Monday, April 28, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being (by Ruth Ozeki)

I was immediately grabbed by this book, which is structured as two interlocking stories wit two protagonists. One protagonist, Ruth, finds a diary and some letters and a notebook washed ashore after its writer has (presumably) been lost in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Ruth's story is interwoven with that of Nao, the author of the diary, with some side ventures into the letters and notebook written by Nao's uncle, a kamikaze suicide bomber (or "sky soldier") in WWII.

If the entire story had been Nao's diary plus her uncle Haruki's letters and notebook, including Nao's tales of her great-grandmother the Zen Buddhist nun, I probably would have loved this book and sped through it. However, I kept getting stopped in Ruth's parts of the narrative, in which the most compelling story is that her cat goes missing. Another issue is that it switches from first to third person, immediately giving you more distance from the action. And then there's the fact that Ruth isn't overly sympathetic. (Neither is Nao at times, but she's a teenager, so you kind of forgive her. Ruth is ostensibly an adult woman.)

It gets worse: there is more than one section where we switch from Nao's story to Ruth's, and the scene is Ruth and her husband Oliver talking over the diary. I don't need to read someone else rehashing a story I literally have just finished reading. Ruth: "Did you understand the subtext? Such-and-such is what really was going on." Oliver: "Oh, I didn't catch that. But did you notice blah blah?" It felt like Cliff Notes embedded in the book itself.  Then there's a metaphysical twist at the end that really really did not work for me. At all.

It sounds like I really disliked this book, which made it to the semifinals of the Tournament of Books and everyone really loved. But I didn't. I loved this book, except I only loved half of it.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Reread: Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller)

Memory Reaction:

I read Catch-22 senior year of high school and it has stuck with me ever since. I wrote a final paper on the novel that I was incredibly proud of. I remember printing it out on our old dot matrix printer, and using the word "lugubrious." My thesis was that the events of the novel recur in cycles, getting increasingly more "lugubrious." I think I talked about humor and other types of repetition as well. I remember it completely blew my mind; one of the first "adult" novels that I really loved and felt like I understood.

I also remember finding that final paper in my teacher's trashcan the day I turned it in. He had thrown it out instead of reading it. At the time, I had a huge crush on him and was of course devastated that he would never read my brilliant words. Looking back, I realize that I was the best student in the class and was getting an A no matter what, so I'm sure he was just cutting corners. But I will never ever do that to any one of my students. Even if it's obvious what grade they're getting, which it often is, I'll always read every word.

Reread Reaction:

I was nervous that this wouldn't hold up, since it's been on a pedestal in my mind for over 20 years, but it completely holds up. It's blackly comic as well as profound. I dog eared brilliant quotes on seemingly every other page. And I'm pretty proud of myself in hindsight for that essay, because I think my observations about the novel and its cyclical format hold up too. I'll see if I can dig it up in a file cabinet somewhere and share it here.

I did notice the misogynistic streak of the novel this time whereas I'm sure I didn't before. It is definitely one of those novels that I would call "penisy," wherein all the female characters are prostitutes or other sex objects, and rape is treated fairly lightly in general. I would say though that it's like death in the novel--terrible events are treated humorously in the beginning, and then (as with Aarfy's rape and murder of the prostitute at the end of the novel) they are treated with more horror. But that still doesn't give us any well-rounded female characters, and I don't think I can give it a pass on this one. Apart from that one caveat, however, this is still firmly one of the greatest novels of all time.

Previous Review:

None, since I first read it before I had an online journal. Was there such a time? Were we ever so young?


These three men who hated  him spoke his language and wore his uniform, but he saw their loveless faces set immutably into cramped, mean lines of hostility and understood instantly that nowhere in the world, not in all the fascist tanks or planes or submarines, not in the bunker behind the machine guns or mortars or behind the blowing flame throwers, not even among all the expert gunners of the crack Hermann Goering Antiaircraft Division or among the grisly connivers in all the beer halls in Munich and everywhere else, were there men who hated him more.

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