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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders - Daniyal Mueenuddin It's hard for me to give this book a rating in stars.

I didn't dislike the writing. I don't think it's ~zomg beautiful~ or Pultizer or National Book Award material, but I often have some beef with those kinds of "big" awards anyway (even if I am sometimes drawn to them). I liked the writing style perfectly well, actually.

I just have an issue with the vast majority of short stories being depressing. This book certainly lives up to that stereotype, as every single story is plenty depressing--and then some. The happiest story in the book is the first one, in which a man is shot several times by a stranger he tried to help, the stranger is subsequently shot, and the man lays next to this stranger while he's dying, refusing to forgive him (understandably so) and hurling abuse at him instead. Seriously. That was THE HAPPIEST story in this whole volume. All the other stories were EVEN LESS HAPPY than that one. Every time I started a new story, I would be hopeful that maybe THIS time I'd get something besides oppression, poverty, cheating, degradation of women, pointless/mindless power & control, miserable people...and every time that's what I got.

I don't mind a depressing story or two, or even if it were, say, 75% depressing. But the book jacket says "these stories comprehensively illuminate a world" and says the stories describe "the advantages and constraints of social station." Er...must have missed the "advantages" part, as even the wealthy and powerful people are miserable and unable (or maybe in some cases unwilling) to really do anything about it. I certainly hope these stories don't "comprehensively illuminate a world," because there is really no joy to be had among these pages. The tiny amount of joy that does exist seems to exist for the sole purpose of being crushed to tiny bits by the author.

Now, disclaimer: I've never been to Pakistan. But I know that it is inhabited by human beings. I'm sure small victories, loving or at least respectful relationships, and fulfillment do happen in Pakistan, probably on a daily basis, but you would never guess it was so by reading this Pakistani author's book. It's all violence against women, unhappy and insecure men, power plays and dominance. I guess that kind of goes along with feudalism, but there is not a single character showing any kind of personal strength in the face of it. I come away from this book with the message that "Pakistanis are weak and violent and immoral, wrapped up in greed and pride and artificial facades." Which is not, of course, a Pakistani thing--it's a human thing. And so is joy and happiness and strength and fortitude. All of which were sorely lacking in this book. While some reviewers seemed to think the author was (as one reviewer put it) in the background wagging his finger, I felt that the author seemed okay with it all. Even the narration takes a pretty violent, non-compassionate view of people: one character is described with the phrase "when he became useful," as if doing hard manual labor for someone is the only determinant of a person's "usefulness." Violence against women is reported matter-of-factly and no one is shown to care about it. I just think it shows a skewed portrait, and I think it's unfortunate that such a lauded book fails to show the people in Pakistan as complete human beings.

Books like this are why I generally stay away from fiction. I don't mind reading something depressing if it's real, if it actually happens to people, because at least then I feel like I can do something about it, and marvel that actual people live through such hard times. Memoirs and nonfiction are enlightening and show a fuller picture of people. This was just a bunch of made up stories where no characters really had any redeeming values--and if they do, horrible things happen to them to put them back in their place. I just don't take that view of the world. These characters weren't people, they were caricatures of misery. I'm planning on reading In the Name of Honour: A Memoir because it's a memoir by a Pakistani woman who was sentenced to be gang-raped as punishment for something her 12 year old brother did "wrong." She ended up building two schools for children in her rural village when everyone assumed she would be committing suicide in short order. That's a much more real, more hopeful, more HUMAN story of suffering--if that's what you're looking for.