Hotel Iris

This is the first book I’ve read by Yoko Ogawa.  I’m not often drawn to Japanese literature but since my book club chose The Housekeeper + The Professor as one of our seven reads for 2015-2016, I decided to buy this one too.  The story is about seventeen year old Mari who works in her mother’s shabby little hotel by the seaside called Hotel Iris.  The voice of Mari narrates the story in a chilling honesty that is often staggering. She is trapped in the hotel and isn’t allowed to live life very much.  So, it isn’t surprising that she is searching for something more, however the violent humiliating relationship she has with the translator is unexpected and odious.

Her mother is a woman running a business and seems to have little feeling for others.  The story begins when an incident happens in the hotel between a mysterious man and a prostitute.  There are loud noises which are preceded by yelling from the prostitute who leaves the room insulting the man.  Mari’s mother threatens to call the police and demands that the damages to the room and the trouble caused be paid.  From this point on Mari Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 19.40.51becomes enthralled with this mysterious man she calls the translator, and has an ongoing explicit relationship with him.  Here I must caution readers who have difficulty reading about sex (bondage) and most of all sex between a minor and a man in his sixties.  This exceptionally dark novel isn’t only that however it may seem as if it is because it is so short, only 164 pages.  I read it in one sitting.

What I liked most about the novel is the writing.  Ogawa has a very keen sense of description and the book is full of references to smell, taste, and sounds.  The minor characters of the novel accentuate these senses beautifully while telling Mari’s story.  There is a blind English woman, a mute nephew, and a kleptomaniac maid.  However minor these characters they add to the sensation of the senses that Ogawa seems to be trying to paint throughout the ambience of the book.  The translator is a contradiction because he never really explains himself.  As Mari learns about him, so do we.  His job as a translator should make him a character who is clear but he hides a lot of himself throughout  the novel.

I’ve been trying for a few days now to come to a conclusion about what Ogawa was trying to say really in this book and I’m just not sure.  After much thought, I think she wanted to write a book full of different kinds of extreme emotions. This we have examples from the beginning to the end. Some things are described so well they appear vividly in the imagination and in my opinion that’s a gifted writer no matter what the storyline.  Maybe she just wanted to show a look into Mari’s life.  I guess there is a little bit of no one knows what somebody is really living syndrome to the story.  Nevertheless, she is definitely an author to check out, if only to experience the beautiful descriptions and where you will undergo intense emotions.

Room

I finally read Room after years of putting it off.  I have a lot of trouble reading about people being kidnapped and IMG_1638violence in general.  However, I feel this story was very well told and the subject was brilliantly treated too.  The general storyline is about Ma and Jack who are trapped in a 11 x 11 foot room, with the only window being a very high skylight .  The room is sound proof and perfectly self-contained, sealed off from the world.  Ma has been held captive there since she was 19 years old and she is 26 when the story begins.  Jack who is only five was born there and has never experienced the outside world.  He only knows the outside world through watching television.  He is the narrator of the story who takes us through their harrowing journey, using his special language.

Jack describes his world, the room, with as much detail as a five-year old with limited vocabulary can.  It isn’t difficult to get a sense of how things are.  He is a very intelligent little boy who knows a lot of things for his age, but not a lot about the simple things in life, like falling rain, playing at the park, or feeling sand between his toes.  In spite of the close quarters, Ma manages to adapt their activities to accommodate Jack’s growth.  She is very clever with teaching and explaining things to him.  She does all of this while tying to preserve his innocence and trying to keep her sanity.  She doesn’t want to frighten him, by telling him too much too quickly.

As the story goes on, we quickly start to understand that the room is home for Jack and a prison for Ma.  Old Nick the captor, is a cold, unfeeling, obtuse person, and it’s because of those reasons Ma and Jack manage to escape.  I commend Emma Donoghue on her capacity to maintain the voice of a five-year old little boy captive.  This couldn’t have been easy.  She cleverly chose how to express his emotions and his desires in a believable way.  Towards the end of the novel, I found myself thinking that Jack was a little spoiled, but had to keep reminding myself that he’d been trapped in a room for 5 years.  It’s hard not to root for this mother and son and to not think about all the recent cases we’ve heard about people in the same situation and wonder how they survived and to what end.

Room is a beautifully written novel.  It will grip you, break your heart, wake up your senses (especially smell), and give you a glimmer of hope in the end.  I urge you all to pick it up.  Donoghue was beat out of the Man Book Prize 2010 by Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Questionwhich received a measly 2.75 stars on Goodreads, whereas Room received 3.96 stars.  Regardless, I look forward to reading The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue, which was published in 2008 and was an Orange Prize for Fiction Longlist in 2012.

Water Street

If you’ve followed me on here for a while you know there are two things I’m not so keen on reading.  The first one is series and the second one is short story collections.  Now it seems as if I’m turning over a new leaf with the later.  Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson is my third attempt at reading them and they seem to be getting better and better.  I dare say I’ve been lucky or I just know how to choose a good book. Whatever it is Water Street is a short Water Streetstory collection you must check out.

The overall themes are about everyday feelings and problems – race, love and family relationships, mental health, getting older, coming of age, among many others.  The characters in the book range from all different types and you’ll want to hear their story during the day and their inner secrets.  You’ll sympathize with them even if you won’t necessarily agree with the decisions they make.  The thing that made this collection stand out for me was the way these middle-class black characters are connected to each other through living in this Kentucky town called Stanford in a community around Water Street.

Wilkinson brilliantly tells each story with emotion, description, and realism.  The stories don’t necessarily finish all tied up neatly and that’s because it’s real life.  That feeling is what drives the book.  This is the first time I haven’t felt like I needed more from a short story collection I finished.  I believe a lot of it has to do with Wilkinson’s first-rate writing and her idea of linking the characters.

Crystal Wilkinson is an African-American author from Kentucky who is one of the founding members of Affrilachian Poets, which is a grassroots organization of writers of color living in the Appalachian region.  She grew up on her grandparents’ farm in eastern Kentucky where they were the only black family.  Wilkinson uses this as inspiration for writing her short stories.  She was a 2003 Long List Finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction with Water Street and has written other works such as:  Blackberries, Blackberries (2001), and individual works like Holler (2013), My Girl Mona, Terrain, and First Sunday Dinner on the Grounds.  I’ve already read Blackberries, Blackberries and Holler and liked them as well.  I haven’t heard anyone talking about this author and I urge you to give her a try if you’re interested in these themes.  Wilkinson is another outstanding black woman writer is going unnoticed and that’s a real shame.

Writing Seriously – Update Weeks 2 and 3

Well it’s been a while and I’ve been extremely busy trying to keep it all together.  Work is booming and adding to the complexities of my weeks.  I’m trying to do it all but my reading is suffering the most, which I knew it would.  I’m reading about four books at the same time.  I usually never do that!  I’ll be spending the next four days trying to finish reading Water Street, Corregidor, Reading Like a Writer, and You, Me & A Bit of We.

As for my writing course, things have been going really well.  I had excellent feedback on my writing assignments for session 2 and 3.  The main focus of week 2 was point of view and character for week 3.    We looked closely at how first, third, and second person can be used to write a novel and how it affects the reader as the story develops.  We had to choose from two writing assignments: 1.  Write a first person account of someone waking up in the morning and finding something surprising in the kitchen in 300 words.  2.  Try to recreate an unreliable character – write a first person account of someone you know in rather unkind terms but try to suggest that the narrator secretly likes the person but doesn’t want to admit it.  All of this must be finessed in a subtle way and in a maximum of 500-750 words.  I went for assignment #1.

I wasn’t sure where to start so I asked my family for suggestions of what could be surprising to find in a kitchen.  I then set out writing stories on the different surprises.  I wrote four different versions.  I rewrote each of them twice and tried to round them out the best I could. I then had trouble picking the one I was going to put up on the forum.  I finally decided on one and worked on it until I felt it was ready to be seen.

The outcome of the assignment was amazing! There wasn’t one story that resembled the other.  There is so much creativity in this group.  There were only a few who attempted assignment #2.  The second week has made me look at point of view even more closely than I would normally do when reading.  It’s so important and can be the difference of the novel drawing the reader in or pushing him/her away.  It made me look at some other of my favorite books and how point of view was used and analyzing why it works.

Week 3 we delved into character.  I notice when I come up with an idea I usually have the main character detailed in my mind, however developing the other characters that are important to the story aren’t nearly as fleshed out.  They gave us a character questionnaire which lists some points to help define the character in more detail.  Some of these points are: Name, Age, Gender, Sexual orientation, Marital status, Place of birth, Current location, Education, Religious, beliefs, Political beliefs, Occupation, Health, Family, Friends, Pets, Hobbies, Favourite music/books/films/tv, Newspaper/magazines, Clothes, Holiday preferences, Food preferences, Desires/hopes, Fears/anxieties, and Secrets.  This extensive list should definitely help develop characters, but also the storyline.

The writing prompts for week 3 were interesting and revealing.  We were told to try 1. using images for example from a magazine, making up everything from name, occupation, marital status, etc, sketching another person by writing a character sketch on someone we know in first-person, 2. writing about ourselves in a difficult situation thinking about how we may appear outwardly and how we feel, while keeping in mind that no one will see it, and 3. looking at strangers on the train, in the supermarket, etc. and get into noticing the details of their appearance (clothes, shoes, hair-styles, jewellery, tattoos, the things they carry, the type of dog they have).  It was suggested we use one detail as a starting point to develop the entire character.

Observing people has become my new pastime, the thing I never really did before at least not in detail. I’ve even started carrying a small notebook where I can jot down details that I see during the day.  I’ve learned so much in these three weeks not only about writing but also about reading.  I feel like I don’t read in the same way.  This has been altered because we have to critique our peers and we have to respect the critiquing pointers to do it:  clarity, point of view, pace, characters, setting, over-writing, spelling and punctuation.  I seem to be looking at all of this; all the time.  It’s making me a lot more critical than I was before.

The writing assignments which were to be posted on the forum for week 3 were 1. write a character sketch on someone we know well, and could be written in first or third person 2. show a character in action – has just witnessed a crime, has had an argument with a neighbor, or is in a public place with someone they like very much, but that person is unaware of their strong feelings, and had to be written in third person, or 3. write a first person monologue as the opposite sex.   We had to write between 500 – 750 words.  In the end, I chose exercise one and wrote a piece that was really close to home about a teacher going to a student’s house to tutor him in English. She hasn’t seen the student in 5 years.  He’s 18 years old now and still isn’t any good in English.  It was different, but I feel it was the worst thing I’ve written since the course began.  :( Nevertheless, I got good feedback and was told that my descriptive writing was my strong suit and I should stick with that.  So I am…