Shamsie, Kamila. Burnt Shadows. New York: Picador, 2009.
Reason read: Confessional: this was supposed to be read in August for a myriad of reasons: Shamsie’s birth month, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, and the anniversary of India’s independence from British rule. Somehow I missed it in August but wanted it read before 2021.
Burnt Shadows spans 56 years, from 1945 to 2001 moving from Nagasaki, Japan to Delhi, India to Pakistan and New York, all the while addressing the political geography of the time. India’s independence from British rule serves as a subtle character in Burnt Shadows as it changes the identity of others. At the heart of the story is the necessity of identity: human culture based on the desire to belong somewhere. Every character in Burnt Shadows struggles with a spiritual homelessness and drifting identity. Consider main protagonist Hiroko Tanaka: she fled Nagasaki, Japan after the bombing. Right before the attack she was engaged to a German, but ends up marrying an Indian she meets at the home of her deceased fiancé’s sister in Delhi, India. A misunderstanding leads the couple to Pakistan where they have a son, Raza.
The story opens with the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka loses her fiancé in the blast. How ironic is it she only agreed to marry him that same day? How tragic! In time she makes her way to India and lands on the doorstep of Konrad’s half sister, Elizabeth Burton and Elizabeth’s husband, James. Reluctantly, they take in Hiroko. Sajjad Ashraf, from the province of Dilli, works as a translator for James and Elizabeth Burton and agreed to tutor Hiroko. A beautiful relationship develops between them.
Burnt Shadows is also about the unspoken observation of marriage; the relationships that fail and those that stand the test of time “until death do us part.” Elizabeth and James had small, invisible cracks in their relationship before Hiroko arrived. Hiroko and Sajjad barely knew each other before their hasty marriage and yet it endured.
The last third of the book is difficult to read in that the story moves from one of interpersonal relationships to one of political unrest. The events of September 11th, 2001 play an enormous part in the narrative. It is as if Shamsie has another message, one that she has been waiting for 200 pages to deliver.
Quotes to quote, “There was no moment at which things went wrong, just a steady accumulation of hurt and misunderstanding” (p 109), “She felt she had been waiting all her life to arrive here” (p 295),
Author fact: Shamsie has ties to the Northeast, having gone to Hamilton College in New York and University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about Burnt Shadows but it is the last book mentioned in the chapter.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Sojourns in South Asia: Pakistan” (p 212).
Ogawa, Yoko. The Diving Pool: Three Novellas. New York: Picador, 2008.
Reason read: Japan celebrates a national Cultural Day on November 3rd.
Comprised of three novellas:
- The Diving Pool
- The Pregnancy Diary
- The Dormitory
Here is what you need to know before you dive into Ogawa’s work. At the height of tension the story ends. Period. If you don’t care for cliffhangers you should make up your own endings or just don’t read Diving Pool at all. It’s that simple. Ogawa’s writing is like a subtle psycho-killer movie. Instead of the monster being front and center, there is absolutely nothing tangible to confront. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up, not because a blood-dripping ghoul is staring you down, but because there is nothing to see. The darkness is a wisp of toxic smoke, a hint of danger darting in the corners of your periphery. In Ogawa’s stories it is what isn’t being said that is far scarier than the certainty. In the title story Jun admits he is aware of the protagonist’s cruelty. Then what? You don’t know what happens next. In “The Pregnancy Diary” a sister gives birth to a child who may, or may not, have a birth defect. In the last story, “The Dormitory” a cousin hasn’t been seen for days and the manager of his dormitory always has an excuse for his absence. After you have read these stories you are left without resolution and without resolution your imagination questions the reality.
Favorite lines, “Perhaps it’s because he’s falling through time, to a place there words can never reach,” “When we grow up, we find ways ti hide our anxieties, our loneliness, our fear and sorrow,” and “The baby haunted the shadows that fell between us.” Can’t you just feel the ominous chill between the lines?
Author fact: Ogawa also wrote Hotel Iris (on my Challenge list) as well as The Housekeeper and the Professor (finished).
Nancy said: Pearl had a couple of mistakes on this title. She called it “Divining Pool” (both in the chapter and the index), and she referred to Yoko Ogawa as a male.
About The Diving Pool she said it was like The Housekeeper and the Professor, “delicate and retrained” (Book Lust To Go p 117).
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Japanese Journeys” (p 116).
I don’t even know where to begin with September. It was the month from hell in more ways than one. The only good news is that I was able to run twice as many miles as last month. That counts for something as it saves my sanity just a little bit more than if I didn’t do anything at all.
Here are the books:
- In the City of Fear by Ward Just
- Jim, The Boy by Tony Earley
- The Shining by Stephen King
- Thank You and OK! by David Chadwick
- Foreign Correspondence by Geraldine Brooks
- Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Madj Hoomin
- Agony and Ecstasy by Irving Stone
- Tripwire by Lee Child
- Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- My Life on the Line by Ryan O’Callaghan
Chadwick, David. Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1994.
Reason read: Japan celebrates Respect for the Aged Day on September 18th.
I love how Chadwick opens his preface. It all starts with not getting a calendar for Christmas one year and feeling lost come New Year’s day. In that case, why not go to Japan? In truth, Chadwick had been studying the Zen life since the 60s. He went back to Japan in the mid 80s to reestablish his training.
Thank You and OK! covers a four year period in Texan Chadwick’s life and there are two threads to his story: his stay at Hogoji monastery and his life with his second wife Elin in modern Japan. As an aside, one needs to pay attention to dates to orientate oneself to each story but it isn’t hard to do.
My biggest take-away from reading Thank You and OK! is just how different are the details when the bigger picture is the same. What I mean by that is Japan and the United States both have vending machines, but you can buy hot sake out of one in Japan. Japan and the United States both have weird insects, but in Japan their centipedes are over a foot long and are poisonous. Counting the months of pregnancy even differ. In the States we start with zero. In Japan they start with one. That’s oversimplifying the case, but you get the idea.
Lines to make me nod, “I’ve always been hesitant to get physical with insects” (p 12), “we didn’t talk while we ate but everybody slurped the bejeezus out of the noodles” (p 49), and “I can never control what I say anyway, things just come out” (p 52).
Unrelated fact I did not know before reading Thank You and OK!: the author of the song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” committed suicide.
As an aside, I wonder how many people picked up the tip about asking for directions to an imaginary place as a way of checking out the scene without paying for it and tried it for themselves?
Author fact: Chadwick is a self professed Texas-raised wanderer, college dropout, bumbling social activist and hobbyhorse musician.
Book trivia: no fun photographs of Japan. Bummer.
Nancy said: Pearl indicated Thank You and OK! was one of the best gaijin accounts.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Japanese Journeys” (p 118).
It feels like it’s still summer. Never mind the nights are getting somewhat cooler. Never mind that we are back in school. Never mind there is a seasonal hurricane ripping its way up the eastern seaboard. Never mind all that. I’m still in summer mode. I started the month off by a good 3.24 run. Yes!
Here are the books planned for the month:
- The Shining by Stephen King – in honor of King’s birth month.
- In the City of Fear by Ward Just – in honor of Just’s birth month.
- Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan by David Chadwick – in honor of September being Respect for the Aged month.
- Foreign Correspondence: a Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks – in honor of International Reading Day.
- The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd – in memory of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980.
- Tripwire by Lee Child – to continue the series started in July
- Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov – to
continuefinish the series started in January.
- My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life by Ryan O’Callaghan. If you have been keeping score, I started this last month.
- The Miracle on Monhegan Island by Elizabeth Kelly – because of the title.
I have a prediction for July. I will read a crap load of books. Actually, I am cheating. It’s not a prediction because I already know I will. Case in point – yesterday my husband and I spent seven hours on the water. He fished. I read. Yesterday was July 1st so I was already knee-deep in the July Challenge list and thanks to an iPad I had five books with me. I made a decent dent in the “Boat” books:
- Jackie by Josie by Caroline Preston – in honor of Jacqueline O. Kennedy’s birth month.
- The Coldest Day: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam – in honor of July being the month the Korean War ended.
- The Book of Mediterranean Cooking by Elizabeth David – in honor of July being picnic month.
- The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason – to continue the series started in June.
- Midnight in Ruby Bayou by Elizabeth Lowell – to continue the series started in April.
Others on the list:
- Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken – in honor of July being Kids Month.
- Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart – in honor of July being Job Fair month (odd choice, I know).
Early Review for LibraryThing:
- Into the Storm: Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival by Tristam Koten.
If there is time:
- Gardens of Kyoko by Kate Walbert – in honor of Japan’s Tanabata Festival.
- Animals by Alice Mattison – in honor of Mattison’s birth month.
- Miss Lizzie by Walter Satterthwait – in honor of Lizzie Borden’s birth month.
- Cop Hater by Ed McBain – to honor McBain’s passing in the month of July.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. New York: Vintage International, 1986.
This is story about a change in cultural attitudes. After World War II many things are different for artist Masuji Ono. At the very simplest, his grandson idolizes the Lone Ranger and Godzilla instead of ancient emperors. At the most complicated, Masuji’s art is not received as it once was. His war efforts are not as admirable and are now making it difficult for his youngest daughter, nearly a spinster at twenty-six, to get married. Ono does what he can to eliminate “bad interviews” when the detectives investigate the family. But, as one former acquaintance remarks, “I realize there are not those who would condemn the likes of you and me for the very things we were once proud to have achieved” (p 94). Ono’s past is a heavy threat to the happiness of his daughter’s future. Throughout the story there is the theme of bondage. The conversations are retrained. The delicate relationships are bound by decorum.
As an aside: is it customary in the Japanese culture for people to repeat themselves so often? Complete sentences are uttered time and time again.
Reason read: On the second Monday in January there is a Japanese holiday to honor the tradition of coming of age. Since An Artist of the Floating World takes place in Japan….
Author fact: Ishiguro is better known for his book Remains of the Day which is also on my list to read.
Book trivia: An Artist of the Floating World won the Whitbread book of the Year Award in 1986.
BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Japanese Journeys” (p 116). Simple enough.
Kawabata, Yasunari. Snow Country. New York: Vintage International, 1996.
Read any review of Snow Country and you will find people making comparisons to a haiku or to music. Kawabata’s descriptions are like water, flowing easily from page to page, but indeed like water very powerful. The details of the story are like music, lilting and magical and sometimes, more often than not, sorrowful. The story itself is very stark. It’s the relationship between a wealthy businessman and his snow country geisha. Their relationship is complicated by an imbalance of feelings. She cares for him more passionately then he does for her. In fact, his feelings are as cold as the winter countryside. It is frustrating at times to know they will never bridge the cultural or emotional gap…until you remember he is married.
Favorite lines, “He knew that if he spoke he would only make himself seem the more wanting in seriousness” (p 15).
Even though I have complained about reading translations there is also something cool about learning new words like “kotatsu” which is a small heating device.
Reason read: March is supposedly one of the best times to visit Japan.
Author fact: Yasunari Kawabata has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Japanese Fiction” (p 131).
March was all about the new house. Moving, moving, moving. Living in limbo. For books it managed to be:
- The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland ~ fascinating tale that takes place in 17th century Japan (great sex scenes to get your libido revving). So good I recommended it to a friend.
- The Bethlehem Road Murder by Batya Gur ~ Israeli psychological thriller.
- The Drowning Season by Alice Hoffman ~ a grandmother and granddaughter struggle to understand one another.
- Daniel Plainway or The Holiday Haunting of the Moosepath League by Van Reid ~ this was a really fun book with lots of subplots and meandering stories.
- The Famished Road by Ben Okri ~ I will admit I failed on this one. Magical realism at this time is not a good idea.I need to keep my head grounded, so to speak.
- The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes ~ This was a powerful little book, one that I definitely want to reread when I get the chance.
- Lone Star by T.R. Fehrenbach ~ The history Texas. More than I needed to know. More than I wanted to know.
- Saint Mike by Jerry Oster~ an extra book in honor of hero month. I was able to read this in a night.
- Industrial Valley by Ruth McKenney ~ in honor of Ohio becoming a state in the month of March.
- The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle ~ in honor of the Book Lust of others. Luckily, it was only 182 pages.
For the Early Review program:
- When the Time Comes: Families with Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions by Paula Span ~ this was gracefully written. Definitely worth the read if you have elderly people in your care.
- Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron ~ really, really cute story. Of course I cried.
I think it is fair to say work had me beyond busy. But, I will add it was a learning experience and for that, I am glad. Reading these books during the crazy times kept me grounded and for that, I am doubly glad and grateful.
Rowland, Laura Joh. The Concubine’s Tattoo. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
In addition to being a great 17th century Japanese murder mystery The Concubine’s Tattoo is a commentary on honor and relationships. Sano Ichirois the shogun’s investigator who has recently celebrated an arranged marriage. In both his professional and personal life Sano must balance a code of conduct that is morally, politically and, of course, honorably sound. Sano’s latest case (on the night of his wedding no less) is the murder of the shogun’s favorite concubine. Entwined in this murder are complications concerning an heir, long standing cultural differences and rivalries. Rowland displays Sano’s progress on the case through the eyes of Sano’s new wife Reiko, his enemy Chamberlain Yanagisawa, his partner Hirata, and Sano himself as well as many other fascinating characters. One of the best enjoyments of Rowland’s book is her vivid, descriptive use of imagery. The details are so sensuous and alluring. They exquisitely cater to all five senses. Here are two quotes I particularly liked, “Her voice was a husky murmur that insinuated its way into Hirata’s mind like a dark, intoxicating smoke” (p 86), and “The cold air had a lung-saturating dampness” (p 166).
One other detail I thought I should point out – Rowland is not afraid to describe vivid sex scenes of varying natures. Man on man, woman on woman, husband and wife, illicit seductions, and even rape. The scenes while reminiscent of lusty bodice-rippers are not overly flowery or “heaving.”
BookLust Twist: In More Book Lust in the chapter called, “Crime is a Globetrotter: China” (p 60).
Furui, Yoshikicki. Child of Darkness; Yoko and Other Stories. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1997.
I’ll be the first to admit it. In the beginning pages I wasn’t connecting to this book at all. The first story, “Yoko”, opens with a nameless, faceless, ageless man hurrying down a mountain. He comes across a women sitting on a rock in a ravine. She’s stuck, not by a force of nature, but a force of her own mind. She can’t move from her perch and needs him to help her get down. Later she blames the incident on acrophobia. What’s interesting is this is the one place in the entire story where the same scene is described from both her and his point of view. Later her issues are only described as an “illness” and the word acrophobia never resurfaces. It is suspected that the illness is shrouded in vagrity because the Japanese view mental illness as a taboo subject. Yoko is a strange woman. Sane one minute, paralyzed by her illness the next. The rest of the story is how the nameless, faceless (now we know he is young) man copes with a relationship with Yoko. Half accepting her mental state as is, half wanting to “cure” her.
The next story also deals with mental illness but from the perspective of someone who is dying of cancer (also a taboo subject in Japan). I am more sympathetic towards the cancer victim. There is a sense of insanity when you have been told you have the disease. I can only imagine what depths your psyche would sink to when you are told it’s terminal.
The third and final story is also about sinking into insanity. This time a
These stories, translated by Donna George Storey, also includes her critiques. It’s interesting to rewalk the stories with an analytical map. It’s like seeing a city for the second time after you learn it’s history. Everything looks different.
BookLust Twist: Under the heading “Japan Fiction” Nancy Pearl calls Child of Darkness “dark.” Yup (p. 32).