Friday, May 30, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai by Barbara Lazar

I had the honor and privilege of hearing Barbara Lazar speak about her book, The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai, at a recent meeting of the San Antonio Writer's Guild. I then had the fortune of finding a copy of the book at, you guessed it, Half Price Books. 

The Situation: Kozaisho is a fifth daughter in 12th century Japan, and terrible at both sewing and writing. Despite her older sisters' attempts to help her become better at both, she doesn't progress, and instead seeks to help her brothers and their father by carrying water in the fields. It is during such a trip that she is met on the way by a priest, and later sold by her family in order for them to obtain extra land. It isn't that uncommon of a practice, but it is still incredibly hard on a young girl who is not only suddenly taken from her family, but also charged to uphold the family's honor by doing what is right and obeying whoever she is placed under in her new home. She doesn't want her family to have to forfeit the new land they just received, and she does want to bring them honor, so she is determined to do just what her father asks.

The Problem: Obeying her master and retaining her family's honor will prove incredibly difficult in her new home. When she was still with her parents and sisters, Kozaisho would pull her sisters' hair if they upset her, and while her family was poor, they were free. Now, with enough food to eat, Kozaisho is under constant threat of abuse under her new master, Proprietor Chiba, as well as the priest who found her on the way to meet her brothers and father. The slightest infraction would cause her to receive cuts and bruises on her back. Understandably, Kozaisho dreams of being reunited with her family, and hopes to one day be returned to them if she continues to obey and act honorably. Over time, Kozaisho will be sold two more times, and at one time or another be a woman-of-play (prostitute), teller of stories, and even a samurai. The "pillow book" is essentially the diary where she wrote down all that happened to her, and how she started out life as an impoverished child, and eventually became the Flower Samurai.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 12th century Japan. The story is told by Kozaisho, and uses Japan's Gempei War (794-1185) as the backdrop. Kozaisho eventually fights for the Taira clan, while most historical accounts of the actual war are told from the Minamoto side, as they were the victors. But the book is not only full of information about the war and the samurai's, but also about women-for-play, Japanese customs of the time, Japanese politics, religion, and even certain festivals. The Minamoto clan are the obvious enemies, but priests are also often proved to be untrustworthy, and there are very few the Kozaisho feels comfortable around. Honor is incredibly important, as are obedience and respect, and Kozaisho is often at war within herself as she wishes to do the right and honorable thing, but also finds herself desperate to take revenge for crimes committed against herself and her friends. If she chooses the wrong action, it is believed it will come back against her as karma is also very important. It is the struggle of one young girl to not only survive, but to overcome the incredibly difficult circumstances she is constantly placed in an effort for her family to be able to better provide for themselves.

My Verdict: This book is interesting, parts of it are even fascinating, but it can also be, in many places, incredibly tedious. I think for me, it was all of the rituals and bowing that had to be done in order to respect someone's authority and show that the characters know their place. It is just so constant, and I suppose that is reflective of life in 12th century Japan. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading about a female samurai and her quest for revenge while trying her best to maintain her and her family's honor. I do feel it was a bit too long, and also somehow not long enough. The ending seemed forced, as if the author was attempting to tie up too many loose ends too quickly - as if even she acknowledged that it needed to end soon, but there were too many storylines out there that still needed to be dealt with. Some characters seem to disappear, while others are given an anticlimactic ending. Even so, it is a book worth reading, and the amount of detail and care that was put into the writing makes it clear that Lazar really did her research.

Favorite Moment: When Kozaisho learns to be patient and is able to elevate herself and gain information by using her story-telling, while those in power don't notice and have no idea what she is up to. 

Favorite Character: While I wish he had a slightly bigger part, my favorite character is the samurai Akio, who teaches Kozaisho to be a samurai, starting when she is only eight years old. He is incredibly protective of her, and remains with her throughout her journey, always keeping her safe and reminding her of the proper behavior of a true samurai.

Recommended Reading: It should come as no surprise that I would recommend Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. There are similarities of course, but they are two very different books. Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't deal much in samurais, and The Pillow Book of the Flower Samurai isn't at all about geishas, even though Kozaisho does spend many years as a sort of prostitute. But both books do tell the story of women in Japan learning to live with the life they have been forced into.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

For my first ever Neil Gaiman book I decided to go with his recent publication, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It is incredibly short, and has received rave reviews. Also, it was the winner for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy.

The Situation: An unnamed narrator (I seriously just realized, as I am writing this, that the narrator is never given a name) has returned to his childhood home to attend a funeral. In order to get a brief break from the crowd and his family, he finds himself driving down the road he used to live on when he was seven. The house he lived in is gone, and has been for awhile, but what he wanted to see was the farm at the very end of the road. It was the home of his friend Lettie Hempstock, and he recalls not only her, but also her mother, grandmother, and the duck pond that is still on the property. He hasn't thought about any of this in years, but once he starts, more details of exactly what happened at the end of the road start coming back to him. It is a story more like a dream than reality, and it is a wonder how he ever forgot it.

The Problem: The memories that come back aren't exactly pleasant ones. In fact, they resemble a nightmare more than a dream. What the narrator remembers is a time when their family took in people who payed to stay at their house. One such man had stolen their car and committed suicide in it at the end of the lane. The events that follow consist of things that no seven year-old should be able to survive. Even with the help of eleven year-old Lettie Hempstock, even if she is wise beyond her years. They are also events that would normally be considered outside of the realm of possibility. It's strange enough when Lettie keeps insisting that the duck pond is actually an ocean, but when the narrator discovers that the moon is seemingly always full when he is at the Hempstock Farm, he knows that this is no ordinary farm, and the women who live there are not ordinary people. Which certainly turns out to be for the best, because ordinary people could never defeat the evil that has found its way into the world. The narrator isn't sure he will survive this fight, even as Lettie says she won't let anything hurt him.

Genre, Themes, History: I have seen this book placed under both the fantasy and the horror categories, although I think I would personally go for the former. What Gaiman has created is a story that reads like a child's fairy tale or bedtime story, but somehow, it is still clear that it was written for adults. Most of the story is even told from the point of view of a seven year-old boy, with all of the faulty reasoning that seven year-olds employ and the naïveté that comes with it. And since the events that take place are not natural everyday occurrences, it is more like someone telling you about the dream they had last night, rather than what happened to them last week. In the narrator's incredible story, parents (and all other adults really) just don't understand children, but they always win; the Hempstock women, which includes Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and Lettie's grandmother, are incredibly strong but also still incredibly nurturing; books are a child's refuge; duck ponds can be oceans; the moon can always be full; and evil beings can find pathways into our world, although it is for their own benefit that they stay where they are. It is even an incredibly short novel, clocking in at under 200 pages, which for me only lends to the fairy tale theme. I think Gaiman has pulled off something that not just any writer could do. Sure, we can all make up a story (well, most of us), but to turn a duck pond into an ocean, and have people actually believe that is what has happened, takes an incredible skill that few have.

My Verdict: It is a good story...actually, it is probably a great story...I just didn't enjoy it as much as others have seemed to. Maybe it was the fact that it was happening to a seven year-old boy, but everything about it just stressed me out. Instead of taking time to marvel at the Hempstock women, or at the always full moon, I was too worried about what would become of the boy, and whether or not the evil would ever be made to go back to the place from which it came. With that said, the character of the little boy, who is really just an older man looking back on a story he had long forgotten, was formed really well. And the Hempstock women, all three of them, are incredible characters capable of doing far-fetched things, but their strength gave me hope and I always fealt better whenever any of them were around. And as out there as the story got, I never fealt like the reader's intelligence was being insulted. It is as if a seven year-old boy is just telling the reader about an adventure he had, as little boys will sometimes do. But for some reason, this story is taken as truth.

Favorite Moment: Any moment when the narrator was eating at the Hempstock Farm. Many jokes exist out there regarding the ediblity of English food, but Gaiman makes the meals at the Hempstock's sound absolutely delightful. And the little boy's reaction to them only make that delight even stronger.

Favorite Character: While I appreciate all of the Hempstock women, I think that Ginnie is my favorite. Old Mrs. Hempstock, her mother, is clearly the strongest of the three, but Ginnie faces down her own challenges and is also a force to be reckoned with, as is her daughter. 

Recommended Reading: I'm fairly certain I have never read a book quite like this one, so if you want to read something more on the adult side, I suggest The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. If you crave something slightly more on the juvenile side, I suggest A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Graphic Memoir: Marbles by Ellen Forney

The full title of this week's selection is Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, by Ellen Forney. The graphic memoir came out in 2012 and I was immediately interested. But of course, as often happens, I am just now getting around to reading it about two years later.

The Situation: Ellen Forney is a cartoonist living in Seattle, doing her weekly strip and feeling great. She feels great about her work, she feels even better about her ideas for future projects, and she's generally just enjoying hanging out with friends and living her life. She may seem a bit spastic and manic at times, and has even experienced dramatic lows in the past where she hasn't felt so great. But things are so good right now that she can't even remember what that low was like. So when she is diagnosed as bipolar by her psychologist, Karen, Ellen agrees that she is displaying many of the symptoms of a manic episode, but wants to avoid taking drugs, specifically lithium, at all costs. Also, she doesn't want to give up smoking pot, and sort of neglects to tell Karen about that part of her life. Ellen fears lithium will stifle her creativity. So despite Karen's warning, Ellen believes she can adequately prepare in advance for the oncoming low, and continues to do what she has always done.

The Problem: Just as Karen warned, the low eventually hits Ellen, and it hits her hard. Most days, it is an incredible thing if Ellen is able to stop lying on her bed, only to make it to the living room so she can lie on her couch. Karen immediately prescribes the lithium, but the drug doesn't help much when the patient is already experiencing a low. Now Ellen remembers what the previous lows were really like, and knows she won't be able to get to those fabulous projects her manic self had prepared for her now depressed self. Since Ellen never wants to experience a low like that again, she agrees to try lithium, but doesn't like the side effects, mainly the memory loss. What follows is a process of Karen and Ellen attempting to find just the right cocktail of medication that will stabilize Ellen's mood without ruining her health, or, and possibly most important to Ellen, taking a toll on her creative side. With so many historical creative types that were diagnosed with some form of depression, Ellen wonders if the "crazy artist" is more than just a stereotype. She certainly can't ignore how many of them were known for mental instability. But even more disturbing was for how many that instability ended in suicide.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a graphic memoir that tells of the author's journey through the first few years of her life after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, most of which involves her and her psychologist attempting to find a combination of medicine that works for her. There is much discussion regarding the high number of artists and writers from the past who were known for also having some form of depression, and whether these creative geniuses were creative (or even genius) because of their disorder, or in spite of it. Did the medication help them with their work? Or did it cause their work to suffer? And what effect will the medication have on Ellen? Is it worth the risk to her mental sanity to not take medication in order to guarantee that she stay creative? When trying to answer these questions, Ellen makes use of a pretty long list of famous artists, a list that includes Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Victor Hugo, Mary Shelley, Vincent Van Gogh, and of course, Michelangelo. And the more research she does on the subject, the more she realizes that the artists community has a higher concentration of depressives than most, so there appears to be something behind the cliche of the "crazy artist."

My Verdict: This one had a rough start, but then got really good really quickly. And the fact that it is a graphic story means it is a quick read with very little chance of the reader's interest being lost. With humor and wit and honesty, Forney tells the story of her journey through the early years after her initial diagnosis. There are many moments that will make you laugh, and quite a few that will make you sad. But for me, there were a great many that just made me hopeful and made me smile. By the end of the book, I was rooting for Forney and for her work and creativity. She adequately addresses the issue I am sure many face when considering medication for various conditions. Many people wonder not only about what it will do to their creativity, but also just their personality in general, fearing they will somehow no longer be "themselves." I think Forney's story could help a lot of people, and the way it is presented is just icing on the cake.

Favorite Moment: Although it was incredibly sad, for some reason I appreciated a part of the story where Forney simply drew herself lying on her bed under the covers for several panels in a row, because when she was depressed, this is all that she did and all she felt like doing. Maybe it was how honest it was, but I really liked that.

Favorite Character: If forced to pick someone besides Ellen, I would pick Karen, her psychologist. It was clear to see why Ellen stuck with her throughout this whole exhausting process and never went looking for another doctor, despite the myriad of prescription drugs Karen had her try.

Recommended Reading: As a follow-up to Forney's story I would recommend Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe. Sharpe's story is also about being diagnosed with depression and her trials with various medications and how they affected her. It isn't presented in graphic form, but still an interesting memoir.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Science Fiction: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

As promised, I am following up last week's post on The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee with his most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea. I knew that this book would be different from The Surrendered based on the fact that other readers had been placing it under the categories of science fiction and dystopian fiction. And while I wasn't a huge fan of The Surrendered, I didn't severely dislike it either, so I had somewhat moderate hopes for this book.

The Situation: Fan is one of B-Mor's (what used to be Baltimore) best fish tank divers. Although she is incredibly small, often mistaken for being much younger than her actual age of 16, she is able to hold her breath for an incredible amount of time, making her one of the most efficient fish tank divers in the facility, which is what B-Mor is. The fish tanks that Fan works in provide fish to the much wealthier, and heavily secured, Charter areas of the future United States of America. Once China had environmentally ruined all of its cities, the surviving citizens settled around the globe, with Fan being a descendant of the ones who chose B-Mor as their new home. Now facilities such as B-Mor provide food and produce to the Charters, while enjoying a fairly nice, albeit modest life for themselves. At least it is better in the facilities than it is in the counties, where there is anarchy, crime, and often extreme violence. Fan has a decent job, is surrounded by family, and even has a steady boyfriend named Reg.

The Problem: One day Reg does not show up for work, and nothing much is thought of it, until he keeps not showing up, and is never heard from again. His disappearance isn't talked about much, even by Fan, who doesn't really talk much at all. But one day, Fan just up and leaves B-Mor, with no warning. The only evidence of her departure is a simple video showing her leaving the settlement voluntarily, taking no one with her. It is assumed she has gone off to look for Reg, or maybe even her brother Liwei, who was given admittance into a Charter because of his intelligence, long before Fan was even born. Despite Fan's size and age, her chances of surviving out in the counties are actually quite good, given her almost mythical nature and intelligence. But she still must be careful of people who would wish to take advantage of her, and also do what she can to hide the fact that she is pregnant. And while she is well aware of the dangers of the counties, surviving the dangers of the Charters may be something she isn't prepared for.

Genre, Themes, History: As I said in the introduction, this book has been tagged as both science fiction and dystopian fiction. While the future that Lee paints here in On Such a Full Sea isn't quite like what can be found in a book like Enders Game, or even The Dog Stars, where an illness has wiped out most of the population causing the survivors to trust no one, it does have some instances of advanced technology, fear of certain illnesses, and a new way of life that has caused the American population to be divided into three clearly separate classes: the counties, the facilities, and then the Charters. Downward mobility is incredibly easy, and upward mobility is of course incredibly difficult. Only the incredibly smart or the incredibly athletic have any chance to make their way from a facility to a Charter. Making it out of a county is pretty much out of the question. And even within Charters there are still separations, made obvious by where people live and how they live. While the counties are more or less left to their own devices as to how they wish to live, the facilities and the Charters are incredibly structured. Also, while the counties are subject to cases of incredible violence and brutality, there is little crime in facilities as well as Charters, as neither allows the citizens to own firearms. It is yet another take on what the future of our country could look like should we continue on the path we're on. And the narrator, while not quite third person omniscient, isn't really first person either. It is a strange hybrid of the two, making me believe that it is either someone close to Fan who knows her story, or someone from a governing entity that was able to observe her every move throughout her journey. The ending also leaves open the question of whether this narrator has her best interest in mind or not.

My Verdict: I was hoping to like this book more than I did The Surrendered, and I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Lee's writing in this book is very clean and easy to grasp, even as he is explaining a world that is very different from ours and something we have never seen before. And although Fan doesn't speak much (in fact, there isn't much dialogue at all compared to most books, or maybe it just seems that way because Lee doesn't use any quotation marks), she is an incredibly intriguing protagonist, and her actions say it all. Lee's future, while incredibly different from what we have today, isn't completely inaccessible either. And he makes it clear that while the Charters are the wealthiest class with the most opportunities and resources available to them, that doesn't make their situation ideal, or mean they are automatically the happiest class. But at the same time, he doesn't make the people of the counties out to be some honorable group of rebels fighting against the machine. All three classes have their problems. I can see how some would take issue with how some of the events throughout Fan's journey are linked together. And be forewarned, this book has the dreaded ambiguous ending, but I think it is one that gives the reader something to think about, as opposed to something to just be frustrated over.

Favorite Moment: Hopefully without giving too much away, I'll say my favorite moment is when Fan is rescued from a would-be pedophile.

Favorite Character: Although she is almost unreal and leans slightly outside of the realm of believability, I pick Fan. She's incredibly wise and courageous and resourceful for a 16 year-old. And I always admire a character that knows when to keep their mouth shut.

Recommended Reading: For me, On Such a Full Sea is an interesting cross between Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, with a little bit of George Orwell's 1984 (and some of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84) mixed in. Any of those books would be a great follow-up.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee

I decided to post about Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered for this week, because next week I will be covering his most recent book, On Such a Full Sea. Thankfully, such a thing is made so much easier when one of the books can be found on the shelves of the UTSA library. Makes discovering new authors that much easier (and cheaper).

The Situation: As her health is in a steady decline and she knows she won't be around for much longer, June decides she wants to locate her son, Nicholas, who had left years before to roam Europe. At first Nicholas sent letters and post cards. But as time went on, the letters became shorter and the correspondence was less frequent. Now Nicholas barely writes at all, and seemingly only to ask for money, which June is more than willing to send. But now that she has decided to end her cancer treatment, sell her home and her antique shop, she is going to hunt down Nicholas herself. But she knows, even with all of the money she has, that she can't do it alone. So she not only employs the help of a private investigator, who was the one who let her know that Nicholas was in Italy, but she also wants her son's father to come along too. 

The Problem: It has been a good 30 years since June has seen Nicholas' father, and she knows he would rather have nothing to do with her or their son. In fact, she had already sent the private investigator to approach Hector, but he was unsuccessful. While both June and Hector have their own haunted past separate from each other, their shared past isn't much better. As an orphan of the Korean War, a half-starved June stumbled upon the orphanage that Hector worked for after his stint in the armed forces. They cared little for each other, but both had an intense interest in the wife of the missionary couple that came to run the orphanage up until it was destroyed in a tragic fire. Both June and Hector lost the only thing they cared for, and have avoided each other ever since. But now, June is a desperate and dying woman, and seeks the help of the one person who most likely wants nothing to do with her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the Korean War, as June and her family are forced to flee their home and the dangers that have befallen their country. June eventually ends up in one of many Korean orphanages, waiting with the other children to be adopted out by an American family and taken to the states. Through June, Hector, and Sylvie, one half of the missionary couple that came to run the orphanage June stays at, the reader is given a picture of the effects that the brutality of war can have on a person, and also on how that person treats others. June experienced war by watching her home and family be destroyed. Hector was a soldier and had direct dealings with the dead and dying. Sylvie grew up as a missionary kid, moving from country to country with her parents as they worked in some of the most desperate places on earth. She would eventually (*spoiler alert*) end up an orphan herself, and turn to addiction as a way to cope. These are essentially three hurt and broken people attempting to make the best of a bad situation, and failing terribly. Thirty years later, June has made a life for herself, only to end up with stomach cancer, and Hector is still coping in his own way with his own miserable existence. But the book is also about reconciliation and the healing that can come from facing your demons, despite how that process can seem worse than the initial pain.

My Verdict: I have seen reviews from other readers refer to The Surrendered as a "departure" for Lee. I'm actually not quite sure how I feel about it since so much of the story is so hopeless and I have a hard time liking anyone in it, despite the fact that what has happened to them and what has caused them to be how they are now is not in the least their own fault. But a lot of what they do is just so awful. And for me, the ending just doesn't offer much in the way of resolution, but maybe that is the point. At the very least it is an interesting story and there is some real concern for the characters, no matter how many times they screw up or set up their own demise. Maybe after I read On Such a Full Sea, I'll have a better handle on Lee's writing and be able to offer a better verdict.

Favorite Moment: When given the task of shooting an informant who had endangered the entire group, Sylvie's father decides to show mercy to the man instead, even though that may mean certain death for the rest of them. He refuses to let the Japanese soldiers turn him into a murderer.

Favorite Character: This is really hard because, like I said, it is difficult to like any of these people. I suppose my favorite would be Ames Tanner, Sylvie's husband. He has his own flaws, and is pretty blind to what is going on with his wife, but he seems genuine in his concern for both her and the orphanage. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend checking out Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. It is also a historical fiction novel, but set during the Chechnya War, however many of the themes are similar. The book was also longlisted for the National Book Award, and awarded the inaugural John Leonard Prize given by the National Book Critics Circle.