M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

de classics, modern fiction,

Sunday, January 31, 2010

January 2010 Monthly Reading Life Review

This month I thought I would do something a little different for my month end post.
Reading done right has magic powers.    As I looked at the books I read in January I noticed that I have posted on more older works than I have in the past, one from the 11th century and one from the 18th.     I also read a number of novels set in the past and in diverse locations.  So everybody is invited on a grand around the world sea cruise.   Let us pick up our fellow travelers first.
The first port stop to pick up passenger is the courts of Angor, the great Mogul Emperor, with Salman Rushdie as our tour guide.    Staying a bit longer in India  and advancing a couple of hundred years we departed from the banks of the Ganges river to cross a Sea of Poppies with Captain Amitav Ghosh at the helm.    We have one more stop to make in India-some call center workers during One Night at the Call Center want to get out of the office very badly and I do not blame them.   Our next scheduled stop is Tokyo.
Stepping into the way back machine we go to 11th century Japan to hear some of the Tales of Ise and pick up a Samurai and his lady.  Skipping ahead a bit we make a stop in Tokyo to meet Naomi and Jiji.    Naomi's first question is "where are the ships stores".     From Tokyo we cruise along way to Johannesburg South Africa in the 1980s.   We pick up a very nice family there and the father wants to tell what he calls My Son's Story.   From there we cruise on to London.    A very large slightly odd gentleman in his 60s along with a very well dressed young man in his 30s come on board just having finished A Tour of the Hebrides.    We cannot help but notice that the younger man seems to write down everything his companion says.    We also take on Jeannette who for some reason wants to go at once to the kitchen so she can advise the head chef that Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.   Every body on board settles into shipboard life for the long trans-Atlantic portion of the trip.   James Boswell charms everyone but seems most interested in Naomi.    Dr Johnson at once engages in a conversation with our Samurai poet, he being the person Dr Johnson can learn the most from.     Our guests from South Africa confuse the captain by asking in what portions of the ship are they allowed to go.    The call center workers go wild when they find out all drinks and food are free.    So far none of our other Indian guests have left their cabins.
Our first New World stop is Birmingham Alabama in the 1930s where Harper Lee introduces us to a wonderful family.   The father in the family will end up friends with Dr Johnson but gives up on comparing professional notes from their work as Attorneys with Boswell.   His children cannot help but stare at some of the other guests.   Only one stop to go and that is Kingstown Jamaica in the 1840s.   We cross the Wide Sargasso Sea, taking on as a pilot through some very treacherous waters, Jean Rhys who introduces us to Mr Rochester and his wife Antoinette who he sometimes calls "Bertha".    Dr Johnson is completely taken with Antoinette and has to lecture Boswell about his colonial attitude toward her and the Indians.   Dr Johnson knows his friend Edmund Burke was right when he said that the cultural roots of Indian are much older than England.    Everybody is a bit confused as to why half way through the cruise Mr Rochester announces his wife will be confined to the cabin from now on.
Everyone is on board now.   It is up to the power of our imagination if we want to join this cruise are not.   Some of our guests are unpredictable.   The Emperor Angkor insisted on at least 50 cabins for his harem favorites, guards, foot tasters etc.    The  Indians other than the call center workers keep mostly to themselves.    The call center workers all consume mass quantities.    Boswell was a bit annoyed when Jeanette had no interest in him.    Many very diverse foods were served from collard greens and ham hocks for our guests from Birmingham to boiled sea weed with cod roe for Jiji.    The Emperor invites Johnson to his court to be his adviser.   Johnson says he will be honored to come as a guest but only if the Emperor will be his friend and not his patron.   Boswell has to be advised that it is a very bad idea to try to sneak into the cabin of one of the Harem girls of the Emperor.
Here is what I read in January 2010
The Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihira

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Yellow Light Bookstore by Lewis Buzbee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

5 One Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Sea of Poppies by Amitar Ghosh

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

My Son's Story by Nadine Gordimer

10  Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

11  The Journal of a Tour to The Hebrides by James Boswell

January 2010 was a great month.     I read first  works  by four writers  new to authors  me I will for sure return to.   I revisited two old friends.   I added Jean Rhys to "my read everything they have written list." 

Reading Challenges
So far this year I have completed 9 reading challenges
I am still reading for 28 challenges-I expect to complete between six to ten  more challenges in February, with any luck.   Some new challenges will be started as the year goes on  and I will join some of them I am sure.   On July 30, 2010 I will be joining the Japanese Literature  4 challenge.    I fully intend to complete all these challenges but will not be stressed if I do not.   It is the journey that matters to me. I will give a more detailed challenge update next month.

 Notes to Manila readers-if any body in the GMA wants to work out a book swap please contact me-also we went to Cafe Juanita in the Fort Yesterday with some friends and it is the best restaurant we have yet been to in the GMA

As always I give my sincerest thanks to those who read my posts.   

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Three Great Reading Challenges

This week I am joining three new reading challenges that offer the potential for edification as well as a chance to learn about some great books through my fellow challenge participants.

POC Reading Challenge

Last year I read and posted on 51 books by People of Color (POC).   I am understanding this to mean people of non-European ancestory.   I plan to continue with this in 2010 with a focus on Japanese, Filipino and Indian authors.   Last year I discovered several new to me authors who are POC that I have added them  to my "read everything they have written list".   I am joining this challenge in support of the project of diversified reading and in order to learn about some more great new to me authors.

The Rules for the POC Reading Challenge are on the challenge blog-There are reading lists and links for books reviewed.    There are various levels of commitment.   I will commit to level 5-16 to 25 books.  

Scottish Reading Challenge

Wuthering Expectations is hosting another challenge I found irresitable, The Scottish Literature Challenge.   The rules are simple-read one book by a Scottish author (written before 1914 or so) in 2010.  A unique feature for this challenge is the host, Amateur Reader, has promised to read any book that participants read (if he has not read it before).    He has done a lot of work providing reading suggestions.   I have in fact already read and posted on Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the HebridesI hope later in the year to read a work by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott and if I can work it in Tobias Smollett but I have completed the terms of this challenge.  I hope to read a lot of good reviews of Scottish books.

Jewish Literature Challenge 2010

The rules of the Jewish Challenge 2010 (runs from February 27 to Sept 10, 2010) are simple and explained on the link to the challenge.   The challenge post also gives us lots of reading ideas.  

(To challenge hosts, I cannot post all the badges for every challenge I am reading for in 2010 on my blog as it will slow down my load time.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" by James Boswell

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell (1785, 260 pages, reprinted by Penguin Classics, 1984-Included in the same book is Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands)

I have been following Wuthering Expectations by Amateur Reader for some time now.   When he announced he would be hosting a Scottish reading challenge I knew at once that this was my spark to revisit an old friend, James Boswell, and a master of The Reading Life, Samuel Johnson.      I have read a lot of Boswell and some, though not nearly enough, Johnson.   I know everyone in the challenge will know who James Boswell and Samuel Johnson are but I want to explain who they are in my mind.

James Boswell (1709-84) was the son of a judge on the Scottish supreme court.   He grew up in Edinburgh Scotland and studied law, at the insistence of his father, at the university of Edinburgh.    Boswell was not a great attorney.   His first client was hung for stealing sheep.

Boswell loved the fast life, talking to the famous, the high and the low life of the big cities, and spent his life either trying to please his very harsh father or rebelling against him.  He also wrote the best biography ever written in any language, The Life of Samuel Johnson.
He  published a travel book about Corsica that was a best seller.   He met the greats and not so greats of Europe.   David Hume who scared him to death with his steadfast rationality and Voltaire  who tolerated the visit.   When Johnson passed away Boswell rushed his account of their joint trip to the Hebrides Islands into print so he could stake a claim to be the biographer of Samuel Johnson.  

Samuel Johnson is more read about than read.   He has a very good claim to be the greatest literary critic of all times.     He produced, with the help of some Scots, a massive dictionary of the English Language that the English liked to boast was superior to the one created for French by an army of scholars working several times as long.   He wrote speeches for famous politicians.   He wrote two wonderful poems, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" and "London".    He wrote a series of periodical essays that are unsurpassed anywhere.    His personality could be harsh but he was an extremally generous person.   In conversation he "spoke for victory" and did like to dominate with the force of his intellect.   To me, he is the sort of man who could have written the great wisdom texts of the world.

Boswell and Johnson had often talked of making a joint tour of the Hebrides Islands of northern Scotland.    (The Wikipedia article linked above gives a lot of interesting historical  data on the Hebrides).    Travel in those days was an adventure and the Hebrides Islands were at the time a very poor area ruled by near feudal lairds.   Most of the residents spoke only Scottish Gaelic and according to Boswell went barefoot most of the time.   

A lot of the  fun of reading Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is in the conversations between Johnson and others, including Boswell.   Boswell was a very keen observer (with some big blind spots) of social situations and we learn a lot about life in Scotland from his observations.   To me most of all it is a tale of a friendship between two very (Very) different sorts of men and a wonderful account of the pleasure of traveling.   Boswell said in his advertisement for the third edition of the Journal that the works of Johnson will be read as long as the English Language is spoken.   So far he has been right (lots of his works can be read for free on line).

I am a bit of a loggerheads how to post on the body of the journal.     After some reflection I decided I would try to illustrate the flavor of the book by looking at some passages.

Most biographies of  the times were hymns to great men.    Boswell was one of the first to give small details that let us know a person.

"I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures in Glasgow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes instead of buckles.   When I mention the oak stick, it is but letting Hercules have his club"
Johnson is notorious for his joking comments about the Scots who were considered somewhat backwoods by Londoners.   

"To Scotland however he ventured: and he returned in great good humor with his prejudices much lessened."
Johnson never failed to learn from his experiences and he saw the world with open eyes.  He did not  see the world through his prejudgments.   (The same cannot be said of Boswell.)

In one very touching scene (Sunday, 15th August 1773-the journey took place from mid-August to mid-November 1773) Boswell and Johnson stop in at Boswell house.   Boswell's wife is a bit intimidated by Samuel Johnson (pretty much anybody would be).   Johnson got along very well with the Boswell children and left making a good impression on Boswell's wife (who had good reason to dislike many of Boswell's other friends).   Boswell's youngest daughter loved Johnson and saw through the gruff exterior.    One of the frequent topics of conversation of Boswell and Johnson was the emigration of Scots to America.   Johnson felt the emmigration had the potential to weaken the nation.  (Johnson  was basically in favor of independence for America based on the ground that England could not hold a colony so far away that did not want to be held and secondly a free America would evolve into a strong trading partner and potential ally.   He opposed slavery on moral grounds-Boswell's views on this are not so sanguine.   He supported the monarchy because he felt huge problems occur if there is no clear way of changing leaderships when a ruler passes out of power.)

Here is a passage that shows the clearness of Johnson's thinking.   Johnson thought through things for himself whereas Boswell liked to have "proper" views on things and worked backwards from his theories to the facts. 

"I said, I believed mankind were happier in the ancient feudal state of subordination, than they are in the modern state of independency.  Johnson:  to be sure the chief was:  but we must think of the number of individuals.   That they were less happy, seems plain: for that state from which all escape as soon as they can, and to which none return after they have left it, must be less happy:  and this is the case with the dependence on a great chief or great man".
Here we learn a lot about how Johnson got to be a man of great wisdom:

"Dr Johnson has the happy art of instructing himself by making every man he meets tell him something of what he knows best."

Johnson loved learning things almost as he loved reading, eating and talking!    Johnson also walked the streets of London (often for miles on end) in the company of men like Richard Savage in the early days when he could barely afford lodging.  He was very far from an ivory tower intellectual.  

On 30 August 1773 Boswell and Johnson encounter a very elderly lady living in a  primitive  peat hut along with fifty sheep.   Thier descriptions of the encounter are utterly hilarious.     Dr Johnson wanted to go into her hut (Johnson was 62 or so, huge for the time and Boswell was in his early 30s and looked a bit of a dandy).

"Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept..She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (in Erse through a translator) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed with her.   This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being was truly ludicrous.   Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it.   I said it was he who alarmed the poor woman's virtue.  'No Sir,' said he "She say "There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believed would have ravished me had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him.  "No Sir (Boswell replies) There was a terrible Ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man, who I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me"."

There is another wonderful scene where somehow the pretty young wife of a minor Hebrides laird ends up sitting on Johnson's knee and kissing and hugging him.  

One of the best set piece in the journal involves the visit of Boswell and Johnson to see Boswell's father.   Boswell's father (a widower) was about the same age as Johnson and also very much, he was the equivalent of a supreme court judge,  a stern authority figure.  (Literary biographers of Boswell have pointed out at length Boswell's need for a substitute father figure that would be more accepting than his real father).   Boswell warned and begged Johnson not talk about either the Church of England or Cromwell as Johnson and Boswell's father had totally opposing views and both were used to having what they said accepted just because they said it.    Johnson resists the urge at first but he soon cannot help but ask Laird Boswell "what do you think of Cromwell and do you not agree the church of England is way superior to the church of Scotland?"    Boswell does not give us any details but he says he prayed they would not fall on each other!    From that day forth the father  would refer to Johnson as "Ursa Major".

Almost anywhere in this work you can find wonderful passages.   The book is the very model of a travel narrative.   We learn lots of interesting facts about the Islands and we greatly enjoy the company on the journey.   The prose is not hard to read and does not feel arcane.   You can feel the real friendship between Boswell and Johnson.   We also encounter some other names students of the 18th century will spark too.  We get a good look at country inns, sea voyages, and life in the Hebrides in the 1770s.   This book is also kind of a snack, the full meal is the massive Life of Samuel Johnson.   As Amateur Reader very rightly said it is amazing that a man with all the weakness of Boswell could produce this work.

Here is a statement from Boswell that we all can agree with

"everyman should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what time; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of his mind".

In closing I want to repeat that this is a fun book to read, not a chore to be completed for a class in the 18th century travel book.    In a month or so I will read Johnson's quite different account of the tour, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.  (I do not want to read them back to back, just my quirk here.)

In addition to the Scottish Challenge I am reading this book for

Typically British Challenge
Flashback   Challenge
Memorable Memoir Challenge.

I want to thank Suko of Suko's Note Book for directing me to Cooltext.com, from which I made my banner for the challenge.    Amateur Reader has put a lot of thought into his reading suggestions for which I thank him.   I think later on I will read my first Robert Lewis Stevenson book and my first Sir Walter Scott since high school!.   I am also going to try to read the collected periodical essays of James Boswell.  (Published in two volumes under  the title The Hypochondriack in 1925)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Naomi" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki (1924, 237 pages, translated from the Japanese by Anthony Chambers, Tuttle Publishing) is not a great Japanese novel, it is not a great 20th century novel, it simply is a great novel.  

Naomi was first published as a serial in a Japanese newspaper starting in 1924.  (I do not think there is any newspaper editor in The USA or Europe that could have published this work at that time without risking arrest.)    It is set in Japan in the early 1920s in Tokyo.   It is narrated by a male engineer named Joji.   At the start of the work he is 27.   It details his obsession with Naomi, who is 15 when he first meets her.   (It appears the age difference and the age of Naomi was not contrary to statute and custom in Japan at the time.)   Joji meets her where she works as a waitress in a coffee house.   He is mesmerized by her beauty.    Her family is quite poor and has a less than stellar reputation.   Joji offers to take her off her parents hands and raise her and they readily agree to relieve themselves of a burden.     Joji is very devoid of experience of romantic encounters of any kind but deeply desires Naomi.   He is a very decent man and he knows it is best that they live together as friends only, sort off, to start.   He sends her to school, buys her nice clothes and hires an English tutor for her.    He also loves giving Naomi her bath.   Naomi begins to realize the power she can obtain over Joji.   The bathing ritual goes on for a long time.   There is no sex at this point between Naomi and Joji but the bathing ritual is clearly very erotic for both of them.  We can feel the power of Naomi growing.   Joji begins to develop a fetish like obsession with Naomi's skin.   He begins to keep a log of the development of her body as she matures into a woman.    Naomi who was once an undemanding young woman begins to demand more material goods from Joji.   Joji begins their relationship worshiping her for her purity, as he perceives it.   As the narrative proceeds it is clear he is an unreliable narrator.   (I like to think that maybe Ford Madox Ford might have published Naomi in The English Review).    Naomi decides she wants to have  lessons in Western  style dancing.   Now  the real trouble begins.   The lessons are given by a White Russian woman who may have been a countess in  the old days.  (I notice in novels of the 1920s former Russian noblewomen often play the parts of the bringers of trouble.)    Naomi is about 19 now and she and Joji are married.    Naomi begins to occasionally mock Joji as an old man out touch with the then westernizing Japan.    He begins to compare her to Mary Pickford, something she finds very flattering.   There are young men her age in the dance class and to Joji's great surprise somehow Naomi seems to already know them.   When he asks her how she knows them, she tells him oh I just met them around.  There is also a Western man in the class.   Joji sees him as sinister figure of some sort in Japan as part of criminal enterprise.  Soon some really bad things happen.   I do not want to tell anymore of the plot action as the plot is so much fun and suspenseful as well.   We were really made to care about Joji even if our 21th century sensibilities are offended by his joy in bathing the 15 year old Naomi  which becomes full scale erotic enslavement.   (I admit as his enslavement to Naomi progresses I wanted to tell him go down to the pleasure quarters and get her out of your system before it is too late.).   The work is acutely perceptive in his portrayal of the characters.   We see slowly the dynamics of power change.   Joji thinks he loves Naomi but he actually has altered her into a fetish object.   Naomi is drawn to western culture and completely repelled by her own cultural roots.   In one purely masterful scene Naomi comes to visit Joji dressed in purely western clothes with matching make up and hair.    The revulsion felt by Joji nearly made my skin crawl.

Naomi has numerous thematic mines one could work.    It is a tale of the corruption of a culture by an outside force.   It is a story of the balance of power between a man and a woman.   It is a classic tale of misperception.   In Naomi we have a woman degraded by what she and others think exalts her.  It is also a story of what may be described without being judgmental as  a sexual perversion by which I mean turning in this case a woman, Naomi, from a person to a fetish object.   There are also lots of acute observations along the way.   It is a good look at Japan in the 1920s and the influence of western culture, mainly movies.  (For a time Tanizaki was a screen writer.)   I cannot judge if the translation is good or not but the prose is very well done and there are none of the "howlers" there are in some translated work.    It is a tragedy and a comedy of manners.    Most of all it is a lot of fun to read.   

This is the sixth work of Junichiro Tanizaki that I have reviewed for the Japanese Literaure 3 Challenge.    I have him on my "Read all they have written list-or in this case all that has been translated list."   I think he has four other novels translated into English that I have not yet read along with a collection of short stories and a work of artistic theory.

This will be my last review for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge.   I give my sincerest gratitude to Dolce Bellezza for hosting it.   As The Japanese Challenge 4  begins I plan to do a post called "The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in the Japanese Novel" where I will give my ideas on the best 3, 6, 9 or 12 Japanese novels to start with and why one should read Japanese novels.   There are still, of course, huge holes in my reading.   One obvious one is that I have read none of the major works of Murakami.   I hope to read his major works in the next few months.    I also have two novels by Kenzaburo Oe waiting to be read soon and he has a brand new one coming out in March!-

Mel u

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"My Son's Story" by Nadine Gordimer

Johannesburg in the Times of Apartheid

If you are visiting from the class project on Nadine Gordimer, you are very welcome here-feel free to leave any comments or questions you may have-Jan 13, 2011

My  Son's Story (1990, 277 pages) is my first venture into the very large corpus of Nadine Gordimer.   Gordimer (1923-) was born in Johannesburg South Africa in a time of institutionalized legally mandated white supremacy.    Citizens were legally classified as either pure white, black or colored by the government. (Indians were also treated as a separate class of citizen.)   Where one could live was determined by your race.   Where you could go to school was determined by this.  In most areas, only whites were allowed to use the libraries, for example.   The wealth of the country was concentrated in the hands of whites.    Here is a good summery of the history of racial relations in South Africa (from Wikipedia.com):

"Racial segregation in South Africa began in colonial times, but apartheid as an official policy was introduced following the general election of 1948. New legislation classified inhabitants into racial groups ("black", "white", "coloured", and "Indian"), and residential areas were segregated by means of forced removals. From 1958, Blacks were deprived of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands called bantustans, four of which became nominally independent states. The government segregated education, medical care, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of whites.

Apartheid sparked significant internal resistance and violence as well as a long trade embargo against South Africa.[1] A series of popular uprisings and protests were met with the banning of opposition and imprisoning of anti-apartheid leaders. As unrest spread and became more violent, state organizations responded with increasing repression and state-sponsored violence."

My Son's Story is set in the decade prior to the beginning of the end of apartheid (1990) as a state policy.   It details in a masterful way the effects of growing up mixed in this enviornment.    A very big part of the evil of the policy is the harm it does to the souls of those raised under it as Gordimer shows us brilliantly in My Son's Story.

There are five characters that matter in this novel.   Sonny, a mixed race political activist and the father of late teen age Will and his slightly older daughter Baby.   He is married to Aila who is a beautiful, very mature almost gently regal woman.   One day Will sees his father at the movies with a white woman, a blond named Hannah who his father met through his political contacts.   (Hannah is mentioned as blond over and over - maybe this is a bit heavy handed on the part of Gordimer).    The son is shocked.   He begins to feel hatred as well as jealousy toward his father as he too wishes to be with a blond woman rather than the sort of woman society feels he should have.   The first woman for whom he has a sexual desire is a woman his father is committing adultery with.   Hannah is not at all a bad person.   She is very involved in the struggle for human rights in South Africa and is solicitous about Sonny's family.   Sonny (Gordimer does point out for us the irony of calling a mature man in a position of leadership  "Sonny" and sees the proliferation of such names as one of the insidious effects of state policies) feels deep guilt over his unfaithfulness to his wife.    He wants a white woman so badly he will risk everything to be with Hannah.

My Son's Story does a wonderful job detailing the small intimacies that make up a good marriage.   Sonny has a very good wife and a very good marriage.   Sonny is also a deep reader of Shakespeare and Kafka.   Sonny's daughter Baby is a bit rebellious but nothing real bad.   I noticed as the action of the novel changed the prose style changed.   In a great set piece in which Gordimer describes a riot the tone and the syntax of the prose comes to unite with the plot action to make us feel we are in the middle of the riot.    Sonny does come across as a man who totally on his own has internalized much of Shakespeare.   As we read his thoughts we think what he might have been.    We see the many ways in which apartheid effects the characters.   Baby begins to act out in a way calculated to offend those in the community who admire her mother as a beautiful and dignified person of mixed blood.   Will and others in the work continually speak of tribal blacks as dangerous and undisciplined.   Much of  the self esteem of the son comes from looking down on blacks.    Some will question the exact motives of Hannah as we are not taken very deeply into her psyche.  

There is a lot in My Son's Story.    There is a very knowing portrait of the growth of intimacy in a marriage.   We see how the father's adultery affects his children and his wife as well as his commitment to the movement.   We see the inside of courts and prisons.    To me My Son's Story is a work of small gem-like   observations and fine subtle nuances.   I felt a powerful intelligence behind this work.    I learned, among other things, how labor policy under apartheid was behind to a large extent the spread of aids in South Africa.    In the three figures of Alia, Hannah and Baby we have a commentary on women in this society.    At some point one must wonder if the gentle refinement of Alia is really the result of her parents raising her to be a person very unlike the stereotypical notion of a nonwhite woman.   Maybe she is bound by this.    There is a very subtle suggestion that Alia may have her own affair also but we are left to decide if she did or not on our own.    Baby is acting out.   In her late teenage years she is dancing in the streets in skin tight clothes and shorts to music very unacceptable to her parents.   

There are interesting and exciting things that happen in the plot line.   At times Gordimer does seem a bit heavy handed in being sure we do not miss things.    She received the Nobel Prize in 1991.   She is very active in human rights organizations.    It should be noted that some in South Africa  see her as paternalistic and condescending in her treatment of blacks both in her work and in her social activities.

I am glad I read My Son's Story.   Maybe it is a bit heavy handed once or twice but it is beautifully written and a very high intellect shines through the book.  

I see this as a suitable read for the Women Unbound Challenge given its treatment of the three women.    We see how a marriage is ruined by the binds of race.   Sonny would never have cheated on his wife with Hannah if she were not white.    Baby breaks away from her father and partially asserts herself also but to explain that would be a spoiler.    

Mel u

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Themed Reading Challenge 2010

Flaubert and Friends

Caribousmom is hosting for the second year the Themed Reading Challenge.   This is a very interesting challenge as it gives us a lot of freedom to create a reading project.   Basically you are asked to read five books with a central theme.   The challenge runs from February 14, 2010 to August 14, 2010.   (The full particulars are on the challenge blog linked above along with some ideas from 2009 if you need them.)  It is ok for books for this challenge to overlap with others.  

As soon as I saw this I began to ponder different themes for the challenge.   I just finished reading my first Salman Rushdie novel, The Enchantress of Florence.   I really liked the lush prose of the work so I thought I could read five more of his novels.   Then I thought, this might be like a literary sugar rush.    Then I thought maybe I could read western writers that Kenzaburo Oe admires like Stendhal, Twain, and Yeats.    Next I thought I might read some Japanese crime novels as I have a few already lined up to be read in 2010.

I have decided that my theme will be works by Gustave Flaubert and his Friends.   (I am taking as my authoritative source for inclusion among the friends, A Biography: Flaubert by Frederick Brown.    I urge anyone interested in Flaubert to read this very wonderful  book.)   

Here are some of what I hope to read and why:

A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert-this will be my second reading-12 to go!

Indiana by George Sand -very close friend of Flaubert-set on the Island of Reunion
(Ok here is a good challenge idea-books set on Reunion Island!)

Anything by Ivan Turgenev-Turgenev was for sure his closest friend among writers-the information given on Turgenev in Brown's book makes me wish someone would write a similar biography of him.  

Emile Zola-(Brown has also written a biography of Zola.   I have it but have not yet read it.)-Zola passes into the class of friend as admirer but not a full intimate.

Guy de Maupassant-also in the category of disciple

Henry James-not actually a friend but he was part of Flaubert's circle for a while and attended dinners at which Flaubert's intimates were present.   I imagined Flaubert and Turgenev taking Henry James out for a night on the town while he was in Paris but the picture does not quite work!   

This will be my 35th reading challenge for 2010.   I have already completed seven challenges.   I anticipate I will be signing up for more challenges as they are announced, as not all challenges run from Jan 1 to December 31.   

I look forward to seeing what themes others will come up with for The Themed Reading Challenge 2010.

Mel u

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of  Florence by Salman Rushdie (2008, 381 pages)

A Lush Account of Court Life in Mughal India  

I have been wanting to read a novel by Salman Rushdie for a long time.    He achieved fame in the non-literary world when he received death threats based on political reactions to his novel The Satanic Verses.    He is the most internationally known author from India, it seems to me.    (I still recall when Kramer mentioned him in a "Seinfeld" episode.   Nobody on the show had actually read his book but they had heard of him.)    Rushdie has received nearly every well known literary award short of the Nobel Prize.

The Enchantress of Florence is set in the late 16th century.   It takes place in part in the Florence of the Medici and in part in northern India in the court of Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor.   Both of these cultures are nearing their zenith.    The tie to the two areas is a mysterious blond male visitor from Florence who claims to be related to Akbar the Great.     The language of this work is very lush.    The focus is on court life in both of the capitals.    We get a feeling of what it was like to be the emperor (it had a lot of perks such as a huge harem).    His oldest sons are already very corrupted by their power and Akbar feels they may well kill him one day and turn on each other.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

A Neo-Victorian Tale of India
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008, 469 pages) is part one of a trilogy.   Part two is scheduled to be published in 2010.   Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008.

The novel is set in the late 1830s, starting out in Calcutta and on the banks of the Ganges River.   This work has a kind of old fashioned feel to it.   The completed trilogy will run to over 1500 pages.    There are a large number of characters, there is a lot of historical detail, there are a lot of unfamiliar terms used from slang of the period relating to the opium trade, seafaring and caste issues, and there are multiple plot threads open.    Most of the characters have hidden aspects in their past.   We see the near highest levels of wealth and the depth of poverty.    Most of Sea of Poppies is devoted to introducing the people who will be on the ship the Isib (the trilogy is called The Ibis Trilogy) when  it sails to Mauritius, a very remote isolated island in the Indian Ocean.   (This is  journey of near 3000 kilometers.)

Sea of Poppies has a lot of characters, enough to fill a Dickens novel.   We learn the stories of each of the main characters and what lead up to them boarding the Ibis.   A trip of this length was very hard and dangerous in this period as the book well shows us.  Here are some of the main characters.

Deeti-a young widow who was rescued from Suttee when her husband dies by Kalua, the local village Ox man.    In order to escape from her in laws (who wanted her burned as tradition required) she and Kalua commit themselves to become indentured servants to the owners of the Ibis.  

Zachary Reed is an American, his mother was a slave and his father was the owner of his mother.    The Ibis was at one time a slave carrying ship and Zachary has been on the ship since it was commissoned.    The ship is really the only home he has ever known.   Like all the characters, there are secrets about his past yet to be revealed.   (I think this is part of the old fashioned feel of the novel.   At anytime someone who seems to be a convict might be revealed to be a prince placed in chains by his enemies.)

Neel Halder-a wealthy Rajah falsely tried and convicted of forgery.   Neel was sentenced to be transported to Mauritius as a convict and stripped of all his property.    His family has to go live with one of his chief servants.   In a telling moment in the narrative, Neel realizes that before then he did not even know his servant had his own house.  

Ah Fatt-another convict being transported.    He is an opium addict.    When Neel is in prison waiting to be transported he learns that a transported convict has the lowest caste in the prison system.   We see Neel coping with the incredible transformations in his life, from wealthy Rajah to convict.    My guess is Ah Fatt for sure has a mysterious past and is not what he seems to be but we will have to wait to find out.

Paulette is French born teenager who is now an orphan.   She is on the run from her guardians as they want to marry her off to a very old man.

There is a lot in this book.    We get a good look at the pernicious influence of  opium in India.   We see how it is traded, how the poppies are turned into opium and how it destroys traditional culture.    We learn a lot of nautical slang.   We learn many expressions for occupations in the period.   We learn a lot about the caste system.   We learn a lot about life inside an Indian prison.  (His prison scenes are really well done and can compare with classic Victorian depictions of prison life.)     We get a good idea of how it might have felt to live in the period.    We see the food, family relations, brothels, and clothing.   We get a strong feel for the extreme diversity and richness of Indian Culture.    We see the effects of colonialism.   ( As I  read this work I was reminded  of Edmund Burke who argued that Indian should be set free as it was in fact a much older and in many ways richer culture than England)

I like Sea of Poppies a lot.   It made be realize how little I know of Indian history.   There are wonderful set pieces in the book, miniature narratives brilliantly done.   The book does have an old fashioned feel.   By this I mean it seems like it was written for a time when readers were happy to read what will eventually be a 1500 page character rich trilogy.    It makes use of many words which will be unfamiliar to the reader who is not a scholar of the period.   (In an appendix to the book, Ghosh indicates the authoritative sources for his use of expressions.   My guess he has got his history and terms correct.)    Ghosh takes his time building up to the start of the voyage.   He is in no hurry.    We know, shades of  The Count of Monte Christo, that vengeance will be dealt out eventually.    Sea of Poppies  ends on a cliff  hanger

Amitav Ghosh was born January 1, 1956 in Kolkata, India.  He has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford.    He has written six novels as well as four collections of essays on a diverse range of topics.  

I enjoyed this book a lot and I learned some interesting things from it.   Some might want a bit faster paced book, I think.   I will for sure read the next book in the Ibis Trilogy.   (The Sea of Poppies does leave us hanging.)   If I come upon other historical novel by Ghosh there is a good chance  I will buy them.   I looked at Ghosh's other works on Goodreads.com and, of course, I want to read them all but I was wondering if anyone has any suggestions as to my next Ghosh or South Asian Novel-thanks

I am reading this work for the following challenges

South Asia Challenge
Global Challenge
Read Before I Die Challenge
Historical Fiction Challenge
New Authors Challenge (new to you)

Mel u

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My First Six Months as a Book Blogger

I will always recall the question my wife asked me when I did my first blog post six months ago.  It was "who will read these posts you are writing?"     The only answer I had was "I do not know".    I wanted to have a record of the books I read so I could look back on it in the years to come and writing  on a book helps to clarify my thoughts on it so I started my blog anyway and now it is of great importance to me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea  by Jean Rhys (1966, 150 pages-Penguin books-with an introduction and notes by Angela Smith.)

Before I begin my post on Wide Sargasso Sea I must make a preliminary statement.


One book often leads us to another.   When I finished reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier  I read the Wikipedia.com article on him.   Jean Rhys is mentioned as one of the many women  he had affairs with, mostly women in the arts and writers.      Ford Madox Ford was her patron and her first stories were published in a literary magazine which Ford edited.   After the six month relationship ended, Rhys wrote a novel, Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, in which a thinly disguised Ford is portrayed in a very negative way.   (Basically it appears Ford used his  high standing in the English Literary world in the 1920s in order to entice Rhys into a sexual relationship with him and perhaps also with his wife.)

Normally I see the life of an author as sort of an interesting side note, not as a central part of our understanding of a book.   I still firmly believe this but I will talk a bit more on Jean Rhys as a person because I think there are important things to be learned from the fusing of her life and work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea  is set in the late 1830s to early 1840s.    The work is a kind of prequel  to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847).    The book is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the one who winds up as a mad woman.   More than this it is a story of colonialism, relationships between blacks and whites on the island, of men to women, of Europe to its cast off children, of order to chaos.    It is a story of how growing up in a place of wild beauty shapes people.   It is about life on a small island and the sense of place that can produce.   It is about patterns of speech.   Never have I see the spoken words of slavery era people of African descent conveyed in a more beautiful fashion.  (I do not know if the speech patterns and dialect in  the book are accurate.)     It is about love, passion and beauty.

The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, "Because she pretty like pretty self".

Slaves have just been emancipated.   The creoles (as the white residents of the island were called at the time) were to be paid a fee by the British government for their slaves, about half the then market value.  

She was my father's second wife, far too young for him they thought...When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told us that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was bad and road repairing was now a thing of the past.

The economy  was based on sugar plantations which were not at the time an economically viable enterprise without slave labor.    The former slaves had no way off the island and no where to go.   Many never in fact left the service of their former owners but we do see the changing dynamics  of power.    In the 1830s there were five classes of people.   The largest class were freed slaves.   The second class were people of mixed heritage.   The narrator Antoinette (of two of the three sections of the book) tells us of the many different terms by which people could be designated by the balance of their racial heritage.   The third group were people of English background whose ancestors arrived after the advent of slavery on the island.   Before there were slaves on the island  it was largely populated by transported convicts and indentured servants.   With the introduction of the sugar plantations, it was became viable as an economic enterprise to import slaves.   The descendants of the first white occupants of the island were commonly called "white cockroaches".   There were also still carib people on the island, though their cultural identity was lost.   Antoinette was a  descendant of pre-slavery days whites.

Above all else Wide Sargasso Sea is about beauty and our ability experience it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible--the tree of life grew there.   But it had gone wild.   The paths were over grown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell...Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.   One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus flower--then not an inch of tentacle showed.   It was a bell shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see.   The scent was very sweet and strong.   I never went  near it.

Let us take a second and ponder over this incredible prose.   The island smells of new life and death in the same breath.   There is great beauty there but we cannot really touch it.    There is a pervasive evil in this garden. Is  the snake colonialism and slavery?    Maybe the snake has a name, Mr Rochester.   But this would be too easy.    Rhys is going very deep with this.   The snake is old and slavery is as old as man but the snake is also wise and slavery is not.   Imagine the heroine of an English novel of the 1840 comparing an orchid to an octopus.   When the flower blooms its tentacles do not show.   The tentacles are still there.   There is deep passion in Antoinette to be able to respond to a flower so deeply.   Imagine her misery in the moors.    Why does she never go near the flower when it blooms?    This book has more questions than answers (we can learn more from a good question than a good answer).    The prose in the book is as beautiful as the octopus orchid.    It has tentacles to take us in.    The book smells of beauty but it knows the price this island paid for its beauty.   Like the garden, you sense beauty and death as a pair.

The novel is divided into three sections.   Part one is narrated by Antoinette, know as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.   The reason for the name change is explained  as the narration proceeds.   My reaction to the names is to see Antoinette as a free spirit, perhaps not quite in tune with reality.   Bertha is a grinder of hoe cakes.   (This me only maybe).   Part two is told from the point of view of her husband,  Mr Rochester while they live together as man and wife on the island.

We hear her husband speak of her after a month of marriage.

She held up the skirt of her riding habit and ran across the street.   I watched her critically.   She wore a tricorne hat which became her.   At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting.   She never blinks at all it seems to me.   Long, sad, dark, alien eyes.  Creole of pure English descent she may be,  but they are not English or European either.   And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette?   After we left Spanish Town I supposed.

Compare this for a second to the passage from the thoughts of the wife I quoted earlier.   Her description of the flowers is overwhelmingly sensual while recasting the experience in a way that sees quickly into the depths of her mythic consciousness.   In the prose of Rochester we see the Imperial style of the colonialist, school master approved prose.   There is talk of Zombies and Obeah all of which very much confuses Mr Rochester.    Here is a conversation he has with an elderly black man, and ex-slave now a servant:

"Is there a ghost, a zombi there, I persisted."
"Dont know nothing about such foolishness"
It was nearly dark when we were on back on the red clay path.   He walked more slowly, turned and smiled to me.   It was as if he's put his service mask on the savage reproachful face I had seen.
This is a very rich book.   The patterns of speech are so exquisite. Here is a passage in which Antoinette is seeking advice from  a former slave woman about her marriage.

All women, all colours, nothing but fools.   Three children I have.   One living in this world, each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God.  I keep my money.  I don't give it to no worthless man...But look me trouble, a rich white girl like you and you more foolish than the rest.  A man don't treat you good, pick up  your skirt and walk out.   Do it and he come after you.

Stop for a second here.   "Three children I have" is real, speech from the depths.  "I have three children", the speech of the colonial master.    "But look me trouble" compacts several paragraphs worth of Victorian era prose into four words.   Mr Rochester and the other English born whites are annoyed by what they call the ignorant speech patterns of the former slaves and the deeply rooted creoles.   They lack the ability to see the speech patterns of the islanders have roots as least deep as theirs. 

Part three of the novel is narrated by Bertha while she is living in England in the mansion of Mr Rochester.   She has chosen to take the use the name "Bertha" and the narration is through her stream of consciousness.   As the novel proceeds we see her descent into madness.

I must say again the prose is incredibly beautiful.   Wide Sargasso Sea seems like a wild garden gone back to riot but   it is as carefully wrought as The Good Soldier or A Sentimental Education.   There is a tie, in my mind, to the earliest works of Kenzaburo Oe to Wide Sargasso Sea.   Here is what I said in writing on Oe's The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears:

There is a long established literary tradition of using the insane to say what cannot be accepted by those in fully sunlit worlds.    The narrator of  The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears has very deep roots in western culture.    His ancestors were in the plays of Euripides, his great grandfather was Dostoevsky's  underground man,   he speaks through Crazy Jane.   Oe has stated that he has come to understand the meaning of his own works through reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats. 

Now I will add Antoinette of Wide Sargasso Sea to this ancestry.   

In her quite brilliant introduction Angela Smith  by a marvelous coincidence (proverbs for paranoids-there are no coincidences) cites Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism as stating that classic realist fiction develops in Europe in the 19th century because the power to narrate or block other narratives from forming and emerging is a way of asserting cultural superiority.   Culture and Imperialism is often referenced by Oe as profound analysis of colonialism and the western world's creation of the other in Asian countries.    It is interesting to me to note that Oe's very first works are written in a style unlike Victorian narratives.   As he got older and more educated in a western fashion (he studied French Literature and wrote his dissertation on Sarte) his form became more like the Victorian novel.    We can see in the very different narrative presentation in the parts of the book told by Antoinette, Mr Rochester and lastly Bertha exactly how the notion of acceptable narrative style and speech controls.   Parts of the work do mirror the forms and diction of a Victorian novel, other parts are quite other from this.     

The relevancy of this work to the Woman Unbound Challenge really does not require a supplementary explanation.     Rhys'  life itself is a perfect story for the challenge.  She was born in Dominica in 1890-she moved to England at 16-she published four novels in her 30s.   Then she more or less disappeared for twenty years.    In her introduction Anne Smith says Rhys worked in a series of  "Demi-monde" jobs.  This means she was a nude chorus girl in Paris, an artist model, the companion of rich men (when she was lucky) and in sadness a prostitute.     She disappeared from the public eye around 1940 and her books (four of them) all went  out of print.   (She died in 1979)

Here is a description of the later years of Rhys from a good short biography of her I found on line

From 1939 to 1957 Rhys dropped from public attention. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, she married in 1934 Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor; he died in 1945. Two years later she married his cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who had served a prison term and spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966. With her second husband Rhys retired to Devonshire in 1939. She lived for many years in the West Country, often in great poverty, avoiding literary circles. In 1949 Rhys was arrested for assaulting her neighbors and the police.
Rhys herself was thought to be dead, but after a radio company became interested in her work, she returned to publicity. Her novel Good Morning, Midnight was adapted by the actress Selma Vaz Dias for the BBC. Encouraged by Francis Wyndham, Rhys started to write again, and her short stories were published in the London Magazine and Art and Letters. Rhys continued to live alone in her primitive Devon cottage at Cheriton FitzPaine, drinking heavily but still writing.

There is a recent biography of Ms Rhys, The Blue Hour:A Life of Jean Rhys by Lillian Pizzichini that has gotten good reviews on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com.   I hope to read it once it is out in paperback.

I somehow imagined Ms Rhys making her way to a seat in the literary Pantheon.   I imagine the Brontes inviting her for tea but wondering if Father would approve of  her.    I can see Junichiro Tanizaki knocking Ford Madox Ford over as he rushes over to greet her.    Henry James looks very puzzled.     Flaubert knows of the places  she worked at in  Paris (in her demi-monde period) and suggests she have dinner with Turgenev, who will, of course, pick up the costs.     Walt Whitman keeps wanting to call it "The Wild Sargosso Sea."     Tolstoy asks if it is near the Caspian Sea.     Hemingway asks her if she prefers Scotch or Gin?    Of course she wants a Rum and coke.    Proust offers her his chair and makes a mental note to ask Flaubert what a demi-monde does?    Chekhov says "you know I am a doctor so should you need a physical please call me".

I endorse this book as much as I can-teachers should note that it does use language that is no longer acceptable-

Mel u


Japan's Only Known Survivor Of Both Atomic Blasts Has Died

Japan's Only Known Survivor Of Both Atomic Blasts Has Died - The Two-Way - Breaking News, Analysis Blog : NPR

I received this notice today via NPR (public radio in the United States)-it made me think again of Kenzaburo Oe's non-fiction work Hiroshima Notes in which he spoke of the  of people who survived both atomic bomb blasts and their fates. One of the people mentioned by Oe was Tsutomo Yamaguchi.   He passed away yesterday at the age of 93 after a long fight with stomach cancer.     The people of Hiroshima were among the very first Japanese to speak out against the role of the Japanese military in WWII.    Oe said in Hiroshima Notes that the most important thing to come out of the bomb blasts was the wisdom the suffering did bring to many of the survivors.     Oe's collection of short stories by and about survivors of the atomic bomb blasts, Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath is a world class treasure.   I devoted five reviews to the stories in this book.  When I did Google searches on the authors of the stories, some of them went on to become famous and respected authors.   However, three of the authors had no Google records (other than mentioning their story was reprinted in Oe's collection).   At first I thought this means I am writing these relatively long blog posts on something no one cares about and I admit I was concerned the posts might turn new readers (my blog had just started when I wrote the six posts devoted to this collection and Hiroshima Notes) away from my blog.    I had by then begun to follow my blog with Google Web Master tools (as most all blogspot bloggers do).    I noticed people from all over the world were doing Google searches on the very obscure to most writers to whom I had dedicated posts and coming to my blog to read the articles on them.    A number of them read the articles in Japanese.   Somehow I have now come to see my posts on the writers from the collection as a small memorial to them.    Before I wrote my posts you could find information on five of the eight writers in the collection via a Google search. Now you can find information on all of them.

Mel u


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Books Reviewed in 2009

Books Reviewed in 2009

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak     

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry    
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Getting the Girl by Marcus Zusak
After Dark by Huruki Murakami
Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Real World by Natsuo Kirino
A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrow
Strangers by Taichi Yamada
The Uninvited by Geling Yan
The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata
Prize Stock    by Kenzaburo Oe
Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kacharo
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
One Man's Justice by Akira Yosimura
Miss Chopsticks by Xue Xinran
Aghwee The Sky Monster by Kenzaburo Oe
Ring by Kuji Suzuki
Powerbook by Jeanette Winterson
The Flower Mat by Suguro Yamamoto *
The Crazy Iris by Masuji Ibuse
The Summer Flower by Tamiki Hara
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Empty Can by Kyoto Hayashi   *
Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink
Arrowroot by Junichiro Tazizaki
The Colorless Paintings by Ineko Sata
The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian
Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki
Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki
My Life by Anton Chekhov
Leaving Home by Anita Brookner
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Hardboiled by Banana Yoshimoto
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Shame in  the Blood  by Tetsuo Miuka
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Hard Luck by Banana Yoshimoto
Shamela by Henry Fielding
The Almost Moon by Ann Sebold
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford   *
February Flowers by Fan Wu
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
Moonlight Shadow by Banana Yoshimoto

Mel u

Books Read In 2010

  1. The Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihira
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  3. The Yellow Light Bookstore by Lewis Buzbee
  4. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  5. One Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat
  6. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  7. Sea of Poppies by Amitar Ghosh
  8. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
  9. My Son's Story by Nadine Gordimer
  10. Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
  11. The Journal of a Tour to The Hebrides by James Boswell

  1. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
  2. Pinay:Autobiographical Writings of Women 1926 to 1928 by Cristina Hidalgo
  3. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins 
  4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  5. The Reed Cutter by Junichiro Tanizaki

    Tuesday, January 5, 2010

    "One Night @ The Call Center" by Chetan Bhagat

    A Look at An Indian Call Center

    One Night @ The Call Center by Chetan Bhagat (2005, 310 pages) is set in Guragon in northern India.    The author was born in New Delhi and now lives in Mumbai.

    When I first saw this book on the 80 percent off table at a local book store I was moved to pick it up by the title.   Call centers are very big here in the Philippines.   Very near us are offices for IBM and HSBC in huge ultra modern building with all the amenities  possible and surrounded by American style fast food restaurants.  When we go past the offices in the day time the big parking lots are completely empty.   The employees start working somewhere around 800 in the evening as most all of their clients are in the USA.    The government is doing a lot to promote these businesses.   Tax breaks and free rent are given to big corporations and there are all sorts of  classes one can take in what is called "Call Center English".    The pay ranges from about $200.00 (USA) per month up to $500.00 for top agents.   The papers are full of ads for call center workers.   Many of them say recent college graduates only, must be over five foot tall (this makes no sense but many companies will not hire a person under five foot tall-the average height for Filipino women is five  two).     In the employment ads for these companies you will see smiling employees all of whom look like movie stars and none are over twenty five.   So I figured why not read this novel about call centers.

    As it sounds, the novel is set in a call center in India.   The employees all work at night. The novel centers on a call center for a big American appliance company.   If somebody in Miami cannot figure out how to adjust the power levels in his new microwave they call the center.    The employees in the novel are in a special section that handles "problem callers".

    This means the hostile or those who call every other day asking where the on switch on their DVD player is located.   The calls of the employees are monitored and they have standards about how long they can talk.   These employees see only a select group of Americans, those who call to ask how often a frost free refrigerator should be defrosted or  simply call to talk to someone it seems.   The worst of the callers from the point of view of the workers are those who hate the Indian call center workers.   The call center workers generalize from this sample of people that all Americans are idiots who hate anyone who speaks English with an accent that sounds wrong to them.    Of course  the frustration of the call center employees is increased by the fact that on average they are much worse off financially  than their callers.   Each of the employees has a call center name.   There are different types.   We have the princess type girl whose parents have found an Indian doctor who lives in Seattle to marry her (She has never met him but he has promised her a Lexus), we have the young man totally into fast vehicles, we have a female employee who wants to be a model and two employees who want to start their own web design business.    No body wants to be a call center agent too long even though the money is not bad for their area.

    Some of the call center employees say Indian will surpass American by getting the jobs of the Americans.    The smarter ones realize that they are just doing the work American corporations are farming out to them to increase their profits.   Call center workers do not produce anything of lasting value for their countries.   Most of the pay they make is spent on fancy cell phones, mixed drinks in  clubs that cost them half  a day's pay and a vast array of consumer items that they are driven by the media to buy.  

    The fun (and it is a very entertaining novel) is in the conversations of the employees.   We really do get a real look at the inside of a call center.   The employees are made to come to life for us.    Any one who has ever worked in a big corporation will be able to relate to the way the call center workers plot to take revenge on their boss.

    I thought this book was an entertaining and edifying look at a call center in India.   Some might be offended by what the agents say about Americans but if you realize what  they say is really a comment on their own limits then no offense should arise.   Goodreads.com reviewers give it the full range of ratings from one to five stars.   I would give it three stars.  It has been made into a movie.    It is a  clearly written fast paced and fast reading book.    I would probably read another one of Bhagat's novels (he has written four) if I could get it  for 80 percent off.   If you do a Google search you can in fact down load this book for free as a PDF file.

    I am reading this book as part of these reading Challenges

    South Asia Challenge
    52 in 52 Weeks
    Global Reading Challenge
    Across  the Centuries Challenge
    New Authors  (new to me)
    TBR Challenge

    Mel u