The Favored Daughter, by Fawzia Koofi

The Favored DaughterAfter nearly a year of reading pretty decent (and sometimes amazing) books for my online book club, I guess it was time for that law of averages to catch up with us…

Strike one against the book was the fact that it is a memoir. I am really bad at caring about people’s personal histories unless they are hilarious or really really well told, and this one is very much neither.

It is super depressing right from the beginning, with Koofi recalling her life as a small child in Afghanistan living with her mother and her father and all of his other wives and all of the assorted children, which is not depressing at all until her father is murdered and those who killed him come after her family, causing Koofi and her immediate family to flee their small town. This is all part of the ongoing struggles and wars in Afghanistan starting in the ’80s, and so Koofi finds herself moving around the country and losing family members more often than anyone really should.

But Koofi tries to put an uplifting spin on it, talking about how even as a lowly girl child she was able to go to school because her mother made sure of it even over the arguments from male relatives — at least until the Taliban came along and ruined everything for the female half of the population. Koofi still had her own personal powers and abilities, but she had to use them through those male relatives. And she did use them, to great advantage to herself, building a family and getting into politics and becoming a member of the Afghan parliament and winning over men who saw women as less than people.

This is the thrust of the book, I think — that even though Afghanistan was forcibly turned into a backwater country by the Taliban the people of Afghanistan are generally better and can be made to see progress and change if progress and change are allowed to happen. By extension, it is a book about how you need to just do the things you want to do or need to do whether people approve of it or not, because once it works out well people will approve of it. And this is a pretty good moral for a story.

But the path to getting there is torturous. I said in my book club meeting that if this were a speech, it would be a fantastic one. Long, but fantastic. However, in book form, the digressions and repetitions and non sequiturs are obvious and tiring. And there are strange narrative gaps — at one point Koofi describes an arduous effort to get her husband out of jail which ends with three neighbors putting up their properties as guarantee that said husband will not leave Kabul and will go to certain meetings whenever called, and then one page later she is packing up her family and leaving the entire country. I really hope something else happened in between these events, but the book does not let me know! I am imagining a poor, tired editor fixing up this book and just giving up in the middle, figuring that if anyone gets that far they’ll just keep going anyway. Not that I ever did that as a newspaper editor, no sir.

Barring more caffeine for the editor, I like the suggestion of another book clubber that this book would have been better as written about Koofi rather than as told by her. She has an interesting story and I hope that someday she becomes president of Afghanistan so I can read a better version of it.

Recommendation: A good read for ladies and those interested in life in Afghanistan, if you’re willing to overlook the terrible writing. (I am not.)

Rating: 5/10

And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed-peeks in- Uh, hi there! Insert apologies for absence here, something about New Job and New Apartment and Temporary Lack of Internet and whatever, let’s talk about books!

One of the members of my book club had the rest of the club choose between this book and The Fault in Our Stars as our July book, and although at the time I would much rather have re-read TFiOS (because AWESOME) than read another Hosseini novel, I am very glad that I was forced to read this instead, because AWESOME.

Beware the rest of this post, because while I think that you can’t really spoil a novel like this, I personally really enjoyed knowing nothing at all about this book before diving in, so if you are that kind of reader just run away, obtain this book, and read the heck out of it.

The book starts off as a person telling some other people a sort of fairy tale story about a fellow who loses his favorite son to a tricky demon/god thing. The father decides, naturally, that he must go get his son back, so he braves all the things and makes his way to the demon/god’s home for wayward children, which turns out to be this great and awesome place and the father is now forced to choose between taking his son home to a decidedly not-great and not-awesome place, or leaving his son with the demon/god and losing all memory of said son’s existence. Aaaugh, that is a terrible choice.

So then in the next chapter it turns out that the storyteller was a father with two children whose own stories may possibly closely match the story in the first chapter, and it’s terrible watching this story play out in “real” life (oh, frame stories!) but also so very interesting.

Which is basically how the rest of the book plays out. The chapters each feature a different character and tell his or her story, or at least the parts that are interesting and relate to the other characters and chapters. Most of the stories involve some terrible thing that happens and focus on how the protagonist deals or refuses to deal with it, and although the results are invariably depressing on some level they are also kind of amazingly relatable. I came away from so many of the stories thinking, yes, that is a true thing that is true but I had never really thought of it in that way and now I feel rather enlightened, but also depressed.

I think my favorite of the chapters is the fifth one, in which two cousins return to their family home in Afghanistan in an attempt to reclaim the family lands abandoned many years previous. The one cousin is this outgoing and ostentatious dude, totally excited by the prospect of being back in the homeland and doing homeland-y type things and being a sort of savior to his people or whatever. The other is totally grossed out by his cousin but finds himself drawn to a little girl who obviously needs medical help, help that he as a doctor could probably totally provide if he just pulled the right strings, and while he’s in Afghanistan he makes all these grand plans but when he gets back to America (SPOILERS!) those plans take a backseat to, like, being a fairly well-off doctor who doesn’t have to worry himself about random children on another continent. I think everyone can relate to getting really excited about a thing or a cause and then having that excitement die off as regular life intrudes and says, hey, that couch over there looks really comfy, you should go have a nap on it; but of course when it’s a person and not a thing it’s so much worse, and our protagonist cousin knows this. This chapter is a heart-stabber, and I love it.

As with any story collection, which is more or less what this is, there are some stories that are less awesome than, say, my favorite one. But I am hard-pressed to think of any that were bad or disappointing, and if there are any you can probably skip them without losing too much of the thread of the novel. Though considering how eager I was to keep reading this book, even in the midst of a disappointingly short vacation, I don’t think there’s much worry about that.

I was really not expecting, when I started this book, to come here to the blog and sing its praises, or to have a book club meeting about it where we just all said, “Oh, this part is so good! And this part! And this other part! And all the parts!” But it is totally deserving of all those exclamation marks, and more, and if you have a nice long plane adventure ahead of you this will definitely make it seem a lot shorter (she says, from experience).

Recommendation: For those who love short stories that fit together to make a whole novel, those who want to learn more about Afghanistan, and those who don’t mind being incredibly depressed about the whole thing.

Rating: 10/10