The Bookseller of Kabul

A sad day. Claire will be leaving us in order to have her feet operated on. She needed an excuse to buy new shoes, and alteration of her feet seemed like the most sensible option. The next time we see her, they’ll be size 11 (men’s) and covered in a thick carpet of curly brown hair. Rrr. She still wants to be sent the minutes though (and we still want to read what she has to say about the books we read), and she might even return in half a years time when the swelling recedes.

Still, on to the book. It was Claire’s choice. She chose The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. She also chose the pub – Williamsons Tavern, in Groveland Court. An excellent choice as, I think, everyone agreed. The beer was good. The cider was good. The wine was good. Even the hot chocolate was most enjoyable – but, perhaps, served in cups that were a little bit too small.

Paul found the book to be strange, and hard to form an opinion about. He expected it to be one story, and found it hard to keep track of all the small stories and their minor characters. Parts of it were disturbing, such as the extreme sexism, the unjust treatment of the poor carpenter, the young boys being used as surrogate girls for the sexual gratification of the tribesmen in the northern ‘bad lands’. He was also disturbed by the incestuous marriages within the family – although he is from Norfolk, so this may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It was rather disjointed, and Paul wondered how much of it was true, and how much was ‘interpretation’. It wasn’t easy to read, but it was interesting and educational.

Claire chose the book because she’d read lots of recommendations. On balance though, it wasn’t what she thought it was going to be, although it still interested her. She was surprised by the emphasis on the women’s lives – she thought that it was going to be a book about the bookseller. She didn’t like the bookseller, but she tried to be objective – and wondered whether or not he was as black as he was painted. Claire found it hard to relate to the difficulties of the Afghan women, to having to wear the Burqa. Leila’s story was the most interesting for Claire. She didn’t feel like she’d learned anything new, and found it difficult to separate the fact from the fiction.

Sangeeta suspected that the author might be a compulsive liar. She thinks that Asne Seierstad might be guilty of exaggeration to add shock value. She thought it would be a story about a likeable bookseller, and was shocked when it turned out to be a supposedly true documentary about a selfish arrogant tyrant and his poor suffering family. She was amazed at how backward Afghanistan seemed, and the portrayal of the poor standard of life that the women ‘enjoy’. Given that the stories are the view points of only three women, possibly distorted by the words of a westerner, she couldn’t separate the truth from the imagination. She isn’t surprised that Sultan is suing the author – the Afghans have a tradition of hospitality, and to have the hospitality thrown back in your face isn’t very nice! Despite all that though, she was glad that she read the book.

Ilona couldn’t relate to the story, but it was an eye-opener for her. It was, she said, an easy read and told very much from a woman’s perspective. She suspects a certain amount of bias. It was hard to keep track of all the characters and Sultan sounds like an ‘arsehole’. Ilona found The Bookseller of Kabul to be readable, but not necessarily enjoyable.

Jon would have preferred the book to be a novel; he couldn’t believe in it as a semi- documentary – he worried about the truthfulness of it. Because of this, he preferred the parts that were narrative driven such as the shopping trip and the pilgrimage to the tomb. His favourite character was the ostracized brother, and he would have liked to have read more about him. Jon thought Sultan was hypocritical and inconsistent in his dealings with people, but probably not very representative of the people of Afghanistan – especially given his position in society. He’s glad he read the book though, and he liked the description of the three burqas shopping in the market.

James enjoyed the book. He thought that the emotion was well described and believable. He felt that he could relate to the characters, although he also commented that we don’t know enough about the Afghan people to give the story context. Perhaps, he says, that isn’t the point. The book isn’t about the Afghan people as a whole; it is just about one family. James found the book to be slightly strange with its mix of fact and fiction, but he was pleased that it wasn’t too simplistic. James also commented on the two sides of Sultans personality – his liberal business views, and his harsh dealings with his family and with the carpenter.

Sarah agrees with Jon’s comments, but adds that she read it as a work of fiction. Sultan likes to imagine that he is enlightened and modern, but he isn’t so different from anyone else. He’s a hypocrite. Sarah liked the way the author could see both sides of the culture – the male side because she has the special privileges granted to westerners, and the female side because she is a woman. With notable exceptions, such as the three burqas in the market, Sarah found the book to be rather dry. She didn’t, for example, enjoy the account of a grumpy and overheated Sultan smuggling himself into Pakistan. She’s glad she read the book, although she’d have liked more history and culture, but she wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Pascal (that’s me) thought the book was great. I could believe it as a documentary and enjoy it as fiction. I was gripped by everything that happened, and I made mental notes about places and situations and then looked them up on Wikipedia. Factually, the book seemed to be consistent with the information available on-line. I was particularly disturbed by the warrior tribesmen of the north who strictly segregated women to the extent that they were not seen outside of the family, and then had sexual relationships with boys who were made up to look like girls. May I just remind you all how much I hate fundamentalism! Prior to reading the descriptions of what it is like to wear the Burqa, I hadn’t considered what it must be like to be confined to one. Asne Seierstad describes this horrible and pointless piece of clothing very well indeed. I found the description of the journey north to be rather depressing as it recalled the beautiful vista of flowers that once grew in the bombed out wasteland. Everyone else has commented on Sultan – I shan’t add my ha’porth, except to say that I agree. It’s very sad to think that the fairly liberal, enlightened Afghanistan of the 1970’s is now consigned to history.

Claire read A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly. She really liked it – it’s a murder mystery set in the American West a long time ago. It’s based on a true story.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was unputdownable, but Claire guessed everything. It didn’t surprise her at all.

Small Island by Andrea Levy is about Jamaica’s contribution to the Second World War, and their subsequent bad treatment when the war ended. Actually, Claire mentioned something about ‘the shitty end of the stick’, but I chose to edit that incase any of you got offended.

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam is a murder story set in an English Pakistani community. It’s beautifully written and well worth reading.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is about a book group that discusses nothing but the works of Jane Austen. Claire doesn’t comment on whether or not she enjoyed it. At least, if she did then I didn’t hear her. It might be a great read – but I suspect that it’s crap.

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor is about a little girl growing up in Ireland during the Second World War. There’s anti British feeling in her community, and the houses of English settlers are being burned. Against all this, the little girl is being sent to England and she doesn’t want to go…

Sangeeta read Persuasion by Jane Austen. It has a feisty heroine, and it’s very good – really compelling. Sangeeta admits that she might be a bit biased though. She’s a huge Jane Austen fan.

The Five People You Meet In Heaven is ‘touching’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘lovely’. It’s also thought provoking, and Sangeeta thinks that it will appeal to everyone.

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru is really weird and, unlike Transmission, very good indeed. It’s about an Indian princess who has an illicit affair with an Englishman, gets pregnant (whereupon the Englishman dies), and then marries an Indian prince. Parenthood confusion shenanigans ensue.

Ilona also read A Gathering Light. It’s a slow burner, but it got better as she progressed. She adds that it’s about a little girl who is more intelligent than her family gives her credit for.

A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy is about a female journalist on assignment in another country. She marries a man she meets whilst covering her story, gets pregnant – and suffers appalling postnatal depression. It’s gripping and unexpected.

Where Rainbows End by Cecilia Ahern is readable, but not as good as PS, I Love You. It’s a trashy read written in the style of e-mails and letters.

Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom is thought provoking and very readable. Ilona recommends it most highly.

Jon read very little – but, once more, he proffers his art history course as an excuse. He read a trashy sci-fi book called Demolished Man by Jack Holdiman. I think that Jon invented the author though because Amazon has never heard of him. I suspect the author is really Alfred Bester. It fits Jons description anyway.

He also tried to read My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, but he couldn’t get past chapter 4.

James read the rest of Chronicles by Bob Dylan. He’ll bring it in so that someone else can enjoy it. It’s amazing. He felt part of ‘the scene’ whilst reading it, although he thinks it strange that Bob’s family doesn’t get mentioned much.

Sarah read The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (the perpetrator of The Moomins). It’s about a grand mother and a precocious small child who live on an island. It’s really sweet and it’s really funny.

She also read Brick Lane by Monica Ali. She’s not enamoured with it. It’s unbelievable.

I read lots of books. Miracle at Kitty Hawk is a collection of the letters ofWilbur and Orville Wright interspersed with historical notes written by the editor, Fred Kelly. It provides an insight to their triumphs and failures, their accidents and their successes. It’s fascinating – and rather biased, it doesn’t acknowledge the successes of their competitors in the field. It’s very good though, but probably only for people obsessed with flying.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke starts slowly and is quite dry to begin with. As it progresses though it becomes more and more gripping until about a third of the way through the book when it becomes unputdownable. It’s a sort of adult Harry Potter or Dark Materials. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasies of Magic.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is pure fiction about Afghanistan. It’s written by an Afghan in America, and it’s clearly for the American market. It’s melodramatic and full of preposterous coincidences. It isn’t as good as The Bookseller of Kabul. It’s clearly aimed at credulous Americans – but it is, despite that, highly enjoyable. And more than a little bit sick.

Enigma by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is an excellent account of the cryptography of World War Two, concentrating mainly on the efforts of the Bletchley Park mathematicians to crack the German Enigma codes. It misses out on Colossus completely – which seems like rather an oversight bearing in mind that Colossus was the world’s first digital electronic programmable computer.

Finally, it was James’s book choice this month. He chooses Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis (ISBN 0-224-07125-4). We’ll be meeting on the first Monday in April (4th).

Incidentally, despite the dissatisfaction previously voiced about my minutes, there have been many plaintive cries about their late arrival of this month. I apologise. I’ve been very busy. But I’m flattered that you want to read them. I’ll take the distressed yelps as a tacit admission that I’m great, and I’ll dismiss your previous complaints as the uppity snarling of young whelps in a pathetic challenge to the alpha male. That’s me, by the way.