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: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

In 1937, Andras Lévi travels from his home in Budapest to Paris to study architecture at the École Spéciale.  He faces a variety of challenges adjusting to the new country and making ends meet, but manages to find a part-time job, make friends of fellow students, and most importantly, fall in love with Klara, an older woman with a secret past.  But their happiness is overshadowed by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, especially since Andras and Klara are both Jewish.  A series of events take Andras and Klara back to Hungary, where Andras is pressed into service not as a soldier, but as a member of a labor corps responsible for digging ditches, felling trees, loading boxcars, and so on.

The first half of The Invisible Bridge takes place primarily in Paris, and serves to develop a rich cast of characters in a setting that is idyllic compared to what they have in store.  Andras is established as a promising young architect; his brother Tibor, a physician.  The brothers meet their future wives, and forge strong bonds with a group of peers.  And then suddenly, new laws affecting Jewish immigrants change everything, and their close-knit group is scattered.  The second half of the book covers the war years in harrowing detail, and it was interesting to read about World War II from a Hungarian perspective.  Hungary was part of the Axis powers allied with Germany and Italy, but this was somewhat by force.  Many of the characters in this book secretly hoped for Germany’s downfall.  Life was one struggle after another:  labor servicemen were subjected to extremely poor conditions as well as physical and emotional abuse.  It wasn’t any easier for those left at home, as they faced food shortages and government corruption.  And communication channels were poor, so people often didn’t know how their loved ones were faring while they were apart.

The Invisible Bridge is a well-paced story of love and hardship, but it’s also a long book (nearly 600 pages), and I lost concentration in the last 100 pages.  Some aspects felt repetitive: Andras leaves for labor service, returns home, and is called up again.  And then he comes home.  And then he is called back.  And … well, you get the idea.  Each time there were new plot developments both in his life and in the war, but I still tired of it.  And yet, there was a lot of excitement in this story, as well as emotion, and I will not soon forget Andras, his family, and the hardships they had to overcome.

The Sunday Salon Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Today’s post is coming a bit late in the day, for three reasons.  First, I intended to write a book review, but needed to finish the book first!  I read the last 15 pages or so early this morning.  Second, we had a few things to do in the morning and early afternoon.  And finally, on returning home we found the power was out!  I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, enjoying free wifi and a latte.

This week I finished my chunkster-thon with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and I’ve now moved on to two short-ish Virago Modern Classics:  Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor; and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns.  Taylor is one of my favorite authors, and Comyns is an author I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Plus I have 5 of her books in my Virago bookcase, so I’d better get on with it.

But first, I need to write that book review …

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In the late  1930s, Louie Zamperini was a young hell-raiser growing up in Torrance, California.  He was also an aspiring Olympic runner, breaking records in nearly every race as he closed in on a 4-minute mile.  But in 1941, like so many young American men, he joined the military to serve in World War II.  As a member of the Army Air Corps, he was on board a bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943.  Louie and two crewmen survived.  Unbroken is an amazing account of Louie’s survival, both from the crash and over two years’ imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp, and of his struggle to regain his dignity and re-enter “normal” American society.

Unbroken is a very personal story; since Zamperini is still alive, Laura Hillenbrand had direct access to him and to his scrapbooks and other memorabilia.  Through Louie she learned a great deal about his beloved crew members and soldiers he met in the camps.  She also learned about the man Zamperini came to fear most:  a Japanese guard nicknamed “The Bird,” whose brutality landed him 7th on the list of war criminals sought for trial after the war.  The result is an emotional page-turner that sometimes made me smile, more often made my stomach churn, and occasionally brought tears to my eyes.

So why did I rate it only 3.5 stars?  There was a tinge of American exceptionalism running through this book that bothered me.  Early on, Hillenbrand described the Nanking Massacre, which laid groundwork for an “Americans are good, Japanese are bad” theme.  Other more subtle cues appeared elsewhere in the text, as when one of Louie’s crewmates describes a failed Japanese bombing as “inept.”  The last straw for me was near the end of the book after the Japanese surrender, as Hillenbrand summed up the war.  Of Japan’s role in the conflict she wrote, “In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.”  She then went on to cite casualty figures that, frankly, were nowhere close to the casualties from the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And a few pages later, describing those horrific bombings, she quoted a serviceman who felt “the end probably justified the means.”  I’m telling you, it turned my stomach.

And yet, I would still recommend this book as a first-hand account of the realities of war.  Just be forewarned.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr

A Month in the Country is a quiet, contemplative novella of just over 100 pages.  Its impact sneaks up on you; in fact, I think I’ve divined greater meaning in my post-reading reflections than I did in the act of reading itself.  Tom Birkin survived life at the front and returned home with a facial tic and serious emotional scars.  When the book opens in 1920, he has just arrived in the north English village of Oxgoodby, where he is to restore a 14th-century wall painting in the church.  He has no money, so he establishes a small camp in the belfry.  He soon meets Charles Moon, a fellow veteran camping in the adjacent meadow.  Moon has been hired to find a grave; both men’s jobs are required by the estate of a recently departed village resident.

As the two men settle into their work they find a certain rhythm, sharing meals, coffee and the occasional pint.  Birkin is also visited by several villagers.  Some are unhappy with his presence — like the vicar himself, who resents the intrusion in his sanctuary.  Others think Birkin something of a curiosity (he’s from the south, after all), and still others value his friendship.  Alice Keach, the vicar’s young and attractive wife, is a regular visitor, and their attraction to each other is palpable, and quite touching.

Birkin’s art restoration serves as a metaphor for his psychological healing.  As the painting’s brilliant hues emerge from beneath the whitewash that kept it hidden for centuries, the weight falls from Birkin’s shoulders.  He begins to take part more actively in village life, and takes great pleasure in the seemingly endless summer weather.  As the restoration nears completion, he can envision a “life after Oxgodby” that he would never have thought possible.

Review: One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes

But in the early morning light, seen from the top of Barrow Down, the huddle of grey and pink and cream houses looked merely charming. Up here, man had long ago been obliterated by the green armies of fern, the invading foxgloves, the cony and the magpie. Bumps under the honeycombed turf marked the site of old shelters for man and beast where cattle had lowed and the smoke of little fires had written “Morning” and “Hunger” in the sky. Wealding children sometimes found old flints buried under the rabbit droppings; picnic parties munched their hard-boiled eggs among ghosts.  In spring, dog-violets spilled small blue lakes in the bleached grass, followed later by the pink and white restharrow, clean as sprigged chintz, and the great golden candlesticks of mulleins. Up here, on the empty hilltop, something said I am England. I will remain.  (p. 9)

Morning dawns in the village of Wealding, and so begins One Fine Day.  It’s 1946, the war is finally over, and residents of Wealding and the town of Bridbury are gradually returning to some kind of “normal” life.  And yet things changed dramatically during the war.  There was, of course, the tragic loss of life, the young men who never returned.  But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail.  Laura & Stephen Marshall are an upper middle class couple, and before the war they benefited from daily household help in the form of a cook, a maid, and a nurse to care for their daughter Victoria.  Dinner magically appeared on the table every night, the house was always clean and ready for guests, and Victoria was presented to her parents before bedtime, freshly scrubbed and wearing clean pajamas.  The Marshalls were shocked into a completely different lifestyle during the war, when their household help found better work at better wages … and never returned to a life of service.

One Fine Day follows Laura Marshall through a typical day of errands and household tasks, after Stephen leaves for work and Victoria gets off to school.  Laura ventures into the town to buy food.  She queues at the bakery and the fishmonger, dealing with competitive customers, grumpy shopkeepers, and a shortage of their better merchandise.  But this book is not about what Laura does, it’s about what she thinks, and what that tells us about her changing world.  Occasionally she reminisces about her youth, and the man she almost married, and we gain insight into the society in which she was raised.  Through a conversation between Laura and her mother we learn that Laura’s parents, who live further away from London, were able to keep their servants.  Their home still reflects the golden age of British Empire.  “It was like going back to another world, seen through the nostalgic lens of world catastrophe.” But then Laura’s errands take her to the home of some local gentry, who are no longer able to keep up their estate.  They have sold it to the “National Trussed,” and are in progress of moving into a flat located near the manor house.  She surveys the packing and dismantlement with dismay, noting the marked contrast with poorer families who have bettered their circumstances and “bred and bred like rabbits in their dreadful cottage.”

A sense of loss pervades this book.  The loss of material goods and comforts serves as a symbol for the loss of Empire that was just beginning to unfold.  You can see those “English ladies and gentlemen who would forever inherit the earth,” who took pride in turning the world map pink, begin to falter.  And yet there is also an air of hope, of accepting one’s new circumstances and seeing the possibility of happiness ahead.  Much of this is conveyed through Laura’s sensory perceptions, as she picks fruit in her garden or rides down a lane on her bicycle.  As the day draws to a close, Mollie Panter-Downes shifts the point of view to Victoria, and then Stephen, and somehow manages leaves the reader with the feeling that while their lives are irrevocably changed, everything will work out for them in the long run.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week.

Review: At Mrs Lippincote’s, by Elizabeth Taylor

What I love about Elizabeth Taylor is her ability to develop rich characters through such understated language.  At Mrs Lippincote’s opens with Roddy and Julia, a middle-aged couple, moving into a rented house (belonging to the Mrs Lippincote in the title).  Through their conversation about trivial matters, Taylor manages to convey both the stress of moving and the fragile state of Julia and Roddy’s relationship.

The accommodation has been arranged to enable Julia, Roddy, their son Oliver and cousin Eleanor to be together during Roddy’s Royal Air Force posting.  It’s 1945, and the family feels safer in the country than in London.  But the hardship of war has worn them down as well.  Oliver is a sickly boy — or, at least, the family thinks he is, finding one excuse after another for not sending him to school.  Eleanor finds work at the school, and befriends a group of hapless political activists in an attempt to have a life of her own.

And Julia is stuck at home, forced to play the role of officer’s wife. She is hopeless at it, never quite saying the right thing or wearing the right clothes.  She strikes up a friendship with Roddy’s commanding officer, based on a shared love of the Brontë sisters.  She also encounters a man they once knew in London, who has fallen on hard times and become a waiter/bartender.  She finds herself drawn to him, simply to overcome her loneliness.

Each of the characters in this book, even the young boy Oliver, are dramatically changed during their stay in Mrs Lippincote’s house.  And yet the story unfolds quietly and subtly; to get the full effect, you have to pay attention to the nuances.  At Mrs Lippincote’s is a showcase for Elizabeth Taylor’s gift for subtlety and nuance.

Review: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books. … What really mattered were not these public affairs, but the absorbing incidents of our own private lives — and now, suddenly, the one had impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become inseparable. (p. 98)

For those who read this memoir, War will never more be “something remote, unimaginable.”  It will be real, searingly painful, ineffective and so obviously wrong.  When World War I broke out in 1914, Vera Brittain was only 18 and had recently overcome tremendous odds to be admitted to Oxford.  When her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward, and two good friends all joined the Army, Brittain left her studies to become a nurse.  She served first in London, later in Malta, and finally at the front in France before returning to England.

Brittain was an early feminist; every decision she made went against the norm, something she was keenly aware of:

Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a  family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic … (p. 59)

She was driven, but also understood the “frivolity” of pursuing a degree in wartime.  Her nursing experience forms the heart of this book, and is also the most emotional.  Brittain describes each hospital’s harsh and inadequate conditions, and some of the soldiers under her care.  When she is assigned to a ward for German prisoners, the reader begins to understand that “the enemy” also have mothers, wives, and families who love them.  And, while Brittain is “doing her bit,” she experiences tremendous personal loss as those she loves lose their lives in the conflict.  I found myself holding back tears, and cautiously turning the pages, fearing the next death.

After the war, Brittain found that not only had her country changed, but so had she:

Only the permanence of my fondest ambitions, and the strange and growing likeness of my son to Edward, reminds me that I am still the individual who went to Uppingham Speech Day in 1914, for although I was a student at Oxford in both my lives, it was not the same Oxford and I was not the same student.  (p. 495)

Her experience left permanent emotional scars, and she struggled to cope with being part of “the lost generation.”  Still, she was able to return to Oxford, and obtained her degree shortly after the university began awarding them to women.  Brittain became a regular lecturer with the League of Nations Union.  She returned to Europe, touring several countries to understand the impact and aftermath of the war; this once again brought home the pointlessness of it all.

This is one of the most moving and powerful books I’ve ever read.  If all you know of war is strategy, tactics, good guys and bad guys, then you must read this book.  Brittain has left us an important legacy.  In her words:

Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.  (p.646)

Review: Something to Answer for, by P.H. Newby

Something to Answer For takes place during the 1956 Suez Crisis.  This was one of those typically complicated political tangles, and one I knew little about.  The crisis involved military action by the British and French, in response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (which in itself was a response to American actions taken when Egypt recognized the People’s Republic of China … and on and on …).

Jack Townrow walks into the middle of all this when his friend Elie Khoury’s widow writes to him requesting help to investigate her husband’s death and settle his affairs.  Against his better judgment he travels to Egypt.  En route he meets a Jewish man who accuses Townrow — or, rather, the British — of allowing the Holocaust to happen.  Townrow is aghast, certain the British government would have prevented genocide if they had known about it.  He is equally certain the British can only do good in Egypt.

Soon after his arrival, Townrow is attacked and forgets his identity, his nationality, and many other details.  He still tries hard to help Mrs. Khoury, although he questions whether Elie is really dead and sometimes goes off in search of him.  He falls for a young woman named Leah, but  evil and suspicion lurk around every corner, and it’s difficult for Townrow — and the reader — to tell who the “good guys” really are.

Townrow’s character appears to be a metaphor for the British Empire losing its colonial power, and I’m sure the events were still fresh in readers’ minds when this book was published in 1968.  But the metaphor didn’t work for me, I found the plot a bit surreal, and the book very difficult to follow.  It just wasn’t my thing.

Review: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

In May, 2010 J.G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “Lost Man Booker Prize.” The award brought renewed attention to this classic, first published in 1970.  I knew the novel was set around 1920, and dealt with the war between Sinn Fein/I.R.A. and British occupational forces in Ireland.  I enjoy historical fiction, and I read several glowing reviews, but unfortunately this book failed to live up to my expectations.

The story begins when Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, travels to Ireland to reunite with his fiancee, Angela, whose father Edward owns The Majestic, a huge, decrepit hotel.  The Major isn’t quite sure how he became engaged to Angela, but all of her letters to him imply a commitment was made.  However, on arrival at The Majestic, Angela behaves strangely towards him, and is soon taken ill and confined to bed.  Meanwhile, Edward is attracted to Sarah Devlin, a young woman from town.  She is an obnoxious attention-seeker, and I never understood what he saw in her.  Later, Edward’s twin daughters Faith and Charity arrive on the scene.  Like most of the characters in Troubles, they are caricatures, but I also found them distasteful.

The book is satirical, and infused with dry wit which I really enjoyed:

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.  The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings. (p. 7)

The story is long and sprawling, with several subplots and a number of fantastical events.  I could appreciate The Majestic as a metaphor for the decline of Empire, and the residents as stereotypes of the Anglo-Irish privileged classes.  But late in the novel there were several acts of senseless cruelty to animals, all described in the same “witty” style as the above quote, and that was the turning point in my opinion of this novel.  There was something about Troubles that appealed to me (I did, after all, read all 459 pages), and other aspects reminded me of magical realism, a genre I do not care for.

Many of my fellow readers have loved this book, but for some reason it just wasn’t for me.

Review: The Siege, by Helen Dunmore

The siege of Leningrad began in 1941, when the German army cut all land connections into the city, disrupting energy, water, fuel, and food supplies.  The result was a famine of epic proportions. Anna, a 23-year-old nursery school assistant, lives with her father Mikhail and much younger brother Kolya in an idyllic pastoral setting.  They grow their own food, preserve jams, and tend flowers.  As the army approaches, countryside living becomes more dangerous.  Anna and her family join others in migrating to the city, where food supplies are believed to be more plentiful.  Once there, they find shops have been looted and most goods are available only on the black market.

At first Anna works as part of a defense crew, and her father also volunteers his services for the war effort.  But then Mikhail is injured, and Anna assumes a “head of household” role.  She also meets Andrei, a young doctor who treated her father, and who is working round-the-clock shifts caring for the sick and injured.  Anna and Andrei feel a strong attraction to one another; soon the family offers him shelter, and they are also joined by Marina, a family friend.

With each passing week, the German army tightens its grip on the city.  The basics of daily living go from being scarce, to completely unavailable.  Food is rationed, and people resort to violence to get hold of additional ration cards.  The rations are gradually reduced as officials calculate and recalculate how long supplies will last.  Hunger claims one life after another.  Winter approaches, and there is no energy for heat, no water for bathing or drinking.  And yet Anna works tirelessly to provide for the group, sacrificing portions of her own ration for Kolya and bundling him up in clothes and blankets each day.  She  scrapes together funds to buy a wood stove, and scavenges for wood while also burning books and furniture.  She never gives up, even as her own body weakens.  The bond between Anna and Andrei shifts from one of passion, to one of intense commitment to survival.

This book was simply amazing.  Helen Dunmore conveyed the physical and mental effects of extreme hunger and cold in such a powerful way:

You wake yourself, snuffling around in the bedclothes. A load of blankets and coats weighs you down, but you’re still cold. Your feet are numb and your breath comes short. The cold settles in your back and makes your spine hurt.  You must breathe gently. You must not be restless. Every movement destroys energy which you no longer possess. (p. 191)

And she also brought strong emotion to the story, such as the moment when Anna reflects on how she used to take things for granted:

It’s her father’s breathing, back in the apartment, that keeps her pinned here.  All her life he’s been breathing. Why didn’t she count those breaths when she had the chance? Why didn’t she stop still and listen, on just one of those bad-tempered mornings when she was late for work and Kolya was whingeing that he didn’t want his porridge because he always had porridge every single day? She’d never once stopped to bless the fact that her father still breathed. She certainly never stopped to bless the everyday porridge. (p.231)

Reading The Siege, one can’t help getting caught up in the lives of these characters as they face one obstacle after another.  It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived under such extreme conditions, and yet people did.  In this powerful story, it was their hope and love for one another that sustained them through some of the most horrific situations imaginable.