Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Riverhead Trade, 2004

Price: $15.00

ISBN-10: 1594480001

ISBN-13: 978-1594480003

Being multicultural myself, I have always been drawn to books that tell me about other countries and cultures, life experiences that are very different than mine. With current events what they are, I felt especially drawn to this book, The Kite Runner, a first novel by Khaled Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but living in the United States since 1980. Like so many Americans, I know little of this country, even as we are deeply embroiled in its affairs. I wanted to learn, to see, to better understand.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve…” Hosseini begins, and I am already hooked. It is one of those opening lines that in simple and clear language speaks volumes. What could this profound and transformative experience be that it would change a man forever?

I ran breathlessly after Hosseini’s kite runner through all the following pages. With an uncomplicated literary style, but masterful in storytelling skills, Hosseini kept me entranced for the full 400 pages. The story unfolds with two Afghan boys, similar in so many ways, yet different in those ways that can be crucial in the direction one’s life takes and the opportunities and privileges one has. One of the boys, Amir, the narrator, lives a life of relative privilege, while the other, Hassan, is his servant. While through much of their play this class difference does not seem to affect them—indeed, in so many ways the servant boy seems superior in intellectual and emotional maturity, even if without the same level of education—their differences arise in situations that test a boy’s mettle.

The string that binds this story together is the string of a kite. Apparently, a much loved activity for Afghan boys is kite flying, and that alone brings forth interesting descriptions of this sport. I had no idea, having flown one only once or twice in my own life, that a kite could be so expertly maneuvered and even used aggressively against another. Amir is a good kite flyer, but Hassan is an extraordinary kite runner. Never even looking up at the sky, Amir says, but almost as if by some inner sense knowing where the kite will fly and land. He runs for Amir, and he does so with utmost joy and devotion. He is not merely a servant to Amir, after all, but a devoted and utterly loyal friend.

It is during one such kite running episode, when Amir has won a tournament and longs for his father’s reticent approval in doing so, that the reader sees what is in the heart of each boy, and of what their spines are made.

Hassan has run for the kite, determined to bring it back to Amir as trophy, to be presented to his father. Unfortunately, the town bullies catch up with him first. And there is that moment that changes lives, and with its domino effects, as such moments do, one moment of weakness turning into a lifetime of coping with guilt and consequences, even, eventually, to the death of grown men and an orphaned boy.

“A havoc of scrap and rubble littered the alley. Worn bicycle tires, bottles with peeled labels, ripped up magazines, yellowed newspapers, all scattered amid a pile of bricks and slabs of cement. A rusted cast-iron stove with a gaping hole on its side tilted against a wall. But there were two things amid the garbage that I couldn’t stop looking at: One was the blue kite resting against the wall, close to the cast-iron stove..." (page 75)

What brings greatness to this novel is that it finds those moments that reveal us, that change us, that direct our lives ever after. It could be argued that each and every moment that we draw a breath does so. Yet some moments do so more than others. Those difficult moments, those moments when we are faced with hard choices, those are the defining moments. We see in the next scene the crass difference between the hero and the coward. And because life is not drawn in black and white, we see also that cowards occasionally show heroic traits, and that guilt can weigh so heavily, that it, too, can become a force for good.

If there is escape in the more obvious ways, in place and distance and time, there is no escape from such defining moments. They follow us everywhere, they taint every day of our lives ever after. If they do not, then we belong to the group of human beings known as sociopaths and psychopaths—those without conscience. Those without hope. Amir, at least, burns with his shame and his guilt, and as life so often does, he comes to another difficult moment many years later when he can choose once again—hero or coward. He may have his redemption, perhaps, but the price is even higher.

Hosseini never releases his reader. Not one scene is unbelievable. Not one scene is out of place. Not one moment isn’t important in some manner for this story to proceed, and take the reader along with it in vivid experience. Moments of choice are known to us in all cultures, but by the end of Hosseini’s tale, we have learned something more about the Afghan culture, about the Taliban and the war and the cruelties of which man is capable, even as we see the true heroism of which, sometimes, the very same man can also be capable. We also witness the bad seed, the man with so much darkness in his soul that he is beyond redemption.

So often when we hear about a great book, our expectations are so high that we are bound to be disappointed. I had heard much. I was not disappointed. My only disappointment was in later watching the movie—even while true to the book, it lacked the author’s fine nuances that brought the story to immediate life. Skip the movie. Do not miss the book.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Stitches, A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Hardcover: 336 pages
· Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009
· Price: $24.95
· ISBN-10: 0393068579
· ISBN-13: 978-0393068573

Good thing I was on vacation when I received the news that my book club, the indomitable Book Mavens, was going to have a special luncheon with David Small and his writer wife, Sarah Stewart, in their hometown of Mendon, Michigan. Wonderful! I would have an opportunity to feature the author/illustrator in the Summer 2010 Issue of The Smoking Poet. First, however, I must get my hands on Stitches

Vacation, off the clock. I wandered into the first, eclectic little book store, locally owned, that I could find in Madison, Wisconsin. I didn’t even have to ask. There it was: Stitches, A Memoir, written and drawn by David Small, on the front shelf, eye level. I set a copy down on the counter next to the cashier, and she started paging through it and very nearly forgot me. Hello? Could I buy this book? Oh! Yes!

And that’s what I did when I got back to my cozy B&B. I, too, got lost in Stitches. Very much like the little David, six years old, spreading out the white page before him and diving into it, gone, gone, sunk into it. I was immersed for the remainder of the evening and late into the night. I dreamt Stitches. In the morning, over breakfast, I’d finished it.

Almost a guilty pleasure. Like reading comic books as a kid when I should be reading something serious, only this was serious, very serious, as serious as the topic of child abuse and deeply dysfunctional families. No caped wonder here, only a little boy growing up in Detroit, Michigan, with a physician father who seems to think radiation cures every possible ill, and a frustrated and angry lesbian mother, who isn’t doing such a hot job of keeping up the closeted fa├žade. The memoir takes us from David at age six to David at age 16.

David Small, as I would learn at our book club luncheon back in Mendon, Michigan, is more illustrator than author. Drawing, he says, is his language. Images, after all, as we all know, speak a thousand words if skillfully formed. Small is known as an illustrator of many fine children’s books, many of which are stamped with prestigious medals in children’s literature. Some of these have been written by his wife, Sarah Stewart.

But Stitches was something that was swelling inside of him, something that cried for release. Small's childhood was a strange and dark time, a time of being caught between adult dynamics, the scapegoat for adult idiosyncrasies and adult mental illness. Small was compelled to mold his own suppressed rage into drawings, pages and pages of drawings, three years' worth of drawings—and this book was the final result.

Pages of this memoir are nothing but drawings. Words are sparse, and often, there is no need for them. Small’s artwork is the sort that speaks volumes in but a few freely expressed lines. A boy’s wide-eyed expression of stunned confusion. Or, the perspective from the boy’s eyes, looking out at the odd and often frightening world around him.

Images: Immense radiation equipment, a father holding him down on the cold, tiled floor for a forced enema. A mother who ignores the swelling on his throat until a glamorous woman attending a party at the Small house points out the growth on the child’s neck and embarrasses his mother into doing something about it. Waking up in a dark hospital room to find a long, ragged wound down his throat, cancerous vocal cord removed, voiceless. A maniacal grandmother who drags the boy upstairs and forces his hands under boiling water. A teen being arrested for driving the stolen family car without a license, long shadows falling from the block building of the police station. A large rabbit with immense eyes, offering therapy to the growing boy. The beginning of an answer to a stitched-up life …

This is no comic book. This is more like the experience of being drawn into a movie—indeed, in meeting the author/artist, he spoke of thinking as a movie director might, coming in for close-ups, withdrawing into the distance to evoke isolation, clipping scene after scene. Reading, or viewing, something like this was a new experience for me, and if I had picked up Stitches expecting something like a comic book, I was stunned at how profound pages of gray-washed images could be. For while Small’s language is in art, mine is in words, and I was taken aback by how moving his language, his ability to express a full spectrum of emotion, his artistic power, could be in the format of a book.

Stitches was a finalist in the 2009 National Book Awards, and has garnered much praise and acclaim among artists and book lovers of all kinds. I count myself among them.

Read the account of a book club luncheon, Talking to David Small.