Friday, June 28, 2013

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki writes a dynamic novel of a young Japanese girl, Naoko Yasutani, hell bent on recording her great grandmother's life story into her journal as a distraction from the sheer hell that has become her own growing-up. Beaten regularly at school, ignored by her teachers and parents, her cries for help go unanswered as her mother struggles to make ends meet while Nao's father repeatedly attempts suicide. She can only imagine the effect her journal will have on the individual that finds it...

The magic of the narrative begins when Naoko's journal is found on the Canadian coast by writer's-block suffering author Ruth (hmm, semi autobiographical?) as she idly trawls the beach. Convinced that Naoko is in immediate danger, and desperate to discover if Naoko's family survived the devastating tsunami of 2011, Ruth becomes consumed with the journal and it's mysterious pieces of Yasutani family history.

Naoko, known to her family as Nao (yes, please read it as "now"), documents the downward spiral that is her school and home life in detail, inwardly struggling with her father's suicide attempts after being downsized from his job in Silicon Valley and sent back to Japan. Nao feels outcasted with her family's new socio-economic status and the culture shock of being relocated to Tokyo, missing her life in California as the kids in her Japanese school pick her apart. She finds solace in correspondence and summers visiting with her great grandmother, Zen Buddhist monk Jiko.

Jiko tells Nao of her great uncle, Haruki Yasutani, whom Nao's father was named for, and who died as a kamikaze pilot despite being strongly against the violence and maneuverings of Japan during World War II. Jiko tries to teach Nao the importance of being aware of all of the single moments that make up her life: the idea of each person and moment of consciousness being a "time being."

This brilliant concept takes hold of Ruth, as she struggles to translate the pieces of Nao's journal that aren't in English, and desperately attempts to seek out what ever became of any of the Yasutanis. The journal takes Ruth deeper into the precious moments that are building themselves into Nao's fate, but taking Ruth further and further away from completing her own work. Did Nao's father succeed in killing himself, and how did that affect his long suffering daughter? Was Jiko's shrine destroyed by the tsunami?

That makes up for the surface of the novel, but it's great depths are the truly impressive feat. From beautiful descriptions of Zen Buddhist practices to thoughts on quantum mechanics, the importance of a single moment within ones' lifetime or that of a family's, takes center stage. So many characters' shame makes them consider the meaning of their lives, as their conscientious objections to the moral issues of their individual eras join them across time. History, memories, and secrets all get blurred by the passage of time, and Ozeki perfectly captures the power these elements hold over our awareness of what the facts really are.

This review can't do Ruth Ozeki's book justice. So much happens so carefully, you must read it to appreciate this grand ode to storytelling. I'm too afraid of giving away something really cool to continue going on about it! Enjoy it in all of it's well-crafted layers!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman

Sabina Berman touchingly illuminates social interactions from the clearly focused, often times cutting perspective of Karen Nieto, autistic erudite specializing in cruelty free tuna-fishing.

Karen grows up without language or socialization until her mentally-ill mother's death results in her being adopted by her aunt. Karen slowly learns to become conscious of herself and her behavior, beginning with learning the words "me" and "you," to a lifelong fascination with Descartes, Darwin, and her commitment to the fundamental rights of all creatures.

That someone could so completely imagine such a different way of thinking and foreign self-awareness is incredible, and Berman creates Karen with such a careful, steady voice that you never doubt her "different abilities" (as Karen herself refers to her autism). This is not a novel so fixated on Karen's genius with the development of stress-free tuna harvesting that it pays no attention to the problems her condition make for her. Indeed, Karen rarely fantasizes, can't lie, and is as blunt as you could fathom, yet the depth of her emotional experiences and integrity make for a stunningly unique picture of human nature.

Karen is a character who brilliantly exposes the nuances of people purportedly better suited for social interactions than herself. Sometimes it seems as if others' vices, greed, naivety, or self interest are magnified by her viewpoint, and this is the most cutting element of her story. It's a bittersweet commentary on how we value life, in all of its varieties.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Anthropology of an American Girl, Hilary Thayer Hamann

I knew I'd found a jewel within a few pages. If I could give this six stars, I would have. I loved this that much. It's Updike's Rabbit novels for women... seriously. That cutting and insightful. Updike, Salinger, all of them featuring men having these tortured, drug and sex filled youths, and in this novel women have an intelligent, emotive coming of age story. 

I read a review that compared Hamann's sentences with Henry James , and I think that's a respectable comment. They are so lilting and uniquely descriptive. It is a novel brimming with heartfelt sentiment! 

I was reminded sometimes of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar protagonist, just slightly less wounded and more lovelorn. I loved the insight into growing up and all of the mistakes that come with it; Hamann's protagonist is very flawed, but her honesty and passion are raw and respectable, just like Hamann's prose. If you find yourself in disbelief as to Eveline's actions/inactions, think back to your own high school/college/first job days. Eveline's voice and story are uncompromised by cliche or standards. There's nothing corny or stereotypical about her story, which is one of my favorite qualities in this novel. It really stands for itself.

Honestly, it's a novel that should be given air to speak for itself, so I am going to provide some quotes rather than drone on!

Boys will be boys, that's what people say. No one ever mentions how girls have to be something other than themselves altogether. We are to stifle the same feelings that boys are encouraged to display. We are to use gossip as a means of policing ourselves -- this way those who do succumb to sex but are not damaged by it are damaged instead by peer malice. Girls demand a covenant because if one gives in, others will be expected to do the same. We are to remain united in cruelty, ignorance, and aversion. Or we are to starve the flesh from our bones, penalizing the body for its nature, castigating ourselves for advances we are powerless to prevent. We are to make false promises then resist the attentions solicited. Basically we are to become expert liar."  

"Since he knew things at the beginning, maybe at the end he knew things too. That we had gone as far as chance would take us. That nothing is more sacred than youth or more hopeful than turning yourself over to someone and saying ~ I have this time, it is not a long time, but it is my best time and my best gift, and I give it to you. When I revisit my youth, I re-visit you"

For a reader, there isn't anything more exciting than to be thanked by an author for articulating your particular enjoyment in their work. That's what happened to me when Ms. Hamann emailed me via Goodreads... well, it was an awesome day! Yet another great reason for enthusiastic readers to connect with others, and even authors, on Goodreads!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

Contemporary literature takes on Italy's Years of Lead and the art community of NYC in Kushner's sophomore release, with style and speed. I wasn't even a third of the way through this novel before the manic fever to track down what branch of my library system had an available copy of her first novel, Telex from Cuba, kicked in.

The Flamethrowers follows Reno, newly graduated from art school and racing across the country on her sport motorcycle, photographing her cycle's tracks in the salt slicks of Nevada as she makes her way back to NYC and the wild art community that she has found herself amidst. It's a reactionary group of fakes and performance art so self-involved and ambitious that even the oh-so cool Reno can appear incredibly naive and out of her depth.

Kushner artfully creates an explosive cast of characters. New York's art community isn't just humming with life in this novel, it's stomping on your ceiling like an unruly neighbor's weekend party. The secondary characters' vignettes give Manhattan true vivacity from Reno's youthful perspective, as she searches for her niche amidst this rampaging assault of ideas and artistic/political statements. Simultaneously, the ventures of Sandro Valera's industrialist father after the fall of Mussolini concisely sets the scene of Italy's post fascist, decades long struggle.

It's Sandro Valera, Reno's Italian boyfriend, and his enigmatic friend Ronnie who inadvertently send her into the heart of violent political upheaval while visiting Sandro's mother near Milan. The riots and kidnappings in Rome hit extremely close to home as Reno gets pushed into the wrong group at a vicious time. By the end, you feel like Reno's excitement and curiosity have been weathered dramatically, as she seems even more the bewildered bystander than when she first found herself in NYC.

This novel is enormous with vitality and vulnerability. I think that's why I liked it so much. It beautifully conceives of the strength inherent in braving the unknown, even when you could potentially be taken so off course.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

I've been ogling this book for months it seems, and when else should I pick up a book with the word "snow" in the title than when temperatures reach scorching in my hometown? There is nothing like a modern take on Russian fables to take ones' mind off of mosquito bites and humidity!

Ivey's debut novel is set in her own home state of Alaska during the homesteading ventures of the 1920s. The Snow Child paints a sad portrait of the staggering loneliness that can grow between two people, despite their steadfast love for each other.

After struggling for years with the loss of their firstborn, childless Mabel and Jack leave their pasts "back East" to start a farm and live off the land. Mabel believes the hard work, and stark beauty of the Alaskan wilderness will bring them together, but Jack's pride won't bear his wife's partaking in farm work; thus, the gulf widens and the isolation of homesteading worsens the state of their marriage.

The couple build a girl-shape out of snow during the season's first snow in a rare glimpse of togetherness. When the snow-girl has disappeared the next morning and child sized tracks are found nearby, Mabel remembers an old story about a childless couple who built a snow girl that comes to life, and becomes obsessed with the idea that similar magic is at long last rewarding them. While Mabel has always grieved the loss of their baby, Jack begins to break under his own feelings of failure; the farm barely gets them through their first winter, and only then with the help of neighbors. Unsure of how to help Mabel with her sadness and growing obsession with the snow child, Jack withdraws into forcing a liveable yield out of the harsh Alaskan wilderness. No neighbors ever see hide nor hair of the child. Have Jack and Mabel imagined her out of their cabin-fever induced desperation to survive? Either way, she seems to be the only thing holding them together as man and wife, as well as in Alaska.

The little girl, Faina, seems an ethereal spirit of that very wild landscape that could have ended their homesteading. The couple learn to see the beauty of their new home through the eyes of the child they have always wanted. Faina disappears with the winters' end to return with the next season's first snow, yet despite her transience, the love they have for her seems better when paired with the pain of her leaving, than their lives before she first appeared.

"Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. It's all a mystery, and when we say any different, we're just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?"

The Snow Child is a bittersweet tale of the redemptive power of love. It's a straight forward fable based on Russian lore (there are quite a number of variations of The Snow Maiden) detailing the pain of emotional and physical isolation. Ivey's characterization of the couple is tender, even as they withdraw into themselves under the various strains. It is quite small in scope, not nearly as descriptive as you may imagine a novel about such a grandiose landscape could be, and moves swiftly through the narration with a gaze fixed upon very few characters.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorite authors. She has this ability to stretch the ideas of femininity within her protagonists that I truly admire (see Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and A Fair Maiden). She braves waters in terms of subject matter that the status quo either gloss over or completely ignore. This newest of her works is not only a fresh ground for the author, but my first of her historical novels.

This paranormal novel set within the town of Princeton, New Jersey, specifically during Woodrow Wilson's term as president of the University, is not for the faint of heart. DO NOT, dear reader, pick this up if you're idea of paranormal reading is Laurell K. Hamilton. This is a nod to the truest of gothic literature, ie HP Lovecraft and Ann Radcliffe. It moves at a slow pace, luxuriating in the historical detailing of family legacies and Princeton. A dreaded curse is making its way through the elite families at the heart of Princeton, resulting in runaway brides, bloody murders, and mass hysteria!

Don't get bogged down by the pacing(those of you who will read this novel can giggle at my little pun later). The novel is satisfying in its wholeness as the pieces of the curse and the effects it's having on the carefully crafted community come together. It's not the height of suspense, but a methodical, gothic nightmare.

My only trouble with this book was the time it spent with Upton Sinclair, so deeply embroiled in his Socialist agenda that it sometimes took away from the fearful atmosphere the rich of Princeton were experiencing. Having said that though, his subplot helps to illuminate the growing political and social changes happening in the years represented by this VERY fictitious novel. Indeed, it led to a very interesting 'sexual politics' reading of the curses' onset within the community. SPOILERS FOLLOW: Did anyone else just start to assume that all of the talk about "the unspeakable" and Miss Slade's seduction were just turn of the century fear of rape/women's sexual awareness? However, any attempts to interpret the fantastical as anything otherwise are for naught, as the novel progresses to it's unbelievable ending!

It was certainly a fun novel, with the characteristic fearlessness both in subject and styling of so many wonderful Oates novels! Oates mixes the narration with diary entries, heightening the depth of the plot and its characters. She doesn't leave out classism, sexism, or racism as the issues of the era. I'm quite interested to see what others make of this novel, as so many of the fantastical and historical elements may appeal to such a range of readers!