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Manipulation vs. Evocation

I went to a book club gathering last night with my husband. It’s a club I started some years ago and then abandoned for another more focused on “reading for writers.” But the original core group of the “old” book club remains viable and active. With several new members, including a strong contingent from out of the city, the club now numbers about ten. They allow me to be a guest if the book they are reading is of interest to me which I much appreciate.

Immersed in all things Afghan these last couple of weeks for a project I am working on, I took the opportunity to read the chosen book for the club: Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” a sequel to “The Kite Runner.” I had not read that book though I did see the film.

Right now, there are only two other professional writers in this discussion group though all are well read and well rounded in their reading habits, interests and concerns. The discussion is fairly orderly. It begins with an introduction by the person who chose the book, highlights of the author’s biography and some background about the book itself; sometimes the order is reversed with a round robin of initial observations, biography and background, and then a more open free discussion usually over food that honors the ethnicity of the author.

Hosseini’s book is exceptional in many ways, most notably the author’s deliberate decision to write a book from an Afghan woman’s point of view. Why did he make this deliberate choice? In my opinion, the answer is not very complicated. Hosseini is heartsick about Afghanistan and he wants to continue telling its story from every conceivable angle until his readers understand and feel the plight of its people, and do something about it. He’s a good story teller but he’s also an activist. His books are more than novels; they are documentary novels.

After the success of The Kite Runner, Hosseini stopped practicing medicine, became a spokesperson for UNHCR and set up a foundation: http://www.khaledhosseinifoundation.org/. All this is part of his biography. And so it was surprising to me when a couple of people in the book club were offended by what they considered emotional manipulation by the author. They had to put the book down. They found themselves crying. The expository inserts felt contrived. And so on.

If a writer has succeeded in evoking empathy, shall we not sing his praises? Especially if the purpose is not gratuitous? Are we so numbed by gratuitous violence that we cannot respond to real violence when it is skillfully demonstrated? One person even doubted the book’s credibility? “This is fiction. How do we even know it is true?” he said.

He was shot down, an appropriate linguistic image considering the violence we had all experienced through Hosseini's evocative prose. Afterwards, thankfully, the conversation got deeper. What is the future of this beleaguered country? What will President Obama do? We repaired to an Afghani restaurant where we talked into the night.
Suggested further reading: Jon Krakauer’s, “Where Men Win Glory,” about the life and death of Pat Tillman who died by friendly fire in Afghanistan. In addition to an investigation of the cover-up of Tillman’s murder, there is a lot of solid reporting about American involvement in Afghanistan. The book is patched together from interviews and journals handed to Krakauer by Tillman’s wife, Marie. She made a good choice.

Stephen Tanner’s “Afghanistan,” a history of the country from antiquity to the present time.

George Packer’s article about Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan:

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