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review 2018-01-18 20:25
Mema by Daniel Mengara
Mema - Daniel Mengara

This novella was a pleasant surprise. It’s told from the perspective of a boy who grew up in a traditional village society in Gabon, and the beginning didn’t seem to bode well due to some repetition and meandering. But it soon hits its stride, and once I realized that the style of storytelling, with a certain amount of repetition, was drawing on oral tradition, it became much more palatable.

This short book is perhaps reminiscent of someone telling stories around a fire in way the narrator moves from one subject to the next. He first builds a picture of his childhood world, recalling how the community traditionally solved problems like wives leaving their husbands (this involves large meetings between both villages, since a marriage between two people is the marriage of their families). Then he talks about his mother, a woman with a strong personality who has the misfortune of losing her husband and daughters and being accused of sorcery by her husband’s village, but refuses to give up. And then he moves on to his young life in the village and for a few years with his adult cousin in town. It isn’t strictly plot-driven and there are stories within the story, like the village legend dealing with children’s duties to their parents. But I found it to be well-told and engaging.

Interestingly, some reviewers seem to have understood this as a book about the tension between tradition and modernity. I saw it much more as an ode to the narrator’s mother and to traditional village life, with a brief foray to the city, though the end implies that the narrator will later rejoin the modern world. Nevertheless, one of its strongest passages is all about that tension between the two:

“The white man's world was like that. It made you think about things, not people. It made you forget about people. It made you want things. It made you want many things. And when you started to want many things, you had no time left for thinking about people, because you spent so much time trying to get those things you wanted. So you forgot about everyone. And you no longer cared about anyone else, and no one else cared about you. You were left alone to fend for yourself because everybody else was so busy fending for themselves too.”

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review 2018-01-18 20:10
Review: An Artist of the Floating World
An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro

Writing a review of a Kazuo Ishiguro book is like reading a Kazuo Ishiguro book: it's the same thing as the last time. What can I say different in this review? It's mostly the same: Ishiguro is a brilliant author with a gorgeous understanding of the language; he drops that displaced unreliable narrator right into the middle of your living room to win your affection and confuse the hell out of you; then he pulls the thread holding everything together and it all crumples. It always works, sometimes better than others. This is my fifth outing with Ishiguro and it's always similar. Each time, the primary departure from the previous story is a variation in time and place.

What makes An Artist of the Floating World different? Well, in this one the time and place is post-WWII Japan. The story centers on Ono, an imperialist who is trying to find his place in a Japan dominated by the politics and culture of its American occupiers. The story has obviously wonderful dynamics and Ishiguro's outsider status—he hadn't seen Japan since he was five years old—lends emotional strength and believability to the plight of Ono.

How does it compare to other works of Ishiguro's? This one falls right in the middle for me. It has a much more interesting and well-built story than the author's first and his most recent, A Pale View of the Hills and The Buried Giantrespectively. Also, Ono's narrative is thoroughly engaging. The novel does not, however, have nearly the emotional weight that Ishiguro's two most famous novel have. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go both carry such an unexpected punch that I found it difficult to distance myself from them afterwards. Ono's unreliability is established so early and mentioned so frequently that I think it's hard for the reader to ever fall completely under his spell. In the end, you're not quite sure what the truth is. With Remains...'s Stevens and Never Let Me Go's Kathy, the truth was painfully clear to everyone but the narrators themselves. An Artist of the Floating World lacks this subtle brutality, but it is still a wonderful story that effectively addresses the changing views of Japanese art and culture during reconstruction.

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text 2018-01-18 06:14
Reading progress update: I've read 20 out of 320 pages.
Voices from the Second World War: Stories of War as Told to Children of Today - Candlewick Press
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review 2018-01-17 16:15
An excellent narrative about the naval war in the Pacific
Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942 - Ian W. Toll

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941 caught the U.S. Navy by surprise in more ways than one. For not only did Japan succeed in disabling a major portion of the Pacific Fleet, the attack by waves of bomb- and torpedo-carrying planes inaugurated a new style of naval warfare for which the United States was unprepared. The learning curve that the U.S. was forced to undertake serves as a key theme of Ian Toll's book, which chronicles the first six months of the war in the Pacific. During these months the Japanese enjoyed virtually free reign in the Pacific, as their planes and ships swept aside what opposition the Western powers could throw together on short notice. The result was a succession of victories won at a pace that astonished even the Japanese themselves.

 

Yet as Toll demonstrates, the United States was quick to absorb the lessons of the new style of warfare. Here he focuses on the carrier operations that formed the initial response to the Japanese onslaught. While the famous Doolittle raid gets its due here, Toll rightly highlights the often overlooked strikes on Japanese bases in the Marshall and Gilbert island chains Not only did these strikes give the U.S. Navy valuable experience, but they were central to Admiral Yamamoto's decision to stage an invasion of Midway Island in an effort to draw the remaining U.S. forces out for a decisive engagement. The resulting battle in June 1942 proved the turning point of the war in the Pacific, however, as the sinking of the four carriers that formed the core of the Kido Butai deprived the Japanese of their ability to conduct further offensive operations.

 

Toll describes these months in a text that engages the reader with dramatic yet straightforward prose. His pen portraits of the major commanders -- men like Chester Nimitz, Ernest King, and Isoroku Yamamoto -- are a particular strength of the book, as is his integration of the role American codebreakers played in this stage of the war. Though he bases his book almost entirely upon previously published works, his analysis and his evocative writing style make this a book that even readers familiar with the subject will find well worth their time. It's a promising start to what, when completed, could prove to be an enduring go-to source for anyone interested in reading about the Second World War in the Pacific.

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review 2018-01-17 10:02
The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World's Greatest Botanical Explorers
The Plant Hunters: The Adventures of the World's Greatest Botanical Explorers - Carolyn Fry

First - this is a gorgeous book.  Generously and fabulously illustrated, at least half the pages are eye candy.

 

Second - it's really well researched, although it does lack a citation / notes section at the end, an unfortunate oversight.

 

Also unfortunate is the writing.  It's dry.  So, so dry.  Think academic history text dry.  If I had to guess, I'd say it's a case of severe editing; trying to pack huge chunks of history into small 1-2 page sections.  The result is a litany of names and dates guaranteed to make the most interested eyes droop.   

 

Luckily, the illustrations go a long way towards perking up a reader's attention.

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