Booked All Week

and next week, too

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

with 16 comments

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?

16 Responses

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  1. I think her best is And Then There Were None. It is my favorite. Jen at Devourer of Books is doing a giveaway since she will be reading it a bit later in the summer. I also liked Murder is Easy. I think I haved tended to read Christe’s stand-alones.


    June 29, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Nicole! I’ll check out those next time. And thanks for letting me know about the giveaway, too 🙂

      Emily Jane

      June 29, 2011 at 10:48 pm

  2. Another great collection of reviews! The Rape of Nanking sounds really interesting – I know very very little about that event as well.


    June 29, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    • Thanks Amy! It is interesting, for sure. Just very difficult to stomach.

      Emily Jane

      July 1, 2011 at 1:25 am

  3. Persuasion is very close to dethroning P&P as my favorite Austen. It was her last completed book and it’s likely she was already feeling ill at the time. You can clearly see her changing perception of what a hero and heroine could be/look like. Captain Wentworth, for example, is a real homage to the self-made man. Anne doesn’t speak much, but she’s a practical woman who became essential to those around her, even though grossly unappreciated.

    After reading Mansfield Park you’ll look back at Anne and think her very proactive and chatty, you’ll see 🙂


    June 30, 2011 at 9:40 am

    • I see what you mean, Alex, about her changing notions of hero and heroine. I really rather liked Wentworth, much more so than many of Austen’s other male suitors. And I did like Anne, too, though her character caught me off guard a little. You’ve got me interested in Mansfield Park!

      Emily Jane

      July 1, 2011 at 1:27 am

  4. I’m a fan of A Fine Balance, Persuasion, and Three Act Tragedy. I second And Then There Were None . . . as Christie’s best. (Murder on the Orient Express is also quite good.)

    I am nowhere near my old school notes, but one of the most fascinating documentaries I saw was of three former Japanese soldiers who had been POWs. They weren’t treated nicely by the Chinese (let’s leave it at that), but they were reeducated to go back and speak about what they did during the war and why. It’s horrifying to hear perfectly normal old men talk about the hideous things they did to other human beings.


    July 1, 2011 at 4:29 am

    • It truly is. Sounds like an interesting documentary, Liviania! And thanks for the Christie recs.

      Emily Jane

      July 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

  5. I loved A Fine Balance – it’s one of my favourite books ever, so glad you enjoyed it too.

    Persuasion has been on my list forever, and I look forward to reading it.

    It’s also been absolutely ages since I read any Agatha Christie. I think I need to start going back to her works (and the wonderful world of Poirot) if/when I am in the mood for a good suspense thriller!


    July 2, 2011 at 8:48 am

    • Yeah, I’ve only seen positive reviews of A Fine Balance, and I can see why! Hope you enjoy Persuasion, when you get to it.

      Emily Jane

      July 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  6. I’m not very into epic, generational books, which probably means I’m missing out on great books ;P

    So happy to hear you enjoyed your first Christie. My personal favorite on Cards on the table, but other amazing ones are Murder at the Vicarage, Murder is Easy, Murder on the Orient Express, Halloween Party. Can’t really go wrong 😉


    July 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    • Maybe, but if you don’t like ’em you don’t like ’em! I’ll keep your Christie picks in mind 🙂

      Emily Jane

      July 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  7. […] Read More Reviews At: Devour of Books -Booked All Week […]

  8. Wow. I own The Rape of Nanking but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet; thanks for pointing out how important it is!


    July 5, 2011 at 1:27 am

  9. I’ve been meaning to read The Rape of Nanking for ages but have to admit I’m a little afraid to. Coming from a mixed Japanese background, I do feel it’s important that you don’t brush the legacy of war under the carpet and the Japanese govt is seriously lacking in the way they teach history in the country. You’ve just reminded me that I really should get to it soon.

    I’ve read all the other books you mention except Persuasion. A Fine Balance was really good but I found it extremely depressing. And of the Christies, I recommend The Murder on the Links.


    July 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  10. I really enjoyed Persuasion. (I haven’t read any of the others above, lol.) 🙂

    Jillian ♣

    August 9, 2011 at 5:20 pm

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