Thursday, October 27, 2005

Book Review: "The Kite Runner"

I was never a great kite flyer. My earliest memory of flying kites was in first grade at Liberty School, a one-room country school with eight grades, two miles from our farm. I was the youngest student in the school and the only first grader, so I had certain privileges, which included wandering around the room and looking over the shoulders of the older kids while the teacher, Mrs. Fleming, worked with them at the big table in the back. For some reason that seemed to annoy one particular kid, Gene,a fifth-grader who would tell me to go back to my desk and would take out his vengeance on me in the playground during recess and the lunch hour. I suspect that he was annoyed because I was a better reader than he was, but who knows? I don't like people looking over my shoulder either.

Gene was a bully, although I remember most of his abuse as being verbal. One of the things he used to do was break pieces of the green slate siding off of the school house (which was in its last year of use as a school house before being turned into a pig shed) and throw them at my head. I don't recall being hit, but I was terrified and tried to stay away from Gene.

Gene was not a good student, and apparently not a good thrower of pieces of slate, but one of the things he was good at was flying kites. In the spring of the year, the older boys in the school would make kites out of newspapers, thin lattice strips, home made paste and rags for tails and fly them in the strong prairie winds. The object was to see how high your kite could fly, and there really seemed to be no limits on the altitudes the Liberty School kites could reach, except for the length of the twine keeping them tethered. One particularly memorable day, the boys tied together a series of kites, five or six of them and had them all flying at once.

I didn't even try to make a kite for school, my craft abilities as bad then as they have been the rest of my life. I remember trying to make a kite with my brother, but never being able to get it to fly. I never even had much luck flying store-bought kites as an adult, when I thought I should fly kites with my sons. We would fool around half an hour or so trying to get the things airborne and then give up and go read a book.

Which is an awfully long introduction to the book, "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini, but after all this is a blog. What is a blog for if not to indulge its author in his senile ramblings?

Every book club in America must be reading "The Kite Runner." Although I don't go into bookstores much anymore when Amazon is so much more convenient, I am told that all the local bookstores have the book prominently on display. It is number six on the New York Times paperback fiction list and has been on the list for more than a year. I finished it several weeks ago and our reading group discussed it last Sunday afternoon.

Why is the book so popular? For one thing it has lots of plot, if you like that in a book and many people do. There are many twists and turns in "The Kite Runner," some of them implausible. I would have liked the book better with fewer coincidences. It reminds me of the famous quote by the Emperor Joseph about one of Mozart's operas; "Too many notes."

The narrator of "The Kite Runner," Amir, says in the opening sentence of the book that "I became what I am at the age of twelve on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975." That is a great opening line but it is not true. What Amir was at the age of twelve was a spoiled rich kid in Afghanistan who betrayed a dear friend, Hassan. By the time he was narrating his story, he had found redemption and had become a generous benefactor.

The first part of the book depicts a part of Afghanistan that Americans know nothing about. This was before the country became a pawn in big-power politics; before its invasion by the USSR, and the proxy wars fought by the Taliban with U.S. money and arms. It depicts a buccolic time, at least for rich kids, who lived in luxury and peace. The descriptions of Afghanistan and its culture before it was overrun by first the Russians, then the Taliban and then the United States are rich, and make the book worth reading despite its shortcomings.

Amir's mother had died in childbirth, and Amir felt his father's resentment. He struggled for his father's approval, and had it briefly, when he was successful in the uniquely Afghani sport of kite fighting. Unlike the Liberty school boys, the boys of Kabul used store-bought kites. They coated their kite strings with pieces of glass. The object was to fly your kite so that it would cut the strings of the competitors' kites. (Obviously I know even less about kite fighting than I do about kite flying, but I don't understand how, when two kite strings coated with glass come in contact, it is anything but luck as to which one gets cut.) The kite runner would run after the victimized kite and bring it back as a trophy to the winner of the fight.

One day, after a lengthy kite fight in which Amir finally impressed his father with his flying skills, Hassan was cornered by a trio of bullies who had been threatening the two friends and was brutalized by them. Amir happened upon the incident, while it was happening, but was too scared to help his friend. His guilt caused him to turn upon his friend and betray him in particularly cruel ways. By the end, Amir, who is now grown and living in the States finds a way to redeem himself.

A book that I liked much better, with a similar theme of two young men who were dear friends until one betrayed the other, and then eventually found redemption is "Embers," by Sandor Marai, a Hungarian writer. The plot in that book is very simple but the psychological study of what happened and how it affected the friends is complex and interesting.

Although this review might seem negative, "The Kite Runner" is a much better than average book, and should be read for the insights it gives into another culture, and to common themes that run through all cultures, from Afghani to Amish. I gave it four out of five stars.


Debra Hope said...

Hey, I'll check it out. Here's some I've loved lately: Bob Cooley's "When Corruption was King," the story of his involvement in taking down some heavy Chicago political hitters 30 years ago--particularly interesting since I remember this happening, Cliff knew some of the coppers, and I now work for Bob's brother. Peter and Elfrieda Dyck's "Up from the Rubble," a must-read for every fat, happy, complacent American Mennonite; and Oprah's latest pick, "A Million Little Pieces"--while I'm not into the Oprah thing, the girl does read good books!

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Deb, I'll put them on my ever-growing list. Why don't you send me a review of one or more of those books by email, and I'll post them in the body of the blog, as not everyone reads the comments.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning "Embers" I was so stunned by that book when I read it. The writer's approach to telling a story of great friendship, a terrible betrayal, the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire is remarkable. I found it so fascinating when I first heard about it, realizing that it had been written in 1942 and only recently "discovered" by English readers thanks to translation.

Over the years I have read many fascinating books as a result of translation. It's e\one world but many voices. I'll never have enough time to sample them all. I so envy your retirement. Becky

Amishlaw said...

Retirement? I wish!!!