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Category Archive for 'Classic Novel'

In this unique, ground-breaking novel, John Okada creates such a vibrant picture of the first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans during and immediately after World War II, that it is impossible to imagine readers of this book not being universally moved by what they read here. The Foreword alone, written by Ruth Ozecki as a letter to the author in April, 2014, when this edition was published, attests to the fact that Okada, who died in his forties in 1971, never knew how important No-No Boy would become – the only such book ever written by a Japanese-American about the plight of Japanese immigrants who came under immediate and universal suspicion the instant Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 110,000 people who had come to the US from Japan, some of them many years ago, were rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert for the duration of World War II, forced to give up their homes, their jobs, their businesses, and their dreams. Young Japanese-American men, however, were offered a chance to prove how American they had become. A required questionnaire contained two questions regarding their loyalty: Were they willing to serve in combat duty in the US armed forces, and would they swear “unqualified allegiance” to the country and defend it from any attack by foreign or domestic forces. Those who answered “no” to these two questions were immediately sent to prison for two years, by which time the war was over. This book is an up close study of the effects of the imprisonment on one young no-no boy after he was released to a population which regarded him as a coward. A classic which will make every reader feel the pain of this young man and some of his friends as they try to reenter society.

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Originally published in Italy in 1973, under the title Caro Michele (Dear Michele), Natalia Ginzburg’s most popular Italian novel changed its title for an English-speaking audience in this new edition. Happiness, as Such, the English title, conveys the author’s purpose, emphasizing the uncertainties of knowing exactly what happiness is on a grand scale, the major point of this novel, and applies to a broader cast of characters than just “dear” Michele, the “oblivious” son of a forty-three-year-old mother whose life is a melding of strange experiences with uncertain goals and values. Told through a series of letters, primarily between Adriana, the mother, and twenty-one-year-old Michele, her son, the letters reveal the often interconnected stories of several other characters – family, friends, and lovers, past and present – as they go about living and describing their daily lives. Author Ginzburg, whose style is so unpretentious and seemingly spontaneous that a reader cannot help but become involved in the various narratives, gradually shows how each person protects his/her happiness by doing whatever seems right at the time in order to escape misery, unpleasant consequences, and time-consuming self-analysis. As she reveals her characters, author Ginzburg herself begins to come alive, a person of ironic humor, witty insights, and immense sensitivity to hidden meanings as revealed in seemingly ordinary dialogue.

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Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 “locked room” mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto. From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa. This unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion. The mysteries begin almost immediately. At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow. As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure. The “body,” however, turns out to be one of Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head. When they return to the house, however, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached. Additional crimes occur, and the mysteries become much more complex, eventually requiring the work of a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective to help solve one of the most detailed and complex locked room mysteries ever.

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After I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had to reread and self-translate it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

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Set in that fraught period between the German occupation of France during World War II and the liberation which came much later, Patrick Modiano’s second novel, written in 1969, when he was just twenty-three years old, incorporates as his main character a young man who is at a total loss about what to do with his life. Describing himself as someone who “started out a pure and innocent soul,” he admits that his “innocence got lost along the way.” The people who have gravitated toward him now are former policemen and criminals, including an official now known as the Khedive, who have opened a “detective agency” from which they are collecting protection money. The Khedive, who still has important contacts throughout the police department, has high hopes himself of eventually becoming “Monsieur le Prefet de Police.” The young man known only as “Swing Troubadour,” does dirty work for this group, sometimes referred to as The Night Watch, earning a huge salary in the process. Possessing a warrant card and a gun license, the young man is ordered to infiltrate a “ring” of enemies and destroy it.

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