Sisterland

9781410460189_p0_v1_s260x420If you knew an earthquake was coming to your neighborhood, would you leave town? Curtis Sittenfeld uses this premise in Sisterland while addressing how siblings are never alike – except when they are.  Adding to the drama, the sisters in the book – Violet and Daisy – are twins with psychic powers or maybe just a sharper sense of intuition.

The story moves back and forth from the girls’ childhood in the seventies of St. Louis, Missouri to present day, with Violet’s fifteen minutes of fame, including an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, when she predicts an earthquake on a specific date in the midwest town.  Although both girls share more than a sisterly connection, branding their room “sisterland” as well as their unusual gift for understanding and knowing the others’ thoughts as a shared sister land, only Violet progresses to adulthood as a paid medium.  Daisy, now Kate as an adult, marries a geophysicist, has two children, and burns any possibility of lingering extraordinary “senses” in a silver bowl after her daughter is born.  Although the plot line is melodramatic and, at times, more like a soap opera, Sittenfeld downplays the psychic talent and concentrates on the descriptions of daily life for the sisters.  Kate, the responsible twin, counters Violet’s behavior as the free spirit.  Yet, they understand each other, and share a unique communication that is realistic and engaging.

The sisters’ connections with family and friends add to the drama.  Courtney, the slim, intelligent seismologist and colleague of Kate’s husband, provides a counterpoint for the sisters’ less prestigious career choices. Courtney’s stay-at-home husband creates a confidante for Kate.  Jeremy, the handsome university professor husband, manages his life with Kate and his strange sister-in-law with patience and detached realism, until the possibility of the earthquake threatens to undermine his attendance at an out-of-town conference.  His decision to leave, despite his sister-in-law’s warning and his wife’s pleading, leads to a figurative earthquake at home.

Knowing whether or not the real earthquake actually happens would spoil the anticipation that keeps the narrative moving – and kept me reading.  More importantly, the drama that unfolds shakes the story and leaves behind extraordinary aftershocks.  The book can be long-winded at times, but an easy, entertaining read.

A Tale for the Time Being

9780670026630_p0_v1_s260x420In the aftermath of Japan’s devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, debris has been floating by my home on the Hawaiian shores recently – “… housing insulation, storage bins, soda bottles, toys, fishing nets, plastic trash cans and even Japanese net boats have all washed up on Hawaiian sands…” Speculation about some of the personal items had me wondering, and In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki fed my curiosity with a story about a Japanese teenager’s diary, written in purple ink between the covers of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” washed up on the shores of Vancouver Island.

Two “time beings” connect through Ozeki’s tale: Nao, the sixteen year old girl who spent her last dozen years in America, before returning to Japan after her father lost his Silicon Valley job, and Ruth, a Japanese-American novelist who finds the journal on the Vancouver shore, protected by layers of plastic bags inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Both “beings” are struggling with finding their “time” in a new environment. Ruth decided to leave Manhattan to move to an isolated rural area in Canada to be closer to her mother in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and Nao is the “transfer student,” bullied, savagely tortured, and ridiculed by her fellow students – Japanese by birth but too American to fit in.

Since Nao has decided to dedicate her book to documenting her 104 year old Japanese great-grandmother’s life as a Buddhist priest (coincidentally, Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest – though much younger), Ozeki has the perfect vehicle for inserting gems of philosophical wisdom from the grandmother, along with irreverent yet worldly observations from a teenager. Almost every page has a few footnotes, translating and extending Nao’s references; she writes in English but has a hard time not thinking in Japanese. Nao has decided to commit suicide, but not before finishing her great-grandmother’s memoir.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary entries, and Ruth’s anxiety as she tries to research the family she is reading about.  Along with the diary/memoir, Ruth finds letters and a notebook written in French from Nao’s great-uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot, and eventually an article written by Jiko, the ancient grandmother, verifying the family’s existence.  Their fate, however, is frustratingly elusive, and it’s not clear if Nao has survived the earthquake or ended her own life.

When Nao climbs the monastery hill with her suicidal father to spend the summer alone with her grandmother, a flavor of Zen enlightenment mixes with the mystery.  The story offers a glimpse of Japanese culture from the baths to the celebration of Obon, as well as gems of wisdom, sometimes humorous –

“…105… That’s how old she says you have to be before your mind really grows up, but since she’s a hundred and four, I’m pretty sure she was joking.”

The story moves so slowly, at times it feels like meditation; just as it seems Nao’s fate will be revealed, Ozeki erases the remaining words in the diary – words that did appear when Ruth started to read, words that had promised a resolution.  Don’t worry – they reappear, with a hint of the supernatural.

Although I like to read a book from start to finish – sometimes nonstop, A Tale for the Time Being took much longer – with many stops and starts and slow digestion of the intricate connections.  Ruth’s reflection on her reading of the diary mirrored my own:

“I was trying to pace myself…I felt I owed it…to {the author}…

One of my favorite television reruns is Quantum Leap, with the hero jumping back in time to fix a wrong that changes history.  Ozeki taps into this time continuum in the end, yet leaves enough room for speculation and the promise that Ruth and Nao’s lives will always be linked.  The possibilities that Ozeki proposes still has me wondering.   It’s no surprise that the book has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

One Amazing Thing

1989 San Francisco-Oakland Earthquake

With daily news of the world literally falling apart – tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, flooding –  it’s easy to feel sympathy for those in the midst of the catastrophe, but hard to imagine what it would be like to experience it.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni invites you to be in the middle of an earthquake in One Amazing Thing, with nine survivors suddenly trapped in the basement of the Indian consulate visa office of an American city.  With the ceiling collapsing, the one way out blocked, and water slowly filling the room, a range of emotions surface –  fear, regret, and hope.

Among the survivors is Uma, a graduate student, inspired by the copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in her backpack, who suggests that each tell a personal tale, to distract from the crisis.  Here the real story begins, and the characters change from a list of names to lives with pasts that include “wars, betrayal, seduction, death.”

  • Jiang, the Chinese grandmother, who escaped the Sino-Indian War, surprising everyone that she speaks English so well, as she tells of a former life
  • Mr. Pritchett, an accountant whose wife has attempted suicide, who tells of a childhood trauma not even his wife knows about
  • Malathi, the office clerk, who tells how she exacted a humorous revenge on a former client
  • Tariq, a young Muslim-American, struggling with his identity after 9/11
  • Lily, a rebellious Chinese-American teenager, with the gift of music
  • Mangalam, the office administrator, with a past and estranged wealthy wife
  • Mrs. Pritchett, who reveals the discovery that led her to attempted suicide
  • Cameron, the former soldier with asthma, who becomes the group leader

The group bonds through the stories, and this is an easy read – but be prepared, the ending will leave you hanging.   Might be a good candidate for a book club discussion.