Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A World of Difference

The biographical blurb about the author Jean Kwok on the jacket cover of her first novel Girl in Translation can just as easily serve as an abbreviated summary of the story: “Jean Kwok (read Kimberly Chang) was born in Hong Kong and as a child immigrated to Brooklyn, where she worked with her family in a sweatshop.” Kimberley and her mother arrive here when Kimberley is eleven expecting to be taken in by relatives already living in Brooklyn. But there is an old rivalry between Kimberley’s mother and her mother’s sister Aunt Paula. It is Paula’s opportunity to exact a measure of revenge by providing only a roach-infested slum apartment and a job in a sweat factory to her newly arrived sister.

For the next few years Kimberley is our eyes into the hidden world of these Chinese immigrants living in unimaginable poverty, working under deplorable conditions. It is all the more surprising because Aunt Paula and her husband own the sweat factory and are now living comfortably. I had never really thought about it but I guess it makes sense that the owner of the sweat factory would be Chinese in order to communicate with the workers in their own language. But the inhumanity of the conditions is startling.

Kimberley also has the world of school to negotiate - in a foreign language. Thank goodness for the language of mathematics at which she already excels. School by day; factory work helping her mother and then homework by night; inadequate food, clothing and shelter from the elements. What makes some children so resilient? When Kimberley wins a scholarship to a prestigious private high school, her problems are only compounded because now she has to lead a double life always finding excuses not to join in the activities after school lest she be expected to reciprocate. And of course a coming-of-age story would not be complete without a love interest – or two.

The final chapters of the book fast forward and cover a lot of years quickly tying up lose ends as many authors do. This is a work of fiction, but there is so much of Kwok’s own life story here that it could almost be a memoir. It will be interesting to see whether Kwok, in future works, stays close to home or wanders farther afield.

Lest we think that the days of sweatshops are over, read this.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reporting from Rome

There's something almost voyeuristic about reading a novel that is set in a workplace. It's like getting a behind the scenes look at how people function and interact in their everyday lives. It's why I loved Johnathan Ferris' “Then We Came to the End” (see my blog). In some ways all workplaces are alike – big dysfunctional families. But when the workplace is an international newspaper headquartered in Rome, as it is in Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, it's especially fascinating.

Each chapter begins with a headline, a job description and a character name ; a particularly memorable one read: “Global Warming is Good for Ice Creams – Corrections Editor – Herman Cohen”. It may appear initially that the book is simply a collection of short stories about a people who share the same workspace. Some stories are humorous, others sad or bittersweet. But as they proceed the threads that weave them together become clear. We view characters from different angles in different stories, and emerge with a more nuanced understanding of them. They all share a grudging affection for the paper, and engage in gallows humor as circulation flags and jobs are cut.

Interspersed with the character chapters is a running history of the paper itself, from its founding in 1953 to its final days in 2007. Rachman worked for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and was an AP correspondent in Rome, and his writing captures the tones of humor, irony and poignancy that seem to permeate newspaper life.  It's an impressive, sure-handed first novel.

NB - I just read that Brad Pitt ha purchased the movie rights.  Be sure to follow Dorothea's advice and read the book first.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Vote for the Man Booker Prize

The description of Cloud Atlas from fellow book group member Randy was so off-putting that I really hesitated; but the reviews of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet were so favorable – and uniformly emphasized that it was a “traditional narrative” (my words) – that I decided to give Thousand Autumns a try. And I am so glad that I did. It is a fascinating book.

The location is exotic: a tiny man-made island off the coast of Nagasaki called Dejima. I wasn’t even sure that it was a real place but Wikipedia now informs me that it is. The events of the novel take place between 1799 and 1817 when Dejima, occupied by the Dutch, was the sole point of trade between Japan and the outside world. How little we know even now of the hidden Oriental world of that period. Jacob de Zoet is a Dutch clerk who has come to Dejima to make his fortune so that he can return to Holland to wed his beloved Anna. He is our eyes and ears in this place.

There are other memorable characters as well. Orito Aibagawa is a samurai midwife whose forced residence for a time in a Shinto convent shows us a life and belief system that strain credulity. Ogawa Uzaemonis is a translator who introduces us to the hierarchies of rank and jealousies among translators and the difficulties of navigating between these two languages. The island physician, Dr. Marinus, has brought his harpsichord to the island and wishes nothing more than to publish his taxonomy of Japanese flora; but meanwhile he serves up the rudimentary treatments available for gall stones, appendicitis and other maladies in the best way that Western medicine in this remote outpost has to offer.

The language is breath-taking. I wish I had the space to reproduce some of Mitchell’s better descriptions. One of the very best takes a page and a half (pgs 451-452) to describe "gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight." It is eloquent testimony that “This world…contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.” But this book is also a masterpiece.

To read an interview with David Mitchell, click here; and for profiles of Mitchell, click here and here.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Native American Comic Tragedy

Choosing a new book to read can be a challenge. I was rushing to catch a train when I stopped into a book store to get a book to read on the train. For some strange reason I didn’t see a familiar title or author. So I picked up a book with a gold seal that stated “Winner Pen Faulkner Award”.I had no idea who the author was or what the book was about. But I was in a hurry.

The book I inadvertently chose was “War Dances”, a collection of short stories and poems by the Native American writer, Sherman Alexie. The stories are written in a captivating, in your face style that makes them seem autobiographical. And although they may have their origins in Alexie’s own life, they are fiction. In the first story “Breaking and Entering” the narrator is a film editor working at home. Sherman Alexie has written two screen plays. The story progresses in a chatty, self deprecating style. But the reader slowly realizes that something is wrong, even before the narrator lets us know. What happened wasn’t “his” fault, but maybe he could have avoided it, all the signs were there. It is a very powerful story.

Before each story, Sherman Alexie, has written a poem. They are short, straight forward, poignant poems about contemporary issues and they relate in some way to the story that follows each poem. In “War Dances” the narrator is in the hospital with his aging, alcoholic, diabetic father. All he wants to do is find a blanket for his father. Before the story is a poem Alexie has written about playing legos with his sons.

The stories revolve around family, love, the problems of love, how American Indians are stereotyped in our society, and how race issues enter into everyday life whether we choose it to or not.

Sherman Alexie is a strong new voice who has a lot to say about life. The best part is that he can tell a great story that is sad and true, but he has that special talent that can make you laugh through the sadness, because he has been there and he knows that humor is the only way out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Mountain Souls

When I opened Kevin Canty's Everything to the first page, I was reminded of term papers I had written long ago. Wide margins and double spacing between paragraphs – all in the hope of stretching an eight page paper into ten pages. But I'm doing Canty a disservice by making him sound like a slacker, because the style of printing actually complements his style of writing – lean, spare prose full of powerful silences.

Canty's story revolves around RL, a middle-aged Montana fishing guide, and his complex relationships with the people closest to him. He and June, the widowed wife of his best friend, are bound by their mutual loss, but even after eleven years they seem unable to move forward with their lives. They are painfully self-aware of their shortcomings, and futilely try to fix the problems of the people they love.

But don't be put off – it's not as depressing as it sounds. Canty's minimalist style allows for flashes of humor and moments of redemption. His love of the stark pure beauty of Montana permeates the book, and as his story spans the seasons of a year he paints heartfelt pictures of the mountain landscape and tough and tender people who inhabit it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Read the Book First

I rarely go to see movies in the theater or even rent them for viewing at home. But I had heard such good things about the movie “Winter’s Bone” (which won some awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was shown at Cannes this year) that I decided to access it through its original medium: the book by Daniel Woodrell.

Let me jump to the conclusion: Every book group should read this book. It is short (193 undersized pages) and I guarantee that your group will have a long and very spirited discussion. I will go even further and say: don't read this book alone because you surely will want to discuss it when you finish.

The setting: Winter in the Ozarks

The set-up: Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly has dropped out of high-school to care for her two younger brothers and her mother whose mind long ago succumbed to the effects of life or drugs or both. If that isn’t hard enough, her father Jessup has disappeared just before an upcoming court date for his latest drug offence. If he doesn’t show up, Ree and family will lose their house that Jessup had posted as security for his bail bond.

The story: Ree’s search for her father

Especially for those of us outside of Missouri, this is a view into the crystal meth culture and rural clan life that are largely hidden. The language is rich, the descriptions of the natural surroundings vivid, the characters memorable, the relationships confounding. Life there is raw and violent but forms of love and loyalty will not be denied. There is so much to savor. The author’s artistry and economy of language are at times breathtaking. There are scenes and sentiments here that will stay with me for a long time. I think that I will just have to read it again.

Woodrell’s own life story is compelling. He was born in the Ozarks, dropped out of high school to join the Marines…and ten years later had an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

I hope you haven’t seen the movie. Read the book first.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Powerful Story

Sometimes a story is so powerful that it haunts you long after you've finished reading it. That's the way I feel about the memoir Burning Horses: A Hungarian Life Turned Upside Down. The author Agatha Hoff assumes the voice of her mother Éva Leopold Badics to tell her moving story. Éva was born to an aristocratic family in Szekszárd, a small town in southern Hungary, in 1905. Her grandfather was Jewish but she was raised Catholic. She had an idyllic childhood filled with piano lessons, party dresses, and carefree vacations.  She met her husband, a graduate student named Jóska Badics, at a dance, and for their wedding in 1926 her parents deeded them a two hundred acre farm southwest of Budapest. The happy couple looked forward to a simple life in the countryside with their two little girls Livia and Agatha.

But World War II changes everything. Éva and Jóska's innocent belief that “it could never happen here” is replaced with the grim reality of life in Budapest under Nazi occupation. The noose begins to tighten around Éva because of her Jewish ancestry, threatening to tear her family apart. No writer of fiction could ever have imagined the ordeals they had to suffer to stay alive, nor could he have created a character as indomitable as Éva. Her experience is simultaneously awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. This is not just a Holocaust story, but also a story of love and perseverance in the face of man's inhumanity, told in clear but poetic prose by a loving daughter.