Some Prefer Nettles – Junichiro Tanizaki

 Book # 688a

Reviewer: Kara

Some Prefer NettlesSome Prefer Nettles is about Kaname and Misako, a married couple that is no longer in love. Both are having affairs, both are interested in divorce, but both are putting off the end of the marriage. This is partially to conform to social standards but also to avoid the pain and changes that come with such a decision.

At the same time that Kaname is working towards this very modern life change — divorce — he is becoming increasingly interested in traditional Japanese culture. He goes to several traditional puppet shows with his father-in-law and begins to take an interest in his father-in-law’s girlfriend/consort O-hisa, who dresses, bathes, and generally lives in old-fashioned styles at the behest of her keeper.

This coupling of nostalgia with modernity, and the descriptions of lives lived right on the cusp of a cultural shift, as awareness and interest in western culture is beginning to grow in Japan, is a major theme of the novel and of Tanizaki’s work in general.

The most fascinating aspect is watching Kaname’s internal struggle. As his interest in traditional culture grows, so does his wish for divorce. Early on, it seems that his hesitation to bite the bullet is based on social appearances — what will others, including his father-in-law, think of him and Misako if they part ways? As the novel progresses though, it becomes more and more clear that Kaname is struggling within himself just as much. He fears the change for both himself and Misako, who he deeply cares about even if he does not love her.

To put it simply, Kaname is comfortable with the status quo and reluctant to change, even though it would bring both him and Misako happiness.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its uncertain ending. I won’t say too much about what happens, but suffice it to say that Tanizaki leaves Kaname on the precipice of a decision. There are very different paths available to him, and we do not learn which one he takes. This is the ultimate example of the vagueness that is very much a part of Tanizaki’s writing style, and something that is even described in the novel as being typical of traditional Japanese writing:

“The composers didn’t think about grammar. If you see generally what was in their hearts, that’s really enough. The vagueness is rich in its own way.”

Tanizaki intends for us as readers to gather clues about Kaname — who he is, how he behaves — and determine for ourselves what decision Kaname will make. I know what I think he will do, and I found the lack of ending more of a fun exercise than a disappointment.


Home – Marilynne Robinson

Book # 7b

Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

HomeThe accolades for Marilynne Robinson’s Home are splashed across and inside the cover of the copy I borrowed from my local library. “One of the saddest books I have ever loved”, said one reviewer. “A powerful piece of writing”, stated another. I wasn’t skeptical, for there are good reasons why any book appears on this list, but I will admit to being hesitant to have too high an expectation, in case Home didn’t live up to the hype.

I needn’t have been so cautious; Home left me with a rather profound sense of sadness mixed with hope, and I was disappointed when I realised I’d read the last page.

Home tells the story of Glory Boughton and her older brother Jack, who both return to their family home and ailing father. Glory is an English teacher, fleeing from a failed relationship with a disappointing man; she is the youngest of the Boughton children, determined to put the past behind her and tend to her father. Jack Boughton hasn’t been in contact with his family for twenty years. As a child, he was always getting into trouble; as an adult, not much has changed. Growing up, the two siblings felt quite separate from each other, and as the story unfolds, they begin to form a relationship and offer each other the support both need.

This is a story about family, loyalty and love, strongly woven together with faith and redemption, and the uncertain desire to make peace with the past. There is a very strong sense of spirituality and belief, which is at the heart of the Boughton family; I don’t feel qualified to comment much on this aspect of the novel, but it raises some interesting points and the characters are often found in deep theological discussion. Set in the 1950s, there are also elements of politics and race, which, while barely mentioned, prove to be important in shaping Jack’s behaviour and the situation he finds himself in.

Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”
His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”
Jack said, “I –” as if he had been about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other.”

Of the eight Boughton children, we meet just three throughout the novel: Glory, Jack, and Teddy. The others are all mentioned in passing, but do not feature at all; in the beginning, I wondered when we might meet them, but the story didn’t need them to feature, and nothing would have been gained by adding more to the limited cast. The sense of separation in the family is poignant (Glory keeps in touch with all of her siblings; Jack was sought for a number of years but proved elusive), and as Jack and Glory come to rely on each other, there is a sense of uncomplicated loyalty and fondness, not marred by the opinions or experiences of the others. Their relationship is quite hopeful and the trust builds as they open up to each other, but it is full of despairing moments and tears. Glory’s tears could have come across as weakness, but she is incredibly strong and perceptive, with a tenderness and kindness that Jack feels he doesn’t deserve. He has hit rock-bottom a number of times but underneath his self-loathing there is a small spark of hope and willingness to believe he can change, if only someone will give him the opportunity to prove it.

He said, “You get used to kindness. After a while you begin to count on it. You miss it when it’s gone.”
She said, “I know a little bit about that,” and he nodded, and the lilacs rustled, and the sun shone, and there was quiet between them, a calm that came with being of one mind. So she had to say, “You shouldn’t lose hope.”
He laughed. “Sometimes I really wish I could.”
She said, “I know about that, too.”

Throughout Home, there are moments of such hope and happiness that the Boughton family seems grossly normal and successful, but there are also moments of such sadness and desperation that make them seem dysfunctional and distant. Reverend Boughton is desperate for all of his children to get along, and as his health fails further, he struggles to separate the present from the past.

She stepped into the dining room and asked Jack to play, and then she went back to help her father. “‘Softly and Tenderly’,” the old man said. “A very fine song. Is that Gracie?”
“No, it’s Jack.”
The old man said, “I don’t believe Jack plays the piano. It might be Gracie.”
She brought her father down the hallway. He stopped at a little distance from the piano, released her arm, and stood looking at Jack with puzzled interest. He whispered, “The fellow plays very well. But why is he here in our house?”
Glory said, “He’s come home to see you, Papa.”
“Well, that’s very nice, I suppose. No harm in it.”

Some might say that faith is the strongest theme of this story, but I believe it is the power of love – to support, buoy, forgive and fix, but also wound, hurt, disappoint and destroy – that is the strongest theme. The ending leaves the story wide open, but it is hopeful and almost up-lifting; Home is a simply but beautifully written story that won’t bring you to tears, but will leave your heart wishing for more.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

Book #770
Reviewer: Kara

The House of MirthThere is something about Lily Bart that sets her apart for everyone else in The House of Mirth. She is stunningly beautiful, which matters a lot to many of the men in the nouveau-riche turn-of-the-century New York society in which she lives. She is also extremely skilled in social situations and is able to understand people’s inner motives, hang-ups, and intentions and use them to her advantage.
As a result, many people like her and even those who don’t want her around to manipulate social situations in their favor. Both of these factors – beauty and social skill – allow her to live the life of a rich society woman, despite being nearly broke. She offers these things in return for gifts and hospitality.
Despite these things though, Lily is 29 and unmarried. It becomes clear that every time she comes close to sealing the deal she sabotages herself – because part of her really doesn’t like the money-focused society she lives in or see its value. In this belief, which is only semi-conscious for her, she finds a partner in Selden, who states it outright and begins to fall for Lily because she is the only other “society person” who seems to get the joke. Also did I mention she’s beautiful.
Selden on Lily, early in the novel:
“He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape?”
As you can imagine, Lily’s lack of money coupled with her being a single woman approaching thirty begin to cause her problems – problems that she is forced to solve in less than savory ways in order to maintain her lifestyle and status. Mid-novel, Lily has “a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without ever perceiving the right road till it was too late to take it.” This is when things get interesting.
Wharton focuses on several themes in her withering description of upper class society and its tendency to honor the most selfish and flashy, and chew up and spit out everyone else. First, there is the way that truth is manipulated. As Lily says, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
This is something that still resonates today, particularly in our national discussion of how people of different races and economic backgrounds are treated by the criminal justice system. Another is the need for stability in life, and the ways in which our various societies shape us as children, then sometimes fail us rather than support us as adults.
When Lily’s society turns its back on her:
“That was the feeling which possessed her now-the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift of the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them.”
Occasionally in the novel, Lily comes in contact with young women of the lower classes. These are women who must work for a living and are surviving well enough but have none of the fancy things she has, no extra money, and no elaborate social calendar. It is one of these women who gives Lily a glimpse of what a truly satisfying and happy life could be:
“The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence.”
Lily knows that this woman who has very little, has something she does not: stability. She compares the “shelter” this woman has built to a bird nest on a cliff. It’s a safe haven to be at peace and raise a family, protected from the dangers just outside its walls.

Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

Book #641
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published July 2, 2012)

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is a short, bleak book, and while I can appreciate aspects of its art, I’m glad to be away from it and on to other things. I read Day of the Locust in high school and have some recollection of it being bleak as well, but somehow it felt less so. The introduction to the edition of Miss Lonelyhearts that I listened to compared the two and argued the atmosphere of each reflected the geography of the setting–with Miss Lonelyhearts somewhat claustrophobic and Day of the Locust more like arid desert. If so, then I think I prefer my depressing experiences to be out in the air and under the sky.

Here are my reflections on the book, and some comparisons with other works I’ve recently read.

Miss Lonelyhearts is the tale of a male advice columnist in Depression Era New York City. Though the column is intended to be fluff, and is seen as such by the editor to whom Lonelyhearts reports, for the people who write seeking advice, it is serious. The columnist finds himself overwhelmed by the many versions of tragedy that he must respond to, becomes depressed, and turns, on one hand, to drink, fights, and affairs, and on the other to a Christianity he deeply believes in, but which is mocked by those around him. Lonelyhearts himself is an ethicist’s nightmare, violating boundaries with those who write to him for advice. This novel paints a bleak picture of Depression Era New York, and does so in crisp clear language. Little empathy is generated for the protagonist, and there is no hopeful vision of a functional alternative to either the ineffective religious fervor or the empty hedonism portrayed.

It is hard not to see parallels to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [reviewed here]. Both portray protagonists who are affected by the bleak letters to advice columns, both present unrewarding sexual relationships as the norm, and neither offer much hope to counteract the critiques of the societies they portray. On the other hand, stylistically they are vastly different. Nathanael West‘s prose is spare, and he does little to deepen his characters or create emotional connection to them. Doris Lessing, by contrast, builds a rich, sometimes even lush, world, lingering over details and creating both beauty and depth, despite the similarly pessimistic overall viewpoint. Lessing encourages the reader to engage deeply with her themes, whereas there is something almost aggressive, and therefore off-putting, in West’s approach to the reader. It is not simply the spare masculinity in the style of West that has this effect, since Ernest Hemingway‘s prose has those qualities, and yet, at least for me, Hemingway uses the style to create profound connection and meaning.

Many appear to find this book brilliant and darkly funny, but I came away cold. If you want dark and funny, I’d go with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. He provides an angry, funny critique of a society, but builds firm connections to characters, and provides a sense of hope that makes for a much more enjoyable experience.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

Book # 516


The Adventures of Augie MarchThe Adventures of Augie March records a dozen or so years of Augie’s life, a life filled with all sorts of events and details. There is Augie’s jobs, crimes, relationships with various women, and even a period spent adrift on the open ocean and another period spent training an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico. As Augie says, people tend to find him ideal for figuring into their schemes and he has a tendency to say yes. This makes him an absolutely perfect subject for a novel.

These adventures are really entertaining at the plot level alone, but beyond that the novel has a lot to say about human fate, how life and death intertwine, and the ways that life should be lived. Above all else, the book is about Augie’s quest for who he is, and along the way he learns a lot about how humanity works:

“And this is what mere humanity always does. It’s made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that’s what their power is. There’s one image that gets out in front to lead the rest and can impose its claim to being genuine with more force than others, or one voice enlarged to thunder is heard above the others. Then a huge invention, which is the invention maybe of the world itself, and of nature, becomes the actual world… That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” 

Augie grows up in extreme poverty during the Great Depression and sees firsthand the power those with money have over those without in Chicago, leading to this view that those who have power are the ones who actually create the world.

As Augie goes through various experiences, he is constantly longing for something. He wants a life that feels satisfying but he is never quite sure what it is he wants or how to achieve it. He continues to search, and try things, and remain uncommitted. This is frustrating for him, as he feels he’s spent his whole life preparing for life, gathering knowledge and understanding, without ever getting beyond “the walls of his own being.”

Augie’s friend says just what he needs to hear: “You must take a chance on what you are. And you can’t sit still. I know this double poser, that if you make a move you may lose but if you sit still you will decay.” 

As Augie gets older, he realizes the truth of this, that he’s been living all along and that there is no easy answer to the question of fate – his identity and where he ends up are tied together and it won’t be possible to establish one and use it to determine the other. In fact, Augie comes to the conclusion that fate and identity are one and the same. The tough life experiences fate throws at him mold his identity and in turn his identity influences how he responds to experiences; the two are bound together in a lifelong cycle.

Tied up in this quest for his identity and for the answers about what his life should look like are a lot of thoughts about death – its inevitability, the notion that the powerful don’t exactly die like the rest of us because their memories live on, and also what it takes away from life:

“Death is going to take the boundaries away from us, that we should no more be persons. That’s what death is about. When that is what life also wants to be about, how can you feel except rebellious?” 

This quotation is particularly illuminating because in this thought Augie reflects on how he responds to life’s difficulties and struggles. He never has a woe-is-me attitude in the novel, but he certainly has a rebellious one. This is a clue that his impoverished start and confused young adulthood have impacted him more than he is willing to state, giving the reader permission to read between the lines of his philosophical statements. It is also an echo of what Einhorn, a surrogate father to Augie in many ways, said many years previously – that Augie has opposition in him.

I enjoyed the picaresque feel of this modern novel, and Augie March is a worthy and fascinating hero. I definitely recommend this read, as it is chock full of two very different things that aren’t often together – adventure and philosophical musings.