Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Brave Women

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This novella has the most lyrical prose I've read in a long, long time. It begins on a boat in the early 1900s, with dozens of young Japanese women who were being shipped to husbands in San Francisco to begin new lives. The women didn't know it yet, but they had been sold a bill of goods. They had been promised that their husbands were successful, handsome and rich, and that they would love living in America, but the truth is they would become migrant workers in California, and that the women might have been better off staying home in Japan with their families. The book gives a breathless, kaleidoscopic account of the women's hopes and fears and the hard-working lives for which they settled.

I will share the opening paragraph because I think it is gorgeous: 

"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years -- faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiance, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on."

Another section I loved is from the first chapter about where the women came from: 

"Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing ... Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not then know it."

After the sea voyage, the stories progress to how the husbands treated their wives, and the children that followed and the hard work they endured. And, U.S. history being what it is, we eventually arrive at the bombing of Pearl Harbor (but I don't think that name was ever mentioned), and the last 50 pages of the book show their shock at suddenly being labeled traitors and the fear mongering that persisted, and by the end, the Japanese have disappeared from the town. I thought it was a nice touch that in her acknowledgments, Otsuka admits having reappropriated some lines of dialogue from Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 and inserted them as the "mayor" in 1941. Same principles, different war.

I hope I haven't made the book sound gloomy. I actually found it inspiring and full of beauty and hope. Each sentence is its own little story, and the writing is so rich and visual that I was utterly absorbed in the prose. Would I have had the courage to sail off to a foreign land and a strange husband at such a young age? I doubt it. 

You'll Laugh Till You Cry

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book had me laughing so hard I started crying. I mean that as a compliment. 

Allie Brosh writes the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, and this is a collection of her favorite web comics and a few new ones. I first found her blog when her post titled "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult" was getting shared on Facebook and Twitter. It's about her occasional bursts of motivation to Get Stuff Done, but how exhausting and frustrating it quickly becomes to be so responsible. I was happy to see this comic included in the book. 

Besides the Adult chapter, some of my favorite pieces were about Allie trying to train her dog, her early obsession with cake, a hilarious and terrifying attack by a goose, and some letters she writes to her younger self. I was laughing so loudly and uncontrollably that I think I annoyed my husband, who was trying to work in the other room. Of course I had to interrupt him every few minutes and thrust the book at him, saying, "Read this! It's so funny and clever!" (He did admit it was funny.)

Some of the comics are also insightful, discussing her experiences with depression and identity in a self-deprecating way. I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants a good laugh.

Needful Things

Needful ThingsNeedful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A store has opened in the Maine town of Castle Rock, a store selling objects a person most desires, at a price the buyer can afford. But are the goods worth the cost? Can Sheriff Alan Pangborn get to the bottom of Leland Gaunt and his Needful Things before he falls prey to the madness that's gripping the town?

In what originally was intended to be its final appearance, Castle Rock goes out with a bang in this Stephen King tome.

It reads like a love letter to Castle Rock at times. I caught references to The Dark Half, Cujo, Sun Dog, The Body, and I think Cycle of the Werewolf. Ace Merrill and Alan Pangborn are the only characters I remember from other books but I'm sure there were probably others.

The story starts off slow as, one by one, the citizens of Castle Rock fall prey to Leland Gaunt's charms, buying his trinkets for whatever cash they have on them and doing pranks for him. These pranks are as custom tailored to the victim as the trinkets he sells and soon the denizens of Castle Rock are fuming at one another. Once things escalate to the point of violence, there's no turning back, making Needful Things very hard to put down for such a heavy book.

There's not a lot more I can tell without giving things away. Alan Pangborn could have been a Gunslinger in another life and his relationship with Polly was pretty well done. Ace Merrill was a world class douche and fell into the #2 bad guy role pretty well. I thought Needful Things took the gossip and cattiness that's a staple of small town life and turned the dial up until it broke off.

Things I'm still pondering:
- Was the spider that appeared near the end a relative of the spider from It, only feeding on pain instead of fear?
- Are Leland Gaunt and Randall Flag the same person?
- What happened to Castle Rock after the conflagration at the end?

Needful Things is like cooking a pot roast in a crock pot. It starts out slow, begins to simmer, and is a churning cauldron of deliciousness by the end. Four out of five stars.

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