Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for February, 2016

Ethics for the New Millenium

Posted by nliakos on February 28, 2016

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) (Riverhead Books, 1999; ISBN 1-57322-025-6)

I confess at the outset that reading this kind of book is difficult for me. It reminds me of the introductory philosophy course that I took as a freshman in college. I want to understand, but I am fundamentally a lazy thinker. I prefer to read fiction, or non-fiction that relays facts: science, history, and the like. And so although I purchased this book back in 2000 or so and even began to read it (I found my own notes in the margins in many chapters, although I had no memory of having read them before), I apparently gave up before I finished it and replaced it on the shelf.

Anyway, this time, I finished it. Did any of it sink in? Will I remember it? That’s hard to say. Did I understand it? Yes, I think so. The Dalai Lama writes very simply (almost simplistically); his style is conversational and direct. There’s a lot of repetition because he offers one main piece of advice, and that is that “compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness, and so on” are the route to both personal happiness and eventual world peace. Despite all the terrible things that happen in the world, despite the wars and the cruelty and the suffering, he remains optimistic; he points out the progress, and he advocates that each one of us strive to lead a meaningful life, and that we have kindness and compassion for others.

Since the book was published in 1999, the Dalai Lama has retired from political life (in 2111), and I had the good fortune to hear him speak in person at the University of Maryland (in 2013). The so-called Islamic State has come into being, demonstrating a completely ruthless lack of compassion for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Donald Trump is campaigning to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency of the United States, vowing to deport 11,000,000 people, to erect a wall all along the U.S.-Mexico border, to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. and to use “waterboarding or worse” to interrogate suspected terrorists. What does the Dalai Lama think of all this? I wonder. I suspect, however, that he has somehow found compassion in his heart for both the jihadists and Donald Trump, because that is who he is.

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Posted by nliakos on February 19, 2016

by Lisa See (Random House 2005; ISBN 1-4000-6028-1)

I came to this wonderful novel via the movie of the same name. But Wayne Wang took Lisa See’s story of the love between Lily and Snow Flower in 19th-century China, and superimposed on it a modern story of two friends (confusingly played by the same actresses). In contrast, the book focuses solely on Lily and Snow Flower, who are matched as laotong (“old sames”–girls whose friendship will last all their lives, a custom of the Yao people of Yongming (now Jiangyong) County, in Hunan Province) when they are seven years old, and whose relationship endures despite tragedies, a rebellion and months spent hiding out in the mountains in the middle of winter, and a terrible misunderstanding which almost succeeds in breaking them apart. The story is told in the first person from Lily’s point of view, writing as an old woman looking back on a long life, with both delight and remorse.

Lily and Snow Flower are very appealing characters, and I loved following their stories. However, the descriptions of the local customs such as foot binding; the many festivals which marked the passing of time and gave married women the right to visit their natal families; engagement and marriage; nushu,  the secret “women’s writing” which permits Lily and Snow Flower, who are not literate in the ideographic “men’s writing”, to stay in touch over the years; and the role of women in the home (they were confined to “the inner realm”, an upstairs room or the kitchen all their lives) and in society (“the outer realm”) in that part of China during that epoch. It makes for fascinating reading, and at times seems more like an anthropological treatise than a novel–except for the story of the two women, which pulls the reader along.  I was never tempted to skip the descriptive sections because the cultural parts are so interesting, even though the hardships tolerated by these women are beyond our comprehension, looking back from our perspective in this feminist era where we at least pay lip service to female equality, even if it has not been completely achieved.

The second chapter, “Footbinding,” is an appallingly detailed description of how little girls were subjected to this horrific practice by their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and older sisters. It resulted in the deaths of many of them due to infection and rendered them unable to walk normally for the rest of their lives–all in the pursuit of sex appeal and marriageability. It’s not an easy read. It made my feet ache just to imagine it.

I enjoyed the movie, and it’s a visual feast, but the book is so much better! Thanks to Vicki for introducing me to both.

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The Buried Giant

Posted by nliakos on February 12, 2016

by Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf 2015; ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7)

This was an impulse read. I picked it off the New Fiction shelf at the public library because I had heard of Ishiguro and knew he had written The Remains of the Day (I saw the movie but did not read the book.). But it looked interesting: an elderly couple on a trek across post-Arthurian Britain, joined by a Saxon warrior, an orphan cursed by the bite of a dragon, and a knight of the Round Table. It’s a kind of fairy tale, with dragons, ogres, pixies and other magical beasts. Axl and his beloved wife Beatrice set out from their Briton village to visit the son whom they have not seen in many years. They, their fellow villagers, and most of the others whom they encounter on their trek have inexplicably lost their memories of the past. Sure of their abiding love, Axl and Beatrice yearn to regain these memories, but they fear what might be revealed if they do. There is a tension throughout due to the many dangers that they must face. Slowly, we realize that Axl is not the simple peasant he believes himself to be. In their quest, their physical strength, courage, and love for each other are put to the test. Will their love conquer death, enabling them to remain together in the after-world? Many of the people they meet say one thing but do another. Whom can they trust? There are many mysteries to wonder about as you read this novel.

Neil Gaiman’s review in the New York Times has a lot more detail. James Wood, in The New Yorker, explains why the novel disappoint him. Tom Holland’s more positive review appeared in The Guardian.

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A Tale for the Time Being

Posted by nliakos on February 5, 2016

by Ruth Ozeki (Viking 2013; ISBN 978-0-670-02663-0)
This is an incredibly rich, layered novel about Nao, a Tokyo high school girl, and Ruth, a half-Japanese American novelist living in British Columbia. They are linked by Nao’s diary, which mysteriously washes up on a beach on the island where Ruth lives with her husband Oliver, preserved in a freezer bag covered with barnacles, together with a wristwatch and a packet of letters, all contained in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. As Ruth reads the diary, she becomes obsessed with what may have happened to Nao, who was contemplating suicide and who also may have been in the Sendai area of Japan during the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
The chapters alternate between Ruth’s discoveries and Nao’s diary. Nao, the purely fictional character, naturally writes in the first person in her diary, and she addresses her reader, Ruth, personally, reaching forward in time to someone she has never met, will never meet, and who may not exist at all, if the diary is never found. Ruth’s chapters are written in the third person, which is strange, because Ruth is Ruth Ozeki, or so it seems: she is a half-Japanese American novelist married to a Canadian named Oliver who lives on an island in British Columbia. It’s impossible to know how much of Ruth’s character is invented and how much is simply described. This blending of fiction and nonfiction is one of the many intriguing aspects of this book.
Beyond the stories of Ruth and Nao, there is a philosophical thread running through the book. Ruth and Nao (Now) explore the concept of time and those living beings who are captives of time (time beings). Nao’s father Haruki #2 is reading The Great Minds of Western Philosophy (and folding elaborate origami insects out of the pages he has finished reading), and Nao’s great-uncle Haruki #1 was a philosophy student before being drafted into the Kamikaze corps during World War II. His letters, and later, his secret diary, examine the appalling situation in which he finds himself toward the end of the war.
Nao’s story is terribly painful to read. After spending most of her life in California where her father worked for a tech company, she had to return to Japan when he lost his job and then most of his money in the dot com bubble. Unacculturated and obviously different from her classmates who have spent their whole lives in Japan, Nao becomes the target of unbelievably cruelty from her classmates and even her teacher, who lacks the courage to stand up to the student bullies. Nao keeps her treatment secret from her parents, believing (probably correctly) that there is nothing they can do to protect her. She eventually stops going to school. But her relationship with old Jiko, her father’s grandmother and a Buddhist nun, is what really saves her. Nao spends a summer living in the tiny temple near Sendai where Jiko lives with a younger nun. Jiko is not shocked by anything Nao tells her, and she teaches Nao to “sit zazen”, or meditate, as a way to gain power. Jiko is an unforgettable character.
There is also a layer of magical realism, in which Ruth visits old Jiko in her dreams, and Nao’s words disappear and then reappear in the pages of her diary. Eventually Ruth, and then Nao, learn from the secret diary Haruki #1 kept as he was preparing for his suicide mission that he ended his life by flying into the ocean rather than into an American ship. They also learn, in different ways, that Nao’s loser father also made a heroic choice of his own.
Nao writes in English with many Japanese phrases, which one of the Ruths translates and explains in footnotes–an interesting and unusual touch. I wish there had been a glossary too, since repeated Japanese words are only glossed the first time they appear, and I couldn’t always remember them.
The book provides a lot of food for thought, about many different issues. I was appalled at the cruelty of both the high school bullies and the military officers. It makes me sad that the Japanese, who can be such gentle and kind people, have this sadistic side, similar to what I read about in Unbroken and in the stories of the Rape of Nanking, the Korean “comfort women” and other Japanese atrocities in the ’30s and ’40s. I find this cruelty difficult to reconcile with the lovely Japanese people I have known in my life. Perhaps it’s not only a Japanese thing, but a human thing. Maybe we are all capable of terrible cruelty.

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My Mother’s Books

Posted by nliakos on February 3, 2016

Sometimes I feel guilty about always going to the library for books when I have so many unread ones at home, like the ones on these shelves, most of which were my mother’s. (I have read a few of them, like A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, but not the majority.)

I am currently reading A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I got it from the library.

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