Winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Julie Otsuka’s second novel, The Buddha in the Attic, is a deceptively simple tale. Tale is probably the wrong word to use to describe this kaleidoscope of memories and experiences that make up this story of the Japanese everywoman who crosses the ocean, leaving behind her family and life in Japan, to an unknown fate tied by marriage to a man she has yet to meet. Many are virgins, some are not. Otsuka’s voice is rocking and gentle and yet what it says is harsh and blunt and doesn’t shy away from the trauma and tribulations faced by these women, all in search of better and happier lives.

The collective voice, the collective experience all serve to draw a complex, harsh picture of life as an immigrant in a land where they are viewed with suspicion. They work hard, they have children, they learn to put up with their husbands who may not have been wholly truthful to them about their prospects. But within their difficult lives are little nuggets of happiness and contentment, a picture of lives lived to the full, whether in happiness or pain.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Otsuka’s style and stopped reading the book after the first chapter. It was too much; the voices, the endless yearning and hopes, the dissappointments. And yet, when I took up the book again, I found I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know that they would be alright. There was something inherently familiar about the women Otsuka describes.

And it’s not just the inner lives of these women that Otsuka is so good at exposing. The Buddha in the Attic is also a portrait of small town America, the immigrant experience, segregation and ultimately the suspicion and internment of the Japanese immigrants as enemy aliens after Pearl Harbour. There’s so much life in this slender volume. It was as though I was watching reel after reel of film where you get glimpses of early 20th century Japan and the US.

As in most immigrant experiences, the trials of the parents are different to those of the second generation. And as the children shed their Japanese names with their language, the parents can only look on with sadness and bewilderment, uncomprehending and yet wanting them to integrate.

Otsuka has done in a slim volume what many have tried in big, chunky sagas. It’s beautifully written and one that will echo within me for a long time.

So have you read this? I’ve a mind to go and get hold of her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine.

A big thank you to Penguin for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

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I’m not very well read in Australian fiction so welcomed February’s book group choice by Kim, Monkey Grip by Helen Garner. And even more pleasing was that it was available in my local library.

Monkey Grip follows the life and loves of Nora in Melbourne in hot and swingin’ 70s. She lives with her daughter Gracie in a communal house, working at a magazine, trying to stick to her feminist ideals and sharing her life and bed with a series of friends and lovers. But when she starts a relationship with sweet, blue-eyed Javo, Nora stumbles into a relationship in which there is a third participant: drugs. And as she tries to keep her feelings in check and pretend that everything is alright, it’s an uphill battle to help Javo and save their relationship. Will she make it through in one piece?

I don’t normally read many books about the 70s or about the drug-fuelled lifestyle only because I’ve seen too many films and they just don’t interest me. And although Monkey Grip reminded me a little of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in which there is communal living and a sense of camaraderie whilst smoking reefers, it wasn’t quite the same. I didn’t particularly understand why Nora loved Javo so much, and I couldn’t understand how she could stand being with someone so drugged out and with black lips and scabby skin who didn’t wash. I guess Garner is trying to talk about a love that transcends such things but I just didn’t get it. Maybe I don’t have the hippy mentality, who knows.

But, and this is a big but, although the story didn’t tickle me all that much and I thought it was way too long, what kept me reading was the beauty of Garner’s language. There was something soft and sublime about her prose. I’m not talking about difficult and elegant language, just that the whole novel made you feel like you were lying outside in the sunshine, a glass of lemonade in hand, peaking out of your sunglasses into the sunlight. As though for that moment, you forgot your worries. Monkey Grip is dotted with such moments. And although it’s a novel about drugs and friendship, it’s not all dark and revolting. In fact, it’s more about the evolution of a relationship, that even though two people love each other, things don’t go smoothly. And by the end of the novel, I liked Nora a little bit more.

One thing that did shock my very 21st century sensibility is the way the little ones, Gracie and her friend Juliet, witnessed everything, the drug-taking, the bed-hopping and everything else and seemed to take it all on board. Little stoic Gracie is probably my favourite character in the novel. There is also Joss, the brother of one of Nora’s exes, who seemed to be some kind of an enlightened being who would’ve been so good for Nora if it wasn’t for her infatuation with Javo.

And this book did make me wonder about the communal lifestyle, whether it is really possible to live and share everything with people because what Garner exposes is the fragility of people’s emotions, both male and female, and how sharing makes people vulnerable.

Overall, the concensus of the book group was pretty uniform. Monkey Grip was too long and most didn’t sympathise with a story about a failing relationship where nothing much happened. However, Garner writes beautifully and Kim has pointed out an interesting article about Monkey Grip which explains the impact the novel had on young people when it was first published. Do also check out her review.

It’s International Women’s Day today so check out Phenomenal People to see who has been inspiring whom. My favourite illustrator and writer, Badaude, is doing a giveaway and the 2012 Orange Prize longlist has been announced. See what Jackie and Simon S think of the list. Do also check out A Year of Feminist Classics where you can read and participate in discussions with some of may favourite book bloggers including Ana who has some superb recommendations. And the Guardian has a list of Top 100 women including my favourite astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

In a time when we think civilisation has reached an enlightened stage, it seems strange to think we need reminders of what women have achieved. And yet the fact that we do means that we still have a long way to go and I am grateful to the people who relentlessly campaign for equal rights and the abolition and punishment of violence against women. It still goes on and it’s still being brushed under the carpet. Not very enlightened, are we?

And talking about controversy and courageous things, the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist was also announced today. Do also check out Stu’s Shadow IFFP jury too.

Have you read any of the titles on the Orange Prize and IFFP Prize longlists? Any recommendations?

After I read Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, I knew I had to read A Woman by Berlin which she discussed in a talk I attended. And by chance, I came across a copy in my local charity shop and snapped it up. I found reading about the rapes by Russian soldiers after the fall of Berlin very disturbing, partly because it was something I knew nothing about even though I’ve read my fair share of history books. It really hits home how things, usually that to do with violence against women, are systematically brushed under the carpet and not spoken of. It’s a disgusting and disappointing habit.

A Woman in Berlin chronicles life in Berlin from April 24th to June 22nd 1946 just as Berlin fell to the Red Army. The narrator is a female journalist, well read, well traveled, alone who tries, together with the remaining people in her block of flats, to get through the terrifying days as the war draws to a close and the encroaching dangers of the Russian army.

What really surprised me about this account was how matter of fact the narrator is in her rendition of these fraught days. Not only is she discussing her own experiences but she is a witness to the experiences of everyone around her. They are her neighbours, colleagues, not necessarily friends. Yet what they all experience is collective trauma, and this makes them strong. Because of this, they are able to talk about the terrible things that have happened to them. She notes down how conversation has broken down, how propriety is no longer observed, how the women greet each other with the questions, ‘How many times were you raped?‘ I cannot think of anything more shocking. And what is most disturbing is that she is aware how in times of peace, a rape would tear a community apart, bring down swift justice and scar the women. But in times of war, where every woman has experienced rape, there is no other choice but to get on with it. Of course, many did not get over it and some even committed suicide so as not to get raped, but the sad thing is that many women had to go through such trauma, get on with their lives and later have to deal with the inability of their men to deal with it. And this naturally leads to a change in how they viewed their men.

I think the thing that is so impressive about this book is that it is written so well, and deals with such a traumatic subject with a light and manageable touch that when you do take pause to think about all that she has discussed, it hits you doubly hard. I don’t think I’ve read an account of rapes quite like this one. It’s unsentimental, matter of fact, the narrator is someone you can’t help but admire, someone with verve, vitality and a will to carry on but one who doesn’t let herself feel sorry for herself.

Of course, I’m aware this has been edited to allow for flow, but it’s an admirable piece of written history that really needs to be read more widely. And by that, I do not mean just by women.

There is also a film adaptation of this book, The Downfall of Berlin – Anonyma, which I’m hoping to watch soon.

Although this isn’t strictly literature, I read this as part of Caroline and Lizzys German Literature Month.

I’ve been a huge fan of Virginia Nicholson’s since reading Singled Out a few years ago and have been meaning to finish reading Among the Bohemians which I was enjoying too until I got side-tracked. However, I was lucky enough to bag a proof of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War, Nicholson’s newest book and social history of women at the homefront during WWII, and I began reading it in preparation for her talk at the Soho Literary Festival a few weekends ago. And what a wonderful talk it was, interspersed with music from that period, and the wonderful Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Press, asking some pretty forthright questions. I was expecting a cosy chat but the discussion delved into some rather dark places, unsurprising when you consider the topic was war and its consequences. Yet somehow you think that it’ll be softer because it’s about women. I never seem to learn because I should really know by now that it’s never soft and easy when the subject is about women and their place in society.

Singled Out
was about WWI and surplus women, many unhappy that their lives would never follow the paths they had envisaged before the Great War but also an opportunity for others who were able to shake off the shackles of traditional marriage and society and embark upon a life far from conformity. Millions Like Us is about the women left behind during WWII who not only had to hold their families together, but also take up the jobs traditionally done by men as the armies gobbled them up. It’s also a chronicle of the sudden loosening of class structure and ambition as young women signed up to do something for their country as normal life ceased. Although money, food and material things became scarce, other freedoms emerged, as young women left home to take up jobs, earn money they were never able to before and embark upon relationships and discover sex. Six years of war, hardship, loss, love and experience and finally, when they thought that peace had been won and all was over, that they could return to normal life again, things were no longer the same. Even though many returned to being mothers, wives and dutiful daughters, something had irrevocably changed within many of the women.

The most profound thing I came away with after finishing Millions Like Us was the sense of dissatisfaction many women felt after the war ended. Their sense of self worth and resilience was brushed aside as the returning husbands, fathers and boyfriends resumed their control over their womenfolk. It hit hard how controlled women’s lives were and actually how difficult it was mentally to break the chains that bound them to their social station. The women had learnt that they were capable of working as hard as men and that they were good at their jobs. But what was lauded during war-time was no longer the case afterwards. It was rather sad to read about this. But you could also see how exhausted these women were, how they wanted life to return to normal and how they couldn’t fight against the established social hierarchy. And how could you with babies and domestic chores and your jobs being given back to the men?

Nicholson weaves the stories of about 50 women including that of her mother throughout her book. The stories are funny, sweet, sad and bitter and cover a spectrum of social strata. The little feuds between the different social classes, the love affairs, the tough jobs and the snatches of fun. If it were only these stories during the war, the book may have quickly lost its appeal, but Nicholson cleverly discusses what happened after the war, especially for those women who went on to work in Germany, helping with the rebuilding and organising including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. One of the more heartrending stories is of the plight of the women in Berlin, the rapes of thousands of German women by the Red Army and how many of the British women working in this climate never recovered from what they witnessed. It’s heartbreaking and, although this is a topic that could not be addressed in depth here, it’s a starting point for those who may be interested to know more about this dark period in history and I believe it is something that needs to be known rather than swept under the carpet as discussions of rape often are. I have to confess I knew almost nothing about this dark episode even though I did study WWII history at school but I recently found a copy of A Woman in Berlin published anonymously, but widely believed to be by journalist Marta Hiller about her experience in this particular period, which I will be reading shortly.

Millions Like Us is not the definitive book on the subject, but it’s a good start as it’s certainly a topic that is complex, multi-faceted and needs to be discussed. And it reaches deep into the differences between men and women and why there seems to be a necessity for keeping women under control. In some ways it is frightening to read about the hostility with which women are regarded if they step outside what is considered acceptable. I’m lucky to be able to live my life in the way I want without anyone controlling me. It just hits home how privileged I am.

And do check out Nymeth’s wonderful post as well.

A big thank you to Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

I’m the first to admit that I didn’t particularly fall in love with Nicole Krauss’ A History of Love, a book that many will cite as their favourite. I read it, I liked it, but did I love it? Not really. It was alright. And I wasn’t really bothered about her new book, Great House, although I was planning to read it at some point. That is, until I found out it featured a writer’s desk with 19 drawers. What is it about writers and writing and their paraphernalia that perpetually draw readers to books about them? I’m one of those people who cannot resist such a book. And then I found out it was longlisted for the Orange Prize, of which I am a huge fan as is one of the judges Bettany Hughes, and then the reviews flooded in. A very mixed bag, which made it more interesting. I’m also one of those readers that would go out and get a copy of a book when I read negative reviews. Just to see for myself, you see. I don’t like people telling me what I should and shouldn’t like. Am I being contrary? I think not. Reading is truly subjective and even if you have similar tastes in books, there will come a point when you diverge, often inexplicably.

In Great House, Krauss explores the fragmented lives of a group of people, spread out over New York, London and Jerusalem all loosely connected by a desk said to have once belonged to Lorca and in the possession of a young Chilean poet in the 70s. He gives it to Nadia, an American novelist, who recalls her one night with him, his disappearance in Pinochet’s regime and the breakdown of her marriage to another man. Twenty five years later, a young girl claiming to be Varsky’s daughter Leah rings her doorbell asking for the desk.

The novel is fragmented, mirroring the lives of Krauss’ characters. The chapters switch from Nadia to Yoav and Leah, growing up privileged, following their autocratic father around the world as he searches for furniture stolen from the Jews during WWII while he tries to recover his dead father’s property. We have an inkling that the desk is relevant here.

Then Krauss switches again to Lotte Berg and her English husband, an academic at Cambridge, who live in Highgate. Berg is also a writer, silent with many secrets including a desk with 19 drawers. And one day in the 70s, she gives the desk away to a young Chilean poet. All the while, her husband, who loves her and tries to smother his jealousy towards the desk, her past, the Chilean poet young enough to be her son. He has always wondered about the desk, whether it was given to Lotte from a former lover.

And finally we meet Aaron, an Israeli lawyer with two sons, who has just lost his wife of 50 years. His eldest is ever solicitous but he has a complicated relationship with his youngest, ever since he was a child and who finally left their family after suffering trauma fighting in Israel’s Yom Kippur war of ’73. This story particularly touched me as I’m sure there are many families where communication has broken down between father and son. And Krauss explores why this happens from the point of view of a father who cannot understand his second son.

The four tales are mixed and entangled, slowly coming together at the end, although it’s never really complete. What Krauss is so good at doing is showing the complexity of relationships, especially one where there is a lot of love, but which can get twisted because of the need for privacy and space. What I came away with after finishing the book is that often, when you love someone, you want all of that person, and when that is thwarted, it poisons you. Or that maybe there is no such thing as a perfect love because people need their own space where there can be no intrusions.

Krauss’ reflections are slow and thoughtful and Great House is not a book to be rushed. You cannot read it fast because it has its own pace which you must follow. And this is probably one of the main gripes seeing the mixed reviews on the web, especially for those that could not finish the book. Yet, although it took me a couple of weeks to finish this book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And for me, that is one sign that the book has sunk its claws into me. I really loved this book. Krauss somehow manages to peel open the layers within a person exposing the often difficult and complex moods that threaten to destroy close relationships and she does this beautifully. The struggles between lovers, couples and parents and children are shown here unvarnished and I felt she almost came close to the truth.

This isn’t a happy read. It’s about depression, loss of communication, hurting those closest to you, solitude. But I didn’t find it a depressing novel even though it could have been. And it’s also a novel about being Jewish and how history is ever present.

The only gripe I have is that there were some loose ends that were left untied. Lotte’s history remains a mystery. I’m not entirely sure who the desk ultimately belonged to. And the ending as well. It may not matter, but for someone who reads mysteries to find out the secret, it’ll probably bug me for a while until I concoct my own solutions.

I haven’t read any of the other Orange 2011 shortlisted novels, but I would be very happy if Great House won. In fact, it’s made me want to go back and re-read A History of Love again. Someday, once I’ve made a dent in my evergrowing TBR.

For a different reaction, have a look at Chinoiserie and Iris’ eloquent posts.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Penguin Books for kindly sending me a copy of Great House to review.

I’ve been curious about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House since I first came across how influential it was in Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar’s intellectual upbringing. Chandrasekhar was the subject of my PhD thesis and I read everything I could on him and his work. Being a serious and rather grave young man, his letters show his reading interests to be Virginia Woolf, Henrik Ibsen, Ivan Turgenev and the Bhagavad Gita. Alas, I haven’t actually gotten around to reading any of them except for Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own last year. In contrast, his hero and nemesis, the great Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington who was instrumental in introducing Einstein’s general relativity to Britain (portrayed by David Tennant in the film Einstein and Eddington), was a huge fan of murder mysteries and went through them like nobody’s business.

I had initially gone into A Doll’s House thinking it was going to be a grand tragedy and when I started reading the first few pages, my suspicions seemed confirmed. What surprised me greatly was how masterful Ibsen is in imbuing the text with tension from the outset and slowly and inevitably cranking it up. A little like torture. Which is how I felt Nora must have been feeling when she realises that her secret may be exposed. You can read Emily Jane’s introduction here and some discussion points here at the A Year of Feminist Classics blog. Do go and check it out to see what others thought of this play.

A Doll’s House centres on Nora, mother of three and wife of Torvald who has recently received a promotion as bank manager. Torvald treats her preciously, often calling her his pretty little pet and making petty remarks and scolding her for not fitting in to his vision of ideal womanhood. Reading his words was simultaneously chilling and revolting and added to the increasing tension. There can be no doubt that Torvald is in love with his wife, or the idea of his wife, but often treats her like a spoilt child. Things go awry when Krogstad, a colleague of Torvald’s with a blot on his reputation, drops in and it becomes clear that Nora had borrowed some money in secret to help Torvald recuperate when he was ill some years ago. A forged IOU and the threat of exposure drives Nora to desperation as she tries to cover her tracks and keep her family life intact. Things are not helped when Nora’s childhood friend Mrs. Linde, a widow, arrives asking for help and Torvald hires her to replace Krogstad.

I am actually astounded that this play was written by a man and published in 1879. No wonder there was such outrage when it was first performed, especially in such a tight-laced and religious society. To question what society (i.e. men) deemed was appropriate in life, marriage and finances was almost sacreligious.

In the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Ibsen is quoted as saying in his notes

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.

It seems that for a woman, there can be no win-win situation and that is what Ibsen was trying to address. I was actually rather worried that Nora would consider taking her own life and dreaded finishing the play but was pleasantly surprised when she showed her strength and finally awakened to who she really was. I’m sure she knew all along who she was, but I feel that she played along to what was expected of her and in doing so constructed her own prison.

None of the characters are especially likeable, even Nora at the beginning. Torvald is repulsive as a husband and a man, pompous and self-righteous spewing words without the strength of action behind them, ready to sacrifice his wife to save his own reputation. I was especially surprised by Mrs. Linde’s actions as she was the one person who could have saved Nora, yet didn’t perhaps from a misguided sense of fairness. I am assuming that it is because she didn’t know Torvald’s character well but it could well have been due to envy. Krogstad redeems himself and only wanted another chance. And Nora, well Nora, I was genuinely surprised. Yet I was also bewildered at her decision when it came to her children. I felt it was too hastily made. But then maybe I am also constrained by what society expects of women and cannot myself break away so easily. Ultimately, it is a choice between what is true freedom for a person and what society deems is freedom.

I genuinely did not expect to enjoy reading A Doll’s House as much as I have. I was expecting a somewhat dry and, dare I say it, boring play but this was tense, fast-paced and exhiliarating. And very modern. The questions it raises are still very much relevant to women today. And now I really want to see the play!

I read this as part of A Year of Feminist Classics project for March where you can find out more about the monthly reading list. Also please do check out Violet’s fantastic review which really puts some of these issues into perspective.

I won this book courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics in their weekly twitter competition on Fridays.