Book Review: When We Were Orphans

Image via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so becoming familiar with his writing again was a memorable experience. I was going to say “enjoyable,” but I didn’t think that was the right word. Ishiguro’s stories aren’t enjoyable in the sense that they’re lighthearted and easy to read. Far from it. But immersing yourself in the minds of his characters is a journey unlike any other.

When We Were Orphans, published in 2000follows the life of Christopher Banks, who was raised by his English parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai during the interwar period. They become embroiled in the opium trade, with his father inadvertently enabling it on one hand and his mother actively protesting it on the other. When they both mysteriously disappear and young Christopher is unceremoniously shipped back to England, it’s up to him to piece together the puzzle.

Christopher, fueled by his desire to rid the world of evil, becomes a renowned detective and eventually returns to Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. But with evil gaining too much momentum, by the time he solves the case of his missing parents, he has lost all hope of returning to his former life.

The pacing of this story was superb, starting off slowly as Ishiguro paints the picture of Christopher’s childhood playing make-believe with his close Japanese friend and next-door neighbor Akira, then deepening as he transitions from England back to Shanghai, and finally rushing chaotically through the heart-wrenching climax.

When everything is said and done, Christopher is orphaned once again, but the pain cuts so much deeper the second time, because it extinguishes any promise of a brighter future. Because we spend so much time looking through his eyes, even when we know that the world is mocking him, when the past is revealed we can’t help but feel fooled and utterly embarrassed that we ever considered an optimistic ending.

Critics have pointed out Ishiguro’s repeated use of the “unreliable narrator” in his work, but during this story, I felt that there was something inadequate about that concept. In an interview with January Magazine, Ishiguro explains:

The traditional unreliable narrator is that sort of narrator through whom you can almost measure the distance between their craziness and the proper world out there. That’s partly how that technique works, I think. You have to know that distance quite clearly. He [Christopher Banks] is perhaps not quite that sort of conventional unreliable narrator in the sense that it’s not very clear what’s going on out there. It’s more an attempt to paint a picture according to what the world would look like according to someone’s crazy logic. So a lot of the time the world actually adopts the craziness of his logic.

That’s precisely why I love Ishiguro: his writing is so enigmatic and multi-faceted, not because he’s attempting to recreate the world as it truly is, but rather he’s escaping into a world as one individual views it.

As a man born in Japan and raised in England, Ishiguro gravitates toward stories set during World War II. He has been quoted as being fascinated by what type of person he might have been if he was born one generation earlier. I highly recommend his acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day, as it also tells the tale of an Englishman trying to make sense of the tragedies he witnessed during the war.

Overall, I would say that Ishiguro is an acquired taste. You will never walk away from one of his works feeling a sense of resolution. But that’s what life is all about; it’s never fully understood. At one point in the novel, Christopher has the opportunity to leave Shanghai behind him and start life anew, but not for one second does the reader believe that he will abandon his pursuit. Life cannot start over, no matter how desperately we want it to.

“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”

Book Review: Catch-22

Catch-22

Catch-22 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

So I celebrated Independence Day my own way by finishing Catch-22, a novel which examines the real meaning of patriotism. I know that this is a popular read among you fellow book bloggers, so let’s jump right into it!

Catch-22, published in 1961, was based on author Joseph Heller’s experience as an Air Force bombardier during World War II. But this is certainly not a “war novel,” in the classic sense of the term, given the fact that the war itself is merely the backdrop for the interpersonal relationships and hierarchies among the men in the military.

It was interesting to see Germany, Italy, and the Pacific only mentioned in passing, without any discussion of the people (Roosevelt, Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler) that have become synonymous with the war.

Instead, the book focuses on the people who surround Yossarian, a Assyrian with a fictionalized Armenian surname. The story begins on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa with one of Yossarian’s many attempts of avoiding warfare by faking an illness–a common avoidance maneuver that even the doctors are in on.

And it’s a good thing that the doctors indulge these soldiers, since the commanding officers have made the possibility of discharge futile. Every time the men are close to completing their designated number of missions, the colonels raise the bar so that none of them can go home.

“Catch-22” explains the circular logic that keeps Yossarian and his comrades captive: a soldier may only be discharged if he proves insane, but the very act of declaring insanity proves that he is indeed sane, and thus he must continue flying.

But while the subject matter is very serious, Heller does an exquisite job bringing his satire to life. He expresses all the frustration with a refreshing combination of sophisticated wit and masculine brashness. Sure, Yossarian is risking his life every day, frequently losing men he cares about, but he manages to mock his superiors and womanize his nurses with a sense of humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny.

However, I feel that I would have appreciated Catch-22 more if I had read it in an academic setting. This novel is well-outlined and surprisingly intellectual; each character represents something deeper, from the treacherously capitalistic mess officer Milo to the nameless soldier in white, wrapped head to toe in bandages so that no one can recognize him.

Heller’s outline for Catch-22. Wow!

Unfortunately, the middle of the novel is bogged down with so many secondary characters that I found at times it was difficult to stay engaged. Without trying to give too much away, the pace picked up toward the end, as I enjoyed the psychotic aftermath of Nately, his lover, and Yossarian’s determination to defect.

The ending was not what I anticipated, but readers should be aware that there is a belated sequel called Closing Time (1994). I’d love to hear from anyone who has read this follow-up, considering how generation after generation has gained insight from Catch-22.

People expect criticism of the Vietnam War or the current wars in the Middle East, so for Heller to speak out negatively against American forces during a historically glorified event has made it so Catch-22 has lasted the test of time.

I believe that readers appreciate Heller’s honesty and vulnerability, sharing the fears of someone in combat. Yossarian is the classic anti-hero, desperately trying to live forever, even if he dies trying. Although the deaths of his friends have traumatized him, he makes sure he looks out for himself, since no one else will.

My biggest takeaway from this novel is that whether in times of great chaos or the everyday grind, it’s important to question authority and define your own morality. Some may call Yossarian cowardly and blasphemous when he forsakes his country and faith respectively, but I respect him for refusing to live as a sheep, taking orders without seeking the answers behind them.

So next time you find that everyone is calling you crazy, remember that insanity is always in the eye of the beholder.

Favorite Quote: “The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.” (Ch. 39)

Taking Grammar Nazi to a Whole New Level

Don’t sue me, I didn’t make it!

I’ve always wanted to talk about correcting people’s grammar on my blog, because I know how frustrating it can be to have a decently constructed conversation on the Internet. Several people have called me a “Grammar Nazi” in my life, which along with soup and feminists, is a pretty common subject to label “Nazi.”

However, I realize that approaching this topic may lead to my most controversial post to date, given the sensitivity surrounding the Holocaust. Thus, I would like to preface my statements:

By no means am I literally and legitimately comparing the despicable Nazi party to people who complain about comma usage.

As an Armenian-American whose culture has also been ravaged by genocide, I wholeheartedly empathize with the communities affected by the horrors of World War II. Please view this post as intended to be humorous and serve as a reminder that the freedom of speech is one of the many things we fought for 70 years ago.

Okie dokie? We’ll all play nice? Alrighty then, br1ng 0n t43 l0ls!

I actually don’t mind the phrase “Grammar Nazi;” in fact, it bothers me when people of relatively average knowledge of the English language are called it, because the term needs to be revised to discuss the degrees between the occasional hobbyist and the most nit-picky grammarians. Thus, I’ve created a hierarchy of complainers, so you can find out which category you fit into and discover how much better (or worse, depending on your perspective) it can get:

*Insert GIF with subtle use of Nazi salute*

Grammar Schindler

You know English pretty darn well and are considered an “insider,” but you never actually correct anyone and secretly don’t mind casual Internet talk with no capitalization or punctuation. You may even frequently misspell grammar on accident. You believe that aS lOnG aS pEoPlE DoNt TaLk LiKe ThIs, you won’t write them off. (Get it? “Schindler’s List?” Never mind, moving on…)

Only forgivable if you’re a baby!

Grammar SS

You’ve got the makings of a real Grammar Nazi, but you’re still just correcting the basics. You may know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” and “to, too, and two,” but let’s face it: so do 8-year-olds. You still can’t differentiate between “who” and “whom,” and you don’t understand why you shouldn’t (usually) end your sentences with prepositions. But you’re trying, and that’s what counts.

“Superman does good.” Perfect comeback!

Grammar Reichleiter

Now you’re getting somewhere! You not only correct people online, but you also correct people to their faces! No “Can I?,” “I could care less,” and “I’m doing good,” goes unnoticed. (Not even questionable double negatives, as seen in the previous sentence!) Best friend, total stranger, Nigerian princes in need of immediate money orders, there are no exceptions when it comes to making English better, one semi-colon at a time.

Superb grammar: Yet another reason I need to watch Dr. Who!

Grammar Hitler

The Der Führer of Grammar Nazis, you laugh at those who think themselves superior for knowing “fewer” from “less.” You possess supreme understanding of all phrases, clauses, idioms, modifiers, tenses, and voices. You get nauseated when people misuse “nauseous,” and disrespecting the predicative nominative will have you screaming, “Woe is I!” You probably took Latin in school, and if you’re a teacher, you relish in your multiple proofreading utensils of various colors (only amateurs limit themselves to red pens). You’ve corrected everyone so many times that they’re afraid to talk to you. But that’s okay, because you’d rather be feared than loved.

I’d have to say I’m between a Grammar Reichleiter and a Grammar Hitler. I had one classmate of mine unfriend me on Facebook after I pointed out that she was not “lactose and tolerant.” Just this week I replied to a marketing email from Red Robin restaurants, correcting them on their unfortunate subject line of “Being Royalty has it’s perks!”

And my favorite, I took a picture of this monstrosity two years ago:

I'm embarrassed for this valedictorian's friends, who clearly needed a few more semesters of English before graduating.

I’m embarrassed for this valedictorian’s friends, who clearly needed a few more semesters of English before graduating.

Thanks to the my favorite high school English teacher (a true Grammar Hitler) and my two years of studying Latin, my understanding of grammar has greatly improved. However, I understand that grammar is like a second language, and simply speaking English is not a good enough prerequisite. Thus, I try to bite my tongue, because I’ve quickly learned that people don’t like feeling dumb. But boy, do I love when people correct themselves in front of me before I do! Makes me feel like being a Grammar Nazi is worth it when people learn!

So controversial label aside, I love grammatical humor, which the Internet brings in abundance. For more fun, check out these wonderful websites:

And don’t forget to share your own grammatical pet peeves in the comments!

Masterpiece Monday: Night

Cover of "Night"

Image via Amazon

Rating: 5 out of 5

In case you didn’t know, Thursday is Holocaust Remembrance Day in America, the origins of which date back to 1978 when President Carter created a memorial commission and established Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as the chair.

Wiesel is most famous for his memoir Night, published in English in 1960. In the novella, Wiesel recounts his experiences in various internment camps during World War II. He discusses the horrific living conditions, the beatings and murders by the Nazis, and his loss of faith in God and humanity. He even comes to see his own father as more of a burden due to the old man’s ever-waning health.

Eventually, Wiesel was rescued by the US army in 1945, but didn’t speak of his past for ten years. Then he wrote a manuscript of over 800 pages, about 100 of which was composed into Night. The book is actually the first part of a trilogy (Dawn and Day as the sequels, respectively), but I have not personally read them. However, Night is the only part of the series that is not fictional.

I read this story in high school, a couple years before Oprah selected it for her book club. It has become synonymous with the Holocaust, and although it is disturbing and graphic, it effectively conveys the tragedy to the public. In fact, I recently learned that when Spielberg directed “Schindler’s List” in 1993, half of high school students in America were not aware of the genocide, and 20% of them denied its very existence. Those figures have since been disputed.

Regardless of that poll’s results, there are still too many people today who are uneducated regarding the Holocaust and other genocides in history. Too many people today still hide behind their bigotry and say these cultural/religious groups deserved their fates.

I’m not Jewish, but I am Armenian, and Armenians also suffered from genocide during World War I. Allegedly, Hitler was even motivated to annihilate the Jews because the Armenians had been massacred relatively unnoticed by the world. April 24 is Armenian Genocide Recognition Day, so I will be returning to this theme next week.

I just want the world to memorialize those whose lives have been lost, and to do all that it can to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. We should never forget the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and other atrocities, but we should also never stop striving for freedom and peace.

Favorite Quote: “One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

In Honor of Literary Veterans

And supporting the troops doesn't mean that you support war. It means that you support your fellow human beings.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’m only 200 pages into Orwell’s 1984, (I’ve forgotten when I even started the novel!), but I guess my excuse is my 20-page paper which is due at the end of the month. Nothing ruins pleasure-reading like grad school!

Right now I’ve just reached the part where after all the planning and toiling over Hate Week, Winston learns that his country of Oceania has just switched their enemy of Eurasia to Eastasia–and no one bats an eye over this turn of events, as if if had always been and will always be that way.

1984 is such a perfect read given that Veteran’s Day is tomorrow, because it demonstrates just how incomprehensible and useless war really is. Granted, I haven’t finished the book, but I hope that Winston and his comrades will be able to escape the iron grip of Big Brother some way–even if it has to be in death. But no spoilers!!!

I wanted to honor literary veterans by discussing my favorite war story: “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger. This short story was published in 1948, right after World War II. It features Seymour Glass, of Salinger’s famous fictional Glass family. Seymour and his wife Muriel are on vacation on a Florida beach, but Seymour exhibits rather odd behavior.

He tells a young girl named Sybil about creatures called “bananafish.” He explains:

“Well, they swim into a hole where there’s a lot of bananas. They’re very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I’ve known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as 78 bananas…Naturally, after that they’re so fat they can’t get out of the hole again.”

Naturally, Sybil asks what happens to bananafish, and Seymour replies that they die. It’s at this point where you realize that this story has a much deeper meaning than a simple family vacation, and that Seymour is not okay. I won’t give away the ending, but I can’t think of a better story which addresses war and the PTSD from which many veterans suffer, often unnoticed by the people around them.

Salinger is an exquisite writer, and I loved this short story so much. Feel free to share your favorite war stories in honor of our literary (and real) veterans!

PS: Speaking of war, “The Hunger Games” trailer will be shown on Good Morning America this Monday! May the odds be ever in your favor!

Masterpiece Monday: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies

Image via Wikipedia

Rating: 5 out of 5

Since I’m currently reading Mockingjay, the last novel of The Hunger Games trilogy, I thought I’d blog about a literary classic also dealing with children committing brutal acts of violence. Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s first novel published in 1954, tells the tale of a group of young British boys who become stranded on a deserted island after their plane crashes. The book demonstrates how quickly our base instincts kick in when we find ourselves distanced from civilization.

Although there’s many characters, the main ones are as follows: Ralph, the fair-haired protagonist; Piggy, the overweight outcast with glasses; Simon, the peaceful martyr; and Jack, the savage antagonist. At first the boys attempt to maintain order by making up rules, such as only speaking when holding the conch shell, but naturally chaos resumes as Jack and his cronies become obsessed with hunting “the Beast,” a creature they believe is roaming the island. The “Lord of the Flies” is a pig’s head which Jack puts on a stake as an offering to the Beast–thus, a symbol for evil and blood-lust.

The story itself is pretty basic, but its deeper themes and parallels are what really makes this novel special. Biblically, the “Lord of the Flies” can represent the demonic power of Satan, and Simon acts as a Christ-figure who clings to morality before becoming a sacrifice. The novel also has ties to Freudian psychoanalysis, with Jack, Ralph, and Piggy symbolizing the id, ego, and superego respectively. How these boys interact on the island reflect how our minds battle everyday between what we want and what’s best for the common good.

As if those parallels weren’t enough, Golding’s novel also becomes a historical allegory for World War II. As a member of the navy himself during the war, Golding recognizes the effects of violence on society. As the boys are quarreling among themselves, the men of Britain are behaving just as brutally on the battlefield. When man and boy meet at the end of the book, it’s heartbreaking for the reader, who realizes that when left to our own devices, we all act like children–and simultaneously, lose the innocence of our childhood.

There are two film adaptations, 1963 and 1990. I haven’t seen the older version in black-and-white, but I hear it’s better than the newer movie–which thinks a bunch of American kids spouting profanity (both inaccurate characterizations) is what makes a story provocative. Don’t bother watching it, just read Golding’s masterpiece.

Favorite Quote: “His mind was crowded with memories; memories of the knowledge that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink” (Ch. 4)