Book Recommendations–Fascinating Lives

During much of my early reading career in grade school, I devoured a series of biographies of famous people–Daniel Boone, Clara Barton, Abe Lincoln, Madame Curie, all bound in blue cloth library editions. My love of biography and memoir, particularly about unusual but not always well-known people, has only increased over the years. About a third of my reading each year is in these two genres. This is a group of books about people whose stories fascinated me, most of which have been recently published.


9780062225078_p0_v2_s118x184Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming

Well who doesn’t love Cumming–the hair, the dimples, the accent, his coy yet masculine presence–so I was drawn to this memoir for the wrong reasons.  And I loved the cover picture!  Yes, covers do sell books, as not all publishers have yet figured out.  But the story of his childhood at the hands of an abusive, mentally ill father, and his career as an actor were beautifully interwoven  in this book, and I had the additional joy of listening to the book on CD, narrated by the author.  It made it an exceptionally nuanced and emotionally honest experience for me as a reader.  Cumming was raised on one of the large estates in Scotland, where his father was employed as a forester, before the break-up of that economic system. Just when the story about his childhood gets too dark or heavy, he moves forward, to his blossoming career, his relationship with his mother and brother, and his steps to healing. Neither sentimental nor emotionally manipulative, Cumming’s book is a standout in the very crowded, competitive field of memoir.


It’s What I Do, by Lynsey Addario

Subtitled: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, Addario’s book is unique because it 9781594205378_p0_v1_s118x184intimately describes a person torn between having a relationship and family AND doing what she is passionate about.  This was one of a small handful of my favorite books this year.  Addario’s photography assignments ranged widely: civilians, troops and doctors during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, transvestite prostitutes in New York City, and HIV epidemic victims in Africa, are a few examples.  Addario’s often mysterious photographs of the ordinary are liberally scattered thoughout the book, adding strength to her story. And the heart of her story is her struggle to find and maintain a loving relationship and keep her career, which she does in time. She meets a French journalist who understood her choice and its inherent risks, and fully supported her need to do it.  In time they marry, have a child, and Addario is further challenged to adjust to this new reality.  Buy it for the photographs alone!


Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

9781594203473_p0_v1_s118x184Here I go again with another surfing story–I can’t seem to resist any of them. (See earlier blog titled “On the Water”).  Finnegan was one of those early pioneers of the fabled surfing life of Southern California and Hawai’i in the 60’s, and while the story certainly details his peripatetic life, it is also a fascinating social history of the time period. For those who are not absolutely addicted to the surfing life, there are parts of the book, particularly the second half, that may become somewhat tedious.  However, I highly recommend hanging on, as there are two particular misadventures (one in Portugal and another in San Francisco) that were so compelling I found myself clinging to the armrest (white knuckles, yet) and biting my fingernails.  Finnegan is a well-respected and seasoned writer for The New Yorker and author of four other books, and his prose style reflects this writing experience.  If you are an arm-chair traveller and love water, you will find this book unique and enthralling.


Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford

There was rarely a feeling or situation while  growing up that Edna St. Vincent9780375760815_p0_v1_s118x184 Millay’s poetry did not perfectly illuminate for me. So when this biography was published in 2002, I bought it immediately.  Millay’s life, which I had not read much about when studying her poetry in high school, surprised me.  She was a complex figure: part feminist, part free spirit who seemed to indulge in all her impulses, having affairs with men and women, married or not. But she was always her own person, totally dedicated to her art, and very famous during her lifetime. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1923, so she was well-known during her lifetime.  Milford was also the author of a first-rate biography of Zelda Fitzgerald; she picks fascinating subjects and fleshes them out without sentimentality or over-exaggeration.


Hold Still, by Sally Mann

9780316247764_p0_v2_s118x184Mann and her photography have been controversial for the past 3o years of her career, in part because of her photographs of her young children, often taken naked. She works primarily in black and white, and has been showing her work in major galleries and publishing books of her photographs for many years.  What struck me about this book, a combination memoir, photography retrospective and family and cultural history set in the South, was the quality of her writing.  It compliments her striking photographs perfectly, with wit, fearlessness, and stranger- than-science-fiction stories of her ancestors and their own secret histories.  Mann was brought up “somewhat feral, somewhat intellectual” by parents who believed in benign neglect and lots of freedom for their children.  So it is no surprise that Mann’s career reflects many of the same values. This is not a coffee table book to browse and put down to be dusted, but a book to delve into deeply, and revel in its many secrets and surprises. It will show up on many of the “best book” lists this year.


On the Move, by Oliver Sacks

I cannot confess to being a huge fan of Oliver Sacks, or even reading most of his 9780385352543_p0_v2_s118x184numerous books.  However, the cover of his memoir, published shortly before his death this year, caught my eye.  Who is this man, dressed in leathers and buff of body on a hot motorcycle, claiming to be Sacks?  Indeed the man’s life was full of surprises and contradictions like that. As a young doctor, he emigrated to the U.S. from England, settling in San Francisco, a young gay man exploring his sexuality and struggling to find a job as a doctor in a place that suited his interests and abilities.  Although his writing style is often choppy (just as you think he has revealed all about 1967, he adds another memory), flowing back and forth between continents and years, it was still fascinating.  How could this man accomplish so much in the short life span we are given?  Body builder, avid motorcycle rider, English scholar, “brain” doctor, writer and many other obsessions describe him, a talented and multi-faceted person. I came away with new respect.



Book Recommendations–Katrina’s Anniversary

There are few catastrophic events that I become fixated on, but Hurricane Katrina has probably been number one for me since it happened ten years ago last week.  I visited NOLA (common abbreviation for the city) years before Katrina, and truly felt I was visiting the most unique city in the United States.  So for the past ten years, I have been reading almost everything that has been published about the storm, with great anguish and fascination.  There is a wealth of heart wrenching, beautiful, shocking and fantastic post-Katrina literature. It is a reminder that if I think I live in the “real” world, I don’t: an important thing to be reminded about. Here are just a few of my favorites.


9780307718969_p0_v4_s118x184-1Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink

This is a unique take on the disaster of Hurricane Katrina;  one I would not have thought of. While most reporting attempted to portray the broad sweep of the hurricane’s devastation, Fink, herself a doctor, focused on one of New Orleans’ major hospitals.  The first part of the book describes what happened (loss of power, flooded floors, lack of disaster planning, and shortage of personnel) right after the storm, the second half describes the legal morass when some medical personnel were accused of euthanizing patients.  This story, not surprisingly, is about the moral dilemmas that surround massive disasters, and how difficult it is to make interconnected systems work when infrastructure breaks down.  Fink does remain fairly neutral in her reporting, yet she frames the drama to particularly highlight those moral dilemmas.  As in any disaster, there are heroes and villains, and people involved often shuttle between both, sometimes within seconds.  I would not have wanted to try to make any of the decisions that those who were there had to make, but I am glad for this story, which brought me to a place of more humility and compassion for all involved.  Fink won three awards for this title, and a Pulitzer Prize for the investigative reporting that led to this book.


Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers9780307387943_p0_v1_s118x184

One of the first, and probably best-known of the Katrina stories, Eggers portrays one family’s crisis after the hurricane. Least anyone still thinks the crisis was about weather, they will quickly learn otherwise.  Zeitoun, a Syrian and trusted painting contractor in the city, does not leave with his family before the storm. A devout Muslim, he stays because feels he is “called upon by God” to watch over his own and others’ properties. The first days after the flood he rows around rescuing people and feeding dogs left trapped inside flooded houses. A few days later, heavily armed men burst into his house and arrest him “for looting”. After that, things get much worse for him and his family, who believe he has drowned in the flood. The authorities jail him in and pronounce him “al-Quaida”.  When he is finally released, a month later, he has lost 20 pounds and is “a sad old man”, according to his wife. If there was ever an indictment of our government’s response to the hurricane, and the failure of the nation to protect its most vulnerable, this grim and illuminating saga would be it. It is also a memorable tribute to the tens of thousands of Muslims who have have made our country stronger and richer by practicing their faith by helping others.



9780385523202_p0_v1_s192x300Nine Lives: Mystery, Death & Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

For a wider perspective about New Orleans, read this multi-layered and complex story that focuses on the city itself, bookended by two major hurricanes (Betsy, in 1965, and Katrina in 2005).  Baum has illustrated the culture of this city in an amazing book, by telling the stories of nine very diverse people who live there: a high school band teacher who is a mentor to at-risk kids from abusive homes, a street car line repairman turned museum curator, a racially prejudiced cop who sees the city as “one big misdemeanor lockup.” are only a few examples. All the characters share a passionate love of their city, with all its flaws (and there are many) and its richness. All want the city, which was on “life support” before the storm, to rebuild and renew.  And there is a lot of that happening, but with glacially slow, spotty progress.  Baum’s stories made me want to know what happened to each character, made me want to continue to follow their lives, their traumas and successes, just as I want to keep following the progress of this crazy, damaged and robust city.



Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

In all fairness, I will tell you this is the second time I have highly recommended this9781608196265_p0_v3_s118x184 book on my blog.  Here is some of what I said the first time: such a rich, incredible story–I would put it in many categories.  It describes the fiercely close relationship of a brothers and sister, living motherless in extreme proverty in the South just days before Hurricane Katrina. Daughter Esch finds herself pregnant at 15, not knowing who or whether to tell, let alone finding someone to help her. The description of the hurricane, and preparations for it and survival after rang vivid and true. Almost everything about the story was outside my own realm experience (except the love of their dog), but Ward immersed me in this world and stayed with me the whole time, helping me really see it in all its desperateness and fierce familial love. Ward’s writing took my breath away–I often paused, looked up and thought “where did she pull that from?” A well-deserved winner of the National Book Award in 2011.


A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, by Josh Neufield9780375714887_p0_v2_s118x184

A great graphic account of the hurricane, with stories of a variety of people who experienced Katrina very differently.  Neufield is a talent that I had not read, and his vivid illustrations make it almost like watching a documentary. Because of the realistic and unique drawings (and colors!) the stories of these six people come alive in a way they would not in ordinary b & w words. One family goes to the super dome with thousands of others, only to barely survive unbelievable horrors, not to mention the heat.  Another is a party-time doctor from the Quarter, who keeps the patter and drinks flowing throughout the storm, and also manages to attend to medical needs of folks in the neighborhood without seeming to wrinkle his bespoke suit.  My favorite story was about a convenience store owner and his friend, who stay to “guard their property” only to nearly drown on the roof of the store. All the stories are true. All are unique and astounding.


9781416548508_p0_v1_s118x184The Tin Roof Blowdown, by James Lee Burke

I love Burke’s novels; I learn about a culture so different from mine, and there’s great mystery writing thrown in. And few fiction authors are as well-versed in New Orleans culture as Burke. The book’s understory is the aftermath of Katrina, obviously: the lawlessness, racism and political chicanery that most of his stories explore, yet not in such depth. A number of reviewers think this (#16 in Burke’s Dave Robicheaux crime fiction) is his best novel in the series to date, because it is so deeply felt and  personal. This only adds to Burke’s particular style of writing: he concentrates more on the interior lives of his unruly and eclectic assortment of characters rather than the chaos of the hurricane, effectively using the storm and its horrors as a backdrop (albeit a very vivid one).  If you have not yet read a ‘Dave Robicheaux’ mystery, this is your chance to meet many colorful characters, set inside  one of the world’s most unique cities. Robicheaux is a rather pragmatic, stand-up guy,  a practicing Catholic who also embraces much of the supernatural aspects of his Cajun culture. I’ll bet you’ll want more of the series after you finish this one.



Book Recommendations–Thrillers

If there is another genre that takes me away (besides a mystery)–it’s a good thriller.   Authors and publishers, fully aware of the demand for escapist stories, are cranking them out by the thousands every year: Ludlum, DeMille, Cussler, Clancy, Grisham, and the “father” of many thrill-seekers, John le Carre are only a few.  The following are  some you may not have heard of that caught me up and did not let go until my eyes were slits and early morning light came in.  If you read thrillers, you know these symptoms!



The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens

The gritty heroine of this novel, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is very much in the Lisbeth Salander mold: smart, troubled, tough, androgynous, with an encyclopedic mind. Even more valuable is Vanessa’s quick facility with languages, which gives her an edge with a variety of adversaries–her secret weapon. When she is asked by an oil millionaire to trace the disappearance of his step-daughter in Africa, the money as well as the challenge makes her take it on.  Munroe grew up in Africa and speaks a number of the dialects, knows the culture, history and political nuances that Burbank, the oil tycoon, does not.  To complicate the job, Burbank sends along a “helper” to assist, which she deeply resents.  In the end, it leads to tough choices about who to trust and who will die.  The setting in this novel is vivid and one can literally feel the heat of both the jungle and the razor-sharp psychological edge of Munroe’s intense personality.


The Sunbird, by Wilbur Smith

Smith has been a long-time favorite of mine, and I have read many of his novels–he9780312983390_p0_v1_s118x184 started writing in 1964, and at age 82, published his 35th novel last year.  Born in Rhodesia, Smith is considered a South African writer.  I have several favorites, besides The Sunbird (published in 1972): Eye of the Tiger, and Cry Wolf, both also written in the 70’s.  In the first part of the book, an archaeologist and an adventurer search for a legendary lost kingdom in southern Africa, encountering love, murder, betrayal and the fascinating landscapes of Africa that Smith portrays so well.  Think a more sophisticated, believable Indiana Jones-type adventure. The second half of the book tells the even more compelling story of the ancient kingdom and imagines what happened to the two heroes who led it, in a riveting account of what happened to its people. Smith still captivates me, and I am not the only fan who still reads him. (I counted almost 200 mini-reviews of this title on the internet!)


Ghostman, by Roger Hobbs

9780307950499_p0_v1_s118x184Darvill’s Bookstore owner Jenny Pederson is a great thriller fan, and introduced me to this relatively recent (and very young) author. I am in complete agreement with her on this book; from the first pages I was caught up in the details with which two hapless characters are about to perform a million dollar robbery of an armored car at a casino–which you know is a recipe for disaster.  The “ghostman” of the title is a character known as “Jack”, a loner who is a master of disguise, lives off the grid, and who unfortunately owes a debt to Marcus, a notorious “jugmarker” (the one who masterminds big jobs).  Jack is called in to clean up the “bodies everywhere” mess of the casino robbery gone awry, which Marcus had so intricately planned. With less than 48 hours and every skill he ever had to secure the money from the robbery, Jack must find it or the money will literally explode.  It kept me turning pages; I put it down only once, to dish dinner onto my plate, then ate while I kept reading!


The Cartel, by Don Winslow

This title, the second by Winslow, has received a couple of less than stellar reviews–9781101874998_p0_v2_s192x300but most have been positive.  I loved the theme–Mexican drug cartels–which is why I picked it up.  I’m glad I did, as Winslow has created a story with two deeply flawed characters whose lives are both fascinating, dangerous and tragic. There is a lot of good and bad in both the drug lord (Adan Barrera) and DEA agent (Art Keller), which makes for more compelling, natural characters.  Their story started with Winslow’s first book, The Power of the Dog, which I have not read but now plan to.  This is a novel that could break your heart, because it is so true and captures so much of the reality of life in Mexico, such a beautiful and rich culture. Winslow did a lot of research for both books, and I can only believe he captured the stories of so many players in the “war” on drugs.  Winslow also enriched the story with a plentiful cast of “bit” players in this complicated drama, and their stories were just as fascinating and exciting as the protagonists’.



The Other Son, by Alexander Soderberg

9780770436087_p0_v2_s192x300Somewhere between a Scandinavian “noir” mystery and a thriller lies Soderberg’s pulse-racing books.  His first was excellent (The Andalucian Friend), and this is the second in a planned trilogy. Two women characters dominate the story–Sophie Brinkmann, who is living a life of rather serious crime, and Antonia Miller, a dedicated and passionate police officer.  Rival criminal gangs set the stage for the action, which comes rapid-fire. Plenty of killing, lots of violence, yet the real tension and underpinning of the story has more to do with the feelings of the characters, particularly the two women.  They must each tough it out in a male-dominated world, but we also see Sophie in her role as mother of a disabled son, and both women in varying roles of friends and lovers with other people in their lives. Make no mistake–these are women whose lives are lived at the edge, and they must deal with violence and betrayal where it most hurts.  Soderberg is a skilled story teller, but even more skilled at portraying the nuances of feelings like confusion, doubt and moral ambiguity. That is a skill harder to come by, particularly in a thriller, and what keeps me reading him.


Dragonfish, by Vu Tran

With a distinct premise and plot, Tran’s debut novel is set in a Las Vegas most of us would not recognize. It involves the hunt for an elusive Vietnamese woman, Suzy,9780393077803_p0_v3_s118x184 whose step-son wants to find her after she disappears. An even darker side of Vegas must be combed by Suzy’s ex-husband Robert, a police officer who barely knew her during their marriage years ago.  His search has him searching in seedy, run-down casinos and strip malls. Many of them hide underground aquariums stocked with illegal fish, including the dragonfish. A second story line features Suzy’s narrative to a daughter she abandoned when she came to the U.S. In a way, it is almost a second story, with lyrical, beautiful passages.  I thought this was a unique thriller, particularly strong for a debut, with nary a CIA/FBI/ISIS terrorist about. I will be on the lookout for more writings by Tran.



Book Recommendations–Long, Languid Summer Reads

Like so many of you, I particularly treasure the long, languid summer days here in the northern latitudes.  Daylight comes as early as 4am, and lingers until around 10pm.  Perfect weather for savoring the long novels I have been meaning to read all year.  Sometimes I read outside in the garden, sometimes on my bed with the windows open and a sweet breeze flowing through.  The author must sweep me into another world, where it doesn’t matter how long it takes me to finish and I am sad when I finally have to leave.


9780375714368_p0_v1_s114x166Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese

This has to be one of a very few all-time favorites–both the book and the author.  An unlikely, and hardly believable event starts this emotionally thrilling novel, set in an Ethiopia at the brink of revolution. Conjoined twin boys are born to a mother (an Indian nun!) who dies in childbirth, and a father (a hard-headed British surgeon) who abandons them.  Marion and Shiva are brought up in a family of doctors who adopt them: both are drawn toward medicine, and to the same woman, which sets events in motion for Marion that he cannot control.  After medical school, and upon finding that his brother has betrayed him with the woman he’d hoped to marry, he flees to the United States, finding work where he can get it–in an overcrowded, understaffed New York hospital. In time, Marion’s past catches up with him, and he finds he must confront the two people who damaged him most–his father, who left him and his brother, who betrayed him.  I have listened to this book on CD, AND read it in paper form.  It is that memorable, that vivid, and deserves the very wide acclaim it has received since it was published in 2009.


Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Who hasn’t read Anna?  But who has not read Anna in the summer, taking one’s time,9780143035008_p0_v3_s114x166 reading it with fresh eyes for the second, third or fourth time?  That is the beauty of this classic: it holds up so solidly even after multiple readings.  I often overhear people say they are reading this Tolstoy classic, and others almost swoon with envy: “I want to read it again” or “What a treat!” or “I just finished it–for the second time”.  I need hardly say that this is “the” love story–thrilling, engrossing, tragic and all the other words that describe passionate and doomed love. Anna leaves her staid marriage when she falls in love with the dashing Count Vronsky, and suffers the consequences of society’s disapproval to a degree she did not anticipate. There are a number of translations, and my personal preference is the Pevear/Volokhonksy version (shown here, with an unusual cover). The depth of Russian history and culture that provides the warp and weft for this story clearly elevates it above other long novels, even other classics.  I plan to go for a third reading by August.


9780316154529_p0_v1_s114x166The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea

I have raved more than once in this blog about Urrea’s work, but this novel is (to date) clearly his masterpiece.  He worked on this story, on and off, for more than twenty years, and it is big-hearted and sprawling–a generous feast. It is based partly on the real life story of Urrea’s aunt Teresa. Teresita, the story’s heroine, is a young uneducated Indian with a Yaqui mother, who gave birth at age 14 then abandoned her.  Teresita is raised in an abusive home, but given mentoring and protection by Huila, a healer and midwife who lives on the same ranch.  She sees the potential the girl has and teaches her about the magic ofherbs and plants. Fairly early in the story, Teresita is brutally beaten, and the story takes an unexpected turn into magical realism–so skillfully done even a skeptic like me did not falter or abandon the book.  The cast of characters is as colorful and multi-layered and turbulent as Mexican history itself. A beautiful, beautiful story.


Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

For years a copy of this book sat on my shelves, as I had inherited it from an aunt.  I had heard many people say how much they had loved9780143039167_p0_v1_s114x166 it, when they read it “long ago”.  Hmmm…how interesting could a story about a young Christian woman in rural, fourteenth century Norway be, I thought? As it turns out–very fascinating!  The story is rich with historic and social detail, vivid landscape descriptions, and best of all, unwinds the life story of a passionate, strong-minded woman who is a bit like Anna Karenina. Kristin grows up on a prosperous farm in rural Norway and becomes betrothed to a boring yet prosperous farmer, a family friend. But before she marries, she meets a handsome and worldly knight who woos her, and Kristin gives herself to him. She becomes pregnant, then must marry him, breaking off the arranged engagement and upsetting her family, particularly her beloved father. The story is really a trilogy, and I highly recommend the translation by Tina Nunnally, now available in one volume.  I hope this story never goes out of print, as it is a gem.


The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt

Our book club read this long, richly detailed novel when it was first published a few years ago, and we all loved it–a rarity in our group of bright, opinionated, well-read 9780307473066_p0_v1_s114x166women. It was short-listed in 2009 for the Man Booker Prize.  Set in England between 1895 to World War I, the book’s center is a well-known children’s author named Olive (based loosely on children’s author E. Nesbit).  There are myriad characters, including many children (I counted at least eight), relatives, artists, writers and other assorted hangers-on. Byatt says she started with an idea that writers of children’s books are not necessarily “good with children”, although Olive does not abuse her own.  Benign neglect is a more apt term, as she juggles supporting her large family with her writing, meetings with other artists (and admirers) and trying to track with her numerous children and her husband.  What particularly stayed with me about this story was the social and cultural detail, particularly about the Arts and Crafts movement, that Byatt so skillfully wove into the story.  Each page seemed like a picnic, with luscious goodies thickly spread across a colorful counterpane.  Yum!


A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

I loved Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I have recommended to friends and family since it was published in 2013.  This is Atkinson’s “follow-up” novel, focusing this time on Teddy, the younger brother of Ursula, (the central character in Life). It is not necessary to read the other novel first, however.  This is a strong, stand-alone story.  Teddy is a poet and 9780316176538_p0_v3_s114x166RAF fighter pilot in WWII who barely survives (fewer than half of England’s RAF pilots survived the war), to become a husband, father and grandfather.  Atkinson is a master at manipulating time (and sometimes reality) in her books; in this story she illustrates the damage of war and resiliency of humans who survive repeated trauma. There is a publisher’s quote that deftly describes the theme of this book: “his greatest challenge would be to face living in a future he never expected to have”. Particularly engaging is Teddy’s caustic and challenging daughter Viola, and his relationships with his two grandchildren. But it is difficult to single out one thing that makes this novel so excellent. It was all exceptional.


9780060786526_p0_v5_s114x166My own long, languid read for this summer is a well-loved yet not as widely known contemporary “classic”, A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.  I can’t wait!




Book Recommendations–Fiction about Japan

Much of the best fiction being published since WWII is about Japan, either in translation from the Japanese or written in English.  Elegant, subtle, quirky and mysterious are a few of the adjectives I would apply to many of my favorite novels listed below.  In another blog, I will cover excellent Japanese non-fiction titles, as I have a huge list of “favorites” in that genre, too. I have not included the supremely talented contemporary author Haruki Murakami in this blog, as I have not read enough of him yet, and believe he belongs “in a class by himself”.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

There is barely a sentence Mitchell writes that is not filled to the brim–with 9780812976366_p0_v2_s114x166dialect, inflection, unique metaphor, brilliant humor, historical detail and description that is exquisitely detailed.  I have to say reading Mitchell is like attending a lavish buffet and having to taste every single dish!  This story, set in Japan in the late 1700’s in Nagasaki, is where the Dutch East Indies Company trades from a small island in the harbor. The Dutch were largely confined while executing their own schemes and pilfering from the government and each other.  Jacob, a young aspiring Dutch clerk, has been hired to help “clean up the books” of the previous chief, but soon finds himself mired in the intrigue of the place, trying to make decisions and do the right thing in a deeply corrupt situation. He is engaged to a young woman at home, but falls in love with a Japanese midwife who is strictly off limits to foreigners. Mitchell drew me into this complex and unusual world (this narrative is more straightforward than in some of his books) and held me with his wildly imaginative writing.  It takes a patient reader, but the rewards are so worth it.


Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Is there a person who has not read this 1997 award-winning historical novel, the 9780679781585_p0_v1_s114x166imagined life of a former geisha?   Chiyo, a fisherman’s daughter whose mother dies, is “sold” into the life of a geisha by her father, who feels he cannot raise her. The young woman grows up and is trained to become a beautiful, talented, disciplined but emotionally damaged woman. She endures the very competitive environment with other geishas, barely survives the harassment of her trainers, becomes emotionally attached to the lives of others in her new home, falls in love with one of her “clients”, and has her virginity is “sold” to the highest bidder. Her story is sensually and richly imagined here, and makes for a rewarding and suspenseful read, but many scholars and Japanese have criticized it for the surface treatment of “real” geisha culture, which they say is much more complex than this story depicts. With that being said, it is a memorable novel, unique in subject matter and very well-written.  The film version was also beautiful with an award-winning musical score.


Spring Snow, by Yukio Mishima

Mishima is not much read (or even acknowledged) anymore in spite of his amazing and robust body of work.  Out of four bookstores and three public libraries, I was unable9780679722410_p0_v2_s114x166 to find even one of his 20 plus novels on the shelves. Born in 1923, he was considered one of the most important post-war authors of Japan.  His rather extreme politics, however, may have affected his career–he was a strident nationalist who believed Japan needed to return to the Samauri culture to return to its dominant place in the world, and he committed ritual suicide at the age of 45.   Published in 1969, this was the first in his Sea of Fertility series, and probably his best.  It is a novel of star-crossed lovers–set in Tokyo in 1912 in the imperial court. The beautiful hero Kiyoaki, his friend and classmate Honda, and Kiyoaki’s obsession with Satoko, also from the imperial court, form the narrative substance.  There is a strong Shakespearean quality to this story of the lovers and their attendant jealousies, blackmail, political intrigue and betrayals. It was not an easy read, but the beautifully detailed writing, particularly about nature, made it unique and memorable.


9781400096053_p0_v1_s114x166The Commoner, by John Burnham Schwartz

The recent royal birth in England reminded me of this book, which provides a convincing look at life in the royal court of Japan. This thinly veiled historical novel parallels the life of the commoner Michiko Shoda who married Crown Prince Akihito, unheard of in Japan until the mid 20th century.  A young woman, Haruko, marries the Crown Prince of Japan in 1959, and as the first non-royal to come into court, faces tremendous cruelty and rejection by the Empress and other court attendants.  After their first child (fortunately, a son) is born (her only “job”) Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown, and a long slow recovery, followed by the birth of a second child.  As the children reach adulthood, each one faces the challenge of deciding to marry outside the royal family themselves–and Haruko must painfully deal with the consequences of those choices.  As a novelist, Schwartz succeeds in lifting a curtain on the intensely guarded secrets of the Japanese royal family. And as a novelist, he ends the story with a satisfying, positive twist.  In real life, the ending was not so simple.


I Am a Cat, by Soseki Natsume

Unusual, I think, for a famous Japanese novel to surprise as a satire about humans, told from an unnamed cat’s perspective.  But cats are prevalent in Japanese art and 9780804832656_p0_v2_s114x166culture, so it makes sense that someone would use a feline to comment on the many limitations of humans. Written between 1905-06 as a serialization in a Japanese literary magazine (hence its length of almost 500 pages), the book was first published in English in 2002.  It was written as a social commentary on the Japanese tendency to ape “all things Western” at the turn of the century, but covers a broader swath with its jabs at academics, authority figures, corporations and government. It begins with the way the cat’s provider ignores it, refusing to even give the cat a name. However painful that is, the cat develops a thick skin, and becomes involved with other neighborhood friends, such as the unfortunate Tortoiseshell, who has recently died.  This story is charming, sarcastic, imperial and astute, just like most of the cats we know.


Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Another unique vision of the Japanese, brilliantly written in the collective voice of 9780307744425_p0_v5_s114x166Japanese “picture brides”, who braved tremendous odds in the early 1900’s to immigrate to San Francisco and marry men they did not know.  Otsuka won a well-deserved Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for this small, amazing book. Expectations about “the American Dream” are shattered when the “picture brides” find out the men awaiting them are not wealthy or even caring, and look nothing like the pictures the women were sent.  Basically forced into slave-like conditions when they arrive in America, the collective voice of the women is at once haunting, intimate and powerful. With time, the children they bear join them in the indentured life of mostly agricultural labor. Otsuka used extensive resources to explore the lives of these women, yet her telling of their stories seems as if she lived through it herself.  And on some level, she has.  A brilliant, brilliant book deserving of even more awards.


The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama

On the surface, this story could be labeled as “coming of age”, set in a seacoast village of Japan at the beginning of WWII.  But that is only one layer among many in this elegant and sensitive story.  A young Chinese painter named Stephen comes to spend time 9780312144074_p0_v2_s114x166recovering from tuberculosis at his family’s summer home. Under the care of the housekeeper and gardener Matsu, Stephen not only starts recover, but learns many life lessons.  Matsu is a man devoted to doing good in the world, finding beauty and adding to the beauty that is already there, in spite of life’s cruelties and disappointments. Stephen’s healing also includes becoming acquainted with Sachi, a local woman who suffers from leprosy.  The tone and pace of the book is serene and peaceful, but not in a way that could bore the reader.  It made me want to stay in the garden Tsukiyama so beautifully describes, and listen to the three characters talk to each other. And what deep, rich characters this author has created!