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

Sunday, February 28, 2010

February 2009-Reading Life Month End Review

February 2009 was a very good reading month for me.   I read a book I wish I had read
 forty years ago so I could have reread it many times by now, Jane Eyre.    I followed it up with a very nice book by Charlotte Bronte's youngest sister Anne, Agnes Grey.     I read the first novel written without a man to help her  by a larger than life author  of 19th century French literature,  Indiana by George Sand.   She found her way about half way through the work (or maybe I did) and it is  master work ahead of its time and maybe ours also.   I followed this with Pierre Et Jean by Guy De Maupassant, Henry James called it a "small masterpiece", Flaubert pronounced it a work of genius, and Turgenev was quite enthralled and shared it with Tolstoy who admired it also.   I am sure De Maupassant will rest easy knowing I liked it too.   Maybe I will go see the movie of Drood (based on the novel of that name by Dan Simmons) to see the friendship of the author of a true Victorian chunkster, The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens depicted.   The book is great and I think any fan of the Victorian novel genre will like it.   

This month I decided to begin one of the projects I announced in January in my post on my plans for 2010,  posting on some books by Filipino authors.   In pursuit of this I blogged on two collections of autobiographical works by Filipino women.   I also read a very good and exciting 21th century work, Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.   She has written two other historical novels set in China and I look forward to reading both of them this year.    I also read two short novels by Junichiro Tanizaki, a writer of great talent who belongs on any list of best novelists of all times.

Not every book can be great or be compatible with  your tastes.   I read two books that I do not admire.   The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Morris was a chore for me to finish and I do not recommend it.    Another work I also did not really like was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.   I at first thought maybe somehow this was me but I was reassured when my negative remarks on the book was reaffirmed by commentators.   Everyone does say he has written much better books so in a few months I will try another of his works.    I do not like writing negative posts on a book.   Of the 80 or so reviews I have done, all but three are positive reviews.  If I read a book and I do not like it I will say why and I will try to look within myself to see if it could be me.   

 Reading Challenges Update

I really like reading challenges.   They are fun for me, by joining in I am supporting the international book blogging community, it leads me to new reading discoveries and has helped my readership to grow.   So far this year I have signed up for 34 reading challenges with four carrying over from 2009 for a total of 38 reading challenges.  So far I have completed 15 challenges.   In some of these challenges I am going on to try to complete a higher level of reading.    For example in The All About the Brontes Challenge, I have completed my original commitment  and have now decided to read all the Bronte Novels this year (there are not that many).    I have read at least one book for 21 challenges I have yet to complete.   There are still two challenges that I have not yet started.   I expect to finish between 7 and 10 challenges in March, with any luck.   I should then when April begins be left with about 10 challenges to go.   I would like to complete 50 reading challenges this year and I will be signing up for some more next week.

To all challenge hosts, I thank you for your efforts.   I am learning somethings about what makes a good challenge and maybe in 2011 I will try to start one.    I am not able to place on my blog buttons or links to all the challenges I am in as when I tried it my load time slowed to a crawl.   I also try to read the posts by others in the challenges I am in and comment when I can.  This helps me get more ideas for books to read.

Tentative Plans for March 2010

The first week of March I hope to post on one classic novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and on a novel that I could see one day being a classic, The Name of The Rose.   I will read one or two works by Junichiro Tanizaki, one or two by Haruki Murakami, some classics and some by whimsey.  At some point I will start to read Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy, Parade's End.  

As always I thank the readers of my blog and very much thank those who take the time to write comments.  

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Songs of Ourselves: Writings by Filipino Women" by Elizabeth Manlapaz

Songs of Ourselves:  Writings by Filipino Women edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Manlapaz, 1994, Anvil Publishing, 391 pages-

Before I talk about this collection of  writings from various genres by Filipino women I want to quote this poem from the collection (written in the 1930s by woman from Manila, name unknown):
They took away the language of my blood,
                        Giving me one “more widely understood”,
                        Ah, could I speak the language of my blood,
                        I, too, would free the poetry in me,
                        These words I speak are out of pitch with ME!
                        That other voice? . . . Cease longing to be free!
                        Forever shalt thou cry, a muted god:
                        “Could I but speak the language of my blood!

One of my goals this year is to to spot light some lesser known quality books by Filipino writers.   I have for the last couple of months read several books that have motivated me to reflect on the effects of colonialism on speech and society.    Two notable examples were Indiana by George Sand which is set in the French colony of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean (in the 1830s) and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys set in Jamaica in very nearly the same time frame.   Both detail the massive impact of colonialism.   Some times the effect  is as brutal as slavery and some times it lingers on  in insidious ways that may slip under our conscious radar.

Songs of Ourselves:   Writings by Filipino Women is a wonderful collection of writings of Filipino women, selected by Edna Manlapaz.   It is a mixed collection of poems, essays, memoirs and short stories.   I have been reading it for the last few months a bit at a time.   Edna Manlapaz had a very productive and distinguished career as a professor of English and Filipino Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University (the highest regarded university in the country in terms of academic excellence).   She is considered the first academic in the Philippines to make a serious study of issues related to women of the Philippines.   In this post I want to focus on loss of language as a consequence of colonialism as this is the main topic of this book.

When the Spanish took control of the Philippines in 1865 to 1871 they found 100s of languages spoken by the residents.    They found religions that were completely alien to them.    They found no sense among the people of the islands that they were one people.  Also, they found none of the vast mineral wealth they found in Latin America.   The Spanish could not really directly govern the area as almost none of their people spoke any of the local languages.   They could not really rule the country through the people whose land they had colonized as the people themselves only had limited ability to speak to each other.   The solution was to use the priests to select intelligent (and of course one must say "docile and well behaved") young men to learn Spanish.   This was done throughout the Philippines and these men became the puppet rulers of the people.   Of course they used their positions to enrich themselves and their families.   The Spanish looked upon all local languages with contempt and this attitude became part of the mind set of the Filipinos in power.   The Spanish educated only elite class men in their language, by and large.   (There are many cases of Catholic Priests throughout the Spanish colonial period devoting their whole existence to helping those who came to their churches.)    The Spanish did not migrate to the Philippines to near the extent they did Latin America as the   land did not have, as said earlier, huge mineral resources to draw colonists.    Given that women in Spanish Philippines were not trained in Spanish (some learned it through picking it up and the very wealthy arranged in home tutors) they could not have any part in running the country as the Spanish could not communicate directly with them.    The women  of the colonies were, of course, subject to the same kind of abuses from their colonizers as any other place.   As Prof. Manlapaz explains to us, when the Americans took control of the country in 1898 a very important change took place for Filipino women.   The Americans mandated that all instructions in the schools be in English and they required all girls of school age attend school, not just the boys.    This opened up huge avenues for the women of the time.    A woman could go to law school and become wealthy on her own now.   A woman could learn to speak as an equal in terms of linguistic skills (and in many cases actually better than the Americans sent to the Philippines as most were poorly educated) with the rulers of the country.    There was a price to pay for this.   The people of the Philippines lost respect for their own languages and their culture.    The poems, essays, and stories in this collection explain the profound effect this had on the people of the Philippines.   The Spanish took from them their religion and the Americans took from them their language.

I almost do not want to say this but I think the articles and poems in Prof. Manlapaz's collection help  explain why there are so few really world class novels by Filipino writers since 1900.      Prof. Manlapaz says it is because when the Filipinos lost their languages they lost they lost the deepest part of their consciousness from which great literature emerges.    Now their is an economic disincentive to write in  Tagalog (the dominant language besides English) as any work written in this language will have no market outside the country and most residents of the Philippines want their  children to excel in English as that is a must for success so they will not buy books in Tagalog for their children.

Another very useful and interesting feature of this book is the detailed biographies that Prof. Manlapaz has included for each contributor.   Like in the prior collection of writings I reviewed Pinay Auto-Biographical Narratives all of the contributors are from middle or elite class backgrounds.   A large number of them are academics and a lot   have advanced  degrees from American Universities, one is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and several are extensively published poets.   Normally I only read Great Poets like Yeats, Whitman, and others.   I do not normally read small poems from unknown to me writers.   I am very glad I made an exception for the poems Prof Manlapaz has shared with us.   I will let Luisa Igloria have the last words on this:

I have learned your speech,
fair stranger; for you

………..I have covered
My breasts and hidden,
Among the folds of my surrendered
Inheritance, the beads
I have worn since girlhood.
In the night,
When I am alone at last,
I lie uncorseted
Upon the iron bed,
Composing my lost beads
Over my chest, dreaming back
Each flecked and opalescent
Color, crooning their names,
Along with mine: 
Binaay, Binaay.

Luisa Igloria has an excellent web page that details her poems related to colonialism

This book along with Pinay Auto-biographical Narratives will give you a very good look at the thoughts of over 100 Filipino women on a wide range of topics.    Both books also list suggestions for further reading.  

I am including this book with my reading for these challenge

Women Unbound (nonfiction selection)
POC Challenge

I hope others with an interest in the Philippines can find time to join in this project with one book a year-if you know anyone who might be interested please direct them to this post-thanks to all 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Pierre Et Jean" by Guy De Maupassant

Pierre Et Jean by Guy De Maupassant ( 1888, translated by Julie Mead with an introduction by Robert Lethbridge, 2001,  129 pages, Oxford World Classics)

Guy De Maupassant (1850 to 1893) was an very successful and highly productive writer.  He wrote six short novels, over 200 short stories and a vast amount of journalism.   He is often called a father of the modern short story.    He was a protege of Gustav Flaubert.   Guy De Maupassant made a very good amount of money from his writings.   He served in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.   For ten years after the war he was a civil service clerk.   Flaubert, who knew his mother, encouraged him to pursue his literary interests.   One of his first short stories, about a prostitute during the Franco-Prussian, war was proclaimed a masterpiece by Flaubert and was hugely popular.   From the success of this De Maupassant began a career as a professional writer.   Through Flaubert he became friends with Zola and Turgenev.   Henry James considered Pierre Et Jean a small masterpiece both for its style and for the great psychological depth shown in the work.

In both George Sand's Indiana and in Pierre Et Jean we can see the authors have given serious reflection on the methods of narrating a story.   I take this to be at least in part the result of the influence of Flaubert.    We can see Sand struggle with this issue in the first half of Indiana.   De Maupassant in his marvelous preface to Pierre Et Jean reflects on what he feels the role of the literary artist should be in the face of the demands of the reading public:

In short the reading public is made up of many groups crying out to us 'Console me',  'Amuse me', 'Make me sad', 'Make me dream', 'Make me laugh', 'Make me shudder', 'Make my cry', 'Make me think'.   Only a few minds ask the artist:  'create something beautiful in the form that best suits you and according to your own temperament'
Pierre Et Jean is considered the best of his six novels.    The plot is straightforward.   Pierre and Jean are two brothers, both in their twenties.    One has recently graduated from medical school and one from law school.  Their parents are of the middle class and are proud of both of  their sons, as who would not be.    It gives us one of  the best looks at sibling rivalry I have ever seen in a novel.    (In this it compares well to The Brothers Karamazov.)   The brothers have a cordial relationship but there are undercurrents of resentment based on perceptions on each of the brother's parts that their parents preferred the other.    One day the younger brother Jean, the attorney, inherits a fortune large enough to keep him in comfort for the rest of his life from an old family friend.    Pierre, the doctor,  had always thought that the family friend liked him just as much as he did Jean.   The friend was a single man the age of their parents with no children of his own.   Pierre is stunned by this and can at first see no reason for this preference.   He begins to obsessively think about why this happened as he is driven to know why the family friend ignored him.   We see growing feelings of resentment in Pierre and we see Jean, who was always somehow in the shadow of his older brother, begin to look down on those around him not in his economic class.   We also get a great look at relationships of the  parents to each other and to the brothers.   Pierre Et James provides us with a brilliant look at a family whose children are no longer children but still somehow less than full adults.   We also along the way see how the fishing industry in France worked and we enjoy the brothers'  love of sport fishing.  We go along as the older brother goes out on the town to places his parents would not care to know about.   One of the most interesting bits of knowledge conveyed in the books was an account of the economics of life as a cruise ship doctor in the 1880.   There is a beautiful (if there can be beauty is such a thing) description of the steerage area of the cruise ship that is as vivid as anything in Dickens.   In that short passage De Maupassant shows he need not take a lower berth to his friend Zola in depicting the life of the poor.

Pierre eventually discovers why his younger brother received the inheritance.  What he learns is crushing and has still the  power to shock us.    Pierre Et James is considered a kind of transitional work in late 19th century fiction.    I really enjoyed this book.   It is a near perfect example of the art of the short novel.

De Maupassant lead an interesting if short life (43 years).   One bit of trivia I found very interesting was the fact that he once saved the English poet Charles Swinburne from drowning.    You can see for sure the influence of Flaubert in this story in its minute observations and its efforts to particularize people and in the narrative mode.    The introduction to the book by Robert Lethbridge gives us useful cultural background on the novel.    The second half of the introduction does contain spoilers and I read it after I finished the book and suggest others do the same.    I think Oxford World Classic paper backs normally have very good introductions and the production quality is high and the print is not too small.   I have mentioned this before but I think anyone interested in the 19th century novel would enjoy Flaubert:  A Biography by Frederick Brown.  The prose in the translation is beautiful. 

I am including this book for these challenges.

New Authors Challenge (means new to you)
Mutual Reads (Victorian Era novels)
Themed Reading Challenge (my theme is Flaubert and Friends)
French Historicals Oh La la! Reading Challenge.

Mel u

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (263 pages, 2005, Faber and Faber)
Never Let Me Go is the first novel I have read by Kazuo Ishiguro.   Ishiguro is of Japanese descent.   He and his family moved to England when he was six (so his father could work in the oil fields of in the North Sea).   The  Times placed Ishiguro on their list of fifty best British Writers since 1945.  
Never Let Me Go was short listed for the Booker Price and the Arthur C Clarke Prize (best Science Fiction book) .   It is a dystopic novel set in England in the 1990s.     To reveal much of anything of the plot line would be a spoiler.   It is largely set in a very special kind of a boarding school.   It centers around the lives of three of the students and is narrated by one of the students, Kathy.   Ishiguro spends a lot of time building up suspense in the book.    When we do find out what is behind the special school it is interesting enough a revelation but hardly seems worth the long build up.   Maybe part of the point of the book is that the characters lead very bland boring lives but we are not made to care about them and their fate.  I accept that perhaps this is part of the point of the novel that no one cares about the children in the special school but if the reader does not care about the characters it some times is a bit of a push to enjoy the novel.
I found the prose to be a bit  bland and near boring.   One can write about people with bland boring lives without being bland and boring.   I admit maybe the very lush and gorgeous prose I have read in the last six weeks in the works of Jean Rhys, Charlotte Bronte, and Salman Rushdie  has affected by views on the prose style of Ishiguro.  It is easy to read, lots of people love it and I am glad I read it as it does provide an interesting alternative vision of England in the 1990s.    I think it would make a good book to read on a long plane trip.   I think in fairness my negative attitude toward this book may somehow be caused by the extreme high quality of the other books I have read so far this year.   Of the 18 novels I have read so far this year, I would rank it maybe 15th best.   This does not mean it is not worth reading.   I took a quick look at the ratings of this book and most readers gave it four stars.   I gave it three.   Most reviewers liked it more than I did.    I do think my take on him is influenced by the very great books I have recently read.    Some would think this makes my comments on him unfair.   Latter on I will give him a second read.   I did not really dislike this book and my ttaste does run to lush prose.   I was curious about Ishiguro as I see his works in the book stores here in Manila and now my curosity is satisfied.

I got this book in a book trade with a fellow Manila based book blogger.   If anyone wants to work out a book trade please contact me.

I am including this book in my reading for these challenges

POC Challenge
New Authors Challenge (means new to the reader)
Fantasy Challenge
Speculative Fiction Challenge

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Indiana" by George Sand

Indiana  by George Sand (1832, Translated from French by Sylvia Raphael, 271 pages, Oxford World Classics, with introduction by Naomi Schor)

Indiana was George Sand's (Amandine Aurore Dupin)  first novel written without a collaborator.   Sand is now much more known about than read.    She was the daughter of a countess and was the wife of a Baron.   She dressed largely in the clothing of men of her class, had affairs and relationships with numerous literary, artistic and musical figures.   Her most famous romance was with Frederic Chopin.    In a marvelous coincidence just as I completed Indiana the movie Impromptu based on the romance of Chopin and Sand was show on Sky Cable here in Manila.    The movie is a comedy of sorts but it was a lot of fun to see Sand on screen.    There are unverified to this day rumors of romantic relationships with other women also.

Indiana is set partially in Paris and partially on Reunion Island, a French possession (now legally part of France and in 1832 known as Bourbon Island) in the Indian Ocean about four hundred miles east of Madagascar.    The island was populated by African Slaves, Chinese, Malays, and French Emigrants.   It is a small island under 1000 square miles.    In the 1830s it was important as a stopping off point for ships going from India to Europe.     I was very interested to see the treatment and view of French people born on the island was very much like the view of English people born on Jamaica held by native Englishmen as seen in Wide Sargasso Sea.   They were called creoles and the suggestion throughout Indiana is that creoles were more given to excesses than native Frenchmen and women.   There also is an undercurrent in this book that creole women are  more passionate than European French women and  a  further part of the attraction of island life for the men is the ready access to women of color.

There are six central characters in Indiana.    Indiana is an attractive creole woman married by arrangement to a much older man, Colonel Delmare, a retired army officer.   Indiana's cousin Ralph, close to her age, has been in love with her since they were children.    He was married to Noun, a maid of Indiana who became like a sister to her.   In a smaller role is the mother of Ralph.    Indiana has a lot of themes.   One of the strongest themes is a protest against the marriage laws of France which made a wife a virtual slave of her husband.   Sand in her narrative voice makes some very powerful for the time (and now) statements for the rights of women and the alteration of marriage laws.    Indiana is also about slavery which was practiced on Reunion Island as part of the sugar plantations.   Again there are strong  ties here with the world of Jamaica in the setting of Wide Sargasso Sea.    Sugar plantations needed slaves to be profitable.    There are a lot of dramatic (some  would say over dramatic scenes) in Indiana, lots of passionate speeches and narrative theorizing and social commentary.    

Indiana was my first George Sand.   You can see it is a first novel as it is told  in a self conscious fashion as if Sand were struggling with how to narrate the novel aside from going  into a "dear readers let me tell you what happens next mode".    For about the first half of the novel I was enjoying it  and it was very interesting to me to read about life on the Island and see how Sand was using the novel as a vehicle for her ideas on women, marriage, and slavery.    Then as I passed the mid-point of the novel somehow I did begin to see it as work of real brilliance.    I am not sure if it is because Sand was learning as she was writing or if it was me learning how to read Sand.    There are passages in the second half of the novel that are simply amazing.    George Sand, it appears to me from quick research, never went to Reunion Island but her descriptions of the Island make us feel like we are there.   We can feel the contrast of the tropical island with its at the time very exotic natives to Paris of the 1830s.   The lush beauty and volcanic nature of the islands is dramatically conveyed.   At one point I really felt like I was sitting on the veranda of a big house on a sugar cane plantation drinking what had to have been delicious locally grown coffee feeling the breezes from the high volcanic mountains flow over me while pushing to the back of my mind  what the human cost of this leisure might have been.

George Sand (1804 to 1876) had a very interesting life.   Wikipedia has a good article on her that goes into all her relationships with the famous and does talk about the evidence for her being a GLBT author.   Sand had a huge literary output, writing well over sixty novels.    I am including this book among my readings for the Women Unbound Challenge for its treatment of French Marriage Customs and slavery issues related to women on Reunion Island.

I will read other works by Sand.  I would say be patient and opened minded and Indiana will well repay your reading time.   The introduction to the book spends a lot of time relating the novel to 20th century theories of feminism and colonialism. 

Mel u

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Wide Sargasso Sea"-The Movie (1992)

It has been a long time since a book has moved me as deeply as Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.    Maybe I lost myself or at least any pretension of objectivity in the beauty of the language.    Imagine you are on a tropical island somewhere, lying where the waves touch the beach, looking out on a lush jungle.  The last thing you really want to do is think.    The more you can give yourself up to the sheer bliss of the prose of Wide Sargasso Sea the more deeply you will experience it. 
Yesterday I was surfing through the channels available on Sky Cable TV here in Manila.   To my great surprise, on The Velvet Channel  the movie set to start was Wide Sargasso Sea based on Jean Rhys's novel.   Of course I had to watch it even though I was worried it would not come close to the book.    Here are the production details of the movie:
"Wide Sargasso Sea" has been rated NC-17 (No one under 17 admitted). The film has complete nudity and sex scenes that are frank without being graphic. Wide Sargasso Sea Directed by John Duigan; screenplay by Jan Sharp, Carole Angier and Mr. Duigan, based on the novel by Jean Rhys; director of photography, Geoff Burton; edited by Anne Goursaud and Jimmy Sandoval; music by Stewart Copeland; production designer, Franckie D; produced by Ms. Sharp; released by Fine Line Features. At Cinema 1, Third Avenue at 60th Street, Manhattan. Running time: 100 minutes. This film is rated NC-17. Antoinette Cosway . . . Karina Lombard Rochester . . . Nathaniel Parker Annette Cosway . . . Rachel Ward Paul Mason . . . Michael York Aunt Cora . . . Martine Beswicke Christophene . . . Claudia Robinson Amelie . . . Rowena King
Of course I very much wanted to see Antoinette on the screen.   She is perfectly  played by Karina Lombard.   Antoinette is not conventionally beautiful.  She is not an English rose.    She is a Jamaican octopus orchid.     We feel her passion for Edward Rochester and believe in her descent into madness.   She may overact a bit in a fight scene but she has to convey great depth of emotion and feeling in  a small time frame and does it well.   Her final moments in the movie may well give you shivers as they did me.

Edward Rochester is played by Nathaniel Parker.
The movie does completely play to the Jean Rhys interpretation of Edward Rochester as a colonial master who cannot understand his wife any more than he can relate to the freed slaves on the island as full human beings.   

There are, of course, things left out of the movie.   The brother of Antoinette is very well played by Michael York.   Edward Rochester is shocked to his depths by the fact that the mother of his wife's brother was owned by her father.   This does not stop Edward from treating women of African descent as if they were his property to do with as he likes.   The version of the movie I saw has about 2 minutes removed from it due to censorship of cable TV in the Philippines.    I watched the movie twice and I will, I hope, see it a few more times.   The Velvet network tends to repeats movies over and over!

Here is a link to the movie trailer.

I wish Jean Rhys could have seen this movie.   I am not sure if she would have liked it or not but I wish she could have gotten some money from it.    There are some very interesting and intelligent comments on my blog left by those who felt Jean Rhys was unjust to Rochester.   I read Jane Eyre for the first time about ten days after reading Wide Sargasso Sea.   I accept that maybe I was so mesmerized by the beauty of Jean Rhys's language that I may have given an overly anti-colonial reading of Rochester.   Whether Jean Rhys got Rochester right really does not affect the artistic merit of either work but Jane Eyre is much more than simply a great Victorian novel.   It is a cultural treasure of huge import and value so that makes it worth considering if Jean Rhys got it right.   I am still inclined to say, with some qualifiers of course, that she did.   I will reread Wide Sargasso Sea soon and will reread Jane Eyre after I read all the other Bronte novels I have not yet read.   You will understand this movie if you know the basic plot of Jane Eyre.   The scenery is lush and beautiful.    Some of the dialogue in the movie is just as written, which was so wonderful to hear it spoken.   I liked this movie a lot.

I am including this review for

The All About the Brontes Challenge and
The Read the Book, See the Movie Challenge

Mel u

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Honor of Coeditor of my Blog-Charles and his Brother Yoda

As you can see Charles, is very excited over his role as Co-Editor of  The Reading Life.   His favorite book we have posted on so far is Dewey the Small Town Library Cat.   What are your books that Charles might like?   He is 18 and will not read just anything.   He thought the cat in I am a Cat was silly.    When he heard of Junichiro Tanizaki's Two Women and a Cat he felt it might be good to have two so he would never have to worry about his feeding dish being low or his chin needing rubbing.   As a kitten he loved The Cat in the Hat.    He was very happy to read in The Life of Johnson that Dr Johnson was a cat person.   He feels the most admirable character in the Harry Potter books is Argus Filch because of his extreme devotion to his cat, Mrs Norris.     He respects Sir Issac Newton for his invention of  the cat flap door (so his beloved cats could go in and out as they pleased).     He savors Horace Walpole's letters about his cats and is very excited to hear that the Broadway show "Cats", inspired by a work of T S Eliot , will soon be opening in Manila.

Charles and his brother Yoda (Yoda passed away in Jan 2009 at age 17-he will always be missed) -

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Captain Shigemoto's Mother" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Captain Shigemoto's Mother by Junichiro Tanizaki (1949, translated from Japanese by Anthony Chambers)

Captain Shigemoto's Mother is the 8th work I have posted on by Junichiro Tanizaki.   Tanizaki's wife Matsuko said it was her favorite of her husband's books.   Often by a happy coincidence something read in one book will give more life to your reading of a prior book.   This work is set among the middle ranking nobility in the first half of the 10th century in Japan.   I was so happy to see one of the lead characters was Heiju, the poet depicted in The Tales of Ise, a collection of 10th century courtly love poems.    The short poems and stories in this collection (called "dons") are very formal in structure and all seem pretty much the same to modern readers.    We do not get much of a sense of the characters and lives of the people in the dons. 

Captain Shigemoto's Mother essentially brings the people in these poems to life.    We see Heiju, portrayed as an assistant commander in the military guards of the court, who is a serial seducer of women ranging from wives of high ranking officials to servant girls.    Heiju is a seeker of sensation, a lover of beauty whether in a woman or 7th century poems.    He also seems a thrill seeker in that he takes a lot of chances in some of his seductions.    We see the ends and outs of court life and his use of servants as helpers in his efforts.    We also get to know three  high ranking officials of 10th century Japan.   We get a close up look at the arranged marriage of a 20 year old woman from a noble family to higher ranking man fifty years her senior.   Most of the characters are portrayed as skilled poets and full readers of the literary traditions that were dominant in 10th century Japan.

Captain Shigemoto's Mother is told very much in the style of another medieval story by Tanizaki that I really like The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.  

Both are written as if they were 17th century biographical narratives about great figures from history.   In the real histories, the central characters are all people of flawless character totally devoted to their tradition and leaders.   The people in Captain Shigemoto's Mother are real people, far from flawless.    I loved seeing that the central character, Heiju, was deeply into the reading life.   Sometimes it seems like he was interested in women almost as much as subjects to bring to mind poems he had internalized as much as for the women themselves.    As in other works of Tanizaki,  there is a focus on sexual fixations and fetishes.   There is one scene so flat out twisted I actually laughed out loud reading it which is not something one would expect would happen while reading a work set in  medieval Japan.   You can tell Tanizaki had a lot of fun writing this  novella (123 pages) and with a little bit of patience with all the literary references to works unheard of most readers will have fun reading it.   Part of the pleasure of this work is the contrast  of the courtly very much of another era style of the narration and the very strange and out of the moral high road events that are narrated.  

Obviously I like and admire Tanizaki's work very much.   He had an interesting life (1886 to 1965).   The Wikipedia article on him is very informative.    He is on my read everything they have written (or in this case has been translated) list.    I will soon read and post on two more of his works, The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man.   Besides this, Vintage Press has in print a collection of seven short stories and a work of aesthetic theory.    There appears to be one other novel translated, Two Women and a Cat, available used on sometimes and a another collection of short fiction (which may overlap the Vintage) that are no longer in print.    Not all of the translated works have prose of the same quality.   I prefer the translations of Anthony Chambers in terms the quality of the writing.    I am grateful to Vintage Press for keeping his work in print.    

I am including this book for these challenge
Tournament of Reading (Medieval)
POC Challenge

Mel u

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Agnes Grey" by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (1847, 194 pages)  

Anne Bronte is overshadowed in the literary world by her sisters Charlotte and Emily.   She only lived a tragically short twenty nine years.   In addition to Agnes Grey, her first novel, she has one other work, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Having very recently read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte I could not help but compare the two works.    Perhaps Agnes Grey does not look as deep into the minds and souls of it characters as Jane Eyre does.  Agnes Grey does have a gentle friendly seeming wisdom and quality that I really loved.   Perhaps the romance of Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre is more exciting somehow than that of Agnes Grey and her curate love, Mr Weston but it seems somehow more real.    I found it really entertaining and informative to read about Agnes Grey's life as a governess.  Some of her charges were quite the little monsters, such as the boy who liked to torture captured birds.    I thought Agnes' visit to the home of one of her former pupils, Rosalie Murray, who had realized her life ambition of becoming the wife of a lord, was a wonderful set piece that showed great insight into the dynamics of the relationships depicted.   I really enjoyed this book.   It is a lighter read than Jane Eyre but that does not mean a lighter book.    I welcomed the happy endings of the book.   I think most people who would have an interest in this book will be glad they read it.   I know I am.     I will read her second novel soon.     I also liked the fact that she included chapter titles for the episodes.  

I am including this book for these challenges
Mutual Reads-(Victorian Novels-completed with this work)-I will try for a higher level
New Authors (means new to the reader)
19th Century Women Writers
All About the Brontes Challenge-completed with this read-I will read on in the Brontes for sure.
Typically British
Take Another Change Challenge (read books by two different family members)

I will go on to read  Villete, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Wuthering Heights in the next six weeks or so and will probably end up reading all of the Bronte novels.   

Mel u 

Friday, February 12, 2010

"The City of Dreaming Books" by Walter Morris

The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers (2006, 456 pages, translated from German by John Brownjohn)
The City of Dreaming Books is a fantasy about the adventures of a book loving dinosaur from the land of Zamonian in the city of dreaming books.    The entire city is devoted to selling books.   There are all sorts of creatures that inhabit the city.   The book is presented as if it were translated from Zamonian and is the memoirs of our book loving dinosaur.    A lot of reviewers on  gave this book five stars and said it creates a wonderfully realized alternative universe and shows tremendous powers of imagination.   I try very hard to read through all the books I start.   This is not from any moral or literary imperative it is just that there are no libraries here in Manila so I want to get my value somehow out of a book.   The basic conceit of the book is kind of clever.   Some of the creatures we encounter are clever.   Once and a while an interesting thought provoking observation about the reading life is made by someone.

Reading is an intelligent way of not having to think.

The longer I read on in this book, the less  interested I was in it.   It is imaginative in parts but it is also silly, repetitious, labored, boring and imitative of better books.   I ended up speed reading through the last 150 or pages while watching TV so maybe I did not give the book a fair change.   Like I said lots of people give it five stars but an equal amount give it two stars.   To me it was not funny, it did not get my  attention and once I got beyond the clever concept of the book and encountered the first two or three monsters I was getting quite bored.    I am glad I learned to speed read a very long time ago so I could get this book over with.   My apologies to those who loved the book but I would really say do not buy this book.

The book is meant as a satire of the publishing world, of readers, of book shops, of book collectors and professional literary critics.    Probably if you really mined it you could come up with some deep themes but the same thing could be said about many book not worth our time or money.

I am counting this book for these challenges

Chunkster Challenge
New Authors (new to the reader)
Speculative Fiction
Fantasy Reading
Bibliophilic Books Challenge

Mel u

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"The Reed Cutter" by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Reed  Cutter by Junichiro Tanizaki (1932, 50 pages translated from Japanese by Anthony H. Chambers-1993-Vintage Publishing)
The Reed Cutter is the seventh work by Junichiro Tanizaki which I have read.   (It is published jointly by Vintage with Captain Shigemoto's Wife.)    The more of his work I read the more impressed I become by the range and versatility of his writing as well as his sheer intelligence and deep wisdom.   
The narrator of The Reeder Cutter, a man aged 45 to 60 (my guess) decides one day to go for a walk.    Like the narrator in Arrowroot and the father in law in Some Prefer Nettles he is deeply read in classical Japanese literature and often sees the world through the filter of these works.    As he goes on his walk he recalls works of literature he read many years ago.   He is walking on the banks of a river and he imagines a 9th century poet being inspired to write about the beauty he sees.    As the narrator walks further he comes to an area once famous for the quality of courtesans in the area.   The narrator begins to recall courtesans celebrated in the poetry of Tan Fu and Po Chu both from the 8th century.    In this area of the river it was said all of the females of age were available for sex for hire.   From courtesans celebrated in the poems only to the most elite down to ordinary women who went out on the river in small boats to attract clients.  Lest we think these women are regarded with contempt consider this
Where have these floating women gone?   It is said that they took professional names redolent of Buddhism in the belief that selling sexual pleasure was the act of a bodhisattva.   Would it be possible to raise them to the surface of this stream for a time, like bubbles forming on the surface-these women who likened themselves to avatars of Samantabharda and were even revered by a venerable sage?

As our narrator proceeds on he hears a rustling in the reeds, it is the reed cutter.   The narrator begins a very extended conversation with the reed cutter, a man he identifies with as they are about the same age.   The narrator begins to converse about aging with the reed cutter.  The reed cutter begins to talk about walks along the river he used to take with his father. (The reed cutter in fact comes from an aristocratic family and cuts reeds for pleasure and exercise.)  The father of the reed cutter wanted to marry a woman (this is a story of 25 years or so in the past of the reed cutter.    The woman he wants to marry is promised to another.    The father of the reed cutter ends up marrying the sister of the woman he loves, reasoning if he cannot be the husband of his beloved perhaps he can be her sister.   One of the themes of  the work of Tanizaki is erotic enslavement.   We have seen this theme brilliantly treated in Naomi and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.   In one of the most striking parts of the book the woman the father loved, his wife, and he go on a trip along the river.   They stop at an inn.   The sister he loved had recently had a baby.   They employed a wet nurse who was left home with the baby.   Normally the wet nurse would also drain out the milk produced by the mother of the child.   She does not come along on this trip so the mother drains herself the milk, places it in a glass and the father drinks it.   The wife of the father of the reed cutter knows he loves her sister and married her only to stay close to her sister.   He is also offered the opportunity to nurse from the woman but he finds the power to decline this given his wife is in the room.   Like the protagonist in Naomi, we see male characters making women into fetish objects and investing them with great power through their erotic grips.   Of course in the dynamics of human relationships this is continually shifting and can easily be lost to the next woman or to the effects of aging.   This is one of the deeper themes related to women's issues in Tanizaki's work.

There are lots of interesting literary references, observations about poetry, the aging process, sex  and family life in the work.   Nothing really happens, just a two men talking next to a river.   For sure it is a beautiful story of a man deeply into the reading life whose view of the world has been hugely enriched  by the works that are part of his interior life.   We may not be able ever to enter deeply into the works that were part of his reading life but we can see a brother of the life in him.

This probably should not be your first Tanizaki  (1886 to 1965) but for sure it is a wonderful novella.  

I will soon read and post on The Key, Diary of a Man Old Man, and Captain Shigemoto's Mother, also by Tanizaki.   Tanizaki is on my "read all they have written list" (or in his case all translated into English-I am grateful to Vintage press for having the courage and I must say class to publish and keep in print so many of his works-12).  

As we grow older we come to a sort of resignation, a state of mind that lets us enjoy our decline in accordance with the laws of nature, and we come to wish for a quiet balanced life, do we not?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

"The Woman in White" by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins  (1860, 617 pages in Barnes and Noble Edition)

A Woman in White  seems to have really set the book blog world on fire recently.   It looks like it is  among the most blogged about 19th century books in 2009.   Everyone pretty much  really enjoyed reading it.   For the majority it is the first book of Wilkie Collins they have read and it seems his consensus master piece.   For a lot of readers it seems to be among their first Victorian novels.   This was my first Collins.

The narrative of The Woman in White is carried out by numerous individuals.   Each narrator stood out well.    The story kept my interest to the end.   In fact I found I liked the last 100 pages of the novel more than the rest.   I enjoyed the character of Count Fosco a lot.    Given the large number of posts on this work I am more or less just adding my voice to the chorus on this work.   There are a lot of good blog posts on this work.   I enjoyed this book a lot.    I liked hearing about secret societies and would have liked a bit more focus on that but maybe that is another book. 

Wilkie Collins was a very good friend of Charles Dickens.    The Woman in White was first published in serial fashion in a publication run by Dickens.   In fact, the younger brother of  Collins married the youngest daughter of Dickens.    It is said that Collins always felt his writings were not in the same category as those of Dickens.   I would have to say that he was right with the qualifier that the same could be said of nearly anyone!     I liked The Woman in White and I am glad I read it.   

I read this book book for these challenges

Mutual Reads (Victoria Novels)
Typically British Challenge
Chunkster Challenge (over 450 pages)
Wilkie Collins mini-challenge
Read Before I Die Challenge
New Authors Challenge (refers to new to the reader)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"Pinay:Autobiogrphical Narratives by Women Writers, 1926 to 1998" edited by Christina Hidalgo

Pinay: Autobiographical Narratives by Women Writers, 1926 to 1998 edited and introduced by Christina Pantoja Hidalgo (2000, 260 pages Ateneo de Manila Press)
On November 12, 2009 Hilary Clinton acting in her role as Secretary of State of the United States made an official visit to the Philippines.   During her visit  she said the Philippines is ahead of the USA in giving women leadership roles.   She referenced the fact that since World War II there has been two women presidents of the Philippines.    ( When Hilary Clinton said one thing the women of the Philippines need is a corruption free government the people can trust the TV camera turned its focus on the women leaders in the podium behind her.   Sadly there records are no better than their male counterparts.)
Pinay: Autobiographical Narratives by Women Writers, 1926 to 1998 is collection of short pieces by Filipino women on a range of topics.   Some of the articles are extracted from books, others from newspapers, some from old family journals and some were written for the book.   All were written in English.    The fact that the articles were written in English limits the social range of the writers in that only college graduates can write with any fluency in English.    The further one goes back in the 20th century (up to say 1920) the closer to standard English is found in the writings of Filipinos.   Under the US colonial rule English was mandated as the language of instruction in the public schools.     After WWII many began to see the focus on English in the schools as showing a lack of national pride so over all written English declined up until about 1990.   It is now the vehicle of instruction in elite universities and private high schools.  
There are six sections in this book.   The first is devoted to growing up and going to school.    These articles focus on childhood memories and the extreme importance of family.   One of the best articles is "Growing up Protestant in a Catholic Country".  
Section two is devoted to the lives of Philippino women during the Japanese occupation in World War II.    There are still a few members of our family with personal memories of this period.   I hope we can record their stories before it is too late.   Many of the stories are very related to issues in the Women Unbound Challenge as they are about women left alone, women victimized solely because of their ethnic background and women losing their childhood to war.  A lot of how Filipinas were treated depended on the temperament of the local commander of the Japanese forces.   Some tried to enforce decent behavior on their men and some gave them free reign to do whatever they wished to the local populace.    As Japan began to face defeat, as the articles show, they began to take it out on the locals.    One of the most interesting articles deals with the reopening of the University of the Philippines right after the war. 
Section III deals with falling in love and marriage.    It is said all over the world when you marry someone you also marry their family and for sure that is true in the Philippines.     The cultural of the Philippines is very romance oriented (not quite sure how to express this correctly).    You see this in the articles.    To explain it a bit, the best selling western classics in the Philippines are the works of Jane Austin and the Brontes.     There is almost no legal divorce in the Philippines.   As a partial result of this, in my opinion, their is a high rate of births out of marriage (medical birth control is also looked very much down on by the Church).   Abortion is completely illegal under all but the most dire circumstances.    
Section IV deals with maternity.     Partially as a result of the teachings of the Catholic Church, there is great reverence given to the role of the mother in Philippino culture.   When Cory Aquino (a former president-widow of Nino Aquino) recently passed away she was mourned as if the mother of the country had died.    The articles in this section cover topics ranging from dealing with sibling fights in the family to the joys of big family gatherings.
Section V deals with the job market and focuses on the transition of young Filipino women into the work place.    The Philippines is a very very appearance conscious country.    There are none of the laws to protect people from discrimination in employment that exist in the UK and elsewhere.   You commonly see ads for big corporations saying applicants must be under 26, over five foot two,  and attractive plus have a pleasing personality.     One of my wife's female cousins, in her mid-twenties, recently applied for a job at a major department store.   She was told by the female human resources person that she could be hired but first she had to raise up her dress so her legs could be inspected as the store was known for having attractive female sales persons in short dresses.   This was done not in a way to degrade just as fact of employment.    There are articles about starting a restaurant. attending law school and working as a journalist.
One of the big aspects  of life in the Philippines is that millions and millions of parents, husbands and wives have to leave their family sometimes for up to two years to go out of the country to work so they can send money back to their families.   Many a small town in the rural Philippines is largely supported by earnings from those working outside the country.    The range of jobs go from maids (a maid in Hong Kong gets free room and board and makes twice the pay as a Philippino office worker) to heart surgeons and super tanker captains.   These long periods away from the family are hard on everyone, especially on the children when the mother is gone.    The articles show the turmoil in the mind of women who work off shore.   Of course they worry if their children are ok and most worry about the fidelity of their spouses.   Many are in fact single mothers who leave their children in the care of a relative.   I   know of  one case where a woman works as a nurse in a  hospital in London (she obtained a master's degree from an English university at her employer's expense) and now she supports twenty relatives in a small town in Luzon.     I have met in small towns a few people who worked 20 to 40 years in the USA or elsewhere where there is government social security.   The day they were able to get a pension they went home.   Often their children were grown  now barely knowing them.   The articles cover issues like home sickness, looking for love in another country, feelings of isolation, and living in cultures where all Asians are lumped together.
If I could make a change in this very well done collection I would have liked the articles to be longer.   There are excellent short biographies of each writer from which we can see the career paths of the women authors.  (It is an elite list of authors).   It would have been interesting to hear from some of the millions of people  in squatter shacks next to the huge malls and luxury condos but these people have no ability by and large to write in English.
Pinay: Autobiographical Narratives by Women Writers, 1926 to 1998 has a very well done introduction.   The book is worth reading for anyone interested in increasing their understanding of the life of Filipino women.   It also give us brief samples of writing from 40 or so POC women.   This book is available on (the cost new is $25.00 USA-I hate to say this but I would not suggest one pay that much-some times it is on Amazon for less than ten dollars and some larger libraries may have it).    It does focus entirely on middle class or above women.  (Middle class women in the Philippines have full time help.)-The book also lets us see what happens in the historical case of one POC group having colonial domination over another.
I am reading this book for these challenges
Memorable Memoirs
POC Reading Challenge (over 40 view points from POC women)
Women Unbound Challenge (1 of 3 non fiction selections to be read)
Mel u

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Shanghai Girls" by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (2009, 406 pages).

For months now I have been seeing rave reviews for Shanghai Girls.    Everybody seems to love it.    I have a long established rule of not buying hard bound fiction (there are no public libraries here in Manila.   I only bought one hard bound work of fiction in 2009, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon and I would advise others to wait for the paperback or skip it if you are not a Pynchon fan)   I was so happy when I saw Shanghai Girls in paperback (regular paperback at that) for sale last week.   It also has a beautiful cover.

There are lots of very good blog posts on this book.   (I think the publisher gave away a lot of copies to USA and UK bloggers.)   I will  for this reason  not do a long post on this book.   I will just try to say how I felt about the book and what I liked and did not like about it.

The novel begins in 1937 in Shanghai.   I loved how Lisa See created the atmosphere of Shanghai in the late 1930s.    I understood why it was such a loved city and it was heartbreaking to see it destroyed by the Japanese in World War II.    I loved how the book depicted the family relationships.   The characters were perfectly done.   I really cared what happened to everyone.    I also enjoyed seeing the lead female characters develop and gain from their experiences.   I learned a lot about the horrific process Chinese often had in their immigration to the USA.    I admit I was not fully aware of the tremendous discrimination Chinese Americans faced, especially during the communist scare period of  the 1950s where every Chinese was seen as a potential Maoist spy.    The books covers twenty years in the history of two deeply bonded sisters.   A lot happens in their lives, some very sad things.   We see how an arranged marriage slowly develops into a real relationship.    The atmosphere of China Town in Los Angeles is as well done as the portrayal of Shanghai.   I really liked the the portrayal of Joy, the daughter of one of the sisters.   There are surprise revelations at every turn.    The action is fast moving and a lot happens.   The prose is well done and easy to read.    The only part of the book I did not really like was the ending.   It seems a bit forced but I read Lisa See is working on a sequel.

Lisa See has written two other historical novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love.   The first is set in 17th century China and the second in the 19th century.   I hope to read both of these works in 2010.  When   there is a sequel to Shanghai Girls I might have to violate my no hardbound fiction for it.

I am reading this book for these challenges

China Challenge
POC challenge (Lisa See is an American of Chinese Heritage)
New Author Challenge (this means new to the reader)
Global Challenge (North American book)-going for second level now-

I also think this book is very much related to issues of  the Women Unbound Challenge.    It depicts the the literal binding results of  foot binding.   It shows how daughters were viewed as property to be sold in marriage to the most generous bidders.    The suggestion in the Shanghai section  of the novel is that a woman can either be a dutiful wife and mother or prostitute, those were a woman's options in China in the 1930s.

Suko of Suko's Note Book has done an excellent review of Shanghai Girls.