MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
A good book can help pass the time. They can make you laugh or cry. It can even change your life. For our series You Must Read This, here's author Moni Mohsin to tell us about the book that changed hers.
MONI MOHSIN: Aged 22 and having finished three glorious years at Cambridge University, in which every day had been a gift, I was now headed home. Home to Gen. Zia's oppressive Pakistan, to my parents' decorous house, to the bedroom in which I had always lived.
I had no idea what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be. I felt stultified. It didn't feel so much like the beginning of my life as its end. Offered a worthy, dreary job, I took it.
MOHSIN: Then one day, at an airport bookstand, I chanced upon a slim paperback called "Moon Tiger" by Penelope Lively, an author I did not know. I believe I got off the flight a subtly changed person. For onboard, I met Claudia Hampton, the feisty protagonist of Lively's book. A historian in her 70s, she is dying of cancer. From her hospital bed, Claudia reviews her life: the events that shaped it and the people who animated it.
We meet Gordon, her adored, brilliant brother, with whom she competes obsessively; her unloved, guilt-inducing illegitimate daughter Lisa; her long-term lover and irritant Jasper; and Laszlo, her young Hungarian friend. We visit the First World War, to which she lost her father; and the second, to which she lost Tom, the emotional core of her life. We see the absurd privilege of post-war America and the shallowness of Hollywood.
"Moon Tiger" is a wide-ranging novel that asks profound philosophical questions about the subjectivity of all experience and the construction of history. Lively writes with panache, subverting stodgy conventions of narrative with scrambled chronology, multiple points of view and jumbled tenses.
But what electrified me was the character of Claudia herself. Combative, assured, independent, selfish, she has in spades what are considered virtues in men and flaws in women. A little wife to no one, she strides confidently into the male domains of history and journalism and enjoys the fruits of fame, sexual freedom and financial independence.
Claudia would have been insufferable had Lively not suffused her life with guilt, loss and loneliness. She's still not exactly likable, but recognizable as one of us, after all. However glittering our lives, pain, Lively tells us, is unavoidable.
Despite winning the prestigious Booker Prize in 1987, "Moon Tiger" is an inexplicably undervalued book, even described as a housewife's choice when it won the prize. I can't explain the indifference from critics towards this book. All I know is that it changed me.
Soon after reading "Moon Tiger," I chucked my safe little job and leapt into the roil of a young, zealous newspaper. I knew nothing about journalism, but I was suddenly confident that I'd learn. If the process proved painful, so be it. Like Claudia, I was determined to lead my life, not be led by it.
BLOCK: Moni Mohsin's latest book is titled "Duty Free."
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