Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki

I've finally finished my third Junichiro Tanizaki novel (The Makioka Sisters and Naomi were the other two). Mel u over at The Reading Life actually recommended it to me last summer and I completely agree with her review, especially the part about reading everything written by Tanizaki because his writing style is amazing. In fact, one of my goals for 2012 is to read all of his books in the order they were written.

In Quicksand, after her affair with another man, a young married woman, Sonoko, enrolls at "a third-rate private school, with departments for painting, music, sewing, embroidery, and all." He husband, who had studied German law and wanted to be a professor, has just opened a law practice. His reasons for doing this are unclear, though Sonoko suggests that he was ashamed of depending on her parents' support.

At school, Sonoko notices Mitsuko, a very beautiful classmate, and unconsciously models her painting of the Kannon Bodhisattva after Mitsuko, drawing the attention of the school's director and creating rumors about the relationship between the two women, despite the fact that they hadn't met. Mitsuko approaches Sonoko and, after explaining that the rumors are the result of an attempt to discredit her to a potential husband, encourages Sonoko to spend time with her publicly in an effort to "make fun of everyone."

Their friendship quickly becomes a romantic relationship and Sonoko eventually meets Watanuki, the man Mitsuko plans to marry, and Sonoko and Watanuki become both rivals and uneasy allies, which produces, in my opinion, one of the more disturbing scenes in the book. Eventually, Sonoko's husband becomes entangled in the relationship.

Looking back over my reading notes, it's obvious nearly from the beginning that Mitsuko isn't being completely honest. Part of this might come from the summary of the book, which refers to Mitsuko as "a femme fatale as seductive and corrupt as any in the history of fiction, and a deceiver so heartlessly accomplished that she can turn even Sonoko's husband into her accomplice." At first, I was annoyed when I realized that by revealing the Mitsuko's involvement with Sonoko's husband, it spoiled almost 90% of the novel, but since the plot as advancing until the last paragraph, it's not as much of a spoiler as it would seem. Of course, the reader also knows from the beginning that, whatever happens between the three of them, Sonoko's husband is dead by the end of the book.

Sonoko, unlike the narrator of Naomi, is aware of what's happening. In of my favorite quotes, she says:

So I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand, and although I said to myself I had to escape, by this time, I was helpless. I knew I was being used by Mitsuko and that all the while she was calling me her dear sister she was actually making a fool of me.

I suppose it would be more accurate to say she's somewhat aware, much the same as the reader is. Like Sonoko, I started doubting everything Mitsuko said or did fairly early on, assuming that there was a hidden motivation or goal in all her actions. There generally was, but, like Sonoko, I was unprepared for the end of the story. It takes a talented writer to create a situation where the reader questions everything in the narrative, yet is still shocked by the ending.

The book has a lot of the themes I've come to expect from Tanizaki. First, there was the eroticism and obsession, as well as self-destructive love. There was also the feeling of a society on the brink of change and a battle between the traditional and modern. For instance, while Sonoko studies traditional Japanese painting, Mitsuko studies Western painting. A book on Western birth control also plays an important part in the story.

Family also plays a significant role, or, more specifically, the issues springing up from an unequal match and the feeling of obligation to a family. Sonoko's husband's family is apparently below Sonoko's family. Her family supports him, even considering him a good catch because of his academic record, going as far as to take him into the family "like an adopted son" and ensuring that the couple are supported while her husband is studying, but also allowing them to go abroad for two or three years. This apparently leads to friction, with Sonoko saying that her husband found her "too willful" because of her family's position. This leads indirectly to Sonoko's relationship with Mitsuko.

Tanizaki is one of my favorite authors, but while I love reading his books, I hate writing about them because I never feel like I'm doing his work justice. I absolutely loved Quicksand though and wholeheartedly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Believers by Janice Holt Giles

My mother is very interested in Kentucky history and literature. A couple of months ago, the local library hosted an event which featured an actress performing a monologue based on the life of Mary Settles, the last Shaker at the Pleasant Hill Village. Although I had visited Shakertown as a child and I remember owning a doll from there that had a smiling face on one end and a frown on the other end. It's hard to explain and I don't have the actual doll for a picture and I do not recommend doing a search for "Naughty nice doll" on Google images, because even with safe search on, I got some pretty weird hits.

I didn't know much about the Shakers before the dialogue. I knew that "Simple Gifts" and "How Can I Keep from Singing" were Shaker hymns, that they had sent aid to Ireland during the potato famine, and that their name came from movements in their worship services. The monologue was enlightening, since it told both the story of Mary Settles (who was abandoned by her husband at Shakertown) and the history of the Pleasant Hill village, as well as the overall history and beliefs. The monologue painted them in a very positive light, pointing out that they were very progressive on social issues like race relations and equality for women and that they also took in orphans. The Shakers required celibacy from their members and didn't allow private property for full members. In a nutshell, it was a very Utopian society that's lasted for a surprisingly long time. Mary Settles died in 1923 and was the last of the Kentucky Shakers, but there is still an active village in Maine with three members (and yes, there's a website.

I'm not going to go into Shaker history or beliefs very much, since I don't know enough to really discuss it and even if I did, there's so much to discuss. I recommend a little research, though, because it is fascinating and I plan to do more eventually.

The Believers gave a much less favorable view of the Shakers. It takes place in the late 1700's and early 1800's and is the story of Rebbecca Fowler who marries Richard Cooper, the son of her neighbors. Rebbecca and Richard had been friends since childhood and Richard's parents were slightly more prosperous than Rebbecca's family. Richard is a serious, devout, hard-working man and when they marry, his parents give them some of their property to build their house and start a farm, as well as two slaves, Sampson and Cassie, along with their daughter, Jency.

The first few months of their marriage are idyllic, but then their first child is stillborn, which is devastating to both of them. While trying to cope with his grief, Richard attends a revival and decides to follow one of the ministers to form a new settlement. As Rebbecca is getting used to this change, a few Shaker missionaries arrive and Richard decides to join the Shakers. Rebbecca, believing that her place is with her husband, follows him, albeit with misgivings.

The Believers takes a long, hard look at the realities of the Shaker environment. While most of the full members are very devout, they're nowhere near perfect. There is pride and ambition, as well as the difficulties that come with forcing a group of people to live in close quarters. The women in Rebbecca's "family" (actual families are separated and divided into church families, where the children are raised separately and the men and women are segregated) formed a fairly tight bond, but there was also significant conflict among the women. A lot of them chafed at various aspects of the religion. Giles did a wonderful job of showing the problems encountered when a large group of self-sufficient adults are suddenly forced into a highly disciplined environment.

The one problem I had with the book is that it was very much a product of its time. The slaves played a significant role in the book and Giles's treatment of them was probably progressive for when it was written (1957), but reading a book about an extremely racist time written in a very racist time... Well, I believe Giles did her best to portray the slaves positively, but the slaves, especially Jency, still came off an inferiors who needed someone to guide and care for them.

In spite of the problems, I enjoyed it. I also found out that The Believers is the third book in the series. I plan to read the rest of the series as well as doing more research on the Shakers. I'd also love to visit Shakertown over the holidays, since some of the events on their website look amazing.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alcestis by Katharine Beutner

I've been slacking off recently with reading and blogging. I'm not really sure whether it's a result of things being slightly more hectic than usual or the fact that I can't seem to get into the books I've been trying to read lately. Either way, here I am with a finished book.

Alcestis is a retelling of the play by Euripides with a feminist twist. In Greek mythology, Alcestis was married to King Admetus who offended Artemis by failing to sacrifice to her following the wedding. She filled Admetus's bed with snakes, but Apollo stepped in and allowed Admetus to avoid death if someone would volunteer to take his place. No one did, so Alcestis stepped forward. After that, Heracles rescued her from Hades and she and Admetus apparently lived happily ever after.

Despite having taken a classical literature course, I've never read the actual play. Like The Penelopiad, it really motivates me to go back and read more classical literature. In fact, one of my goals for 2012 (and one I may start early) is to dedicate some time to reading The Great Books of the Western World, since I recently discovered that my library has all of them. I also plan to work on a more comprehensive reading list to cover books that I should have read ages ago.

Anyway, I freely admit that I went into this novel at a disadvantage. I can't compare the novel to the original play, which is a shame since there seems to be a lot of interesting critique surrounding it.

What I can say is that I liked it. As expected, it was a pretty big deviation from the generally accepted views of Greek mythology. The male characters generally didn't fare favorably in the novel and were either undeveloped or definitely negative, ranging from abusive to cowardly to almost blundering. They absolutely weren't portrayed as heroic. I think there's something to the fact that the few "good" male characters are the ones who aren't really explored, which obviously makes you wonder if we just don't know enough about them to think poorly of them.

The women are fascinating, however. The story starts with the birth of Alcestis and the death of her mother. After that, she forms a close relationship with her older sister, Hippothoe and views her oldest sister, Pisidice, with confusion. Early on, Hippothoe dies due to her asthma and, more importantly, in Alcestis's view, Apollo's failure to intervene. Her search for Hippothoe in Hades becomes a driving force later in the book. After Hippothoe's death, Pisidice and Alcestis seem to reach an understanding, but their relationship is cut short when Pisidice marries. Pelias remarries and his wife, Philomache, plays a brief but important role until Alcestis is married.

After Alcestis' death, both Hades and Persephone play an important role, for different reasons. Persephone has always been, for me, someone who was just there and played a footnote in Greek mythology. Basically, "by the way, Hades kidnapped Persephone, Demeter got angry and caused winter, Zeus demanded she be returned, but she ate pomegranate seeds, so now we have seasons. The end, now let's move on to the important stuff," so it was really interesting to see how Beutner developed not only Persephone, but her relationship with Hades, her history, and her treatment of Alcestis.

I feel like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage for not having read the play and in hindsight, I wish I had. It would have given me more insight into what Beutner was doing with the characters. As it stands now, this is probably going to go on my "reread" list once I've really done a better study of Greek mythology.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Marget Atwood

I'm always fascinated by retellings of existing stories, especially when the story is told from the perspective of a minor character. When I heard about The Myths series, "where some of the world's most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing," I was intrigued. Marget Atwood's The Penelopiad seemed like a great starting point.

I had initially expected the novel to be set in a modern time, based on one of the descriptions I read, and part of it is. Penelope is the main narrator and the novel opens with a dead Penelope reflecting on her life. The chorus is composed of the twelve maids who were hung by Telemachus for being involve with suitors and insulting Penelope and Telemachus. (If you're rusty on the plot of The Odyssey, the relevant parts occur in Book 22. Odysseus and his son, Telmachus, kill the suitors while a god makes Penelope sleep. Odysseus summons his old nurse, Eurycleia, who tells him about the maids that have gone along with the suitors and insulted Penelope and Telemachus. He forces the maids to clean up after the slaughter and dispose of the bodies of the suitors, then tells Telemachus to kill them with a sword, but Telemachus decides to prolong their deaths and hang them from a ship.) In the introduction, Atwood says that she was "always haunted by the hanged maids" and so in her retelling of Penelope's story, Penelope is haunted as well.

I think it's fair to admit that when I read The Odyssey, the fate of the maids didn't really bother me. Or, more accurately, it didn't bother me any more than any other part of Odysseus's homecoming, including slaughtering all of Penelope's suitors and the mutilation and castration of Melanthius, the goatherd who served the suitors. When it was brought to my attention, the treatment of the maids did seem fairly brutal and sadistic (especially since, as Atwood points out in the novel, the maids probably weren't given a lot of choice by the suitors), but Book 22 is basically one big gorefest otherwise.

Atwood also focuses on other mythology, including the fact that Penelope was the cousin of Helen of Troy and that Helen's father helped Odysseus marry his niece, Penelope, in exchange for his role in preventing a war between Helen's suitors. Helen plays a significant part in the story and is an overall unsympathetic character. Atwood's treatment of Helen seems a bit hypocritical, but I suppose that there's only so much room to revise characters and between making Penelope more proactive and less oblivious and portraying the maids as sympathetic, a sympathetic Helen just wasn't an option.

Using the maids as a chorus helps to make them more sympathetic, especially when their side of the story is given alongside Penelope's. In some cases, the technique does a great job of putting Penelope's side of things into perspective. For instance, Penelope seems very sympathetic when she talks about how Helen ruined her life by running away with Paris and causing the war that took Odysseus away. However, when the maid chorus follows and tells about how sleep is their only refuge from spending their days cleaning and working while being at the mercy of any man in the castle... Well, Penelope's problems seem bad, but not that bad. The fate of the maids also makes Penelope less sympathetic, since she was the one who instructed the maids to get close to the suitors to spy on them and her instructions led to their death. As much as Penelope grieves the maids and feels guilty about her role in their fate, she seems to have trouble seeing the maids as individuals rather than extensions of herself.

Atwood uses some interesting techniques in The Penelopaid, including the chorus of maids and a modern trial at the end of the novel, where the judge understandably a few issues with the fate of the maids, but refuses to pass judgment on Odysseus because he doesn't want to impose modern values on a hero from an ancient story, which is probably an interesting commentary on the fact that the fate of the maids is frequently ignored in modern discussions of The Odyssey.

Despite the subject matter, the book was a fast read and thought-provoking. I didn't necesarily agree Atwood on everything, but it definitely influenced my view of The Odyssey a bit. When I finally get around to rereading The Odyssey (and The Iliad...and The Aeneid...and, well, you get the picture), I'm curious as to how it will change my reactions and opinions of the overall work. Of course, I never found Odysseus to be terribly sympathetic, so I don't expect a major change.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner

I came across The Tudor Secret while I was browsing the library's new books. It's supposed to be a mystery set in Tudor England and since mysteries and historical fiction are two of my favorite lighter genres, I was intrigued.

The narrator is Brendan Prescott, a foundling taken in and raised in the household of the Duke of Northumberland. The most famous member of that family (or at least the only one that rang a bell for me) was his son, Robert Dudley, who was a longtime suitor of Elizabeth I. The Duke of Northumberland's youngest son, Guilford, was married to Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VII's younger sister, Mary. Jane was (arguably) queen of England for nine days between the death of Edward VI and the accession of Mary I.

Brendan comes to court in the last days of Edward VI to serve as a squire to Guilford and is recruited by William Cecil to help advance the interests of Elizabeth. For his part, Brendan is interested in both helping Elizabeth, who he meets briefly on his first night at court when Robert sends him to deliver a ring, and discovering his origins.

Certain parts of the book were easy to anticipate, since it did fall back on predictable tropes. A young man with no family history taken in by a powerful family (even as a lowly servant) and educated beyond his apparent class by a caring guardian? There's definitely more to that story. There were also a few predictable sequences. And, of course, if you don't know how the plot to place Jane Grey on the throne ends, you evidently weren't paying attention in history class.

In spite of all that, though, Gortner does a pretty good job not being too predictable. Even though Brendan's parentage becomes partially obvious by chapter seven, the exact identity of his parents was a that isn't even resolved by the end of the book.

Gortner left a few things unresolved, though the ending definitely didn't feel incomplete or rushed. When I read in the interview at the end of the book that this was going to be the first in a series of novels with Brendan as a spy, I was excited to read more.

I'm a fan of Tudor books, though I generally prefer to read stories set in the reign of Henry VIII. The Other Boleyn Girl was probably the catalyst, though I don't particularly care her books because I feel that she generally vilifies certain characters to an exaggerated extent resulting in very two dimensional characters. To give Gortner credit, I didn't particularly see that in this novel...with a couple of possible exceptions, but even then, I feel like there was at least some groundwork laid and some historical basis.

The Tudor Secret is hardly heavy fiction and isn't the sort of novel that leaves you thinking after you finish it, but it was interesting and seems to be fairly well-researched. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys Tudor fiction and wants an interesting read.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was reviewed by one of the book blogs I follow, though I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember which blog. The review was positive, the concept sounded intriguing, and the library had a copy of it, so I checked it out.

If someone told you that a book was set in Nazi Germany and the narrator was Death, then you probably would assume that the book isn't going to end well for a lot of characters. Or go well at all, for that matter. That would be an accurate assumption and Death makes it very clear early on that several major characters aren't going to survive the story.

In fact, the novel starts with one death and one very bleak future. Death first encounters Liesel when he takes her younger brother. Her mother is taking the children to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa, presumably because she is a Communist and expects to be taken into custody soon. Liesel's first book theft occurs when the grave digger's assistant drops The Grave Digger's Handbook after burying her brother. Liesel commits two more acts of book theft in the series, as well a few acts of normal theft. The normal theft brings her closer to her friend and neighbor, Rudy (who idolizes Jesse Owens to the point that he covered his body in charcoal and ran one hundred meters at the athletic field) and her book theft helps her grow closer to her foster father, the mayor's wife, a Jewish man hidden by her family, and many others.

The book's style is hit or miss, I think. In addition to the regular prose, Death interrupts the narrative frequently to add his commentary or explanation. It worked for me, though I'll admit that I did gloss over several of the bold sections. A few people seem to hate it, others seem to love it.

Interestingly enough, my main response to this book was "I really need to read Anne Frank's diary." The novel reminded me that while the German government was systemically killing millions of people, there were German citizens who didn't necessarily agree with the policies who were just trying to survive the war. Seeing people who either publicly disagreed with the government (at the beginning of the book, Liesel and her family are suffering because her foster father's painting business was failing because he repainted the door of a Jewish business that had been vandalized) or privately had doubts.

There were some wonderful, life affirming points in the book that restored my faith in the human race...and then there were moments where I shared the characters' outrage and helplessness. (Rudy and Liesel, as children, seemed to have more than their fair share of this, since they not only had to deal with the normal childhood feelings of powerlessness, but also the policies of a totalitarian government and the inequities of poverty.) The end was both heart-breaking (I felt that certain characters really should have had a chance to survive, if only because they had earned it), but also optimistic. I cried a bit at the end and I might have cried more if I hadn't been in a waiting room at the time.

I would recommend this book, if only for the interesting style. I liked it, but it didn't resonate with me as much as certain other books.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

I've seen a couple of book blogs that discussed the closing of Borders. It's a little sad to me, since I have some good memories of going there. However, I don't think this is an indicator of the future of bookstores or printed books. I think that Borders failed because of various poor business decisions, including their inability to adapt first to selling books online and later to ebooks.

That said, today's entry is somewhat Borders-related, since I picked up The Cellist of Sarajevo after seeing it recommended by a Borders employee. I'm glad I did.

It's somewhat based on true events, including the cellist. The novel is set during the Siege of Sarajevo and features the loosely related stories of four characters The most obvious is the cellist, based on Vedran Smailović who played Albioni's Adiago in G for twenty-two days to honor the twenty-two people killed by mortar shells while they were buying bread. The cellist in the novel does the same.

The second character is Arrow, a young woman who was formerly on her university's sharp shooting team and was recruited by the army to defend Sarajevo from "the men on the hills." Her perspective on the conflict and her reason for using a nom de geurre is fascinating and shows her difficulties reconciling the person she was with who she has become:

From the first time she picked up a rifle to kill she has called herself Arrow. There are some who continue to call her by her former name. She ignores them. If they persist, she tells them that her name is Arrow now. No one argues. No one questions what she must do. Everyone does something to stay alive. But if they were to press her, she would say, "I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you knew hated nobody."

The third character is Dragan, an older man who works at a bakery. His wife and teenage son have escaped to Italy and he is trying to get to the bakery where he works in order to eat. While he is trying to avoid snipers and shellings, he meets up with a friend of his wife. He tries to avoid her initially, because he meeting people from his pre-war life dredges up too many memories. Out of all the characters, Dragan seems to wrestle most with reconciling what Sarajevo was and what it has become.

Finally, the character I found most fascinating was Keenan. I've flagged several passages in the novel and most of them deal with him. Overall, Keenan is a survivor. His entire day is spent trying to make it to a brewery in order to get water for his family and his downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Ritovoski. Mrs. Ritovoski survived World War II, though she lost her husband at 25. Early on in the conflict, when she raised concerns over how bad things would get, Keenan told her "I will help you." Later, when it becomes difficult to get water, she comes back with her water containers and reminded him of her promise. She insists on using containers without handles, despite the extra work this creates for Keenan and his efforts to convince her to use other containers, to the point of offering her his own larger containers to use.

Despite risking his life to get water for his family and a neighbor he doesn't particularly like, Keenan isn't selfless. He's been affected by the conflict and his primary, if not only, goal is survival. At certain points, he realizes this and he may not like that trait, but it's there. For instance:

There are those who ran away as soon as the shells fell, their instinct for self-preservation stronger than their sense of altruism or civic duty. There are those who didn't run, who are now covered in the blood of the wounded, and they work with a myopic urgency to help those who can be saved, and to remove those who can't to whatever awaits then next. Then there's the third type, the group Keenan falls into. They stand, mouths gaping, and watch as others run or help. he's surprised he didn't run, isn't part of the first group, and he wishes he were part of the second.

The novel itself is powerfully written and through small tasks like getting food and drinkable water, it conveys how difficult life for the people in Sarajevo. Galloway doesn't focus on the details or ideology of the conflict, which makes the work all the more powerful since the people who are suffering most don't care about the why. Regardless of whether the war is just, the people are still forced to risk their lives while crossing streets watched by snipers, just to get enough water to last a few days.

Despite the fairly dark subject matter of the novel, I found it much less depressing than, say, The Vagrants. Possibly because, unlike the characters in The Vagrants, the characters didn't feel as beaten down. Also, the characters seemed to have more hope and it didn't feel quite so futile.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I would whole-heartedly recommend it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

I have to say that the East and Southeast Asian Challenge is really working out for me. I picked up Please Look After Mom since it was both set in South Korea and originally published in Korean. My goal is to read a book from as many countries included in the challenge as possible.

Please Look After Mom begins with a family trying to find their missing mother. She was visiting her children in Seoul when she was separated from her husband while trying to get on a subway then disappeared. The story unfolds from the perspective of multiple family members, including the older daughter, the oldest son, and the woman's husband.

The novel itself was interesting for a couple of reasons, both because it used multiple perspectives and in some cases, was written in second person. There were also a few elements of magical realism which added to the confusion of what had actually happened to So-Nyo (the mother). Interestingly enough, the novel focuses less on finding So-Nyo and more on revealing who she is.

Early on, it becomes fairly obvious that So-Nyo's identity has been swallowed up by her family, even from the time she was young. In the opening paragraphs, it's revealed that her family is even unclear about her birthdate. The children had grown up believing that it was July 24, 1938, but then her husband corrects the children and tells them she was born in 1936, but parents didn't register their children for a few years before making their existence official due to the high infant mortality rate. The family also has trouble finding a current photo of her since she had started to avoid pictures and the only suitable one was from a family photo taken years earlier. Even her name makes her seem almost disposable, since the reader discovers later that So-Nyo means "Little Girl" and her sister was named Tae-Nyo or "Big Girl."

Even though the family is searching for their mother for the entire story, the story of the search frequently takes a backseat to the family's memories. Throughout the novel, we learn that So-Nyo was selfless and valued her family above all, though her children and husband don't always see it that way and dismiss her sacrifices both big and small.

Throughout the novel, the family also has to come to terms with the fact that So-Nyo was getting older and her health and mental state were declining. This results in a lot of guilt, since her family ignored the signs and instead got angry or frustrated at her for...well, basically, for not being Mom.

I think that the story will really strike a chord for a lot of people, especially anyone who has watched a family member get older and deal with the limitations of age. It's easy to get angry at the children and her husband for failing to recognize that she was sick and needed help, but they generally meant well and truly cared for their mother. It's just difficult for anyone to watch a family member change from the person you remembered. And, once you're forced to come to terms with the fact that the changes aren't the person's fault, it's equally hard to look back on the times you were less than patient or not as sympathetic as you could have been.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

I picked this up after reading Dolce Bellezza's amazing review and I'm glad I did.

The plot is fairly simple: A woman, Christine, lost the ability to remember her past and form new memories following an accident in her late 20's. Her loving husband, Ben, takes care of her and patiently explains her life day after day, going so far as to place photographs of her life around her bathroom mirror and make a scrapbook for her to review. She is also seeing Dr. Nash, a young doctor who sought her out for treatment of her memory loss because he wants to write a paper on her condition.

Or so she's told. The genius of the story lies in the fact that, along with Christine, the reader realizes very quickly that nothing, not even the most basic pieces of information, can be taken at face value. With the exception of feelings and flashes of memory that may or may not be reliable, everything Christine learns about herself is at least secondhand, if not even further removed.

First, Christine's primary source of information is her journal. Since her memory lasts about a day and ends when she falls asleep (though not during a light sleep, apparently), her only way of "remembering" the things she learns is to write them in her journal. But believing the information in the journal involves believing that she actually wrote it, that the information she recorded was the truth (at least as she saw it), and believing that the journal hadn't been tampered with. The veracity of the entries is drawn into question even more when Christine learns that in the early days after the accident, she suffered from paranoia and confabulation (or, more simply, false memories). In other words, it becomes clear early on that even the most basic assumptions may very well be false because a key fact might be false. An unaffected person might easily deduce "if X, then Y," but Christine might either be unable to remember what X is or else she mistakenly thinks A is X, leading her to believe "if X, then B." (I really need to review logic better...)

Second, all information she receives is at least secondhand, if not even more removed. This means that in the most benign situations, she might receive incorrect information simply because someone else remembered it incorrectly. She might also receive incorrect information because someone was lying to protect her or, as in a couple of cases with Dr. Nash, because information he either found in Christine's file or discovered from Christine herself turned out to be false. Or, in other cases, someone who should be a reliable source appears to confirm something when in reality, he or she has made an incorrect assumption about what Christine knows, is asking, or was told.

All in all, it makes for a narrative where everyone, even Christine herself, is suspect. Since the majority of the story is told through her journal, it creates a unique situation where the reader is learning about and reacting to Christine's life at the same time that Christine is and that the reader feels the same frustration and confusion that Christine experiences when she is unable to recall or understand key facts. It also makes the journal the center of both the novel and Christine's life. Christine, to the readers knowledge, went two decades without connecting two days together or every learning enough about her life and current situation to question it. (Of course, it's entirely possible that Christine discovered the truth multiple times and forgot it.) The journal is the key to all of this and if something happens to the journal, everything is reset. Christine forgets all the information she has managed to piece together and she goes back to a blank slate (with the exception of a few childhood memories).

There's a strong feeling of racing against time and something (or someone) unidentified. The only way that Christine can retain her knowledge is by recording it in her journal. She's forced to find a way to write everything down before she falls asleep again, because everything is lost if she doesn't. Since she decides early on to hide the journal from her husband, this means that she has to find a way to hide both the act of writing and the journal itself from her husband.

I absolutely adored this book and finished it in about a day. Moreover, I found myself eagerly engaged in the story, worrying that the journal would be discovered before the entire truth was revealed and actively trying to figure out what, if anything, other characters were hiding. At around page 123, it suddenly clicked that no one would be trusted, not even Christine. (There's wasn't a particular memorable event at that point that triggered the feeling, just a eureka type moment where everything I had learned up to that point just gelled.) After reading about three-quarters of the book, I suddenly stopped and realized that the biggest concern wasn't the fact that Christine might be killed by the person (or people) manipulating her. My biggest fear was that the journal might be destroyed and Christine would permanently revert to where she was when the story began. That fate would somehow even less satisfying than Christine's death.

Reading Before I Go To Sleep was definitely not a passive experience. The story wasn't frightening, though the issues it raised about memory were definitely disquieting at some point. Overall, it was a fascinating experience and if this is any indication of S.J. Watson's abilities, I hope she publishes many, many more books.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

She was born with dissipation in her veins. It was fated that she'd turn out this way, despite your attempts to rescue her. -Naomi, 199

Now do you see how frightening I can be? -Naomi, 231

I've been on an Asian literature kick lately, due in large part to the East and Southeast Asia Challenge. I checked out a copy of Please Look After Mom and after that, I'll probably branch out for a bit.

Naomi (or Chijin no Ai, A Fool's Love, in Japanese) couldn't be more different from The Makioka Sisters, which makes sense, since they were written at different points in Tanizaki's life and focus on dramatically different subject matter. While The Makioka Sisters was written in the 1940's and focuses on the daily life of an affluent Osakan family in decline, Naomi was written in 1924 and focuses a modern girl in Tokyo. Tanizaki was more progressive in the 1920's, to the point that Naomi, which was a newspaper serialization, was actually pulled from Osaka's Morning News due to controversy over the portrayal of Western style dancing.

The plot of Naomi is relatively straightforward. It seems influenced by The Tale of Genji (an older man attempts to groom a young woman into a perfect wife) and a precursor to Lolita (older man suffers for his obsession with younger woman). Joji, the narrator, meets Naomi when she's 15 and he's 28. She's a hostess at a cafe, the daughter of a family who runs a brothel. In her mother's own words, "We were going to make the child a geisha...but she wasn't interested, and so we were obliged to send her to the cafe. We couldn't just let her go on playing."

Joji is an engineer who lives frugally and enjoys a good reputation at work. In fact, he's known as a gentleman, though he dismisses this by saying "Still a country bumpkin at her, I was awkward with people and had no friends of the opposite sex, which is no doubt what made me a 'gentleman.'" Taking all of this into account, his interest in Naomi, due most to her Western-sounding name and her "Eurasian" features), shouldn't be that surprising.

Joji rejects the idea of a traditional marriage, both because of the complicated nature of Japanese marriage negotiations and because he rejects the trappings of traditional married life. In his words:

The best approach would be to bring a girl like Naomi into my home and patiently watch her grow. Later, if I liked what I saw, I could take her for my wife. This would be quite enough; I wasn't interested in marrying a rich man's daughter or a fine, educated sort of woman.

And so, with the consent of Naomi's family, he brings her to life with him, provides her with English and piano lessons, buys her clothes, and overall takes the steps needed to turn Naomi into the perfect modern wife. Of course, it comes as no surprise that things don't work out according to plan and the Joji suffers for it.

Joji should be an utterly despicable character and, despite the fact that the entire story is told from his point of view, in fact doesn't come off as a particularly sympathetic character. However, neither does Naomi. In spite of everything, Joji comes of as less predatory and more misguided. There's a sense of immaturity and social awkwardness and that, rather than a progressive view, seems to explain his rejection of a traditional marriage. Naomi quickly becomes spoiled and lazy in her new situation and Joji, despite seeing Naomi's negative traits very early, goes along with the everything despite realizing very quickly that Naomi spending more than he earns and that their "fairy-tale house" is quickly become a nightmare, with half-eaten food and dirty underwear everywhere.

The most interesting part of the story, to me, is Joji's lack of self-awareness. His problems with Naomi might have occurred because trying to change another person and turn her into your ideal never works out. However, his attempts to turn Naomi into the perfect sophisticated and respectable wife might have failed because he isn't the urbane gentleman he thinks he is. Naomi easily deceives him not because of some extraordinary power over his, as he wants to believe, but because Joji has already deceived himself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Jia: A Novel of North Korea by Hyejin Kim

A lump of anger burst in my chest. My parents had broken the rules, but what did they do that was so bad? - Jia by Hyejin Kim

I was a little sick this weekend, which was bad news in a lot of ways (I missed a Darjeeling tea tasting I was really looking forward to and, well, I was sick which is never a good thing), but on the plus side, I got a lot of reading done. In addition to finishing Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I also read Jia: A Novel of North Korea.

This is another book I picked up because of the East and Southeast Asia Challenge and since this is my third country, it actually means I've met the bare bones criteria for the challenge. I plan to continue with it, though. I actually have my eye on Please Look After Mom for South Korea.

Jia is the story of the daughter of a girl who born outside a North Korean mountain prison where her grandparents and sister were sent after her father was imprisoned for his criticism of the government. Her paternal grandparents smuggle her out in an attempt to reunite her with her maternal grandparents. Jia's mother was a famous traditional dancer and her paternal grandfather was a high-ranking army official. Jia grows up in an orphanage in Pyonyang and becomes a successful dancer herself, taking part in the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students. Unfortunately, despite her talent, her family's status as a member of the reactionary class not only limits her ability to advance, but also her freedom.

I can't help but compare and contrast Jia to The Vagrants. Both take explore similar societies and show the problems faced by the average person in the societies. The Vagrants was a much grittier read and the brutality and hopelessness were always at the forefront. In contrast, Jia was set, for the most part, in a more affluent part of society. Though the influence of the government was always very clear and though the brutality and poverty are just as horrifying (if not more), it seems to exist between a thin veneer of prosperity and normalcy.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the novel (worse than the torture of prisoners, the disease and poverty face by the beggar children called the kkot-jebi or "flower swallows," and the trafficking of women) is the fact that many North Koreans flee to China. That's right. The lives of North Koreans are so horrible that they consider life as an illegal immigrant in China to be a step up.

As with The Vagrants, Jia is well-written and absolutely worth reading, but also utterly wrenching. For my sanity, I plan to avoid novels about communist governments with long histories of human rights violations for the near future, regardless of how worthwhile they are.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl makes the third book I've read by Yiyun Li and her second collection of short stores. I picked up The Vagrant after seeing a blog entry about it and then I read A Thousand Years of Good Prayers because several people mentioned that Yiyun Li's real talent was in short stories.

After reading Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I fully agree. The Vagrants was a powerful novel and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wanted to gain more insight into that particular aspect of China, but I had a hard time relating to most of the characters and I felt that the narrative tended to wander a bit. The story was still powerful in spite of that, but I think to truly appreciate Yiyun Li's genius (and genius isn't an exaggeration, given that she was named a 2010 MacArthur Fellow), one needs to read her short stories.

The stories in this collection are fairly diverse. Here's the description from Li's website:

In the title story “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” a professor introduces her middle-aged son to a favorite student, unaware of the student’s true affections. In “A Man Like Him,” a lifelong bachelor finds kinship with a man who is wrongly accused of an indiscretion. In “The Proprietress,” a reporter from Shanghai travels to a small town to write an article about the local prison, only to discover a far more intriguing story involving a shopkeeper who offers refuge to the wives and children of inmates. In “House Fire,” a young man who suspects his father of sleeping with the young man’s wife seeks the help of a detective agency run by a group of feisty old women.

Most, if not all, the stories deal with isolation and the human desire to make connections, especially since the desire for connection is frequently one-sided in her stories. For instance, in "Souvenir" (the shortest story at six pages), a widowed man tries to connect to a young woman who wants to be left alone for a personal errand. In "Kindness," several people try to make a connection to the main character who seems utterly oblivious to their attempts. These attempts aren't always unsuccessful, though even when a connection is successfully made, as in "A Man Like Him" or "Prison," it somehow seems unsatisfying.

There's also a sense of regression in several of the stories...or at least an inability to move forward. In "Kindness," at the age of 41, the main character still lives in the apartment in which she was raised. The main character in "Number Three, Garden Road, is in a similar situation. In "Prison," the main character returns to China from the U.S. in order to find a surrogate mother to carry a child following the tragic loss of her own daughter. In spite of this, there's also an awareness of the inability to go back. For example, when the main character of "Prison" suggests moving back to China, her husbands tells her "It's like a game of chess. You can't undo a move."

I also like (and recommend) Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for the same reason I liked The Vagrants. The majority of the work takes place in modern China, so the reader gains more insight into the life of a modern Chinese citizen, though the lives are much less brutal than The Vagrants.

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, mainly because I generally find myself wanting more. A couple of stories left me unsatisfied, or at least curious as to what happened after the story. However, most of the stories were like a perfect snapshot of someone's life. I'm absolutely looking forward to seeing more of Yiyun Li's stories (and I hope she chooses short stories over another novel) and I plan to give more short stories a chance after this.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki

This novel has been on my "To Read" (or, more accurately, "To Finish") list for over a year. I picked it up sometime last year and started it, but unfortunately life got in the way and then I mislaid my copy. I recently found a copy at the library and decided to finish it.

To me, the novel is best described as Jane Austen writing in World War II Japan. The novel is set mostly in Osaka and features the Makioka family, a once-prosperous merchant family that is slowly declining. There are four Makioka sisters: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko, in order of age. Both Tsuruko and Sachiko have married and their husbands were adopted into the Maikoka family. Tsuruko's husband, Tatsuo, is the head of the main house. Though the two youngest daughters should live in the main house, most of their time is spent in the branch house with Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke. Part of this is due to friction between the youngest daughters and Tatsuo. Yukiko is also extremely fond of Sachiko's daughter, Etsuko, while Taeko is fond of the freedom she is allowed in the branch house, including the ability to make dolls and earn her living.

More than anything, the novel reads like a collection of scenes from domestic life. However, if there is an actual plot, it would most likely be the family's efforts to find a husband for Yukiko, who is already thirty. Their efforts to find a husband for Yukiko have been thwarted both by Yukiko's extreme shyness and the family's difficulty in accepting their current position and their refusal to allow Yukiko to marry a man that doesn't meet their criteria.

Throughout the novel, the sisters not only struggle with their changing positions in life, but also the changes of the world around them. The novel is set between 1936 and 1941, so the world is in a state of flux, due to both social and political events. The sisters all deal with those changes in their own way.

Tsuruko seems to be the most adaptable and the least attached to her past. When her husband is transferred to Tokyo, they leave the family's home in Osaka and take a much smaller home in Tokyo. They seem to be liberated by moving away from Osaka, where they are well-known and where they feel they must keep up appearances. This causes certain friction between Tsuruko and her younger sisters, especially when she tries to demand that the two youngest sisters live in the main house in Tokyo, in accordance with tradition, despite lacking room for them. It also causes problems when the family feels that Tatsuo and Tsuruko are economizing too much in regards to the family.

Sachiko isn't as adaptable as Tsuruko, or at least doesn't have a motive try to adapt. She embraces certain aspects of modern life, but she is overall a traditional Japanese woman. Interestingly enough, she and Teinosuke spend the most time trying to find a husband for Yukiko, despite the fact that the responsibility should fall to the main house.

Yukiko seems to cling the most to the old ways in both dress and mannerisms. She rarely wears Western clothes and her extreme shyness, due to her very sheltered upbringing, puts off several prospective husbands. The original title of the novel is Sasameyuki or Light Snow, and Yukiko's name uses the same character for Yuki. This, combined with the focus of the novel on her marriage attempts, seems to indicated that Yukiko is the main character of the novel, despite the fact that the reader seldom sees the events from her perspective. When reading the novel, Yukiko seems extremely detached to most events and the reader gets the impression that everything would be better if Yukiko were just left alone to live her life.

Taeko is much more modern, both in dress and behavior. As the youngest, she not only remembers the glory days of the family less, but she also has little memory of her mother, who died shortly after her birth. She made the newspaper (and inadvertently dragged Yukiko into them, due to a misprint) because she eloped with the son of another prominent Osaka family. She's focused on owning her way and embracing modern ideals (though she also is interested in tradition Japanese culture) and her behavior not only causes consternation to the family, but may interfere with Yukiko's miai (formal meetings between two prospective marriage partners).

Overall, I loved the novel. It was long and it took me a long time to get through it, despite being a fairly fast reader. I suppose one of the reasons might have been the fact that there were so many foreign concepts, not just because the novel was set in Japan, but also because it took place in Osaka and a lot of the language and culture was Osaka specific. For instance, Taeko, as the youngest daughter, is referred to as Koi-an.

The characters fascinated me, as did their struggles to find their place in a world that most of them seemed ill-equipped for. The Makioka women were raised in a sheltered and privileged environment and taught skills such as calligraphy and traditional dance that would have served them well in previous generations. They were also raised, for the most part, to be retiring, and all of them (except for Taeko) seem to struggle with that for the whole story. The two older sisters find themselves unable to reply to letters they receive, while Yukiko's inability to even talk to potential husbands is almost comical.

Finding a husband for Yukiko is the driving force of the entire story and it also helps to show exactly how poorly the Makioka family generally, and Yukiko specifically, is adapting to the new world. In previous years, she had several proposals even as the Makioka family was declining, yet because her older sisters were unable to accept their new position, they were too choosy and rejected them. Now, the family's standards have relaxed significantly, but they still won't accept the new prospects. This, in turn, places Taeko in a holding pattern and helps contribute to the problems she experiences later.

There's also a significant amount of illness in the book, both real and imagined. In the opening pages of the book, the reader finds that Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko are so obsessed with beriberi that they keep syringes full of vitamin B in the house and routinely inject each other. Yukiko's close relationship with Etsuko is partially attributed to the fact that Etsuko was frequently ill and Sachiko was so frail that she was unable to properly nurse her daughter through illnesses without getting sick herself that Yukiko stepped in.

Despite being somewhat ridiculous in clinging to the past at certain points, I found the characters relatable, especially Sachiko and Yukiko. Since most of the story was told from Sachiko's point of view and focused on Yukiko, it makes sense that they were the most sympathetic. The world that Tanizaki described was a very idyllic one and I found it very easy to get lost in, to the point that I was as frustrated at certain characters for ruining it as the sisters were. I regretted the end of the novel, not just because it felt like it left so much of the story untold, but because I would have loved to spend more time in that world. Seeing the novel end was bittersweet also because I knew what would happen in Japan in the coming years and I wanted to see the characters spared that fate.

The novel was also made into a movie which is also available at the library. I plan to pick it up soon to see how the story translated. Based on some of the descriptions in the book, it should be visually impressive.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2011 Challenges

Chinese Literature Challenge

Runs: February 3, 2011 to January 23, 2012

Requirements: Read at least one Chinese book and write a review.

Current Level: Merchant (1-3 books)

1. The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

2. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

East and SouthEast Asia Challenge

Runs: January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011

Requirements: Read at least three books from three different countries.

1. China - The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

2. Japan - The Makioka Sisters

3. North Korea - Jia: A Novel of North Korea

4. China - Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

5. Japan - Naomi

6. South Korea - Please Look After Mom

7. Japan - Quicksand

Japanese Literature Challenge 5

Runs: June 1, 2011 to January 30, 2012

Requirements: Read at least one book.

1. The Makioka Sisters

2. Naomi

3. Quicksand

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

I discovered this book after reading Bibliojunkie's review. Even though her review was hardly a glowing recommendation of the book, I decided to see if it was available at the library. It was. I don't usually seek out books on Communist China. The last one I read was February Flowers by Fan Wu and that took place in present day China and politics mostly took a backseat there. The plot sounded intriguing, though, so I took a chance.

The Vagrants is set in Muddy River, a fictional Chinese town, in 1979. It opens with the denunciation and execution of a counterrevolutionary, Gu Shan. The novel follows the lives of several people, including Gu Shan's parents; Kai, a former classmate of Gu Shan's; Nini, a younger girl both with a congenital deformity; Baishi, a nineteen-year-old outcast described in the book's summary as "a sinister idler;" a young boy, Tong, and his dog, Ear; and the Huas, an old couple who had been beggars and had taken in abandoned infant girls.

Gu Shan's denunciation is brutal. Before she is brought before the crowd, her kidneys are removed to be transplanted to a senior party official and her vocal chords are cut to prevent her from shouting slogans. The atmosphere is festive and the reader is introduced to Tong when his class attends the denunciation and he dreams of joining the Young Pioneers and admires a fifth-grader from his school who speaks at Gu Shan's denunciation.

The public reaction to Gu Shan's execution, however, is mixed. Kai, a radio announcer married to the son of a local party official and whose husband played a significant role in Gu Shan's execution, has doubts about the execution. The reaction isn't because Gu Shan wasn't guilty of the charges made against her. She did express doubts about Mao's philosophy. Her first doubts were expressed in a letter to her boyfriend. Her boyfriend turned the letter over to party officials. Because of it, he was able to join the army, despite coming from a family of landowners, and Gu Shan was sentenced to ten year in prison. Later, she expressed further doubts in her diary and she tried again and sentence to death. However, despite her doubts, she hardly fought against the Communist government. In fact, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the events of the Cultural Revolution. She joined the Red Guards, denouncing her own parents and kicking the pregnant Nini's mother in the stomach, resulting in Nini's birth defects. The outrage over Gu Shan's execution is not due to sympathy for Gu Shan, but an overall discontent with the entire government. In fact, many of the events in The Vagrants take place because the local party officials are uncertain how to proceed due to confusion over a Democracy Wall in Beijing.

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of many different characters. The characters range from sympathetic (Kai, Teacher Gu, Gu Shan's father), sympathetic if disturbing (Tong, Nini) to downright disturbing (Baishi). I'm not sure that any of the characters were particularly likable, but I think that was probably the point, and the strength, of the book.

I found a Wall Street Journal interview with Yunyi Li. In it, she described her experiences in the re-education Army and how her seventeen year old squad leader forced her to submit a "propaganda-ish article" weekly to clean the pigsty:
I wish I'd acted rebellious and cleaned the pig sty, but I did not want to clean the pigsty, so I would write for her. I didn't pursue my idealism because I did not want to clean the pigsty. We all compromised.

This meshes with my overall impression of the book. For the most part, the characters in the book didn't even reach the point of considering whether to rebel or clean the pigsty. Life was so hard and there was so little room for compassion that the amount of casual cruelty and the lack of compassion was staggering. There were a few instances of animal cruelty in this book and, with the exception of Tong's feelings for Ear, there seemed to be little to no empathy for living things. The amount of fear and deprivation that most citizens of Muddy River suffered on a daily basis left them with little room to consider the suffering of other humans, much less that of animals. (There were, of course, a few noteworthy examples to the contrary, such as workers "accidentally" dropping coal for Nini to take home.)

At the end, it's hard to figure out how to explain my feelings toward The Vagrants. I didn't enjoy reading in, in that nothing about the novel was a pleasant experience. I didn't like it and I certainly wouldn't want to reread it again. And if I took anything away from the novel, it was that I'm very, very glad that I don't live in post-Mao China...not that I wanted to before this.

Still, it's a fairly powerful work. I didn't come away with a new perspective because of the book and I wasn't able to form an attachment to any of the characters, so their eventual fates weren't particularly moving. At the same time, though, Li does a wonderful job of helping the reader to understand where the characters are coming from and, since she presents them without judgment, there were times when I found myself not as horrified as I should be at some of the characters decisions. For instance, Baishi and Nini were both unlikable characters and the idea of nineteen-year-old Baishi pursuing twelve-year-old Nini for want of a better option (and Nini manipulating Baishi for similar reasons) should have been utterly repugnant, but given the atmosphere and the lack of options for both, I occasionally found myself thinking "Would it really be that bad?"

The Vagrants doesn't really cover any new ground in Communist China and it's downright depressing, but I still think it's worth reading, if only because it's so well-written and offers an interesting perspective.