Friday, March 21, 2014

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the VeilKabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I rate this with only 2 stars not because I am uninterested in the plight of women in Afganistan... I certainly am, and Rodriguez tells some compelling stories here. But the book reads more like a random assortment of blog entries than a cohesive memoir or non-fiction account. Not to mention, I don't know how many of Rodriguez's compelling stories are actually true... or, in fact, occurred to women she actually knew. Upon researching the author, I found that some others involved in the founding of the Kabul Beauty School have raised questions about Rodriguez's accuracy and the way that she portrayed (or perhaps inflated) her own role. While Rodriguez may be telling the truth of "her story," as she claims, it does bother me if others who experienced the same events have a vastly different perspective on what happened. I can take an "unreliable narrator" in fiction, of course, but in a memoir, not so much.

I had other issues with the author as well. She wanted to help Afghan women gain independence from their husbands and a measure of personal power.... And yet she married an Afghan man (who worked for a warlord) in an arranged marriage after knowing him for 20 days? This, in a place in which a husband can legally beat his wife and restrict her from leaving the country. Great example to set of a woman's independence. She appears to have little or no understanding of the complex culture and history of Afghanistan; she naively assumed she could change things just because of her can-do American spirit--that's more than a little obnoxious, in my book. She came to Afghanistan after fleeing from an abusive husband in the US, and I wonder if she wanted to find a place where women were MORE subjugated than she had been, to make herself feel better.

I have other issues, as well. As I said, I thought the women's stories were compelling... But I struggled to be certain that these, in fact, were women Rodriguez knew and taught at the beauty school. The first chapter of the book--the wedding scene that ends in a virginity test--struck me as inauthentic. It's not that I doubt that virginity tests happen in the Middle East and other parts of the world... I know they do. But I felt highly skeptical that Rodriguez the hairdresser would have been so deeply involved. I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it... But she is really deeply involved! And, as well, I've heard this story before; I think women throughout the world know how to deal with the virginity test on a wedding night. I doubt they needed an American woman who didn't even speak their language to come up with "the solution." This made me question some of the other stories as well. I understand that some stories might have been changed to protect the women's identities, but again.. It bothered me to be questioning the memoirist.

I feel like I should amend this review a bit, which sounds about 100% negative as I re-read it. So let me add this: I do admire Rodriguez for wanting to help, and I thought the concept of training Afghan women for a profession was a great idea. She wasn't the best, clearly, at planning and organizing, but her heart was in the right place. I wonder, though... Why do Americans so frequently think they can jump into another country and "help," without any detailed knowledge of the other country or advance planning? Do we really think we can solve complex problems in other countries just because we are Americans? You could make a parallel to American foreign policy involvement in other regions as well--take Afghanistan, for example.
Food for thought.

I think this is an interesting book because it does lead you to think about the hardships faced by women in Afganistan... But I think I've learned more about those issues by reading newspapers and the novels of Khaled Hosseini.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. Good, but not fantastic, historical fiction. Certainly, the topic of slavery is dramatic and powerful ... And Sue Monk Kidd weaves an interesting tale with the dual narratives of Sarah Grimke, a real historical figure, and Handful, an invented character. In some ways, however, the story lacked the emotional punch I expected it to have, given the topic. The novel, at least for me, was compelling at some points and less so at others. I felt the ending was somewhat abrupt and didn't provide readers with the full emotional release that seemed warranted. The plot builds up to a crescendo... And then we aren't quite sure what happens. Perhaps it shouldn't matter... the main characters have all invented their wings and "flown," metaphorically... But I admit that I wouldn't have minded an epilogue giving me a few more details. Nevertheless, this a highly readable and well-researched novel, and I do think this is Kidd's strongest, best written work of fiction to date.

I will say, as an historian, I'm happy if the novel sheds some light on this time period and the issues of slavery and abolition, which are all too often skimmed over in primary and secondary curricula in our country. If many readers have never read detailed accounts of the horrors of slavery or know very little about the abolition movement (and women's rights movement)--as some reviews on Goodreads seem to indicate--that doesn't speak well of how our education system has treated these significant topics in American history.