A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

It seems a dull kind of recommendation, but I cried terribly while reading this book. Moreover, I actually held my breath at some points, not daring to move or make a sound for fear of what should happen to the characters. The story isn’t sweet, or comforting, or funny, but it is so, so beautiful.

A little girl, Mariam, grows up in a remote cabin in sixties’ Afghanistan, living with her manipulative mother. The two are shunned by the inhabitants of a nearby town: Mariam is a harami, the bastard child of a rich businessman, Jalil. At just fifteen years old, she is married off by Jalil to a middle-aged man who lives in the capital: Kabul. Torn away from her little cabin, she has to grow up in her new house, at the same time performing her duties as a wife for the harsh and demanding Rasheed. She is both afraid of and dependent on her husband, craving his sporadic attentions and dreading his contempt. As years go by and Mariam can’t give Rasheed the sons that he wanted from the marriage, he becomes more and more abusive and even cruel.

The story then shifts to follow the growing up of another little girl, who made an entirely different start in life. Born in Kabul on the night of the communist april coup of 1978, Laila’s life is intertwined with the history of her country from the start. Her parents are kind, supportive people: her mother is very practical and her father, an academic, anything but. They argue a lot because of their worries about Laila’s brothers, who are at the front, fighting the faraway war against the communists. But Laila loves her parents very much and is well taken care of. She enjoys going to school and spending time with her girlfriends or her best friend, Tariq, an exuberant crippled boy.

Mariam and Laila are thrown together in a violently shocking and heartbreaking way when the civil war comes to Kabul, bringing death and devastation with it. The pain the two young women endure is trumped only by the strong bond they develop, as one does, over tea. Humiliation and fear, disempowerment and dependency in their most infuriating forms are put to shame by the quiet defiance of two women, whose eyes seem to shimmer all the brighter from behind their burqa’s: Khaled Hosseini creates women characters of immeasurable strength.

Mariam’s keen interest in learning, from simple sums to world affairs, is consistently rebuked by people who believe a girl, especially a harami, doesn’t need to be educated. When she asks Rasheed what a ‘communist’ is, he laughs at her for being so ignorant that she doesn’t even know such a common term. He then refuses to explain, making it very clear that he doesn’t know what a communist is either. But when she is older, Mariam focuses all that undeveloped intelligence on Laila and her small children. What she was denied herself, she doesn’t begrudge the younger woman and she gives all that is in her power in order to ensure a future for Laila, protecting the girl and overcoming her own fears. Laila makes hard choices also, but it is Mariam who leaves you in astonishment through her unselfishness.

This, in my opinion, makes for a better ‘strong woman’ than characters who show no vulnerability, who take the lead and play the hero. Mariam fits no stereotype: she is insecure, jealous, and scared. The strength she finds throughout her life doesn’t come from a desire to do the noble thing, but rather from intuition and instinctive love, even though she hasn’t had the best role models. Laila isn’t perfect either: she can be childish (though to be fair, she is a child for most of the book), and quick-tempered at all the wrong moments. Even Rasheed, mostly a brute, has his tender moments, just like Laila’s parents, who are mostly likeable, can be weak and mean.

People seem to love or hate this book. If they propagate the last sentiment, they usually point out that a few flaws don’t make a well-rounded character. This is true, but I think they expect a more explicit kind of storytelling than Khaled Hosseini practices. This is not a book in which characters make very distinct right or wrong choices. Often a ‘three-dimensional character’ is expected to have a combination of good and bad, like a murderess who loves her wife or a wise general who lies about his feelings to the people he holds dear. But real people also have characteristics that are neither good nor bad, or a bit of both. This book focuses on those characteristics: it shows the main characters’ actions, words and thoughts without much interpretation. Therefore the amount of times that a sympathetic character does something clearly bad, or an unlikable character does something strikingly good, are scarce.

The same goes for the book’s treatment of situations and cultural practices. Khaled Hosseini describes patiently the many ambiguous scenes that make up real life. For instance, Mariam, bewildered and scared in her new home town, is surprised by the comfort she takes in the burqa that Rasheed orders her to wear. It allows her to hide from strange faces in the street and reassures her that her husband cares about her honour. At the same time, she doesn’t have a choice in wearing the garment and her husband is actually the person who scares her the most out of everyone. She is even more confused when she finds a porn magazine in Rasheed’s room. She can’t reconcile her husband’s concern for her honour with his interest in the naked women on the pictures.

The book is truly a wonder of storytelling. As the story unfolds, Khaled Hosseini colours the country, and especially the city with its different districts, the women baking bread at the communal tandoor (clay oven), the smell of green tea with cardamom. An unknown place stops being exotic or fairytale-like once it becomes real to a person, and this book makes Afghanistan all too real. National and even global developments are brought back to simple, almost small life stories of ordinary people. Through them it becomes clear that Afghanistan is broken but not shattered, ailing but far from dead. On the contrary: it brims with life under the rusted cover of the violence and successive terror reigns.

Book dedication award for: “This book is dedicated to Haris and Farah, both the noor [light] of my eyes, and to the women of Afghanistan.”

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (New York, 2007)

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Jo Robin

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin

As the saying goes, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be fair: I did. Just starting off with the title, ‘The Axeman’s Jazz’: such a brilliant combination of two of my favourite things! Then there was the subtitle: ‘New Orleans, 1919. As music fills the city, a serial killer strikes…’ Now I was getting really enthusiastic, as 1919 was a wonderful and shady time, especially in New Orleans. And lastly, a skull with a top hat decorated the cover. I was sold. Though I do have some points of critique, I was not disappointed.

Based on actual crimes, the story starts off in the gritty surroundings of New Orleans. In 1919 the city was filled with a variety of shady people: cops on the mafia’s payroll, prostitutes from the former Storyville red-light district and their pimps, governors and paupers, creoles and voodoo doctors, and other colourful people. Through these streets wanders a terrifying killer, who has killed many already, leaving them with their heads cleaved open and a tarot card at their side. The Axeman invokes fear into the hearts of every citizen by posting a letter in the newspaper, saying that he will spare those who play jazz music on a specific night, because he is a great fan of jazz music apparently. Everyone seems to have a different theory on this serial killer’s identity, but the three main characters of this book, each searching for him in their own way, are the only ones getting any closer.

First there is Michael Talbot, a police detective and one the few honest men on the force, or so it seems. The rest of the squad actually dislikes him for his honesty and for being a ‘rat’. He is a rather introverted man and carries a great secret of the home he makes with a black woman. During his investigation into the Axeman however, some unorthodox routes seem inevitable, and he must take great care not to put his family in danger.
Ida is a young girl, who has filled her free time with reading Sherlock Holmes and now works as a secretary at Pinkerton Detective Agency. She has the great advantage of being black, but also being so light-skinned that she doesn’t seem out of place with both black and white groups of people. This gives her the opportunity to poke around unnoticed, which she does, when she decides to go after the Axeman all by herself. Her boss, the great Lefebvre, is always drunk anyways. With her she drags along her childhood friend ‘little’ Lewie Armstong.
And then there’s Luca d’Andrea, who is the former protégé of Michael Talbot, but ended up in jail after Michael exposed his corrupt behaviour on the force. Now, just released from Angola Prison after doing six years, Luca once again ends up with the mafia, who have their own urgent reasons for solving the Axeman mystery.

This book will take you through the streets of New Orleans and the swamps just outside of the city. As the story focuses on the outskirts of the city, you’ll actually be able to smell the rotten stink of the swamps and the feel the filth on your skin of the red-light district. This is the city where everyone is an outsider and, at the same time, no one is. The writing is absolutely superbly done. There is just one downside to this intricate way of writing and that is that you do get lost while reading. There’s just too much going on. While following the individual investigation processes into the Axeman, they follow every little lead and you’re constantly wondering: why was this important again? And to top it off, with the mafia involved, there are all these minor characters with Italian names and keeping them separated is difficult: Amanzo, De Luca, d’Andrea, Lombardi, Sandoval, Carlo etc.

As an avid crime enthusiast, I did very much enjoy this novel. It’s dark, unpredictable and really well set up. The ending was brilliant in my opinion, simply because not all your questions are answered in the end, and that is in fact what happens in most investigations. All three investigations look into different aspects of the mystery and they tie in nicely at the end. The reader knows the full story, though the characters do not. As I mentioned, it is very important to keep your head in the game while reading, because of the complexity of the story, but it will definitely keep you on your toes. Also, keep in mind that this was Ray Celestin’s debut and an exceptionally well-written fictional account of an actual murder.

My favourite character by far was Ida. She is a strong young black woman and absolutely fearless. She dives into this investigation head first, defying her boss by doing so, and places herself in extreme danger. She’s not afraid to spy on the most lethal people and even break into their homes. She gets beat up, almost raped and even kidnapped at some point, but does this stop her? No, of course not! She is not only courageous, but also highly intelligent and independent. Her sidekick is Lewie Armstrong, who comes from the same poor background as she does. And yes, this is the later famous Louis Armstrong, playing for his money, trying to support his son Clarence and with a dubious background. It was pretty cool to incorporate his background into the story, but I felt that it got in the way of Ida’s story. We learn very little about her upbringing, while we learn a lot about Lewis’, though he is only her sidekick. I would have liked Ida to be a bit more centred and her character more explored. Because, have I mentioned yet how much I love Ida?

The best thing about this book is the historical accuracy mixed in with the fiction. Because the facts do match up. The story of the Axeman fascinated me long before reading this book. The Axeman was a serial killer active in New Orleans from 1918 to 1919, though some say he started killing in 1911 already. Most of his victims were of Italian descent, just as in the book, which suggested some sort of connection to the mob. However, the historical Axeman was never caught or identified. He did cause public panic, when a letter attributed to the killer appeared in a newspaper saying he would spare those who played jazz music. Some even said he killed in an attempt to promote jazz music. And here we come to my last point of critique: apart from the letter, unfortunately this book seriously lacks jazz music.

Horrible Historian Award: historians with a macabre taste will love both the historical accuracy, as well as the fiction of this book

Ray Celestin, The Axeman’s Jazz (London, 2014)

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Thura Nightingale

Warm bodies (warm bodies #1) by Isaac Marion

This book is many different things: it tells how humankind alienated from each other to such an extent that it zombificated the human race. It is a love story about two people who start a life together in a world that is rapidly disintegrating around them. It is a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. And lastly it is a great adventure story. And everything within 300 pages! Let me tell you how successful Isaac Marion was.

The story in this book is told by a zombie, R, who is slowly turning human again. In the beginning of the book he lives with many other zombies in an airport where they shuffle around and grunt to each other as their way of conversing. Once in a while, they group together and go to the abandoned city to look for people to eat.  In this story the human enclave hides out in a stadium, but once in a while they have to get out to scavenge for medicine and other useful stuff. During those scavenger hunts they frequently end up as food for the zombies. The other protagonist in this story, Julie, is a member of one of those scavenger teams, together with her friend Nora and her boyfriend Perry. R and Julie are the couple in this book, so you can probably guess who is not going to survive the next trip into the city…

Indeed Perry ends up dead. R kills him and takes his brains to snack on later. Also he saves Julie by taking her with him to his aircraft home at the airport. Somehow Nora also gets away, because we meet her again later. Once Julie is safe in R’s aircraft she is not allowed to leave again, because the other zombies in the airport would kill her. So there she is, terrified, trapped in a confined space with a zombie who only stares at her and plays records. I do not know how R did it, but somehow he managed to make Julie fall in love with him. Maybe it was his great taste in music.  The part where this story gets weird, beside the zombies of course, is that by eating Julie’s ex-boyfriend’s brains he also experiences his memories, especially memories of Perry’s relationship with Julie. The fact that R falls in love with Julie, while he gets to know her better through Perry’s memories of her, makes this certainly an original love story. It helps to accept their relationship because R is an awkward geekhead of whom it is hard to imagine horrible things. I was more puzzled that after some initial difficulties Julie seemed to accept it so easily.

This book is part of a bigger series, and therefore only gives some general ideas of the world it is set in. There are hints of a bigger context and reason behind the zombie apocalypse, but because the characters in the book know little of it, you as reader know little as well. There is a prequel to this book, the new hunger, which talks about the first few months of the zombie outbreak and how the world starts to fall apart. The sequel, the burning world, which follows events in warm bodies, shows how the rest of the world is coping with the zombies (not well) and it reveals more of the cause, which makes that one a very haunting read. In warm bodies it is therefore not really explained where the zombies came from, and why some zombies turn human again. There are only theories that it is because people somehow lost contact with each other and turned into zombies. Consequently, the remedy is to find that human connection again, as R did with Julie. This theory of zombification makes this book more interesting than stories using the conventional theory that zombies are nothing more than slow, brain eating corpses. In my opinion that makes this a book especially worth reading, because the best stories are not confined in genre boundaries.

The love story is inspired by Romeo and Juliet, although I never really saw this book as a true re-telling, because the love story is not the most important element in the book. It is true that the lovers both come from a background were they kill the other, Julie’s father is even the leader of the people trying to kill the zombies, but this story is more than a love story.  The zombies need brains to survive, and by eating them they substitute for the lack of human connection they have as zombies, because they have the memories. Therefore killing, and eating brains, is an aggressive way for the zombies to get the connection everyone needs, even the zombies. Love is used in this book as a strong example of that human connection.

The style Marion writes in is both funny, because it is sarcastic, and emotional. However sometimes he tends to be overly dramatic. This can be annoying, especially because he tends to repeat himself when he tries to argue a point. This is ideal if you are the kind of person who quickly misses the message in a book, but not really necessary in such a short book as this one. The redeeming part of the writing, which might come as a surprise after my previous point, is that the events in the story are fast-paced. There is a lot of running zombies, drunken zombies, fights, angry people and the narrowly saving of people. All these events follow each other rapidly and makes this a book you can read through quickly because you want to know what is going to happen next. This book takes you on a wonderful adventure, with a deeper meaning to be discovered with the second reading.

Grrrrrrhhh award for zombies who make you feel alive again.

Isaac Marion, warm bodies (London, 2010)

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Bella G. Bear

Around the World in Eighty Days (Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours) by Jules Verne

Since my friends and I are going on a hike in the French Ardennes this summer, I thought it wise to study a little French. After all, we all know what happens to school-French after you’ve been graduated for awhile. I read Around the World in Eighty Days in Dutch before, so I hoped I would be able to understand the story even when I didn’t know every word. I’m halfway through now and realise I’m not going to finish it before vacation and, also, that my French is terrible.

The story sets off with stoic gentleman Phileas Fogg going about his peaceful business. He is a rich London bachelor, whose daily routine is pegged down to the second. At the start of the book, on 1 October 1872, Fogg takes on a French manservant called Jean Passepartout. This young man hopes for a structured, calm life with the Englishman, after a chaotic past in France. Unfortunately, on Passepartout’s first day of employment, Fogg makes a bet with fellow members of his beloved Reform Club. He thinks that, with advancements in railwaytracks developing as they do, he can travel around the world in only eighty days and he intends to prove this. Departure: that same night.

Unbeknownst to them or the gentlemen who are striking bets on their endeavour, Fogg and Passepartout are followed almost immediately by a very determined detective of the Scotland Yard named Fix. A London bank was robbed by a thief looking like a gentleman and detective Fix’s infallible instinct tells him the culprit is Phileas Fogg, fleeing under the ruse of a ridiculous bet. The poor detective’s dogged determination is kept in check by bureaucracy: a warrant to arrest Fogg follows him around the world, always merely hours too late to be of use.

Meanwhile, Fogg calmly takes delays, obstacles and unexpected cries for help in his stride, while the passionate Passepartout despairs at every setback. Jules Verne created in Fogg the ultimate English gentleman as he saw (and admired) them: rational, generous, taciturn and bloody unstoppable. The thing is, not every obstacle can be removed by a bribe or a convenient elephant (her name is Kiouni). It remains to be seen if the group, joined by a young lady called Mrs. Aouda in India, can make it through three continents in time and without being apprehended by Fix. On their way, they make stupid mistakes like getting drugged in an opium den and pull far-fetched moves to ensure the success of their journey, like instigating mutiny.

Verne’s admiration for the English culture returns in the way he characterises the British Empire: the Europeans somehow bring order and civilisation wherever they go, while chaos and barbaric customs rule supreme in the places they have not yet reached. Descriptions of people or places rarely move beyond the superficial or the stereotypical either. This goes for faraway America and the Asian countries as much as for the main characters: English Phileas Fogg is ever unruffled, French Passepartout is always in a passion. Mrs. Aouda hardly has any dialogue or characteristics apart from being ladylike. These characters, almost caricatures, don’t seem to be the result of imcompetence on Verne’s part though. He uses enlarged versions of reality to poke fun at the slightly ridiculous sides of different cultures. It makes the characters hilarious, if not very realistic.

Verne excels at incredibly detailed description of the route, which runs through Europe, the then-very-new Suez Canal, a great part of Asia, and North America. It gets a little boring here and there but does add to a sense of travelling for the reader. Verne’s clear fascination for modern inventions shines through in the way he writes about different trains and steamers, but his account also contains a lot of good, oldfashioned adventure and intrigue. Perhaps even a love story? It must be a very worthy woman who can pierce the armoured heart of Phileas Fogg while he is busy proving a point.

Back to the superficial. My copy of this classic is not as pretty as many I’ve seen – it’s a battered paperback that my mother picked up in France or Morocco (so it’s not even actually mine). It has the original illustrations, though, which are gorgeous:

The history of Around the World is quite as interesting as the book itself. The story was initially published as a series in France, with its timeline the same as real time (October – December 1872). Some people didn’t realise it was fiction and placed actual bets with actual money on Fogg’s success or failure. How powerful Verne must have felt…

In the many years since its publication, the book has been adapted to film, television and on stage multiple times. Of those adaptations, the 1956 film Around the World in Eighty Days is very well known. It has the famous scene of the hot air balloon in it, which is not actually in the book. The idea is only suggested in the original story as a joke: an adventurous but unrealistic means of long distance travel.

Anyways, people all around the world were fascinated by the idea of travelling around the world. In 1889, excellent American journalist Nellie Bly decided to test Fogg’s theory by following in his footsteps. And guess what? It took her only 72 days AND she met Jules Verne while passing through France. She travelled alone, with very little cash, at twenty-five years old. It makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life. At least I have books; and luckily for most of us, this one is translated to many, many languages.

Top Hat Award for yet another crush on a fictional gentleman

Jules Verne, Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours (France, 1873)
Illustrations by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville and Léon Benett

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Jo Robin