Monday, January 27, 2014

AND THE MOUNTAINS ECHOED by Khaled Hosseini (fic)

Khaled Hosseini is best know for his popular book, The Kite Runner, which was made into a film.  His latest book is also an enjoyable read, and like the his two other novels, has as its theme the relationships between siblings, children and their parents, and the Afghan community.  Hosseini has set up this novel as a series of stories about a group of characters.  Each character's story could stand alone as a short story, but as the reader discovers, all the characters and their stories are connected in some way to the very first of the tales. Hosseini has said his title comes from a William Blake poem, "Nurse's Song: Innocence" about the hills echoing with the sound of childrens' voices. Ultimately this is the story of two children and what becomes of them in a time of upheaval in Afghanistan.

The first tale begins with the story of Abdullah a 10 year old boy from an impoverished family and his three year old sister, Pari.  It starts with a folk tale a father is telling his children as they journey on foot to Kabul.  This rural Afghan family is so poor, when the opportunity arises to "sell" Pari to a wealthy Kabul couple who wish to adopt her, the father sees it as the only way to help the rest of his family survive.  From that beginning, the novel continues with the differing pathways through life that Abdullah and Pari take.  Abdullah is never sure he will ever see his sister again, and Pari is unaware that she has another family or that she was even adopted.  She goes through her life with a vague sense that a piece of her is missing, a puzzle that she works hard to solve.  Pari's life is one of affluence, and she is eventually taken to Paris by her adoptive mother, Nila Wahadati who is a poet of some renown. Pari becomes a mathematician and marries and has three children.  Abdullah's life is one of poverty and resentment, fleeing with his family from their small village to Pakistan and finally to a hard-working life in California as a kabob house owner. He also marries and has one daughter whom he names Pari.

Other characters who have interesting lives and stories, and who will eventually cross paths with Pari and Abdullah take the reader to Greece, modern Afghanistan, France and the United States. Each character will affect Pari and Abdullah in a different way and move them along to the climax and ending of the novel.  While the novel has some unusual coincidences, all is not rosy and there are many moments that reflect the drama and disappointments of real life. 

Hosseini has created some wonderful characters in this novel and the reader will find he/she really cares about their fate.  There are also a couple of characters who seem to be just fillers and not so interesting. If you enjoyed Hosseini's previous novels, you are sure to enjoy this book as well.  He is an excellent story teller.

Monday, January 20, 2014

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (fic)

Donna Tartt's new book has caused quite a sensation and received numerous accolades, comparing her writing and characters to those of Charles Dickens.  I get that comparison because of the richness and depth of the depictions.  I wanted to like this book more than I did, as I am a fan of Tartt's other books.  Having said that, I plowed through this lengthy book with complete interest.  My distaste for the main characters is what put me off loving this well written book.  I appreciated the fullness of the descriptions of the settings in Manhattan, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam.  They were very real.  While I appreciated her writing, it seemed the Las Vegas section began to drag.  As a reader, I wanted the characters to be nobler and better than they were.  But, like real people, that part of their nature was elusive.  Tartt did give us one noble character in James Hobart, Hobie, who reminds me the most of a Dickens character. 

The story begins in Amsterdam as the main character, Theo Decker is holed up in a bland hotel room, suffering mightily from the consequences of his poor judgement.  He takes the reader back 14 years when his nightmare began in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he and his mother are victims of a shocking terrorist attack. Theo makes it out alive, his mother does not.  Tartt is very hard on her main character.  Except for a short time living with the Barbours, a wealthy Park Avenue family, his life unravels and spins out of control. Suffering from shock, Theo leaves the museum undetected with some idea of saving a beautiful and priceless painting that was connected with his last memory of his mother.  He becomes attached to the the Goldfinch painting which is a real masterwork of Carel Fabritius, a Dutch painter of 1654 who was himself killed in an explosion at a nearby gunpowder factory.  One way or another, The Goldfinch remains with Theo throughout the mess that his life will become.

Leaving the Barbours, he is taken away to Las Vegas by his estranged father who is an alcoholic and compulsive gambler.  Living in a deserted area on the outskirts of the city, he forms a lifelong friendship with Boris Pavlikovsky, and equally damaged and lost boy.  Their love and dependence on each other is so realistically portrayed that you want it to work to their benefit. Although their friendship was ultimately a destructive one, it the the most alive and real of all the relationships in the book. Alas, they are both so damaged that the friendship drags Theo down to depths a young boy should never have to experience.  Theo's father and his girlfriend Xandra are so lost and needy themselves, that they add to the misery of Theo's life in the worst way.  The reader becomes desperate for Theo to escape this life.

I was happy to see Theo leave the disaster of his Las Vegas life.  When he washed up in New York, Hobie was his savior.  Unfortunately Theo recognizes, as the reader does, that there is more of his father in him than Hobie can counteract in the following years.  The adult Theo does a good job of destroying his own life when Boris again appears to finish the job.  As the book neared its climax, I was reading into the wee hours hoping that salvation would come to Theo's messed up existence. I cannot say I enjoyed this book, but I can say, I was engrossed in Theo's story and did not find it improbable.  I recommend the book for its excellent writing and realistic characterization and settings. Reader, it is not a feel good book, and parts of it are quite horrifying, yet you will find yourself rooting for Theo and wishing for some happiness in his tragic life.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Sarah Dunant is one of the best of the historical novel writers.  Her speciality is Renaissance Europe.  This novel is heavily researched, and she weaves a fascinating story of intrigue, incest, ruthlessness and war around the actual events of 15th and early 16th century Italy.  Of course, it is hard to miss holding a reader's interest when writing about the infamous clan of Borgias who bring to the table a wealth of gossip and scandal, enough to keep writers busy for a lifetime.  Despite all the stories and tales of the evil that surrounds this family, there is little real provable evidence available to the researcher.  But, where there is smoke there is fire, and many novelist and screenwriters have hung their hats on the excesses of the Borgia family.

The Borgias originated in Spain and the partriarch of the family was Roderigo Borgia, the Cardinal of Valencia who at age 61 through wheeling and dealing and back room bribes, became Pope Alexander VI.  As soon as he was established on the throne of St. Peter, the turmoil that had dogged Rome throughout medieval times intensified, largely to to his ambition for himself and his progeny.  Alexander fathered numerous illegitimate children, the most famous being Lucrezia and Cesare. Through a series of political marriages and alliances, Alexander was able to consolidate and strengthen his rule over most of Italy.  However, after his death, Italy once again fell apart into a group of quarrelling city states.

Cesare, the most ruthless of the Borgias, is the villain of the novel.  He began his career as a cardinal, appointed by his father.  Cesare clearly was not cut out for a career in the church.  He was a soldier, and his goal was to conquer and return to the papacy the papal states as well as most of northern Italy.  The Borgias had a special hatred and on-going feud with the powerful Sforza family, who ruled the Ducal state of Milan.  It is said that Machiavelli patterned his book The Prince on the brutal Cesare Borgia.

Dunant displays sympathy for Lucrezia and it is hard not to agree with her.  She is presented as a pawn in the political ambitions of her father and brothers.  While there are many unproven rumors about her, there is no actual proof that Lucrezia led the life that was attributed to her.  In Dunant's book, she was wed three times, her second husband, Alfonzo of Aragon, being the only one she loved.  He was believed to have been slain by Cesare, to free Lucrezia to marry into the powerful D'Este family who ruled Ferrara. Dunant leaves us after the third marriage of Lucrezia and before the death of Alexander.  The story will be continued in the next volume she is working on.

If you enjoy historical fiction that is well researched and not corny, this is a good read and will hold your interest and perhaps spur you on to look further into the Borgia family's history.