The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

the waiting years

Continuing my Japanese book strikes, my first book of 2016 is The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi. I read this together with the Japanese Literature book group on GR. It won the most votes out of the 5 books I proposed, and coincidentally it was probably the one I wanted to read the most, so it worked out nicely :).

Just a couple of dozens pages in, I was already surprised how quickly the plot was laid out. Somehow I was expecting it to be a slow read. The book is set in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912). It started with Tomo – wife of a high Japanese official – looking for a young girl to be brought home. For what purpose, it was clear to the reader: to be a second woman, or a concubine, but it was never said out loud among the characters. Unlike some other cultures, there was not an official concubine role in this society, as the man does not marry the girl. And I mean it when I said “girl”, because they were looking for a 15 year-old, inexperienced girl. The fact that the girl is underage made a very uncomfortable read to my modern eyes, probably more than any other issues that appear throughout the book.

The book kept surprising me throughout. I anticipated it to concentrate on catty rivalries between Tomo and the new girl, Suga, in the style of Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale (which I have not read, so I may be totally off, however Wikipedia mentions that Nagai Kafu was in young Enchi’s reading list). But it’s not. There would be more women coming into the house later on, but all the female characters get along with each other, for the most parts. How they behave felt very realistic, and to me showed how women behave in real life more than TV dramas. Hint: I’m not a fan of Asian TV dramas. I don’t like how in them people behave in such outrageous, outlandish, exaggerated manners.

In this book, the women are dignified and logical in handling what life gives them. I loved that we get very close into the heads of the women, offering insights that I never felt I got when I read the other big name Japanese authors – who happen to be mostly male. As far as I remember, the female characters in books written by Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki, Kobo Abe, or Mishima even, are all very distant and aloof, and we never really get into their heads. It’s hard to see them pass their outwardly submissive demeanour.

In the Waiting Years, though the women may still look to be submissive, there’s a lot of internal conflicts and struggles, and there’s anger that bubbles up in the characters, which is obviously Enchi’s own feminist views of the system. And that brought me to conclude, that this book I think could only be written by a woman, and I’m thankful Fumiko Enchi gave voices to these women and made them real. It’s an interesting portrait of Japanese culture at a particular time from a point of view that we rarely get.

I was wavering between 4.5 and 5 stars, but the ending pushed it over the edge. It’s incredibly powerful, and so sad that I shed some tears.

During the reading, I coincidentally found a beautiful second hand copy of Masks – another popular book by Enchi, which I look forward to reading sometime.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

220px-Enchi_Fumiko
Fumiko Enchi – finally, a favorite Japanese female author! (I really don’t like Banana Yoshimoto. I couldn’t stand her books.)

This also concludes Japanese Literature Challenge 9. From June 2015 to January 2016, I read 3 Japanese books:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

A very successful challenge I must say! Considering my Japanese literature reading had been zero for the past few years. Will I continue the strikes? The books did whet my appetite for more, but on the other hand I have a lot of (reading) projects going on. Perhaps I will wait until June to continue again. See you in JLC 10 :)

The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes #2)

the sign of 4

I read The Sign of Four as my last book of 2015, actually finishing on the 31st December. I read the first one in the series – A Study in Scarlet in 2014, but alas, it was a period when I got too lazy to write about every single book I read, so I didn’t put any thoughts down – something that I kind of regret. These days I’ve gotten into the habit of writing about every book I read again, because I know my future self will thank me for it.

Therefore I only have a vague recollection of A Study in Scarlet. I know I quite liked it (a 4 stars read) and it was about a murder mystery (you think?) and a back story of American Mormonism. A bit odd, and old-fashioned, but readable.

The Sherlock Holmes books appear in various must-read book lists, the 1001 Books, the Guardians’s 1000 novels, and 100 best novels written in English, to name a few. But they all seem to pick different ones in the series. So after reading the first, I decided to just read them all in order. One for every year (hence the rush to finish one before the end of 2015). The Sign of Four is picked by Robert McCrum for his 100 best novels list, so my expectation was high.

I’m not sure if it met my expectation.

I don’t read or watch much mystery, but even for me the plot and the mystery seemed too familiar, as if I’ve seen it a couple of dozen times on various media (and no, I have not seen all Sherlock TV series, only the first season). Even more interesting, some people on GR mentioned that the plot is too convoluted. I wonder if I missed anything, as I thought exactly the opposite.

Just to give a brief idea, the mystery involves secrets and betrayal happening in India, while featuring ridiculous set of characters: a twin Indians in turbans, one-legged man and a dark-skinned dwarf man – a savage one at that. Really?

A silver lining is that this is the book where Watson meets Mary Morstan – his future wife, and their relationship is pretty sweet. So if you’re a completist, it’s definitely worth reading. I do plan to continue to book #3: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which features his short stories, and people say Sherlock short stories are really the best, more than the novels, so I look forward to that.

After watching some episodes of the TV series and reading the first 2 books, I can say that the TV Sherlock by Benedict really stays true to the books. So much so that the image of Sherlock as I was reading was that of Benedict Cumberbatch. And when I explained some parts of the book plot to hubby, I started saying Benedict instead of Sherlock “Then Benedict says…” Yeah, it’s that close.

To conclude, The Sign of Four isn’t my favorite Sherlock Holmes, but I still have quite a few books to see whether it’s the worst of the bunch. The rating on GR *is* the lowest amongst the 9 books. So how did Robert McCrum chose this particular one? Perhaps it is more to do with the history. Do you know that Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Doyle’s The Sign of Four were the results of the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? Now that kind of story, I love.

Mee’s rating: 3/5

conan doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle – what a fabulous name!

Slouching Towards Betlehem by Joan Didion

betlehem

Slouching Towards Betlehem is a collection of essays by Joan Didion that were written between 1961 to 1968, the collection itself published in 1968. I heard the name Joan Didion thrown a lot, and this is my first time reading her book. I chose this, first because of this Great Courses, secondly because I happened to see it at a secondhand bookshop — an Oxfam in York (a pretty odd place to find it actually).

My first mistake was that I read this on my way to New York, having connected Didion and New York in my head, only to find that the essays were not about New York at all, but about California — which is a completely different beast.

The collection is divided into 3 sections: Life Styles in the Golden Land, Personals, and Seven Places of the Mind. I somewhat liked the very first essay titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, about a woman who’s accused of murdering a husband in a burning car, wrapped in the theme of losing your dream.

But after that it just kept going down hill for me. I experienced the same frustration that I had reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: there are way too many American culture references that went over my head. And it’s not just any American culture, it’s American culture in the 1960s, and even Californian culture in the 1960s. Some authors write for the world as their audience, but with Didion you can tell she wrote only for her fellow Americans, and familiarity with the culture and the setting was assumed, taken for granted. I am definitely not the target audience of these essays.

The title story Slouching Towards Betlehem is something to do with the decline of San Fransisco. Lots of drugs references, so again, not for me. I was really hoping that I could relate more with the Personals section, but it didn’t really happen either. Was it her writing? – I wondered.

It was somewhat redeemed by the very last essay: Goodbye to All That. In many ways, this is the essay and the Didion I was expecting when I started reading the book on my flight to New York. It’s about young Didion trying to survive in New York, and after a few years, finally decided to leave it all.

“Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Fransisco, but because I’m talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” 

“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”

“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”

(The wiki mentioned that as of 2005 Didion came back to live in New York to this day. Does it mean she’s become the “very rich”? :)

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite the same way again.”

But at the end…

“There is no possible, no adequate answer to that, and so we give certain stock answers, the answers everyone gives. I talk about how difficult it would be for us to ‘afford’ to live in New York right now, about how much ‘space’ we need. All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.”

I could relate with this. Her New York is my London. I too thought I would stay a year, and ended up staying five years, and counting. I too fell in Love with London at the first sight, like none of the other cities that came before it. And I always think that I won’t be able to afford to stay in London forever, nobody does, except for the very rich of course. I haven’t got to that point yet, but maybe someday.

Mee’s rating: 3/5 – An uneven collection of essays for me, so I can only give it average rating.

didion

In his course Prof Grant L. Voth compared Didion a lot with Truman Capote. I somehow never thought Didion and Capote as contemporaries — Capote seemed older and his books are more often considered classics. Perhaps because he died a while ago while Didion is still alive? For that reason I’m counting this for my Classics project as I have already put In Cold Blood on the list. It will be interesting to compare their literary journalism style when I get to Capote.

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût

tenthousandthings
First published: 1955, English publication: 1958

In The Ten Thousand Things Maria Dermoût brought us to my birth country, Indonesia. This is the first time for me to read a Dutch Indies literature so it was truly an interesting experience. I had to look up Moluccas – the place where the book is set, and only then realized it’s the islands of Maluku. In fact, I only recently discovered that pre-independent Indonesia is called Dutch East Indies. Just things you wouldn’t learn in school’s history books :).

I was born in the capital, and never left the island of Java for the first 17 years of my life. Weeks after my 17th birthday I left the country, and since then only go back very occasionally, each time making an effort to travel the country even if it’s just for a short while, even if I couldn’t go very far. I’ve never been to Maluku or Papua — those places are probably as exotic to me as it is to people from outside the country.

And exotic is how I would describe The Ten Thousand Things, from the description of the places, the islands, the sea — and the creatures of the sea! The stories were dream-like, giving you the feeling of floating in and out of a dream, in far flung places, somewhere in an obscure corner of the world, where the water is clear blue and deadly at the same time, where the islands store ten thousand stories and the spirits roam. It gave me nostalgic feelings as indeed where ever you are in Indonesia you are never far from the ocean.

The main character that holds all the stories together in the book is referred to as the Lady of the Small Garden, who is from a Dutch family but born in Moluccas. She went to Netherlands for her education, and eventually came back to the islands with her son. The “garden” has been in the family for generations and the lady’s grandmother has always stayed there. She’s become part of the island as much as the local people.

I have awareness that the majority of Ambon people are Christians (which is something that stands out in a country that is almost 90% Muslim), but I never quite connected it with its important role as one of the Spice Islands in the time of colonization. It all makes sense now.

I love that I’m learning so much by reading the perspective of an outsider looking in, though I have conflicting feelings about calling Dermoût an outsider. After all her family had stayed for generations (she’s the 4th generation) and she might even have indigenous blood somewhere along the line.

Maria Dermout

How long does one need to stay? How many generations before you can truly belong?

Though The Ten Thousand Things is not strictly autobiographical, it’s not hard to see how Dermoût drew from her life experiences. Thankful that NYRB Classics has taken her book into their line. Here’s hoping that they will republish her other book, as it seems to be out of print and would be hard to get.

Maria Dermout

One interesting thing to note, if you look for the pictures of Maria Dermout, the above would be the one most widely appears. It was taken in 1907 when she was 19 years old, and somehow gave an impression of her as a young writer. But her books were not published until she’s in her 60s!

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – Magical reading set in a place both familiar and unfamiliar to me. It has sparked a new found interest in Dutch Indies literature. I have The Black Lake by Hella Haasse to be read soon-ish.

The World’s Literature goodreads group discussion with whom I read this book and The Garden of Evening Mists.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

house of mirth

I was quite surprised with how much I loved The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I read this book as one of the recommended reads by my Penguin’s online writing class. And as I just came back from New York, I was intrigued by the dynamics of New York society in the early 1900s. I usually have little empathy for stories about high class society and their non-problems, but the story of Miss Lily Bart struck a chord in me. I believe her struggles to fit into a class that she can’t afford are still relevant in today’s society. Perhaps not as much and not as dramatic as back in 1900s New York, but especially in Asian society I find many of the aspects of the book to ring true.

The book is divided into two sections. The first one is on the slow side, as a lot of characters and the world are introduced. But the second book flew for me, and I read it quickly. By the time I closed the last chapter I was breathless and completely exhausted. I loved it. I loved it so much more than Pride and Prejudice. I have no idea why P&P should be the more famous of the two. Well, I have an inkling why. The House of Mirth was ruthless in its portrayal of the society and brutally honest. P&P feels like fairy tale compared to The House of Mirth. After reading this book, I am now completely besotted with Edith Wharton and will read more of her books.

From this section on I will talk more in depth about the book, so there could be spoilers. You’ve been warned!

house of mirth

Back to the comparison with Pride and Prejudice, both novels work on the same premise of society framework, that a woman must marry to survive, as in that period she has no other means to sustain herself. This especially seems almost the harsher for the middle class women, as the poor would just have to work, but the middle class women would be idle and concentrate all their time and effort to catching men with comparable or higher wealth and status.

I find it fascinating that Edith Wharton married young and ended unhappy while her character in The House of Mirth does the opposite and is able to avoid the trap of marriage (though it also does not end well for her). On the opposite end, Jane Austen never married, while her character finds her prince charming and fairy tale ending. Both women wrote novels as escapism but from the opposite spectrum. It just happens that Edith Wharton’s realism worked much better for me, and I found it more meaningful.

I read various people’s opinions about Selden and how they wished him to be less passive, but I disagree. This is a story of Lily Bart, and to be satisfying to the readers, SHE has to take actions, and SHE has to take her fate in her own hands. She should NOT be rescued by some prince charming (I’m very glad that the book did not go in this direction). In my opinion, Selden has done enough for someone in his position, and I thought his reactions and behaviors very realistic.

The ending did shock me. I guess we readers had to see it coming, but I didn’t want to believe it until it happened. Lily’s downfall is so believable that there seems to be no hope, while she passes all possible turning points. It’s funny that knowing the premise, you’d think there aren’t that many possible ways the story could turn, but I could not guess where it was going throughout the book.

The plotting in this book I think is nothing short of amazing, and the world building incredible. Wharton makes us understand the rules of the world this story is set in, and the stakes her characters are up against.

So I’m totally in camp Edith Wharton now. I can’t wait to go read The Age of Innocence.

Mee’s rating: 5/5As odd as it sounds, this early 20th century novel set in New York revolving around high class society has touched me like no other novels from that time period had. Miles better than Pride and Prejudice.

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

 

Siddhartha — Hesse / Of Mice and Men — Steinbeck

By this time I am horribly, horribly late in posting about books I’ve read. In fact, some books are already slipping away from my mind, even though I just read them a few months ago. Nevermind that, as I need to get on writing anyway, before they truly vanish from memory a couple of years from now.

Today is about two short books, both by winners of Nobel Prize in Literature. My first time to read Herman Hesse, second time for John Steinbeck.

Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

siddhartaherman hesse

Siddharta was not quite like what I expected. I was expecting some kind of biography of Siddharta the Buddha, but instead, we follow the journey of another man, also named Siddharta, who seems to be in the shadow of Siddharta the Buddha (his timeline seems to happen after Buddha).

Our character Siddharta goes through a different journey to enlightenment, which I’m not going to go into too much details. I cannot remember much about the ending, so  I can’t tell you even if I want to.

I was very intrigued by Herman Hesse. A German writing about spirituality of the East in the early 1900s (Siddharta was published in 1922) seems unusual. Was it the time when the West started to be fascinated about the East? I wonder what his other books would be like. I might read more from him.

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

of mice and mensteinbeck

I have read East of Eden a few years ago and quite liked it, but to be honest I don’t know if I want read more books by John Steinbeck, purely because of the depression era that he concentrated his writing on; it’s just not where my interest lies.

Of Mice and Men however is so tiny and so popular that I might as well read it. One thing that put me off reading it for a while was that I knew about the ending. I can’t remember how it got spoiled for me, it wasn’t completely spoiled either, but I knew about it roughly. I was waiting for the memory to go away, but it never did, so I read the book anyway, knowing the direction it was heading.

It was a sad and heartfelt little book, exactly like what I expected.  I do wonder if I would read it differently had I not known about the ending. As such, I felt like I was seeing all the author’s techniques in bringing readers to reach the climax, and I don’t think I was ever fully absorbed in the story.

 

Fictions — Borges / The Ice Palace — Vesaas

Fictions / Ficciones — Jorge Luis Borges

Fictions - BorgesBorges

Last year, I read two short stories by Borges (The Garden of Forking Paths and Emma Zunz), and this time I plunged into his full short story collection: Fictions (Ficciones), while finishing up Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship course that I started last year. (I have one more book to go out of the 10 units of reading, a bit proud of that!)

My mind was blown away by Borges. I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before. Some parts were a bit hard to read, and some sounded “technical”, but all the stories were so so refreshing, and different. It is definitely not a quick read and I don’t think you can/should rush it. Though Borges wouldn’t admit it, for me Ficciones is a book of ideas. It’s bursting with ideas and imagination. All the stories are only short (few pages long), but they pack a punch.

My favorite stories are: The Circular Ruins, The Lottery of Babylon, and Funes, His Memory. It’s a brilliant, brilliant book, and I can see myself re-reading it in the years ahead.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Ice Palace — Tarjei Vesaas

The Ice Palace - VesaasVesaas

The Ice Palace was also something that I read to finish up Brown University’s The Fiction of Relationship (if you want to know, the last book I have yet to read out of the 10 units is Beloved by Toni Morrison so look out for that soon-ish). It is translated from Norwegian, first published in 1963, and considered to be one of the classics in Norwegian literature.

I read The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist last year and fell in love head over heels for it, so I was happy to take a stab at another Scandinavian literature (pardon me for grouping all Scandinavian countries together, but I have very limited contact with the region in general). Unfortunately it fell a bit short of my high expectation. I didn’t like The Ice Palace nearly as much as The Sibyl, and even though the book is short I found it almost a slog to go through.

The Ice Palace tells the story of Siss and Unn, two friends who have only spent one evening in each other’s company, and the next day Unn is gone missing. The whole village is looking, and Siss feels extreme guilt that she might be the reason Unn has ventured off her usual paths. The setting here plays a big role, as it is a place that is cold, sparse, and has very short day light. The frozen waterfall (the one called the ice palace) is an important figure in the story, and its foreboding presence seems to be in the center of events and everyone’s mind.

Part of my problem with it was that I never quite figured out what was going on between Siss and Unn, not even after listening to the Prof’s lectures. I don’t understand the whole point of the story, and reading it was akin to an experience of walking in the fog. Or maybe in the snowy cold. It was all a bit blurry, and looking back you’re not quite sure what you just pass by.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

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