March 20, 2008

Madame Bovary and The Hours and The Kite Runner

Since my last book post, three of the books that I have read are Madame Bovary and The Hours and The Kite Runner. There are a bunch of other books, which I will post about when I have a chance.

Madame Bovary is supposed to be one of the best novels of all time. I definitely enjoyed it, but it baffles me how you can look at any book, no matter how good, and conclude that it is one of the best books of all time.

This may sound silly, but the most memorable passage for me was the description of the young Master Bovary's cap.
That cap belonged to the composite order of head-gear, and in it the
heterogeneous characteristics of the busby, the Polish shapska, the bowler, the
otterskin toque and the cotton nightcap were simultaneously represented. It was,
in short, one of those pathetic objects whose mute unloveliness conveys the
infinitely wistful expression we may sometimes note on the face of an idiot.
Ovoid in form and stiffened with whalebone, it began with a sort of triple line
of sausage-shaped rolls running all round its circumference; next, separated by
a red band, came alternate patches of velvet and rabbit-skin; then a kind of bag
or sack which culminated in a stiffened polygon elaborately embroidered, whence,
at the end of a long, thin cord, hung a ball made out of gold wire, by way of a
tassel. The cap was brand new, and the peak of it all shiny.
As I read the description, I had two interpretations. The first is that it the description is a masterfully precise description of an especially complicated cap. However, because of time, culture, and translation, the description is difficult for the modern reader to fully understand. The second interpretation is that this is an overblown, satiric description that is not meant to be understood. Either way, the end result is that I have imagined an impossibly complex monstrosity of a cap, a cap that makes Master Bovary look incredibly ridiculous, even when holding it.

The next book that I read was The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I haven't seen the movie, but I would like to. The book is quite short and there isn't a lot of action in it, so it does not seem like it would be difficult to contain all the action in a two hour movie. On the contrary, most of the story is about thoughts and how the characters interpret everything they see, which would be difficult to make into a movie.

One of the nice things about the book is that because it is only 200 pages, I felt like I could take my time reading it slowly. Some of the sentences are a little complex for a contemporary novel. (They remind me of the only Virginia Wolf book I've read, To the Lighthouse, even though that was almost ten years ago.) So I enjoyed the writing a lot more than if the book had been 400 pages.

At Amazon.com, The Kite Runner has over a thousand reviews, so it hardly needs another one. But here are a few comments anyway. Most of the summaries of this book state that it is the story of two boys. In fact, only about one-third of the book concerns the narrator's childhood. In a lot of books, the first third is just exposition, but in this book, the first 80 pages are clearly the best. In the last third of the book, the characters do not seem so real and the plot is more of a foreign thriller, as opposed to the memoir style of the beginning of the book. Particularly jarring for me was the letter from Rahim near the end of the book. It seemed a little too touchy-feely, bordering on psychobabble, for something coming from an Afghani. On the whole, it was still a good read.

The quotes on the front and back cover clearly state that one of the themes of the book is redemption, or "betrayal and salvation." From the moment of betrayal, I was considering what exactly redemption would require. There were not many ways that I could come up with that would offer full redemption. However, the author creates a situation that offers an almost tit-for-tat chance for redemption. You could complain that it was too neat, but if it were anything less, I think a lot of readers (like me) would feel that full redemption was not achieved.



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