Here it is, dear readers, the belated book discussion post you have all been waiting for wherein I will merrily prattle about all the awesome books I read this summer. Granted, these are basically capsule reviews edited from my reader’s journal, but good things come in small blocks of text.
Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
**A beautiful poignant novel, it used the fairy tale of sleeping beauty, the old real fairy tale, to great effect as example A+ of why fairy tales are relevant beyond the confines of the nursery room, demonstrating with narrative elegance how we internalize fairy tales to aid our own survival and redemption. Through the tale of briar rose, generations of women in this family find connection, personal narrative, and healing post-World War II. After so many invaluable human things are lost the family in this story, starting with the matriarch, Dawna (Gemma to her granddaughters), rebuild from the one thing that remained: the memory of the fairy tale of briar rose. Briar Rose, with all its sweetness and its sorrow, was real to Dawna/Gemma and her daughter and her granddaughters, retold endlessly and threading through the quotidian moments of their lives drawing them together. Miracle of miracles it is enough to build on. To me, this book reinforced the principle that every life has a characteristic fairy tale that illustrates or defines us by turns; to paraphrase a brilliant frog, life’s like a story. Write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending. Someday I plan to write a novel on the principle. In the meantime I want to read the rest of the novels in the Fairy Tale Series edited by Terri Windling. I went into squeaky paroxysms of joy when I found Tam Lin by Pamela Dean at a used book shop recently, hopefully I’ll find the rest soon.
Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins
**My dad picked this gem up for me a couple years ago at a conference and actually got the author to sign it for me. Yet another perk of having a librarian parent: they find the coolest books to read and then share them with you. And I have two librarian parents. Gleeful cackle cackle. It is a lovely book. I love the way Perkins describes things. Her prose is direct, almost terse at times, but poetic. The measured pace of her narrative captures the fragility of growing youth, it reminds me of the visual of a baby giraffe taking wobbling steps (I swear, giraffe calves always look extra wobbly to me) which is so like being a teenager, always teetering and feeling like a target for pointy teeth, only in sophisticated prose that has nothing to do with giraffes. There are many turns of phrase and metaphors that are absolutely unexpected but completely apropos; they almost seem like the only possible phrase to use. Here are two of my favorite passages:
“So often in real life, one person wants to be understood, but obscures her feelings with completely unrelated words and facial expressions, while the other person is trying to remember whether she did or didn’t turn off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs.”
“All along the way, ordinary things became unordinary. The day was full of signs and wonders.”
I think the best thing of all about Criss Cross was that the ending made perfect sense, was satisfying, was real for the characters, and yet didn’t really end anything. It is the kind of ending I wish I was a good enough writer to craft myself. I highly recommend the book and I am so incredibly grateful that my dad brought this home for me.
The 7 Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
**This was a shockingly easy read. For those not familiar, it is a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and his relationship to his famed arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. I blitzed through its pages in one day. Though I am hardly a slow reader I’m not exactly speedy-ace-20-pages a minute extraordinaire. It was just easy to read, diverting prose, but not exactly extraordinary. I confess that Meyer’s story, imaginative though it was, left me cold. I find his ideas about one of the most fascinating battles of mind in literary history, Holmes vs. Moriarty, rather boring compared to Doyle’s tales. I read it with an open mind, I swear, but I guess I’m just a fan-girl for the original stories. The 7 Percent Solution made me want to re-read Sherlock Holmes and brush up on my history—I’m a little rusty on my WWI knowledge. I suppose that getting me to reconnect to the history, albeit via google, and the source material is a win for the author even if his book is not especially special for itself.
Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
**This is a really good book. Clear in its metaphor and use of Grecian mythological allegory, I enjoyed my time perusing its pages. I thought the emotional tension between William and Edward Bloom, his father (the titular Big Fish), was poignant, subtle, loving and real in a very recognizably human way. Even though I will never be on the inside of a father-son relationship, I can really understand the parental need to be appreciated juxtaposed with the child’ need to understand who their parent really is as an individual and why that would be frustrating to live through.
As a nerd for folklore and ancient tales I really appreciated the prosaic way of describing why and how mythology, story and folklore are still very necessary for coping with the elements of life that are beyond comprehension any other way. Another thing I really liked was that the myths and stories about Edward Bloom weren’t really lies—they were just the closest truth-containing-thing available to facts. This unreliable narrator, what I like to call “The Garak Factor,” of the lies being especially true pushed my reader buttons.
I like the fact that William and Edward finally managed to connect metaphorically if nothing else, over a really good joke they both love, a peace won through a sense of humor and laughter—two things that really do constitute a very precious inheritance to leave. Memories of laughter and great comedic skill do say something good about the person leaving them behind even if they in no way disguise or whitewash the flaws of the individual, and Edward Bloom certainly has his flaws. The peace the Bloom men find is not everything either hoped for but it is enough to live on and live with.
The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki translated by Arthur Waley. Yes. There ARE dew drops ahead, have no fear.
**I have had a few months to ponder The Tale of Genji; what it means and what it means to me the reader. To write this entry I spent a lot of time re-reading my reader’s journal entries on Genji. Over the two months it took me to read this book, I spent a lot of ink and paper wrestling with whether or not there is a deeper meaning to Genji’s tale. Specifically I often pondered whether or not there were deep feminist themes or at minimum a critical approach to Genji and the related eternal question of: Do I get this book? See, I went into this experience assuming that I would like the book’s characters and therefore would really like the book. Facile, I know, but hey, I am an optimist to the marrow. Given my longtime passion for folklore, legends, mythology, and your basic works of ancient human writing (I’m the little girl who tackled Homer’s Odyssey when I was but a wee lass in grade school after all) I figured this would continue to be the case with Genji. I fell into a trap, you see, one that I had constructed myself. I mistakenly figured that if parts of the text were making me feel less than pleased that I must not be “getting it,” I must be failing to read the text critically enough or failing to make sufficient allowance or failing something that my erstwhile English professors had taught me once upon a time. However, after talking it over with my sublime half, I have come to the conclusion that actually, yes, I do get the book. I just don’t particularly like its characters or theme. It was a liberating conclusion to draw—that maybe the masterpiece of Genji really just has some detestable elements. To my mind this is a rather revolutionary idea. All this time I thought that I was missing some key point or cultural insight that would make everything clear. But no. The audience for Genji was court women who were pining for some escapist fantasy. Genji, and his descendants, are meant to be this idealized portrait of manly manness by Heian standards, just fantasy fodder. Any barbs the author levels at Genji are so quickly swept aside that they almost seem to make him more perfect and wonderful for being the cause of so many smiling frowns.
“You’re cheating on me again with a younger woman you know you are honor-bound not to fudge-ity fudge? Oh, for fun, Genji! You are such a sexy scamp.” –Inner monologue of Genji’s longtime paramour, Murasaki, as imagined by yours truly.
For as much fun as I’ve has with this book, for as much as I’ve learned, for as much as I’m glad I read it, I just really think the “characters” and their behaviors and beliefs are all a bunch of unlikeable horsehooey. The Tale of Genji ought to be taken as a cautionary tale of how not to live one’s life rather than some rich and wondrous tale to romanticize. We should read it and remember it as an unforgettable testament to what humanity ought not do, like the Holocaust. Never forget. Never forget that people just shouldn’t treat each other this way no matter how rich and good looking they might be. We should re-read it to check and see how far human society has come away from such a point. Ladies, it is not better to be ill-used by a rich asswipe than well-loved by a good man. It is better to avoid being ill-used at all and maintain some self-respect.
I do think that either the quality of the writing or the quality of the translation or both are very different in the last two books compared to the earlier sections following Genji’s life. Specifically they tend to be more ridiculous and somewhat more confusing— age continuity issues regarding the protagonists present the discerning reader with a slight headache. My favorite really ridiculous thing was when Kaoru (Genji’s step-son) dives under a curtain, seizes Kozeri’s (his long-time object of obsession) kimono sleeve, and proceeds to hang on as she drags him through more hanging curtains in an attempt to escape. They then proceed to spend the rest of the night in this attitude with Kaoru on his knees begging to sleep with her and Kozeri tugging at her sleeve saying “no.” I was in stitches, I couldn’t stop talking about it for a week at least, and it always makes me laugh. It’s like something you’d see on a sitcom. These fellows Niou and Kaoru, and their stories, are just so over the top I can’t take them seriously. Here is a favorite Kaoru quote of mine for you to chew on:
“For the more he thought about it the more clearly he saw that the whole thing was due to the half-heartedness that was the fatal defect of his own character.”—Kaoru’s explanation for all the sorrow and misery of his life—particularly his love life. Appears on page 1074 in Chapter XI of “The Bridge of Dreams.”
The ending does rather bite. Spoilers! (But only kind of Spoilers!) Kaoru and yet another object of his obsession wind up arguing and the book ends with her kicking him out and him stalking off, suspecting her of cheating on him. I do think it is a horrid way to end the book on such a cynical, dark note. I know that the story of a life, much less this many lives, doesn’t really have much of a comprehensible point but Lady Murasaki could have ended the narrative at any point she wanted. Instead, it ends there. Why???
I have no clue. It is anticlimactic and pointless and the only thing satisfying about it is that finally one woman has the backbone to follow something through and Kaoru looks like a total dickwad, which he is, so maybe that was the point? To remind everyone that Kaoru would never be as good as Genji. Maybe? I don’t know. One hypothesis I have is what I like to call “the X-files Effect.” Genji, like the X-files, went on so long, had so many threads, and had so many characters, that it became narratively impossible for all of these threads to be resolved to the satisfaction of the fan base. Therefore both Lady Murasaki and the creative team behind the X-files made the only decision they felt they could make: they accepted the mystery and walked away without even really attempting to resolve diddley poo. End of story. Verily. The traditions of Asian folklore, that I’ve read, rather support this. Many of the tales I’ve read are, firstly, more of what we in the west would call proverbs or anecdotes and, secondly, even the actual tale-like tales occasionally just sort of stop without what we’d consider a proper or satisfying resolution. Sometimes things don’t have a point beyond the journey.
Of course there is the tantalizing question of what if that’s not the real ending? What if there was a really awesome ending that just got lost to history? Yeah, that is implausible. The Tale of Genji was the Twilight-saga of Heian era Japan. It was merchandised. A lot. Illustrated copies of the text, illustrated screens, decorative hanging scrolls, painted fans; all that ancient bling. I read a book this summer featuring the illustrations of The Tale of Genji called The Tale of Genji: legends and paintings by Miyeko Murase. The artistry of the Tosa school (1617-1691 A.D.) from the Burke album pictured therein was beautiful. The level of detail was astounding and the colors were brilliant. The chapter summaries for each illustration were all conveniently rosy and romantic—no hint of statutory rape in these glossy golden pages. Fascinatingly enough, I learned that the faces of every character in these scenes were left deliberately vague by the artists so that the readers could imagine themselves as the characters in the story with creative ease. Given that the paintings were pandering to that level of intense fandom I really doubt that any part of Genji, especially the ending, would go missing.
So where does that leave us? Where does all this rambling leave me and my opinion of The Tale of Genji? I’ll tell you. For realsies; I am not going to just wander off and leave you confused staring suspiciously at a nunnery. I’m just going to ramble a bit more first. It occurs to me that this last summer, this summer of dynamic reading and intellectual achievement, was overshadowed. In five years time I will remember Summer 2011, in book terms, as the summer of Genji. It was a summer of dewdrops, tears, sleeves, haiku, random chunks of garden plants, dewdrops, magical B.O., worldly sorrow, dewdrops, sin, sex, dewdrops, underage sex, dewdrops, pedophilic sex, dewdrops, unrequited love, dewdrops, rape, dewdrops, rape, rape, rape, silks, copy books, dewdrops, artistry, dewdrops, paintings, and still more dewdrops. I didn’t like the characters. Even the ones that seemed kinda likeable, even for tens of pages, would inevitably do something despicable that would make me go “Ewwww!” and scratch them off my “Yay! For them,” character list. The story was banal and rambling and in the end rather pointless. It was soap opera. A 1,135 page soap opera.
But. And this is an important conjunctive pause here. I had fun. It was entertaining. There was drama, there was fashion and there was human passion. I have never watched a train wreck or a car crash in my life (Thanks for that, God!) but I imagine it would be something like the experience of reading this book. Not because this book was a disaster. Oh no. The Tale of Genji is a remarkable literary achievement. My hat is sincerely off to Lady Murasaki for creating this epic tale of pulpy kimono-ripping passion. But that’s what it is. It was escapist entertainment for people too rich and privileged to know that they had it good; they wanted salacious drama and Lady Murasaki stepped into the breach with artistic style. Today it is escapist historical entertainment for people pining for the seeming romance and otherness of a time with customs and pageantry alien to their own everyday experience. It is diverting, impressive, hilarious (albeit oftentimes unintentionally), a cautionary titillating tale that is filled with incredible historical detail about a dynamic period in the history of Japan. I had fun reading about a bunch of horrible people this summer. You always want to know what will happen next reading this tale and it is nice when some of the horrid people, especially Genji, get some slight come-uppance. Not the first time and certainly not the last time I eagerly follow the tale of wretched individuals. I don’t regret my summer spent in Heian era Japan with “The Shining One,” and all his idiotic foibles (Seriously, is there anything he can’t do?? Oh yeah, it’s living a righteous un-hypocritical life). I had fun there, I had fun laughing at a big idiot being an idiot, the artistry of the times and the narrative inspired me (there be quilts a’coming based on these inspirations!) but I’m really glad I don’t live there.
Read the book sometime. Anything horrid in your life I guarantee will seem really pretty okay afterwards. In any case, the next time you’re having one of those no-good very bad days when you don’t get the toy in the cereal box, just take a deep breath and say to yourself: “I am not a woman living in Heian era Japan,” and everything will seem shining and wonderful in your life by perspective. I promise.