Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kabul Beauty School: Cut and Tease

Debbie Rodriguez' Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil is a tough book to review. On the one hand, her experiences are unique -- a hairdresser from Holland, Michigan, who winds up founding the first beauty school to open in Afghanistan after the Taliban were driven out of the capital. On the other hand, it is not a brilliantly written or particularly insightful book.

Fleeing her own abusive husband, Debbie finds purpose in Kabul. Her accounts of her dealings with the byzantine bureaucracy might make for Kafka-esque reading on their own, if the author was better able to contextualize them. Instead, Rodriguez reports them, often dismissing or simply failing to interpret the cultural differences that led to the impasses in the first place.

It's the stories of the women who attend the beauty school that make the book so fascinating -- as daughters of a tribal Islamic society, they occupy a completely different space within the cultural framework than any American woman would, a fact that the author sometimes learns the hard way. However, their stories run together, fueled by one or more antagonists: abusive father, abusive husband, abusive brothers, even abusive sons. The "men" of Afghanistan are one brutish monolith, unless they are lucky enough to be touched in some way by Western culture (cultural hegemony, anyone?). The women are more sympathetic, but often disappoint because of their own cronyism and lack of empathy for each other's plights. The women of Kabul are NOT the Sisterhood of the Traveling Burqua.

Despite this, in the end I felt great compassion for the women of Afghanistan, and that may have been the author's point. But the book reads more like an edited diary than a well-considered memoir, and most of the characters remained unidimensional to the end. Many threads were left unwoven into the final manuscript; new and interesting characters were introduced toward the end, with no resolution. The author's own life remained largely unexamined.

Finally, I couldn't help wondering whether or not the author's frank discussions of some of the personal issues associated with her long-suffering students wouldn't be exacerbated by the book, which made me feel somehow complicit in their suffering. I wound up hoping things were going well for them, but not too optimistic.

Ultimately, I would recommend reading the book, as it does tell a compelling tale. I'd suggest you bring a level of skepticism to the text, however. First book in the What's in a Name 3 Challenge -- a place name -- complete! Next up for me is the musical term, since I've chosen Brad Kessler's Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Cheesemaking.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love

Obviously, this best seller fits into none of the categories in the What's in a Name 3 Challenge. But it's the book that needed to be finished before I could start on the challenge. So, I'll report that it's finished, and I loved it. I know it's one of those books that people either love or hate -- I come down on the love side. Liz is so AMERICAN, so difficult, so sincere in her yearning. She is high maintenance, but high performance as well. Her trip in Indonesia was reminscent of A Tale of Two Cities: Recalled to Life! I'm glad this book is launching me into the reading challenge, as it's about having an open mind. And that is the theme of the books I have chosen for this challenge.

Friday, April 23, 2010

First title found!

Since this was on my mental "to read" list anyway, I'm starting with Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil. One of my students recommended it, and I love stories about American women abroad (wonder why?), so the challenge now moves it to the top of the list.

The What's in a Name 3 Challenge

For my first challenge, I've picked the What's in a Name 3 Reading Challenge. Pretty straightforward, and yet wide open too. Six books from any genre, with these title characteristics:
  1. A book with a food in the title
  2. A book with a body of water in the title
  3. A book with a title (queen, president) in the title
  4. A book with a plant in the title
  5. A book with a place name (city, country) in the title
  6. A book with a music term in the title
Sounds fun!

Finally found a reading challenge I like...

so I've decided to blog about it. I'm joining late, but summer vacation is coming for this professor, and six books really isn't all that much!