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: Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence – Shusaku Endo (Picador Classic, 2015)

In the realm of Christian literature, Japan does not loom large. Yet for years, I’ve seen Silence listed amongst the classics. Having finally read it, I find myself both wishing I’d read it years ago and glad that I read it now, in my thirties, with a few years of experience behind me.

The novel begins in the 16th century after Japan leadership has declared Christianity punishable by death and torture. The country is closed to missionaries, leaving those European priests and missionaries already in country stranded and endangered. Quickly realizing that putting Christians to death only creates martyrs for others to follow, the ruling powers work to force Christians to apostatize. They do so by torturing them until they will reject Jesus Christ and stomp on an image of him. (The book deals with Catholic Christianity, meaning that imagery is much more powerful and important to these believers than it may be to a modern Protestant.

The protagonist is a young Jesuit priest, who sneaks into Japan in search of his former mentor, rumoured to have betrayed the faith. We see the story almost entirely from his perspective, from his initial arrival with another priest, hiding in the mountains, to their eventual separation and his arrest. The story is intimate, horrifying, and heartbreaking.

This is a story about the silence of God. I can’t speak to how it might come across to a non-Christian but for me it was moving and, even five hundred years later, painfully familiar. While I have never been persecuted or tortured due to my faith, like most Christians, I have faced a silent God. Based on this book, I suspect Shusaku Endo has faced Him too. This is the question of Silence – what do you do in the midst of suffering when God seems to have turned His back?

The setting of medieval Japan is well-evoked; the peasants living in extreme feudal poverty, the samurais and warlords who rule over them. Endo evokes the extreme differences in these parties, from their power to their dwelling places to what they eat. On the other hand, characterization is slightly thinner. While we are deep inside our central characters mind and spiritual thought, there is almost nothing else known about him. He doesn’t seem to have ever existed before the story began. Likewise, the rest of the characters are shown briefly. Important while on page but hard to imagine otherwise.

For Christians who enjoy literature or readers wanting a fictional glimpse into a Christian experience, I highly recommend Silence.

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 – December 2016

Check back tomorrow for my complete 2016 reading list, including the highlights of my reading year. (If you’re into that kind of thing.)

The BellmanHeidi Barnes (Vireo Rare Bird Books, 2016)

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Harper Collins, 2016)

The Fox at the Manger – P.L. Travers (Virago Modern Classics, 2015)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories – Leo Tolstoy (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) (translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky)

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube (ECW Press, 2016)

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (An Airmont Classic, 1963)

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed – John Irving (Arcade Publishing, 1996)

Currently Reading:

Reflections on the Psalms – C.S. Lewis

News of the World – Paulette Jiles

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

Sometimes I read books and wonder if maybe I’m not quite smart enough for them. The Vegetarian is a short but complex novel. It’s beautiful and brutal and I was left feeling like there was a lot more to it than what I was picking up.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts – moving through time and each from the perspective of a different character but always revolving around our main character. The book begins with the seemingly innocuous decision of a young woman to stop eating meat. The first section is told from her husband’s perspective, where we learn how angry and frustrated this makes him and how her iron will and his frustration light a fuse for abuse. Some of what’s at play here is cultural – marital and family expectations, for example – though we’re certainly not expected to sympathize with the husband. Kang presents it with a flat non-emotional tone that makes it even more disturbing and we never get close enough to this young woman to fully understand her motivation.

The second section moves to the perspective of the brother-in-law and his growing obsession with this young woman. An unsuccessful artist, he sees in her an opportunity for his greatest masterpiece. But his desire to create art is twisted in his sexual desire. Here we are reminded that beautiful art can have twisted origins. Does that matter? Does that take away from having created something beautiful? Again, Kang tells the story without judgement. We hear it from the brother-in-law’s perspective and yet there is a measured distance that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

The final section is perhaps the most intimate as we move to the sister’s perspective. The surrealism of our main character’s illness only grows and (in my mind) becomes more confused, but her sister’s pain and confusion makes this section the most emotional.

I was left to wonder what was real, what was imagined, what was hallucinated, what was to be believed. Maybe I’m not smart enough for this book or maybe Kang wants her readers to finish this short novel with a myriad of questions.

Deborah Smith’s translation from Korean was truly excellent, in my mind. She maintains the formal lilt of the language while never feeling false or overdone. It’s exciting to see a new category for translations added to the Man Booker Prize and I think this one is well-deserving of that award.

What I Read – July 2016

Revolutionary RoadRichard Yates (Vintage Contemporaries, 2008)

A Tangled Web – L.M. Montgomery (Bantam Books, 1989)

The Painted Kiss – Elizabeth Hickey (Atria Books, 2005)

The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers – Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw Hill, 2005)

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco (Harvard University Press, 1994)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be – Farley Mowat (Pyramid Books, 1968)

Currently Reading:

Rumours of Another World – Philip Yancey

The Nest – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Don’t forget! You can follow along with what I’m reading in real time on Instagram @karissareadsbooks.

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Don Quixote – Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Well, I finished it. I took my sweet time but I finished reading Don Quixote. I made my first attempt at Don Quixote in 2008, on the recommendation of someone whose book taste I usually agree with. I think I read most of the Part I before I sheepishly returned his copy and promptly left the country.

Yet since it is such a classic – and tops a few lists as the BEST BOOK EVER! – it’s remained on my To Read list ever since. My secret this time? I read most of the book aloud to Pearl. And I ended up enjoying it much more. Do I think it’s the best book ever. No, I do not. But I do see now why so many people love it and why it has remained so popular, even more than 400 years later.

Don Quixote is a hidalgo (a Spanish nobleman) who loses his mind after reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that knights errant exist and that he is the greatest knight of all, he sets off on a series of adventures, accompanied by his foolish and chatty squire, Sancho Panza. Some of those adventures – the windmills, for example – are famous and others were unknown for me. Don Quixote is a comic figure and Sancho, who isn’t mad yet goes along with his master’s thoughts and schemes, is an excellent foil for him.

Don Quixote’s friends and family are horrified and frustrated by Don Quixote’s insistence on being a knight and a good portion of Part I involves their attempts to force him to stay or return home. (There’s a long and boring section where they go through Don Quixote’s books and decide which to keep and which to burn and I couldn’t help but think I’d be better off organizing my own house than reading about someone else’s organization.)

Part I also features a lot of other stories and digressions – going into great details of the histories of people that Don Quixote meets along his adventures. A large chunk involves a lot of them at an inn (that Don Quixote, in his madness, is convinced is a castle) and more people keep arriving and finding connections to each other as they share their tales. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of it reads as Cervantes simply wanting to tell an otherwise unrelated story. It gets tiresome reading about yet another beautiful but tragic maiden and as every young woman Don Quixote meets is apparently unbelievably beautiful, the descriptor starts to lose all meaning. (As an aside, it likely comes as no surprise that the depictions of women here are super sexist and problematic.)

I enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off on their latest adventure. They’ve become rather famous now, due to a book being published on their exploits in Part I. They’re known as comic figures and yet remain as oblivious as ever. This allows several people they meet to play tricks and elaborate hoaxes on them – pretendi(ng to hail Don Quixote as a great knight errant and playing along with his belief that he is constantly pursued by enchanters. I found this section to be funnier and more engaging than Part I.

The book is long (almost a thousand pages) but, in the end, I do think it’s worth it. Four hundred years later, it’s still amusing and engaging and a goofy story about a loveable insane man and his loveable and foolish squire.

(The version I read was translated from Spanish by John Rutherford.)

What I Read – December 2015

No Great Mischief – Alistair MacLeod (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

…however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Ru – Kim Thúy (Vintage Canada, 2015)

The Emperor’s Children – Claire Messud (Vintage Books, 2007)

Emberton – Peter Norman (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014)

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson (Grosset & Dunlap, 1965)

Dreamtigers – Jorge Luis Borges (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970) (translated from the Spanish by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland)

White Teeth – Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2001)

Samad watches it all and finds himself, to his surprise, unwilling to silence her. Partly because he is tired. Partly because he is old. But mostly because he would do the same, though in a different name. He knows what it is to seek. He knows the dryness. He has felt the thirst you get in a strange land – horrible, persistent – the thirst that lasts your whole life.

The Quick – Lauren Owen (McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Cervantes

Daydreams of Angels – Heather O’Neill

Transatlantic – Colum McCann

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

 

Book Review: The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War, Riverhead Books, 1993

After reading The Lotus Eaters (read my review here), it seemed fitting to read something about the Vietnam War from a North Vietnam perspective. The Sorrow of War was written by Bao Ninh, who served as a teenager for North Vietnam. While the book is fictional, it’s easy to imagine that it’s based on a lot of Bao Ninh’s personal experiences.

Blurbs for the novel compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front and I understand that impulse but it’s not quite accurate. Yes, it’s a novel offering a perspective from “the other side” but other than that it bears little resemblance to Remarque’s novel. Actually, it reminded me more of Remarque’s sequel, The Road Back, which I read earlier this year. The Sorrow of War details the experience of a young man named Kien during the war and in the years after it. Kien joins up as a teenager, fresh out of school and parted from his childhood sweetheart, Phuong.

The novel moves around a lot in time and place. It jumps from Kien’s earliest days in the army to his experience post-war, recovering bodies, to his tortured days following the end of the war. It’s a chaos that takes some getting used to and I never really felt grounded. This bothered me at first and I was left wondering whether or not to blame translation issues, but by the end of the novel I realized it was a deliberate technique. Kien’s life is chaos. War has thrown everything he experienced, everything he knows, everything about himself, into chaos. Even when the war is over, he is haunted by it; he can never forget it. Everyone he sees and everywhere he goes, he is reminded of it. This story is a tragic one.

As such, there’s really no plot here. Toward the end of the novel, a key scene between Kien and Phuong is slowly revealed that tells a lot about how Kien has been shaped and this section is where I would say there is the most character development. But it’s certainly not a traditional novel in any sense. It’s a beaten-down tale of a beaten-down life from a perspective that North American audiences have not heard enough.

From  critical point of view, I can’t say this book is particularly well-written. It’s hard to follow and it feels like the author is writing for a specific audience, of which I am not a part. However, it is truly compelling. It’s heart-breaking, and tragic, and important and the sections where that really comes across trump the confusing ones.

Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure, and very sincere.

*This edition of The Sorrow of War was translated from Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hao