Book Review: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans

“The past may be set in stone, but our memories of it are not.” Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro is famous for writing stories that contain this truth. The shifting nature of memory certainly sits at the center of his feverish mystery novel “When We Were Orphans.”

Narrated by (the fictional) Christopher Banks, a famous detective in Britain between the two World Wars, as journal entries dated from 1930-1958. His parents mysterious disappearance when he was nine leaves Christopher was orphaned in Shanghai. His father was a businessman within the colonial opium industry, and his mother was a society crusader committed to ending that very industry.

Christopher leads us to believe that his parents’ disappearance resulted from their stand against powerful interests within the opium trade. But his accounts of his childhood reveal both self-doubt and over-confidence about the facts of his past. I began to mistrust his reliability as a narrator as more inconsistencies emerge. His active imagination and proclivity for creating elaborate detective roleplaying games as a child also help to create doubt in the mind of the reader.

After Christopher is sent to England to live under the guardianship of his Aunt, his games turn into the real ambition of becoming a detective. Upon graduating from Cambridge he steadily gains influence in London society, becomes part of a fashionable “set”, and solves many high profile cases. Nevertheless, he is haunted by a desire to uncover what happened to his parents. Part of Christopher remains lost in his childhood remembrances and fantasies, and he determines that he must return to Shanghai—he must scour the city as well as his own memories.

On his arrival, Shanghai is teetering on the edge of chaos and absurdity, and serves as an analog for Christopher’s confused state of mind in the latter half of the book. Ishiguro depicts the city as it was during July 1937, just as the Second Sino-Japanese war is breaking out in the streets. The very space of Christopher’s childhood trauma collapses around him as he aimlessly attempts to sleuth out clues. In vivid passages describing rubble-strewn streets, Christopher is a man wandering inside a constantly shifting labyrinth. And no detective work can be done when no leads can be followed.

“When We Were Orphans” is almost self-revelatory at times—I found myself wondering about the nature of my own past, while reading about Christopher trying to recreate his. Such thoughts are somewhat uncomfortable, but also provoking and satisfying. By the time I reached the end of this unconventional mystery novel, I felt as though I’d travelled far with Christopher and personally.

The call number for this book is PR6059.S5 W47 2001, and it lives on the third floor.

- Zach McNay, Access Services Specialist

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Growing up, Jacob Portman thought his Grandpa Portman was the most fascinating person he knew. He had fought in wars, crossed oceans and deserts, joined the circus, and spoke at least half a dozen languages. The stories Jacob loved the most were the stories about Grandpa’s life in a Welsh children’s home. Grandpa claimed it was an enchanted place, on an island where the sun always shined and nobody ever got sick or died. The island was designed to keep him and his friends safe from the monsters who were after them for their mysterious and magical abilities. Jacob never doubted his grandpa’s colorful stories, after all, he had spooky photographs and crumbling, hand-written letters to their truth.

As he grew older, Jacob began to doubt the existence of children who could fly, or turn invisible, or lift boulders. He believed the stories were a coping mechanism for Grandpa to deal the tragedies of World War II. He asked for stories less and less, until Grandpa no longer told them. However, after a tragic family event, his grandfather’s cryptic last words, and a mysterious letter from a Miss Peregrine, Jacob decides to search for his grandfather’s childhood home and the truth. His journey leads him to an island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers a crumbling orphanage. As he explores the decrepit island and dilapidated halls, discovering more haunting photographs and dusty letters, he learns the children who once resided there were much more than peculiar: they may have been unsafe, banished to the island for a reason, and they are, impossibly, still alive.

Written around found vintage photographs that are interspersed throughout the text along with handwritten letters, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is filled with beautiful, haunting, richly detailed imagery and prose. The photographs and text together build a suspenseful story that alternates between fantasy and reality, past and present. Part coming-of-age story, part time-traveling fantasy, part mystery, part art project, but wonderfully strange and fully unique. Fantasy and thriller fans will enjoy this novel. Fans of David Lynch, Lemony Snickett, and Tim Burton will find this appealing as well.

Tim Burton will be directing the film adaptation, set for release in 2015. The sequel to the book, Hollow City, will be published in January 2014.

The call number for this book is PS 3618 .I3985 M57 2011 in the Juvenile section.

                               – Christina Nofziger, Access Services Specialist

Book Review Tuesday

Book Review: Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat

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Prisoner of Tehran is the gripping autobiography of Marina Nemat, a young, Christian, Iranian woman who survives two years of imprisonment during the Islamic Revolution. A story as honest and accessible, as it is heartbreaking and significant. Marina was 16 years old when she becomes a political prisoner – is blindfolded and locked up behind the towering walls of Evin Prison. Before the revolution, life was simple. School, church, and friends mixed in with trips to the beach, falling in love, and befriending the book seller on the corner.

Then the Shah fell.

Under the new Ayatollah, books were banned, the hijab became mandatory, and school subjects became subordinate to the study of the Koran., Marina once asked her teacher to get back to teaching math. When the answer was “Leave if you don’t like it”, that is what she did. Followed by her entire class.

This bravery was also her downfall. In January 1982 she was arrested for “crimes against the government”. She was brutally tortured and sentenced to die. Saved by a prison guard who wanted to marry her, she lived – but as a prisoner of a different kind. She was forced into a union with Ali who reminded her that as a prisoner and as a woman she had no rights.

As disturbing and insightful as much of the narrative was, part of the power of the book lies in her portrayal of her relationship with Ali. We – like Marina – want to hate him. He threatened her, and took away any hope for freedom she clung onto. But the more his character unfolds, the more we realize that Ali had good in him, he had depth, a story, and a family who loved him. He loved Marina in his own way, and loved her well. His family welcomed her into their fold like her own family never did. He ensured her deliverance from Evin. We see a character grow to question whether violence is the answer, whether perhaps love and compassion do more good. The evils he committed are never acquitted or fully forgiven, but he himself cannot be written off as evil. Good and evil is not as black and white as we would like to think.

Marina’s story explores all aspects of  human rights, what they are, how they are violated, and why they are important and must be respected. She explores the element of torture as a means of breaking the human spirit. She delves into the strength and good of humanity, present even when it seems completely lost.

Marina eventually found freedom and escaped to Canada where she now lives with her childhood sweetheart, and now husband Andre.

Book Review Tuesday

Book review for The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

cat'stable

In need of a little light summer reading, I picked up the Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel The Cat’s Table from the Popular Fiction Collection on the basis of several glowing recommendations. Ondaatje weaves together a beautiful narrative that boarders on the poetic in its language and imagery.

The tone is autobiographical, and though it is fictional, the story does borrow from elements of the author’s life. It follows 11-year-old protagonist, Michael, as he makes his way from his native Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, and through the Mediterranean Sea to make a new life with his family in England. During the three weeks he is aboard the Oronsay, Michael is seated at the Cat’s Table during meal times, a table full of outcasts at the fringes of society. It is the table furthest away from the prestigious captain’s table. It is also here that he befriends Cassius and Rhamadin, fellow Sri Lankan school boys, who he goes on to form life long memories with.

The mystery of a prisoner unfolds as the book goes on – a prisoner with a mysterious past, only seen after everyone, except for the curious boys, has gone to bed. He emerges with shackles around his hands and feet, with guards at his side, and is allowed a nightly walk on the deck. As the narrative jumps between Michael’s young self on the ship and his adult self, established and settled in Canada, we learn how this slowly unfolding mystery ties people together, and has a lasting impact on the lives of the people we learn to know.

Ondaatje’s writing is much like the ship he writes about – it moves slowly, sometimes feeling like it has stopped moving altogether, caught up in dream like imagery and winding thought processes; but then one comes to the end, and realizes one has crossed oceans. The story is intricately and masterfully crafted; creating a tangible world out of the liminal space that transition creates, between one land and another, between chapters of life, between childhood and adulthood. Despite the storms, the crashing waves, and the navigation through misty canals, in some ways, it is the story of any state of change.

Book Review Tuesday

Book Review for The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms and Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers by David Grambs

describersdictionary

While crafting a research paper or a creative writing assignment, do you ever find yourself stumped on a perfect descriptive word? Does it ever feel frustratingly out of your grasp? If you are like me, thesauri and dictionaries can be a useful tool to help pull you out of the word blank mire, but these resources can only go so far; if I’m in search of a word to describe “light,” yet don’t know exactly what kind of “light” I’m looking for, a thesaurus can be limited. Terms such as “sunny” or “bright” are familiar, even overused, synonyms. But what about more nuanced words like “twinkling” or “shady?” Both describe “light” in vastly different ways.

While this resource has been around for a while, I continue to find it especially valuable in my academic and personal pursuits. David Grambs’ The Describer’s Dictionary (W.W. Norton and Company, 1993) is a writer’s dream, dividing words by subject: Things, Earth and Sky, Animals, and People. From there, the categories further narrow so you can search for items such as shapes, climate, even coiffures. Instead of definitions, Grambs provides us with related literary quotes on the left of each page as well as grouping similar words together in the list. As I enthusiastically read through this, I found myself coming up with more words and creating my own personal lists. Which leads me to a minor quibble; the book is by no means comprehensive. I almost wish that the quotes had been dropped to fit in more word lists. The color section could have been a lot longer than a mere twelve pages, seven if you discount the pages with multiple quotes for the same words. I would have liked to see a much longer work, perhaps with illustrations (ie, color swatches, images of patterns, face shape drawings beside the corresponding descriptive words) so you can choose the word that more closely matches what is in your head. Grambs does have a newer edition out (1995), so perhaps I will take a look at it to see if any updates have been made.

In short, I find this a unique resource for physical descriptions. It is suited for writers, but just about everyone can find a word of worth in this practical work.

The library call number for this item is PE1591 .G67 1993.

-Melody Steiner, Access Services