Day 8 of BookDayMay

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid. A Pakistani in the USA has a crisis of conscience in the wake of 9-11. Changez, who abandoned his American home and dream after the Twin Towers were destroyed, tells a nervous American about his friendship and obsession with an ill-fated American woman, the loss of his American career, and his abandonment of America. The frame story technique ironically added liveliness and intensity to an already emotionally gripping story about the pervasive and personal effects of national terrorism.

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Excerpt:

America was gripped by a growing self-righteous rage in those weeks of September and October as I cavorted about with Erica; the mighty host I had expected of your country was duly raised and dispatched—but homeward, towards my family in Pakistan. When I spoke to them on the telephone, my mother was frightened, my brother was angry, and my father was stoical—this would all pass, he said. I found reassurance in my father’s views, and I dressed myself in them as though they were my own. “Are you worried, man?” Wainwright asked me one day in the Underwood Sampson cafeteria, resting his hand on my shoulder in a gesture of concern as I filled a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese. No, I explained, Pakistan had pledged its support to the United States, the Taliban’s threats of retaliation were meaningless, my family would be just fine.

I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard at the Pak-Punjab Deli: Pakistani cabdrivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives, the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s houses; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. I reasoned that these stories were mostly untrue; the few with some basis in fact were almost certainly being exaggerated; and besides, those rare cases of abuse that regrettably did transpire were unlikely ever to affect me because such things invariably happened, in America as in all countries, to the hapless poor, not to Princeton graduates earning eighty thousand dollars a year.

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Hamid is a Pakistani living in Pakistan.

. . . . .

The Buzzing (2003) by Jim Knipfel. A career reporter, reduced to working the kook beat, investigates a series of seemingly inter-related odd phenomena and suspicious events, and drinks. Roscoe Baragon, a columnist nearing the end of his career, desperately attempts to win admiration and recognition for his life’s work in between beer-drinking binges. While investigating a seemingly elaborate and fantastical conspiracy, reality and unreality blur and merge, undoubtedly helped by the copious amounts of alcohol he consumes. I enjoyed this tale of kooky news, as I grew up reading all the tabloids I could get my hands on. My love of sensational “news” continued well into my adulthood, and Weekly World News was my tabloid of choice. In contrast to my lighthearted enjoyment of offbeat “news,” this novel explored the dark side of tabloid tale immersion.

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Excerpt:

He rolled out of bed and went about the slow, painful process of putting himself together. His head hurt worse after he stood. Part of it was the smoke and hangover, he was sure. Part of it was the lack of sleep and the frenetic dreams. Dreams always left his head aching. Much of the pain, however, was the result of the accumulated events of these past ten days—especially yesterday. Jesus.

An epidemic of earthquakes, radioactive men—and now an old drinking buddy—one who would know—tells him that there’s some sort of mutant alien space fungus on its way to Earth. Probably one with tentacles and multiple red eyes.

This is nuts, he thought as he climbed into the shower and bowed his head beneath the spray of hot water. For the past five years or so, insane people had approached him, begging that he make their stories public—that he publish them in all their lurid Technicolor incoherent glory. Now he was being approached by perfectly sane and rational people—some of them, at least—who were telling him equally implausible, frightening tales but demanding that they not be published—which was infinitely more frustrating.

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Vulgar language. Knipfel has grown progressively blind from retinitis pigmentosa since he was a teen. As a teen and young adult, he tried to commit suicide twelve times. After his last suicide attempt, he was put in a psychiatric ward for six months. He later wrote: “I can’t explain why I [attempted suicide] so many times, and how I did such a horrible job of it.” More recently, Knipfel has said he is happy and will not attempt suicide again. Of the protagonist in this novel, he said, “Roscoe, to put it simply, represents what I would like to be.”

. . . . .

Einstein’s Dreams (1992) by Alan Lightman. A collection of dream tales about the structure of time, and how each structure shapes people’s realities, interspersed with a few wakeful interludes. The fictional dream journal of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s is revealed, along with a few notes on meetings between Einstein and Michele Besso. The novel had a dream-like quality, and part-way through, I took a nap during which I dreamed about a great pile of sand free of its hourglass.

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Excerpt:

Sunday afternoon. People stroll down Aarstrasse, wearing Sunday clothes and full of Sunday dinner, speaking softly beside the murmur of the river. The shops are closed. Three women walk down Marktgasse, stop to read advertisements, stop to peer in windows, walk on quietly. An innkeeper scrubs his steps, sits and reads a paper, leans against the sandstone wall and shuts his eyes. The streets are sleeping, and through the air there floats music from a violin.

In the middle of a room with books on tables, a young man stands and plays his violin. He loves his violin. It makes a gentle melody. And as he plays, he looks out to the street below, notices a couple close together, looks at them with deep brown eyes, and looks away. He stands so still. His music is the only movement, his music fills the room. He stands so still and thinks about his wife and infant son, who occupy the room downstairs.

And as he plays, another man, identical, stands in the middle of a room and plays his violin. The other man looks to the street below, notices a couple close together, looks away, and thinks about his wife and son. And as he plays, a third man stands and plays his violin. Indeed, there are a fourth and fifth, there is a countless number of young men standing in their rooms and playing violins. There is an infinite number of melodies and thoughts. And this one hour, while the young men play their violins, in not one hour but many hours. For time is like the light between two mirrors. Time bounces back and forth, producing an infinite number of images, of melodies, of thoughts. It is a world of countless copies.

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Lightman is also a physicist. The character Besso is based on Einstein’s engineer friend and colleague of the same name. Of Besso’s death, Einstein wrote: “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

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