Why Emile Zola’s title has been translated as The Masterpiece isn’t very clear to me. Literally, l’œuvre means “the work;” “masterpiece is “chef d’œuvre.” Zola’s main character, artist Claude Lantier, actually fails to produce a masterpiece. It isn’t even obvious that Claude thinks of the large piece he’s been working on as a potential chef d’œuvre. He is obsessed by it—that’s clear enough. But as … Continue reading Emile Zola’s L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece): Fine Line Between Artistic Genius and Mental Illness?
Les Halles in Paris—do you know it? Unless you’re into a bit of French history, you may not. It doesn’t exist anymore, demolished in 1969/70, its centennial year. It was a huge market, much of it housed in at least ten pavilions of glass and iron designed by Victor Baltard. Plus a big domed central pavilion that later became the Bourse de Commerce, the French … Continue reading Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris: Celebration of Food or Satire?
Disbelief. That’s my initial reaction as I follow the life of orphan master’s son, Jun Do, in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Is this really what life is like in North Korea? Lives subjected to unrelenting propaganda from its one radio station, and unrelenting trauma, probably almost from birth if you’re an orphan? As he grows up, Jun … Continue reading Adam Johnson’s North Korea: Fiction as Trauma Narrative
“War is nasty; war is fun, War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” Harvard University President Drew Faust borrows this quote to illustrate that war fascinates because it is a paradox. The remark actually comes from Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien about the “awful majesty of combat.” For films and books, war is a readymade but challenging setting … Continue reading War Stories: Why they may be worth your time
A story of a woman full of angst. A woman whom modern, educated women can relate to. But only to some extent. Meredith Ruth (MR) Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. That alone makes her totally unique. She’s achieved the pinnacle, a plum usually denied women, even those with her background and ambition. But what’s more remarkable about MR is … Continue reading Joyce Carol Oates—Mudwoman
How much of life is made up of coincidences? And is coincidence Fate? Or is it Chance? I think these questions are at the heart of Antoine Laurain’s novel, The Red Notebook. When a guy called Laurent finds a discarded stolen bag on top of a bin, a bag that he later learns belongs to a woman named Laure—is that fate or chance? On the … Continue reading Fate in Fiction: Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook
I picked up the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway because of my interest in music. But I find that it’s more like a meditation on the senselessness of war than a story on some theme regarding the power of music. The novel has no clear beginning, middle and end. Maybe, that’s how it should be. The story happens during a real war, when Sarajevo … Continue reading The Cellist of Sarajevo’s Tribute to Victims of Ethnic Hatred
I suppose in a large country like India you can see life in as many ways as you can imagine it to unfold. But in the poorest hovels of that huge country the reality is that life unfolds in ways you’ve never imagined. Ways that make you wonder how people can endure them. Ways that coax your admiration for a resilient social class whose existence … Continue reading Stark Truth: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
The telling of a terrible event seems somehow more compelling when done from the point of view of a child. We often assume that a child does not have the biases of an adult to color his perception. We also assume that he’s less likely to lie when recounting what he sees. On the other hand, lack of a life history may mean a child … Continue reading Cruelty Knows No Bounds: In The Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Myanmar—does that ring a bell? You guess that, maybe, it’s the same as Burma. And maybe you’ve even heard of its most famous citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi. Or, maybe, you have no idea whatsoever what Myanmar is. And you couldn’t care less. Myanmar is fascinating—rich in resources, diverse, exotic, unique, complex. Once a monarchy, invaded by the British, then terrorized by a military regime … Continue reading Fiction as History: Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace
How much do you know about sex? Probably less than you think. That’s how I felt, anyway, after reading The Story of Sex, a delightful book on sex. I first came across The Story of Sex in an article in theguardian.com with a long, formidable title: A graphic history of sex: ‘There is no gene that drives sexuality. All sexuality is learned. As if that … Continue reading The French do it again: An irresistible Story of Sex
I anticipated a great read with Reading Lolita in Tehran. It tackles two of my main interests—a woman’s journey through life, and her experience living in a culture quite different from that I live in. I strongly empathized with what I saw to be its underlying themes. But after reading pages and pages full of details to support those themes, I thought, okay, I get … Continue reading Mature Iranian Women’s Kinship with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—Reading Lolita in Tehran
Forty years after the end of the war in Vietnam comes a widely-acclaimed, generously awarded début novel—The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published by Grove/Atlantic, Inc. in 2015. I’m going to throw in my two-cents worth among the throng of gushing admirers of this 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (plus at least five other awards), because this work says something essential to me. … Continue reading Vietnam War, A Retrospective: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer
I’m waxing nostalgic. I can’t help it in these last few days of official summer in the Bay Area. If you don’t know what that means, think heavy clouds, high humidity, and 64⁰ F — warm in most areas, but not here. For us, it’s winter weather. But what does this all have to do with the three novellas in this collection by Patrick Modiano, … Continue reading Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano
This post is technically not a review. Rather it’s a rant about the typical novels in the romance genre. I nearly zapped a historical romance out of my iPad while reading it one evening. It wasn’t badly written. It wasn’t boring. But it annoyed me that for the umpteenth time, the author says her hero has “wide/broad shoulders.” Now, how often must she remind of … Continue reading No Broad Shoulders. No Romance.
Is it merely coincidence that I see a thread running through the two books by Yasunari Kawabata that I’ve read? Maybe, I should read at least one more before I conclude that this 1968 Nobel Prize winner, who writes about obsession, is himself obsessed with the issue of older Japanese men preying on vulnerable young Japanese women. I understand Kawabata’s obsession better, after a quick … Continue reading Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness: Love, Sex, and Revenge
I continue my romp into world literature with Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1968). In awarding him the prize, the Nobel Committee gave special mention to Thousand Cranes, along with Snow Country and The Old Capital among the many novels he had written. When I first read this novel, I wondered what about it merited special mention. Granted, … Continue reading Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata
What accounts for tastes? The appeal to your senses or sensibilities? The pressure to be a la mode, maybe? Or, because something helps the image of you that you want to project to the world? There are a few things billions of people like for obvious reasons. Those, we have no need to explain. People’s fascination with Paris, for instance. I’ve never actually met anyone … Continue reading Two Short Books Set In France
I seem to be focused on small things lately. Maybe in getting old, I have realized that big things are rare. I’ve learned one truly valuable lesson growing up (I want to believe we keep growing): You can fashion a good life out of small things. You do so by making big things of small ones. It’s not that hard—it’s what humans do to feel … Continue reading God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Reading The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne, I understood more clearly why Austen novels appeal to me. And, more than ever, I’ve come to appreciate these novels for their artistry. Not just as a reader—but maybe more importantly—as a writer. Once again, this book proves “God is in the detail.” But for details to serve fiction well, they must … Continue reading The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things: A Review