Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Volcano by Shusaku Endo

It was because of what had happened last night that this sombre emotion swept the heart of Jinpei.  He was loath to say it, but the fact remained that he considered the mountain to be the only one deserving his trust.  Because the mountain too had grown old in sympathy with him.  He blinked his eyes and gazed forever at the ugly wrinkles on the decrepit volcano, the dark grey of the hazy mountain foot.  Never before had the mountain so perfectly mirrored the loneliness and isolation in his own heart.  No doubt it was simply because he had never been so utterly obsessed with lonely depression as he had since the night before.  Akadake moved in rhythm to match his heart.  As he grew old, the mountain too went senile.

Jinpei Suda has spent a lifetime monitoring the volcano Akadake, which looms over a small town in southern Japan.  Conventional wisdom, to which Jinpei subscribes, says that the volcano, which has killed thousands in the past, has not gone dormant, but died for good, and become nothing more than a mountain.  When he retires, Jinpei believes that his diligent stewardship of the local weather bureau has brought him a middle-class respect and prestige.  But when he suffers from a stroke, he learns that his son and daughter-in-law see him as a burden, his wife resents him, and his friends and colleagues are all too happy to forget about him.

The only sympathetic figure he finds is the volcano itself, who seems as old and utterly spent as Jinpei himself.  But to maintain this pathetic fallacy, the illusion of sympathy, Jinpei must ignore the suddenly troubling signs that Akadake is set to erupt: the animals dying, perhaps from the release of sulfur gas, the opening fissures in the side of the mountain.  Sneaking into the weather bureau when everyone else is gone for New Year's, Jinpei even swipes a troubling bit of ticker-tape from the seismometer.  Akadake is very much alive, but if that's true, it means that Jinpei is left to slip quietly into death, alone.

I read Endo's Silence a couple years ago because I had heard him referred to as the "Japanese Graham Greene."  As a practicing Japanese Catholic, Endo is a rare bird, and his outsider status surely does align him with Greene, who never seemed to feel like his Catholicism connected him to a larger community.  Volcano becomes even more Greene-like than Silence by introducing an apostate French priest named Durand, who might have been cut wholesale out of a Greene novel.  It's Durand who voices the idea, prevalent in Silence, that the Japanese character is incompatible with Christianity.  To this outsider, Jinpei seems like a criticism of a specifically Japanese way of living, characterized by extreme politesse and an outsized pride in semi-respectable, bureaucratic achievements.  Durand's insistence that the Japanese character is foreign to guilt or sin sometimes seems designed to indict Jinpei's inability to face the possibility that he has been a bad husband or a bad father, or that his self-delusions about Akadake threaten the lives of others.

But Endo never contrives to put the two characters together in more than a perfunctory way, and the connection between them is really just my speculation, spun out of pretty thin cloth.  Are we supposed to wonder what Jinpei might have done, or been, if he had been a Catholic?  Endo's cynicism about Catholicism in Japan seems to preclude that.  More often, Durand seems like a character dropped in from another universe, Greene's maybe, who only touches the main plot in oblique ways.

That's one of the big flaws of Volcano, which I generally enjoyed.  The other is that it never seems to build on the big idea it begins with: Jinpei is wrong about the volcano, but he can't face it because it would involve learning something frightening about himself.  Endo hammers that point home, but does little with it beyond that.  Unlike Silence, whose characters are forced to face difficult questions about their own faith and character, Volcano seems as committed as Jinpei to not facing anything at all.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave...I simply did not let myself become afraid." 

I first heard of Wild, Cheryl Strayed, and Dear Sugar from an article on Jezebel Did Vogue Photoshop Sugar From Dear Sugar? (For the record, she was legitimately pissed about it: "I was furious. I didn't get to see the picture until the magazine was on the stands. I was grateful that they ran an excerpt of my book, but I was so incredibly disappointed by what they did to the photograph of me...frankly, I thought these would be the prettiest pictures ever taken of me. But what they did with Photoshop obliterated that.")

I didn't know who Cheryl Strayed was, I was not a Dear Sugar reader, and I had never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, but in 2012 I was just outdoorsy enough to be very annoyed by Vogue's photoshoot. I thought "Hm, I should read that" and then it went on Oprah's List which I actually like fine but pretend to be annoyed by and then it was turned into a movie and I totally watch movies that were books but also pretend to be annoyed by them. So I'm reading this book 3 years late. 

Because it was on Oprah's list and turned into a movie, I assume most people know the basic premise. Cheryl grew up on a crunchy farm, was a high school cheerleader, and lost her mom at age 22. Her life fell apart with everything from a mundane divorce to a heroin addiction. She decided to hike the PCT as a way to figure her life out.

The outdoorsy part of me loved the trail stories. The feminist part of me loved the fact that she was doing it alone when many women are afraid to adventure alone. The nosy part of me that loves memoirs loved that it covers her whole life, not just the trail. Cheryl is a perfect example of one of my favorite quotes: by virtue of being human we are wonderfully imperfect and flawed. She sucks sometimes, but she's honest about it, and it makes for a very moving and satisfying story. Like most women, I have a complicated relationship with my mom, and page 151 made me cry and call my mom for a chat. 

One of the worst things about losing my mother at the age I did was how very much there was to regret. Small things that stung now: all the times I'd scorned her kindness by rolling my eyes or physically recoiled in response to her touch; the time I'd said, 'Aren't you amazed to see how much more sophisticated than I am at twenty-one than you were?' The thought of my youthful lack of humility made me nauseous now. I had been an arrogant asshole and, in the midst of that, my mother died. Yes, Id' been a loving daughter, and yes, I'd been there fore her when it mattered, but I could have been better.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

Alex is not a book to quote from, not a book to analyze, not a book to summarize. It's a book that some people will love and a lot of people will really dislike. I first heard about it two years ago from the podcast Books on the Nightstand, and the description of it was enough to keep it on my mind for the two years it took me to track it down. 

It starts like a horribly boring cliche. Pretty girl kidnapped, stripped down, shoved into a crate by a man. Detective who doesn't want to take the case since his own wife was kidnapped and murdered. His old team gets back together - can he save her? If he does will he forgive himself for not saving his wife? It's almost laughable...until the plot takes some turns that are really not funny. The novel is clever, exciting, and surprising - which is really difficult to do in this genre.

It has a lot of graphic violence, some of it sexual in nature. For readers who enjoy books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I would absolutely recommend it. Be aware that there is a note in the back explaining the French legal/police system and a glossary of French terms. I didn't realize this until the end which made for some confusion. Lemaitre has continued to write novels about the detective and he has the same translator working on them. Irene is already out and next on my list - hopefully Sacrifices will come out in English soon.