A review of And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In town recently for a probing interview conducted by Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel, best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini spoke about his craft much as any storyteller of our pre-literate past might have done.
“I just start writing and hope something happens,” he said. The interview took place June 23, 2013, before a capacity crowd in the chapel at the capacious First Congregational Church of Berkeley under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters.
Hosseini starts with characters he cares about and sets out to tell their stories. “You should be really excited about writing when you get up in the morning,” he insisted. If he loses interest in the characters, he’ll throw out as many as ten chapters and start all over again.
“I spend years with these characters,” Hosseini explained. “There’s an internal dialogue that goes on” as they develop in surprising ways.
And the Mountains Echoed began as a “linear novel” about a young brother and sister, Abdullah and Pari, born in an Afghan village in the late 1940s. However, as Hosseini started to write, he began to wonder how some of the minor characters that had cropped up would fit into the narrative. For example, the children’s uncle Nabi “became central to the story” as the writing proceeded, and Nabi’s connection to a Greek doctor working for an NGO in Kabul subsequently took the story to a small Greek island as the doctor, too, emerged as a major character.
The result of Hosseini’s organic writing process is a novel that is at once intensely personal and broad in scope — a story that captures a half-century slice of Afghan history as it relates the lives of Abdullah, Pari, and their family from the peaceful era of the mid-20th Century in Afghanistan to the present day in the South Bay below San Francisco. Compared to Hosseini’s previous novels, which verged on tear-jerker melodrama despite (or perhaps because of?) their universal appeal, And the Mountains Echoed is more ambitious, more nuanced, more insightful, and engages Hosseini himself far more.
This book firmly establishes Khaled Hosseini as one of the finest novelists working today. He belongs among that handful of post-colonial writers — including V. S. Naipaul, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer — who were born within cultures unfamiliar to “the West” and serve as our interpreters of the intercultural experience.
Khaled Hosseini, now 48, has lived in the United States since the age of 15, when his family secured political asylum and moved to San Jose. (A Communist coup had just toppled the Afghan King, and Hosseini and his family were fortunate to be living in Paris, where his father was a diplomat.) A physician, Hosseini practiced medicine in the South Bay for a decade until shortly after the runaway success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, persuaded him to turn to full-time writing. Collectively, his three novels — A Thousand Splendid Suns was the second — have sold more than 38 million copies.
Late in her interview, Dinkelspiel asked the author what plans he had for his next book. “I have a few ideas,” Hosseini said, “but I really won’t know what will happen until I sit down at the keyboard.”
The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012
1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.
2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith
The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.
3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.
4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson
The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.
5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones
This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.
6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst
It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.
7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky
Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.
8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer
The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.
9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville
You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”
10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter
In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.
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