July 16th, 2013

eastern muse

Book 130 : Snow Country and Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

Book 130: Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.
Author: Yasunari Kawabata, 1948, 1952. Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, 1956, 1958. Introduction by Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986.
Genre: Period Fiction. Modern Classic. Japanese Literature.
Other Details: Paperback. 204 pages.

This book presents English translations of two short novels by the1968 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Snow Mountain is a nuanced love story involving a discouraged urbanite (Shimamura) and a rural geisha (Komako). Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. He takes the train through the snow to the mountains of the west coast of Japan, to meet with a geisha he believes he loves. Beautiful and innocent, Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha, and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura, and their love offers no freedom to either of them.

Thousand Cranes is another love story. This melancholy tale uses the classical tea ceremony as a background for the story of a young man's relationships to two women, his father's former mistress and her daughter
- synopsis from Goodreads.

The two novels contained within are exquisitely written and embody the Japanese ideal within art and literature of mono no aware, the beauty of sadness. There is a delicate melancholy about them. In his Introduction Kazuo Ishiguro likens Yasunari Kawabata writing to poetry requiring a close reading and I would agree with that. It is writing that needs to be read slowly allowing the words to flow over you and paint a picture. I was fascinated by Zen Buddhism when I was young and especially by the tea ceremony, which features in Thousand Cranes.

When Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 it was on the basis of three novels. Snow Country and Thousand Cranes were two of those novels and I hope to read the third in due course.

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata.

The Master of Go is a fictionalised chronicle of a famous 1938 Go match played between a revered and heretofore invincible Master and a younger and more modern challenger. Kawabata initially published this in a serialised form in 1951 and then as a novel in 1954. Its translator felt that the six month long game was symbolic of the struggle between the traditions of imperial Japan and the onslaught of the twentieth century and also reflected aspects of Japan's defeat in WWII, something that had a profound effect upon Kawabata.

I rarely abandon books but in this case it was not due to any issue on the part of the author but my own shortcomings as my inability to understand how Go is played, despite the details provided in the Introduction, left me floundering. So I felt it best to put this aside.

The Mirage, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Peter Pan

The Mirage: A Novel by Matt Ruff

B&N Synopsis

11/9/2001: Christian fundamentalists hijack four jetliners. They fly two into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh. The fourth plane, believed to be bound for Mecca, is brought down by its passengers. The United Arab States declares a War on Terror. Arabian and Persian troops invade the Eastern Seaboard and establish a Green Zone in Washington, D.C. ...

Summer, 2009: Arab Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi interrogates a captured suicide bomber. The prisoner claims that the world they are living in is a mirage—in the real world, America is a superpower, and the Arab states are just a collection of "backward third-world countries." Other captured terrorists have been telling the same story.

The gangster Saddam Hussein is conducting his own investigation. And the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee—a war hero named Osama bin Laden—will stop at nothing to hide the truth. As Mustafa and his colleagues venture deeper into the unsettling world of terrorism, politics, and espionage, they are confronted with questions without any rational answers, and the terrifying possibility that their world is not what it seems.

I picked up this because I thought an alternate history of 9/11 would be interesting to read. But as I began to delve deeper in to the novel, I realized there was much more to it than that. It's hard to discuss the plot of the book without giving too much away, but Matt Ruff has done an excellent job of recreating the world we presently know as one that features Arab states as superpowers and America as a third-world country full of extremists, suicide bombers and militas. It's an interesting concept and one that hits uncomfortably close to home these days.

Ruff's writing is crisp, his narrative believable, and his characters are three-dimensional. You care about them and what happens to them as the story develops. That's not often the case for many writers, so kudos to Ruff.

The premise of The Mirage is extraordinarily interesting, and I can't imagine anyone who's a political buff or history fan not enjoying this book.

Books completed: 38/50

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In an effort to include more classics in my selections, I began reading Oscar Wilde this year. My first two choices An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest introduced me to Wilde's clever wit and biting commentary on social London. So when I began this story, I expected much of the same.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that this story is on the opposite end of the spectrum from some of Wilde's lighter works.

Dorian Gray, a handsome young man who is a bit narcisstic and vain, serves as muse and idol for artist Basil Hallward. When Hallward's friend, Lord Henry Wotten, meets Gray, he is intrigued by the young man who has captured Hallward's devotion. Gray, for his part, becomes enthralled with Wotten's hedonistic view. When Hallward creates his best work yet - a breathtaking portrait of Gray that seems to perfectly capture the young man's beauty and youth - Dorian wistfully wishes he could remain forever young and let the painting age instead of him.

As Gray becomes more enamored of Lord Henry's views, his life begins to change, but his physical appearance does not, and thus, we realize his wish has somehow been granted. As Gray's debauchery reaches new lows, the young man's physical appearance remains untouched; however, the portait shows every sin the man commits.

To say this book was not all what I was expecting would be an understatement. It was dark, wicked and oftentimes perverse. But that's not to say I didn't enjoy Wilde's story and the moral lessons he tucked within the pages. Gray serves as a warning to all that a wicked life cannot go unpunished. But more importantly, Dorian Gray is a potent reminder that a beautiful exterior can easily mask a poisonous interior.

Books completed: 39/50

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Although I know the story well enough, I've never actually read it until now.

Barrie's story is a remarkable tale of childhood innocence, arrogance and the bonds of family. While the story is familiar to almost everyone, Barrie's actual tale can be quite dark at times, with murders and death scattered throughout the chapters. His fondness for the Darling children doesn't preclude the narrator from his offering his perspective that they can be quite heartless and self-centered at times.

The narrator voice jumps back and forth throughout the story and sometimes even talks directly to characters and then to the reader. This was a bit off-putting, but that's a personal preference.

I think what I most enjoyed about this tale was the snark and wit that comes through the pages. It's not something that's seen in the Disney version. After reading this story, I realized the live-action Peter Pan film made in 2003 is probably the closest translation of the book.

This is a wonderful, fun story. If you've never read it, I encourage you to do so. You will thoroughly enjoy revisting a childhood favorite.

Books completed: 40/50

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Book 41 for2013

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. 198 pages

I seem to have got started on rereading a batch of the Lord Peter Wimsey books - this time, Lord Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murder and it's up to Wimsey to clear the family name.

Gentle relaxing re-read because it's too hot here to do anything that requires actual thinking.