Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner

Published July 6, 2012 by the100bookmarch

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The Kite Runner is an important novel because it is a story that could only be possible in this global society.  Woven into this deeply intimate story narrated by Amir (a once privileged Afghani boy who loses everything when Russian troops take over) are bits ad pieces of Afghani, American, European, German, Russian and world history.  The book’s title refers to a player in the game of kite fighting, a sport that was (and may still be, I’m not sure because I haven’t done much research on the subject) extremely popular in Afghanistan.  Kites are modified with accoutrements such as nails, broken glass, and razors glued to their strings in order to cut down other kites in the sky.  A kite fighting competition ended when one kite was left flying after all of the others have been cut down, and once that kite is declared the victor it is let go.  At that point spectators will try and run the kite down through the city streets, the one who finds it first receives recognition and sometimes a prize. 

The kite fighting metaphor can be extended to the major plot points of the novel as well as the story as a whole, especially when an American audience is considered.  In America we think of kite flying as an idle activity; the photo I posted is of kites being flown in Longbeach, WA home of a Kite Museum.  There are no kite fights there on the beach, but everyone admires the beauty of the kites floating in the breeze along the ocean shore.  We think of kites and we think of innocence, of childhood, of joy.  When we see an image of our beloved kites as things that fight, things that rip their opponents to shreds, that image is disrupted.  The Kite Runner is a story of innocence lost, childhood interrupted, joy stripped from a pair of young lives; and how those travesties can be redeemed through unconditional love.  Amir was a privileged boy from one caste, and Hassan was the poverty-stricken servant from a lower caste who served him during childhood.  The two were essentially raised side by side, in the same household, both motherless and the same age, but separated by social mores that do not exist in America.  Hassan expresses undying love and devotion for Amir, and Amir is basically a spoiled brat who cares for nothing but the approval of his father.  Amir fights kites, and Hassan runs them down.  During one tournament, Amir desperately wants to win in order to impress his father, and when he does Hassan takes off to find the victorious kite for his friend.  That is when Hassan is raped in an alley by several schoolfellows of Amir’s, bullies; and Amir watches in horror but does not help.  That is when their friendship is altered forever.

One of the most fascinating characters in the novel, not because he is likeable or unlikeable but because of the historical convergence he represents, is Assef, the boy who rapes Hassan.  Assef has an Afghani father and a German mother, and although Germany has essentially abjured Hitler and the genocide of WWII, and made an attempt to define themselves as a culture based on their differences from the Germany of that era, Assef thinks of his German heritage as a point of pride because of Hitler’s nationality.  He is a sociopath, and he shares with most other sociopaths the ability to charm those around him when it is to his benefit. 

Of course, that is not the end of the story.  In fact, the novel takes us through Amir and his father’s flight from Afghanistan, their assimilation into American culture, Amir’s marriage and his wife’s inability to conceive, his father’s death, and his return to Afghanistan to rescue Hassan’s son from his enslavement by Assef, who had risen in the ranks of the extremist government and spun even further into insanity. 

In a story in which hope seems impossible, Khaled Hosseini gives his readers a believably small dose of it.  In the end, the small lift of hope is something the reader can grasp and feel grateful for.  The subtlety and precision of that lift reminded me (having a musical background) of the way some musical arrangements spend the majority of the time in a minor key and end on a heartrending note, followed by a split second shift upwards into a major chord.  That is the way that hope would sound at its beginnings.  That, I think, is the most moving part of the novel.

Not a happy read, but satisfying because of the ending.  I’ll see you tomorrow with The Bluest Eye, The Land of Painted Caves, and Beloved.

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Kaui Hart Hemmings’ The Descendents

Published July 5, 2012 by the100bookmarch

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I started reading The Descendents while I was on the train from Boston to Baltimore, beginning my journey away from the East Coast and the friends I’d met there. While I was very excited to be going home to the West Coast and to be taking a trip across country to visit old friends and family, I was also very confused and upset about leaving because I had grown independent there and made some life-long friends.  You can imagine how my mind was working; I had just gone through a month of stressful preparations to move and say goodbye to the life I had built there, and that was after nearly a year of stressful and unsuccessful job-seeking, and I was headed into the unknown in which success or failure might await me.  I was a bit emotional.  Interestingly enough, this book leveled my head and calmed me down.  I cried my face off the morning we left, but by hour 3 of our train ride I was telling Chad, through some sniffles, about the interesting tone of the book and how I couldn’t quite find the right words to describe it.

The Descendents is primarily about a man, Matthew King, whose wife is in a coma and will be taken off of life support soon.  He has never had to be the primary parent to his two daughters, and while they grieve and process in their own way he watches them run wild and completely out of control.  He wants to gather his wife’s family and friends to say goodbye to her before she is taken off of life support, when it is brought to his attention that she was having an affair, and that her lover has not been informed of her condition.  Matthew then takes his daughters with him on a search for his wife’s lover, so that he can be with her when she dies. 

The subject matter is grim, to say the least.  In addition to his personal problems, Matthew must make a decision about his inheritance, which is not even solely his.  He and his cousins own a large amount of land in their home state of Hawaii, and Matthew is the largest shareholder so the decision of whether to sell or not is his alone, though he wants to take his cousins’ advice into consideration.  This is actually a subtle theme in the novel; Matthew has to make a lot of decisions that he would much rather leave up to other people, and he even tries to leave some decisions up to others (doctors, family friends, his children), and squirms under the pressure when he simply must make a choice on his own.  To make matters worse, he finds out that his wife’s lover would benefit in a major way from the sale of the land to one particular buyer, because he is a real estate agent; and it is that buyer that his wife had been pushing him to pursue.  Because of this, he assumes she was planning to leave him for this man, and that is why he decides to find him; surely they are sole mates.

I have a bit of an urge to call this book a black comedy, but I think it’s not quite that funny.  There is humor in some of the most touching and upsetting moments, and there is humor in other places as well, but it is not exactly a silly, laugh out loud kind of comedy.  It’s more a deep irony, or the kind of humor that comes from people falling utterly apart.  I’m reminded, oddly enough, of the kinds of characters Steve Carell plays.  Honestly, I think he might have been a better choice for the lead, but that may have led viewers to assume it would be more slapstick than it was.  The tone is complex, in that it deals with matters of total sadness (death, suffering, betrayal), and yet there are long stretches of adventurousness and silliness intertwined with that sadness.  That, for me, is where the verisimilitude lies.  I find it very true to life, when we are facing something awful life still goes on, decisions still have to be made, and laughter still arises organically.  Hemmings also does a wonderful job at hinting at rather than harping on the return to grief that every action takes when one is experiencing a loss.  We laugh, then we have a moment of sadness or even guilt at the thought that we are supposed to be mourning.  And then life goes on.

If you have experienced a loss, whether it is of a job, a city, a friendship, or a loved one, this is a good book to read if you want to feel your grief and enjoy life at the same time.  It does a wonderful job of illustrating just that; that life goes on.  Next, another happy adventure with The Kite Runner.

Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Published July 5, 2012 by the100bookmarch

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The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is at times infuriating, heartbreaking, heart-warming and triumphant, but the entire novel is what I would call poetic.  The main symbol in the story is photography, and this theme is explored literally and implicitly throughout the text.  It is interesting to see how the photographs described in the story are juxtaposed with the scenes that occur within the story.

Edwards’ novel is about a doctor and his complicated family.  In 1964, Dr. David Henry’s wife goes into labor during a blizzard, and he has to deliver his babies himself with only a nurse to assist him.  Since the common practice at this time was to have the mothers unconscious, his wife is unaware of the circumstances of her labor.  She gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl.  The doctor recognizes that his daughter has Down’s Syndrome, so he tells the nurse to take her to a sanitarium before his wife wakes up.  She does, and when she sees the conditions of the place panics and decides instead to keep and raise the baby herself.  Meanwhile, the good Doctor has told his wife that their daughter was stillborn.  Thus, two twins grow up in vastly different circumstances with several threads of common experience to connect them. 

The relationship dynamics between the main characters are unique simply because of the amount of secrecy, betrayal, and underlying danger involved.  The nurse, Caroline, has essentially kidnapped the child, but receives financial support from Dr. Henry because he feels such guilt about abandoning his daughter and deceiving his wife.  Every day she is in danger of losing her daughter, especially when she takes on a crusade for the civil rights of children and adults with Down’s Syndrome, bringing serious public attention to herself.  Dr. Henry and his wife Norah have a very strained relationship because of all of the massive lies between them (and his deception on the night of Norah’s labor is just the tip of the iceberg), which leads Norah to distance herself from him and have a series of affairs.  Their son, Paul, and their daughter, Phoebe, grow up separated and, without each other to offer perspective, end up viewing the world in completely different ways. 

In order to cope and isolate himself further from his family, Dr. Henry becomes obsessed with photography, which is where that symbolism first comes into play.  Everything comes to a head when he dies suddenly, and his wife finds his stash of letters from Caroline about Phoebe and discovers that her daughter is still alive.  When she and Paul go to meet Phoebe, the reunion is less than ideal, but in my opinion quite realistic.  Norah offers to take Phoebe in, assuming Caroline has suffered financially and is emotionally exhausted from having to raise a handicapped child.  She seems to expect that there will be a joyous reunion and she will have the happy family she always wanted.  Instead, Phoebe and Caroline are strongly attached to one another, and Phoebe looks at Norah and Paul as new friends but not much more. 

If you are interested in a story that will make you cry both happy and sad tears, I suggest giving The Memory Keeper’s Daughter a read.  See you soon with The Descendents.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

Published July 5, 2012 by the100bookmarch

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a complexly woven tale involving four principal characters, one of whom is Virginia Woolf. Cunningham used Woolf’s fiction, letters, and diaries to influence his representation of her as a character in his novel, but he went beyond representing Woolf the woman. In fact, The Hours depicts Woolf, her readers, her ideals, her struggles, and her artistic soul via the other characters, settings, and events of the novel.

Before reading the novel I had seen the film starring Nicole Kidman, Maryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Ed Harris. Several of my friends and family members who had also seen the film told me they didn’t see the point to it, that the only thing it invoked in them was sadness and desolation. To them I say, read the novel. I, personally, found the film to be fascinating, which a lot of films try and fail to be; each time I watch the film, I want to watch it again to study a different aspect. The novel fills in a lot of the holes that a viewer is left with after just one viewing, and I guess the best way I can describe it in comparison to the film is that it is a much more efficient medium of the same artistic message. It’s there in the film, but everything happens so fast you really need to re-examine it several times before you can get to it all.

Cunningham uses the four principle characters to illustrate the ephemeral essence that is Virginia Woolf. While I was reading it, I noticed several details crossing over between characters, and, just as Mrs. Dalloway the novel is the physical link between all of them, the criss-cross of minutiae between characters holds Virginia Woolf as the epicenter of their transactions. Virginia Woolf herself is the author, the woman who writes for work and lives a daily, somewhat mundane life like we all do. Mrs. Brown is Virginia Woolf the stifled woman living “before her time,” and one of the only rays of hope in the entire piece (she is in a way the sole survivor). Clarissa is Virginia Woolf’s nurturing side, the side that stayed alive for others and, more blatantly and more or less entirely on the surface, the Woolf who loved women. Clarissa’s best friend and former lover, Richard, is Virginia Woolf the tortured artist, the woman who struggled with mental illness and feelings of inadequacy and eventually succumbed to them all.

While undoubtedly not a cheerful read, The Hours is an engrossing, unnervingly beautiful, and overall splendid novel. I recommend it to anyone who loves Virginia Woolf’s work, because Cunningham managed to come as close as possible to a reproduction of her narrative style. See you soon with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and happy reading!

The March of Shame

Published July 3, 2012 by the100bookmarch

Howdy, folks, I’m back.  Long time no see, right?  Well, I’m sad to say things have gotten a bit crazy and the blog has suffered.  I have kept reading, but I’m nowhere near on schedule for my 100 book goal.  Nonetheless, I have no intention of quitting.  Here is what has happened:

The whole month of March was utter insanity.  We planned to move from the East Coast to the West Coast by way of Arizona, and all of the details involved in moving took up most of my time.  I worked two jobs during the whole process while we scrambled to sell our car, find replacement tenants in New England, find a new apartment on the West Coast, and try and set up job interviews in addition to packing and making arrangements for our kitty cat and whatnot. It just got to be too much, and reading took a back seat.

At the beginning of April we set sail!  We traveled to Baltimore, DC, and Tucson before ending up back home.  Our belongings had been scheduled to arrive home the same day we did, and they did not.  The moving company did not actually ship our things until the day after we had asked that they arrive at their destination, and then they sat in DC for a week or so.  Long story short, we lived like hobos for two and a half weeks before moving into our home sweet home. 

My honey and I both got good jobs in our hometown, and I considered going back to school to get a teaching credential, but decided against it.

Now it’s Summer, and I’m temporarily unemployed until the Fall.  We got a new kitten, and she has taken up some of my time.

After reconnecting with some really good friends that I’d been away from, I found a renewed interest in activities that stimulate my thought processes and in writing.  For quite awhile I felt that I didn’t have time for writing or blogging, and it made me sad and it made me feel guilty that I’d essentially given up on something I really enjoyed.  Now, I’m planning on trying to catch up on the blogs, and see if I can’t get closer to reaching my goal.

Here is a list of the books I have read since the last blog:

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

The Descendents

The Kite Runner

The Bluest Eye

The Land of Painted Caves

Beloved

Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy

Blow

Fried Green Tomatoes

The Princess Bride

Julie and Julia

The Left Hand of Darkness

Cranford

Mary Barton

The Silence of the Lambs

Ammonite

The God of Small Things

The Hunger Games

Live Right 4 (for) Your Type

Revolutionary Road

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

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So, in a nutshell, prepare to see a rash of blogs wash over this page, and I apologize in advance if they seem to be less deep than my previous blogs have been.  I just feel it is important to get my thoughts/reactions to these experiences in writing before they are so far back in my long-term memory that it’s hard for me to put them into words.  See you next time, with The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde

Published February 29, 2012 by the100bookmarch

I know… It’s just plain silliness; but, hey, this is how engrained in western culture this story has become! Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, a moral allegory about so many hot-button issues of the Victorian Age, is now a cute and funky musical number in a television show for kindergarteners.

Alright, so this isn’t really a novel. But the version I own is a Norton Critical Edition, and I read the story as well as many of the historical documents and other articles contained in the book, so it adds up to a short novel… right? I just can’t help myself, I love this story. Stevenson seems to me to be writing with literary criticism in mind. His story could be allegorical of so many different issues of the time, it seems he was dangling a juicy piece of bait for critics to congregate around. “This is obviously steak!” one exclaims, while the other counters, “No, no, it’s pork!” while still another gesticulates “Tuna! It’s a tuna steak, can’t you see?” Addiction, science, Darwinism, racism, mental illness… there is evidence of all of these elements in the text, and each of them has been discussed in discourse around Stevenson’s most famous work. It is possibly the most fertile ground for intellectual growth and exploration that I’ve been exposed to in my (limited — I’m still relatively young and green) experience. The only things I can think of that compare are any of Toni Morrison’s works.

Just a note on Norton Critical Editions: They are the critical editions that I prefer simply as a matter of personal taste. There are several different companies that produce comparable collections of texts, and any of them can be endlessly useful for a student, teacher, or scholar. I feel that they are especially important for older texts — anything that has been written before the reader’s personal lifetime or memory. The majority of the most fascinating and written-of novels, plays, poems, etc were written so long ago that no person living today can assume they have anything really in common with the intended audience. Critical editions historicize the document you undertake to read, and therefore give you a firmer grasp of the text and make a world of difference. Personally, I feel that history is a huge part of literature and without a decent understanding of the time period in which a text was written an obscene amount of textual comprehension can be lost.

Now for an idea of the overall social/moral climate of the time in which the text was written. According to the secondary sources included in the book I read, a few concepts which are considered to be common sense fact today were beginning to emerge as ideas which are not completely insane. Some of these include addiction as a disease rather than simply a personal failing; mental illness or defect as a plausible defense for crime; and, last but not least, evolution. Because of the novelty of the exploration of these ideas, they had not yet taken on the shape they embody today and the way they are presented may seem counter intuitive and absurd to a modern reader. A widely accepted notion at the time was moral intelligence — this idea that morality and intellectual capacity are two variations on one theme, intelligence. Also, moral intelligence was, by and large, considered to be connected in some way with race as well, and race was also considered to be connected with evolution and its ultimate “goal.” Those scientifically inclined minds that accepted the possibility of evolution attempted to map it out in the various climes of physical characteristics known as race, and I think it’s fairly obvious to most of my readers that those who attempted this task placed WASP types at the top of the ladder, with those darker races descending accordingly down the rungs. Racism was rampant, and those who subscribed to this kind of racist evolutionary ladder also painted caricatures of people of color as animalistic and ape-like. This imagery is blatant in Stevenson’s story; Mr.Hyde is monkey-like and dark in every way. Thus, the early roots of evolution’s acceptance are fertilized in racism, and this is clearly visible (I think) in this unique text.

Now, knowing this, isn’t it fascinating that this story has survived and thrived? It seems like the ideas represented in the story are so dated that a contemporary reader would find it confusing and laughable, but it isn’t! We adapt the heart of the story, the monster, to suit our own needs in our various textual adaptations (films, specifically, and most prominently cartoons). It’s been awhile since the last time I read this book, and I read it among many other books so I was a little foggy before re-reading it, and I remembered Mr.Hyde being described rather vaguely, so I was surprised to see how detailed Stevenson is in his illustrations. The monster is definitely Jekyll’s inferior side in a very literal way — he is smaller, yet possessing more brute strength, and morally less “intelligent” than the good doctor, and he is also (appropriately to Stevenson’s original audience) darker, hairier, and more ape-like. He is a de-evolved version of Jekyll, as Victorian Britain would imagine him. But in the musical number from the children’s show “Arthur,” Allen turns into a green, muscled, disfigured monster who skips school. He is more literally a fantastical “monster” rather than an artistic representation of the monsters present in Stevenson’s world. He is adapted to his intended audience, which both obliterates and resuscitates the original heart of the story.

One more thing that I found fascinating about the critical edition, and then I’ll move on. One of the documents contained in the book was a sort of case study about “multiplex personality,” an emerging medical concept and early understanding of Dissociative Identity Disorder. In it, the patients described have symptoms that don’t actually resemble DID at all. One, in particular, seems to have suffered a seizure and massive brain damage resulting in amnesia and loss of several key personality traits (this is my completely uninformed guess — I am in no way a medical expert). He is described as having several hours of convulsions and hysteria, followed by a loss of recollection of the previous weeks and a sudden change in personality from a pleasant person to a very unpleasant one. The author of the article describes several experimental “treatments” for this disorder, including passing powerful magnets and electrical currents along the left or “sinister” side of the body in order to disable the right brain (the evil one) and exercise the left, intelligent brain in order to restore proper balance. It’s baffling to think that this is where modern medicine comes from.

Ok, I really need to plan out the order of my books because these really random swings are starting to mess with me. Next up is Michael CUnningham’s The Hours.

Rebecca Wells’ Little Altars Everywhere

Published February 26, 2012 by the100bookmarch

I love Rebecca Wells. She has a way of describing things that no author I’ve read so far approximates. They are so dead-on that I feel like I know exactly what she’s talking about, like at some point she and I must have smelled the same exact thing or seen the same thing, because there is no other way she could know how it makes me feel. I can’t even think of an example, but it happens all throughout the book (and the other one I’ve read by her), so look out for it.

Little Altars Everywhere is a companion book to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and before you roll your eyes and say, “uggghhhh that chick flick?” give it a chance. If there is one thing I have learned from a lifetime of reading and watching movies, it’s that film adaptations can be anything from obsessively true to the book to a very loose interpretation. The film starring Sandra Bullock is a very loose interpretation of Ya-Ya and Little Altars Everywhere, and it’s much more… I don’t know, touchy-feely, love your mother no matter what because she gave you life, etc. There are scenes in the movie that are straight out of the novel, but then there are some that are nowhere near true to the novel, but they make the movie one that is good to watch if you like chick flicks. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was published after Little Altars Everywhere, which I actually didn’t know when I bought Ya-Ya a few months ago and read it before Little Altars. After reading this novel, I like the main character’s mother, Vivi, a lot less.

Now, in Ya-Ya, Siddalee, the eldest child of Vivi Walker (mentally unstable but in a mostly fun way, and also an alcoholic, southern belle) leaves her fiancee in New York for a little while to do some soul searching in a small town outside of Seattle, WA. She goes there to decide if she really wants to get married, because she is struggling with some painful childhood memories of her mother, and is afraid she will end up like her some year down the line. She takes her mother’s scrapbook (titled “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) in order to get a better insight into her mother’s life. At one point, her mother’s three best friends (the Ya-Ya’s) Teensy, Caro, and Necie show up to help Siddalee on her journey. It is at this point that Siddalee finds out that what she remembers as her mother “beating the shit out of everyone and then leaving for months” was actually a nervous breakdown exacerbated by a toxic mix of prescription drugs that were intended to cure alcoholism. Thus, she comes to a decision to forgive her mother and marry her fiancee, etc. The End.

Little Altars Everywhere is a different sort of book, though, in form and tone. Wells’ first book is more like a series of vignettes, little scenes and memories from the perspectives of the different members of the Walker family and their closest friends throughout several decades, and there is less of a cohesive plot line. It also moves from the whimsical, sunny, happy memories of childhood, to the darker, more sinister perspective of a scarred adult looking back on their childhood for signs of danger. When I read Ya-Ya, I felt a lot of sympathy for Vivi, and felt like her eccentricity and self centered attitude were endearing. After reading Wells’ first novel, I have no sympathy for Vivi whatsoever. There is an allusion (it isn’t explicit or graphic in any way, no creepy details, but it’s clear this is there) towards sexual abuse, specifically in the chapter that is from the perspective of Little Shep, Siddalee’s younger brother, in adulthood. In it, he remembers his mother coming into his room and snuggling with him at night, and then he alludes to something traumatic occurring during this time. Apparently, all of the Walker children had to endure their mother’s “snuggling.” On the one hand, after reading this book, I understand better now why Siddalee was so messed up in adulthood and why she was so afraid to have children. But then this also makes it all the more baffling to me that Siddalee can forgive her mother in the second book!

I do see, now, why Ya-Ya was so necessary after this novel. First of all, because the children go from being bright, happy, and interesting characters to guarded, scarred, and eccentric adults, and for the most part it’s not very pretty. Siddalee, in the end, says that the way she gets through life on a day to day basis is with the mantra “don’t hit the baby” (meaning the baby inside her, the baby that is her psyche, or spirit, or whatever). What a precarious way to live. Second, Vivi and the Ya-Ya’s have the clear potential to be three dimensional and likeable characters in the first novel, but they kind of fail to live up to that potential. In the second book, we get to know them better and get to see that they are all just trying to survive like any other people, and we tend to cut them some slack and open ourselves up to laughter. Ya-Ya moves in the opposite direction as far as tone goes; it starts off darker, more screwed-up (because Siddalee is), and in the end the healing has finally begun for mother and daughter. It gives us something happy to hold on to.

Wells’ background is in theatre, and it really comes across well in her writing style. What I mean is that everything you read in both books has a very… kinesthetic tone. It moves! It sweeps, it meanders, it swims sometimes. Even though the subject matter is dark at times (actually, now that I think about it, quite often) it is delivered with a kind of humor that I’m tempted to call dark, but it really isn’t. She can write a scene that deals with very dark things and reveal the humor in it (such as Vivi’s mother, Buggy, and her near-psychotic attachment to her poodle Miss Peppy). The whole book is funny, for the most part. There are breaks in the humor when the reader gets somber, but then the laughter starts again.

Over all I would highly suggest this book to anyone who likes funny novels, who likes to read something with a little depth and a little darkness. Next time, I’ll be discussing The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. See you later!