Friday, June 28, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed: Epic Bechdel Test Fail

I'm about halfway through Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed, which is failing the Bechdel test spectacularly so far. Let me count the ways in which this book is getting under my skin in a not-so-good way (be warned that there are major spoilers for the book):

+ The two central female characters, Nila and her adopted daughter Pari, are constantly at odds with each other. I get this. Stories need conflict. But Nila never tells Pari she's adopted. She ~buys Pari from her poverty-stricken family but she's passively cruel to her, even going so far as to act like a "jealous lover" (rather than a "concerned mother") when her boyfriend pays 14-year-old Pari too much attention. Pari gets her own back by sleeping with the boyfriend (ten years later, when she's "all grown up", but throughout those ten years she fantasises about the boyfriend).

+ The boyfriend in question, a man named Julien, is described as someone who has aged well, in a way that would "infuriate most women his age". This description kind of mystifies me. Why would ~women his age be infuriated that he looks good? Why not the men? Is it because he drives the women wild? Are there no gay men in Paris who may also be infuriated by his well-preservedness?

+ Pari's only female friend, so far, is Collette. They are flatmates, but never get along. Collette is loud and audacious and angry all the time, and Pari goes along to protests and demonstrations with her mostly because she's afraid of pissing her off. It's at one of these protests that she hooks up with Julien for the first time. His pick-up line is that she looks like she's in need of rescuing. No, really. He 'rescues' her from the boredom and annoyance of watching Collette bully other people.

+ Did I say there were no gay men in this book? The same book contains an astonishingly sensitive, beautiful even, portrayal of a love story between two men, Pari's uncle Nabi and his employer Suleiman. Even in this relationship, there is a snide dismissal of women: Suleiman is Nila's husband. When he suffers a paralysing stroke, she abandons him and goes off to Paris with Pari, leaving Nabi to care devotedly for him. (Yes, the play on Pari's name is deliberate. As the narrative has already told me three times, it's "like Paris without the S.")

+ Nila dies, but not before giving a candid interview to a journal (she's a poet) about how awful her father was and how gay her husband was. Pari knew neither of these things, but as soon as she reads the interview, she's convinced that Nila's dad couldn't have been all that bad, and that Nila has made up or exaggerated the stuff about his cruelty. She also muses that her mum must have been a ~really good pretender to have written all that angsty poetry about difficulties that she never really faced. Seriously. She just ~assumes from the interview that Nila's father must have been a good guy, and couldn't possibly have been as awful as Nila makes him out to be.

+ Want more Bechdel test fail? Like, epic fail? There's a pair of twin sisters, Parwana and Masooma. Masooma is the beautiful twin, and Parwana is the plain one no one likes. (I kid you not. ~No one likes her, not even when she's a baby, because her sister is so much prettier.) So, despite their being twins, Parwana hates Masooma's guts. Enough to push her out of a tree. Following which Masooma is paralysed for life, and Parwana marries the love of her sister's life. Later, she leaves Masooma to die on an isolated road (at Masooma's request).

And at this point I'm like, seriously? Seriously, Hosseini? Whyyyy. Why would you do this. The book started off so very very well, but it's been all downhill from there. At the point where I left off, Pari has cancelled her plans to go to Afghanistan and discover her roots because she finds out she's pregnant. Three sentences later she's pregnant again. Because this is what women do in this book: give birth, or buy other people's children if they can't give birth (because of course motherhood is essentially to a woman's identity); hate their mothers; hate their daughters; hate their sisters; maim their sisters; kill their sisters; hate their female flatmates but have sex with their flatmates' male friends; and so on, ad nauseum. I'm going to finish reading the book because I need something to entertain me on the commute, and I'm curious about what happens to Pari next, because Hosseini is good at plot (and possibly at the characterisation of men). But, as you might understand, a bit of venting was necessary.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ondaatje on writing

This man is my writing god. ♥


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Remembering Anthony Minghella

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of Anthony Minghella's death. I really don't know how such a day should be commemorated. I did very much like hearing about the film festival on the Isle of Wight, hosted by Mr Minghella’s family and attended by Alan Rickman, Jude Law and Martin Freeman among others. I very much hope it will become an annual event, if only for the selfish reason that I might be able to attend it someday.

As for me, I still haven’t read Made in Bangkok, so I might read that. I have Truly, Madly, Deeply and The Wyvern Mystery, and I might watch them in that order; a deluge followed by a JD fix, which always seems to make everything better.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Michelle, My Belle, R.I.P.

Our feisty little feline, all of five months old, died today. It was around two a.m. last night that C noticed her sitting in the bathroom, and we brought her out and laid her on C’s bed. She was cold and at first we thought it was just because the bathroom floor had been wet. But as it increasingly became clear that that was not the cause of the drop in temperature, C warmed a cloth repeatedly with an iron to keep her warm. She did this every few minutes for the next seven hours, until we could take Michelle to P. P responded to C’s text message at three a.m., telling us that she would have to see Michelle in the morning. Apart from warming her with the ironed cloth, C also fed Michelle sugared water every half hour, since she could not eat or drink anything on her own.

In the morning, we took Michelle to P’s clinic. There were many dogs there, and a small cat, and the people they had come with. There were kids and grandmothers who wanted to take a peek at the sweet little grey-and-white tabby in our basket. There were two little pups, Bruno and Dexter, who had come with different people and who insisted on romping about together before parting company. On P’s noticeboard, there was a new poster about a weekly picnic/walk for Olive Ridley turtle-gazing.

P said that Michelle had probably licked some insecticide off one of the cockroaches she was so fond of bringing home to us as prizes. She gave Michelle fifty m.l. of IV solution and an antidote, and told us to bring her back for another dose in the evening. She said a hot water bottle would be helpful, so we got one from the pharmacy on the way back home from P’s. C was just heating the water to fill the bottle for the second time when Michelle had a small fit and her eyes glazed over. Her small body kept twitching gently for a long time after her eyes had stopped seeing, and her heartbeat slowed very gradually before it stopped.

We started digging a grave in a patch of ground to the right of the front door, but our spade had broken while digging our pup Jewel’s grave last May, and the going was tough. I brought out a hammer and we tried using the pointy end to dig, which was better than the handleless spade, but that was terribly slow. There were rocks in the ground that made the digging virtually impossible. So we moved to the left of the door and started afresh, this time making considerable progress before we reached a water pipe. That would be no good at all, since Michelle could not be in a spot that might be dug up in the future.

We also did not want to make it obvious that we were digging a grave, since there’s been all kinds of trouble with the landlords and we have to move out ASAP from the house where we have lived for over seventeen years now. We decided a plant would be nice, both to keep Michelle company and to disguise the true intent of our endeavour. So, while C stayed with Michelle, I went to the nursery and bought two very efficacious spades. I looked around the nursery for a bit, trying to choose the plant. It’s a beautiful little nursery, and the plants reflected the most wonderful green light all around. We’d decided against roses since they are delicate, and the plant will have to be left to fend for itself when we move. I looked at the white roses nevertheless; they were lovely. So were the dahlias and marigolds. But then, of course, it struck me that the choice was so obvious: chrysanthemums. C didn’t know the story behind the name, so I gave her a rather sketchy account of it as we resumed our work. It was still pretty tough with the rocks, and the ground was hard. C’s nearly-seventeen-year-old hands were much more efficient than my over-three-decade-old ones, but she also got more scrapes and aches than I did.

It’s not easy to type when one feels like one has a dislocated wrist, so here is the long and short of it: nearly four hours of gardening was pain-inducing, but also wildly therapeutic. Not to mention surreptitious in a way that would have made James Bond or Ethan Hunt proud, since we kept a lookout for the landlords and whispered warnings to each other in fits of silent laughter every time someone opened the front gate. We chattered about cats and dogs we have lost, and so much else that I can’t recall now. We did giggle girlie giggles quite a bit. I looked down several times at C’s silky little head as she dug, and wondered how much more we will endure together, and thought about how the bond I share with her is so completely different from what I share with anyone else.

For Michelle, then, and in memory of Muliet as well, B’s cat who died a few days ago. To Michelle and Muliet, beloved cats, members of our family and full-fledged people in their own right, in gratitude and adoration for the time they spent with us and the memories they have left us with.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter

It will be said that it was only to be expected, but Harold Pinter's death is an occasion for mourning no matter what is said. Having studied The Birthday Party when I was all of eighteen years old, I remember Pinter as being one of the very few writers who made an impression on me at the time. There is something to be said about a writer who can touch you when you are down. I'm reminded of something Michael Ondaatje writes about in The English Patient: 'There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace.' It's easy to critique writing when one is secure in one's pursuits, but a writer who can make sense to you when the rest of the world doesn't is someone who remains in your mind. Maybe it was because Stanley's life didn't make sense (like mine at the time) that I was drawn to the play.

Today I thought a lot about Anthony Minghella's family. The tragedy of his death is something that still leaves me reeling, nine months later. Christmas was a happy day, a happy season, but the recognition that there are others for whom there is nothing happy about this day is also a constant reality. My grandmother died ten years ago on Christmas day, and it was a long time before I could think of Christmas as Christmas. Minghella and Pinter are both writers who do not betray a reader's sensibilities. In a time when all one can seem to expect most of the time is betrayal of various kinds, it is strengthening to know the works of such generous, talented people. The world would be less bright if not for their ideas and their ability to be candles in the dark.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What is it about Bach?

I haven't mentioned The Book on this page so far, although I've been working on it for three months now. Maybe it's because I've been living the process that I haven't been able to write about it. (I don't want to think about what the implications of my finally writing about it may be.) My first contributor sent me his piece on September 12th. Actually, it was September 12th where I was and September 11th where he was. And at the time, I did feel that that was significant, because I had been thinking about anniversaries. And I did write a piece on it, but that may still go into the book so I'm not at liberty to post it here. I'm not even sure who my 'first contributor' is, anyway. Should I bestow that desperately sought-after title on the first person who agreed to contribute to The Book, or the second person to agree, since he sent in his chapter first? (Yes, such inane debates fill my mind completely from time to time.)

I wanted to tell my first contributor (submitter?) that it was utterly unfair that he should be known for his considerable talent in another profession, when he is so clearly a writer. I wanted to tell him to keep writing, but the penchant for self-deprecation that he seems to have, and which I absolutely share (with good reason, on my part, and none at all on his) kept me from doing that. In his -- well, primary -- profession, the veneer of beauty is something that is highly prized, and although no one would disagree that he has an abundance of it, it's an indescribable shame that he is not a primarily a writer by profession.

This week I got my second contribution. Again, we were on different dates, and my subject was no less than a... well, a very important person. In his field, which I suppose I have idealised for a long time. (This is rapidly turning into the vaguest and most pointless post I think I've ever made, but this is important, so I'll plod on womanfully. Er, androgynfully.) And I was touched by him. Not in an emotional sort of way, really, but in a way that made me see a glimmer of something absolutely purist in his thinking, in his honesty, and in his tenacious regard for his way of viewing the world, his world.

It was music that was common to both of them, both my contributors. Well, not mine exactly, since their stories belong to The Book, and most importantly, to the person who inspired The Book. But music, a focus that I'm increasingly thinking is going to be the most vital empirical correlative of the words on paper that I'm trying to compile; music is absolutely integral to what my -- The Book's -- first two contributors have said. (The phrase 'fire away' is also, for some strange reason, common to both of them. That probably has some abstruse significance that escapes me entirely.)

And in some ways I think it all comes down to this question: what is it about Bach? I'm discovering the St Matthew Passion bit by bit, day by day. Yesterday it was Mache dich, mein Herze, rein; today it's Konnen Tranen Meiner Wangen. I don't know what it is about Bach, and don't know if I want to know. I do know that Vivaldi has at last found a contender for whatever music makes up my heart.