Thursday, June 29, 2017

#CBR9 Review #14: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

A quick little foray into the world at night, when people exist in almost a different realm. After Dark takes place in Tokyo, over the course of one night, and centers around a small selection of people whose activities all end up interconnected somehow. But it’s not quite so simple, as there seems to be some other kind of… I don’t want to say supernatural, but fantastical elements at play as well. It’s a simple and quick read, that comes across as very gentle and thoughtful, yet I can’t say as I was 100% sold on it in it’s entirety.

After Dark features twining stories centered around a number of people, including: a young woman trapped in a deep sleep, the girl’s sister who wants nothing more than to stay away form home all night, an old acquaintance of the two sisters who wants to be more acquainted, three women working at a love hotel, a young Chinese prostitute who is the victim of violence, and the businessman who hurt her. Everyone lives separate lives which all influence the world around them, and we as the viewer see all of these interactions and connections as if viewing everything from a camera in a movie where we may want to get involved but can’t. This is especially apparent when dealing with the young sleeping woman, Eri, and adds to the sense of mystery in the novel. Of course, some of the book’s characters and their stories are more interesting than others, which made me almost want to speed through those who I didn’t enjoy as much. But I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, as I feel that they all added something different to the book which filled in some of the open spaces.

Overall, this novel’s tone is quiet, thoughtful, gentle, and mysterious. Much like the wee, still hours of the night. It is also super quick to read through, and I almost wished there was more as I was really enjoying the mood. But I also kind of wish there was more to it for another reason: there was maybe a little too much left loose in the wind. Ambiguity sometimes works, but I just had so many questions left unanswered, and just needed a little sliver more information. In particular, to do with the somewhat supernatural elements of the novel. What were they about? Why were they happening? Is something at play here? Do they really add anything at all or is it just a quick aside? I just needed one more piece of information, and I think I could have dealt with it a little better.

So, at the end of the day I didn’t mind reading this short little novel at all. It was sweet and cute, though maybe the characters and end-game could have been developed a little more as most of the characters ended up being pretty static (being such a short book there wasn’t that much time but I do think they could have been fleshed out more). That said, it was enjoyable and whimsical, kind of like the other works by Murakami I have read so far. Will it be something that stays with me for a long time? Mmm, probably not, but I don’t regret picking this one up at all.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, June 23, 2017

#CBR9 Review #13: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Alright, this is a conflicting one. I decided to read this book as I saw it listed on a few of those “100 books to read before you die” or “how many of these essential books have you read: most people have only read 8” lists you sometimes see floating about, and now I wonder… why? Why is it on those lists? Is it really considered a classic? Has it really help up over time? Is there not more scrutiny of it now and given all the developments after it’s release? Which, I really didn’t know about at the time, and am now aware of, and is therefore part of why I find this read a bit conflicting when coming to review it. It’s a little bit of that “looking at the art separately” from the creator idea. In this case, it may be more so considering the time period in which it was written and whether or not over time it holds up. I don’t know, I just found that a lot of what was going on in this novel made me want to ask questions or be concerned, yet nothing was really looked at very critically? More just, romanticizing everything, if that makes sense.

As for the contents of the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a well-known (fictional) geisha from Japan named Sayuri as she retells her life’s story. As a young girl, Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) and her sister were essentially taken from her life in a small fishing town to be sent to an okiya in Kyoto’s Gion district, which is the most prominent geisha district in Kyoto. From there, we see her as she struggles to learn to work within the house she now resides, trying to become a geisha, and then work as one as the years go by and the nation of Japan is affected by World War II. Issues that come into play within Sayuri’s life are the politics of becoming a geisha, the competition of other women working within the profession, and garnering the attention of men who can make or break a women’s livelihood in Gion. One of the biggest overarching threads, however, is Sayuri’s affection for a man known as the Chairman, who she develops feelings for over the course of her life. Fundamentally, this book could be viewed as a story of overcoming obstacles and working hard to make a place in life, while also delving into a culture that many deem to be both beautiful and mysterious. And that’s where my first conflict of the mind came into play while reading this book.

Before reading this novel, I was aware of the film that came out in 2005 based off of it winning some Academy Awards for design and such. And… that’s about it. Oh, and I have a tiny little bit of knowledge regarding what it is that geishas are and do. I was not, however, aware of some of the controversy regarding this novel and the contents within it. You may have known this already but for the sake of people like myself who did not, here is the gist:
Arthur Golden’s novel is a fictional novel, yet there is a reality to it, in that he uses real locations and a real culture to try and paint a story that feels real. He obviously did research into different names, places, customs, etc, but how much of this is truly accurate? Enter Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who was interviewed by Golden for the novel, yet later sued when her identity was not kept anonymous despite having agreed upon this. Having her identity released led her to face serious backlash from the geisha community, which traditionally had a certain code of silence or secrecy to it, to the point that she reportedly received death threats for both dispensing this knowledge, and also for information in the novel being inaccurate and painting geisha as little more than prostitutes. Iwasaki later wrote her own autobiography which reportedly paints a very different picture of the life of geisha in the 20th century. The issue was eventually settled out of court and I am now actually pretty interested to hear what sort of life she depicts.

And so, I wonder what the truth is: is this story factual but now Iwasaki is trying to cover her tracks? Or has Arthur Golden fantasized this “mysterious” culture and tried to pass it off as reality (or at least, a realistic fiction)? It is hard to say. And does it matter if we are aware of this novel being fiction in the first place? Hmmmm, maybe it does if this is one of the most well-known works surrounding the life and culture of geisha’s, which many take to be pretty accurate or as realism.

But setting that controversy aside for a moment, what if we just looked at the novel for what it is: separating the art from the artist, as I said earlier. Because fundamentally, at it’s heart Memoirs of a Geisha is a story about a young woman overcoming a lot of hardships, working hard and being able to make a life for herself, following what she believes to be her destiny. And really, the idea behind it is quite sweet, and the writing is lovely and flowing with a few beautiful instances here and there. Yet at other times I feel like perhaps the author got a little caught up in the poetic nature of writing and ended up creating something that aims to be profound and emotive, but is really just word-salad (on more than one occasion during reading I thought to myself, “I see him trying to say something but this just doesn’t mean anything…”). And while the story does aim to capture the beauty and artistry of geisha life, succeeding in a few parts, there is also something so un-critical in examining this young girl’s life and the things that goes on in it. It’s almost like a preoccupation with romanticizing this “strange” and “other” culture and traditions, to the point where the character we are supposed to follow through this fantastical and beautiful world does little besides look pretty and do what others want from her.

This is not to say that I think Sayuri is a total wet-noodle who doesn’t work hard, but that the women in the novel (aka, the whole center of this world) have little to no agency. Or rather, if they do, they are painted as cruel, old, or haggard. Everything is done and decided by men: the way the women speak, act, how they dress, it’s all very beautiful and poised, but ultimately for the purpose of men to view and grow fond of. It is especially annoying to me having the conversations of the men and the geisha together portrayed, as it so often seems like the geisha are said to be clever but put on this “don’t ask me, I’m just a silly girl who makes silly comments!” cutesy performance. You know Cool Girl in Gone Girl? Not everything is done for men, and yet… it feels like it in this novel. Well, it’s either done for a man or because their fortunes said it was a fortuitous day. The geisha’s whole life and livelihood depends on it, after all! And not to mention, Sayuri’s whole life is essentially based on the fact that she is extremely pretty (but doesn’t know it, of course! Because as soon as you know you look good as a woman, you are nasty and conceited like the character Hatsumono is portrayed in the novel. Didn’t you know this?), and people are constantly telling her what to do and how to do it. Even when Sayuri does decide to take some action in her life and follow her heart, only to find that she may have made a mistake, she is “saved” by a man, and we find that her whole life and career as a geisha has really been a product of a man’s doing. And when women are supportive of one another in the novel, it often feels like in addition to their fondness of one another, there is also some other gain to be made from it. The women in this novel are never really a united front, but super catty with one another and are fighting over the male attention to get ahead. And I get being competitive like that, especially in an industry that relies on male patrons, but can we not ever have a story where women are maybe sad about not getting as far as their friends, but still super happy for their successes? I may not be super happy about where my life is right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for my friends who are finding their own happiness and living their dreams! We don’t have to fight amongst ourselves all the time: that’s how we are kept down, by not uniting. But at this point I may be reading into this aspect of the novel and it’s relation to how I feel about the world a little too much.

But in any case, the artistry behind geishas truly is remarkable, and I feel like Golden sees this, and that may be why he wanted to create a beautiful picture. The problem is that by so heavily romanticizing everything, it almost feels like in a way he is romanticizing the suffering involved. I couldn’t help but feel gross when the life of these young girls were painted in such an uncritical fashion with simply the narrator’s voice saying “ this was traditional” or “how it was at the time” as if just because that’s the way things were, we shouldn’t question it. It’s almost like a cop-out, having the narrator just unquestioning and supporting everything like this. I mean, Sayuri and her sister were essentially sold, and her sister became a sex slave for a while, all while they were both teenagers. These young apprentices are shown as going around and getting accustomed to the men while the men look them over to grow fond of them while they are but 15 years old or so: they are groomed to catch the attention of grown men when they are still children themselves. Sayuri was even seen catching grown men’s eyes at the young age of 12. And it’s just a part of the story, and I was really creeped out by it. She meets the Chairman when she is 14 years old and decides she wants nothing more than to be this grown man’s mistress. And look, I had crushed on older men and celebrities when I was young, but this book painted that attitude as just so normal and not to be wondered about. There are also parts about people fighting to pay for these young girls’ virginities (which a lot of geishas have since said is not a real thing that happens)? It’s like those creepy men who are just waiting for young girls to “turn 18” so it’s not illegal. But it’s still gross for you to be leering at a teenage girl, you scumbag! Oh, but of course in this novel, it is seen as some sort of big success if you are able to sell your virginity for a high price, which means men desire you more than other girls. (Me, internally sighing: the sexual approval of men is not the end-all-be-all). And when this occurs for Sayuri, it is not shown as a romantic moment but very clinical, which I guess isn’t a bad way to do it, but then after the fact it’s like she’s had some sort of “awakening” because a random man dispassionately shoved his penis inside her, and she suddenly acts like she’s more mature or aware now than those girls who have not yet had this experience. Like… okay. I guess. Kind of an antiquated view of things, which is why I earlier said that maybe this book just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny over time (it was originally published in 1997, so 20 years ago now).

I guess, overall, it’s just really not critical about anything. Or doesn’t really give explanations as to how certain things affect people: for instance, how do the wives of these men feel about them having mistresses? Do they know? If they are cool with it, that’s all good, I support healthy polyamory. But if they aren’t, then that’s another matter. And I just feel like so many things are spoken of so matter-of-fact like “that’s just how it is” with a shrug, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question our social norms and customs and how things go. Are people being hurt by this? Is there a darker side here? Because it sounds like there definitely might be! But then again, what is the truth! This is what I mean by things not holding up over time: these attitudes are not the same as we have now, and even just 20 years ago we thought and behaved differently in regards to a lot of things. And especially when I look at the fact that this novel seems as though it was written to a more Western audience, I can’t help but feel like this romanticizing of the traditions and life as being so beautiful is presented in a way to say “look how they do things”, as if it’s this voyeuristic look at this mysterious “other,” in particular because the subject of geisha’s itself is often considered to be elusive and secretive.

Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha is not a bad novel, and the writing is quite lovely. It’s just that I couldn’t help but question everything I was reading and wonder a) What is the truth? And b) Are you really going to just skip by these certain topics and moments as if they are nothing? I mean, maybe I do have a tendency to overthink things, but that’s where my brain was all while reading this novel. I don’t know if I liked it or how to really feel about it. But what I do know is that the artistry of geishas is beautiful, as are some of the streets of the Gion district (which I recently saw during a trip to Japan). Perhaps I need to learn more about this culture and profession now.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, June 16, 2017

#CBR9 Review #12: Perfume - The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

Well this was… an experience. And I don’t know that it was a good one? It’s kind of funny, me reading a novel that is so focused on scent and a man with an extraordinary sense of smell, when I myself have an absolutely horrid sense of smell. Honestly, it has to be incredibly strong for me to ever notice any kind of scent (this started happening when I suddenly developed allergic polyps in my nose a few years ago, but anyways). But this book definitely made me worried about the way that I personally smell, now. And whenever I go to play basketball and the gym stinks I am suddenly convinced that the smell is coming from me and I just can’t smell it all the time for some reason… But I digress! Let’s get on with the book.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man whose sense of smell is unparalleled. It’s like, a Daredevil-level sense, wherein he can basically see in the dark, smell every individual person and their emotions, know the different components of every object, etc. Honestly, it seems… overwhelming. And Süskind does a good job in painting a picture for what these things may smell like (even for someone with a poor sense of smell, like myself). Sometimes it’s disgusting but it is very visceral. Now, apart from this sense of smell, Grenouille can be characterized as 1) having no smell himself, and 2) as being cold and distant from really understanding or connecting with humans. We may say that part of this has to do with his early life, yet there is something about him even as a baby that just makes people want to get away from him. It’s almost as though there is something inherently evil or inhuman about him, which in fact makes it difficult for people to connect to, or for him to want to really interact with others either. And that, in a way, makes him hard to understand as a character. He just, does what he does because that’s what he wants. And so I had an extremely difficult time connecting to this character, which is unfortunate given that the entire novel revolves around him and his activities. In any case, we follow Grenouille as he learns the art of perfuming, abandons humanity, comes back to it, becomes obsessed with the scent of particular women, and searches to create the most appealing personal aroma to douse himself with in order to make people love and desire him. It is through his skill with scent that he manipulates and looks to gain power over the people he has no clue how to connect with.

From a technical standpoint, the writing in this novel is easy to follow, but stuffed with enough detail that it is engaging and really creates a clear image of what is going on. Süskind has clearly put a lot of effort into researching different arts such as that of tannery and perfuming, which almost verged onto the edge of being a little dry, but never quite falling into the boring side of things. The story, however, I was not a fan of. Just as I said it was hard to connect with Grenouille as a character, it was thereby difficult to connect with his story. It almost seemed overly fantastical with the intent to shock, but missing that certain aspect of the psychology of Grenouille, which would have really gone into the shocking or disturbing realm, I think. It’s almost as if everything was too perfunctory and explanatory, even when emotions were running high for certain characters.

It did get me thinking, however, about how everyone does have their own individual scent which can mark them. Yet this book seemed to place such a high importance on this, as though a person’s scent could influence other’s very strongly. And I mean, maybe we find people more attractive if they smell nice or want to not be so close to them when they smell bad, but even the subtleties of individual’s scents were highlighted here which kept making me… I don’t want to say “paranoid” while reading this, but it make me a little uncomfortable wondering about that, or how my life has been affected by how I smell? I don’t know, but it was a weird feeling.

In any case, I just didn’t find this book to be engaging overall, whether this be because of the perfunctory tone, or the distant nature of the main character which made it hard to really get into. I mean, we are supposed to be following this character and at least be interested and invested in what happens to him, but I didn’t find him engaging at all. And I think even starting off the bat with there being something wrong and inhuman about him at the beginning as a baby took away from even wanting to connect with or become invested in Grenouille as a character: if he has no humanity and is just inherently evil, then all discussion of his place within the society he roams and any relation to his from the reader is basically a futile endeavor. At least, that’s how I felt right from the beginning, and was never really able to overcome.

P.S: I now find out that Perfume is also a movie, starring Ben Whishaw, who honestly, I think could bring some kind of charisma to the character (then again, I am biased because I love him). Yet I’m confused as to how it would be possible to convey smells and the power of scents through the medium of film in an effective way? At least in novel form the description can really touch on human memories of scent and the brain can conjure these things up. I just don’t know. I probably won’t bother watching it in any case, given my distaste for the story after reading it.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, June 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #11: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This book has been sitting on my kindle for a few years now, after trying to start it on a couple of occasions to no avail (mostly because I ended up getting distracted by different readings for school). But I finally got around to it! Whilst also in the midst of the tv adaptation. Which, I have to say, I am absolutely loving: it definitely expands on the world presented in the book, allowing different characters to be more developed, stick around for bigger parts of the story (rather than being a small blip as some are in the book), and also allow us to see a lot more of the larger story at play that is definitely present in the novel, just more on a sub-level that we do not directly see or get to interact with as readers. In particular, I found the character of Laura Moon to be a bit lacking or not fully developed in the book, but she is being given a lot more breathing and growing room in the show which is absolutely fantastic! But that’s not what this review is about, so let’s chop to it.

American Gods is the story of a man who goes by Shadow Moon, as he is sucked into working for a man called Mr. Wednesday, who is… well, a God. But an old one who along with many of the other “old Gods” in America are having a difficult time in the present day (some of their iterations in other parts of the world, however, are doing just fine), as less and less people remember and praise them, thus resulting in a loss of power. “New Gods”, however, are starting to crop up, in the form of things that modern-day people spend so much time and energy on: technology, media, etc etc. And so, what does this call for? A war between the old Gods and the new, of course!

While the overall story follows Shadow on his (very confusing) journey with Wednesday, we also get little episodes here and there with other Gods and characters, which are very interesting, and very much lend to an overall feeling of this book being about the immigrant experience, both for the Gods as well as for some different characters highlighted in the "Coming to America" chapters. These little episodes also make the book almost feel like a comic book at times, and I often found that I wanted more from these side characters that only show up for one tiny little chapter only to disappear. Some of them definitely tie in with the rest of the story or give us another look at some of the Gods during their lives in America, but I would have loved to have seen more of a connection with some of them.

I am a big fan of mythology, so I really enjoyed this book and coming in contact with different Gods, some of which I recognized and others that I didn’t. It made me want to look more into some of these new “old Gods” that were being represented by the book! Some of them, however, I just couldn’t figure out who or what they were trying to be manifestations of! I’m sure with a little digging I could figure it out, though.

All that being said, I do have to nitpick a little. It’s just minor things that stopped me from absolutely loving the novel. One is that I expected more from the battle or fight between the old and new Gods. Sure, there is some fighting and damage, but when you spend the entirety of a book building up to one particular event, you’d expect it to be more central, I guess? (I realize that this was also the issue I had with Good Omens… huh). The outcome and action surrounding is quite exciting and interesting, but I still just felt like something was lacking in the final 3rd or so of the novel. The second thing I would nitpick is that every now and then there would be some statement made by either a character or just narration that would make me roll my eyes, purely because of it’s crassness or seeming attempt to be vulgar and shocking, but just felt not entirely natural? It’s like, I get it, you’re edgy, now was that necessary? Like I said, though, this is nitpicking, but sometimes just a few little issues can really take me out of the experience which is unfortunate.

I am glad I finally got to reading American Gods, because it was a great book; both imaginative and entertaining. I definitely feel, however, that it’s one of those things that I should read again some time in the future, now that I know how everything plays out, because I know that there are some things that went right over my head or foreshadowing that I wouldn’t have noticed in this first run through. Because of that, I also don’t think it’s one of those books that you can only enjoy reading the first time around: I definitely feel like it would be one that a lot of people would enjoy reading multiple times. So we shall see how I find it on another go around, some time in the future!

But for now, I leave you with this post I found that made me laugh. Because honestly... BIG MOOD: 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]