Friday, August 28, 2015

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama

When I started The Street of a Thousand Blossoms I thought I was going to have some issues with it. The characters seemed stiff and distant. My reaction might have had more to do with Japanese culture than with Gail Tsukiyama's writing, but either way it took me awhile to get to know and care for the people in her story. But I couldn't stop listening (I had the audio version of the book read by Stephen Park). The novel is filled with careful descriptions of aspects of Japanese culture, creating a picture of life in Japan during and after World War II that is fascinating.

Then, as I read further, the characters began to come alive. I read another review that criticized the novel for going on too long after the war, but I found the personal tragedies that occurred at the end to be the best part. The characters had interesting reactions to the events they experienced, which made me care for them.

The story is about two brothers whose parents are killed in a ferry accident, so they are raised by their grandparents. One of the brothers, Hiroshi, is a talented sumo wrestler. The other, Kenji, is drawn to make Noh theater masks. Because the brothers are both interested in careers that are important to Japanese culture, Tsukiyama can spend a great deal of time describing those pastimes. Sumo wrestling gets a little more space than Noh theater, which disappointed me a bit. But all the descriptions were interesting to me.

I had some trouble with the names. I don't speak Japanese, so the sounds didn't stick with me as well as English names would. Combine that with the fact that the author used nicknames, surnames, and titles as well as the common names for some of the characters and I was confused. But after I listened to the narrative for awhile, the story always straightened itself out.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who would like to learn more about Japanese culture, especially around World War II.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of a high school age, Native American boy who is an excellent student and is advised by one of his teachers to leave the reservation. “You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.” This means leaving his school to attend an all white school. Arnold (or Junior as he is called on the reservation) knows the teacher is right. The reservation school is underfunded and staffed by teachers who have low expectations for their students. So Arnold requests a transfer.

Sherman Alexie's novel takes an interesting approach to Arnold's situation. There are some anecdotes about his problems adjusting to his new school, but after a few uncomfortable situations, the students seem to accept him. The focus for Alexie is more on the reactions of Arnold's friends on the reservation. The students at his former school feel betrayed and sometimes react with violence. The problem with Alexie's choice is that the picture a reader is left with, is that the Native Americans are the ones who can't accept someone who wants to make his own way in life. Alexie must have realized this issue, because he started the Red Versus White chapter with the following excerpt:

You probably think I've completely fallen in love with white people and that I don't see anything good in Indians.

Well, that's false.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a YA book with a great deal to teach its readers about the struggles of Native Americans on reservations in today's world. Some of the issues were ones I was already familiar with, but learned a different perspective. Others were problems I hadn't realized existed.

I think this book would make an excellent source for a classroom study.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I've never been much of a memoir fan, but I decided to read The Glass Castle because I've seen it on so many lists of great books. I thought it was an interesting read. This is the story of four children raised by a mother, Rose Mary Walls, who is self centered and optimistic to a fault and a father, Rex Walls, who is a drunk with big dreams. Jeannette Walls, the author and narrator, is one of those children.

I loved the way Walls managed to slowly move the story from quirky and fun to sad and pathetic. It could have been boring if it was just a simple list of bad parenting choices, but the story has a general arc that works. I also liked the connection between the children, in particular between Jeannette and Brian. They protect each other and support each other when nobody else is there for them. I also enjoyed the fact that aspects of the parents' issues could be admired, if they weren't so extreme. In her Acknowledgments section Jeannette Walls says “...grateful to my mother for believing in art and truth...” and “ my father, Rex. S. Walls, for dreaming all those big dreams.” Their dreams were admirable. Their decisions to put their dreams over the needs of their children were not.

The one issue I had with the memoir was the way the children were portrayed. It did not seem as if they were looked at as critically as the parents. Maureen's flaws were pointed out, especially late in the book, but Lori, Brian, and Jeannette all seemed to have it together as much as possible. Even their problems, such as Jeannette's early fascination with fire, seemed to be a result of their parents' choices. The story is about survival, but I had trouble believing the children didn't have more of their own issues.

I can see aspects of Rex and Rose Mary Walls in people I know and judging by other reactions to The Glass Castle others make the same type of connections. This is what makes the character strong and I like to think it is what makes the memoir appealing.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions