January 2016 Reading Recap

I don’t feel compelled to list each book individually for the first time since I started doing these. This is because, for the first time since I started reviewing books I have read here, I actually reviewed all six books I finished in January: The Green House, Darkness at Noon, Water for Elephants, Girl With Curious Hair, The Samurai’s Garden, and Between the Woods and the Water.

January can be a good reading month for me. The combination of holidays, travel, and a birthday mean that I cut myself some slack to read a lot. This year, January also included my version of a New Year’s Resolution to settle in to do a lot of reading and, I am happy to report, I have not yet broken this goal. I am also quite pleased that the six books I finished, while still geared a bit toward dead white men, actually constituted a diverse slate, with one travel-narrative, one short story collection, two books written by women, one of whom is of non-white heritage, and including books originally written in English, Spanish, and Hungarian. I am particularly happy to have read two books by women in the first month, though I don’t have another one lined up for the near future–something that needs to be remedied.

I am also happy to say that I largely enjoyed all six books, with only The Green House and Girl With Curious Hair not being overwhelmingly enjoyed. Among the other four I can’t choose a favorite because none of them really stood out as superlative, but all were excellent and enjoyable for different reasons. For instance, The Woods and the Water swept me onto the Hungarian plain on a trip I want to enjoy, Darkness at Noon was a revelation on incarceration and revolution, Water for Elephants a fast-paced adventure, and The Samurai’s Garden a beautiful meditation. Darkness at Noon is probably, objectively, the best piece of Literature among these books, while Water for Elephants was the most fun to read, and The Samurai’s Garden meant the most to me personally in terms of where I am mentally, emotionally, personally.

In the interest of always striving for the next thing, I do want to make sure I take some time to read non-fiction–in this, Patrick Leigh Fermor hardly counts. Fortunately, I have just the solution: a new biography of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. I looked for a biography last summer, only to find that the available ones were in some sense encomiastic. Last week I came across one newly published in English, a supposedly even-handed account of Haile Selasse written by the king’s nephew.

The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Stephen, a Chinese man from Hong Kong, has tuberculosis and so his family has sent him to join his father in Japan to get away from the heat and dampness. From Kobe, he travels to the small, seaside resort town of Tarumi where his grandfather has a cabin. The slow pace of life in the small town is an adjustment from the bustling city, but the mountain air and the sea are healthful. However, while Stephen adjusts to life with the cabin caretaker, Matsu, the world seems to be falling apart outside of his bubble. The year is 1937 and the imperial Japanese army is advancing into southern China.

The Samurai’s Garden fundamentally balances these two contradictory forces. On the one side there is the failing relationship between Stephen’s parents, the horrors of the Japanese campaign in China, and the associated tensions, such as the refugee crisis in Hong Kong, the lack of young men in Tarumi, and the hostility felt by some Japanese against the wealthy Chinese interloper. On the other, there is the tranquility of the garden, the shrine, and how Matsu and his friend Sachi adopt Stephen as though he is their own child.

The entirety of the story unfolds in the course of the more than a year Stephen stays in Tarumi, and the reader only meets his friends, mother and sister through their letters and his memories. Other than brief visits with Stephen’s father, on whom his opinion changes radically, the story mostly focuses on the four Japanese people he meets in Tarumi: the young girl Keiko and four older folks who have a long history together, Matsu the caretaker, Kenzo the owner of the tea house, and Sachi the leper, who they both love. Stephen is the focal point, but his relationship with Matsu and later Sachi is more important than the one with Keiko, which is more closely tied to the broader developments beyond town. There something fleeting about young life, but there is something eternal about Tarumi and the tensions simmering for decades between the older people.

The Samurai’s Garden was deceptively simple at the start, but turned into a deeply contemplative meditation on solitude, companionship, love, and loss. I admit to being a sucker for such stories, and the isolated, seaside, mountain village was a breath of fresh air I longed to visit. At the same time, issues of class, nationality, illness, jealousy, and growing up surround the story, sometimes creeping into the forefront of the narrative, but always silently underpinning its developments. For instance, Matsu is a “strong silent type,” but takes on the role of father, always leading by example and dominating the house he has lived in all these years. Yet, despite being a Japanese man in a Japanese village at the time when the Japanese were conquering China, he is still officially a servant. Stephen doesn’t treat him that way, except in the assumptions he makes.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Samurai’s Garden, but it is an idyllic fantasy. Stephen never wants for anything, with someone else paying for the house and the food, having no deadlines, and never needing to interact with anyone who he doesn’t want to see. He pines to see certain people and suffers physical hardship, but is not forced to grapple with most serious concerns. I legitimately enjoyed the book and it offered deep perspective on issues of loneliness, but I do wonder if part of my fondness grew out of the vision of a beautiful garden where the outside world can only intrude with a rain of white blossoms. There are real problems in the world of The Samurai’s Garden, but the garden is a refuge.

Next up, Louis de Berniéres’ Birds Without Wings, a love story between a Christian woman and a Muslim man in early 20th century Turkey.