Saturday, August 16, 2014

Not Quite Paradise: A Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker

(April 2010) We usually take it for granted that living in a foreign country changes us—sometimes profoundly and sometimes superficially—and we usually develop strong feelings for the foreign country and for the total expatriate experience. The memories of that place can remain in frozen in time, even as the country itself changes at the normal pace of human history. Sometimes gigantic forces speed up the pace of change, and the place we remember is no longer there.

In 2001, Adele Barker and her teenage son went to Sri Lanka to experience a different life and culture. Ms. Barker taught Russian Literature at the University of Peradeniya and shares insights into the thinking of her students in addition to the individuals who help her at home (against her initial insistence not to hire servants, which she explains well in the book). The first part of the book is a fascinating and satisfying portrayal of local culture, food, flora, and fauna—encounters with ants, monkeys, the forest and jungle. We also learn something of the political history, colonialism, insurrections, bloody massacres, uneasy peace and prolonged civil war. There is a sense that an overwhelming amount of life and death is packed onto this small island.

The first part of the book closes with the reluctant goodbyes and hopeful promises to return someday as Ms. Barker heads back to the U.S. (her son having preceded her due to school considerations). This would have been the end of an informative and heartfelt memoir of one of the world's unique places.

Then, on December 26, 2006, the tsunami struck. "People remembered the wave as being black. Someone I know described it as a black cobra. What the wave brought with it was the bottom of the ocean, the silt, the sand, the plastic bottles, plastic lunch wrappers, pieces of metal, and everything that people had aimlessly thrown into the sea over the years." In a span of ten minutes, coastal villages in many places were obliterated by the waves swamping the buildings and then sucking everything out to sea.

Watching the television reports and receiving distressing phone calls from friends on the island, Ms. Barker was compelled to go back to Sri Lanka to see for herself. What follows is a collection of first-hand observations of some of the best and worst efforts of administering disaster aid from around the world as she interviews people along her journey. Political warfare seems to escalate. People seem trapped between the powers of nature and the struggles of armed extremists. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Against a milieu of escalating fighting, Ms. Barker discusses literature with her students—one feels the obscenity of violence against the struggle for peace and dignity.

Finally, it is time to leave again. "Going and coming, madam?" This time the answer is "No, just going."

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

(Jan. 2011)  This was a great read. The translation is smooth and the mystery moves along well. It kept me enough off-balance and on-edge to stay with the investigation without reading ahead (I'm usually impatient). I hesitate to mention any of the plot lines for fear of giving something away, but I can say, this is a good, solid, crime solving tale.

The setting is Tokyo and the characters and locations are sketched lightly, still, readers with at least a bit of knowledge of Japan will enjoy the intrigue of two geniuses battling to solve/create a perfect crime. Without giving too much away, I enjoyed the way the term "devotion" worked on several levels. 

Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari

(Jan. 3, 2011)  Taroko Gorge is a good first effort, deserving applause for getting published, but I hope it's only a mere beginning for this young author. I think this novel would make a great story for a manga (graphic novel) so that the characters and scenery would have a chance to be fully realized in visuals since they are never fully realized in the prose.

Given the title, I was expecting that Taroko Gorge would come to life in this story through some descriptions of the sounds, smells, weather, colors, and so on that could have created spectacular atmosphere for the mystery that develops. Imagine a story named "Yosemite" in which there is not enough description of the place to warrant the use of the park's name in the title. Sorry to go on about this, but having visited Taroko Gorge, I was looking forward to seeing it skillfully woven into the storyline.

The characters struggle to have distinctive voices but almost all of them seem to have the same voice as the author. Their characterizations are dialog-driven, so I could never conjure visual images of them and had to rely on the stereotypes indicated by their speech.

A fair first effort that will appeal most to teenagers but unfortunately doesn't reveal much in terms of cultural insights, despite the crisscrossing of Japanese, Taiwanese/Chinese, and Americans. I would like to see this book re-incarnated as manga.

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

(Written Jan. 5, 2011) I read Chef a few weeks ago and am just now getting time to write a comment. By coincidence, headlines in the Guardian January 4, 2011: "The influential governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, has died after being shot by one of his bodyguards in the capital, Islamabad." Reading the newspaper articles about this most recent assassination and the comments from readers, especially from Pakistani people, reveals how complicated and destructive politics is in that country/region.

Chef is a work of fiction which brings some of the complications of India/Pakistan politics and military friction to life in the main characters--Kirpal Singh "Kip", and his former teacher, Chef Kishen--in a flash-back return to Kashmir from India. Even Death is personified in Kip's reflection on his own mortality (he has cancer), as he returns to the desolate, war-ridden region of northern Pakistan. There is much at work in this lyrical novel, much think about, and it was very effective in raising my interest to know more about this region and its seemingly endless conflict. 

Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami

I haven't read any of Murakami Ryu's novels since Almost Transparent Blue came out in English back in 1981 or so, and now I realize I've been missing out. Popular Hits of the Showa Era is the latest of his works to be translated into English (thank you, Ralph McCarthy, for a very lucid translation), and brings me back to the edgy, odd, quirky, violent, dysfunctional, disenfranchised weirdness of Japanese society which I ordinarily am not privy to. I sometimes wonder about the other folks on the trains here in Tokyo and speculate about their hidden lives...

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is surprising for the seemingly random way two loosely-formed groups of friends are thrown together in an increasingly surreal clash of revenge and retribution that spirals into chaos of shocking proportions. Six young men in their twenties ("hikikomori/otaku" types) evolve into a bonded friendship of sorts while six middle-aged ladies similarly coalesce into a friendship group. One spontaneous act of mindless violence sets into motion a revenge cycle that motors the plot through the otherwise completely mundane lives of these 12 individuals.

Popular Hits is a work of satire and humor that made me laugh out loud despite the over-the-top slashing, blood, sex, and pyrotechnics which I do not normally find entertaining. As a social commentary, Popular Hits has sharp teeth. This one was a lot of fun, and I will definitely seek out the other nine or ten translations of Murakami's that I've missed in the last 30 years.

It's been more than three years...

...since I've posted anything here.  Other social media has been a big distraction and I've tacked up random comments about books on Facebook, LibraryThing, Goodreads, etc.  Since I have a little time now during summer vacation, I'll try to round some of them up and post here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Remarks on Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I heard that this book has been made into a movie.  I wasn't too impressed with the book, so I wonder what it will be like in a movie.  Here are some of my reactions to the book:

Pluses: This novel is fairly well constructed and well-written (with the exception of a few too many "outrageously long eyelashes" describing the elephant) and the main characters adequately drawn. The pace and the use of flashbacks work. The sensitivity between nursing home resident Jacob and favorite nurse Rosemary is beautifully portrayed, and Jacob's observations in the nursing home seem right on target. 

Minuses: (1) Not enough solid understanding of the psyche of the lead character (Jacob) as an almost-veterinarian (moreover, he is also son of a veterinarian). There were passages where his feelings for and about animals were almost entirely ignored. In general, there would have been more creativity if the author had explored and deepened the relationship of the vet with the animals. I was expecting Jacob to develop a very deep understanding of at least the elephant, leading to a very strong bond, etc. He goes through the motions, but I never believe he really understands the elephant, and this is one of the most important parts of the story.  I suspect the author is not an animal lover.

(2) Conversely, too much attention is given the run-of-the-mill sexual awakening and human love story of the main character. I don't mind that it's part of the novel, but I was expecting a deep, enchanting bond between human and animals, which would set the novel apart from the ho-hum. For me, this is a Romance Novel, and should be advertised as such.  

(3) Information and atmosphere of circus life is too thin and barely holds the story up.  There could have been richer texture by beefing up the details about circus life. 

Summary: If you happen to have read Waller's -The Bridges of Madison County-(another book that caused a big stir, even though it was basically a romance novel, and not a great one), as well as a perfect gem of a book called -Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe- (Fannie Flagg's masterpiece that was almost as good on film) and if you've read Berger's -Little Big Man- one of the most creative uses of the flashbacks of an very aged man (not so good on film)...put these 3 together and you can imagine what -Water for Elephants- is like. 

Better yet, if you haven't read Fried Green Tomatoes or Little Big Man, GO READ THOSE INSTEAD of Water for Elephants. And if you're interested in the circus, I recommend Bruce Feiler's -Under the Big Top-.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

365 Thank Yous by John Kralik

I read this as an advance reading copy during the Christmas season and its message very quickly permeated my thinking.  This was a very hard holiday time, with loved ones far away and having to work through all the holidays, including Christmas...but I was filled with gratitude for the many friendly gestures that came my way every day; thankful for having students so that I would have work; thankful for health, etc, etc.

The events which caused the author to rethink his values had also touched our family.  This book, with its simple, direct demonstrations that expressing gratitude not only boosts someone else's feelings, but strangely, boosts your own, just proves that what Mom said was right-- keep writing those Thank You notes-- and keep a sense of thankfulness in your heart.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review: Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

Having read Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue a few months ago, I've just spent some time re-reading a lot of it, plus many reviews of it.  I believe I've reached a much better understanding of this brief (93-page) collection of five very powerful vignettes of life in Tibet observed in the mid-1980s.  (Maybe Ma Jian observed; maybe he dreamed; maybe he hallucinated; maybe all three).  I'd like to avoid repeating what most of the published reviewers have said.  They hit all the main points and are easy to search on the Web.  There are especially interesting comments in The Guardian, for example.  It's worth noting that the translation by Flora Drew (the author's wife/partner) is very smooth and trustworthy. 

I've taken a personal liking to Ma Jian ever since I felt like I walked every step with him in Red Dust.  Then I read The Noodle Maker, then Stick Out Your Tongue, and waiting on my shelf is Beijing Coma.  More than some other writers, I see his body of work as a man's thoughts laid bare, wrestling with the troubles of his Motherland.  Ma Jian is able to make us remember the self-destructiveness of China, the lingering emptiness wrought by the Cultural Revolution, the encroachment on Tibet, the dog-eat-dog poverty which political corruption perpetuates.  Yet, he can write all these things without preaching, scolding, or whining.  His literary voice is a howl of pain. 

Officially, today's China finds it very inconvenient to recall yesterday's pain or to acknowledge today's social and cultural ills.  When Stick Out Your Tongue was first published in China in 1985, it was condemned by the government.  All of Ma Jian's works remain banned in China.  He eventually opted to live in London.  ("The Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 convinced me that I could never make China my permanent home." p 90).

Although purportedly a fictional work, Stick Out Your Tongue seems to be autobiographical, describing the author's attempt to run as far away as possible from the authorities in China.   The stories are haunting verbal snapshots, and, like photographs, they don't attempt to pass judgment on the often horrific events.   In the Afterward, Ma Jian is straightforward about the background for these stories, his sojourn in Tibet.  His soul-searching came to a complete void, and he wrote "In this sacred land, it seemed that the Buddha couldn't even save himself, so how could I expect him to save me?  As my faith crumbled, a void opened inside me.  I felt empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue [italics mine] and begs his doctor to diagnose what's wrong with him." p 87.

There is a key reference to 'sticking out one's tongue in greeting' in the custom of the Tibetans, in the story called "The Eight-fanged Roach"—a tale of double incest, superstition, rape, abuse, insanity.  This and the rest of the stories are alive with smells, blood, wind, cold, dirt, icy water, smoke from dung fires, the blue expanse of sky, the colors black, red, turquoise, and a kind of insanity of a people who have been robbed of their spiritual core.  Numerous assaults on women seem to indicate the destruction of the Motherland.  Death is palpable in every story.

I'm glad I went back to re-read; the first time through I thought they were simply shocking stories, but now I believe there is a much more penetrating message.

Highly recommended, along with all of Ma Jian's writings.

Review: Outcasts United--A Refugee Team, an American Town by Warren St. John

"Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. 
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, 
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

(from "The New Colosus" by Emma Lazarus, written in 1883; engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty, 1903.) 

Outcasts United: A Refugee Team, an American Town, is the compelling story of a diverse hodge-podge of some of the world's most "tired, poor, tempest-tost" youngsters ever to start new lives in the United States. Relocated from their violence-ruined homelands to a small, quiet suburb of Atlanta, the self-named "Fugees" find unexpected succor in the discipline and dedication of soccer training and competition. 

Before reading it, I was a little afraid that Outcasts United would be another namby-pamby story of misfits who find society's recognition and peers' appreciation by their performance as a sports team, a là Disney. I am so glad to be wrong! 

Author Warren St. John weaves the complicated stories of the refugees, their families, their phenomenal coach, and the town of Clarkston, Georgia into a compelling and thought-provoking narrative. Skillfully backtracking from present day problems of adaptation and assimilation, we are given the harrowing personal stories of the team members and their families. 

Almost every boy is a survivor of tribal warfare or outright genocide. Their stories are similar to the horrifying accounts in Daoud Hari's The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur and Alphonsion Deng's They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan and Dave Eggers's What is the What. In Outcasts, the author's journalistic style assembles some very powerful synopses of modern African history and current events. For me, this was one of the most useful and informative parts of the book. 

There would have been no Fugees team, and likely no organized soccer at all for the refugees, were it not for the trajectory that brought their incredible coach from Jordan, via Smith College—a woman of Muslim heritage and western education who was determined to create an independent life. Her personal story could be a book in itself. Her dedication and tough love approach to coaching, her perseverance and hard work, her intelligence and humanity, show us that real heroism is made more of hard work than anything else. 

Recommended heartily to all readers, but especially to educators and community leaders.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: The Blue Notebook--A Novel, by James A. Levine, MD

Despite a lifetime of reading, a book has never had the power to keep me from falling asleep, but last night, a novel kept me awake all night.  I was reading an advance copy of The Blue Notebook by James Levine, MD, and couldn't put the book down until I finished it around 3:00 a.m.  Even at that hour I didn't dare to go to sleep until I'd read a few pages in a "quieter, gentler" novel so that I wouldn't dream about The Blue Notebook.  

The reality of child prostitution in Mumbai which is the basis for this compelling, eloquent novel, is worse than any nightmare; however, the story develops with a balance of frankness and artistic imagination which makes it possible to stick with the characters in spite of a sickening feeling in the pit of one's stomach. 

How can childlike innocence coexist with the spiritual and physical pollution of child prostitution?  How can we accept the literary conceit that a fifteen-year-old female Indian prostitute can write and keep a hidden diary?  How can her voice sustain and support the entire novel?  Usually, in works of this type, there will be a major collapse somewhere in the composition which tests our patience too much.  In my opinion, this did not occur in The Blue Notebook, making this the most extraordinary novel I've read in many years. 

According to his publisher, author James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, was doing research, "interviewing homeless kids on a famous street of prostitution in Mumbai known as the Street of Cages.  A young woman writing in a notebook outside of her cage caught his attention, and he interviewed her at length.  The powerful image of a young prostitute engaged in the act of writing haunted him," and this novel is the result.

Filled with skepticism, I began reading, but already by page three I was gripped by the story and enchanted by the voice of little "Batuk."  By page six I had developed strong feelings about Batuk's best friend, Puneet (the only boy in the prostitution house) and their "keeper" (Mamaki).  Throughout the book, skillful flashbacks, plot movement, and even minor characters converged to make me care very much about what would happen next and how Batuk would fare.  Descriptions of physical cruelty, perhaps because they are written by a medical professional, are not sensationalized, which builds confidence in the accuracy which informs the entire novel.

One of the most engaging aspects of the prose is Batuk's description of her world in "her own words", capturing glimpses of nature's beauty (sunrise, dusk, water), odors, animistic spirits of such things as trees.  There is her own story-within-a-story ("The Grain of Rice") and her father's story to her about "the silver-eyed leopard," plus some striking poetry, which convey something of the cultural and literary surroundings of Mumbai.  The possibility of beauty makes Batuk's horrible reality all the more poignant. 

These literary enhancements are so well integrated that they do not slow down the story.  Their timing also gives one a chance to draw a deep breath after reading tensely through the ordeals of Batuk—sold to an 'uncle' by the father whom she believes (and continues to believe) adores her, raped by another 'uncle', broken by a cruel gang in an orphanage, enslaved in the brothel…these events are just the beginning, and I won't spoil the story by adding more to the list.

Obviously, this is not a novel for the faint-of-heart or for young children, but it is an important work to be explored by thinking adults.  I believe that Dr. Levine wrote the book to raise awareness and a sense of responsibility among readers who would take a serious look at the efforts of the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children ( and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (   Furthermore, all of the author's U.S. royalties will be donated to these organizations.  Here's one book you can buy without guilt.

The Blue Notebook illustrates the depths of human cruelty, but the spirit of its heroine offers a glimmer of hope.  Mumbai is a complex, multi-cultural, multi-faceted city of extremes from which much interesting writing has emerged recently for western readers.  Some recommendable books that help round out this fascinating place include Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, Q & A (or Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup, Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra, and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, to name but a few.

Thank you, Spiegel & Grau Publishers and LibraryThing, for the opportunity to read and review this exceptionally powerful and lyrical debut novel.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review: Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman

For most of the first 50 pages I was thinking, "two spoiled, western, bitches decide to inflict their ignorance on fellow travelers and hapless Chinese as they plunge clumsily through China and then decide to write an exploitive book", but by page 69 the author began to win me over with her self-deprecating statement: "I suddenly felt despicably naïve."  The final chapter brought me to tears, and now I happily eat my words above—this is a fantastic book.

OK, I admit I'm a "hard sell" when it comes to books on China.  I'm painfully aware of my own scholarly shortcomings, but I have a few credentials upon which to base opinions—I have an undergraduate major in Chinese, studied in Beijing in the summer of 1979 and in Taiwan for a year, and have been reading about China for more than 30 years.  When I saw this memoir with "Nonfiction" emblazoned on the back cover and "A godsend to a reading world" (praise by Alexandra Fuller) on the front cover, I fell for the titillating title, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: A Memoir, shelled out my 1568 yen, and felt a little warning voice whisper "sucker, you'll regret this"….but the little voice was WRONG!

Rarely have I found a book that lives up to its dust jacket promises, but this one does, so it's fair to quote part of the synopsis here:

"In 1986, fresh out of college, Susan Jane Gilman and a friend yearned to do something daring and original.  Inspired by a place mat at the International House of Pancakes, they embarked on an ambitious trip around the globe, starting in the People's Republic of China.  At the point, China had been open to independent travelers for roughly ten minutes.  Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche, and astrological love guide and an arsenal of bravado, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai.  But as they ventured off the map deep into Chinese territory, they found that what began as a journey full of humor, eroticism, and enlightenment soon grew increasingly sinister—becoming a real-life international thriller that transformed them forever.

     A modern heart of darkness filled with Communist operatives, backpacker, and pancakes, Susan Jane Gilman's new memoir is an astonishing true story of hubris and redemption told with her trademark compassion, lyricism, and wit."

Unfortunately, I simply can't reveal the ways this author endeared her story to me, for fear of ruining the suspense and the deeply-felt emotions of this book.  I can say that it became a genuine page-turner with a bittersweet ending.  All the while I kept wondering why Ms. Gilman waited so many years to tell this story, but I finally got a satisfying answer to that question as well (and I can't write it here without jeopardizing your enjoyment of this fabulous book).

So, what are you waiting for?  Get over to your local bookseller—when you get your copy, you'll thank me for not giving the story away.



Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, A Daughter, and the People Who Raised Them—A Memoir by Amy Dickinson

Overall, I have no hesitation recommending this personable memoir to my own mother, daughter, aunts, girlfriends, and extended family.  Obviously there is a blatant female bias here, as the book centers on female family members coping with forms of abandonment by most male members.  Although this premise (lack of strong men) is the opposite of my life experience, it was easy to relate to the author's self-deprecating humor and her philosophical strength to eventually pull herself up from a failed marriage and keep moving forward.  She had a lot of help and support, exactly as the subtitle indicates.

Yet, it is exactly the title and subtitle that give me some problems with this memoir.  I expected to hear a lot about the mother, daughter, and the people in the hometown, yet the book is 90% about Amy, with about 5% her daughter and the remaining 5% all the other people.  The first third of the book was almost too much whine for me about the husband dumping Amy and asking for a divorce.  While I felt sorry for the author, after a while I thought, 'well, there are always two sides to a divorce story and we are only getting one here…so let's hear more about the "mighty queens" and how they helped out.'

There is a strong undercurrent in Mighty Queens of 'small town' vs. 'big city.' To survive in the corporate world, Amy must act like a big city girl, but to repair her own life, she finds defining strengths in small town values.  Comparing a big church in Washington, D. C., she writes that her hometown church "doesn't do communion very well but excels at community," and even though she attains success in her career by writing the column vacated by Ann Landers at the Chicago Tribune, she eventually finds happiness in her personal life in her hometown.

It was brave and bold of Ms. Dickinson to share her personal life with its ups and downs and to enliven the telling with a balance of humor (Pumpkin the cat is worth reading the book for) and seriousness (the impact of September 11, 2001).  I have a feeling there is a lot more she can share which will endear us to Freeville, the women, and dare I say--the men--who helped shore her up and who continue to help her life-journey.

"Reading…it's all personal."


Review: Sorbonne Confidential by Laurel Zuckerman

The author is an American forty-something former IT professional, naturalized French citizen with a French husband, mother of two children in French schools who speaks fluent French and has a degree from a prestigious French university.  She decided to challenge the uniquely French competitive examination ("l'agrégation") to become qualified for 'lifetime' employment as an English teacher.

This "docu-fiction" was published in the original French version in France in 2007 and reportedly contributed to debate on education and the effectiveness of teaching English as a second language in France.  In February 2009, Sorbonne Confidential will be released in the US in English.

I enjoyed this book and admire the author both for writing it in French and for taking on the entrenched French education system—what a brave woman!—however, for this review, I defer to the many excellent commentaries on this book, including those by other reviewers at LibraryThing, as well as several erudite discussions on the Internet, which anyone would be well rewarded to read in detail.  I can't improve upon any of these reviews, so please do a web search, and enjoy.

The only critical comment I might make is that Sorbonne Confidential could be stronger and more vivid if the "voice" were consistent--I don't think we need the conceit that the fictitious "Alice Wonderland" is really the author, etc.--or on the other hand, make "Alice" a stronger, more blatant caricature of the author. If it is documentary, keep it so; if it's fiction, make it so...

Laurel Zuckerman's observations hit me on a very personal level from the point of view of trying to teach English in Japan.   I share a few superficial things with the author—I'm from the American southwest, studied French for several years (but never went to France), and find myself married to a foreigner and living the life of an expatriate, supplementing our income by tutoring English, but in Japan.

Although I'm relieved that the Japanese don't typically prefer English to be taught by Japanese people trained by a Japanese system (which would be the mirror image of the French system), there is quite an opposite bias here for "blue-eyed-blonde" English teachers as opposed to those with dark complexions from other continents whose English is actually more proper and precise than mine. 

I have encountered the exam-driven learners and the confusion of learning "British English" or "American English."  Most of the time when I ask my students if they enjoy learning English, I am only faced with blank stares.  Children undergo various private lessons, cram schools, private and public school curricula, but very few of them discover the fun they can have by communicating in English with real foreigners.  I was surprised to find after reading Zuckerman's book that the whole situation may be even worse in France than it is in Japan in terms of wasted manpower and resources.

"Reading…it's all personal."

Review: Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal, Essay by Mark Doty

First, a shameful metaphor: imagine your favorite food in the whole world.  Now imagine a single, perfect, delicious bite of that food, mouth-watering in appearance.  You gaze at it; finally you consume it—not too quickly---not too slowly.  It tastes better than you even imagined.  It was a mere bite, but it was enough.

It was amazing!

That is exactly what Mark Doty's Essay Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal was for me.

This tiny (15.5 x 14 x 1.5 cm) book puts giant coffee-table style formats to shame, making it perfect for apartment living, tucking into your luggage after seeing the real painting at the Getty Museum, and making a 'statement' in favor of a greener planet.  The cover of the book, carefully shrouded in a vellum fog, unfolds to reveal Bellottos' masterpiece in its entirety.  The pages of the book focus on details of the painting.

Doty's elegant, lean prose is all about the painting and not about showing off his own magnificent talent with words.  He manages to evoke rich sensory appreciation of the smells, textures, people's lives, the uniqueness of Venice in the world. 

I'll fight an urge to quote many lines in favor of just one about "Water":

" An odd hardness about it, a flat, impermeable look, Glassy, impenetrable, as if it strove to be part of the world of pavement."

In my utterly pedestrian life, prior to reading this book I had no desire to visit Venice, examine Bellotto's Grand Canal, nor read Doty's poetry.  Now, however, I hope to do all three!  (Well, if I can't make it to Venice, at least I can go to the Getty Museum).

With copious thanks to Getty Publications for this promotional reading copy.

"Reading….it's ALL personal."

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

I just finished reading this elegant translation of "Hakase no Aishita Sushiki" (author copyright 2003) which brings to the English speaking world a wonderful novel incorporating some weighty social issues into a thought-provoking story with an economy of prose and a light touch. 

It is a quintessentially Japanese story, yet like all good novels, its problems are universal--social disenfranchisement, aging, failure of education system--to name a few. If you have some knowledge of modern Japan, the story may feel more poignant, but even if you know nothing about Japan, the characters' dilemmas will ring true. If your tastes include math, baseball, and Japan, this novel may likely become one of your favorites. Personally, my eyes glaze over at the appearance of numerals and equations; I sleep through baseball; but the "Japan" part hooked me. The humanity of the story hooked me. 

Perhaps more than other societies, it's tough to be a misfit in Japan. (As a foreigner living in Japan, I can relate). The characters in this work are all misfits, quietly and somewhat tragically unable to live up to society's expectations. The housekeeper, fatherless and then orphaned, is a single mother to her own young son. Though few details are sketched, there are hints that the son is not well liked at school. Intelligent but under-educated, the mother takes jobs cleaning houses and is hired by an old woman to clean her brother-in-law's (the professor's) house. The woman sets forth strict rules for the job, based on the odd facts that define the professor's reclusive life and unusual behavior. He is a world-renowned math genius whose long-term memory stops in 1975. His memory for current events and new information lasts only 80 minutes. 

Almost without realizing it, these humble souls discover a uniquely human connectedness. The plot involves a gentle, almost sublime, teaching of math and the magical guile of a truly great teacher in the person of the professor, plus an adoring rendition of the sport of baseball. So important are math and baseball that they nearly become characters in themselves. There is enough suspense, intrigue, and a few surprises to make this a satisfying glimpse of life in modern Japan. 

"Hakase no Aishita Sushiki" was made into a movie directed by Takashi Koizumi (assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on several films) in 2006, and reportedly played well to Japanese audiences. Now, thanks to Stephen Snyder's translation, the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor will be released in the United States in February 2009.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not Quite a Review: Q & A is now a movie, and it looks good.

Today Simon & Schuster's e-newsletter announced that the book formerly titled Q &A is now called Slumdog Millionaire to match the movie that's been made from Q & A.  

I read this book several months ago and enjoyed it immensely, and although I didn't review it, I thought it would make a great movie, so I look forward to seeing how it will be brought to the screen.

Here's a link for book description, movie trailer, and text excerpt:


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review: Where Am I Wearing?

Where Am I Wearing?: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People that Make Our Clothes, Kelsey Timmerman, (John Wiley & Sons, Nov. 2008)

If you wear clothes, this book is for you.

This outstanding, unassuming book should not be missed—it is worth reading and discussing in every household and classroom in America.  Do you know where your clothes were made, by what types of people and under what circumstances?  Do you care?  Should you care?  This intriguing book looks into these issues and more, yet its tone is refreshingly accessible and unpreachy.

All-American Kelsey Timmerman noticed that his typical ensemble of T-shirt, jeans, boxers, and flip-flops, all bore tags declaring their foreign manufacture in places such as Honduras, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and China.  His curiosity (and his experience as a travel writer) became a mission to visit the places and meet the people who actually made his clothes.  With a backpack, notebook, camera, the clothes on his back, and a mixture of guileless intelligence, he set out to explore the globalization of the garment industry, up close and personal.

His approach is to minimize the effects of his inquiry into the factories' operations and the lives of the workers by keeping his visits as unofficial as possible.  He is just an ordinary guy who happens to be interested in the origin of his underwear.  Although he has heard about sweatshops, child labor and unfit working conditions, he wants to see for himself.  He wants to know if it's possible to be an informed, engaged consumer.  His journey helps us see that we can all be better informed.  The people who make our clothes all have names, faces, needs and dreams.

[In Bangladesh] Asad leads us past a high table with neat stacks of cloth.  A few of the workers standing around the table hold what appear to be giant electric bread cutters with blades two-feet long.  One woman marks the cloth using a pattern and then sets to slicing.  She cuts the outline of a T-shirt.  Plumes of cotton dust fill the air…the factory is clean, exits are marked, and fans maintain a nice breeze.  The conditions seem fine.  They are much better than I had expected, and I'm relieved.

In Cambodia, eight young women garment workers share an 8' by 12' room that has a squat toilet and a water spigot.  They earn between $45 and $70 per week and send home as much as possible to support family members in the countryside.  Many of them miss the culture of family and village but they are well aware of the necessity of their work to their families' survival.

Seeing these and many more disparities between the lives of foreign garment workers and the lives of average American consumers, Timmerman is guarded about sharing details of his life with those he interviews.  However, he eventually decides that "not knowing is the problem" on both sides.  When he tells the Chinese couple about his first—and second—mortgages, they find unlikely solidarity in their mutual states of indebtedness.

This book is far from a "them" and "us" comparison and guilt trip.  There are many complicated issues interwoven here, to be considered and discussed.  The warp and woof of economic and social pluses and minuses is a constantly changing pattern, and the questions—what and where to buy, how to support or protest industry conditions, how to maintain American jobs, how to influence human rights—necessitate the participation of what the author terms "engaged consumers."

Where Am I Wearing? gives an excellent starting point for discussions in order  to make informed decisions, as we determine a responsible course as the leading consumers of garments and other manufactured goods in the worldwide economic balance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Review: Apologies Forthcoming by Xujun Eberlein

Apologies Forthcoming by Xujun Eberlein, Livingston Press 2008, 141 pp.

The author of this short story collection is smart, articulate, and fearless.  She is one of my new heroines--having grown up in the turmoil of China in the 70s and 80s, she moved the US in 1988 and achieved a PhD from MIT, but she didn't stop there; she has used her fine talents in English to bring immediacy to the stories of individuals caught up in the turmoil during and after China's Cultural Revolution.  She dares to let her characters show the emptiness of this historic period—showing rather than telling--how people became unmoored from their own humanity. 

In Apologies Forthcoming, eight stories bring forth episodes about human beings struggling with the twists and turns of love, friendship, education, earning a living, forging family relationships, all against a background of toxic politics.  Anyone could become an enemy, a friend, a betrayer, a trickster.  Notions of “right” and “wrong” were torn apart and set adrift, but as years passed, enemies could become friends again and victims could triumph.  But “right” and “wrong” might never be the same again.

There is a genre of literature of first-hand accounts of sadness, unfairness and loss from China especially in the 1960s and 1970s and even into the 1980s which tend to be (perhaps unavoidably) one-sided tales of woe, sometimes called "victim literature. This book is NOT victim literature.  Apologies Forthcoming fills out more of the complexity of that period of time by exposing how individuals could succumb to a pervasive amorality and yet could often reverse this process.  Things are not simple black or white; life is a blend of gray areas punctuated by cruelty as well as the triumph of the human spirit.

According to her self-description, Xujun Eberlein "left algorithms for writing."  I believe we are the beneficiaries of that decision.  No doubt she will continue to expand and fine-tune her writing.  I hope to read more of her work soon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Review: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li

TEN STARS!  This book of 10 stories is at the top of my recommendations for absolutely essential readings on China and is likely to stay at the top of the list for a long time.  it is also one of the strongest collections of short stories I've ever had the pleasure of reading.  My edition (Harper Perennial 2006) includes an important essay by David Robinson about the author entitled "If I Go Back" and a section by the author entitled "What Has That to Do with Me?" which add immensely to this great collection.

I am absolutely awed by the sheer aptitude of authors such as this who can retain their cultural identity and write brilliantly in an acquired language as Li has done here in English.  Obviously the problems and pitfalls of translation are non-existent and the power of thought surges through the prose...Fantastic!

These stories seem so utterly honest, whether they seem shocking or unusual, sad...whatever emotion or wonderment they provoke, they appear to be without manipulation or contrivance.  They are well-made works of art that let us see a kaleidoscope of China's recent development for what it is--a jumble of human beings trying to make their way through many obstacles to achieve some measure of the humanity we all wish to claim.

To access more stories, excerpts, and updates on this book and others, be sure to check the author's website at

Review: Iraq Through a Bullet Hole: A Civilian Returns Home

Iraq Through a Bullet Hole: A Civilian Returns Home

By Issam Jameel

Author Issam Jameel was an ordinary, educated man (a playwright) who opposed the lack of liberty under the politics of Saddam Hussein and as a result removed himself to Jordan to escape persecution in Iraq.  His time outside Iraq eventually lengthened to 12 years and saw him settle in Australia in 2002 and become an Australian citizen.

In 2005, Jameel returned to Iraq to attempt to fulfill his familial role as the eldest male in the family, to console his brother in the loss of his son (Jameel's nephew), killed accidentally by American forces.  In the Introduction, the author addresses the time-lapse between his visit to Iraq in the summer of 2005 and the publication of this book in 2008 by explaining that he originally had not thought of writing about his experiences, but then realized that by writing in English, he might make available to people outside some important observations of life in Iraq which they don't usually see in the media.  I believe his use of English rather than his native language helped him objectify much of his reaction to the turmoil in his homeland and in his family.

In the format of a diary, Jameel's fear-filled journey into Baghdad and his adjustments to the totally disrupted lives of his family unfold in a close-up of real life.  Issues of religious difference and intolerance challenge Jameel's attitude of tolerance.  Misunderstandings and miscalculations of US forces and the increase of Sunni/Shia antagonism have made Baghdad a more chaotic city than it was when he left 12 years earlier.  His visit to Kirkuk provides a relatively peaceful contrast to Baghdad.

It's true that this book doesn't read as a novel, and no doubt the use of non-native English may contribute to a bit of stiffness; however, I suspect that what some have criticized as a lack of passion in the author is rather more due to a cultural reticence to fly into a rage or rant.  Or to put it another way, when feeling overwhelmed, ranting, raging, and preaching become obviously useless.  Despite the useless death of his nephew by "friendly" US forces, he also refrains from blaming any single group for this personal tragedy or for the tragedy of his country as a whole.

This book exemplifies the significance of one ordinary person trying to make day-to-day sense out of confusion, inconvenience, and a disintegration of normal civilization.  Although brief at 174 pages of large-print text, this book includes footnotes to several incidents of bombings or attacks and several maps of Baghdad and b/w photos.

The subjects of the Middle East, Iraq, and the war are not my speciality, but I have read and can recommend the following works in this area: A Sky So Close by Betool Khedairi and Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicle of War and Exile by Nuha Al-Radi


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari, as told to Dennis Burke and Megan M. McKenna. Random House 2008, 224 pp.

In May, 2008, the genocide in Sudan had been in the news media quite frequently.  By coincidence, I was fortunate to receive an advance reading copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Readers Program.  Now it is nearly September and Darfur has not been in the nightly news for awhile—which is all the more reason to read this noteworthy book, as we should continue to be aware of these events.

My review follows:

If The Translator simply reported firsthand on the situation in Sudan, it would already be an excellent, highly recommended book, but Daoud Hari’s uniquely penetrating, concise eyewitness account puts this book in an even higher category: this is a necessary book. If you read no other book this year, at least read this one; if you read 100 other books, read this one first.

The descriptions of horror can make you weep or retch, yet the book is infused with humanity, dignity, and even humor--a testimony to the worst and best humanity has to offer. Daoud Hari has witnessed utmost cruelties and survived unspeakable crimes, which struck down his family, his village, the region of Darfur, and which continue to corrupt and cripple the nation of Sudan, as its tribal citizens are wiped off the face of the earth or turned into unwelcome refugees.

Overwhelmed by the senseless loss of his brother, the escape of his aged mother into the wilderness to hide, the dangerous roaming of his aged, noble father, the author sought to do something meaningful in the wake of madness that engulfed everyone and everything he knew. Armed with the ability to speak Zaghawa, Arabic, and English, and with intimate knowledge of Darfur’s geography, Hari became useful to aid organizations and journalists. He became determined to help bring to the outside world the stories of those who died, who killed them, how, and why. The courage and humanity of journalists and other individuals who gathered eyewitness accounts of the genocide in Sudan comprise an essential part of his story. He also supplies significant insights into the historic and cultural contexts of the strife in his country. 

In a growing field of compelling books on the urgent, deplorable, confusing situation of war and genocide in Sudan, Daoud Hari’s The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur stands out in its ability to pervade the reader’s conscience. Moving us beyond feeling outraged and overwhelmed by man’s inhumanity to man, we develop a deep connection to the author and feel moved to do something to help, starting by recommending this book to everyone.

Related readings:  They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak, with Judy A. Bernstein (PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group 2005, 311 pp) What is the What, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, A Novel by Dave Eggars, 2006 (Vintage 2007, 339 pp) Emma’s War, A True Story by Deborah Scroggins, 2002, (Vintage 392 pp)


Review: Time Bandit by Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand

Late last spring (i.e. "before blog"), I was privileged to receive an early reading copy of Time Bandit written by Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand in collaboration with Malcolm MacPherson.  The only thing in my ho-hum life that connects with this book is that I love to eat crabs.  Living in Japan, the only access I have to the TV series is via YouTube, so the book was a nice diversion.

My review follows:

There is no question that Time Bandit finds an eager audience among fans of the American TV show “Deadliest Catch,” but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book stands up well on its own as an entertaining and informative read. The brothers Hillstrand have a pirate’s lode of great fishing stories, but the book doesn’t stop there. They are also admirably candid about their personal histories and the tough issues they deal with on land (families, obligations, personal demons, compliance with fishing regulations, outfitting for the next fishing run, hiring/firing crew, etc). 

The first and dominant voice in the narrative is Johnathan Hillstrand whose delivery struck me as egotistical and arrogant to the point that I almost didn’t stick around to give the book a chance--but I’m glad I did. After all, the book opens with the “bad boy of the Bering Sea” perilously adrift and alone, and even if he does seem a bit full of himself, I wanted to see how he would get out of his dire predicament. His situation is life-threatening and serves as the literary means to reflect on his life--kind of a slow-motion version of seeing your lifetime pass before your eyes before you die. Thus unfolds Johnathan’s entertaining story, reminiscences of his life, interspersed with the narrative of his brother Andy and the fellow fishermen who eventually rescue him. 

At first, I thought the writing style was too unpolished and the tone overbearingly arrogant but as I got to “know” Johnathan better, and then his brother Andy, I decided to cut them some slack. After all, if fishermen were born to be writers, they wouldn’t be fishermen, and vice versa (with the exception of Linda Greenlaw). Thankfully, the authors had the good sense to enlist the help of seasoned writer Malcolm MacPherson who I presume is responsible for creating a cohesive work from two lifetimes of harrowing stories. More effort in that direction would have further improved the book. 

I give this book praise for being entertaining. Tales of near death, living on the edge, the roughness of life on land and sea gave me a great escape into a world I could never approach in my real life. I take points off for the literary weakness of the book which is apparently aimed at the established TV audience as a “mixed media” marketing effort. When the TV show eventually ends and the DVD market is sated, the book will not have enough literary quality to sustain it as a book alone. 

Sharing similarities with Time Bandit in ocean-going subject matter, here are a few recommendations which have more substance as literary works: The Hungry Ocean and The Lobster Chronicles by Linda Greenlaw, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, Hen Frigates by Joan Druett, Cod by Mark Kurlansky. 

I offer these comments with thanks to publisher Ballantine Books and LibraryThing for this advance reading copy.A slightly edited version of this review is posted on LibraryThing.  

(click "my reviews" at the following link)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: A spontaneous car trip from London to Rome, but not exactly a family vacation...

When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale.  New York.  Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2008, 240 pp.

For me, this was a pleasant introduction to the writing of prize-winning bestselling author Matthew Kneale (English Passengers).  Now the hardest part is to convey my enthusiasm without giving away the storyline.

The vastness, power and mystery of outer space, as explained through a nine year-old’s appreciative awe, open this adventure, invoking a feeling of slight dizziness and of not being able to know all the answers.  “The Great Attractor is pulling us... probably a black hole...we will be stuck there forever.  We are all being pulled towards [it] but hardly anybody knows.”  This innocent reference to a child’s fascination with outer space foreshadows the persistent force of his mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior and the dark spiral of the story.

From start to finish, the voice of young Lawrence carries us through events which abruptly propel him, his mother, his pet hamster, and his little sister away from their London home to a vagabond existence in the homes of generous friends in Rome, finally finding a comfortable temporary space of their own.   This brief tranquility is not to last, however, as old feelings of insecurity begin to grow again, stronger than ever. 

I was fascinated by the voice of Lawrence which is intentionally indicated by frequent phonetic attempts and misspellings not uncommon for his age and imagination.  I remember when I was that age “living inside my head” a lot, and if written out, it would have looked a lot like Lawrence’s musings.  Since Lawrence is often wise beyond his years and warily observant of everyone's behavior, the “misspelling voice” helped keep in mind that he is just a young child after all, and thus his character stays intact throughout the crescendo of paranoia and sheer mayhem created by his mother’s perception of reality. 

Through Lawrence’s descriptions, his mother’s and sister’s characters develop.  As he meets new people, he privately ascribes to them animal traits of his own peculiar choosing, which is his unique expression of endearment and a means of understanding their behavior.  He has to care about someone before assigning them an animal personality.  It seems to be a way for him to casually acknowledge psychological traits by couching them in “animal” terms.

When the family reaches Rome and Lawrence is given some humorous history books, his comical retelling of the lives of several famous Caesars makes a fitting background for the family’s haphazard adventures in Rome and the growing psychological confusion swirling around his mother’s behavior.

Uncertainty, fear, and panic build, and a child’s mind is pulled inexorably toward his mother’s delusions.

To say much more will ruin the plot.  For all its underlying seriousness, When We Were Romans is a light and humorous story which builds from a flash of uncertainty to a keen panic and a very moving climax.  It is an unexpectedly powerful human drama revealed through the mind of a curious, loving child. 


Monday, August 18, 2008

Birth of the Blog

Welcome to my world: piles & stacks & shelves of books in every room (except the bathroom) on four stories of a narrow Tokyo house.  We worry that the attic may start to sag with the weight of books or that the basement may flood and ruin the books, but we know one thing for certain--a big earthquake will cause our own private "Book Tsunami." 
.........The city is overdue for a Big One, so I'm reading fast.