Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s 1948, and retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono is watching his country rebuild — physically, emotionally, and politically — after the damage wrought by the second World War.  He lost loved ones and his home was damaged, as were some of his regular haunts.  Now his life revolves around his two adult daughters Setsuko and Noriko, and his young grandson Ichiro.  Setsuko and Ichiro live far away, but Noriko lives with her father.  A marriage deal is in the works, but the sisters are nervous because a previous negotiation fell through.  Ono is oblivious to the risk, and even more importantly fails to grasp that his own pre-war activities could be damaging Noriko’s prospects.

Ono provides the narrative, and while there’s plenty of dialogue, a great deal is inside his head.  Details drip out like water from a leaky faucet.  He goes off on tangents, and sometimes references important events or conversations, but doesn’t fill in the details until later.  He often ends a long story by saying it may not have happened exactly as he remembered it.  Kazuo Ishiguro uses Noriko and Setsuko to fill in the blanks through conversations with their father.  And his portrayal of the Japanese father-daughter relationship is brilliant.  When Ono’s daughters challenge him, they do so in a very indirect way.  They make suggestions instead of overt requests, even when the matter is of the utmost importance.  As Noriko’s marriage negotiations begin, Setsuko is clearly worried about something from their past, and wants Ono to clear things up with certain associates:

“I wonder how Mr Kuroda is these days. I can remember how he used to come here, and you would talk together for hours in the reception room.”

“I’ve no idea about Kuroda these days.”

“Forgive me, but I wonder if it may not be wise if Father were to visit Mr Kuroda soon.”

“Visit him?”

“Mr. Kuroda.  And perhaps certain other such acquaintances from the past.”

“I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, Setsuko.”

“Forgive me, I simply meant to suggest that Father may wish to speak to certain acquaintances from his past.  That is to say, before the Saitos’ detective does. After all, we do not wish any unnecessary misunderstandings to arise.”

“No, I suppose we don’t,” I said, returning to my paper.

I believe we did not discuss the matter further after that. Neither did Setsuko raise it again for the remainder of her stay last month.  (p. 85)

As Ono reminisces on his pre-war artistic career the reader comes to understand his daughters’ concerns.  But Ono is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on, and takes a personal risk at what he judges to be a critical point in the marriage negotiations.

This is one of Ishiguro’s early novels, and its style is much like The Remains of the Day, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  An Artist of the Floating World is nearly as great, and highly recommended.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement, by Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of British men as they move from school to university to adulthood.  The story begins in the 1920s when the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is at boarding school with his friends Stringham and Templer.  Their school days are coming to an end; will they go up to university or go directly to work?  As they contemplate their next phase of life, they also spend countless hours mocking other students — especially a boy named Widmerpool — and playing pranks on their  house master.

The “first movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time consists of three novellas spanning just over a decade: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World.  Jenkins and his friends come of age, finding their adult footing and struggling with love and loss.  Several other characters move in and out of their lives, like partners in a dance.  A woman appears initially as one man’s girlfriend, later as the wife of a second man, and still later as a third man’s lover.  Other characters have recurring roles in the dance, taking the floor every so often and then fading into the background.   As Jenkins muses in the second book:

I certainly did not expect that scattered elements of Mrs. Andriadis’s party would recur so comparatively soon in my life … their commitment was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of what I have already compared with a ritual dance.

The dance metaphor works very well in this book.  The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet.  And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel.  Yet every so often Powell sums things up with powerful prose, like this paragraph towards the end of A Question of Upbringing:

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period.  This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. … A new epoch was opening: in a sense this night was the final remnant of life at school.

A Dance to the Music of Time is very British, and very evocative of the period between the wars.  Every time I sat down to read, I was instantly transported into that world, while simultaneously reflecting on the “dance” representing my life.  While this “first movement” was more than 700 pages long, I never tired of it and was sad to say good-bye to characters who have inhabited my imagination for over a week.  I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.

Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is a story of Americans abroad, and a story of love and loss.  Isabel Archer arrives in England with her aunt, Lydia Touchett, who is intent on broadening her horizons.  Lydia is the mother of Isabel’s cousin Ralph, who lives with his father on their English estate, Gardencourt.  Within a few weeks of her arrival at Gardencourt, Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, insisting on maintaining her independence.  She inherits a considerable sum of money, and it appears she will be able to achieve her goal.  Unfortunately, her “friends” have other ideas, and when Isabel travels to the continent, she soon finds herself falling for Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy.  Sadly, their marriage is not a happy one and Isabel is stuck making the best of a bad situation.

The story evolves quite slowly, but there’s much more to this rich novel than can be described in a simple plot summary.  Henry James’ writing is complex, but not as difficult to read as I’d feared.  James was himself an American living abroad, and he clearly loved his adopted country.  Speaking through Ralph Touchett’s father, James offers a delightful point of view of an American living in England:

I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole–finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.

And the characterizations are superb.  Ralph cares deeply for Isabel, but never acts on his feelings.  Lydia is self-centered, but in an amusing way.  Madame Merle, a good friend of Lydia, is quite eccentric and takes Isabel under her wing; however, there is a mysterious side to her as well.  Isabel’s friend Henrietta is assertive and brash, perhaps representing the “typical American” in Europe.  Gilbert Osmond is completely unlikeable, and his sister Amy, the Countess Gemini, is vapid and self-centered, but pulls off a major feat near the end that shows there’s much more to her than meets the eye.

Throughout this novel Isabel is caught between a desire for independence, and societal pressures and expectations.  James’ understated prose delivers surprising emotional intensity, through a collection of memorable characters.  Highly recommended.

Review: Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This is my second time reading Pride and Prejudice, so it was a bit like going to visit an old friend.  I knew I’d enjoy it, and I also hoped I’d discover something new.  I was not disappointed!

The story opens with the famous line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Charles Bingley is the aforementioned single man, and when he arrives in the neighborhood Mrs. Bennet is determined to marry off one of her five daughters. Jane, the eldest, catches Bingley’s eye.  At the same time Jane’s younger and feistier sister Elizabeth verbally spars with Bingley’s more reserved friend Mr. Darcy.  Misinterpretation and poor communication keep Lizzie and Darcy apart for far too long.  During that time Lizzie works to bring Jane and Bingley together, and rejects an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, a distant relative who is set to inherit her father’s estate.  And there’s so much more: balls, elopements, kind relatives, nasty relatives … and of course true love conquers all.

I most enjoyed rediscovering Jane Austen’s marvelous wit.  Characters like Mr. Collins, and Lizzie’s mother Mrs. Bennet, were so ridiculous I just had to laugh.  And even though Pride and Prejudice was written two hundred years ago, the book and its characters seem just as realistic and relevant today.

This really isn’t much of a review, just a few impressions of a book I know I will re-read many more times.

Review: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

In 1843, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery were brutally murdered at their home in Kingston, Ontario.  Two servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were tried and convicted.  McDermott was sentenced to death, but Grace’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.  In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood uses scant historical evidence, and the character of young Dr. Simon Jordan, to tell Grace’s story.

Dr. Jordan is somewhat of a specialist in mental illness, and in 1859 is granted permission to conduct a series of interviews with Grace at the penitentiary.  He hopes to learn her side of the story, not just what her attorney told her to say at trial.  But Grace has blocked all memories associated with the murders, and uncovering the truth is a long process requiring much patience.  Jordan visits Grace nearly every day, and she recounts her life story from early childhood in Ireland all the way up to the murders.

Very early on, I fell into reading Alias Grace as I would any murder mystery.  I forgot it was historical fiction, and began reading between the lines, searching for red herrings and expecting surprise plot twists.  But the fascinating aspects of this tale are actually due to its basis in historical fact.  In the 1840s, the field of mental illness was going through tremendous change, with many new theories and treatment methods.  Many psychological conditions were simply not well understood.  And Grace herself was a victim of society’s prevailing attitudes toward women.  Because she was attractive, some thought she must be the mastermind behind the murders.  Others claimed her youth made her an unwilling victim.  Margaret Atwood brings out another side of Grace, that of a strong independent woman whose psychological reaction to trauma fundamentally changed the course of her life.

Review: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

This is a most unusual family drama, simultaneously frightening, funny, and intense.  Sam and Henny Pollit have six children.  Eldest daughter Louisa was a product of Sam’s first marriage; Henny has been nothing more than Sam’s brood mare, spawning an assortment of children that offer endless amusement to Sam and endless stress and torment to Henny. Sam is self-centered and without a care in the world; he prides himself on being the “fun” parent, organizing all manner of escapades with his children.  He speaks in a language all his own, full of cutesy nicknames and odd turns of phrase.  Henny grew up in a wealthy family, and cannot accept the reduced circumstances of her life with Sam.  She lives beyond their means, both materially and socially.

Sam and Henny neglect many of the practicalities associated with raising a family.  At 13, Louisa is far too young to shoulder these responsibilities and yet there she is, fixing breakfast every day, and making sure the household runs smoothly.  Henny has never accepted Louisa into the family, and verbally abuses her.  Sam showers her with pet names like Looloo, but also smothers her with his prying and controlling behaviors.  Louisa longs for summer holidays, when she stays with her mother’s family:

For nine months of the year were trivial miseries, self-doubts, indecisions, and all those disgusts of preadolescence, when the body is dirty, the world a misfit, the moral sense qualmish, and the mind a sump of doubt: but three months of the year she lived in trust, confidence, and love. (p. 163)

Sam and Henny have such a poor relationship that all communication occurs through their children.  Even Sam’s impending posting to Malaya is communicated to Henny via her eldest son.  And when they argue, all hell breaks loose:

When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull would fall over the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments. Then the tornado would break loose again. What a strange life it was for them, those quiet children, in this shaded house, in a bower of trees, with the sunny orchard shining, the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside.  (p. 326)

Louisa often finds herself caught in the middle of this marital drama, trying to break up the fights and protect the younger children.  While Sam is away in Malaya, life settles into some semblance of order, and on his return it seems as if normalcy will continue.  But a series of events dramatically change the family’s place in the community.   Sam and Henny are unable to work through this together, and when Sam takes charge you just know it won’t end well.  Louisa continues to serve as a stabilizing force, but increasingly resents Sam’s intrusion and control.

By now the “frightening” and “intense” elements of this novel should be clear.  It’s strange and uncomfortable to admit that in the midst of all this, there are funny elements as well.  Sam is larger than life.  He’s a complete prat and yet amusing and likable.  He and Henny share equally in their family’s dysfunction, and as much as she’s a victim of Sam’s ridiculous notions, I couldn’t help liking Sam more.  But Sam does some really awful things to his children, things that (if they were real people) would scar them for life.  As a reader, I felt really conflicted, which I think is by design.  Christina Stead is able to make the reader feel like one of Sam and Henny’s many children — fond of both parents, hurt and abused, and completely caught in the middle.

This is not an easy book to read, but not for the reasons you might think.  Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and it’s a bit like watching an impending train wreck.  But the prose also makes its demands on the reader, particularly Sam’s invented language.  However, those willing to invest the time and effort in this book will be rewarded in the end.

More reviews of The Man Who Loved Children:

Classics Circuit Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

The Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope tour is in full swing.  It began Monday, December 6 and will end Friday, December 17.  The button comes from the frontspiece of the first publication of The Last Chronicle of Barset (published 1867).  Anthony Trollope was born in London in 1815. When he died in 1882, he’d written 70 major works, including novels, stories, sketches, essays, and travelogues.

Here’s my review of Barchester Towers, followed by some more comments on the tour.


I’d never read Trollope before, and chose to read Barchester Towers for this blog tour.  First, because it was a familiar title.  It’s part of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, one of Trollope’s best-known series.  And second, because I had a copy on my shelves that has gathered dust for something like 20 years.  I thought it was high time I read it!

And … I made it through 140 pages of this 533-page tome before throwing in the towel.

I typically enjoy classic English literature, and the storyline was promising.  When a bishop dies, his son expects to be appointed successor, but another man is chosen.  This causes a bit of controversy, and the new bishop stirs things up by actually expecting clergy to work.  Trollope’s tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek as he paints vivid character portraits, such as this description of the new bishop and his wife:

It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she ads much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs. Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.  (p.23)

But the humor was not enough to compensate for the glacial pace.  In 140 pages a new bishop was appointed, and the bishop and his wife had a party.  In between these epic events, various characters were introduced.  Trollope spent 11 pages describing five members of a notable family in exhaustive detail.  The bishop’s party received similar treatment, except that took twice as long.  I just lost patience with it.

At first I was disappointed in myself for giving up, for not appreciating the detail and use of language.  Then I thought about Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Trollope.  I don’t particularly like reading Dickens either, but I adored dramatizations like Bleak House (2005), and Little Dorrit (2008).  These films brought Dickens’ world to life in a way the books never did.  As I was struggling with Trollope, a bookish friend recommended the 1982 BBC production of Barchester Chronicles.  If nothing else, I think I’ve learned that the best way for me to experience Victorian literature is through film.


Despite trying very hard to get past it, there was another aspect of Trollope’s writing that put me off.  As LifetimeReader said, “Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time.  Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting.” And Falaise was even more direct: “Let’s make no bones about this.  Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it.  Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment.  No, sir.”

I couldn’t agree more.  One of the characters in Barchester Towers dabbled in Judaism (as if that even makes sense), giving Trollope a forum for overt racist comments about Jews as “dirty” people.  It was unbelievably offensive, and even though I know it’s unfair to hold Trollope to today’s standards it was a complete turn-off.

But who knows, maybe I’m alone in my views on this book.  I’m looking forward to visiting these blogs for more thoughts on Barchester Towers, and I hope you’ll join me!

To learn more about Trollope’s entire body of work, check out all the tour stops.

Review: A Dry White Season, by André Brink

Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon.  When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide.  He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges.  Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted.  His family can’t understand his passion for justice.  Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:

“They killed Gordon,” he said.  “First they killed Jonathan, then him.  How can they get away with it?”

“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so.  I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben.  But it’s no use dwelling on it.”  She pressed his hand more urgently.  “It’s all over and done with now.  You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)

But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences.  He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues.   The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:

The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies.  … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been.  (p. 162)

André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs.  But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own.  In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.

Midweek @ Musings: 2010 Challenge Wrap-up


This year I signed up for only 4 reading challenges, so I thought I’d write a single wrap-up post.

Women Unbound (completed 6/20/2010)

For this challenge, participants were encouraged to read nonfiction and fiction books related to the rather broad idea of “women’s studies.”  I read 8 books (5 fiction and 3 non-fiction).  This challenge provided the perfect excuse to read Virago Modern Classics.  But my favorite book was non-fiction: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins (read my review).  This book was so good, I found myself foisting it on unsuspecting business colleagues, sometimes people I’d only just met!

Battle of the Prizes (completed 10/10/2010)

I participated in both the British and American versions of this challenge, which sought to answer the questions:  Does one prize have higher standards than the other? Pick better winners? Provide more reading entertainment or educational value? I read three British prize winners and four American prize winners.  My favorites were Without my Cloak, by Irish novelist Kate O’Brien (review), and Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (review), which will be one of my top reads of 2010.

Book Awards IV (completed 10/21/2010)

I’ve participated in all four Book Awards challenges.  I don’t find it at all difficult to read prize winners, but this year’s challenge required reading 10 books from 10 different awards.  I enjoyed scouring my shelves for award-winners I already owned, and reading from prizes I’d never read before, like the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais. I read some really great books for this challenge, including Haweswater, by Sarah Hall (review) and The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (review).

1% Well-Read

I abandoned this challenge when I launched my “un-project.” I was about halfway through my list at the time.  The funny thing is, I’ll probably read all 13 selections sometime in the next year.  I just decided to free myself from the obligation of reading them all by next April!

So that’s it: four challenges, done and dusted.

Did you participate in reading challenges this year?

Review: Adam’s Breed, by Radclyffe Hall

Gian-Luca’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her illegitimate son to be raised by his grandparents.  Fabio and Teresa live in an Italian community in London; Fabio is a naturalized citizen.  Gian-Luca is “English in the eyes of the law.” He’s different from all the boys in school both because of his ethnic background, and because he has no father.  And worse yet, Teresa sees Gian-Luca as the cause of her daughter’s death, and is unable to show him any affection.  He grows up lonely and searching for love.

Fabio’s salumeria is the one source of beauty in Gian-Luca’s early life:

The shop! All his life Gian-Luca remembered those first impressions of the shop; the size of it, the smell of it, the dim, mysterious gloom of it — a gloom from which strange objects would continually jump out and try to hit you in the face– but above all the smell, that wonderful smell that belongs to the Salumeria.  The shop smelt of sawdust and cheeses and pickles and olives and sausages and garlic; the shop smelt of oil and cans and Chianti and a little of split peas and lentils; the shop smelt of coffee and sour brown bread and very faintly of vanilla; the shop smelt of people, of Fabio’s boot blacking, and of all the boots that went in and out unblacked; it also smelt of Old Compton Street, a dusty, adventurous smell.  (p. 27)

When Gian-Luca leaves school, he begins a career as a waiter, and eventually becomes head waiter in The Doric, London’s finest restaurant.  Gian-Luca is talented and driven, but empty, lacking the emotional and spiritual connections so important to  personal well-being.  His life is a quest for identity, and for love.

Radclyffe Hall brings the Italian immigrant community to life, with delicious food and a rich supporting cast.  I enjoyed getting to know the characters and the early 20th-century restaurant business.  But Adam’s Breed is a melancholy book that explores themes of love, God, and human nature.  By the end it had evolved beyond its initial premise to a moving story of one man’s search for self, and meaning.