Author Archives: penelopespurr

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is an engaging sci-fi novel that focuses on artificial reproduction and its resulting dystopian caste system. When I began Brave New World, I immediately thought of A Wrinkle in Time, which I read a while back and vaguely remember as similarly futuristic and complicated. The book is not straight-forward; it revolves around the perspectives of several citizens subject to the controlled and yet chaotic society that Huxley dares to paint a picture of.

 

The first aspect of Huxley’s writing that immediately came to my attention was the sudden dark tone within the first few pages (and again throughout the book). For example, Huxley conveys a cold, eerie mood with “hands covered with a corpse-colored rubber,” “the light was frozen, dead, a ghost,” and “scarcely breathing silence.” Now, I know these examples are unrealistic. Some people (like me) might feel the urge to ask, “but HOW is light frozen? How can that be? How can light be dead? Silence doesn’t breathe! What on earth is this author trying to describe?!” But what I have realized is that there is (what I like to call) an art to reading these passages. It’s difficult and unreasonable to peruse each sentence, and in fact I find that trying to strain each word of depth and meaning actually takes away from the experience of enjoying the book. Instead, I have been trying to immerse myself in the general mood of the book by using clues like the tone to guide me through the plot. So I don’t need to know what ghostly light or suffocating silence or define the color of a corpse–I can acknowledge and absorb what the author wants me to without tangling myself in detail. So, for example, I note that Huxley deliberately said “corpse” rather than “body,” signifying that no matter the color, it looked like death. Dark? Check. Ghostly light reminds me of a dark and dusty room with a thin sliver of a window opening barely letting light in. Creepy? Check. Suffocating silence reminds me of some power that even silence, one of the scariest sounds of our world, might be afraid of. Dystopian and mysterious? Check. I have found that finding this balance between barely understanding the text and trying to understand it too much is a principal factor in appreciating and enjoying a book. I’ll write more about Huxley’s conveyance of tone and other devices next time. Can’t wait to check back in later!

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Memoirs of A Geisha by Arthur Golden

9/10

Memoirs of A Geisha is a fictional story that focuses on the life of a young geisha named Sayuri. Initially torn from her impoverished and dilapidated home by the sea in Japan, she is thrown into an okiya (a home for training and practicing geisha) hundreds of miles away and forced to conform to a life and being dedicated to becoming a geisha. The story is set in the 1930s and 40s. It is written by Arthur Golden, who interviewed a geisha named Mineko Iwasaki and used her life story as inspiration. A geisha is essentially a teahouse (social gathering place, but for the wealthy) hostess trained in many arts. For example, a geisha must learn to play numerous instruments, as well as learn how to sing and dance. In Japan, the most prominent geishas were looked upon as though they were celebrities. If someone saw them walking by (in their beautiful makeup and garb) they would bow as low as possible, exhibiting utmost respect and admiration.

Prior to reading the story, I knew little to nothing about the geisha community in Japan, or the role that it played socially. I thought that geishas were mainly prostitutes, but soon found out that their true role was to host (mostly wealthy) individuals during their visits to teahouses. I was also unaware of how complicated and stressful the role of a geisha is. Differentiation between geisha is primarily a matter of artistic and social skills. Therefore, in order to stand out, a geisha must work extremely hard in her studies. And, when it comes to attracting a danna (a wealthy and typically prominent business figure who supports a geisha in return for entertainment and sometimes prostitution), a geisha must find a balance between taking too many social risks and acting sweet and submissive. While Sayuri’s startling blue eyes helped attract many men (as well as geisha competition), accomplishing her place among well-known geisha was no easy task. Achieving a respectable title was hindered by okiya competition, training school, and the second World War (which I will discuss later), all while attempting to find a long lost sister and emotionally supporting herself after her parents’ deaths. Her story of struggle is inspirational, and the theme of traditional Japanese customs is fascinating.

Golden’s story, written as though it was a voice recording of Mineko Iwasaki reflecting upon her career, conveys a balanced amount of historical references and personal experiences. The book immersed me into Sayuri’s world–a young girl, torn from her family, and placed in an alien city. I loved the fact that as Sayuri comes to appreciate the world of geisha, so do I. The story is no tear-jerking-hysterical-thrilling-rollercoaster of a novel, but it is a fresh perspective that I had never thought to come across. My life and Sayuri’s are starkly different, but in that feeling I have found a fascination with the traditional societies of Japan that I have been living alongside and yet I have been so unaware of. I have enjoyed reading Sayuri’s story in Memoirs of A Geisha, and look forward to sharing more.

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My Name Is Asher Lev

Penelope Spurr

My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: 9/10

As you might have noticed, I chose a book by Chaim Potok as my second independent reading choice. I enjoyed many aspects of The Chosen, and wanted to continue reading Potok’s work. Because the book is complicated, I have chosen not to summarize but rather to write about a few interesting aspects.

  • Perspective/Family

The book is told through Asher’s reflection on his younger self. Unfortunately, his inquisitive manner conflicts with his parents’ expectations. In my household, my parents will gladly provide a thorough explanation for almost any concept that I ask about. In Asher’s strict hasidic household, he is taught not to question the authority of his parents, which includes asking them about their work and the outside world. Asher also grows up in the early 20th century, so his parents often mention the hardships of Jews in Russia, Stalin’s death, and other historical matters, but he is left mostly in the dark. Because of this, Asher and the reader are sure of few things, and are left to piece together others. I am amazed that Potok was able to achieve such a limited and young perspective.

  • Art:

It is clear from the beginning of the story that Asher has a gift for drawing. The way in which he thinks (a line here, a curve here, a little smudge, and viola– my mother’s face). At times, it almost seems as though Asher’s gift takes control, resulting in a piece he has created subconsciously. On multiple occasions, he becomes apprehensive about his own artistic mentality. Asher’s passion for art also conflicts with his parents’ beliefs. One particular instance involves his father vehemently describing his art as foolishness. Asher’s passion for studying Judaism being “misplaced” instead with art has ultimately caused him to feel alienation and isolation from those whom he loves. Multiple times I too have felt this alienation–and almost regret–for not feeling more passionate for the sciences or mathematics. However, I have learned to love the artistic aspect of my identity, and I hope Asher will eventually come to love his as well.

  • Motif:

At one point, one of Asher’s teachers asks him to draw as much and as long as he can. Asher draws everything he finds to be important in his life: his mother, his older friend named Yudel, two children he had seen walking in the park, and others. For “some reason,” he does not draw his father. I believe this is because his father is away so often, and this absence from Asher’s portraits also illustrates his absence from Asher’s life. (If the major interactions from Asher’s life also appear in his art, does that mean that Asher’s art is his life?) I am sure that this is significant–alongside the observation that Potok has used motifs and themes of fatherhood in The Chosen.

So far, I am thoroughly enjoying My Name Is Asher Lev, and look forward to continuing my reading!

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Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally 9/10 Penelope Spurr

There is a reason why Schindler’s List shows up as #1 for Holocaust books. It is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman, who saved over one thousand Jews during the Holocaust.

The book begins with Oskar’s childhood and family ties. He then moves to Cracow, Poland, to prove his own success in business to his father. He buys an enamelware factory and utilizes it to support the Germans in WWII. This business brings him extraordinary wealth-so much so that he is able to reinforce positive relationships with Nazi and military officials with Vodka and jewels. Meanwhile, he develops ties to Zionist parties and is able to extract classified information from senior German military personnel. However, Amon Goeth, a malicious and sadistic Nazi commander, is assigned to oversee Cracow. He constructs a labor camp, and soon Schindler’s Jewish employees are taken. Oskar is returned his employees after excessive cajoling, bribery, and agreements. The remainder of the book illustrates Schindler’s efforts in order to save his one thousand workers from the lethal hands of Auschwitz and the Nazi party.

I have read numerous books focusing on the Holocaust, and no book has painted such a picture as Schindler’s List. The imagery made me feel like I, too, was watching each scene. I could see the families torn apart, the suffering, and desperation. I was given a sense of how much stress Schindler was under, whether he was constructing an agreement or smuggling an extra family into his factory.

Thomas Keneally’s style of writing either kept me on the edge of my seat (or on my couch, crying). In many instances, Keneally purposefully writes about concepts with little explanation, so that when the realization hits, it comes less like a swell and more like a tidal wave. It would crash into my emotions and leave me feeling helpless. Keneally also weaves together an intricate timeline of not only Schindler’s story, but also his employees’. Numerous families, like the Rosens, developed close relationships with Oskar, and knew his many personalities. These stories illustrated the situations of Cracow Jews and juxtaposed them to Schindler’s bystander perspective.

Schindler’s List is like no other. It would appeal most to readers who enjoy historical nonfiction. It may take time to get engrossed in the plot, but once you do it is hard to put the book down. The story itself is so unpredictable, which may be because it is true. Reading the story was truly a perspective-changing experience.

 

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