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Mueenuddin Collects the Wonders of Pakistan

Book Review

"In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" by Daniyal Mueenuddin (New York, N.Y.: W.W Norton & Co., 2009)

I love short story collections, and this is one of the most engrossing and entertaining ones ever. To appreciate Mueenuddin's work, knowing about his background is helpful. He's the son of a Pakistani father who was a landowner and government official, and an American mother who was a reporter for the Washington Post when the two met while the father was on an assignment in Washington, D.C.

Daniyal was born in the U.S. but spent his childhood years on his father's farm in Pakistan. We can tell that as a child he was a keen observer of the household, the farm, and its servants and managers. Their lives, and this setting, form the background for this collection of eight stories. There are wealthy people who live in the cities and grievously poor residents of the mud villages away from them.

The young Mueenuddin lived the next part of his life in Elroy, Wis. He was graduated from Dartmouth and then earned a degree from Yale Law School. After a couple of years with a New York law firm, he decided to craft his experience in Pakistan into these eight stories. The New Yorker has published three of them.

There is no mention of 9-11 or American military involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These people wrestle with timeless classical issues of poor countries, like getting enough food for the day's meal, or struggling for a slightly better position in the household. Desperately poor women must use whatever gifts or wiles they have to survive. If they fail, begging in the streets of Lahore awaits.

Corruption is everywhere, and the people who work for K.K. Harouni (a wealthy landowner who surfaces in every story to a greater or lesser degree) know how to skim money from every transaction or steal food from the kitchen or, in the case of an enterprising electrician, cheat the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of meters to reduce the monthly bills of family and friends.

This short story collection was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and the 2009 National Book Awards. Publishers Weekly listed the book as one of the top ten of 2010, and the collection made the New York Times' 100 best books of the year.

The author now makes his home on what was his father's farm in Pakistan, having introduced modern, more successful, farming methods as the old feudal system fades away. Asked what writers have inspired him, he says, "I am never not reading Chekhov."

Marge Speidel

Marge Speidel is a freelance writer and former newspaperwoman living in Los Altos, Calif.

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