Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, is not – as one is likely to assume from the title – another novel about terrorists or religious fanaticism. It is the monologue of a young man’s infatuation with America, his successful career there, unsuccessful love affair and eventual disenchantment with it all.

Over a meal in Lahore, Changez, the protagonist, explains to an American stranger at this table how he won a scholarship to Princeton and secured a top job in New York. He had felt a bit of an outsider until he moved to New York in 2001, where he loved his new office job and the buzz and cosmopolitan mix of the city. Until he heard about the 9/11 attacks.

When he heard about the attack he smiled. This surprised him. He began to question his view of America. And he began to question the ethos of his employers business - one in which he had to ‘focus on the fundamentals’ – the bottom line (the irony of the title?). This led him to question how he could live in luxury in the USA whilst his fellow countrymen were living on the breadline with American soldiers in their midst.

Working on the valuation of a company, the owner likens him to a janissary. Already a little disenchanted with his role, the discrimination he encounters and the ignorance about world affairs, Changez finds himself in a quandary: is he too working against the interests of his own Pakistan community and culture.

He explains to the American how he gave up his job in America and now works for the university in Lahore organizing anti- American protests. We, the readers, feel at every point that the American is about to hear about the reluctant radicalization of Changez. In turn, Changez asks us to consider whether every Muslim who criticizes America is a fundamentalist.

Alongside the indoctrination of Changez into the corporate world is interwoven his love for Erica, a friend from Princeton. She is as obsessed with her past - the sweetheart who died young - as Changez is with her and his work. The novel would have worked just as well without this love angle: the character of Erica lends nothing to it, and is not quite believable.

Changez, the narrator, notes that the American is on a “mission”, is constantly on his mobile phone, has a holster-like bulge in his jacket and is uneasy with the waiters hanging around. I would be a spoil sport to explain what happens at the end of the book: will it end in the demise of Changez or the American? Hamid keeps the reader guessing.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is very well written as is to be expected from anything shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. Our groupie host gave us a very full background to the novel, the slightly clunky allegorical references (America/Erica both look to the past, Changez/changes etc) and the author’s other rather obvious devices.

We all agreed that the theme was both moral and political. A few thought of it as a love story, most as a thriller. But two of the group found it trite, and one took exception to one message in the book that 9/11 brought home to America what the rest of the world had suffered so long.

When I noted that dates in the story did not quite add up – Changez’ time in the USA, the date of the World Trade Centre attack etc – it was interesting to learn that Hamid had started the book before the attacks and only incorporated the event later. It won’t be the last book to use 9/11 as a disaster to pin stories on, nor the last to examine East/West conflicts. But The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a thought provoking novel, and an enjoyable and easy one to read at that.


Thursday, 25 June 2009

Nature or nurture in the garden

So, if according to the press there are fewer butterflies, bees and garden birds than ever, how come my little slice of green heaven is bursting with them? The former may be due to the profusion of blossom I identified last blog, and the birds may be that I have finally managed to refill the feeders with peanuts on a regular basis. But, even so, how come? Is it natural or have I encouraged them?

I managed – in spite of being up to my ears in projects – to waste hours last week glued to the kitchen window watching my bird table. On a roll, I also spent my entire ‘coffee break’ chasing butterflies and ages (when I should have been filing) taking photos of bees.

My recent bird watching obsession is because there are woodpeckers in the garden. The Greater Spotted Woodpecker could be heard tapping away from January: sending morse signals out for a mate. Now they’ve reared their young. And pretty hungry and demanding young they are too.

Because of this the female woodpecker had been hogging all the nuts for some time. Then last week there she was, pecking away, and next to her on the leg of the bird table was her young: a fully fledged, fluffed up, beautiful young woodpecker. She pecked at the nuts then hopped to the fledgling and fed it!

I was mesmerised. I set up the camera and tripod by the window and spent the rest of the morning hiding behind the curtains, taking snaps whenever I happened to spot her. Woodpeckers are very nervous and easily scared off. This is my excuse for having so very few decent photos in spite of wasting so very many hours. Of course the infant woodpecker did not come back for an encore.

Not only did I get mum and dad woodpecker – each on a separate feeder – but I got nuthatches in pairs. These birds are the most elegantly attired. As tree creepers they feed upside down, usually searching out grubs in tree bark. It makes a fun show to watch on the feeder.

When the woodpecker family visited the weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold. Neither windy or wet. So in between photo shoots I took a turn around the homestead. The garden looked great in the sunshine (the trick is to let your eye skim over the weeds in a grand sweep), positively glowing. There is blossom everywhere: trees are laden with it, and perennials and wild flowers are in every bed and border, each corner and crevice.

On the flowers in the herb garden – sounds very grand, is in fact very basic – there were dozens of bees. Pairs again! The great clumps of comfrey are a favourite, the chive pompoms a hit and the few rosemary flowers left still popular.

Most were bumble bees, but here and there Best Beloved’s honey bees were massed on a plant. They will travel up to three miles for their pollen but I think his find most of their goodies within the garden. If they are not on garden flowers, they are gathering pollen from trees or wild flowers in the grass.

And in those wilder bits of the garden butterflies were everywhere: little brown frittillaries fluttering around each other in a courtly dance, others settling on knautia, nettles or clover. Small blues and larger browns and middling oranges were flitting around the meadow grass.

But also nature at its most gross. Big fat caterpillars destroying verbascum at the rate of knots. What will they turn into: vampire butterflies? Some confused butterflies were caught in the conservatory – trying to get out through the glass. They will die if they don't get out. There went another half an hour trying to guide them out of windows and through doorways only to have their siblings take their place. Frustrated, I had to stop.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that the high incidence of all this wildlife in the garden is a combination of nature and nurture. The stuff I’ve planted – and the weeds I let stay - encourages wild life into the garden. Then nature does the rest.


Thursday, 11 June 2009

Glorious June

Well, not quite yet. We’ve had some lovely days, some very hot ones and some very cold ones. And, only a couple of nights ago, a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning. But, generally, ever optimistic, we expect a glorious June.

It’s not just weather that encourages us to think it’s going to be glorious: it’s the flowers. So far, this year, there seem to be the best bloom in years. The roses have never been more prolific and beautiful. Climbers that usually seem as if they had the Snow Queen treatment have produced beautiful and multiple flowers.

Shrub roses that are usually cursed with scabby, cankerous disease appear to be in the peak of fitness. Weedy, pathetic little rose bushes that knew they were for the chop have rallied and burgeoned thus winning themselves a reprieve for another year. Ramblers have more flowers on them than they usually produce in decades.

And it’s not just the roses. My cornus tree – Cornus kousa Chinensis – is a mass of dramatic creamy white waxy bracts. It’s a dream to behold. The wedding cake shrub – Viburnum tomentosum ‘Mariesii’ - has also been spectacular with its elegant tiers of white heads. In fact, all the viburnums have equally been at their peak. The garden smells like a veritable perfume factory.

And prennials look like they will be strong competition. The dark deep purple salvia, lime fresh alchemilla and striking foxgloves are as beautiful as any on the stands at Chelsea. And the colours! My first Day Lily has opened as rich as orange marmalade; the mauve of the geranium is as vibrant a violet as any painter could conjure up. Whilst purple heuchera is as plush as velvet, its flowers as delicate as lace.

So what’s it all about, this blooming bounty. I guess it could be that we had a very cold winter: killed off all the bugs. Or perhaps it was due to the infestations of ladybirds that we had in every window reveal of the house: when they hatched they had a ready prepared meal of greenfly and blackfly to feast on. Then again, we had a very wet and late spring: gave them all a good start and protection from frost.

Or, could it be that – although I was not aware of any sudden new ability - I am in fact now a gardener of exceptional talent blessed with the Midas touch. No? Oh. So it’s down to just luck, then. Well, what do I care. I shall just bask in the glory of the garden and graciously accept any compliments that come my way. Long live a glorious June.


Monday, 1 June 2009

Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father

Obama is the son of a white American mother, a black Kenyan father. He comes from two different worlds and feels comfortable in neither. With his mother and her parents (white folks) he is accepted and accepting but when he first goes to school in Hawaii he feels out of place. In Origins, the first part of Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father, he describes his early life.

Obama makes a point of aligning himself with the black population, the brotherhood, the dispossessed and disenchanted. He describes many white people as having a life “bought off the rack or found in a magazine”. Throughout the book he is trying to come to terms with being a Black American.

In the second part – after he has gained his degree at university – he goes to Chicago. He works as an organizer helping communities help themselves. He learns that to get people organized he has to plug into their self-interest. For example, a woman’s worries about her son’s safety might be the impetus needed to get her involved in a programme to make the community safer.

It is the beginning of his political career. He learns how to get people motivated, and about “individual advancement and collective decline”. As a student his friend told him “It’s not about you, it’s about people who need your help” and he learns the truth of this in Chicago. He finally relaxes into his skin and finds the people around him accept him for himself: not for whom he thinks he should be.

Finally, Obama comes to realise that he does not have to be part of the brotherhood, at the same level as everyone else in his sphere. He can further his studies and offer more to communities by doing so. The reader gets a glimpse of where Obama’s presidential speeches were nurtured, where such phrases as “the audacity of hope” were hatched.

He applies for Harvard and in the meantime visits Kenya and his father’s family there. In this third part of the book, Kenya, he is trying to find his roots. By trying to understand his dead father, and attempting to uncover his father’s motives and aspirations, he hopes to understand himself.

The life and family he experiences in Kenya opens his eyes to the fact that Africa is not his spiritual home. He is black, yes, but he is American. His sister, Auma, is a soul-mate, but some of his wider Kenyan family are as grasping as others are generous. They too are human. But his family and their life in Kenya does make him more committed to black empowerment.

Whilst in Kenya, to help find his true self, he searches for those things that had inspired his father: the dreams from his father. But he discovers that his father was not the paragon he thought. And by the end of his holiday in Kenya Obama is no longer in thrall to the romance of Africa, nor in the shadow of his father but accepting of himself and his American inheritance. He returns to law school, becomes the first black President of Harvard in 1995, and the rest is history.

This is a fictionalized autobiography – some of us liked the style, others would have preferred a factual account. But I can quite understand why he made it more chatty. To make the book more accessible, more alive, less the heavy hand of facts and incidents.

This version of his autobiography was first published 2004. At 442 pages the book is way too long. The first part, Origins, is fine. The middle section, Chicago, is three times as long as it needs. Much is repetitive - apart from sister Auma’s visit - and a lot of it boringly so. The section, Keyna, is twice as long as it should be. It’s a good book but, cut in length, it would be so much better.

But it is fascinating to see the seeds of Obama’s political awareness. Throughout the book – as throughout his life it seems - he asks philosophical questions and looks for practical answers. He has lofty principles and great aspirations. He talks about big issues: Community, Freedom, Hope. He has faith is in “participatory democracy” and he has “faith in other people”. If just some small part of these concepts and aspirations come to pass, we shall all be glad of his dreams.