historical fiction · literary fiction · review

An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World reminded me just how much I love unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they have deliberately disconnected themselves from the world around them. Others can see the disconnection, but they can’t. These kinds of characters allow me to do two of my favorite things. First, I get two stories the for the price of one between what the narrator is telling me and what’s actually happening. Second, I get to psychoanalyze the narrator. They’re not lying to the reader because they’re a criminal. They’re lying to themselves for a reason I get to discover for myself. It’s an English major’s delight.

By 1948, Masuji Ono has retired from his work as a successful painter. He lives in a wonderful house. His oldest daughter is married with a child and his younger daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations. He lost his son in the war but, on the whole, Ono is satisfied with his life. It’s only over the course of the book that we learn just how much Ono is ignoring and distorting about his own history—especially his role in creating propaganda for the Imperial Japanese government before and during World War II.

An Artist of the Floating World unspools over the course of about eighteen months. We join Ono as he and his younger daughter, Noriko, are in the early stages of marriage negotiations with the Saito family. As part of these negotiations, the Onos are investigated to learn more about the finances, background, and so on. Ono is not worried. His older daughter, Setsuko, however, has some worries about what the investigation might turn up. Her comments about what the Saitos might find out about him bother Ono enough that he starts to look up people he knew before the war. He meets with the man who helped him sell propagandistic paintings. He tries but fails to meet with the student he wronged, the one who ended up imprisoned for years for anti-Imperial activities.

Flowers of Edo, by Utamaro, an artist who is referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

Ono strongly reminds me of Stevens, the protagonist of The Remains of the Day. Both characters have a firm vision of who they are and what they want to be. Stevens wanted to be the epitome of a butler and that’s what he turned himself into, at the cost of living an ordinary life. Ono wants to be a respected artist, looked up to by younger generations of artists. He is also deeply nostalgic for the way life and society used to be before the war. Several times during An Artist of the Floating World, Ono remarks on how a couple of the younger characters have condemned the actions of some Japanese leaders and business men during the war. Even though some of these men were convicted of war crimes, Ono always says that things were complicated “back then” or that what happened wasn’t all that bad. Ono has either turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Imperial soldiers or has kept himself deliberately ignorant. When he does come close to thinking that maybe his own propaganda work was wrong, Ono rationalizes away any culpability. He’s so smooth about it it’s breathtaking.

An Artist of the Floating World itself also reminds me of The Remains of the Day. Even though they are both set on opposite sides of the world, they are set in very hierarchical and reserved societies. The characters in An Artist of the Floating World are highly deferential and oblique in their criticisms. It took me a few dozen pages to learn how to read this book. Once I got a handle on the dialogue, I realized that this book seems to have more subtext than actual text. It is very much a joy to read for those of us who like to take books apart to see how they work, like me. I strongly recommend this book for English majors and anyone who loved The Remains of the Day and are looking for something similar.

literary fiction · review

The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Marone

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lorenzo Marone’s The Temptation to Be Happy (excellently translated by Shaun Whiteside) is masquerading as grump lit*. The book opens with an old widower who doesn’t get along with just about anyone. Cesare Annuziato’s life turns around when he decides to start helping people out—in his own off-kilter fashion. Even though this book gets darker than most of that genre, it still ends on an uplifting note. I needed a book like this after reading The Wolf and the Watchman.

Cesare is seventy-seven years old when we meet him, living alone in his apartment in Naples. His children have moved on with their lives. His son, Dante, is gay and everyone knows, except he hasn’t officially come out to Cesare. Sveva is a clearly unhappy lawyer, mother, and wife. His neighbors include the cat hoarder, Eleonora; his old co-worker, Marino; and the newly arrived Emma and her abusive husband. As The Temptation to Be Happy rolls on, we learn more about each and watch as Cesare is finally drawn into their problems as he comes out of his asocial shell—more out of irritation than altruism, because he can’t stand to see people keep screwing up their lives anymore.

This book is very much about happiness, but in ways that belie Tolstoy’s truism about happy and unhappy families. For a long time, Cesare chased happiness. He believes that a new job or a new lover would do the trick. It never did, so he fell back into his old job as an accountant and his family life. Nothing, he finally learned, could really make him happy so much as the little pleasures of life. The pages in which Cesare lists the things he likes at the end of the book are incredibly moving after the turmoil and sadness of the book up to that point. Nothing makes everyone happy. Everyone has their own individual joys in life; we just have to find them.

In addition to its lessons about the individual, occasionally selfish nature of the pursuit of happiness, The Temptation to Be Happy also has a lot to say about not wasting time on white lies, not speaking up for yourself, not tolerating rudeness, and accepting that we can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. This was a wise book, wrapped up in stories that feel emotionally honest to stop the whole thing from being mawkish or facile. I enjoyed it so much I just devoured the thing.

* Think of A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman, and books like the ones on this list from Get Literary.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Home, by Leila S. Chudori

Leila S. Chudori’s Home (translated by John H. McGlynn) circles around a black day in Indonesian history, while not revealing much about what happened on September 30, 1965. Instead, it details the long aftermath of the violence and the violent, repressive crackdown on communism through the lives of Dimas Suryo and his family. McGlynn’s translation includes some poorly chosen words and the book could have done with more editing, as it contains some typos.

Dimas Suryo, like many people in Indonesia, was targeted by the regime simply because he spent time with members of the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia. Dimas was lucky enough to get out of the country before September 30, but his first love and some of his relatives and friends were rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned by President Suharto‘s regime. For years after his escape, Dimas feels guilty for his relatively easy life in Paris while so many others suffer. He also laments the fact that he can never go home.

After Dimas tells his story, his daughter, Lintang, and his ex-wife, Vivienne, take over duties as narrator. Dimas covers the early 1950s to the early 1980s. Lintang and Vivienne cover the 1980s to 1998, when Suharto was at long last ousted from power. While the first half of Home is an elegy for what Dimas lost, the second half is about Lintang’s quest for the other, Indonesian half of her identity. Dimas mourned his lost home for decades, but never really told Lintang what it was like. Her exposure to Indonesia (which she frequently spells out in her letters and emails for some reason) comes through her father’s cooking and her three “uncles,” who also escaped just before the crackdowns.

I liked the second half of Home a lot more than the first. While I sympathize with Dimas, he often struck me as a prig who lacks understanding for human foibles. Lintang is much more interesting. I almost wish that Home has just been her story because it’s a lot more action-packed and focused as a narrative. I much preferred Lintang’s discovery of her heritage and her father’s homeland a lot more than Dimas’ intractable grief. A lot of the first half, I feel, could have been edited out.

Home is the second book I’ve read set in Indonesia. It is not nearly as successful for me as The Question of Red because of it runs too long, is uneven, and needed more editing. At least Lintang’s story came second, so I can feel as though the book ends on a much better note than it began with.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik

It’s a little black-hearted, but I suspect that we read stories about hard luck and bad decisions because they remind us that at least things are as bad as they are for the people in them. I thought about this a lot as I read the stories in Kseniya Melnik’s collection, Snow in May. I didn’t set out to read hard luck stories when I picked it up; I just grabbed it off the shelf at my library because I liked the cover. But then, I should have known that I’d get a stiff dose of hardship from any piece of fiction set in the Soviet Union or Russia.

Some of the stand outs from this collection include:

“Love, Italian Style, or, In Line for Bananas.” This story features a hard choice. On the one hand, the protagonist can choose a night of passion with a visiting Italian athlete (and face the inevitable consequences of consorting with capitalists). On the other, she can do her duty to her family in Magadan and stand in nearly endless queues to secure foods and goods that she can only buy in Moscow. Unfortunately, it appears that Fate is making things even more difficult for our protagonist: she has the worst streak of luck in her entire life.

“Closed Fracture.” In this story, a Russian immigrant to the United States receives a phone call from his best friend from childhood. The call functions like Proust’s madeleine and sends the immigrant on a long journey back through his memories to the winter he broke his leg and his life diverged from his unlucky friend’s.

“Our Upstairs Neighbor.” In this story, a young woman attends a somewhat ludicrous concert in honor of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest singers. The singer never shows. When the young woman asks about him, she learns that her grandfather knew him. Her question to her grandfather about why the singer didn’t show elicits a long, meandering story about the singer via her grandfather’s life. He argues that, to understand the now, we have to know everything that came before.

While the stories in Snow in May didn’t knock my socks off, I enjoyed how many of them linked together to share a multi-generational family story of surviving under the last decades of the Soviet Regime and the first decade of the Russian Federation. Everyone hustles to get a better life for themselves and their relatives, only to stumble or rise when Fate or Luck intervenes.

Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
classics · literary fiction · review

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

By Sunday of this last week, I had read 100 pages of John Steinbeck’s opus, East of Eden, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue. It wasn’t the size of the book. It was the casual misogyny. I wasn’t in the mood to read books about men when women were dismissed or villainized (no matter how rightfully). But I stuck with it. My dimly remembered memories of The Grapes of Wrath plus a friend’s comment that East of Eden was one of his favorite books kept me going. I’m glad I did. I was moved more than once by this novel about the struggle of human nature between good and bad.

East of Eden is the story of two families, narrated by a young man named Steinbeck. (Some of the characters are based on members of the author’s family.) We meet the Hamiltons first. They are a sprawling family who live and work on a hardscrabble ranch near the Salinas Valley in California. Though they have a lot of ingenuity, they can never seem to get ahead. The other family, who we meet after many, many pages, are the Trasks, who eventually take over the narrative. The Trasks—first Adam and his brother, Charles, and then Adam’s sons, Aron and Caleb—are written about in epic terms as they wrestle with jealousy and love. Their struggles are magnified by the appearance of the sociopath, Cathy Ames, who often steals the show.

Because East of Eden was written and published in the mid-twentieth century, there is a lot of casual misogyny and racism. One of my favorite characters, Lee (who works as Adam’s servant and caretaker, and who essentially raises Adam’s twins), is frequently subjected to racial slurs even though her arguably the most intelligent character in the book. Outside of the Tracks and Hamiltons, no one is willing to see Lee as anything other than a word I will not even write. Women characters, apart from Cathy and Abra (Aron’s love), aren’t given much more attention than a few pages or, sometimes, just a few sentences. There is more than one passage where a woman is admired for not talking. There are others were women tell a man what they want, only to be told they are silly and have their wants dismissed. It’s hard for me to read these parts, and part of why I was half-willing to just give up.

Partway through the novel, there is a passage where Lee introduces the concept of timshel*. This was my turning point. Lee was bothered by a word in Genesis that led readers to believe that being good or bad was predestined. If being a good or bad person is predestined, what is the point of trying, he wondered. So Lee worked with a group of Chinese elders to learn Hebrew and re-translate the passage. The elders concluded that the word in question actually meant that the struggle between good and bad is a choice that we humans have to make over and over again. We’re not doomed by our parents’ histories or DNAs. We’re not even doomed by our past actions (if we can atone and forgive). Instead, we can grow over time into the kinds of people we want to be. The concept of timshel moved me a lot, and I sympathized greatly with Caleb, who wrestles with his conscience and his occasional inclination to hurt others when he himself is hurt.

East of Eden is a great book. It’s an epic full of plenty of fodder for the brain. It is also a work of its time, with attitudes and words that we find offensive now. I had to find a way past the latter to enjoy the former. Other readers may not be willing to make that compromise and I think this is totally fine. There are too many books in the world to struggle through a book just because of its reputation. Readers who do choose the take on East of Eden will be greatly rewarded by a complex, thoughtful, very human story of men whose struggles and failings are literally writ large for us. There are definitely reasons why this book was and is a classic of American literature.

* If you google “timshel,” you get articles about the concept, lyrics to a Mumford & Sons’ song, and a lot of great tattoos in English and Hebrew.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

Trigger warning for rape and suicide.

I am continuing my out-of-order dive into Louise Erdrich’s collections of interlinked stories featuring characters on an Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation somewhere in the Dakotas. Love Medicine is one of the earliest of these; it includes stories originally published as far back as 1984. Several of the stories in this collection is, as the title hints, about love. But this collection also revolves around love’s darker implications: jealousy, grief, and unrequited love.

Love Medicine spans 1934 to 1985. Over the course of the novel, I saw two sides form up. On one side is the sprawling family of Lulu Nanapush. On the other is the equally sprawling, but more dysfunctional, family of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. In between these two women is Nector Kashpaw. Nector was in love with Lulu before he literally bumped into Marie and, somehow, ended up married to her. Nector loves Lulu for the rest of his life. He also loves Marie. Marie loves him and is jealous of his love for Lulu. Lulu also loves Nector, but her love is more expansive than either Nector’s or Marie’s. This tangled, mostly unspoken web affects the original trio and appears to affect generations of their descendants.

The novel begins with a story that encapsulates much of the emotional range of the rest of Love Medicine. June Morrissey is traveling back to the reservation. The last of her money was spent on the bus ticket. At one of the stops, she meets a man and decides to have sex with him. After the act and the man suddenly falls asleep on her, June slips out of the warm truck and walks away into a snowy night. She ends up freezing to death. This first story shows us sexual need, a hint of addiction, and death by either misadventure or suicide. As the collection progresses, we see these actions and emotions repeated in variations.

In some stories, it seems as though characters were doomed because of their DNA or their parents’ sins. In others, we see characters wrestling deeply with grief for their lost loved ones. We also see a deeply broken culture—a recurrent theme in Erdrich’s novels. These characters have nothing to turn to when they have no idea what to do next. The local Catholic church is warped by brutal mysticism. No one knows the old ways anymore. So many of the characters are just following their emotional impulses. These emotions can be deadly; people drown in them. And, as one character tells us later in the collection, drowning is the worst death for a Chippewa.

Love Medicine is depressing. Though there are moments of humor to lighten things up, this collection is like having one’s face pressed up against a window to watch miserable people on the other side and not being able to look away for relief. The scholarly literature I read when I was helping students do research on The Round House has taught me that Love Medicine is an important book in the overall series. In the end, Love Medicine is a hard book to read but necessary, if one is to fully understand the world Erdrich created.

literary fiction · review · short stories

That Time I Loved You, by Carrianne Leung

Trigger warning for suicide.

Years ago, I read Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio. The collection moves from character to character, all residents of the same, small town, revealing their secrets and thoughts. It ripped away myths about idyllic life on Main Street, America. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Carrianne Leung’s collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You, also destroys a lot of the nostalgic, idealized ideas we might have about suburban life: especially when one of the main characters reveals that the Canadian suburb they live in as recently experienced a series of suicides.

The suicides, which all happened within weeks of each other, surprise many of the suburb’s residents. Over the course of the stories in this collection, we learn that many of these residents thought that they were the only ones with ineffable psychological problems. We learn about the kleptomaniac, the woman who longs for a child but can’t get pregnant with her husband, another woman who believes her flowers are talking to her, and others. One might expect that That Time I Loved You would center on the suicides and treat them as a mystery to be solved. This collection doesn’t do that. The suicides really are unconnected and the time is coincidental.

Instead, That Time I Loved You struck me as a coming-of-age story for the teenaged characters. The teenagers, in the midst of the adults’ turmoil, fall in and out of love, wrestle with the obligations of friendship, whine, complain about each other whining, and on and on. There were stories here that remind me why a lot of older people get so annoyed by the overwhelming emotions of teenagers. We’ve learned perspective since we were their age; not every emotional upset is as world-ending as they believe. Listening to their worried and problems made me want to reach into the book and yell at them to get a grip. My irritation, however, triggered an epiphany. I remembered that, to someone who has only been on the planet for 13, 15, or 17 years, breaking up with a first love really does feel world-ending.

That Time I Loved You is an unsettling read but a useful one. It reminds us how deeply people feel below respectable facades. There is no such place as a perfect small town or suburb because we all have things we wrestle with that we really don’t want other people to know about. It fits in the sub-genre of collections, like Winesburg, Ohio, that pushes us into another person’s shoes and forces us to walk around in them. It’s an uncomfortable practice, obviously, but one that we periodically need to do to maintain a healthy sense of empathy.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.