Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

From the description:

On a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the beach.  Tucked inside is a collection of curious items: an antique wristwatch, a pack of indecipherable letters, and the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl named Nao Yasutani.  Ruth, who finds the lunchbox, suspects that it is debris from Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami.  Once Ruth starts to read the diary, she quickly finds herself drawn into the mystery of the young girl's fate.

I almost didn't finish this book.  Honestly, I almost didn't even really start it.  The first chapter of the book opens with an overly perky introduction by Nao, an explanation of what a time being is, and speculation about the reader.  In her next section, she realizes that she sounded ridiculous in the first part (looking back, it's actually charming) and then describes the otaku sitting next to her and speculates what would happen if she went with him and let him buy her things and take her to a hotel (she decides he'll murder her).  After that, she settles in and begins to tell her story.

In the next section, Ruth, a writer who lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest, finds Nao's diary and begins reading it.  There's significant overlap in the language since Ruth is of Japanese descent and Nao had lived in America for most of her life before her family returned to Japan.  Nao writes her journal mostly in English and Ruth is able to understand or look up the Japanese parts.  The story progresses through Ruth reading Nao's diary and then interacting with people in her own life, especially regarding her discovery of the diary and her attempt to read the French letters.  Later, both Nao and Ruth begin to learn the story of Haruki #1, Nao's great-uncle, the son her great-grandmother, Jiku.

While Ruth is struggling to learn more about Nao and her family, Nao is struggling to survive.  Since her father lost his job as a programmer in America, the family had to return to Japan in significantly reduced circumstances.  They live in a tiny apartment in a bad part of town, her father doesn't seek employment, and Nao is bullied by her classmates.  Eventually, Nao's mother gets a job to try to support the family and her father, named Haruki for his uncle, sinks into depression and makes several suicide attempts.

When her parents learn the extent of the bullying, they send her to stay with Jiko, a 104 year old Buddhist nun who lives in a temple.  In addition to learning more about Buddhism, Nao also learns about Haruki #1, who studied French philosophy at the university before being drafted into an army fighting a losing war.  He volunteers to become a kamikaze pilot, partly because it would raise his rank after his death and increase the pension Jiku was paid, and partly because he wanted to choose his own death.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her husband, Oliver, are trying to learn more about Nao and her family.  They discover information not only about Haruki #1, but Haruki #2, which puts him in a completely different light.   All of this information might have an impact on the events that are slowly unfolding in the diary. (Haruki #2 isn't the only one planning suicide.  Nao is writing down Jiku's story and then plans to commit suicide herself.)  Ruth senses the urgency and tries even harder to track down Nao to save her, but, as Oliver points out, years have passed since the diary was written and they can't change any of the events.

Or can they?

A Tale for the Time Being was absolutely amazing.  I borrowed a copy from the library, but I plan to get my own copy since I think it will easily stand up to multiple readings.  The book focused on so many difficult topics like bullying, suicide, and family issues.  The most fascinating part, for me, was that almost all of the characters in the book were more than they appeared and those hidden sides repaired and strengthened family bonds.  And the truly amazing part was the ripple effect that started when Nao bought a book with blank pages and decided to commit suicide but only after she had told her grandmother's story.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl was on the featured shelves at the front of the library and I picked it up based on both the cover and the title.  I was intrigued by the premise and I wanted to read something for Black History Month.  Even though I finished it about a month late, I'm still glad I read it.

The plot focused on the parallel lives of two very different women: Lina, a young lawyer at a white shoe law firm and Josephine, a house slave in Virginia.  Their stories intersect when a major client of Lina's law firm wants to start a reparations suit on behalf of the descendants of slaves (he estimates an unjust enrichment of nearly 7 trillion dollars based on slave labor) and needs a compelling lead plaintiff.  Lina's father, an artist just beginning to achieve commercial success and preparing for a show featuring images of Lina's dead mother, Grace, brings up a recent controversy regarding the authorship of the paintings of Lu Ann Bell, an iconic southern artist.  Scholars have started to question whether the paintings were made by Lu Ann or by her house slave, Josephine Bell.  Lina decides that a descendant of Josephine would be the perfect lead plaintiff for her case, but there are no records of Josephine after Lu Ann's death in 1852.  Lina begins her search and the reader learns more about Josephine's life and, of course, Lina's own life.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  It was well-written and the structure was interesting.  It's divided into three sections, each with a different set of narrators.  Part one features Lina and Josephine; part two uses Lina, Josephine, and Dorthea, the sister of a well-known abolitionist and suffragette; and part three goes back to Lina, Josephine, and Caleb, a man who plays a small but significant part of the story.  Lina's story, obviously, is told from her own point of view.  Josephine's story, however, is told not only from her point of view, but also through articles and letters.  Overall, the book's structure reminds of A.S. Bryant's Possession.

Unsurprisingly, a book involving this subject matter is going to raise some interesting issues. First and foremost, not only was the book written by a white woman, but Lina, another white woman, was the driving force behind the story.  That's obviously problematic when the subject of a book is about slavery and a black woman's voice being silenced by a white woman.  Most of the other well-developed characters were white, including Dorthea, Caleb, and Jasper, a possible descendant of Josephine and a potential lead plaintiff (and potential love interest for Lina).  Dresser, the client behind the lawsuit, is black, but although he has strong personal convictions about suit, he's also only doing it because it's politically expedient.  Consider one of his quotes:
We would not be the world's superpower today if we had not had two hundred and fifty years of free, limitless labor on which to build our economy... What were their names, Dan?  They were our founding fathers and mothers just as much as the bewigged white men who laid the whip against their backs.  Isn't it time this country made the effort to remember them?

Then this one:

"I've gotten confidential confirmation that, after we file the suit, the government will issue a formal apology for slavery... We'll pull the government claim and then the feds will ut some pressure on our corporate defendants to settle... It's a nice distraction, you know, atone for the sins of the past, maybe divert attention away from the perceived sins of the present.  But it's the deep pockets we're concerned with here.  The government gets to look like the good guy, and we get some real weight behind us."

Since the book is set in 2004, one of the major "perceived sins of the present"  was, of course, Abu Ghraib.  So the only real person of color in the contemporary part of the story is not only not very fleshed out, but also at least a little amoral regarding the subject.  It also strikes me as a bit problematic that the potential face of the effects of slavery today was not only white (technically about 1/64th black), but had no idea that he had a black ancestor or that said ancestor was a slave.

As a white woman, I don't feel comfortable going too far into the racial issues, but I am comfortable discussing the gender issues.  Specifically, as with the race issue, this is also a story of women, but again, it's driven forward by men.  Not only that, but it seems to pit woman against woman a lot.  First, Lina is threatened by Meridith.  Here's the description of her:
[T]he six-foot blond litigation associate rumored to be dating a Yankees outfielder... Meridith sat ramrod straight in meetings, she spoke articulately, rationally, with apparent  interest [about a variety of subjects].  Lina saw her as a nemesis of sorts, an otherworldly being who provoked Lina's competitive streak as well as her annoyance.  (Meridith frequently forgot Lina's name.)
 Second, the issue of authorship of the paintings is presented as a zero-sum game.  Lu Ann Bell had been embraced "by modern feminists  as civil rights activists as a woman who, due to the constraints of the society in which she lived, expressed her beliefs in the only way she could: through her art."  It's important to remember that Lu Ann never took credit for Josephine's work.  In fact, since apparently neither Lu Ann nor Josephine signed their work, the authorship was only assumed.  Second, Lu Ann was an artist, but lacked Josephine's talent.  Regardless of her natural ability, though, her art was still an outlet.  Despite all of this, though, it's presented as an either/or situation.  If Josephine's authorship is acknowledge, then, as the archivist at former home of Lu Ann (and Josephine) said, Lu Ann (or at least the idea of her) will be "lost."

In both examples, there's the clear idea that the greatest threat to a woman is another woman.  In Lina's case, there's no particular reason given for her to see Meridith as a bigger threat than any other first year associate, but for some reason, she does.  In the case of Josephine and Lu Ann, there's the idea that only one of them can be given a voice and the other has to sink into the same voicelessness that countless other women have suffered.  It doesn't matter that both women have a story to tell and that story would, in turn, help provide a voice for other women in the same position.  Apparently, a woman has to earn the right to be heard and only the great artist gets a voice.  The other woman, the one who made mediocre art, sinks back into obscurity.

Finally, there's the issue of Josephine's child.  Her child's father was white.  More accurately, her  child's father was Lu Ann's husband, "Mister," and the child was the product of rape.  While this was examined more specifically in some of the information I came across while looking for some background information and while Conklin did explore this issue a bit and while she did examine the strain this placed on the relationship between Lu Ann and Josephine, the full horror of it wasn't explored.  Oddly enough, I feel that The Office did a better job addressing the problems of that issue.

I want to emphasize that I absolutely enjoyed the book and I think Conklin did a great job of exploring difficult subject matter.  In fact, the very fact that these issues occurred to me proves that Conklin wrote a thought-provoking book.  I think that most of my criticisms are more a product of society at large and even the greatest novel dealing with this subject matter is going to still have its shortcomings when it comes to examining issues of race and gender.  In fact, I feel like I'm completely ignoring some other important parts of the book, such as Lina's feelings toward her dead mother and how her father's art exhibition of portraits of her mother affects her not because they don't merit examination, but because there's so much to discuss.   Furthermore, I think that a lot of the more problematic aspects of the book are the most realistic, such as murky motivations for filing the suit, glossing over the implications of a white man being descended from a slave, and the adversarial relationship between women.  That said, I can't recommend this book enough.  Not only did it keep me engaged until the very end, once it was over, it made me think. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reflections on 2012 and Thoughts on 2013

It's a little late to do this and I've debated on whether 2012 even merits a wrap-up post, but I finally decided that I might as well bite the bullet, get some closure, stop feeling guilty, and look toward the future. 

In 2012, I signed up for a lot of reading challenges  and didn't complete that many.  I believe I completed four, though I didn't make posts on all the books I actually read.  A couple of challenges are either perpetual or haven't ended yet, so there's still a chance to make it through.  I can't help but feel guilty for not at least making a better effort to complete and participate in the various challenges, since I was very excited about both reading the relevant books and seeing what other bloggers read and posted.  

Without going into too much detail, 2012 was a fairly trying year.  Both my parents had some relatively minor health problems that resulted in each of them spending some time in the hospital and then going to a rehabilitation unit to regain strength.  I also had some health problems in 2012, though nothing significant.  Everyone is much better now and hopefully things should get back to normal. 

External factors played a huge role in reading, posting, and participating, but there were several internal factors as well.  In fact, those internal factors probably affected my blogging more than the external, especially after I felt like I was falling behind.  I'm a perfectionist.  And a procrastinator.  And I majored in English in undergrad.  So even though I spent a lot of time writing about books, I'm still having trouble with how to approach book blogging, specifically what to post and how often.

To make a long story short, I've decided to try to do short reviews of everything I read on Goodreads then make a blog post when I feel like I have more to say.  I also plan to interact more with other bloggers and try to go outside my comfort zone in choosing books.  To that end, I still plan to do challenges, read-a-thons, and read alongs.  This year, though, I plan to sign up for them throughout the year, after I've read at least one appropriate book.  I already have my eye on a few, so I have a feeling I'll end up signing up for quite a few year, too, but hopefully I'll actually manage to complete more this year.

Oh, and I'll hopefully make my 2013 wrap up post before January is nearly over.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Death of a Schoolgirl by Joanna Campbell Slan

Death of a Schoolgirl takes place after Jane Eyre, but you may have to squint a bit to recognize the characters.  Mr. Rochester is a loving husband and new father who is slowly coming to terms with his injuries and his role in life.  Jane is a devoted wife and mother who is trying to grow into her new life as  a gentleman's wife and who also happens to dash off for a bit of undercover work to solve a murder.  Surprisingly, it long as the reader doesn't examine certain aspects of the plot too closely.

The story begins about a year after the end of Jane Eyre.  Mr. Rochester and Jane are living at Ferndean Manor, a hunting lodge built by the Rochester family.  Mr. Rochester is recovering from the injuries sustained in the fire that destroyed Thornfield Hall and Jane is recovering from the birth of their son, Ned.  After months of confusing letters from Adèle Varens, Mr. Rochester's ward, they finally receive a letter that includes a hidden request for help as well as a threat made against her.  With Mr. Rochester temporarily unable to travel due to problems with his eye, Jane makes her way to London where she will stay with the wife of Mr. Rochester's best friend, Lucy Brayton, and find out exactly what's happening at Adèle's school.  When she arrives at the school, though, she finds the police removing a body from the school and she is mistaken for the new German teacher.  In order to learn the truth, Jane poses as a German teacher and tries to unravel the mystery behind the death of one of Adèle's classmates.  

As a cozy mystery, it easily exceeded my expectation.  As a story based on Jane Eyre, my opinion is a little more complicated.  Immediately after reading it, I was impressed.  I enjoyed the writing style and it was interesting to see what Mr. Rochester and Jane were doing.  The book also introduced some fascinating new characters and revisited some older characters.   Lucy Brayton is a fascinating character (and one that I think we'll see more of, since the next book in the series is also set in London) and I enjoyed seeing Adèle's new life.  

Death of a Schoolgirl also touched on a few of the themes of Jane Eyre, especially class and the issue of governesses and class mobility.  Several of the teachers at the school are former governesses and have strong feelings on their amorphous role in society.  Unsurprisingly, there was a certain amount of resentment aimed at their employers due to their treatment.  In the words of one of Jane's coworkers:

Our world is larger than theirs...and so we cause the parents grave discomfort.  We are what they shun, and also what they aspire to be: educated.  Thus, we are relegated to the margins of their society.  We are the outcasts, the pariahs--women who do not trade solely on their looks, but who aspire to a higher calling, because we possess cultivated minds.

While women like Miss Jones and Miss Millers, Jane's colleagues, are trapped in a difficult role with very little hope of improvement, there are a few issues of class mobility as well.  Obviously, Jane is an example, going from a penniless governess to the wife of a gentleman.  There are also negative examples.  Maude Thurston, the superintendent of the Alderton House School for Girls, was once a member of high society, but her husband gambled away his fortune and then committed suicide.  Mrs. Thurston took the position at the school in order to pay the bills her husband left behind.  Likewise, Lady Kingston, the founder of Alderton House School, was very wealthy, but she lost her fortune due to her son's drinking, gambling, and womanizing.  

The one problem I had was Mr. Rochester.  Although it's been a while since I read Jane Eyre (high school, perhaps?), I do remember that, while Mr. Rochester may have been considered a romantic hero, I also remember him as a fairly horrible person..  I think that reading Wide Sargasso Sea played a role in my opinion of him, but I also just remember having a negative reaction to certain parts of the book.  I really need to reread <i>Jane Eyre</i> to see how I'll react to it now.  Going from memory, though, Rochester was a wonderful Byronic hero and while the difficulties that they faced in their relationship made for an interesting novel, I'm highly skeptical of how Mr. Rochester will fair in The Jane Eyre Chronicles.  In the first book, he was quite content with his new wife and son despite the difficulties he faced after his injuries.  He seemed to be improving after his injuries and was making plans to rebuild Thorton Hall.  He also show up conveniently to save Jane toward the end of the novel.  It worked for this novel, but if author plans to make Mr. Rochester a major character in this series, she's going to face an uphill battle.  Is it possible to maintain the qualities that made him the hero of Jane Eyre while still turning him into a character that will also be an acceptable spouse for a Jane Eyre with fairly modern sensibilities.  It's also clear that the author is taking the Jane Eyre view toward Bertha, Mr. Rochester's first wife, specifically that Bertha was in the wrong, Mr. Rochester was a victim, and it was utterly tragic for him to have to forgo love in order to marry for money, as ordered by his father.  It's a relatively minor thing (unless her story figures more strongly into later novels and that wouldn't surprise me at all), but pitting two women against each other over a man with one woman ending up completely vilified while the man (often the only one with any real power in these situations) is somehow portrayed as a victim rubs me the wrong way.  It's all well and good to look at books like Jane Eyre and remind myself that the book was published in the 1800's and things are so much different now, but that treatment obviously won't hold up in a book published in 2012.  

Misgivings aside, I enjoyed Death of a Schoolgirl and I'm looking forward to the next volume in the series, Death of a Dowager.  I also plan to finally reread Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, since I'm way overdue and they're both great novels.