Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

 

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

This collection of short essays (plus an interview and a short story) follows Higashida’s previous book translated into English, The Reason I Jump. I haven’t read Higashida before and while The Reason I Jump may provide some helpful context and personal history, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read it first. It also seems that Higashida has quite a bit more writing that hasn’t yet been translated from Japanese to English.

The introduction by David Mitchell (who also does the translation, along with KA Yoshida) provides an excellent background into Higashida’s story, as well as offering Mitchell’s viewpoint as to why this book is so important. Short version: Higashida was considered severely autistic and non-verbal until a new way of communicating through an alphabet chart was figured out. This new communication revealed Higashida to have a complex and emphatic inner life, exactly like any other young man his age.

Higashida is now in his mid-twenties and his writing is deliberate and thoughtful. The segments are not long as communication, both written and spoken, is not a quick process for him. He offers insights into how his own mind works and methods that help him in his interactions with those around him. Higashida doesn’t suggest that these methods would work for everyone with autism and the book is certainly not a how-to guide. That said, I can’t help but think that it would be a helpful and powerful read for anyone who works or lives alongside someone with autism.

While this is admittedly well outside my field of expertise, it does seem that there have been a few highly publicized stories in recent years of so-called severe autistic people who, it turned out, were fully aware of their surroundings and needed only to find a way to communicate with those around them. And, as Mitchell points out in his introduction, these new found ways of communication revealed that the stereotype of a lack of empathy in those on the autistic spectrum is perhaps a false one.

Higashida certainly writes about the world with a lot of interest and empathy. We get a sense of his frustration at his own behaviours and his strong desire for compassion and patience from  those around him. There is some discussion of styles that didn’t work for him and that he wouldn’t recommend but there is not condemnation toward those who haven’t understood him. His writing about his relationship with his mother seems particularly tender.

The book is a slow read, one to be dipped into here and there rather than read in one sitting. I do believe it’s an important one though, especially for teachers and others who may work alongside autistic people.

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Book Review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

 

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel begins with the arrival of Nero Golden and his three sons in New York City, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration. These four men have appeared in the city under mysterious circumstances, from an unnamed country, with assumed names. They move into a close knit, wealthy neighbourhood with a shared garden and our narrator, Rene, a young and aspiring filmmaker takes an interest in this unusual family.

Over the next eight years, Rene becomes intimately involved with the Golden family and steadily reveals their secrets, their foibles, and their tragedies. The book lends itself easily to comparisons with The Great Gatsby – the narrator located slightly outside of the main action. A young man both drawn in and repulsed by a lifestyle of fabulous wealth. A very rich and powerful man with a mysterious background. Rene becomes far more entangled with the Goldens than Nick ever became with Gatsby but the comparison is apt and no doubt intentional on Rushdie’s part.

I have to admit, I’ve never been able to get into a Rushdie novel before. I’ve tried twice with Midnight’s Children and quickly lost interest. So I went into this one with low expectation but was quickly engaged. Rene is a strong narrator and the rate of revelation works well. While there are definite secrets withheld, it never feels like information is being kept from the reader simply for the sake of creating false tension. I did find Rene rather unlikeable and for the first maybe third of the book wished that it wouldn’t focus on him and his background so much. However, as the story progresses, we see how entwined he becomes with the Goldens and it makes more sense as one over-arching story.

The Goldens are an interesting assortment of characters. Nero, powerful and terrifying with some surprising (and unsurprising) weaknesses. A character who walks the line of a stereotype dangerously closely but never quite crosses over. Petya, the oldest son, brilliant and deeply troubled. Apu, the middle son, artistic and angry. D, the youngest son of a different mother, struggling to find his place in the family and in his own life. They’re each compelling and their stories are fascinating. As time and the novel progresses, both the family’s tale and the world itself become more of a tragedy.

As the Goldens fall apart, so too does their adopted country. A political leader, known only as The Joker, comes to power and the world around Rene quickly changes. The comparison to Donald Trump and the current state of American politics is obvious. While perhaps heavy-handed (The Joker is literally a cartoon villain after all) it makes for remarkably timely commentary. I was reading The Golden House as events unfolded in Charlottesville and it made it all feel extra eery. It will be interesting to see how the novel reads in five or ten years, in the aftermath of Trump’s America.

For a first-time introduction to Salman Rushdie’s work, the book is terrific. I highly recommend it and I would recommend it even more now in our current political climate.

What I Read – August 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2017)

Teardown – Clea Young (Free Hand Books, 2016)

Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8 – Naoki Higashida (Random House, 2017)

The Golden House Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton

The Wonderling – Mira Bartok

What I Read – April 2017

The Unwomanly Face of War – Svetlana Alexievich (Random House, 2017)

(translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky

Do Not Say We Have NothingMadeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)

Currently Reading:

Silence – Shusaku Endo

The Five Love Languages – Gary Chapman

Book Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This book will be available for sale in July 2017. I read an Advance Uncorrected Proof made available by the publisher.

The Unwomanly Face of War was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985 and translated into English in 1988 but, as far as I can tell, has been out of print in English for some years. This new translation comes from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, probably the best Russian to English translators currently working, and makes this fascinating work available to English readers once more.

From 1978 to 1985, Alexievich travelled through the Soviet Union, collecting stories from women about their experiences in World War Two. She presents these stories with some short introductions, slightly edited, but in the women’s own voices. The stories are often heartbreaking, sometimes funny, and genuinely illuminating. Until I started reading, I didn’t realize how large the involvement of women was for the Soviet Union in World War Two. Being used to Canadian and British war tales, I automatically thought I was going to read stories of women who were nurses, or worked in factories, or survived blitzes at home. While there are some of those stories here there are also stories of women who worked as sappers, served in tanks, lead platoons, de-mined fields and abandoned houses. Some of them lead troops of men, most of them worked side by side with male soldiers at the front lines.

Much of this is the result of communism. This is Soviet Russia, Stalin is both political leader and national hero. Love and loyalty to the Motherland has been instilled in these young women their whole lives. Over and over we hear stories of girls insisting they be sent to the front lines, fighting for the opportunity to shoot and fight and defend their nation. Sometimes these women even share stories of their intense loyalty despite having family members arrested and imprisoned by the government. It is a national fervour difficult to understand in our modern Western world

As with stories from the Western Front, these women were often very young when they ended up on the front lines. Freshly graduated from high school, they tell stories of growing three inches before they return home, of needing to have their wisdom teeth out while on retreat. It is the small details that stuck with me as I read the book. The petite girl embarassed by her height, who wore high heels as she evacuated the wounded from a hospital. The way the girls wept when they had to have their braids cut off as they entered the army. How they stole undershirts from the men because the army never thought to issue them items for their menstrual cycles.

There is a huge diversity of stories and locations and histories here, many with common threads that appear again and again for multiple women. As Alexievich suggests in the book’s introduction, women notice things and experience events differently than men. Their experience of war was unique and the Russian experience of World War Two is different than what many of us in the West may know or have learned.

A basic familiarity with Soviet history in the early 20th century is helpful when beginning the book  but I felt that it included the right amount of footnotes to aid in figuring out places, names, and historical events. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation retains the oral syntax of the Russian speakers so that while it occasionally feels awkward to an English reader, it also feels authentic to how someone might speak.

I know this book won’t be for everyone but if you have any interest in Russian or World War Two history, I highly recommend it.

What I Read – June 2016

A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 2005)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – Chris Grabenstein (Yearling, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

Book Review: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers - Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

If Modern Lovers was a finer novel, I probably wouldn’t have found its premise as annoying. If it were more thoughtful – offered a greater challenge to its readers, say – I wouldn’t be frustrated by its worldview.

For what it is Modern Lovers is not a bad book. It’s a fluff read – easy and light fare that doesn’t take long to get through. Probably, a lot of people will read it on vacation this summer. It’ll keep you going and it doesn’t ask for too much as you follow along.

Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe and Jane are two couples, living in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, each with a child almost grown. Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have been friends for years, were once in a band together and wrote a hit song that their fourth band member made famous before her death at age twenty-seven. The others have settled into middle age and parenthood. But there are, of course, tensions under the surface and deeper problems here, several of them brought to the surface as they deal with their maturing children.

The story moves between character perspective’s, including Elizabeth and Andrew’s son, Harry, and Zoe and Jane’s daughter, Ruby. Although Andrew is a bit of a dud and his story line rather ridiculous, the characters are generally engaging, even if the story progresses about how you’d expect, including the ultimate conclusion. (And everything is neatly packaged up by the end; there aren’t a lot of loose threads in this world.)

At the centre of the drama is idea of aging, of change, of choosing one path and sticking to it, whether that’s a career or a marriage. The novel seems to suggest that choices made at a young age will inevitably  lead to dissatisfaction, if not outright happiness. And here’s where a stronger story could have provoked questions and thought in the reader. Unfortunately, the characters’ fates seem fairly cut and dry and are presented without much nuance and so I found myself annoyed at the expectation that I must agree in their inevitable unhappiness. When, honestly, it seemed like, with a little more effort from everyone, they all could have been much happier people.

Book Review: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

Adam Johnson is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set in North Korea. Johnson returns to the subject of North Korea in the title story of this collection, Fortune Smiles, but that story and the others here are very diverse.

Johnson’s slightly cynical style and his frequent focus on pop culture and technology reminded me of Douglas Coupland. (At least, earlier Coupland, not so much the grumpy old man style Coupland seems to be nurturing in recent years.)

There’s a story about a man with a dying wife who creates a sort of hologram of a recently assassinated president that’s subtly packed with all kinds of thoughts and theories on modern life, on memory, on our interactions with technology. There’s a story so clearly based on Johnson’s own wife and family that I took to Google to find out if his wife was still alive because I questioned whether or not anyone would allow such a story to be told. There’s a story told from the perspective of a pedophile that I really struggled to finish and kind of felt awful about afterward and I still can’t quite decide if that’s a sign of how good it was or how terrible. And there’s a story about North Korea – this time about defectors attempting to live their lives in Seoul.

It’s a diverse group of characters and a strong variety of settings. San Francisco, Gangnam district, New Orleans post-Katrina, an East German prison after the Wall came down. These are characters in the hardest situations of their lives. Whether that’s the death of a loved one or trying to raise a son foisted on you by a one-time girlfriend or dealing with the collapse of your marriage because you were once the warden of a Stasi prison. Yeah, like I said, diverse.

Johnson clearly takes his time with the details and he gets his research right. The details add to the stories without being overpowering. Most of the tales are dark but not all are entirely unhappy. Johnson’s voice feels much stronger and more noticeable behind these stories than in The Orphan Master’s Son but I certainly don’t think that’s a bad thing. I look forward to reading his next novel and seeing what new direction he goes in.

What I Read – November 2015

November has seen a vast improvement on Pearl’s night-time sleep. Which is awesome but has really cut into my reading time. So this month’s list is a little shorter but there have been some good reads.

1. The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James (Modern Library

2. Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, & Company, 2013)

3. The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins, 2014)

4. AbroadKatie Crouch (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014)

5. The People’s Act of Love – James Meek (Harper Perennial, 2005)

6. Immortality – Milan Kundera (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991)

(translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi)

7. Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (Scribner, 1968)

(translated from the German by Daphne Hardy)

8. Fortune SmilesAdam Johnson (Random House, 2015)

9. The Pearl – John Steinbeck (Penguin Books, 2000)

You could also look at November’s reading list like this:

  1. Young lady taken advantage of in Europe
  2. Death row prisoner in Iceland
  3. Death row prisoner in possibly magic prison
  4. Young lady murdered in Europe
  5. Escaped prisoner and extremist religious sect in Russia
  6. ???
  7. Political prisoner in Russia

Currently Reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

(Yes, still. I am really enjoying it, as evidenced by how I keep telling Peter facts from what I’ve read. I’m just working away at it slowly. Very slowly.)

No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod

 

What I Read – April 2015

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2008)

I once tried to read a novel by Ali Smith, lost interest part way in and returned it unfinished to the library. I did finish reading this short story collection but now, less than a month later, can’t remember much about it. I wanted to give Smith another try since her latest novel has gotten a lot of buzz but her writing just doesn’t grab me. This short story collection plays around a lot with narration and the art of storytelling but the stories didn’t stick with me or grab me in any meaningful way.

The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji (Knopf, 2007)

It took me a long time to get into this novel. It was probably not until two-thirds into the novel that I felt really excited to know what would happen next. I can’t say if this is a fault of the writing or on my part since I was constantly getting interrupted while reading it. It was different than any other book about India that I’ve read and I did enjoy what it showed of Indian history and religion. The “big reveal” at the end of the novel was disappointing (and pretty obvious) and, I thought, added very little to the story. I liked the back and forth between the 13th century history and the 20th and thought Vassanji wove mythology and history together well.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

This was obviously a re-read for me. While Pearl has many board books and I do read them to her, at her young age, the thing she enjoys most is simply hearing my voice and being held. So I figured I’d read her something more enjoyable for me. At least until she’s a little older. So we’ve started in on The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House, 2010)

I greatly enjoyed this book. I’ve read three books by David Mitchell now and each one has been superbly written. The Thousand Autumns plays with format and timelines less than Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks. Mitchell does do well with alternating narrators though and through multiple characters tells a compelling story of a time and place in history that I was very unfamiliar with – Dutch trade in Japan during the late 18th century. While Japan was extremely closed off to the rest of the world during this time period, a few foreign traders were allowed onto a small island called Deshima. Mitchell uses this setting to explore ideas of foreignness, home, and imprisonment. I appreciated how he told the story from a Dutch and Japanese perspective, giving weight to both sides and demonstrating both how similar and different humans can be. The story does veer towards the unbearably creepy at one point with a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell uses in his other novels but this one’s definitely a historical novel rather than a fantasy one.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books Edition, 1989)

I’d read a few of these short stories before – it’s hard to get out of any sort of University literature-related degree without reading the title story from this collection. Carver is one of those writers that I appreciate but when I sit down and read a whole body of his work, I find him very bleak. (I have the same problem with Alice Munro, actually.) These are stories of dying love, relationships ended. Carver’s style is very spare, rather stark. I found myself reminded occasionally of Hemingway, though I think Hemingway does description much better.

Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, 2004)

This book suffers from a front cover problem. By which I mean the front cover has never appealed to me, to the point of putting me off from reading the novel for years. (I know, you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but, let’s face it, we all do.) Fortunately for me, I finally looked past the boring cover and read the book. The main action of the novel takes place in London, in 1948, amidst the changing norms and social constructs of a post-war nation. There are also substantial flashbacks – before the war in both England and Jamaica, and some scenes set during World War II, both in England and overseas. Levy does an excellent job of maintaining third person narration while moving between characters. Voice is also terrific as she captures the sounds of Jamaican English. (There’s a continuing theme of Jamaican characters not being understood by the English that heartbreakingly captures the struggle of immigrants.) This is a book about race but it’s also about longing, a search for something bigger, and about ignorance – both chosen and accidental.

Currently Reading:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks