My first book of the year is another book club read with the Japanese Lit GR group. Ariyoshi seems to be one of the favourites among the members and the group has read another of her book – The River Ki, which I missed, so this is my first Ariyoshi.
First published in 1966, The Doctor’s Wife has quite an amazing premise. The story is based on the life of Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), a provincial doctor who invented anaesthetic, thus was able to perform major surgery, including, most amazingly, breast cancer. ‘Seishu’s first operation occurred in 1805. Nothing, however, was known of this doctor’s achievement in the West. In England and the US the general anaesthetics were not used until the 1840s’ (the Introduction).
The book however, focused on the two women in Seishu’s life: his mother Otsugi and his wife Kae. ‘Seishu’s dreams, ambitions, experiments, and desire for success are the underlying catalysts that propel the two women in his life into constant conflict’ (the Introduction). The story is mainly told from Kae’s perspective, who came from an old samurai family, and therefore ‘above’ the doctor’s family. Otsugi herself has come from a family that was also above Seishu’s station. But doctors at that time were in an odd ‘category’. They were not peasants nor nobles, and they’re educated, so they seem to get concessions from the strict classed society.
The book is only 174 pages and covered about 70 years, so there are often ‘jumps’ between chapters in which you have to make educated guesses on how old everyone was after every ‘jump’. This seems typical of Ariyoshi, as her other books are about the same length, covering a rather long period of years too. It wasn’t a big problem for me, and in fact I liked how succinct it was.
I really enjoyed this book overall, apart from a couple of quibbles. The ending is amazing (especially the last sentence) and summarises the book and Ariyoshi’s intent on writing this I think. I love how the author picked such an unusual semi-historical figures/story, that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. When I told a friend that I was reading a novel about a village doctor in 18th century Japan, her reply was a frown and “How did you come across that?”, hah.
I intend to read The Twilight Years next, when I get a chance.
I first discovered Moomin when I moved to the UK. For some reason Moomin never made its way to South East Asia, or even Australia, though it seems to be big in Japan. I immediately found the hipo-like creatures to be adorable, and went to buy some merchandise – mug, soft toy, postcards, shirt, notebook, even when I hadn’t known the stories of Moomin at all. My other encounter was when I went to Helsinki and didn’t know that Finland was where Moomin was from. I brought and wore my Moomin shirt, in Moomin land, by coincidence! It was an odd feeling looking at all the shops with Moomin stuffs, while wearing the Moomin shirt. People must’ve thought it was on purpose. Well the surprise was on me!
I read Tove Jansson’s non-Moomin book The Summer Book last year and absolutely loved it, so I know I like her writing. Moomin however has many books in the series, so as always the case with me, when that happens, I don’t know where to start. I’d be too anxious to even start, or to start with any book that is not the first in the series. (The big reason I have not read Émile Zola…)
This book came at a fortunate time. It’s published by Sort of Books in support Oxfam. Costs £4.99 and ‘at least £4 from each book bought goes to Oxfam projects supporting women and girls worldwide’. It’s a beautiful hardback copy too. I buy a lot of books and at times don’t feel very good about it, but this kind of purchase surely makes all you warm and fuzzy inside, hah.
The book contains two stories, which became my first introduction to Moomin stories. They’re taken from Tales from Moominvalley collection (which is #7 in the series according to Goodreads), first published in 1962. The Invisible Child is a story about a child that literally became invisible out of sadness by her own mother, and she is dropped to join the Moomin family. The Moomin family of course tries their best to bring the child back to being visible again. As this is originally a latter tale, you are assumed to know the characters, which I didn’t, and I had to look up. But it’s not a big deal.
The second story is surprisingly Christmasy. I bought the book a couple of months before, and didn’t know there’s a Christmas story inside. To read it around Christmas time was perfect. In The Fir Tree the Moomin family was waken up in Christmas time, which doesn’t seem to be a regular occurrence. Seems they usually sleep through Christmas and winter, because they have no idea what Christmas is, and that’s where all the comedy spins of.
The last part of the book is a gallery of all the Moomin characters, with illustrations. I love them all already with this thin book, and really hope to read more Moomin books soon. Also the Dulwich Picture Gallery is having a Tove Jansson exhibition which I plan to visit before it ends on 28 January 2018. Consider me a fan of Jansson! :)
Black Rain tells the aftermath of the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Personally I never read book that describes what happens to the people on ground zero – not to this extend anyway. For some reason in my mind it was total annihilation, but of course it wasn’t as clean as that. People in the vicinity were affected in thousands different ways – and to my mind they suffered the most (compared to instant death). The many ways the atomic bomb affected people are so varied, that when I thought the worst has passed, worse scenes came around the corner, again and again.
To think that humankind has done this to each other in the past, and knowing what happened, keeps the possibility for the future. It’s hard to comprehend. This should be a required reading, especially for anyone having any access to or any influence over the nuclear button. Why Hiroshima and Nagasaki? What would happen if it were Tokyo? It’s equally unthinkable for other major cities with the highest density and the most important infrastructure. At this point, a few countries in the world have the weapon almost just to keep each other in check. But it’s not hard to imagine that at the end, it could be triggered by a human mistake. Then we are truly doomed. Humanity as we know it may perish. Apocalypse in the truest sense.
Ibuse based his tales on real life diaries and interviews of the victims so it’s free of sentimentality, it’s fact after fact. You’d think it’d be permeated with rage, but it’s not. The overwhelming reaction is that of bewilderment. The nuclear bomb at the time was an unknown entity, a completely new weapon. The people of Hiroshima have been the guinea pig of the world.
Structure wise it could use some improvement. The book laid out diaries of a few people with not very strong connections, which shouldn’t work as narrative fiction. However you can’t read it as fiction, you read it as non-fiction, no matter how Ibuse labeled it. I suspect it gave him more freedom to do it as a work of fiction. I like the framing of the story in particular. It starts with a young woman called Yasuko, who has trouble finding a suitor because of the circulating rumors that she was affected by the bombing radiation. Such a ‘small’, domestic beginning, starting a year after the actual bombing. Bigger things are revealed gradually to readers, each thing more devastating than the next. For me the end is hopelessness. Truly nothing good comes out of war.
“I hated war. Who cared, after all, which side won? The only important thing was to end it all soon as possible: rather an unjust peace, than a “just” war!” – p161
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the book that the movie Blade Runner (1982) is based of, and it’s Philip K. Dick’s first book I read, though I’ve watched many movie adaptations of his work, like Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.
I watched Blade Runner pretty late, only a few years ago, but didn’t remember much of the story, apart from the whole androids vs humans thing, so I read this book almost afresh. Another factor that pushed it to the top of my TBR is that a new Blade Runner movie is coming out, starring Ryan Gosling – titled Blade Runner 2049, so if you’re like me and would like to know more about the original work, now is a good time to start :).
The main character is Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who goes after androids who “run away” – as androids have no rights to independence. The world building is very well done. The world as we know it has practically ended because of some mysterious dust, and most of the earth population has migrated to other planets. Thus the setting is a decaying earth, featuring characters who are left behind or have come back or stayed for some reasons. An interesting aspect that I observed is that the whole story is actually just set in one single day (or a single day and a bit). It’s a full on day for Rick Deckard!
It’s a very fun book to read, and perfect for me who often feel stuck on some slow going books – this one just flew by. But for a science fiction – a genre that mainly runs on ideas, I don’t think there’s any deep meaning or message in the book. If there’s any I couldn’t find it. The book was published in 1968, and the story is set in 2021. We are now in 2017, and we now know that we’re so far from making androids remotely close to being human. Not sure if that would ever happen in fact, not even for the next 100 years. So the idea of right to independence and freedom for androids seems moot. The idea that an android may have “soul” is irrelevant in even today’s world – it’s so pie in the sky.
And the book actually felt a bit dated for me. In Dick’s world, technology has advanced so far that people are having difficulties differentiating androids and humans, but there is no mobile phone. People use coin to make calls on land line – the only ‘advance’ thing being it’s a video call. Reading this in 2017, it felt very much that it was written before mobile phone technology was invented – and that it didn’t cross the author’s mind that in the near future, before humanoid androids are invented, everybody has a mobile phone with them 24/7, the size of a small calculator, which has plenty of functions including – guess what – a video call, and access to a vast amount of information. But this could be just me. I have previously mentioned about the phone technology being a thing that makes a book feel dated.
But at the end of the day it was a fun read, and I’ll definitely be up for more Philip K. Dick in the future!
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.
I read the Bell Jar sometime in November and only got the chance to write about it now, so it’s started to get a little fuzzy. I went back to Sydney for 2.5 weeks in the first half of November, then fell into a bad reading slump. So really I have not read much since The Bell Jar – only one “book” of Middlemarch (a slog), and one short story (fantastic!): Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. I’ve resigned to the fact that I can only finish Middlemarch next year, as I’m only halfway through the tome, and I may not read much more until the end of the year.
The Bell Jar is the only novel by Sylvia Plath, is said to be a feminist text, and semi-autobiographical. I knew about Plath’s suicide, and I had some idea that the novel would be somewhat about descending into madness – and it is. It reminds me of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The book starts in New York City. We meet Esther Greenwood, who won a prestigious internship at a fashion magazine with a selected other young women. She is supposed to be having the time of her life, but she is mainly… depressed. In the second half, she goes back to her home, in a small town somewhere, and things just keep going down hill.
For me there is definitely a recognizable feminist undertone throughout. A sad discovery of the way the world works and there is nothing much you can do about it. You’re so insignificant, a single fish swimming against the current, a rebellious speck. There’s a realization that you’re dealt the bad cards by being born a female.
It’s hard to imagine someone like Plath being married to Ted Hughes, and then having to take care of two children from the marriage. Hughes is a series adulterer (when he was with Plath, and after), and his next wife after Plath also committed suicide! I never read anything by Hughes – and I don’t know if I want to, but really, having 2 wives who killed themselves does not give a good impression on the person’s character, does it? Furthermore, Plath and Hughes’ son also suffered depression and hanged himself. This guy is literally littered with deaths.
While I wasn’t quite blown away by The Bell Jar, I think it gave an interesting insight of the time and place and the mind of a Sylvia Plath. Like a few other authors, I find her life story possibly more interesting than her book. I may read more about her in the future.
Mee’s rating: 4/5
“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three… nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” – The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).
The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.
It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.
Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.
But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.
If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.
Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.