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.