Book Reviews for August
One of the difficulties of this global reading challenge that I’m doing is determining the appropriateness of a book in representing a particular continent. Is the nationality of the author enough? (This is assuming the author’s nationality is not contested-and do you know how many authors were like, born in Ecuador to parents of Japanese and Spanish descent, raised on an army base in Germany and now live in New York?) If the nationality of the author is not determinable, then does the book have to take place in that region? But even if it does, is that enough to override the author’s nationality? Look at Everything is Illuminated, which I read earlier this year. Written by Jonathan Safran Foer, an American (a New Yorker). Set almost solely in the Ukraine. One character is a stand-in for the author (a New Yorker visiting the Ukraine) while all the rest are Ukrainian. We see tons of the Ukraine in this book is what I am saying—and the author actually travelled there to research the book so we can hold him to a reasonable standard of accuracy—but the question is, how much is it really representative of Eastern European literature? I haven’t actually counted this book at all, because luckily enough, I read more than 14 books a year.
Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune gave me a Chilean author of a book that spent just about half of its length in Chile, and I decided that was a win for South America. It was also one of my shelf-sitters—i.e., one of those books that I buy and let sit there for two years while I read other things. And I am trying to take advantage of my current poverty and the resultant book-buying stoppage and finish up my shelf-sitters.
I had been meaning to read Allende for a long time; her personal story was well-known to me even though none of her written work was. Her father and stepfather were both high-ranking government officers in South America during her childhood, and her cousin was briefly the president of Chile around that same time. He killed himself during a military coup in 1973, and she was exiled from the country. She’s lived in California for the last twenty years or so, and that’s where the other half of Daughter of Fortune is set.
This story actually provides a really interesting backdrop for the novel itself, which is about a wealthy young woman, Eliza, who has a clandestine affair with a young revolutionary and then follows him to California during the Gold Rush. The passage is insanely harrowing (she’s stowed away on a ship, oh, and also pregnant) and once she gets dropped onto the California coast she’s got kind of a “now what?” situation going on. From a historical perspective it was extremely interesting, and it had two unique perspectives on this, too-a lovelorn woman navigating this tricky, dangerous, lawless world because she thinks she’ll die if she doesn’t find her man. Eliza latches onto this somber Chinese doctor from her ship, and he’s dealing with the different but similar issues of racism and assimilation. The more accustomed they become to the ways of the west, the less they feel the pull for home. And then they sort of fall in love, and Eliza has to choose between the doctor and this phantom guy she’s tracing all over the American west. And it gets quite soapy, no question, but the characters and setting are unique enough, and the story’s compelling and well-paced.
The first half in Chile, is thematically important (if not so much narratively). Eliza’s childhood and family history—especially her aunt Rose’s reckless elopement with an English actor—gives the book the feel of a saga, the same stories playing out over multiple generations. The key change is the woman at the center of the story, and Eliza, though not a particularly dynamic character, is touched by luck and happenstance. A reader can’t doubt that she’s going to “make it” even though where she ends up could conceivably be anywhere. Allende has been classified as a writer of magical realism, but this book is not an example of that particular style—this luck that Eliza carries with her is virtually the only mystical element in the book. (Oh, and the doctor sees visions of his dead wife.) It’s actually a really solid and readable historical romance.
A Virtuous Woman and Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons
I had these two Kaye Gibbons books on my shelf-sitters shelf and decided to dash them off during August simply because they were both super-short and sometimes I feel like I just have to finish something, dammit!
Anyway, Kaye Gibbons is an author I keep trying to like, because she has a whole pile of books she’s written, and she’s contemporary and she’s Southern. A Virtuous Woman, is definitely the one I’ve liked the most of the ones I’ve read. The story—about an improbably compatible couple and how their happy marriage is cut short by cancer—was the most interesting one I’d come across of Gibbons’, and the characters the most likeable.
The problem with Gibbons though, is her narrative style. In every book she does the same thing: she creates these nicely detailed voices for characters, and then lets them tell the whole story. The story feels one-dimensional because Gibbons doesn’t provide any context for anything. The characters, the setting, there’s no shape to it, no visual, no sounds other than Ruby talking and Jack talking, and Tiny Fran talking (now there was a character). The work is a disembodied voice. You’ve got to describe things sometimes. I want to visualize, I want some sensory detail.
Ellen Foster was the same deal. The entire novel is just trapped in Ellen’s head. Ellen does justice to some of the elements of the world Gibbons is trying to portray: the differences Ellen perceives in her own life and home and that of her friend Starletta, a black girl, give a pretty good picture of the racial tensions of her town. Ellen’s desperate search for a functional family situation also hints at the culture of dysfunction that is happening around her, the families in a poor, small Southern town torn up by abuse and alcohol and bitterness. But when I compare it to something like Bastard Out of Carolina, another story about a neglected and abused girl in the South—one that I didn’t enjoy particularly but in which every moment was vivid and searing and immediate—then Ellen Foster is going to lose every time.
There was one great poignant moment I will mention. It’s kind of a SPOILER if you’re actually intending to read the book. Late in the novel, in conversation with the counselor she’s been required to see, it is revealed that Foster is not Ellen’s actual last name. (Something that probably Gibbons could not have concealed if she was using the third-person narrative I wish she could just try.) At church, Ellen has seen a family of unrelated kids all taken care of by this one kind-hearted woman. Having asked who they are, Ellen has misunderstood what it means to be a “foster family.” So, to better be a part of this magical “(F)oster family” she has renamed herself Ellen Foster. That was kind of a nice, unexpected little heartbreaking moment.
For further comparison, that small moment of poignancy is one up on Bastard Out of Carolina, which is almost too vivid to develop those kinds of small moments. That entire book is figurative punches in the reader’s gut. It all depends on what you, the reader, are looking for, what speaks to you.
An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro
I read The Remains of the Day—arguably the most famous novel by contemporary writer Kazuo Ishiguro—first. I backtracked to read An Artist of the Floating World, which he’d written five to ten years before, and in the early chapters I felt that he was shooting for the same target as he had in The Remains of the Day, with an aim not quite fully developed. This happens sometimes when you read an author’s breakout novel before you read their early stuff: the early stuff feels like rough drafts of what’s to come.
As it went on, though, it took its own interesting journey in a fresh direction. It’s a sort of experimental narrative, meandering and circle-y. Based on what I’ve heard in ESL seminars, this is actually a really common form for Japanese writing, even including their journalism. (In one seminar, we diagrammed a Japanese news article which buried its lede way, way at the end of the story. Can you imagine an American news article doing that? “So in conclusion, the building burned down but no one was hurt.”) Following along with this style was an adjustment for me, but once I gave into it, I really enjoyed it, and it actually felt like I was really getting the point of the global reading challenge, more than any of the other books had done for me so far.
The characters, and their interactions with each other, were likewise incredibly foreign. The book is set in the late 40s and early 50s in Japan, amidst the process of rebuilding postwar. The main character is a retired artist, one who provided a lot of pro-Axis powers artwork back when it was patriotic and is now dealing with the fact that some people consider it misguided, even traitorous. Early on, another character describes to the artist how the CEO of his company has killed himself as a means of apology for involving his company in the war effort.
The cultural differences are reflected in less dramatic fashion, too. The artist, Ono, has interactions with his grown daughters, one of whom has a young son and one who is involved in marriage negotiations. Culturally they owe him complete deference, which is hugely visible in their dialogue together, but he feels that they sometimes manipulate him between the lines. A lot of the story is the character reflecting on his past, so we also get his youthful experiences as a working artist and as a teacher, called “sensei,” by his students and lavished with praise and compliments. Later, he remembers being apprenticed himself to a major artist who expected this kind of submission from him, who complains to him when his artwork begins to exhibit its own personal style. The goal seems to be to replicate the artist’s work exactly. Can you imagine something like this in an American art school? Ono’s sensei paints nothing but geishas in soft light, and doesn’t like that his student is painting soldiers and children in poverty.
This is where “the floating world” comes in: Ono has to decide whether his art belongs in the practical world or in the world of beauty without purpose. The non-linear timeline muddies up this question entirely, because we already know that in the future he’ll regret the politically-minded work he provided during the war. He looks upon both his past and his present with ambivalence, unsure if he did any of it right. The entire book reveals the transitory nature of the world, presenting a guy, who, if he ever did fit in with his time, has lived far past it now.
Which come to think of it, expressed that vaguely, could easily describe The Remains of the Day, as well. Maybe that’s just Ishiguro’s main preoccupation. Anyway, the book is sad and strange and wonderful. The only drawback—if I am to be forced to think of one—is that it describes so much artwork that readers can’t see with their own eyes. That was a problem for me with Theft, as well. That’s the one situation where I would be on board for this multi-media fiction that is supposedly just around the corner: books about art, and probably books about music, too. As long as the media was a contribution to the literary work and not a distraction. But we’ll be debating that forever.
This novel was a two-fer. Set solely in Japan, it counted towards the global reading challenge (and finished me on Asia, although honestly? there are so many widely varied Asian cultures I would have to read about twelve more to really feel like I’d even made a dent) and Ishiguro is also one of the authors I earmarked for one of my 30 before 30 goals. I’m planning to read his complete works before next May (and Kate Atkinson and Toni Morrison, too). My next book on that front is another Ishiguro—and I’m jumping ahead again, with his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, just because it’s been made into a movie that’s coming out this fall and I like to read the book first. Anyway, keep watching the blog for all of that. I know you’re all a-quiver with anticipation!