Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton

A coincidence, I presume, gave us two books this month whose central plotline begins in Afghanistan. In both books, Afghanistan is (or becomes) a place of turmoil, revolution, and man's inhumanity to man. In both cases, the central character escapes to a place so distinct it might as well be another world.

Unlike Amir in The Kite Runner, who must return to deal with his past, Conway in Lost Horizon seems to have left everything behind. Indeed he is required to leave everything behind. Shangri-La takes all prisoners.

The Kite Runner
suggests that human action--whether a personal rescue or American bombs--can make some difference in the turmoil of the world. Lost Horizon suggests the only escape is in an inaction of sorts, concealment and preservation while the world outside lays itself waste. The conflict in Afghanistan is only a prelude to an imminent worldwide cataclysm (which did come, though it was not as catastrophic as the characters imagined).

Shangri-La reminded me a bit of Rivendell, with the long lives and the focus on preservation of what was good in the past. But Mallinson was right; there was something unwholesome about the place. I'd love to visit Rivendell for weeks on end, but I don't think I'd want to spend more than a four-hour tour in Shangri-La. People were not meant to live so long or do so little with so little conviction.

I do have a little sympathy with the mission of Shangri-La, though. Rather than hoping to live on and hold the memory of good things past myself, I hope to pass them on to my children. (A category Shangri-La apparently eschewed.)

As an adventure story, a what-if story, it was a fun read. I did feel like the plot fell apart at the end, though, with a rather contrived reason for escape just to justify the frame story that gets the tale back to the outside world.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

There's a cliche about the train wreck -- it's so horrible yet so fascinating you can't look away.That's how I found The Kite Runner, which had many disturbing elements in it, episodes that were difficult to read because of the oppression and "violence of the wicked" -- very often violence against children -- and because of the sheer sadness of some of the passages. Yet the book drew me in with its poignant but matter-of-fact prose; its eye-opening look at life in war-torn nations; its touching moments of faithful friendship, and the heart-rending quest for a father's praise.

The story is set in Afghanistan, and the narrator is Amir, who relates how his carefree boyhood was destroyed, first by a personal sin, then by war violence which forces Amir and his father to escape their home to Pakistan, and ultimately come to America, where they try to make a new life in California. Though seeing the violence and oppression of Afghanistan's invaders was terrible, it is his own sin that hangs like a dark cloud over Amir. In his quest for gaining the love and pride of his adored father, Amir makes a choice that hurts (to say it mildly) his most loyal friend and servant, Hassan. Amir's guilt over this becomes a disease that ruins his friendship with Hassan and changes the course of both their lives. As an adult, Amir is given the opportunity to redeem himself of his boyhood failure. He must see if he can claim for his own the courage, faithfulness and integrity that he always admired in his father and in Hassan.

The Kite Runner is moving and often painful. Of course, there are some bright spots: happy memories of a carefree childhood that crop up throughout the book; a new and ardent love that springs up further on in the story; and evidence of Amir truly gaining the respect of his father. But the heaviness never really lets up, because not only are the violent scenes distressing (although it is rarely in-your-face violence, the language is simple and evocative and unmistakable), the presentation of all these lives in the grip of Islamic ideology is saddening as well. On the one hand are the Islamic jihadists; but on the other you have the sympathetic characters like Amir, who must live with guilt, because there is no blood redemption, no sacrifice of love on their behalf by Allah, no salvation by grace. Allah may eventually forgive his followers, but they, like Amir, must earn their own redemption.

I'm glad I read this book, because it is so well-written, and because it showed a way of life that is foreign to me, but that is normal for so many people around the world in Islamic and war-torn countries. However, I would recommend it only to mature and discerning readers.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How People Grow

This was not a book I was very enthusiastic about reading, as I generally do not care for therapeutic-type books with their multi-step programs for change and their cozy little morality tales of people who have been helped.

Nonetheless, I was impressed with the content of the book, though the style is still not one I cared for. Taking people back to God Himself, and to a deeper understanding of how Truth works out in their life, is the only way to, well, help them grow. People need to understand that they cannot help themselves, need to understand that God is there to empower them, not just hold out a standard, and need to be deeply part of the Body.

This book confirmed many things I have been seeing in my life and in the lives of those close to me. I didn't necessarily agree with all of the applications, but I thought the core message of the book was a very true one, and spoke to the centrality of things too often sidelined in self-help books.