Wednesday, March 22, 2017

For anyone interested in literature, Iran, or another culture

Last fall, I talked about Azar Nafisi's book, The Republic of Imagination. I have finally caught up with her first book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which was published in 2003. It was deservedly a best seller and deserves to be read fifteen years after it was published.

Azar Nafisi, says her website, "is a Visiting Professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics. Azar Nafisi held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. She taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai before her return to the United States in 1997 . . . In 1981, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987."

Reading Lolita in Tehran fills out the picture of what happened to her and her family during and after the 1979 revolution, adds stories of her students and colleagues, and connects all this to works by Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and more. She lived through—and describes in painful detail—the rise of the theocracy. (You don't want to live in one, not Muslim, not Christian.) She lived through the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the one in which the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein. She held private classes in English literature for eight young women in her living room. She tried to open minds under a regime that—my impression—was doing its best to limit them.

For example, one of her senior colleagues in the university did not want her to teach The Great Gatsby. "The novel was immoral. It taught the youth the wrong stuff; it poisoned their minds—surely I could see. I could not. I reminded him that Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual. Surely I could see, he insisted, that these novels and their characters became our models in real life? Maybe Mr. Gatsby was all right for the Americans, but not for our revolutionary youth . . ."

With the revolution, came new government regulations punishable by fines, lashings, and jail. Nafisi writes, "Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear [new rules ordered women to wear only chador or long robe and scarf in public], walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal, I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe."

Toward the end of the book, she writes that the dilemmas of the girls she taught "stemmed from the confiscation of their most intimate moments and private aspiration by the regime. This conflict lay at the heart of the paradox created by Islamic rule. Now that the mullahs ruled the land, religion was used as an instrument of power, an ideology. It was this ideological approach to faith that differentiated those in power from millions of ordinary citizens . . ." My opinion is that ideologues make terrible presidents, senators, representatives, judges, and mayors.

My selection of quotations may unfortunately give the impression that the memoir is a screed against the Islamic Republic. Nafisi certainly points out the difficulties of living in a theocracy even if one is a believer. What makes the book far more than war stories of living through a revolution, however, is Nafisi's and her students' thoughts and observations about the books they read. Anyone who is interested in literature, in Iran, in another culture, or in all three should find and read Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Skeleton God is more than a challenging puzzle

I asked to review Skeleton God, the ninth mystery in Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, because I had just read The Skull Mantra, the first in the series.

At the beginning of The Skull Mantra, Shan, who is Chinese, is in a Tibetan prison camp having pursued an investigation too aggressively back in Beijing. When a prison work gang finds a headless corpse on a windy Tibetan mountainside, Colonel Tan, the district commander, springs Shan from the prison with the understanding that Shan will solve the murder before an American tourist delegation arrives and do it in a politically expedient manner, which may require executing an innocent monk—something Shan cannot permit.

As Pattison's website says, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interest, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement.

I have some quibbles about The Skull Mantra. The maelstrom into which Shan is thrown is complex, and between the Chinese and Tibetan names and Pattison's efforts to convey the recent history of Chinese/Tibetan relations (not to mention Tibetan Buddhist customs and spirituality), it can be heavy sledding to follow the plot's twists. Nevertheless, The Skull Mantra is a superior and fascinating first effort.

Eight books later in Skeleton God, Shan is the constable of a remote Tibetan town. Colonel Tan, while not Shan's friend, recognizes his value and uses him as best he can. Shan's son, Ko, mentioned but not appearing in the first book, is now a prisoner in Shan's former prison. The story begins when Shan investigates a report that nun has been assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun, Shan finds the mummified and gilded remains of Buddhist saint buried centuries ago, the remains of a Chinese soldier murdered fifty years before, and an American man (!) murdered only hours earlier (!!). What is going on?

It is to Pattison's credit that what goes on is plausible and engaging. He is able to use historic events—an 1897 earthquake, the predations of the Red Guards, the Chinese looting of Tibetan shrines and monasteries—serve his again complex plot.

Shan is an interesting character. He speaks Tibetan and English as well his native Chinese. Because official China has been doing its best to eliminate Tibetan customs and culture for the last fifty years, the local people regard Shan warily when not actively hostile. Because Shan's beloved son is a prisoner and could be shipped to a much harsher prison (although the 404th Construction Brigade is hardly a Boy Scout camp), Shan has to be careful on whose toes he treads. Because the careful reader can figure out who the bad guy is about halfway through the book, we still want to know (I still wanted to know) exactly what he did and why he did it. It all makes for interesting tension.

Either because I had just read The Skull Mantra and was thereby familiar with the names and language or because after writing eight Inspector Shan mysteries Pattison made Skeleton God easier to follow. A friend felt that the first book should come with a Cast of Characters and a Glossary of Buddhist Terms. I disagree.

Part of the novels' pleasure is learning from context about Tibetan culture and its recent history. The mystery is interesting, but both The Skull Mantra and Skeleton God offer much more than challenging puzzle. Pattison tells me something about a world I know nothing about, and I trust his word.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How Ove is saved in spite of himself

Ove is not an easy character to like or to sympathize with. Okay, he's fifty-nine years old, his wife has died recently (the only person who could have stood him), he has no children, he's out of work, and his world has changed in ways he neither understands nor wants to understand.

In Chapter 1 of Fredrik Backman's best-selling A Man Called Ove, Ove shops for a computer. He's both ignorant and impatient; he does not trust the store clerk, assuming the worst. For example, if a laptop does not come with a keyboard—and Ove knows computers need keyboards—it's "Because you have to buy it as an 'extra,' don't you?" he sputters (Ove has a very short fuse). The sale does not go well.

In Chapter 2 we watch Ove go through his inflexible morning routine: make coffee, inspect his housing development's garages, make sure as always (with three tugs) his garage door is properly locked, confirm that no cars in the guest parking area have been parked more than 24 hours (he jots down license numbers), separates a glass jar from its lid, dropping the former into the glass recycling bin, the latter into the metal recycling bin (muttering "incompetents"), and, back home, prepares to hang himself in his living room. The chapter ends when he's interrupted by "a long scraping sound. Not at all unlike the type of sound created by a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house."

Well, guess what. It is a big oaf backing up a Japanese car hooked up to a trailer and scraping it against the exterior wall of Ove's house. It's his new next door neighbors, a Swede like Ove, his very pregnant Iranian wife, and two small children. Here's how Backman describes the husband: "He's wearing a knitted cardigan and his posture seems to indicate a very obvious calcium deficiency. He must be close to six and a half feet tall. Ove feels an instinctive skepticism towards all people taller than six feet; the blood can't quite make it all the way up to the brain."

A couple examples of Backman's method of showing the reader Ove's views of—attitude toward?—the world: "He's wearing his navy suit . . . Ove's wife likes that suit. She always says he looks to handsome in it. Like any sensible person, Ove is obviously of the opinion that only posers wear their best suits on weekdays. But this morning he decided to make an exception. He even put on his black going-out shoes and polished them with a responsible amount of boot shine." Not too much polish, a responsible amount.

One more example: "Ove didn't dislike this cat in particular. It's just that he didn't much like cats in general. He'd always perceived them as untrustworthy. Especially, as in the case of Earnest [a cat Ove's wife loved], they were as big as mopeds. It was actually quite difficult to determine whether he was just an unusually large cat or an outstandingly small lion. And you should never befriend something if there's a possibility it may take a fancy to eating you in your sleep." Throughout the book, Backman (or his translator) employs interesting metaphors and adjectives.

Few readers, however, read a book for its metaphors and adjectives (or, for that matter, it adverbs). I thought A Man Called Ove is an interesting exercise in working out how a man could become a curmudgeon, so depressed he wants to join his wife in death (and is certain he will join her, although he'll be a suicide), and, through the goodness of other people and his inherent decency, is returned to life. With an uplifting message like that, a book deserves to be a best seller.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

John Rebus retired is still solving crime

You don't have to have read all of Ian Rankin's John Rebus mysteries (I haven't) to enjoy the latest, Rather Be the Devil, but it would help. For one thing, you would know something about Detective Inspector (Ret.) John Rebus, DI Siobban Clarke, DI Malcolm Fox, and Edinburgh crime boss (and Rebus nemesis) Big Ger Cafferty. Fortunately, while it may increase your pleasure in the book knowing all the past cases involving these characters, Rather Be the Devil stands on its own.

The plot is complex involving a 35-year-old cold case, international money laundering, a significant murder, competition between Edinburgh and Glasgow criminal gangs, and more. Adding to the mix is the fact that Rebus is no longer a DI and cannot flash a warrant card in suspect's face. He is also trying to give up cigarettes and has been diagnosed with a shadow on his lung.

I guess you could read the book for the puzzle, and Rankin is a master of inventing plausible criminal puzzles. Edinburgh is large enough to have a substantial criminal underworld, small enough that a player in that would could reasonably have played a very minor part in the unsolved 1978 murder. Teasing apart all the threads along with Rebus, Clarke, and Fox is one of the book's pleasures.

Another pleasure comes from being in the hands of a crackerjack writer. Here are the book's first four sentences:

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
"Somebody was murdered here, you know," he announced.
"And they say romance is dead." Deborah Quant paused over her steak.

One more example. Malcolm Fox has been left in the station house where he's been reading a book that may be relevant to the case. Rebus asks where the rest of the team working the case has gone. Fox says,

"They're also going through Chatham's house, seeing if there's anything on his computer or tucked away in a drawer somewhere . . ."
"While you're left her to read a library book?" said Rebus.
"Playing to one of my many strengths."
"What? Basic literacy?"

How many mysteries make you laugh out loud? 

Yet another pleasure, which may be based on an illusion, is seeing the way the Scottish police work, the bureaucracy, the mechanics of how the system works. I say it may be an illusion because I have no idea whether what Rankin describes is accurate or not. Suffice it to say, the procedures, the infighting, the limitations, and the eventual results sound spot on. I still sure to what Rather Be the Devil refers; that, however, did not diminish my pleasure at all.