The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

As WWII approaches, a Japanese family is ostensibly run by the household of an oldest sister, Tsuruko. However, Tsuruko’s household does preciously little other than give marching orders in the crisis faced by the extended Japanese family…finding a marriage for an aging middle daughter Yukiko and then one for a younger and increasingly troublesome daughter Taeko. Instead, these problems are primarily addressed by the household of the second oldest daughter in the family, Sachiko, as Tsuruko’s household leaves the family seat for Tokyo as part of an increasing focus on money making and thrift as opposed to family obligations. This is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Valerie Martin, 10th for David Mitchell, and 9th Cathleen Schine.)

Arranging Yukiko’s marriage is a difficult matter. Many years have passed as suitor after suitor was refused due to inflexible standards due to the Makioka family standing. Yukiko herself creates problems when the family decides to let their standards slip a bit:

Most unfortunate, thought Sachiko. Yukiko’s dislike for the telephone was no secret, and when—rarely—there was a call for her she usually had someone else do the talking and went to the telephone herself on very special occasions. No one had objected up to now, but this was one of those special occasions. Whatever Hashidera’s reasons for calling, it seemed imperative, since he had asked for her, that Yukiko take the call. He would receive quite the wrong impression if Sachiko were to talk to him instead. Yukiko was after all not a sixteen-year-old. Though her sister understood this shyness, they could hardly expect a stranger to understand. They would be lucky if Hashidera was not offended. Perhaps Yukiko had gone to the telephone, timing and protecting? But to go reluctantly after having made him wait, to say almost nothing—she was even worse over the telephone than she was face-to-face—and as a result to have him break on the negotiations—the better alternative might be to let him go on waiting. There was always that stubborn core. Possibly she had refused to go near the telephone, and was waiting for Sachiko to rescue her. Even if Sachiko were to rush home, however, she would probably find that he had given up, and if he had not, what could she say by way of excuse? This was one time when Yukiko herself should have taken the call, and promptly. Something told Sachiko that this trivial incident could mean the end of the negotiations on which they had worked so hard.

Taeko is an entirely different problem. She almost eloped when she was younger (causing a newspaper story), wants to work for herself, sponges off a man she no longer intends to marry, and worse:

Taeko nodded apathetically. “I know what is wrong without calling a doctor.”

“Oh? What is it then?”

Her face against the chair, Taeko looked sluggishly up at her sister. “It looks as though I am three or four months pregnant.” She spoke with the usual calm.

Sachiko gasped, and stared as though to bore a hole through her sister’s face. It was a moment or two before she could ask the question: “Is it Kei-boy’s?”

“Miyoshi’s. I think Yukiko heard about Miyoshi from the old woman.”

“The bartender?”

Taeko nodded. “I am sure that is my trouble.”

This all doesn’t help the family’s attempts to get Yukiko get married, much less help Sachiko figure out what to do about Taeko.

Of course, this is all going on as WWII is about to explode. We can see it coming, and the characters think about what they see and hear, but they are inescapably wrapped up in their own family problems above and beyond any of that. They just can’t see how insignificant their personal problems are about to be. WWII will change Japan forever, but until then Yukiko must get married and something must be done about Taeko.

The Makioka Sisters is an enthralling picture of pre-World War II Japan. The characters are vividly human, the described world is tangible, and the interrelationships are meticulously ordered. It involved a declining family as opposed to a destroyed one, and that gives a different kind of urgency to their preservation efforts and struggles. All is not yet lost, meaning that their efforts have more significant weight. All in all, The Makioka Sisters is quite beautiful.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita was listed by the following authors in their top ten lists:

Melissa Bank, John Banville, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Gaitskill, Arthur Golden, Michael Griffith, Donald Harington, A.M. Homes, Walter Kirn, Margot Livesey, Valerie Martin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, Jim Shepard and Scott Spencer.

I came to Lolita, already knowing -about- Lolita. I’ve heard about Lolita all my life (or so it feels). I’ve heard that it’s smut. I’ve heard that it’s amazing. I’ve heard that it’s disturbing. I’ve heard that it’s about old men f**king young girls. I’ve heard that it’s actually a love story, not about pedophilia.

Nabokov tells a tale, one prefaced by a fictional character as the “memoir” or confession of the narrator of the story. The narrator is one “Humbert Humbert”, a made up name he created for himself. He does this, as well as change the names of many of the characters to protect Lolita. Though, he has stipulated that the memoir not be published until after she dies, so though he never states it, it might be to protect her memory and also to protect his self-image as her “protector” and to clean a spot or two off of his love for her.

That’s the thing about Lolita. The narrator is complex. He’s a middle European man in his 30s who has come to the United States to live. All of his life, starting with a peer at 13, he has been attracted to what he calls “nymphets”, which he defines as girls who are between the ages of 9 and 14(I think those are the right ages, I didn’t mark the page where he defined it). But not just -any- girls, some of them are just, well normal girls. But some of them, Humbert tells the readers, have that extra “sauce”, a sexuality that is out of character but yet so in character for their age. Humbert has a hard time with sexual attractions to actual women, or even girls beyond the magic boundary age of 14. He finds them too fleshy. (And, I was right about the ages, I found the page. Here’s Humbert’s definition of “nymphet” which is better than mine.

“Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain betwitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.”

“Between those age limits are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”

H.H. talks about himself in the first half of the book, alternating between third person narration about himself and first person narration. He falls in love with the 12 year old daughter of the woman whose house he rents a room from. He then marries that woman, who then dies in a freak accident, leaving H.H. in sole custody of the “nymphet” Lolita. In keeping with his defining of “nymphet” above and my statements about him finding adult women, or women above 14 kind of gross, here he is talking about Lolita.

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl” and then, into a “college girl”–that horror of horrors. The word “forever” referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that today I could touch and smell and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair-of the bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar vocabulary—“revolting,” “super,” “luscious” “goon” “drip”–that Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catullus would lose forever.”

While Lolita is away at summer camp, her mother dies. H.H. takes care of affairs, in a growing state of excitement to get Lolita, then drives to the camp after requesting they not tell Lolita that her mother has died. He originally tells Lolita she is very ill and they are driving to see her mother. Then begins the “great American road trip”, but unlike stories like On The Road or the goofy Road Trip movie, this is a road trip of pedophilia. H.H. spends pages upon pages talking about historical and societal constructs and how he’s not -really- doing wrong. The first night they are on the road, he plans for them to stay at a hotel. He has planned a whole thing out about giving some sleeping pills to Lolita so he can fondle her safely. Yes. It’s disturbing. The more disturbing thing is how he had originally worked out the plan with mother and daughter both in mind, knocking out the mother so he could enjoy the daughter. He constantly says he was never planning to do more than fondle and caress. However, considering that when the sleeping pills didn’t work and Lolita makes a confession to him and they end up having sex, I think H.H. was lying just a wee bit to himself.

“Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me”.

The cross country trip has begun. The trip starts with H.H. controlling Lolita through threats. When she wouldn’t seem conducive to his trysts and romantic gropings, he would threaten her with a farm she had hated to be at, he would threaten her with lurid tales of what happened to girls who went into foster care if she was to tell what was happening to her. Later it becomes money that is bartered.

“she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed–during one school year!–to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks, O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip”.

I just realized, you might be thinking that Lolita is the instigator in these things with the quotes I gave, about how she seduced him and the whole money exchange. But there are plenty of instances where H.H. talks about times she is crying or yelling at him or just ways he describes her that you can see the pain she carries because of it. When she’s not trying to be tough and doing what anyone might do in a situation in which you feel out of control, which would be to gain any type of control you can.

The relationship H.H. describes between himself and Lolita will sometimes make you (or it did me at least, maybe you have a stronger stomach ha!) feel ill. You will also hate and revile H.H. during parts of the book (or at least I did). You will find Lolita charming and fun. You will also find her pitiful. You will find her irritating you. You will ache for her.

Nabokov takes you into the heart and soul of a pedophile. He creates a character who is a bad guy, but unlike most novels, the bad guy is the main character and for much of the book does not believe himself to be that bad. He has a little bit of moral absolution at the end, in regards to his molesting Lolita, but still calls what he felt for her, “love”, even though he said the following about her at one point;

“Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth–these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things”.

I was having a hard time articulating what I felt about Lolita, even what to say, and asked Dave. He compared it to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (the movie with Christian Bale came after) and how a book can put you in the head of someone that you would never want to be in. Reading Lolita was like the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance (or at least how I like to think cognitive dissonance is), my brain would struggle with the disgust I felt about H.H. and his urges and his actions, at the same time that Nabokov’s writing was making me feel sympathetic at times towards him. It was the same experience reading American Psycho.

Dave also suggested another book that is similar for the above reason. Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

The Railway Children is a children’s book that was written in the early 1900s. Kate Atkinson listed it in her Top Ten.

I recently listened to the Railway Children with Amelia. It was interesting to do this, because unlike a lot of the books we read or listen to, I’d never read The Railway Children. By listening to it, it was like experiencing it for the first time with Amelia.

She loved it. I loved it. It was an old fashioned tale, but at the same time still remarkably able to follow. Very rarely did Amelia have to ask me what something was. We listened to a free recording of it from Librivox.

There are so many things that make The Railway Children a great children’s story. There’s the sense of “adventure”, I always loved the stories where the children had to change their setting (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland etc). In The Railway Children, it’s slightly different as there is no going to a magical land. The children are forced to move due to life circumstances to a much cheaper place to live. That leads to the second thing, a mystery! The children aren’t sure where their father is, where he has gone to. The reader, even as an adult, isn’t entirely sure as there are just small hints.

The children fall in love with the railway near their new home. They run and watch it pass by every day. They befriend an older gentleman passenger who they communicate with in different ways. He comes to be a huge help to them throughout the course of the book.
They make friends with the railway officials. They help save the train.

There is some of the characteristics of children’s books written around this time. There are three children. One of them is constantly concerned with doing good, and trying to do good and how something isn’t good so it shouldn’t be done. And time and time again circumstances show how she was in the right. The book is filled with her moralizing and her constant attempts to make things right and to be “good”.

However, her siblings aren’t denied the glory as they all three help save a train at one point, and at another rescue a schoolboy who is hurt.

Nesbit created an amazing story for children. Adventure, mystery and redemption, all have their parts in this story.

I don’t have any deep thoughts about this story, I liked it, but it didn’t strike any deep chords with me. It’s a charming little tale and it was fun to listen to it with Amelia. I can definitely see how it captured someone’s imagination enough to endure to adulthood and make it onto a top ten list. It just wouldn’t end up being on -my- top ten.

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Dave here again. I’m going twice in a row. No fear, though. Kim will take the next two weeks. Anyway….

It always interests me how important a work of literature can be to some people whereas to others it is completely unfamiliar. I do my best to step outside the American literary perspective tunnel, but I’d still never heard of Independent People by Halldór Laxness. It’s a crime too, being perhaps the most famous work of Icelandic literature in existence. It even got Laxness the Nobel, and this was still the first I’d ever heard of the book. Oh well, everything is unfamiliar until you encounter it, right?

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Jonathan Franzen, 6th for Jim Harrison, 7th for Adam Haslett, and 2nd for David Means)

When I did hear about Independent People, I expected it to be a lot more like the sprawling epic myths or be a hardnosed tale of accepting a harsh way of life. There is some of that inside, but not like I expected.

Independent People focuses on Bjartur of Summerhouses somewhere in the late 19th century to the early twentieth century. After spending eighteen years slaving away for a local wealthy landowner, he finally manages to save enough to start a remote sheep farm on his own. It’s an extremely tough life, still taking another twelve years for him to pay off the farm, but this is how Bjartur wants things. He values an independent existence above all else:

Rosa, her eyes red and elbows muddy, was sitting on the turf mattress on the bed, gazing at the large, irresolute hands in her lap.

“Well, doesn’t it suite you?” asked Bjartur of Summerhouses.

“You don’t think I expected anything better, do you?”

“Well, there’s always one good thing about it: no one that lives here need slave all day long at housework,” he said, “and I always thought you had sense enough to appreciate your independence. Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people. A man who isn’t his own master is as bad as a man without a dog.”

Bjartur values an independent life so much that he is willing to sacrifice almost everything. He’s willing to die, and willing to lose his wife (plural actually, two die) and children (including Asta, a child he loves but believes to be of another, though she turns out to be stubborn in his own image) to the conditions under which he lives. Still, at least he’s independent.

Or, is he? Doesn’t he still have to deal with the community, the wealthier people in the area, politics, and all that? Indeed, one of his own sons doesn’t think so:

He stood deep in thought, eyes fixed on the ground for greater concentration. “There’s always someone in the valley there who rules over you and holds you in his hand, he said at length. “I don’t know who it is. And though Father may be hard, he isn’t free. There’s someone even harder than he, someone who stands over him and holds him in his power.

She looked at him searchingly for a while, as if seeking to read in his mind how far he was capable of understanding. “You mean Kolumkilli?” she asked in a tone of cold jocularity. Perhaps she was just as puzzled by him as he by her.

“No,” was his reply. “There is something that never allows you any peace, something that makes you keep on doing something.”

He lets two wives and various children die or flee to America rather than bend from his harsh way of life. He drives his daughter Asta out. And for what? To be independent in a harsh landscape where he can barely eke out a living? If he sacrifices those he loves, even if he prospers, can it really be worth it?

Independent People is a lot more human than I expected, a lot more about what ends up being important at the end of things, because eventually it makes simple Bjartur face this question. Being an independent man may be a fine thing, but the price for what independence we can get may be too great. There are other things more important in life, and Laxness knows them.

I can certainly see why so many people adore Independent People. It’s a tremendous book and I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to find it. It might not be for me what it is for some others, but I’d never make that the only measure of what makes a great book.