<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 156 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

May 28, 2004

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A Joy Ride in to American University Life


Markini Uradhura
By Mustahid Hossain
Price: Tk.60

Until September 11th, going to the U.S. to study was almost every Bangladeshi teenager's dream. 'America' represented everything a young person craved for freedom, individuality, and the absence of parental control. But many who have gone to the States for the first time can be overwhelmed by a culture that is so different from their own. Markini Uradhura (which roughly translated means American Trivia) by Mustahid Hossain, however, is a virtual joy ride into American university culture. Now a systems analyst with General Elective and a PHD candidate at the University of Maine, Hossain in this book gives a detailed account of his early days from 1997 as a student at the University of Arizona. The book is filled with amusing anecdotes about culture shock and the writer's struggle to get over them.

The first time he encounters a doghnut, he asks with typical Muslim concern whether there is any pork inside. The retort from the salesperson is understandable: "Are you on drugs dude?" That is what is so appealing about the book. The writer has the humility to laugh at himself to expose himself as a young naïve Bangladeshi trying to get a grip of 'cool' American culture.

In spite of being adequately familiar with the English Language Mustahid is constantly baffled with its American incarnation. 'Prawn' is called 'Shrimp, a soft drink is a 'soda' and a 'screw driver' is a cocktail of vodka and orange juice and not necessarily just a handy tool.

Like any young Bangladeshi, with limited experience of western culture, Mustahid is a little taken aback by the free mixing of sexes, the ‘keg parties’ and the casualness with which relationships are made and broken.

The book captures the excitement and wonder of a young international student; his first sky-diving experience, the demands of university life, working part time, travelling to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, dorm culture and so on.

The writer also dwells on that lethal sentiment every human being is gripped by in a foreign land: homesickness. No matter how many friends you have, no matter how much strangeness you can take, there's no place like home. Mustahid tries to deal with his homesickness as any average Bangladeshi student would--cooking khichuri, listening to Bangla songs and getting together with fellow Bangalis for Eid. Meanwhile his American counterparts get a crash course on Bangladeshi culture arranged marriages, hartals and the efficacy of 'dholai', which he describes as 'a type of illegal medicine'. Markini Uradhura is refreshingly light-hearted and up beat. Hossain decides to portray every detail with positivism and there is a distinct feeling that all throughout his experiences he is having quite a blast. He is not judgmental, rather bemused by the stark contrasts in cultures. Yet he has the ability to overcome his limitations, to overlook strange norms and appreciate the warmth of friends, the beauty of this massive country, the professional dedication of people and the ease with which young people no matter where they are from, connect in the most unexpected ways.

Reviewed by Aasha Mehreen Amin

New Gauls, Please

Julian Barnes's love affair with France is based on a wilful fantasy. JASON COWLEY detects a taint of vanity publishing in this collection of recycled journalism, Something
to Declare.

Something to Declare
Julian Barnes
Picador, £8.99 pp302

Julian Barnes's most celebrated novels -- Flaubert's Parrot and The History of the World in 10½ Chapters -- are not really novels, they are stylised essays in which Barnes excels at smoothing the world into knowing aphorism and smart generalisation.

A little bit of art criticism, some literary biography, a couple of pages of history, the odd self-revealing nugget or two -- it's all there in Barnes. But he isn't at his best as a writer of fiction, at making things up: his intelligence is too controlling, his tone too often superior, he has little gift for character or narrative, no real vision of contemporary crisis. There's something anodyne about even his best work; it has the cerebral coldness of a crossword or mathematical puzzle.

You don't read Barnes to be transported into imaginary realms, or to encounter the struggle and pathos of humanity. You read him, rather, for that superior tone and for his voice; in many ways, his novels are all voice - amused, languorous, insouciant and arch. You read him for his hauteur, his gift of cultivated digression and for his riffs and anecdotes. Above all, you read him as an essayist, one of our best.

Nowadays, any newspaper columnist who can sustain an argument of more than 1,000 words is recognised as an essayist, but the popularity of the column or 'piece' is no more than an example of the cheap popularisation of the essay in a degraded culture. Dr Johnson called the essay an 'irregular, undigested piece'. That is right. The column is too regular, too finished; it's an easily digested piece. But the essay, as perfected by Montaigne, Charles Lamb and EB White, strives for literary permanence. It concerns the search for a personal voice, of the kind that animates the most successful offerings in Barnes's new book of essays about France.

Barnes first visited France in the summer of 1959. He was 13, on holiday with his parents, and was enchanted; he has been returning, at irregular intervals, ever since. France, it seems, is the idealised Other against which he measures all other countries, including England, and finds them, by contrast, a perplexing disappointment. He accepts many of the stereotypes about the French: that they are Cassanovan in sex and Machiavellian in politics; that they are 'relaxed about pleasure' and treat the arts 'as central to life, rather than some add-on, like a set of alloy wheels'.

Yet there's little, for instance, that has been idealistic about French foreign policy in recent years. The cynical cultivation of Robert Mugabe; the disastrous, wrong-headed interventions in Rwanda, which contributed in no small part to the genocide of 1994; the stubborn insistence on carrying out nuclear tests in what is left of the old Francophone Pacific island colonies; the refusal to import British beef: France, more than any other European liberal democracy, seems to have acquired the knack of international self-disgrace.

But the France of this disgrace and, more generally, of the Vichy collaboration, of constant capitulation to the Germans, of the war of independence in Algeria, of the ridiculous Académie Française and of persistent, low-level paranoid suspicion of les anglo-saxons isn't the France of Barnes's imagination. It's not the gentle, refined land he encountered in adolescence and has been wooing every since.

Small wonder, then, that the French 'revere Julian Barnes', as Joanna Trollope reminds us on the cover of this book - he shows them an image of themselves that they want to see.

Barnes has reached that happy stage in his life when almost anything he writes -- reviews, prefaces, magazine profiles, shopping lists -- is deemed worthy of collection between hard covers. 'Any new book from Julian Barnes,' his publishers tell us, 'is a major event.'

If Barnes has a failing, it lies in his knowingness of tone. 'Of course,' he writes in an essay on Richard Cobb, 'history is by its nature an act of hindsight, of understanding, or understanding better, what was understood less well at the time, or of understanding again what has been temporarily forgotten.' That 'of course' is a familiar tick, a kind of verbal wink intended to signify that he knows more than you.

The most readable essay here, first published in the New Yorker, is about the Tour de France, what the American Lance Armstrong, double-winner of the Tour, has called 'a contest in purposeless suffering'. The Tour is the icon of the French nation, the greatest and most venerated of all sporting endurance events.

Barnes is very good on the boisterous democracy of the Tour, which is free to watch, and contrasts this with the vulgar spectacle of commerce that is the modern mass sporting event, with its 'professional exploitation of the fan's emotions'. Add to this some first-class reportage (Barnes is a fine reporter, as demonstrated by his investigation into Lloyd's of London), an amusing reflection on Petrarch, who climbed Mont Ventoux in 1336, and what you have is a model essay, a mini-masterpiece of wit, precision and elegant poise. Would that he left his desk more often.



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