Now Departing for: Japan

Welcome to the next stop in our read-the-world Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re heading to Japan.

A beautiful land with a diverse culture very different from our own, Japan offers a wide range of possibilities for exploration through reading, from ancient shoguns to modern anime, there is bound to be something for everyone. Here are some suggestions.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. If you haven’t read this gem of a book, now is the perfect time. Memoirs is an inside look at the mysterious, often misunderstood world of the geisha, a uniquely Japanese occupation. Set in the 1930s, the beautiful, serene face of the geisha hides an often harsh and brutal reality. A fascinating read.

Shogun by James Clavell. This is the best kind of historical fiction, completely immersive and impossible to put down. We are introduced to late 16th century Japan through the eyes of a shipwrecked Englishman named Blackthorn. This is a Japan that is still ruled by military shoguns and has  been long isolated from the Western world. The massive culture shock, the beauty and brutality of this foreign land and the lives of the people in this drama are unforgettable. Read it. (There’s also an epic movie, staring Richard Chamberlain)

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. A blend of surreal and fantasy, Murakami’s novels have been popular in the US for years. Imaginative, philosophical, experimental, intense are all words that describe this novel about a man searching for his wife’s lost cat. Of course, there is much more going on than that simple story line would indicate.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. As the first commoner to marry into the royal family, Haruko, worldly and well-educated, faces cruelty and suspicion in the Imperial court, suffers a nervous breakdown and becomes mute after the birth of her son. Years later, now Empress herself, she must persuade another worldly and well-educated young woman to marry her son. This book draws heavily from real stories of the Japanese Imperial family and royal court.

Shall We Dance (DVD) Please, please I beg you – do not watch the version of this movie that stars Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. It might be a fine movie, but it entirely misses the point of the original Japanese version. In Japanese culture, men and women do not touch in public, even if they’re married. A businessman taking up ballroom dancing is shocking; this is the story of one man who, dulled by routine and boredom, falls in love with the beauty of the dance he glimpses every day on his train ride home and takes the leap to learn. Yes, it’s in Japanese and you’ll have to read the subtitles – buck up! It’s so completely worth the effort (and it’s funny too!)

I am planning on reading A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton which explores the long term consequences of Nagasaki and long-held family secrets. I also plan to watch the movie of Memoirs of a Geisha; I’m not sure how well it will follow the book, but it should be beautiful to watch.

What about you – what are you going to read/watch/listen to this month?

 

Octavia Butler’s Kindred


I’m blown away by the sheer density and complexity of this novel for a number of reasons, but I’d have to say Butler’s technique of “layering” is so expertly done as to require multiple readings in order to unpack the story.  In other words, reading Kindred is like cutting into an onion and peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the deep meaning within. One of the more surface-level layers is simply that Butler–the first black, female author to write a science-fiction novel–has written a book about a black, female writer who is, in essence, writing, or rather, –re-writing–history and her future.

By definition, “kindred” means to be “connected” or “related to” and maybe most obviously would connote family relationships and ties. Yet, the first mentioning of the word is a departure from that obvious definition and appears early in the book on page 57 when the main protagonist, Dana, describes her white husband, Kevin: “He was like me–a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” The statement is both double-entendre and a foreshadowing of things to come: you must be tenacious enough to pursue the life of a writer, bold enough to disrupt the status quo, and crazy enough to keep on trying.

Dana likens the job market in 1976 Los Angeles to a “slave market”, a clear juxtaposition to the literal slave market where Dana and Kevin are mysteriously transported via time-travel. Here, in the 19th century antebellum south, Dana confronts her familial past where American slavery and the promise of freedom are as inextricably linked as black & white identities.  Will Dana’s time-travels allow her to change the course of history and influence Rufus, son of a slave owner & blood-relative of her great great grandmother, whom she is called upon to save time and again? How will Rufus and Dana embody or challenge the systems of institutionalized racism they were born into? It is absolutely remarkable how Butler masterfully stacks layer upon layer to build characters as complex and enmeshed as our troubled and not-so-distant history of slavery and racism in the United States.

Thematically, Kindred is incredibly dense and complex, but I’ll focus on the theme of “performance” or “acting one’s part” that permeates the entire novel.  In several scenes, characters must “perform” their respective “roles” unless they want to suffer the consequences of falling out of line. Time-travel itself is a brilliant way to point out how racism is a construct and not the natural order.  Should we really require the passing of time in order to recognize and challenge systems of power & oppression?

When Dana brings Kevin to the plantation with her on her second journey back through time and space (she merely has to be physically holding onto him in order to transport him with her), she assumes the role of his slave as a matter of survival.  Kevin, of course reluctant to perform his assigned role as her “owner” accepts the painful challenge in order to protect his beloved wife. That Dana even needs protecting in this way brilliantly exposes and lays bare additional gender and sexuality constructs, another way Butler will craft a specific narrative in order to question it with a critical eye. But maybe one of the not-so-obvious questions is: Who, exactly, is assigning these roles, and why, and to whose benefit?  If we ourselves do not choose the role we are expected to play or act out, what are the implications when we are complicit in carrying out the performance? If refusal to play your role could get you killed (although Dana points out that “some fates are worse than death”),what is the best method for positively effecting change? Some characters in Kindred play their parts–worn down over time and physically beaten down–while others refuse to act: one standout character, Alice, asks “Am I a slave?” and ultimately attempts to break free.

Kindred is the kind of book that will stay with you, I am of sure. The complexity and depth of characters will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and do something that great books make you do: contemplate, sympathize, connect. I had some powerful emotional responses while reading this book which is exactly why I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what it means to be human.

The July Online Reading Challenge is Here!

online colorHello Fellow Avid Readers! July has arrived – time for fireworks, backyard barbeques, Bix and best of all, our next Online Reading Challenge!

July’s theme is Time Travel, a fascinating and intriguing type of fiction that attempts to answer the question, what if? What if you could go back in time, what would you do? Would you make a different decision that would change the course of your life? Would you be able to change the course of history? Prevent terrible disasters? Play the stock market? What if Hitler had won the war? What if JFK hadn’t been assassinated? How would the world be different?

There are lots of great books that fall into this category and while all of them have at least some elements of science fiction (time travel!) many of these titles are far more interested in how the past has shaped us and how changing the past might make us into a different person. They tend to fall into two board categories – changing world history or changing personal history. Here are some great titles to get you started.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This one doesn’t easily fall into one of the above categories but more about how the very act of involuntary time travel affects one person (the traveler mostly but also the people around him) both physically and emotionally. Coping with disappearing suddenly (most employers probably wouldn’t take kindly to that) and reappearing in some unknown location and time – without clothes – can be, understandably, stressful. Finding someone to love and building a life with them seems nearly impossible and yet Henry and Clare manage to create their own version of a happy life. I loved this book – funny and suspenseful with a sweet/sad ending. I could barely put it down and cried and cried at the end (but read it anyway) My best advice for reading this is – go with the flow. Don’t try to make sense of the intertwining timelines or you’ll make yourself crazy, just trust the author. And skip the movie.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Well, I hardly need to introduce this book – who hasn’t heard of it and its many sequels and popular television adaptation? It’s popular for a reason – lots of action and angst and romance (not to mention a fair amount of sex!) this adventure tale of a 1940s era nurse finding herself in the Scottish Highlands during the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie has got it all. Be careful, once this story has grabbed you, you’re not likely to return the 21st century Iowa for some time. Besides the sequels and television adaptation, there are companion books to help you keep track of what’s going on and yes, even a cookbook (The Outlander Kitchen). Yum – haggis!

Books by Connie Willis. Willis seems to specialize in books about time travel and most of them are serious and dark. Lincoln’s Dreams returns us to the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, The Doomsday Book takes us to England in 1438 and the Black Death and Blackout goes to England’s darkest hours of World War II. All of these books are beautifully written, with characters that you care about and the ability to transport you to another era. However, they are all rather grim. My recommendation would be to search out To Say Nothing of the Dog, an unexpectedly light and funny return to the Victorian past, loosely based on Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, this is a delightful romp, perfect for summertime reading.

Other titles well worth considering include Replay by Ken Grimwood,  with a theme similar to Bill Murray/Groundhog Day; The One That Got Away by Leigh Himes where a woman gets to go back and marry a different man; Kindred by Octavia Butler where a modern black woman is transported to the antebellum South; and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer with a woman thrust into two pasts, one in 1914 and one in 1941.

And what am I planning to read this month? Before I tell you, I have to make a confession. I’ve never read a Stephen King book. Ever. Mostly because I’m a wimp that is easily scared. But I’m going to change that this month and read 11/22/63. A high school English teacher finds a portal that allows him to step back in time and leads him to attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK. It’s gotten excellent reviews and looks like a real page-turner – I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now it’s your turn – what are you going to read this month? Let us know in the comments!

 

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

girlwithgunThe year is 1914 and three sisters find themselves involved in an accident.  The sisters were driving in their buggy when a motor vehicle plowed into them.  Men came to the women’s aid and lifted the damaged buggy off of them.  The oldest woman, Constance Kopp, is outraged.  The driver, Henry Kaufman, is disrespectful but Constance informs him that she will be sending him a bill.  Miss Kopp makes Mr. Kaufman look quite ridiculous.  She is six feet tall and towers over this petty little man.  Her sister Norma warns Constance to drop the matter but she will do no such thing.  To Constance, it is the principle of the matter.  And so, she sends Henry Kaufman a bill.

After receiving no response, Constance decides to go down to Mr. Kaufman’s silk dying factory.  Once she is there, she meets with Mr. Kaufman’s sister who is not at all surprised by the story.  Constance and Henry have another meeting.  At this time, he threatens the youngest sister, Fleurette.  Without thinking, Constance goes into a blind rage and finds herself smashing Henry Kaufman’s head against the wall.  Unfortunately, she did this in front of his low life friends.

Constance realizes that she has made an enemy.  Bricks with threatening notes attached break through windows.  Cars drive past the farm house with men yelling for Fleurette.  Norma is upset with Constance for pursuing the matter.  Constance ends up confiding in the sheriff.  He posts deputies at her house and gives each woman a gun and teaches them how to shoot.  The sheriff instructs them on what to do in order to collect evidence.  Eventually Henry Kaufman slips up and the sheriff is able to arrest him.

But there is more to the story.  Throughout the book, the reader is given clues to Constance’s past.  We learn why these women moved from Brooklyn, New York to live on a farm in New Jersey.  And there is the case of the missing baby that Constance solves.  Girl Waits With Gun is the story of a unique woman that stood up to a bully and protected her sisters.  And, Miss Constance Kopp was one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs.  This book is based off of true events.  You can find it in print and audiobook.

To learn more about Constance Kopp, visit the author’s website.

The High Divide by Lin Enger

high divideIn 1886, Gretta Pope wakes up one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota’s western prairie, with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he’s heading. It doesn’t take long for Gretta’s young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, leaving Gretta no choice but to search for the boys and their father in hopes of bringing them all home.

Enger’s breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters’ emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events–the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians–blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family’s sacrifice and devotion in The High Divide. (description from publisher)

A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

a kings ransomThis long-anticipated sequel to the national bestseller Lionheart, A King’s Ransom is a vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion.

Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders, Richard was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive. (description from publisher)

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

lilaA new novel from the Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Gilead and Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns to the town of Gilead in an unforgettable story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church the only available shelter from the rain and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the life that preceded her newfound security. Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand to mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. Despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life was laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.

Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence that is destined to become an American classic. (description from publisher)

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

signature of all thingsA glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge,

Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Signature of All Things follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical.

Alma is a clear-minded scientist, Ambrose a utopian artist, but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe, from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who, born in the Age of Enlightenment but living well into the Industrial Revolution, bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.

Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. (description from publisher)

The Signature of All Things  is also available for check out as a free ebook through the RiverShare Digital Library.

Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

ice cream queenIn 1913, little Malka Treynovsky flees Russia with her family in The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Bedazzled by tales of gold and movie stardom, she tricks them into buying tickets for America. Yet no sooner do they land on the squalid Lower East Side of Manhattan, than Malka is crippled and abandoned in the street.

Taken in by a tough-loving Italian ices peddler, she manages to survive through cunning and inventiveness. As she learns the secrets of his trade, she begins to shape her own destiny. She falls in love with a gorgeous, illiterate radical named Albert, and they set off across America in an ice cream truck. Slowly, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, “The Ice Cream Queen” — doyenne of an empire of ice cream franchises and a celebrated television personality.

Lillian’s rise to fame and fortune spans seventy years and is inextricably linked to the course of American history itself, from Prohibition to the disco days of Studio 54. Yet Lillian Dunkle is nothing like the whimsical motherly persona she crafts for herself in the media. Conniving, profane, and irreverent, she is a supremely complex woman who prefers a good stiff drink to an ice cream cone . And when her past begins to catch up with her, everything she has spent her life building is at stake. (description from publisher)

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

unterzakhnUnterzakhn (yiddish for ‘underthings’) by Leela Corman tells the story of Jewish twin sisters at the start of the 20th century in New York City.  Esther and Fanya’s stories are told in graphic novel form, spanning more than a decade from childhood through adulthood, with black and white illustrations reminiscent of Russian folk art. The sisters make decidedly different decisions in their lives, but they both chose career paths outside of community and family expectations of them and drift apart from one another (forcefully in one scene).

Fanya starts this story when she finds a woman bleeding in the street and is instructed to go find the “lady doctor”.  This encounter brings her to Bronia, a feminist obstetrician who performs illegal abortions, and convinces Fanya’s mother to let Bronia teach Fanya to read.  Fanya then begins to apprentice for Bronia, and adapts to the strident expectations of her teacher.  While her sister is learning to work as an obstetrician, Esther begins working at the local burlesque theater and brothel — running errands and cleaning up.  As she grows toward adulthood, her work changes and she loses her family in the process.

This is a quick, but in no way a light read.  The writing and the illustrations show a lot of darkness and pain.  The sisters always seem better when they’re together, showing the quick wit and love that seems to be reserved for each other. I had a difficult time putting this book down, because Corman made it easy to care about Fanya and Esther.  This is a good read for fans of David Small’s Stitches or anything by Charles Burns.