It has been four books since I wrote the last book review on this blog. Coincidentally the four books I read were all by women: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Jazz by Toni Morrison, An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid and The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. By combining all four reviews into one, I am admitting my laziness; but by writing the reviews at all I hope I am doing justice to fellow book readers searching for their next read. It is quite random how I pick what I read, why do you read the books you do?
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
When Maya Angelou died, everyone was re-posting her famous quotes on every social network site you have ever heard of, yet if you had asked anyone to name any one of her books you would have been met with a blank stare or a blinking cursor on a pure white background, as it were. I quickly added “read Maya Angelou” to my hastily put together 30 Things to do Before 30 List. In December last year, I was in Tokyo at a bookshop in near Shinjuku Station that probably has the largest collection of English books in Japan. I browsed through many titles in many genres before I found Maya Angelou’s books and picked up this particular one because another friend was also reading it at the same time and I couldn’t borrow his book then.
The book is Maya’s childhood biography, I have since learned that she has 6 other biographies! She was brought up by her deeply religious grandmother in the South, and through it you get a glimpse of what life was for many black people in America then. Circumstances radically change in her lifetime duration; consider for instance her reading a poem on the inauguration of the first ever black American president. There is not much I can tell you about her life that you don’t already know; the suffering, the overcoming, her writing and activism career. But to read her story in her own words is to be offered a glimpse into her mind, to be let into her heart. I love it when famous people are also writers and therefore write their own stories in their own words and style. Her storytelling is captivating, her imagery brilliantly clear. She may be more famous for her poetry, but her writing is worth searching for the remaining 6 biographies to add some volumes to my fairly empty bookshelf. This book covers the ages of 3 to 16, when she becomes a teenage mother. What happens after that? I want to know too. But if you ask my why the caged bird sings, I have to reread this book again.
Jazz by Toni Morrison
Jazz is a portrait of New York in 1926. Jazz is the story of one woman who falls through the cracks of time and space, stubborn, determined Violet. Her husband Joe Trace had an affair with a young woman; Joe later kills her because he is jealous and at her funeral Violet tries to disfigure the corpse’s face. But the story is so much more than the small but significant funeral incident, the background story of all the characters is provided to show how they eventually all end up in New York. The music to their story is naturally, jazz. Harlem in 1926 embodied freedom for workers coming from the South. The book is not an easy read, I must warn you but it is worth it. Long after I finished reading this book, I still remember Violet and Joe Trace, Dorcas who stood with toes pointed inwards and a not-so-smooth face, Golden Gray a boy with golden curls who believed he was white but grows up to the realization of his black father. It is a book about race, history, life in Harlem in the 1920s, and the undertones of jazz, which I get sometimes.
I got this book from a classmate in my former Japanese class; she said it is her favorite Toni Morrison book. I exchanged with her the Maya Angelou Book for this one and it was a worthy read, thank you Chrissi!
An Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
This book is also borrowed from a friend! My bookshelf now has about 5 novels, 3 of which are borrowed! I seem to have read Jamaica Kincaid before, but I can’t remember if I read a short story or a novel (whose title I cannot recall).
There is a melancholic tone underlying this book, a longing for a mother who died on the day the author of the book was born. Xuela is a deeply troubled young woman, and as one of the reviewers on google books said, “this book is emotionally exhausting”. I don’t think she ever experiences any happiness in her entire book, but it offers a rich insight into life in the Dominican Island. Kincaid has a beautiful style of writing, it is poetry weaved into prose and yet simple and flowing. You can easily read the book in a day or two. Xuela spends her life self-sabotaging potential happy moments, her life is high sensual and she emerges herself in it, she feels little but she hurts deeply, she is a solitary character who never lets anyone know what she is thinking. Her character is haunting.
The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
What can I say about this book? I got it from a local bookshop and Yoko is the first Japanese author I am reading. At first I thought it was a novel with the three stories introduced on the back cover (The Diving Pool, Pregnancy Diary and The Dormitory) intersecting at some point, but it turned out to be 3 short stories sold together as one book.
In the Diving Pool, a lonely teenager is secretly in love with her adopted brother, who is a diver. She is growing up in an orphanage that her parents run, but she feels ignored by her parents because she is treated just like the rest of the kids. In the Pregnancy Diary, a young woman living with her sister keeps a diary of her sister’s pregnancy. She may appear loving on the outside but her true nature is revealed in her diary, just like the underlying cruel streak of the teenager in the first story is revealed in her interactions with the younger orphans. In the Dormitory story, a woman helps her younger cousin settle into her former dormitory, but the place is haunted by a disappearance of a student who lived there, a crippled caretaker and an unexplained decay.
The stories don’t dwell in the “normal” world, they push at the boundary of realism and yet they are not unbelievable. My favorite was The Dormitory, it is beautifully written (or should I say beautifully translated), the story never quite ends but just like in real life there are many unsolved mysteries. The Pregnancy Diary is also a good read, but the Diving Pool is downright weird, perhaps it is a better read in the original language. I hope I can master enough Japanese to read the book in the next 3 years.
Well, there you have it. Four diverse reads from four different women.