Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short story told over a ‘perfect cup of tea’ by a Pakistani to an American who is in Lahore on business.

It is a personal, introspective account of the Pakistani’s experience of living and working in the USA and why he (Changez) returned to his homeland. With intrigue and tension the storyteller shares his journey, including his experience of love, loss and his changing cultural identity.

One wonders how much of this story is autobiographical. The novelist, Mohsin Hamid, tells readers of his web site that he “was born in Pakistan, attended college and law school in America, worked in New York, and now lives in London.”

The style of the book is akin to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which a Pakistani businessman accosts an American in the quaint district of Old Anarkali. There is no conversation and one wonders how the Pakistani can keep this very quiet American silent for the duration of the story. The storyteller returns his readers to the present and to Pakistan at the beginning and end of each chapter. Often the transition is done in an abrupt manner. The host’s questions of his guest about the tea and the food are rhetorical and forced. Perhaps a monologue is always bound to seem unnatural but the speech is contrived and often condescending. To reveal the intimacies of love and loss to a stranger may seem odd. Perhaps part of the frustration evoked by this book is due to the reader’s desire to question the storyteller—to challenge and to seek clarification. Or maybe this cloudiness about the storyteller and what is happening, adds to the mystery and the unsettling nature of the story.

One benefit of the technique is that the Pakistani storyteller is addressing an American and thereby giving him the opportunity to share with his guest some home truths. Here the story develops beyond a personal yarn to acquire an international dimension about the delights and drawbacks of America and the way he sees its place in the world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the changing life in America, especially in the days following the tragedies in New York on 9/11. The book may express how some Pakistanis feel about America, thus, it is a good book, especially for Americans to read over a ‘perfect cup of tea’.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin Books, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 39.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

About Lincoln
This is a comprehensive book about one of the greatest, if not the greatest US President, Abraham Lincoln. It tells grippingly of the political campaign that won him the surprising nomination and it focuses on his magnanimity in forgiving his rivals and elevating them to significant positions in his team.

Hologram History
Pulitzer Prize winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, has a remarkable ability to popularize history without ‘dumbing down’ or ‘gilding the lily’. Like her subject, she writes in colorful language and with vivid images. For instance she likens her approach to seeing through a hologram:

“Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself.” (pxv)

Lincoln and Obama
Team of Rivals has been billed as “the book that inspired Barack Obama.” This statement and his recommendation—“a wonderful book…a remarkable study in leadership”—has done much to see this 900 page history book selling over one million copies.

Readers will be tantalized to identify the similarities between the two presidents—their emergence from humble beginnings, their indebtedness to their mothers, their rise from obscurity, their inexperience compared to their opponents, their stirring oratory, their hands-on training in grassroots politics and their coming to the White House at a time of crisis and war.

Study in Leadership
Subtitled, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin makes a study of her subject’s leadership qualities—his ability to connect with people through apt stories, his passion for rendering experience and practical wisdom into powerful language, his skill in moral persuasion, his strategy to give offense to no one, his sense of understanding the pulse of his people, his ability to earn trust and the possession of a mysterious persona that set him apart from others.

The book tells of dreams, ambitions, disappointments, mistakes, Lincoln’s attentiveness to regulating his emotional balance, and the ways he found relief from the burdens of the office. It is interesting throughout the scope of this book to observe Lincoln’s growing confidence, his ease in exercising leadership and also his increasing despondency, through bearing the strains of war, controversy and personal grief.

Lovers of speechmaking will enjoy learning about the process by which Lincoln’s speeches were crafted (including the Gettysburg Address) and the immediate impression that his oratory made on his hearers.

Appointing a team of rivals (‘like a crossword puzzle’) is one step, but how Lincoln forged them into a powerful force, is the thesis of this book.

And More
Readers will experience the tension of the political campaigns, sense the challenge of abolishing slavery without splitting the country, gain insights into the tantrums of the First Lady, discover details on the renovations at the White House and learn of the intrigue amid the social life of the elite in the capital.

Team of Rivals will prove to be the definitive manual for US Presidents and all those seeking to be effective leaders.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London: Penguin Books, 2005, 2009).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Excerpts from the book on Lincoln’s ability as a storyteller are posted at this link: ‘Abraham Lincoln the Storytelling President,’ Stories for Speakers and Writers.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Team of Rivals.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success, is a book that has wide appeal but will be of special interest to lawmakers, politicians, parents and teachers who think about how they might maximize the potential of children and young people to do well in life.

In his Acknowledgements, Malcolm Gladwell, the British-born Canadian journalist (New Yorker), author, blogger and pop sociologist, states: “This is a book about the meaning of work.” (298)

The focus, as the title suggests is on ‘outliers’—people who do things that are out of the ordinary.

The author torpedoes popular notions of ‘success’, as expressed in the celebrity culture and the status attributed to sportspeople.

The first part of the book addresses the age-old debate that crops up in Education 101 about Nature v Nurture. Is success largely attributable to the genes with which we have been given and our innate intelligence or to our parentage and patronage? This discussion addresses the relationship between success and IQ. Are the contestants who perform well in game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire successful people? Gladwell interestingly makes the distinction between analytical intelligence and practical intelligence, the difference between being smart and being savvy.

Gladwell asks about the role of place and environment and how parents and teachers might go about shaping a culture that is conducive to learning and growth.

The subtitle, The Story of Success, suggests that readers can expect a book with lots of stories but what Gladwell uses is not so much stories that can be used by raconteurs but case studies that open windows, earth the discussion and assist in persuasion.

Gladwell draws from the experience of well-known and not so well-known computer programmers, violinists, chess players and entrepreneurs. In the New Yorker Gladwell has displayed great skill in taking ordinary, everyday things like T-shirts, ketchup, office design, French fries, coffee, shopping malls and paper and enabling his readers to see something more.

The second part of Outliers examines the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears and asks about the extent to which people might be assisted to succeed by building and treasuring our cultural legacies.

This section looks at the differences in the cultures in which we have been raised, especially examining the ‘tendencies, assumptions and reflexes’ that shape these communities. It is fascinating to read various studies from which Gladwell draws, that explore the freedom or fear within cultures to disagree with the elderly and those in authority. These also examine different values that cultures espouse and how being nurtured in these communities creates or hinders the formation of successful people.

The author’s motivation is that readers might be attentive to the conditions that promote good living, learning and growth and that we might “build societies that provide opportunities for the growth of all.” (268)

Gladwell, who also wrote the internationally popular books, Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005), has developed a reputation for synthesizing huge wads of dry research into books that are interesting, clear, simple, colorful and related to questions that many ordinary people are asking.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: The front cover of Outliers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Poems From the Desert by Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s latest book is a collection of twenty-seven poems contained in sixty-six pages.

This volume, Poems from the Desert, is introduced by the Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, whose foreword is a model of poetic eloquence.

While journalists, entrepreneurs and admirers the world over have hungrily scanned papers and web sites to learn about this can-do Sheikh, perhaps nowhere is there a more revealing glimpse of the man than in this volume of poems.

In Poems from the Desert His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum lifts the veil on his soul and bares to the world a wide range of human emotions—passionate love, red hot justice, an exuberance for life, an enduring concern for his people, an honor for his heroes, a holy indignation towards cruelty and a respect for his nation’s heritage. There is yearning, tears and sleepless nights. As Coelho declares, “Writing is an act of courage.” (pxii)

Colours Bright
In one poem the poet says:

“I would paint my words with meaningful verse,
With colours so bright that they tease the eyes.” (p11)

Rich with meaning and replete with mystery, these words are painted with memorable images that emerge out of the Arabian desert—camels, gazelles, moonlight, blazing sun, rainfall, horses, hawks, pearls and eyelashes.

The words not only tease the eyes but they bring readers to all their senses including the throb of life, the roar of the lion and the fragrance of jasmine, roses and rosewater.

It is not clear how many of these poems were first penned in Arabic (perhaps none) but their existence in the English language will introduce hundreds to the long and rich poetic tradition in Arabia.

This volume will cause one to think not only of the ruler of Dubai, the canny businessman or the successful horseman at the track but the quiet wisdom being revealed to the pensive poet in the desert.

Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Poems from the Desert (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 2009).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 75.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Poems from the Desert.