GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok (Riverhead Books, 2010)
As a compelling, at times shocking, account of a young immigrant’s life in America this book has many merits. As a convincing work of narrative fiction it leaves a lot to be desired.
The episodic nature of the novel is problematic in that the story has a disjointed quality. As the author jumps from one event to the next, the reader is left with more questions than answers.
In the opening chapter we learn that the mother of the first person narrator, Kimberley Chang, had suffered from tuberculosis in China but her state of health is something which is barely mentioned therafter.
Later on, at the age of 18, when it is clear that Kimberley (Kim) needs to obtain U.S. citizenship, she applies and studies hard for naturalization but we are never told how the actual test went. The cumulative effect of these gaps is disorientating and infuriating. Continue reading
The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)
The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.
Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.
In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.
Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated: “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of superior things in your heads, but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we too have our dreams and fancies”.
Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.
The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.
What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.
I second that emotion.
The fourth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Lolita continues to draw its share of critics because it deals with a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old ‘nymphet’ without taking then easy option of moralising or sensationalising the story.
The novel examines the desires of the lonely and slightly pathetic Humbert Humbert but pointedly refuses to present him as a pervert or a monster.
Nabokov’s neutral tone is what exasperates and antagonizes those looking for any excuse to label the novel as depraved and obscene.
The Russian born author also writes so brilliantly that the story is vivid, believable and disturbing. He doesn’t need to write lurid sex scenes to convey the true nature of the man’s fatal attraction to the young girl. Continue reading
Currently enthralled by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (why has it taken me so long to read this masterpiece?) and this passage made me laugh out loud in painful recognition of the struggles of any form of creative writing – be it blogs or books:
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”