Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Japan”

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #16: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

After having published a number of very well-received novels (none of which I had read when I picked up Jacob de Zoet), David Mitchell wrote this as his first all-out historical novel. Now, it’s easy to be all snobbish about something that makes you think of costume dramas full of swooning maidens in lavish dresses, but to be honest, most of my favourite books are historical. And novels. So there.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has it all: the incredibly removed setting (Nagasaki in the early 19th century), the multitude of characters (and each one gets the chance to elaborate on his or her story), and a lot of adventure. But it’s so much more than the sum of those parts, because the critics and the rest of the world were right: David Mitchell is a very, very good writer.
The story begins in 1799, when Jacob de Zoet, a clerk working for the Dutch East Indian Company, arrives in Dejima, Japan’s only trading post with the outside world. While working for a corrupt boss in an equally corrupt environment trying to make the best of the economic collapse of the company, Jacob falls in love with Miss Aibagawa, a midwife studying under the island’s doctor. Their love is doomed, of course, but Jacob’s struggles in this strange little world are so captivating, and the writing is so poetic, that the action-film sequences of a damsel in distress in the middle part of the book somehow don’t seem overdone.
While The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells a captivating story that makes you read into the small hours of the morning, it takes its time to elaborate and ponder. Jacob, on behalf of every reader, struggles with the big questions in life: power, morals, religion, progress, love, loyalty and bravery. We learn about midwifery, Japanese moral codes, all kinds of diseases and British warships. And all of this is held together by Mitchell’s way with words. His language is rich and poetic, and every subject he touches gets treated in a way that makes it interesting, without sounding patronising. It’s the poetry that stuck with me most, and even before the breathtaking chapter set in the Magistracy, which reads like a poem, I marked a few sentences like a lovelorn teenager devouring romantic poems. “She hears the ancient hush of falling snow” is my favourite of the many, many beautiful sentences in this book.
I don’t want to imagine the work that must have gone into the research for this novel alone, especially since Mitchell knows Japan, but to my knowledge has no connection to the Netherlands or the Dutch language. As a translator, I was a bit uneasy about this aspect at first: The Dutch residents’ language is highly individualised, and each speaker has their own slang, complete with faulty declination and word-formation. This is a clever device that must have made Mitchell’s work even more difficult, but since the novel is written in English, and the characters are Dutch, those sequences feel somehow translated, although they obviously never were Dutch in the first place. It took me a while to relax and see the slang as just this, rather than an over-the-top attempt to translate peculiarities of the language. (Translators and their struggles feature heavily in the novel, which makes me love the book anyway.) I’m sure nobody but me had this problem, so I can give my 5 stars and declare this book my new favourite of all time. It’s love.

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Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #80: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

This author, who also penned the best-selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, gives us another book on sisterhood but this time in a more modern context. While a fascinating glimpse into the life of Chinese women in the mid-20th century United States, and of the political turmoil in China during this same period, this novel somehow lacked the emotional depth of Snow Flower. The fact that I found neither of the sisters to be truly appealing was another factor that left me less involved in the story. Nonetheless, I found this book worth the read.

Pearl and May are the spoiled beautiful daughters of a wealthy Shanghai merchant in 1937. Both make pocket-money by posing for calendar painters, unaware that their father’s gambling addiction has grown out of control. Early in the novel, we are introduced to the girls’ carefree existence in detail, only to have it shattered when they learn of their father’s unpayable debt to the Green Triad and he sells them as brides to two brothers living in Los Angeles as a way out of his debt. The girls attempt to escape their fate, but are trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai, and they go through horrific experiences—including the gang-rape of both their mother and of Pearl—before they are able to escape to the U.S., and to their husbands. Along the way, a child is born which changes both their lives forever.

Once again, See portrays Chinese women at the mercy of their traditionalist families, husbands, or husbands’ families, with little opportunity to forge an independent and satisfying existence. Pearl was “bought” as a servant and broodmare, and while harboring plans to escape her bondage, never does and eventually adopts the family as her own. May, whose “husband” is a sickly, brain-damaged 14-year boy, manages to find escape through taking a growing number of small but well-paid stereotyped roles as a Chinese peasant or helpless maiden in a series of Hollywood’s wartime films. She spends luxuriously on both herself and her family, but never engages with her new family, nor with reality. May, in essence, remains the frivolous teenager of her Shanghai days, with a strong survival instinct and fearing only the encroachment of age, while Pearl matures and adapts, even as she grows increasingly fearful about her and her family’s lack of security as the Communist revolution in China triggers a violent anti-Communist/anti-Chinese response inside the US.

Through it all, the sisters and their shared history have an emotional bond that keeps them together, but that bond becomes increasingly frayed once they reach the U.S. and comes near to rupturing altogether with the outbreak of tragedy in the family. The author’s conclusion, perhaps paving the way for a sequel or perhaps not knowing how to end her story, was provocative but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.

DragonDreamsJen’s #CBR4 Review #68 Turning Japanese by Cathy Yardley

Amid all the Darkover Novels, dystopian stories and Dark Hunter romances, I found time to squeeze in a novel I picked up on sale at Chapters.  Turning Japanese is a witty and entertaining, if somewhat self-indulgent, fictional tale of a half Japanese, half Italian-American young manga artist from a small town who wins an internship in Tokyo for a year.

Lisa Falloya has been reading manga for years when she wins the contest offered by one of the comic publishers in Tokyo.  She soon finds herself leaving a boring desk job and workaholic fiancé behind for a year as she moves to Japan’s largest city where nothing goes quite as planned.

To discover why I could only give this novel 3 stars out of 5, read the rest of my review on my BookHoardingDragon blog.

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