Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto

While published in Japan in 1987, gaining immediate popularity and winning two of Japan's most prestigious literary prizes, I only first heard of this book when I received a review from my daily Powell's email. I assumed from the title that it would be a fun little story about a woman growing up in the kitchen - much like something by Ruth Reichl (though I suppose, her stories aren't exactly "fun"). Well, I had it sort-of right. The main character - Mikage - finds comfort in the kitchen, and has a comfort relationship with food. But while Mikage's connections with food remind her of her family and of certain events in her life, it is not truly central to the story. The bigger story is how Mikage deals with her grandmother's death - and her blossoming relationship with an old friend of her grandmother's and his mother - who is actually his transsexual father. There are a million themes present in this short 105-page story - the most obvious of which are identity and love. Yoshimoto's writing is very familiar in terms of modern Japanese novels - like Haruki Murakami and Kenzaburo Oe in terms of the depiction of awkward relationships through lyrical prose. Yoshimoto is not as fanciful as Murakami, nor as tragic as Oe, but her story is filled with similar odd interactions that constantly border on the uncomfortable. I felt this could have been developed into a much more involved (longer) novel with a more in-depth exploration of Mikage. As is, plot-wise, it left me a bit disappointed. In terms of writing style, however, I found it strangely comforting.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Foreigner - Francie Lin

Colleen lent me this novel, set partially in the Bay Area and mostly in Taipei. She thought I would like it as it deals with identity issues, but I am also a sucker for the Asian authors, and beautiful cover art. This is the story about 40-year old Emerson, still a virgin and having weekly Friday night dinners with his overbearing mother. As he fulfills his familial obligations, Emerson recounts his childhood, including losing his father at age 11, and his relationship with his mother laden with awkward sexual undertones. Emerson's younger brother, Little P, fled back to Taipain 10 years earlier with little to no contact since. Emerson decides to return to his homeland to find his brother and potentially reconnect with the brother he was once so close to. When we're first introduced to Little P, he is described as "wolfish." His behavior suggests that of a drug addict, and it is clear from everyone's statements about him that he is involved in unsavory activity (clear to everyone except Emerson, of course). He hints at a "secret" and makes underhandeded comments about his mother and Emerson's relationship with her. I started reading this book on the bus on my way in to work, and found myself wishing I could take the rest of the day off to finish it. But, as Emerson delved deeper into Taiwain's seedy-underbelly, it took a turn that I could not quite relate to - but, I did appreciate the juxtaposition of the two brothers who come from the same home, but end up in two vastly different life situations - one so paralyzed by his obligations that he is unable to develop personal relationships of his own, and the other driven so far from acceptable society that he becomes a shadow in the city sewers. Parts of this book felt a bit too sensationalized or written for the screen, but ultimately, it was an engaging read about finding yourself in a world where you are constantly defined by others.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dope - Sara Gran

Given the title, this novel was not quite what I expected. I knew it was about a former drug addict (Josephine) who while struggling to keep clean finds herself enveloped in a mystery that takes her to the seedy back alleys of her past. I did not realize that the book takes place in the 1950s and that it is crime noir, written just several years ago, with a female protagonist. Hard-boiled detective writing has a certain feel to it - and while I'm reading it, I can't help but hear a voice-over of the Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade variety. But, once I mentally put myself into that space, this book really delivered. Josephine is called in by a wealthy couple who are looking for their missing daughter. They suspect that she is a drug addict, and that given Josephine's past, she will have the connections to bring their daughter home to them. As Josephine considers whether to take the money and run, she finds that there are cons around every corner, giving her misinformation and protecting others for reasons she can't quite understand. Josephine is a horrible detective - she only follows leads that others suggest, and when she finally tracks down the pimp boyfriend of the girl she's looking for, she outright asks him, "Where's [the girl]? Her parents paid me to find her." As if that would ever illicit the information she was looking for. But, after all she's a recovering dope addict, not a detective, and that's kind of the point. She misses the treachery right in front of her, and in trying to do good, ends up worse off than ever. Dope has all the necessary noir components - a quick fun twist and turn filled read.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Boleyn Inheritance - Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory's most popular novel is probably The Other Boleyn Girl (made into a movie with ScarJo and Natalie Portman). This novel is the sequel (in historical time) to the story that left us with Henry VIII's beheading of George and Anne Boleyn. The Boleyn Inheritance is told from the first-person perspective of three very different women. The first is Jane Rochford, the jealous wife whose testimony sent her husband (George) and sister-in-law (Anne) to their death. She is desperate to recreate a name for herself, knowing that the king's whimsical decisions leave no one safe. The second is Anne of Cleves, mistreated by her own family, and sent to a foreign land where she does not speak the language, to become the next Queen of England. And finally, Katherine Howard, a flirtatious and foolish 15-year old, who yearns desperately for fancy gowns and the attention of young handsome suitors. All three women find themselves at the court of the much aged, fat, and cantakerous king - trying desperately in their own ways to keep him happy and to keep themselves off the chopping block. I was immediately enraptured by this story - taken in by Jane, despite her past; hoping the best for Anne, despite her homely nature; and irritated by Katherine, despite her obvious naivete. This is a story about each woman, but in the end, it is the nightmare of a country ruled by a tyrant, and the history of women and their search, however futile, for a semblance of freedom.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Self-Made Man - Norah Vincent

This is the non-fiction account of Ned, Norah Vincent's alter-ego. Vincent, a lesbian journalist, has always seen herself as a masculine woman. She decides to go undercover as a man to find out what life is like on the other side. In her 18-month experiment she tries a number of different all-male environments, from a men's bowling club to a monastic order of monks. She dates women and gets a job. All the while finding out that while her masculinity was emphasized as a woman, she is consistently viewed as an effeminate man - one that other men go to as a good listener, and also one that men viewe skeptically as possibly homosexual. Vincent is exhausted by the experiment, finding that she is not given the freedom to bask in all that is denied to her as a woman, but rather faced with constant pressure to prove her manliness. I felt Vincent failed to acknowledge that the difficulties she encountered were not necesarily shared by the men around her - simply because they had actually been socialized their entire lives to be men, and she had not. I also felt like she let the men off too easily at times, and failed to acknowledge how what she described as difficulties for men actually translated to much more burdensome situations for women. But, overall, I did find Vincent's transformation quite fascinating - especially the idea that so many people seemed to perceive that something was off, but not quite be able to put their finger on it - and that those she revealed herself to did not seem to have as much trouble with the situation as I would have imagined (though clearly, she was judicious about who she told). Clearly no social experiment like this is without its flaws, but Vincent has certainly given us something to think about in terms of how we perceive gender, and how we treat others and behave ourselves based on these perceptions and socially constructed expectations. As a result of this experiment, Vincent went into a deep depression and voluntarily committed herself to a mental institution. That experience forms the basis for her most recent book, Voluntary Madness, which I am definitely interested in checking out.

Wish You Well - David Baldacci

I usually think of David Baldacci's novels as full of legal and political intrigue. This one, however, focuses on 13-year old Lou and her younger brother Oz. Their father is a famous, but not so well compensated writer, who sets all his novels in the mountains of Virginia where he was born and raised. When their family suffers a heart-breaking tragedy, Lou and Oz travel to those mountains to live with their great-grandmother Louisa. Their new life is a million miles from the big city - filled with hard work and adventure. It may have been Lou, but much of this book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. While everyone on the mountain is poor, there is a family even worse off that resembles the Ewells - and whose boy teaches Lou valuable lessons about life. There is a Yankee attorney figure, Cotton Longfellow, whose legal skills are no match for Atticus Finch, but who has his noble qualities. And, there is the hard-working young black Tom Robinson like figure named Eugene who keeps his head down and his mouth shut despite the blatant racism all around him. I knew that there would be a courtroom scene at the end of the novel (according to the book flap) and I just kept hoping it wasn't going to be a false accusation against Eugene. But, the best character of all is Diamond Skinner - a 12-year old Huck Finn raggamuffin who has no use for reading or writing, but teaches Lou all about fishing, running the land, and loving something greater than fame or money. This book tells a great story about family, having convictions, and hanging on to the things that are important.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Life You Can Save - Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton. In this book, he asks what each of us can do to help end world poverty - suggesting that every person with means to spare (most of us) should aim to give 5% of their income each year to charity. Specifically, Singer advocates donations to international organizations, despite most people's inclination to give to organizations closer to home. Singer then addresses various philosophical or ethical responses from people who choose not to give - from futility arguments to the diffusion of responsibility. Singer maintains that it is morally indefensible to turn a blind eye to the lives that are lost each day as a result of poverty - given that it is within all of our power to do something as individuals to change this. Singer is very convincing - and he does it in a way that is not about guilt, but rather about common sense. He acknowledges that most people who will choose to read his book are people who already give in some sense - in both money and time. But, while I think it would be great if everyone read this book, I do think even if you already give much of your time and income, that this is a good book for thinking about why you give and how you decide which organizations to give to. It has helped me to think about being more focused in my giving, and to prioritize in different ways. I am always interested in ideas that further creating a culture of giving - in our smaller communities and in our society as a whole. Singer has great anecdotes about big change by small people, and admirable recognition of people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates who regularly give large percentages of their income. This book will help you to re-evaluate what you "can" give to others, and why it is so necessary to do so. Even in these tough economic times at home, this book is a reminder that millions and millions of people world-wide are struggling just to obtain clean drinking water, immunizations, and daily food - and that there is always more we can be doing to help.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

2666 - Roberto Bolano

This book is incredible. It might be because Bolano died before it was published. It might be because it is 893 pages long and I can still think of a couple hundred more I wish he would have written. Or it might be because it is just one of those masterpieces that made me waiver between just sitting back and enjoying it, and actively wishing I could write so seamlessly about everything and nothing at the same time. 2666 was, at some point, intended by Bolano to be published as five separate novels. Each of the five sections of the book works independently, held together by the common thread of the true unsolved murders of hundreds of women in the border town of Santa Teresa (Cuidad Juarez in real life). The first part of the novel (my favorite)focuses on three literary critics who are obsessed with finding an obscure German author by the name of Archimboldi - who may or may not actually exist. I love the story of an elusive mysterious writer, but amidst this, the critics are also involved in a complicated love triangle (to become a square?). I was disappointed when this section ended and Bolano moved on to the next part of the story, and I did not meet up with the critics again in the novel. But, Bolano had many many more characters to introduce - some to follow for the next hundred pages, and others to abandon after one very long sentence. I can't say that this was the most intriguing book that I have ever read, or that I flipped through it on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen, but I can say that I am just in awe of this accomplishment. It makes me want to go back and read Bolano's other novels - sad to know that he will no longer be writing, but pleased to discover yet another amazing author.

The Witches of Eastwick - John Updike

Following John Updike's death in January, I wanted to read one of his books in celebration of his accomplished literary career. And, given that the sequel to this book, The Women of Eastwick, was published last year and I still had not read the original, I decided it was time. By now, most people have probably seen the movie starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, and Susan Sarandon, but the basic premise is that three female witches living in Eastwick have their true colors revealed when a most powerful devil named Darryl moves to town. The women, all with powers of their own, seem to value their independence. Yet, Darryl is able to seduce each of them, encouraging them to flaunt their powers, but ultimately leaving them all to marry their innocent friend Jane. As a straight-forward story, I of course found the focus on Darryl to be infuriating. These women had so much going for them - so many ways to use their powers, and they chose to destroy each other and another woman because of a man. But, when read as a satire on books that waste their female protagonists, I was able to enjoy the humor of the characters and the brilliance of Updike's writing. I have read here and there that Updike himself was somewhat of a misogynist, so perhaps my reading of the story as a satire is too generous, but I suppose whatever it takes to appreciate a great and heralded author. I look forward to re-watching the movie and checking out the sequel.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Patronizing the Arts - Marjorie Garber

The importance of the arts in our society and how the arts and artists are supported - by corporations, by individuals, or by themselves - are issues that I think about often, with no sound solution. So, when I randomly came across this book at the library while visiting Olympia, I had to check it out. Garber's fundamental premise is that art does have value in our society, and as such requires funding from private sources. The patronage relationship, however, brings with it a host of problems, including judgments about what constitutes art, as well as limitations on freedom and innovation. This book begins with a history of patronage - including descriptions and anecdotes from famous artist/patronage relationships. From here, Garber develops her argument that the arts are on par with science in terms of the seriousness that it should be afforded, and that universities should take a leading role in providing the necessary funding and development of the arts and of artists. This was an accessible read, but not one that I felt added much to my overall thinking about the arts. Garber's argument that universities should play a bigger role in patronage was an interesting one, since often times the idea that "art" can be taught in a university setting is one that I question. I did appreciate Garber's recognition, however, that the teaching of the arts in a university setting leads not only to the development of artists, but also to the cultivation of people who appreciate art - and who in turn become the patrons that the arts so desperately require.