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Sunday Salon: the Missing Hour Post

March 13, 2011

The Sunday Salon.comI 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!

40 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2011 7:51 pm

    Take all the time you need, Eva! And yeah, Daylight Savings is really messing me up as well.

  2. March 13, 2011 8:14 pm

    ONLY five books?!? I’m lucky if I write about ONE book per post…or even in a month :). Sheesh, lady.

    Anywho, I can’t believe I’m going to disagree with you, but I am. I enjoyed In The Woods. I’ve heard the argument about Rob previously, but I never got that myself. I didn’t find him to be that unsympathetic of a narrator. After all, what he had been through made him who he was — and that wasn’t necessarily always likable (although I didn’t think he was unlikable either). Personally, I was blown away by her writing. I’m reading The Likeness right now and while I’m not as enamored with her writing, I am enjoying it.

    Well, I guess I can’t agree with you on everything.


    • March 13, 2011 10:53 pm

      I meant to put “Sigh” with an emoticon. :)

      Because I really do enjoy your posts and your reviews, most of the time. Oh, well, we can’t always agree. That’s all right too.

      • March 30, 2011 6:00 am

        I think it’s perfectly normal for us to disagree! And I knew that I was in the minority for my feelings on In the Woods. :) I can see that his past influenced him, but I wasn’t willing to forgive him for how he handled his relationship with Cassie.

        You know, French is obviously good at creating characters that really get a rise out of readers.

  3. March 13, 2011 8:36 pm

    Ah, Eva. I’ve so missed your wishlist busting Sunday Salon posts! 5 books is plenty to keep me happy. :D

    Hope you get to feeling all rested up soon!

  4. March 13, 2011 9:13 pm

    Can you write a post discussing how you compose your posts? Do you write the post over a period of days? Do you write one review at a time and then combine them into a single post? I am asking because your writing continues to amaze me… and I have an English degree!


    • March 30, 2011 6:00 am

      Done Karenne, and thank you for the compliment!

  5. March 13, 2011 9:14 pm

    I really need to be reading more Sherman Alexie! I’ve read a couple, but need to add more to my list.

    • March 30, 2011 6:00 am

      That was my third; I’m trying to space them out!

  6. March 13, 2011 9:34 pm

    I had the same expectations as you did about Mad Bad and Sad until reading this post…sounds a little disappointing, which is too bad…I really want something on the subject, but more feminist and critical!

    • March 30, 2011 6:01 am

      It’s worth a read, but yeah, I was definitely disappointed.

  7. March 14, 2011 4:47 am

    Just love how many books you manage to fit into one post;-) I agree with you about When the Emperor was Divine… I remember being pretty disappointed with it. Still hope to read Tana French one day though.

    • March 30, 2011 6:01 am

      Thanks JoAnn! And I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt that way about When the Emperor was Divine.

  8. March 14, 2011 8:50 am

    Five books to discuss, wowsers. I have only read one of them and that was Tana French which I thought was dreadful. I seem to be in a minority with that though as I know endless people who thought the book was brilliant. The ending, which I won’t give away, just made me furious. Its a book I felt I put a lot into and got absolutely nothing back from!

    • March 30, 2011 6:02 am

      Oh you made me feel much better Simon! :)

  9. March 14, 2011 9:16 am

    I enjoy Daylight Saving because of the extra daylight, but losing that hour takes a while to recover from!!

    • March 30, 2011 6:03 am

      I prefer getting up early in the mornings and going to bed early, so I get sad that I lose an hour of morning daylight!

  10. March 14, 2011 11:02 am

    I couldn’t continue reading past chapter 5 of “In the woods”. After reading so many rave reviews, I wondered if the problem lies with me instead. :( after reading your thoughts today, I’ve decided to give it a rest and move on to other books that I’m more interested in.

    You write so well and give such comprehensive and insightful thoughts. Take your time to blog whenever you can. Your health is the utmost importance.

    Btw, since I’m giving up on the book, I would really like to know the ending. Is there anywhere
    I could be directed for spoilers?

    I’m rambling . :)

    • March 30, 2011 6:03 am

      Thank you Moshi! And the problem definitely isn’t with you. If you’d like, send me an e-mail and I’ll tell you the ending. I’m sure you can find it on the internet, though. Actually, I think Lu’s post (Regular Ruminations) had spoilers!

  11. March 14, 2011 12:00 pm

    I’ve had Koroko on my tbr pile for ages, the stark white cover puts me off but your post has made me feel more positive about approaching it.
    Have you read I am the Messeanger by Markus Zusak? His writing in this novel really reminded me of Sherman, both authors I need to read more of.

    • March 30, 2011 6:04 am

      I liked the Penguin edition cover! I haven’t read I am the Messenger; now I really want to. The Book Thief blew me away!

  12. March 14, 2011 12:01 pm

    I liked In The Woods, but I was ultimately disappointed by it. It was highly recommended to me by a bookstore owner, but I didn’t see why. I thought it was decent but not really anything too special. Which is too bad, because it’s highly recommended all over the place! I totally see your point — I ended up being disappointed in Rob. Come on, guy. Don’t be such a jerk.

    • March 30, 2011 6:05 am

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one Daphne!

  13. March 14, 2011 7:21 pm

    Bleargh, I didn’t like Into the Woods either. And I wanted to, everyone seems to be so crazy about Tana French. But the writing didn’t thrill me, the thing of not resolving parts of the mystery annoyed me, and I wasn’t invested in Rob and Cassie’s relationship. I think it’s just part and parcel of my general dislike of modern police procedure mysteries — it was sort of a relief in a way, that I didn’t like Into the Woods. If I don’t like that genre-transcending of a police procedural mystery, I’ll never love any police procedural mystery. There’s that whole category of books out of my life. :p

    • March 30, 2011 6:06 am

      Dude, where were all of these non In the Woods fans when I started it?! lol

      I love mysteries, but I’m not sure if I like police procedural ones…what does that mean? I love PD James’ Dalgleish books: have you tried them? And I roll my eyes at the phrase ‘genre transcending.’ hehe

  14. March 15, 2011 7:02 am

    I’ve seen a couple of unfavorable reviews for Into the Woods lately, but I actually like them because they help lower my expectations of a very hyped book. Haven’t heard of the other books before except for When the Emperor was Divine, which has been on my TBR list for a while.

    • March 30, 2011 6:06 am

      I think having lower expectations helps sometimes!

  15. Kathleen permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:24 am

    It’s nice to have you back with us and sharing all about your reads. BTW, the whole daylight savings thing has thrown me for a loop too. Interesting comments about French. I’ve heard so many rave reviews and haven’t read any of her stuff yet, myself. Your review has made me feel better about that.

  16. March 15, 2011 3:26 pm

    Oh, Mad Bad and Sad doesn’t sound at all like what i was thinking too! Too bad.

    I started I AM A CAT and loved the first section. Then I got tired of it — I was so distracted by summer — but I do want to get back in to it. I was enjoying. I think I have Kokoro on my shelf?

    • March 30, 2011 6:07 am

      I want to give I am a Cat a go now! Sometimes, with authors I’m not sure of, I prefer starting with one of their shorter books. lol

  17. March 17, 2011 2:12 pm

    Ooh, I really like the sound of the Sherman Alexie one. I do love a good story (or two) set on reservations in the US. I find the history so fascinating.

    I may to give Natsume Soseki a go too :) I’m ashamed to not have read any Japanese literature so will have to get on that case.

    • March 30, 2011 6:08 am

      Alexie’s awesome. So is Thomas King!

      If you’re looking for other Japanese lit recs, I love Banana Yoshimoto and the novel Twinkle Twinkle (can’t remember author right now).

  18. March 19, 2011 6:50 pm

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the Alexie book because I have it on my shelf :-) He has already won me over to total #fangirl status, but so excited to know that even the books I’ve not yet read are great!

  19. March 20, 2011 5:09 pm

    My mom tried to read In the Woods, but she didn’t get anywhere either. She was telling me she didn’t like the narrating style too well. I’m still on the fence on whether I should read it.

    • March 30, 2011 6:09 am

      If the excerpt I included doesn’t turn you off, you’ll be fine!


  1. The karma train is never late II | an unfinished person (in this unfinished universe)

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