Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

*****I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume


Translated by: Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was entertaining, dark and philosophical. My pages were filled with colorful post-its, most of which I translated into the notes recorded below. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at your own quirky habits, I tabbed so many quotes I have not had the opportunity to record them all. So, instead of waiting until I do, I decided to go ahead and share what I have......well...uhm...... while I victimize yet another book with a rainbow of post-its!
 
Author:   Kin'nosuke Natsume (1867-1916). Soseki Natsume pen name. Prominent 19th century literary writer and poet from Japan. Was almost forty years old when published his first novel, I Am a Cat.

Family background: minor Japanese town-gentry that fell on hard times during the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Hototogisu (Cuckoo) - an influential Tokyo magazine that Natsume originally wrote I Am a Cat for as a short story (which is now the first chapter of this book). Natsume references this magazine in the novel re: p. 8, the teacher is always submitting his poetry to this publication.

Natsume is also known for his haiku, another element incorporated into his novel.

Natsume never intended to write beyond his initial publication in Hototogisu. But, the editor liked his short story so much, he encouraged Natsume to develop it further. The result, a large novel that was originally published over a period of three years - 1905, 1906 and 1907, one volume per year. In 1911 it was first published as a complete book, but was not published in English until 1972.

Notes on The Cat
  • psychological fiction. 
  • Soseki uses the perspective of an animal to portray and comment on human absurdities and foibles during the time when Japan was experiencing:
    •  a decline in traditional Japanese culture
    • western influence and development
    • modernization as a result of Western influence
    • stress caused by the coexistence of the old and new Japanese ideals and traditions
  • Soseki as author:
    • used a Cat to portray human foibles, a new approach to writing during his time.
    • Professor Sneaze and Cat reflect Soseki's attitudes: he was a misogynist, misogamist and a misopedist.  (Despite his unfortunate perspective, Natsume was a brilliant writer.)
    • concepts and various experiences from the author's life were incorporated into this novel
    • As a child, Natsume was abandoned by his parents. They gave him up for adoption when he was one year old. When his adoptive parents divorced, his biological parents took him back. Natsume, being so young at the time, was not aware of this "transaction". It was by accident that he found out his "new" parents were really his biological parents. This happened by chance one day when Natsume overheard their servants discussing his origins. Is it a wonder Natsume chose a stray kitten as a sounding board for his thoughts, or that he does not believe in marriage, and dislikes women and children? Is he, in essence, displacing his feelings of being unloved and unwanted by rejecting all that he and his parents represented to him? It is a sad prognosis for such a talented man.
    • This is not a story about cats.
Setting
  • Japan
  • Early Meiji period, post Shogunate era
  • Meiji era: 1868-1912
  • Shogunate Background: during the Shogunate era, Shogun military officers ruled the country and made the decisions. The Emperor was just a figure head.

Characters 

CATS
Professor or The Cat: The anthropomorphized protagonist and omniscient narrator. An unnamed orphaned cat. He finds and attaches himself to the Professor and becomes the household pet. The Professor willingly, yet with a distanced attitude, allows Cat into his home, and treats him with a kind of absent affection. He never gives Cat a name; never even seems to realize it is an option.  The neighborhood cats call Cat, Professor, because he belongs to the professor.

Cat narrates the story, giving us his description and commentaries on all characters and events that surround him. He gives us a cats point-of-view of the people he observes. His narration is lofty, grand, pompous, and humorous. He has a unique and ironic point-of-view that is quite entertaining, which leaves the reader in stitches.

Per Professor, his purpose in life is focused around  his study of  the human condition, especially in relation to an every changing society (p. 254) He feels superior to and more intelligent and kinder than human beings in all ways except one

Professor is, "distressed by the state of the world and deplores the degeneracy of the age..." (p. 303)  Professor watches and listens to the Sneazes and their friends have obfuscated excessive conversations and debates over absurd subject matter that proportionally, does not warrant these long and drawn out discussions.

By Volume 2, Professor is one (1) year old, which makes him eleven (11) years in man years.

Rickshaw Blacky:  Emperor of Cat-dom (the locale of cats in his area), he is a huge black cat, muscular and tough. He has an owner - a rickshaw driver - who does not feed or pamper him. Thus, he must fend for his own. He feeds himself by killing mice and rats. His owner is a mean, angry man, who is uneducated, tough, and streetwise.  His behavior is unethical, if not criminal.

When narrator Cat first comes across him and sees his regal stance and glossy black fur, he refers to him as an Emperor whose, "eye gleamed far more beautifully than that dull amber stuff which humans so inordinately value."(p. 13) Referring to gold. Even when making a statement about another cats beauty, he works in what he sees as human foibles. A litter satiric fun that keeps you smiling and laughing throughout the book.

Tortoiseshell:  Her Buddhist posthumous name is: Myoyoshinyo. - a luxuriously beautiful cat who is named for her fur pattern. She is pampered by her mistress, 2-String Harp, and treated like a human being.

Tom Cat: a three colored cat who belongs to an attorney.

Miss Blanche: White cat across the way. Lives in military man's home.

PEOPLE
The Sneazes:
     Professor Sneaze:  Owner of narrator cat, is a school teacher who always complains about how hard his job is and how much work it is, yet sleeps most of the day. He constantly demeans his wife and seems to become quite ill whenever she is around.

Has contempt for all commerce and businessmen, although he could benefit from a better source of income. He is paid poorly as a teacher, and lives in little better then a shack.  p. 181:" Ever since my school days I've always taken a scunner to businessmen. They'll do anything for money. They are, after all what they used to be called in the good old days: the very dregs of society."

Attempts, halfheartedly, to watercolor, write poems, and play the violin. He is so lazy, his sloppy efforts are done in vain.

     Mrs Sneaze:  Professor's Wife

     Sneaze Children: 3 daughters
       Menko - 1 year old
       Sunko - 3 years old
       Tonko - 5 years old
 
     They are spoiled brats. Their mother brags about them as if they are well behaved intelligent angels, despite every indication otherwise.

Osan:  household maid at professor's home. Hates their cat. Cat feels she is, "one of a species yet more savage than the shosei." (p. 5)

Mr. Beauchamp Blowlamp:  A friend of Coldman's he introduces to the professor ; an odd fellow;
belongs to the Reading Society

Avalon Coldman:  Professor Sneaze's favorite former student who holds a higher position than the professor in the academic field.. He has a missing tooth, yet is very handsome.  In order to marry the wealthy Opula Goldfield, her parents want him to pursue his doctorate. The subject matter of his thesis continuously changes. First, it was to be a study of the stability of acorns (p. 200). Later, he decides his post graduate work will be on the study of terrestrial magnetism, and finally on:  The Effects of Ultraviolet Rays upon Galvanic Action in the Eyeball of the Frog. (p.267).  At one point he was consumed with the process and study of hanging (mainly oneself). Where it is a serious subject, in Natsume's writing, it is pure humor.

2-String Harp:  Teaches the idle rich how to play the 2-stringed harp (hysterical). She has a distant
connection to a Shogun. She was not part of that household, but continuously makes references
to her high-class life style. She is snarky and ridiculous. The owner of the cat, Tortoiseshell, she treats her as if she were human; even taking her to a regular doctor of medicine when she is ill.

Maid: Maid to 2-String Heart and Tortoiseshell; has a cat-like face (per narrator Cat).

Waverhouse:  Professor's "aesthete" friend. He plays jokes on his friends and colleagues by telling them a bit of information as if it were fact. They treat it as fact and wind up making fools out of themselves. Nonetheless, they fall for his lies over and over. In truth, mean, it is conveyed with much humor. I laughed hysterically at some of his ploys.

Professor Whatnot:  Professor's scholar friend

Mr. Tatera Sampei:  A former house boy of the Sneazes', who has graduated from Law School and work in the mining division of Mutsui . Unlike the professor, is involved in business. Tatera often visits the Sneaze's. They consider him as part of their family and vice versa.

Eats cats  and offers to take the Sneaze's useless cat off their hands by cooking him into a stew. This lazy view of cats inspires Professor The Cat to prove his value by killing a rat for the Sneazes.

The Goldfield's:
     Mr. Gold Field: A wealthy businessman who believes his daughter to be the most marriageable girl around. "Everyone want to marry Opula." He and his wife spy on a suitor they seem interested in, Avalon Coldmoon.

     Mrs. Goldfield: A snarky woman, a social spy, and a gossip. Unsurprisingly, her nose is exceptionally huge and ugly. It is cause for many much speculation and jokes. Professor Cat calls her Madam Conk, others by Archnose.  Waverhouse shares a small dissertation on her nose.

     Opula Goldfield: The daughter of the Goldfields, she is spoiled and rude, with a heightened sense of entitlement; she treats those beneath her station horrifically. Her parents state she is the most sought out daughter by potential suitors, and that everyone wants to marry her.

Vocabulary
shosei:  Japanese - A student who does housework in exchange for meals. (p. 3)

pusillanimous: lacking courage or resolution, fainthearted, timid, cowardly (p. 83)

thanatophile: a person who is fascinated with death and death related subjects (p. 112)

infundibular:  a funnel shaped organ. Waverhouse uses to describe Mrs. Goldfield's nose. (p. 150)

osify: 1) to calcify, petrify, turn into bone or tissue  2) to cease developing, become stagnant Mr. Waverhouse uses term to describe Mr. Goldfield's big nose. (p. 151)

indurate: to harden or  make harden (p. 151)

peroration: the concluding part of a speech, especially intended to inspire enthusiasm in an audience (p. 154)

empyrean:  belonging to or deriving from heaven (p. 160)

Catherine Wheel:  1) a firework that spirals upwards, sparks and produces flames. 2) Named after Catherine of Alexandria, a Catholic martyr, who was sentenced to death by use of a torture device that is named after the firework - a spiked wheel that flew to pieces when her hand touched it, so she was beheaded. Milk, not blood, was said to pour from her veins. (p. 172)

declension: a condition of decline or moral deterioration. (p. 172)

scunner: a strong dislike; to feel disgust or dislike (p. 181)

pansophic:  self awareness; all wise; claiming universal knowledge (p. 198)

gongoristic:  an affected elegance of style that was introduced into Spanish literature by the Spanish poet Gongora. (p.198)

epigrammatically: a witty saying, an epigram (p. 199)

adumbrated: to describe briefly with main points; summarize (p. 200)

furacity:  addictiveness to theft; thievishness (p. 220)

unpetrine:  not in any relation to St. Peter's teachings or writing; not relating to Peter of Russia

poltroonery:  abject cowardliness (p. 248)

jactitated: to move or stir about violently

clobber: informally, personal possessions (p. 252)

heterogeneity: the quality of being diverse and not comparable in kind (p. 252)

aluroid:  unable to locate a definition (p. 254)

gormless:  lacking intelligence and vitality: stupid (p. 255)

moithered:  to bother or harass; to toil or labor; to perplex or confuse (p. 265)

aglay:  askew, distorted, amiss, awry (p. 268)

presbyope:  farsighted (p. 277)

franion:  a cheerful frivolous person, a sill man, a loose woman;a paramour (p. 294)

neurasthenia: nervous breakdown (general term) (p. 302)

pismires: a social insect living in organized colonies (p. 312)

pettifogging:  arguing over petty things (p. 312)

My Favorite Words
These are words I found in my recent reading of Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, and I Am a Cat.  I fell in love with these words and must share them:

virago: a loud ill-mannered woman

scurrilous:  1)  to make or spread scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation  2) humorously insulting

syncope: to faint; a spontaneous loss of blood in the brain causing unconsciousness

obstreperous: noisy, boisterous without control or restraint

guileless:  sincere, honest

perspicacity:  keen vision or discernment, understanding

immurement:  a form of imprisonment;  to confine within walls


Notes and Quotes
p. 5   Cat: "I now realize now how true the adage is that what is to be will be." Meaning, life is circumstantial." Meaning, he was lucky to find food. He could have just as easily starved to death. Life is circumstantial and a matter of good or bad luck.

p. 6    Cat:  "Teachers have it easy. If you are born a human, it's best to become a teacher. For if it's possible to sleep this much and still to be a teacher, why, even a cat could teach."  Despite the teacher's constant complaints about his difficult and demanding job, Cat observes differently.

p. 7    "Living as I do with human beings, the more that I observe them, the moire I am forced to conclude that they are selfish."  Cat makes these, and other assessments about humans throughout the book. They are noted with increasing wit and humor.

p 8.    "...there is no living creature quite so heartless as a human." Miss Blanche's assessment after the shosei of her house heartlessly killed the beautiful four kittens she just gave birth to.  So sad.

p. 8  Narrator Cat:  "I feel that life is not unreasonable so long as one can scrape along from day to day. For surely even human beings will not flourish forever. I think if best to wait in patience for the Day of the Cats."

p. 11    Narrator Cat: "The prime fact is that all humans are puffed up by their extreme self-satisfaction with their own brute power. Unless some creatures more powerful than humans arrive on earth to bully them, there's just no knowing to what dire lengths their fool presumptuousness will eventually carry them."

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, there are many more wonderful quotes that I hope to add here at a later time.





 

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 Books Read (June 1 - December 31 re: started blog June 2014)

Books Read from June 1, 2014 (beginning of Blog) - December 31, 2014

This list includes books I have, and have not, reviewed in this blog.

*****Spring Snow: The Sea of Fertility, by Yukio Mishima, translated by Michael Gallagher,
          Japan, Summer Read with Ferris

*****Arzee the Dwarf, by Chandrahas Choudhury, India, Summer Read with Ferris

*****Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salith, translated by
          Denys Johnson-Davies, Sudan, Summer Read with Ferris

**Singapore Noir, by various Singapore authors, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, LibraryThing.com
    Early Reviewer's program.

****Buried Candelabrum, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden Paul and Cedar Paul, Austria,
        Summer Read with Ferris

*****The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephan Snyder, Japan,
          Summer Read with Ferris

***Montana, by Larry Watson, 1948, USA, audiobook

*****The Canvas, by Benjamin Stein, translated by Brian Zumhagen, German, 2013 Summer Read
          with Ferris 

***China Dolls, by Lisa See, 2014, USA, audiobook

***1/2 The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton of New Zealand, first published in USA in October 2013,
        and originally published in Great Britain in August 2013, Summer Read with Ferris

****Without You There Is No Us, My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, A Memoir,
        by Suki Kim, LibraryThing.com Early Reviewer's program

*****Pig Tales, A Novel of Lust and Transformation, by Marie Darrieussecq, Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, France, 1997, Summer Read with Ferris

***1/2Serena, by Ron Rash,2008, USA, audiobook

*****This is the Garden, by Giulio Mozzi, translated by Elizabeth Harris, Italian Literature, 2005,
           Summer Read with Ferris 

***The Cove: A Novel, by Ronald Rash, 2012, audio book, USA

****  The Care and Management of Lies, a Novel of the Great War, by Jacqueline Winspear,
        2014, audio book, England

****  The Transcriptionist, A Novel, by Amy Rowland, 2014, audio book, USA
 
***1/2  Dissonance, a novel, by Lisa Lenard-Cook, first published in 2003, republished in
          2014, USA

****The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje, 2011, Sri Lankan-born Canandian novelist and poet.

***Nothing Is True and Everything is Possible - The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter
      Pomerantsev, to be published in November, 2014, author emigrated to London, as a young child,
      from Russia

****The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, 2014, audio book, USA

*****  I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume, 1972, Japan

***Claude & Camille, A Novel of Monet, by Stephanie Cowell, 2010, audio book, USA

****Untamed - The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island,
        by Will Harlan, 2014, USA

***Rodin's Lover, by Heather Webb, Advanced Reader's Edition via LibraryThing.com Early
      Reviewer's program, to be published January 27, 2015, USA

***The Decartes Highlands, by Eric Gamalinda, Advanced Reader's Edition via LibraryThing.com Early Reviewer's program, 11/2014, author's international debut novel (previously published work in his native country, the Philippines and was the winner of the National Book Award of the Philippines. This was the first book he wrote in English).

****The Matisse Stories, by A.S. Byatt, 1993, USA



Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

This book is one of the Advanced Reader editions I receive in exchange for a review via LibraryThing.com. I chose this book because I have a fine-arts background and enjoy reading about anything art. I also love Rodin's work and was curious about Camille Claudel's life and work - individually and in relation to Rodin's. (Rodin was Camille's sculpture instructor. Camille also apprenticed with Rodin, working many hours on his sculptures.)

Review

Rating: ***

I would have preferred a more sophisticated interpretation of Camille Claudal's life. She was an exceptional artist who was ahead of her time both artistically and culturally. Her tragic life was circumstantial. She had a bitter and hateful mother and brother who essentially stole Camille's life from her; and for a woman in the 19th century, her independent desire to express herself in sculpture was akin to prostitution.

Looking at and reading about the life and work of Claudel in relation to Rodin, it is clear they fed off and influenced one another both artistically and intellectually. This book would have been far more interesting had the author focused on the dynamics of this dual creative force. Instead, it read like a light romance novel. It was not the biography I anticipated.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Andrew's Brain, by E.L. Doctorow

I have not had the opportunity to write about any of the books I have read recently. Therefore, I am sharing a review from a pre-blog read.

LibraryThing.com Early Reviewer's - 2013

Rating: 4.5 stars.

This novel is difficult to assess. It is highly complex with an abstract narrative that flows like a storm at sea. The reader struggles to make sense out of a storyline that appears to defy plot and logic. In the end, there is some clarity, but certain facts remain vague, such as the protagonist’s exact location or the reality and sanity of his thought process. The novel requires prolonged analysis while the mind wants immediate and concrete answers. The reader must ponder whether the end justifies the means.

I breezed through this novel like a salmon swimming upstream to spawn. It was difficult but I knew there was purpose. I saw stylistic beauty and reason along the way. I was frustrated and excited by the vague energy that compelled me forward. Then I reached the defining moment from which the book starts to make sense. From that point forward, there was fluidity in the reading, and by the end of the novel, I was mesmerized. I quickly reread most of the novel to connect details that, previously, seemed formless. The story came together and the depth of Doctorow’s perspective combined with his talent for the written word, once again, awed me.

I have not unraveled all of the mysteries contained within this book, and have not decided whether they are all meant to be known - that may be part of the author's purpose within the plot. What I do know is that Doctorow has amazing literary aptitude and scope; that however his delivery, his understanding of human kind and capacity for interpreting it, is brilliant. Be patient and enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia; by Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev shares his experiences, observations, and research while living in Russia, beginning as a college student, then working as a reality TV producer for TNT Russia from 2006-2010. He covers post Soviet Russia in perpetual transition since its dissolution in 1991. Pomerantsev introduces the reader to the corrupt individuals who worked this dramatic change to their profit, financially and/or politically.  He also reveals those who were influential in building Putin's reputation and presidency and those who subsequently fell out of Putin's favor, which is not a treasured position. The author does not include anything related to the plight of lower or middle-class Russians during this time - how they were effected by the oligarch's and other forms of malfeasance. So, while it is an intriguing look at contemporary Russia, it is not an all-inclusive one.

For the most part, Pomerantsev's stories are interesting. Yet, in between the various narratives, his writing is disjointed. The author does not move seamlessly from one story to the next. In fact, he often drops his narrative suddenly, makes in-congruent observations, or tells a distracted story before completing his original narrative. Sometimes he does not even return to and finish his story at all, he simply starts a new one. The reader becomes a bit lost and confused.

Overall, Pomerantsev has written a captivating exposé on the upper echelon of Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. While the people he met were not moral, sadly they were influential in swaying political and financial matters to their personal benefit with little or no concern for their fellow countrymen. With regard to the problems in the narrative, I did read an advanced reader's edition. It is possible the author has repaired these sections and connected the stories or thoughts that were, otherwise, fragmented. These alterations would improve the quality and flow of his book.

Pomerantsev is a stellar political journalist. I have read numerous published articles of his that are thought provoking, comprehensive, and without the narrative distractions I mentioned above. As an international current events journalist, I highly recommend his work. As the author of this book, I hope he fine tunes it before publication.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dissonance, by Lisa Lenard-Cook

  LibraryThing.com Early Reviewer's Book

The dissonance found in 20th century music is the direct result of a world at variance with itself. Over an extended period of time the discord reveals itself in the arts.

One way modern composers have chosen to address the increased
fragmentation of life in the twentieth century is to create a more
fragmented music.” (p. 77)

In her recently re-issued novella, Dissonance, Lenard-Cook elaborates on this theme by focusing on the irony (although irony is not a direct theme, it is nonetheless inherent within the stories context) experienced during the Holocaust when the elite Nazi's jailed artists at the Terezin Concentration Camp for their entertainment. Jews were not valued enough to be allowed to work, go to school, or even live, yet could play beautiful chamber and symphonic music for Nazi's before being shipped off to their death at Auschwitz, if they lived long enough to make it there.

Never being able to fathom the degree to which man can manifest his prejudices, Jewish musicians continued to compose concert music while at Terezin. In essence, they had hope for a future tomorrow when they could share their creations. After the war, in the later part of the century, manuscripts that were saved by the few remaining musicians and their families, were collected, produced, and published in a series of moving CD's - Terezin Music Anthology.

Lenard-Cook's exposition is intricately composed. She creates a series of parallel themes intrinsic to the development of her story. For example: music and physics, harmony and dissonance, prejudice and impartiality; and likewise between characters: Hana and Anna - two musicians separated by a generation, but connected by Anna's mother, also a musician - fathers and husbands, mothers and daughters.

Someone once suggested that music sounds the way emotions
feel, that music reveals the hidden patterns of our inner lives in
the same way that mathematics reveals the outer, physical world.” (p. 63)

These relationships are central to the book's plot and thematic structures.

The author's writing is erudite, she has researched her subject matter and translated it with sensitivity. Her style and narrative are at times eloquent while at other times tedious. She has difficulty arriving at the main point of her story. The reader becomes frustrated following her digressions. Once Lenard-Cook reaches her peak conflict, it is anti-climatic because it does not match the scope of the intended novel. Much of the resolution does not seem plausible. The denouement is academic and the central structure is marginalized. It is a major flaw in an otherwise well conceived novel.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Don Casmurro, by Machado de Assis

There are so many great books, I feel a need to, every once in a while, look back and share a book of note that I recommend from my library. Ferris and I chose this book as one of our 2011 summer reads.

My Review
Dom Casmurro is a tender and intimate look at a budding love that flowers and dies before it has had the opportunity to experience the seasons of a lifetime. The roots remain for a while, alive and struggling for life, but the climatic conditions are not enough to sustain it. The once beautiful flower suffers a slow and painful death. One can attempt to replace the plant with a fabric imitation, but without real life, it would be soul-less. Such is the essence of Machado’s lovely portrait of a man so consumed by love, that with fits of obsessive jealousy, he destroys it.

Machado’s is a timeless theme, yet the elegance with which he develops his characters is unique. There is, Jose Dias with his beloved superlatives and his tendency to walk with, “a casual slow step; not the lethargic gate of a lazy man, but a logical calculated slowness, a complete syllogism, the premise before the consequence, the consequence before the conclusion”. Exquisite! There is Benito, the protagonist, narrator and beloved of Capitu. The man who feels, “Daydreams are like other dreams; they are woven according to the patterns of our wishes and memories.” Yet, he forgets to bear this in mind when sharing his story. Thus, the reader is left to question the accuracy of Benito’s narrative. Machado plays with the reader through Benito’s voice so we are left to wonder, what is real and what was only real in the eyes of Benito. Finite conclusions cannot be drawn. Such is the mystery and genius of Machado’s writing. His is a story that continues to play in the readers psyche, long after its reading.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

This Is the Garden, by Giulio Mozzi

Italian Literature
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris

First published in Italy in 1993
Published in USA in 2013 by Open Letter Press

Awards: winner of the 1993 Premio Mondello

Eight Short Stories:
Chapters, Notes & Quotes
Cover Letter
The Apprentice
On the Publication of My First Book
Claw
Trains
Glass
Tana
F.

Story Ratings
Favorite: Cover Letter, The Apprentice, Claw, and Tana.
Runner Ups:  F., On the Publication of My First Book
Least Favorite: Trains and Glass

Themes
Isolation, loneliness, anonymity, desire, acceptance, and introspection.

Motifs
Dreams, gardens

The Garden Connection
In each of the stories there is something elusive the protagonist is searching for - those essential elements that develop and effect the human psyche. Lacking, is the sense of connection to others and a need for understanding. The Garden is the promise of our undefined, yet desired, paradise.


Quotes and Notes,
Cover Letter
An unnamed purse-snatcher narrates the letter he is writing to a woman from whom he stole her purse.  His purpose, ostensibly, is to return the personal letters he found inside her purse. Yet, in essence, it is a love letter.

p. 4    "You should never own something you didn't desire first." As simple as this statement is, it exudes a sense of foreboding.

Humor: This story is filled with irony and satiric humor. A few examples of this can be found in these and other statements made by the purse-snatcher narrator:

p. 6    "I have to say that I'm not inclined to think of myself as a thief. I live this way because I want to, but if someone else chooses a different lifestyle, I don't hold it against him."
pg. 7: "...this will sound strange - I do need to feel something for the ladies who (just between you and me) I like to call my clients...I prefer 'clients' to 'victims', because when it comes down to it, I really don't think what I'm doing is all that bad."
pg. 8: "I need to like my clients."

Much of this sounds creepy, and is creepy. Yet, in the context of the story, it is oddly funny.

p. 13    On waking up:  "Sleep fills his entire body, every cell, and though his body can move, can walk around in the room this isn't a man walking; this is a gathering of clouds, and all it would take is just one breath to scatter the clouds away. Then the soul drops from the sky, crashes through the ceiling, a whirlwind that tears the room apart, a wind blowing into his hear, swelling his heart, pushing out sleep, rolling in his blood, flowering in his mind, opening his mind to another day, you can see it in his eyes now, his soul, still smelling of sky and stars, a memory of the divine, mingling with the scent of his warming flesh."   A lovely tactile description of a luxurious moment in time.

The Apprentice
"The apprentice is a glorified delivery boy who desperately desires to learn and master the unnamed production work the other men do in this shop."

p. 23    "...an apprentice doesn't quite exist in the present: he's more of a future person, so in the present, an apprentice is absent..."

p. 25    "A delivery boy's a delivery boy - a promise of nothing."

p. 34   "The boss owns his future, so the apprentice loves him."

p. 35    "...boss, you're like some strange, rough, tiny god; but to me, a teeny-tiny apprentice, you're great and powerful; and I love you, because when it comes to gods, you either love them or you hate them..."

p. 40   "The apprentice knows you can only make sense of something after it's happened..."

On the Publication of My First Book
p. 47    "I haven't made my bones yet, and now I have to use them."

p. 50  "I believe each of us has to do what we can to preserve our own existence, according to our own convictions of what we need in order to be."

 p. 57    After receiving an acceptance letter from a publisher for his book: "...now they have broken Pandora's vase. I truly felt my body was like a vase, and someone had struck my body so hard it cracked, and through this crack seeped my entire imagination, and my body was left empty. All my imaginings were left to wander the world, beyond my control."   An interesting concept: sharing your thoughts on paper with the whole world. No longer are they secret, preserved, or entirely yours.

Claw
p. 73    "Now he can die. When god's claw decides to strike him."

Trains
p. 74    "The dreams you can't remember are the most important kind - they protect your vital secrets."

p. 78  Regarding a troubled relationship: "They had so many dreams, in those two years, but they were dreaming on their own, and their timing was always off."  Divergent, yet simultaneous dreams.

p. 80    "In their secret places, children collect rare things, marvelous things, things that are theirs alone, and private: in their secret places, children hide their heart, knowing, if the place is truly secret, no matter what occurs, they can always retrieve their heart, touch it, fell it beating, caress it, tell it stories, cry with it, love it."

Tana
p. 89    "...the passengers seemed to be opening their mouths with no sound coming out; they were silently laughing."    I love the imagery. Like Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream, but with laughing. 

p. 93    "...the wings...they weren't bird feathers: they were flesh, like very slender tongues..."

F.
p. 111   "The magistrate knows there's always a precise correlation between a lie and the reality hidden behind that lie..."

p. 112   "The magistrate felt like a torturer, like a surgeon who has before him Siamese twins that share a single heart and liver and has to pick which one to kill and which one to save."

p. 115   "They wouldn't know what to give a child; they would raise him like a plant blowing in the wind."

p. 117  "All those who dreamed of bringing back a paradise on earth just wound up producing indiscriminate terror..."

Final Thoughts
Normally, I do not prefer short stories. I love a long expansive novel, midsized-to-tome, filled with unique characters, esoteric themes, and beautiful writing, for example.  I like to be fully absorbed over a period of time. Short stories often leave me wanting more - a complete account or elaboration.

Periodically, I do find a good short story collection that engages me and leaves me, literature-wise, satisfied. Mozzi certainly does. His Kafkaesque overtones captivate and appease my reading appetite. Within The Garden, he creates a complete idea for each story, yet develops a singular theme that permeates the entire collection. No two stories are alike, yet all speak of a certain loneliness that comes from a fallen, elusive paradise.  Mozzi handles his complex subject matter with knowledge and ease. He is a master of his form and easily sits among Chekhov, and similar peers, within this genre.

 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Summer read with Ferris.
  • Eleanor Catton, Canadian born, grew up in New Zealand where she currently resides.
  • First Published in Great Britain in August 2013, then in USA October 2013
  • The Luminaries Awards: 2013 Booker Prize
Setting: 1866, Hokitika, New Zealand, Gold Rush era

Plot:  Walter Moody, like many other men, has come to Hokitika to make his fortune by mining gold. Upon settling in the ramshackle Crown Hotel, he inadvertently finds himself in the smoking room with twelve mysterious men who have secretly convened to discuss private matters. Moody was not expected, nor was he meant to be there.

Structure: This is told as an astrological fable in traditional Victorian style.
                   Each of the twelve men in the room are associated with a zodiac sign. The chapters
                   are named after the zodiac sign associated with the main character(s) covered in that
                   chapter.

Characters
The 12 Men & their designated astral signs.
Twelve men have gathered in the Crown Hotel for a secret conference. Their purpose is to discuss recent incidents relating to a local murder and the disappearance of a very wealthy man in their mining town, Hokitika. Each man's story will illuminate one part of the mystery. They hope that by sharing their individual stories they will figure out who murdered Crosbie Stills, and why Emery Staines vanished (who is presumed to be murdered), and how the other events are connected.  This meeting is central to the novel's plot.
  1. Te Rau Tauwhare: greenstone hunter, Aries, Maori descent
  2. Charlie Frost: banker, Taurus,
  3. Benjamin Lowenthal:  newspaperman, Gemini
  4. Edgar Clinch: hotelier, Cancer 
  5. Dick Mannering: goldfields magnate & owner of elicit prostitution ring, Leo 
  6. Quee Long: goldsmith, Virgo 
  7. Harald Nilssen: commission's merchant, Libra 
  8. Joseph Pritchard: chemist, Scorpio 
  9. Thomas Balfour: shipping agent, Sagittarius
  10. Aubert Gascoigne: justice's clerk, Capricorn 
  11. Sook Yongsheng: hatter, Aquarius
  12. Cowell Devlin: chaplain, Pisces 
Other Characters and their planetary bodies:
  1. Walter Moody - Mecury - Englishman of wealth, abandoned by father, plans to mine gold
  2. Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway - Venus - ran a salon & whorehouse, and is involved with  Francis Carver in illegal business.
  3. Francis Carver - Mars- Former convict; involved in illegal business ventures with Lydia Wells Carver
  4. Alistair Lauderback - Jupiter- politician and step-brother to Crosbie Wells
  5. George Shepard - Saturn - Governor of Hokitka and Gaoler
  6. Anna Wetherell - The Sun and The Moon - Hokitika prostitute
  7. Emery Staines - The Moon and The Sun - lost soul at heart of story
  8. Crosbie Wells - Earth  - deceased (murdered) - central to stories development
Quotes and Notes
Crosbie Wells is designated as earth because he is the central point from which all related proceedings occur. Despite the complicated movements of the constellations, they are aligned with, and revolve around this central point: his death. He is the ground to their sky.

p. 4     "Moody was not unaware of the advantage his inscrutable grace afforded him. Like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best; he was always in some chamber of his mind perceiving himself from the exterior."  An example of the self-centered nature most of the characters possess. A necessary trait for those living a hard life in an undeveloped land in hopes of making their fortunes, or serving out their indenture-ship.

p. 4    Moody: "He presented himself in the manner of a discreet and quick-minded butler;"

p. 5     Moody: "It was a private practice, and one he would likely have denied - for how roundly self-examination is condemned, by the moral prophets of our age! As if the self had no relation to the self, and one only looked in mirrors to have one's arrogance confirmed; as if the act of self-regarding was not as subtle, fraught and ever-changing as any bond between twin souls."

     The concept of twin souls:
  • refers to the inner and outer self: the public and private self which Moody is markedly aware (see pg. 21 below)
  • self examination
  • indirectly refers to the twin soul phenomena - two connected souls that feed off of one another, as with Anna and Crosbie
p. 10    Thomas Balfour: "His prosperity sat easily with him, Moody thought, recognizing in the man that relaxed sense of entitlement that comes when a lifelong optimism has been ratified by success."

p. 11    Walter Moody: "...his education had made him insular, for it had taught him that the proper way to understand any social system was to view it from above."

p. 11   Regarding Moody:  "He regarded Moody's stiffness as if it were a fashionable collar, made in some aristocratic style, that was unbearably confining to the wearer - he saw all conventions of polite society in this way, as useless ornamentations - and it amused him, that the man's refinement caused him to be so ill at ease."

p. 21    Moody: "By the time the maid appeared he had arranged his face into its habitual expression of benign indifference, and was examining the dovetailed join at the corner of the front desk." Hilarious and easy to picture. How often are we guilty of this ourselves?

p. 40    Gascoigne: "He spoke as a disappointed man, for whom perfection existed only as something remembered - and regretted, because it was lost."

p. 42     "...there was nothing nicer than a four part harmony ----the voices like threads in a piece of silk."  Musical connection...lovely.

p. 47    "Each item of business was described in the expansive, flourishing script that Balfour associated, in his mind, with a man who could afford to waste his ink on curlicues."

p. 54    "No one can protect a soul against themselves-against their own hand." So true.

p. 69     twinkle - "A piece of glass, or a jewel, or a scrap of a mirror that is inserted into the end of a cigar." A person smokes his cigar with a twinkle inserted so others cannot see it, but you can see things, as in an opponents cards, for gambling - cheating.  The author uses this concept various ways throughout the novel, but with the same meaning - to cheat.

p. 79    "Such a tonic for the spirit is the promise of revenge."

p. 87    Devlin Cowell: "...he was given to bouts of very purposeful ignorance..." Catton covers ironical forms of human nature superbly.

p. 98    Te Rau Tauwhare:  "He possessed a deeply private arrogance, a bedrock of self-certainty...he simply knew that he was better than most other men." Although this made him anxious because, "He knew that any self-reflexive certainty was the hallmark of shallowness, and that valuation was no index of true worth - and yet he could not shake his certainty about himself. This worried him. He worried that he was only an ornament, a shell without meat, a hollow clam..." So he "apprenticed himself to the spiritual life...to teach himself to doubt himself...but a man cannot master his will without the expression of it."

Catton, at such a young age (in her late twenties when this was published) seems to have an surpring grasp on human nature. Phenomenal.

p. 99 & 104    pounamu=the green stone Te Rau Tauwhare hunted for and expertly carved, yet (p. 104) would never sell his carvings or the stone itself because, "One could not put a price upon a treasure, just as one could not purchase mana, and one could not make a bargain with a god.

Te Rau did not see gold as a treasure, pounamu was the true treasure. "Gold was like all capital in that it had no memory..." I wonder if Catton is referring to the irony by which we designate value. Why is gold chosen as the most valuable, and why not this rare green stone, or amethyst for that matter.

p. 109   Frost: "The banker spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place." What a great satiric statement!

p. 114   "Balfour enjoyed the fierce indifference of a storm." I love that statement, as well as the one that follows:  "He liked lonely places, because he never really felt alone." I fully relate to these two thoughts.
                              
p.  118   Nilssen:  "He derived an especial pleasure from argument, so long as it was of the preposterous, hypothetical variety, and so loved to fashion absurd theories of abstraction from the small but dedicated circle of his own tastes." Astute observation.

p. 120   Joseph Pritchard: "He formed convictions as other men formed dependencies - a belief for him was as a thirst - and he fed his own convictions with all the erotic fervor of the willingly confirmed. This rapture extend to his self-regard. Whenever the subterranean waters of his mind were disturbed, he plunged inward and struggled downward - kicking strongly, purposefully, as if he wished to touch the mineral depths of his own dark fantasies; as if he wished to drown." One can see why Catton won the Booker Prize. Her insights and phrasing is amazing. I wish it stayed throughout the entire novel.

p. 127   "When a fellow has to cover his prints....that's when he has to start making provisions, sacrifices. Do you see? A man on the inside has to contend with the pawns - with all the pieces of the system. But a man on the outside can deal with the Devil direct."

p. 132   Mrs. George - I found it curious that Mrs. George, the wife of the Governor of Hokitika who is responsible for the Gaol (jail), did not receive an astral or planetary designation of any kind. She played such an important role in Ah Sook's life and ultimately Francis Carver's. She was quietly lethal despite, or because of, her emotionally abusive  husband whose brother was also abusive, and was her previous husband.  The Gaoler underestimated her capabilities. To others, Mr. George included, this was how she appeared (timid & anxious):

"Mrs. George wore the bewildered, panicked aspect of a tortured animal, who sees a cage where there is none, and cowers at every sudden thing."

Yet, she was not all that she appeared to be. Mrs. George covered for Ah Sook in a court of law, testifying that he did not kill her husband, that he had committed suicide (Ah Sook did murder him).  She also took Ah Sook in as a fugitive in her husband's home, dressed Ah Sook to disguise his identity from her husband and townspeople, and possibly had a hand in Carver's death. Anyways, who did kill Carver?

p. 141  Self-doubt - the author used this motif throughout a large portion of the novel. As the twelve men suspicions grew, so did their self-doubt. They began to question their own innocence for crimes they did not commit.

"He was not guilty - he had done no wrong - a yet he felt guilty; he felt implicated, as though he had performed a terrible misdeed while sleeping, and had woken to find his bolster smeared with blood."

Ah, the human psyche, how it can work against us. Equally so, man can judge himself by his intended thoughts, as disclosed here:

P. 142   "Although a man is judged by his actions, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done - a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem."

pg.149  Pritchard's vision of a woman as a mate is hilarious, if not ignorant. As I record the essence of Catton's characters and the way she describes their physical and psychological selves, I could not leave this passage unrecorded. Bear in mind, he secretly pines for Anna, the whore.

"Pritchard would sooner be inclined to fall for a dairymaid than for a whore - however dull the maid, and however striking the whore. He valued purity and simplicity, plain dress, a soft voice, a tractable will, and a small ambition - which is to say, contrast. His ideal woman would perfectly contrast him: she would be knowable where he was unknowable, composed where he was not. She would be a kind of anchor from above and without; she would be a shaft of light, a comfort, a benediction. Anna Wetherell, with all her excess and intoxication, was too like him. He did not hate her for that, exactly - but pitied her."

Hence, he perceives himself as pitiable.  Well said.

p. 153   Anna Wetherell: It is interesting the way Catton handles Anna's character. By beginning the story with Anna as a well known whore in Hokitika, the reader gets the false impression that she is a prostitute by original choice; as if she came to New Zealand for this exact purpose. Yet, as her history is revealed we learn that, like all the gold prospector's, she too had hoped to make some kind of living in this land where people can reinvent themselves and become rich quickly. Of course, for a woman during the Victorian times, this would have been a tricky pursuit. However, Anna did not come from wealth, was naive, and whoring was not a part of her plan. She was tricked into it, along with the debt she accrued for being sold to a prostitution ring (without her knowledge or consent).

Ironically, Anna is secretly loved by the local men. They fantasize about her beauty and perceived, but unrequited, love. When they realize another man has the same feelings for her, they get jealous despite the fact she is a whore meant for any man's purchase. Catton uses her character to depict this angel-whore dichotomy that was prevalent in Victorian literature.

p. 153    "Anna belonged to the unknowable types, by turns limpid and flashing, whose carriage bespoke an exquisite misery, a wretchedness so perfect and so absolute that it manifested as dignity, as calm.  Anna Wetherell was more than a dark horse; she was darkness itself, the cloak of it...knowing not wisdom, but wickedness - for whatever vicious things one might have done, or said, or witnessed, she was sure to have witnessed worse."

p. 156 : Anna: "This was not exhaustion merely: this was a grief of a different kind. She seemed not so much harassed as halved."

One cannot help but feel pity for this unfortunate adult child.

p. 165   "You give a dog a bad name, an that dog is bad for life."

p. 172   Charlie Frost: "Frost had learned the value of appearing to be unassuming. He knew the latent power of obscurity (powerful, because it aroused curiosity in others)..but he took extreme care to keep this talent hidden."

p. 173  "Charlie Frost tended to conceive of all his relationships in terms of profit and return, and he did not spare a thought for others once he considered that his duty had been served."

P. 176  Charlie Frost's ideal woman:  "Beauty was synonymous with refinement. The ideal woman, was one devoted to the project of her own enhancement, who was accomplished in the female arts of embroidery, piano-playing, pressing leaves, and the like; who sang sweetly, read quietly, and demurred to all opinion; who was a charming and priceless collectible; who loved, above all things, to be loved."

This was typical for the time-period yet, still, one cannot help being stunned, while chuckling, too. It is hard to imagine this extreme form of sexism as having ever existed in modern nations.

p. 177  Dick Mannering:  "His self-perception was an unshakeable one, authoritarian and absolute. He could not view the world but from the perspective of commanding it, and he loved to declaim."

p. 178   Dick Mannering:  "...he saw everyone whom he encountered as reflections of, or detractions from, his own authentic self."

"He very much liked to be mistaken for an aristocrat..."

p. 192  Salting - Claiming false profits to increase the value of a gold mine so the owner can sell it above its real value. Then, when the he sells the mine, he does not take a loss for buying an empty mine, or one that has all its gold already removed. The new owner will learn fairly quickly that he purchased a useless gold claim.

p. 215  Gascoigne: "His code was one of innate chivalry; he had a deep sympathy for people in desperate circumstances...he believed justice ought to be a synonym for mercy, not an alternative."

p. 216  Gascoigne:  "...when he encountered a man whose station was beneath him, he was never rude. To the higher classes, however, he held himself apart...a practice that, though not a strategy in any real sense,...earned him a place among the inheritors of land and fortune, quite as if he had set out to end up there."

p. 225  Men and Anna:  "The men with whom she plied her trade were rarely curious about her. If they spoke at all, they spoke about other women - the sweethearts they had lost, the wives they had abandoned, their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, their wards. They sought these women when they looked at Anna, but only partly, for they also sought themselves: she was a reflected darkness, just as she was a borrowed light. Her wretchedness was, she knew, extremely reassuring."
Interesting. She is like a psychologist to these men, with benefits.

p. 241 Clinch:  He was occupied by his emotion; he was its servant, not its liege."

p. 246  Twin temperaments:  "For Gascoigne and Clinch were not so very dissimilar in temperament, and even in their differences, showed a harmony of sorts - with Gascoigne as the upper octave, the clearer, brighter sound, and Clinch as the bass-note, thrumming."  A lovely voicing of this astute perception.

p. 248  "Clinch's efforts in love were always of a mothering sort, for it is a feature of human nature to give what we most which to receive, and it was a mother that Edgar Clinch most craved...."
Oh, how Freud would have loved this! 

p. 260  Que Long:  "Opium was a symbol, signifying Western contempt towards Chinese and lifeless Western goals of profit and greed." (Very edited.)

p. 284  "Nilssen was very suspicious of Chinese men, having never known one personally; his were the kind of beliefs that did not depend upon empirical fact, and indeed, were often flatly disproved by it, though no disproof was ever enough to change his mind."  This is the basis of all prejudice and why it still exists today, despite logic.

p. 295  "Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own."

p. 296  "What is a speculator, anyway, but a gypsy wearing different clothes?"

p. 300-1  "Month without a Moon":
This concept is discussed briefly between Gascoigne and Lydia after she says, "I will reward you with a fact...Next month will be a month without a moon."

I do not know what the significance of this is in relation to the story, but am interested in learning.  If anyone wants to comment on this, I would appreciate your thoughts.

The author researched her material thoroughly, so I did not question her veracity, I simply was not aware of the phenomena, so I looked it up. Here are some related facts:

Month with a Moon: This is known as the Metonic Cycle - a lunar cycle phenomena that occurs every 19 years during the month of February.  Every 19 years, February's moon will cycle without developing a full moon. This is due to the fact that it is a shorter month which, over a period of time, causes this to happen. This cycle was named after the Greek astronomer who figured it out, Meton. As a matter of interest, I listed when it will next occur in the 21st century (with 1900 as its reference point:
  •  Last Metonic Cycle:  1999 
  • Metonic Cycles to come:  2018, 2037, 2067 & 2094
Mark your calendars, there is one coming to your hometown in 3.5 short years!


Since we are on this subject, one might ask, so what is a Blue Moon?  This is when one month produces two full moons. One at the beginning of the month and once at the end of the month. This occurs every thirty-three months or, 2.7 years.

For more information, check out this website:
     van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=1043

p. 326  Ah Sook: "...he was to extensive self-analysis of the most rigorous and contemplative kind. But he analyzed his own mind as a prophet analyzes his own strange visions - that is, with reverence, and believing always that he was destined to be the herald of a cosmic raison d'etre, a universal plan."

p. 350  "A string of coincidences is not a coincidence."  "And what was a coincidence, but a stilled moment in a sequence that had yet to be explained?"

p. 358  Moody: Did not believe in religion, he believed in logic. "Truth, for him, could be perfected, and a perfect truth was always utterly beautiful and entirely clear."  Moody was not religious and did not, "perceive truth in mystery or in the inexplicable and the unexplained..."

p. 364  "When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts. We could not imagine what he might have been, had he been tempted to betray his very nature - or had he betrayed himself without temptation, better still."

p. 392  "Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man's evaluation of a third man's disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance...' So true.

On addiction and opium via Ah Sook and Anna via Ah Sook:
p. 408  "He knew that the intimacy that they enjoyed together was less a togetherness than it was a shared isolation - for there is no relationship as private as that between the addict and his drug, and they bother felt that isolation very keenly....the ritual of the pipe was, for the pair of them, a holy ritual that was unspeakable and mortified, just as it was ecstatic and divine: its sacredness lay in its very profanity, and its profanity, in its sacred form."

Unnerving, yet truthful, thoughts. Such dark prospects are addictions and the drugs that feed them. Again, I am amazed by the insight of this young writer. She is an old soul.

p. 533  " We are of our own making, and we shall be our own end."

            "...it is only in Pisces, the last and oldest of the zodiacal signs, that we acquire a kind of selfhood, something whole. But the doubled fish of Pisces, that mirrored womb of self and self-awareness, is an *ourobouros of mind - both the will of fate, and the fated will - and the house of self-undoing is a prison built by prisoners, airless, doorless, and mortared from within. These alterations come upon us irrevocably, as the hands of the clock-face come upon the hour."

Twins figure predominately within this story, literally and figuratively (see quote from p. 246). For example, Ah Sook and Anna; Crosbie Wells and Alistair Lauderback; life and death, self-denial and self-examination, etc.

*ourobouros - (urobouros) as a noun, ourobouros:  A Greek word meaning, tail devourer. It is depicted as a circular symbol of a snake or a dragon swallowing its tail. It is an emblem for wholeness or infinity. This ancient Greek symbol often symbolizes cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return. Renewal.
     Resources:
     http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ourobouros?s=t
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros
     http://www.tokenrock.com/explain-ouroboros-70.html

p. 622  "...never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it it to understand a situation from another person's point of view."  The author makes note of this concept a number of times - the idea that we can never really know any ones thoughts but our own; that to think otherwise is naive, ignorant, and dangerous.

p. 825   Quote: "A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past."
   
My Final Thoughts
As can be seen from my list of quotes, their numbers start to wane around page 400. For point of reference, Part Two of the novel, beginning on page 361, takes the reader away from the January 27th meeting with the twelve men, and the story starts anew in current time. Basically, this is where the poetic writing ends and straight story telling begins. I am still fascinated and not put off by the direct method, and am eager to see where the author is taking me. There are not many quotable quotes, just straight fun story telling. This ends in Part Three (page 521) around the time of the courtroom scene.

By this point, I have already become increasingly disappointed by the narrative; the quality has waned and I am waiting for the author to redeem herself. But it does not happen. There was so much development, I expected the climactic point to blow me away, but it did not. It was as if I went to a great opera, and half-way through the opera, after intermission, I returned to find the Opera House had decided to summarize the rest of the story for its guests, verbally. To top it off, the narrator speeds things up by increasingly summarizing each section. By the time the story ends my thought is simply - what just happened?

I realize the author did a great deal of research at it relates to the planetary content. And there is much more to it then I will ever realize. One thing I am aware of is, the author increasingly shortened each chapter towards the end of the book; in essence, to symbolize and mimic the waning of the moon. The idea is great, yet it falls short as applied method.

Likewise, I thought the zodiac connection was interesting. Again, Catton studied the subject
comprehensively. Yet I think her excitement clouded her vision. In this regard, her perspective and imagination were remarkable in scope, but added little to the overall plot of the novel. Think of the novel without the character and chapter designations.  How much of the plot would change without them? In fact, in some instances, had she not held on steadfastly to this concept some aspects would have likely improved.

Catton has a proclivity towards the written word. She is poetic, intuitive, philosophical, and thoughtfully satiric. Likewise, her character development is complex and well conceived. Her plot development, while a bit perplexing at times, is magnificent. There is little doubt that she is a quality writer in the literary sense, and possesses astute knowledge and understanding of human nature beyond her years. Unfortunately, these qualities did not hold true for the entire novel.

So how does one rate such a novel? My final rating of 3.5 stars was calculated as follows:
                    5 stars for the first 2/3rds of the book
                    2 stars for the last 3rd of the book
                   divided by 2 = 3.5 stars

I realize this does not seem to be a fair computation, but the ending was so disjointed I could not give it 4 stars.






Monday, August 25, 2014

Pig Tales, A Novel of Lust and Transformation by Marie Darrieussecq

Translated from French by Linda Coverdale
Original French edition published in 1996, English translation published 1997

Author:  French; this was author's debut novel, first published at the age of 27.

Setting:  A dystopian Paris of the future.

Characters - As can be seen, the author does not give the female characters names. This is to identify, symbolically, their traditional position in society: weak and powerless.
  • Unidentified female narrator/protagonist  - The narrator converts back and forth between  woman and sow. Her transformations occur primarily when she is brutally treated by the various people that come in and out of her life.  The narrator was neglected and abused by her mother, and fully neglected by her absentee father. As a result, she lacks any sense of self-awareness, self-control, or moral reasoning. Working against her favor, is the fact that she comes from a lower socioeconomic background and remains uneducated. Thus she has little, if any, resources available to her and she never learned how to voice her needs. Having been denied any sense of basic humanity throughout her lifetime, she becomes more comfortable and happier with her animal self, her connection to nature (as a female), and the ease of living away from society. I am not sure if this is meant to be symbolic, or  as a result of her experiences, she has become psychotic. Or both. 
  • Protagonist's mother 
  • Director - Owner of beauty salon, Perfume Plus, where protagonist is first employed, which is really a cover for a prostitution establishment.  
  • Honore'- High school teacher & Narrator's first "love" in story
  • Wealthy African Marabout - client of protagonist's at Beauty Salon
  • Marchepieda - religious fanatic who later becomes the Commander of the Faithful
  • Edgar - politician who later becomes Secretary of Public Morals
  • Yvan - Managing Director of Moonlight Madness; becomes protagonist lover; suffers from lack of will power. Transforms back and forth into a wolf
  • Lesbian woman - client of Protagonist's who is murdered
  • Woman friend of lesbian (murdered woman), and Marabout's friend
Themes
  • metamorphosis: the act of becoming a self-willed person. For narrator, an objectified young woman into a self-possessed woman. Or, at least an attempt to do so.
  • self-identity and self-development through conscious will power vs. self-defeat
  • beauty - self image as determined by males and societies current fashions; objectifies females; equated with sexuality; typified through Narrator
  • sexual exploitation- in work and by authority figures
  • violence - emotional, physical and sexual especially, but not limited to authority figures
  • discrimination - misogyny, and against the over-weight or those not deemed beautiful
  • racism - ethnic, xenophobia
  • political corruption: oppression of lower class and females, corruption in business and everyday life
Motifs
  • flesh
  • lust
  • fertility
  • filth - life style and living environment
  • charcuterie - slaughter
  • nameless women
  • smell, from perfume to filth
  • irony
  • ignorance
  • satiric humor
  • dreams
Symbols
  • books - knowledge
  • birds - freedom from oppression

Quotes 
p. 74   "This was one good thing about the business, at any rate, sound professional training, and when I think about it, it wasn't a bad career." Humor. Narrator talking about job she just lost at Perfumes Plus (as glorified prostitute).

p. 89    Narrator: "When I saw the piranhas and felt those first bites...I freaked and raced to get out. I didn't know that I still cared that much about life. You could say it woke me up. My neurons fell back into place."  Narrator would have these self-revelations and begin to gain her human physical features back, until another situation distracted or scared her away and she would deteriorate back into a pig.

p. 115   "He sniffed my rear end instead of shaking my hand, but aside from that he couldn't have been nicer, a truly refined man, well dressed and everything." An example of Narrator's naive ignorance and author's humor.

p. 115    "...willpower was the key to holding your own." Yvan to Narrator re: becoming conscious of oneself and the power one held over the self.

p. 127   Narrator: "Rationality is the ruination of mankind, you can take it from me."

p. 130   Satiric humor: "I decided there was no doubt about it:
             home delivery was incredibly convenient." (re: home delivery of pizza for Yvan & Narrator)

p. 143   Narrator: "the musky aroma of my race in a rut" The essence of the Narrator as a lower class,
             uneducated female, and all like her.

My Review

Pig Tales is a wonderful piece of translation literature that reads like a fable. It reveals the animal nature of man and the moral proof that beauty is only skin deep. Political corruption is examined within this context: how we corrupt or are corrupted.

Darrieussecq's imaginative narrative, broadly, examines self-identity via transformation.  She looks at how we are continuously changing and evolving, refining our individual selves, but not always for the good. Her method is both humorous and brutal. The pig, as an edible woman, is a warning of what we can become, especially through ignorance and folly. Likewise, the male conversion as wolf, symbolizes the violent nature of man.

This is an amazing novella seamlessly written from beginning to end. Needless to say, it makes an impression.  It is abstractly narrated as if a Cubist painting - there is much to observe, and from all different angles. Darrieussecq has created a unique and unforgettable work of literature.




Without You, There Is No Us, My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, A Memoir, By Suki Kim

This book covers six months of the author's life when she lived in North Korea as a foreign Professor. She taught English as a second language to an elite group of young male undergraduates at YUST (Yanbian University of Science and Technology), which is located on the outskirts of Pyongyang (a city where only the privileged are allowed to live-the loyalists). From this reading I learned what I already knew - a closed country is a dangerous country. Nothing shocked me; it was more of a confirmation, with specifics.

The title of this book is frightening and sad. It comes directly from the daily hyperbole North Koreans must contend with. You specifically refers to the Korean Leader, Kim Jong-un, formerly, Kim Jong-il.  Just replace the You with Kim Jong-un, and you have summarized the people's forced oath and their regimes attempt to propagandize their people into believing their leader is a God. In fact, this phrase epitomizes their whole life, day in day out. Everything they do and say is for their Supreme Leader. To indicate otherwise and/or not follow the daily protocol and inoculations is to risk execution or forced hard labor in one of their many gulags. The whole purpose of this life style is to obliterate the peoples sense of self so as to make them completely dependent on their leader. That way, he has total control and he can do whatever he chooses, no matter how criminal.

The shocking thing is, outwardly, the young men of YUST seem to regard everything they are taught as truth. They repeatedly reminded Yuki Kim that they are the most powerful and advanced nation in the world.  What makes their country better? Everything is free, or at least believed to be.  Like a child, their food, electricity, healthcare, schooling, etc., is covered by their Precious Leader, their God. These self-aggrandizing slogans bring to mind two thoughts:  1) doth protest too much, methinks  2) If it is too good to be true, it probably is Yet, if you have been brought up knowing no other way, is it a wonder they do as they are told no matter what their instincts tell them? Or, in order to protect their lives, they outwardly live as if they are in sync with this way of life.

Books do not usually depress me no matter how much violence or oppression they reveal. This is one of the few that did. It comes from a feeling of hopelessness; that these innocent lives will not be able to enjoy the freedom to live and learn as they should. There is no sense of humanity, and from what I understand, no attempts to do anything to free these people. It is unconscionable.

 North Korea is a worn nation closed off on behalf of one man, a dictator. Ironically, it is only the size of the State of Pennsylvania. Kim's account of her experience speaks of a nation of people who need world-wide assistance and protection. It is sad to find out that even the highborn young men of North Korea, who are being groomed to run their country at the side of their Precious Leader, do not get a balanced diet during their University studies. If that is the state of things for the loyalists, what is it like for the rest of the nation? Not to worry, everything is free.

Suki Kim handled her subject matter with grace and understanding. She wrote a thoughtful and engaging memoir in an attempt to provide others with a close-up-view of North Korean life - the one small elite group she had access to. Ironically (because journalist are uninvited suspects, and as an atheistic state the practice of Christianity is forbidden), she was allowed to participate in this rare opportunity as a Professor under a Christian Missionary volunteer program. Thus, she not only had to hide her true journalist purpose from the North Korean's, but from the Christian Missionaries, too. Essentially, she risked her life to do this project. I commend her efforts and hope that it results in some form of positive action.



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Singapore Noir, by various Singapore authors

Edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
An early-reviewers copy via LibraryThing.com 

This collection of short noir fiction dealing with the underbelly of Singapore did not meet my expectations. I liked certain aspects found within some of the stories and a few that, in their entirety, were okay. Yet most did not possess the literary aptitude I anticipated. I was never fully engaged by these stories because I was constantly distracted by the below average to average structural quality and character development. Much of the writing was prosaic and felt unnatural. I had looked forward to that gritty, hypnotic narrative prevalent in the noir genre. Instead, I was extremely underwhelmed and disappointed.

Akashic Books has published a number of books under the Noir series. I read Boston Noir when it was first published, and if I remember accurately, I enjoyed stories by David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus, and authors of similar literary strengths. It was because of this book that I requested Singapore Noir from LibraryThing Early Reviwer's program. I mention this because one book can lead a person towards or away from additional books within a series. Had Singapore been my first Noir read, I would never have looked at another from this series. As it stands, I do not know whether or not I will pick up another. I am sure I will look over any that arrive in the Library, just in case. It is possible there are just a few bad apples within this whole batch and I happened to read one of them.

China Dolls by Lisa See

Audiobook, Published 2014

I listened to the audio version of this book. The narrator irritated me to no end. If it were not for the material covered, I would have never finished this CD. I suggest that, if you are curious, read the paper edition.

The subject matter in China Dolls was interesting: Asian-American singer/performers during the 1930's through the 1950's, covering prewar to post-war America. In particular, the author portrayed the animosity between Japanese and Chinese-Americans. She gave deference to the Chinese perspective as told by those who lived in their native country during the time Japan attacked China - very brutal. The author also included the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII - how it felt to be an American citizen ripped away from one's life and essentially jailed for the duration of the war. Thus, she illustrated an era from varying points-of-view. See also elucidated on the nature of prejudice - the fact that it exists among and between all races in varying degrees, and that we cannot seem to escape our damaging inclination. The main purpose of See's book was to make people aware of the part Asian-Americans played in the entertainment field during this time, and how it affected their traditional cultural practices and beliefs.

Overall, I enjoyed the purpose of See's story, I simply did not like its delivery. It is not one of her strongest works, but it did provide some intriguing facts about the entertainment industry, all of which were previously unknown to me. In that regard, it was a relative success.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih


Summer read with Ferris.

Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies

1966 Novel first published in Beirut, which is 13 years after its independence.
1969 English translation published
2009 This edition published, w/ intro by Laila Lalami

This novel was banned for a period of time. Possibly the sexual references, since the Sudanese are Islamic.

Setting
1960's Wad Hamid, Sudan, along the Nil, post colonial times

Characters
Narrator - Unnamed, originally from Wad Hamid, Sudan, but moved away for work as adult. Visits
                 village when he can. Has doctorate in British poetry. Works in England. Tries to use his
                 education to help advance his hometown.
Mustafa Sa'eed - from Khartoum, residing in Wad Hamid when Narrator returns to his village. Was
                            an academic in England until murdered his English wife, Jean Morris. Spends 7
                            years in jail, then moves to Wad Hamid, Sudan. Keeps his past life quiet, never
                            sharing it with anyone (until he meets the narrator). Marries Hosna Bint Mahmoud,
                            disappears one night during flood season. Is presumed dead. Leaves his wife & kids
                            to narrator's care, as Executor. 
Hosna Bint Mahmoud - Mustafa Sa'eed's wife when narrator first meets him, births 2 boys.
Ma Joub - Narrator's good friend that he grew up with in Wad Hamid
Mahmoud - Hosna Bint's father. He arranges their marriage. Town's people are not happy that he
                    allows her to marry an outsider.

Four former girlfriends of Mustafa Sa'eed's:
Ann Hammond - committed suicide due to Mustafa
Sheila Greenwood - committed suicide due to Mustafa
Isabella Seymour - committed suicide due to Mustafa
Jean Morris  - Mustafa murders the bitch, for which Mustafa serves seven years in jail, in England

Hajj  Ahmed - narrator's grandfather
Bakri - grandfather's friend
Ray Wayyes - wants to marry Hosna Bint Mahmoud after Mustafa disappears, and is believed dead
Bint Majzoub - in her 80's, and friend of Narrator's grandfather. Smokes and talks with the men
                         like one of the guys. Believes in female circumcision.

Sir Arthur Higgins -  Mustafa's lead prosecutor and professor who taught Mustafa law


Themes
Eastern and Western cultures
Misogyny - female circumcision
Power of nature - its destruction
Modernization and its drawbacks
Corruption - political and personal
Storytelling - Is the narrator, emotionally involved, a reliable storyteller?

Two stories going on at one time: linear story of narrator's return and Mustafa's story that goes back and forth in time.

Quotes and Notes
p.  5      Cultural theme: East and West, there is not much difference between the two, per narrator.:

"They were surprised when I told them that Europeans were, with minor differences, exactly like them, marrying and bringing up their children in accordance with principles and traditions, that they had good morals and were in general good people."

Just as the English who occupied their land where corrupt, when they, the Sudanese who took power  also became corrupt. No difference.

p. 6    " Seeing the bank contracting at one place and expanding at another,, I would think that such was life: with a hand it gives, with the other it takes."

p. 27    "When she saw me, she saw a dark twilight like a false dawn."   Ann H. of Mustafa
             "My bedroom was a graveyard that looked on to a garden...:  Mustafa

p. 29
"These girls were not killed by Mustafa Sa'eed but by the germ of a deadly disease that assailed them a thousand years ago."

"I am the desert of thirst. I am no Othello. I am a lie. Why don't you sentence me to be hanged and so kill the lie?"

"I would stay awake all night warring with bow and sword and spear and arrows, and in the morning I would see the smile unchanged and would know that once again I had lost the combat. It was as though I were a slave Shahrayar you buy in the market for a dinar."

What wonderful prose. Beautifully written, and example of the author's lyrical narration. Extraordinary!

p. 30  "My  bedroom was a spring-well of sorrow, the germ of a fatal disease."

p. 33  "Curiosity had changed to gaiety, and gaiety to sympathy, and when I stir the still pool in its depths the sympathy will be transformed into a desire upon whose taut strings I shall play as I wish."

p. 32 "With the instinct of a gambler I knew that this was a decisive moment. At this moment everything was possible." Author is perceptive with regard to human nature throughout book.

p. 41  "But I am from here, just as the date palm standing in the courtyard of our house has grown in our house and not in anyone else's. The fact that they came to our land, I know not why, does that mean that we should poison our present and our future:"  If I understand this correctly, it is a fitting and perfect ideology all should possess; especially if immigrants are not favorable in one's eyes. Do not destroy the world with the poison that has gone on, and will probably go on, for thousands of years. Just accept and learn to live with one another. So much animosity, what is the point?

p. 45  Judge passing judgment on Sa'eed: "Mr Sa'eed, despite your academic prowess you are a stupid man. In your spiritual make-up there is a dark spot, and thus it was that you squandered the noblest gift that God has bestowed upon people - the gift of love."

p. 67  "The infidel women aren't so knowledgeable aboutt his business as our village girls. They're uncircumcised and treat the whole business like having a drink of water. The village girl gets herself rubbed all over with oil and perfumed and puts on a silky night-wrap, and when she lies down on the red mat after the evening prayer and opens her thighs, a man feels like he's Abu Aeid El-Hilali. The man who's not interested perks up and gets interested."

This is a quote from the village woman, Bint Majzoub. In the book, she hails female circumcision. States it is, essentially, not the horrible thing outsiders think it is; that it enhances female pleasure. Rad Rayes, a man, speaks against it, briefly, and is the only one who does.

Female circumcision is mutilation and causes sex, for the female, to be very painful. I was confused. Was Bint Majzoub meant to be lying to her male friends, making it up because the truth would point to a practice ingrained in their culture - a truth that would be to painful to voice? I was not sure how the reader was to understand her claim. Especially since Bint Majzoub discussed its favor-ability many times throughout the book. Disturbing.

p. 82  "We civil servants are of no consequence. People like you are the legal heirs of authority; you are the sinews of life, you're the salt of the earth."

An interesting point-of-view - the "lowly civil servant" and farmer sees himself as less than his educated friend despite the fact he has done much for his community by heading many committees and being elected for numerous others. His educated friend sees things the other way around: while he was away getting an education in poetry, his friend was home making a difference to and for the benefit of the village. He envies his naturally gained knowledge, so to speak, and all he has accomplished. He feels his background has not provided him with the skills necessary to be of help to his village.

This brings to mind the point - where ever and however knowledge is acquired, if used for the benefit of oneself, ones family and community, it does not matter how it is gained. Yet, the way society is structured, a formal education is the only way to ensure everyone has an equal chance. I am veering away from the author's purpose a little. But, it can be seen as it is - an universal situation. The author seems to be saying, they are both valid forms of education, but the formal education is not always practical. Especially, in this particular instance where the educated friend majored in poetry - an impractical avocation for a small Sudanese village.

In Summary
Seasons of Migration to the North is a beautiful and engaging book with wonderful characters, great storytelling, and exquisite writing. It is a must read for translation literary lovers!