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Archive for June 2011

A Fine Balance, The Lover, Persuasion, The Rape of Nanking, and Three Act Tragedy

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Well, it seems that no matter what I do lately, I am unable to post consistently about what I’m reading. This is in part because I’m working a lot more this summer than I anticipated I would be–not a bad thing save for the effect it’s having on this blog. That said, I’m going to keep using the many-mini-review format of my catch-up posts for a while. So:

This multi-generational epic culminates in the meeting of four strangers during India’s Emergency years: a widow struggling to maintain independence from her abusive brother, a college student from a northern mountain village come to study in the city, and two tailors trying to work their way out of slum-life and caste oppression. Together, they form an unconventional family, trying to find (ahem) the balance between hope and despair in a frighteningly dangerous decade. This book is rich in detail. I was both fascinated and disgusted by Mistry’s exploration of the “begging industry” and the forced sterilizations carried out on the poor by the government, and deeply affected by the countless tragedies that befall each character. This tearjerker was a bit too long, I thought, and some parts of the end were unrealistically coincidental, but it was still well worth the read and I’m glad I gave it the time.

The Lover tells the autobiographical story of an affair that Duras had with a Chinese man as a teenage girl. She is from a poor family but is able to attend boarding school in French-occupied Vietnam because her mother is a teacher. Her lover is wealthy, and their relationship brings up a ton of issues about power along the intersecting lines of age, class, and race. Duras’s prose is light and sifting, and the memories she’s able to capture reveal important clues as to the complicated dynamics that existed not only between herself and her lover, but also herself and her family, and her country and its colonial subjects. I was interested in this book because I was absolutely blown away by Hiroshima Mon Amour, a remarkably beautiful film which she wrote the screenplay for. There are many overlapping elements between the film, which tells the story of an affair between a French woman and a Japanese man just after the second world war, and the book, which made the reading more interesting. For me, though, the film is just infinitely more compelling; the book is its shadow. Read it, but only after you’ve enjoyed Hiroshima Mon Amour.

I was badly craving a comfort-read at this point, and who better to provide that than Jane Austen? If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about 🙂 Having read three of her books so far (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma), it’s hard not to evaluate each new-to-me Austen novel through any method but comparison. Two things about Persuasion struck me as unique for Austen: first, this love story starts not at the stage of meeting and courting (or meeting and initially disliking and getting all muddled and confused before courting and marrying in the end, or whatever), but years after Anne Elliot has broken off her engagement to the sailor Frederick Wentworth only to find herself thrown into the same social circle as him more than seven years later. Originally convinced by her friends and family that Wentworth was not a proper match for her, she comes to realize her mistake in allowing them such influence over her love life. She spends almost three-fourths of the novel silently, painfully watching Wentworth flirt with another girl while trying to convince herself that they maintain some sort of friendly bond and that that’s all she wants, which is incredibly sad. This has got to be the saddest Austen novel, in fact. Really, I was surprised at how much sadness I felt. In a way, this leads me to another difference I noticed between this book and Austen’s others, and it lies with Anne: she is the least active of Austen’s protagonists in orchestrating the events around her, the least assertive and communicative. She comes off as very dignified, though, which made me wonder if these qualities were not meant to denote a particular kind of maturity (thinking specifically in contrast to Emma, here). I do wish that she was a little more outspoken, though, so that I could identify with her more and see a little more of her personality, and not just her circumstance. This one didn’t overtake Emma or Sense and Sensibility as my favorite Austen so far, but still delivered, as I knew it would.

First off, there should be a giant TRIGGER WARNING around this whole book, and maybe this post, for in-depth discussions of rape and other extreme forms of violence. Oh, my. Imagine all the most disturbing, inhumane things you can imagine one or a group of people doing to another person or group of people. Multiply that by at least ten. You have hardly begun to scratch the surface of what members of the Japanese army did to the people in and around Nanking when they occupied it in 1937. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered during this massacre that lasted over six weeks. Almost as disturbing as the mass rapes and murders themselves (but really, I don’t think anything can be) is the way in which it was been glossed over afterward by both the US and Japanese governments and academics for reasons of political expediency–basically, the fact that the US needed Japan as an ally during the Cold War and Japan would rather claim historical amnesia (or worse, anti-Japanese propaganda) than acknowledge what happened and apologize for it. In most ways, I’d say, what happened in Nanking is the natural outcome of all warfare, and occurs everywhere that war does. But in this book, Chang tries to locate the specific factors which allowed Japanese soldiers in Nanking to act so far outside the bounds of “ordinary” warfare. I’m not entirely comfortable with this approach in general, but I was willing to let that slide for the sake of information about an event I knew nothing about. She also takes note the few European and American ex-pats who stayed in Nanking to enforce an International Safetly Zone (ironically, one of Nanking’s most revered allies during this time was the Nazi John Rabe), which helped to save thousands of refugees, which is nice, I guess, if not exactly uplifting. In any case, it feels wrong to say that this is a “good” book, or that I “liked” it or that I even want anyone else to read it ever (or to be exposed to the images inside, OMG), but I will say that the victims of the Nanking massacre and its aftermath deserve to have their memories honored and their stories told and I’m glad that this book makes that possible. This history must NOT be allowed to repeat itself. Ever.

This book was kindly sent to me from Nicole at Linus’s Blanket in a give-away so that I could participate in a bit of her Agatha Christie read-and-watch-a-long this summer. I’ve been thinking of trying Christie for a while now, or just mystery in general since I tend to avoid the genre, so this was the perfect opportunity! In Three Act Tragedy, a eldery clergyman falls dead at a dinner party and a few months later, at another party with the same guest list, the doctor dies in exactly the same way. The murders would all make sense, if only a motive could be found for the first killing. And it would be so much easier to find the motive, if only there weren’t so many playing the role of detective…! Sadly, my computer had trouble playing the Masterpiece Theater adaptation (which I’m sure I would have loved) so I only made it about twenty minutes through. I liked the book well enough, it was fun and I can see already why Christie is so highly regarded. It didn’t really blow my mind or anything though. I’m willing to try another, so if you’re a fan, tell me–what’s the best Christie mystery?

Catching Up, Part 3

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I’m back! Here’s what I read while I was out of town:

Beginning with a wedding and ending with a funeral, The Group follows the lives of eight women who graduate from Vassar in 1933 through the next ten years of their lives. These privileged women strongly identify themselves as part of a set based on their shared school experience and their educational status, which reads as a bit outdated. However, their experiences with, and conversations about sexuality, birth control, family problems, and workplace discrimination kept the book relevant and engaging. It was this, and a focus on long-lasting but malleable friendships, which drew me in. McCarthy writes in a meandering way and moves so easily from one character to another that the shift between them is almost imperceptible, and that didn’t hurt either. Her style reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s in Mrs. Dalloway which–of course–is a high compliment.

Full disclosure: I know Miriam Sagan personally, and thank her very much for sending me a copy of this book. I don’t plan to let that sway my “review” at all, but thought it right to mention it. I don’t read a lot of poetry–I should read more though, because often when I do I end up enjoying it more than expected. This collection brings together the poetry of three friends sharing their experiences of love and loss, some of which overlap, and all of which are fairly accessible to non (or rare) poetry types like me. The natural overlap of experience is perhaps the most interesting outcome of this project since it allows for a plurality of perspectives toward singular events. My favorite part, though, was the evocative imagery of my first home, the Southwest, which is a near-constant setting for these poems. I also liked how, through their poetry, you could feel the real-life bonds that exist between the authors and see how the major events of their individual lives have informed their friendships. I hadn’t realized it before, but this book shares much of what I enjoyed most about The Group! A cathartic read.

In 1939, the French ship La Amistad sailed from Havana toward Puerto Principe, Cuba, with 56 African slaves on board. The slaves freed themselves from their restraints, mutinied, and were captured off the coast of Long Island. Questions about rightful ownership of both the ship and the people onboard fed a long-winded Supreme Court case, the resolution of which had a crucial impact on both international politics and the institution of slavery in the United States. For many New Englanders, this was their first interaction with Africans unmediated by the institution of slavery. It took them lengthy investigations and more than one translator to determine exactly where in Africa they had come from, and to hear their telling of the events aboard the Amistad, but immediately they were of widespread interest; people would come from afar to gawk at them in prison, where they were held until their freedom was finally granted in 1841, and abolitionists were quick to adopt their case. These events were widely publicized at the time, and are still quite fascinating. Unfortunately, this book was pretty boring. It’s brevity is one of the few things it has going for it. Intriguing history, but mediocre book. Too bad.

Set in early nineteenth century Andalucia, this short novel is a warning against the corruption of authority represented by the corregidor (insufficiently translated as administrator, or mayor) and symbolized by his three-cornered hat. This figure takes an interest in the local beauty, Frasquita, who is married to the miller don Eugenio. Frasquita and her husband decide to play a prank on the corregidor, but when don Eugenio begins to suspect his wife of running too far with the joke and succumbing to the corregidor’s sexual advances, he tries to one-up them by impersonating el corregidor and bedding his wife. The persistent idea that political corruption/and or gain, or “manliness”, or whatever,  comes at the expense of women “belonging” to other men is annoying to me, and totally at play here. But I couldn’t help enjoying the humorous aspects of the story, which were many. And in the end, though each wife is fooled by the silly behavior of their husbands, they are not made fools of in the way their husbands are. In fact, they gain the benefit of each other’s friendship–so I guess that evens things out. This tale would not be out of place as one of those stories within a story that happen in Don Quixote, and so I liked it.

Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of Antonio Marez, a young boy from Guadelupe, New Mexico, whose life is forever altered when the curandera (healer) Ultima comes to live with his family during the second world war. He feels pulled toward two conflicting futures; one in which he honors his mother and her side of his family by becoming a priest and a settled farmer, and one in which he follows the wild, nomadic footsteps of his father’s restless dreams. He also struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the injustice he sees around him, and his existential struggles are made much more difficult when Ultima is accused of witchcraft by others in his community and people around him start dying. Though he learns wonderful things from Ultima, in the end only he can unlock the secrets to his destiny and forge his own spiritual path. Anaya is a masterful storyteller. This book was required reading for me in middle school, clouded by fond but vague, disjointed memory. It more than stood the test of time and was only improved by a second, more seasoned reading, and highly recommend it. I’ve just found out that Bless Me, Ultima is acutally part of a trilogy, and can’t wait to track down the other two books in the series.

And that’s that! Finally, I can get back to writing about books immediately (er, or at least shortly) after completing them. Welcome to summer, everyone.