Fabulous Fiction Firsts #89

Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale* is the first complete English translation of Nagai Kafu's 1918 portrait of geisha life, and is based on an unexpurgated version of the Japanese text published in the 1950s.

Originally serialized, Udekurabe (transleted as Rivalry) first appeared in a literary journal in August, 1916. The author, a respected novelist and university lecturer was married briefly to a celebrated dancer, the model for Komayo - the geisha central to the story.

Set in the entertainment district of Shimbashi, Tokyo, during Taisho-era Japan, it recounts the precarious fortunes of a talented and ambitious geisha, as she navigates among patrons rivaling for her favors and the envies of her peers. Modern readers will find it an authentic and beautifully realized portrait of a fascinating and significant Japanese subculture at a place in time.

* = Starred Review

The Education of Little Tree

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has pulled a discredited children's book, Forrest Carter's The Education of Little Tree, from a list of recommended titles on her Web site, blaming an archival "error" for including a work considered to be the literary hoax of a white supremacist, according to the International Herald Tribune. Carter, who died in 1979, was identified as Asa Earl Carter, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for former Alabama governor George Wallace.

First published in 1976, Little Tree was supposedly the real-life story of an orphaned boy raised by his Cherokee Indian grandparents; the book became a million seller and sentimental favorite. In 1991, the American Booksellers Association gave "Little Tree" its first ever ABBY award, established to honor the 'hidden treasures' that ABA bookstore members most enjoyed recommending.

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of industry sales, Little Tree" has sold about 11,000 copies in 2007.

Of Of Mice And Men

For the end of Banned Books Week, I shall write my third and final book blog—which suits me just fine, as I don’t think I’ve read more than three books in my life—about another high school and banned book staple, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. If you haven’t read it, it’s great. Stunning analysis, I know, but I actually want to clarify book banning. Only one school or library in the entire country (of which there must be dozens… maybe more) has to challenge or ban a book to make the American Library Association’s list. And even though Of Mice and Men is amazingly depressing, coarse, and violent, why would any library not carry it, or a school not create a forum to discuss it? We need controversial books, books that make us react to them whether it be, we love them, are disgusted by them, or they make us hungry. We need to read a book and want to talk about why we love it or why it should never be read by another human, but we shouldn’t ban books. That’s not discussion. That’s the end of discussion.

On Orwell and Dahl

George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were The Joys…” lamented his days in British preparatory school. Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, lamented his days in British preparatory school. Orwell and Dahl wrote ten years apart and for different audiences, and Orwell had a much shorter career, yet they both wrote about overbearing, cruel teachers and schoolmasters, strict rules on everything, floggings over trifles, deprivation of food, warmth, and supplies. Not surprisingly, Orwell’s books like 1984 and Animal Farm and Dahl’s books like James and the Giant Peach, BFG, and Matilda share a theme of mistrust of authority.

In Honour of the ALA’s Banned Book Week: A Book Review!

Everyone reads The Catcher In The Rye in high school. I did, my parents did, my children—err… my hypothetical children will. J.D. Salinger's oft-banned book is oft lauded as a classic tale of teenage angst. Holden Caulfield, the would-be titular catcher and the smoking, drinking, prostitute-soliciting (for conversation only, mind you,) prep-school-flunking antihero has angered parents since his first publication. Even though not all teenagers smoke and drink (or flunk or solicit) Holden is a typical teen, rebellious and occasionally preoccupied with the opposite sex. Of course, to write this off as merely a wonderful story of teenagerism would hardly give it enough credit (slight spoilers ahead.)

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #87

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Chinese author Xiaolu Guo’s first novel written in English, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is at once sexy, sad and funny .

Zhuang ("Z"), a 23-year-old Chinese woman from rural China is in London enrolled in English classes. Loneliness and her attraction to a much older man at an artsy film soon make them live-in lovers. His bisexuality bothers her less than his vegetarian diet. It becomes clear to the readers that her ever-improving English does not help her understanding of western culture and gets her in some dangerous situations.

“Guo's U.S. debut ...(is)a compelling and moving tale of first love. An often-charming exploration of learning, love and loss.” ~ Kirkus Reviews

Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, she published a number of books in China. Since 2002, she has been dividing her time between London and Beijing. She has written and directed award-winning documentaries including The Concrete Revolution; her first feature film, How Is Your Fish Today?, was screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 International Women’s Film Festival.

Fabulous Fiction First #86

If you liked The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, or Andrew Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli, you would enjoy Camille DeAngelis' debut novel Mary Modern.

Though not strictly time travel, critics are calling it "imaginative, near-future, genre-bending" and "a literary mix of love story, s(cience)f(iction) and thriller".

The year is 2009. Frustrated geneticist Lucy Morrigan decides to clone her own grandmother when both academic tenure and pregnancy elude her. A blood-stained apron and her father's experimental equipment in the basement of the family home produces an indignant 22-year-old version of Lucy’s grandmother, Mary. While finding life in the 21st century challenging, Mary quickly adjusts, with the help of a little book called Everyday Life in the Twenty-First Century, penned by another mysterious time-traveler.

What Lucy does not anticipate is for her lived-in boyfriend, a classics professor to fall hopelessly for Mary. What is Lucy to do?

The plot-twists, competent characterization, and inventive storytelling will keep you turning pages. The religious-moral-ethical issues at the heart of the story would make this a good book group choice.

Fantastic Fiction Firsts #84

Emergency room physician Vincent Lam’s debut collection of linked stories - Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures* is the 2006 winner of The Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s premier literary prize for fiction. It revolves around four young multicultural Toronto medical students. (Think Grey’s Anatomy!)

Along with the requisite sex, death and sleep deprivation crucial to any hospital drama, it's action-packed and insightful. "The stories' quiet strength lies in Lam's portrayal of the flawed humans behind the surgical masks". ~Publishers Weekly

For a clear-eyed look at what it is like to be a doctor-in-training, try The Soul of a Doctor: Harvard Medical Students Face Life and Death, and Audrey Young's What Patients Taught Me: A Medical Student's Journey.

*= Starred Reviews

The End of Mr. Y

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

I like novels that incorporate the texts of other imaginary books and provide scads of non-fiction detail about topics on which I would be unlikely to read an actual non-fiction book. Add an interesting narrator, a little narrative drive, and The End of Mr. Y becomes an excellent choice to read. The book within the book shares the title and is by the nineteenth-century writer Thomas E. Lumas. The scads of non-fiction detail involve Derrida and French deconstruction, Samuel Butler, Einstein and thought experiments, theoretical physics, and homeopathy. Ariel Manto is a poor graduate student working on a dissertation about Lumas. The library classifies the book as Science Fiction, not unreasonable since it involves the ability to jump into the minds of others in the troposphere (the world of the mind). This ability is brought on by drinking a mixture of Carbo Vegetabilis and holy water then staring at a white card with a small black circle at its center. A fantastical story, most compelling before the author has to bring the story to an end.

A fine postapocolyptic Robinsonade

Among the best books I read this summer was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The genre is Robinsonade, which means it bears some resemblance to Robinson Crusoe. But this is the story of a father and his son walking alone through a totally devastated, burned America. Normally I don't choose this type of book, but my brother assured me that the warmth of the father-son relationship would carry me right through the darker parts. He was right. After it came out last year, this book became an Oprah's Book Club pick, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, and a New York Times Notable Book.

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