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Initial post: Aug 4, 2007 9:03:07 AM PDT
mellors says:
Before Hosseini put pen to paper, his agenda was set: he would write a novel about angelic Afghan women and evil Islamist men. While it's unclear who decided on this subject, publisher or author, my bet's on the former: the subject was a guaranteed moneymaker, pandering again to a kite-runner demographic hungry for a dramatic, intellectually soft introduction to a country that was invaded before being understood.

That said, things fall apart when an author tries too hard to appease an audience, or sets out with a huge agenda instead of a blank page. "Like a block of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride its own melting," wrote Robert Frost. This book was cooked before it began.

He appeases his audience--I've read their reviews here on Amazon, most of which are plot summaries that end with a brief closing paragraph that praises the book as a "masterpiece" of "eloquent writing and observations." Here's an example of such eloquent observation:

"The wind whips up another spray of sand. There is a noise like a chant, and she tells him something Babi had taught her years before about singing sand.

[here I've omitted a useless paragraph meant to build up suspense about what Babi told her, and finally we get:]

It's true, she tells him. It's the friction of grain against grain. Listen."

Really? How else might sand sing? And so it goes, throughout, that we often wait for genius to break through but are constantly met with cursory observations that fall short of revelation.

But what the prose lacks in color, you ask, must be made up for with plot--no? One should only hope. We live in a b-movie blockbuster, daytime-drama world, and it's to this audience that publishers market. Splendid Suns reads like a movie--indeed, its predecessor's movie mock-up is due out in a few months. But, like b-level movies, its plot meanders yet never shakes free of predictability; and, like a soap, SS assumes we lack even moderate critical thinking skills.

The book's foreshadowing is so heavy as to be unreadable: every prescient remark is eventually revisited. When we read, for instance, early in the book, that a main character's friend "[knows she will] one day pick up a newspaper and find her picture on the front page," we feel the future being planned, carved not by the unpredictable gods of the real world, but by a mediocre author. And sure enough, coming around like Christmas, are, later, the following lines:

"When Laila saw the article, she'd thought of her childhood friends, and Hasina saying, 'I know one day I'll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page.' The photo hadn't made the front page, but there it was nevertheless, as Hasina had predicted.'"

Has the author such little respect for his readers' memories, critical reading skills, or for subtlety in general, that he must quote and remind? This instance is only one of many: for those who have already suffered through the book, look at page 345, where he brings the reader up to speed on what's already happened, then quotes various predictions and tells you how they've worked out.

By the end of the book's driveling denouement--complete with characters coming back from the dead--Mr. Hosseini ties every loose end. He's no respect for subtlety or ambiguity, or for Woolf's suggestion that the best artists "leave half their sentences unfinished." What made The Kite Runner bearable was its morally ambiguous narrator. But here is a simple struggle between the absolutely bad and the absolutely good. By dealing in absolutes we are left no mystery: all questions are answered for us--I felt encouraged not to think for myself, for I knew the answer would be given. Once the book is read it is finished, without depositing any lasting ambiguities or questions to solve.

(For a better portrayal of the female Muslim's place in Afghan society, read Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. Stewart sees one woman in his month-long walk across Afghanistan: shes in it for one paragraph, serves him water without looking at him, and leaves. Says much more than this book ever will.)

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 6, 2007 1:09:23 PM PDT
Some time ago I posted on this site expressing similar views and was joined by a few others willing to swim against the tide of hype and best sellerdom created by this false manipulative book.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 7, 2007 10:14:28 AM PDT
dsa10 says:
I agree that this book is simply a tale of absolute good against absolute evil. The Kite Runner was a far more interesting and deeper story, of a flawed protagonist and of complex relationships between friends and families. For this reason I cannot recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns - I was very disappointed.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 21, 2007 5:45:26 PM PDT
A WONDERFUL post Jared Mauskopf! I agree with every single word you wrote and what you wrote is precisely the reason I heartily dislike the work of Khaled Hosseini.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 21, 2007 6:10:56 PM PDT
Ellen Hanson says:
Jared Mauskopf,

I think you're over-analyzing. I heard an interview with Khaled Hosseini on NPR - he said he wrote this book to communicate to the world the plight of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. A mere paragraph about one woman serving a man water without looking at him would likely not have made his point to the average reader. I doubt Hosseini was trying to write a literary masterpiece here. Given his stated goal, I think he got his point across pretty darn well.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 21, 2007 6:49:07 PM PDT
A. Tilley says:
(For a better portrayal of the female Muslim's place in Afghan society, read Rory Stewart's The Places in Between. Stewart sees one woman in his month-long walk across Afghanistan: shes in it for one paragraph, serves him water without looking at him, and leaves. Says much more than this book ever will.)

I feel that this is a pretty interesting statement. I personally felt that I was prompted by Hosseini's book to investigate more fully the plight of Afghan women (and Muslim women in general). I don't see how one paragraph in a book gives readers any more insight than what we see on the news (of course, when Muslim women are silent, we can ignore them better). It doesn't tell us what she is thinking or about her background (of course, I understand that is how they are treated). What Hosseini has attempted to do is create two female characters that would give us insight into Afghan women. From the other things I have read, their experiences are quite typical.

I think it is a little fallacious to compare Hosseini with Virgina Woolf - Woolf lived and wrote in a much more ambiguous society, not one in which survival was one's foremost concern (though I think mentally, she did battle to survive). Her work was part of a movement that struggled against established, Victorian ideas and tended to make ambiguity of everything.

I'm not sure ambiguity and "literariness" should be confused. It is tempting to pronounce more dense and subjective novels as literary, but I'm not sure it's accurate. Hosseini, I don't think, has any intention of writing a novel about a Virgina Woolf-like world. He is writing about a world where everyday people are oppressed for their gender, for having a beard that is too short, and casualties of factional fighting. I think to criticize him for lack of amibiguity is to misunderstand the culture he is writing about. Human beings who are denied education and basic human rights don't tend to develop ambiguity; their lives are laid out in front of them in black-and-white. They are told what to think, what to wear, and what to do. In that sense, I think Hosseini's clear style reflects this perspective.

(As a side note, regarding this portion that was mentioned: It's true, she tells him. It's the friction of grain against grain. Listen."

Really? How else might sand sing? And so it goes, throughout, that we often wait for genius to break through but are constantly met with cursory observations that fall short of revelation.), it doesn't seem as ridiculous to remember that at that time Laila is a young girl, and at the time Babi told her about the sand "years before," she was probably a very small child. When you think of a character explaining this phenomena to a child (instead of to the reader), it makes quite a bit of sense.

I keep reading these types of "reviews" that try to break the characters of the book into "evil" and "angelic." I don't know that it is angelic to bash your husband's head in with a shovel (even if it is to save your co-wife) or to deceptively marry a man to cover up the result of your premarital sexual relations. Do I think it was angelic that Laila walked away from Mariam and allowed her to suffer through that ordeal alone? Not really - but then again, Mariam would have needed two female witnesses to make up for one male, so she was a dead woman to begin with. I am pretty much of the opinion that beating your wife is a bad thing to do - perhaps even evil - and that a society that promotes or at the least sanctions these actions is one I'd feel safe in condemning. I am struggling to see where ambiguity could play a role here.

I may be able to at least consider your views if I felt that there was any acknowledgement that the situations these women are in are not fictional. That women are put through this hell every day. But what I am seeing is that people are totally overlooking that message to criticize Hosseini's style of writing and accuse him of as one of our other infamous posters labeled "propaganda." I would like to hear in response a better way the book could have been written to convey the feelings these women experience.

Of course, any work in the public market is open to criticism, but what I feel like I have read so far is some who want to be first on the bandwagon to criticize a book largely enjoyed by most (i.e. if it's popular it must be bad) and deliver the most clever put-down. I have read many literary classics in my time (including the great Virginia), but I feel some of these comments are purposely reductive in their view of literature and overlook what this book has to offer by comparing it to books/authors that have no connection.

I find most of these comments so far snide and sarcastic (which makes me question the motivation), and to be honest, it has all the earmarks of just trying to rain on others' parades instead of proposing what would be a more satisfying approach. Perhaps some balanced reviews instead of those that flatly condemn the book would make me believe that the reviewers didn't set out to read the novel negatively.

By the way, as long as we are on the topic, from what I know of Virgina Woolf, I doubt she would have had many positive (or even ambiguous) words for the "Muslim men" described in the book either.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 22, 2007 11:50:54 AM PDT
Ellen Hanson says:
A. Tilley,

Well said!!

E.H.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 22, 2007 7:01:12 PM PDT
A. Tilley says:
I do want to add an additional comment to my former post specifically to address this statement: Before Hosseini put pen to paper, his agenda was set: he would write a novel about angelic Afghan women and evil Islamist men. As I have mentioned before, I have found it interesting that those that condemn the book for being too black-and-white focus only on the most black-and-white aspects of the book.

I do find the statement above to be untruthful - there were several Muslim men in the book which were certainly not evil: Tariq, Babi (who Laila dearly loved and who, for all intents and purposes, represents a very good role model), the Mullah that is literally Mariam's dearest friend; and I will even throw an ambiguous one in to boot: Jalil, Mariam's father. How easy is it to be a good father once you are dying? He certainly has two faces at the beginning and I wasn't sure I could categorize him either way by the end of the book.

Besides the things I've mentioned about Mariam and Laila (the ways that they demonstrated non-angelic behavior), we have both Mariam and Laila's mothers. Nana, with her cynical and life-draining personality, always bringing "reality" to destroy the joy Mariam has about life. She has had a lot happen to her, so I feel understanding, but let's face it, she's bitter. Laila's mother is argumentative, suspicious and demeaning to Laila (she is never as good in her mother's mind as her brothers), and then on top of that, we have her tendency to take to her bed and let Laila run the household. Not someone I would be in a hurry to get to know, but at best, she's complicated.

I know it makes a better argument to leave this elements out but it comes across as unfounded and unconvincing. I am confused that those who dislike the book b/c see the world subjectively have only noticed the black-and-white elements of the book. It's definitely an option to go against the tide, but please be reasonable. This is also one-sided.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 30, 2007 6:05:56 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 30, 2007 6:09:30 AM PDT
M. Helton says:
THANK YOU Jared. I totally agree, but no one else does. I'm even considering skipping my reading circle discussion because they're all going to act like I'm insensitive and crazy for not liking the book. I'll admit, that I was charmed by the Kite Runner, which had more surprises and a more fully-developed narrator. Early on in the Kite Runner, we know the narrator has made a mistake. It is a tale of regret and the struggle to redeem oneself. I found that much more interesting than the Lifetime Movie story of sainted Afghan women that was Thousand Splendid Suns. I would venture to say that Hosseini knows little more about women than the Taliban did. Perhaps his inability to develop the characters was a result of sticking to the third-person rather than first-person, but I never felt he knew these women. So how could I?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2007 12:43:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 31, 2007 12:45:53 AM PDT
mellors says:
Thank you, A. Tilley, for your detailed response. You made some good points, particularly in noting the book's ambiguous male characters, and also in your response to my closing parenthetical. I'd added those sentences at the last moment, and, in retrospect, they were exaggerated and overdramatic. Obviously, you're right: three-hundred pages will inevitably say more about Afghan women than will a paragraph-long blurb. HOWEVER, my mind's been stuck on that paragraph for months--in three-hundred pages detailing every mile of a month-long walk across Afghanistan, that was his sole encounter with a Pashtun woman? She serves him a drink, then leaves?

Why is that so powerful? Because it's incomplete. Stewart's book is powerful because it does not profess to be complete. As I said in my earlier post, Hosseini is obsessed with being complete, revisiting every act of prescience and giving closure to every story line (even if he has to resurrect dead characters to do so).

In Stewart's account, we're given a general idea of the Afghan woman and are left wondering what she does and thinks once she disappears behind the wall. It's beautiful and generative, and it's part of the reason I bought Splendid Suns, to find out what that woman was thinking.

SS professes (as one reviewer here put it) to go "behind the veil." In your post, you wrote, "What Hosseini has attempted to do is create two female characters that would give us insight into Afghan women. From the other things I have read, their experiences are quite typical."

Laila and Mariam's experiences are quite typical. Too typical, to the point where Laila becomes typical people, and not a real person. Hosseini goes behind the veil, but behind the veil of a whole people and not a single person. One can predict her experiences by watching Christiane Amanpour: purdah, patriarchal society, Islamic law, Taliban. I'm not saying, as you suggest, that "these women's situations are fictional," just that the individual women themselves seem melodramatically overrepresentative of ALL Afghan women. Their story, on a global level, can be true; but once the global is condensed onto a local scale, the characters created come off as being contrived and cartoonish.

We know what is evil and what is good. Good literature has never dealt exclusively with these absolutes. In other discussions, people are constantly bringing up Elie Wiesel's "Night," which was set during the Holocaust: what more of a black-and-white, good-vs-evil setting can you find? None. But by focusing on a complex story, told in the first person, he made the narrator, himself, come to life, not by focusing on general themes that can be found in documentaries, but by focusing on his personal experience. (SPOILER) The book was most powerful, I thought, toward the end, when Elie runs alongside his father in the freezing snow, not knowing whether to wish his father dead so that he could run ahead of his ailing father, and faster. This is ambiguous morality on a personal level.

I took a class with Professor Wiesel last year. He's as ambiguous in person as he is in his novels: he'll die angry with God, but will still love Him. Also, the course was on The Book of Job, which has its benevolent God complicit in murder. Ambiguous.

What I'm saying, A. Tilley, is that ambiguity breeds speculation, since it is incomplete; that when a reader finishes a book and can't decide what is good or bad or who is right and wrong, he has read a good book. You were right in saying ambiguousness does not equal literariness (it can be done poorly); however, completeness, I think, equals illiterateness.

You're also right in that I was wrong to compare the book to Woolf's world, because, as you noted, Woolf lived in affluent Britain, with time to pour over minutia. But there's one scene, in "The Voyage Out," that I think pits Woolf's style squarely against Hosseini's. Two characters: Hirst and Hewet. They sit overlooking their hotel, which houses dozens of people. Hirst says to Hewet, "I see through everything--absolutely everything. Life has no more mysteries for me." But Hewet then replies, "But there are all those people down there going to sleep. Miss Warrington, I suppose, is now on her knees; the Eliots are a little startled, it's not often they get out of breath[...]" and goes on and on, cataloguing what he presumes are each person's activities, and finally says, "No, Hirst--I don't find it simple at all."

"But I have a key," Hirst replies.

Does anyone have a key? Does Hosseini have the key to human mystery and the ability to compact it neatly into a couple hundred pages?

-

Anyway, I do want to bring up one more point. The artifice came through most, I thought, in that Splendid Suns' plot and characters and settings paralleled so closely The Kite Runner's. Just a few examples, and I'm interested to hear people's comments:

-The Orphanage: same setting as in KR, complete with the same headman wearing the same glasses.
-Stoning in the stadium: anonymous woman in KR, Mariam in SS
-in the end, redemption and closure via a child that initially has difficulty connecting with one of its parents
-plot twist comes via a sit-down discussion in which it is revealed that a character has died.
-physical trauma that ends in a wake-up scene in which a character gradually emerges from unconsciousness (Amir in KR after being beaten; Laila in SS after bomb)
-character receives a letter that cannot be responded to, since its writer has died (letter from Hassan in KR, Mariam's father in SS)

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2007 6:08:10 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 31, 2007 6:11:01 AM PDT
Ellen Hanson says:
Jared Mauskopf,

While your thoughts are presented with clarity and make perfect sense, I disagree with your basic premise (that completeness equals illiterateness). Perhaps this book lacks ambiguousness, but it is not illiterate. Certainly a book must exhibit other problems to be labeled illiterate?

With regard to your detailed comparisons of this book with THE KITE RUNNER, I think your points, while technically true, are mostly picky. You seem to be comparing A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS with great works of literature. Must all books be judged against such greatness in order to be considered good? A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is successful as a work of commercial fiction. When reviewing a book (or any work of art), I think it's important to keep in mind what, exactly, you're reviewing. For example, comparing a comedy like "American Pie" by the same standards as you might with a drama like "Titanic" would be meaningless. Comparing Hosseini with Woolf seems just as meaningless.

I don't want to come across as saying I completely disagree with you. I just think you're demanding literary greatness from a book that is commercial fiction. And as far as commerical fiction goes, I think this one is pretty darn good.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2007 8:59:50 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 31, 2007 9:03:37 AM PDT
mellors says:
Ellen Hanson,

I'm not comparing The Voyage Out or any other Woolf novel to KR or SS; rather, I'm using that one scene to show that behind even the most clearcut of walls are unique stories and people. The hotel in Woolf's novel housed elite Brits whose snobbery was often shown in black-and-white terms. In Woolf's small world, snobbery was everything wrong with society, and is the modern-day equivalent to Hosseini's Afghanistan. (Sad, how much she overdramatized things--she was, in some respects, a baby.)

But my point is that she recognized that behind the collective, there are individual, interesting case studies. She looked at a hotel full of everything she opposed, yet saw individual people, their stories and consciousnesses and actions. Hosseini sees Afghanistan, and instead of making Afghanistan the summation of individuals, he makes individuals into summations of Afghanistan.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 31, 2007 5:09:40 PM PDT
Ellen Hanson says:
J.M.,

Your comments make sense. But I still think A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS has merit. !!

E.H.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 10, 2007 2:08:09 PM PDT
Scully says:
I agree with a lot of things in A.Tilley's post but there was a part at the end where Laila was remembering how Mariam would have wanted her to not hold bitterness in her heart and Mariam would have said "What good is it Laila jo" and "What is the sense" When I read this, a very interesting thing happened, the flow of the book came to a grinding halt and I realized immediately that I didn't know at all if Mariam would say something like that or not. I felt the author should have either left that comment out or developed her personality a little better. To me Mariam was not much more than someone who was treated cruelly and was able to appreciate some love she finally received in her life and that's fine; however, it was hard for me to imagine her saying those "wise" things. It was like he was talking about a different character. I do feel ungrateful for being picky about this. The book was entertaining, thought provoking, and very heartbreaking. I even went to the UNHCR website so any book that can provoke me to do that is pretty much all around awesome.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 10, 2007 5:01:42 PM PDT
M. Helton,

I agree, so at least we are now three. However, I don't see what telling the story in the first person could achieve that telling it in the third person could not, if the author would have been very skillful at manipulating the third person subjective. Perhaps we're just defining first person and third person differently. To me, first person would be, "I looked at Rasheed and felt my heart turn to ice." Third person would be,"Mariam looked at Rasheed and felt her heart to turn ice." Admittedly bad examples, but just to illustrate first person and third person.

First person usually limits an author to one narrator and to giving the thoughts of only one person. Third person allows the author to give the thoughts of anyone in the book who is a point-of-view character. In this case, I think Hosseini was correct to use the third person, though I don't think he was particularly skillful at it and I, too, felt like I didn't really know the women.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 20, 2007 10:38:09 AM PDT
Maggie says:
Thank you, thank you, thank you Jared! At last, an intelligent and thoughtful review of this book. I loved The Kite Runner - it was full of interesting, multi-dimensional, flawed characters and a strong plot line. In that book, the author knew whereof he spoke and the descriptions and characters were vivid and real. By comparison, A Thousand Splendid Suns is like a shallow soap opera - he never really gets inside the heads of his characters, and so we only see them as superficial props to a pre-cooked plot. The women of Afghanistan have suffered horrendously, more than anyone in the west can imagine, so I suppose we should thank Hoseini for drawing the western world's attention, but I wish it could have been done in a more profound and intelligent way. Very disappointing.
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Latest post:  Oct 20, 2007

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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Paperback - November 25, 2008)
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