Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

I’d been meaning to read this book for years. Years. Maybe a decade. You know what it’s like – you put a book onto your TBR and a decade later it’s still there, unread. I’m glad I finally got to it, but I’m not sure whether it quite lived up to my expectation.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the first book by Jeanette Winterson I read. I first knew her from the “1001 books you must read before you die” list. I know she’s popular. I’ve even seen her in person at some Penguin’s event. I liked the sound of Oranges and I liked the title. I did enjoy reading it too, to a degree, but it felt like I wasn’t the targeted audience of the book. Let me explain.

Oranges is set somewhere in mid England, working class, Christian society. I’m not sure when it is set, but the book is published in 1985, so anytime before that I guess, the 60s or the 70s. If you know even a bit about this book, I think you’d already know that it is about a young woman coming out and coming to terms with her homosexuality. It’s semi-biographical, even the main character is called Jeanette.

It is a debut novel, and it read like one. I felt some parts were disjointed, but there were moments of brilliance. The story is interspersed with sort of fantastic tales (some from Arthurian legend?), which although I enjoyed reading, I had trouble connecting with the main story line. And this is where I put my case about not being the target audience. It seems Winterson wrote this book with “her own people” as the audience in mind – mid England, working class, Christian. I was raised in quite traditional Catholic/Christian family and society, so the religious references I understood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone raised in other religions to “get it”. The English working class references I probably missed in much greater degree.

The point of reading is the access and ability to “jump” into people’s lives completely different from yours, which is what’s amazing about it. So I’m wondering, as a writer, should you make an effort to include people outside of your core audience? I don’t know the answer to that. But reading this book I couldn’t avoid the lingering feeling of being out of the circle, an unexpected audience on the side peeking in, and probably only got 50% of the in-jokes.

So to conclude, no, the book was not quite what I expected. But some parts of the book made me want to read more books by Winterson, especially the fantasy part. I liked her humour. It also reminded me of Amy Tan’s books, which just like Oranges, focus on primarily mother daughter relationship, while father’s role remains minuscule, if any. As Jeanette ruminates in the book: “As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless.” – p126

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

The Temple of Dawn – Yukio Mishima

First published in Japan in 1970, The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

The Temple of Dawn is book #3 in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. My review for book #1 Spring Snow here and book #2 Runaway Horses here. If you have not read the first two, warning there will be possible spoilers.

So my relationship with Mishima’s epic has been long and slow going, as I read Spring Snow in 2015, and Runaway Horses in 2016. With The Temple of Dawn in 2017, I plan to read the last book The Decay of the Angel in 2018. That’s one book per year if you noticed, as I’m not the type of reader that can read more than one book consecutively by the same author. The good thing is that way you give adequate time for each book, the bad thing is you may forget details from previous books.

I read this with my Goodreads Japanese Literature group (discussion board here), and it seems to cause very conflicting reactions – unlike the first two books. My own take was just lukewarm – there are bits I liked and bits I didn’t like. But my overall impression is that it’s definitely the weakest book of the tetralogy so far. Even Mishima couldn’t avoid the “saggy middle” that seems to often happen to a book and especially a series of books. It felt like a filler, something in between an exciting beginning (book 1), peak (book 2), and the (possibly exciting) ending (book 4). Makes me wonder, do we need a middle at all? Why don’t we just cut the middle of everything?

So in The Temple of Dawn, the readers are brought to Thailand and India at the early chapters – which I actually quite enjoyed, before going back to Japan. Mishima used the settings to explore the roots and other branches of Buddhism, including Hinduism. He went into the history and philosophy of those religions, which I could see the reasons of, considering the series is all about transmigration. But it doesn’t bring much into the narrative. It’s meandering and self-indulgent, and I’m not sure how much I remember of it at the end.

Unlike the previous two books that concentrate on Kiyoaki and Kiyoaki reincarnate, The Temple of Dawn dwells on Honda, who is frankly a boring character compared to any form of Kiyoaki. This time Honda believes that he has encountered his friend in the form of a Thai princess, who is somewhat still related to the two Thai princes appeared in Spring Snow.

The book is divided into two parts, separated by untold years of World War II. I initially thought WWII would take central stage in book 3 or 4, but apparently it was just swept under the rug. The princess is 7 years old in part 1, Honda 46 years old, and the year is 1941. Part 2 is set 11 years later in 1952, Honda is 57 years old, Ying Chan the princess is 18 years old.

So Kiyoaki is now in the form of female – a passive one annoyingly, and is the object of obsession of Honda. Is he symbolically attracted to “life” and the embodiment of the mysterious transmigration? Or is there a homosexual undertone there? (Mishima is largely accepted as homo or bi-sexual – though his wife would disagree.) In any way I failed to grasp the purpose of Honda’s lust in the overall narrative. He came across as an old creep. The age and gender of Kiyoaki’s form this time really hinder her to blossom into her own character like Isao, who was at the peak of his life. As Kiyo reincarnate gets younger and younger, I wonder how his last form will contribute to the narrative. Those who have read all books in the series hinted that the last book makes the whole journey worthwhile. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My first book for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge – now in its 11th year!

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

First published in Italy in 2011. Published in English by Europa Editions in 2012. Translated by Ann Goldstein. I received my paperback copy from Europa Editions. Elena Ferrante is pseudonym and her real identity is kept secret. 

I had quite a high expectation going into this book, because of the popularity. And I can’t say it met my expectation.

My Brilliant Friend is set in 1950s Italy and features two female friends as the main characters. The prologue was intriguing. The “brilliant friend” is missing – or to be exact “taking off” without a trace. She’s mentioned as a computer programmer – which is what I do – so I thought this started great! I have never read a book with a female computer programmer as the main character.

But after the prologue – which is the most exciting bit about the book unfortunately – the readers are brought to the very beginning of the two friends relationship. Way way back to childhood, which takes about a quarter, then another three quarter of the book about their adolescence. This might be a matter of personal preference, but in general I’m very impatient reading about childhood and teenage-hood. I love classic children stories with multiple layers that serve adult readers too – if not more, but I avoid YA like a plague. I don’t have patience for it. If you’ve read Jane Eyre, the beginning part that tells Jane’s childhood to teenage-hood was the most boring part for me too. I wish it was cut altogether. And My Brilliant Friend is exactly that part – the part which I think should be cut if talking about Jane Eyre!

Hard to believe I’d say this about a book, but I also found the narration way too linear. I wonder if I’d been reading too many convoluted books? How could I complain that a narration is way too linear? But it is! It literally goes from one small event to another in chronological order. There’s no flash forward or flash back (apart from the prologue), it’s point a to b to c to d to e – a long tedious Beverly Hills 90210 style, with a web of not very distinguished characters (friends, brothers, sisters) hooking up with each other. The similar names really didn’t help. There are Rino, Nino, and Gino. Really? Even the two main characters are called Lila – sometimes Lina, and Lenu – or Elena. There’s a big list of character names at the beginning of the book, which I referred to a lot at first, but gave up after a while, because I stopped caring. I was bored. Halfway through I switched to audio book and continued on audio. I doubt I’d finish it without the audio book.

So yeah, I can’t say I liked this book very much. I suspect the next books are probably better and where all the juicy bits are, but at the moment it seems very unlikely for me to continue to the next ones in the series. I may try Ferrante’s other shorter books, but I don’t have a definite plan now. I read they’re going to make TV series based on this, I may just watch that.

Underwhelmed.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

My Brilliant Friend on audible

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

First published in 1882

I have never watched an adaptation of Treasure Island – except for Disney’s Treasure Planet if that counts, though I don’t remember much about it – so the book was new to me. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: an adventure story for boys. Unlike J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I couldn’t find appreciation on a different level, though I liked this a bit more than Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars.

The book went up my reading queue when The Happy Reader x Joseph book club sent me an invitation and mailed the Penguin Classics book. It arrived a couple of weeks before the book club night – there was a real-life meet up in Kensington at one of Joseph’s store – and I reckoned I could finish 190 pages in 2 weeks, even as a slow reader that I am (I didn’t, but 30 pages away to finishing on the night). Not sure if I mentioned The Happy Reader here before, but I absolutely love the “magazine”. The Treasure Island issue will be for June, so they are still working on it. The Editor in Chief Seb Emina attended the book club in person and led the discussions. It was a great night. Hope to go to more of them in the future.

But going back to the story of Treasure Island, the main character is a teenager named Jim Hawkins, who meets a series of characters – most of them are pirates – and gets tangled in a series of adventures. He starts off living with mum at a family pub, but the discovery of a treasure map leads him to going on a journey to this treasure island.

I’m very wary of books about boats, because there seems to be a million boat related terms – all of which I never heard of in my life and have no real usage for in the future. This book was not an exception unfortunately, there are boat terms. Some of them I googled, some I let go. Luckily the narrative is straightforward and it doesn’t delve too much into boat technicalities. This is why I may never read Moby Dick.

For a book meant for boys, it felt quite grown-up. There are plenty of deaths and murders. And there is one character in particular that is a bit “grey”, and I was never convinced whether he was good or bad throughout the book. For a children (young adult?) book, it felt that Stevenson had gone a bit further to show that life is not as simple as black and white.

I have not read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

ps: I now really look forward to watching Muppet Treasure Island!

Robert Louis Stevenson – born in Edinburgh, died in Samoa (!)

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room was written by James Baldwin – an African American, published in 1956. I don’t know about you, but whenever I start on a new author, I look them up first, to know what they look like and their brief background. I often find strong correlation between who the author is and their work, so a kind of expectation is built. With Giovanni’s Room, it was all blown out of the water. I expected an African American story, but it is so far removed that I’m still struggling putting the image of the author next to his book in my mind.

For a start, the story is not even set in America, but in France. The protagonist is a white American called David – middle upper class, has an American girlfriend. David meets Giovanni – an Italian trying his luck in Paris, and later has a relationship with him. More important characters include a couple of older French men, whose names I had to google to discover the proper pronunciations: Jacques and Guillaume. They’re both wealthy, such that they have financial power over the young ones like David and Giovanni.

The quartet makes an interesting dynamic. In fact, the book opened my eyes to a very unfamiliar world to me: Parisian gay bars. There are all kinds of rules and expectations and power struggle. The older wealthy men are expected to treat (buy drinks and food), and in a way they’re seen as pathetic and desperate, being old and ugly. The young ones are dirt poor, but they have themselves to offer. If they play it well, giving hopes may just be enough to string the old men. Sex however is the ultimate prize.

David’s denial of his same-sex attraction is a major source of conflicts. There’s no race issue at all – it’s not that kind of book. I’d be very interested to read Baldwin’s other books and see whether it’s addressed somewhere else. It just seems odd to me that an African American writing in the 50s wasn’t writing about race issues.* It’s so amazing in many ways. Giovanni’s Room felt like it could’ve been written by a white French man. There are even healthy sprinkles of French words and sentences (that I had to look up to know what they mean). I’m intrigued.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

A little anecdote: James Baldwin was mentioned in Capote the movie, which I watched while reading Giovanni’s Room. I didn’t plan it, but it’s an interesting coincidence that Capote and Baldwin lived and wrote in the same era, and both were gay.

* This is confirmed on Wiki, that mentions: “He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”.”

James Baldwin

Dance by the Light of the Moon – Judith Vanistendael

Published in English in 2010 by Self Made Hero (first published in Belgium, 2007)

I went to a panel of European Graphic Novelists a couple of years ago at the British Library (wrote a little about here), and one of the panelists was Belgian author Judith Vanistendael. Her semi-biographical graphic novel based on her own experience falling in love with a refugee piqued my interest, and I still remembered it as I saw this book at my library one day.

It’s quite surreal reading it now and felt how timely it is, what with the refugee crisis all around us. The book was actually published in 2007, and I imagine the real event was happening even years before that. It is now 2017, and seems the time has finally caught up with the graphic novel.

The first part of the book is told from her father’s perspective (it’s said to be in response to the short story written by the author’s father), the second part is told in flashback by the protagonist, Sophie, to her young daughter.

The man in question is from Togo, who sought asylum in Belgium. Despite prejudice and skepticism, Sophie’s parents try their best to stand by their daughter and open their home to Abou. I found it quite touching actually, and could feel the parents’ mixed feelings in particular. After all it’s not just skin color they had to overcome – that’s probably the least of the problems, it’s the vastly different background and culture, socio-economic factor, not to mention residential status. Abou’s refugee application may not even be accepted and the potential to be deported is looming.

Here we get a glimpse of how complicated and how fragile the refugee application process is. The fact is only a small percentage of applications would succeed, and there are too many factors – at times seemingly arbitrary – at play. In my life I’ve gone through many immigration processes, and I could relate in some ways. You’re at the complete mercy of unknown individuals “up there”, you never know if one single tiny oversight could cause rejection, and once rejected, there’s very little you can do. It costs a lot of time, a lot of money, and not to mention emotional toll. It makes you feel very very small.

The black and white illustrations are very effective, and beautiful in showing the black and white skin individuals. I think this book definitely deserves a wider audience.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

 

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

First published in 1965

In Cold Blood is said to be the original non-fiction novel, based on a true crime in a small town called Holcomb, in Kansas, USA, in which a family of four were killed without apparent purpose – hence “in cold blood”. In light of recent political events, it seemed like an apt time to read American book set in the Midwest. I feel that as non-Americans we’re often fed California and New York, the East and the West coasts, but not much of others. The barren landscape of Holcomb seems like to the forgotten part of the US that came to light more recently.

I don’t usually read crime fiction, and I don’t watch crime TV series. But I watch a lot of crime documentaries. I’m not sure why I don’t have interest in crime as work of fiction at all – I just see little point in it, even though some may be inspired by true events. But in documentary format, I can’t get enough of!

I’d consider In Cold Blood as journalistic piece, albeit in a narrative that is close to novel. Other people may argue about the proportion of fiction and non-fiction elements in the book, but I’m on the side of ‘never let truth get in the way of a good story’. I don’t mind reconstruction of personal events and dialogues in between the hard facts.

I’ve always liked Truman Capote. I’ve read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and some of his other short stories. And I’m glad that I liked In Cold Blood too, very much. The beginning was a tad slow, and it took me longer than his other works to get into, but once the murder happens – about 50 pages in, it just flowed.

There are liberal sprinkles of single quotes, marking words, phrases, and sentences that I assume were taken out of the real people’s mouths, such that the book at times seems like a long string of people’s words put together by Capote. He filled in the gaps, and knitted them into a coherent single piece.

It is quite an amazing piece of work. I can only imagine the extraordinary amount of research and energy put into the book. And probably most important of all, the story telling ability of the author. Why this case? There are so many murder cases around, some of which are similar. Because for one reason or another, this was the case that just happened to come to Capote, at the right time. Just like Sarah Koenig with the Adnan case (Serial podcast). It came to her at the right time, and something in it piqued her interest. Thanks to the storytellers, these cases get their stories told, immortalised in some ways, unlike so many others that are buried and forgotten forever except in the memories of the few friends and families. In Cold Blood showed me once again the power of storytelling.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

Movie companion: Capote (2005)

I watched Capote starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman soon after finishing In Cold Blood. I’d been meaning to watch it since it came out, but insisted I read In Cold Blood first, because I knew the movie is about Capote researching materials for the book. After reading and watching, I do recommend people to read the book first!

Prior to watching the movie, I didn’t know what Truman Capote was like. I knew he was gay, but that’s about it. It was immediately apparent that he had quite specific mannerism. He was flamboyant in his speech and dressing, portrayed so well by Hoffman. People say that in fact Capote was even more exuberant in real life, and Hoffman had toned down his portrayal. I have not seen other movies portraying Capote, like Infamous (starring Toby Jones), so I can’t compare, but I was impressed by PSH. I always liked him.

The movie showed things that happened in the making of the book, behind the scene. I mentioned the research and energy put into it. It’s even more emphasised in the movie, though in a slightly different way than I expected. Truman Capote inserted himself completely in the case, and was not just an observer. He influenced how certain things went, he had relationships with the inmates, namely Perry Smith and Richard/Dick Hickock, but especially Perry Smith.

I guess in a way it shouldn’t be surprising. After all In Cold Blood humanises the perpetrators. He couldn’t have done it without personal relationships with the guys. But in the movie Capote went steps further. He manipulated them in some ways, to get the story that he needed. It was a very complex relationship. Seems very taxing to say the least. And at the end In Cold Blood was the last book Capote ever finished, and was his last masterpiece. It’s as if it has taken everything that he had.

Another striking point is, in the movie Capote was shown as someone with a big ego, who enjoyed being the centre of attention. But in In Cold Blood, he completely disappeared. There is no ‘I’, ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’, or any sign of him present. I find this remarkable, the ability to extract yourself completely from your writing, especially now knowing how he was as a person. Something that I am still learning.

It wasn’t a perfect movie, as there were some discrepancies with the book that bothered me a little. But I still rated it highly.

Mee’s rating: 8/10

 

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