Booklist 2017: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

There’s a reason why this was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize 2007 – it’s a cracking read. It is no small technical feat to write a story in first person whose protagonist you can sympathise with despite holding some offensive views. The way in which Hamid writes positions the reader in the point of view of ‘The American’ who is the listener to Changez, the narrator. It’s not exactly a comfortable position to be placed because as the reader I was never quite sure who is the hunter and who is the hunted. I was always on my toes, turning the pages, wondering what’s going to happen next. The author is able to simultaneously bring together cultural ideologies, global politics and intensely personal experiences into an engaging and thrilling narrative

This book stood out to me because the narrator struggles with his growing resentment at the country he tried to call home. As a man of Pakistani origins he would always be considered a foreigner in the US, pre- and especially post 9/11, and the character is inwardly torn trying to reconcile his feelings with society’s perceptions of who they think he is.

In my own journey of trying to belong in the UK, I could really relate to the identity struggles faced by the main protagonist. I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade now, and I’ve never felt I’ve truly belonged. Having to reapply for a visa every few years is a tangible reminder that I’m on borrowed time. I suppose, like the protagonist, I feel like an outsider for the most part – always a foreigner, despite all my efforts to integrate.

This story stayed with me and it’s one that I will probably read again someday.

 

Booklist 2017 – Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Imagine a world with knights in shining armour, dragons, evil villains and science experiments. It’s a great recipe for a fantastic adventure, and Nimona delivers just that. The writer and illustrator Noelle Stevenson blurs the line between hero and villain in this graphic novel that’s clever, funny and thoroughly engaging. Nimona started out as an online webcomic that the creator decided to publish as a book in 2015.

Without giving away too much, the story starts off in a classic fairytale intro with hero and villain with sidekick – just not in that order. Nimona crashes into the world of “the villain” – the brilliantly named Lord Baluster Blackheart, who I later learn is pitted against his friend-now-nemesis “the hero”, Sir Ambrosious Goldenlion (try saying that three times in a row without reverting to a radio voice). Yes I use inverted commas because all is not what it seems in the world of Nimona.

I will admit I didn’t like the title character Nimona at first. She was annoying in a hyperactive-child-on-coffee kind of way. She’s unpredictable, brash and impulsive. I pitied Blackheart for putting up with her but as the story progressed I learned to really love Nimona in all her insane impetuousness. She’s brave and wants to be part of something that makes her all the more determined to keep trying. Nimona is a weird, yet fitting addition to a world that acts as if it has clearly drawn sides of good and evil. Her existence helps to uncover the hypocrisy of what is considered “good” and “evil” and her energy is one that can’t be contained in such a binary distinction.

I think part of me would like to be more like her, being the stick in the mud that I am to schedules and plans! The story becomes much more complex than I originally gave it credit for, with twists and turns that I didn’t really expect and some proper laugh out loud moments. It’s no wonder it was a National Book Award Finalist (US based) and I can only (vainly) hope for the possibility of a Nimona 2.

 

Booklist 2017: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

 

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Ever burned a book? For me, it’s of those actions that I don’t cross my mind. Like deliberately tripping a blind person or pushing a pram down the stairs for kicks – it’s stuff that anyone with a moral compass wouldn’t think of doing. So picking up Fahrenheit 451 was a new sort of experience. Bradbury’s novel is set in a world that burns books because they’re forbidden. This novel is one of those on the dystopia world “must-reads” that I’ve known about but never picked up until this year. I suppose it’s my mood of the moment given the direction the US government is heading.

I can say I enjoyed the world in which the story takes place, but I really disliked the characters. The world is a fully realised nightmare on prozac: information levelled at the population with the sole aim to keep them distracted to maintain a happy kind of medium. Bread and circuses kind of deal. In this world, it’s an extremely empty happiness devoid of any purpose, which in turn, renders existence meaningless. The people in this world do nothing else but constantly consume the media, bombarded left, right and centre with simulation. Bradbury describes this state in such a way that I find quite unsettling because for me, the reader in 2017, it’s an fairly accurate description of how easy it is to find and stay distracted.

Books in this world are outlawed because they have the potential to make people think and thus, essentially become unhappy. Remaining books that are found are immediately burned. The story takes place in a world that’s at war but it’s like a passing thought amidst the placid and ignorant population. It’s in the best interests for people to stay happy and not think about what happening outside the bubbles. So, books are banned. An oversimplification of the context (I know), but that’s the general gist since there are far better essays / articles out there that properly deconstruct this world.

I suppose I didn’t like the story because I found myself sympathising with Mildred, the protagonist’s wife, who was more concerned with keeping her inner void at bay than being curious about where the act of reading books could take her. She’s a shell of a person – plastic and not really there. She has all the trappings of a very comfortable life that has no purpose. I really wanted her to “wake up” (in a very real sense) and do something. Do anything, but as the story progressed I became so frustrated because it was clear she actively chooses to remain as she is. The potential of facing the truth of this nothingness is represented in books and it’s disappointing, though not surprising, that she chose her path. I wasn’t rooting for her because I liked her – she is an awful person, but I think maybe, on some level, she reminds me of a potential, future kind of existence should I take the yearning for distraction to the extreme. I have complicated feelings about this book, which means I’ll probably need to re-read it later.

As ever, your thoughts and recommendations in the comments are welcomed!

Respective images via Senses of Cinema (which gives an excellent analysis of the film version of this book) and Messy Time Traveller Tumbler (the original image is a gif but is presented here as an image).