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.

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.

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin

Book # 326a

Reviewer: Kara


TD

This classic novel of science fiction is the story of Shevek, a physicist from a 150-year-old socialist-anarchist experimental utopia on a moon. He has begun to see cracks in his society, and a return to the ways that the founders left their home planet to escape. He travels to that home planet, with the ultimate goal of “tearing down walls.”

Written in 1974, the novel was an instant hit and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. The primary theme of the novel is an illustration of the merits and dangers of anarchy and socialism. These ideas, while interesting, do read a little bit like a product of their time.

What makes the novel a must-read to this day are the other universal and complex themes it also tackles, including gender equality, the nature of time, and what it really means to be free.

The discussion of freedom occurs at two levels: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of ideas. The novel clearly advocates for personal freedom and glorifies an individual’s right to determine what s/he does for a living and for pleasure, who s/he loves, how s/he lives, etc., without any caveats. The implication here is that people are genuinely good and genuinely care about each other and about contributing something positive to the world.

This freedom was so important to the founders of the society where Shevek lives that they see even having possessions or, in many cases, committed relationships, as a prison. Children are named randomly by a computer and raised in group dormitory settings. Few people have monogamous partnerships and sexual relations happen easily and often. People own little more than a set of clothes or two and go to cafeterias for food. As Shevek says to the people on the home planet when he visits:

“Because our men and women are free–possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”

The freedom of ideas is central to the novel, and is central to Shevek’s quest: he has discovered a physics formula of great importance and wants to share it with everyone in all societies on all planets. The importance of shared ideas is stated most clearly in this passage:

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

The plot moves very slowly overall, and I was more than halfway through the book before it really picked up speed. Part of this is due to the necessity of world-building, part of this is due to the non-linear structure, and part of this is due to the frequent asides on physics, philosophy, relationships, and political systems. The slow pace didn’t bother me much, but if you prefer adventure or galactic battles in your sci-fi, this isn’t going to hit the spot for you.

If, however, you’re curious what a society where freedom is the ultimate (and only) collective value might look like, this novel is fascinating. And if you’re looking for thought-provoking discussion and the occasional beautifully-written sentence (somewhat rare in science fiction!) look no further. Case in point:

“‘If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”

Out of Africa – Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen)

Book # 614

REVIEWER: Kara


OOAOut of Africa is a memoir of the author’s 17 years living on and running a coffee plantation in Kenya from 1914 to 1931. She describes animals, plants and scenery, the “Natives” who work for her, and various events that happen while she’s there. Highlights include all-night dances the locals host, shooting lions, flying over the land with pilot friends, and trying to protect the crops from grasshoppers and droughts.

As far as the author’s language and writing style, this is a beautiful book that does an excellent job of painting a picture of a coffee plantation in Africa in the early 20th century. The author has a keen eye for detail, a knack for description, and an obviously very deep love for her subject. All this is why we still read this book 85+ years after its publication. And it’s worth a read!

However, it IS written by a white person who went to Africa in the early 20th century as a colonist. In order to keep her farm running, she employs the local “Natives” who are allowed to remain living near the farm so long as they work (without pay) for the author 180 days out of the year. This is just one element of the colonist’s mentality that pervades the book. It very much dampened my enthusiasm.

For the era, it may be that the author had a pretty liberal attitude towards the African people. She is, after all, a kind and benevolent employer; she helps those who work for her with food and medical attention, and has an attitude that ranges from wary tolerance to authentic appreciation when it comes to their culture. She also professes to like them:

“As for me, from my first weeks in Africa, I had felt a great affection for the Natives. It was a strong feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world.”

But from where I sit here in the early 21st century, her writing about the people of Kenya is cringe-worthy over and over again. I got a real sense that she subscribed to the “noble savage” mentality. Additionally, she constantly compares the “Natives” to animals, and I mean CONSTANTLY. To be fair, she also occasionally compares a white person to an animal, but with the Natives, it’s disturbingly incessant. Here’s a quotation that sort of encompasses both of these aspects of her attitude toward Africans:

“Sometimes on a Safari, or on the farm, in a moment of extreme tension, I have met the eyes of my Native companions, and have felt that we were at a great distance from one another, and that they were wondering at my apprehension of our risk. It made me reflect that perhaps they were, in life itself, within their own element, such as we can never be, like fishes in deep water which for the life of them cannot understand our fear of drowning. This assurance, this art of swimming, they had, I thought, because they had preserved a knowledge that was lost to us by our first parents; Africa, amongst the continents, will teach it to you.”

The author is at her best when she’s describing the beauty of the land or a deeply personal experience and the feelings that these things give her. For example, on the glorious activity of flying in a plane above her plantation she writes:

“It is a sad hardship and slavery to people who live in towns, that in all their movements they know of one dimension only; they walk along the line as if they were led on a string. The transition from the line to the plane into the two dimensions, when you wander across a field or through a wood, is a splendid liberation… but in the air you are taken into the full freedom of the three dimensions; after long ages of exile and dreams the homesick heart throws itself into the arms of space.”

The beauty and euphoria of passages like this one make Out of Africa worth a quick read. If you do dive in, be prepared to endure much that is written with the narrow vision of a white colonist. 

The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

Book # 516

REVIEWER: Kara

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.