09 February 2011

Book Review: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

   

Fascinating book overcomes deep-seated reading quirks.

As regular readers of My Porch will know, in the pantheon of quirks related to my reading habits perhaps none is more stubbornly ingrained in my psyche than my inability to embrace (or even read) books handed to me by others. Don't get me wrong, I have read many, many, wonderful books recommended by friends and bloggers. But there is something about the act of someone actually handing me a book, and the expectations that go along with that act, that makes it hard for me to want to read the book. This knee-jerk aversion is almost entirely a function of deep seated control issues that makes "no" my initial response to almost everything. Thankfully I have worked hard on getting over that and even if I say "no" right off the bat, I will often quickly change course to "maybe" or even "yes".

Back in May we were visiting friends in Sonoma, California when we got to talking about books. One of our friends handed me In Other Rooms, Other Wonders and said that he thought I would enjoy it. Working against my natural inclinations, and trusting this friend's judgment, I cheerfully accepted the book and was intrigued with its premise. But then I get back to DC, the book gets added to my nightstand TBR* pile, and the reality of "no" starts to hover over the book. Not only is it languishing unread because of my control issues, but it is a collection of linked short stories. Normally, short stories are not my cup of tea, but last year I read a number of great collections that had me rethinking my dislike of the form. And there was still one other hurdle to overcome. The stories are set in Pakistan. Nothing against Pakistan, but my reading tastes tend to focus on North America, the UK, and parts of Europe. Xenophobic as it may be, I am just disinclined to go beyond that geographically and culturally narrow (but richly populated) band of reading material.

So, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders sat and sat until the TBR Dare prodded me to look at it in a new light and with some enthusiasm. Granted, I was thinking I would just read it to finally get it off of my plate, but at least I was going to read it. Imagine my surprise when I ended up liking it.

Each of the linked stories are wholly compelling. As I often discover when I read outside my comfort zone, I was fascinated by the contrast between the action and setting of the stories and my own comfortable life. Interwoven around a modern day feudal landowner, his family, his employees, and his servants, the stories run the gambit from the halls of wealth and power to the basest of living conditions. What was most surprising to me was the corrupt, wild west kind of mentality that pervades most of the stories. Either as background, or as a major component of the plot, and in every socio-economic strata, corruption is everywhere. And for so many of the characters, rich and poor, the corruption is both the reason for their situation as well as the avenue for escaping poverty or maintaining wealth. Some of it is garden variety greasing the wheels of justice and business with bribes, but in other cases it is violent and desperate. And as with women all over the world, the women in the stories are the ones most often at the biggest disadvantage, many resorting to sexual favors for survival. (Now that I reflect on it, I am struck by how well Mueenuddin writes about the plight of women.)

As gloomy as some of the scenarios can be, they are not without beauty and humor.  And Mueenuddin paints a vivid picture of life in Pakistan. One can almost feel the heat and smell the food. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a National Book Award finalist and it is easy to see why. I am glad I overcame my natural disinclination to read this book. Had I not, I would have missed out on a fascinating world and a well written book. And it will make me less resistant the next time someone hands me a book. (But don't do it until after April 1st when the TBR Dare ends.)

*TBR = to be read

13 comments:

  1. I love the echo of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms in the title. Sounds like there may be some echos of theme as well. And I think interlinked stories may be my favorite kind of book.

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  2. I have the complete opposite reaction! Whenever someone gives me a book, I feel like I have to read it right away or else I'm letting them down. I admit it, guilt is my mistress...

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  3. I am open to all offers though I am still a bit reluctant over the paranormal and science fiction. This sounds an intriguing book.

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  4. I did a lengthy review of this book a couple of weeks ago. If anyone's interested they can read it here. Most of my readers were agreed: Pakistan is not a place they fancy living after reading this.

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  5. Sounds intriguing, and I must admit that the interlinked stories would appeal to me. I esp. appreciated your honesty about reading outside your comfort zone. I don't venture beyond my own very often.

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  6. I enjoy interlink storys ,must admit this one is new to me ,all the best stu

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  7. It's interesting tat you want to say no right off the bat. I always read the book immediately because I'm afraid the owner will worry I'm holding their book hostage and I don't want to offend them by not reading it. Short stories aren't normally my thing either, but I like it when they are linked in some way.

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  8. Daniyal Mueenuddin was in Karachi last weekend for the Karachi Literature Festival. It was a wonderful two day event in which almost 100 writers participated and talked about English and Urdu literature, especially the young crop of Paki authors who have made a name through their work in the West.
    Daniyal's stories are based on people who live in the rural side of the country and constitute a majority of our population. Yes, the characters in his stories are quite real. There is a lot of bribery, corruption and abuse of women in the rural areas as the poor peasants are helpless at the hands of their landlords. While at the festival, he read an unpublished story (which was loosely based on his own experiences) and talked about a novel which he is currently working on.The novel, from what he told us, is based in New York and does not revolve around Pakistanis.
    I didn't like his stories very much. His work is good and crisp but it failed to leave an impression. I felt, as a Pakistani living in Karachi, as if he'd written the book for a Western audience and not me.
    Some other good Paki authors (and whom I'd like to recommend)include Kamila Shamsie (Broken Verses, Kartography, Burnt Shadows), Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes).
    The sub-continent has some amazing literature to offer. Unfortunately, most of it is in Urdu and very little efforts are being made to translate it in English or other languages. But whenever you feel like reading 'out-of-the-box' do check us out!

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  9. Lifetime: I think I read the Capote book, but don't remember a thing about it.

    Steph: My control issues usually beat the crap out of any sense of guilt.

    Mystica: I agree with you on paranormal and SciFi.

    Jim: You are much more disciplined than I. You did a wonderful, and you are right lengthy, review.

    Susan: Reading out of the zone can be so rewarding. I need to do it more often.

    Stu: Given your worldly reading, I would think you would appreciate this one.

    Ash: Thankfully this book was given to me rather than loaned, that would have just added a level of complication.

    Farheen: Thank you so much for the interestings comments. I can see how these stories would seem like they were written for a western audience. And given the author's own history I guess that makes sense.

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  10. Alas, this one is not in my TBR stack.

    I like how the TBR Dare is getting people to finally pick up books and give them a go. Glad to hear you liked this one.

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  11. I LOVED this book. One of my favorites when I read it a few years ago. I think the short story is so beautiful when done well, and Muenneddin does it very well.

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  12. CB: All credit is due to you. I never thought the dare would be this fun.

    Aarti: One problem that I sometimes have with short stories is that they can be a little abstract for me. Too many loose ends or ambiguous outcomes. While Muenneddin's stories gave me plenty to think about, they didn't leave me thinking "what just happened" as I do with much short fiction.

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  13. I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this as it is on my tbr pile as well :)

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