Wednesday, February 25, 2009


How could I resist reading a bestseller written by a fellow software developer? Wroblewski borrows his plot from Hamlet, complete with the ghost and the poison, but to enjoy this book you really need to like dogs or at least like books about dogs. The Sawtelle dogs have been bred for generations for nebulous qualities and trained to be superb companions at eighteen months. In this book their characters are just as richly drawn as those of the people, with the exception perhaps of the title character. Edgar is an adolescent who has been mute since birth due to a physical limitation. Things really get rolling when his father dies suddenly and Edgar is unable to call for help. Edgar's mother Trudy is not particularly endearing, especially when she takes up with her husband's shady brother Claude. A not-so-accidental accident prompts Edgar to leave home with nothing but the clothes on his back and three loyal dogs. The section of the book that follows is the most gripping, as Edgar has to resort to breaking and entering to feed himself and the dogs. There are several Harry Potter-like supernatural events, including a foretelling of Edgar's fate. On the one hand, they detract from the book's realism, but, on the other hand, they're integral to the story, just as they were in Hamlet.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TERRORIST by John Updike

John Updike's Terrorist moves along rather sleepily at first, but Updike is just setting the stage for things to come. This novel takes a very disturbing look at the insidious way in which a religion or cause can mold a malleable young person into a pawn for sinister purposes. In this case, the cause is Muslim extremism a year after 9/11. Its prey is Ahmad, who has embraced Islam as his rudder through the usual taunts and temptations associated with being an American teenager. His high school guidance counselor is Jack Levy, a non-practicing Jew, who finds out too late that Ahmad, an excellent student and athlete, has no plans for college. Ahmad, instead, plans to drive a truck for a living, setting off alarms with the reader as to whether he will have a mission other than furniture delivery. Jack is more like the protagonist of Updike's Rabbit series, suffering from ennui and disillusionment. He's the perfect antagonist to Ahmad's singular purpose. What especially got to me was the pursuit of someone so young and promising to make the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. His purity is so appealing that it's particularly upsetting to realize that he's being used. Although it's easy to target Islam as the seducer here, just remember that Jim Jones was not a Muslim.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


In A Thousand Splendid Suns, two wives of the same man become unlikely friends in turmoil-ridden Afghanistan. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a rich man and finds out the hard way where she stands with his family. Laila is twenty years younger with an educated father and seemingly bipolar mother. Both women end up married to the much older Rasheed, who is virtually the devil incarnate. I enjoy books in which there is a moral dilemma and shades of gray where right and wrong are concerned, but most of the characters in this book can be divided into clear groups of good and evil. For that reason, I think The Kite Runner is Khaled Hosseini's better book, but a lot of women disagree, perhaps because A Thousand Splendid Suns is primarily about women. Only Jalil, Mariam's father, straddles the line between good and evil. He is conflicted as he tries to balance his love for Mariam with his desire to protect his good name. His biggest flaw, like that of the protagonist in The Kite Runner, is that he is a coward, and this weakness has tragic consequences. Also, The Kite Runner has an event that defies reality, whereas this book is almost too real. The brutality that dominates these women's lives is unimaginable, although I don't doubt for one second that their situation was common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The ending is fairly predictable and sentimental, but at least Hosseini's books offer some degree of hope.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


The stark prose of Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses matches its stark but vividly described Norwegian landscape. As with most translations, however, it has occasional phrasing and vocabulary that seem odd. The 67-year-old narrator, Trond, has moved to a remote cabin without indoor plumbing after losing his wife in a car accident that he survived. He describes himself as having "golden trousers" because he has always been lucky. (See what I mean about the translation?) However, I wouldn't consider him to have been that lucky. Not only did he lose his wife, but he was fifteen when he last saw his father. The tragic events and revelations of the last summer that he spent with his father are brought back to the surface when he reconnects with Lars, who lived near Trond's father. The way that the story is told, mostly in flashback, in a very wistful but not self-pitying manner, is just as important here as the characters and plot. It seems more haunting than sad; the book is never dreary. Also, this book is reminiscent of Leeway Cottage (see my July 2008 post) in which Jews were smuggled into Sweden from Denmark. Again, there's a history lesson here that Sweden served as a refuge for Jews from all over Scandinavia during WWII. Trond ends his story without asking the questions that I as a reader wanted to have answered, but perhaps that's partly the point—that we really don't need to know everything.