Tag Archives: east meets west

The Monday Book: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

You know that moment when you pick up a book, read a page, and feel the thrill of discovery? “I’ve got a live one here!”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist came into the bookstore in some bag or box, and because it was close to Christmas we were slower than usual triaging the collection for shelving. Jack and I agreed to close the store Christmas Eve Day and flee our responsibilities for an extended holiday, and as part of a last-minute packing job that covered twenty minutes from bag to door, I snatched Fundamentalist off the top of a pile as a “this looks good enough” book during our three days at the cabin.

The cabin is a deliberately isolated place, no phone, no Internet, no TV, in consequence of which we usually bring a book for each day. It was on day two, just after the morning news had ended on the radio, that I opened Hamid’s novel and began reading.

And reading. And savoring, and laughing, and drawing in a sharp breath, and diving headlong into a scary world of subtly-drawn tensions, coiled tight and ready to spring.

Hamid’s novel is about a Princeton graduate (Changez, and if one is prone to find meaning in character names, yes, it sounds like what he goes through) and Lahore native–a city of about 8 million, basically the NYC of Pakistan–who hits the good life in America at age 22, working high finance for a big investment firm. Think guys who do unspeakable things with computers that result in lots of money for a few, big bad changes for the rest.

But Changez begins to come unglued because of a few key forces. Chief among these is his tormented girlfriend, who as the novel progresses becomes a symbol of the two cities that dominate the book, Lahore and NYC; she cannot move past her own losses, and sinks into herself, a self-indulgent poor little rich girl incapable of coping with what’s happened to her. Did I mention the book is also about 9/11? At the same time, Erica (the girlfriend) could be Lahore, a city of ancient splendor reduced to the pale shadow of its former self, wasting with quiet dignity away into nostalgia for a life no longer possible.

Behind this love story going so sweetly, poetically, horribly bad is the tense political thriller of two men seated at a restaurant. The entire story is in fact Changez’s monologue to an unidentified American. The reader never hears the other man’s voice, but hints and innuendos undergirding the developing relationship mirror what’s happening inside Changez in his narrated biography.

Hamid writes with the delicacy of a world-class figure skater on thin ice, executing moves a lesser artist would fear to try on solid ground. At one point, as the Towers fall, a character, alone in his hotel room, smiles. That’s all; he just smiles, but the book pivots on this like a 200-pound muscle man who becomes poetry in motion, expressing things people just don’t say out loud. Ever.

It’s not a book everyone will like; it asks too many questions, suggests too many ambiguities. The very nature of its lady-or-the-tiger ending will bring some readers to their feet, shrieking in protest (sorry, very small spoiler there). But it is awesome, in the sense of inspiring something between fear and admiration for its unflinching, brutal understatement.

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Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, publishing, Uncategorized, writing

The Korean Interview, Pt. 1

Kyobo book club (3.2 million members, according to their website) in Korea recently picked up Little Bookstore for its readers. Here is the first half of an interview Wendy did for a national paper there, assisted by Hyoung Eun, translator extraordinaire.

In Korea, many of us worry about our after-retirement life and/or get sick of city life and migrate to the countryside, too. However, almost all infrastructures ― economic and cultural ― are concentrated in big cities. And that makes those who have higher levels of education and are used to conveniences and amenities of city life, hesitate to just up and leave. We are wondering if you had the same worries and fears before you moved to where you live now.

Absolutely. Especially after we found out how hard it was to advertise in a rural area with no media market except big papers or radio conglomerates we couldn’t afford to use! We didn’t worry so much about health and education because the stereotypes of rural lives aren’t that accurate. My parents were rural people transplanted to the city, and I saw a lot of local wisdom in our lives; we had common sense about things that broke, and whether they could be fixed, instead of just buying another one. My husband Jack is a lot like this too. British people in general and Scots in particular have common sense, close to the ground living values, and don’t just rush about in cities not examining how they live. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I find fairly often in cities, people are working harder to make money to pay people to do things they could do for themselves cheaply if they lived in the country. It’s a tradeoff of lifestyles: time for money. And when you really examine the way people in rural areas live, you find some of them flying below the radar (if that’s not a silly idiom) having excellent lives on their own terms. That really appealed to us.

2.     It can be said that a used book store also sells ‘cultural content (cultural goods)’. In that sense, did the gap of cultural infrastructure level between cities and countries work as a negative element to your business?

 

No, in fact quite the opposite. There’s a proverb that says “The poor sing, the rich listen.” We found a wealth of people looking for things to read, and so long as we kept our prices cheap so they could access the books, here came a steady stream of people who were excited to see us and access our stock. In rural areas, fairly often you have a lot of people who are under-employed, smarter than their jobs require them to be, because there’s less economic infrastructure. They want intellectual stimulation. So when we said, “Anybody want to run a special event at our bookstore?” we had very good amateur historians, astronomers, illustrators, people who did these things as hobbies and loved them, offering really great events with passion and purpose. If we’d been in the city, people wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to do that. And they sure wouldn’t have done it as a service to the community. They would have been “experts” commanding fees. It’s all about drawing from and giving back to the community.

 

3.     We understand that in western culture privacy means much more than in eastern countries, and because of that people generally maintain psychological (is it ‘mental?’) distance with each other. But from your book we got the impression that you keep tightly knitted relationships ― emotionally ― with customers. One can assume that it required a lot of energy on your part to build that kind of almost family-like circle of relationships. How was it? 

 

You have accurately described this constant dichotomy! We refer in Western culture to “boundaries,” the point beyond which we don’t pry into each other’s lives. There is also something called “Stranger value,” which I think I discussed in the book, that it is easier to tell a stranger you don’t see often or won’t see again things that are bothering you that you don’t want to discuss in your own family (because they’re part of it, usually!). At the bookstore, we wanted people to feel they could be who they were, say what they wanted to say. But we also aren’t licensed psychologists. We can put the kettle on and listen, but we can’t tell people what they should do.

 

And the bookstore has what my husband calls a core: a group of ten or so people who are our personal friends, who treat the bookstore as their own, know where we keep the cleaning supplies and use them if they see something needs done! Then we have regular customers, who say hi and know our names, but who don’t feel the bookstore is their second home, more their third place – that place that isn’t home or work where they’re valued as themselves, however they want to present themselves. And then there are people who just want to shop quietly, anonymous and alone, browsing for pleasure. Whatever the customer wants. So we let the customers set the boundaries, and we have a circle of friends we rely on at the core of the bookstore and our lives.

4. Also, we can imagine that sometimes those relationships would make you exhausted both emotionally and physically. What was it like?

We think of this as more of an enriching experience than an exhausting one. All life can be draining to some extent but I think we have gained so much from this that we consider ourselves very lucky. I found things to write about from all these encounters, among other things (but keeping people’s privacy intact while doing so!)

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor