Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 2009 Reading Review

December 2009 was an excellent reading month for me.    I hope your month was great also.

  1. Roderick Hudson by Henry James -early James-I have as a personal perpetual challenge to read all the fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton
  2. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin-a reread from 40 years ago
 Japanese Novels
  1.  Nip  The Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe 
  2. Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe
  3. The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata -reread
  4. Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
Oe  and Kawabata are both Nobel Laureates .  Some think Murakami will one day be the 3rd Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize.    Maybe in ten years but not sooner is my guess.

English Language Novels

  1. Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood-I liked it but I liked The Handmaiden's Tale more
  2. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford-see my post please as I cannot really compress my thoughts on this novel into one line.
  3. February Flowers by Fan Wu-coming of age story set in modern China-a good read for the 2010 GLBT reading challenge

  1. The Man Who Killed Rasputin:  Felix Youssoupov and the Murder that Helped Bring Down The Russian Empire  by Greg King-also a good choice for the 2010 GLBT Challenge-interesting popular history for Romanov devotees like me.  

Mel u

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Aussie Author Challenge 2010

Once again my morning reading of the items in my Google Reader in box brought me news of another new reading challenge that I wanted to join.   It is The Aussie Author Challenge 2010 hosted by Booklover Book Reviews.   The rules are pretty simple.   There are two levels of commitment.  At the Tourist Level you are asked to read three books by three different Australian authors.   At the Fair Dinkum Level you are asked to read eight books, of which five must be by different authors.   A link is provided giving reading ideas and the challenge host will be doing features periodically on different writers from Australia.  (I am hoping we will learn Marcus Zusak has another book coming out soon!)   I have noticed my blog has a lot  of visitors from Australia so I decided why not and I will commit to the tourist level.   Marcus Zusak has one book in print I have not yet read and if I cannot get it I would love to reread  The Book Thief.   Geraldine Brooks of People of the Book has two historical novels that look great.     I ask any Australian visitors to please give me some ideas also.  

Mel u

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Moonlight Shadow" by Banana Yoshimoto

Moonlight Shadow by Banana Yoshimoto ( 1988, 44pages, translated from Japanese by Megan Backus) is a beautiful story about loss, young love, and loneliness.   It is published as a companion piece along with her longer work Kitchen.  (It was her decision to publish the works together).

The central character of this short novella is a 20 year old woman.   She has just lost the first love of her life, Hitoshi.    They had four years together.

After all, we were still young, and who knows whether it would have been our last love?  We had over come many first hurdles together.   We came to know what it is to be tied to someone and we learned to judge for ourselves the weight of many kinds of events-from these things, one by one, we constructed our four years.   Now it is over, I can shout it out:  The Gods are assholes!-I loved Hitioshi-I loved Hitioshi more than life itself.
 Time goes on.   Our lead character meets the younger brother of Hitoshi, Hiiragi whose girl friend has recently died.   He wears the school dress of his deceased love as living memorial to her even though all in his family beg him not to do this.   I will not relay all that happens as I know a lot of people are going to one day read this story.   Much of the beauty of the work of Yoshimoto can be found in these closing lines of Moonlight Shadow:

One caravan has stopped, another starts up.   There are people I have yet to meet, others I'll never see again.   People who are gone before you know it, people who are just passing through.  Even as we exchange hellos, they seem to grow transparent.  I must keep living with the flowing river before my eyes.

Of the four works of Yoshimoto's I have read, this story seems to most directly express the themes of Yoshimoto. 

One thing I really liked in this book were the closing remarks in which Yoshimoto (I really feel it would be ok to call her "Banana") does the normal thanking of her publisher and her father (a well known Japanese academic).   What touched me was the thanks she gave to the other women who worked as waitresses with her as she wrote this story and Kitchen.   She thanks her boss at the restaurant for giving her some freedom to write on the job when work with slow.   To me the works of  Banana  Yoshimoto are like a funny gentle friend that is far wiser than you might first guess.     I have her on my read everything they have written list (in reality all that is translated into English) along with Kenzaburo Oe and Junichiro Tanizaki.

A link to all of my posts on Japanese Literature is here

Mel u

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age" by Kenzaburo Oe

 Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!  (translated from Japanese by John Nathan, 258 pages, 1986)  is the seventh work by Kenzaburo Oe that I have read.   In every post I have tried to voice my great respect and admiration for the work of Oe.

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!  makes use of a story line that very much mirrors the life of Oe.   It centers on his relationship with his brain damaged son and his life time love for the poetry of William Blake.   The book can be seen almost as a commentary on the Prophetic Books of Blake.    Oe is not simply reminded of Blake's poetry by events in his life but he sees his life through Blake's poetry.   I was very touched by the moment in the book when the narrator tells us of the time he came to realize he would be reading the poetry of Blake the rest of his life.  Oe talks not only about the poetry but about learned works on the Prophetic Books of Blake.   The narrator, who we can call Oe (normally I resist reading first person narratives autobiographically but in this case we have no choice) recalls an incident during WWII when a Japanese Army officer ordered his father (too old for military service) to demonstrate how a machine that strips bark from trees works.  (That was the Oe family business.)   The machine was meant to be run by two strong young men.   The father was ordered to work it by the very abusive army officer.   Barely able to control his anger the father demonstrates the machine in use.   Oe tells us how the emotional and physical stress of this event brought on the early death of his father.   He then related this to an incident in which William Blake and his wife have a conflict with a military officer over the political views of Blake and Blake is arrested for a physical attack on the officer.   Oe gives a very honest account of his relationship with his mentally handicapped son, his wife, and his other two children.  

Friday, December 25, 2009

My Favorite Reads-Part 3-

Favorite Reads (other than Japanese)  Second Half 2009

In My Favorite Reads Part 1 I talked about the books I read in the first half of 2009, before I began my blog in July 2009

In My Favorite Reads Part 2-I spoke of my favorite Japanese reads among the 40 or so works on which I have posted on in 2009

Now in the last part of The Reading Life Best Reads of 2009 part 3 I want to talk about my favorite non-Japanese reads from July 7 to now.   I am still reading and hope to post on two more books by year end but both are Japanese works.

Most of the books I read since my blog began I have posted on.   I should note that when I fail to write a post on a book I have read, it is not a negative comment on  the book. 

There were three works I read in this period that I somehow could not bring myself to do a brief blog post about.   I will try to say why now.

  1. A Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert-This well might be a better novel than MB.   The editor of the book in the Oxford Classics edition  flirts with the idea that it is better than War and Peace but never fully embraces the idea.   Maybe you think Flaubert is an ice cold Olympian.   Those who know or have read only MB  will be shocked how full of the love of the pleasure of life A Sentimental Education is.   I am going to reread it pretty soon and feel then I can do a post on why I like it so much.    If you are in a personal quest to experience the greatest works of literature ever written, my advice is to read this book as young as you can so you have a standard to hold other works up to.
  2. Keepsake by Kristy Gunn-The only post on this work that would do it justice would be to scan it all in and post the whole thing.   Gorgeous prose
  3. Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli-young adult-deeply moving story about the Warsaw Ghetto-I love the last five pages so much I have reread them numerous times.   If  I had done a blog post right after reading this all I would have probably said would come down to "Do yourself a favor, read this book this week so the rest of your life you can have it in your head".

Best Blogged on Books

  1.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (books in no special order)
  2. Barefoot in the Park:  A Filipino WWII Childhood by Barbara Ann Gamboa Lewis.   This book deserves a high  place in the YA literature of WWII-
  3. The PowerBook By Jeannette Winterson
  4. Balzac and  the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Siuji
  5. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barberry
  6. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  7. A Start in Life  by Anita Brookner
  8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Anne Shaffer and Anne Borrows
  9. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton-unlike pretty much everybody else I do not see the deepest meaning of this work in its social commentary
  10. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford-can hardly be over praised
  12. I am the Messenger by Marcus Suzak-I know this is a quirky pick but read it if you liked The Book Thief .
Of my  top 12, 9 are by women.   This just happened by accident.

Only Real Advice I Offer From These Lists

If you are serious about experiencing the best literature the world has to offer, then read A Sentimental Education and The Good Soldier.   (This will not be a task, they are both hugely fun reads.) 

My best by far non-fiction read of 2009 is Flaubert:  A Biography by Frederick Brown-just what he says about Ivan Turgenev, a good friend of Flaubert, is fascinating.  

What are your favorite reads for 2009?   

Mel u

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TBR (To Be Read) 2010 Challenge

Mizb's Reading Challenges is hosting the 2010 TBR Challenge (To Be Read).   Basically this involves reading 12 books that you have wanted to read for a long time.   This seems a perfect way to motivate one to do what you want to do anyway.   The rules are on the challenge link.

Ok simple enough.   My only hesitation at first in joining this challenge as it is very much like Bibliophile by the Sea's Read Before I Die 2010 Challenge which asks you to pick 10 at least books that you have wanted to read for a while with the same rule that you cannot change your list.  (This is reasonable as one could  claim they completed the challenge just by naming the first books they read  for the year as their picks).  Some readers like to be very spontaneous in what they read and others like to plan long in advance.  I am somewhere in the middle.  Both of these challenges allow overlap so I at first thought  "OK just add two books to the ten you picked for the Read Before I Die Challenge and this is done and within the rules of both challenges".  On further thought I decided to pick 12 new books for the TBR Challenge.  I will use the books on my Read Before I Die challenge list as my alternatives for the TBR Challenge.

My 12 Books (in random order)
  1. The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rusdie-my first of his books-1/14
  2. The Tenant of Windfell Hall by Anne Bronte-my first Anne Bronte
  3. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson-read 1/4/10
  4. Some Do Not by Ford Madox Ford
  5. No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford
  6. A Man Could Stand Up by Ford Madox Ford
  7. The Last Post by Ford Madox Ford (4 to 7 make up the four novels in The Parade's End tetralogy-I hope to host a read along on this work once I read it the first time.    It is four novels published independently that came to be know under the collective name of The Parade' End.   Anthony Burgess has said the combined work is the finest ever English Language novel.  Other have said it is half genius and  half a messy bore.
  8. Wide Sargossa Sea by Jean Rhys  1/6/10
  9. A Personal Matter by Kenzabuo Oe
  10. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
  11. Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihira 1/2/2010
  12. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
All of these books fit well into other challenges I am signed up for so it does not actually add  a lot to the number of books I need to complete my 2010 challenges and everyone I for sure want to read.

I thank Miz B for hosting it and look forward to reading the posts it will produce.

Jan 1-2010  number 11-Tales of Ise

I will track my progess on this Challenge on My Challenge Tracking Page and list the individual books I read for it here as the year goes on.   

Mel u

Monday, December 21, 2009

Year End Reading Life Review-Part II-Best Japanese Reads

Before I began the Japanese Literature Challenge 3 on August 9, 2009 I had never in fifty plus years of near compulsive reading read a Japanese novel.   Long ago I read a number of the so called "wisdom texts" of Asian writers so it was not simply a question of my being very Euro-centered in my reading habits.    When I went to school, there were basically no Japanese novels yet translated into English.   The challenge required only that you read one book and it had a big list of suggested reads.   The Japanese Literature 3 challenge became my first ever reading challenge. So far I have read 42 Japanese works.  It will end Jan 31, 2009 at which time I plan now to write two posts.   One will be an attempt to see where the Japanese writers belong in the context of world literature.   There are big questions that can arise.  Is there really a Japanese novel in more a sense than there might be a distinctly Dutch, Canadian or even American novel?   I think there is and will give my thoughts on this then.   I will also write something like "The Reading Life Starter Guide to the Japanese Novel" in which I will list what I think are the first 3, 6 and 12 Japanese novels one should read and why I think it.    Here are my "ten best" -out of 42-Japanese reads for 2009.   (The order is not of import)

Best Japanese Reads 2009

  1.      Out  by   Natsuo Kirino 2004-exciting slice of lower life crime novel
  2. Kusamakura by Natsume Soseki    1904-beautiful work that teaches us a lot about how to approach literature and art.
  3. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe-I love the four stories in this volume. 1969
  4. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.   Centers on the lives of four sister in preWorld War II Osaka-1948
  5. The Woman in the Dunes by Kobe Abe-1964-
  6. Crazy Iris and other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (stories from eight authors selected and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe)  Most of the authors are atomic bomb survivors.  1985 
  7. Quick Sand by Junichiro Tanizaki-an excellent choice for the GLBT challenge for 2010-it does not seem like a nearly 90 year old novel  1928
  8. The Flower Mat by Sugoro Yamanto -an historical novel of 17th century Samurai life centering around the wife of a samurai   1948
  9. One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimara-story of a soldier returning home in defeat and disgrace.   A universally applicable story that gives us a good look at conditions in Japan right after WWII. 1978
  10. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto-most of those who have posted on this and Kitchen like Kitchen better-you will not go wrong with any of her works. 1989
List of The Reading Life Japanese Posts

I explicitly proclaim myself as a neophyte in terms of the Japanese novel and put this list forth with that understanding.   Japanese novels will be an important part of my reading life (and my blog) from now on.   I will always be grateful to Dolce Bellezza for introducing me to the Japanese novel.   As far as The Reading Life and Japanese literature, please send me any ideas or suggestions as to new directions to go in.   I hope I have only just begun a very long reading relationship. 

I was motivated by a great post on Wuthering Expectations to do a series of best of 2009 posts.   I will do at least one more post, the next will center on the my best reads since I began my blog (less the Japanese works).

Mel u

2010 Book Blogger Recommendations Challenge

The 2010 Book Blogger Recommendations Challenge is being hosted by Reading with Tequila.   The full rules are at this link to the challenge.   Basically a list of the 250 most often recommended by book bloggers books has been compiled and you are asked to read from 5 to 20 books on the list in 2010. 

To help me track my challenges I created a special post for Reading Life 2010 Challenges. The Book Blogger Recommendations Challenges  is also a good challenge for those seek guidance in their book selections.   I really can think of no better guides than the members of the international book blogging community.

Mel u

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Cat's Eye" by Margaret Atwood

Cat's Eye (1988, 565 pages) is the third novel by Margaret Atwood that I have read.   My first of her works was The Handmaiden's Tale which I liked a lot for the  dystopic vision of a future America and the finely crafted alternative universe the book offers.   I then read The Penelopiad a retelling of the story of Odysseus from the point of view of his left behind wife Penelope.    In the recent 43rd Bookworms Carnival there were four reviews of The Penelopiad, mine among them.   Of four reviewers, I seemed to have liked the book the most.  I like the concept of the retelling of myths in the Canongate's Myth Series of books.    I wanted to read a 3rd Atwood before the year ended.   Readers in Manila do not always have as many options as those in some other countries.   There are no public libraries, charges too much to ship and the Bookdepository will not ship here at all.   We have many big beautiful ultramodern book stores in which you can always find lots of wonderful books.   However, if you want to go to a store and find all 20 or so of Atwood's books for sale you are out of luck.    Anyway I really wanted to read her Oryx and Crake.   I could find only The Blind Assassin and Cat's Eye.

Cat's Eye is a story mostly about the childhood memories of a woman who as an adult is a highly regarded artist.   The story is told in the first person from her perspective.   The strongest part of the book to me was in its showing how childhood experiences shape a person in ways few of us will ever really understand.   It makes very good use of different ways of viewing remembered experiences.   It is also the story of friendship of young girls and a story of awaking sexuality.   The narrator is partially at least, unreliable and we have to take an active role in figuring out what really happened.    It is well written.   I would not say it is as beautifully written as say a work of Kristy Gunn or Jeannette Winterson might be.   I would characterize this as a clever book by a very creative writer.  

I will eagerly read her two Dystopic tales and will try Alias Grace if I come upon it.   

Mel u

Our Mutual Reads: A Victorian Reading Challenge

Amanda of The Blog Jar is hosting her first reading challenge,  The 2010 Our Mutual Reads:   A Victorian Reading Challenge.  The challenge rules are on the link.

As soon as I saw this challenge I was reminded of my love of the Victorian novel.     I will for sure read some short stories if there is a minichallenge on them.   I watch a lot of old movies on the Turner Classic Movies Channel (Both that and the MGM Channel are available on cable TV here in the Philippines) and would probably find a movie mini challenge fun.   I recently saw movies of The Portrait of Dorian Grey and The Woman in White.   I will for sure commit to level one and with any luck will complete level three.  Clarification is being sought as to whether only period books written in England count.   For Example, can you count The Bostonians?  Is  War and Peace a Victorian Novel?   The  Constance  Garnett Russians all read like them!    Is A Sentimental Education among the very best of the genre?   This is up to Amanda, of course.   Overlaps with other challenges are fine.   
This makes the 25th reading challenge I have signed up to for 2010.   I hope a lot of people will sign  up.   I thank Amanda for hosting it and look forward to reading the posts that wil result from it. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

My Favorite Reads 2009-Part 1-

One reason for doing a Best Reads of the Year posts is to kind of clarify things in our own mind and hopefully have something to look back on many years in the future.

  Part I of my post on this topic will be about the books I read from January 1 to July 6, 2009. My blog began on July 7,2009.   The lists are in order by publication date.

  1. Emma by Jane Austin  1816
  2. Old Goriot by  Balzac 1836-because his productivity is so huge I find reading him intimidating.  The standard cliche  is that he is the French Dickens and vice versa but this is probably an as taught to students dictum and it seems  to represent a shallow understanding of either writer.  
  3. Moby Dick by Herman Melville-1851-read this work with an open mind-forget that it was forced on you in a class room and you had to write a 20 page paper on what the white whale stood for!-just let the majestic prose go into your mind as you read it.
  4. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert-1857-often claimed to be the world's best novel.   It is an ice cold work of perfection but I prefer A Sentimental Education.
  5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 1869 -new trans 2007-don't let the size keep you away and don't worry about keeping all the characters straight as they will begin to stand out as you read.   
  6. The Bostonians by Henry James-1886-early James, has all the basic themes-a good first Henry James-
  7. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald-1925-the last ten pages are simply stunning in the beauty of the writing.   There are annoying tics in the work but just ignore them. 
                                                 21th Century Top Reads

1.  Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano -trans 2006-read this before 2666 if you can
2.  2666 by Roberto Bolano  2008 trans.
3.  Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon-2006-I know this is long and not much read.

                                                       Non Fiction

1.  Queen Victoria by Christopher Hibbert-2000-good popular biography
2.  Alexandra:  The Last Tsarina-Carolyn Erickson-2001-a good easy to read bio
3.  Flaubert:  A Biography by Frederick Brown-2006-simply a great book
4.  The Last Mughal-The Fall of a Dynasty-1857-Delhi-William Dalrymple-reminded me of how little I really know of Indian History
5.  Waltzing the Dictator:   Marcos and the Making of US Foreign Policy  1987 -by Raymond Bonner-a brilliant book that explains in detail how the Marcoses were able to do what they did to the Philippines.   It explains this better than any other  source.    A good bit of the success of  Marcos came from the fact that, say whatever else you want about him and his wife, he was able to use the needs and the vanity of several American presidents (mainly Reagan) to obtain his ends.  Ronald Reagan and Nancy were pretty much putty in the hands of Imelda.   The Marcoses began to cultivate Reagan when he was governor of California.  

This post was inspired by a recent post on Wuthering Expectations on Best of  2009 Lists

Mel u

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2010 Reading Challenges-Tracking Page

11/17/2010-44 challenges-2 go until 2011
45 Challenges Completed
1  not started
3 challenges  begun with at least one book read  

So far I have signed up for 46 reading challenges  2010.   I have already explained why I am doing so many challenges (and may well commit to more as the new year approaches).   Appearances possibly aside, I am not simply signing up for all the challenges I can find.   I only will sign up for a challenge that will basically allow me to fully direct my own reading.   I am not attracted to what I have called "gimmick" challenges and have explicitly stated this is just a personal preference not a slam on some great challenges.    To me one of the challenges of all these challenges is just keeping track of them.   I have created this web page for that purpose.   I will update it  as I go through the year and I will also list what I have read on the individual challenge posts.  
  1. Japanese Literature Challenge 3--ends Jan 31, 2010-completed
  2. China Challenge  8 of 5-ends June 30, 2010-completed
  3. Women Unbound Challenge 17 of 8-ends Nov 30, 2010-completed
  4. Really Old Classics-1 of 1-Ends Feb 28, 2010 1-completed Jan 1, 2010
Challenges running from Jan 1 2010 to December 31, 2010

  1. Awesome Authors-3 of 3- (read books by great new to you authors) 3-completed
  2. Bibilophilic Books-3 of 3 (books about books and reading) completed
  3. Take Another Change Challenge-3 of 3-completed  4
  4. Centuries Reading Challenge-completed
  5. 18th and 19th Century Women writers-3 of 3 completed
  6. Wilkie Collins Mini Challenge 2 of 2  completed
  7. A Woman in White-Read Along 0 of 1
  8. Chunkster Challenge 6 of 6  completed
  9. All About the Brontes6 of 6 completed-highest level
  10. Flashback Challenge 4 of 4 -reread books you have read before completed
  11. GLBT Challenge 4 of 4   -completed  6
  12. Fantasy Reading 3 of 3 completed
  13. Second Reading-read a second to you book by an author 3 of 3-completed-
  14. Wish I had Read that-read a book you always have wanted to read  3 of 3--completed
  15. Books to Read Before I die-12 of 12 -completed
  16. South Asian Challenge 3 of 3-completed-4
  17. Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge -one book and one movie-1 of 1--done
  18. Mutual Read:  A Victorian Reading Challenge 6 of 5-completed
  19. Book Blogger Recommendations Challenge 2 of 5-
  20. Global Reading Challenge-6 of 6-completed
  21. TBR Challenge 10 of 10  completed
  22. New Author Challenge (new to you) 19 of 15  completed
  23. Typically British Challenge 8 of 8  completed
  24. A Tournament of Reading  (Medieval) 3  of 3 completed
  25. Aussie Author Challenge3 of 3  completed
  26. Speculative Fiction Challenge 3 of 3 completed
  27. Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge 4 of 4 -completed
  28. Historical Fiction 3 of 3  completed
  29. Themed Reading Challenge-5 of 5-Flaubert and Friends-completed
  30. French Reading Challenge  3 of 3-completed-going for higher level-5
  31. Scottish Challenge-1of 1-completed
  32. Jewish Reading Challenge feb 27 to Sept 14 1 of 1
  33. POC challenge 16 of 16 completed highest level
  34. 52 books in 52 weeks-completed 
  35. 451 Challenge 1 of 1-Completed 
  36. Classics Challenge 6 of 6 april 1 to oct 31-completed
  37. Gothic Novels-5 of 5 completed
  38. What An Animal Challenge 6 of 6  completed
  39. Irish Reading Challenge 2 of 2 completed
  40. Spring into Short Stories 2-completed but will do more
  41. 1930s Reading Challenge 3 of 1 completed
  42. Rebecca Du Mauier 3 0f 3 completed
  43. Pre-Printing Press Challenge-0 of 3-end May 1, 2011
  44. Japanese Literature Challenge 4-4 completed
  45. D H Lawrence Challenge-2 of 4
Reading what I want to read and reading nothing I do not see as a quality book I  I feel I can complete all these challenges by December 31, 2010

updated on Nov 26-2011
Mel u

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids" by Kenzaburo Oe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe is his  first novel, written  at age 23. 
(1958, translated from Japanese by Paul St John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama in 1985, 189 pages)    

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was the first full length novel by Oe that I have read.   Prior to this I posted on four of his novellas, his non-fiction work Hiroshima Notes and
I posted extensively concerning the stories in his collection of works by other writers, Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath.  I have already placed Oe on my "read everything they have written tbr list".   As I started my first read of one of his longer works I did fear that perhaps my reaction to his shorter works would not be carried over to his longer ones.   My fears were very much misplaced.   Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a wonderful novel, not just a wonderful first novel.   We are never told when or really where the story is set but it is clear that it is intended to be seen as Japan in WWII.   I think the setting is not precisely particularized so it can be viewed as a story of war anywhere and of  the throw away victims of war.   This includes children and in too many cases the morals of  the survivors are also essentially a casualty also. 

The novel centers around a group of teen age boys from a reform school sent to work in a near by village and is narrated by one of the boys.   No cares at all for these boys.   The residents of the village they are sent to think they are plague carriers.   The boys have only the most primitive of values.   Their world exists as a counterpart to the adult world which moves history and time.  The live surrounded by  dark forest.   The boys fear the forest and will not try to escape detention because of it.   If we want,  we can see the forest as the imprisoning effects of enculturation or perhaps as the total reverse of this,  or for that matter both of these views can be sustained at the same time. We could see the captivity of the boys as civilization and the  forest as freedom.   There is a lot in this book.   I endorse it without reservation.   Based on my limited knowledge of Oe's works I would recommend first reading the marvelous short novels collected in Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness .   The stories in this collection do not feel somehow like works created by a modern writer but deep stories of wisdom from a civilization and time we will never understand but have somehow been fortunate enough to come upon.   Maybe we can figure them out in part and we will be wiser for the effort.   On the back of the book Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is compared to Lord of the Flies.   I think this comparison downgrades Oe's work but I understand the publishers, Grove Press, needed to link this book to a work that lots of people could related to. has an extremely good post on Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids" that goes into some of the literary background of Oe and relates this book to Oe's vision of the conduct of Japan's Military leadership toward the common people of Japan.   Just like Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels can be read with no knowledge of the particular forms of their day that they mocked while accepting the knowledge that knowing who Trotsky is may help us relate to the events in Animal Farm in more depth  likewise it is useful to place Oe's work in its historical context.   Oe gives us a lot of freedom in our reading of his works.   You can go very deep in your reading of this book, peeling off layers of art and civilization as you go in.


Mel u

Reading Challenges and The Reading Life

When I began my blog July 7, 2009 I had never heard of Reading Challenges.   I soon saw they are a fairly big part of the book blogger community.   The first challenge I saw that intrigued me was the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge.   I realized I had never read a Japanese novelist.   If asked on a quiz show to name  two Japanese novelists I would have been stopped after Haruki Murakami.   I read the rules of the challenge and saw you had only to read one book.      So far I have read about 45 Japanese literary works and have placed three Japanese authors on my "read everything they have written list".   As I began to read an increasing number of book blogs (maybe 350 or so now) I came upon other challenges involving reading books in translation and books by authors from different countries.   The host of these challenges said any book read in 2009 counted so I completed these two challenges without a strain.   Then I joined a challenge revolving around reading some books on WWII and completed it almost at once.   I have also joined the China Challenge and  have one book to go and the Women Unbound Challenge for which I have read five of eight.   Both of these challenges carry over into 2010.   I also joined two other challenges that I did not complete because I more or less lost interest in them.   If I was doing it now I would not join either of these challenges as I am not drawn to what I now see as gimmick based challenges.  (This is just me-it is not a slam on gimmick based challenges-by which I mean something like "Read a book whose title has the same number of letters in it as your middle name").    I also completed the Rest In Peace Challenge and the November Novella Challenge and the Elizabeth Gaskell Mini Challenge in 2009.

As 2010 approached I knew I wanted to finish the two challenges I have yet to complete that overlap into 2010 and join some new ones.  I have now committed to 32  for 2010.   I only will commit to a challenge that allows overlaps with other challenges as any other course seems over directing to me and most challenge hosts explicitly state they allow it.    One of the Challenges asks you to read 52 books in 52 weeks.   I will if all goes well do this in the first four months or so so it is really not a factor in what I read.   For fun I pondered how many books will I have to read to complete these 20 challenges, setting aside the challenge to read 52 books.  (I will sign up for more I am sure and maybe in spring commit to 100 books).   These  20 challenges can be completed by reading from 25 to 30 books that I want to read anyway.   I remain fully in charge of what I read.   If there are  more challenges that interest me I will join them also.   The biggest to me challenge will be keeping track of them.  I plan to create a challenge tracking post to follow it all.    There are lots of ways to find challenges that will interest you.   A very good place to get information on the various reading challenges going on and future ones also is at A Novel Challenge.   There are really challenges for all sorts of readers.  

My question to myself is why join so many challenges?   My answer is that it is fun for me, I am supporting the book blogging community, I make some new contacts, and I also learn about a lot of new books from reading the posts in the challenges I join.    If it all seems a bit crazy to some that is ok perhaps it is!- 

As to personal reading perpetual challenges I will continue to read the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton and I hope somehow I can host a read along of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End if a few others would want to join in.   I will also join the Japanese Literature Challenge 4 when it begins in 2010.   I will post more on my 2010 reading hopes and plans later as the year ends.  My thanks to all who host challenges.   I will continue to join more challenges as the year begins.   I see no reason other than the work involved in keeping track of them (which also will be fun for me) not to join 50 challenges.  
Anyway those are my thoughts on Reading Challenges-

what are your reasons for joining a reading challenge or why do you avoid them-?

Mel u

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Out" by Natsuo Kirino

Out by Natsuo Kirino (520 pages, 2004, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder) is the second work by Natsuo Kirino that I have read.   I  read her shorter Real World and posted on it in August.    I had a pretty good idea what to expect in Out, a cold razor eyed look at the life of  unskilled women working in a factory.   I knew there would be violence, most everybody would be corrupt in one way or another and there would be vivid scenes of sexual abuse.   It is also a book about the rebellion of a woman against her very oppresive husband through the ultimate act of rebellion.

Out centers on four women, just like The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki does.   In The Makioka Sisters the women have problems such as low quality servants, deciding what suitors one of  the sisters should accept and debating over which of the numerous houses the family owns each sister should live in.   In Out the problems center on rent, abusive husbands and dysfunctional children.   If there are servants in their families they are it!   They  may not dress their boyfriends in expensive English Tweeds like Fusako in The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea or be worshiped for their beauty like Mitsuko in Quicksand.    They are kind of throw away women in Japanese society.   They have issues that block them from the world of corporate Japan.   Maybe they are half way acceptable looking to the men in their world (factory workers, security guards, loan sharks, lay- abouts of various sorts) but they are not in any way valued by the men in their lives.   They are interchangeable.   If one quits her job at the box lunch factory where they all work, nobody really cares.   No one is going to go through any elaborate courtship procedure with them for any objective at all.  

Out is  very much a fun crime novel.   It kept my attention all the way through but maybe in part you are waiting to see what terrible thing will happen next.   We get to know the women in this book well.   If you saw them on the subway in Tokyo you would not see anything special about them.    The four women lead characters are kind of friends (work friends) but when things turn nasty they turn on each other.   There is no sisterhood in this world.    The central plot of the book (this is not a spoiler it is on the inside cover!) revolves around the women's joint efforts to cover up the fact that one of the women has murdered her long abusive husband.   A number of characters from the dark side of Tokyo get involved, we get to hang out in some sleazy nightclubs.  Prostitution is seen as a career path worth considering to the women in this world.  They do not do but it enters their minds.   They see that women who sell themselves to rich men seem to have a much better life than women who work the night shift at a box lunch factory.    Maybe this is only in their minds and the long term future of such an occupation is very bleak but it seems a way out at times.  

Out is escapist reading but not just that.   It gives us a look at how real women live in Tokyo.   It is pretty fast paced and a lot happens.   It is easy to follow.   Out sold millions of copies in Japan

To me Out is for sure a good selection for the Women UnBound Challenge.   It completely focuses on the lives of four women of different ages, from their early 20s or so to mid 40s.   It shows the struggles they go through  trying to manage their families.   It gives us a very close hand look at their relationships with the men in their lives.   We feel we knew how these women lived and felt and related to each other.

I endorse Out for those who like crime novels that focus on the seamy seedy side of a big city.   There is very strong sexual violence.   If someone was interested in reading a first Japanese crime novel I would, of the books I have  read, suggest they read her Real World.  It is only half as long as Out.  Out is a better written more exciting book than Real World but it is twice as long and if you are neophyte in the Japanese novel it is too long a  crime work to start with.   If you like Real World (most reviewers give both books from 3 to 4 stars) then you will like Out more.

  Kirino is Japan's most celebrated crime novelist.   She has written it looks like about 20 works.   So far four have been translated into English according to Wikipedia and  (One of her works is not in print)   I will read Grotesque in 2010.  

Mel u

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"February Flowers" by Fan Wu

February Flowers by Fan Wu (2006, 239 pages) is set in 21st Century China.    It centers on two women and their relationship to each other.   The central character and narrator, Ming, tells the story as a long flash back to her university days and her relationship with Yan.   Seventeen year old Ming is bookish, driven to succeed, devoted to her parents and naive in the ways of the world.    She has had no romantic experience whatsoever and accepts the official Chinese line that there are no homosexuals in China.    She lives with three other young women in a dormitory.   She is an avid reader of western classics as well as Camus.   She also reads and studies classical Chinese literature.    Her father was a well known scholar before he and her mother were sent for several years to work among agricultural peasants as part of the massive re-education program of Mao.    The father is back to his teaching and his reading now but his potential to be a great scholar was destroyed and you can see her parents live a cautious life.   Yan on the other hand is 24, quite a bit older than the other college students, worldly, attractive and dressed in a fashion that she seemingly cannot afford.   She has a cynical woman of the world wisdom that can dazzle her much young women friends.   (Seven years is a big age gap when you are 17).  

We do not at first know that much about Yan.   Ming wonders how she can afford the fancy clothes.   Ming says she has a part time job but will not say doing what.   Yan reveals that she was molested at 13 and has had a boyfriend.  (We later find out she has had many boyfriends).   Yan slowly begins to probe Ming concerning any sexual feelings she may have.   She asks Ming if she would like to have a boyfriend.   The atmosphere of the university is very puritanical and the university police have a right to raid lover's lane type places.   If  a student is caught there, the university officials may notify her parents.   Slowly Ming begins to develop feelings she does not understand for Yan.   Yan has contrived to undress in front of Ming several times.   The story line unfolds as a coming of age and wondering if I am a lesbian plot.   Keep in mind Ming has been raised to think only decadent foreigners are homosexuals.  

February Flowers is an interesting look at university life in modern China.  It is a credible coming of age story and the internal tension in Ming is well done.   The book is a bit slowly paced.   It is a good account of friendships between women.   We also see how terribly important family is to all the women.   We are made to feel  the attraction of Ming for Yan is real.   In the part of Yan, we sense she uses her ability to sexually attract men and women as a kind of a game, a power matter.    We see the results of the her involvement with numerous men.    In an erotically charged and quite not what I expected scene we see what is sort of Ming's first sexual encounter.    As the flash back ends we see what Ming is making of her life.   We sense she still does not fully understand her sexuality and may be too deeply programmed to accept her desires.  

To me February Flowers fits in well within the themes of the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.   We get a look at the lives of young women-17 to 24-enrolled in a Chinese University.   We see how the expectations for women in terms of family obligations shapes their world more than it does of the male students.  We see how even in 21th century China, a woman is expected to remain relatively naive sexually before marriage whereas there are no such strictures on the male students.   We see how women who cross the line are viewed.   We see the effects of the one child policy on families.  

The official biography of Fan Wu (from her personal web page) reads like a case study of a woman overcoming huge obstacles.   

"Fan Wu was born on a state-run labor farm in mainland China, where her parents were exiled during the Cultural Revolution. Despite poverty and isolation, the farm provided her with boundless freedom and joy. In 1985, her parents left the farm, bringing her four older brothers and her with them, and settled in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province.
In the mid-90s, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Sun Yat-Sen University, she went to work in Shenzhen, the first Special Economy Zone in China, transformed from a fishing village to a bustling metropolis in ten years. During her three years there, she held varied jobs and traveled extensively, witnessing the unprecedented economic boom, as well as the exploitation of workers from poor provinces and the countryside. In 1997, a scholarship from Stanford University brought her to America, and after earning an MA in Mass Media Studies, she joined Yahoo!, a Silicon Valley-based Internet company, where she worked in market research and editorial for more than seven years before devoting herself to writing."
February Flowers is well written (the book did drag a bit).  It is easy to read and follow.  I am glad I read it for the look it gave me at unversity life of young women in modern China and I enjoyed wondering if Ming would ever give in to her feelings for Yan.   I endorse this book (with the reservation it is not "high art" or close to it) for a semi-light read.   It does have one scene of a near x rated nature.   Most Goodreads reviewers gave it three stars and I would also.  

Mel u

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915, 207 pages, Barnes and Noble Classic with an introduction by Frank Kermode)

Have you ever wondered what Barnes and Noble Books does with the editions of its classics that they cannot sell in their stores?  ( Ok, I know you have not spent a whole lot of time pondering this issue.)    It seems a lot of them they ship to the Philippines where they are sold once a year in an 80 percent off sale.   I was lucky enough to be in Power Books in Trinoma Mall the day their sale started.   I was able to get several Hardys, three James, a Wharton. two Eliots, some Conrads and The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.

I had never read any of Ford's work.   The last he was brought to my mind was a few months ago when I read the introduction to the Oxford Classic edition of A  Sentimental Education by Gustav Flaubert in which Ford is famously quoted as saying you could not consider your self a well educated person until you had read that work at least 14 times.   A Good Soldier has been waiting for a few months now to be read.    I completed it yesterday.   I do not recall being so amazed by the very high intelligence, cultivation, and artistic power of a novel for a very long time.  

The narrator of The Good Soldier is a simply maddening figure.   English professors teach this work as a classic of unreliable narration.  It is the story of the lives and relationship of two married couples, both wealthy.   The narrator, John Dowell, is an American.   His friend  (if one has friends in the world of The Good Soldier) Edward Ashburnham is English.   He is the good soldier in that he was a regimental officer in the British Army and served in India.   He always did his duty as expected by society, hence the label,  good soldier.   John sees him as quite a fine fellow.    We come to see that John is terribly corrupt and completely self centered.   He deceives everyone around him including John.   He has a long affair with John's wife, a fact that slips John's notice.  Least we think John is an imperceptive man, here is how he describes his wife Florence.

You are to imagine however much her bright personality came from Stamford, Connecticut, she was as yet a graduate of Poughkeepsie.   I never could imagine how she did it-the queer, chattery person that she was.   With that far-away look in here eye-which wasn't in the least romantic-I mean she doesn't look as if she were seeing poetic dreams, or looking through you, for she hardly did ever look at you..She would talk about William the Silent, about Gustav the Loquacious, about Paris frocks, about how the poor dressed in 1337.
The narration is not relayed to us in a straightforward fashion though throughout  John tells us he is trying to give a true account of their lives.   At numerous points in the narration a casual remark, almost a slip from the narrator, will undercut our full perception of events he has narrated.   He is nearly half way through his story before he reveals he has a net worth of about Two Million dollars (an utter fortune in 1915) and that he is twenty years older than his wife.   We also find out through the smallest aside that after several years of marriage John and his wife have never had sex and that he may well not know how children are produced.   His wife, he seems to never know this, had faked a heart condition to avoid intimacy with him.  Part of the great pleasure of this work is trying to figure out  the truth about the lives of the characters through the medium of the narration.   A great deal of my enjoyment of the work came through marveling at the writing.    Here is John's part of  his first meeting with his future wife's aunts.

The first question they asked me was not how I did but what I did.   And I did nothing.   I suppose I ought to have done something, but I did not see any call to do it.   Why does one do things?

None of the central characters in this work really do anything in terms of work but for Edward's time in the army.   Edward has an extreme weakness for women.   The book may seem to bear a superficial resemblance to the world of The Great Gatsby but  that is the wrong path to go with this book.

It is funny somehow through the prism of this very unreliable half imperceptive half brilliant narrator we see more than we do in tales where the narrator is omniscient.    Here is a wonderful utterance by our narrator John:

Someone has said that the death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths, and I swear to you that the breaking up of our little four-square coterie was such another unthinkable event.
As we keep  in mind that the book was published and is set during a terrible world war.  This is seen by Frank Kermode as Ford's way of saying that the events in lives of the  people in the story reflect the events in the world and the conflicts of the characters is meant to be a sort of mirror of the conflicts in the war.    I think this is the as taught in universities reading of the novel.   I think it is terribly missing the point of The Good Soldier   and fails to begin to appreciate the depth of the artistry of Ford.    Looking at the quote with this dictum of Natsume Soseki in mind

The pleasure we gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world
We can see the remark is at least two things.   It is a completely silly remark of a fatuous man who compares the self created problems of four idle rich to the death of millions which can only be a terrible trivialization of what really happens.   It is reflective of the utter corruption and decadence of John and his world.   It is also a remark of transcendent wisdom.   John does not know what it means and really uses it as only a cruise ship type line.   John has a life of slow serenity.   He does not really live in the real world.    The pleasure we can get from The Good Soldier depends on how many layers of art we can peel away.

I am grateful to the many 1000s of shoppers in a Barnes and Noble some where who did not want to buy A Good Soldier.  (You can get an e book in a pdf formant for free at the Gutenburg Project)

Ford had an interesting life.    Ford was not his last name at birth.  He changed his name from the Germanic sounding Hueffer (1873 to 1939) as it was felt his birth name would hurt sales of his books.  He edited a very important literary journal.   His father was the music editor of the London Times.  His grandfather was a well known Pre-Raphaelite painter.   Even though he was over the age of mandatory service, he volunteered to fight in WWI and saw extreme combat conditions in France.   He had an affair with the English writer Jean Rhys who published a very unflattering to Ford novel on the affair, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.   He cowrote some books with Joseph Conrad.   He wrote about 80 books.   He was a very important person in the literary circles of his day.   He said A Good Soldier was his best work.   Some on think that A Good Soldier will ruin the rest of Ford's novels for you.   The only other Ford that seems at all read still is his four part work Parade's End (an 850 or so page work centered on the reflections of a soldier in WWI fighting in France).    The Goodreads and reviewers consensus on Parade's End seems to be it is half brilliant and it is half  never ending.    I think I will read it in 2010.

I endorse The Good Soldier completely.    Like A Sentimental Education it will generously repay the repeat rereader.     Ford Madox Ford was himself totally immersed in the reading life.   As I concluded my vain attempt to convey my feelings for this book I wondered what he had in his rucksack during his war time period in France.   

If anyone has any experience with other Ford books or would be willing to join in a 2010 read along on Parade's End  please let me know.   (I read Kermode's very useful and interesting introduction after I completed the book and suggest others do the same as it does contain spoilers.)

Mel u

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Dance, Dance, Dance" by Haruki Murakami

Dance, Dance, Dance (1995, 392 pages,  trans. from Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum) is my second read of a Haruki Murakami novel.   Murakami's After Dark was the first novel by a Japanese author I had ever read.   I picked it for two simple reasons.   Murakami was the only Japanese author I was familiar with (the book stores in Manila are very stocked in his works) and it was a short book.  I prefer to read a short book by a new author.   I liked After Dark a lot and thought it gave us a good look at part of the Tokyo night world.   Having read around 40 Japanese works since my August 9, 2009 review of After Dark I would suggest it as a good first Japanese novel.   It is often endorsed on the Murakami group as a suggested first read.  

  I set the book in my TBR area as I wanted to read a diverse range of Japanese authors before reading second works.   I finished Dance, Dance, Dance yesterday.    I found it to be a lot of fun.   It kept my attention throughout.   I felt I understood the central character, a male free lancer writer living in contemporary Tokyo who specializes in restaurant reviews.  

At the start of the book the narrator (it is told in the first person) is thinking about a former sort of girl friend.   She was, in the narrator's words, a high class hooker,  a professional ear model and a proofreader.   He recalls the old hotel where they used to spend time together,  The Dolphin Hotel.   The Dolphin Hotel is a sort  of run down place with a lot of  "character", the kind of a place where nobody there is not quite who they say they are.   (The kind of setting beloved to writers of  stories about the darker side of big cities).   The narrator has not seen his girl friend in a long time so he decides to go back to the Dolphin hotel to see if anyone there has any leads on her.  (He claims he was not her customer but this is an artistically, and otherwise, dubious assertion on the narrator's part.)   To his great shock the hotel has been torn down.   In its place there is an ultramodern tower called the L'Hotel Dauphin.   Nobody there, of course, has ever heard of his ex-girl friend, Kiki.   He is taken by the very attractive female desk clerk in a lovely uniform.  (At the Dolphin Hotel the owner was at the desk.)   He decides to embark on a search for Kiki.  His job gives him a lot of self directed time.   He is a cat lover.
I do not want to give away much of the plot line at all because it very much a fun exciting read.   We get to meet his boyhood friend now a movie star.   We see his developing friendship with a 13 year old girl.  (The narrator seems in his mid thirties).    At times the relationship does cause the narrator to wander into mental images he is not proud about but no lines are crossed in action.   We get to meet a mysterious Sheep Man who may be a dream figure or may be a real figure of some kind somehow controlling the events in the lives of the characters.

In talking about The Club Dumas a few days ago I characterized it, in a parody of the term "Chick Lit", as belonging to the category of  "bookish boys lit".   By this I mean a book that plays into the fantasies of bookish teenage boys (and the adult versions of that.)   Examples of quality writers who fall in this category are Pynchon, Hemingway, and Dumas.    To me Dance, Dance, Dance is squarely in this category.   (This is not a pejorative label-really it is not-Gravity's Rainbow is on my list of ten best novels ever and it is for sure in this genre.)   One of the characteristic of the genre is the exploration of hidden or darker sides of things, secret knowledge of worlds unknown to ordinary people.    Male characters in works in this genre have uneasy relationships with women.   There is a preoccupation, this is the books expression, with high class hookers.   The narrator of this book reads Jack London and listens all the time to American pop music.   Your bookish boy reads Call of The Wild and The Count of Monte Cristo.   The narrator of Dance, Dance, Dance best friend charges high class prostitutes to his expense account.   He was a customer of Kiki.   One night he and the narrator are bored so they order in two girls from a very expensive super discreet agency that the movie star is an important customer off.   The movie star pays for it all.    The narrator goes to Hawaii with the 13 year old girl he is friends with and somebody else pays the bill.   He stays a hotel in a room alone and the girl does stay else where.   A beautiful woman knocks on his door one night, she is described as "South Asian".  She is a high class prostitute that his movie star friend has hired for him.   Not just for one night but for three nights in a row.   The girl provides him with a great services, very erotically described.  

The action picks up.   A number people are killed including several of the prostitutes.   We meet some hard  boiled detectives, your standard seen it all homicide detectives who know enough not to question the owners of expensive call girl rings too much given the level of protection they have paid for.    We get to go along for some fancy meals, paid for by the movie star friend with a lot of  issues in his life, of course.   We get to know some call girls,  a one armed American Vietnam veteran, the 13 year old girl's mother
and a very respectable and nice girl who works at the fancy hotel.   She, of course, is quite beautiful and ends up in love with and in bed with the narrator. 
There are lots of clever plot lines and surprises.   The role of the Sheep Man is meant to baffle us, I think.   There are Science Fiction aspects to the book if the role of the Sheep Man is not seen as a dream or hallucinatory episode

  Dance, Dance, Dance was, to me, a fun read.   It is in the bookish boy genre and one should know that before reading it.    In my classification, a book can be a work of very high quality and be a bookish boy's novel.   Murakami has written a lot of novels.   People who have read them all pretty much put Dance Dance Dance in the middle rank of his books.   Most readers give it four or five stars and every one says it is not his best work.   I guess I would give it four at least.    I look forward to reading his most highly regarded works.  

I read in a few places on the net that Kenzaburo Oe has been very critical of Murakami.   I wanted to know why so I did a bit of research.   Basically Oe feels Murakami  gives too much emphasis to American culture in his works.
This, of course, is a political value judgment (Murakami for sure is the best know Japanese writer internationally) that has nothing to do with the merit of the work of Murakami.   Dance, Dance, Dance does have many references to American pop music, books and even food.   There is one small thing in the novel that did annoy me.   The narrator and the movie star are talking about the prostitute that the movie star sent to the hotel in Hawaii.   They call the agency and the agency asks where she is from.   They say "Oh she is probably from the Philippines".   

Mel u

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov" by Greg King

The Man Who Killed Rasputin: Prince Felix Youssoupov and the Murder That Helped Bring Down the Russian Empire  by Greg King (297 pages, 1995)-nonfiction

I have long been interested in the final years of the Romanov reign.   Years ago  I read all the standard books on them.   I have a special interest in secondary royal figures and read a number of biographies of Russian Grand Dukes, Duchesses, as well as works on lesser figures.   I recall one very interesting book on the English tutor of the Romanov children, Sydney Gibbs.    I was able to buy most of the books used via Amazon.

I bought Greg King's book maybe six years ago.   I somehow never got around to reading it.   A few days ago I read Katsumura  (1906) by Natsume Soseki set in Japan at the start of the Japanese and Russian War.   The total defeat of the Russian navy by the Japanese was seen by many as the mark of the complete incompetency of the rulers of Russia.   Prince Youssoupov (there are variations in the spelling of his last name) may have played a role in developing the mind set of Czar Nicholas II toward the Japanese.   Felix and Nicholas II were close friends and before Nicholas's marriage the two of them, along with  an army of helpers and other young noble men went on a world tour.    One of the stops was in Japan.    The public purpose of the tour was to meet world leaders and create trade opportunities.   The real purpose in the mind of the young noble men was to visit the most expensive brothels where ever they went.   Felix was a frequenter of the highest level of brothels in St Petersburg and Moscow.   He was well known to divide his time between women and male prostitutes.   In Tokyo he and Nicholas went to a very elite brothel were the workers were men dressed as very high ranking geishas.   Felix and others in the group, of course, indulged themselves in the services of the establishment.   The public statement by all is that Czar Nicholas merely observed.   However, he took from this one visit the impression that all Japanese men were basically like the ones he saw in the brothel and laughed off the Japanese as a military threat. 

The book focuses on two figure, Rasputin and Felix and tells the biographies of each.   That of Rasputin is well known so I read that part of the book rapidly.  The biography section on Felix was much more interesting to me.  His family had very ancient Tatar roots.   For close to 800 years they were allies of the Czars.   Unlike many rich families, they kept their money in tact and stayed friends with the rulers.   By 1900 the Youssoupov's were the richest family in Russia.   They had so many estates in Russia that they actually forgot some of the properties they owned.   Felix's mother was hoping for a girl so she dressed him in the clothes for a royal princess, grew his hair in the style of a Russian girl and treated him as if he were a girl.   Not to surprisingly this had some lasting  effects on Felix.   At the age of 12 he and a friend dressed as girls and roamed the streets of St Petersburg.   Felix began a life time of dressing up as a woman and seeking out male partners.   He knew he was expected to produce an heir, his older brother had been killed in a dual so he was due to become an ultra rich man.   His mother, and her sister the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, thought he was just "going through a phase" and found him a suitable bride.   They married, had children and did have a life long deeply bonded marriage.   Felix continue his side activities and his wife pretended she did  not know about it.   The book has a lot of  very interesting detail about the life of Russian nobles in contrast to the utter poverty of the masses.   There are a lot of interesting details including a fascinating look at a visit Felix made to a very wretched slum in St Petersburg (his Aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth had a charitable organization).   Felix for a while had a Buddha like awaking in which he realized not everyone has 100 servants and decided to give all his money away but quickly reconsidered when advised when his wife and mother told that meant he would have to dress himself and told him to stop being silly.

Felix felt Rasputin was a terrible influence on the royal family because of his seeming ability to cure the heir to the throne when he had a hemophiliac episode.   The Czar's wife, Alexandra, was completely under the sway of Rasputin.   Felix decided Rasputin must die.  (Before then Felix was assisted in deciding what shoe to wear by servants whose only job was to maintain his shoes collection.)  The story is well know.   Rasputin is murdered.   Alexandra is outraged.  Czar Nicholas, basically as clueless as monarch as you might find, was leading his army against the Germans.    When the dust of the Russian Revolution settles, Felix and his wife are in Paris.   Felix was smart enough to have property in London and Paris so he was welcome in London whereas most exiled Romanovs had to stay in Paris.   He also smuggled out a small fortune in diamonds. 

He and his wife lived well for a number of years.   He was generous with other White Russians.   King tells us some interesting things about the general situation of many Russian emigrants of the time.   Most had no job skills at all and if they had any training it was to be a military officer.   His account of their adjustments was fascinating to me.   Felix, as you could guess, was not a great money manager.   He decided he could perhaps make some money by telling his story in a book, many others had already done it.   He published three books all of which did pretty well.  He was fairly open about his sexual proclivities in his books. Hollywood  movies about the murder of  Rasputin were made Felix was depicted in these movies without his permission and in a quite unflattering way.  He decided to sue and won a judgment that would be equivalent to about five million dollars today.   After fees he and wife ended up with about half of this money.   By now his wife had taken over full management of the family funds and the two of them lived out their days in high society in New York and London.   They spent the WWII years in New York City.

This is an interesting book and will, I think, be enjoyed by those interested in the last years of the Romanovs and the post Czarist experience of White Russian nobles.   A lot of people will speed read the sections on Rasputin, this being common knowledge and enjoy more the sections of the book devoted to Felix.   Most reviewers give it a high rating (keep in mind that no one will read this book who is not already quite interested in the topic).   It has one annoying flaw in that it makes claims  of factuality without support for Rasputin having mystical powers.   The section on the tradition of wandering holy men in Russia was very interesting.   King also says that at the time of his marriage Felix was  the most handsome man in all of Russia.  This is a completely unsupported and almost foolish sounding assertion that might put some readers off on the book.

If you are interested in the period, I think you will like this book.   It seems not to be in print but has it on sale used for about $2.50

Mel u

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"The "Old Capital" by Yasunari Kawabata-a second reading

I first posted on The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata on September 13,

2009 for the Japanese Literature Challenge 3.   Tanabata of In Spring it is the Dawn is hosting a discussion group on the book in her JLit Book Group of which I am a member.   I decided to read the book a second time.   I pretty much  stand by what I wrote about the book 2.5 months ago.    Since I read it for the first time I have also read about 25 additional Japanese literary works and taken some time to study symbolic motifs in Japanese literature.

I have decided to take as my guide in rereading the book this line from this line from  Katsamakusa by Nasume Soseki

The pleasure we get gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world.

As I began to reread the first chapter of The Old Capital I was struck by the large number of references to floral and garden images.   In the first chapter (17 pages) there are 92 references to flowers (mostly violets), trees, leaves and garden images.   I did not count the number of images in the remainder of the book but I think it is about 900, in this 182 page book.  
The basic story of the book (this post assumes you have read the book) deals with a young woman who is the adopted daughter stolen at birth by her parents from her real parents, her attempt to reunite with her twin sister and discover her true roots.   It is also a story of the conflict of tradition and modern, west and Japanese values, old and young, art and commerce and other pairings.
In order to go very far into the layers of art in a novel that maybe a bit culturallly remote from us, we need to ponder what the assumed base of symbolic references the author could assume in his audience.   When I read  "Crazy Iris" by Masuji Ibuse I saw that flowers have symbolic meaning in Japanese literature, art and even tattoos.   Any one among the assumed audience for The Old Capital could be assumed understand this language.  Given this I think the first few pages of the book tells nearly the whole story in terms of symbolic garden imagery.   The shortness of the book is also a factor in  understanding some of the layers  of art.   The book can be "held in your head" easily and read in just a few hours.  
Chiceko discovered the violets flowering on the trunk of the old maple tree.  "Ah, They've bloomed again this year", she said as she encountered the gentleness of spring...The trunk of the tree twisted slightly..and just her head it bent even further.  Above the bend the limbs extended outward, dominating the garden, the ends of the longer branches dropping with their own weight

The maple tree in the symbolism assumed by Kawabata stands for practicality  balanced with art, love and beauty.   It is seen as a protective sheltering tree that grows in a cultivated defined atmosphere.   The conflict between practicality and art is one of the centers of the book.   Chiceko's parents love and shelter her but they also stole her from her parents.   The trunk of the tree twists itself to go over the head of Chiceko.   The tree dominates the garden just as Chiceko's father dominates her life.   The branches dropping with their own weight indicate the inability of Chiceko's mother and father to deal with the evil act that founded their family life.   Chiceko is a bit surprised the flowers have bloomed again this year.   She knows some how that there may come a time soon when they will not, when the underpinning of her family life if destroyed when she finds out her adoptive parents stole her from real parents.

Just below the large bend were two hollow places with violets growing in each.  Every spring they would put forth flowers.   The two violets had been on the tree ever since Chieko could remember.
The upper violet and the lower violet were separated by about a foot.  "Do the upper and lower violets ever meet?   Do they know each other"?  Chieko mused.   What could it mean to say that violets "meet" or "know" one another.

The violet is assumed to mean faithfulness, bashfulness, fragility, beauty accepted but not worshiped.   The violet is the emblem of Chieko and her missing sister.   Her parents took from her the history she might have had with her lost to her sister when they abducted her.   Of course now we know they will meet and this meet and the meeting of other pairs is an artistic center of the book.   As we admire Chieko's father for his devotion to his daughter and ponder the beautiful kimono's that are his work and in part his life we can see him as a twisted maple tree sheltering a family created in a moment of great evil.   Just as the branches begin to droop with their own weight, maybe the weight of guilt of the father will bring the tree down one day thus destroying the potential for the violets, both sisters, to develop.   One impulsive act of evil is the unseen root of the sheltering maple tree.

I think part of the artistic points of The Old Capital is to teach us that life cannot just be seen just like a book cannot really be read if we are to gain value from it.   We need to learn to see through the layers of art that we use in building up the myths of our lives.    In the first few lines of the book the full story is compressed into naturalistic descriptions codified for those who wish to read them.  

I will take a look at a couple of other ways of looking through the layers of art in The Old Capital  in  my next post on the book.  I think this book is assumed by the author to be reread as we need to know the whole story to really read the first page with any depth.   It is  meant to be like a poem that we can see all on the page at once.  


Mel u