Friday, June 26, 2009

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

When I first began reading this book, I was turned off by the simplistic language and bare-bones structure of the narrative. Admittedly, I love authors who get a little flowery and string words together into beautiful artistic passages. No flowery details to this story whatsoever. However, this seems to serve a dual purpose. First of all, the book is evidently meant to be accessible to readers of various levels, including children. Some of the themes are adult in nature and a bit disturbing (such as torture and suicide) but I suppose nothing here would be novel to children today. It's told from a child's point of view which makes the simple language heartrending considering the content. Additionally, the simplicity of the language mirrors the increasingly stripped down existence that Ji-Li and her family are forced to live. Their lives are meant to be simple and straight forward, transformed by the Cultural Revolution in China. However, because of her family's background (her grandfather was a landlord, so her family is considered "black," as opposed to red) Ji-Li and her family are neither able to live simply nor straight forwardly at all.

I think the strength of this novel comes from Ji-Li's ability to break down why people were so devoted to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. She does not try to make excuses for people or try to explain away the many misdeeds that were carried out against innocent people. She does, however, clearly illustrate how the mob mentality infected even herself, and that oftentimes it came down to having to choose between your family or your own future. Ji-Li experiences so many barriers throughout the novel, as do her parents and her siblings. Amazingly, none of them give up hope, although Ji-Li often curses her grandfather and considers breaking away from her family. Ultimately, it is her family's strength that allowed them all to survive and eventually move to the US. Nonetheless, the many trials and tribulations they endure demonstrate that they were often maintaining their dignity by mere threads.

Red Scarf Girl is a quick, enlightening read. I did not know much about the Cultural Revolution in China before reading this memoir, but I feel considerably more knowledgeable about it now. Ji-Li includes a Glossary in the back of the book, which I found helpful for checking the meaning of certain phrases, as well as the relevance of certain people or events. Ji-Li balances a historical perspective with her own personal experiences. She describes the human toll of the Cultural Revolution in China, which ruined many people's lives, regardless of how devoted or opposed to it they were. Most tragic is the fact that these people, many of whom did fervently devote themselves to the Revolution, were mere pawns in a political game. Ji-Li writes in the Epilogue of her memoir:

It was only after Mao's death in 1976 that people woke up. We finally learned that the whole Cultural Revolution had been part of a power struggle at the highest levels of the Party. Our leader had taken advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is an interesting book. It has a sci-fi, dystopian future vibe to it, but in a subtle way (which becomes less subtle toward the end). It technically takes place in the past--1990's in England--but I kept sort of thinking of it like it was in the future anyway. It's just sort of a natural assumption when my brain is in sci-fi mode. But the story itself does plausibly seem like it's set in the near-past because of a few cultural references, and just the general lack of totally out-there technology. The world is pretty normal aside from the fact that in the novel, humans are cloned and used for the sole purpose of organ-harvesting, and even that doesn't seem too far-fetched.

There were a few things that bothered me about this novel, however.

1. The character Ruth is absolutely intolerable. She's the hugest bitch ever, and I felt very little, if any, sympathy for her, even toward the end when she becomes a donor and all the fight drains out of her. I see how she fits into the whole dynamic of the plot and the entire subplot of determining whether or not the clones have souls--she's a very "human" character, complete with plenty of flaws. But she's still very annoying.

2. You know how sometimes an author will beat around the bush when it comes to bearing all the gritty details of the plot? And then there's suddenly a convenient chapter/scene when ALL IS REVEALED, and all the little hints throughout the novel come together when everything is spelled out clear as day? Well, this book has one such chapter. Learning all the details of Hailsham (an exclusive, progressive school where clones are raised as "students" before moving on to meet their inevitable fate as carers and donors) and about the clones themselves was cool and all, but it would have been nice if all that information wasn't revealed at once and under such weak pretenses.

Despite the fact that I didn't like Ruth, and I didn't like the cop-out of revealing everything in a single chapter, it does make sense in terms of the structure of the novel and the emotions I'm sure the author was trying to evoke. Throughout most of the first half of the novel, I felt like I wasn't totally sure what was going on even though my brother had told me a lot about the book before I even started reading it. That is, I began reading with full knowledge that the main characters are clones, and that they were made to serve as organ donors. That information isn't explicitly revealed until well into the book, and is only loosely hinted at through terms like "donor," "completed," "carer," etc. None of these things are actually explained while the narrator (Kathy) is telling her story. She narrates as though she's telling the story to a donor, who would presumably be privy to all this information. Also, throughout the story, Kathy constantly says "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham..." which implies that there was something special about Hailsham. It also implies that there are other places where clones are raised. You don't really find out why exactly Hailsham was so special until the tell-all chapter.

But anyway, this feeling that you, as a reader, are kind of left in the dark, is meant to mirror the way that the "students" are kept in the dark about what they really are and what their futures entail. Their guardians hint at it and the students are left only half aware--as Kathy says at one point, they are "told and not told." The structure of the narrative mirrors this idea, and the sudden revelation comes at the moment when Kathy and Tommy themselves are suddenly made aware of all the unpleasant realities of their existence.

Overall, it's a well written and captivating book. I definitely preferred the second half to the first half, but that's mainly because the second half is when it really starts to get into the nitty gritty of the characters' lives as carers/donors. The first half sort of seems like it's meant as an emotional/psychological demands that you view these characters for what they are: humans (here is their childhood, here are their fears and joys and all the little moments that make up a person's memories). And then as they move out of the protective bubble of Hailsham it's like a wave demolishing a sand castle. All that work, those experiences, and they inevitably are torn down and reduced to nothing, because they can't escape their fate. In that way, this book is very depressing and there is something pathetic about the characters and how they try to lead "normal" lives. It's also depressing because it hints at how unethically exploitative people are capable of being...and that only a small minority will care (usually small enough to be stamped out easily enough, as occurs with Hailsham).

Definitely a good read...also amusing because the author lives in London (and the novel takes place in England) so there is lots of fun UK vocab throughout...haha.

N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

I really enjoy Banana Yoshimoto's writing and have read a few of her other books as well (Kitchen and Asleep; Lizard is on my to-read list). She has a way with weaving the simplest language into a world that revels in the magical realism of everyday life.

NP is about the relationship that forms between four people who are all connected in some way to the writer Sarao Takase and his untranslated collection of stories entitled "NP" (North Point). I felt like this novel focused a lot more on despair and dysfunctional relationships than her other stories that I've read do (for example, a significant plot point is the incestuous relationship between Sui and Otohiko, and the incestuous relationship between Sui and their father, Sarao Takase). The narrator finds herself totally entranced by these people and their personalities, not to mention the fact that they are all bound by a common knowledge of Takase's work and are intimately tied to it through death; the narrator's boyfriend, who was working on translating the book, committed suicide, as did Sarao Takase. There really isn't a whole lot to the plot aside from the deepening connection between the characters, which unfolds over the course of one summer. It ends with the suggestion of new beginnings, and it seems that the characters are able to escape their "fate" as mere characters within their father's stories.

One of the things I found interesting about this book is the discussion of language, translation, and the connection to one's country. All of the characters except the narrator have spent extended amounts of time living in the US, and moved back to Japan only after their father died (he wrote his stories in the US, in English). Even though the narrator hasn't shared their experience of living in another country, she nonetheless shares their experience of knowing the world through both English and Japanese, and works as a translator just as her mother does and deceased boyfriend did. As a child, she also lost her voice for a while and describes how she began to interpret the world in colors rather than words. Considering the devastating effect that Sarao's stories had on his children, along with the many references to language and problems with translation, I think it's safe to say that this book is not only about language, but how language functions as an intimate, integral part of our lives and has immense power in shaping us. But language is fluid; it can be many different things to many different people, and one language doesn't simply and straightforwardly translate into a way, everyone has his or her own language.

On the downside, I felt like the only character who was really well-rounded was Sui, although she is actually the last character to be introduced into the story. Even the narrator seems a little hollow. I feel like the characters were so defined by their relationships to one another that I have a difficult time describing them as individuals (but maybe that was the point).