Mohsin Hamid is making a name for himself writing in the second person. I totally enjoyed the perspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and here heMohsin Hamid is making a name for himself writing in the second person. I totally enjoyed the perspective in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and here he uses the style in a totally different way, depicting the story of a young Asian man's rise from poverty to wealth in the form of a self-help book. The man ("you") makes conscious choices to supposedly improve his life, choices that are augmented by fate and chance. His counterpart is a woman with whom he feels intimately entwined, a woman who makes her own dubious choices to escape her circumstances. As they each progress toward fame or affluence, the story exposes the corruption in "Rising Asia" that ironically forces individuals to compromise their morality in order to better themselves.
While I wasn't quite as entranced by the storyline as I was with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, this latest novel has plenty in it to keep a reader interested and turning pages....more
This dystopian story is written in Lee's trademark poetic prose, a beautiful style that enhances the folktale quality to the plural first person narraThis dystopian story is written in Lee's trademark poetic prose, a beautiful style that enhances the folktale quality to the plural first person narration. Still, given the different world depicted here, the style makes the book that much more work as the reader navigates the societal elements he's playing with. This is a North America with three tiers of hierarchical life: the uber-elite are Charters who lived in walled cities and live a decadently luscious life of consumption; the Facilities are working-class centers similarly protected by walls but life there is characterized by endless toil in service of the Charters; and finally are the lawless Counties where violence, sickness, and starvation touches nearly everyone.
Fan, hailing from the new Baltimore fishery Facility B-Mor, is our heroine, searching valiantly (although at times somewhat passively) for the father of her unborn child who has disappeared due to his immunity to a ubiquitous epidemic of something that is suggested to be cancer. On her travels through the Counties and Charters alike, Fan's story takes many bizarre twists and turns, many that are surely rooted in the realities of our society's superficial commercialism, but finding this meaning required a lot of effort.
This is not nearly as gripping a dystopian story as the dozens of other popular in the genre, but it's an interesting meditation on the potential future of America....more
This is a beautifully devastating tale of a Japanese family relocated from their home in Berkeley, California, to an American concentration camp in thThis is a beautifully devastating tale of a Japanese family relocated from their home in Berkeley, California, to an American concentration camp in the desert of Utah during World War II. Otsuka's crisp episodic structure moves swiftly through the brief 148 pages as she reveals the destructive and long-lasting effects of war in the homeland.
The novel is incredibly literary without becoming esoteric. The central characters, a Japanese-American version of the traditional nuclear family, are never named, and late in the book the narration shifts from third person to distinct first person perspectives. Intricately woven throughout are gorgeous symbols and metaphors of the quiet horrors this family is enduring. As the family is moved to Utah via railway, the daughter is instructed by an officer to pull down the shades as they move through the town to avoid unnecessary agitation for the townspeople. The daughter notes how "a man walking alongside the tracks would just see a train with black windows passing by in the middle of the day. He would think, There goes the train, and then he would not think about the train again. He would think about other things" (28). In crafting this story, Otsuka raises that shade on the history of these experiences.
Upon their arrival at the camp, time stops when the children note later that their mother "had stopped winding [her watch] the day they had stepped off the train" (65). They spend more than three years separated from their father, who is stationed in another camp, and their return home reveals that clearly time has marched on for the rest of the world. While in the camp, the son receives "a tulip bulb, which he had named Gloria and planted inside of an old rusty peach can he had found behind the mess hall" and he wonders "would she be able to make it to spring?" (69), his soft optimism waning thin through his experiences.
This is no tale of war atrocities in the physical sense, but the psychological ones are nearly as disturbing. Forgetting this part of our shared history is all to easy, especially given the comparison to more widely recognized cruelties in our world, but Otsuka's deceptively palatable tale is one that haunts and reminds....more
I just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor andI just read the superb When the Emperor Was Divine a few months ago, and I was excited about this latest book by Otsuka because of its predecessor and the tremendous amount of fabulous press it was getting. With all the build up, my expectations were a bit high; the book on its own certainly is a great read, but it's so different in form and structure from When the Emperor Was Divine that I found it a bit jarring. (That is admittedly simply a problem with my own reading aesthetic!)
There is a lot of pretentious talk in literary circles about prose poetry, but this is poetry prose if ever there was such a thing. The short book loosely follows a group of Japanese mail-order brides traveling to America by boat several years before the World War II and concludes several years after the war. The narrative voice is a rarely used collective first person: the opening lines read, "On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall" (3). This format rarely changes, and while it creates a beautiful, lyrical quality to the book, it also stands as a barrier between the reader and the characters. We never learn these characters names and we never distinguish one from another. Granted, Otsuka uses unnamed characters while quite effectively creates a bond between them and the reader in When the Emperor Was Divine, but there the characters are quite individualized whereas here they are deliberately intermingled with one another.
As expected of Otsuka, there is astute commentary here. Early on in detailing a list of the items the girls have brought with them on the boat, she includes, "silver mirrors given to us by our mothers, whose last words still rang in our ears. You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong" (9). And the first chapter closes with a heart-breaking truth: "This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong" (18). In spite of feeling segregated from the characters myself, I definitely was moved at times.
What works here in isolation is that poetry of the language. Otsuka uses repetition effectively to convey that collective protagonist. In almost every part of the book, she begins each sentence with the same phrasing, only then to allow her characters to contradict themselves in order to show the many facets of life these women faced. For example, at one point when the Japanese interment has begun on American soil, she writes, "Our adult children would be allowed to remain behind to oversee our business and farms. Our business and farms would be confiscated and put up for auction" (94). These juxtaposed oppositions exist throughout the book, and they have their desired shocking effect on the reader. However after dozens of pages using this construction, the effectively is somewhat diluted.
I needed something short to fit in between book club and professional reads, and this fit the bill based on a few reviews I'd read. It's an insanely qI needed something short to fit in between book club and professional reads, and this fit the bill based on a few reviews I'd read. It's an insanely quick read with three short stories (barely appropriately classified as novellas) making up the entirety of the text. The only story that really piqued my interest was the second, which details an overly ambitious translator taking artistic liberties with colonial English that depart drastically from the native language of regional India. The other two stories are fine, but I wasn't incredibly impressed by either. I didn't mind the read though in the end, and I might be interested in reading more of Anita Desai's more developed work....more
I first read this in graduate school with a professor who assigned the book and then once we finished reading it proceeded to totally deconstruct it.I first read this in graduate school with a professor who assigned the book and then once we finished reading it proceeded to totally deconstruct it. A post-colonial Indian himself, he took umbrage with the backward depiction of rural life in India. I was very impressionable and spent the next ten years thinking Mukherjee was a hack writer with simple minded constructions.
On a second read at a more mature age, I see now that there is much to like in this novel; the fragmented and nonlinear construction of the story create for an intriguing read and the character development is often fascinating; however the end of the story does not live up to its potential and the title character is incredibly uneven. Mukherjee's attempts to incorporate the latter into the fabric of her craft fall short. Jasmine is consistently referring to the many version of her self that exist, and while I appreciated the literary techniques being utilized by matching up various names (all attributed to her by more dominant figures in her life, usually men) with stages of her development and inevitable Americanization, the tactic felt heavy-handed, as did much of the novel. The end result is a text that has some superb elements but that don't create a cohesive overall piece....more
I want to enjoy reading Chang-rae Lee more than I do. His prose has a lyrical quality that is gorgeous at times, but his narratives leave me feeling aI want to enjoy reading Chang-rae Lee more than I do. His prose has a lyrical quality that is gorgeous at times, but his narratives leave me feeling a bit cold and aloof. Native Speaker is a worthy read for a variety of reasons. It is an interesting character study of the Korean American man struggling with societal racial tensions and familial responsibilities. This is all overlaid with some late-developing political intrigue when the narrator and protagonist Henry Park begins working as a spy for up and coming New York politician John Kwang, an older Korean immigrant possibly making a bid to replace the white mayor of New York City. The interplay between Park and Kwang providing a great structure for the final hundred pages of the book, and I wish Kwang had been introduced as a counterpart for Park earlier. The many flashbacks to Park's past, including his struggles with his immigrant parents and a Boston-born white wife, could only have been strengthened with the scaffolding that the Kwang storyline provides in the late part of the novel. This would be a great book to read in a graduate seminar, or as a friend suggested to teach as a companion to Invisible Man, but I think I suffered a bit simply reading it for recreation....more
I just don't get the hype about this book. This collection of short stories that take place primarily in Pakistan incorporates a repetitious cycle ofI just don't get the hype about this book. This collection of short stories that take place primarily in Pakistan incorporates a repetitious cycle of female degradation and oppression of the lower social classes. (At least three stories were exactly the same plot line with different characters: the wealthy man that takes on a lower class concubine who appears to be using her feminine wiles to climb the social ladder.) I did find the story titled "Our Lady of Paris" truly fantastic, but that wasn't enough to save the hours of time I wasted reading this book. If you want to read well written short stories about this region of the world, pick up Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri....more
This is a swift read about a Pakistani student at Princeton who is snatched up post-graduation by an elite business firm in New York City just beforeThis is a swift read about a Pakistani student at Princeton who is snatched up post-graduation by an elite business firm in New York City just before 9/11. The typical American immigrant themes are here--living between two worlds, feeling at home in neither--but the lens of September 11 provides for some intriguing riffs on the old refrain, as he considers himself "a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war." The story unfolds as an extended dramatic monologue as the protagonist Changez tells his tale to an American traveler in Pakistan years after the events of the story. The narrative conceit is amusing, but becomes strained when Changez reveals things that seem rather unrealistic given the parameters of his meeting with a stranger; for example, he reveals the specifics of two sexual encounters with an American woman during his time in New York with explicit detail. Likewise, the cliffhanger ending seems unnecessary although it does reinforce (although with a heavy hand) some of the major themes of the book. Even still, Changez's point of view provides for some great commentary on America, like his suggestion to his companion that "as a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums...Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own." Certainly worth the read though, especially since it's so short....more
I really didn't give this book a fighting chance. I borrowed the audio version from the library before a long solo car trip, but I only ended up listeI really didn't give this book a fighting chance. I borrowed the audio version from the library before a long solo car trip, but I only ended up listening to about one-third of it on that trip. During that trip I was in and out of focus because I had a cold coming on, and then of course I didn't continue the saga until my next trip a few weeks later. This was not the best course of action for keeping up with Lee's complex chronology in which the story constantly folds in on itself, jumping from decade to decade as we are provided with the various elements of the protagonist's journey.
Because of my disconnected listening sessions, I found myself a bit confused by the various focal points of the narrative, most of which center on June Han, an orphan of the Korean War who is taken in by some well-meaning missionaries and eventually transported to the United States where she eventually becomes a successful antiques dealer in New York City trying in vain to contact her estranged son while she suffers from a terminal diagnosis of cancer. The vastness of the story is provided piecemeal, the opening focusing on the horrible deaths of June's family during the war and then shifting back and forth over the decades until the final chapter provides the final piece to the puzzle. This sort of postmodern construction certainly does not lend itself to anything but a sustained reading session, and I unfortunately didn't provide myself with this opportunity.
Lee's narration is definitely gorgeous, but the horrid imagery of the opening chapter which details one by one the devastating deaths of June's family turned me off initially. (This is my typical reaction to war literature though.) At the close of that first chapter, I was relieved at the shift to present day and the comparatively mundane struggles of June closing up her life in New York as she embarks on a journey to find her son in the face of her own imminent death. By the time that the story revisited June's childhood in Korea though, I found my attention waning and when she engages in a few romantic relationships at far too young an age with adults who should have known far better, I listened on with one eyebrow raised as I questioned Lee's intentions. Again, had I been reading the novel in regular intervals, I'm sure I would feel differently about the book, but the experience I had with it was definitely challenging and at times even tedious. While I'm anxious to read another of Lee's novels, I am now forewarned to avoid such sporadic readings!...more
Even though it is so totally not as good as THE JOY LUCK CLUB, this one had its merits. The bone motif was pretty good throughout, and even better upoEven though it is so totally not as good as THE JOY LUCK CLUB, this one had its merits. The bone motif was pretty good throughout, and even better upon finishing the book and reflecting a bit. And as always, Tan does a great job dissecting the relationship between an Asian immigrant mother and her American daughter, but I did feel at times the story was a little forced, especially in the ending which seemed to be tied up far too quickly....more