Sunday Salon: the Missing Hour Post
I had no idea today was the switch for Daylight Savings! Which means it’s completely Daylight Saving’s fault that this post is so late. ;) I’m hoping to start getting my blog posts published in the morning again soon, but right now my routine is all out of whack, so I’m just happy to be publishing anything at all. ;) I’ve still got that monstrous backlog of books to post about, so let’s just dive in, shall we?
Kokoro was my first experience with Natsume Soseki (perhaps best known, in the blogosphere at least for, I Am a Cat), but I’m sure it won’t be my last. First of all, not that this matters, but Soseki was a handsome man, people. I was checking Wikipedia for the date Kokoro was published (1914), and I was completely distracted by the photograph of him. I’ll have to hurry up and read some more of his works to see if he ends up in my favourite authors sidebar! ;) Moving on to the book, it definitely has a fin-de-siecle feel to it: lots of nostalgia, and young people finding themselves, and worries about a quickly-changing country. I happen to love that, so I was happy from pretty much the first page. The first half of the book is about a young Japanese student studying in Tokyo who strikes up a relationship with a mysterious older man he only calls Sensei; the second half of the novel consists of a long letter from Sensei describing his own youth. While the structure in general worked for me, I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed when the book ended with the letter’s ending: I wanted to know what happened with the original narrator as well! That was my only disappointment however. Soseki’s writing is marvelous and very readable (I read the Meredith McKinney translation; she’s my go-to for Japanese classics); here’s a bit that particularly struck me from Sensei’s letter:
As you will know, romantic love never develops between siblings. I may be stretching the interpretation of this well-known fact, but it seems to me that between any male and female who have been close and in continual contact, such great intimacy rules out the fresh response necessary to stimulate feelings of romantic love. Just as you can only really smell incense in the first moments after it is lit, or taste wine in that instant of the first sip, the impulse of love springs from a single, perilous moment in time, I feel. If this moment slips casually by unnoticed, intimacy may grow as the tea become accustomed to each other, but the impulse to romantic love will be numbed.
He brings his Japan to life so wonderfully I felt like I was there, which always makes me deeply happy. Books with a strong sense of place regularly end up as my favourites! His characters, while in a certain sense ‘types’ (young man from country studies in city), still made me care for them; a couple scenes brought tears to my eyes. Before I started reading, I was nervous that despite its slimness (about two hundred pages long), Kokoro would be a difficult read. Instead, I found the pages slipping by, and I was finished with it all too soon. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Soseki in the future! (And thanks to Tony for the inspiration to give him a go in the first place.)
I wish I could gush about In the Woods by Tana French, but I just can’t. French fans might want to avert your eyes! When I began the novel, I immediately didn’t like the narrator, Rob, or his overblown prose style. This is from page ten:
She wasn’t dressed like a Murder detective. You learn by osmosis, as soon as you set your sights on the job, that you are expected to look professional, educated, discreetly expensive with just a soupcon of originality. We give the taxpayers their money’s worth of comforting cliche. We mostly shop at Brown Thomas, during the sales, and occasionally come into work wearing embarrassingly identical soupcons.
But I made allowances…after all, perhaps it’s not French’s own writing, perhaps it’s how she imagines Rob (who is rather a pompous git) would write. Then the crime occurred, and within quite a short time I had decided exactly who committed it and how (I turned out to be right), and there were still three hundred pages left to go. I was a bit impatient, but I kept reading, and I did like how French portrayed Rob and Cassie’s friendship. There were about a hundred pages in the middle when I was truly enjoying myself. But then Rob made even more of an ass of himself, and at that point I just didn’t care about what happened to him in the slightest; he could have been shot straight through the heart and I would have simply yawned. I couldn’t even muster up a lot of anger towards him. Meanwhile, he still hadn’t figured out who the actual killer is, and I was wondering just how much of a crack detective he could be not to see what was staring him in the face. Usually, me guessing the twist beforehand isn’t a big deal; I guess it in pretty much every book I’ve read (including Fingersmith) and I don’t hold that against the author. But in In the Woods, it seems that not seeing the twist coming is paramount to Rob’s story. After (finally) discovering the killer, Rob says:
I am intensely aware, by the way, that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light. … But before you decide to despise my too thoroughly, consider this: [the killer] fooled you, too. You had as good a chance as I did. I told you everything I saw, as I saw it as the time. And if that was in itself deceptive, remember, I told you that, too: I warned you, right from the beginning, that I lie.
And when I read that, I was all: but I wasn’t fooled Rob. In fact, I thought it was really obvious. So where does that leave us? I can see why so many people are fans of French, but it just wasn’t for me. I rarely enjoy a novel when I don’t like the narrator, and I think Rob is one of the least likeable narrators I’ve come across in quite some time. I also found the prose (and plot) to be overwritten; out of the four hundred fifty pages, I enjoyed myself for maybe a quarter. And that’s just not enough for me to want to read more of her, especially since I read The Likeness a couple years ago and felt quite ‘meh’ about it on the whole.
When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka started out strong, but at the end of the day it had a bit too much of a ‘writing workshop’ feel to it for me to really fall in love. It’s a slim novel, and it just felt as if it’d been worked over and edited to death. The characters never became real to me; I only saw them as tools of the author, which made it difficult to connect. And the writing style itself seemed to keep the reader at arm’s length, as if Otsuka was always aware that she was writing a work of fiction. The characters were very much symbols of the larger Japanese-American experience during World War Two; in fact, they’re not even named. And the settings felt like stage props Otsuka had set up to enact her drama, flat and lifeless. I couldn’t help comparing it to The Age of Dreaming, which was set earlier but also featured a Japanese-American living in California whose life is changed by the outbreak of war. In that one, I felt right there with the narrator as he told his story, and I could almost close my eyes and see his world, a testament to Nina Revoyr’s writing ability. I just didn’t mesh as well with Otsuka’s approach.
I think I went into Mad, Bad, and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi with the wrong expectations. I was expecting a critical history of, as the subtitle puts it, Women and the Mind Doctors. Instead, Appignanesi seems to in large part agree with the psychological theories she presents, or at least decided to stick with a sympathetic viewpoint. If this wasn’t a library book, I probably would have been scribbling snarky comments and pointed questions in the margins, just because as someone skeptical of some of the largest figures in the history of psychology (Freud, anyone?) I often found myself unconvinced by an argument Appignanesi was laying out. In particular, I was frustrated by her presentation of dreams various clients had; she seems to present them as a facts, whereas I couldn’t help wondering if the patients had embroidered or elaborated to meet their psychologists’ expectations. I have incredibly elaborate dreams, and I remember pretty much all of them, but very few have the strong narrative quality of the dreams these case studies describe. I know that my skepticism is thus more personal than academic, but I still wondered what led Appignanesi to take Freud’s descriptions of dreams his patients told him as true at face value. It seems that she assumed her readers were already in agreement with her, which is fine, but it meant I was definitely not the target audience. I’m also the first to say that I have almost no background in psychology (I did take an introductory course my freshman year of college), so my concerns are probably ones that those knowledgeable in the field would find elementary. But they remained unaddressed, nonetheless, which took away from my enjoyment of the book. Speaking of wrong expectations, I had also imagined it to be a bit more feminist than it actually was; sometimes I found myself wishing that Appignanesi would spend a bit more time on the power structures and implications of a field run primarily by men with a focus of primarily women, especially in the instance of women whose families were against them. She does talk about some gender issues, don’t get me wrong, but not enough to my liking. I also found the structure quite confusing; it’s generally presented in chronological order, but each chapter deals with a different theme, and sometimes the Appignanesi’s descriptions of relationships between the different actual psychologists, or casual reference to some future event, left me muddled. The writing could have been tighter; I’ve read nonfiction books that need five hundred pages of actual text, but this wasn’t one of them. I did find parts of the book interesting, but overall I didn’t think it paid back the effort I put into it.
After two so-so reviews, it’s a good thing the next book I’m talking about is Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie! I’ve already seen Smoke Signals, a marvelous movie that I knew was based on this short story collection (Alexie himself wrote the script), so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I’d be reading about. But it turns out, the movie is only loosely based on the stories, so most of the book felt brand new to me! And it was just as incredible as the other Alexie writing that I’ve read, managing to be heartwrenching and funny and worldweary and optimistic and brutally honest all at once. Here’s a passage that really stuck with me:
In the outside world, a person can be a hero one second and a nobody the next. Think about it. Do white people remember the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back? Hell, white people don’t even remember the names of the dogs who save entire families from burning up in house fires by barking. And, to be honest, I don’t remember none of those names either, but a reservation hero is remembered. A reservation hero is a hero forever. In fact, their status grows over the years as the stories are told and retold.
Possibly my favourite story was “A Good Story,” which begins with this dialogue between the narrator and his mother:
“You know what you should do? You should write a story about something good, a real good story.”
“Because people should know that good things always happen to Indians, too.”
It has such an unusual, refreshing structure, and I just loved it for its sweetness. If you’d like a taste of Alexie’s writing, though, This isn’t a traditional short story collection; the stories are all about the same Indians living on the same reservation, and they’re interlinked, moving backwards and forwards in time and changing character perspective along the way. So even if you’re not usually a fan of short stories, you should give this book a try! If you’re more of a novel person, both Reservation Blues and Indian Killer are incredible. I can’t wait to read the rest of his backlist, and I bet if you try him, you’ll be hooked as well.
I know that’s only five books, but I’m still easing back into this blogging thing, so I’m exhausted! In fact, this whole past week I’ve been sleeping for hours and hours and still feeling tired when I wake up; I hope it ends soon. I have been reading, if not as much as I’d like, and I have a few more books waiting on hold for me at the library. But between being exhausted, trying to blog occasionally, and living with a dog, I haven’t really had a chance to visit everyone’s blogs or reply to comments on my own. So do know that I value each and every one of you!