The Piano Teacher
by Janice Lee
Have you ever realized that there is an entire swath of history of which you are entirely ignorant? I’m embarassed to say that I’d never thought of the situation in Hong Kong during World War II. I knew that the city was a British colony, and I knew that the Pacific War was going on, but I never stopped to think about what happened to the British citizens stranded on the island after the Japanese entered the war. While this book bounces around between times — which can be a bit dosconcerting — it’s definitely worth reading. Colonialist literature is perhaps my new favorite genre!
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
I first read this book in my high school honors English class. At the time I found it incredibly moving, and it spurred me to read the Gulag Archipelago (although I only managed it piecemeal!). When I recently stumbled across an article about the author, it inspired me to take another look at this classic. Unfortunately, I have to admit that it didn’t hold the same magic for me as it did 14 (oh god, was it really 14?!) years ago. Although powerful, the story of Ivan Denisovitch has been occluded for me by subsequent readings of greater suffering. When I was young, I was shocked by the brutality and harshness of the gulag. As a more cynical and jaded adult, I was more interested in the political games being played. Still enjoyable, but lacking the punch to my naievete.
The Book of Loss
by Judith Jedamus
10th century Japan: reserved, restricted, restrained. The court ladies are entangled in their own web of gossip and lies, and lack the empathy to see how their drama affects those around them. This is a decent example of a so-called “pillow book”, although personally I would recommend Murasaki instead. The narrative begins with a grown woman as she realizes her lover is no longer hers, and we see — but don’t follow — her descent into madness. This is probably the biggest weakness in the book, that there is a gulf between the reader and the writer that is never breached. This is a fault of the structure of the book, since the narrator is not the main character. Perhaps with a slightly different edit, the book could have been altered for a more suitable conclusion. I think the author and editor took the easy way out with the “Ooh look I found a diary, let’s read it” beginning, followed by the “Oh no, the pages end there and I don’t know what happened to the writer at the end, but down at the pub I heard that she killed herself” routine.