There's all this buildup and Bilbo goes down several times to see the dragon, but Smaug ends up getting shot by some man from the nearby town named Bard. Kind of anticlimactic, if you ask me. And pretty petty of the dwarves to withhold "their" gold when the dragon was sleeping on it all these years and they didn't even kill him. Also, is dwarves not the correct plural form of dwarf? My computer's autocorrect has underlined the word every time I've written it. Amusingly enough, it also does not choose to recognize the word autocorrect. Ironic much?

Anyway, here are the rest of my thoughts, in no particular order:
(And yes, I am aware what time it is, mother. And no, I'm not pregnant. INSIDE FAMILY JOKE!)

-Gandalf is responsible for getting Bilbo involved with the adventure (of course; Gandalf is always involved in the "I have an ulterior motive but it's in everyone's best interest" kind of mind games) and Bilbo is having NONE of it at the beginning. "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" He's almost gotten Gandalf to leave and he says, "Sorry! I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today."
[But sneaky Gandalf puts a mark on his door that says BURGLAR LIVES HERE LOOKING FOR AN ADVENTURE (okay, I looked it up and it's actually "Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable reward" - close enough!) - only some compact, runish form of that phrase - and the adventure comes looking for Bilbo anyway.]

-When Bilbo decides to join the adventure, Tolkien calls it his "Tookish side", implying that his ancestors, the Tooks, were more adventuresome than the average hobbit family. I just love the sound of the word - maybe because it rhymes with bookish. ;)

-At one point, Bilbo says it smells like elves. I wonder what elves smell like? I imagine something appropriately woodsy. Perhaps like pine.

-Just before Bilbo encounters Gollum in the tunnels, he says to himself, "Go back? No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!" It reminded me of the book, "We're going on a bear hunt" where they say, "Can't go OVER it! Can't go UNDER it! We'll have to go THROUGH it!" (swish swish swish)

-When Gollum and Bilbo are playing riddle games, Bilbo tricks Gollum by asking him to guess what is in his pocket. (It is, in fact, the ring; as in Lord of the...) Gollum is frantic, because he can't think of what it is. He has three guesses, so first he guesses, "Handses!" When that's wrong, he thinks of what he keeps in his own pockets -- "fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on". I laughed so hard at the thought of little Gollum thinking about his own pockets and the disgusting things he keeps in there. Bat-wing? Hilarious.

-I like that Gollum calls Bilbo "the nasty noser". I'm going to start calling people "nasty nosers." You nasty noser, you!

-Gandalf tricks Beorn, a man-bear who befriends them in the midst of their adventure (yes. I said man-bear. get over it.) into thinking it's just him and Bilbo at first, then he lets the rest of the dwarves trickle in two-by-two. Beorn is too interested in the story to notice that he has 14 guests when he rarely suffers any at all (according to Gandalf). Gandalf is so Tricksy!

-I started taking notes of the trials the group faced, so pg. 108 of my copy has the following list:
-Wood Elves

I kept it going for a bit, but lagged at the end - I could also have included war with the men, impending doom, WAR WITH GOBLINS, THE END. but I didn't.

-Bilbo is CLUTCH in several situations. (Gretchen, stop trying to make FETCH happen!) He saves the dwarves from the spiders, he uses the ring to stay hidden and frees the dwarves from their imprisonment by the wood-elves by stuffing them in barrels and sending them off to Laketown, and he steals the first cup from Smaug and discovers his weak spot. He gets a bad rap from the dwarves in the beginning ("more of a grocer than a burglar!") but he shines in the end.

-The dwarves are TOTAL cowards for most of this book. I mean, I love Gimli in the trilogy. He is SO badass! So I was all, great, the dwarves will be so cool, and IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when they did things like when they finally got to the mountain and found the door and then said, "Okay, Bilbo, go on in and meet the dragon!" Seriously? Seriously. Ugh. Dwarves.

-The title of this post comes from a riddle-speak conversation between Bilbo and Smaug, the dragon. I adore the line. And Bilbo is also partly chosen because the dwarves refuse to set out on the adventure with 13 total (12 dwarves plus Gandalf), making Bilbo the lucky fourteen.

-Tolkien follows some fairly familiar territory in this story, but he has such flair. Smaug is a riddler and a trickster, and Tolkien says he has an "overwhelming personality." Sassy dragon!

-As mentioned previously (ahem. as I Ranted about previously) Smaug's death is quite anticlimactic. After it happened, I was like, OK, got it. And then everyone thought he was dead but REALLY HE JUMPED UP AND FLEW INTO THE AIR AND THE WHOLE VILLAGE WAS IN FLAMES but no. That is not what happened. OF course, stupid me, it's a GOBLIN WAR. Why didn't I think of the inevitable post-dragon GOBLIN WAR?

-So, Bilbo steals what is basically the most prized gem in all the treasure - it's called the Arkenstone - and at first I was like, ACK, Bilbo, you have to give it back! The greedy dwarves will have your head! But then he uses it to try to create peace between the wood-elves/men and the dwarves. The goblin war ends up bringing everyone together (nothing unites people like a common hatred of GOBLINS, duh!) but Bilbo is the real peace-maker here. Dummypants dwarves are blinded by treasure.

-Bilbo rats himself out about stealing the Arkenstone and giving it to the other side, and Thorin (the lead dwarf) is FURIOUS. He basically threatens to throw Bilbo on the rocks (SOME GRATITUDE if you ask me) but Gandalf steps in, saying "If you don't like my Burglar, please don't damage him." Adorable.

-As Bilbo and Gandalf get weary on the journey back, they stop at one point and Gandalf says, "There is a long road yet." And Bilbo replies, "But it is the last road."

I leave you with those parting words, and another Tolkien reminder that not all who wander are lost.

I'm off to fly kites in a war-torn land not too far from where our world began.

Good afternoon, good evening, and good night. (And good morning, to you, mommy!)