this book is about suicide. it says so in the first couple of pages so i'm not giving anything away. i know a lot about suicide. i am not an anti-suic...morethis book is about suicide. it says so in the first couple of pages so i'm not giving anything away. i know a lot about suicide. i am not an anti-suicide person. if someone feels it's their time to go; if they feel the pain is too much; if they have suffered long and terribly and see no end in sight, i say, goodbye my friend. in my modest personal experience, these people, the people with so much damage in them they find life a terrible ordeal day after fucking day tend to die early-ish anyway. so many prolonged suicides. you all know what i'm talking about. amy winehouse, michael jackson.
ruth ozeki is not only a remarkable and brave writer, but also a buddhist priest. when writers manage to take buddhism and transform it into great story-telling, the result is breathtaking. i'm thinking about maxine hong kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace.
this book is also about time. it's about Time in the big sense of time and quantum theory and all the stuff that lies at the intersection of physics and new age, insofar as new age is a corruption of both physics and buddhism. this plays a small part in the book. but it's also about time in the sense of what we do with it, how we experience it, and how we tolerate it. in this sense, it's a great, great book to read during the holidays (which is when i read it) because the holidays are all about tolerating time.
also, and crucially for this reader, this is a kick ass story, told in alternating chapters by a japanese teenager who spent the first 15 years of her life in sunnyvale, california, and a japanese american writer (who goes by the name of ruth and resembles the author in just about every respect we are able to detect) who found the girl's diary and notes in a message-in-a-bottle set of hermetically sealed ziplock bags which may or may not have drifted all the way from fukushima as a consequence of the tsunami.
the voice of the teenager is fantastic and brave and occasionally hilarious. the third person narrative about the writer and her semi-happy semi-frustrating life on an island in british columbia is also delightful because so naked and authentic. zen priests (which, in truth, ruth-the-character isn't) are not immune to frustrations, bad moods, marital arguments, petty moments and, you'll be glad to hear, internet addiction.
ozeki interweaves a number of threads: the suicidal teenager and her ordeals, and the impatient writer and her ordeals (which trials weigh more? which are more legitimate?); naoko's great-grandmother the buddhist nun jiko, who's 104 and cleary knows how to live, and that other buddhist, ruth-the-character but also, always, ruth-the-author, who struggles with power outages, writer's block, a stubborn kitty cat, a loving but complex couple relation, and the hardships of living on an island in the pacific northwest while missing the vitality and mess of new york. who is more successful at living the buddhist life? the nun who left everything and lives in serene, accepting contentment or the struggling writer who is trying to change things with her work?
that way i read this book, there is no right, no simple way. old jiko, the role model, the saint, honors everyone's difficulties equally, and does not forget her own. this is, after all, a book about suicide, and time, which also means that it's a book about inevitable failing. you pick up the piece and carry on. if you can. for now. for the time being.
this review does so little justice to the impact this book had on me. i was moved to tears. i laughed with my entire body. i read as slowly as i could. i thought to myself, i want to meet ruth ozeki: will she want another friend? please god let her want me as a friend. i was immensely grateful that ruth's husband, oliver, suffers from a flu-like illness that disables him greatly and from which he gets better only after he and ruth move to the vastly under-civilized island in the pacific northwest. i also suffer from a flu-like illness. should i move to an under-civilized island where it rains 10 months of the year and one has to cut one's own wood, power one's own generator (regular storms fell power lines all the time, and the hydro can fly in only when the storm has passed), and walk to the post office to get one's mail? i don't want to. i wouldn't know how to survive. but: how will i get better? how are we all going to get better?
ruth deals with bills, sneaks in a nasty comment which she immediately regrets about her husband's poor contributions to the household finances (the word she uses is "loser:" ouch!). naoko is vindictive to her classmates and she and her mom are quite uncharitable towards naoko's dad, a hikikomori who longs for suicide. there is nastiness and short-temperedness. how will we all get better? how will we save the planet from self-destruction, from war, from terribly devastating tsunamis and even more devastating, because man-made, defective nuclear power plants? how can we reverse time to before 9/11 and the birth of the global war on terror? what are we to do about the gigantic garbage patches, the largest of which may be as big as the entire united states?
this book tackles all of this, which makes it a miracle of narrative restraint, condensation, and easy fluency. it reminded me a little of Maxine Hong Kingston, of course, but also of Milan Kundera, whom it explicitly names, and David Mitchell, whom it doesn't. how do these writers do it? how do they manage to put the grand entirety of the personal and collective misery of the world in a book about a japanese haulden caulfield who is bullied at school and a japanese american writer with writer's block?
so this is what i leave you with. thank whomever you thank when the world goes the right way for old jiko (fictional), ruth ozeki (nonfictional) and pope francis (also nonfictional), the latter of whom, like jiko, sees and knows the most abject misery (personal and collective) yet keeps reminding us to be joyful and hopeful, and models this joy and hope every day. you can, maybe, be joyful and hopeful even when things go terribly wrong, when you get hit in the teeth, when life bites into your heart like an animal trap with sharp, rusty teeth. you don't need to do anything. just live, for now, for the time being. (less)
general piece of advice to anyone who approaches the blank box with the intention of writing a pleasing-to-the-eye review: do not read one of mike rey...moregeneral piece of advice to anyone who approaches the blank box with the intention of writing a pleasing-to-the-eye review: do not read one of mike reynolds' reviews first. it will make you walk away from the computer in utter discouragement.
arn chorn-pond was a young child when the khmer rouge decided to unleash on cambodia a mayhem that resulted in the extermination of one quarter of the population. notice that the khmer rouge were themselves cambodian. since the book is told from arn's point of view, in the first person, and arn is a young child, you don't get an explanation for why this madness happened, so for that i remand you to wikipedia, where i will go myself after i finish writing this review.
as a grown up and a survivor, arn has been and continues to be an activist on behalf of his country and his people, which, i understand, are quite some way from healing (the internecine genocide happened in the mid-70s). patricia mccormick found him, interviewed him for two years, did a ton of supplemental research, then wrote this book in arn's own voice. arn never mastered english so the book is in broken english.
i tend to have little patience for westerners who tell other peoples' stories. i figure those other peoples can tell their own stories and the orientalizing and ogling comes across as invariably pornographic to me. not this time. although she put her own name as the sole author, mccormick acknowledges implicit co-authorship with arn chorn-pond in the back flap. mostly, though, the book is so sparse, so short, so perfectly distilled, you feel there is no pleasure in mccormick's writing except insofar as she can reproduce arn's voice. and this voice, gosh, this voice is amazing. truly genuinely amazing.
i have always been lousy at learning history, but i figure that one can learn history from stories people tell you and from stories you read in novels. i know something, now, about the cambodian genocide. i know something about the unspeakable trauma of child soldiers. i know something about what it means for a kid who has killed killed killed to be brought to america and asked to be an american kid. i know something about the terrible violence that comes not only from forcing children to kill but also from forcing them to go back to being children and behaving as such. these children have wielded unconscionable power. these children have led platoons. these children have made terrible, open-eyed, clear-minded choices. these children have survived unimaginable conditions through smarts, cunning, and a great capacity for reading people and circumstances. there children are geniuses and experts. you can't take a child like that and stick him in an american high school.
this book has made me think about our desperate compulsion to infantilize children, so that children have to find ways to be the much more mature beings they are in ways that are hidden from us. children, it seems, are asked from very early on to be multiple creatures: creatures that please their parents' understanding of childhood, their teachers' understanding of childhood, the commercial world's understanding of childhood, and, finally, and hopefully, their own understanding of themselves. i got all this from reading Kathryn Bond Stockton's The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century and then reflecting back on my own bedraggled childhood. in the light of stockton's book and of my own thinking back, this book was immensely poignant to me. also, it's gorgeous. i am now a patricia mccormick fan. (less)
i've been trying to get away from writing a review of this book. i've been coming up with scenarios in which such writing is impossible. i have to wal...morei've been trying to get away from writing a review of this book. i've been coming up with scenarios in which such writing is impossible. i have to walk the dog. i have to go to bed. there is too much distraction right now.
this is the story of the aftermath of an execution in a small provincial town (more a community than a town, really) in communist china. the narrator tells us that the historical period is the period that followed the cultural revolution, but since my knowledge of chinese history is nil this means little to me. this post-revolutionary time seems extremely but also fumblingly repressive: lots of thought police everywhere, often in the form of family members or neighbors, often in the form of one's internalized terror; but also the usual by-product of dictatorships, a convoluted, self-righteous, scared, and highly corrupted bureaucracy.
while this is the background, the book is really about a group of connected characters: a little boy and his dog; a disabled girl and her sisters; the titular, elderly vagrants; a strange, much disliked young man; the parents of the executed woman; the town's news announcer (who does her announcing through a PA system, radios being forbidden) and her husband; and a youngish counterrevolutionary who is dying of tb (being counterrevolutionary here means being in favor of liberty and democracy).
yiyun li takes her story effortlessly from one character to the next, discussing their daily lives but also weaving a proper story with a dramatic finale. there is a striking simplicity to the book, even though the themes dealt with are anything but simple, and you are tempted to think that the simplicity is due to the fact that the author is not writing in her native language.
but of course that's not it at all. yiyun li is in perfect control of the language and of the structure of the narrative, and her simple stories plumb some pretty serious depths. these depths consist of a catalog of human sorrows and maybe of human joys too, though, as always, the sorrows strike us as much bigger and more momentous than the joys.
the seven deadly sorrows of the human condition according to the gospel of The Vagrants are:
cold and hunger the seizure of one's mind by others the seizure of one's life (literally, through execution or murder) by others the loss of those we love inconsolable and inescapable loneliness (even in the company of others) for children and for the elderly, the abandonment and rejection of parents/children the scorn and contempt of the society one lives in
in a tone that is partly like a fable and partly like a solzhenitsyn novel, yiyun li nails the reader to the fact that life is sometimes so awful, it is not just impossible to bear it, it's intolerable just to think about its awfulness.
some parts of this book will break your heart.
yet we know that people live like this. more piercingly, we know we do. this is when this book is at its most heartbreaking: when it allows the awareness that a pain just like this has visited, may be visiting, and certainly will again visit our lives to reach the tender flesh of consciousness.
and then, at the end, yiyun li gives us a little reprieve -- because, as i said, it is entirely possible that joys may be just as big as sorrows.
maybe this is the novel's biggest gift: its reminder that, however miserable life may get, individually and collectively, there will always be, mixed with the misery, often too fleeting to be properly noticed, a cooling, gentle, vital, life-giving kindness. (less)
i'm 100 pages from the end but i won't finish this. i've been assaulted enough. oh why why why do we let books assault us so? because they show themse...morei'm 100 pages from the end but i won't finish this. i've been assaulted enough. oh why why why do we let books assault us so? because they show themselves to us in sheep's clothing, and we trust them. this fuzzy, sweet muzzled sheep cannot possibly brutalize me -- can it? can it?
this book is relentlessly brutal. the narrative is stretched to its stretchable maximum. there is no good reason for this. i suppose that, if you are a murakami fan and like to hear the sound of his voice, there will be some pleasure (even intense pleasure) for you in his enormous wordiness, but the rest of us wish he had exercised some restraint.
there are many long and wordy novels. i have read my share. but the words, even those contained in lengthy and boring passages, make sense. i have been waiting for the meaning of this book to show itself to me. i have been willing to read 800 pages of it. so take it from me: there is no meaning. there is no depth. this is an entirely undeveloped love story/religious cult story/crime story passing itself off as a deep book about time, reality, truth, good and evil. the truth of the matter is, murakami has nothing to say about any of these things. i think he has nothing to say about anything worth 5 mins of my time. it's taken me more than a week to figure it out. woe is me.
you should read this book only if you find pleasure in murakami's voice. there is nothing else in it. nothing goes anywhere. funny looking characters are funny looking for no reason and moons multiply in the sky for no reason either.
add to this the insult of the awfully bad sex that spreads itself all over this book like sticky semen (thanks m. for the image). most of the sex scenes are, you guessed it, meaningless. one or two are violently disturbing and gratuitously exploitative.
i disagree with the people who say murakami cannot write. oh he can write. he just doesn't have anything important to say. his only contribution to the reader's imagination is his own vision of things -- their slowness, their bizarreness, their extremely slow unraveling. unfortunately, this vision is pretty much valueless. you won't learn anything from this book. it will leave you depleted and empty, or at least as empty or full as you were when you started reading it -- that is, if this lengthy rumination about the pretend meaning of things doesn't yank your soul from you. my soul is just about all yanked. i'm abandoning this book to save my soul. (less)