Angels Over America

The Big Sleep and Look Homeward Angel

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I just finished reading Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It was a monumental mountain of beautiful prose. Now I turn my attention to a different sort of angel. A slumming angel. Of course I am speaking of none other than Raymond Chandler. I have read The Big Sleep before, but not the new annotated edition. Chandler’s prose is a bit more hard boiled than Wolfe’s but it is no less poetic. I can’t wait to get started!

 

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Top Ten Books 2018

I read 27 books in 2018. Did not hit my goal. I’ll try to step it up for 2019. So many books so little time. Here is my Top 10.

  1. The Man With The Golden Arm – Nelsen Algren
  2. The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
  3. The White Album – Joan Didion
  4. Never Come Morning – Nelsen Algren
  5. The Fall – Albert Camus
  6. The Crossing – Cormac McCarthy
  7. Paterson – William Carlos Williams
  8. The Other Shore – Thich Nhat Hanh
  9. Young Once – Patrick Modiano
  10. Rabbit At Rest – John Updike
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“Got ya for the Greek, Lefthander. Two witnesses.”
“Knew I’d never get t’ be twenty-one anyhow.”

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Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here we are in the last circle.

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Some cats just swing that way…

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“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”

the crossing

The dome of the moon rose out of the ground white and frat and membranous.

 

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Anyone want to talk about any of these books I would be happy to discuss. Your comments are welcome. Each book was special in its own way and I would be hard pressed to say which one I like the best.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE FALL: BOOK REVIEW

A Novel by Albert Camus

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Every once in a while, I get inspired to reread one of my favorite books from the past. I have just read Camus’ The Fall for the third time. I read The Fall for the first time 34 years ago when I was age 36. It made a huge impression on me then and quickly became my favorite of Camus’ books. It somehow resonated with me in a way I didn’t quite understand. A second time in 2003….15 years ago when I was 55, a little grayer and a perhaps a little wiser.

Now, many years later, with a little more living under my belt, I am at it again. This time I have discovered a whole new territory. There on every page was an earthquake. In each sentence an incendiary device. What could I have been thinking all those years ago when I was reading this extraordinary book? How could I have missed so much? Was I sleeping? Well, the sleeper has awakened.

The novel opens with Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the main character, sitting in a dive bar named Mexico City located in the red light district of Amsterdam. He is talking to another patron. They discover they are compatriots, both hailing from Paris. Clamence tells his interlocutor about his past life in Paris as successful lawyer. The person he is talking to he refers to as “you.” This is a clever literary device by Camus. The “you” is actually you, the reader. Clamence regales you with stories of helping others. As a lawyer he takes most usually “widow and orphan” cases. He looks at himself as a person who lives solely for the purpose of benefiting others and living a life where virtue is its own reward.

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Mexico City Bar, Amsterdam

He asks if you have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here (in Mexico City), we are in the last circle.

Amsterdam

Then he tells you about an incident that happened late one night in Paris while crossing the Seine on the Pont Royal on his way home from seeing his mistress. He comes across a woman dressed in black leaning over the edge of the bridge. He hesitates a moment but continues on his way. He had walked only a short distance when he heard the distinct sound of a body hitting the water. Clamence stops walking, knowing exactly what happened, but does nothing. The sound of screaming was repeated several times as it went downstream, then it ended. He continued on his way home doing nothing.

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The Seine River, Paris, France. Photo: Benn Bell

This incident haunted Clamence throughout the rest of the novel and weighed heavily on his mind. There were a couple of other incidents that occurred that brought Clamence to the realization that he had actually lived a life seeking honor, recognition, and power over people. He was, in short, a hypocrite. Having come to this realization he knows he can no longer live the way he once lived. These factors precipitated his fall from grace and led to how he landed in Mexico City in the red light district of Amsterdam in the last circle of hell.

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Bridge over the Seine River, Paris. Photo: Benn Bell

Clamence responds to his intellectual crisis by withdrawing from the world. He closes his law practice, avoids his former colleagues and people in general and throws himself into debauchery, which he describes in the absence of love is a suitable substitute. “True love is exceptional – two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.”

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St Michael’s Fountain located in the neighborhood where Clamence lived in Paris.  Photo:  Benn Bell

“There is a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see the mind dominates the whole past and the pain of living is over forever. I went to bed with harlots and drank nights on end.  Sensuality dominated my love life. I looked merely for objects of pleasure or conquests.  For a ten-minute adventure I’d have disowned father and mother…I can’t endure being bored and appreciate only diversions in life… I have never been bored with women. I’d have given ten conversations with Einstein for an initial rendezvous with a pretty chorus girl.”

He thought for a while about joining the French Resistance, for this during the time of war, but decided against it as it was not suitable to his temperament. He preferred the “heights” and could not see himself part of a movement situated somewhere in a “cellar for days and nights on end with some brutes coming to haul me away from hiding, undo my weaving, and then drag me to another cellar and beat me to death.” He joins the army instead, gets captured by the Germans in Tunis, and is interred in a concentration camp in near Tripoli. Here he is elected to the position of “pope” by the other inmates and holds this position of power for a while. He drinks the water of a dying comrade, oh well, he was going to die anyway, and I needed to stay strong to survive to carry on continue to do more good, or at least that is how he rationalized it. He was eventually released and made his way to Amsterdam.

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Foggy Amsterdam

On the way home, walking through the streets of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells you stories. He says he lives at the site of one of the greatest crimes of history, “the Jewish Quarter or what was called so until our Hitlerian brethren made room. What a clean-up! Seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated: that’s real vacuum-cleaning. I admire the diligence, that’s methodical patience. When one has to apply a method. Here it did wonders incontrovertibly.”

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Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam

He relates this story: “In my little village, during a punitive operation, a German officer courteously asked an old woman to please choose which of her two sons would be shot as hostage? Choose! – Can you imagine that? That one? No, this one. And see him go. Let’s not dwell on it.”

Another story: “I knew a pure heart who rejected distrust. He was a pacifist and libertarian and loved all humanity and all the animals with an equal love. An exceptional soul, that’s certain. Well, during the last wars of religion in Europe he had retired to the country. He had written on his threshold: ‘Wherever you come from, come in and be welcome.’ Who do you think answered that noble invitation? The militia, who made themselves at home and disemboweled him.”

Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s final monologue takes place in his apartment. There he relates the story of how a famous 15th century painting came into his possession. One night a regular patron of Mexico City came into the bar with the priceless painting under his arm and offered to sell it to the bartender for a bottle of booze. It was hung on the back wall of the bar for some time until Clamence told the bartender the painting was in fact stolen and that police from several countries were searching for it. He offers to keep it for him and the bartender readily agrees.

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The Just Judges

The painting is a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece known as The Just Judges. Clamence takes from this image the idea to identify himself as a “judge-penitent.” As a judge-penitent freedom is relinquished as a method of enduring the suffering imposed on us by virtue of living in a world without objective truth, and one that is therefore, ultimately meaningless. A judge-penitent confesses his sins so that he has the right to judge others.

The following snippets from the novel are spliced together and presented to you to give you a further flavor of the horror of the piece and are better told in the author’s own voice:

“I need your understanding. I have no friends, only accomplices.

The question is to slip through and, above all – yes above all, the question is to elude judgement. But one cannot dodge it so easily. Today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate.

People hasten to judge in order to not to be judged themselves.

The idea that comes naturally to man is his innocence. We all like that little Frenchman, Buchenwald, who was interested in registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless old man, you don’t lodge a complaint here!” “But you see sir,” said the little Frenchman, I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases.

Let me tell you of the little-ease. I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the middle ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take an awkward manner and live on the diagonal. Sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Every day, through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously…we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. I’ll tell you a big secret. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.”

“Do you know why he (Christ) was crucified? He knew that he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of he had committed others – the slaughter of the innocents, the children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place. Why did they die if not for him? Those blood splattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror…it was better to die, in order not to be the only one to live…he cried aloud his agony and that’s why I love him.

Since we are all judges, we are all guilty before one another.

A person I know used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide, rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeon hole that suits me.

But, let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!”

 Conclusion

What is Camus telling us in this extraordinary novel? First of all, it is a novel of confession. The stories he tells his interlocutor are a confession. Jean-Baptiste Clamence says that one cannot die without confessing all one’s lies. It is also a novel about guilt: “I always hope my interlocutor will be a policeman and that he will arrest me for the theft of the Just Judges. Perhaps the rest will be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated for instance. I would have no more fear of death. I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd. You would hold my still warm head so they could recognize themselves in it, and I could again dominate- an exemplar. I should have brought to a close, unseen, and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness.”

Clamence discovers he can’t condemn others without judging himself first. I am a judge-penitent, he says. The more I judge myself the more I can judge you. So, the idea is to heap judgments on himself in order to justify judging others. That’s why he is a judge. Someone who condemns others, but also a penitent, someone who recognizes and judges his own crimes. All men are guilty of something. We are guilty not only by our actions but by our inaction or our failure to act.

On the absurdity of existence Clamence tell us, “a single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers.  Each day hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work.”

As for Truth: There is no objective truth.

And the fall from grace: The fall always occurs at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAFKA

The Metamorphosis

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My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?

Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.

I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.

Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.

Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.

As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory!  Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.

Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.

Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.

In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”

EXIT GHOST

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With the passing of Philip Roth the world has lost a lion of literature.

All my favorite writers are dying off. John Updike, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, and now Philip Roth. Who will take their place? No one. There is literally no one who can  fill the shoes of theses giants.  With the passing of Philip Roth follows the death of the Great American Novel.

No more….

BLUE NIGHTS

Book Blurb

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I loved this book. Wish I could write like Joan Didion. Blue Nights strikes a different tone than A Year of Magical Thinking but nonetheless it is a stunning read. It is a memory book and a book of loss. The loss of her child Quintana Roo. The loss of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and her own loss. Her perceived loss of her faculties and physical agency. She laments her frailty and the oncoming shocks that flesh is heir to. Although I must say she is in quite good form here.

Top 10 Books I read in 2017

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I read 34 books in 2017. Short of my goal of 50. This year I set my goal at 48 and will up my game.

Of the 34 books I read here are my top 10 favorites:

  1. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy
  3. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
  4. Across the River and into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway
  5. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir
  6. Old Path White Clouds, by Thich Nhat Hanh
  7. Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth
  8. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
  9. Shakespeare The Inventor of the Human, by Harold Bloom
  10. So you Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, by Patrick Modiano

The God of Small Things is by far my favorite book of the year.

What are some of yours?

ALL NIGHT DINER

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Night of the all-night diners, the yellow window machine shop night where daylight was being prepared on lathes . Night of the thunderous anvils preparing the cities ironheart for tomorrow’s iron traffic. Night of the city lovers, the Saturday night till Sunday morning lovers, Making Love on a rented bed with the rent not due till Monday.

-Nelsen Algren, Man with the Golden Arm

The God of Small Things

A Book Review

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The God of Small Things is a novel written by Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy. She has been on my radar for many years now, ever since I started watching her on panel shows on TV. I was impressed by her brilliance as a speaker and thinker on issues that I care deeply about such as inequality, social justice, and the environment. And I have always been fascinated by the Indian subcontinent.

When I learned she had written a novel I went out and purchased it right away. Sad to say it sat on my bookshelves for a few years before I got around to reading it. I am one of those “too many books, too little time” people.

What prompted me to go ahead and read the novel was the fact that 17 yeas after the publication of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy wrote and published another novel, her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I was very excited abut this and went out and purchased it also. I am now in the middle of that wonderful book. But, I get ahead of myself.

In the intervening 17 years between novels Miss Roy has written several other books. Works of nonfiction that reflect her other intellectual pursuits and human rights activism. These books include: Capitalism, A Ghost Story; Walking With the Comrades; Kashmir, The Case for Freedom; and Listening to the Grass Hoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.  She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for Literature.

The God of Small Things is by far the best book I have read all year and I have only praise for it. Miss Roy is a master stylist and her prose reads like poetry. Her book is full of vivid imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. It is constructed like a sublime piece of architecture with each piece fitting into place like a jig saw puzzle.

The book is a bit of a challenge to read as it does not flow in a straight linear progression. Rather, it jumps around in time in flash backs and flash forwards. But stick with it, it is well worth the ride.

The novel is a story of an Indian family writ large on a grand scale. Some have compared Roy to Faulkner, but I think she comes closer to Gabriel Garcia Marqeuz. There is forbidden love, family drama, political unrest, and magical realism.

Estha and Rahel are seven year old fraternal twins, boy and girl, growing up in a small southern Indian town. They live with their mother Ammu and the rest of their extended family. Their uncle Chacko runs the family pickle factory. One fateful day their cousin Sophie Mol from England is invited to spend the Christmas holidays with them. Tragedy ensues and Sophie Mol is drowned in a boating accident.

In telling the story, Roy incorporates other larger issues taking place in India at the time, such as issues of cast, class, and political unrest.

There are many memorable passages in the novel, but this one in particular stands out:

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

This was said to seven year old Rahel when she apparently said something carelessly which hurt her mother, which is something seven-year olds sometimes do. When Ammu said this to Rahel, “…a cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goose bumps on her careless heart. A little less her Ammu loved her.” This passage haunted me for the rest of the novel and it haunts me still.

This is a novel of life, love, fear, death, pain, and loss. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl Who Played Go

 Book Review

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The game of Go has long intrigued me. I learned how to play years ago from a wizard who lived down the stairs. We wiled away the hours playing the game of Go. I moved away and never played again until recently. I took it up once again and discovered it had never really left me. I became reacquainted with Go because of a novel written by a young Chinese girl that sparked my interest all over again.

When The Girl Who Played Go first came out in 2003, I read a review about the book that was intriguing. I vowed to keep an eye out for it. In those days one didn’t just automatically add a book to one’s Amazon Wish list. One liked to find books the old fashioned way, serendipity. One liked to stumble across them by accident in some far flung and obscure bookstore in the Midwest, or northeast, or wherever. Years went by and I never saw the object of my desire. By then it was locked away in the recesses of my memory and I was no longer consciously looking for it at all.
Then one day in, 2007, in a crowded book store in Philadelphia, I ran across a book entitled, The Master of Go. To my imperfect memory I thought this must be the book I had long sought. I picked it up, took it home and put in a shelf where it languished a few more years. When I finally got around to reading it, I thought, this is strange. This doesn’t seem like the book I had read about all those years ago. This book, written by Yasunari Kawabata, was about a modern day Go player, in Japan. While I enjoyed the book very much, it was a realistic depiction of an elderly gentleman who was a Go master and the rigors of tournament play in Japan. I read the book and put it away and started a new book and didn’t give the Master of Go another thought; until the year 2012. I ran across another book on Go in Louisville, Kentucky at the Half Price Book store where I am wont to go. It was entitled, The Girl Who Played Go. Eureka! Sweet mystery of life, finally I found you! The Girl Who Played Go, written by Shan Sa, was my long sought after book. I immediately purchased the book and took it home and began reading. Friends it was worth the wait.
Go is a territorial contest. In Chinese the game is called, Wei Qi, which means, “surrounding game.” Go has roots in both China and Japan. Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the game of Go. It has simpler rules than chess but is far more subtle and takes longer to master. It is a game that is not structured around the theme of a small battle, like chess. Rather, it is more like a large scale war. In Go, every piece is identical: an ivory or ebony stone is played on a square grid by the contestants. Each piece has the power to turn the tide of a war. Go is powerful metaphor for the story told by Shan Sa in her novel, The Girl Who Played Go.
The Girl who Played Go is a wonderfully written novel set within the framework of the game of Go. It takes place in a small city in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1936. An unnamed Japanese soldier has been sent with his battalion to seek out the Chinese resistance movement within the region. Simultaneously, a bored Chinese schoolgirl finds solace obsessively playing Go in the local square eponymously name The Square of a Thousand Winds. In an attempt to infiltrate the enemy, the Japanese soldier joins the city’s Go players, and falls into a game and into love with the girl who played Go. The story of the soldier and the girl are told in alternating, short, chapters. Dramatic events in the lives of the protagonists are repeatedly brought together and interwoven.
The game of Go is a metaphor for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the resistance one young girl is able to mount by remaining undefeated at the game. Manchuria has been occupied by the Japanese for several years as the story opens, but there is an active insurgency movement. The girl, however, lives a relatively sheltered life. She is quickly maturing, and becomes sexually active during the unfolding events. The game of go symbolizes the play between man and woman, as well as the conflict between China and Japan.
The story is well presented with some scenes that are picture-perfect observations of life as illustrated by the following examples. “A carp pirouettes in a large jar that serves as an aquarium.” “The appeal of a prostitute has the transient, furtive freshness as the morning dew.” ” Prostitutes have no illusions and this makes them the soldier’s natural soulmates. Already damned, they dare not dream of eternity, and they cling to us like shipwrecked mariners clinging to flotsam. There is a religious purity to our embraces.” “The boys with white silk scarves around their necks, posture like tragic poets.” “In the game of Go, only aesthetic perfection leads to victory.’’ “He has the nobility of a man who prefers the turnings of the mind to the barbarities of life.” “It has taken many years for the game of go to initiate me into the freedom of slipping between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. From one stone to the next, from black to white, the thousands of stones have ended up building a bridge far into the infinite expanse of China.”
Shan Sa has an extraordinary background. She was born in Beijing, started writing at seven and enjoyed success as a teenage poet. At 18 she moved to Paris to study philosophy. She worked for a time with the artist Balthus. Writing in French, she won a Goncourt with her first novel. Her novel, The Four Lives of the Willow won the Prix Caze. In 2001, she was again awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for her novel, The Girl Who Played Go. Her works have been published in 30 languages worldwide. Since 2001, Shan Sa has continued to write literature and paint. Her works have been shown in Paris and New York, and Japan. In 2009, Shan Sa was awarded by the French Cultural Ministry, Knight of Order of Arts and Letters. In 2011, she was awarded by the French President, The Knight of National Order of Merit.