Posts Tagged ‘Little Black Book of Stories’

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro – review

August 22, 2012

I’ve tried something a bit different with this one. The bulk of this review is really an informal journal I kept while reading the story, which means there are gobs of spoilers. It also means that the first half of this thing is very plot heavy.  I hope it gives a fair rundown of what happens, maybe makes the story easier for others to run down. I do think it lacks a bit with breaking down different aspects of the work, and things that felt important while I was reading felt less important when I finished. I think there is a lot here about how gender, reconstruction and class issues all came together and got thrown into the blender by WWII.  For some reason, what kept coming to mind was A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories.  I think there might be something between the two about women, society and how they find their place within it that could be pulled together into a larger paper. The link is to my review of Byatt’s collection, btw. And, as always, here’s a link to buy Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills.

 

Etsuko is being visited by her daughter Niki. Another daughter, Keiko, has recently killed herself – hanging, not found for a few days. Now lives in England, used to live in Japan. Daughters from different fathers – Keiko “pure” Japanese, Niki part British.

In past, when Etsuko was pregnant with her first child, lived near Nagasaki with her husband after the war. In a small hut/cabin near the river, a woman and child moves into the community; Sachiko (mother) and Mariko (daughter).  Mariko often claims to see a woman who comes to the cabin at night while her mother is away, asking if she wants to come see her house. Never goes? One day she is gone and is found by the river with a cut on her leg – they don’t really say how big/dangerous the cut is. This happens after she starts working at noodle shop. I’m guessing Mariko couldn’t stay at the shop because she was rude to the customers.

We learn that Sachiko spent some time with her uncle, but left. Why? doesn’t say. Now seems to be on her own and enlists Etsuko’s help in getting a job at a local noodle shop. we find out Sachiko has a weakness for tea and has stolen an expensive tea set from her uncle when she left.

Etsuko’s husband is Jiro, works a lot. His father is Ogata. Visits, plays chess with Jiro. Is unhappy with one of Jiro’s former classmates, Shigeo Matsuda, for an article about teachers and how it’s a good thing a few have left, naming Ogata. Ogata wants Jiro to write a strongly worded letter to Shigeo seeking apology for the affront. Jiro avoids it.

Later we see a deepening split between Jiro and his father over the chess game and Jiro’s unwillingness to confront Shigeo Matsuda. This isn’t as straight forward as I’ve described it so far because I think there is a definite thing going on commenting on generational shift, and Ogata is not nearly the purely likeable old man he makes himself out to be. He is horrified that the wife of one of Jiro’s friends may vote differently from him in an upcoming election because the least a wife should do is adopt her husband’s view, and defend them to the death (which I assume would be hers). He also doesn’t hold back in scolding Jiro for never growing up, and reacting the same way towards losing a game of chess as he did when he was a child. He accuses Jiro of never planning ahead, and then not adjusting to any difficulties placed before him. I’m having a hard time grasping the time line exactly, but it has got to be set at some point between 1945 and 1952, because it seems the American occupation is happening, but quickly winding down. Also, it seems Nagasaki has recovered a bit from the bombings, as Etsuko and Sachiko talk a bit about how it doesn’t look as devastated as it did after the bombing, and that surrounding areas have been rebuilt.  Because of this, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Jiro’s age and what exactly the cultural criticism is that is being lobbed here.  The way I take it is that Ogata’s generation is the one that was in charge of the war, while Jiro’s was the one that actually fought.  If so, Ogata’s criticism seems misplaced, as it was his generation that couldn’t pivot and reform a plan after the US countered. Meanwhile, the inability of Ogata’s generation to provide their own counter plan, likely killed many of Jiro’s generation, or at the least saddled them with the transition period they were going through after the war.

Meanwhile, Jiro’s generation appears to be doing exactly what Ogata claims they are not. They are faced with a radically reshaped nation, and are working to move that nation forward – having to plan several steps ahead.  Considering Jiro’s barely contained aggression towards this, I wonder if he doesn’t see it, too. However, he hesitates, and doesn’t take action and Etsuko says that this inability to move, that Jiro’s avoiding the chess game and potentially his inability to chuck the chessboard across the room, is what would later lead her to leave him when he reacted with a similar hesitation.

This reading, of course, changes greatly if you assume Ogata has a legitimate right to challenge Jiro about the war. If the younger generation was responsible for blowing it, Ogata’s criticisms become much more pointed. Also, it dovetails better with Etsuko’s reaction to them, and her agreeing with Ogata about her husband’s actions.

Ogata ends up confront Shigeo himself. Ogata is genuinely befuddled why Shigeo would write such a thing, while Shigeo keeps referring to people like Ogata, “good people,” teaching the Japanese things that were wholly untrue and how the nation needs to move on. He repeatedly references a “new dawn” for Japan. The impression is given that with this new dawn, it will also be the Americanization of Japan. Meanwhile, Ogata argues for the importance of the past and how Japan didn’t need to change wholesale to match its conquerors.

Afterwards, Ogata and Etsuko go to Mrs. Fujiwara’s noodle shop. Ogata again shows his old-fashioned qualities, repeatedly remarking to Etsuko how horrible it is that Mrs. Fujiwara has to work like that when she “used to be” so respected, and while Mrs. Fujiwara appears to enjoy running her noodle shop.

The rest of the book goes by in somewhat of a blur. Etsuko, Sachiko and Mariko go out for a day, and Sachiko ends up spending a lot of time talking to an American woman they run into. Sachiko speaks English very well,  and again uses the opportunity to remark to Etsuko that she wasn’t always poor.  We also learn that Sachiko is abandoned by Frank, momentarily dashing the hope of moving to America. This is only reversed later when we learn that Sachiko has tracked Frank down, and that they have decided to put Sachiko and Mariko up in Kobe while Frank goes back to America to establish himself and then send for them. This leads to a disturbing scene where Sachiko finally snaps after Mariko asks one too many times about taking a group of kittens with them. Sachiko bundles the kittens into a box and walks to a river. First she tries to drown one, but it fights her and almost literally refuses to drown. Etsuko bears a grim witness to the events as Sachiko then simply shuts all of the kittens in their wooden box and dumps the whole box in the river where it slowly sinks out of sight. They realize Mariko has also watched this happen, and Mariko then takes off, disappearing in the night.

Before anyone sets off in search of Mariko, Etsuko and Sachiko go back to Sachiko’s cabin to finish packing. Under gentle prodding, Sachiko admits that it’s unlikely they ever see America, but what else can they do? This flies in the face of the fact that Mariko’s uncle, Sachiko’s brother-in-law, more than welcomes them back to his house. We learn that Sachiko worries of growing old and alone, much the way her cousin has at the Uncle’s house.  While Mariko loved the place, it had to be a frightening omen for Sachiko of what the future would bring if she stayed in such a place.

The novel ends back in England, with the older Etsuko and her grown daughter Niki still feeling each other out around the edges in the wake of the death of Etsuko’s other daughter, Keiko. etsuko tries to reach out to Niki a few times, gently probing about Niki’s boyfriend,  but her inquisitiveness is shut down immediately. Meanwhile, Niki keeps professing her pride in her mother’s taking control of her life and doing what was right for her, but it all comes off as mildly patronizing. the novel ends with the image of Niki walking out the gate to head to the train station, turning and being a bit surprised to see her mother still standing there, waving goodbye.
Sachiko’s life and decisions can be seen to easily mirror those that we know Etsuko makes later in her own life – though Etsuko’s appears to be more by choice. I wonder if  there is something being said here about how a generation of Japanese may have been sort of lost in the middle. The older generation could still live comfortable ensconced in their memories, shielding them from the changes taking place around them. Meanwhile, the younger generations could adapt more easily and take ownership of the changes. However, there is a middle generation that may have been caught in the gap. They didn’t have the past to wrap around themselves, but they were still too formed by the Japan prior to the war to truly make the new Japan “theirs.”

Mrs. Fujiwara would be an exception to this. She’s older, her old station in life has been thrown to the wind, but she adapted, started a noodle shop and seemed to be prospering. At the same time, though, Ogata essentially shunned her. While each clearly felt something for each other, all Ogata could talk about was how it was  such a shame that she had to run a noodle shop. I have to think, or at least wonder, if Ogata’s reaction to Mrs. Fujiwara would be emblematic of how others of their generation would regard her, which would lead to her ostracism despite the success and popularity of her establishment.

All in all, I think there is a fairly strong current of feminism running through the book, but it isn’t a feminism in the sense of articulating ideas of equality and opportunity, but more one of action -both chosen and forced. This is also where we see the strongest schisms between generations. Mrs. Fujiwara is broken from her generation by her taking control of her own business and forging a life for herself. Meanwhile, Sachiko is a bit of an outcast from society in general, in part due to the choices she is confronted with after losing her original station in life. Etsuko bridges a bit of the gap between these two. She embraces the old ways of Japan in one sense, and is at least part of the reason Ogata takes to her so well. on the other, we know that she eventually leaves Jiro and moves to England where she essentially starts her life over. Niki, meanwhile, reaps the benefits but seems to be far less anchored in life than Etsuko ever appears to be.  So while Niki has the benefits of the choices available to her, she more resembles Sachiko in not being entirely sure in what direction to take – or that might be because we are given the world at least slightly through Etsuko’s lens.

 

Character List

Etsuko – primary character. Older in England, widow, one daughter (Keiko) recently committed suicide, one daughter (Niki) is visiting.
In Japan, younger, pregnant (with Keiko, we assume), married to Jiro, befriends Sachiko & Mariko.

Niki – half-english, half-Japanese daughter of Etsuko and her British husband.

Keikio – Japanese daughter, prone to fits of seclusion, commits suicide after moving away from home.

Jiro – Etsuko’s first husband, Japanese, lawyer. Very passive-aggessive.

Ogata – Jiro’s father, old fashioned, cares about Etsuko deeply. not overly thrilled with his son. former teacher.

Sachiko – single mother, life destroyed  by the war, works at noodle shop but always talks about how she looks forward to getting away from it and how her life used to be “very different.” Clearly not happy with where she’s at, sees motherhood as a burden and how Etsuko will understand when she’s finally a mother. Annoying person.

Mariko – Sachiko’s daughter. neglected, really. Seems lonely, doesn’t interact with people very well. Strong willed, opinionated.

Shigeo Matsuda – former classmate of Jiro’s, now a teacher who has recently published an article that mentions Ogata and that the old ways of teaching need to be left behind for the sake of Japan’s future.

Mrs. Fujiwara – widow, used to be a woman of high social standing, now owns/operates a noodle shop.

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Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt – Review

February 21, 2010

Looking through Byatt’s collection, the strong feminist slant is the single most impossible to ignore thread looping from one story to the next. From the girls learning to survive as women from the experience with The Thing in the Woods to an older woman finding definition for her life after the passing of her mother as she gradually turns to stone and slips into a different plane of being to a woman possibly materializing a younger version of herself to push her abusive husband into senility.  Gothic fiction was never something I had much interest in so learning a bit more about it has been a bit of a crash course. But what I’ve found most interesting about the strength and transformation of the women characters is that it seems to take a convention of gothic fiction and put it on its head.  The women seemed to have been the weaker sex, always fainting, fates forever at the hands of their masculine counterparts. The most active part they would take would be allowing themselves to be seduced by a guy more virile and “masculine” than her husband.

With Byatt, the idea of the heroine being defined as either the fainting damsel in distress or the Lover in Need goes out the window. All of the women are searching for more than that, are defined by more than that, are stronger than that. If anything, they take on the roles traditionally given to men in gothic fiction. Dr. Frankenstein is wrestling with matters of existence, trying to usurp the role of God for himself in conquering death while the heroine in A Stone Woman has a similar goal but transforms herself rather than creating a monster from harvested limbs and organs.

The Thing in the Forest is the most traditional Gothic work in that it takes place at an old mansion and the surrounding woods where nature literally rears up and leaves its mark upon the two young women. But instead of fainting, and despite living lives scarred by the event, they come around in the end as true heroines and use the event as a way of regaining control of their lives through the attempt of shedding light upon the horror that had befallen them.

I have to admit, I attempted to find some critical work involving the Little Black Book of Stories but I came up empty. Critical work on Byatt as a whole seemed lacking compared to what I had expected to find. So for the criticism minded reader, I think there might be fertile untouched ground on Byatt as long as you don’t mind avoiding her work Possession.

Links to Story Reviews:

The Thing In The Forest

Body Art

A Stone Woman

Raw Material

The Pink Ribbon

A Stone Woman – Story Review

February 3, 2010

The third story in A.S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is “Stone Woman.” It follows a  woman named Ines, who is grieving over the death of her mother. She doesn’t have a significant other, she works mainly from home, and the only thing in her life is this grief. Then she begins to slowly turn to stone. The process is such that, eventually, she decides to wander around and try to find a suitable place for her to eventually solidify into what she seems to expect to be some sort of living statue. So only naturally she finds herself wandering around a cemetery, because where else do big statues of people gather, and she’s finding it entirely unsatisfactory when she comes across an Icelander named Thorstein who has set up shop for the winter, stone carving and repairing the more dilapidated sculptures in the cemetery. He informs that Iceland is very much okay with women who turn to stone and agrees to take her there if she allows him to study her gradual transformation and to “track it” (presumably through work of his own). They go, she changes, and skips off to the mountains to dance, quite literally, with other bizarre creatures that exist just beyond the perceptive abilities of us normal humans but which are easily noticed by rock women.

From what I recall neither Ines nor Thorstein are given ages but I got the impression that Thorstein was maybe in his forties while Ines in her fifties. Neither seem overly sociable, or at least have many or any notable friends. Given how old Ines seems and how attached to her mother she appears to have been, she almost seems a spinster living alone her whole life, never having a romantic entanglement and for whom their parents are the only important pillars in their social existence. I’m not sure what it says that the only way Ines could transform from this existence to some sort of new existence was to turn to stone with molten lava for blood. She doesn’t seem to blossom into the world as much as bypass and forge into a new world entirely.

Is this what it is like for a woman, grown past adult, left truly alone for the first time and having to find a way to subsist and to find their niche in existence? Perhaps. The fact that her blood turns, literally, lava hot can be seen as a positive thing – the heat of life has visited her, she is living again, but she still has that harsh exterior (and perhaps interior, as well) to separate her from the world around her in literal and figurative ways.

then there is the fact that the only person, the only man, to befriend her is a foreigner who is as outside to her own society as he is. And that this foreigner transports her and her new strangeness to a new land which is the only place she has any hope of fitting in.

It might also be worth noting that, so far, the only two primary male characters have both been somewhat detached from the world around them, interpreting it in ways that are at once intriguing but also foreign and even somewhat scary.

Body Art – story review

January 30, 2010

The second story in A.S. Byatt’s collection Little Black Book of Stories is Body Art. Body Art follows the evolution of  a relationship between an emotionally distant doctor and a young woman literally and figuratively scarred by a previous abortion. She is a young artist who the doctor discovers sleeping in a homemade cave in a storage room. He gives her a place to stay, for reasons unexplained she crawls into bed with him every night for the week that she stays with him, and winds up pregnant. He wants the kid, she doesn’t, he convinces her (forces her?) to keep it. She has the kid, ends up loving it for reasons she can not articulate and we are left with an image of them as a possible inexplicable family.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this story. Part of me wants to find some sort of religious correlation. Daisy, while not virginal, certainly seems to play the role of wounded innocent carrying a child she didn’t ask for. Meanwhile, the doctor, is named Damian and is less than likable throughout much of the story. He assumes a clearly domineering role towards Daisy, essentially demands she bear the child, and then sees through the birthing process himself. The other central character is a woman named Marth who Damian works with to attempt to catalogue a collection of art and medical curiosities the hospitol’s founder has left behind. Until knocking Daisy up, Damian had wanted to pursue Martha but the unexpected pregnancy forced the three of them into a bizarre “family” dynamic with Damian and Martha assuming the stereotypical parent roles to Daisy – which also touches upon a disturbing incestual dynamic. In the middle of the story, between Damian having knocking Daisy up and them discovering that she was knocked up, there was an art show where Daisy had “borrowed” (or stole, depending on point of view) materials from the medical curiosities to construct a massive collage/statue of Kali.

There’s also  a clear man/woman thing going on. Daisy is continually hurt by men. Her father ditches her. her boyfriend knocks her up and ditches her. The baby, iirc, was a boy when it was aborted and the abortion almost killed her partially because of complications and partially (insinuated) from a possibly inept male physician. Damian, aside from being named after the devil, knocks her up, throws her out of her “cave,” tears down her statue of Kali made from appropriated materials from the hospitol while threatening police action, and forces her to bear the child they conceived.

Meanwhile, Daisy continually communicates along the lines of feelings. If anything she is too connected to the world around her, allowing it to emotionally injure her too readily while continually trying to foster some sort of positive reactions all around her through use of her art. Martha becomes an almost stereotypical mother figure, with all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Through the first two stories there seems to be a thread being formed of women carrying the injuries of their youth throughout their lives – that whatever horrors afflicted them then in some way transforms them into the adults they become, dictating the path of their lives, the choices they make, the methods with which they come to deal with the world. Now this isn’t something that should be revolutionary. It is something that can be equally applied to fairly much everyone that their pasts dictate their futures, no necessarily in an economic sense (though, often, I think it does) but in an intangible “who you are” sense. but maybe something can be said in how all of the women are crippled in some form and that none of them appear to have had childhoods that didn’t involve some sort of trauma that radically affected their lives. Then it should be noted that the most well adjusted woman, so far, has been Martha from Body Art and that she easily assumes a “motherly” role while Daisy and Damian seem entirely unsure and uncomfortable of their roles. Is Byatt saying something about motherhood being a natural mask for women to wear? Or is she saying something more akin to a “healthy” woman somehow requires a motherly aspect not only in their youth but an ability to assume such a role in adulthood?

The Thing in the Forest – Review

January 27, 2010

just started reading Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt. It’s a collection of short stories so I thought I would do something different and review each individual story rather than waiting and reviewing the entire book. Ideally, a collection of short stories will come together over some larger theme that is carried out in some way throughout the work but, at the same time, I don’t think a lack of a larger theme (or just a tenuous connection rather than a clear one) should damage the review of the collection if the individual stories are good.

Before I begin, there are spoilers here. A lot of them. So if that bothers you, don’t read on. You have been warned.

the first story in Little Black Book of Stories (LBBS) is called The Thing in the Forest. It begins in the 1940s in Britain when Germany has begun its attempt to either force Britain into surrender or into the stone age with its constant barrage of bombs and missiles. It focuses on two little girls being evacuated from the city who find themselves at a large mansion in the country. Their youth gets the better of them and they decide to venture into the woods a bit with a younger girl tagging along after them. It is in the woods that they encounter what can only be described as a living horror dragging itself through the greenery, leaving a path of destruction and decay in its wake.The girls hide and wait for the monster to pass and you’re left to wonder of the small younger girl who we assume had followed them.

The story then jumps ahead a life time to when the two girls have become older women and have taken different paths in life but still have startling similarities such as the path of their families (fathers die, mothers live, no children/family of their own) and their lives. they just happen to find themselves back at the mansion they had spent the night at years before when they had seen the creature and each confirms the other’s belief that they really had seen something in the woods and that it, in fact, probably did “eat” (we assume it ate her) the girl or at least kill her with its sheer bulk. They don’t talk much and each avoids a dinner meating the next day, instead venturing into the woods alone where neither see the creature again but where one discovers bones in a clearing from their first encounter that may in fact be the little girl’s. The story ends with the one woman at a mall at one of her jobs of watching small children while their parents shop and she begins telling them the story of her encounter with the  beast while the other woman vows to venture back to the woods to see it again.

It seems as if the true horror of the experience was not the experience itself but the effect it seems to have had on the lives of the two girls. Something that was “more real than other things,” as one of the girls describes it, seems to have had the effect of dulling everything else in their lives. Neither seem overly happy or connected in their day to day lives. This isn’t to say they are hermetic recluses tucked away in their cluttered apartments, fearful of the outside, but that the ability to make personal connections has been stripped from them by this beast that lumbered through their lives at a moment when the connection between eachother was the only tie that either had been able to develop. Whatever innocence is required from people to say hello and to open themselves up to the possibility of friendship is the victim of the encounter.

This could be supported by the death of the younger girl who wanted to tag along with them. The younger girl, Alys, is described in various ways that amount to cute, precocious and personable. Where the beast didn’t notice the two older girls, who tried to shun the child, the younger, nice innocent appears to have fallen into its path and was destroyed. It was a physical death to match the psychological death of the two surviving girls.

The timing of their initial encounter with the beast and the publishing of the collection may not be something ignore, either. Set at the onset of WWII, perhaps Byatt is saying something about what the atmosphere of imminent war does to the young who are forced to live through it. In this reading the beast is as much metaphor as reality and the pains the girls suffer, both at the moment of their encounter and throughout their lives, is symbolic for the horrors inflicted on and endured by everyone their age. Which brings us to the time the collection was published, 2003. After 9-11 when a policy of engagement by Bush (and Blair) was taking clear shape, this could be Byatt’s warning shot that the effects of the political/social environment could have far longer lasting repercussions than could be imagined. Outside of the sphere of blame or responsibility of such conflict, it is a warning that people will come away damaged.