I decided to read this book after having seen so many positive reviews in the press. A sizeable tome at almost 600 pages, I wondered whether it would hold my attention. The novel tells the story of an american family and friend, following the trail of love, deception and betrayal that weaves through their lives. “Freedom” is a well-crafted piece of writing and is, at times, moving, funny, surprising and extraordinary. I found myself hooked, consuming this greedily, but at the same time, not wanting the story to end. Aptly described as “a cat’s cradle of family life” by Kirsty Wark, Franzen presents minute observations of family life that are tangled, knotted and seemingly endless in their permutations. I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Freedom” and I will be looking out for his earlier work “Corrections” with high expectations!
For some time now we have been thinking about reading a Japanese novel. Obviously the oriental food possibilities are uppermost in our minds, but we also have the more admirable and high minded intention of learning more about Japanese culture. After all, one of our main intentions in the bookclub is to discover more about other people and other places. So here is a short list of possibilities for us to think about.
A good place to start might be a short novel by Banana Yoshimoto called Kitchen. Quite apart from the author’s delightful pen name, the subject is intriguing too. A young Japanese woman named Mikage Sakurai struggles to overcome the death of her grandmother. She gradually grows close to one of her grandmother’s friends, Yuichi, from a flower shop and ends up staying with him and his transvestite father turned mother figure, Eriko. From Mikage’s love of kitchens to her job as a culinary teacher’s assistant to the multiple scenes in which food is merely present, Kitchen is a window into the life of a young Japanese woman and her discoveries about food and love amongst a background of tragedy.
Another possibility is Yoko Ogawa. The Diving Pool is a book of three short novellas written in a style not uncommon in contemporary Japanese fiction, that is precise and solid and delicate. She describes baseball and frying pork and amicable numbers in the same soft, even tone, the result being a novel with a very contemplative feel, appropriate when the subject matter is as intimate as memory, loss, aging, and loneliness. Her work is described as ‘giving expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology. Her exquisite, controlled prose avoids becoming brittle through her depth of emotional understanding. To read Ogawa is to enter a dreamlike state tinged with a nightmare’.
In a different vein, we could read Haruki Murakami’s In a Norwegian Wood, I think there are new editions of his work coming out shortly, and of course there was a film recently too. The novel is a story of loss and sexuality. The story’s protagonist and narrator is Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his days as a college student living in Tokyo. Through Toru’s reminiscences we see him develop relationships with two very different women — the beautiful yet emotionally troubled Naoko, and the outgoing, lively Midori.
Some people are recommending Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara for an insight into contemporary Japanese culture, or rather sub-cultures. This book won the Akutagawa Prize which is Japan’s most prestigious literary award, and the translation is supposed to be very good. Snakes and Earrings is described as rather violent and sexual, so maybe a Japanese version of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.
Another novel that offers revealing perspectives on contemporary life in Japan is Out by Natsuo Kirino, a leading figure in the recent boom of female Japanese detective writers.
Looking at Japan from a western perspective, three novelists come to mind. Firstly Kazuo Ishiguro, who is not a Japanese writer despite his name, but he did write An Artist of the Floating World which tells the story of Masuji Ono, a Japanese artist who becomes a leading cultural figure in support of imperialism and Japan’s involvement in World War II.
Secondly David Peace Tokyo Year Zero is the first of a trilogy of crime novels that looks at the creation of modern Japan, Peace lived in Tokyo for several years and writes in an accessible style.
Lastly we could think about JG Ballard and his fictionalised autobiography, Empire of the Sun which is about his childhood in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai, it was made into a film by Steven Spielberg.
Looking forward to your views,
Last Wednesday we met at Louise’s to discuss Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. As usual the food was splendid, and we did justice to the Balkan theme with an exotic collection of South East European dishes.
The Tiger’s Wife won the Orange Prize, and, up against the likes of Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith and Barbara Kingsolver was perhaps a surprise winner. It is my own personal opinion that first novels are not the way to judge an author, and I avoid them on the grounds that I prefer not to participate in the birth pangs of early writing. Especially when it has a certain ‘Creative Writing Course’ flavour. Speaking of which, if anyone remembers Posy Simmons cartoon strip Tamara Drew in the Guardian, I can wholeheartedly recommend the recent film of the same name.
Anyway, what did we think? Some of us struggled to get through it, others had read and reread it, so there was enough knowledge to get us through the evening. It really did not stir people, one way or the other. On the other hand, it had an otherness that was at the same time appealing and a barrier to complete comprehension. Obreht deals with big themes like war and famine by personalising them in the characters of her friends and family. Add in the magic tiger and the deathless man, and we have a novel that switches between the supernatural, the banal reality of everyday hardships and the mythical quest for the perfection of the human spirit.
We found the questions at the end of the book depressingly dull, with no sense of the possibilities of the novel. Who wrote them and why? If it was the novelist, she clearly ran out of steam and needn’t have bothered. If it was the publisher, they had not read the book. Overall, I think we felt that, so famous, so young, could do better, will do better.
Finally the big day dawned and we were ready for Betsy Tobin Crimson China Books in the Park Fringe event. Many of us were away that week, but preparations continued anyway, with a steady stream of decorative panels, drinks and snacks arriving from Buxton and beyond. By nine in the morning on Saturday cars were loaded up with chairs, blankets and provisions, and we began setting up the teepee and the gazebo.
The tent and the gazebo looked great with the decorative panels and bunting. The sun was shining, drinks were chilling, questions for our discussion printed off, bookclub members gathering. Things were looking good.
Not everyone could be there, but we did have a really good turnout, and with friends, sisters and cousins, there were more than enough people to fill the gazebo. Here you see Pam and Sue grabbing a quiet moment before the afternoon session.
We did two sessions, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and both went very well, though we thought perhaps with hindsight, we had slightly less to say in the afternoon compared with the morning, nevertheless, both discussions went well with plenty of opinions and insights shared.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the day was sharing snacks and drinks with friends and strangers alike. Our event was free, and we provided the refreshments ourselves. We did have a collection box for anyone who wanted to make a donation to our chosen charity-Buxton Women’s Refuge, but we didn’t make much, probably next time we can be a bit more assertive about that.
In the afternoon members of the Fringe committee attended. All fringe events are reviewed, and here you can see Sue explaining in detail how we attached the embroidered panels to the teepee! You can read the review, which was very complementary here http://www.buxtonfringe.org.uk/reviews2011oth.html
After all our preparations and the anticipation, the end came all too soon. In retrospect, we thought there were a couple of things we might do differently. Yes there will be a next time. Firstly, we could just do one session, in the afternoon, rather than two, secondly, we could continue more informally after the event, AKA continue drinking and talking in the teepee till the sun goes down.
The teepee was intended more as a landmark, as Faith put it, than a place to sit in, requiring as Sue is demonstrating, flexibility and the capacity to endure hard ground. Nevertheless, there were loud murmers after our event about a bookclub camping expedition next summer, somewhere warm with comfortable beds. Glamping anyone?
Our bookclub is full to capacity. We have eleven members and a limited amount of teepee space. The purpose of our event was to encourage people to identify like minded people and start their own bookclub, based on their own interests, and we definitely succeeded in that.
For visiting friends and family we might confer ‘honourary membership’ of our bookclub, especially if they turn up to help, but in general our intention is to help create more bookclubs.
In conclusion, despite a little disappointment in some quarters that more people did not attend, we did really well, and if we do decide to go to a literature festival next year, will obviously do even better.
Happy beach and festival time
Have just finished Great House by Nicole Krausse. I thoroughly enjoyed the book… but lay in bed for about an hour after I finished the last chapter contemplating the link between subplots…. I hope someone from bookclub has read it – or we have a discussion some time for a future bookclub read.
Fringe event just a couple of days away !
On Saturday 23rd July we are setting up our teepee in the Park in Buxton and discussing chapter 1 of Betsy Tobin’s book, Crimson China. Here are the questions we will be discussing. If you are coming to our event, you might like to take a look beforehand.
1 It’s February 2004 – on that winter night was Angela really contemplating suicide – or was she overtaken by the moment?
2 Angela rescues Wen, as he sits in her car and looks around, do you think he is concerned by her drink driving or her attempted suicide?
3 ‘Thank God for drink, Angie decides’ Judging from what we learn about Angela in chapter 1, is she depressed or alcoholic, or both?
4 Crimson China relates to illegal Chinese workers. What do we learn in chapter 1 about the treatment of the Chinese cockle pickers?
5 The sands in Morcambe Bay are notoriously dangerous and local cockle pickers would know when it was unsafe to go out. Was the safety of the Chinese cockle pickers compromised by the Gang Masters?
6 In chapter 1 two main characters, Wen and Angela are introduced, what do we learn about them, and what themes do you expect to emerge in the book as it unfolds?
Of course, there may have other aspects of the book you wish to discuss, that’s fine, turn up and have your say.
Can there be a more delightful part of the world than the Peak District on a sunny afternoon? Add an interesting author, a group of like minded friends and a round of gin and tonic and Voila – heaven on earth.
On Thursday the book club gathered at the Leewood Hotel for Betsy Tobin’s talk for the Buxton Literature Festival. Betsy kindly accepted our invitation to join us for a drink, and after her very interesting talk, we settled down to to some gentle interrogation in the bar. Of course we had an ulterior motive. Our Books in the Park event for the Buxton Festival Fringe is next Saturday, based on the first chapter of Betsy’s book, Crimson China. We wanted to check our facts with her. In fact, Betsy’s talk answered many of our questions, as well as providing a fascinating insight into the lives of illegal Chinese workers in the UK.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative afternoon, and I have a feeling we might be doing something similar this time next year.
Happy festival time wherever you are