Books: A Thread of Grace

March 26, 2017

Having read Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I was glad to find another book by her on the library shelves. (Though I have to admit I did not check it out the first time I saw it – I knew from her other books that it would be very well-written but also suspected it would be emotionally pummeling at times.)

It is quite a change from the science fiction of the other books, though unlike most science fiction those have as much philosophy as science, and reflect Russell’s background as an anthropologist (she creates entire civilizations to populate a faraway planet). I enjoy historical fiction, and this novel explores an aspect of World War II that I have read little about if at all previously.

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Books: Memoirs of a Geisha

February 26, 2017

[I wrote this in January and just realized today I had never posted it.]

I’m sure I had heard of Memoirs of a Geisha, but it was never anything I had considered reading before it was announced as our book club’s selection for this month’s meeting. (I’m not sure what I had expected it to be like – true-life memoirs of a geisha, probably.) But that’s one reason I’m in a book club, to read books I wouldn’t be likely to read otherwise (and to have book-loving friends to talk about them with).

The (fake) translator’s note at the beginning notwithstanding, this is not anyone’s memoirs, just a novel written in that form. Apparently it is convincing enough that some people believe there is a real-life Suriya. If the book hadn’t said “a novel by Arthur Golden” on the front (not the name he used for the translator’s note), I might have thought so myself.

Golden does mention under Acknowledgements at the end that it is a work of fiction, but how many people read the Acknowledgements? Usually it is a list of people who are very important to the author but mostly unknown to the average reader. Golden acknowledges that he learned a great deal about the life of a geisha from a real geisha, Mineko Iwasaki.

Unfortunately, this acknowledgement was a cause of grief rather than gratitude for her, as people blamed her for what Golden had written, even where it was not based on what she had told him. Mineko Iwasaki filed suit against Arthur Golden, claiming that he had agreed to keep her identity secret (he denied this), and that being named in the book had caused serious damage to her reputation in the geisha community (she is retired but has – or had – friendships there).

She later wrote her own book, Geisha: A Life, to tell the true story as a counter to Golden’s fictional version (perversion, in her opinion). While I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Geisha while I was reading it, once I was finished I was disappointed in the way Golden had concluded Suriya’s story. All that struggle and suffering, all the tension in her relationships with the man she wanted and the man who wanted her, and then abruptly it’s all wrapped up and over.

So I was very curious to learn more about the reality behind the novel, and I eagerly looked for Geisha: A Life at the library. There is certainly much that is the same in terms of the daily life and activities of a geisha, or of a girl preparing to become one. But at the end I felt I had a good deal more insight into a geisha’s life from the autobiography than from the novel.

I don’t know how much of that is because I knew it was an autobiography, and how much the difference between someone telling real experiences and someone making them up. You can make up circumstances that are far more dramatic in some cases, but it is hard for an imagined autobiography – especially a debut novel – to have the same psychological depth of a real one, especially in unless the author has similar experiences (which of course Golden has not).

There are heartbreak, cruelty, ambition, triumph, and disappointment in both books. Both tell the story of a girl’s struggle to become a geisha, her triumph, and then leaving that life behind. But on the whole, I found the autobiography to be the better story.


Thinking about Thanking

November 23, 2016

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books: I Am Malala

October 1, 2016

The 2016 Reading Challenge I have been working on includes reading a political memoir. Several times I browsed the Biography shelves at the library, trying to find one that looked at least half-way interesting – and preferably fairly short. But all the volumes I saw with names I recognized from the political area looked quite hefty, and I found it unlikely that they had that much to say that would interest me. Looking through some online book reviews confirmed my suspicion that books of this genre tend to have little value or lasting appeal.

Fortunately I discovered that the same website that lists the Reading Challenge also lists books to read to meet the challenge. And in the political memoir category, the recommendation was I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I vaguely remember news reports from 2012 when she was shot, and later in 2014 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I had not really followed the stories much at that time.

This sounded much more interesting than reading about some politician taking advantage of temporary fame to publish a book, perhaps in the hope of not being forgotten quite as quickly as most. Besides, I always enjoy learning about other countries and their culture and history, and learning a different perspective on the world and life in general.

Malala’s story is very interesting. Some reviews criticize the quality of the writing, but all agree that the story makes the book well worth reading. We learn about Malala’s childhood, her family, and her father’s commitment to education for both boys and girls. We learn about the beauty of her homeland and about various traditions that shape the people’s lives. And of course, we learn about the coming of the Taliban and the way most people were too afraid to speak out against them, even while realizing that they were not the champions of righteousness that they initially appeared to be. Read the rest of this entry »


Books about WWII

July 30, 2016

I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.

Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.

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Books: Lisette’s List

September 9, 2015

Having enjoyed Susan Vreeland’s novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I decided to try another, Lisette’s List. It is interesting for its depiction of life in a rural village in southern France during the 1940’s, but it did not engage me emotionally nearly as much as Clara and Mr. Tiffany did.

I’m not sure how much that is because of the strong emphasis on art. In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, the art of creating masterpieces from pieces of glass was more about the characters and their love of their craft than it was about the art itself. In Lisette’s List, appreciation of art itself is a major theme.

Perhaps I just find it hard to share the extreme devotion Lisette has to painting and everything to do with it. Perhaps it is because the artists featured in this novel are some whose styles I have trouble appreciating.I don’t dislike the Impressionism of Pisarro but I am not as attracted to it as to some of the older styles. I like some of Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist landscapes but I am unmoved by his still lifes. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Kite Runner

August 14, 2015

I had for some time been meaning to read the novels by Khaled Hosseini, beginning with The Kite Runner, which members of my book club had highly praised. But I was hesitant to read a book described as “heart wrenching,” “devastating,” and “brutal,” even if it is also called “beautiful” and “inspiring.” I took it off the shelf in the library one day, started walking toward the check-out counter, then after a few steps returned and put it back, deciding I would wait until some time when I felt ready for that challenge.

I’m not sure just when I would have decided I was ready, but my son was assigned the novel as summer reading for his pre-AP Language and Literature class. I don’t generally read the books he is reading for school, but in this case I wanted to read it first, to know what he would be encountering in the novel and to help him deal with whatever difficult issues arose from it.

It is well-written, but I admit that I was having to push myself to read it in the early chapters. When I discovered it on CDs in the library, I decided that would be an ideal way to get through the book faster than my son would. (Not that he read it through quickly. There are so many more interesting things for a teenage boy to do during summer vacation.)

I knew from reviews I had read before purchasing the book that it contains a scene of homosexual rape, and I was not looking forward to that scene – though it was obvious from the first page when it would happen and I was sort of relieved to finally reach that point instead of continuing to anticipate it. It is awful, what happened, but at least once I had read it, I could stop worrying about how bad it would be.

I also was relieved that it is not a graphic description – in fact, my son did not recognize it for what it was at all. I had to explain later that no, Assef did not “beat up” Hassan. My son is sixteen, old enough now to learn that such things happen. But I also felt good, in a way, that such things were so outside his previous experience, even vicariously in books or movies, that the thought of such a thing did not occur to him from Hosseini’s spare description of the event.

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