Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

Despite her massive popularity in the West, I hadn't read Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto's books before. I didn't really have anything against them, but they looked too pop and light to really be my thing. I felt pretty sure they were meant for a younger demographic than mine. At the same time, I knew that as I started The Lake as my choice for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I really didn't know what to expect, or even if The Lake was representative of her work as a whole. As to the last, I still don't.

The Lake is very beautiful, a quiet revery of a book. I worry a bit that it might seem simplistic to some, but I thought it had a lot to say. The narrator of the story, Chihiro starts off the story with the fact that the first night her neighbor Nakajima stays over with her, she dreams about her dead mother. As her mother has died not so many months before and the Nakajima character is someone new in her life, I think we can say that this is a threshold moment, the point where new life is growing out of the ashes of the old.

If you read any of the blurbing on the book you will know rather more quickly than I did what Nakajima's story is, but I think I'll give you the option of letting that unfold as it did for me--slowly and over the course of the book. It doesn't give much away to say that Chihiro has only recently moved to Tokyo to try and begin her professional life--or some kind of life, anyway. As a graphic artist, she has accidentally fallen into a role as a muralist who is even beginning to be well known. Nakajima  is a neighbor who lives across the way in another multi-leveled apartment building. they observe each other from this distance and very gradually become acquainted.

One thing that impressed me in this novel was the way that distance itself worked to foster a relationship between these two people. Chihiro is still grieving her mother's loss, and Nakajima is profoundly damaged. Neither would have been able to meet the other in a bar or any other shallow, superficial place. They meet, they don't force each other into any particular role--they grow closer in a more organic, unhurried way.

Despite her grief, despite being a somewhat adrift artist, despite having a mother who was ran a club and wasn't married to her father, Chihiro is a normal person. To be in relation to Nakajima she has to acknowledge that she is out of her depth--that she can't and never will be able to empathize her way into his story, because some stories are outside our normal human ken. Chihiro realizes that the call of death is strong in him, and that at some point it may become too strong and he may give in to it.

However much I loved him, and as beautiful as the world was, none of it was powerful enough to take the weight off his heart, that heaviness that dragged him down, into the beyond, making him yearn for peace. My body sensed it. And my soul.   

It would be easy, in this circumstance, to make Chihiro, the female character, too self-sacrificial. But instead, she goes on with her life, taking up a new mural project and lets life unfold. It's not so much that she does anything in particular for Nakajima, as that she tries to understand what love in this circumstance could be. She opens herself up to the experience.

There are some friends at the lake of the title who Nakajima will eventually take her to meet. There's a slightly otherworldly and even ghostly aspect to this pair and I am wondering a bit if other readers will be put off by their somewhat supernatural abilities. For me, though, it felt like yet another new aspect of reality that Chihiro had to accept and surrender to, and that her reaction mirrors the reader's own.

I thought the portrait of mother loss was particularly sensitively done. Yoshimoto renders the subtle psychological state that new grief can be. When for example, she is offered an unexpected opportunity to take up a new life, she registers her mother's absence anew.

I wanted my mom to be alive, tying me down. To be showing her disapproval, telling me, I don't know, going abroad?--it's so far and we won't be able to see each other. I yearned to hear those words, to hear her saying them. But I never would again.     

I know that others who are taking up the Japanese Literature Challenge are planning to read this book, and I'm very interesting to hear what they have to say about it, especially as it relates to the larger context of her work.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

This latest bestseller from Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City, probably doesn't need much in the way of introduction here. It follows the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party through the early 1930s. It looks at the period and life in Berlin in particular from a unique angle--that of the family of the American ambassador William E. Dodd, who was posted there, drawing particularly from his writing and that of his daughter Martha, although his wife and son were there the whole time too, and are somewhat underrepresented in this book. Drawing on a variety of documents, including the letters and journals of the time, it paints a portrait of Berlin in the early 1930s, a period in which Hitler had come into power but had not yet taken absolute control.

Dodd did not come out of a diplomatic background, and was actually a professor at the time he was summoned to represent the U.S. under the Roosevelt administration. As the book reveals, there was the equivalent of a Good Old Boys club in the diplomatic services and Dodd definitely didn't fit the bill. He took the job in order to have more time to finish what he considered his own great project, a book on the old South.

In some ways, the book is a little harsh on Dodd in his greenhorn neophyte role. He had been in Germany as a student and did not at first grasp the historic moment he was actually in. Yeah, terrible, except that no one else really did either. I liked the bit at the beginning that explained that Americans did not really understand the nature of the beast they had encountered in the Nazi regime. It never was a question of rational pursuasion, for power was all the thugs understood.

I did connect pretty deeply to this book, because it is just a few years before my mother's own time as a young single woman and I think the family circumstances may have been similar. Her father raised himself by his own bootstraps in the same way as Dodd did, and lived a professional life in the law, though doubtless encountered some of the same sort of good ol' boys in that profession that Dodd did in the diplomatic one. And my mom, though I trust and hope wasn't quite such a party girl as Martha was, would, from her background, probably have entered into this true den of iniquity with the same brand of naivete that Martha sported.

It's incredible to hear how long the U.S. was fixated on the repayment of the war bonds owed by Germany from World War I. All sorts of other people looked the other way even when some fresh cruelty had been brought to their attention because they did not want to offend the Germans into defaulting.  Even the Jewish communities in America were divided on how far open revolt against the Hitlerian regime should go.

One thing that stood out for me in the book was a short chapter on how well the Germans treated their animals, at the same time they were carting Jews off to be offed as if they were nothing more than so much Jewish lumber. This is a part of the pre-World War II psyche that I still don't understand, and Larson does not try to illuminate it, so much as just put it in the general picture. I find it interesting.

One of my great teachers, Page Smith, toward the end of his life lamented the end of narrative history for the non-historian, which seemed at the time to have given way to highly specialized monographs  by professionals. I wish he had lived to see the likes of Larson, Krakauer, and Kurlansky, who write well-researched books about important historical subjects and bring the crowds in. I hadn't read any of these authors, so it was interesting to read this book. I found it easy to read, but I also noticed the brevity of the chapters, and I was a little put off by the ending, which seemed a bit hasty. But I think Larson does a public service by showing exactly what the mindset was in the days before Hitler's total control over Germany. It's a complex portrait. People were facing the unimaginable. But there were many signs that there were there for all to see, and the international community was clearly culpable in sittting by while dark forces took over a country that had not too long before understood what it meant to be a member of civilization.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Europa challenge

I discovered this challenge pretty much by chance.  I've been intrigued by small publishing houses like Europa for the past few years, and I'd even hazard a guess that for readers who aren't totally driven by the media in their selections of what to read, imprints like this one may well be the way they'll shop in the future.

Many people will already know the house through their biggest success so far, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by psuedonymic writer Muriel Barbery. Still haven't gotten to this one yet, but I have read the likes of Gene Kerrigan, Jean-Claude Izzo, and Amara Lakhous through the auspices of this imprint.  All were well worth the time.

I haven't quite signed on to the challenge yet, but don't wait for me. The entrance gate is HERE.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy Fourth

Although I wrote this up for my story related blog I thought I'd put it up on a couple of my other blogs as well. Have a great holiday.

Happy Fourth of July weekend, everyone. In honor of the day (though largely by coincidence), I've made my self-published novella The Bird Watchers available again. The real reason this is all happening now is that Lulu.com has offered people the option of getting a proof copy of a new work, and while I've been working on that, which is actually a sequel to this one, I realized that I might as well make this one available again too. "For a limited time only" as they say, the book will be available at cost, or as a free download. At some point I'll probably boost the price a dollar or so but for now, I'd be interested in comments from anyone who wants to take the time. As a self-published book, it's got all the flaws that come with the territory, but more people than just my mother seemed to have liked it the first time around, so give it a go if you'd like.
The link at Lulu is HERE .

(I also don't know if the download works as a true ebook, but there's nothing to lose by trying it out.)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Influencing Machine

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not much of a radio listener, so the fact that Brooke Gladstone is a well regarded NPR managing editor did not bring this book to my radar. I happened to listen to her highly entertaining talk with our local radio host, Rick Kleffel, and resolved to read it at first opportunity. Brooke claims that she wanted to write a comic book about something even before she found her topic, and with the help of illustrator Josh Neufeld, who has previously done another comic or graphic novel about New Orleans, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which I would also like to read.

I don't know about you, but I love what's been happening with the graphic novel/comic book format in recent years. I know that visually, I don't probably take in all the detail, as the longtime fans of the form would, but I do really like this medium for the way it handles material, giving you a visual and verbal way to take in all the information.

There's a lot of content to this engaging and deceptively easy to read book, but I'll paint what I take to be Gladstone's theme in broad strokes. She wants people to know, as they face the accelerated pace of new media in a new technology, that people have been through such mind-bending, anxiety producing exciting times before. Long, long before. She wants us to know that media bias is nothing new, and that objectivity is at all times problematic. She wants us to know that lies do seep into the news media and not always on the side of your enemies, either. That governments give the current media freedom with one hand and take it away with the other--because it's in their nature to do so.

There's a lot of history, a lot of interviews with our contemporaries who also happen to be commentators, and a lot of fun pictures of Brooke Gladstone sneaking around in a lot of scenes that you might have remembered just a wee bit differently. Never mind--that lapse is accounted for in this book too.

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