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[774] In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut


“He’s aware that he’s engaged again in that most squalid of activities, using up time, but the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time.” (The Lover, p.141-2)

In a Strange Room, flitting between third- and first-person narrative, is a work poised between memoir and fiction. The book is divided into three sections of about the same length and each tells an ill-fated journey undertaken by one Damon, who is presumably the author himself. The three parts are titled “The Follower”, “The Lover”, and “The Guardian”, which refer to how Damon fails the respective role in life. The book is lyrical but grim.

In the first part, Damon is in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a long-haired German who is assured of his beauty. They keep in touch and decide to go on a challenging trek together in Lesotho, a small, inhospitable country situated within the interior of South Africa. But they have a fallout due to Reiner’s bossiness. The homoerotic friendship inevitably disintegrates.

The second journey takes Damon to Zimbabwe where he meets a French and a pair of Swiss twins, who invited him to come along to Tanzania. Despite of the unforeseen complication and a lack of visa, Damon accepts the offer because he is smitten with Jerome, who has “a beauty that is almost shocking.” Yet Damon, only to his deep regret later, flees this relationship as eagerly as he runs into it. By the time the third section begins, reader gets the sense that he is a hopeless case in relationship.

The third section sees Damon as a middle-aged man who is still dissatisfied by his inability to engage meaningfully with others. The alienated traveler goes on wandering not because he is curious about new places but that he has to keep himself going to avoid meddling in his problems. The trip to take his suicidal friend along to India is a wrong decision from the beginning. She has an overdose in India. This wrenching journey repeats his previous experience, only with greater shock and emphasis of his impotence. There is a sense of timelessness in these isolated journeys, and the lone traveler is far from his time and history—pretty much out of touch from reality. He is far more adept at crossing geographical boundaries than emotional ones. The book is written in a way that reader is encourage to interact with Damon’s thoughts. Sometimes it’s engaging but it can be frustrating.

207 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[772] The Paying Guests- Sarah Waters


“And as Frances watched . . . something odd began to happen to her. First her heart started to flutter, then she felt a srt of giving any, around it: a caving in, like the slither of sand through the waist of an hour-glass. It was as if her blood, her muscles, her organs, were steadily dissolving . . . Now Frances’s face was tingling as if growing numb . . . She wanted to be sick.” (Ch.14, p.470)

In postwar 1922 London, the widowed Mrs. Wray and her spinsterish daughter, Frances, have been obliged to admit lodgers out of necessity due to the straitened poverty. Into their genteel south London house moves a young, gaudy couple with their gramophone and colorful clothing. The new living situation signifies the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. One gets the sense that Waters uses the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civic order and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles—until the focus shifts to a more personal, intimate level.

The arrival of the brash Barbers has unsettled the Wray household. There is persistent undercurrent undercurrent of class awkwardness and intergenerational conflict. Frances reflects that she will never be used to the noises but she needs the money to drive out of debt. Waters captures very neatly Mrs. Wray’s pained denial of the extent to which she has come down in the world; but this embarrassing reality manifests in Frances’s daily weariness and frustration at menial work around the house. The Barbers’ intrusion, which almost feels like an intrusion, depicts such dismantling of social barrier, as people traditionally separated by money and status find their lives intermingling under one roof. But the delicate domestic tension soon gives away to more personal and intimate entanglement. Frances, still smarting from the collapse of her wartime love affair with a fellow suffragette, is drawn to the lively Lilian Barber, who reveals that her marriage is less than happy.

Every day we slip a bit further into it . . . We’d somehow got into the habit of spending time together almost in secret. It’s what we do with the time that’s changed. (Ch.7, p.238)

The developing romance, to my slight dismay, is an unexpected departure from what Waters has set out to do at the beginning of the book. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love. The book is simmering with suspense, and one can feel the full of fear and anxiety in these women.

566 pp. Riverhead/Penguin. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[770] Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard


“Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but at the same time he felt as dead as Mr. Maxted. Perhaps his souls, instead of leaving his body, had died inside his head?” (Ch.32, p.293)

Empire of the Sun is an autobiographical novel of World War II in China. It’s the story of a young boy’s search in vain for his parents in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is based on events which Ballard himself witnessed and suffered while interned as a boy in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945.

There is a triumph of truthfulness of tone to this book. It’s not about frontline combat but concentrating on prisoners’ experience in the camp through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Separated from his pants, Jim first camped out in his own empty house and then in the deserted house of his parents’ friends’ house. Eventually he’s interned for four years in the camp of Lunghua, where he performs a variety of chores under the direction of a Dr. Randsome.

But he had outgrown them and made other friends—Dr. Randsome, Basie, and the American seamen in E Block, with their ancient prewar copies of Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics that Jim devoured. (Ch.20, p.176)

War is war, as Ballard convinces reader. There is nothing admirable about it, even for the winning side. There are no heroes, no heroics, just war as the normal condition, and the only battle that to survive. There’s the battle against diseases and hunger. There’s the constant fear of reprisal. The driving force to live, at least for Jim, is the hope to be with his parents again. Maintaining a civil relation to the Japanese guards gets him some perks but it doesn’t ease the threat of death. Aside from the pestilent living condition, food is depleting at a rate faster than that at which people are dying. Ironically, Jim is at the mercy of some Japanese soldiers for food, while the cubicle-mates, an English couple, deprived him of his food rations.

He sucked on his knuckles, glad for even the taste of his pus, then tore stems of grass from the bank and chewed the acid leaves. (Ch.30, p.272)

This book has the authority of experience: a novel of clear moral purpose and power, but written in a detached, matter-of-fact manner like journalist reporting. Ballard didn’t write about this experience until some forty years after the war. He reflected that for the rest of his life, he found it difficult to leave food on his plate after the Lunghua years. This is perhaps the worst consequence of war—surviving and yet traumatized.

375 pp. Washington Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]



Oreo leads me to Roots by Alex Haley. After I finished the book, I read the introduction:

While Oreo may have been one of the least-known novels of the decade, Roots went on to become the single most popular novel of the decade [1970s], black or white. It occupied the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-two weeks. It was adapted into one of the most-watched television miniseries of all time. –Danzy Senna

Now I’m very curious about Roots and it’s on my reading list. Have you read?

Reading “Empire of the Sun”


A movie on TV familiarizes me with the book from which it was adopted, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard. I hunted down an used copy at the indie and started reading. The book was actually published in 1984, forty years after the author’s own experiences in a Japanese internment camp during World War Two in China. For the most part the novel is an eyewitness account of events Ballard observed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and within that camp at Lunghua.

In an interview with the UK Guardian, Ballard was frank about the difficulty in conveying the surrealism of war.

I waited 40 years before giving it a go, one of the longest periods a professional writer has put off describing the most formative events in his life. Twenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember. There was always the possibility that my memories of the war concealed a deeper stratum of unease that I preferred not to face. But at least my three children had grown up, and as I wrote the book I would never have to think of them sharing the war with my younger self.

Knowing the movie would ruin my reading pleasure, I immediately switched off the TV. My principal is to always read the book first. I crave to hear the story from Ballard’s perspective. Even after 40 years, Ballard found it difficult to begin the novel, until it occurred to him to drop his parents from the story. They had lived together in a small room for nearly three years, eating boiled rice and sweet potatoes from the same card table, sleeping within an arm’s reach of each other, an exhilarating experience for him after the formality of their prewar home, where his parents were busy with their expat social life and he was brought up by Chinese servants who never looked at him and never spoke to him.

The interview foreshadows a poignant story. It’s more than physical survival—a mental one that mandates him to find a strength greater than all the events that surrounded him.

[755-2] Atlas Shrugged (Part II) – Ayn Rand


***Read in conjunction with Tina at Book Chatter***

“…if you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders—what would you tell him to do? . . . To shrug. ” (Part II, Ch.III, White Blackmail)

Part II, titled “Either-Or,” focuses on Dagny Taggart’s struggle to resolve a dilemma: either to continue her battle to save the crumbling railway network, an artery of the country’s economy, or to give it up and grant the “looters” sanction. The middle section of the novel sheds light on the new directives that, what were meant to boost economy by encouraging competition and eliminating monopoly, actually leads to the collapse of the nation’s oil industry. Following the disappearance of Wyatt who imploded his oil fields, Rearden, refusing to cede the rights to Rearden Metal to the State, is indicted for secret sales to a coal magnate, a transaction made illegal by the equal opportunity directives.

It seemed to her that some destroyer was moving soundlessly through the country and the lights were dying at his touch—someone, she thought bitterly, who have reversed the principle of the Twentieth Century motor and was now turning kinetic energy into static. (Part II, Ch.II)

Equally perplexing Dagny is the continuous disappearance of industrialists for no conceivable reason. Francisco d’Anconia, heir of the largest copper core who has turned a playboy, reveals that he has deliberately destroyed his company to harm the looters who are profiteering on his abilities. He coaxes Rearden to renounce the State by quitting. By continuing to work under such dictatorial circumstances, Rearden is granting a moral sanction to the looters, a sanction they need from him in order to compromise his rights and his mind. At his trial, Rearden is unapologetic for his success and defensive of his right to produce for his own stake. His sound reason only leaves the court speechless and panicked. But it’s Rearden’s wife Lillian, upset at his affair with Dagny, uses this as a weapon to deliver him to the State.

There had been a time he had been required to do his best and rewarded accoringly. Now he could expect nothing but punishment, if he tried to follow his conscience. There had been a time when he had been expected to think. Now they did not want him to think, only to obey. (Part II, Ch.VII, The Moratorium of Brains)

Part II sees further deterioration of the railway, punishment of Rearden’s success, and a rapid, chilling assimilation of a society in which all talents and ambition are curbed and the citizens become indistinguishable. Bussinessmen use government power to loot competitors, they gain in the short run while greater losses are spread throughout the society. The “aristocracy of pull” in the book rules through access to Washington, trading favors and back-stabbing in a destructive political competition that eventually leads to economic collapse. But the most porous damage is the death of brain—gone are reason and individual thinking. The virtues that made life possible and the values that give life meaning become agents of its destruction.

[758] Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich


” Society is like this card game here, cousin. We got dealt our hand before we were born, and as we grow we have to play as best as we can. ” (357)

This is Louise Erdrich’s first book. Love Medicine opens in 1981 when June Kashpaw, an attractive Chippewa prostitute who has idled her days on the main streets of an oil boomstown in North Dakota, decides to return to the reservation on which she was raised. But en route she dies in the freezing Dakota countryside. Twice married, she is the direct link of two native Indian families—the Kashpaws and the Nanapushes. Her memory and legacy she passes on to her family provoke various relatives and acquaintances to recall their relationships with her and to reminisce their own lives.

Her clothes were filled with safety pins and hidden tears. (12)

Albertine, June’s niece and a nursing student at university (the only one who goes to college), introduces all the family members, all entangled by bloodlines and marriage, who gather at the reservation after June’s death. At the center of this novel is Grandma Kashpaw, known as Marie Lazarre before her marriage to Nector Kashpaw, who has assimilated to white culture by attending white school. In his youthful days he posted naked for painting. But he resents the the notion that whites are interested in the doom of the Indians. Marie escaped the horror of the Catholic church, where a nun attempted to oust Satan from her brain by pouring boiling water into her ear. Although Marie married Nector the tribal chairman, Nector loves another woman, Lulu, who is a flirt and is shameless about her affairs. Marie copes by raising strong, educated children and ceaselessly “peeling potatoes.”

Right and wrong were shades of meaning, not sides of a coin.

The novel trickles back and fro in time, revolving the love triangle between Marie, Nector, and Lulu. All his life Nector never makes a decision of his own, he does what comes along. In a sense, Nector is like the Indian tribe that is at the mercy and whim of the U.S. government. The love medicine in question represents an attempt by a Kashpaw grandson to assure once and for all that his grandfather will love and be true to his wife. The plan ends in disaster when corners are cut and the authentic old Indian customs for preparing the potion are circumvented.

They gave you worthless land to start with and then they chopped it out from under your feet. They took your kids away and stuffed the English language in their mouth . . . They sold you booze for furs and then told you not to drink. (326)

In poetic language Erdrich portrays the culture and traditions of Native Indians that are under attack of mainstream assimilation. The bloodlines might be confusing by Erdrich stresses that people all stem from one giant tree. The book is a folklore, through the collected first-person narratives, that depicts the fundamental human capacities for love, jealousy, devotion, greed, generosity, and endurance.

367 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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