Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Asia, Rising

Book club last month (my god, I'm behind) read Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which had a lot of buzz around it this year.  It seemed like an excellent book club pick--an interesting setting, a clever premise, good writing.  But somehow, none of us really had anything to say about it.

The structure of the book is that of a self-help book, and each chapter has a title that is a piece of advice.  Because of this, it's told in the second person, which is an incredibly risky thing to do but is handled quite well here.  It's the story of a boy growing up in poverty who hustles and eventually runs a large, successful bottled water conglomerate in some unnamed, presumably Southeast Asian country. 

Why didn't we have much to say?  Why didn't it stick with me very much?  I think because it fits that "literary" category, which is that it's a slice-of-life book.  While that life is very different from mine, making this WAY more interesting than a similar story about a North American bottled water magnate, it's still about the emotional experience of living in the world.  It's about being young, hustling, wanting more than you have, being afraid, growing old, and dying. 

I felt like what was missing here was problem solving.  I wanted the characters to be challenged or tested, but that's not what this book was about.  As Jenny says at Reading the End, "I like books in which principles and values are challenged by a changing reality in interesting ways and the holders of those values have to figure out what to do about it."  I wanted to watch them sort things out, but any real situation-handling or problem solving that they did was offscreen, between sections.  We saw only glimpses, snapshots of the results.

Though we didn't really have a discussion, I'm going to frame this with discussion questions, just because that's what I like to do for the book club books.  I really should start doing this before the meeting; I think it might help a bit.

1) Do you think the self-help conceit added much to the book?  Do you think it affected much of anything outside of the first page or two of each chapter?  Did you enjoy the openings of the chapters?  Find that they fit with the rest of the book?  Oh, let's just say it: these might have been my favorite parts of the whole book.

2) How did you feel about the parts of the book that take on points of view besides "yours?"  Did they seem to be forced into the structure of the book, or purposeful asides from the author? 

3) Did it seem weird that the character's behavior toward his wife was so notable weak?  What does it mean for a second person book when "you" are behaving in ways that you don't approve of?

4) Do you notice that I'm mostly talking about the writing style?  Is there anything to say about the story?  I'm trying to think of questions, but none of them mean anything.  What did you think of the father?  Did you miss the sister when she went off?  Were you embarrassed for the main character when he showed up on the date in his tacky new clothes?  What did you think about....?

Really, this is pretty sad.  I don't have much, even thinking about this months later.  Has anyone else read this book?  If you have, do you have any interesting questions you'd bring to a group discussion?  Please, help me.  I'm fading fast here.

Man, we should have read Harry August for book club.

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