Reading Roald: Deliciously creepy short stories

dahl

It felt like a cockroach had crawled across my brain. How could these words have been written by the pen that inked James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG? This was my first encounter with a Roald Dahl short story.

And then I remembered: The Witches. An orphan boy, told tales by his grandmother of witches with deformed feet, bald heads and a hatred of children. Dark and sinister, the clue that the story was written for children evident mainly by the happy ending. It made sense to me then. The Roald Dahl of my childhood is the same as the Dahl of my adolescence and adulthood, appropriately creepy to suit any stage of life.

Paging through the Penguin anthology of Ten Short Stories by Roald Dahl, I looked closer at the creepiness that seemed to be ramped up a notch for older readers. I realised that it had always been there, in his stories for children, but that the true starkness of Dahl’s uncanny imagination is laid bare in his short stories.

The cockroach feeling reminded me that almost every short story I have ever read has been eerie and unsettling in some way, never just a quick diversion on a sunny day, but a murky meander into the complicated dark places of human existence. I experienced this sensation before, as a child encountering an anthology of short stories for the first time, but it was Dahl’s collection that really lodged the idea into my consciousness, this belief that short stories were peculiar, something that I would not like to overdose on for fear of the disquiet that was left hanging at the edges of my mind each time I came to the end of a climactic, disturbing tale.

At times I gave up on reading short stories altogether, because I would rather avoid excessive bizarreness.

But the concentrated punch of a story with few words is narcotic even to a reader who loves to fall deeply into long drawn out novels. Sometimes a masterpiece is worth 10 pages, sometimes over 1000, but even Vikram Seth apologises in A Suitable Boy for his long-windedness by quoting Voltaire: ‘the secret to being a bore is to say everything.’

With a Dahl short story, it is often what is not said that is most disturbing. The conclusion is inevitable, but forcing the reader to put their own words to the finish involves the reader in a way that leaves you unsettled, complicit in the darkness of the ending.

Why do we love morbid tales, why are we fascinated by the ugly side of human nature, and why do we come back to these disquieting stories again and again? A master of the craft, Dahl seems to know implicitly that understatement and euphemism can knock your imagination over the edge better than any blunt force explanation could.

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Book club: The Bastard of Istanbul

Elif book cover one

Set in Istanbul and Arizona, switching between the past and the present easily, with a good Djinn and a bad Djinn helping the story along, this sometimes dark but perceptive novel is a rewarding read.

Asya and Armanoush explore the streets of Istanbul, unaware of the secrets lurking in their shared history, while the cast of mostly female characters countdown the short life spans of their male counterparts.

The descriptions of Turkish and Armenian food left me curious and hungry, and the portrayal of the diversity of Turkish women, who often share the same upbringing but end up on different ends of the religious and cultural spectrum, was revealing.

The contradictions between the 7 ladies living in Istanbul is enough food for the imagination, with half of them sticking to their secular beliefs while the others hold on to Islam with equal fervour, both sides managing to live harmoniously and lovingly under one roof.  Four generations of Turkish women, supporting each other and driving each other crazy while history unfolds.

Stories of the Armenian plight in Turkey spur the action, as the half-Armenian Armanoush returns to Turkey to learn more about her family’s past before they were forced to flee to America for the hope of a better life.  She hopes to find her grandmother’s old house, and a piece of her own identity in the process.  Living with being half-American and half-Armenian, Armanoush hopes to put together the pieces of her sometimes conflicting identity to better understand her place in the world.

What Armanoush does not expect is that while the Armenians have internalised and lamented over their troubled history with the Turks, it seems that the Turks have all but forgotten that there ever was any issue between the Turks and Armenians, a fact that seems to enrage slighted Armenians even more.  Why won’t the Turks just own up to their ill treatment of Armenians and offer an apology?  But can we expect Turks living in a new and different Turkey to pay for the sins of their forefathers?

Of the 4 sisters living in the Kazanci household in Istanbul, Aunty Zeliha with her short skirts and wild hair seems to be the centre of the action, having borne the “bastard” daughter that the story is named for.  But it is actually her sister, the Hijab-wearing soothsayer Banu who holds true power.  Having somehow managed to enslave a good Djinn and a bad Djinn, she tortuously uncovers secrets from the buried past that may have best been left alone.  The lure of knowledge is often too great, without the cost of knowing being weighed.

The issue of histories forgotten, overlooked, relived, remembered and held onto is a big theme, with the question at its centre: should history be forgotten and should we move on?  What purpose does re-hashing the past endlessly, serve?  Can a nation apologise for its past mistakes, and can that apology have any true meaning or impact?

This Turkish author does a great job of exploring big issues while still weaving an enjoyable story, peppered with colourful characters and dripping with delicious descriptions.

Shafak says that she wrote the book in English, even though her native tongue is Turkish, because it allowed her to distance herself from the past of her country, and the cultural baggage that comes with that.  It’s interesting that she gets a professional translator to then translate her work back into Turkish, before she rewrites the Turkish version herself.

I rarely adhere to the clichéd advice about not judging a book by its cover.  If a book has an awesome cover, I generally take a look.  If the cover looks boring, I often skip it.  Luckily, penguin publishers has a colorful set of covers for Turkish author Elif Shafak’s books, which lured me into peeking inside (and then buying) one.  Guess it’s time to go and look for some more.

Should you track your Ibaadat goals? Books seen and unseen

Many people who are dieting keep a food diary to track what they eat.  They may think they are just eating a little lettuce and some grilled chicken, but in fact when they are forced to notice every nibble that enters their mouth, the oreos and sips of coke start adding up.

I read somewhere that what we measure, we improve on.  The mere fact that we are measuring something makes us conscious of that thing, and that then leads us to see where we are going wrong, and we improve.  For example, make a list of all the books you have read this year, and you will somehow feel the urge to hit a higher target.  Instead of just reading a vague amount, you aim for maybe 24 books a year. Even if you don’t hit the high target you set, you will still end up closer to 24 than if you had not thought about it at all.

Today is the 15th of Shabaan.  The old books have closed and the new ones have been opened.  I wonder if our recording angels are given new sharpened pencils and are eager to start using these fresh new books?  Do these angels know us, and do they root for us, hoping that we will do the right thing, and glad when we are engaged in Ibaadat?  When we read Salaah, do they join in?  Or do they have to just be recording all the time?  I rarely think of these angels in real terms, but they are part of the unseen, they are there.  We greet them in Salaah.

So, the books…Allah tracks our deeds, so shouldn’t we also track our own deeds? It may seem clinical to say “I want to read 100 Yaaseens this year” but if I don’t make that goal, it will be harder to remember that I want to try to read more Quraan.  When I have a list that I can tick off and get that satisfying feeling of moving towards success, I will find little pockets in the day to squeeze in that one more Yaaseen.

Can we make zikr and fasting and nawaafil goals?  I think I will.  If there is an unseen book following me around, I want to try to have a worldly book that can keep me on track.  So that one day when I am asked what I did with my life, I won’t be surprised, and I can pull out my book and account.

Book club : Riding the samoosa express

 

samoosa

I was once talking to a friend about arranged marriages when my boss walked by and stopped to listen to what he found to be an interesting exchange.  It’s weird how people from different cultures have such different ideas about marriage.  The bossman could not tangibly conceive of the concept of an arranged marriage, but according to Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, famed author of Eat, Pray,Love – but the book I am referring to this time is called Committed) the concept of love and romantic love is a western invention and is a fairly recent invention at that.

In many cultures marriage is still used to structure society and family – it is a practical tool used less to join two people together, than to serve a purpose in properly structuring the community.  One tribe of women in South East Asia did not understand Elizabeth’s conception of romantic love – when asked questions along the lines of whether her husband was “the one”, that special somebody, the elder lady of the tribe merely laughed, uncomprehendingly.  She knows that he is a good man – but more than that, she would not divulge.  The idea that the whole community is affected by a marriage also means that the community tries their best to intervene when things are going badly in the marriage – they have a vested interest in the structure remaining stable.  Unlike Western society, where dirty laundry is meant to be kept indoors…

I just read the book Riding the Samoosa Express (finally done) and I must say that some parts are amazing and some parts really made me cringe.

My favourite line so far is “as I grow older, age chases me like an old woman with a champal” in the essay titled Only Oomi.  The story My journey into spiritual awakening is also thought-provoking and well written.

But as I said, there were some awkward moments.  For example, the essay titled The Creation of Complex Me seems like an attempt to justify a lifestyle that the author is not completely comfortable with – it is defensive and condescending. Some parts seem to be just plain denial (and trying to deal with personal issues). I must admit that I am a snob and I know it – but at least I know it…The author creates an impression of herself as a cool outsider, with a pop culture reference thrown in here and there, but denigrates the culture and society, in favour of the Western culture that glitters so enticingly.  It seems like this story was written by an angry teenager, but who knows. Her point of view is something I may have identified with a few years ago, but after my second trip to India I have realised the awesomeness of the Indian culture and the young Indians around the world – granted, we do not have a perfect system, but it is not all bad. There are values and traditions that are good, and some that are bad. But if you don’t fit in, you need not look down on the rest of us mere mortals.  I must compliment the author though – it’s been a while since I reacted so strongly to a story, so I commend her for that.

My rant over, the book is actually really interesting and fun to read – most of the stories share the viewpoint that it is quite difficult for an educated Indian woman to find a husband, and this leads to the subtext that there is something wrong with Indian men for not wanting educated women…The book is a collection of essays from Muslim women in South Africa, all sharing their life experiences, mostly related to finding a spouse. It is divided into 3 parts, The road towards marriage, then Identity and finally Marriage and beyond (I would have thought that identity should come before the road towards marriage, but that’s just me – shouldn’t you first find yourself before finding someone else?)

At least there were some stories that did not follow the usual path of unconventional Indian girl meets prince charming (educated Indian guy who will accept her for who she is, brain and all).

I like the story of Zayboon Motala (Against all odds), a vignette of a life interestingly lived.  But there were many other cool stories too. Run, Samoosa, Run was really funny and I read it aloud to the Husband for some shared laughs.  I identified with Only Oomi and Reflections, although my life does not match those of the authors – their voices were authentic.  Education and Izzat was one of the stories that made me cringe, but hey, maybe I am getting more conservative in my old age.

The stories towards the end got better and better and there was more depth (and even some tears) – for some reason the authors towards the end of the book seem much more mature than the beginning – it’s like the book itself develops from angry teenager into mature woman.  Not a suitable career for a Muslim girl, and My journey into spiritual awakening, and From the depths of my soul were good reads.  I did not get the point of Out of the fish tank…and into the pond – there was a ton of description but no depth, resolution or analysis of all of the events described – quite unsatisfying.

The book could do with better editing, but maybe I’m expecting too much with regard to consistency and style from a book containing a collection of essays from different authors.  It’s probably a quirk of my own to always want the semi-colon to be in the right place (not that I know too much about grammar formally, and you all know that this blog is not edited with a fine-toothed comb – but I expect more from a real life paper book).  I really wished for more in the beginning of this book.  Even so, the book as a whole is interesting.  There will most likely be at least one or two stories to charm each reader (and one or two to irk each reader too, maybe).

The commentary on society was thought-provoking.  It leads me to believe that we all view society differently – if there are different pressures that society puts on different people, we may just be reflecting or projecting our own individual insecurities onto what we think society wants from us – when in fact, there is no global view.  We worry far too much about what other people think of us when the reality is that they probably don’t have time to think about us at all (or don’t care) because everyone has their own issues.

It seems that we all create our own realities and moralities and we judge people and actions and the world against our own standards.  If it is all about individual standards, we cannot possibly live up to all the different views of every person – everyone has a different view of what is right.  A few weeks ago, after lunch, the ladies were discussing some or other religious view at Rania’s house, and there were as many views as there were ladies.  Just goes to show: you may like chicken samoosas, but I like cheese.

The Aurora Borealis and dark intentions

I love young adult fantasy fiction, it’s my favourite type of novel.  I used to think that I probably need to grow up and read more serious books.  I’ve had my Charles Dickens and Jane Austen moments and I’ve enjoyed them, but I keep coming back to fantasy.  For some reason I’d known about the Golden Compass books (by Philip Pullman) for years and didn’t feel the need to read them until I saw a reference to them in another book that I was engrossed in (Alif the Unseen).

But even then, the first time I saw Northern Lights at the library, I passed it by.  The thing that drew me to it eventually was that I remembered hearing comments about the book being heretical and having to do with religion.  Obviously, parents would be concerned if their kids are unknowingly reading a book that has strong views on religion.

Anyways, the book was stunning.  It took about 100 pages to really get into it but the alternate reality created is breathtaking.

The story follows Lyra, a young rambunctious girl who throws herself headlong into adventure (unwitting to the fact that she has been destined to change the world), but much to my delight the cast of characters is also filled with daemons, witches, gyptians and armoured bears.

The hints of religious philosophy are scattered throughout the book and really only comes to a head near the end, where there is discussion of original sin and the Church.  Being an adult and able to brush these references aside, I really fell deeply into the story…but I wonder if I would want my potential future children – or nephews and nieces – reading it until they are well into their 20s, because the obscure religious references may have an impact.  But maybe it’s good for kids to see all these divergent views, that may lead them to look deeper into their own religion and history.

I’ve heard that the Chronicles of Narnia also have a religious undertone but that was so subtle as to go completely over my head when I read the series, years ago.  It may be time to crack open the cupboard door to Narnia for a re-read.

Book club: Tiptoeing between East and West…if a butterfly flaps its wings in Egypt

I hate the phrase “clash of cultures” but one of the themes in the Butterfly Mosque: A young American woman’s journey to love and Islam (by G Willow Wilson) brings the phrase to mind: how does a Western American revert navigate her new life as a Muslim in Cairo?

When talking of her reversion she says that she gives the convenient answer that she decided to convert during college (which is sort of true), but that in another sense she felt that she was always Muslim, since she discovered in the Quraan what she already believed.

In trying to understand the difference between culture and religion, Willow concludes that culture belongs to the imagination.  To judge it rationally is to misunderstand its function.  She questions why for example Egyptian men refrain from kissing women (but would kiss other men) and Americans are afraid to kiss other men (but would kiss women).  She gives up debating why culture is how it is, saying that the search for the meaning behind culture is as “inconclusive as searching for the practical function of a bow tie, or arguing the logistical merits of doorknobs”.

While culture may be confusing, religion is not.  Religion gives her the unity and peace she was searching for.

The culture in Egypt is at first unsettling and foreign to Willow, so she decides to visit Iran – her reasoning being that if she goes to a place even more foreign and different, Egypt will begin to feel normal – and it works.  Weaving herself into the fabric of Egyptian life, she comes to enjoy the interconnectedness of Egyptian families, where the whole family works together to create a balance in which everyone has a place and is protected and loved.  After a while, she notices that just as she begins to realize her milk or other groceries are low, her brother-in-law will arrive with a fresh gallon of milk.  Some might find the closeness of family ties in Egypt stifling, but Willow embraces it.  Her family treats her with fondness and affection and tries to gently guide her in the ways of Egyptian women.

She also writes about the care and concern of other women who are not family: for example, a lady on the bus who would gently tug her Hijab into place if it slips loose, not because she is being judgmental or conservative, but because she is being protective of her fellow Muslim sister.

The book is an interesting look into the view of a Westerner who throws herself headlong into life as a Muslim wife in Egypt, and it is filled with thought-provoking observations.

G Willow Wilson is so cool because she is versatile.  Apart from this memoir, she has written a great semi-fantasy novel called Alif the Unseen, about a computer hacker, the Middle East, Jinns and ancient books.  She is also the writer behind the latest Ms Marvel comic (Ms Marvel being a Pakistani immigrant – I am just fascinated that we have a mainstream superhero that’s a Muslim girl).

I also read this article by Willow (click here to read it) about the women’s carriage in the trains in Egypt (a separate carriage just for women and children) and about all of the happenings that go on in this hidden world.

Generally, when speaking to or reading about reverts, I always marvel at the wonder and awe that they feel for Islam – it seems that we who grew up as Muslims have lost some of that magic feeling, and I wish there was a way for us to get it back. Well, I’m going to try.

Book club: Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse

I recently peeked into one of our local libraries to see what was up.  I wandered along the rows of books, thinking how ill-stocked the shelves were, when I started to realize when I looked a little closer that there were actually quite a few books that I would want to read.  I now have a library card – even though there are over 50 books on my home bookshelf that I want to read (or re-read).  And many more unread books, waiting for their moment, on my kindle.  Oh well, I’m a book lover, and I love it when the stack is high.

I came across Forbidden lessons in a Kabul guesthouse and took it out, left it at home for three weeks and then realized that time was up.  So I renewed the book, and now, two weeks later, finally cracked open its spine.  To my surprise, it is the kind of book that you finish in one day because you can’t put it down (even when there is also a huge pile of tasks in my in-box, begging to be done).

It tells the story of Suraya Sadeed, an Afghan who emigrated to America when the Russians invaded Afghanistan at the end of the ’70s.  Years later, after the unexpected death of her husband, Suraya sees a newsreel of fighting and chaos in Afghanistan and decides to go back to deliver humanitarian aid at a time when no one was going into Afghanistan.  The books focuses on her work from 1992 until after 9/11 and tells of her struggles to open clinics and schools for girls (forbidden by the Taliban).  They end up opening the first schools in the basement of a friend’s house and lessons are held by candle or lamp light.

At times her work seems pointless, because every bit of aid they manage to bring is overshadowed by the constant fighting and chaos in the country.  But Suraya is reminded, “where there is life, there’s hope”.

I learnt that contrary to what many people assume, the Afghan Burka was not an invention of the Taliban.  It has a long history in Afghanistan and was at first seen as a status symbol because only the wife of a wealthy man could afford one, so a woman would wear it to signify that she wasn’t a peasant working in the fields. Afterwards, some women chose to wear the Burka because it offered protection against ignorant, violent men.  But not even the Burka could protect countless displaced widows who were relegated to the “widow camps” – with no male protection, these defenseless ladies were subjected to the torture of being used by soldiers at will.

The book also criticizes the tendency of Western women trying to “save” Muslim women from the perceived torment of the Burka.  As the author explains, if you had to choose between equal rights with men and the ability to feed your children, the choice is obvious:  women’s rights were irrelevant to a mother with a starving child. There is also the issue of culture and tradition.  So while Afghan women may welcome the introduction of western comforts such as cell phones and computers, they do not see the need to be exactly like the rest of the world.  If you asked an Afghan woman what she needs, rarely if ever would she say that she needs to be liberated from the Burka – her concerns were different to that of a Western privileged woman.

I was also surprised by the author’s account of media reaction to Afghanistan.  Pre-9/11 there was almost no interest in the suffering of Afghanis.  However, as soon as the twin towers were hit, media frenzy erupted.  While Suraya’s organisation tried to get aid into the hardest hit areas, journalists were jostling to get the first shots of the bombing, unsympathetic to the fact that these were real bombs, affecting real people. They found it “awesome” that they could get photos of the front line of this new war. Their ability to bribe ferrymen also led to a delay in humanitarian aid getting to Afghanis, because they monopolized the transport that was necessary for NGOs to get their supplies into the right area.

The main thing that struck me about the book was that, while I was aware that Afghanistan has been under attack since 9/11, I was ignorant of all of their struggles prior to 2001.  It seems that the Afghani people have been suffering for many years under warring factions internally.  The people on the street barely knew or understood the reason for the US invasion, assuming it had something to do with the Taliban but unaware of the strike on the twin towers.  Their land has been used as a battle ground for other people’s wars since at least the time of the Cold War, and the Afghani people pay the price for issues that they are barely aware of.

Apart from wars, they were also subject to some crushing natural disasters.  One remote village, hit badly by an earthquake, lost 17 grooms and 16 brides who had had a big wedding the night before.  Only 1 bride remained.  Suraya, assuming that the girl had broken her hand because she refused to open it, tried to get medical help – only to realize that the pain in the girl’s hand was not physical – she could not bear to look at the bridal mehndi that remained, in the wake of all that had passed away.

The author’s organisation, Help the Afghan Children, still operates today, trying to help as many Afghanis get a decent education as possible.

The ability of Afghan women to survive is amazing.  Their continued struggles should not be forgotten.

Books, my precious (words words words)

books

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.”

It’s often said that reading is good for your brain. But studies now find that just having books in your house (even if they’re just lying around, with no one actively reading them) is an indicator of how intelligent the children in that house will be.  This is presumably because if there are books around, it shows that the parents value education – and therefore there’ll be a general emphasis on education in a bookish-house (I think Malcolm Gladwell came up with this conclusion).

In my childhood home there were tons of books around because dad loves reading – I remember as a teenager once stumbling across the Art of War by Sun Tzu.  But not only was I reading ancient Eastern wisdom, this book was The Art of War – For Managers.  Dad had lots of business books around.  I learnt about management stuff (the parts that I could understand), there was a book on reflexology in the study too – along with books on right brain thinking and a lot of other stuff that I’m sure most 1st year psychology students learn.

I may not have known what the point of what I was reading was, but combing through dad’s bookshelf opened up my reading experiences to some really random stuff (for a teenage girl that is).  If not for his bookshelf, I may have stuck to Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High (shudders*).  So I best keep books all around the house for when the potential future kids arrive.

And keep sifting through dad’s books for more unexpected knowledge.

Probably the coolest thing though is that dad bought us books all the time – so apart from reading from his adult business-y library, we got to choose lots of our own stuff, and discover what we liked to read.  I went for mostly fantasy but still – it was cool to have someone funding a book-love.  Even my brother who barely ever opens the covers of a book once bought a book (about WWE wrestlers I think?)  I remember reading that book on Mick Foley (is that his name? The wrestler whose stage name was Mankind, how weird).

So we’re a house of bookies.

And then there’s the Quraan – which is the most important book – we at least try to read that once a year in Ramadan and more if possible. But I’m thinking more and more about how we read without understanding. I watched an interview with a lady who wrote a book about Islam and in her research she decided that she had to read the Quraan to try to understand Islam and its history – so she read four (yes four!) different translations / interpretations alongside the original text. If a moderate agnostic/Jewish woman can do it, I should be able to do it too.