Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literature. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

CHOP IT UP: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima

A thirteen-year-old teen named Noboru is mentally disturbed and troubled. Most of his troublesome characteristics come spurred by the loss of his father. And, also, through his association with a gang of like-minded thirteen-year-old boys. This gang shares a mantra: reject the world of adults and the responsibilities it takes to be one. For Noboru, he doesn’t have a father around pushing him to be a man, and thus an adult. He's, more or less, the luckier one within the gang.

Yet, this changes once his widowed mother begins a relationship with a sailor named Ryuji. At first Noboru welcomes Ryuji with admiration for him and his occupation as a sailor. You see, Noboru loves ships and has aspirations of becoming a sailor himself. But once the relationship between Ryuji and Noboru’s mother turns toward marriage, Noboru's attitude turns dark. Noboru can't grasp why Ryuji is willing to put aside his life as a sailor to marry his mother. And Ryuji's decision to do so enrages Noboru.

Feeling betrayed, Noboru seeks the help of his gang to get revenge on Ryuji. And so hatches their plan to take out the sailor who fell from grace with the sea.

I can tell you right now that I don’t know what to make of this book.

I’m not going make up something about knowing what Mishima meant to do with this story. I mean… I could… but it ain’t in me right now to do so. Plus, I’m more inclined to believe I have to be a reader who is more proficient with him as a person, let alone a writer.
So all I can say for sure is two things. ONE: I read this book because I loved Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask. TWO: Boy, does he know how to grab all your attention with this craft. Outside of that, I have theories about what this book conveyed. But I'm a little hesitate.
Even so, it was a cryptic and tormenting story. One where I couldn't wrap my head around some character’s actions–from a reasonable point. My overarching view was how we’re dealing with some spoiled, neurotic sociopaths. Their behavior conveyed holding on to the “sacredness” of adolescence at all cost. And one way to maintain "sacredness" is to embrace anarchy. To remove oneself from societal institutions, laws and systems. To remain in the “system” is equal to living a life with little to no meaning.
I’m just going to leave it at that.

Monday, October 8, 2018

5 Reading Slump Killers ("with" Cynthia Bailey)

Every reader goes through this mess: you’ve finished a book (outstanding or awful) and can’t decide what to read next.  Or if you even want to follow up your reading so shortly.  So you ponder over what's your mood looking like–in concerns to your next choice in a book.  And sometimes that pondering goes on a little too long.  Sometimes... your decision gets clouded.  

After finishing a book, I usually take a day or two off from reading.  Sometimes that day or two sticks around a little longer.  And three days is always too long.  Then it begins to sting when I have four bookshelves riddled with unread titles glaring at me wondering what the hell I‘m doing sitting around without a book in hand.  One shelf wants to be chosen.  One book desperately wants to be elected.  And I just sit there like a chump biting my lip and as indecisive as ever.  Something has blocked me from reading.  My mood?  Energy?  Maybe solicitude from my last book?  All I know is days are ticking by and I can't seem to find a dang thing I want to read and it's pissing me off.

It's a reading slump indeed. 

So I, like many book bloggers, decided to create another remedy post for readers who need to get through a reading slump.  And if one method listed doesn't work, another one always will.  So let's go!


Hell, I’ve learned long ago how throwing away and getting rid of old junk kills some spectrum of my anxiety.  There’s this sort of alleviating transference I get from donating old clothes; alongside tossing pay stubs, art supplies, and old birthday cards into trash bags.  Seriously, when miscellany leaves happiness circulates within the soul.  

So one method that often helps me pull out of a reading slump is getting my shelves organized.  By “getting organized” I mean going to a shelf to pull unread titles off to compile what I haven‘t read and how long its been hanging around–and deciding what should hang around.  Something about pulling unread books off, piling them up, and actually looking at them helps get me centered.  It’s revisiting titles long acquired that at one point I was excited.  That is until time and other books caused my enthusiasm to slip by, before deciding what's next for said title.  And, naturally, the benefit is I find myself donating piles of unread and clutter-clogging books after a change in interests.

This method allows me to focus on the now.  Not the then and not the later.  We hate to admit it, but there is a level of anxiety and agitation we get from being book lovers who simply can't read and take every book with us throughout life.  Heck, I would even equate books to friendships: they have their seasons, chile.  And only the most trustworthy, loyal and respectful can stay.  Oh, and enriching.  Never keep something around that doesn't enrich your life.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Now I Know Where Kinsey GETS It | Marcia Muller Pushes Through! PART ONE

I would not have believed it until seen.  Actually, that’s not the case.  I believed it!  Intrigued it!  Embraced it!  Ran with it on my Amazon wishlist for about two and a half years (pitiful of me).  Put it on my Kindle for over a year (double pitiful of me).  And just this  past February finally received it!  You’re probably wondering what in the world am I talking about.  So let me just get to the point: I finally read the first book in Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone hard-boiled private-eye series, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.  I know.  I know.  Big deal, right?  Well for me–a female-controlled crime fiction junkie–it most certainly is a big deal!  Though I'm awfully late about it...

Most of you guys know I LIVE for Sue Grafton’s California private-eye, Kinsey Millhone.  ("LIVE" is an extreme, extreme understatement).  And you’re also familiar with my apathetic, strange off/on relationship with Sara Paretsky tough ‘n’ tumble Chicago-based woman of the same profession, V. I. Warshawski.  But here’s the thing.  The ticket.  The point of this erratic and fervent post–beginning with a little history lesson. 

In the early 80’s, Grafton and Paretsky transformed the voice of crime fiction.  Through, respectively, their characters Millhone and Warshawski; the authors released the female private-eye alone into the playgrounds of her male counterparts.  And their leading ladies came in just as hard-hitting, proficient, and uncompromising as the male investigators.  But, thankfully, their characteristics weren’t channeled through the virility associated with men.  

Millhone and Warshawski utilized a certain degree of wiles, ingenuity, and vocal consensus to turn a given case in her favor.  Though also dogged at times for answers, they would see cases to the end with just as much profession and dedication as men.  Yet, when push came to shove, they were sometimes afraid to shove back.  They had concerns about the use of violence, as it was first considered a defense and hardly a course of action.  So as level-headed and determined as they could be, force and violence always seemed a final recourse.  Neither were always necessary in the end–as the ladies were likely to have already outsmarted a criminal.  Nevertheless, what I described is precisely why I love the female detective.  She’s afforded an unassuming element that serves as a lethal surprise that never gets old when it's called upon.  Basically, I love a calculating bad-ass woman.

So the opportunities for the lone female private-eye to take stage arrived from Marcia Muller’s 1977 influential debut, Edwin of the Iron Shoes.  It's here Muller introduced the world to private detective Sharon McCone.  McCone was the first unshackled female detective to toss conventions previous held by women in her profession.  She wasn't a side-kick to the male private-eye.  She didn't use anything other than her brains and interrogating acrobatics to mine for information.  She had a voice–a retort–for societal affairs.  She had a heart, though took the zero nonsense approach.  She was brave.  She also meant business, needed to get paid with as little moral compromising, and was well-adjusted to standing alone.  And, well, she had a gun in her purse just in case.  You know, for those occasions she just may have to shoot somebody in the face for her own protection.  
So Muller opened the doors to this new field of detective fiction.  (I'll get into P. D. James' same decade debut of Cordelia Grey at another date.)  She employed a modern, realistic, and liberated woman to traverse the minefields of deception and murder.  All of which beamed on me as I finally read McCone’s first case.  

After the last page, I understood where Kinsey and Warshawski got her voice.  And Muller reminded me–so clearly–why it is that I love this genre when led by women.  Seriously, I highlighted a bucket of passages as I read the book.  Passages that screamed to me, “Kinsey would do/say this.”  Or, “This sounds like an argument Warshawski would find herself in.”  The revelation was too plain not to acknowledge and recognize.
So yes.  I’ve finally gotten down to the root of the modern, free-sprinting, hard-boiled female detective.  And clearly, I'm dedicated to moving forward with Muller and McCone.  I have a long way to go to catch up but, as of now, I’ve found myself a new place to find radiance for my passions.
Part of me wants to review the book, but the other half of me simply wants to share some of those passages I mentioned.  Only because they excited me, and I'm not to hard to please when I've found something special.  But just to be clear, I loved Edwin of the Iron Shoes once I got over having to read it on the Kindle (not good with e-readers).  It was watery in some areas.  Yet, McCone's voice was solid.  But what the hell can I say?  There's a certain respect and credit due to Muller's first book.  To me, that's good enough.

Friday, January 15, 2016

1Q84 | Aomame X Tengo | BOOK 1

Oh, boy.  Oh, joy.  Oh, what-the-Hell-I-like-this-book.
I decided to open 2016 going after my bigger books.  This includes omnibus editions containing a set of series entries of some sort.  Which is exactly where Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 lies.  Containing a total of three books, I recently wrapped up the first entry.  And have yet the precise words to describe the experience.  I don’t think there any concrete words.  Yet, not to suggest I didn’t enjoy the experience–because I did.  And a lot more than my previous–and introductory–reading of Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance.
I just don’t know exactly how to put the experience into words.  So perhaps a quick summary would get my thinking juices flowing.  Or one could hope.
So here’s what 1Q84 is about.  Which is only right for me to walk you through this summary alongside myself.  The little synopsis/premise I collected previous to picking the book (over a year ago) were kind of misty on its direction.  The book itself throws all these terms at you to describe your approaching experience.  Romance.  Mystery.  Fantasy.  All to name a few.  And it’s all those descriptions–in some gradient of each over another.  But I found those descriptions useless, for those grappling with engaging with the book.  To me, the book is a surreal reading experience.  One you have to take in without–I guess you could say–a concrete overture to rely on.  Funny how many Japanese writers put me in this frame of mind after venturing through their books.
The story alternates between two third-person narratives.  Of course they'll eventually float into the same literary space of Tokyo, 1984.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Simple Understanding of Short Fiction

I was talking to a relative during lunch about Kindle singles, flash fiction, and novellas. She shared how she loved following these itty-bitty stories provided by Amazon for .99. She loved them so much that she wanted to try her hand at creating a series of short pieces of fiction dished out in the same bite-size manner. My idea was to encourage her to write one, seeing that she had a story inside of her that she obviously felt needed telling. I urged her to give herself a chance, and starting small was a good move. Just write something, hire a decent editor, if at all possible, and just throw it out there and see what happens. But she still chewed her lip in concerns to how long her story should be. So our discussion turned into the differences between novellas and such. It was interesting trying to decipher the differences.  Eventually, we settled with the fact that we needed to do a little more research. And that’s what I'm bringing here to this post.

So let’s start with the shortest form then work our way up. I learned that the differences in all these short forms of fiction appears mostly in their word count (though that seems apparent, I prefer focusing on page count). Following that notion comes brevity of style, as you probably don't want to get so caught up in prose and details within a limited amount of space.

Flash fiction are stories under 1,000-2,000 words. I guess this would be difficult for someone like me, as I love every scenic detail and morsel of character development available in fiction. Nonetheless, with flash fiction it’s obvious that you have to get to the point of your narrative. These are the kind of stories that provide little to no build up, as the reader is instantly thrown into what may be considered a narrative conflict. I think of it as throwing readers at the emotional peck, or climax, of a story and let their imagination fill in whatever holes lay available. Or something to that extent. Nevertheless, all overtures are tossed aside. It’s sort of like the proverbial knife gone right into the gut. How do you respond? Flash fiction may show you how.

Length wise, short stories are probably a step up from flash fiction. They're somewhere in the realm of 1,000 and 6,000 words. (But seriously, who keeps up with that mess?)  I think short stories differ than flash fiction because it gives you the tiniest of room to present the majors: character, setting, narrative, and conflict. Each wrapped in a handy theme.  I kind of get the feeling that short stories take on a far more thematic approach than flash fiction. Actually, I would guess that short stories line its bases in a theme of some sort. Immediate to mind I think about the Chinese superstition that you shouldn't sweep your floor on New Year’s Day because you may sweep away bad luck. You can take that uncomplicated concept, decorate it with the "majors," and give a nice consequential conclusion as to why you have to honor that superstition. All in a simple, quick story.

The novelette just boggles me. describes a novelette as “a brief novel or long short story.” I never even considered such a thing; I probably would've touted a novelette as a short story. Nevertheless, it’s really a middle child in all of this. The Jan Brady in the mix. A novelette gives itself probably a stretch or two more narrative room unavailable in a short story; however, it doesn't jump completely into the involvedness that makes up a novel or novella. So I would assume a novelette’s word count (should it matter) would arrive somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 words. Just guessing of course. So in essences, it’s a touch longer than a short story while not considering it a short story. I guess…. And I say “I guess” because I’ve probably heard of a novelette in passing, but never gave it a thought until I actually looked up the subject of fiction short forms. It’s a cute word, if anything else.

Last–but not last–we have the novella. This is the one everyone is familiar with. It’s a novel that’s not a novel... exactly. It’s a short form fiction far more intricate than its common comparison, the short story. It’s a short novel, or it has just about everything that makes a novel except for a lower word count. Even that sounds unrehearsed and superficial. But I digress. Everyone knows what a novella is.

And that’s basically my understanding, guys.  A touch self-deprecating, but most certainly told in my own words. Nonetheless, a less than thorough understanding of the different forms of fiction. Don't quote me on any of this! Just pray that I take the time to produce some kind of work out of either of them–along with that relative I spoke of.

Add any ideas or thoughts about these fiction short forms in the comments below.  Expand our understanding.  And share whether you have a healthy appreciation for any one form.

Carry on.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Banana's Kitchen!

Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen combines two novellas into one thematic collection. The first, and decidedly best and lengthy one, features the story of a Japanese woman named Mikage Sakurai. Orphaned as a child, Mikage was raised by her grandparents in Tokyo. And per her story‘s opening, her grandmother, the last living relative in her family, has passed and left Mikage alone in the apartment they shared. It’s a bit suffocating to Mikage, living in the loneliness and silence. Nonetheless, she’s always found comfort in kitchens. And not just cooking in kitchens; sleeping on a futon next to a humming refrigerator consoles her just nicely.  Whether she's enduring the struggles provided by life or death, her affinity for kitchens has always been true.  (Filthy or clean, it doesn't matter to her.)  Naturally, this is the first place Mikage feels drawn to after her grandmother’s death.  So without question kitchens are the motif behind her story.

With a life surrounded by the dying of her loved ones, Mikage is the last of the Sakurai family and has no one to turn to. Thankfully, a guy named Yuichi, who works in a flower shop that Mikage’s grandmother frequented, comes to Mikage's “rescue.” With his love of the deceased grandmother spilling over, Yuichi invites Mikage to live with him and his transvestite (to be clear, his father dresses as a woman) mother to help Mikage grieve as well as settle her grandmother’s estate. Needless to say, a bond is formed between Mikage and Yuichi. A bond established by their combined link to death, sorrow and hope.

Now, the second story in Kitchen is called “Moonlight Shadow.” Apparently, it’s Yoshimoto’s first published piece, and is an obvious slant toward the aforementioned story. In “Moonlight Shadow” a young woman name Satsuki is mourning the death of her boyfriend. She grieves through jogging in the early hours of the day, where she crosses a white bridge upon her route. One day Satsuki runs into a woman at this bridge, and it‘s here that the two share a thermos of tea. It appears to be a random encounter, until the woman proceeds to connect with Satsuki on an incorporeal level.

(This next half of the post refers mainly to the title story and not the short, "Moonlight Shadow.")

I feel so conflicted with this, but I was a little apathetic about Kitchen the first few thirty-or-so pages into it. And while I did want a little more "meat," that impassive feeling wasn't because of Yoshimoto’s sort of inconspicuous storytelling. Nevertheless, I want to get to the really, really good stuff first.  

As mentioned, the stories in Kitchen take a steep, subjective step into how some of us approach death, loneliness, sorrow and the eventual necessity to heal. And I've marked some of my favorite passages to illustrate such.
"No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die.  Without that, I am not alive.  That is what makes the life I have now possible.  Inching one's way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief.  Just when one can't take any more, one sees the moonlight.  Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that."
"'We've been very lonely, but we had it easy.  Because death is so heavy–we, too young to know about it, couldn't handle it.  After this you and I may end up seeing nothing but suffering, difficulty, and ugliness, but if only you'll agree to it, I want for us to go on to more difficult places, happier places, whatever comes, together.  I want you to make the decision after you're completely better, so take your time thinking about it.  In the meantime, though, don't disappear on me.'"
Good stuff, right?  Well, as we all know, translations are never 100%, so maybe that initial apathetic feeling had to do with the book's translation from Japanese to English.  However, I think I can bottom line those feelings to Kitchen's often defunct subordinate and insubordinate clauses, comma splices, complex sentences, and moments of awkwardly expressed dialogue. Give or take a few. Eventually, I got the hang of it all.  Or I failed to notice or revisit moments of hiccupping narrative to reconnect a few of those uncertain subject-verb agreements.  Not trying to sound like a grammar police because I'm a criminal myself.  But when I notice a missing beat, I notice it.  Technical or otherwise.

Maybe it’s the change of cadence from poetic Japanese prose to English. I honestly don't know. I can only say that for a few pages, I had to establish the rhythm and beat of the book. And thankfully I did because the further the story moved, the further I was moved. And when it concluded, I looked up to the ceiling telling myself: “Damn, that was a good story.”  Of course with the book pinned against my heart for dramatic flare.  Seriously, though.  Once I was there with Kitchen, I was there.  We're talking tense and scared for the outcome; hopeful and unsure.

I'll leave it at that because I think I've muddled what I was trying to say.  Otherwise, we'll be here all day analyzing this book.  Kitchen is worth your attention even if you may also find yourself trying to warm up to the story and characters, delivered by the sometimes hiccupy narrative.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Last Night a Bookstore Saved My Life (Acquisitions)

Was my title too corny?  I couldn't help it, as I sit here tapping my foot to InDeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life".  I kind of live for that low disco throb anchoring the track.  It's so sweet that I had to find a way to incorporate it here as an expressionist at work.

It's been a challenging–and I mean challenging–reading month.  I started off strong, finishing the fourth book in Martha Grimes' Emma Graham series (who I still miss).  I then managed my way through the fourth book in Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski series, Bitter Medicine.  I enjoyed my time with Elizabeth Peter's Jacqueline Kirby in her English country house mystery adventure.  And without a doubt Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy feline detective series gave me the warm and fuzzies in its third offering.  Then I stopped by Barnes & Nobles one day after work and picked up the recent release of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, Flesh and Blood.  That's when the high-flying fantastic reading hit the fan.  Between dealing with health insurance madness and a cell phone battery that just wouldn't (thankfully, my replacement came in about forty minutes ago), I just kind of let the rest of this month go all together.  Even my blog suffered!  

I kind of got through by watching Golden Girls, playing Tales of Xillia 2, and fitting in a short story/manga or two to keep me reading.  However, all personal stuff aside, let's get back to how I abandoned the 22nd book in Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series!  Or better yet, be on the look out for my review.

Nonetheless, I'm here to share a few of the recent acquisitions I've gathered through the month of November.  Because if I wasn't reading books, I was buying them.

The Mysteries!

1.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Seeing that Emma Graham was coming to an end, I frantically searched for something similiar to take her place (at least until Mrs. Grimes writes the fifth book).  I didn't want to let twelve-year-old Emma's voice go after Fadeaway Girl.  So I am happy to say that I discovered Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series immediately following.  Flavia de Luce is a ten-year-old girl detective; and where Graham's series takes place in 60's US, Luce's is 50's UK .  So we have era and adolescence all spinning in the same vein of detective fiction.  I only hope Flavia is as witty, clever and smart-mouthed as Emma.  And despite all those hopes, I trust that she's a different girl all together.

2.  Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I did a video where I talked about how I'm unable to jump right into the middle of a series with any kind of comfort.  I must start from the beginning and work my way down.  In that video, I related my owning book three [Blanche Cleans Up] in Barbara Neely's series about a black housekeeper who solves mysteries.  The series has been on my radar for years, but I've only owned the third book.  After watching the video again, I realized I had no excuse for not starting Blanche's story.  So, I finally ordered the first book, Blanche on the Lam.

3.  In the Game by Nikki Baker

More on detective fiction, black women, series, and radars comes In the Game by Nikki Baker.  We're going to double (or even triple) minority realms here.  You see, this series not only revolves around a black woman named Virginia Kelly, but she's also a black woman who happens to be a lesbian.  My radar was buzzing with this series for quite some time, and I finally got my hands on the first book, In the Game.  Rumors has it that Virginia Kelly has a nasty attitude as she goes about solving murders in Chicago's lesbian community (or further out).  From my understanding, said attitude has turned some  readers away.  We'll just see about that.  As most of you know, I'll be the first one to tell you about it.

From Korea to Japan

4.  The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

This is certainly not my first foray into Korean-American author Chang-Rae Lee.  I was first introduced to him through his debut, Native Speaker.  Native Speaker was somewhat of a frustrating read for me.  Its context, concerning a Korean-American's alienation from Americanized concepts of culture, attitudes and behaviors, was the best thing ever.  I got the purpose (exchange that with any other word) of the book.  However, while that's all true, I also felt like shaking Lee's character, Henry.  It's all filled in his narrative, but man did he make a mostly inexpressive and sober narrator.  Long story short, recently Chang-Rae Lee popped to mind.  I researched his publications and decided on The Surrendered as my second take.

5.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami  

My coming to 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is almost a direct reflection of my coming to The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee.  Both authors I read years ago and, for no imaginable reason, held back from until recently.  The difference is that I, like many, seemed transfixed by the length (and maybe even cover) of 1Q84.  It's always been on my radar, screaming "buy me read me" since its release.  I suppose I was hesitant because of its size.  Nonetheless, I read (as well as discovered) Murakami's Dance Dance Dance years ago, finding myself more or less gripped to the author afterwards.  I gave him a try, and that was that.  So here's to attempting 1Q84.  Because it's three books combined into one, my plan is to take them one book at a time.  1157 pages begs to be piecemealed.

What's Missing!

A few books I'm kind of waiting on...

6.  Pay Dirt by Rita Mae Brown

7.  Buffy Season 10 Volume 1: Rules by Christo Gage

8.  A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

The "Gotta Go" Pile:

December should not be like November–or even October for that matter.  I want to just let these last few days in November idle on by before I decide which book on this list will break open the final sprint of 2014!  With that said, happy reading everyone.  If you've read any of these books, please use the comments section to share your thoughts.  I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Okay! So where do I start with this one? So Far From God, by Mexican-American Chicana author, Ana Castillo. It’s the book I intended to read years ago for an ethnic American literature class, but shamefully never did. Nonetheless, I held tightly to it for a rainy day.  It takes place in a New Mexico town called Tome. It’s here that we're introduced to mother and wife, Sofi (short for Sofia), and her four, emotionally dented daughters, Esperanza, Caridad, Fe, and La Loca. Oh, that’s not to mention Sofi’s “five dogs, six cats, and four horses.”  Upon her introduction, we learn that Sofi’s marriage is on the rocks. Her husband walked out on his family years ago, leaving Sofi to raise her four girls alone. This is sort of the cornerstone to the attitude/theme of the book as well as the relationships between the female and male cast.

It’s a book that illustrates how a Mexican-American woman/wife (much reflected in the author and her own career as an activism for Chicana feminism) can gather the strength to inspire a social campaign that defies the conceptualizations of any man’s view of a woman's presuppose “role” as wife and mother. However, Sofi’s activism doesn’t arise without devastating lessons used to shape her agenda.  Many of which revolving around the fates of her four daughters.

I have to say that I really enjoyed So Far From God; four out of five stars seem sound. Nonetheless, the truth is that I kind of struggled with it in the beginning, to the point where I was about to exchange it for something else off the shelf. However, in its finality, it was a great read.  I’m glad I stuck with it until the end. 

See, it started off powerful enough, with the first chapter dedicated toward introducing Sofia and her four girls to readers. Furthermore, that first chapter showcased the magical realism used to illustrate how Sofia’s youngest daughter, La Loca, suffered from a seizure that sent her to her grave and back to life. Though she’s severely antisocial, her coming back from the dead has given her a status similar to a town magnus. And one that her family is extremely protective of.

So yes, that was the first chapter. One that was great for taking in Castillo’s direction, and her use of magical realism with Mexican flavor. But then Castillo moved into deepening the character of the middle child, Caridad.  Things got slightly rocky with the sudden thrust of a combined use of Mexican myths and folklore, religion, psychic powers, and a spontaneous laundry list of traditional remedies (that’s never used or considered again within the novel) for ailments such as gastrointestinal blockages.  It all came careening through all at once, kind of leveling away the focus. Later, once all of these wonderful elements were woven into the stories of the characters, everything seemed manageable to the reading experience. However, rushed so soon into the book kind of begged for a peek at the novel’s direction. Therefore, it took me a moment to get into the momentum of the book, and the actual charm of it all featured in the individual stories of Sofi’s four daughters.

Everything from the folklore to the traditional medicines colored So Far From God once you adjust to it, but what really made this book worthwhile is the stories of Sofi’s four daughters who carried those elements.

The eldest, Esperanza, is the hyper-responsible one with a career in journalism that eventually sends her to Saudi Arabia. Next in line comes Caridad. She’s the daughter known as the beauty of the quartet, and the one who gathers the most attention from men. She's also the one who eventually comes to question her sexuality, after surviving the assault of a "demon." Novel wise, she’s the daughter who received the majority of “screen time" and character development. The third daughter is Fe, who was probably my favorite. She’s the daughter who works as a banker. She’s also the one who suffers from a mental breakdown after her fiance abandons their engagement. Eventually, slowly, she learns to come back to love, although it arrives a little too late. Not to spoil anything, but I have to admit that her story was the one that moved me the most; and probably because it had a tinge of practicality and plausibility behind it. Meaning, it wasn't as fluffed with fables and folklore to color her motivation–unlike Cardid and La Loca. And while fables and folklore are perfectly fine, the truth is that Fe’s story seemed so real that I actually cried at its conclusion. Finally, there’s La Loca. She’s the hardest sister to understand, as Castillo loads her with symbolisms related to the other three as well as Sofi. Tack that on top of her enigmatic presence, and I'll have to leave her journey to your own thoughts.

The only other issue I had with So Far From God lie in how the operation of some scenes seemed muddled by lit prose and analogies. Now, I'm all good for the two, but in the case of scenes driven by action and movement, I'd rather not be hit with an abrupt punch of either to have the author’s point given across. So there were instances where I found myself re-read a scene and wishing for better structured and less poetry.

In closing, So Far From God has tons to offer readers.  Just as it's heartbreaking at times, it's inspirational also.  The same can be said for the level of humor Castillo applies as she explores a variety of themes relating women, relationships and their need to test society's expectations of them.  And those themes are even slimmer and specific as they relate to Chicana woman.  Nevertheless, at the end of it all, it's the stories of the women featured in the book that is worth every bit of your concentration.  I walked away from the book knowing that each of Sofia's daughters would remain unforgettable.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

3 Ways of Making Character

Buffy, the Character Bible
What makes a compelling character?  And how can an author write one?  These questions are on my mind recently, as I find myself slipping in and out of a summer reading slump.  Seriously, I'm finding it hard to connect with books/characters as of late.  Especially after having this whole Martha Grimes hangover from reading the incredibly character purposed Hotel Paradise.  Then again, part of my reading slump comes from marathoning shows (including America’s Next Top Model) on Hulu, and replaying a few video games.  That’s neither here nor there, though.  So nonetheless, why is it that you can read about ten pages before you put a book aside for something else?  And what is it about characters that hook you to a book so that you don’t turn away?  Questions and more questions.   I want to share a few of the things I believe make a character worth diving into without the obstruction of time and outside distractions.

1. Battling Interests

I believe the first element that makes a great and compelling character comes by providing the character battling interests–or values. I love stories where the protagonist steps on stage filled with his or her own values and assurances, only to have those things about him or herself tested by some sort of moral choice. I saw that recently in Ha Jin’s The Crazed where a young Chinese graduate (during the late 1980s) battled with his dreams of becoming a Chinese scholar, but questioned his choice in accordance with the way his country needed activist to bring about democratic change. The tensions in the book lie mainly in his theorizing the consequences of either path.  And his theorizing is further complicated by the pressuring influences outside of himself (such as family and friends).

So, he could easily keep a low profile with a guaranteed (or even passive) existence as a scholar underneath China’s communist control.  Especially considering it has been a governing force all his life. Nevertheless, China’s government snuffs and even imprison those expressionists who push the use of foreign influences.  So what good would it do for him to be a scholar limited to the conceptions of his own country? This is a battle of interests, and in turn, drives the character. A character faced with plenty of opposition, but knows that eventually he or she has to make a choice.

2. Testing Principles

I don't like when authors make a character’s decision come easily to them, and when there is no clear and direct result to their choice. Sort of like that instant-love connection you sometimes get in romance novels, which is probably why I don’t read many of them.  I get annoyed when there is little to know stress or testing used to move a character to his or her choice. Even worse is when there are no real stakes to be had. The thrill is when an author provides a character with high stakes, then doubles the consequence.

If I’m reading a mystery novel, I want to know how far the detective would go to bring about justice. Would ruining his or her reputation be the risk? Or can a case only be concluded with the vengeful murder of its culprit? As for a romance, I would like to know how far the couple would go to stay together. Would they be ostracized from their families? Would they lose the respect of their friends? Or would society have an influence in their resolve to be a couple? Things such as that bring about testing the principles of characters.

3. No Pain, No Gain

The reason I gave up the series :(
Deus ex machina is Latin for “god from the machine." It’s used in the literary sense to describe an author who uses a quick, abrupt means of interference to solve a problem within a novel. Needless to say, it’s frustrating when an author does this. You usually see it when an author builds up some solid tension, then completely loses its release for whatever lazy or uncunning reason. See, it just doesn't pay when something swoops in out of God knows where and saves the day. The result is a cheapened and transparent experience for the reader. And I’m one to distrust the author's direction the minute I spot this kind of authorial ploy.  I’ve even stopped reading some series where books upon books of conflicting back-story is resolved with a single button and a puff of smoke (here‘s looking at you J. D. Robb).  The fact is that a character isn’t convincing without pain. Life isn’t convincing without pain (much to my chagrin).  Nevertheless, like life, character is about how the human spirit is capable of pulling itself off the floor in its final hour. No pain, no gain. So the best characters are always backed far into corners with no foreseeable way out but through their own resourcefulness.

Something that immediately comes to mind in reflection of this topic is actually from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Season two, episode 34. Buffy is battling her former lover, Angel (technically Angelus), for the season finale. They clash swords for a minute or two, taunting just a little along the way. He’s evil again, and she’s already made the decision that if she can’t save him, she must kill him. They're close to the wire, and Buffy begins to lose the battle when Angel disarms her.  She appears defenseless. 

When he raises his sword for one finishing sweep, he taunts: “That’s everything. No weapons. No friends. No hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?”

Angel jabs, and Buffy pulls a bare-handed blade block.  Her response to his question: “Me.”

Suddenly, she’s out of her corner and kicking Angel’s ass back before eventually sending him to hell, which subsequently saves the world. A high stake for her indeed, because no one will ever know that she scarified her lover to save the world. Nevertheless, my point is that nothing came to save Buffy in that final moment but herself, her spirit, and her palms.

Needless to say those are only a few things that I believe creates a compelling character–gray areas and such aside. So answer me this: what makes a compelling character to you? Who is a character you can admit that causes you to keep reading a book even if the book isn’t all that great? What do you prefer in a character–or what should come first in a character to you? Should a character be someone you can relate and identify with? Or is it better to have character fresh and new, yet someone you can learn something from in relation to his or her story and the proceeding choices that makes it (sort of like asking are there any villains whom you like)?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Could you live the questionable life of a Chinese scholar?  If so, would you have protested in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, after years underneath the suppression of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution?  Would you have survived the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre?  Or would you have not bothered to attend, content with not mixing your passion with your country's political system?  Among all the questions that surfaced out of the 323 pages of Ha Jin’s 2002 The Crazed, these were a few that I walked away wondering.

China, 1989.  The Crazed follows the discordant (literary-not-technical) narrative contemplations of a young Chinese graduate student named Jian Wan.  When Jian Wan’s mentor, and esteemed university scholar, Professor Yang, suffers from a sudden stroke, Jian Wan takes up the mantel as his part-time caregiver.  Furthermore, Jian Wan is engaged to Professor Yang’s daughter, Meimei.  However, Meimei's currently studying for her Ph.D. entrance exams away at Beijing University.  As for Professor Yang’s wife, Mrs. Yang, she's in Tibet on a veterinary expectation.  Therefore, Jian Wan is Professor Yang’s proposed immediate family.  So Jian Wan fulfills his duty of treating his ailing future father-in-law, even though he's not too great at it (a visit from the scornful Meimei shows as much).  The task proves to be anything but easy as Jian Wan watches his mentor succumb to his stroke in the form of demented outbursts, and the unconscious liberation of long lost secrets.  Nonetheless, it's through the sparsely coherent moments that Professor Yang attempts to urge Jian Wan to abandon his future in Chinese academia, and to even flee China.  At one point Professor Yang expresses lucidly, outside of the aftermath of his stroke: “’The more you know, the crazier you’ll go, like me.  Intellect makes life insufferable.  It’s better to be an ordinary man working honestly with yours hands.’”

And when you consider the time, country, and culture, there may be a sense of truth to Professor Yang's concerns.  

Nevertheless, much to the disappointment of the ever emotionally vacant ice princess, Meimei, and Jian Wan’s friends and superiors, Jian Wan begins to acknowledge the words of his rambling mentor as a possible embodiment of rational and political truths.  He questions the direction he chose to take his life in.  But can he really walk away from his path and passion?  Or is Professor Yang just schitzy in his paranoia, and shouldn't be taken seriously?

Writing & Background

I have to start with how drawn and captivated I became with The Crazed, and not only through the noted ramblings of Professor Yang.  Though those ramblings were entertainingly strange, poetic at times, and genuinely worthy of attention.  Nonetheless, it was through Ha Jin’s writing and storytelling that hooked me–almost trance-like.  The minute I glided to my bookshelf to find something to read, I picked up The Crazed and did not want to let it go.  I was absorbed in Jian Wan's personal story and narrative flow.  

As always, there is something precise and vigilant about Ha Jin’s writing, and that may be because English is his adopted language; furthermore, he, himself, is an adopted scholar and English professor in America.  Ha Jin is from Liaoning, China.  He joined China’s People’s Liberation Army (which is very present in The Crazed) when he was fourteen.  While Ha Jin earned his Masters in China, he ultimately (in 1986) arrived in the US to further his education at Brandeis University.  Eventually, he studied in Boston University’s Creative Writing Program, which completed his educational pursuits.  I assume that somewhere between his educational journey that he established his citizenship within the US, making America his home.  While knowing this tidbit of background information kind of fueled my personal appreciation of Ha Jin’s prose, it also reveals how his background is demonstrable to the material in his writing.  Or more precise, the inspiration behind The Crazed.  He—probably in more ways than one—is his character, Jian Wan.

Politics & Academia

Now on to some of the political elements within The Crazed.  As mentioned, Professor Yang sometimes leaps out of the dementia given by his stroke to discourage Jian Wan from embracing the life of a Chinese scholar.  Professor Yang’s argument is that it’s a needless career path, as long as China remains a Communist and retrogressive country that is anti-Western.  The further China balks at foreign notoriety; the further Chinese scholars extend their philosophies, credo, tenets, etc. in small circles among one another.  So what use is it to carry their ideologies without others to contend them with?  It is better to put aside those thoughts and instead push China toward a democratic shape by playing an "active" role in China‘s change?  Or is it better to sit still and continue to honor conformed roles?  (Incidentally, with all the novels, poetry, and short stories Ha Jin has written, only one is currently available in China.)

Those political-based thoughts are probably the main argument of the overall book, and not just the keystone to Jian Wan's sway.  Jian Wan weights Professor Yang’s concerns, moved by both the professor’s words and the apparent "consequence" of forging a life of closed academia.  And with that weighting, Jian Wan finds himself heading toward Tiananmen Square to take part in the country’s historic pro-democracy demonstrations that led to The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.  However, even toward the end you'll wonder which direction Jian Wan will choose?  Or is he brave enough to choose one?  Or even if he'll make it out alive to celebrate his choice?  

From its opening to its end, The Crazed is an intimately eye-opening book.  It's one of those stories that really took me through the speculative mind and musings of an individual I would love to sit down and learn something about life and choices from.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Throwback: Glass Menagerie

Dramatic plays reveal themselves to be illustrative examples of how humans interact, and express themselves through life.  They are plays that provide understanding and meaning behind the actions of humans and their reasoning.  It is plays, such as “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams that provides a powerful view into the human condition.  The play employees many straight-forward lessons on life and existence through the behaviors of the characters; however, it is through William’s strategic use of symbolism and imagination that those actions blossom the true meaning behind what it means to fail an escape from reality.

One of William’s employed strategies is within his lead character.  Tom Wingfield’s memoirs assist in the driving of the story.  It is a memory torn between truth and hazy truth.  This immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator, even as he addresses the audience to his thoughts.  However, forever undependable does his actions appear child-like, and a contradiction to the story.  One moment Tom is expressive in his potential to be free, another moment his thoughts are reality based.  An example of this divide becomes illustrated by Tom’s relationship toward his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura.  Tom loves them; however, there are moments in which his apathy toward them is severely evident.  As the narrator, Tom’s double-sided attitude symbolizes the theme behind the play (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, pp. 1247-1288).

According to "Jahsonic: Unreliable Narrator" (1996-2007), “An unreliable narrator is a character who may be giving an imperfect or incorrect account, either consciously or unconsciously. This can be due to that character's biases, ulterior motives, psychological instability, youth, or a limited or second-hand knowledge of the events. The author in these cases must give reader information the narrator does not intend she may deduce the truth. This process creates a tension that is a central force behind the power of first person narratives, and provide the only unbiased clues about the character of the narrator.”

An unreliable narrator like Tom becomes a literary convention to the story.  Tom’s difficulty in accepting reality, and his need to escape it, only isolates him from others.  Although other characters in the play suffer from this challenge, it is Tom who is employing this fully before the audience.  Drawing into his isolation does not stop Tom from interacting with the real world, as he is, among the other characters, one who functions in the real world via his job and communication with others.  Nevertheless, Williams provide a solid piece of symbolism in Tom’s dualistic, unreliable struggle, in the form of how Tom uses different forms of music and entertainment to escape his reality (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, pp. 1247-1288).
Tom drinks, which furthers his unreliability as he relay his memories to the audience.  He also uses movies and dancing to relieve himself of his mother’s frustrations.  Though he uses many areas of escapism to clear himself of reality, William’s clearly portrays symbolism and pieces of imagery in Tom’s affinity for fire escapes.  This is a clear presentation of symbolism, considering Tom seeks an escape from reality.  The fire escape relates itself to smoke; however, it is also an escape when the “fire” gets hot in reality.  It is also an item used to foreshadow upcoming events, and place another reality-based issue into Tom’s consciousness in the case of leaving his family.  Tom’s mother offers her strategically placed ideal on the fire escape by stating: “A fire-escape landing’s a poor excuse for a porch” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, pp. 1263).  This means there is no comfort in escape.

Nevertheless, it is Tom’s use of alcohol that relates him to his father, as alcohol, and the fire escape both play symbols in his father’s connection to his son after he himself escaped his own troubles.  The fire escapes allures to Tom’s desires to escape reality, just as his father did.  It becomes tempting for Tom to remove himself from his incarcerate of home and work by simply fleeing through the fire escape (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, pp. 1247).
Imagination and Escape

As an unreliable narrator does the honorable proposition and success of Tom’s escape becomes troubling, this concept done effective by Williams use of opening Tom‘s imagination toward the audience.  This reveals the moral factors that trouble Tom and his need to escape, not his physical status.  Though it becomes clear that Tom holds indifference toward his family, he remains dedicated to them.  This unreliability reveals that if Tom were to escape, he guiltily would remove himself from his dedication to his family, causing them emotional turmoil.  Williams leave Tom’s potential escape to the imagination of the readers.  Through Tom’s unreliable, sensitive contemplations can one only guess if his actual escape would prove fruitful to his desires toward freedom.  He can escape; however, he cannot escape his love for his family as guilt would make him a fugitive, following him at every turn.  Williams illustrates this at the end of the play by revealing Tom’s imagination as, “The cities swept about me like dead leave, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches.  I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.  It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise.  Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music.  Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass--Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, pp. 1287-1288).  Eventually it appears that Tom’s only escape is via his imagination, which plays a powerful too in the meaning of William’s play.

Every reader of the play is troubled with their own unreliable thoughts as individuals seek acceptance and stability in their lives, teetering on the need to remove themselves from their comfortable reality.  It is imagination that tends to lock individuals in their realities, as other obligations assist in this prison.  William’s portrays this struggle of character effectively in Tom’s desires to be free, but yet stay loyal to his comforts.

Barnet, S., Burto, W., & Cain, W. E. (2011). Literature for composition: essays, stories,
poems, and plays (9th ed.). Boston: Longman.

Jahsonic: Unreliable Narrator. (1996-2007). Retrieved from 

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