The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

The Makioka Sisters
The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Makioka Sisters is the January 2016 selection for the SBC (Sisters Book Club). February’s book is The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. If you’d like to read February’s book—or any future selections—along with us, visit our Goodreads Group!

Reading this book was strange. I kept expecting something to happen, some major change to take place, but the daughters of the once influential Makioka family are just on the cusp of change. They’re in the last years in which they can focus on the minutiae of their lives while riding the tide of tradition.

That’s not to say that nothing happens. A lot of small things happen, the kinds of things that make up the majority of daily life—meals, annual trips, family squabbles, moving house—but on the periphery, we get rather chilling inklings of what’s going on outside the family in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. There are passing references to the “China Incident,” which appears to be how the characters refer the Sino-Japanese War in which Japan perpetrated horrific war crimes against China and massacred hundreds of thousands. There are casual mentions of Hitler Youth returning from visits to Japan. There’s the character who takes a quick trip to California in 1941. There are German neighbors who return home to Hamburg and write letters inviting the Makiokas to visit when Germany has won the war, assuring them they will love the “new Germany.” That last one especially gave me chills. Read More

Book Review: When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor Was Divine
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Emperor Was Divine follows an American family of Japanese descent from their home in Berkeley, California, to the Topaz internment camp near Delta, Utah, and back again three-and-a-half years later after World War II has ended. Read More

Injustice and Inaction: A Blog Post Disguised as a Book Review of The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a quick, powerful read.

Written in the first-person plural, the story is at once personal and essentially anonymous. It is not the story of just one person, but of a people. The use of the “we” brings attention to the “us” vs “them” nature of racism and prejudice, and in the last chapter when the “we” changes, it raises the question, “Who are ‘we’ anyway?”

Otsuka takes us through the lives of picture brides from Japan, from their nervous but hopeful journey across the ocean to the harsh realities of their lives in America to their internment—along with their husbands and children and grandchildren—because they are deemed a threat to national security after Pearl Harbor.

In the group at which we discussed this book, the conversation turned to why it is that we, even today, avoid seeing violations of civil rights and prejudicial treatment going on around us. Why, we asked ourselves, do we as a culture turn away rather than acting when we see injustice?

We talked about the recession and how we’ve got our own stuff to worry about. We talked about how busy people are and how uninformed. We talked about the consolidation of media power and the resulting shallowness and one-sidedness of the news we consume. We talked about the compartmentalization that happens in social media and web searches and online bookstores that are designed to show us more of what already interests us. We talked about the lack of community.

This was a comfortable, philosophical approach to our inaction. What was less comfortable was when I turned the question on myself.

When I see an injustice, why don’t I act? I used to act. I used to get up in arms and demonstrate and write legislators and help set up panel discussions. Why don’t I any more?

It’s not that I’m uninformed. If anything, I think I’m better informed about issues than I was in my twenties during my activism heyday.

It’s not that I don’t care. Discussions at church about how the Ecuadorean population of a nearby town are being mistreated in the wake of a recent tragedy leave me in tears. I feel compelled to do something and yet when it comes time, I balk.

Why is this?

The only reason I can figure is fear. Fear of taking a stand, fear of arguing, fear of being yelled at. I have an introvert’s trepidation about meeting new people and talking in front of groups that’s just compounded by the fact that the “new people” are part of a foreign culture and many of them don’t speak my first (and pretty much only) language.

I realize, too, that I’m afraid of intensity of emotion.

I watch activists speaking and they can hardly talk, the words are all fighting to get out of their mouths at the same time. They cry frequently. Their passion is evident.

I used to share that passion. In my twenties and early thirties, if someone mentioned birth, I had that same flood of words that crowded in my mouth. I could—and would—argue hammer and tongs about the evils of episiotomies and the importance of teaching doctors how to deliver breech babies vaginally rather than relying on surgery.

But in the years since my son was born, my passion has cooled. And I do not miss it.

I’ve made peace with many of my feelings about birth, and I don’t want to go back to that out-of-control, all-consuming obsession with something I had little ability to change or even affect.

I’m enjoying the calm, and I’m afraid of getting pulled back into the intensity.

While I don’t think the out-of-control type of passion is necessary for activism, I don’t know how to be an activist without it. I want to be an equanimous activist. I want to stand in the river and let the current rush by me. But I’ve yet to figure out how to get into the river without the struggle, so I continue to stand on shore.

With all of the things I fear, the biggest is that if I were put to a moral test like those that so many faced during World War II, I would fail.

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NaNoWriMo Day 8 Word Count: 14,124

Unconditional Acceptance: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book?

I can say that I think the appeal is in the subject matter rather than in the writing.

I can say that, like with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, this book dealt with a subject that is both a black mark on the history of the United States and a subject that most people don’t talk about.

I can say that I thought the characters were a bit flat. They seemed there to further the storyline rather than existing in their own right.

I enjoyed the thought exercises that resulted from considering the topics in this book, but I didn’t find it a joy to read as literature. Ford often used more words than were necessary; he did more telling than showing, if you will. Not that I’m not guilty of the same thing. I am. I’m always using extraneous words. Maybe that’s why I notice it when another writer does it.

I found Henry to be a little unrealistic as a 12-year-old. The book I’d read just before this one was Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, in which the protagonist was also a 12-year-old boy, bullied at school, hoping for the approval of his parents, and in the midst of a forbidden love. Of course, Oskar’s love was a vampire, not Japanese, but the other similarities stand. I bring this up because I found Oskar to be much more believable as a 12-year-old than I found Henry to be. Yes, Henry is from a Chinese family in the 1940’s during a war. He’s got considerably greater responsibilities than Oskar has. But Henry has no toys. He reads no books. He listens to one radio show, but that’s only mentioned once in the course of the book. He hangs out listening to jazz on the sly because his parents wouldn’t approve. I could see maybe a 15-year-old, maybe even a 14-year-old doing something like that, but 12? I just don’t quite buy it.

When I lived in Utah, I attended a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple. It had been founded in 1912, I think, by the Issei who were working in labor camps in the Salt Lake Valley, originally drawn to the area to work on the railroad. Today, it is still the center of Japanese culture in the Salt Lake City area. It’s also little more than 100 miles from the Topaz internment camp, which held Japanese-American “evacuees” for 3.5 years during World War II. I never talked with the other people at the temple about Topaz or the war years. I don’t know what their experiences or their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences were during that time, or if any of them were held at Topaz or elsewhere. This book got me thinking about my sangha at the temple in Utah from a different angle. It reminded me that, while I felt at first like an outsider, I was welcomed warmly by this community for whom the welcome had not been so warm mere decades ago. It helped me appreciate even more the caring and compassion my family were shown there.

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And check it out: This is my 500th post! I should have balloons or confetti or fireworks or something. Maybe at 1,000.






Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for MeaningMan’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Emil Frankl

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read a lot about Germany during World War II from various perspectives. Frankl’s experience was unique in that at the time of his imprisonment in a succession of concentration camps, he was a practicing psychiatrist who had pioneered a method of therapy (“logotherapy”) that focused on changing our attitudes surrounding unavoidable negative situations in order to make them bearable, from a psychological standpoint. The ideas he presents are simple but paradigm shifting for me. This is a book I would like to read over again, probably several times, in order to get out of it all of the depth that I can.

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