Monday, April 18, 2011

My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

I have read many a news article about Guantanamo Bay and its human rights violations, but it is common knowledge that reading about something pales in comparison to truly experiencing it. Lawyer and journalist Mahvish Rukhsana Khan provides an inside look within the walls of the notorious prison with My Guantanamo Diary, a harrowing, tragic and at times darkly comic account of the appalling injustices she witnessed as a young law student.

Khan, who was born and raised by her Pashtun immigrant parents in Michigan, was a student at the University of Miami when she applied to work as an interpreter for lawyers travelling to Guantanamo Bay to represent detainees. In developing a sense of loyalty towards the inmates she meets, Khan embarks on a personal journey that involves coming to terms with the double culture of her upbringing: the American culture she grew up in and the country she is descended from.

Among the detainees she meets are Ali Shah Mousovi—also known as No. 1164—an Iranian pediatrician who had been setting up a clinic in Afghanistan at the time of his detainment; Haji Nusrat—No. 1009—an Afghan elder barred from receiving medical care for his various ailments that leave him bedridden; and Jumah al-Dossary, a severely abused Bahraini prisoner with a staggering number of suicide attempts on his record. They are few among the many detainees accused of terrorism by people wanting to collect monetary rewards offered by the US. Whether they are guilty or innocent, they have been deprived of the most basic of human rights, including the right to a fair trial, not to mention the severe beatings and sexual assaults they endure at the hands of the prison guards.

Khan is a remarkable writer, balancing her empathy for the detainees with unbiased, journalistic fluency. She does not go out of her way to elicit sympathy for the detainees; instead she lets her records of the interviews she conducted, as well as the information she gathered, speak for themselves. Nor does she shy away from the harsh realities she confronted at Guantanamo; she is candid and at times explicit, creating visceral images of the atrocities committed within the prison that virtually functions as a torture chamber for the accused.

At times I had to set this book aside and take a breather, not only from the graphic descriptions of prisoner abuse but from the anger that these injustices stirred in me. Indeed, My Guantanamo Diary is a provocative book, one that will sear itself into readers’ memories like a branding iron; a bleak, heartbreaking and unforgettable portrait of human misery and the triumph of spirit in the face of adversity. Ultimately there is insight and even inspiration to be gained from reading this book, regardless of one’s political affiliations.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

It was quite a pleasure to get re-acquainted with my beloved Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played With Fire, which far exceeds The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in pulse-pounding suspense, page-turning intrigue and absorbing character study. Ever the social activist, author Stieg Larsson also provides a good share of social commentary on the sex trafficking trade, which is an integral part of the novel’s plot.

The staff of Mikael Blomkvist’s political magazine, Millennium, plans an exposé on the underground trade of sex trafficking, which will reveal a number of inside jobs involving corrupt authority figures, such as policemen and detectives. When the two primary journalists working on the project are found shot to death in their home, Lisbeth’s fingerprints are found on the murder weapon, and she becomes the prime suspect. Throughout the journey to prove her innocence, both Lisbeth and Blomkvist track down and interrogate a number of men that the story had sought to expose, and Lisbeth’s search for truth and exoneration leads her to a larger conspiracy in which she confronts the demons of her past.

The Girl Who Played With Fire provides more insight on the enigma that is Lisbeth’s character than the previous book did, with details of her harrowing upbringing adding dimension to her antisocial personality and trust issues with authority, as well as her motives for taking the law into her own hands. In this volume she reprises her role as a vigilante, tracking down men guilty of sex crimes and subjecting them to physical and psychological torture until they admit to their wrongdoings and provide her with answers. It is later revealed that this drive to avenge abused women stems from Lisbeth’s devotion to her mother, who she witnessed being abused at a young age. Indeed, though Lisbeth’s endeavors are illegal, and some might say immoral, she remains a sympathetic and relatable character, and the most captivating heroine I have come across in recent memory.

However, as within the first installment, Larsson fails to provide depth and dimension to Blomkvist’s character, whose actions are meant to move the story along rather than to develop his personality. This means of plot advancement is nonetheless successful, as the suspense builds up with every bold leap he takes in his self-appointed mission to clear Lisbeth’s name. One notable improvement is his development is that, this time around, his overriding drive to uncover the culprit has tangible motives, as he is in Lisbeth’s debt for saving his life in the previous novel; plus he is determined to avenge his murdered friends.

The novel also introduces an interesting cast of cops and detectives who face the challenge of tracking down the elusive Lisbeth. Among these is the veteran policeman Officer Bublanski, who is initially convinced of Lisbeth’s guilt but then realizes that the case is larger and more complex than previously thought, as he is torn between what he’s told and what to believe.

Although The Girl Who Played With Fire is categorized as a murder mystery, the struggles of these characters are internal and at once profoundly human, and it is Lisbeth’s personal journey that is even more riveting than her external mission to right the wrongs committed against her. Once again, Lisbeth shines as the integral driving force that provides a deeper human element to the twists and turns of Larsson’s narration.

Whether you’re a thrill-seeker looking for a fun read or a reader that analyzes characters and deeper themes, I can’t recommend The Girl Who Played With Fire highly enough. You’ll find that it delivers above and beyond your expectations.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Call me a cynic, but I am usually one to avoid anything with “Secret Life” in the title, because that just screams “Lifetime movie” to me. In the case of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I should have trusted my judgment.

The story is narrated by Lily Owens, a bookish teenage girl living with her abusive father, T. Ray, and her black nanny, Rosaleen, in South Carolina in 1964. Lily is haunted by the memory of accidentally shooting her mother as a small child during a violent scuffle between her parents. All that Lily has left of her mother is a wooden Black Madonna ornament with an unknown address on the back. One day, she accompanies Rosaleen when she goes into town to register to vote, and the two are harassed by three racist men. The ensuing altercation leads to Lily and Rosaleen fleeing town, and Lily heads to the address on the ornament, hoping it can provide her shelter and lead her to some answers about her mother.

All this seemed very promising, and I was intrigued and wanted to read on. Sadly, as soon as Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the Pepto-Bismol-pink house of the black Calendar sisters—August, June and May—the plot veers into sheer contrivance.

August is the wise eldest sister who dishes out sage-like advice at the plot’s convenience. June is a bitter woman scorned in love who keeps turning down marriage proposals from her ex, Neil. May, the youngest, is mentally ill and emotionally fragile, so her sisters have to take care of her. These three are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes, and it’s impossible to take them seriously.

These women fill the void of a maternal figure in Lily’s life, and she soon finds her place within the black community and begins to worship the Black Madonna. She forges a spiritual connection with the bees that August, a beekeeper, cares for. She also befriends Zach, a black boy in the neighborhood, who becomes her love interest. During this time, Lily struggles with her feelings of resentment towards her father and her own low self-image. However, this new world of hers never attains depth, and its whimsical quality becomes almost cartoonish, with its attempts at meaning turning up superficial.

All things considered, The Secret Life of Bees had the potential to be a good novel. Instead it is populated by stock characters, slathered with mawkish sentiment and eventually culminates in a contrived ending that reeks of deus ex machina. I say skip this one if you’re looking for a substantial coming-of-age novel, unless its saccharine quality is your guilty pleasure.