The world of The Face of Another is the world of Japan in the 1960s observed through Abe's highly tuned microscope; a world layered in paranoia, in which fast growing technology when not regulated, might create a terrifying nightmarish forecast of the future. Abe explores the foreign - the unknown within man, moving his protagonist in deceptive scenarios, observing his relationship with others, peeling away his external perceptions, to expose the layers within.
A scientist's facial vulgarization caused by a lab explosion alienates and victimizes him, spurring him to create a lifelike mask capable of human expression. In the guise of this foolproof mask, he hopes to interact with the world again without the humiliation of his scars and, more personally, to seduce his wife whom he believes has been avoiding him.
Man's soul is in his skin...I have come to observe with the greatest care the appearance of soldiers who have been wounded. And, ultimately, I have come to one conclusion. And it's a distressing one: serious exterior injuries, especially to the face, leave definite mental trauma.
Abe's precise descriptions of the fantastic creation, constructed with the realism of a technologically sophisticated lab experiment, the structure of a suspense thriller with a science fiction theme, make for very intriguing mad-scientist material. His artfulness detail the typical Japanese obsession with faces, selfhood and social roles of the time, and perhaps, more psychologically, an experiment of the theory that man validates his ego only through others. In the novel, the narrator because of his injury, experiences isolation, loneliness, a loss of self; a monstrous outcast, questioning and uncertain of the value of his life.
I can hardly believe that the face is so important to a man's existence. A man's worth should be gauged by the content of his work; possibly the convolutions of the surface of the brain have something to do with it, but his face certainly does not. If the loss of a face can cause conspicuous change in the scale of evaluation, it may well be owing to a fundamental emptiness of content.
In his altered self, no longer hidden behind the old visage, his true nature surfaces. When the play-acting scheme with his wife backfires, he becomes blindly jealous of this 'other' self, and is driven by maniacal rage as the twisted revelation unfolds.
Abe's novel brings classic sci-fi thriller components into an intricate rumination on the self, ego, otherness and the accepted ideal of what is normal. Consequentially and conceptually, what is normal or alien becomes directly under scrutiny. Abe ingeniously masks some condemning messages by inventing a scientist who suffers deforming scars distinctly similar to those of Hiroshima victims. Secondly, Abe compares the scientist's fate with Japanese-Koreans who, despite indiscernible features to their Japanese co-habitants, persistently suffered prejudice.
The Face of Another is a story of metamorphosis from normal to monstrous, a Jekyll and Hyde story, an ill state that is directly in opposition to an idyll one. Abe suggests that within the seemingly normal external self solemnly lurks the internal alien.
Is what you think to be the mask in reality your real face, or is what you think to be your real face really a mask?
Without the threat of punishment there is no joy in flight.
In Kobo Abe's fantasy world of The Woman in the Dunes, an amateur entomologist on vacation finds himself in a remote coastal village built amid deeply undulating dunes. There, he is tricked by a lonely widow and her neighboring villagers, trapped in deep pits shored by sand drift walls, to be charged with the task of shoveling back the ever-sliding banks, persistent and never-ending in its threat to entomb them.
Sand moves around like this all year long. Its flow is its life. It absolutely never stops— anywhere. Whether in water or air, it moves about free and unrestricted. So, usually, ordinary living things are unable to endure life in it.
The landscape of the dunes which Abe describes, of wood-rotted boxed dwellings built at the bottom of shifting sand hills, could not realistically exist, marking the novel as a science fiction/ fantasy thriller. In addition, its themes adopt surrealistic, dreamlike, metamorphosing features reminiscent of the works of Kafka, slowly shifting and deforming like the dunes themselves.
Things with form were empty when placed beside sand. The only certain factor was its movement; sand was the antithesis of all form.
Abe's works are generically concerned with the human state of balance, whose fragility becomes evident in a life of pointlessness and insufferable futility. In The Woman in the Dunes, Abe presents the grotesque sadness borne from a man's oppressive, fruitless daily life; the image of a degraded human being who is isolated, trapped in the monotony of routine, unable to escape a meaningless existence.
What's hardest for me is not knowing what living like this will ever come to.
What was this "Hell of Loneliness"? he wondered. Perhaps they had misnamed it, he had thought then, but now he could understand it very well. Loneliness was an unsatisfied thirst for illusion.
To effectuate some meaningfulness to his situation, whether for the choice to stay or freedom of escape, the protagonist heroically attempts to alter his circumstance, significantly going through a metamorphosis of his own, but like the true kinetic nature of sand, its waves of ebbs and flows, his fate lays ambiguous.
The theory had been advanced that the man, tired of life, had committed suicide. One of his colleagues, who was an amateur psychoanalyst, held to this view. He claimed that in a grown man enthusiasm for such a useless pastime as collecting insects was evidence enough of a mental quirk.
The Woman in the Dunes has its share of vocabulary best fitted for the field of science, reflecting Abe's background in the profession; though his manipulation of such language effectively results in a poetic blend of logic and illogic, never off-putting for the reader, simply suspending reality for a thrilling period of time, meaningfully spent. I feel comfortably balanced in recommending this to readers of both sci-fi and Japanese literature.
I have always been fascinated by this intersection of gender and class--how the lives of women from the working class and the middle-class seemed at once so connected and so removed from each other.- Thrity Umrigar
The Story Hour is a compelling, close examination of the lives of two quite different women brought together under near tragic circumstances, whose progressive relationship forces them to reveal dark secrets and confront the flaws in themselves.
Lakshmi Patil, a dutiful eldest daughter who practically raises her motherless younger sister, has made a ritual of self sacrifice and unwavering responsibility, is challenged by the sham of a marriage that immerses her in a deep well of guilt, isolation and unhappiness. Relocated from India to a new life in America, Lakshmi clings to memories of her homeland, but her sense of who she is, is blurred. The overwhelming loneliness of being uprooted from her native home, alienated from family and commanded by her husband never to speak to them, laboring in their restaurant or stuck in their smelly room surrounded by solitude: Lakshmi is pushed to attempted suicide.
Maggie Bose, a self-assured, experienced psychologist, steadfastly keeps a professional distance from her patients, from "So much pain. So many secrets. She felt burdened by the weight of other people's secrets, their grief, their trust, their blinking anticipation, their eager faces, the hunger with which they looked at her, expecting answers, expecting cures, expecting miracles," but takes pity on, and befriends the young, uneducated Indian woman whom she sees as trapped in a dismal marriage to a dominating man.
As Lakshmi's and Maggie's relationship progresses, as the connective threads are inextricably sewn; detoxing, cathartic and introspective moments of confession that would normally bind more tightly a blossoming friendship, expose instead their shameful secrets and duplicity.
You build your 'temple of happy' on someone else's grave.
The Story Hour explores the fragility of a friendship shaking on a foundation of mistrust, misunderstandings, and the heartbreak that betrayal imparts; it seeks out the way to forgiveness, absolution, a second chance, that elusive miracle, hope.
Umrigar sensitive tale of an Indian woman's experience torn from her native home, of class and cultural differences and perspectives, pulsate off the pages with insight and deep emotion.
It wasn't difficult to be immediately pulled into the story from the very start, proving the remarkable, spellbinding gift of this storyteller to mesmerize her readers with her beautiful prose.
I had my first taste of Thrity Umrigar's exquisite writing years ago through her touching novel The Space Between Us, but not quite sure why it took so long to bridge the gap to her other novels. I'll be sure not to let the hours turn to years before reading more of her work.
Veteran's Day- November 11th
To all our War Veterans: with tremendous appreciation and pride, a heartfelt Thank You for your bravery and steely character not just on the battlefield, but in resuming Life after it.
There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can't quite see.
- Phil Klay: Redeployment
The Iraq conflict is clearly emerging as the war narrative of our country. With its highly sophisticated and damaging weaponry, our veterans are left with the intense stories of the ill-gotten, complex myriad of physically and psychologically devastating injuries. Redeployment is a raw, gut wrenching, dis-embowelling short story collection focused on the Marine's tour in Fallujah: a window through which to view the Iraq experience from the most important perspective - through the eyes of those who served there.
These vivid portraits detail palpitating combat action in the call of duty, undeniable courage and loyalty to one's fellow soldier; intense stories of the war hero, who is sometimes the antihero; his disenchantment from the glorified myth: that the 'American soldier went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience'; the dehumanization effect of war indelibly sketched between the lines; the devastating battle wounds and deep psychological scars; the shattering impact and permanent damage to both soldiers' and civilians' lives; stories that end in the silent question of the soldier's intact morality and wholesome future.
In the streets: firefights, sniper attacks, gore and guts, gas-bloated dead hajji in the sun, unseeing eyes bulging toward the sky. It could have been you but he got fucked.
Insurgent hiding in the stinking pool of liquid shit, waiting to fire on you as you turn your back. You saw him first, so he got fucked.
Little Iraqi faces peering out a window, the mother screaming in horror, the fourteen year old kid obliterated by your rifle fire. Never-mind he was holding an AK, it was either him or you, and he got fucked.
You did what you had to do to survive; maybe injured civilians in the process. Bombs, missiles, IED's, bone shattering rounds, torture, scattered limbs, seared flesh. You survived, but you still got fucked.
Home now. No sleep. When it fitfully comes, you return to the battlefield in dreams and odd memories. "When I thought back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true." Wounds too deep, so much pain, it hurts too much. "A human being in enough pain is just a screaming animal."
No one comes home from the war unchanged.
On coming home, did our governmental institution expect it to be a calm and easy transition into the 'after' life for you? You're now an unemployed or unemployable war vet; have they nonchalantly condemned you to subsist on the inevitable artificial life support of Disability or the stuporous numbness of perpetual inadequate medical management?
Phil Klay noticeably avoids taking political positions that would have interfered with his true purpose - the human experience of the war itself. Quite frankly, too many troops did not fully grasp why they were even there. Klay contrasts the gravity of this war of ambiguous missions, with the injection of some levity, for example: revealing the farcical projects like building irrelevant, flawed infrastructure; or the circumlocution in providing medical care and jobs for Iraqi women still in an oppressed society based on their religion. Klay's writing is powerful and compelling, most of all, realistic.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. Redeployment might probably become a modern war classic. In any event, it has my vote.
Edge of Eternity is Follett's bookend to his globe-trotting Century Trilogy that began with Fall of Giants followed by Winter of the World: a strikingly immense multi-generational saga featuring families from Germany, Russia, Wales, England and America, weaving historical world conflicts of the 20th century.
In this final installment, we see the grandchildren of the epic WWI story course through the remnants of WWII, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement of the 1960's. Follett's undertaking of the political crises of the next 3 decades, steered ahead by the superpowers of the world, range from Communism, Social Democracy, freedom and civil rights, the threat of nuclear annihilation, espionage and government corruption, weaving them with creativity, astute interpretation and insight.
The bulky novel is made highly readable by short chapters ending in enough suspense to drive the reader through a labyrinthine historical journey: a bus tour meandering through the seminal events that shaped the world of today. The most compelling of topics unfolded right here in America with the move for civil rights laws: issues which the Brothers Kennedy initially hesitated on while turning blind eyes to the violence waged on black people in the South.
Follett's mostly plausible characters are involved in real events, interacting with real world leaders; there are unmistakable characters resembling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 'Hanoi' Jane Fonda and The Beatles. I say 'mostly plausible' since I had one teeny issue with Maria Summers, JFK's mistress: a strong black woman who was one of the Freedom Riders, who stands firmly for equality for black people, goes to bed and falls hopelessly in love with the white American president who refused to sign the bill for civil rights. I had the impression of the black female captive of a white plantation 'massa'. She stood out as a character out of character.
Finally, this epic fact and fiction heavyweight is a story of victory: of freedom and democracy after a century of earth's bloodshed; the realization that was once a Dream - the attainment of civil rights after such violent struggle, culminating into the making of America's first black President; the failure of communism, the fall of corrupt world leaders and - not to be left unmentioned - the triumphant heralding of the birth of Rock and Roll.
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Let me tell you now
Ev'rybody's talking about
Revolution, evolution, masturbation,
Flagellation, regulation, integrations,
Meditations, United Nations,
- John Lennon
Mori Ōgai co-mingles nostalgia for a vanished Tokyo of the late 1900's with romanticism as he tells the story of secret longing, isolation, and unrequited love. The main character, Otama, is the subject of pathos in this Meiji- period story: a naïve heroine left with gloomy prospects after her divorce from a bigamist policeman, succumbs to filial duty to her impoverished father by becoming the mistress of a sleazy moneylender.
Her patron, Suezo, while shrewdly building a business on the exploitation of others, compares typically to most Meiji-men: selfish, egotistic. Already married, he secretly sets up Otama in a residence where she wiles away her days like a lonely bird in a gilded cage.
The story of Otama is told in flashback through the narration of a keen observer - a friend of the male protagonist, Okada, a medical student pursuing plans to study in Germany, with ill- managed finances that force him to seek the services of the calculating moneylender. During one of her days often filled with boredom, Otama takes notice of, and becomes infatuated with the handsome medical student as he passes by her balcony. Their meeting develops into unfulfilling entanglements for all.
Ōgai vividly details everyday life in the village from shopkeepers, street performers, housemaids, geisha, and policemen to university students and their landladies: giving a strong impression of a transitioning Japan moving into the 20th century; though his characterization of women seem less than flattering, possibly suggesting once more, a distinctive Meiji societal attitude. For example, Otama early in the story is depicted with a flaccid personality, weak and too easily compromised to be completely sympathetic to the modern reader. Suezo, on the other hand, adulterous, serpentine and slithering; unlikable from the beginning, describes his wife as 'ugly and quarrelsome.'
Ōgai's imagery may seem clumsy or indelicate in areas as noted in the scene where Okada accidentally kills a wild goose.
Among these bitumen-colored stems and over the dark gray surface of the water reflecting faint lights, we saw a dozen wild geese slowly moving back and forth. Some rested motionless on the water.
"Can you throw that far with a stone?" Ishihara asked, turning to Okada.
Okada hesitated. "They're going to sleep, aren't they? It's cruel to throw at them... I'll make them fly away," said Okada, reluctantly picking up a stone.
The small stone hissed faintly through the air. I watched where it landed, and I saw the neck of a goose drop down. At the same time a few flapped their wings and, uttering cries, dispersed and glided over the water . But they did not rise high into the air. The one that was hit remained where it was.(111)
The image of the dead goose linked with Otama's fate is just one of several less subtle scenes, branding the story in general with a fable-like signature.
Not all wild geese can fly.
The Wild Geese was my first Mori Ōgai novel; a quick read at 119 pages, I have to admit that it didn't impress me as a 'classic' piece of Japanese literature. It truly leaned more to a charming fable whose heroine disregards the coveted riches of golden eggs, and finds freedom in the spreading of her own wings.
In Japanese folklore, there is the belief that a disquieted spirit, one who has died still troubled by a deep resentment or anger toward those it considered immoral and malevolent ( such as enemies or murderers), will not let go of its attachment to the physical world, in a sense not having been extinguished or quelled by death; having taken such hostile feelings to the grave, will be unable to rest in peace, and therefore will re-emerge by supernatural means fueled with vengefulness.
Kwaidan or 'weird tales', is a collection of 20 gothic Japanese sketches written by Greek- born, Japanese emigrant Lafcadio Hearn. He created these stories from a mixture of Chinese and Japanese folklore retold over generations through both oral and literary traditions. Kwaidan, published in the same year of Hearn's death (1904), is set in Japan's Edo period (1603-1868) which Hearn renders expertly with vividness and authenticity.
Some of the tales are perhaps stranger and mysterious to the western reader than gruesome in content, as in the short sketch Jikininki - Man-eating Goblin: about a ravenous shape-shifting entity. A priest died having lived a selfish life with an appetite for material things, is reincarnated with an insatiable hunger for the morbid. His digressions in this infernal form is less than ecclesiastic, but one only hopes he says 'grace' before digging in.
Most of the stories tell of ghostly apparitions or reincarnations, of supernatural beings who have taken human form. The following are just two examples of longer pieces in Kwaidan, superbly adapted to film by Masaki Kobayashi in 1964.
The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hōïchi -
Hōïchi-the-Earless is a fantastic ghost tale built on historical events that took place 700 years prior at the Straits of Shimonoséki (Battle of Dan-no-ura), the last battle between the Heiké and Genji clans where the Heiké, along with their child emperor, were completely annihilated. The sea, the shore and all its creatures had become haunted, so a temple was built to appease the Heiké ghosts.
One evening Hōïchi, a blind lute player at the temple is commanded by a samurai ghost ( naive Hoïchi is unaware that the samurai is a spirit) to sing the ballad of the fallen Heiké. His singing so moves his supernatural audience that he is commanded daily to perform. When the temple priests hear of Hoïchi's daemonic encounters, they attempt to protect him with sutras written all over his body, but plans go grotesquely wrong.
'The Snow-Woman' is a haunting fantasy, beautifully told: Hearn's best known and most memorable story. Two woodcutters, Mosaku and Minokichi, caught in a snowstorm, take shelter in a vacant boatman’s hut. While Mosaku sleeps, Minokichi is awakened to the vision of a woman in white blowing the frosty breath of death on Mosaku, then moves her gaze to the frightened Minokichi. Yuki-Onna, in a moment of benevolence, spares his life but instructs him never to repeat what he has just witnessed or she will kill him. Many years later this threat comes back to haunt Minokichi in an eerie, chilling twist.
As a fan of Japanese goth, I heartily recommend Kwaidan - a quick, satisfying sampling both in written or movie version, to add spookiness to the season.
Your Pride Will Be Your Undoing, Lionheart
A King's Ransom is the sweeping, adventurous sequel to Lionheart , a masterfully spun novel of the last seven years of Richard I's life: 1192-1199, focusing on the period of his capture, imprisonment, and ransoming by Heinrich Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman Emperor. It is a homeric epic that retells the life of this legendary hero in "IMAX" detail. The author takes great care to keep historical veracity while weaving well thought-out strategies and motives, clearing a few myths and misconceptions along the way of transporting us on a grand medieval journey.
Sharon Kay Penman is well-known for her detailed, insightful characterizations, and in A King's Ransom, that skill is shown at its peak. Historical figures became flesh and blood, living, breathing 3- dimensional people: I felt the searing pain of burnt flesh, the fear and mania of being in solitary imprisonment; I smelled the musty, moldy dankness of the chilled dungeon; the putrefying odor of the suppurating wound; felt the heartbreak of a neglected wife; tasted the sweetness of love's second chance.
Her characters' personalities are well-conceived and fitting - I saw Richard I as a restless and impulsive adventurer, quick to flare up with that "notorious Angevin temper," more suited to aggressive military life than to contemplating law, governing a kingdom; or to committed marital life.
It couldn't be all swords and crossbows in Ms. Penman's novels, so it was a pleasure to see the women of court take active duty: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joanna, Berengaria. Their roles and perspectives brought deeply heartfelt, emotional dimensions to that dangerous, often tragic medieval life.
History is never so entertaining as in a fictionalized version, and Ms.Penman pulled it off in imaginative scenes - sieges, battles, betrayals, political drama - the dangerous 12th century game of Monopoly . The amazing sea adventure, Richard's capture and especially his incarceration will stay in my mind for a long time.
I particularly got a thrill by old King Henry's cameo appearance as Richard lay feverish in his dungeon: "There is something else you need to remember whenever this new reality of yours becomes more than you think you can bear. You cannot gain revenge from the grave. Trust me on this; I know."
Ms. Penman brings spirit and passion to the life of the Coeur de Lion, whose legend will carry on in A King's Ransom -the last of the Angevin Trilogy, much like what Homer did for Odysseus... and you know how successful that was.
Richard I (8 September 1157 – 6 April 1199). He was known as Richard Cœur de Lion, or mainly Richard the Lionheart, even before his accession, because of his reputation as a great military leader and warrior.
I want to spread myself on lots of paper, turn it into lots of sentences, lots of words so that I won't be walked on.- Anaïs Nin
Nin's Incest is an explosive, emotional confession; an illuminating self analysis and in-depth psychological study of her soul. Relentlessly probing and insightful, Nin details and analyzes dreams and daily events, shedding light on her exhaustive need for love, in part due to the vacuous hole in her psyche left by her father's abandonment of the family when she was still a very young girl. Nin bares naked the sexual and pathological desires not only of herself but of well-known figures to whom she had strong attachments - Henry Miller, Otto Rank, Antonin Artaud, René Allendy , among others - all who seem like father-figures themselves. To Nin, to experience love meant to keep a balance between her independence and interdependence, her singularity and dual nature. Her own assessment of her dual nature is explained with the precision of a professional psychologist, as she describes the controversial liaisons with her estranged father, Joaquin - a self styled Don Juan.
Joaquin: "I had a dream of you which frightened me. I dreamed that you masturbated me with jeweled fingers and that I kissed you like a lover. For the first time in my life I was terrified."
Anaïs: "I also had a dream of you."
"I don't feel toward you as if you were my daughter."
"I don't feel as if you were my Father."
"What a tragedy. What are we going to do about it? I have met the woman of my life, the ideal, and it is my daughter! I cannot even kiss you as I would like to. I'm in love with my own daughter!"
Nin's writing aesthetic is hypnotic: the unrestrained style in which she reports events have both dreamlike and authentic qualities: fantastic yet real, allusive as well as explicit. She dares to write about such tabooed feelings and acts never before printed in women's books. In heated episodes of seduction, she becomes the 'bad' girl her father desires - she becomes in effect his double, a Donna Juana.
"Let me kiss your mouth." He put his arms around me. I hesitated. I was tortured by a complexity of feelings, wanting his mouth, yet afraid, feeling I was to kiss a brother, yet tempted— terrified and desirous. I was taut. We kissed, and that kiss unleashed a wave of desire. I was lying across his body and with my breast I felt his desire, hard, palpitating.
Ecstatic, his face, and I now frenzied with the desire to unite with him ... undulating, caressing him, clinging to him. His spasm was tremendous, of his whole being. He emptied all of himself in me ... and my yielding was immense, with my whole being, with only that core of fear which arrested the supreme spasm in me.
Nin acknowledges that she tortuously embraced the role of seducer to her padre -amour in order in the end to hurt Joaquin. Incest is a salacious confession in which Nin has laid herself widely opened like French doors on the balcony of the world - and oh, what a view!
Relationship was impossible unless one gave the most secret and deepest part of oneself...
The diary is not a Recherche du Temps Perdu. It is actually a seeking to unite the past, the present, and the future. My life today is just as it was when I was writing the diary; it is always very full and very rich. I'm always exploring new realms of experience, I'm always curious, I'm always ready for adventure. - Anaïs Nin, A Woman Speaks.
Recommended to prudes and open minded alike.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a personal account told in the voice
of a child cleverly reconstructed by an adult narrator. Through the observations of Maya, the child, comes a coming-of-age story - a social record of a young black female growing up in the 1930s. As an historical document 'Caged Bird' covers the bigotry, cruelty, oppression and the constant threat of death that constituted daily life in the South.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.*
The autobiography is also a representation that can be read as a feminist observation.
The Black female is assaulted in her tender years by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power. Maya was fortunate to have the unbending support from strong, financially independent, no-nonsense women like Momma (her paternal grandmother) who owned land and a grocery business, her mother Vivian who owned a gambling hall, and even her politically well-placed, octoroon maternal grandmother Baxter: all whose convictions not to be dependent on men, provided Maya with the foundation on which to build her self-assurance.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.*
More significantly, after the violent traumatic and pivotal experience of her young life from which she 'loses' her speech, we are reminded that abject struggle often precede success; it is through her strong willed teacher, Mrs. Flowers, that Maya finds confidence, self worth and retrieves from imprisonment her voice. The last part of Maya's journey through adolescence is poignant in the mother/ daughter / infant visual, and although she is still uncertain and insecure, she receives the promise of maturity: Mother whispered, “See, you don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.”
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.*
Maya Angelou eloquently articulated how the painful struggles and scattered happy experiences of growing up in the South had a significant role in the shaping of the gifted, outspoken, determined, inspirational person she became.
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.*
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in the magnificent six-volume autobiography of Maya Angelou (April 1928 - May 2014): a poet, author, civil rights activist, professor, feminist. A brilliant achievement, highly recommend. My copy is from The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou ( Modern Library) 2012
*verses from the poem 'Caged Bird' by Maya Angelou, are not presented in original sequence.
The Winter Crown, the second installment in Elizabeth Chadwick's trilogy on Eleanor of Aquitaine (Alienor in this novel), is a fascinating blend of fiction and factually accurate historical events full of vigor and intrigue. The tale of Henry II of England and his queen, Alienor begins at Westminster Abbey 1154, coursing through Alienor's laborious childbearing years, the shaping of a legendary dynasty, Henry's political schemes and the volatile relationship with a stammering and peacockish Thomas Becket, to finally pause at Alienor's incarceration in 1174. Chadwick brings vivacious realness to the character of Alienor as an influential woman who was in one moment, loved and respected, then as easily betrayed in the next.
Through Chadwick's competent writing historical characters are given colorful dimension and life. Her picture of Alienor reveals she was no fool, but astute and level-headed in her actions, especially when it came to dealing with Henry's knack for underhandedness. With the collaboration of the duplicitous Thomas Becket - then Chancellor but dangerously aspiring to a greatness grander than his sovereign - Henry's effort to present to Louis of France an outrageous gift in the form of a live zoo collection: did not escape Alienor's sharp witted observations. "She still thought all this show was about Thomas Becket's desire for lavish gestures and Henry's determination to outshine and overwhelm Louis with a flamboyant display of all the resources he possessed and Louis did not. It was no more than one dog pissing higher up the wall than a rival."
It is generally accepted that Henry had many mistresses and that Alienor knew as much, having to turn a blind eye to such activities by the most powerful man in her midst especially as she was so often heavy with his child, but one could not fault her reactions when she learned she was not the only mare to breed Henry's offspring, or that his favorite Rosamund de Clifford, was barely in her teen years when she became his lover. How would any wife feel? How would a queen as prominent as Alienor react? Henry's cold exclamation "because of me you are not a barren queen, but the matriarch of a dynasty" clearly shows his lack of guilt.
We see Alienor in her many roles as: a caring and engaging mother who experiences both the joy of birthing her brood and the abject sorrow of their untimely deaths; a queen who fulfills her most significant role of providing heirs to the realm, to go from having the power of the regency of England in her hands and to end up as a prisoner in the towers of Sarum.
Chadwick gives us a clear, authentic view of the treatment of women of the period who were looked upon as possessions of the realm, inhumanly used as political pawns to seal alliances, to secure lands, to stroke a king's ego and warm his bed. The reality of having "another daughter to watch her grow up and beat her wings against a closed window" both elevated and saddened Alienor, understanding that it is the lot of the woman, by merely her gender, to be imprisoned like a caged bird, regardless of her background or position.
Chadwick's scenes of everyday life in the court of Henry and Alienor were ever realistic, never boring. I am always excited with anything involving 'William Marshal', and was greatly impressed by his introduction as William, son of John FitzGilbert - a young lad who in Alienor's approving eyes, was 'mischievous and lively, but did not overstep the bounds' - teaching young Harry how to ride and, later, to successfully compete on the Tourney battlefield.
One of the most memorable depictions of Henry and Eleanor in my estimation is presented in the 1968 Hepburn and O'Toole film 'The Lion in Winter'. The dramatic story told of the conflicts between the king-father , queen-mother, heirs-sons is passionate, desperate, treasonous and historically accepted. In The Winter Crown, Chadwick makes valid summations regarding the treacherous rift between father and sons, giving a different spin on Alienor's supposed involvement.
Elizabeth Chadwick's portrayal of Alienor is a woman of indomitable spirit, not easily subdued even by a king as powerful as her husband. With intelligence, quick wit, and courage, she gave as good as she got, proving to be Henry's greatest match and therefore, a formidable obstacle to his selfish desire for total control. By July 1174, Alienor found herself captive within the tower walls of Sarum, banished there by Henry for her perceived rebellious efforts against him.
Her greatest challenge was about to begin.
The Autumn Throne is next. I'm eagerly waiting!
The Summer Queen: 4*
The Winter Crown: 5*
Highly recommended for historical fictionistas
Have you ever: 'cut the cheese,' or 'let it rip,' experienced the 'silent but deadly,' or laughed out loud at the idiotic college ritual of 'lighting a match' to it, been prompted to 'pull my finger' or have accidentally 'stepped on a duck?'
You must have, since you are an earthly lifeform and having been a kid at least once in your lifespan, Jo Nesbø's 'Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder' Series will certainly stimulate those memories of first time discoveries and newness, of the importance of being silly and laughing about it. I recently took that road back in time buddying up with my son and his reading list. It was quite a gas!
Doctor Proctor, an aging, eccentric ( synonym for zany, wacko, crazy, mad, lunatic) professor given to spending his time alone in his laboratory: befriends eleven year old Nilly and Lisa, or at least they befriend him. Singularly, they're loners but team up for the daunting task to help Doctor Proctor figure out the most effective use for his marvelous invention, this magnanimous contribution to global natural resources - the industrial-strength 'Fart Powder.'
The drama that explodes on Canon Drive reverberates far above the fantastic level, involving a mad-cap chase through the sewer system of Oslo, where rats and Animals You Wished Never Existed like anacondas (Anna Conda) hide, to inescapable prisons and NASA. There are more serious issues at the bottom of the story than the mere gaseous exchanges of human beings: bullying, corruption, and the illegal distribution of unknown powdery substances to children are implied.
More importantly, the hero, Nilly - diminutive in size, is a giant in integrity, intelligence and bravery. With the sharp witted dialogue fans have come to enjoy of his crime novels, Nesbø's imagination soars high with a wonderful motley set of characters in a rollicking adventure, a brief history lesson of Oslo, a bit of silliness for the young and not -so -young. This delightful children's book is not just for children, but childish adults too. If you're either of the two, you'll enjoy this.
'Doctor Proctor Fart' Powder is the first in the series of what is surely scentsational children's reading, one I'm sure to be indulging in once in a while, with or without my kid's reading list.
(Illustrations from the Kindle version of the book)
There's a movie!
This tale is a sweetly naÏve, charming description of a couple's relationship and survival through economic hard times in Berlin 1932. It is a response to social stories of the day, of bleak futures on the horizon as poverty, conflict and social disorder dominated everyday life. Fallada draws on his observations of many Berliners left jobless and despairing by the depression. In 1932 when Little Man, What Now? was published, 42% of German workers were unemployed and further cast into desperation as unemployment support was cut. Realism dictates the themes of the novel as Fallada illuminates the essentially invisible day-to-day struggles of staying above the breadline, the terror of being on the thin edges of employment, and the fear of financial insecurity while trying to provide for a family. His fictional world of Berlin was praised as "no fiction at all," but rather an authentic report of life - a novel for 'the people.'
The novel's strength is in the acute perspectives and observations of its characters, mainly through Johannes Pinneberg, a man of little means; and his wife, Lammchen, as they confront an unexpected pregnancy, the contentment and wonderment of the newly-wedded, the fulfillment of work regardless of its meagerness, the anxiety of unemployment and then utter despair. Pinneberg finds joy in the prospect of becoming a husband and father, but hopes of providing for a family turn dismally in a string of unfortunate events. "Down the slippery slope, sunk without trace, utterly destroyed. Order and cleanliness, gone; work, material security, gone; making progress and hope, gone. Poverty is not just misery, poverty is an offense, poverty is a stain, poverty is suspect.”
Pinneberg's love for Lammchen, who rises above her proletarian parents; his confidence in her judgment; her courage and steadfastness when her husband becomes one of the 6 million unemployed, are validations for the novel. Lammchen, modeled after Fallada's wife, the levelheaded and stabilizing influence of his life , Anna Issel: shines as the novel's equally supportive and incorruptible heroine. “But you know, money isn’t the answer. We can get by, and money isn’t what’s needed. It’s work that would help Sonny, a bit of hope. Money? No.”
Fallada deliberately restricts political tones, although the more astute reader might recognize, buried within the folds of the story, a clearly developed political context of the time. He concentrates more on the couple's romantic idylls, contrasting those with despair and hope, irony and humor, the ups and downs of daily life, never allowing their troubles to completely overwhelm them. Even in the moment of Pinneberg's dejected, lowest point, Lammchen's bright outlook won't allow it.
And suddenly the cold had gone, an immeasurably gentle green wave lifted her up and him with her. They glided up together; the stars glittered very near; she whispered: 'But you can look at me! Always, always! You're with me, we're together..' It was the old joy, it was the old love. Higher and higher from the tarnished earth to the stars.
Fallada suggests no resolution to the dismally urgent situation of unemployment, but as he often does in his novels, leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope; in this case to ponder the question: 'What Now?'
Confessions of a Mask (1949) rocketed Yukio Mishima to the literary prominence he so desperately sought as a struggling modern writer. The novel explores the obsessions of a young man suffering inwardly with erotic fantasies of men, beauty and violence. He strains to conform to a heterosexual life while secretly idolizing depictions of St. Sebastian, martyred, with his hands bound and his naked torso pierced by arrows, or becoming aroused by the sight of the muscular nightsoil man walking through the neighborhood. Confusion of his sexuality takes shape at a very early age when he falls in love for the first time with Omi, a schoolmate.
There were, however, numberless impressions that I got from Omi, of infinite variety, all filled with delicate nuances. In a phrase, what I did derive from him was a precise definition of the perfection of life and manhood... Because of him I cannot love an intellectual person. Because of him I am not attracted to a person who wears glasses. Because of him I began to love strength, an impression of overflowing blood, ignorance, rough gestures, careless speech, and the savage melancholy inherent in the flesh, not tainted in anyway with intellect.(64)
The protagonist's psychological examination of his thoughts and feelings is logically sound and vividly clear; he possesses an unfaltering understanding of himself. He is able to pinpoint details, causes, subconscious symbols with the accuracy of a professional psycho-analyst.
Actually, the thought that I might reach the height of an adult filled me with a foreboding of some fearful danger. On the one hand, my indefinable feeling of unrest increased my capacity for dreams divorced from all reality and, on the other, drove me toward the "bad habit" that caused me to take refuge in those dreams. The restlessness was my excuse.. It was undoubtedly the sight of the hair under Omi's arms that day which made the armpit a fetish for me.(82-83)
Confessions of a Mask is widely considered as an autobiographically inspired novel. If the sadomasochistic fantasies are truly Mishima's admission of his own feelings, he is even more strongly connected with his protagonist by the latter's unyielding struggle to prove himself as special, destined for martyrdom like St.Sebastian - a fate proud, tragic, transcendent.
Mishima's confessional pose in the guise of the protagonist is dramatic, theatrical, even feels 'staged:' as an 'I' narrator agonizing over his perceived 'abnormality,' he is neither apologetic nor interested in suppressing his homosexual desires. By composing his supposed confessions, Mishima was completely the producer, playwright, director and actor of his own social 'norms', free to judge himself, and perform to the beat of his own damask drum.
The true essence of confession is its impossibility.
Mishima himself stated that his intent was to write "a perfect fictional work of confession." Certainly, the novel is dramatically written; a sense of Mishima teasing his reader's attention with a performance much like the masked Kabuki plays his grandmother introduced him to as a youngster, enabling him to exist, not only as a man in an easily alienating social sect, but as the brilliantly talented, ingeniously creative writer he knew he was.
William Shakespeare's words from 'As You Like It' came to mind that: All the world's a stage ; Mishima's own words sum up my perception of him that: life is after all a masked play.
Kawabata uses Ogata Shingo as his narrator and prime character to tell the story of a 62-year-old man immersed in unhappiness, who feels death closing in on him. Shingo lives with his wife, Yasuko (the plain sister of the beautiful woman who was, in his youth, his one true love); his son, Shuichi who ignores his wife for his mistress; and resentful daughter whose own marriage has failed. He has long ceased to love Yasuko, more highly regarding the relationship with his young and innocent daughter- in- law, Kikuko, as the only bit of life and happiness in his aging years. Kawabata's sympathetic treatment warms Shingo's character in spite of his flaws ; his natural sense of life allows us to see his world, and empathize.
Stopped in his path to gaze:
The crown of a sunflower's head,
A wish for Renewal.*
Through Kawabata's beautifully written Haiku-style prose: the marital struggles of Shingo's daughter Fusako; the loneliness and melancholy of Kikuko's disappointing marriage to Shuichi, whose aloofness and unfaithfulness are shaped from the male-egoist facility of Japanese society of the time: are closely observed.
Deep are their hearts in sadness;
Spring blooms have left the garden,
And weeds are sown instead.*
Shingo who , in a fleeting moment, might forget how to fasten his tie or recall the day's activities with difficulty, yet with the minutest detail, could conjure up with vividness a love long dead. Life in Shingo's perception moves in a flow of days, events and actions that waltz back and forth in time, as the placement of sounds are linked with a slip of the mind; a dim remembrance; a glimpse of a bygone association; a shadow of an earlier scene; a memory evoked by a flash of light or resonating timbre.
Faint echoes blow in the wind.
The distant mountain rumbles;
An old man's faded memory.*
The Sound of the Mountain is a heartfelt psychological study of the dynamics of a multigenerational family, seen through the eyes of an aging patriarch who feels the burden of responsibility for his children, and tries unsuccessfully to fix their problems.
Autumn has begun;
The buds from the gingko tree
Cannot be mature.*
Kawabata's novel is a poetic tapestry of human relations, of the beauty and sadness inherent in nature, of life and death, of memories and lost loves fading in and out. The Sound of the Mountain is a cluster of allusions beautifully presented in haiku tones. This was the best I've read so far of Yasunari Kawabata -it is truly an artistic literary gift!
Man's original sin is his ego - such is Sōseki Natsume's main theme of his unfinished novel Light and Dark, (Meian, 1917), who considered that egoism is the deep-rooted origin of all evils, proliferating like a weed in the rush of modern existence.
Sōseki's 'Meian' characters are ordinary Meiji people living ordinary but claustrophobic daily lives, utterly self absorbed, plagued by pettiness and selfish desires; provoked to constant streams of verbal and psychological battles: emphasizing the flaws of marriage, love and interpersonal relationships. Sōseki laid bare the human failings of pride, self-love and disingenuousness in his novel that is fundamentally about perception, a study in human relations, a satire of the artifices of the Meiji period. He plied his characters with the darkness of selfishness, abject isolation, insincerity, distrust, egoism; contrasting those with the lightness of hope, self awareness, truth, revelation, authenticity, visualizing a more illuminating human condition.
At the heart of Light and Dark are Yoshio and O-Nobu Tsuda, a young educated and middle-class couple, recently married and considered to be happy. In exploring (Yoshio)Tsuda's and O-Nobu's characters (the peripheral cast are treated similarly), Sōseki tested the binds of marriage as well as the flexibility of their love (or the suffocating effect of it ).
Tsuda takes the stage in a plot that turns out to be disappointingly spare of action, and as the title suggests - holds a full spectrum of contrasting images. He is made to be sick, both spiritually as well as physically, opening the story with the need for surgery to remove a growth*. An unlikable man, he embodies the typical male of the period in the old-fashioned treatment of his more modern wife. Tsuda's egoism springs from an Old World background: he views himself highly, his right to live a lofty lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue his own desires are solidly planted.
Men of old with an immovable sense of duty never allowed themselves to be smitten.
Tsuda regards his wife's complete attention to his personal comfort as his entitlement. He sees no need to be honest or giving in his relationship with O-Nubu. Sometimes he attempted to mollify her. At other times he felt rebellious and wanted to escape. In either case he was always aware at the back of his consciousness, of a feeling that amounted to disparagement:
I can't be wasting all my time with a woman like you - I have things to do for myself.
O-Nobu is a modern woman of the day. She falls in love with Yoshio ( baffling) and marries him almost immediately. She considers herself as 'mistress to her own affairs,' aiming to prove her worthiness and determined to make her marriage a success - a conviction obviously challenged by the stark reality of her marital unhappiness, and her failure to recognize her own egocentric actions as contributing factors. Her struggle to understand and connect to a man like Tsuda is a concern that plagues most relationships.
O-Nobu found herself thinking of Tsuda as a self-centered man. Despite the fact that she extended to him from morning to night what she intended to be the fullest extent of kindness and consideration she was capable of, was there no limit to the sacrifice her husband required?
Is a husband nothing more than a sponge who exists solely to soak up a wife's tenderness?
The novel is a yin and yang minefield, more complex of a read than expected, unprepared as I was at the time I slugged through it. Undeniably, Sōseki possessed the masterful brushstrokes for exquisite imagery and subtle illusions, keeping true to his Zen aesthetics. His portrait of nature, full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are at once asymmetrical and yet maintain a balance, attracted me to this book. Admittedly, my own flawed vision blurred Light and Dark: for me, it was leaden with ambiguities and overshadowed by vague dialogue. Its slow moving narrative and insufferable cast fail to clearly bring to light the deeper concepts recessed in the plot.
An unfinished work due to the untimely death of the author, Light and Dark abruptly ended, unsatisfyingly. Surely, Sōseki's intent was to bring a resolution for O-Nobo and Yoshio, a compromise based on the knowledge of oneself, a realization of one's own limitations, and the letting go of ego.
* ( the translator is unsure of the nature of the illness, only that Tsuda needs surgical repair. In any case, the allegorical setting is laid ).
Fans of Japanese Literature would still enjoy this work which needed much more patience than I possessed ( although by the time I reviewed it, I suppose I came to appreciate it better ).
Light and Dark represents Sōseki’s effort to put in perspective, through his unique approach to fiction, the rapidly changing dynamics of Japanese society and culture during the Meiji period (1868–1912), of a well-ordered society rushing too quickly toward a modernized Japan. Sōseki saw the erosion of fundamental truths as expressed in traditional Japanese myth and Zen Buddhist teachings as well as fundamental truths of the human condition. In his works, Sōseki constructed fictional characters to articulate his belief that modernization is necessary for Japan’s survival, but, when it occurs too quickly, such change is unhealthy and threatens individual happiness. Sōseki viewed that slower movement over time and space was critical to human development and the attainment of happiness.