Quick Reviews

I don’t seem to be able to find much time to write substantive reviews of all I’ve read, but I do want to put a few words to each book for my memory’s sake. That is much of the reason I started blogging in the first place. Here are some fast and dirty thoughts about a stack recent books:

  In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I listened to the audiobook version of this and found it absolutely gripping. Listening to a book often slows down my processing and allows me to reflect on structure, and I think this was a particularly good book to do that with. There is no question from the start of the books about who did the murdering and who was murdered–but how exactly did it go down and why? These points don’t come together until about three-quarters of the way through when we have really solid portraits of all involved. I believe Capote is to be credited/blamed with our pop culture fascination with the killer’s mind. He sold it so well.

5/5, library audiobook

The Overstory by Richard Powers

I loved, loved this book. It starts with a series of short-story-like chapters, each establishing a character and his or her background. In each chapter/story there is a tree: a chestnut, mulberry, redwood, ash, beech, oak. Then Powers expands the structure. He takes the last of the characters, a college student who accidentally electrocutes herself but comes back from this near-death experience with a sense of a mission that propels her out of college, on the road where she meets another of the characters….and slowly all are knitted together in an overarching story about a group of people’s quest to save the forests. What’s remarkable about this book is not only the way Powers connects each of these characters and their stories together into a meaningful plot, but also the way he smoothly integrates research and science on trees, forests, and other species. This book could have come off as a fragmentary, cheesy eco-novel, but instead it becomes  a symphony that makes you weep for the beauty of the forests and weep for our ignorant, casual destruction of such riches for such mostly shallow purposes.

5/5, library copy

Goodbye to a River by John Graves

John Graves heard in the late 50s that plans were underfoot to put 13 dams on a single 250 mile stretch of the Brazos river in West Texas, an area of the country he had a nostalgic attachment to.  So he decided to take a meandering canoe trip down the then still-wild stretch of the river. He wrote this memoir about it. He interlaces observations about the natural world, the weather, hunting, and his traveling companion, a dog, with anecdotes about the history in this stretch of river which was once a hot spot for clashes between westward pushing pioneers and the native population, particularly the formidable Comanche. Along with these tales are stories about homesteader rivalries and character descriptions of some of the old-timers and oddballs he meets on the river. I really liked Graves’ awareness, even back in 1960, of all the natural glory that was being lost and wasted both by the dam proposals and increased human activity in general. But some of the anecdotes were more tedious than illuminating, and he used way too many ellipses, which really affected how I read the memoir. This book got a lot of attention in its day, and I believe only 3 or so of the dam projects were actually built as a result.

3/5, personal copy

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

I have been curious about this book for so long and honestly, I don’t know what the fuss is. Would someone please explain? It’s a book about privileged  people who don’t do very much besides drink and vacillate between delight and disapproval of each other, religion, love, and change. Could it be all the vague–or even bold–suggestions of homosexuality of many of the characters that have garnered such praises? I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t find it as brilliant as I expected either. I wonder if I’d listened to this narrated by a really great voice actor if I’d have appreciated it more. I read this one as part of my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge books.

3/5, personal copy

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

I was fascinated by this multigenerational story of Korean immigrants to Japan, before, during, and after the war, who end up carving out a successful business niche in Japanese society running pachinko parlors. Before starting, I knew a bit about how poorly Koreans have been treated by the Japanese. Even after generations, most descendants of Korean-born immigrants still have to renew their papers to stay in Japan, their country of birth and cultural identification. This book gave me characters and a story to hang this general knowledge on, even if it was fiction. It was a very different take on Japan than I’d ever read. Highly recommend this if you enjoy family sagas, immigrant stories, and stories set in Japan.

5/5, personal copy

Two Volcanoes

My reading topics have really come in pairs this year, like my last post, Two Mysteries. But the choice to read Volcano by Shusaku Endo and Krakatoa by Simon Winchester nearly back to back was a bit more deliberate. I thought it would be interesting to read one fiction and one nonfiction books ostensibly about the same topic.

I picked up Volcano because I had been so blown away (no pun intended) by Endo’s Silence last year.  Like Silence, Volcano is set on the southern island of Kyushu, but Volcano is set in contemporary times in the city of Kagoshima, which is right at the foot of the real-life volcano Sakurajima.

In Volcano, Sakurajima is called Akadaké, and it is a looming symbol of evil and wretchedness in the story. One of the main characters, Jinpei Suda, has spent his life working at the local weather bureau which overlooks Akadaké. He developed such an obsessive interest and knowledge of the volcano that he’s known as the “Demon of Akadaké.” He’s arrogantly confident about his knowledge of the volcano, asserting that it is dying and won’t erupt anymore. But Suda is a dilettante. His blindly follows the theories of a now-deceased scholar, dismisses contrary scientists, and ignores obvious signs of impending eruption when he visits the island. His whole life is so wrapped up in his work and the self-importance of his so-called expertise that he is blind to reality — the reality of the volcano’s dangers, the reality that he is not as widely respected as he believes, and the reality that he has failed to develop meaningful relationships with his colleagues or even his own family.

Just as Suda is about to retire, Father Sato, the young local priest, wants his expert assurance that the volcano is dying and won’t erupt anymore. Sato has used the church’s precious funds to buy a plot of land at the foot of Akadaké where he wants to open a spiritual retreat center. Of course, this would be a very poor idea if Akadaké were still active. Father Sato turns to the Demon for his “expert” opinion, and the Demon ignores all evidence to the contrary and reassures the priest. But as he is cast adrift in his retirement, he is consumed by guilt and loneliness.

The Western counterpart to Suda is the old priest  Father Durand. Father Durand is ill and near the end of his life. As he sits by his window looking out over the volcano, he recalls an earlier time when he was arrogantly confident in his religious beliefs and his feelings of superiority over how the Japanese live and follow Buddhist customs. At that time, a young female doctor came to him for help with her sickly, frail only child, but he was convinced that the only thing wrong with the boy was being indulged by the mother. He harshly scolded the doctor, and convinced her to let him put her son in Catholic mission boarding school. The child detested the school and Durand and eventually fell ill and died, devastating the mother. For all Durand’s religiosity and confidence, he has no answer for the boy’s mother as to why god let the boy die. Now, in old age, he is consumed by guilt:

But in his own case, whatever he tried in wanting to do God’s work had ended up ironically in disaster, in tragic consequences. Moreover, God was always silent. God did not answer his prayers. God was only trifling with Durand.

…’Go ahead and explode! Go ahead and explode!’ Durand was actually hoping that some day without warning the mountain would vomit its fire and smoke, retch with its lava, destroy everything — as he had destroyed it all with his own life.

Endo chases around his obsessive themes about the arrogance of Christianity while the great Akadaké/Sakurajima looms in judgement over the characters in the book. It was a powerful symbol to center the novel on.  I visited Kagoshima and drove around the perimeter of Sakurajima about 10 years ago. It’s beautiful and rather scary — the volcano regularly erupts and always has a thick plume of smoke drifting up from the crater. It feels crazy to drive around on it! I think it added to my enjoyment of the novel because I could really visualize this volcano.

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is everything you ever wanted to know about the world’s biggest and baddest recorded volcanic explosion on August 27, 1883. Krakatoa island, situated in the strait between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia, blew itself out of the water and out of existence that day, but the effects of its demise were felt globally for years afterwards. Winchester explains the geologic history and chases down vague reports of earlier possible eruptions. He also explains the social, economic, and technological reasons why this particular explosion in 1883 was poised to be so widely observed and studied, and the impact the explosion had on the global economy, the scientific understanding of the proliferation of species, and even, possibly, the spread of Islam in Indonesia. And be warned: a new volcanic island, the restless Anak Krakatoa or Child of Krakatoa, has already been born from the waves in the same spot.

Possibly one of my favorite nonfiction genres is this kind of study of natural phenomenon and its  social, scientific, technological, artistic, economic, historical and whatever-else impact. Krakatoa was on my TBR for about 5 years. I am so glad I finally read it!

Volcano
Copyright 1959
personal copy
4/5

Krakatoa
Copyright 2003
personal copy
4/5

 

 

Two Mysteries

I hadn’t read a mystery in a long while, thought it used to be one of my favorite genres. But in the past two months, I read two. Although they were written in different countries (Japan and England) about 25 years apart, they are both in the “classic” murder mystery style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. The reader is given lots of clues to the details of how the murders were killed, and we follow an amateur sleuth in both books to discover the solution.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz pays homage to the classic English village murder mystery. Fictional editor Susan Ryeland reads the latest manuscript by her top-selling mystery author Alan Conway, but is surprised to find that the last chapter is missing. Worse yet, Alan Conway himself is found murdered. His is the second death, as his housekeeper had been found dead under suspicious circumstances but in a “locked room” situation.  As Susan tries to find the last chapter of Conway’s novel, she gets drawn deeper into the mystery of who killed Conway and the housekeeper and the uncanny parallels between the real murders and Conway’s fictional ones. Is it possible for a novel to feel modern and old-fashioned at the same time? Horowitz manages to pull it off.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Shoji Shimada was written way-back-when in 1981. It’s a kind of locked room mystery where the deceased has penned a plan to murder several women, cut them up, and reassemble them into a gruesome sculpture, all based on astrology. The women are murdered and their corpses, all missing body parts, and found all over Japan, but their murders take place after the author of the plan has been found dead. So who murdered him–and them? And where is the sculptural assemblage of their missing parts? The mystery is 40 years old, when the narrator and his friend, an amateur sleuth and astrologer, try to figure it out once and for all. The story is a giant puzzle, and at one point, the author interjects himself and tells the reader that they have all the clues to solve the mystery and the murders. Despite this announcement, I had absolutely no clue who did it, how, or why (I am rotten at solving a murder mystery before the big reveal). But I read happily on and enjoyed the clever solution.

After such a long time not having read any mysteries, it was serendipitous that I read two with such similarities. Both had murdered authors of manuscripts that described the real murders, and both had locked room murders. Perhaps Horowitz read Shimada and that gave him some ideas for his story?  I certainly got my murder mystery itch well scratched for a while.

 

On pilgrimage

On my bucket list for many years has been the desire to do a long walking holiday, and most recently, I’ve been curious about walking a 1,000+-year-old pilgrimage route around the Japanese island of Shikoku to 88 temples. This pilgrimage traces the same route of one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist teachers, priests, and folk heroes, Kobo Daishi, who lived in the 800s and founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The pilgrimage (or henro in Japanese) takes about 45-50 days to walk straight through for a distance of about 1000km (670 miles) or more if you also go to satellite temples. Pilgrimages, and this one in particular, are still incredibly normal (if not popular) in Japan although most Japanese now drive or take tour buses to complete it (all perfectly legit in Japanese terms). Continue reading

Two books from Nihon: one odd and one that should be but isn’t

When you read a great and particular book, such as Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to read next. While it may seem strange to go from the 1860s American civil war era to modern Japanese short stories, I successfully followed up all the sad and confused voices in Saunders’s book with a series of linked short stories about sad and confused people in Into the Pool by Hideo Okuda.

Each of the five stories features a character who suffers from some sort of psychosomatic illness. One guy has terrible diarrhea and stomach pains from work stress. Another has an unflagging and embarrassing erection due to suppressed anger. A woman suffers from panic attacks imagining someone is following her. And so on. In each story, the character is referred to the neurology department located, oddly, in the basement of the local hospital, where they find the equally odd Dr. Irabu and his sexy, bored nurse/assistant. All the characters are unsettled by Dr. Irabu’s  unorthodox manner, his grotesque appearance, and his treatment suggestions. They can’t tell if he’s serious or joking. Yet all persist, and at every meeting they all agree to receive injections administered by the nurse (usually while baring her thigh) while Dr. Irabu seems to get off on watching the needle slide into their skin. Yes, it’s weird. Irabu becomes personally involved with characters, and despite his decidedly unprofessional manners and approach, his treatments work. All five stories are set up and resolved in a similar way. Continue reading

Silence is heavy

silenceI started reading Silence by Shūsaku Endō with a weird mix of reluctance and curiosity.  I’m not usually drawn to literature with strong Christian themes, and this book is all about  Christian missionaries to Japan in the 1600s, during the period that Japan was actively suppressing the teaching and spread of Christianity by deporting, torturing, and killing missionaries and converts. Just as I am horrified by such physical violence and cruelty, I have often felt that  missionary work, i.e., conversion, is a culturally violent practice in itself. It seemed like a lose-lose thesis for me, and I was ambivalent about reading it. But my family is from Kyushu, where the book is set, so I was curious as well.

At one point, there were thousands of Christian converts in Japan. The preface explained that the priests found the Japanese among the most receptive people to conversion that they’d ever encountered. Even powerful Japanese lords converted, and it seemed that Christianity had an unstoppable foothold until the Tokugawa shoguns centralized power. Fearing that the missionaries’ interest in Japan was more political than religious, the shogun issued a “no Christianity” edict and expelled all foreigners, slaughtered thousands of Japanese Christians, and captured/tortured/killed any priests found hiding or sneaking into the country. Continue reading

Where I’ve been and what I’ve read

No excuses for not posting except — and it’s a big except — I was gutted by the US election result and continue to writhe like an eel on a spike with every tweet, headline, and cabinet pick. When I can’t deal with reality, I escape to other worlds in books. So the good news is that I’ve been reading a lot in November and December. The bad news is that I’ve not been commenting much about those reads.  This doesn’t bode well for my blogging life in 2017 either. People say they are glad to leave 2016 behind, but I’m afraid 2016 was only the beginning of scarier and sadder times ahead. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but I’ll confidently increase my reading goal next year nevertheless.

Still, I started this blog with the intent of keeping track of my reading and impressions. So here is a short list with “lite” (or simply shallow) commentary on what’s been keeping me away from the headlines and semi-sane for the past few weeks. Continue reading

Four Shorties

HHhHHHhH by Laurent Binet

Told in a distinctly postmodern style, the novel explores the assassination of Reinhart Heydrich, the Blond Beast of the Third Reich and mastermind of the Final Solution, by two Czech men. I’d never heard of Heydrich, but then again, I am not encyclopedic on Nazis or WWII FAQs in general. Still, after completing this book, it seems that Heydrich should be at least as well-known as Himmler or Goring (the title stands for the phrase, in German, Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Continue reading

Innocence & Authenticity

Does authenticity matter in fiction? Do we need to believe in the truth of the characters and their behaviors to stick with or appreciate a novel? I think that my answer to this question is yes, at least me for me. If I can’t believe in the character, it is like watching a poorly acted movie. The suspension of my immediate reality never occurs, and I am never sucked into the book (or movie) in a deeply satisfying way. Continue reading