Hidden voices of Chinese women [book reviews]

good women of china-1Maybe I was spoiled by the brilliance of Wild Swans by Jung Chang but any thoughts that The Good Women of China by Xinran would be similarly revealing about the lives of Chinese women today were sadly quashed.

Xinran is a journalist who worked for eight years as a presenter at a Chinese radio station. Touched by many letters she received from women she persuaded her bosses to let her reveal some of their stories. It was a bold move because some of those stories were critical of Chinese society and it’s ruling elite — exactly the kind of story subject to the country’s strictly enforced censorship rules. Though Deng Xiaoping had started a process of opening up the country in 1983, it was still risky to discuss personal issues in the media. But Xinran prevailed. She was, she said:

… trying to open a little window, a tiny hole, so that people could allow their spirits to cry out and breath after the gunpowder-laden atmosphere of the previous forty years.

Over time she began pushing the boundaries, taking a risk that one mistake – even one comment – could endanger her career if not her freedom. Such was the popularity of her program that the radio station had to install four answering machines so women could call in and record their comments.  Words on the Night Breeze became famous through the country for its unflinching portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. Xinran was hailed as the first female presenter to ‘lift the veil’ of Chinese women and delve into the reality of their lives. Her programme dealt with sexual abuse, attitudes towards disability, forcible removal of children from their mothers and a practice of pushing intelligent women into unhappy marriages with government leaders — marriages they could not leave because of the resulting damage to the husband’s reputation. Her stories concerned women of all different classes and ages and degrees of experience.

The most moving for me was the story of  Xiao Ying, a survivor of an earthquake in Tangshan in 1976 which killed 300,000 people.  In the subsequent chaos she was gang raped by soldiers. When her mother found her in a ditch, she kept pulling down her trousers, closing her eyes and humming. Xiao Ying was sent for psychiatric treatment. She seemed better after two and a half years, but the day before her parents were due to take her home, she hanged herself. She was 16.

Xinran was deeply affected by what she discovered, travelling the breadth of the country to track down some of the women whose stories she had heard. One of them lived in a poor shack next to the radio station, keeping body and soul alive by scavenging though Xinran discovered her son was a wealthy party official. Another woman she found in a remote hotel in shock after meeting again the boyfriend from whom she’d been separated 45 years earlier. Xinran sat with her throughout the night, slowly giving the woman the courage to speak about her life.

Centuries of obedience to the principles of “Three Submissions and the Four Virtues” (submission to fathers, husbands and sons), followed by years of political turmoil had made women terrified of talking openly about their feelings. Xinran won their trust and, through her compassion and ability to listen. Repeatedly they told her that she gave them a space in which to express themselves without fearing blame or other negative reactions.

If the ability to tell their stories, changed these women, hearing them also changed Xinran. Her youthful enthusiasm gave way to pain the more she learned and the more she understood.

At times a kind of numbness would come over me from all the suffering I had encountered, as if a callus were forming within me. Then I would hear another story and my feelings would be stirred up all over again.

By 1997, after a particularly traumatic visit to a community where women were denied sanitary product, whose wombs had collapsed through constant childcare,  the pain became too much and Xinran left China for England. She wanted, she said to breathe new air and to feel what it was like to live in a free society. But she didn’t want to abandon the women who’d been encouraged by her programme – so she wrote her book to teach the west what it meant to be a woman in China.

It’s a worthy cause and there is little doubt that Xinran gave hope to thousands of women whose stories she heard and the millions more who listened to her programme. But it doesn’t make for a very good book. By the very nature of its subject The Good Women of China is an episodic book and each of the 15 personal stories she relates is touching. But it lacks objectivity and analysis. Instead of stepping back from a story and reflecting what this tells us about Chinese society, she’s onto the next example and the next and the next. Without analysis and reflection on whether these conditions have changed, it’s hard to comprehend if these are isolated examples or how representative they are of real life. Reading this book left me with too many unanswered questions.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices is translated by Esther Tyldesley. It was published in 2002 by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

About the author: Xinran (the name means “with pleasure” ) was born in Beijing in 1958 and lived with her wealthy family until the Cultural Revolution separated them when she was seven. After working in a military university she became a radio journalist. Her talk show, Words on the Night Breeze, started in 1988; within three weeks she was receiving 100 letters a day, mostly from women. She moved to the UK in 1997, where she compiled their stories in The Good Women of China. Xinran is a columnist for national newspapers in the UK.

Why I read this book: I’ve been fortunate enough through my job to visit China and to meet many people from that country. The stories of their culture and how this is under pressure as the country becomes an economic power house and a force in international affairs, has fascinated me. I thought The Good Women of China would help me better understand the people of this country. This book is part of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

 

An ever so tiny book splurge

After six months in which I bought only three books I’ve been on a little spree this week. I say ‘little’ because I’m determined not to let the TBR get further out of control. This is a reward for sticking fairly well to my goals for the first half of the year. As reminder I set two goals:

  1. Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. In other words: read the books I already own rather than go chasing shiny new ones. This was a more positive approach than a book ban (I know from past experience I’d never keep to that) and did give me the flexibility to borrow from libraries. I did acquire  a few titles via give aways and offers of review copies but I also declined more than I accepted so the TBR is still on a downward trend. Down from 318 at the start of the year to 276 by end of June. I’m counting this as success.
  2. My second goal was to Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. With help from my husband who is a whizz-kid with this software program and some online tutorials I’ve managed to get beyond the basics. Much huffing and puffing is still involved each time I want to do a new montage and realise I’ve forgotten the instructions again or my computer won’t do what the tutorial says it should do. But I’m getting there.

I’m giving myself a breather in July before going once more unto the breach for the final five months of the year.

I’ll keep goal number one but will give myself a bit more slack to buy a few new titles (I’m thinking four new books would be a reasonable allowance for a 5 month period). I have a very long wishlist that I maintain on Goodreads so chosing just four books from that list could be a challenge.

Goal two will remain – there is  still a lot more I to learn with Photoshop so I don’t think I can declare victory just yet.

I’m going to add a third goal.

Goal 3: I will finish all the books remaining in my Booker project.  I have only 8 more titles to go before I’m done. No reason why I can’t do this by end of December.

New purchases 

Books purchased July 2017

So what did I buy on my mini spree? I deliberately avoided going to a bookshop which would be way too much temptation. Mind you I have a few hours to kill in the city tomorrow so my resolve might waver….. (I’m making zero promises!).

The local branch of The Works was doing a deal on paperbacks of 3 for £5. I couldn’t find three but did end up with:

Stasi Wolf by David Young. This is an atmospheric crime fiction series set in East Germany in the 1970s, in other words when it was still part of the Soviet empire. There’s a good review of this book by MarinaSofia at CrimeFictionLover.    I won book two in the series in a give away earlier this year but was then advised to start from the beginning so was delighted to find what I thought was book. That will pay me to give closer attention to my TBR – I got home to find Stasi Wolf is the one I already have. Maybe it doesn’t count as a purchase in that case???

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. I wasn’t familiar with this title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec and the publishers have a habit of using alternative titles for some of her books. So I did a quick web search while standing in the shop to confirm that I don’t already have this under a different name. I should have done that with Stasi Wolf shouldn’t I?

My local library branch has a regular book sale table which I browse regularly, on behalf of my dad, for books in the  Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime fiction series by Peter James. He loves this series set in Brighton but gets frustrated because he can’t borrow them from his library in the order of publication. So I keep an eye out to fill in any gaps for him. No luck again on my recent visit but I did find that monstrously large book at the bottom of the stack.

Cwmcardy is published by the Library of Wales as part of their project to bring out-of-print or forgotten books of Welsh literature back into play. Cwmcardy is one of two epic novels written by Lewis Jones  about  his experience in South Wales between 1890s and 1930s and is considered one of the Great Welsh novels. This is a rather graphic portrait of exploitation, violence and political aspiration experienced by the industrial workers of this part of Wales around the time of the General Strike in 1926. That could make it sound rather grim and ‘worthy’ but I note that the reviewer who nominated this as a Great Welsh Novel,  considered it a page-turner full of action and sensation.  It’s more than 700 pages long so quite when I’ll get round to reading it is a big question – however it cost 20pence which seemed a small investment for strengthening my collection of Welsh authors.

 

 

Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto #bookreview

goodbye tsugumiGoodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament. 

Tsugumi  Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour.  According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.

Maria  Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.

It wasn’t narcissism.  And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic.  Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there.  She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too.  We all continued to be enchanted by her. 

Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.

When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria  embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young womanbut that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.

In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.

Summer was coming.  Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again.  All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had.  And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress.  We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together.  We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a  strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future. 

Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.

The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.

I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:

Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.

I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.

Footnotes

About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.

About the author:  Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel  Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes  of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit. 

Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

Revealing the most popular Danish authors

danish flag.jpgThe popularity of Nordic Noir has sparked increasing interest in fiction from the Scandinavian countries. But who else to read once you’ve exhausted the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (from Iceland) and Sweden’s Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö?  And what about the other Scandinavian countries? A few years ago I asked Marit a blogger from Denmark to share some thoughts on Danish fiction – you can see her guest post here.  Some of the authors she mentioned are not well known outside of Denmark and are not available in translation. Out of those who have moved outside a Danish readership, who are the most popular authors? 

This was the question a Danish translation agency set out to answer – and they found some surprising results, explains Lasse Nielsen who is part of the external online marketing team at the Diction agency. Lasse can explain this better than I can so let me hand you over to him.

Diction logoAt  Diction, we are passionate about translation. This passion and the fact that we are a Danish translation company led us to do some research to find out which Danish author has been the most translated over time.

Top 10 translated Danish authors

Some of the top 10 most translated Danish Authors.To see the full list go to https://www.diction.dk/10-most-translated-danish-authors

We did this research to hopefully inspire someone who sees it to read books by authors other than the ones they’re used to reading and furthermore to learn more about the must successful Danish authors. The inspiration to the research came from my favourite Danish author Peter Høeg, whose book Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which is his most popular work,  celebrates its 25 year anniversary this year. Miss Smilla is number eight in the list of top translated authors. 

Our study is based on the UNESCO database of translated authors where you can find every translation of authors in the world. There we found the Danish authors and for each of them documented how many times their work had been translated and into how many languages. The ten most translated authors feature in our graphic.   For each author mentioned you can see their place of birth, their most popular work and the number of languages into which that work has been translated. 

Our research showed, no surprise, that Hans Christian Andersen is by far the most popular author in the matter of translation and reach worldwide. His Fairy Tales has been translated into 180 languages. But for us Danes there were a few surprises as well, particularly finding Carla Hansen whose Rasmus Klump is on the list and the Puck Series by Lisbeth Werner (pseudonym) were so popular worldwide.

We’ve had a surprising reaction to the research and our graphic. Besides the fact that Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard came top of the list. I think that most Danes didn’t know many of the other authors who have become popular outside Denmark – people like Sven Hassel who was born in Denmark but moved to Germany to escape the depression. 

Unanswered Questions 

Looking through this piece of research, a few things struck me.

One is that my knowledge of Danish fiction is even lower than I expected. I haven’t heard of most of the authors in the top 10 (the exception being of course Hans Christian Anderson). I need to start delving into some of these other authors. Since I’ve never heard of them or even know what genre in which they work I had to do a bit of internet research. Wikipedia came to my rescue so below you’ll find a potted biography of the top 5 (after Anderson who needs no introduction).

Secondly none of the six titles Marit mentions as ‘required reading’  because they are considered classics of Danish fiction, make an appearance in the top 10 identified by Diction. Isn’t that odd? I’d have thought a classic would be one of the first to be translated. Classics from many other European countries are widely available (I’m thinking Crime and Punishment from Russia,  Les Miserables, L’Etranger from France, The Trial from Germany, Don Quixote from Spain and any one of Dickens or Austen’s works).

So why aren’t Danish classics translated? Is it that publishers think the market is limited because the books deal with issues of interest or meaningful only to Danish people? Unlikely – one of the authors Marit lists is Tom Kristensen whose best known work is Hærværk (published in English as Havoc in 1968). This is the story of a Danish journalist who is driven to self-destruction by drink. It’s theme is the intellectual, political and personal crisis experienced by many European writers and artists between the World Wars. Another ‘classic’ text is Alphabet, a collection of poems by Inger Christensen that deal with themes of nuclear war and ecological devastation. Surely these are topics of interest well outside the borders of Denmark?

Or are these novels not really ‘classics’? A thorny question this because there are so many ways to define ‘classic’. I took another look at the criteria used by the Italian author and journalist Italio Calvino (I wrote about his 14 point definition in this post) in the hope in might cast some light on my question. A lot of his points could apply to the titles in Marit’s list but there was one point that got me thinking. Calvino says “a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works.” So maybe one of the issues is that these Danish works are standalone texts rather than ones that have a connection to the past and set a tradition for ones coming after.

I wish I knew the answer. Maybe one of you who has better knowledge of how publishers reach decisions on what to translate, will be able to cast some light on this.

Top 5 Danish Authors Who’s Who 

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 –1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher. He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christendom, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony and parables.  Fear and Trembling (the book mentioned in the graphic) dates from 1843 and has been translated into 20 languages.

Sven Hassel (1917-2012) was the pen name of the Danish-born Børge Willy Redsted Pedersen who wrote novels set during World War II. He moved to Germany in 1937 to join the army. There are competing stories of what role he played in WW2. According to Hassel he was a naturalized German citizen fighting with the German armed forces.  He claimed to have surrendered to Soviet troops in Berlin in 1945 and to have spent the following years in prisoner-of-war camps in various countries. But it seems he was actually arrested in Denmark and was held in prison as a German collaborator. He began writing his first book Legion of the Damned while he was interned. His 14 books which depict the brutality of war, describe the exploits of a 27th (Penal) Panzer Regiment composed of expendable soldiers – sentenced criminals, court-martialed soldiers and political undesirables.

Lisbeth Werner sounds like a Danish version of Jacqueline Wilson. It’s the pseudonym of Danish writers Knud Meister and Carlo Andersen  who wrote a series of 46 popular teenage books about Puk(Puck), a girl that attends a boarding school.  The series is available in five languages in addition to Danish.

Ole Lund Kirkegaard (1940-1979) was a Danish writer of children’s literature and youth literature and a teacher. He mainly wrote about the interaction between adult and child. The main character in his books is usually an anti-hero and the events are inspired by his own childhood experiences. His most popular title Otto is a Rhino has been translated into 15 languages.

Willy Breinholst (1918 – 2009) was a Danish author, screenwriter, and humorist. He was rather prolific – according to one web site he has around 165 titles to his name, most of them taking a comic look at the family.

Snapshot of July 2017

 

July snapshot

The year has moved forward once again catching me out by suddenly turning into July. So my post in which I take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read etc on the first of the month is a bit behind schedule. But I know you’re all desperately waiting for this (a girl can pretend can’t she??) so let’s get on with what I was up to on July 1, 2017

Reading now

A tale for the time being-1Last month the book on my bedside table at the start of the month was one of  the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It was one of the strangest books I’ve read for many years and one of my favourites for 2017 so far. (here’s my review my review in case you don’t know the book) On July 1, I was coming towards the end of another book from that reading list: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I’ve since finished the novel (review is posted here) but would love, if I ever got the time, to re-read it because it’s so rich in big themes (the meaning of time, Zen Buddhism, suicide to mention just a few) and yet is a highly readable coming of age story about a lonely Japanese girl.  If all the books I read in July are anywhere as good as this one I’ll have a stellar month.

On July 1 I was also creeping my way through Katherine of Aragon by Alison Weir which is the first in her series about the six wives of Henry VIII. I borrowed this from my sister just before going to see Weir talk at an author event marking the launch of book two in the series. I made it to about page 100 and then stalled. It’s not that the book is poor or lacking interest (I’m a sucker for the Tudor and Stuart periods in British history) but the characterisation lacks a bit of something special.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 276. Although I haven’t imposed a ban on buying new books, I have been very restrained. So far this year I’ve bought just three titles and acquired another ten through give-aways or from authors/publishers. I’m giving myself a huge gold star here when I think that in 2016 I bought/acquired 180 new items for the bookshelves.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t plan far ahead with my reading because invariably I change my mind at the last moment. I have plenty of choices in my 20booksofsummer list still and July is also when I’m going to join in the Japanese literature month hosted by Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. I also have a copy of The Monster’s Daughter, a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius that I’ve agreed to review before the paperback version is published at the end of July. It’s set in her native South Africa and is a dual time frame narrative. Part of it takes place in 1901 at the height of the Boer War, when a doctor at a British concentration camp conducts a series of grim experiments on Boer prisoners. The other part focuses on a murder investigation in 2010 which begins with the discovery of a body burned beyond recognition.

Watching: The Handmaid’s Tale as dramatised by Channel 4 in the UK. It’s a fabulous adaption that is compelling viewing. In between we’re catching up on an old favourite – Foyle’s War, a British detective drama television series set during and shortly after the Second World. All the action takes place in the coastal town of Hastings where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (played by Michael Kitchen) has deal with potential spies, blackmarketeers and a few murderers. Although some plots are a bit far fetched, the episodes are always convincing in their portrayal of the period (apparently the Imperial War Museum acted as an advisor to ensure historical accuracy).

Listening: I’m a latecomer to the podcast called Serial – season 1 is a compelling true story about a murder in Baltimore and a fight for justice for the teenager sent to prison for 16 years. It’s as good as another true life story I heard earlier in the year called The Body on the Moor in which BBC Radio followed a police investigation that tried over the course of a year to identify a body found by a cyclist. I highly recommend this one.

And that is it for this month. Lets hope by the time of the next snapshot I haven’t gone off the rails and my book stock hasn’t suddenly multiplied many times over.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki [Book Review] #20booksofsummer

Tale for timeIf you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way. But not only did I enjoy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki it’s turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

This is a novel that addresses big themes that transcend cultures and borders yet it starts at the level of one individual. In a Tokyo cafe where waitresses dress up as French maids, 16 year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani  pours out her thoughts into a diary. Her journal is an attempt to deal with the severe loneliness and feelings of alienation she has experienced since her father lost his lucrative hi-tech job in Silicon Valley, California  and the family had to move back to Japan. They live in a one bed room apartment; her mother sits for hours in front of a tank of jellyfish at the aquarium, her father, unable to get a job, has attempted suicide. Nao has been bullied, ostracised and humiliated at school and is herself contemplating suicide. But first she will write the life story of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a nun who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan.

More than a decade later, the diary, wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and freezer bags covered in barnacles, is washed ashore on an island in British Columbia where it’s discovered by Ruth, an author.  As she reads the Nao’s words Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of the girl’s life.   How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world? Did it float across the Pacific on one of the huge gyres of waste she learns about from her husband Oliver?  How long had the package been tossed about in the sea? What happened to Nao – did she kill herself or was she a victim of the tsunami in 2011? Can Ruth find and save her? Questions that compel Ruth to frantically hunt the Internet, seek insight from local marine experts and help with translation. Each time she thinks she is making progress, she hits another dead end.

The novel oscillates between first person excerpts from Nao’s diary and third person narration in which Ruth reacts to the diary and the other documents. New layers of story emerge and new connections are made. In the lunchbox, Ruth discovers letters from Jiko’s son, Haruki, a young man forced to give up his studies and become a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War. In the letters, written in French so his commanding officers cannot understand them, he reveals his fears about the task he has been ordered to undertake. The package also contains Haruki’s watch which miraculously still keeps time.

Time of course is one of the threads that holds the novel together. The slippery nature of time is one of Nao’s preoccupations. She calls herself a “time being.  … someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  She captures her thoughts about her “last days on Earth” in a diary bound within the covers of an old copy of Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. As she recounts her past, she wonders not only who will read her story, but also when she will catch up to her present and what catching up will feel like. At the same time, she seems to believe that “now” is an impossibility because it keeps disappearing:

In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already thenThen is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.

She invites her imagined reader to count the moments of the now with her. Across the years and across the ocean Ruth tries to keep in time with Nao, forcing herself to slow down the pace at which she reads the journal. Reading it at the same pace at which Nao wrote it, will she reasons, enable her to “more closely replicate Nao’s experience.”  It’s left to Ruth’s husband Oliver to provide a logical explanation for the conflation of past and present she experiences, using the experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat as evidence that an object (or Nao herself) may be simultaneously both alive and dead.

Philosophical explorations of quantum mechanics, discussions about crow species and the anatomy of barnacles populate A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a dizzying array of ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader (especially if you also pay attention to the 163 footnotes and six appendices). What holds it all together is Nao’s voice. She’s a direct and engaging narrator, holding little back in her account of her fears for her father and the despair when a disturbing film about her goes viral through social media.  What saves  her is her relationship with her grandmother. During a summer holiday at the temple Nao learns how to control her anger, empty her mind and express gratitude for the simplest things in life. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl in her pain and her desire for love. 

If you want a novel that deals with both the big and the small issues,  A Tale for the Time Being ticks all the boxes. It’s quite mesmerising in scope but at the heart of it is a young girl reaching out across time and space for help.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Tale for the Time Being is Ozeki’s third novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

About the Author: A native of Connecticut, Ruth Ozeki immersed herself in English and Asian Studies college and through extensive travel in Asia. After working in cinematic set design and television production, she became an independent filmmaker. Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki divides her time between New York and British Columbia. There are numerous parallels between the author and the character of Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being – aside from sharing a name, they are each married to a man called Oliver, have a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, a moody cat and have a house on an island in Desolation Sound. 

Why I read this book: I heard about this book when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was considered to be a strong contender (though some reviewers said they felt the section set in British Columbia was weaker than the Tokyo sections). I never got around to reading it but then found a copy in a library sale. It’s one of the books on my 20booksofsummer reading list.

From Australian mystery to the doyenne of crime in six steps

six degrees June 2016

Time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest which requires participants to create a chain of books, linking one to the other in whatever leaps and connections our brains can devise.

Our starting book this month is  Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay which is, once again, a novel I have never read. I’ve seen the film many times though — it’s one of those atmospheric productions, seemingly shot through a hazy heat filter and featuring fresh-faced students and a teacher from an Australian girls’ school who scramble about Hanging Rock wearing floaty white muslin dresses and black boots.  They disappear without trace. Only one body is ever found.

A picnic followed by a tragedy reminds me of the opening scene of another novel adapted for film —Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.  It begins on a beautiful, cloudless day with a Joe and Clarissa about to begin a picnic. A cry interrupts them and they see a hot air balloon, with a young boy in the basket and an older man being dragged behind it. Attempts to avert a tragedy fail. The event threatens to wreck Joe’s life when he becomes the target of the obsessional attention of one of the other rescuers.

Obsession takes me to Steven King’s Misery where author Paul Sheldon is rescued from a car accident in a snowstorm by a woman who describes herself as ‘his number one fan’. As a former nurse Annie Wilkes has the skills required to mend his broken legs and get him back to health but her true nature is revealed when she discovers the contents of Sheldon’s latest novel. He begins to fear she is dangerously disturbed and to what lengths she will go to get her way.

Annie Wilkes could go a few rounds with another fictional nurse I reckon — Mildred Ratched in my fourth link,  One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.  She rules over a ward in an American psychiatric hospital with an iron fist and steely eyes  and it’s her battle for battle against a new patient, Randle McMurphy, that provides the plot of this novel. What Nurse Ratched wants is a ward full of docile patients who follow the rules and allow her to control their lives. McMurphy (who has faked insanity to avoid going to prison) is having none of this and its efforts to get the patients to stand up for themselves that sets him on course for a showdown with the medical establishment. 

Writing convincingly about mental illness is tough.  Kesey was able to draw on his experience of working as an orderly at a Californian mental health facility. In addition to speaking to patients he also personally experimented with some of the drugs they were given. The next book in my chain is also the product of a mental health worker: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. Filer trained and worked as a mental health nurse, then later became a mental health researcher at the University of Bristol.  The central character of his novel is a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope on his own in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to conduct his own therapy, bashing out his  feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother several years earlier.    

Filer gained several awards in recognition of his role in raising awareness through literature to mental healthcare and how the public felt about mental health. His novel earned him the Costa award for first time novel in 2013 and was also named the Costa book of the year.

The following year another debut novel that featured a character with some mental issues won the Costa first novel award. Which brings me to book number five in my chain: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.  This is a deeply moving book with an octogenarian narrator who cannot remember what she did a few moments ago or how many tins of peaches she has in her cupboard. Advancing dementia means she doesn’t even recognise her daughter sometimes. But one thing she holds fast to is her certain knowledge that something has happened to her friend Elizabeth and since no-one else will believe her it’s up to her, Maud, to find where Elizabeth has gone. 

A female character of advancing age who few would think of as a force for justice. Now who better fits that description than one of the most enduring figures in crime fiction —step forward Miss Jane Marple whose shrewd intelligence and understanding of human nature enables her to solve difficult crimes. For my sixth and final book in the chain I could name any one of the 12 Agatha Christie novels featuring Miss Marple but the one that fits the link best is actually the last Miss Marple book to be written: Nemesis. In this novel, published in 1971, Miss Marple is asked by a dying millionaire to  look into an unspecified crime which turns out to involves a missing girl and a millionaire’s son accused of her death. It requires our cardigan-wearing sleuth to take on the mantle of the Greek goddess of Nemesis, a figure who represents justice and he exposure of wrong-doing. 

And in a sense that mystery of a missing schoolgirl brings us back to where we began the chain in Australia. I bet if Miss Marple had been called upon the mystery of hanging rock wouldn’t have remained a mystery for very long. 

8 Favourite Reads of 2017 (so far)

Best reads of 2017We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing  and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here 

Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Wales: author Dylan H Jones

Dylan JonesYesterday I posted my review of Anglesey Blue, the first in a series of detective novels by the Welsh-born author Dylan H Jones. The novel is set on the island of Anglesey (known as Ynys Môn in the Welsh language) in North Wale. It’s a place very close to Dylan’s heart – it’s where he was born, where he spent many of his formative years and where many of his immediate family members still live. In his debut novel, he introduces his lead character Detective Inspector Tudor Manx who has returned to the island after a gap of some thirty years. In this Q&A Dylan shares his plans for future books in the series and how he used his local knowledge to depict his chosen setting.

Q. You’ve described Anglesey Blue as the first in a series of crime novels featuring DI Manx. Did you always envisage this as a series?

Most definitely. I compare it to people’s attitude to films and TV these days. Personally, I’m seeing a shift away from the two hour cinema spectacular towards these incredibly well written, deep and character-driven TV shows. I  think people crave that character development you get from a series. That’s how I felt about Manx. His story is just beginning, he has some real demons he needs to face, some real issues he needs to deal with and he needs to do all of this while solving some pretty gruesome crimes.

I’m not sure how many books will be in the series, but I’m elbow deep into book two right now, which sees Manx confronting even more demons, wrestling with his own feelings of guilt and questioning the choices he made that landed him back on the island. One thing I will say, without it being a spoiler, is that I want the first four books to be set in different seasons. The first was set in Winter, the second will be set in Spring, the third and fourth in Summer and Autumn respectively. I’m plotting it out this way because I think the Island of Anglesey changes with each season: the vibe in the summer, where the island is thick with tourists, is very different to the bleakness of the winter months—perfect fodder for a crime fiction author.

Q.  It’s common now in crime fiction for the detective/investigator to have a troubled past. Were you conscious when you were writing Anglesey Blue that you were treading familiar ground – how did you avoid the cliches?

 Thank you for mentioning that I did avoid the cliches! It’s always a knife-edge balancing act between rolling out the expected cliches and finding a fresh approach to your writing, especially in crime fiction. I think readers expect and want some familiarity with how an investigation plays out; the police craftwork etc, but also they want a fresh angle on all that. With Manx’s past, I wanted it not just to be troubled, but traumatic. The disappearance of this sister, Miriam, thirty years ago is a guilt that he carries with him, but also he’s haunted by the events that took place in London that precipitated his move back to the island. Add these to the fact that he’s now living somewhere he swore never to return to, I think adds more light and shade to his backstory.

Q. The novel clearly reflects your personal knowledge not just of the geography and landscape of Anglesey but of local attitudes. Were you able to rely completely on personal knowledge or did you need to make some additional research visits? 

 Looking back, much of it was already there, it just needed mining. I do still visit, at least once a year. All my immediate family still live there, as do my cousins. Speaking with them, going out on the town with them and their friends and immersing myself back in the culture helps a lot- I get an idea of what some of the issues are, what matters to them and reflect that as best I can in a dramatic way.  My parents are also petty active in the local community, so I get those downloads on a weekly basis! 

Q. There’s a joke running through the novel about the difficulties (impossibilities!) of pronouncing certain place names and expressions in Welsh. Was that a way to broaden the appeal of the novel beyond a Welsh readership?

 In a way, yes. But, I’m also presenting Anglesey through the eyes of Manx. He’s been away from the island for 30 years and his Welsh is as rusty as mine! The reader comes along for the ride, and if we can throw out a few good jokes here and there and still get over the fact that Welsh is a thriving, working language on the island, then I’d say I’ve done my job. Also, Anglesey is home to a whole community of English people who moved there for the beauty and tranquility, many of become passionate about learning Welsh, others don’t share that passion, it’s that mix that makes it interesting and of course a rich seam of comedy at times.

 Q.  People who know the island of Anglesey think of it as a place of stunning coastlines and moody interiors. You present a darker side however – showing it as a place a little the worse for wear and suffering from economic collapse. How have people in Anglesey reacted to that portrayal of their communities? 

These are all very interesting observations, however, I don’t necessarily agree with you. I think Anglesey has a dual personality. There’s the tourist- friendly Anglesey with the rash of refurbished pubs, gourmet restaurants, Blue Flag beaches and the like, but there’s also the flip side to that, especially near the port of Holyhead where there are some real challenges of poverty and crime. 

 I’m in constant contact with some incredibly helpful officers in the North Wales Constabulary who not only help with me with the police procedural aspects, but also paint a dark picture of the very real crimes they’re  challenged with.

At the end of the day, the last thing I wanted to do was present a glossy, travel brochure promotion for Anglesey- that would have been a worse injustice to the island. Every place has its dark side: that’s what intrigues me, not only about places but also people.

 My readers from Anglesey have been incredibly supportive in their reviews. One or two readers have complained about the profanity, but again, it’s real life. Some of the characters I portray are criminals, petty or otherwise, and I have very little control of what comes out of their mouths.(Ok, maybe a little, but I’m not big on censorship unless it feels forced or doesn’t serve the story!) 

Want to know more about Welsh writers ?Writing-wales

Dylan Thomas may be Wales’ best-known literary export but he forms part of a long tradition of excellence in literature demonstrated by people from this Celtic nation. Some of these writers you may not have even realised are from Wales – people like Sarah Walters and Roald Dahl. Broaden your reading horizons by taking a look at some of the authors I’ve highlighted on my Literature from Wales page.

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